Foodie Writing Marathon

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Hooray for our first Foodie Marathon! This Open Writing Marathon for the Prairie Lands Writing Project on April 4, 2017, featured short talks by Teacher Consultants with connections to the culinary world.  Jody talked to us about Family and Consumer Science and all the ways that FACS teachers use writing in their classrooms, Stephanie told us about her adventures in Pro Start training with the National Restaurant Association and helped us think about the vocabulary of food, and Diane shared her experiences as a chef, leading us in meditations on the relationships between cooking and writing.

PLWPOpenMarathon2017All three invited us to write while on the campus of Missouri Western State University, so we had three rounds of writing in Eder Hall before forging out for more food-centric marathon writing at several of the chef-driven restaurants in Saint Joseph’s resurgent downtown area.

I enjoyed the opportunities to write about one of my favorite chef-writers, Anthony Bourdain, about my choices for Bourdain’s infamous “Death Row Meal,” and to consider the rhetoric of cooking. Like writing, as Diane told us, cooking  involves attention to context, audience, purpose, and genre.  Good writing, like good cooking, also often involves research, improvisation, and revision.  So much to think about!

Many thanks to my writing group members, seen above posing in front of one of our awesome downtown murals, who provided great company as we wrote and lunched in a downtown bakery/bistro/patisserie/creperie, Brioche Cafe.

1:15 pm Brioche Cafe

What a day to be downtown!  Everyone we see out the bright, tall windows seems happy to be alive in the sunshine, happy to be out and about in the renewal of possibility that comes with spring. 

My good friend Jeff, commenting on the kinds of  people one often sees walking out and about in the eccentric and scrappy little town of Saint Joseph, once said that everyone here looks like an extra on a movie set. I have to agree. In today’s cast, I noted a woman wearing heavy native-style jewelry and a bright pink neon blouse riding up and exposing her white belly, a man in a Jesuit priest robes holding a big, wooden cross just under his wide-brimmed hat, a lean, shirtless man striding up 8th Street with a strong sense of purpose, and a pierced, pink-haired guy ambling past Pony Espresso. Even the statue of jazz saxophonist and St. Joseph native Coleman Hawkins–visible past the cushioned window seats at Brioche Cafe, seems newly alive and ready to groove. 

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My Canine  Sister of Perpetual Adoration: Prairie Lands Writing Project Writing Retreat Marathon, June 2017

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I told the teachers at the Writing Marathon launch at our 2017 PLWP Writing Retreat that I would be writing about my dog today—my storied “PTSD Dog,” Fae, a rescue– but I that I felt weird about that.  As a scholar committed to place-conscious writing and teaching,   I always want to write about the place itself.  I tend to embrace the chance to tune my writer’s ears into broadcasts from the genius loci—the spirit of place–wherever we are.  To come with my own agenda to the marathon seemed heretical, or at least a bit rude.  On this marathon, however, I realized that a writing marathon can reveal connections whether a writer starts with a topic or not, connections that would otherwise never be made, certainly not sitting alone at a quiet table or even in my room at this wonderful retreat.

9:45 a.m. Chapel of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri

Writing here in this chapel, the spirits of this place have led me right to the heart of what I want to write about Fae, and really about all dogs everywhere.  The inscription above the chapel doors says, “Hic Amor Aeternus Habitat” (Eternal Love Lives Here).  But, this statement could just as easily be inscribed on a dog tag.  As dog people know, eternal love lives in a dog’s heart in a way it lives nowhere else.

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It occurs to me that Fae could easily be a member of the canine chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.  With her pure black coat and white chest blaze, she is already wearing the doggie version of a nun’s habit.  More important, she is filled with the doggie version of Perpetual Adoration, which—as dog people also know—is one of the very best kinds.

Fae is a perpetually adoring dog, but she does not always show it.  Her dog-brain chemistry is sometimes hijacked by past traumas that short-circuit her instinct for eternal love.  When I first adopted her, after the first few times of dog-sitting, my neighbor’s husband told me something sad.  He said, “That dog was beat by a man.” Apparently his wife, had no trouble coming into my house and taking care of her, but when Steve had come over with AJ on a few late nights, Fae had either cowered in a corner or growled at him.

