Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Winter blues (or why I write in Alaska)

It's getting cold up here in Anchorage, about 2 degrees right now, with temps forecasted for below 0 later tonight.

I'm not a winter person, even though I run throughout the year. The cold bullies me. I suffer. If I wear too little, I'm chilled and miserable. If I wear too much, I sweat and become chilled and miserable.

Yet, there's a beauty in the cold, in the winter, this far north. Right before sunset (which comes earlier and earlier; we're down to less than six hours of daylight and losing fast), the sky turns the most remarkable shade of blue, which spreads out until everything is cast in shadow and the snow fades to lavender and running through it is like running through a dream.

Full moon over Cook Inlet--that's downtown Anchorage in the background, nestled against the Chugach Mountains.

Winter is a time to slow down, to cozy up inside the house with a good book. It's a time to write poems and finish essays and stay up all night working on a novel, and who cares if it ever sells or not? When the sun finally rises and the air turns lavender and you're exhausted yet strangely exhilarated, such things don't matter.

Sunrise over Kenai Lake, around 10 a.m.

I doubt I'd be the writer that I am if I didn't live in Alaska. I'd still write, of course. But without the mountains and the inlet, the bears and moose and occasional glimpse of a wolf, my writing would be tamer, less wild. I wouldn't take as many chances. I wouldn't reveal as much of myself. I wouldn't burrow down deep or as far or as often. I wouldn't risk letting go of small pieces of my soul.

Seward Small Boat Harbor, last winter

Sunrise over Mt. Benson

Sorry if I sound melodramatic. It's the blues. They do me in every year, but in the best possible way.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Chick lit rants, and another review

Today a friend emailed that the Seward Phoenix Log had posted a review of Dolls Behaving Badly.

I wasn't sure what to expect. Seward is a small Alaska fishing community (about 1,800) at the end of the road system; it isn't exactly known for its literary merits. I know: I used to live in Seward and edit the very same small town newspaper.

Me, sitting at the halfway point of Mt. Marathon and looking down on the town of Seward.

I was refreshingly surprised when I read the review by Wolfgang Kurtz (yes, I think that is his real name) who, according to his bio, is kind of an everyday man, now a small town newspaper editor.

Granted, it doesn't compare to the Kirkus Reviews review in weight or merit, but why should it? It's an honest review from an honest man who honestly admits he doesn't normally read books written by women.

What I like is that he mentioned Erica Jong, Anais Nin and Ayn Rand. In my review!

He referred to them as "chick" writers, hee, hee.

Here, I must digress (and I apologize, Wolfgang, this has nothing to do with your review. Sometimes a woman simply can't, and shouldn't, keep her mouth shut).

Jong, Nin and Rand are women. But they write (and have written) serious works on serious women's issues.

Why is it that when men write books on war and politics, they are highly esteemed. Yet if a woman writes on topics important in her world--birth, body issues, relationships--she risks being lumped as a chick lit writer, you know, just-another-woman-writing-self-involved-women's-topics.

Someday women's bodies, words and experiences will be as highly valued as men's. Someday women will have complete freedom over their reproductive and sexual choices, regardless of religion or location. (Imagine women making laws to determine when, why and how men access their little magical Viagra pills!)

Sorry for the rant. I couldn't help myself. It happens.

I'm totally off the point. My book isn't serious fiction and isn't meant to be. It probably is closer to chick lit than literary fiction. It's mainstream, women mainstream, and I intended it to be as such. It's not as steamy as Jong or Nin, but it has its moments. But still, how heady to see their names listed so close to my own (!!).

So thanks, Wolfgang, for reviewing my book. I appreciate that you took the time to step outside your comfort zone. People so seldom do that anymore. The next time I'm down in Seward, I'll take you out for tea at the Sea Bean. Who knows, maybe Erica Jong will dock off one of the cruise ships and join us. Stranger things have happened.

The full review can be found here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Spicy lentil soup, and another rejection

What is it about soup that makes you feel so warm and snuggly inside, so safe and protected? Maybe it's because you must eat it out of a bowl, and when you wrap your hands around it, the warmth seeps through your palms and the smells drift up and you feel like a child again, sitting down for lunch, your mother invisible in the background, but still there.

I rarely eat soup in the summer. Once winter comes, I can't get enough. With the darkness creeping in and the temps lowering (it was 15 when I came back from my run today), my belly craves warm, thick, spicy tastes.

Since I'm getting over a nasty flu, I decided to make lentil soup with a lot of onions, garlic and kale, for immune boosting properties. As an added kick, I chopped up two jalapeno peppers and a healthy dash of red chili pepper flakes.

Veggies before I butchered them for the soup.

As I waited for the soup to cook in the crockpot, I worked on my novel, ran nine miles (and met up with a mother a baby moose), took a long bath with a Margaret Atwood novel and checked my email.

