Saturday, April 19, 2014

Out through the fields near Flein (flash post)

For a chance to move my legs and breathe and look around me, I got on my bike and rode with Miriam across the fields to Sontheim, the next town over. She was on her way to the gym to work out on the elliptical machine. I looped around from there and followed a no car/no motorcycle sign onto a path that soon became a grassy, unpaved groove.

From there I popped back out onto a familiar asphalt path, where I could curve around the Deinenbach creek, the newly growing fields, the fruit trees dotted here and there, the expanses of yellow rapeseed, the bursts of lilac spearing the sky. I believe it was Goethe’s Farbenlehre (color theory) that dictates proportions for complementary colors: half red : half green; one-third orange : two-thirds blue; one-quarter yellow : three-quarters purple. Things seem to be the other way around at the moment, with yellow everywhere and dots of purple now and then.

It’s the Saturday before Easter, sunny and pleasantly cool. The paths are popular. We each thread our own particular way through the space. Most of us live nearby, with our own particular reasons for being out there. Many walk. With dogs and without. Singly, in pairs, in larger groups. A few march along with Nordic walking sticks. Bicycles. Baby carriages. Scooters. Roller blades. Now and then there’s a car or a tractor crowding the rest of us briefly off the path. They’re only supposed to be there if they have official business. I’m often skeptical.

Overhead, birds (mostly crows) course through the sky carving paths that don’t follow the lines cut through the fields for human traffic. I’ve been lucky enough to see an owl and a heron a time or two picking their way along the fields under the cover of dusk.

Welcome spring! A few weeks ago my legs grew tired, my breathing hard as I pumped my bike up the hills. Today’s ride was gentler, but I felt readier for the rises, for the up and down shifting, for the pleasure of working my way forward on a bike.

Fields deeply furrowed, probably for carrots (photo March 2014).

Short grass-like plants in tidy rows will be wheat or rye
by harvest time (photo May 2013).

Looking toward Flein and grocery discounter Lidl with the red roof
from the Talheim side (photo May 2013).

Strawberry fields getting ready
(photo May 2013, but this year's plants are close).

Monday, April 14, 2014

In a corner bakery (flash post)

I sit on a too low stool, or it might just be the table is too high. Two saleswomen serve the customers who walk in with their questions and intentions to shop quickly. I take bites of my Apfel-Steusel (poised favorably close to my mouth, due to the table) and swigs of a cappuccino (the everyday bakery variety, not the broad cup and opulent foam of the fancy coffee places).

A woman enters wearing reinforced work pants and paint-spattered shoes. It's 3:30 pm, but she looks done with her workday. Affectless. She buys a loaf that's wound in paper and takes her leave. The bakery saleslady reaches behind her to remove the price sign for that type of bread. Sold out for today.

In the adjoining shop there's a butcher, and voices bounce off the shiny stone floor. I see a dad and a young boy, who's riding a wooden rocking horse. Now they're at the counter. The saleswoman has given the boy a slice of Lyoner (really fine-grained baloney) to munch on; they always do. The boy returns to the rocking horse, mussy haired and staring quietly out the window while the dad shops.

"Is that one a kilo?" asks the next man in the bakery. "And what about the rye? A kilo?" He settled on the rye, not sliced, and left.

More paint-spattered folks in for coffee to go. The machine hums and presses out the drinks. The ladies mop the floor during a lull. Suddenly we're all quiet. Deeply colored Easter eggs fill a glass bowl. The remaining loaves get rearranged. Another workman grabs cold drinks. Tschüss, auf Wiedersehen, we all say when someone leaves.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

2014 Writers at Work Fellowship in Literary Nonfiction (part 1)

I attended the Writers at Work annual conference for the first time in 2005. I was a website-writer (I hadn't adopted the word "blogger" yet). Together with my husband, Markus, I had posted photos and written updates about our son's life with cancer at Simon's Place from 2001-2004. Simon died when he was seven. In the early years after his death, I wrote about grief. I posted little movies of him (pre-YouTube). I wrote up quotations of things Simon said, gathered from journals and bits of paper. I archived his life.

At the 2005 Writers at Work conference, which took place at Westminster College in my Salt Lake City neighborhood, I took Brenda Miller's workshop in nonfiction. We wrote imitations (like painters copying masterworks). We wrote from memory. I "met" Joan Didion and Bernard Cooper. A year later in 2006, I worked with Jesse Lee Kercheval in a generative workshop* in which we wrote fiction, poetry, prose poetry, and nonfiction over five intensive days.

The 2007 Writers at Work nonfiction workshop was in the hands of Chris Cokinos. Chris was a non-stop source of reading recommendations, and I chased many titles down. I was on my way from being a person who had never heard of Vivian Gornick or Mary Karr to someone who had read their work. That was the year I realized I needed more than a great conference each June, and I started taking semester-length writing and literature courses as a non-matriculated student in the University of Utah Department of English. From 2007-2010 I took one or two per semester (Timothy O'Keefe, Karen Brennan, Matt Kirkpatrick, Paisley Rekdal, Melanie Rae Thon).

I won a scholarship to the Wesleyan Writers Conference in 2008, and I traveled back to my early undergraduate haunts in Connecticut for a week. (I transferred to Oberlin, where I ultimately graduated.) Abigail Thomas's workshop at the 2008 Writers at Work conference in Salt Lake City came immediately after my Wesleyan week. There's no real comparison between the two conferences. People seem to make connections at the Wesleyan event, but if you want to work on your writing, go to Utah.

2009 took Writers at Work (and me) into a period of transition. I attended the conference that year, up at the Spiro Arts Center in Park City, with Eileen Pollack, whose write-it-real approach to a generative workshop challenged the smooth coating around my work.

