In Borges’s short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” one of his characters plays with the idea of multiple parallel universes that exist when any decision we make bifurcates into a new path.
In my current reality (the one in which I am writing this blog post), I teach at a university and have a family; in another path, however, I’m living in a tiny cabin in the woods and spending much of my time writing to natural light filtered by tree leaves
In the parallel off-grid reality, I’m probably debt free and, when I’m not living in a tiny house, I’m traveling around the globe…it’s a happy life, and simple, and one in which, as Yeats would say, “peace comes dropping slow.”
The path of parenthood is a different abundance. Time is what I have the least of, but every minute is full to the point of bursting. I hibernate in summers to recover from the wild ride of the school year, and trips are usually small and local.
I’m thinking about these two lives—the one I once envisioned and what came to be—because not long ago, we sold the land with the tiny cabin. It’s almost sad except for the relief of no longer having to maintain it or feeling like we’re in a perpetual state of unfinished business.
The past five years have been an adventure, the ups and downs of which I never would’ve guessed. And as days unfold into weeks-months-years, I’m sure other paths are branching off into parallel worlds where this or that did or didn’t happen.
It’s nice to imagine that there are many versions of a great life that I might have lived. And maybe living in a tiny cabin, even if it never came to be, made this reality even better.
Wading through Lethe is an unexpected mix of rural Arkansas and then, suddenly, ancient Rome. Why?
I grew up dreaming of other places. My first poem at age six was about taking a trip in a boat and admiring the night sky. The poem speaks to a wanderlust that for years I had to satisfy with a set of 1963 World Book Encyclopedias. My two favorite sections—the only ones in color—were found in the “F” and “P” volumes: the flags of the world and paintings.
As I was growing up, my aunt and uncle hosted exchange students from around the world. I pummeled them with questions, wanting to know everything about their lives back home. At fifteen, I decided that the best way to see something of the world was by being an exchange student myself. The only problem was I had no money for the fee. If my adventure was going to become a reality, I had to raise the funds. I started cleaning houses and teaching piano lessons in addition to my Saturday stint at the local post office and babysitting gigs. Family friends and organizations offered items for me to raffle—art prints, an Aromatique gift basket. My friends helped me with a car wash, my family hosted garage sales, and my mom baked thousands of cookies to sell at various community events. The local church also helped. And then, just before I needed to make the final payment, an anonymous donor made a $2,000 deposit into my bank account.
And suddenly I was in Italy, knowing only enough Italian to ask where the bathroom was. My host family lived an hour south of Rome, in quaint Ferentino. My host mom was a retired Italian teacher and taught me how to speak, even though we had no common language between us. My host father’s garden and fruit trees supplied most of our food. My host siblings went out of their way to make me feel welcome, even though it was months before I could contribute to a conversation.
Why Italy? I wanted to attend an art school, and in Italy the high schools allow students to specialize. My classmates were quick to take me under their wing and show me the local historic places and the best pizzerias. My professors were kind and patient. They helped with the language, but above all they helped me understand Italian culture. Once a week I was excused from class so I could visit Rome and let the city be my teacher.
It was the year 2000. I didn’t have a cell phone. Dial-up internet was slow and spotty and cost per minute. I wrote emails home offline and then got online long enough to send them. I spoke to my parents with a prepaid phone card once or twice a month. I sent postcards home.
In the poem “Leaving Rome,” I had just been to Piazza Spagna to see the Spanish Steps and the museum commemorating the English poet John Keats. He’d left his love Fanny Brawne for Italy in hopes of finding a climate more hospitable to cure his tuberculosis. He never saw her again.
Along the Spanish Steps, streetlights popped on like syncopated fireflies. Walking up Via del Corso, I passed shop mannequins with averted eyes, pulled my coat tighter, thinking of Keats, dead at twenty-five. A cyclone of cars spun at the foot of Vittorio Emanuele’s grimy shrine. The Colosseum’s pocked crown rose above the Forum’s broken bones. I mailed a postcard, the scene depopulated and clean, knowing it would arrive months before I returned home, knowing it looked nothing like what I’d seen.
