One Great Things about On October

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“I want to trace the shift of the season, gather evidence of every leaf that gives way until the branches stretch bare.”

This is how it starts. With something you can’t get out of your head, so you start obsessing, driven to follow it to its end. Like a new love, you are spinning and everything seems like light through the trees. And so you start documenting. The way the speaker grabs her camera, documents the light, the leaves, the changes. Exactly as writers sit down to record the shifts in the mind.

As writers, we are preoccupied. And those preoccupations drive us on the page. Jill Talbot follows her particular preoccupations — October, the leaves, the man — in meandering wonder in her essay “On October” in Pithead Chapel. Each section relates to every other section precisely because she obsesses. Reading “On October” is like watching a mind walk a well-worn path, but seeing small details that would be missed if one were hacking their way through an overgrown and rarely used trail.

Longing leads the way through this essay, stepping tenderly through landscape and memory and fact that crunch underfoot like fallen leaves.

II.

“I do not want to write here that Kerouac died in October, but he did.”

I don’t want to write this here could be a refrain for most writers when they are wrestling with their work. There comes a moment when we wrestle with our obsession, don’t want it to be so. Want to be rid of it. We want to chuck it all, start over with something new.

The new love has worn off, the light dims, and you start to question everything. You sit down to write and everything feels murkier. You want the facts to be different. But every time you start writing, there they are again.

But we worry, even in our disillusionment with the object of our obsession, that it will end. “I worry that October will end before the leaves tell me it’s so. I worry October will end.” So, like the speaker, we go on collecting. Still, she heads out with her envelope to “collect some of what’s fallen.” We can’t shake our obsessions, we can only embrace them, follow them, give them space.

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III.

“I will stop writing this man. Now, all these years later, it seems less like a promise. More like a wish.”

And in that wishing, always a return.

A writer’s essays are more than the sum of their obsessions, but they are there, like leaves tucked into book pages you find years later when you pick it up to re-read or flip through looking for a quote. Talbot writes, “According to scientists, leaves don’t fall, the trees throw them off.” But in spite of that throwing off, the leaves return. In a new season. In a new color, a new tenderness. The tree grows and changes, new trees grow from its fallen seeds, but the cycle continues. The leaves return, looking for light.

“Leaves bring back a lost season, and I keep writing, building a map so that I can spread out the pages and point to a phone call, a room, or even a breeze, and say, here.” Isn’t that what drives us to keep turning to the page like cartographers? We chart new discoveries in old lands, follow trails to new places, record it all as a way of saying, I was here and here and here.

Important as our obsessions are as writers, they are important for readers as well. Over time, a writer’s obsessions teach us how to read their work. We start to feel like part of an intimate conversation. We see the writer’s mind across many works, learn the terrain, make connections of our own. It is a joy to follow Jill’s work as it walks through familiar landscapes pointing out the minute details we would otherwise miss: the way the light look at night just before the sun sets, the train whistle that sounds almost like a bird, the dusty road that stretches out into the hills we hadn’t noticed before.

Always in words,
Meghan

PS – This essay is read best with First Aid Kit or Julien Baker playing in the background.
PPS — Want to make more connections with Jill’s work? Here’s a poem on October at Split Lip Magazine.

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One Great Things About “Half-Life”

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Dear friends,

I’m writing this to you from an indoor playground where one of my daughters is hanging from her knees from far too high up and my other daughter is across the parking lot in a rock climbing class. It’s too loud and too bright and too much. But I’ve waited to write this until I was here, to test the atmosphere of this piece. Like a song you can listen to on loop “Half-Life” by Dina Relles’ in Cheap Pop is one I’ve returned to over the past month. And it holds up, even in this place of primary colored plastic and toddler tantrums.

From crushed bugs to storms to dreams to half-lifes and isotopes, this piece covers so much ground while maintaining the same evocative atmosphere. An atmosphere like the minutes before a storm when everything goes eerily still, the birds stop chirping, the air warms before all hell breaks loose. Relles’ does this all in 462 words. Sounds impossible, right? It is possible only because this is writing at its best. It is possible because of concise word choice, precise details, images cut down to their essentials.

In this piece hills “taunt,” the sky is “cadaver blue,” fingernails are “jagged stubs,” a bug crushed “sneaker to asphalt.” There is this stark image, left perfectly on its own, backlit only by the scientific facts surrounding it: “Sometimes I’ll undress in front of the black window, lights on, and wonder if anyone’s watching.” There are no superfluous words here. Every word is necessary, every word lends itself to the feeling of the piece like a perfectly executed piano solo that echoes and haunts you even as you sleep, that wakes you like a storm of its own.

I will not let this mini-review surpass the word count of “Half-Life,” so I will leave you with these sentences from Relles’ perfectly executed story: “I’m scared of rain we run from. Of storms that stay at our backs. Of empty nights that fall one into the next. Scared, not of the dying, but of living half a life.” Now, go read this story. Wait for the storm.