Of course there was another rejection waiting for me: WomenArts Quarterly Journal doesn't want my nonfiction essay, "Eating." The piece is about my sister, who died of complications of an eating disorder, so maybe that's why I baked cornbread. Suddenly, I wanted (needed?) a thick slice of cornbread slathered with margarine. I wanted it more than anything.

So I baked up a batch, adding chili flakes, since I had used all the jalapenos in the soup. I slid it in the oven and MM and I took the dog for the walk in the dark, with the snow hard and crisp beneath our boots.

When we walked back in the door, the smells of soup and cornbread greeted us and I swear, my eyes almost filled with tears, I felt so hungry and yet so grateful. I filled a large bowl with soup, cut two big pieces of cornbread, spread on margarine, sat down and ate. The tastes slid across my tongue and the peppers burned my throat, and it was warm and soothing, like a nice, long hug. 

Sometimes I wish I said grace before meals. I don't now and probably never will. But tonight, I wish I had.

Spicy Lentil Soup

1 quart vegetable broth
2 cups water
2 cups lentils
1 onion
4 celery stalks
2 cups chopped carrots
4-5 chopped garlic cloves
2 large jalapeno peppers, chopped
4 cups kale, chopped
Chili pepper flakes, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

Throw all the ingredients in a crockpot, crank it up on high level (for 5-6 hour soup) or low (for 8-10 hour soup). Serve in large bowls with goat cheese and chopped bell pepper topping. Serves 6-8 small appetites or 4 hungry Alaska runners.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Goodbye Twinkies, hello Boiler Journal

I was bummed when I heard that Hostess closed down camp.

It's an end of an era, not just for the overly fluffed Wonder bread and sickeningly sweet Twinkies, but for a time when kids ate sugary treats each evening and no one worried about childhood obesity or juvenile diabetes because, while those things happened, they didn't happen often and not usually to people you knew.

Back in the days when I could hit a fastball and sometimes even a curveball, when I hated to take baths and dreamed of one day meeting Johnny Bench (who, I knew, would be impressed by my batting stance), my favorite snack was a Ho Ho. I loved unwrapping them from their foil wrappers and how chocolate inevitably got on my hands, and I loved sticking my tongue in the swirls of white icing. I always felt slightly sick after eating one and even that I loved; in my childhood mind I equated sin with an upset stomach, and I though I didn't believe Ho Hos were sinful, I knew that sin tasted the way a Ho Ho tastes: Sweet and overpowering, with the lingering of chocolate crumbs against your teeth.

So goodbye Hostess. Goodbye Twinkies and Ho Hos, Ding Dongs and those little fruit pies I used to binge on before college exams. Goodbye Sno Balls and Cup Cakes and the spongy Wonder Bread that I once believed God used to make the communion host. The world will be a healthier place without you but oh, what a price to pay!

(If I had a Ho Ho here right now I'd bite down for emphasis but alas, I have only whole grain cereal and soy milk, which shows how far I've fallen from my childhood.)

But on the heels of that sad news, I also have good news: The Boiler Journal wants to print one of my creative nonfiction pieces.

This is a piece called "Communion" that I have, literally, been working on for years, mostly because I wasn't sure if the ending worked, which really means is that I was uncomfortable with the ending because I was uncomfortable admitting to the ending. Owning up your own past can be damned scary. Once you write it, once you say it out loud, you can never take it back. You have to carry it around with you. It becomes both your burden and your blessing.

I wrote and rewrote this piece for years until suddenly, a few weeks ago, I felt it was time. I don't know why. Maybe I was sick of it. Maybe I was in an especially strong mood. Maybe there's someone out there who needs to read it and universal telepathy triggered inside my head.

Ironically, I published a poem titled "Communion" years ago. I've always been intrigued by communion, eating the body and blood of Christ, that very sensual, very primal and fierce act, and how it is performed with such quiet ceremony, everything so clean and so very white, as if to wipe away all passion, all urges. No wonder it keeps sneaking through as a metaphor in my writing.

P.S. You can buy 1,000 communion wafers for $18.99 on Amazon. The outside package says, "For the Lord's supper service." Wild! Check it out here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

An award, and another rejection

My essay on running, cleverly titled "Running," was chosen as the Sport Literate Essay Award winner and will be featured in the upcoming issue.

I'm not sure when the upcoming issue comes out but I'll be sure to add a link (as if you're all on the edge of your seats waiting to read my little essay).

What is so cool about this is that two photos of me running in the mountains will be included. They both make me look bad-ass. I'm not, of course. Or maybe I am, when it comes to running. When it comes to life, I'm a sissy. I cry easily. Small things scare me. My hands sweat whenever I'm introduced to someone wearing a business suit. Yet I often run alone through the mountains, jumping over bear scat and disregarding caution. To me, this spells freedom. Foolish freedom, probably, but what freedom isn't a little bit foolish?