The poem explains the desire to share an experience with someone and the difficulty in truly conveying it to someone who wasn’t there. Postcards are beautiful, but the real place is always more complicated than the beautiful, glossy photograph shows.
Most of the other poems about traveling in Wading Through Lethe follow my summers abroad as a college student and later as I worked for International Programs at the University of Central Arkansas, coordinating trips for the university as well as co-leading trips with my husband.
The year in Italy changed the course of my life. I’m forever grateful to the many people who helped make it possible, as well as the many who made my year in Italy unforgettable.
“Leaving Rome” first appeared in October Hill Magazine
I dedicated Wading through Lethe to my grandmothers, possibly the two most influential people on my life. My grandma Katherine Black was a schoolteacher who wrote poetry and lived in a log cabin in the woods. My grandmother Jackie Guerin was a watercolorist who lived on a lake and whose favorite city was Venice.
Both women embraced their identities as artists and were encouraged by their families. From an early age, I saw that creativity was a valuable activity in and of itself. Perhaps more importantly, I saw the hundreds of practice paintings my grandmother had set aside, and all the strikethroughs as my grandma searched for a better word. Patience and process.
In Wading through Lethe, the girl in the beginning becomes a woman. At the end of the first section, she is changed by the loss of the family matriarch and goes in search of her own identity. In section II she goes to school, travels, and learns about love. In the final section of the collection, she returns home to face the ghosts of the past as well as to measure her own growth against the once-familiar landscape.
Several poems in Wading through Lethe are directly inspired by my grandmothers. However, it isn’t always clear which poem is about which grandma. As with many of the poems, a poem may be “true” even if it isn’t fact. That is, maybe things didn’t happen exactly as described (poetic license and all that), but they represent a feeling or a moment that is best conveyed another way.
My grandmother Guerin died my first semester of college, during finals week. She was the first person I’d ever lost, and the night before I’d heard the news, I dreamed about her. One of my regrets is that I didn’t go to her funeral. I still had a couple of exams to take, and I didn’t know it was okay to ask for an extension.
My grandma Black died five years later, on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I was in graduate school studying for a final exam when I got the news. She had been very ill, and I had already said goodbye, but I wish I had been by her side.
When they died, I knew so little. How many times I have wished for their perspective! How many times I have wished they had seen a version of me that was better, wiser.
My Grandmother Guerin always had a tin of a homemade sweets for guests, my favorite of which were her lemon bars.
A week before she died,
I ate one of her lemon bars, thinking nothing of holding something so delicate it lost its shape in my hand.
I spent the night before my First Communion with my Grandma Black. Unlike in the poem below, it didn’t rain that night, but there were many rainy nights sleeping under her tin roof that I thought the world really was ending. She did scold me for my nail polish.
The night before, Grandma made my pallet on the couch with faded blue flowers. Across the room, the iron-barrel stove loomed. We learned not to touch it.
At midnight I woke. I’d never heard rain on a tin roof and was sure what Revelation promised was true– dark horses had come. In church we’d learned about the foolish virgins with their oil.
I had not confessed my sins. Everyone else slept— or were they gone? Then the rain let up. The dark turned dim. I chopped the polish from my nails, ashamed they were not bare.
Sometimes writing poetry is a way of dealing with regret. Sometimes it’s a search for closure. Sometimes it’s an attempt to bring the person back. Sometimes I just want to keep learning from people in them.
Publication credits: “A week before she died” first appeared in Epiphany. “First Communion” first appeared in Sixfold.
Ariel has always been fascinated by band-aids. She believes they have magical healing powers. At two and a half, she tattooed all her favorite toy cars and stuffed animals with them—a small Daisy Duck once boasted fourteen. If you’re around and get a scrape, you’ll be able to choose from Wonder Woman, Charlie Brown, and every color of the rainbow in neon.
Band-aids can take many forms. This year, for me, it meant finding the right physical, mental, and nutritional therapies. At first 2021 was just “Long 2020,” as a friend called it, but then 2021 took its place as a year so hard that it rivaled 2016, the year that turds literally fell on me as I put up the Christmas tree.
