Duct Tape Obelisk

IMG_0140.JPGThere’s a cemetery I sometimes walk through on my way to work, or on my way home. They’re mostly historic graves, though I think interments still take place from time to time. It’s quiet, with tall trees, a little poison oak, a caretaker’s trailer, and cigarette butts ankle deep at the entrance closest to campus, since the university has become a tobacco-free zone. And, one day, a duct-taped obelisk.

It is not true, as it turns out, that stone must be repaired with mortar. The obelisk had been reinforced with great care, though a slight displacement midway up suggested something like collision, damage fiercer than erosion. Topple and collapse are words that come to mind, but pull or shove seem more likely. IMG_0144.JPG

I took pictures that day, finding the repaired monument odd, hopeful, improbable, off-kilter. I kept it in the back of my mind, and eventually worked it into a story I was writing. (You can read the story, “Give that Girl a Wilson Cigar!” in Saranac Review #13, out this fall.) I looked sometimes for other shored-up tombstones, but didn’t see any. My route is a cut-through, not a systematic zigzag. I’m not aiming for coverage, so there’s no telling how many repairs I might have missed. And I don’t cut through the cemetery every day, or even every week.

But when I do walk that way, I always pass that obelisk—always, in my mind’s eye, held together with tape. And then one day it wasn’t. It had been restored, smooth and sturdy, newly built to last. Not as shiny. Not the sparkle of silver in the sun. More enduring, in the monumental sense, but also more opaque.

IMG_0145.JPGI didn’t recognize it at first. I thought I must be mistaken and looked around for the taped stone. Maybe it was really in a different row. But no. It was right in front of me, the same and not the same.

Maybe because I had the story I wanted, I never really paused to look at it closely, to read the restored inscription. I had already seen as much as I could see.


IMG_0506 I don’t know if I’m afraid of heights, or afraid of getting down from heights–of not getting down–but when the guide said, it looks like rain, let’s start on the roof, I followed her up. Not wanting to miss anything, ready to add to my photo collection, eager to take in every nook and cranny open to the tour. It was just the two of us, me and the guide. She was maybe half my age, if that, with a big set of keys and a comforting sweater that looked a little thin. IMG_0515

Blame breathlessness on altitude. I’d crossed other roof terraces, assembled albums of panoramic views and crisscrossed stonework, looming towers, plastered walls. Here it was rain-slick emerald tiles, narrow streets, tiny steps, stacked domes. I climbed everything she let me climb, but I didn’t linger for that final photo at the top. I savored my daring for a moment–or half a moment, a quarter–but I was thinking about getting down, thinking ahead to rescue, to the held breath’s blessed release. In the moment, yes, but part of the moment is the plan for its completion, the survival plan, the escape hatch. The painstaking backing back down those tiny stairs. I had resolved to climb, but I had to resolve the climb by climbing down.IMG_0516

First, resolute, I looked out over Quito. Thought about how to solve the pickle I’d gotten myself into, even as I was (mostly) enjoying the view. Which brings me to the resolution of shift, distortion; of dissolve–the image that blurs and then resolves into another, the pickle I’d gotten myself into, the pickle green of the slick, appealing tile, but no, not pickle, but emerald, jungle,  eucalyptus leaf and palm frond, agave–penco–dark with rain.


Snowmelt Drum Kit

bucketsBarely snow, just enough for a two-hour school delay, ice encasing twigs and needles, smooth and clear and full around as if dipped, as even as a candy-maker’s dream, no Achilles’ heel or naked shortbread where anyone held on, only light, a sense of depth and sparkle, even on a dark day.

The lowest branch on the fir tree looks as if it might soon surrender to gravity, or saturated slush, possibly age. I’ve been listening a lot, sometimes running out of patience. But every so often, I hear something I didn’t expect to hear.

And drip drip drip I take the compost out (too cold and wet to want to go outside, but it’s not dark yet, it’s only raining, today this is likely as good as it gets) and I hear the plunk plunk plunk, a little extra rattle, a little verve, and there it is, a rain and snowmelt drum kit under the deck, found music like a found poem.

Walking the West Highland Way

starting sign

Setting Out

Having enjoyed and endured twenty-five years of each other’s company in marriage, we thought it was time for a treat and rewarded ourselves with a trip to Scotland and a walk on the West Highland Way with our kids. I wanted one of those luxurious hikes where you spend the night at a cozy inn after a day of walking and the luggage (for a fee) miraculously appears each night at the appointed destination, without one having to haul it oneself. Some day’s walk segments were a good deal longer than we’re used to, cutting into the luxury feeling, and our rain gear got a good workout, but the scenery was stunning as promised, the company was excellent, and, yes, knowing we didn’t have to set up a tent and huddle over a camp stove at the end of the day, that a pint and a hot meal and dry pajamas were waiting, absolutely took the edge off the sore, soggy feet. And the sun did come out, the rain lifted.


