The End

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So, I’ve never taken endings very well. Endings to books; endings to relationships; endings to eras – they’re all the same: a mixture of relief and grief tied up in one tidy little moment of closure.

Graduations, in particular, have always brought out the worst of this inherent reluctance. The fierceness with which I cling to my chosen educational institutions and/or professors might, in some circles, be considered gauche, embarrassing, over-the-top.

This week marks the official end of my graduate school studies. And, as excited as I am to shed the day job and get on with a new chapter in my life, there is something deeply bittersweet about the finality of this venture. I wonder if I’ll ever have the luxury of enjoying such a focused education again, or if the idea-sphere is something that can only be cultivated in a classroom. It’s not that I prefer to live life in theory, but that life sometimes seems so much more interesting, and certainly less intimidating, that way.

I am one of the only people I know who could go to school, full-time, for decades and be completely happy. My reluctance to finish things off is, of course, a fear that once I’ve got the diploma in-hand, I’ll slump down into a life in which I forget how to lean in to challenge, or how to celebrate the power of ideas.

Nevertheless, I”m going to try to celebrate this week. Finishing my M.F.A. is a milestone, whether or not I want it to be over. It is a gift with debt (both literal and metaphorical) attached, but a gift all the same. Now I’ve just got to figure out how to go out and use it.

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Integrity

Now there’s a good word.

The root of integrity is from the Latin word integritatem, meaning “soundness” or “wholeness.” In 1450, the French took that root a step farther and coined the word integrite, which meant to them not just to be whole, but to be “in perfect condition.”*

I love etymology (officially “the study of historical linguistic change as manifested in individual words or parts of words”) because it reminds me of the legacies language leaves, and how language builds upon itself to enrich and complicate our everyday communication. Knowing the roots of certain words can be incredibly clarifying. Today, we think of integrity as a moral trait, something that is even debatable. However, if taken at its Latin root, there is actually no room at all for debate. The word means something much more tangible: to have integrity is to be solid, whole and of sound mind.

In a fit of irritation, I thought of this particular word today. On almost every news portal, Lindsey Lohan was making front page news for initiating a car chase against her personal assistant’s mother while under the influence. Meanwhile, the NFL’s decision to ban Michael Vick from training camp “blindsided” the Falcons, and former NBA referee Tim Donaghy – a person charged with upholding rules – admitted to participating in bets for games he’d worked over the course of two years.

Call me old-fashioned. But have we no integrity? And doesn’t anyone care?

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Clearly, the things these people have done (or allegedly done) are not right at all. Lindsey can’t get a grip on her addictions. She’s having a rough time. Ok. But why does this news – when there are fires burning in Nigeria that can be seen from outer space, for instance – get so much air time? Does the American public really care about Lindsay’s latest run-in with the law? If so, that says something [scary] about our culture, the things we value, our soundness of mind.

Vick and Donaghy’s stories are, of course, more spectacular in a way and therefore more worthy of the headlines. But even so, the nature of their crimes – and the public’s somewhat wishy-washy responses to them – leave me with a cold, clammy feeling.

I fear we Americans, so fraught with angst and division about war, politics, and religion are losing sight of integrity at its root: what it means to be whole. It is easier, of course, and even fanciful, to think about Lindsey’s latest mishap or the perils of an accused pro football player versus complex world events with truly significant consequences. So maybe I’ve just poo-pooed our fragile public’s main coping mechanism. But the reality is that we’ve got to pull ourselves out of la-la land ASAP. Just as words leave future users a legacy in language, we are now in the process of charting the course for our nation’s future citizens.
So go do something sane; be someone relevant. Care about something bigger. And then call CNN.

*I found these definitions on the Online Etymology Dictionary at etymonline.com

Art

In May of ’06, I lost my dad quite suddenly, from a heart attack. For almost all my life, and for a great big chunk of his, he’d had heart problems, and in recent years he’d begun to slow down more. Still, his death, at 68, seemed so untimely. It opened up a gap in my life as expansive and horizon-hitting as the acreage my dad once farmed.

This gap had to do with loss, of course, but there was something more to it, too. It required of me a shift in identity, a recognition of the place where I grew up – that was so dear to him – as something I would have to claim for myself.

For months, when I would go back home, I felt my dad’s lumbering presence everywhere. He was a deliberate man, an aspect of his personality that has outlived him. Years ago, he planted maple trees in our front yard based on what color they would turn in the fall – how they would blend with the landscape – just one of many examples I could use to illustrate his particular nature.

He had walked the fields around our house for so many years, it was unbearable to be there without his interpretations of the weather or his critical explanations of why the cattle in the new barn by the creek (an addition made by the inexperienced farmer he’d sold the land to) bawled all night long. In the midst of this absence, I found myself needing to make room for my own presence there, to be known less as Ned Allison’s daughter than as someone who could claim a piece of the town and the land I’d grown to love for myself.

My intensified connection to the farm also made it harder to live in the city – a place with which I have always felt a bit at odds for the anonymity it forces and for the astronomically high prices it asks for less than an acre of land.