Last year I wrote about having better wings. But early in 2021, I felt the wings had disappeared completely. The winter was cold and dark; in a low moment, we were iced in for seven days in a frigid house. Getting vaccinated was a relief, but it also meant coming to terms with the survival mode I’d been living in and the emotions I’d pushed aside to push through. In the longest nights, sleep came only sporadically. My days were spent teaching from a distance—large classrooms, plexiglass, a sea of masked faces. Without much student interaction, teaching was mechanized and draining. My own challenges were similar to what many teachers experienced, and it felt wrong to complain amid so much global suffering. But I simply could not find my footing.
In spring our community began opening up, with a couple of masked outdoor literary events. In June our family finally had a break from a series of bad colds, and we vacationed to a cabin in the Ozarks.
In July I reclaimed the self-care routines that had fallen away, and it’s a good thing—I needed something to tether me during several family health scares, which included a day-long ER trip to a hospital so overflowing with Covid patients that the ER had no available beds.
This fall was as busy as any pre-Covid semester. Though I enjoyed my classes and students this semester, expectations were still centered around everything being back to normal. I felt like a sports team whose talent had all graduated but whose fans still wanted a winning season. I tried to deliver but was just relieved when the buzzer went off and the semester was over.
I’m doing better. I’m coping with the insomnia. I’m working on a second collection of poetry now that my first, Wading Through Lethe, is coming out. When I’m not fixating on each word of a poem, I write screenplays, usually about people traveling and discovering themselves as they discover a new place—things I haven’t been able to do in a while.
Last year I hoped for better wings. This year it turned out I needed to completely reassemble them. I hope they’re better—more resilient, longer-lasting. Even if they are covered in band-aids.
This time last year, I was writing about 2020 as the “year of vision.” If anything, 2020 was a year of re-vision as we watched a new version of the world unfold.
The idea of 20/20 vision was an attempt to offer a focal point for the year—a challenge in even the best of times. That soon proved to be beside the point. It’s hard to find a focal point in a year without a center.
In spring, teaching remotely without childcare wasn’t so much a blur as an indecipherable smudge, though the science fiction film class I taught stands out since we were living in sci-fi times.
Summer was full-swing “quarantime,” though our staycation of daily films, dishes, and music from around the world was a great coping mechanism. We imagined a future world that looked something like the one we used to know, and we used the arts to help us create order and meaning out of chaos.
We planted a small garden, destroying the perfect suburb grass the previous owner had worked so hard to maintain. It’s wonderful to watch the tangle of tomatoes take off—our most successful crop since root rot and squash bugs took most everything else. But before, when the flowering plants were still full of possibility, Ariel and I spent mornings observing the bugs they attracted—and the birds attracted by the bugs.
We soon turned back to school work, trying to prepare for a semester whose particulars we didn’t know. In August the on-campus forward march into the semester began, a sensation akin to the burning one feels after prolonged numbness: you just have to endure it. Time was collapsing and expanding—two days could be two minutes, or conversely, as Emily Dickinson said, “Eternity in an hour.” My feet hardly touched the ground—I was held up by all the external forces pushing in.
2020 wasn’t all bad. We connected with friends and family in new ways. We enjoyed the quiet of no place to be. Though I didn’t make it through my 2020 reading list, I did read other books—hundreds and hundreds of times—to Ariel. I collected old family recipes and made my grandmother’s famous lemon bars (and found out the recipe actually came from my aunt).
One night as Ariel was stalling before bedtime, she asked me, “Can we go to the moon?” I told her it was pretty far, that I didn’t know if we’d be able to reach it. She replied with confidence and conviction: “Mom, we’re going to need wings.”
I spent a lot of time with my three-year-old, who believes anything is possible with the right tools. She hasn’t learned that some things, once broken, can’t be fixed. During a pandemic, it’s nice to live with someone with such optimism.
It seemed to me something like Icarus might have said to Daedalus as they were stuck in prison. Daedalus’s wings would have worked had Icarus not flown too close to the sun, melting the wax. The myth can be interpreted as a cautionary tale for not reaching too high or daring too much. But director Stanley Kubrick, who often created the technology he needed to achieve a certain visual effect in his films, had another perspective—maybe we should simply build better wings.
