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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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WIP

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Finding inspiration in the La Sals and the red rock faces that surrounded us.

Work in Progress (WIP) is an accounting term that represents the value of the components of a product or idea in mid-production, items and materials not quite finished but necessary for a product’s completion. In the construction of a home, for example, WIP accounts for the inventory of nails, screws, hinges, drywall, and lumber that eventually become finished rooms. In writing, drafts are the WIP that wait in ‘inventory’ for their time to galvanize into completed essays.

At the end of April, I had four WIP pieces saved on my desktop. I also had had enough with my glitch-ridden computer, which had been operating strangely for some time. I took my laptop to be repaired, hastily transferring my files to a USB drive in the dark hours before my children awoke for school. A technician removed and reinstalled the operating system, thus restoring efficiency to my writing tool of choice. However, when I returned home, I realized that I hadn’t copied the WIP documents. Pre-dawn, pre-caffeine, my mouse bounced between two windows and highlighted the wrong files to transfer. My WIP essays were gone. I stared at my desktop and tried not to cry.

I tell my middle school students that words are just words: they only have the power that we give to them. Following Faulkner, I advise students that they must never hesitate to “kill their darlings,” and should look at their writing instead as a process toward reaching even greater literary heights. Revise, revise, revise! Don’t fall so in love with your words that you lose the ability to write harder, better! Yet, confronted with a loss of my own short-sighted creation – so many hours of drafting and research – what I would have given to see my precious darlings again.

A long-awaited trip to the outskirts of Moab, Utah, with three peers and 21 students wrenched me from the scene of devastation. We could not bring technology with us. It felt almost like a relief to put my computer out of mind for a few days, and focus instead on being a participant rather than an observer.

For the next few days, our group slept in tipis. We hiked, read, sloshed, played, and explored. Four sopping, scrambling teenagers fished me out of class three waves when our raft entirely and epically wiped out. I began to recover small bits of the ideas I’d lost and imagine new ones. The red rocks that surrounded us advised me to be strong. Coyotes yipped nightly salutations, while, by day, lizards suggested idyllic boulders on which to lounge. I wiggled my toes in the ruddy clay creek and the wind roared its approval. Cottonwoods applauded as I played in the sand. The desert revealed a much larger work in progress.

I came home to a blank desktop, opened a new document, and started to write.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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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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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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Vive la France!

Peter Mayle lives in France and I do not.  He infects me with an acute and incurable case of Francophilia, and then he leaves me to fester away as he sips glorious rosé and saunters to his backyard swimming pool to cool his sunbaked skin.  Every day presents Mayle with an opportunity to observe the quirks and contradictions of the Provençal soul: every cheek kissed, every waggling mustache and gesticulating hand, every mais oui.  Mayle roams the idyllic countryside with his dogs.  He has uninterrupted access to baguettes.  Life is not fair.

Of course, Peter Mayle isn’t the first writerly person to succumb to the charms of France. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Liebling, MFK Fisher, Julia Child, James Villas, Adam Gopnik, David Sedaris, David Lebovitz, and Molly Wizenberg have also documented their love for France, so I shouldn’t hold Mayle solely responsible for my malaise vert.  Mayle believes that Provence has the curative power to relieve writers of the “daunting confrontation” of “the blank page.”  Mayle treats his own writerly “ennui” with “two or three hours of walking in the hills…  The happy combination of exercise, sunshine, solitude, and glorious scenery has such a tonic effect” that he returns to the work of writing with “renewed optimism.”  Even if I had the luxury of two hours in which to roam the plentiful hillside, which, incidentally, is crusted in deep snow from October to July, I doubt the solitude would similarly inspire me.

The true source of my frustration isn’t Peter Mayle.  I too would be on the first plane to France if I had the motive and financial wherewithal.  I am frustrated by the limits of my imagination.  Writers are told to write what they love, but I’m discovering that love only stretches so far.  Writers need stimulation: opportunities to observe, interact, and experience things.  Geography also plays a critical role in the interpretation of one’s days.  I live in the high desert of central Utah.  Though the area is classified as “desert,” I am surrounded by mountains that are lush with alpine vegetation and animals hardy enough to thrive at high altitude.  The snow-capped mountain crags are breathtaking; the fierce pink sunsets cast rose-colored rays over the outlying alfalfa fields.  I suffer no shortage of natural beauty.  But I write as Eater Provocateur, not Alpine Provocateur.