I hated to ruin his theory, but the truth is that she growled at me sometimes, too, especially when she was going through her difficult “false pregnancy” phase.  I learned from our vet that this is a hormonal condition in which female dogs behave just like they have just given birth even when they haven’t.  In Fae’s case she nested and even lactated, going so far as to treat her dog toys as puppies.  She would gather them into her dog bed and pretend to nurse them, becoming extremely upset if I tried to approach her during these times.

IMG_20141022_140153847_HDR-1There were days, especially in my first 6 months with her, when I wondered if I had gotten myself into more than I could handle.  I had adopted her from the Puppies for Parole Program through our local shelter. She was the dog no one wanted.  A 70 lb. black lab who didn’t get along with other dogs, she had sat in her cold, concrete kennel for three months and was getting to the end of her ticking clock when one of the volunteers saw potential in her.  She got Fae into the program where prisoners work to train unwanted dogs to help make them become more adoptable.  Her handlers worked very hard with her, and they all made great progress, but by the time I was allowed to adopt her, I don’t think anyone realized that she still had a ways to go.  When I got her home, I noticed that all of the fur around her neck had been worn off, and I wondered if she had lived most of her life at the end of a chain.  Her front teeth were all ground down to nothing, too, even though she was only 5 years old.

At the shelter, they had told me Fae was an “owner surrender” who had been treated for heartworms, possibly the (expensive) reason her people gave her up. Years ago, I had learned about “black dog syndrome”—the phenomenon that accounts for the low adoption rates for black dogs in shelters vs. lighter-colored dogs.  So, when I finally decided to adopt a new dog after the loss of my dear old lab mix, Echo, who had been with me for 12 years, I resolved to adopt a black dog, and I watched for one while I volunteered at the shelter. When the program coordinator told me about Fae, and then I met her in the prison parking lot, I knew she was perfect.

20141022_174547Except that she wasn’t.  In addition to the bizarre false pregnancy symptoms, walks were always potential disasters, even though she loved them.  We did what we could to avoid all of her triggers by “off-roading it” through the park rather than walking on sidewalks, but random encounters were inevitable—with loud trucks, kids on skateboards, and especially other dogs.  Several times she literally dragged me to the ground.  On those days, it was all I could do to get us both home and to collapse on the couch in tears.

20141022_151940I was determined to stick with her, though.  And she, it turns out, was determined to stick with me.  Almost three years into our time together now, she is calmer, more disciplined on walks, much less prone to freak-outs.  Sometimes she still has “flashbacks” as I like to call them.  But for the most she part spends her days snoozing on the cool flagstones in front of the fireplace or in one of her cozy beds.    When I come home, and especially after being gone for a few days, her perpetual adoration explodes in a heartbreaking display of whining joy.  She leans her whole lab weight of gratitude into me, tail thwacking, as if eternal love could be transmitted straight though leaning alone, which–if you are a dog– it can.

 

10:35 a.m.  Grotto at the Monastery of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration

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I’ve had some pretty amazing things happen on marathons, so I can’t say that I am entirely surprised by this, but…. when I was in the middle of reading the above marathon writing to my group today, standing together just outside the monastery, I suddenly had an instinct to look up.  And there, standing right beside Ruth, like a 4th member of our writing group, was a dog.

“Oh my God,” I said, startling my group.

Then, they saw her, too: a low-riding Blue Heeler mix of some kind, white with black spots and sweet brown eyes almost exactly the same as Fae’s.  She let us pet her, and let me try to take pictures of her.  Then she flopped on her back to rub her fur against the new-mown grass and turn her tummy to the sun.

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I went back to finish my reading to my group, and when I was done, the dog had gone.

If I hadn’t taken photos, I might doubt that this Dog Spirit visitation had happened at all.  But it did.  My marathon group will back me up on this.  I can’t explain it.  I can only lean the whole weight of my writer gratitude into the moment, pen bobbing, as if eternal love could be conveyed through words alone, which–if you are a writer–it can.

