From Arkansas to Italy

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.

The Bridge of Sighs – Venice

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.

Florence, Italy

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.

“Leaving Rome”

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 need a band-aid!”: 2021 in Retrospect

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.

Wounded toys recovering

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.

S’mores 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.

2020: The Year of Vision

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.

Books 2019

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.

May 2020 bring us all greater vision and insight!

The Grasshopper and the Ants

As a child, I watched Disney’s Silly Symphony (1934) based on Aesop’s fable and learned that the ants had it right: be prepared so that you don’t find yourself hungry and cold when winter comes. In other words, be industrious in anticipation of impending doom. The grasshopper was lazy, I was told, and only cared about himself. The ants mercifully took him in, but the Queen declared he must play his fiddle to earn his keep, a deal the grasshopper gladly accepted.

Being a productive member of society should mean contributing something. Often, however, being “productive” is translated as earning money rather than finding a vocation. Earning and spending money is the best way to contribute—keep the movement going, the motor running. Never mind the beauty passing along the way.

But for me, the greatest commodity is not money, but time.

Earning money is only “worth my time” insofar as it pays my bills and keeps me from defaulting on my debt. Because I value my time, earning money for the sake of having money to spend doesn’t feel like a good trade. I would rather not spend money in exchange for more time.

People who know me well see that I struggle with balancing the industrious ant and the creative grasshopper. Can one be both? Is the grasshopper’s laid-back attitude the very material from which his music is made? Were he more industrious, would the music be as sweet?

Sure, the ants took in the grasshopper and fed him with food they had worked hard to gather, but when it was snowy and too cold to go outside, when it was impossible to leave and gather and be industrious, who do you think was entertaining the ants with his fiddle? The grasshopper provided a valuable service—something that could enrich the ants’ lives.

I suspect that the fable presents two extremes. One group suffers a spiritual hunger, the other a physical. It takes both groups to satisfy the needs of the whole.

I’ve never been afraid of hard work, but I am drawn to something simpler. Life in a tiny cabin will mean less expense and less debt. With less house to maintain and less pressure to earn earn earn, I’ll have more time—more time to notice, more energy to love, more space to write.