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Happy Solstice! I’m writing to you all as I prepare to get on a plane for the first time since 2019, to visit my dad and stepmom, who I haven’t seen since before the pandemic began. I’m excited and nervous and ready to exchange a few days of Portland’s relentless rain for a bit of clear, crisp New Jersey winter. Although my inner goth loves the long, dark, contemplative nights this time of year, I’ve found myself seeking bright surprises to sustain me: the red tail of a hawk devouring its morning meal, a narwhal piñata intact and swinging wildly in the wind, the sharp mint of candy-cane-laced confections. And of course, Mr. Bones, as I’ve nicknamed the giant skeleton that lives in a neighbor’s yard, who went up as part of a Halloween display and is still up, now decked in a Santa hat, stringing lights among the eaves with his fleshless phalanges.
 
One other bright surprise: In the last month, some of you have sent me messages about your lipograms, your flash essays and poems in which you’ve written about oceans and forests and love with nary an e in sight. What a joy! All that crashing of froth and foam, walking among woods and mushrooms and moss, basking in warmth and intimacy and ardor.
 
Even though I only started this newsletter six months ago, it feels as though a lifetime or two has passed since then. As this year comes to a close, I’m especially grateful to you all for reading, for writing, for creating in whatever way you choose. Here’s to all the bright surprises awaiting us—the ones that we’ll make—in 2022!

xo
JP

Fallow Fields

In November, I took a week away from writing. It was the first time I’d gone so long without opening my notebook since the end of 2019, when I went on vacation and decided to leave my journal at home. This time around, it wasn’t an intentional break. My body just wanted to sleep or read or sit with a mug of tea and a heap of dogs during that hour each day that I usually write.

Taking a break from my habit was uncomfortable. Ideas kept popping into my head for new stories, new poems, ways to revise the pile of essays I’ve started in the last year. It seemed blasphemous to say no to the muse, who was practically screaming in my ear and showering me with fairy dust, trying to get my attention. Blasphemous, and absolutely necessary.
 
I used to incorporate fallow seasons—times when I chose not to make anything new—regularly into my creative practice. I’ve spent enough time on farms and in gardens to know that the fields need to remain unplanted every so often so the soil can regenerate. I used to use this as a metaphor with writing students, talking about the need to rest and replenish, to read and absorb, to take in nutrients and let them compost over long periods instead of trying to keep growing from depleted ground. The wisdom of letting fields lie fallow never changed, but I misplaced that insight somewhere amid the frantic scramble that accompanied being a self-employed writer and teacher during a pandemic.
 
So, what brought that common sense back? My body demanded it, said not right now every time I sat down to write. It wasn’t the voice of procrastination (which usually says wouldn’t it be more fun to take a walk instead?) or avoidance (wouldn’t it be more fun to doomscroll, or scrub the toilet, or doomscroll while scrubbing the toilet?). It wasn’t my inner perfectionist (wouldn’t it be better to do a few more months of research first?) or my inner critic (wouldn’t it be better to just stop writing altogether?). This was a more animal instinct, a calm hand on my shoulder that let me know I could set something down for a while and it would still be there when I was ready to come back to it.
 
During this brief fallow season, tucked in with my tea and books and dog heaps, it became easy to understand why I needed to let my dirt go undisturbed for a while. I’d been writing for months about racism, gun violence, poverty, death, grief, and though writing is often a therapeutic tool for me, at some point in the last year or so, I started using it solely to prod sore spots, to burrow and dig and fondle my pain points. It became a tongue that was so busy worrying the hole left by a knocked-out tooth that it lost its ability to sing or kiss or feast on the smorgasbord of delights daily presented to it.
 
The last piece I’d written before taking this break was an essay inspired by Off Assignment’s Letter to a Stranger, a series which asks people to respond to the question, “Who haunts you?” The letters vary widely in tone but often reminisce about a stranger encountered while traveling, someone who provoked a change for better or worse. The stranger I wrote about was someone I never met in person—he was one of the thousands of people I spoke to while working at a call center, and he made a flippant comment about intimate partner violence that still stays with me, years later. My letter was, I suppose, about vicarious trauma—the cumulative effect of comments like that, the ways my worldview and behavior have been changed by all the stories of violence I’ve heard over the years.
 