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A Dream Come True: Writing Marathon Graduate Class at MWSU

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I still cannot believe that I have been fortunate enough in my position at Missouri Western State University to teach a whole graduate class on writing marathons.  This past year’s class brought together an inspiring group of teacher-writers who loved, loved, loved the marathon already and leaped at the chance to study them together while also going on several marathons in the process.  We wrote in groups and on solo marathons, sharing our writing in class and online.  We even revised several marathon pieces into a collection we published on the Prairie Lands Writing Project website

Exploring, writing, and sharing with these fellow marathon fans was a dream come true for a marathon researcher like myself.  It was also a wonderful chance to more fully embrace my quirky new home of Saint Joseph, MO.  My groups wrote at the Remington Nature Center, the St. Joseph Frontier Casino, Dunkin’ Donuts, Il Lazzarone, the First Ward House, Paradox Coffee and Theater, and Coleman Hawkins Park in Felix Street Square.   I’m forever indebted and bonded to these amazing fellow writers.  The places where we wrote will belong to us forever, and we will belong to them.

12:25 p.m.  Saint Joseph Frontier Casino

Waves of awfulness and joy, smells of smoke and fast food, and reassuring glitter, lights, and carnival carpeting.  The blackjack table dealer greets me warmly.  He’s bored and hopeful, but I take a seat at the bar and put the lullaby cacophony to my back.

The bartender says, “It’s free, honey,” when I order a club soda with lime.

No one here seems to notice the music.  At first it was “Devil Inside” by INXS.  Now it is Queen’s “Under Pressure.”  The soundtrack is trying to save us all, but no one is listening. Why would we want to leave? Even the stale smoke smell is comforting, somehow.

My heart aches for my BFF and our strange, beautiful Vegas adventure.  With the right people, even nightmarish casinos can be a wonderland full of charming strangers and wild adventures.

When I walked in the front door with my writing group, we passed the hunched women with walkers, the hard-faced men, the tired and wretched.  No one looked happy at all, and I wondered: why on earth do they come?

But I know why.  The plastic, brightly-colored dreamland soothes the soul, somehow.  Time stops in the winking rattling of cheerful horrors.  When the world so clearly seems like it is headed for a nosedive anyway, why the hell not?

2:03 Felix Street Square

Hard not to feel blessed here on this beautiful fall day.  We’re writing at the gazebo, inspired by Lu Ann’s stories of trips with her daughter downtown on the city bus.

People clearly on the St. Joseph Wine Walk saunter down Francis Street, just above the gazebo, making their way from the Tiger’s Den to the next stop.  There’s also a fair amount of foot traffic in and out of Christ Episcopal Church where just days ago my love and I started our lovely waltz class.

I sit and write, sitting stage right and to the back of the great statue of Coleman Hawkins (one of St. Joseph’s most famous sons—a jazz saxophonist and composer).  And today I feel I have St. Joseph’s back.  I may have missed every single one of the lovely free concerts in the square this past summer, but that will not happen again.  And I will not stop singing St.  Joseph’s praises, especially to her too eager critics.   Sure, we’ve got trouble.  Right here in this river city.  But we’ve got so many great things, too.

Just as the song starts weaving in my head, four teen rapscallions lope into the gazebo.  I don’t think they saw us writers sitting in here when they approached, but now they do not care. They leap onto the benches and take turns swinging from the roof railing and then jumping into the center.  They chide each other.

“Dude, I’m so impressed.”

“Dude, your butt crack is showing.”

“Dude, at least my brain isn’t!”

And then they are gone, rambling and leaping down 7th street, then onto Felix. We watch them go, and  smile at one another.  We write for a few more minutes, then wrap it up to join another marathon group headed to the read-around spot, just up the street.

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Love, Longing, and Tiny, Curled Dimensions: The 2016 New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat

 

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This year I finally made it for the lunch special at the Antoine’s, the oldest French creole restaurant in the city.

