smooth veneer

I moved to Iowa for poetry but was fickle.


One workshop stands out in throbbing relief in my mind’s eye when I cast it back over 10 years– a decade— of graduate school in Iowa.

What is perhaps more surprising than the mere occasion of a single class period eclipsing hundreds of others nearly indistinguishable from it is the fact that it was not a Writers’ Workshop workshop but rather a nonfiction workshop corralled up in a ring of institutional seminar tables across campus the English and Philosophy Building, a monstrosity of 1970s architecture with an acre of parking lot; in the defensively independent Nonfiction Writing Program (still in its institutional English Department digs in

in contrast IWW’s digs in quaint Victorian Dey House on the far northern lip of campus, lapping up against the University President’s house lawn.

In the particular workshop that resonates to this day for me, an essay of mine (shocking, I know) was up for “workshop” and was currently undergoing a certain amount of gutting for its smoothness. Two of my classmates in particular– both workmanly dedicated published writers– were for all intents and purposes seriously bugged by what I interpreted at the time as a yawning So What? response to my essay.

In all truth writing workshops were never easy for me. The chasm of desolation yawned over the precipice of self doubt in the dramatically lit tableau of that time and place. A handful of days into that first September I walked out in afternoon light and sat down on a semi-wooded hillside full of spiders. I was accompanied by couple of poets and a fiction writer.

stretching & growing

Last winter my back, usually pretty problem-free, piped up in a fit of pique. The immediate cause was clear: a week-long yanking-about by my parents’ overgrown Lab puppy– one irresistibly adorable beast in that compensatory fashion employed by most difficult critters (babies, spouses) to ensure an otherwise questionable survival.

This energetic canine visitation exacerbated daily and, more problematically, nightly twinges of bodily protest. Assessing the alternatives, I self-counseled: time to straighten up my act. While I’m not the world’s worst slouch, my posture could surely stand some tweaking.

Several years and countless hours spent straining my gaze toward a computer screen compounded by a bad habit of slinging heavy bags over one shoulder have resulted in an S-curve torque in my neck vertebrae that impacts the median nerve and sends pain and numbness down one arm and, most annoyingly, into my writing hand. For a decade now I’ve contended with this aggravating condition, unable anymore to keep the longhand journals I maintained religiously and waking frequently in the night to pins and needles in an appendage like an inflated blowfish.

Back in Iowa I enjoyed the nigh-magical ministrations of a chiropractor who performed delicate electric percussions and sonographic therapies that relieved my screeching nervy hand. Transplanted to Chicago, I’ve missed this expert reengineering of the all out o’ whack.

Failing to engage a local replacement, I’ve taken it upon myself to conduct an intuitive and amateur course of reconfiguration, not quite yoga, derived in part from high school era modern dance stretching routines: those patterns of ranging movement, drawing up energy from within and flowing it into configurations before the miroir.

Like my several houseplants who greenly rebreathe our apartment’s interior atmosphere, sympathetically respiring our collective exhalations back into fresh oxygen, I inhale purposefully as I incline toward the sun and drink in clear water.

Some days it takes hot cascading sheets of steam to soften and elongate all the rough and knotted places inside. As I breathe into the shoulder-drop, inevitably something pops and releases. I close my eyes and focus down the entire wired length of my being, straightening, and unkink just that much more.

Pop pop pop.

I imagine uncurling the pillbug armadillo psychic/physical self that’s clenched up incrementally over the course of preceding weeks.

Bending deeply, leaning gently and ever more inexorably into clutched-tight pockets, I can feel the letting go. Inhaling, I relish this sensation of release and push deeper into the curve. Concentrating, I make of myself a shape both vibrant and articulate.

Minuet back to bum shoulder, joints creaking like stubborn hinges, warming under the fluid of motion. The plants and I, we stretch to grow toward the light, envisioning ourselves into best shapes for living forms.