Part of what I recognized while I was fallowing was that I wanted to give more thought to how my own stories might echo out in readers’ lives. It feels important for me to write about painful experiences, especially ones that I haven’t seen represented elsewhere in books. I want to provoke an empathetic, emotional response in readers—and I also want to protect readers from vicarious trauma. I know readers always have the choice to put down something if it’s too much for them—and I also know that sometimes, as a reader or watcher or listener, I don’t recognize the effect some art has on me until I’m deep into it. These parallel truths are ones that I’m holding as I consider how to continue my memoir about my relationship with my mother, with its choose-your-own-adventure form that gives the reader a lot of choice but also, no matter what path a reader chooses, leads to some pretty tough places. I’ve been thinking of that manuscript in its current state as a haunted corn maze, inviting visitors to be stalked by creatures through the dark, leading them to dead end after dead end. I’ve been wondering what it would be like to refashion the memoir as a more meditative, unicursal labyrinth, still full of folds and turns, still disorienting, still with the possibility that some Minotaur might await them inside, but giving the reader the knowledge that if they just keep moving, they’ll be carried safely to the center and back out again.
 
For now, those wonderings remain wonderings. Instead of diving back into the memoir, I’m following my body’s cues to hit pause on some of that more challenging writing. Instead, I’ve been walking the labyrinth of my neighborhood, writing haibun about what I witness here. I’ve also been writing an essay about my father, whom I rarely write about. Titled “Dad Bod,” the essay consists of short meditations on different parts of my dad’s body, which was a way for me to access all sorts of fond memories of being with my dad, especially when I was very young. (My favorite section thus far is “Forehead,” based on the first time someone told me I looked like my dad. You have the same forehead!, they said, which I think is a compliment.)
 
I’m setting aside even those more pleasant projects, though, to take a deliberate fallow season for the next few weeks. Aside from this newsletter, I don’t plan to write a darn thing until sometime in the new year. I’m looking forward to being uncultivated, unfruitful. Let the untended time begin.

Putting Down Roots

When I first arrived in Portland in 2016, I didn’t know a soul here. I’d left a stable, sensible career as a professor in the Midwest to leap, jobless, into a place I’d fallen in love with for its landscape, its mountains and forests, all the things I’d been missing during the ten years I lived in the flat expanses of Iowa. I quickly discovered, though, that although Oregon has an abundance of trees, Portland itself has even less urban canopy than Des Moines does, and Portland’s tree cover—or lack thereof—is, as in so many other places, a clear map of income disparity.
 
Somewhere in the first few months of exploring my new home city, I came across Friends of Trees, a regional organization that brings people together to plant trees, especially to restore sensitive natural areas and increase urban canopy. Dirt-worshipper and overachiever that I am, instead of just signing up to volunteer to plant some trees in my neighborhood park, I headed directly for their Crew Leader program, where I committed to showing up on Saturday mornings throughout the winter to teach other folks how to plant trees.
 
I recently tried to guess how many trees I’ve planted since then, how many trees the crews I’ve led have planted. I haven’t kept track, but it’s certainly in the thousands. Part of the reason I don’t keep track is that I don’t want to make tree-planting into one more race or competition, for me or for the volunteers who are often planting trees for the first time. Instead, every time I lead a planting demo, I try to emphasize the importance of going slowly, of taking care as we settle each plant into its new home. Sometimes the oaks and maples, the elderberries and pines all arrive rootbound, their hairy filaments coiled tightly around the soil in their pots. I show the huddled group how to massage the roots, ease them down so that they’ll send their tendrils into the surrounding earth instead of girdling and strangling the trunk. Other times, a tree arrives with one gnarly root as long as my forearm, and I attempt to entertain the group with tree puns while I dig a hole deep enough so that epic root can dangle directly downward. I want to ensure they know the value of taking time to avoid J-rooting, where a shallow hole leads the root to bend back up, to grow against gravity, toward the surface, reducing the tree’s chance of survival.  
 
On the best planting days, I come home in the afternoon covered in mud. I find it not just under my nails or splashed across my jacket, but also in my eyebrows, speckled all over my mask. On my best days in Portland, I remember how many roots I have sunk deep into this place, the ways I am connected to the land, the way the forests I came here for sustain me, and the ways I try to offer some sustenance back.
 
