Window Seat

Thirty-five thousand feet above

the earth’s wrinkled skin,

I peer down through rounded window and

look upon the vastness of its cracks and valleys.

 

Rivers reduced to ribbons,

checkerboards of crop and dirt.

For a moment, clouds obscure the passing plains, then part

to reveal a distant canyon;

from here, just a line drawn in wet sand.

Nearby, toothpick windmills spin

in neat, white rows. I remember once thinking they were tall.

 

But we are crossing a city now,

and my forehead touches the glass, eager

to take in each crowded parking lot

and memorize each tiny, quiet street.

If I squint my eyes, cars move like specks,

and I try to imagine their colors, models, drivers,

people traversing the earth’s surface

completely oblivious to their part in my sky-high scene.

 

I like to invent stories for them,

a job they might be going to,

the name of a friend they’re rushing to meet.

 

But most of all, I like to pretend the city is yours;

that speck the car you drive on your way to school.

And that tiny, quiet street —

no more than a silver thread —

is woven into the cloth of your daily routine,

because at the end of that street is

the house where you live, solid and warm.

And though there is distance between us

(thirty-five thousand feet, to be exact),

I can close my eyes and picture your outline

crossing the threshold, arriving home,

and for those minutes, you don’t feel so

far.

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Zooming In:

An Ode to Hometowns, Hurricanes, and Google Maps

 

C  I  T  Y

Not many people can say they grew up in a misnomer. From age five to fifteen I called the county of Missouri City home; half commercial-haven, half residential-oasis, fully located in the suburbs of Houston, Texas and very certainly nowhere near Missouri. Name aside, it was a friendly, humid, uneventful area, and I enjoyed a largely inoffensive childhood. Houston is a sprawling city, and even then it boasted a population of over two million people. Like any major metropolis, it had (and has) a lot of things going for it – a great museum district, all sorts of good food, a bustling downtown, great shopping, major league sports, big concerts, a beach nearby. But Missouri City, like many other counties around it, felt somewhat self-contained; simultaneously a part of Houston and apart from it. As an angsty kid too young to get her driver’s license, I definitely felt the separation more acutely.

My brother and I used to get on the computer and pore over streets through the eyes of Google Maps, investigating which of our neighbors had pools in their backyards, laughing at how funny our house looked on Streetview, marveling at the city we lived in and drove through every single day – yet here it was, immortalized on the screen of our desktop HP, somehow infinitely more interesting. It seems funny to me now – I was growing up in the pinnacle of technological advancement, fingertip access to a world of information – literally – and I used it to look at my own front yard. But this outlook was fitting, I think, for my experiences as an adolescent. Even if maintained unconsciously, your field of vision is limited when you’re young. Home, school, piano lessons, church, maybe the mall, maybe the library, maybe my best friend Cora’s house if I did enough begging – my experiences of Missouri City and Houston as a whole were pretty much confined to specific locations. And even then, most of my memories are rooted to my house. It’s no wonder the majority of my Google Maps searches were centered on my own neighborhood.

 

 N  E  I  G  H  B  O  R  H  O  O  D

My neighborhood, the pseudo-illustrious Lakes of Brightwater, was an amalgamation of young families and elderly retirees arranged neatly around a lake (manmade and almost always an unattractive shade of brown; my neighborhood was a misnomer too, come to think of it). It was quintessential suburbia, but it was comfortable and happy and I don’t regret the ten years I spent there. Growing up, I had the kind of neighbors who would bring you cookie tins at Christmas and pay you generously when they asked you to feed their pet fish while they were on vacation. Outside, there were wide sidewalks on which my siblings and I could ride our bikes – first tricycles, then training wheels, then finally real two-wheelers – and endless cul-de-sacs to circle through, endless driveways to ride up and down. At the end of our street stood the communal mailbox, a squat metal lighthouse beckoning residents to return each week, like a beacon of postal protection.