The 2016 New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat: “Teacher as Writer, Writer as Teacher,” hosted by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, marked my seventh trip to New Orleans. It was the best one so far, since this time I finally fulfilled my dream of being in the city I love most with the love of my life. Of course it was also because of the amazing people of New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat who worked hard to make manifest this pinnacle of writing marathon energy, intention, and community for a third amazing year.

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The famous and literary Carousel Bar, birthplace of many marathon threads

Since I’d had good success with a self-imposed writing assignment derived from one of Kim Stafford’s marathon launch talks at the 2014 retreat, I decided to give myself another loose prompt. It arose during another glorious round of turns at the Carousel Bar where my love and I chatted it up with an almost incomprehensible but very genial brother and sister from Scotland. The spinning old-school bar led me to a mediate on the notion of “tiny curled dimensions,” a phrase I culled from a discussion of string theory and which I set about to explore as a possible explanation for the dazzling density of magical people and places in New Orleans.

These meditations developed into a piece called “French Quarter Quantum Theory” which I composed over the course of the retreat in several marathon locations, including Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, Antieau Gallery, and Harry’s. A recording of me reading a draft of the piece at the Thursday night Open Mic is part of a KSLU radio show (with my piece starting at 17:10).

How can it be that each New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat is better than the last one? I have no idea. I can only be thankful that it is.

I am indebted to my wonderful marathon groups that merged and morphed over the week and for the muses who either journeyed with me or whose journeys crossed mine. Some were my fellow marathon writers: George, Masako, Ellen, Maurine , Ian, Janice, George, Allison, Jean, Mary, Vicki, Annabel, Rebecca, and more.

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My marathon group at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar

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My marathon group at Harry’s Corner

Others muses were the beautiful souls we encountered along the way who shared stories and co-wrote stories with us, people like Austin Winchester, our fabulously mustachioed waiter at Antoine’s; Ranger John Beebee who led the Down on Their Luck Orchestra at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park; Jacob the Host with the Most who brought us water and wine and the perfect writing table at Antieau Gallery; and the friendly dog parents who rolled their basenji named Foxy into Harry’s Corner in her very own dog stroller.

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Animated writer talk at Antieau Gallery

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One of my favorite marathon moments from NOWM 2016: meeting Foxy and her people at Harry’s Corner

I am also, always, indebted to the retreat organizers, Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project Director Richard Louth and Co-Directors Tracy Cunningham and Michelle Russo, along with everyone else in the SLWP who made this event possible. Those of us who make the pilgrimage to the New Orleans retreat each summer have these folks to thank for making us all feel like we are always coming home.

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Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project Co-Director Tracy Cunningham, testifying before the famous Tennessee Williams quote at our NOWM HQ at Gallier House.

As often happens, a special kind of poignant magic found me on the last day of the retreat. I was gathering last-minute souvenirs and was on the way back to the hotel when I ducked into Molly’s between downpours, only to find that our retreat writers had essentially taken over the pub. All of my oldest and dearest marathon friends seemed to be there at once, writing and celebrating and chatting away.

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Writers in Molly’s coveted window

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Writing until the very last

The joy and sense of belonging that flooded my heart at this serendipitous family reunion was the bit of salve I needed to finally heal the wound I’d been carrying since seeing my love drive away in a taxi on only the second day of the retreat. We’d shared 48 hours of romantic writer nerd bliss in the most romantic city I know, reveling in a kind of rare, extended date night, but on Tuesday at noon he had to head back home, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the marathon retreat as best I could on my own.

 

I waved at the taxi headed away down Chartres Street and then went back up to our hotel room—it would always be our room—and sobbed. Eventually, I dragged myself down to the Le Richelieu courtyard to rejoin my group, and I scrawled out a haiku:

I say to the cab,
“Take good care of my baby,”
And tears fog my shades.

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My group waiting patiently for me in Le Richelieu’s courtyard

Normally, I would have been in heaven with three more days of writing and exploring in the city that knows my soul more than any other, but instead I went into a funk. Because in that moment I began to I understand the downside of knowing what it feels like to be in New Orleans with the love of your life: knowing what it feels to be like in New Orleans without the love of your life.