Near Drymen



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We’ve tended to hike where there aren’t many people, where crossing paths with four or five parties in an afternoon leads to grumbling about crowding and special places overrun. The West Highland Way is not a private, isolated trail. But it was fun, finding familiar faces and exchanging greetings as we leapfrogged one another along the trail or met up at the pub in the evening. We shared ibuprofen and bandages, whisky and photos and tales of improbable encounters with distant relations in unexpected spots. We took turns taking group shots of different parties, though we didn’t take pictures with each other, and we didn’t exchange last names. I thought I had a picture of the train of folks ahead of us (and yes, slow as we were, there were a few behind), brightly colored pack covers standing out against the green and mist, but apparently not. So imagine a trail, uphill and down, dotted with yellow and orange and bright blue ovals, rising and falling gently in the rain.

Even so, there was a sense of isolation, of abandonment and loss in the scattered ruins of stone cottages and barns, stone walls cushioned inches deep in moss. There was the long, empty, expansive view across the moor; if you squinted, you could pretend you didn’t see the trucks on the highway way over there. IMG_3216 IMG_3425








And there was birdsong. Maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention, but I have not been hearing that kind of depth and variety of birdsong in my yard (scrub jays, crows, yes; not the same). I rarely saw the birds, and I certainly couldn’t identify them, but I loved to listen to them.

Chaffinch--I did learn one

Chaffinch–I did learn one

And I loved to listen to the sound of water. I collected a lot of waterfalls. (Long ago, when I lived in the Finger Lakes, I hypothesized that it might be possible to accumulate too many waterfall pictures; I was wrong, of course, even way back then before digital photography; I’m well past any such foolishness now). Small streams cut through the moss and grass and bracken, narrow streams that seemed to roar like rivers and then were surprisingly narrow, if fast. Drum-like resonance against the rocks, small gurgles, far-off hillside whitewater lace; sudden, brief, unexpected quiet. Bridges small and large and sometimes missing. IMG_3386 IMG_3362

As always when I’m hiking, some of the time I thought about stories and writing (and waterfall collections, and my near-total ignorance of birds), some of the time I thought about how much my feet hurt, and some of the time I thought about the view. And about how lucky I am to be walking through the world with these people, the ones I know and love and would take with me nearly everywhere I go, if I could, and those encouraging, embracing chance encounters.



Loch Lomond from Conic Hill


Rannoch Moor

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Exchange Visits

IMG_6860 IMG_6861 My mother and my daughter left this week on a two-week trip to Germany, which has me remembering my own trip to Germany with my Oma. I was a year younger than my daughter is now, a high school junior rather than a recent graduate. The first part of the trip was a school trip–our school had a summer exchange with a school in Würzburg, and that was our year to go for three weeks. After the school trip ended, I met up with my grandmother and traveled with her for two or three weeks. My mother and daughter will see some of the same friends, though my grandmother’s generation is gone. They’ll go to Hannover, where my grandparents grew up, and Hamburg and Berlin.

I had taken three years high school German by the time I went; my daughter studied Spanish and Japanese. We have a few German language rituals left in our family, but it’s not quite a conversation.

I wonder what my daughter will most remember, years from now.

I remember all the social awkwardness of high school transposed to a trip abroad, the overlapping layers of trying to fit in with the group (or the right part of the group) and trying to navigate a new place. I remember my host brother’s horrible caged bird pecking at itself, and discovering nutella, way back when it didn’t exist in the US. There was a formal welcome at city hall and a giant cream puff on my birthday. We visited churches and art museums. Then my classmates went home, or on to their own extended stays, and I found my grandmother. I expect she came to meet me somewhere.

Oma and I stayed with a friend of hers from when they were governesses together in Chicago in the 1930s. I think they met at the park, out airing their charges, but maybe I’m making that up. Her friend was a heavy smoker, a devoted chocolate-eater, an honorary aunt. I was hungry for books in English (it’s hard listening to another language all the time) and read Gone with the Wind at her house, a gratifyingly thick book that was also thick with smoke. We visited her daughters and their families–my daughter will meet the grandchildren. We went to the toy museum in Nürnberg (I still have the poster) and to Dürer’s house. I was introduced to a newly-returned exchange student, just back from Illinois, her accented English meeting my stumbling German. We Went swimming. IMG_6862

And I remember tagging along as Oma and Tante Erna shopped for a new raincoat. Something trench-coaty, dressy. I remember Oma weighing a clear beige against one that was faintly pink, or maybe it was rose-colored. Most of all, I remember being struck at seeing my grandmother spending the day with a peer, having a reason to be in the world, something to do, other than being my grandmother. Equal measure, equal time, friend to friend. Turn around, how does it look? Let me see from the other side.