A lot of my childhood memories revolve around that neighborhood. In the fall of 2008, Hurricane Ike spun its way across the Atlantic and propelled itself to Texan shores. Growing up near the coast, I wasn’t unused to the threat of hurricanes, but Ike was forecast to be fairly serious and I was old enough to remember the experience. The night before it hit, our cul-de-sac gathered in the middle of the street, a collection of necks craned skyward. I was twelve years old, and I remember thinking I had never seen such funny clouds, nor had I ever seen the sky so pink. The neighbors were conversing excitedly (or so I assumed at the time; in reality, “worriedly” may have been a more accurate adjective. The line between anxiety and exhilaration is a fine one, especially as a child). Mrs. Rita from across the street was taking pictures on her point-and-shoot. Together, the neighbor kids and I scrawled Welcome, Ike! on the driveway in chalk.

Although I don’t remember much about the storm itself, I do remember my family sleeping together in the playroom that night. Armed with a flashlight, I remember being mildly concerned but mostly thrilled (again, it’s a fine line) at the interruption in routine. That’s how it goes when you’re young, isn’t it? My hometown certainly instilled a sense of naivety in me, but how can I feel ungrateful for growing up somewhere I felt so safe? In the morning, our house was still intact, and though there was a lot of debris on the ground, the whole neighborhood worked together to clear it.

Despite some mangled roofs and a prolonged shortage of electricity and air conditioning, the sense of community surrounding the entire event was indicative of the type of neighborhood I grew up in. Not overly sentimental, but practical, pleasant people all the same. Sometimes when I return to visit Houston, I’ll detour through Lakes of Brightwater, making slow laps around my old cul-de-sac, wondering which of my neighbors still live there, lingering especially at the curb of my old home.

 

H  O  U  S  E

4519 Northshore Court. It was the first address I was old enough to memorize; the first home I was old enough to miss. I built a library of memories growing up there; shelves of sounds and smells and colors that I’ll probably retain for my entire life. Itchy grass, cragged brick, summer concrete too hot to walk your bare feet across. Scraped knees stinging as you run through sprinklers, oak trees stretching wide green arms overhead. Inside now: eighteen steps upstairs to the second floor, twenty-one tiles across the kitchen. Yellow couch in the front room, eternally muddy from feet stepping up to pull window blinds closed. Housing my family of six, it was usually loud, frequently messy, always relaxed and comfortable and warm. Whatever the word ‘homey’ means, our house was that. A decade passed there, years throughout which we would paint walls, chop down trees, install new laminate. It never stopped feeling like home.

To this day, its walls are the ones which have contained the largest fraction of my life. After Northshore Court, I would go on to move and move again and again, and I’ll probably continue moving for much of my life. Perhaps that’s part of the reason it holds such a special place in my memory. That red-brick two-story represents more than my childhood home; it represents a time in my life more steady, more anchored, than any other I have known.

Sure, growing up in the muggy suburbs of Houston sometimes felt static and slow. Like every kid, I complained daily – it was too hot outside, there were too many mosquitos, we had to have leftovers for dinner, my older brother wouldn’t play with me, this homework was taking too long. It’s like I said: your peripheral vision isn’t great at thirteen years old. Your house, your neighborhood, your town; it’s your whole world. But there is something wonderfully nostalgic and beautifully innocent about that mindset. To be content with the geography you live in, even if only because it’s all you’ve ever known. To have access to the bizarre and incredible tool of Google Maps but to only use it to look at your hometown – a part of me misses this feeling, this default state of saturation in the space around you, with nothing and nowhere on your mind besides your homework for that night or which friend’s house you’d be sleeping over at tomorrow. Life as a kid was simpler. But it was this very simplicity of life that made the small things stand out. I hope that as I grow older, I don’t sacrifice this appreciation for detail in exchange for a broader view of the world. I’ve lived and traveled widely since my days in Houston. And on Google Maps, every house I’ve ever lived in is just a gray shape. It takes zooming in – a convergence of specific memories and seemingly insignificant moments – to recognize the things that really give your hometown that title. Missouri City, Lakes of Brightwater, Northshore Court. Itchy grass, yellow couch, summer concrete.

 

Gospel

To My Sister

Making promises makes me nervous,

Stage fright at playing God.