Truth be told, I was a mopey writer cliché for most of the rest of the retreat, cherishing the marathon but missing my love so much that by evening each day it was all I could do to grab takeout at Coop’s or Verti Mart and then soak my aching heart back at the writing desk in my room at Le Richelieu. Each night, I consoled myself with a good, long linger on Le Richelieu’s glorious balcony and a good, long sigh into the humid night air. That hole in my soul was the crack that let the light in on this trip, the light that helped me find the words. I’m proud of the piece that emerged on this retreat (the one in the radio show in the above link), but I know that I couldn’t have written it if the heart of my heart hadn’t come to New Orleans and shared the writing marathon with me.

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View from Le Richelieu balcony at night, looking down Charters Street toward Frenchman

Though I missed him horribly the whole time after he left, by the end I felt sincere gratitude for the deeper awareness which the pain of loss and longing brought me. Fresh understandings like this are just some of the gifts the marathon gives, to those of us fortunate enough to have the time, resources, and energy to receive them.

Looking back at my notebook now, seven months later, I see that what I wrote on our very first official marathon stop—right before my love got into that cab—was meant to comfort me all along:

11:02 a.m., Café Envie on Decatur St.
Oh, thank you, Sweet Goddess Caffiena, for strong iced coffee!
Here with Ellen, Maurine, George, and Ian, we are the third cluster of writers in this little café, so we are crowded together along the wall with two tiny marble-topped tables.

A tiny bird hops by on the tile floor. (There are always birds in Envie.) The radio plays “Little Bit of Soul,” and I realize it’s exactly what I need. Actually, I’ll take a whole lotta soul, if you can spare it. Lots and lots of soul. Soul to fill my heart’s coming ache as my love prepares to leave my side.

Only for a while, though. Even back in Missouri, we will carry New Orleans in our blood now forever, that sweet synthesis we made here together—unique to all others–to be fortified each time we return, again and again.

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Writing at Cafe Envie on Decatur

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Foodie Writing Marathon Coming Up April 8 in St. Joseph, MO!

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Marathon Magic with New Marathon Pals in Columbia, MO

In early August of 2016, I was fortunate enough to take part in a writing marathon as part of a writing project leadership retreat in Columbia, Missouri.  It’s always fun to share the marathon technique with newbies, and we had two on this quick jaunt that turned out to be packed with juicy writer moments even though we only had a couple of hours to wander.  Many thanks to Bryan, Liz, and Jen for being such awesome marathon buddies!

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1:55 Flatbranch Brewery

Blessed to be on a surprise writing marathon with two people who have never been on one before, though they don’t seem like newbies to me.  Flatbranch Irish red is soft and full of malty sweetness, perfect for a rainy Monday in Columbia.

I was sad today at the marathon launch, that no mention was made of Richard Louth, founder of the New Orleans Writing Marathon, and the site he directs, the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, where the marathon was born more than 20 years ago.  Legend has it that Richard was leading a Professional Development session for Louisiana writing teachers who had gathered in New Orleans for a conference.  He had planned to do a Natalie Goldberg-style writing  marathon, with several rounds of writing and sharing there in the conference room.  But, he could feel the teachers out there under the ballroom lights of the Monteleone Hotel, with the alluring French Quarter just 30 floors below them, wistful. Longing.

Suddenly, he made a change and decided to take the marathon on the road, to let teachers out to be writers in the world.  He let them form their own groups, he let them follow their feet and go where they wanted, write where they wanted.

He worried, he said, that they wouldn’t come back.  Worried that they would be overtaken by spirits or by shopping, or whatever.  But they did. They did come back.

And, when they did, they were somehow changed.

 

3:00 Tropical Liqueurs (a.k.a. “Trop’s”)

We make a collaborative decision to walk two blocks to the Tropical Liqueurs on Broadway.

