Tag Archives: creativity

Emily Dickinson Lives Upstairs

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The sun shines on a clear, warm April afternoon. Eager to be outdoors, I bound the stairs two at a time and knock on Emily’s door, waving a fragrant lilac blossom in front of me like a parade flag. She answers: “I’m nobody, come in.” Not this again.

“Emily, it’s such a pretty day. Look at the lilacs! Let’s go out and take some pictures of flowers and bees…” When she doesn’t respond, I boldly add: “We might even find friends who like to write! Then there’d be more than two of–”

“Too public,” she snaps. “Do I look like a frog to you?”

I can’t be around her when she gets like this.

*

I often invite writers to stay with me because I need the literary companionship: someone who understands what it’s like to be driven, mad, from bed at 3 in the morning to capture the words that come unbidden into my head. I thought Emily would at least mitigate the loneliness of writing… maybe even provide a forum for feedback. But she prefers solitude, thrives on it. I’m lucky to connect with her once a week.

*

Emily Dickinson hates my nickname. “Jules,” she sneers. “Jewels are cheap and common commodities that symbolize society’s base, rampant materialism.” I stare at her, willing her to stop talking, but she rambles on. “Ju-li-a, however, has three pleasing syllables. Why would you settle for less than a three-syllable name?”

“Em…” I say.

Her sherry-colored eyes flash in tight fury. “Em? Em!” Her nostrils flare. In a dark corner of her room, I see her dun pet mouse, Grief, dive and cower under its bedding. “Em is the thirteenth letter of the English alphabet! My- Name- Is- Emily!”

She retreats, sullen, into the somber shadows of her room, shutting the door between us. Her bedsprings creak. I sigh. “And stop using alliteration so loosely,” she adds. “It isn’t dignified!”

*

Pro: I live with Emily Dickinson.

Con: I live with Emily Dickinson.

Pro: She is one of America’s finest poets.

Con: Her reputation (perhaps unfair) is that of an agoraphobic recluse.

Pro: We share a love of words, a healthy disdain of death, and a beloved friend named Susan.

Con: She’s kind of judgy.

*

A postal delivery person knocks at the front door. The dog leaps off the couch in an eruption of warning barks. I pull at the curtains to seal off any light from outside and sink lower into my chair. I don’t want to answer the door. I’ve just gotten home from work and I’m exhausted. He knocks again, followed by footsteps and the sound of the postal truck driving away.

A birdlike shadow hovers at the base of the stairwell. Emily smiles slyly at me. “In my day, we considered it rude to disregard a knock on one’s door!” Her mouse nuzzles her shoulder. “Isn’t it rude, little G?” she asks the mouse, stroking its chin. Emily turns softly in woolen stocking feet, ascending the stairs, a singsong lilt to her voice: “Julia’s asocial, Julia’s asocial…”

*

The other day, after an especially long hermetic gap, I stopped by Emily’s room. She didn’t answer. I opened the door and peered inside. The mouse was running laps on its wheel, but Emily was gone. I noticed several little notebooks, spilling out from underneath her bed, and picked one up out of curiosity. Flipping through, I recognized Emily’s slanted cursive, punctuated with long dashes and exclamation points: her poetry.

The floorboards groaned behind me. “Unhand my fascicles at once!” she shrieked. Her right eyelid twitched.

I dropped the booklet immediately: “Emily! Oh my gosh, I’m so–”

She surged towards me, slapping my arms. “Wretch! Thief! Out of my room this instant!”

“Em, let me help you with this. These books are flammable and they degrade easily… I can show you how–”

She threw a dictionary at me and slammed the door.

*

Wanting to make amends for the fascicle debacle, I register Emily for an email account and teach her how to use it. Amherstgossamer1830 learns to type with astounding speed and wastes no time in resuming her prolific correspondences, or “electronic missives” as she insists on calling them. Two hours later, she rushes into the living room, grinning, her cheeks flushed.

“Success?” I ask.

“I just penned 187 missives and 15 poems!” Breathless, she inquires: “How long will it take to receive returned correspondence? Six weeks? Eight?”

I shake my head. “It really depends on the person you’ve written to. Some people reply immediately, while others take a while. You should start receiving some responses in one or two days.”

Her jaw drops.

*

Sometimes visitors ask what it’s like to live with “that intense chick who wears white all the time.” I like it. She’s feisty and she botanizes like a boss. Above all, she encourages me to write and provides inspiration during the lulls.