But my honeymoon with Portland ended some time ago. I’ve seen who else has put down roots here: folks who buy up neighborhoods and make them unaffordable for anyone else, folks who deny that white supremacy culture is real, folks who gatekeep nature and art, trying to hoard them, as if such things belonged to anyone. These behaviors aren’t unique to Portland, but the defensiveness and fragility about them often reaches a fever pitch I’ve only occasionally observed elsewhere, and I imagine that intensity is born out of the myth of a progressive utopia being cracked open.
 
I still love this city—it’s the only place I’ve moved not for work or school or a relationship but purely because I wanted to be here. I don’t have any plans to uproot myself anytime soon. And yet, I find myself thinking of all those trees we’ve planted, knowing that, with proper care, even the ones that have spread their roots deep and wide can be transplanted, moved to a new location where they might thrive better. For now, though, I’ll keep putting down roots, taking care to place them properly, slowly, deliberately, so I can bloom as best I can in this place I’ve chosen.
That time I was literally the poster child for planting trees.
And yes, I'm saying I was literally a child in this photo even though I was 40+ when it was taken. Youth is relative.
If you didn’t catch it in November, Cutbank published my poem, “A Little Flesh, A Little History,” in their All Accounts & Mixture series, an annual space that celebrates LGBTQ writers and artists. The poem can be read down its left and right sides, as well as in the traditional left-to-right way, and it also includes a little tip of the hat to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” at the end.

This month, Buckmxn Journal also published my short story, “A Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory,” a piece I wrote way back in 2017 for a reading series on the theme of “Willpower & Shame.” The story didn’t get chosen for the series, but those themes are certainly present in the story, which takes its title from the fourth step of 12-step programs. At the time I composed the story, my familiarity with the steps was all secondhand from friends and family in recovery; it wasn’t until I started attending Al-Anon meetings this year that I became more intimately familiar with the steps. Knowing what I know now, I’d likely change some aspects, but I still love the story for what it was trying to reveal to me, all those years ago, about anger and forgiveness.
Last month, I mentioned a couple of publications from zines + things, including Jen Shin’s Have you received previous psychotherapy or counseling?, which I had pre-ordered and was eagerly awaiting. It did not disappoint—I knew it wouldn’t—but I was also delighted to discover what a wonderful object it is to hold, bound together with the metal prongs used in medical charts and begging me to flip its pages. The launch event for the zine was also the best online launch I’ve attended during COVID-times (and yes, I'm including my own book launch in that mix). There were readings by poets and essayists, dramatic monologues, singing, and pottery being made before our very eyes. It made me rethink how I want to welcome my future creations into the world, and it’s still available on the zines + things Crowdcast if you missed it.  

Aside from zines, I’ve also read a few deeply engrossing novels this month. My favorite was Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, which I read slowly to savor every moment of it. Narrated mostly by the book itself, the novel is expansive, exploring our human attachment to things, our ways of coping with loss and trauma, and our innate creativity. It weaves in concepts from Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, and Zen Buddhism without ever feeling lofty or impenetrable or self-important. Perhaps most significantly, it reveals a main character, a young boy named Benny, who hears voices—mostly those of objects speaking to him, but sometimes other voices as well—without pathologizing him or making him into a magical savant. The book is remarkable for how little judgment it passes on its characters and for how well it constructs the notion that the book has as much agency as Ozeki, who appears obliquely in a cameo role. The Book of Form and Emptiness is innovative without being pretentious, and its prose is beautiful enough that it made me want to copy down long passages. I’ll offer here just the briefest excerpt, which I’m keeping close to my heart: “People are born from the womb of the world with different sensitivities, and the world needs every single one of you to experience it fully, so that it might be fully experienced. If even one person were left out, the world would be diminished.”
 