My daughter reminds me, day-in and day-out, of how imagination helps us find another way forward by giving us another way of seeing. May 2021 be a year of better wings.
We’ve been reading to Ariel since she was in the womb, so it’s no surprise she’s a book-lover like her parents. It’s never too early to start reading to little ones, and here are a few Ariel would recommend.
One Love by Cedella Marley, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton – Gorgeous illustrations, happy faces, and lots to admire about the spirit of this book: Inspired by the timeless lyrics of Bob Marley’s song, this children’s board book is about community and creating the kind of world we want to live in. Ariel fell in love the book, so one day after reading it, I played “One Love” by Bob Marley. Watching her joy and surprise at hearing the song was one of those special moments of parenthood—that and her pronunciation sounding more like “One Luff.” See a trailer of this beautiful book here.
The Colorful Mouse by Julie Durrell – A Little Golden Book from the ’60s. Ariel is really into colors right now, and this book is a great break from the non-narrative children’s books about color. The mouse decides to go outside despite the rain, so the book follow’s the mouse’s preparation: a search for the green umbrella, the purple socks, the brown sweater, etc., culminating in a ridiculously colorful outfit. The twist: when the mouse finally opens the door to go outside, the rain has cleared. (Ariel’s favorite part is when the mouse throws its orange hat into the air.) Naturally, the book ends with a rainbow to reinforce all of the colors just learned.
Don’t Ever Touch a Dragon by Make Believe Ideas Ltd. – A touch-and-feel book, the child is directed not to touch the dangerous dragon despite its “weird and wavy wings” or “lumpy, bumpy skin.” The playful rhymes and colorful illustrations work well together, and Ariel has to touch every single page. On those nights when she doesn’t want to get in the bed, we start with this one—she can’t resist!
Dream Big by Joyce Wan – The language is simple—“Dream Big,” “Dream High,” “Dream Fast,”—but the message is not: each page features a woman who embodied that trait—from Harriet Tubman (“Dream Bold Dreams”) to Frieda Kahlo (“Dream Vibrant Dreams”). The book takes its title from the illustration for Junko Tabei, the first woman to scale Mount Everest, and who has scaled all the Seven Summits (the highest peak on every continent). I bought the book hoping it would grow with Ariel over time—that she would one day become interested in the stories of these trailblazers. But never underestimate your children: she already knows the name of nearly every woman in the book. Hearing Ariel point to the woman surrounded by books and say “Maya Angelou” made me cry. I’m ready for a sequel! Here’s the trailer.
Baby Beluga by Raffi, illustrated by Ashley Wolff – This is Ariel’s final bedtime book each night—a song Daddy must sing as Ariel holds the book and flips through the stunning illustrations. Based on the song by the children’s entertainer Raffi, this captivating book continues to delight a generation after it was originally performed. An animated version with song here.
Hope you’ve enjoyed these. More of Ariel’s Picks coming soon!
I started wearing glasses in kindergarten when I couldn’t see the blackboard. My vision worsened so much that by the time I wanted contacts in middle school, they didn’t yet make a soft contact prescription strong enough for my eyes. I wore gas permeable, or “hard” contacts, which were uncomfortable but at least helped my eye keep its shape to prevent further deterioration. I was incredibly lucky that my grandfather, Lloyd Guerin, was an optometrist. He made sure I could see.
But Grandaddy wasn’t the only one who valued vision. We’d often stop in to see my uncle David at his frame shop, “Omni Optical.” He’d dip our glasses in his heated box of sand and adjust them. Then he’d polish the lenses with a special cloth and hand them back. I’d slip on the warm, clean glasses and open my eyes to a much clearer world.
Uncle David’s phone number was 327-2020, a clever reference to 20/20 vision. So why not apply that to this year? There will never be another 2020, after all. 2019 for me felt like the year of arrival: We moved from our transient on-campus apartment to a small three-bedroom in a quiet neighborhood; we sold our Conway home, an emotional and financial drain; and I started my second year at the new job. Oh, yeah, and I survived another year of parenting a toddler, and am now getting enough sleep to feel inspired.