 

But I have spent years building courage, years listening

To the current of your voice deepen and waver,

 

Watching your hair’s wide rivers run dark

And devout across your pillow before goodnight.

 

So to you, Sarah, whose legs I have seen lengthen,

Whose side I have stood by while

 

The unfair earth kept spinning

And I synchronized my tears to yours: to you I promise.

 

I promise to be a shapeshifter:

Shield, sword, shoulder.

 

A holy triptych of certainty

When your faith has failed.

 

 

A Necessary Odyssey

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

                                    T.S. Eliot

 

Writing, to me, is not just a Do; it is an Is. In many cases, yes, writing is a means to an end – this is how the gall bladder works, this is what the word “perspicacity” means, this is how the state of Wisconsin came to be. In more cases than not, writing is informative, and of course this is not a bad thing. But to assume that writing’s chief power lies simply in its ability to convey facts, or even just to outline a story, would be a sad and dangerous underestimation. Writing Is. It is an art in itself; it is emotion; it is truth; it is an expression of what it means to be human. Sometimes I write not to put thoughts into words and words onto page, but simply to revel in the fact that when I write, I am crafting something uniquely my own, and though I am transient, I am shaping something eternal. It is time-travel in its purest form. I can think of few things more exciting or important.

 

Of course, the thing about time travel is that it is an individual venture, a quality writing often seems to share. Even when we write for others, deep down we are usually writing for ourselves, to clarify our thoughts or release our ideas or satisfy that nagging, human need to create. In doing so, the act of writing usually teaches us things about ourselves that we had forgotten we’d known, or perhaps never known at all. You might start off an essay about your hometown by describing tangible memories – its streets, your house, your friends there – but soon realize that the place means much more to you than that; that the word ‘hometown’ assimilates emotion far beyond just physical attributes. In this way, writing is a necessary journey. Perhaps a journey that is circular in nature, but a journey all the same. We live in a society that has been taught to think that reading, listening, watching – passive acts – are the only ways to learn. But there is a lot to be learned, I think, through the act of doing, of writing. It teaches us to look at old things in new ways, to look around the place we’re in and see it anew.

 

This is the importance of writing to the writer. What is the importance of writing to the reader? It is much the same – to feel the weight of the craft and all that it can do, and in response, to treat it with the respect it deserves. Whether it is political or for pleasure, scientific or sensational, poetry, prose, or anything in between, literature is futile if static. Instead, it should take its reader by the hand and point outwards (or inwards), saying “Here! Here is something you thought about the world you live in or about the person you are, and now here is that thought again, except different and better.” This is the type of informative that writing should be. Not merely in a superficial sense, a straightforward presentation of facts or plotline, but deeper and more unexpected. A piece of writing should be an expansive journey, not a guided tour where every meal and stop has been planned out for you. In my experiences at least, good literature leaves more space than that, and in that space, the reader is free to breathe and observe and grow. Space offers opportunity to ask questions – why do I hold this belief, and is it right that I do? What things do I most appreciate about the world I live in, and what things do I take for granted? For a person to ‘not be much of a reader’ is for them to throw away the ticket to the most critical and intoxicating voyage of their life.

 

It is commonly misconceived that the person who knows a town best is someone who has lived there their entire life. There is some truth in this. But I think there is so much to be learned in the returning, so many important things you would never notice or recognize without first spending time away. This is why literature – writing it and reading it – is so important. It momentarily turns our gaze away from the reality directly in front of us, and then later releases us back, propelling us to look at this reality from a new, fuller perspective. You arrive where you started, and you know it for the first time. This is the beauty of writing. This is why it is so much more than a Do, so much more than mechanics or machinery. It is a creature alive and kicking, full of life and art and meaning, and though it is a journey that will often challenge our preconceptions, there is no endeavour more worthwhile. Take the time to write; take the time to read. It is a necessary odyssey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anthem

To My Brother

 

I was too young to know it,

the day you were born

Even for years after, I was blind

To the ways in which you were

Unlike things

That others took for granted.

 

You are still unlike things:

Medical terms and careless slurs

And the low expectations of those

Who do not try to understand.