When I returned The Book to the library, I picked up the next one in my holds queue, Richard Power’s Bewilderment. As I tucked into this new novel by one of my favorite authors, I noticed uncanny echoes of Ozeki’s novel: a young boy struggling to grieve after a parent’s sudden, unexpected death; a surviving parent who feels powerless to help their child as they work through their own grief; people in educational and medical institutions who want to diagnose and medicate the boys without taking the time to understand them first. Both books are set against a backdrop of larger systemic forces—Ozeki’s focuses on consumer capitalism, and Powers’ on environmental collapse, though both are, of course, inextricably intertwined. Ozeki’s talking Book would have said that it was no accident that these two novels arrived in my life in quick succession, that the books themselves planned it that way, but I like to imagine instead that both esteemed writers were in a class where they were given the same prompt and took it in two different directions—while Ozeki’s Book speaks with equanimity and amusement, Powers’ characters are more abrupt and exasperated, sometimes strident in their beliefs, but no less compelling. Of course, I know that they’re both responding to the moment, to the world we find ourselves in, that this is the ongoing prompt we’re all given.
In the next month, I have no classes, no readings, no events. Instead, I’ll be an Artist-in-Residence at Caldera, where I plan to snowshoe around the Cascade foothills and return to writing speculative stories, a favorite genre that I set aside during 2021. (To continue the general horticultural vibe of this newsletter, I’m thinking of this as crop rotation.) I also just discovered I’ll have access to an industrial kitchen throughout the month, which makes me want to toss SF out the window and just make all the elaborate concoctions I can’t quite manage in my apartment. Is there a recipe you’d try if you had free rein in an industrial kitchen? If so, send it my way!
 
While I’ll miss the first meeting on January 15th, I’ll be a mentor for the 2022 Community Profile cohort. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 28 and identify as both BIPOC and LGBTQIA+, and you’ve been looking for a way to explore your creativity with other people like you, Community Profile is a free affinity space and writing workshop that brings in writers from various disciplines to build community through writing. You can sign up for the cohort here, or contact Bobby Bermea with questions about the program. And if this cohort isn’t a fit for you, please consider passing it on to other folks in your life who might be interested!
 
I was also honored to learn I’ll be receiving a Make|Learn|Build grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council to support my travel to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Philadelphia in March. If you’ll be there, I’d love to see you! I’ll be celebrating an anthology of collaborations from Broadsided Press, attending panels on disability and accessibility in writing classes, and wandering aimlessly through the bookfair, feeling out of place. (Prompted by a conversation with a friend about how we still feel like nobodies when we go to AWP, though we’ve both been writing and publishing for decades, I’ll be making some Dickinsonian “I’m Nobody, Who Are You?” nametags to hand out at the conference to all of us who are deep in our imposter syndrome feels. If you’ll be in attendance and want one, hit me up!) And if you’re an artist or arts organization in the Portland Metro area, RACC is offering one last round of Make|Learn|Build grants. If you’ve got a project you’d like to fund, the application deadline is January 26.
 

Other opportunities I recommend:
 
Normally, I’d be co-hosting Incite: Queer Writers Read with Vinnie Kinsella on the second Wednesday of the month, but in January, Vinnie will be hosting solo while I’m offline at Caldera. The theme for January is “Volume,” and the free online event will feature fiction writer/poet/screenwriter Stacy Brewster, poet Sophia Anfinn Tonnessen, and spoken word poet Joanna Hoffman. Check out more details about the event—scheduled for January 12, 2022, 7pm PT—here, or register to attend here.
 
If you’re looking for some in-person frolicking in Portland, Rosetown Ramblers, an LGBTQ square dance club, is hosting a free taste of square dancing on January 12th as a prelude to the winter lesson series, which begins on January 19th. Both events begin at 7pm, are held at Bridgeport UCC (621 NE 76th Ave), and are open to LGBTQ-identified folks and our allies. Proof of vaccination and masks are required. Why am I writing about square dancing in this newsletter, you ask? I’ve been a Rambler since 2018 and wrote about what an affirming, welcoming space it is in this essay for The Gay & Lesbian Review earlier this year.
 
If you’ve read previous newsletters, you may remember me gushing about the Creative Nonfiction Studio led by Brian Benson. Many of the pieces I’ve written in the last few months were born in the Studio or have found a thoughtful, responsive audience there, and it’s built up my confidence as a nonfiction writer in ways I couldn’t have anticipated when I signed up. If you’re interested, the next round of the CNF Studio begins on January 20, and applications are due by January 10, 2022. Brian is also teaching a generative Intro to Flash class in January, and a follow-up, with critique, starting in February.
 
And finally, I’m a fellow in the current cohort of Dots Between, a financial coaching program for Black artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color. If you’re an artist of any persuasion, you might be interested in one of the resources from the program, The Big Artist Opportunities List. The list has a bounty of information about artist residencies, as well as some grant and gallery opportunities. Please share it with your creative communities!

If you’ve got an opportunity you’d like me to include in a future newsletter, please let me know.
Thank you for reading this letter! If you’d like to support this work, you can share this with a friend, send me a letter back, or tip me

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