*

“Why is my name on your computer?” asks Emily.

“Because it’s the 130th anniversary of your death.” She looks confused. “You’re famous, Em.”

“I am not,” she says, brushing at her dress as if it’s overrun with spiders. “And please stop calling me Em.

“A random search on your name yields over 18 million results! College students recite your poetry to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’! You have a museum!”

She sniffs. “Irrelevant. Fickle.” This information, apparently news to her, sends Emily out into her “laboratory”: the garden, where she examines spherical onion blossoms and measures the alkalinity of the soil. She returns several moments later, clutching a bundle of clover and mint.

“Sing the song for me,” she says.

“Are you sure? The lyrics are, um, a little questionable.”

She smiles for the first time all day. “I love questionable!”

© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Safari Njema

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“In other words,” my aunt writes, “may the journey be safe, exciting and fulfilling.”

Heading into the wilds of Africa. Leaving technology behind. Helping others improve their lives with the addition of solar energy. Experiencing natural wonders of the world. Observing animals with time to admire and photograph them. Learning about other cultures, several of which were introduced to me (in text) by my father and grandfather. Building connections; gaining perspective; unearthing roots. Seeing where I was born.

Safari Njema! May it be a nice safari, indeed.

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Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Fortune Cookies

A scholar's writing lasts longer than a martyr's blood.

A scholar’s writing lasts longer than a martyr’s blood.

You have an excellent sense of humor. Lucky number: 13

I have a moderate book problem.  I inherited my addiction from my father, who suffers from a severe, raging book problem.  He spends hundreds of dollars on books each month, scouring book-buying clubs for the newest titles, the latest, greatest publications to acquire.  He views his acquisitions in terms of collections, and is continually searching for ways in which to improve his collections. His Africa collection is exhaustive, as are his Peoples of the World and Peoples of the American Southwest. He taught these subjects at Utah State University throughout my youth.

I go on book binges, but have not yet reached a point in my life where I can afford or find room to house hundreds of dollars worth of book purchases.  My only prized “collection” – of food writing and cookbooks – falls far short of comprehensive. Sometimes I make second-hand purchases, a practice my father finds reprehensible.  I can’t help myself.  Books comfort me.  I love their distinct printed smell, the silken heft of their pages.  I do not feel settled unless I can see their colorful spines, lined up in rows on my bookshelves and arranged alphabetically by author’s last name or, in the case of anthologies, alphabetically by book title.

Can a love of words really be transmitted through a genetic line?  My dad and I both love to read in general.  We’ll read anything we can get ahold of, and spend all day doing it if time and circumstance permit.  Though I didn’t grow up in my father’s house, we cultivated our relationship over summer breaks.  My mother showed little interest in books and she sometimes teased me – not maliciously – about my reading habit, which causes me to wonder if I picked it up casually through observation of my father (whose houses over the years were technically libraries with beds, measured in linear shelf space rather than square footage) or whether there’s something to the theory of genetic transmission.

Your smile lights up a room. Lucky number: 2005

Another thing I inherited from my dad: a button nose.  I got my mother’s hazel eyes, and my father’s round chipmunk cheeks and pert nose.  My sister and brother are also blessed with the nose.  I used to like my nose passively; it was something that made my face seem less plain in photographs, though I gave little regard to it otherwise.

A large black Chow subdivided my nose in 2005.  Thirty-seven stitches later, I retained a nose, with a board instead of a button.  It healed into something wholly unremarkable, except for the thin vein of white scar tissue that flashes like lightning over the bridge.  I actively appreciate my nose now.  Had I been standing an inch to the right or left, I might have been severely disfigured or blinded.

Recently, my daughter, who is six years old, contracted mono. (We live on the campus of a boarding school, and, as such, germs befriend one another quickly.)  I have never before been so acutely aware of her spleen.  The weight and worth of my daughter’s existence catapulted to the forefront of my mind.  Simple tasks like riding her bicycle to school or competing in team sports are out of the question for the time being.  Nothing is worth risking the rupture of this small internal organ.

The body is such a miracle.  My daughter will recover.  My nose remains in tact.   Sometimes it’s the misfortunes that make us feel fortunate.