I write all this by way of explanation for the painting displayed at the top of my blog. Last Christmas, my husband gave me the most touching, thoughtful gift I’ve ever received. It was a proposal more than anything else – for us to find an artist to go to Virginia and paint the farm, so that I could always have a piece of it here with me.

We found Brett Weaver at a gallery down on Bennett Street. He lives in Tennessee, not too far from where I grew up, and he paints gorgeous landscapes touched by clouds that look totally real and alive. We asked him if he’d go to Virginia and do some studies for us. He said yes. When he got to my parents’ house, my mother had made him a box lunch and some lemonade. He painted three studies in the course of a day and we loved them all. The one at the top of my blog is a side view of my grandfather’s house, where my dad grew up.

This one is the view of the family farm from across the railroad tracks, where our land ends and someone else’s begins.

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And this one is the view of the landscape from our screened porch:

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My dad would have been proud. To see more of Brett’s landscapes, go to http://www.brettweaverstudio.com.

Southland

Photo by Martin LeBar - Flickr

I grew up in a tiny town at the edge of North Carolina and Tennessee, in the foothills of Virginia’s Appalachian Mountain chain. It’s always been a special place to me because half of my family history is there, buried in the rich, generous soil that surrounds the house where my mother still lives. When I was little, my explorations were boundaryless.  My best friend, Neal, and I wandered through stands of trees that led to glades so lush I imagined fairies or dwarves (or both!) had just been there; my sister and I dug for arrow heads – and found them – down by the family dairy barn.

Over the years, and with more sentimentality than I’d like to admit, I’ve written extensively about my home town. In college, I wrote a paper about it entitled “Boomtown”; it took on a life of its own for a time, absorbing all my available brain space and creative capacity. I kept working on it even after I submitted it to my professor because I cared so deeply about its integrity, and because I knew there was no way to say what I wanted to say about a place so set apart, a place so profoundly, indescribably my own.

When my roommates began asking about Boomtown as though it were a family member, or a pet, I knew it was time to let it go. But the effort put forth for that project and the subjects that surfaced because of it were like phosphorescence on a beach in cloud cover: tiny strobes filled with something pulsating and alive, something I wanted to touch.

After Boomtown, I knew two things: 1) That there was nothing like writing that gave me such passion or focus, and 2) That writing about the South was my gig.

People, especially educated people, give the South a hard time. We Southerners have earned a good measure of our infamy; we have behaved badly, acted ignorantly, upheld sorry rules in sorry times. We have shown poor judgment, kept to our narrow ways and spurned inclusion.

But most of us have progressed. And many of us are quite well educated, thank you. And in the midst of that overall advancement, I like to think that we have begun to till fruit-bearing soil again; that our strongest traits – the gracious, big-hearted, hot-blooded, come-hell-or-high-water types – have taken on new life.

We carry with us a stalwart pride in something akin to what I can only call a cultural landscape. This landscape goes deeper than grits; beyond silver-tongued Southern socialites; away from harsh, backward, low-down redneck banter. The depth and texture of it is born of strife, enriched and informed by a complex history of brokenness and fierce independence.

There is a great nonprofit here in Atlanta called the ArtReach Foundation (www.artreachfoundation.org).  It was founded by a woman named Susan Anderson, a passionate supporter of art therapy (“art” here being an umbrella for music, dance, writing, etc.).  In 2000, she and a team of art therapists helped a community in Bosnia begin to heal from the violence witnessed there. Since then, ArtReach has gone to Phuket and the Gulf Coast, creating beauty and signs of life in the wake of total destruction. 

The South, too, has worked to recover from its history by way of art in all its forms.  I know its music best, and it is music filled with life.  From spirituals to bluegrass, the voices and fiddles from the Southland tell stories both funny and tragic, exchanging historic lodestones for levity and compassion. 

As a writer, I approach this cultural landscape with lessons taken from what I know and what I grew up with. I consider my personal history, the people of my hometown, the trends its farmland bucks, and even the South as it will one day be – as a roughed-up plain of dirt spiked with arrowheads.

I must tread lightly here. I must dig. I must uncover. I must separate the bits of rock and turned-up roots from the flint, rough-hewn and ready for battle. I must seek the past and all its meanings with the careful, patient manner of a child who knows that beneath an ordinary pile of dry, fallow soil could be a treasure.

Work

A story about James Joyce:

A friend came to visit him one day and found Joyce sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair. “James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”

“Seven? But James … that’s good, at least for you!”

“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is … but I don’t know what order they go in!”

– From Stephen King’s On Writing

A Michael Bittner Pic - from Flickr

Writing is hard.

This is something you won’t often hear from those of us who spend our days stringing words together, but it’s true, and there are a lot of books filled with writing advice to prove it.

Stephen King’s On Writing is as entertaining as it is illuminating. Like many other well-known writers’ handbooks (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird springs to mind here, too), King’s work of prescriptive genius is a combination of sage advice and memoir.