So what does a vision for 2020 look like? To be inspired, I’m looking to other visionaries. I have a hefty reading list and a smaller list of places to see, including Fayetteville’s Crystal Bridges art museum. And I’ve set creative goals, both for current projects and new ones outside my comfort zone.
To make all this possible, I’d like more yutori, or life space (thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye, for mentioning that in Voices in the Air). Yutori means breathing room for spiritual nourishment and personal connection, for manuerverability when, inevitably, challenges arise . . . and an openness and flexibility so that one bump doesn’t throw you off course.
My husband and I recently reflected that the last seven years have been years of transition. Graduate school, job changes, cross-country moves, the death of a parent, and having a baby . . .
In 2019 it feels like we’ve landed—working at the same place, living together and in the same city in which we work. We rented for a year, hoping to finish the tiny cabin. Life, it’s no surprise, was a constant juggling act. The daycares were full, so Chuck and I alternated our teaching schedules and had students watch Ariel a few hours each week when our schedules overlapped. It was a wonderful first year as a full-time professor, and let’s just say I survived.
The cabin, among the other demands of family and work, has begun to feel like an albatross. Four years ago Chuck was driving 100 miles a day to work, and we hoped to quickly build a cabin where he could stay during the week. The two of us would rough it until we worked out the solar/water kinks. The stakes were low then, and the two of us were up for the adventure. We underestimated the task, not to mention unforeseen challenges such as Chuck falling off a ladder. With his late diagnosis of a torn bicep tendon, surgery, and months of physical therapy, we never regained our momentum, especially after I became pregnant.
In addition, these rainy years have not been kind to the low-lying delta—our land is at best muddy but more often resembles a rice paddy. It’s not exactly the pastoral scene I’d hoped for. The tiny cabin was supposed to encourage us to spend more time outside. Contending with water is bad enough without the entourage of mosquitoes that follows wherever we go. After Ariel was born we designed an addition for the cabin, but we wondered how wise it would be to sink more money into a precarious plot of land.
And let’s face it, the energy and mobility of a toddler can hardly be contained in such a space without a safe place to play outside. Had the cabin already been finished, had we been living there with our routines in place, we might have figured out how to make it work.
Exploring our option felt like more of a maelstrom than a whirlwind, but to cut the saga short: we found a house we really love and bought it. We wrestled with the decision, and I’m still making peace with it. We want to finish the cabin. We want to cultivate that part us—living in the woods, being completely self-sufficient. But the decision to simply buy a house, I’ll admit, has brought relief. Ariel now spends hours outside each day playing in the back yard and making chalk drawings in the shade of our carport. We’ve also brought our three cats who’d been staying with a family member, so now we’re all back together under one roof.
Since the blog has been sporadic, the news probably feels sudden when measured against the last few posts. But the inner journey has felt long and winding, if not dizzyingly circular. I’m still measuring what building the cabin has taught me, and I’m searching for how to live by those principles.
Future cabin updates will continue to appear here, but the overall blog will now be about new adventures.
2018 was a year of transitions. We spent January packing and repacking suitcases for Italy, trying to balance what our rapidly-growing baby would need over the course of three months and changing seasons. One year ago today we boarded a plane to Italy. We lived on a hillside just outside of Florence in a 15th century villa with 33 students, teaching courses and taking side trips to Rome, Paestum, Capri, and L’Averna. At the end of the trip, just as spring was finally taking hold, we traveled south to visit my host family for the first time in 11 years. It was a joyous reunion with them and other friends and professors, as well as a bittersweet departure.
Sometime in March, I was offered a full-time professorship that I’d interviewed for before going abroad. I began phasing out my editing business and thinking about book orders. Chuck, too, was thinking of the upcoming academic year—he’d accepted a position in the Department of Communication to start a film major, teaching a new set of classes in film production, editing, etc.
Returning to Conway, then, was both a homecoming and a farewell. We’d been weeding out our possessions since before I was pregnant, but there’s nothing like a move to force you to make hard decisions. We gave away furniture to family and had a big garage sale. We left our home semi-furnished for our renters, and there’s still a big, bad back closet of stuff we need to go through. It’s like the pink spot in The Cat in the Hat—it keeps getting pushed around from one part of the house to another. One day, maybe, it’ll vanish.