Of course, I knew that, didn’t I? I should have. But that day, seeing Oma not at any family function or occasion but out with a friend of her own, it was obvious. I wouldn’t have used film on that department store light, and they would have been embarrassed if I had, but I remember them among the racks of coats and the florescent bulbs and three-way mirrors, somewhere in downtown Braunschweig, and I’m grateful for that.

Gute Reise!


curtainThinking it would do me good to stretch my creative muscles in a different way, I signed up for an 8-week playwriting workshop this spring, taught by Paul Calandrino at Oregon Contemporary Theatre. Last time I tried to write a play, I was in high school. But I’ve read and seen and studied and taught a lot of plays in the meantime, in Spanish and in English, at OCT, in Portland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina, Spain. . . wherever I go, if I have the chance.

Well, yes: stretching. Paul gave us exercises, some straightforward, some perplexing, detailed. What if this? Add a that! Write something impossible to stage. Every one of them produced good results for someone in the class, though not always for me. The watchword, always, was supposed to be conflict, and my best result was an ever-crescendoing dialogue that made me more and more tense as I wrote it.

We finished with a showcase, when a gaggle of gifted local actors along with most of our classmates took on roles for a reading, one play/participant. We bribed our invited guests with pizza and had a nice turn out. And what a kick to see each play that much more alive than it had been around the seminar table, what a kick to hear an audience laugh at my jokes.

I come away with a short play I’m fairly pleased with, another I want to keep working on, and a couple of ideas I’m still thinking about, not sure where they might take me (or if they’ll take me anywhere at all). And I’m a little more limber.

Not bad for eight weeks. Our small class included a number of repeaters, and I understand why–I may be hooked.

Resale Re-inscription (dedicatoria)


A book makes the best gift. . .

At the used bookstore the other day, waiting for the staff to pick over my only moderately delectable sack of we-don’t-want-them-anymore tomes, I wandered through the aisles reading novel blurbs and tidbits and first pages, sampling sections I often skip–browsing, like a deer in a tulip bed. In one of those sections, I pulled off the shelf a book in a field moderately close to my own–the title was intriguing, the cover colorful and clean–and found a dedication on the flyleaf to X, a person I know well, from Y, the author. With all good wishes–wishes unfulfilled? Who knows. X might have had another copy. X might have read the book with consuming interest and then simply felt the shelves of the home library were far too full. But I can’t help wondering about a falling-out, misapprehension, an angry so there! as the sellable book met the bottom of the box and was hauled out to the car. I know X knows Y rather well, but I don’t fully know the tenor of their relationship. But now I’m curious as hell, and starting to invent, which is after all one of the reasons I go into bookstores: to look for stories.

There’s a degree of intrusion in buying used books. A kind of inadvertent community, but also inadvertent revelation. Autographed books bearing the author’s signature and gratitude, and then inscribed books given at milestones and holidays. Happy birthday! Well done! May your winding path be sweet. I’ve read marriage proposals on flyleaves, which makes me wonder: is the marriage now so solid this talisman is no longer required, or was this poor volume a mortifying reminder of a misstep that could not too soon be cast aside?

I have picture books my parents gave me on my third and fourth birthdays. My husband prepares delicious meals with recipes from the first cookbook I bought him, somewhat sappily inscribed. I’ve begun a (still tiny) collection of books signed by both the translator and the author–a collection I hope to add to, because I’ve loved going to those readings, hearing the conversation back and forth, and because a translation always has, at least, two authors. And over the years I’m sure I’ve sold or donated books signed to me, inscribed to me. My name is out there somewhere, probably unrecognized by the next buyer but maybe, here and there, familiar. We used-book mavens can be a tight-knit lot.

As it happens, one of the books I wanted to sell–one of two the bookseller ultimately declined–was also signed, signed for me by the editor. It’s an anthology of inspiring (inspirational? inspired?) vignettes I purchased at a reading a friend took me to, years ago, and never opened again. I remember the reading now, the fact of the friend taking me, her hesitation–would I like it?–and my willingness to try any event she might suggest (she’s that kind of friend).

So what do I do with that signed but unsold book? Put it back on the shelf where it won’t give me away? Read it, at last? Or wait for a garage sale, a box for St. Vincent de Paul, the Friends of the Library donation barrel? For now, I’ll content myself with weaving an explanation for why X’s copy of Y’s book came to be sold. Perhaps the book will finally be purchased for another X (it’s not the most uncommon of names) and presented as a gift, personally signed by the author. True and untrue at once, and no one the wiser.