Always in words,

Meghan

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One Great Things About Scream (or never minding)

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Dear friends,

I wish all good essays could be held in the hand like Scream (or never minding) by Lia Purpura. I wish each good essay was printed on thick paper, given physical gravity. This essay turned chapbook teaches us to look closely, look tenderly, and to tell it with complexity intact.

The world is crowded with things, things, things. So much stuff with such short lives, “Their brevity isn’t meaningful.” But nothing in this essay feels brief. Every object —the cow’s tag in a photo, the milk bottle, the mint tin, Munch’s The Scream— is carefully considered. In writing Scream (or never minding), Purpura guides us through careful observation and in showing us what it looks like to look closely and tenderly, she shows us how to hold something in esteem, to value. And in valuing things, we learn to better value each other. This is not an instruction manual, it is a guided example in how to stop “never minding,” to start minding greatly.

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Look closely.

Purpura calls us to attention, to “consider,” to “study,” alongside her. She shows us how quickly things can lose meaning if we don’t get close to them, give them meaning. She writes, “You have to get down on your knees to see all the briny, colloidal, fast-swimming creatures that, at a distance, look only like murk.”

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And this isn’t a given. We all forget to do this, to get down our knees and focus our eyes, our attention. We are given to never minding. But we can train our eye toward it. “To own a thing in a more perfect way, go into training. Adopt the gestures of the beloved friend you rarely see, the way she holds a thought in her hands and twists it into place in air. Study how her fingers flare when describing something unjust, or a point beyond which she won’t be pushed, so you, too, can shape ideas in air and close up the distance between you.” How lovely. In observing a dear friend we are able to recall them, even from afar. What a miracle looking closely is.

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Look tenderly.

Not everything is easy to look at. With close attention, the cow in the photo is a look at industrial farming. With close attention, your mint tin becomes a study in our throw away culture. “What might seem like veering around here isn’t. I’m trying to lay in how many times a day, and in how many ways a person —I—might turn away.” We are constantly tempted to turn away from the things that might make us uncomfortable. But then we miss the tenderness in the details.

When Purpura studies without looking away she sees a face in the shape of the oven knobs, a horse head in the scratch on the linoleum, the anxiety in Munch’s The Scream where the world has stripped it down to a clever mug. “To understand an object’s habits, its tricks, you have to live with it daily.” The practice of looking is daily. And it’s a practice. A coming back to.

unnamed-3Tell it with the complexity intact.

“Once you really see a thing (even briefly, and slight as a lash) it’s hard to unsee.” So what will we do with all of this stuff we can’t unsee, these things we held close, observed deeply?

What Purpura teaches here is to speak or write of the things we see while maintaining their complexity. It would have been easy for her to write the idyllic pastoral of the cow in the photo, but she doesn’t. She writes of its eyelashes “like [her] son’s in sleep” but also of the diet it is made to eat, the antibiotics required to combat that diet. She gives both sides of a moment the same lyric language, she makes it possible for a thing to be more than one thing at once – tender and cruel, happy and sad, wonderful and awful.

Of her childhood she writes: “What others called wild in me I knew to be a fending off. A countering. A minding greatly.” We could all learn a lot from the looking of our childhoods, in that time before we were given to so much never minding.

Let’s be wild, let’s mind greatly.

Always in words,
Meghan

PS – We try to review things we can share with you here in their entirety, but this book is worth owning and worth revisiting again and again.

One Great Things about “Distance”

Dear Reader,

What’s alive in the short essay “Distance” by Judith Kitchen (I’ll wait for you to read it.) is big-hearted compassion, a wide-angle lens on memory. What, at first glance, could be mistaken for nostalgia – Elvis, records, saddle shoes, Grace Kelly – is nothing close to the syrup of nostalgia. Kitchen exams memory as way of understanding relationship, to the past and to others.

What fascinates me most in “Distance” is the way the couple dances through the piece, somewhere between memory and the reality of the table in the opening sentence. Though the pair in this essay “heard different tunes” and “did not always coincide,” though the boat drifted further from shore, Kitchen does not take up a tone of sorrow or resentment. Her tone is one of bittersweet understanding. She inhabits the space between things where anything is possible. Her words open up a space for understanding, even in the most difficult situations.

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This is not nostalgia, this is interrogation of memory. An interrogation of memory that creates room for compassion. Not just for others, but for herself.

Each moment in this essay contains humanity. “So let’s not pretend. We cannot know more than what we’ve done together. And even then we see it differently.” Even then we see it differently.

Built into the essay is the language of uncertainty: “How could you be expected to know?,” “Maybe you reach across this table and take my hand.” By embracing the uncertainty she embraces possibility, in memory and in people.

This is what happens when you take a freshly sharpened knife to the folds of the brain, tease apart neurons, place them under a microscope, and still recognize there is still so much unknown.

I return again and again to this essay, to both its exacting precision and its open heartedness – two things that are often separated brought together through language. I hope we can all create the space for careful attention and compassion in our writing and our lives.

With love,

Meghan

PS – This essay is from Judith Kitchen’s book Distance & Direction. I recommend this book to you along with her book-length meditation on memory and illness, Circus Train, and a collection of her poetry reviews, What Persists.

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