I missed Writers at Work in 2010 and 2011. I believe there was a conference hiatus in 2010, which was during our move from Salt Lake City to Germany anyway. In 2011, I languished in writing isolation over here in Germany. In 2012, I put myself on a plane and went back to Utah for the conference and spent a nonfiction week with the very funny and also very serious Steve Almond. Same story in 2013, only that year I veered into a mind-opening poetry workshop with Katherine Coles (ask me sometime about the hamsters…). The current conference location at Alta Lodge in Little Cottonwood Canyon is mountain getaway.

Many of the years since 2006, I've entered my writing in the annual Writers at Work fellowship competition. Always in nonfiction, always from my work about my son. Aside from that Wesleyan scholarship, I haven't sent my work much anywhere else. Although I've received valuable encouragement from instructors, consultants, and workshop attendees over the years, I never made it into the finalist group.

Until this year. I submitted an essay in January, called "Objects of My Attention". Finally, here was an essay where the pieces seemed settled, the parts seemed authentically named, and I felt done as a writer. I'd love to see what a professional editor's eye and hand would add, but I felt content. I admit that my hopes crept very high when I learned I'd reached the finalist group. Then on March 11th, I awoke to find an astonishing email from Writers at Work: this year, I won!

Perhaps the lapse of a full month before I have written here about the competition win gives an idea of how moved and stunned I am. This year's nonfiction judge is Robin Hemley, whom I greatly look forward to meeting at the conference in June. His remarks about my essay mean a great deal to me. I have begun to study Robin Hemley's work, and I will be back with a report.

Today, I feel happy about this recognition of my writing. I am arranging some readings here in Germany, in Oberlin, and in Salt Lake City. There will also be a reading at the 2014 Writers at Work conference. The material is difficult to read for an audience, and I need as much routine as I can get. I'll post dates and times here on the blog. Perhaps you can attend! The essay will be published later in the year by Quarterly West.

Meanwhile, I can't enter the Writers at Work nonfiction competition ever again. It has provided a sturdy motor for my progress, but now it's time to strike forth in new directions!

*A "generative workshop" means you write new work together and you don't have to bring diddly with you, as far as words on the page, and some years that's a huge relief.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Best praise just about ever

On Friday morning, while rushing off to school, Miriam had a question. It was about putting an "s" on the words "experience" and "cheese". Her 8th grade English teacher (we're talking English for German kids) said those are both "non-count" nouns and you can't make them plural.

I gave her a quick answer, and Miriam said, "I asked my mom because she knows English better than anyone in the universe."

Now that feels totally good. I do enjoy language, and I spend a fair amount of time expressing my opinions about what works and what doesn't. Coming from my fourteen year old, the praise resonated around me as I scribbled her words onto a scrap of paper. "Better than anyone in the universe" is my credential for all the commentary I offer on this blog, I guess. I'll take it--thank you, Miriam!

What did I say in reply (with Markus backing me up)? Of course you can put an "s" on both those words. "I had many different experiences when I was in college." Or "I went to the market and purchased several expensive (whole) cheeses." True, the cheese one is less common. The problem with "experience" is the likelihood of German speakers to say, "I made many experiences at summer camp." (The real problem is how the words collocate.)

Why does an 8th grade English teacher forbid these words as plurals? Because it's too easy to use them incorrectly and because, most of the time, they are used as non-count nouns. "I had a lot of work experience before I went back to graduate school." Or "I bought several different kinds of cheese for the picnic." In a complex world, that's a good approximation of the truth.

Just don't go off making experiences, please (says one of the universe's foremost English authorities).

Another sunny Sunday

If you can call twice in a row a habit, then a Sunday afternoon bike ride in the hilly vineyards at the edge of Flein is my new one. Much like last week, I enjoyed the solitude of following the paths that climb and wind through the tidy rows of grape vines.

Waxing crescent moon straight overhead in a blue sky. Gentle breeze. Temperature right around 70 F (20 C). I saw horses in their grassy pens, a family of hairy goats (including a tiny black one), and two jack rabbits in the middle of a meadow, chasing each other in circles. Up near the edge of the woods I looked for the dark brown butterflies again. I saw only two, which supports last week's theory that their lives are particularly brief. (The German wikipedia link offers a picture of about what these butterflies look like. As far as I can tell, they live a full season, rather than mere days. If you've never tried this trick before: click on another language in the languages list, e.g., English, to be switched instantly to the same article in the other language. Braunscheckauge is apparently a Northern Wall Brown.)

Between the vineyards I spotted several fields of rapeseed in nearly full flower. Here are some photos I took last May of rapeseed in full fluorescent bloom. Note, today is April 6th, and last year's photos were a good five weeks later.

Rapeseed field near Flein (photo May 2013)

From a vineyard hill, looking down at the fields
beyond the newest homes in town (photo May 2013)
Other signs of an advanced spring: the strawberries in nearby fields are in flower already, too. The fruit trees at the edges of the agricultural fields, alongside the vineyards, and next to many buildings are also blooming gloriously. Most of them are loaded with simple white blossoms clustered like half a large popcorn ball. (There I go using popcorn imagery again.) Since most of the fruit trees around here are apple trees and since most of the blooming trees have these flowers, my conclusion is that these are indeed apple trees. (If you know better, please correct me.)

Future apples 
A wonder in form and simplicity
The grape vines still appear to be holding back. A few have released the beginnings of leaves at their budding eyes. But most have a sort of pent-up, held-breath containment. They must be waiting for rain. The earth in our gardens and out in the fields is drawn with cracks from the lack of rain. If I were a grape vine, I'd be waiting, too, until several good dowsings of rain convinced me to let forth for another season.