Sunday, January 24, 2010

Taking a Trip, Not Taking a Trip

Before me squats a to-do list as long as the Giant Squid I saw on the telly yesterday, and yes, that really is an apt metaphor. The list contains such items as "find birth certificate and get pics for passport" and "customize two chapters for deadlined submission". "Write travel grant" is one that keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the list because I've never written a grant before, but the deadline is 5pm Friday so if the bulk of it isn't done today, I can kiss it goodbye.

It was during one of those snowed-in periods a few weeks ago I realized it's time to get out of this country for a while. Other than a short camping trip on Vancouver Island in 1977 and an afternoon in Nogales some time in the late 80's, I've never left the Estados Unidos. A year and a half ago, my dear brothers and sisters started a travel account in honor of my fiftieth birthday, intending to fulfill my childhood ambition of going to Paris, and it's grown by dribs and drabs ever since.

During those snow days, there were too many reports of people who died tragically in their own front yards, slipped and somehow froze before morning. A woman was killed by a snowplow in her own parking lot. People die all the time, often with no warning at all. A random bullet, a slippery sidewalk, a freak stroke. It came to me then that the travel account wouldn't spend itself.

Yet my desires have mellowed. Sure, it would be cool to hang around in the cafes, sip espresso where Beckett sat smoking and scowling, but I feel no sense of urgency about Paris. I still want to visit the Louvre before I die, and Shakespeare and Co., before or after, but if I only get one trip before a chunk of blue ice gets me, I want to go to Ireland.

A cousin, the family genealogist, has traced our family to Bunclody, near Enniscorthy in County Wexford. Our ancestors were involved in the revolution that led to Ireland's war of independence. I think I'll be splitting my time between the old home county and the glories of Dublin. Maybe I'll even run into the lovely writer who my aforementioned cousin contends is a distant cousin to us all. Plus there'll be mounds and castles, which hold a special attraction for a nerd like me, so there you go.

Paris can wait.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ghost Story, For Reals

Original staircase, Staab House inside La Posada, Santa Fe

Sorry it's been so long. The three of you (Hi there loyal readers!) must really think I'm a slacker, but believe me, I've been wicked busy. Among other things, we started a new semester with a fresh crop of students, and I'm getting ready to start teaching a new Title 1 after-school program, plus brainstorming/researching for the Latino Literature course for next year. Plus shoveling. Fun busy, for the most part. I just got back from a conference in Santa Fe where I stayed in La Fonda, a hotel I would never have been able to afford on my own, and that is where this adventure begins.

The conference topic was Content Area Literacy: Reading and Writing Nonfiction. I'm not getting into the details here, but one of the tasks we had to complete was a Group Inquiry, wherein the group selects a subject pertaining to Santa Fe, researches the topic, and presents to the conference on the last evening. My group (Courtney and Barbara are teachers from Arkansas, Stan is an English teacher from my own school) chose The Ghosts of Santa Fe on account of there being so many of them. We all had different reasons for being drawn to the topic, but for me it was mainly the opportunity for capers and hijinks.

Me, Stan, Barbara, Unofficial La Fonda Ghost Guide Gloria, Courtney

Our hotel was supposed to be swimming in spooks. There's the shotgunned bride, the salesman suicide, the stalking stranger in a long dark coat. Much spectral activity has been observed on the second floor (my floor, oh yeah) and in the basement. Several field trips to the basement failed to stir anything up, though we all agreed it was a little creepy. The only troubling disturbance I noted on the second floor was the noise of my neighbors, who did not seem to be used to margaritas. OK, I was a little freaked out to come in one night and see that all the lights were on in my room, even lights I had never turned on, but when I saw the chocolates on my pillow (!) I decided not to make a fuss.

Saturday night, Stan and I spent the evening with the other two conference attendees from our school, Sally (her group was researching the art market) and Rick (architecture) (how mature.) After an amazing dinner at Pasquale's , we headed over to La Posada to check out their ghosties.

A posh joint, La Posada is built around the old Staab House. We didn't yet know that the ghost of Julia Staab, heartbroken by miscarriages and the death of a child, still walks the halls, rearranges the furniture, and may be responsible for a hair-pulling incident that caused a hotel guest to bash his head into a wall. We were just on a lark, taking pictures and sneaking up the old staircase, trying to look like we were guests. (We also didn't know that genuine current guests of La Posada, Megan Fox and Mickey Rourke, are making a movie in Santa Fe, though Mickey was giving out a Golden Globe at the same time we were creeping around in the hotel.)