In July we moved an hour up the road to a two-bedroom apartment on Harding’s campus. The cabin is now only four miles away and living there is still our ultimate goal. But without daycare for Ariel, it has been convenient to be on campus to trade off watching her with my husband. A couple days a week when I finish my last class, Chuck hands her off to me to go teach his afternoon and evening classes. Ariel—always ready for an adventure—loves outings in the stroller. She lights up when she sees the students from our Italy trip, some of whom even babysit for us.
Ariel turned one at the end of September and we used the opportunity for an Italy reunion. A week later Ariel was walking, and she hasn’t slowed down since. That has dramatically reduced the amount of work I can do from home—now, at 16 months, she is into everything. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s doing everything she can to figure out this world and how it all works.
If 2018 was a year of transition, then perhaps 2019 will be a year of arrival, of becoming. Many times in 2018 I did not know where I would find the strength for the task ahead. The checklist of things that had to happen seemed impossible in the time allotted. And yet here we are. More than once I cried out of sheer exhaustion, so one of my resolutions this year is to build in more time for R&R. But more than that, I want to live in a mindset of slowing down rather than speeding up. I’ve never trusted that I could accomplish what I need to get done by slowing down; now I think that may be the one thing I’m meant to learn. Like faith, I may not be able to see it until I’ve lived its truth, and even then I may not believe it’s possible.
Chuck has been out to the cabin a few times. The rain barrels are full of water; the bathroom has a stack of tile waiting. We’d like to be done ASAP, but we’re also happy with our current living set-up. We want to add onto the cabin so Ariel can have space to move around as well as a private room of her own. But for now we want to finish the “tiny” cabin and camp out there on weekends as we perfect the amount of water and solar power we need.
Next week Chuck is taking a group of students to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, and we have a couple other trips in the works later in the year. Mainly we are looking forward to settling into our teaching positions, watching Ariel grow, seeing good movies, reading great books, and spending time with the wonderful people in our life.
Midway through my pregnancy, I ran across an antique necklace in my jewelry box and felt compelled to wear it. Only after I had clasped it around my neck did I remember it had been my great-great grandmother’s. I didn’t know much about the woman whose necklace I wore—not even her first name. My grandma always referred to her simply as “Grandma Fischel.” I do know this: she was very dear to my grandma, having helped raise her.
Shortly after my great-great grandfather returned from WWII, my great-grandmother became pregnant with their fourth child. While she was caring for her three children under age five, my great-grandfather left her for another woman, who was also pregnant with his child. My great-grandmother, the toughest woman I have ever met, and who will be 100 this January, bought a motorcycle and went to work. A single, divorced mother working several jobs to support her children was not so common in the late 1940s. One might even call it a scandal.
My great-great grandmother was well into her years by the time she moved in to help take care of her grandchildren. The house had two rooms, a parlor/kitchen and a room where everyone slept. Despite the hardship of those years, my grandma always spoke fondly of that time. Of course, as a child she was somewhat shielded from the pain of the adult world. Still, her happiness says a lot about “Grandma Fischel” and the special person she must have been.
My daughter Ariel, now just over a year old, is the sixth generation from Grandma Fischel. I ran across my grandma’s memoir a couple weeks ago and finally looked up my great-great grandmother’s name. Florence.
But I learned more than that. My great-great grandfather died when she was pregnant with my great-grandmother, her ninth surviving child. I can’t imagine the loss of her beloved (as well as provider and protector) on top of the strain, vulnerability, and emotional rawness of being pregnant. Florence’s life, of which I know so little, was fraught with difficulty from then on, as she cared for her newborn and struggled to support the four other children still at home. Then years later, after surviving that hardship, she saw her youngest in a similar crisis and came to her aid. She knew what to do.
It is no surprise, then, that I was drawn to her necklace. Pregnancy, though natural and beautiful, is also uncertain. The health of the mother or child could change at any moment due to any number of factors. Nothing is guaranteed. It’s easy to forget that I had those fears now that everything has turned out fine. At the time, the necklace helped me draw on the strength of those who had come before.