 

There is much to your mind,

To your modes of operation

That I do not, cannot grasp,

But I am learning to live with open hands.

 

There is poison in assumptions.

Different does not mean lesser.

 

With you, different means trials and

learning curves, but it also means

quick arms to embrace and

eager lips to laugh and

clear eyes to see beyond

the things you are unlike.

 

You are a body brimming,

Teaching our throats to sing.

Black Taxi

And so I descended – down

Into a new continent filled with new

Customs and landmarks and

Topographies and temperatures.

But I reserved these discoveries for later –

The taxis aren’t yellow here.

That was the first thing I noticed:

An absence.

Suitcase trailing, I climbed inside.

 

Novelty makes observers of us all,

And as the wet

tires of the cab began to churn

I pressed my forehead to the window, smudged

My fist across the glass

To better see it:

The low, watery clouds, the mixed-up lanes;

A new country,

A new home.

I felt a numbness catch and

Crack

In my throat.

 

No, I wouldn’t call it by that word,

not for a while, I decided.

It felt like a stranger standing too close

To you in the checkout aisle;

An inappropriate intimacy,

And I was only just arriving.

It was not a word for new acquaintances.

 

But the driver was speaking now,

In an accent I would later learn to understand,

and rows and rows of gray

chimneys took their places along the road.

Soon, I thought,

I will stand amongst them,

Know this city to which

They belong,

Call it by that word.

 

I turned again to face the passing scenery:

Old houses, and a new rain.

Ike

I was eleven the year you came to greet us 

Born in the dark of the Atlantic 

Whirring, stirring, 

Wailing all the way, 

You propelled yourself to our shores. 

 

It was the man in the TV who first told me your name 

You were a celebrity of sorts, suddenly 

Whole cities prepared for your arrival. 

I wrote “Welcome, Ike!” on the driveway in chalk. 

 

In the moments before you landed 

We stood in the street with the neighbours 

Faces tipped to the sky 

Waiting,  

Watching,  

As the clouds churned and turned to pink. 

I remember the odd smell which clung to the air 

Like the scent of the ground after it rains 

Except this time, the rain was still to come. 

 

We slept in the living room that night,  

Armed with flashlights,

But even thin sheets feel claustrophobic  

When you are waiting, waiting. 

 

Outside, 

Darkness,

And the whistle and hiss of wind through trees; 

I remember being excited at the mystery of it all –  

There is little room for fear, I suppose 

 In the curiousity of an eleven-year-old. 

 

By morning you were gone, 

Moved on to another town,

another shore, 

another audience. 

I would hardly have thought you had visited at all 

Were it not for the branches covering the ground 

A ragged carpet upon which roof tiles rested.  

Down the street, a tree lay sideways 

Its roots stretched up towards the sky, 

Waving goodbye to you. 

Outside our window, 

The chalk on the driveway, washed away.

 

Three days later the power came back on 

And the man on the TV was replaced by pictures,  

Streets morphed into rivers, 

Houses missing roofs, walls, 

Towns flattened. 

I had not known that cities  

And people  

Could look so broken.

 

“We were lucky,” my mother said. 

I nodded my head,  

But it would be years until

I understood

how much. 

Made-to-Measure

In the beginning, we wore

Love with excitement, a fresh and

Bright apparel

Whose seams

We were just learning to

Stretch.

 

Eagerly, we overlooked the bad

Fit, the loose threads;

Projected perfection and

Missed mistakes

in the unfamiliar.

 

In the middle, we moved

From wearing it, to wearing it

Out; with each wash and spin,

Once-bright reds

Pinked and grayed.

We were stuck in a cycle,

And stitches unravelled.

 

In the store, folds hung

In perfect lines, bleached and gleaming.

Holding hands, we walked

along the racks, now

Thinking only of how wrinkled

The other’s collar seemed.

 

We itched for change.

It seems it is in our fabric.

 

But there is something sacred –

if one chooses to know it – woven

In that which is worn and loved;

A softness, a solace

Earned only through time.

And you are now,

And we are here,

Close-fitted, well-worn,

Better for the alterations.