You have lovely eyes. Lucky number: 2

As a writer, I rely on my eyes to gather the visual details I tuck away for later: the tufted dandelion sprout, floating in the air; the crooked upturned arm of my spiny blue cactus; the silhouette of a horned owl, high up in a tree against the blush of sunset.  My eyes revel in my son’s playful smile; they drink in my daughter’s freckled cheeks.  They are vessels that carry the words I read onto the vast, curvaceous rivers of my mind.  If the day’s first blessing is waking up, the next true blessing must be opening one’s eyes to the possibilities of a new day. Thanks be.

You are an enigma. Lucky number: ?

Research for this essay returned me to a book I hadn’t read in years: Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.  In a chapter titled “Double Face,” one of Tan’s characters, Lindo Jong, recounts sifting through potential fortunes at the fortune cookie-making factory where she once worked, in the hope of finding one that would elicit a marriage proposal from her beau.  She selected a fortune that read: “A house is not home when a spouse is not at home.”  Her clever plan succeeded.  The next day, her boyfriend asked, “Lindo, can you spouse me?”

My research also brought me to an article about the largest producer of fortune cookies, Wonton Food, Inc., which distributed over four million cookies a day in 2005.  That amounts to nearly a billion and a half cookies annually!  Who eats them all?  My theory is that most people – excluding children, who would eat cardboard if it tasted moderately sweet – are more interested in the fortunes than the golden cookies themselves.  Sometimes the messages resonate; sometimes it’s the lucky numbers. In 2005, lucky numbers won 110 people sums of approximately $100,000 each in a single day’s Powerball drawing.  The accompanying fortune?  “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.”

I don’t harbor strong feelings about fortune cookies, but I love the intrigue they hold within.  Maybe if I had taken the time to read a fortune on the day of my new nose, it would have read: “Beware of inauspicious strangers.  The admiration of their beauty wields a deleterious cost.”

All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off. Lucky number: 2013

My dad once advised me to prepare to hold at least three professions in life.  The changing world, he said, required adaptability.  To date, I’ve worked in about twelve positions – with vastly different titles and responsibilities – without interruption (and sometimes simultaneously).   My love of words has threaded through each of my professional incarnations.  I am very grateful to possess a skill that benefits myself as well as others, and buoys me, despite sharp changes in the economy and employment rates.

Right now, I teach Humanities to a gregarious group of middle school students.  I have no idea how I got so lucky in this latest gig: not only do I get to read and write, I get to geek out about reading and writing with young, enthusiastic minds!  Together, we explore worlds that are so different from our own with characters who are so similar to us.  I love when my students ask questions about the text and I can literally see their imaginations flare.

I do not know what the new school year will look like for me, but I hope that the long weekends of lesson planning and grading will pay off.  I hope that this year of channeling my own creativity into the creativity of others will not have been in vain.  In truth, I have missed the freedom to write and read on my own schedule.  I have missed marching into the grocery store; sweeping ingredients into my arms, like long lost lovers; and coming home to a joyous orgy of cooking and photography.  But I have also cultivated positive relationships with seventeen great students.  I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a teacher… and learned that the process of learning never really ends. Nor does the adaptability of my spirit.

I face the fortune ahead of me with gratitude and optimism.  My love of words has yet to let me down.

© Julia Moris-Hartley 2013

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Eupepsia

“Food is a feminist issue – and not just because historically women have been the ones to cultivate it, harvest it, preserve it, can it, budget it, shop for it, cook it, serve it, clean up after it, and/or mass produce it in assembly-line work at the Frito Factory…”– Bonnie J. Morris

There are usually two publications I read immediately upon receiving: The Sun, a monthly magazine that celebrates the wide and varied spectrum of human narratives and experiences, and Gastronomica, a quarterly journal that celebrates the wide and varied spectrum of all things related to food and food culture.  I received the Fall 2012 issue of Gastronomica weeks ago, though I couldn’t say exactly when because during that time I started working as an instructor-in-training for a group of bright, sweet middle schoolers.  I spent those weeks training and training, and devoted what little time I had outside of training to planning and planning.  When I finally granted myself the permission to stop planning and read the current Gastronomica issue, I experienced a series of unsettling revelations.

In the issue, a writer named Paula M. Salvio presents her study of food blogs written by women and the commonalities that appear between them.  According to Salvio, the larger body of work written by female food bloggers can be distilled into two categories: 1) “narrative references to postwar cookery books with specific references to a discourse of comfort,” and 2) “narratives of domestic discomfort.”  Dyspepsia roiled as I read about the bloggers who apologize for their lapses in writing (I’ve totally done that before – in fact, I’m kind of doing it now) and bloggers who interweave autobiographical details, positive and negative, into their exploration of food (ditto).  She concludes with the uplifting suggestion that female food bloggers are actively creating a culture in which to connect and support one another as we face the stresses of challenges of work and domesticity.  This comforted me for about a minute, until I realized that not only was I a stereotype of both narrative categories, I had also forsaken my culture of food peers through an unintentional gap in my writing.