Sally, Rick, and Stan

So anyway, I was taking the goofy kind of pictures that tourists take, having my co-conspirators stand and point at things, and then I had Sally take a picture of me pointing. I pointed at an old picture of the Staab House and said, "Loookie, here's a ghost." Ha ha.

Caper over. On the way out, we stopped and talked to Carlos, the guy in charge of valet parking. That's when we learned about Julia, and about how people have sometimes seen weird things in the picture of the old house. I said, "Oh, we took a picture of the picture," and I pulled out my camera. We looked at the picture of me pointing but we didn't see anything.

I meant to advance to the next picture, but I hit the wrong button-- did you know the Sony Cyer-shot can zoom in while in review mode? Well, I didn't. So I hit zoom and everybody's looking at the little screen and we got a little freaked out.

I don't want to say what I see, nor will I say what other people see, because we are not in agreement. We all see something, but I won't say what unless there are comments. Do you see anything?

PS We went back the next day with our inquiry group and took a bunch of pictures from different angles, but the things we think we see in the Saturday night pics are just not visible Sunday morning. Thoughts?

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Sunday, January 3, 2010


Well, I've read about as many top ten lists as I can take. Actually, I quit reading them over a week ago, along with the articles about the futility or stupidity or redundancy of such lists. Still, it's natural to look back, and at the turn of a decade, always interesting to go back to the last turn of a decade, so.

I've been thinking quite a bit about the changes in my life over the last ten years, and despite the busy-ness of the last few days, fully intended to sit down at some point and write about it. It's writing that helps me understand myself. Ah, narcissism.

Anyway, this post over on Mira's list (which, if you don't know, is a gold mine of info on artist's grants, residencies, and fellowships, subscribe now!) inspired me to sit down and get to reminiscing.

In January of 2000, I was still living in the basement of my struggling little bookcafe in Kimballton, Iowa. I was still swathed in pressure garments from the waist down (and would be until sometime in 2001.) Still taking several medications that swathed my brain in a grayish haze as my body slowly rebuilt the burned tissue. (Yes, doubly swathed. Should I say swaddled? Swaddled in despair, cuddled in gloom?) My marriage was a grim deadlock. My "business" was a joke. Things were not looking good, and I had no hope for the future, could not imagine any scenario where my life might turn out alright.

Soon, my husband would be gone and I'd pay off the building by myself. I'd teach part time in Omaha so I could keep the bookcafe open at least a few days a week. From January-June of 2002 I would close up the shop and live in NYC, helping my sister with her new baby.

In January 2003, acknowledged my failure and sold the building for half what it cost (it needed a new roof, and because of the debt incurred after my uninsured hospitalization, I couldn't get a loan.) Moved back to Omaha with my first dog, a handsome young mutt named Alice, and started over at the age of 45.

Moving out.

Young Alice.
Fast forward: Spend 2 1/2 years living in a studio apartment over a garage, chip chip chip away at the debt. For the first time since getting my teaching license in 1991, I apply for an actual full-time teaching gig. And get it! And don't really want it! But take the job, full of fear and trepidation, whatever, fear and trepidation is by now my confirmation name. Forward.

2005 become a homeowner. 2007 begin (oh, fear and trepidation!) an MFA in writing with the University of Nebraska's low-residency program, enabling me to continue teaching full time. (They are down there right now, at the Lied Lodge, having their workshops and lectures and readings without me; this is the first new year I've spent at home since I began the program.) Finished the book I'd started back in Kimballton, graduated in August, 2009.
Writer friend Erin Arellano marinating in the ambiance at Lied Lodge, January 2009

It's January 2010. It's 0° outside, but I have a warm Gertie on my lap as I type, and Alice snoring on her pillow at my feet. Though ten years ago home ownership was a distant dream, a fantasy I didn't dare indulge in, I am in a little house that is mine all mine (ok, and the bank's.) I have a job with benefits, even insurance, even a retirement plan. Ten years ago I didn't even think I could want those things, much less get them.

In two weeks, I am flying to Santa Fe for an education conference, courtesy of my employer. I'm seeking representation for my book and some days that seems an impossible dream, but though it's colder than a warlock's heart outside, the sun is shining. I fully expect this to seem a quaint yearning when I look back in 2020.

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