Orange

It's strange being an American in Europe during the era of Trump. People, polite and crass, want to talk about what is happening in the US. In Riccia, Italy, the man at the public records office obliged my request to see my family's documents – after showing me news about family separations at the US border. He knows a lot of children from Riccia, he said. It makes him sad to see such a thing. 

As such, I've learned to pause and consider the meaning of words before using them. They have different charges in different countries. In Ireland, I coiled at the sound of the word "nationalist," then I learned that the term is, in many ways, evolving. Some nationalists are people who envision a united Ireland, north and south.

The Irish seem to use "emigrate" more than "immigrant" for obvious reasons. Cringing at sentimentality, they say "die," instead of the euphemistic "pass away." To be a "good poet" is a compliment in Ireland, but when a person says you're "amazing," they are likely patronizing you. And finally, perhaps most importantly, when you're out alone at a pub, don't ever, EVER ask for a "ride" (hint: it's sexual...).

On the way to Belfast two weeks ago, I heard a word we now use disparagingly in America: Orange. As in number 45. As in fake, tanning bed skin (even I've been guilty). As in the administration that enforces the detainment of children as punishment to their families seeking asylum.

In Ireland, the context of "Orange" is different of course, but the energy felt the same. After crossing into the Protestant section of Belfast and seeing murals of machine guns and men in black hooded garb painted on the buildings, I was struck to notice four-story tall piles of wood waiting in preparation for July. When it comes, the Protestant half of the city will set the structures all around the city on fire. The bonfires remind themselves and those around them who won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It was William of Orange, a Protestant ruler. The outcome of the battle has been no more Catholic rulers of the land since.

I've been thinking a lot about generational trauma, collective memory. Traditions. Rituals. Habits. The man at the public records office asked me what Italian traditions my family still practices. I told him spaghetti with anchovies and pasta fagioli. He told me these aren't traditions; they're just normal.

Right now, Belfast residents are preparing bonfires to celebrate over three hundred years of oppression in the so-called name of religion, but made manifest in very tangible ways like land rights, killings, and war. 

In the USA, another Orange leader – mine – is separating children from their families, locking them up like animals in cages. Using them as pawns.

Here in Italy, between trips to the countryside, the gelataria, and ancient ruins, I see men with automatic weapons outside banks. I learn from my friend Daniela, about which attics harbored Jews in her family's village during World War II. She shows me the mountains where many tried, like the families at our own border, to run to refuge.

And as the sky in Rome fades into dusty peach, illuminating the ancient brick of these buildings, I'm left wondering what traditions we are really holding on to?

 

Breaking News

Dora Malech

As if the lucky might ride it to shore
while the others go under.

Some dogs make for higher ground,
spurred by a shake or a sound
in a frequency to which we never tuned.

Dogs’ ears rise now
to the scream of the still-black screen,
the pitch before the picture.

Breaking here means broken elsewhere.
All our instruments, and still we’re late.

It’s six o’clock. In the windows,
families flicker on,
faces splashed blue in the wake.

On Coincidence

What are the chances that, at the first literary event I go to upon returning to my hometown after a decade's hiatus, I would meet a fellow writer who grew up three houses down from me?

It's about as coincidental as the time I had a surprise run-in with the "celebrity" yoga teacher I had been following for years on social media and Yoga Glo in a hot spring pool in the middle of Colorado.

This, of course, was even LESS coincidental than the time I spent a night in a cabin north of San Francisco, commiserating in an attempt to evoke the spirit of a great-great-grandfather for the persona poem that would complete my graduate collection, Ghost Stories. This particular grandfather was known for having chased a man off of his porch steps with a gun, and somehow, was exonerated for the crime. Wrestling with his spirit in the cabin, I learned that it was stubborn and protective, maybe even a touch ornery.

Which is why the next day, I was not surprised to notice a group of guests huddled around the concoierge's desk, replaying the security camera footage, asking if I knew anything about the strange banging noises on the porch outside my cabin, or if I knew how there could be so much noise without a trace of the visitor who caused it?

Coincidence? I'll let you decide.

I'm currently cozied up in the luxurious Hotel Keflavik. I had planned on sleeping at the airport, but my nearly 30-year-old body has finally grown stubborn enough in its preferences to demand a soft bed when traveling. So, yesterday, I searched the web and found a last-minute deal that placed me in this four-star hotel, its gilded ceilings dripping with gold reflection, on my still very necessary early-twenty-something budget.

 Who am I to turn down a gold ceiling? 

Who am I to turn down a gold ceiling? 