Panic whacked me upside the head.  Suddenly, I couldn’t recall the last time I cozied up with a recipe or made anything but the most perfunctory, quick fix meal.  When was the last time I lingered in the cookbook section at Barnes and Noble?  When was the last time I thought, I should cook something in beer today!  It’s been over five months since I opened my Google Reader, overflowing with posts from bloggers whose writing and photography have historically been my threads of inspiration.  When did I stop paying purposeful, measured attention to my central passions?

The middle school faculty met with parents a week prior to the start of school for orientation.  I found myself face to adolescent face with enormity of the responsibility of my new position.  I also caught a glimpse of its potential, and I liked what I saw.  I have the freedom to create my own curriculum, heavy on writing – to my good fortune.  I can use my talents to inspire young minds, something my grandfather urged me to do since I was a teenager. (My mother would have burst into proud tears to learn that I am finally pursuing the profession she urged throughout my life.)  Quirk and spunk are assets in an environment such as this… I only hope that students embrace this notion sooner rather than later.  But if my goal is to foster open creative expression among my students, then it must be something I practice too.   If I want to help them unlock the dynamics of style and prose, shouldn’t I commit to following a similar path of discovery?

Food is a feminist issue.  Everyday, I wake before dawn to squeeze in a run, then rush home to assemble school lunches, shower and get ready, ferret Kai out the door, and deliver Rory to her babysitter-du-jour, barely making it to work on time.  I duck out of meetings to retrieve Rory from the babysitter and transport her to afternoon kindergarten, only to return to classes and meetings that last until dinner.  What’re you making for dinner? I ask my husband, keenly aware that I will be preparing dinner myself and/or phoning in an order for take-out.   I’m not willing to concede to failure in any role.

And why the constant stress?  It was so freeing to read Peter Mayle’s honest assessment of a writer’s occupation in Toujours Provence.  “There is constant doubt that anyone will want to read what you’re writing, panic at missing deadlines that you have imposed on yourself, and the deflating realization that those deadlines couldn’t matter less to the rest of the world,” he writes.  “A thousand words a day, or nothing: it makes no difference to anyone else but you.”  Though Mayle is obviously not a female blogger, I think his notion of anxiety caused by self-imposed deadlines holds validity.  In an online sphere of such immediacy, we create constructs that spur us to produce more and with high frequency.  But, without an editor or a book deal, who’s really keeping track?  Who are we actually disappointing when inspiration wanes?  Does quality of work suffer? Mayle also points out the intense pleasure that a writer receives from having his/her thoughts and ideas heard (or read).  “What makes it worth living,” he writes, “is the happy shock of discovering that you have managed to give a few hours of entertainment to people you’ve never met.”  This is why we write, what we miss when we don’t write, and why we press ourselves: our urgent compulsion to produce and our need for validation are irrevocably intertwined.

A feminist issue and a labor of love: I skip meals, but wouldn’t dream of letting my children skip them.  I am their mother – and mothers mean comfort, often in the form of food.  In my case, food means creativity.  I lapse in my writing, but can’t fathom damming the flow of ideas for good.  I might divert a stream of creativity to the classroom for the sake of inspiring young minds, but I’m lost if I can’t find a tributary that reconnects me to that which gives me such vital sustenance.  I embrace the recent ebbs in the current of my days – and welcome an entirely new group of opportunities.  Maybe this isn’t an apology, but rather a joyful song.

I survived the first days of school.  I enjoyed them, in fact: hearing my students’ laughter as they used teamwork to unravel human knots or mused whether zombies actually exist in real life.  My return to the creative fold reassures me that my beloved trifecta of cooking, writing, and reading hasn’t died, as I silently feared; it was only taking an extended siesta as I diverted necessary energies to the demands of an exciting new beginning.  Slowly but surely, my appetite returns.  I made lasagna last weekend… with honest-to-goodness marinara sauce that I slow-cooked with a friend’s garden-grown tomatoes.  I read Gastronomica cover to cover, and, thanks be, I’m still writing.

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