Me, running my bad ass very slowly over the trail to Rabbit Lake.
So even though I was pumped about the award, I was still disappointed when I learned tonight that I wasn't awarded a grant from the Awesome Foundation. I didn't expect to get it, since my writing project didn't meet all the guidelines. But I couldn't help applying. I think it was the name: Awesome. It just feels so good to write. I wonder what would happen if I taped the word awesome all over the house? Would my writing improve? Would my confidence? Would I become a better and more deserving person, someone worthy of awesomeness?

And why is it so hard to say to myself, late at night with no one awake but the cats, "I am awesome?" Why does it feel so embarrassing? Why do I expect to hear a stern voice scolding me, telling me to come down from my high horse, to stop acting as if I am too big for my britches?

Fuck it: I am awesome, even though I didn't get an Awesome grant.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Three rejections and an acceptance

It's been a couple of those weeks: The rejections just kept pouring in.

I had poems rejected at Amethyst Arsenic, The Fine Line and Plume.

I was starting to feel unpopular.

Plume and Amethyst Arsenic sent me wonderful rejection letters, so that perked me up a wee bit. (And thank you, Daniel, for calling me a "fine poet.")

Then this happened: I found something exciting in my email box.

Nestled amongst the promises to increase my penis size was a nice letter from Third Wednesday asking if they might include one of my poems in their next issue.

I'm glad it was good news, too, because I have a cold and there's nothing worse than receiving a rejection letter when your head is plugged up and your throat is sore and you feel all woozy and sad and can't stopping thinking about the boy (what was his name--Mike? Mark? Tom?) in high school who didn't ask you to the homecoming dance.

So thank you, Third Wednesday. Even though it isn't a Wednesday and is actually a second Sunday, you made my day.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Of bread, writing and lounging moose

Yesterday I tried to write and nothing came. No words, no images. I sat there like a dumb lump. I sat there for over an hour waiting for something, anything to come.

But alas, my mind was a silent and dark space (I imagine it as a closet, slightly musty, with the faint smell of mothballs).

So I made bread.

I highly recommend this to anyone stuck in a creative project. There's something soothing yet familiar about kneading dough, how it both works with and against you and how easy it is to lose yourself to the simple motion of your hands.

I used a basic recipe with few ingredients (after all, who needs complications, eh?) and measured as best as I could; I've never been a very precise person. Probably this is why I'm a writer. But here's the thing: Baking bread is a lot like writing. No matter how closely you follow the recipe, you're venturing into the unknown. Sometimes the dough refuses to rise. Sometimes you don't knead enough or knead too roughly or add too little salt or forget the pinch of sugar or honey to activate the yeast. Sometimes you do everything right and still come out with a flat, dense loaf that even the dog refuses to eat (trust me, it happens).

My brain while writing: An obstinate lump of dough.

I don't think I'd enjoy baking bread if the results were predictable, if every loaf came out perfectly, if I didn't hold my breath before peering into the oven.

Yesterday my characters weren't predictable. They wouldn't cooperate. They scattered across in the page in a mad heap of useless dialogue and small actions that did nothing to move the plot forward.

Finally I pushed my computer aside and took the dog for a walk. So there I was, walking around muttering to myself about my lack of a productive writing day, when I looked up and found myself staring straight at this dude:

Looks like this guy was stuck in his novel too, so I didn't linger. I'd like to say that this moosey meeting caused a great epiphany and I ran home and wrote like crazy but that didn't happen. I ate bread instead. Stuffing one's mouth with hot, buttered bread does little to alleviate a writing block but a lot to soothe the belly. Plus, face it, eating is often much more fun than writing.

Cinthia's Writing Block Bread:

-Cup warm milk or water (I used almond milk)
-Packet of active yeast
-2 tablespoons honey
-Large pinch of sugar
-2 tablespoons oil (I used olive but coconut adds a nice flavor)
-Teaspoon salt
-2 cups whole wheat flour
-1 cup white flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine warm milk/water with yeast, honey and oil. In a separate bowl mix salt and flours. Fold into yeast mixture, mix and then knead. I coat my hands with margarine while kneading to add a subtle buttery flavor to the bread.

Knead for a good 10 minutes.

Place dough into a bowl, cover with a dishtowel and let sit in a warm place for 30-45 minutes.

Punch it down (this is the fun part!), knead for a couple more minutes, place in a greased bread pan, cover and let rise for another 30 minutes or so. You'll know it's ready when it's expanded to double in size.

Slide in oven and bake for 30-35 minutes.

Let cool for a few minutes, remove the bread from the pan, slice, slater on the margarine or butter, and enjoy.


What I'm reading today:
"Pretty is What Changes" by Jessica Queller, a memoir of family, breast cancer and difficult choices.