It is the most beautiful of spring days, Friday the 13th, a good fortune day–why not? The view from my study window is green. Maple green, rhododendron green, cedar green. Most of them two-tone this time of year, old growth against new. I’ve been reading about neuroscience and gratitude and Greece; I’ve been writing stories and very short plays. And translating a novel in three voices, so that the always multi-voiced translation further refracts. Green highlighter marks the passage that still isn’t right. The daylily buds are still green, not yet orange. The recycling truck shatters glass into its trailer, bottle-green unbottled.

What I’m Reading (February)

what I'm reading Feb La Siberia, Cristina Siscar (a novella–that of the title–and stories). I found this collection in my search to read more about Patagonia. These are stories about travelers in Patagonia, Amsterdam, Valparaiso, locals and foreigners adrift or stranded, sometimes physically, sometimes in memory. There are some wonderful translation moments embedded in the stories, and rich, perplexing landscapes, some of them familiar to me, some new.

Translation Review Issue 92 — One of the advantages of being on leave is the chance to read journal issues soon after they appear, rather than “eventually.” I especially enjoyed Jean Anderson’s article on translations of Patrick Modiano’s work, and Leah Leone’s piece on teaching an online literary translation workshop–I’ll be teaching a translation seminar in the fall (not online), and I’m sure I’ll draw on some of Leone’s ideas.

Seeing Red, Megan McDowell’s translation of Lina Meruane’s Sangre en el ojo. I enjoyed this one, and will look for more of Meruane’s work (also McDowell’s). My more detailed review can be read at Necessary Fiction.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Wow. I seldom read novels that might be described as “post-apocalyptic,” and I (unwisely) started this one while still getting over the nastiest cold I’ve had in years. But I was completely bowled over. The world is so thoroughly, convincingly imagined, terrifyingly yet beautifully described. And I got a kick out of the Michigan place names, though that won’t be relevant to every reader.

Alan Pauls, A History of Money (translated by Ellie Robins). Imagine my relief when I unwrapped the book, a gift from a favorite aunt, saw the title and then those beloved two words, “a novel,” on the cover. This is next up, planned weekend reading. I’m looking forward to this one.

The Color of Magic, the first of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. My son has been chortling over these books for months, and urging me to read them, so when I get on a plane next week, I’ll take one along.

What I’m reading (January)

what I'm reading Jan

La Virgen Cabeza, by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (what a great name, no?). One of the writers who leapt to mind for her when I asked Angélica Gorodsicher last October, “who else should I read?” A striking, unexpected voice, just enough left unexplained, left for the reader to assemble. Fast moving, abrasive yet sympathetic. And having just visited Tigre, the parts of the novel set in the Delta were that much easier for me to visualize.

Ecuador guidebooks–I’m planning a trip, and I haven’t been in a while. The broad outlines of the itinerary are already drawn, but there are options to consider, possibilities. I know guidebooks are retro–I’m probably supposed to get all my information online, and the books themselves are full of links. But I like to read them, to flip back and forth between regions, think about transport, places to stay, highlights. Places I’ve never been, so wouldn’t think to look up. For me, guidebooks are still an efficient way to pull details and questions together.

Alice Munro’s stories, one collection a Christmas gift from my daughter, another collection from the public library. Every fourth sentence, there’s something I want to read aloud, or reread, and reread again. Tight, exact, unexpected and yet wholly believable character descriptions, a final surprise often more at the level of motivation (and layers of motivation) than plot or event.

Victor Hugo Rascón Banda, in preparation for the Latin American Studies Association congress in New York in the spring. I’ll be serving as discussant for a Latin American theater panel, so this is my chance to learn about a few more plays (one of the panelists will speak on Rascón Banda).

Terrenal, by Mauricio Kartun, one of the plays I saw last fall in Buenos Aires, at the Teatro del Pueblo, a full house, enthusiastic audience, nimble wordplay, strong acting, just enough visual comedy to keep my non-Spanish speaking companion almost engaged. A wonderful performance I felt lucky to see; I’m looking forward to diving into the text and reliving it in my imagination.

And Eleven Eleven #19. A little self-serving to put it here, and it’s not in the photograph, but I keep giving my copies away before I can sit down and read it all the way through. I’m feeling proud and happy to have a story (“Fishbowl”) in the journal, and to be in such good company (with lots of translation, too) and in such a visually pleasing format (great cover).   issue-19-cover1.23-150x150

Freezing rain outside tonight, should be a good day for reading tomorrow.