When I was a young woman, I happened upon a slim book of poetry called Mapping the Distance, by another young (but slightly older than me) woman named Alicia Hokanson. Many of the books that drift onto my shelves later leave them, but this one has remained for more than three decades. I felt some kind of kinship with this writer, back then: Both from Seattle, both teacher-writers, both in complicated relationships. There was something in her face in the author photo that felt a bit like looking in a mirror.
Something (I don’t remember what) a few weeks back caused me to do a search for Hokanson, and I discovered that in 2021 she published her second full-length work, Perishable World. I learned that in the intervening years, she had a long career as a secondary school teacher in Seattle. She retired from teaching in 2014, from a job she took in 1987, two years before her first book was published.
Where Mapping the Distance is the story of a young woman grappling with the challenges of early adulthood, Perishable World is (at its title hints) about life’s challenges at the opposite end of time’s fulcrum. Instead of a story filled with questions about choices, it’s a story filled with inevitable loss. I’m still reading it, so I can’t give a full accounting or review, but the writing is gorgeous. I can see, reading from both books, the development of craft and voice that occurred in the decades between them.
I can see that Hokanson is still, as she was then, just a little bit ahead of me on the journey. She’s offering, again, a map to places I can see but haven’t yet reached–not only as a human living in this particular corner of the planet, but as a writer, too.
Hokanson continued to write poetry for publication during her decades of teaching, but there is a gap of more than three decades between her two full-length books of poems. I have one book to my name, published in 2003. I remember telling someone that it took me more than a decade to write the poems in it and joking that I hoped it wouldn’t be another ten years before a second book. It’s now been nearly two decades, and I haven’t written even a handful of poems in the last ten years.
Still, I have been writing. Here, mostly, and although this writing doesn’t require what poetry does, there is something about committing words to an audience that hones craft.
There’s nothing like a book about what passes and endures to make a person think hard about what is and isn’t worth doing with what remains of a life, especially when it is written by someone whose journey contains important parallels to your own. I’m not sure what serendipity brought me back to this writer again, but this week I’m grateful for it–for the mapping of the long distance that a writing/teaching life can be.
It was back to school week here, but not for me. When my last year’s boss sent me a picture of Cane in his classroom on the first day of school, I felt some hard FOMO. Or something that was sad. Or mad.
I remember standing in front of a room of new students, being lit up the way his face is in the photo, and I missed it. It made me sadmad about my body and its limitations, and the public education system and its limitations, and time and its limitations, and change–inevitable, relentless, unceasing change.
Then the queen of England died, which also made me feel sadmad–about history and colonialism and the disappearing of things that I know are problematic (at best) but still are the things I’ve known for my whole life and even though I know (I know) what’s wrong with them I want to cling to them because at least I know them, and because they are mine, and because so many of the emerging unknown things right now are so unsettling/terrifying/overflowing with potential doom.
I miss having feelings about collective events that are simpler than mine seem able to be any more.
I went to visit my parents in the middle of the week because I can do that now and because honest-to-frickin’-God I am so deeply weary of temperatures in the 90s/100s (speaking of unsettling/terrifying/overflowing-with-potential-doom change) and my aching body/heart was craving marine air and coolness. And my mom. Aren’t I so lucky that I could get in a car and drive to a place where I can comfortably wear pants? And to parents who are still here (when so many of my contemporaries have lost theirs) and still them, in the ways that matter most?
The earth literally moved while I was there. Something woke me in the early morning hours, and just as I was drifting back to sleep I heard a loud “whuump” sort of noise and the whole building shook. I’ve experienced one significant earthquake in my life, and I wondered if that’s what was happening. Nothing else did, though, and I went back to easy sleep.
On Friday I returned to Oregon, where, in my county, the combination of high heat and high winds and wildfires was so threatening that power was shut off in multiple high-risk areas. We did not lose power, for which I am grateful. I have so much to be grateful for, but damn it was hard not to feel the opposite when I stepped out of my car to hot, arid, blowing air. On Saturday we woke to eerily orange-grey skies and a bloody sun that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie with cheap special effects.
We closed on our new-to-us house in Louisiana. I tried to set up our utilities by phone early in the week, but was told that it could not happen unless I physically came into the city hall building and gave them a check–which, of course, I could not do. I felt like a modern-day carpetbagger. I felt weird. I thought a lot of thoughts about what it means to be a good steward and a good neighbor and a good person. I thought about privilege and gentrification and colonialism and history. I felt grateful for family who have been helping us through this process (and were able to go to city hall and give them a check) and who are the reason we’re doing what we are, but I also felt guilty. And excited. And happy. And anxious. And even a little sadmad. All at the same time.