Mayle’s total love of place, character, and history ensures that he writes what he loves and, moreover, he lovingly writes.  If a Provençal acquaintance so much as utters a stray zut, Mayle captures it, rendering the moment in smart, engaging prose, like an anthropological rhapsody.  He embraces “big” personalities; they are the characters that bring brilliant color to Mayle’s writing.  There is Ramon, the plasterer, who drinks a succession of beers as he lies on his side, refinishing the ceiling.  There is gruff Massot, whose distaste for German tourists borders on obsession.  There is Monsieur Gu, “a genial, noisy man with the widest, jauntiest, most luxuriant and ambitious mustache [Mayle has] ever seen.”

My passion is food, and I do sometimes struggle with where I live because of limited access to quality ingredients and larger grocery offerings.  I get especially cranky about three ingredients: fresh mozzarella, Brie, and baguettes, and this is where Peter Mayle enters my web of frustration.  I realize that I can make my own mozzarella and, should the baking gods ever grant me their favor, baguettes.  I realize that these three foodstuffs have relatively short shelf lives, decreasing their potential to raise my grocer’s profits.  I realize that it is pointless to fight the palates of the majority when clearly I am the single person who comprises the minority.  I nevertheless feel like it is a sin that there isn’t easy access (i.e. less than a two-hour drive) to these three basic delicacies.  I bet Peter Mayle can procure these within minutes of his Provençal home.  Therein lies my indignation.

My family moved to central Utah four years ago, lured by careers in education. We became quickly ensnared by our love for the students at the school where we work.  Relocation is not an option at the moment, so despite my epicurean complaints, I must abide by the area’s constraints.  To be grudgingly honest, I value our location for its safety and moral fortitude.  My children are cocooned by this relative isolation.  They will grow up with memories of camping, hiking, and skiing; they will have knowledge of wide, open spaces and a healthy respect for nature.  We live each day surrounded by resplendent Rocky Mountain glory.  But, oh, what I wouldn’t give to inhale the salty, doughy scent of a freshly baked baguette, to rip apart that lovely bread flesh.

Mayle counters: “For more lively inspiration there is the café, a paradise for observers and eavesdroppers… There is an ever-changing visual accompaniment, since conversations are decorated with nods, winks, shrugs, moues, and expressions of astonishment or outrage, often with minor explosions of even more dramatic body language.”  This would be much more fruitful fodder, but, alas, where is my bustling café here in this Utah valley full of predominantly non-coffee drinkers?  Where is my Didier, my Faustin?  Where is my Massot, “chewing at his mustache in vexation”?  I adore colorful, oversized characters; I revel in their light like an enraptured moth.  I also have this weird, superstitious, personal rule not to write about the people in my immediate social circle unless they give me express permission to do so.  (It helps ensure that they remain my friends.) And so, I search for characters in the outer world.  I befriend farmers, grocers, and gardeners, but the pace is slow, the personality rewards subtle.  The law of averages delivers its harsh decree.

The other night, after a particularly painful bout with my ailment (roughly 60 pages into Provence A – Z), I dreamt that I was traveling in France with my friend, Casey. (Casey has enthusiastically given me permission to write about her, affirming her consent by saying, “It’s about time!  I thought you’d never ask!”)  A horde of young French schoolboys descended on us, each wearing matching outfits and chic red scarves tied around their necks.  They separated us.  I lost sight of Casey.  Unable to fight against the press of the crowd, I matched their brisk pace and found myself in the home of a bushy-haired Frenchman.  I instinctively knew that he was a photographer.  He sat at a table in the center of a large storeroom, drinking wine, a cigarette dangling from underneath his full, salt and pepper mustache.  Edith Piaf warbled from a small radio by his side.  “Excusez,” I said, immediately recalling David Lebovitz’s etiquette suggestions for visitors to France.  I began again.  “Bonjour, monsieur!” I said, flashing my brightest smile. “Ça va? … Er… Excusez-moi, mais je….” I devolved into tearful English as I explained I’d lost my friend.  What should I do?  The photographer disappeared momentarily behind his plume of smoke.  He reached behind him, pulling out a plate of cheese and pushing it towards me on the table.  “Seet, chèrie,” said the man, his eyes twinkling mischievously.  “Eat.”

Postscript – Lebovitz’s book, The Sweet Life in Paris, is an excellent (and very funny) preparatory read for those embarking on a trip to the city of love and lights.  If, on the other hand, it’s the southern French countryside for you, go with Mayle’s Provence A – Z.

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