I approached On Writing with some trepidation. For one, I don’t write fiction. Specifically, I don’t write – or even really read – horror stories (they get too much in my head). But I admire Stephen King for his daring, and for his commitment to truth, and for the ways his wacky ideas fall so gracefully on the page. He is a master of storytelling.

This last fact proved to be no less true in On Writing than it was in It, or Carrie or The Shining. Even readers with little interest in learning how to write would enjoy King’s savvy rendering of writing as a tale worth telling. His love of language springs up amid the antics of his bizarre childhood (fueled by his bizarre imagination) and the drama of his alcoholism and recovery. Throughout, King writes of a dogged, joyful, no-B.S. commitment to his work that is, at once, clarifying, fear-inducing and inspiring.

A few words of Kingian wisdom:

Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around. (p. 101)

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. (106)

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. (164)

Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. It’s best to go on to some other area, where the deposits of talent may be richer and the fun quotient higher. (150)

An Uncommon Joy

A likeness of Towles & Go-Go Boots

I chose WordPress as the place to house my blog because I liked its name, the imagery of it. Sometimes, I imagine myself working in a big word press. Not a Gutenberg-style word press but alone, at a really cool-looking old table, pressing words, by hand, into paper – with something like hot wax.

I imagine how long it would take me to write an essay using hot wax and my own personal, homemade word press and am then infinitely grateful for my Mac.

Anyway, I recently wrote a book proposal for the manuscript born of my MFA program. I think it’s a pretty good manuscript, and I normally don’t think such things of my writing, but I worked really hard on this one (while holding a full-time job) and I nearly lost my mind in the process. (All real writers lose their minds, don’t you know?) Plus, I had some really great teachers.

As I wrote my manuscript, I sometimes imagined myself as a contestant on that TV show “The Biggest Loser.” I came into the MFA program with a lot of fat in my writing – overly-rosy, wheezy sentences; a tone that one especially keen mentor likened to a voice-over on a History channel war special – and no idea how to lose it. There were lots of people counting on me, expecting me to get better, to surpass the goals I’d set for myself. That this process of mine was not actually part of a reality tv show could not be more of a blessing. These past two years have been a little messy.

But what I realized throughout the manuscript-writing process was this: facing scrutiny is an uncommon joy. It is exhilarating; stomach-squeezing; life-giving. Without it, all good ideas die in the word press.

And this is something I love about education. Something I love, specifically, about being taught. Within the realm of education, as long as it leads to realization, we are allowed to fail and flounder. We are never too lean or too old or too talented to learn something vital; to reach into criticism (terrifying as it may be) and grow; to find ourselves on some surprising, splendid plain of reason thanks to the caring, carefully incisive wisdom of people who have been there, who urge students forward and out of whatever comfortable, simple life-rut they’re walking in.

I don’t have the slightest idea what will come of this manuscript, my book proposal, the strange mating dance we writers have to do to woo an agent. But I am bolstered by the teachers who have believed in me and in my writing, by both the encouragers and the criticizers. Without them, I’d be off working as a compliance officer in some financial services firm (this is only a very slight exaggeration), or washing windows, or wearing go-go boots.

So, here’s to teachers … and uncommon joy.

Pig

**I apologize in advance to the vegetarians who may read this. I love animals (and veggies), too. Also, I’ll be more consistent with my posts now. I’ve been out of town a good bit.**

Allison Family Farm

When I found out my father had died, I was standing in my kitchen. We were having friends over for dinner that evening – two girls and a guy who have kept Ivy for us so often that she knows their names, and starts jumping for joy when we say them.

I was cooking pork tenderloin. The kitchen was hot; the oven on, at 500 degrees.

The last conversation I ever had with my dad was actually about how to cook the meat – more specifically, how long to cook it, and what color it should be when it was done. It was a quick conversation, memorable now only because of its finality, and because of the odd presence of pork tenderloin at both occasions … as though the pig somehow marked the beginning and the end of a small, curious circle.

My dad was a meat man. In fact, he loved all sorts of food. But, as a farmer, he prided himself on knowing all animal parts and their corresponding names – that a “pork butt,” for example, is actually a part of the pig’s shoulder – and knowing how to cook them.

When Andrew and I got married, my parents gave me the Joy of Cooking. I can remember my dad turning with interest to the pages diagramming cow and pig parts. He was almost gleeful – surprising in someone as stoic as my dad – and then serious, admonishing me to study the diagrams, to know not just what to do with my meat, but to know its origins, too. He would have liked Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, had he the chance to read it.

I thought of this memory today because we’re having friends to dinner tomorrow night, and, as usual, I’m thinking of fixing pork tenderloin.

Despite the shock and sadness I associate with that day in May, the heat in the kitchen, the steamy scent of crispy marinated pork coming out of the oven, I still gravitate towards entertaining with tenderloin. Now, I grill rather than roast it. The meat does better that way, and it saves me the trouble of remembering too much, or of willing some other disaster by way of taking the same steps as before.

But, I continue to cook pork tenderloin. I use the same marinade; consider Daddy’s advice each time I check to see if the meat is done. I do this partly for renewed connection with my dad, but mostly because he would have hated to stand between anyone and a slab of good meat.