We went to a movie, where we watched Brian de Palma’s 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill, which was horrifying in all the wrong ways. Not knowing any specifics about the plot, we thought it would be campy, nostalgic thriller fun, but the story centers on a “transexual” who murders women because of the character’s inner battle between their male and female selves. The male self emerges when sexually aroused and kills the female objects of their desire because they don’t want to be male. Or something like that. So, you know: transgender = psychopath. Also, sexual women die and/or are prostitutes who should expect to be degraded, and the mentally ill are demonic. It was horrible, and we found ourselves laughing in the wildly inappropriate way that people sometimes laugh at funerals.
Saturday, I made and froze tomato sauce using a recipe I got from Kate, after getting encouragement from Marian. It is a thing of amazement to me that I was able to make this using only ingredients I grew in our garden. My great-grandparents were farmers, but I grew up in the suburbs eating vegetables that came primarily from cans. I’m slowly developing skills my people once had but did not pass down.
Today I hope to make a pie with blackberries my mom and I picked from my parents’ yard. Their lower yard (see photo, above) is bordered by wild blackberries, and it’s been years since I have been able to time a visit with their ripening. I was sure I was too late again–they tend to peak in August–but we found many that were just right for harvesting. It was like picking blackberries always is; the most promising clumps are just out of reach, and you think “if only…” more than once. A few times you stretch your limits, grasping for what you can’t easily get to, and you curse yourself and the thicket when the brambles catch your sleeves and scratch your legs and prick the tender pads of your fingers. As always, for me, picking these berries reminded of the early August evening in 1981 when I went blackberry picking with my grandma, her sister, and a cousin. As we walked down to the railroad tracks near my grandparents’ house where the berries grew wild, my grandmother and great-aunt marched the way they had when they were on the VFW drill team, laughing at themselves and the embarrassment they were causing us younger ones, who wished fiercely that they would not be so weird in public. It’s an outing I remember so clearly because later that night they would take my grandfather to the hospital with what would turn out to be a fatal heart attack, and although I would later see my grandmother laugh again, eventually, I would never see her laugh quite like that again, ever.
I’m grateful for the memory. I’m grateful for the berries that always bring it back to me, even though their brambles scratch and snag and poke, and their fruit inevitably stains.
I’m grateful to be alive now, today, in a world that still has beautiful blue water that I can travel to. I’m grateful to have shelters near those I love most, with abundant food and means to preserve it. I’m grateful that some of the things that need to change do, eventually, and grateful that even though the ground trembles and the walls around me shake, sometimes (most times) nothing falls and I am able to to sleep, secure in my belief that in the morning I’ll be able to figure out what happened.
Our tomatoes are going bananas. We can’t keep up with them. I don’t know the things I need to know to preserve them, and we can’t eat all of them before they rot. (If you know me in real life, let me know if you’d like some.)
They are SO good. So much more flavor than grocery-store tomatoes, even the ones at the produce stand that sells local goods. Last night we had a dinner of tomatoes with basil and balsamic vinegar, accompanied by ciabatta and fresh mozzarella.
This week was the first in our almost new-normal. Cane had his back-to-school inservice days, and for the first time in 32 years, it was not back-to-school inservice week for me. I am doing a small curriculum development job for his school (the one I taught in last year), so I did go to some meetings, but it was nothing compared to how this week has felt for me in the last 3 decades.
It felt amazing. Freeing. Calm. Busy in a good way.
This week we will close on the house we’re buying near Cane’s family in Louisiana (how is this my life?), and I will make a quick trip north to see my parents. Cane’s year with students will begin. I’m behind on my usual online reading, but this morning I checked in with The Spectacled Bean, whose latest post contained a link to a productivity method quiz. It was wonderful to take it thinking of my workplace as home. I have the same old primary dilemma (prioritizing, because there are so many things I want to do), but it feels so different to have this struggle in a workplace that is healthy and affirming.
I know how lucky I am, to have “problems” of overabundance.
I don’t have much more to share today. Now that school is starting, I hope to figure out a routine that includes time for writing again. Sending wishes for the right kinds of abundance to all of you who check in here. Would love to know how you are beginning the transition to a new season.