Trop’s is a legend in these parts, and difficult to describe.  Inside, a blue-green light rope hovers over a row of daiquiri machines, swirling, some gently, some quickly.  The Tiger Paw machine and the Silver Bullet machine have their own light-up signs.  They are also slightly larger than the others, leading me to wonder if they are the most popular.  The “Retro Flavor of the Month” is Amaretto Sour.

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The Silver Bullet, I read, is 190 proof: Grain Alcohol with lemonade and Sprite.  The others have equally daunting lists of ingredients.

Who would be here on a Monday afternoon?

Writers.  And, a woman who comes in and orders two Toasted Almonds with two added shots for each—butterscotch and salted caramel.

She is making someone very happy today.

The table we’ve landed at is sticky.  And not just normal sticky.  Sticky like it’s been sticky for years, layers of sugary frozen booze spilled and spilled and mopped up but never really removed, never really absorbed, each drop, puddle, and slough forevermore a sticking point for the place.

I sip my complimentary DD fruit punch and feel the back of my throat clench, feel the bits of tropical punch powder coating my tongue, my teeth, the backs of my eyeballs.   Sparks and flecks of flavor crystals spin sticky galaxies, melting into the rain behind us in the parking lot.

 

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4:08 Stony Creek Inn Hotel and Lodge

Ode to Faux Lodge Décor in the Lounge

O, antlers!  O, rustic-look high-top tables,

O, antique wooden skis and hacksaw,

O, old-timey radio and vintage suitcase:

you sit in an empty bar rattling now with an industrial fan scaring the dampness and the patrons away.

Your table tents flop and fold, hawking Stony Creek signature house wines.

Beyond the plastic pine trees, the TV is tuned to the Food Network.

Guests walk through your double doors looking for the restrooms,

Flip flops and ball caps and dinosaur  t-shirts ramble past, not stopping.

You wait for nightfall, for happy hour, for the $3 specials on Pink Fix Blush and Canyon Road Merlot to start flowing.

In the soft light and the antler shadows, you wait for people to see past the polyurethane coating,

wait for them to look around for their friends, shiver against the raging AC and think that maybe,

just for a moment,

they smell wood smoke.

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Marathon at Conception Abbey during the PLWP Writing Retreat

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In June of 2016, I led a writing marathon during a Writing Retreat hosted by the Prairie Lands Writing Project, held at a beautiful Benedictine monastery in Conception, Missouri. We launched from the conference room, then made our way to write in the beautiful Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.  When I had asked one of the monks in charge of guest conferences if it would ok for us to write there, he said, “I assume your writing will be… uplifting?” 

“Yes,” I told him.  “Absolutely.”    

I don’t actually know what everyone wrote in that huge, ornate space that day, but I do know that it was an uplifting experience to be there in the good, contemplative company of fellow writers. 

 

9:25 a.m. Basilica of the Immaculate Conception,

Benedictines are devoted to the spirit of hospitality, and we certainly feel it here.  All around us.  Simple.  Humble.  Gentle. Warm.

Latin words above me.  Soothing stone below me.

Immaculate Conception.

I feel somewhat less than immaculate this morning.  My hair is frizzy, my legs unshaven in the ultra-tiny shower stall.  Coffee aftertaste is still coating my tongue.

My spirit feels relatively clean, however.  My life has been a journey of self-acceptance, self-knowledge, and self-forgiveness.

Wisdom of years, hard-won, to know that I’m not to blame for unwise choices—entanglements and mismatches of souls and paths.

I tried.  I learned.

It is fine.  It is good.

A young monk sits at the organ, his head bowed, the light hovering above the music stand.  A displaced halo, it crowns the notes rather than his head.

10:00 a.m. A picnic table in view of the wind turbines

Giant propellers

arc and arc and arc

over the cottonwoods.

Blade shadows slice

across crop rows below.

Clover and daylilies

Watch with us

In the stands above the soccer fields.

 

Behind us, the HVAC system roars.

Above it, birds sing,

leaves rustle.

Their engines–

digestion,

photosynthesis–

roar silently.

Chemical.

Invisible.

 

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