This story is not that important, except that it demonstrates the way in which I've learned to move through the world: by listening. Intuitively. Taking chances, and being open to chances. Making space enough to allow for, and delight in, coincidence. Not overthinking it. Or, perhaps more accurately, overthinking it first (I'm more type A than I like to admit sometimes), but then letting go of the reins just a touch. This fancy-shmancy hotel on a hostel budget is testimony just how well it works out most of the time.

When writing, it's always worked the same way for me. I put things off until the last moment, stewing and contemplating until my mind is tired and my bones are aching. Then, I sit down at the computer...and write.

This has worked well for poetry. But now, my stomach flips a bit to admit that I believe I'll need some new strategies. When I arrive in Dublin, my focus will be on fiction writing. I've created the outline, I've listed the characters. But I'm still finding that sweet spot between clinging onto the reins and letting them loose. 

If you're a writer, I'd love to hear what works for you - how do you create structure AND allow for those organic, coincidental elements of the story to come through? How do you let the psyche ramble but in a direction that serves the story?

Hopefully, this question, and not a disgruntled ghost, is the only thing that keeps me up at night this month. But, until then, I've got some jetlag to sleep off . . . 

 

So you got into an MFA program – Now What?

We have all experienced the proverbial tearing-open of an envelope, inside which the future was waiting. Possibility trembling between paper-cut fingers, unfolding.

This spring I was accepted into Carlow University's low residency MFA program for fiction. The build-up was less dramatic than previous envelope openings, as my attention was saturated to capacity each day with the dramas of twenty-eight elementary schoolers. Every spare moment demanded my focus, held captive to revelations about shoe-tying, band-aids, alphabets, skip-counting, and who played with whom at recess. All the while lessons begged to be planned, and grades continually needed to be entered. 

But nonetheless, when I slipped my tired self into bed at night, visions of international travel and a scholarly, creative cohort replaced the habituated feedback-loop that kept me recalling all the details I'd left out in the panic of keeping up with the well-oiled machine that is the American classroom, with its factory-like, industrial origins.

So, I began to research.

When I first learned of Carlow's program, tears welled up. I know, this sounds cheesy. I know. But please understand, I wanted to piece the puzzle pieces of my novel together, and my novel is based in Pittsburgh where Carlow is located. I also wanted to write about my ancestors, who came from Italy and Ireland. And I wanted to do it without having to move away from Baltimore, where I've finally returned after a decade of traveling and working odd jobs across the United States. 

Reading the details of the program sped up my brain and fluttered my chest. Low-residency – check. International with two annual retreats at Dublin's Trinity College – check. Based out of Pittsburgh, at my mother's alma-matter no less – check.

This program was perfect. 

The discovery happened during a period of time in which I and a close friend had tenderly chosen to commit to a forty-day yoga practice designed to connect us to our hearts. Our poor, abandoned hearts.

Each morning, we rolled out our mats and intentionally sat with the desires, the fears, the anxiety, the longing, and the joy that dwells inside this closed-off, boarded up place. And as I gave it my attention, it began to bloom.

It is normal to choose security over creative expression sometimes. In fact, it is often necessary. But so is the reckoning that must accompany such a choice.

And so, most days during that late winter/early spring, I came home from my classroom still inhabiting the spaciousness my yoga practice created. I stripped off my paint-splattered, fingerprinted clothes, and asked myself now that I had been supporting myself financially, but not spiritually or creatively – What have I lost in this process? What has been sacrificed? What still has life left to bloom?

I don't want to be an expert. I don't want to be a teacher. I want to be humbled, for the walls I've strategically constructed around my heart to be torn down. I want to be on my knees in awe, and I want to be surprised.

I've entitled this blog Thank You as a reminder to myself that every day I spend in Dublin this coming June is a gift, and in order for my writing to keep blooming, I must plant my intentions in the fertile soil of gratitude.

I will aim to say thank you each day.

Turning off the mechanical brain now (that is unless I'm navigating flight connections, hotel shuttles, or time zones). I'm ready to step into the wild and surprising process that is creative writing. 

I'm ready to answer the question - now what?

 

Thank You

BY ROSS GAY

If you find yourself half naked

and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,

again, the earth's great, sonorous moan that says

you are the air of the now and gone, that says

all you love will turn to dust,

and will meet you there, do not

raise your fist. Do not raise

your small voice against it. And do not

take cover. Instead, curl your toes

into the grass, watch the cloud

ascending from your lips. Walk

through the garden's dormant splendor.

Say only, thank you.

Thank you.