Poem of the Week, by Mary Oliver

Pete in first snow, 2011Yesterday my faithful companion and I were out for his twice-daily walk, and by “walk” I mean amble. Wander. Meander. Pete is fourteen years old now, and the boy who used to tear around the lakes for hours on end, never tiring, with me half-jogging to keep up, and who would then come home to do hot laps with the neighbor dogs in our adjoining back yard, now sways from side to side and every now and then stumbles over sidewalk heaves and steps. He breathes heavily and coughs often (heart failure), his joints are stiff (arthritis), he doesn’t notice the squirrels he used to leap after (eyes/hearing). This has happened gradually, so that I’ve had time to get used to it. Or so I thought.

But when flipping through photos the other day, I found this one and it nearly brought me to my knees. I remember when I took it. It was the first snow of the year that night, probably ten years ago, and he stood there at the end of the leash waiting impatiently for me to take the photo so that he could get back to what he wanted, which was to go, go, go through new snow, down the unshoveled sidewalk.

Petey-boy, I hope you’re still around for this year’s first snow. Are you our good boy? Are you? Are you the best, best dog? 

 * * *

 

from “Work”
     – Mary Oliver

All day I have been pining for the past.
That’s when the big dog, Luke, breathed at my side.
Then she dashed away then she returned
in and out of the swales, in and out of the creeks,
her dark eyes snapping.
Then she broke, slowly,
in the rising arc of a fever.

And now she’s nothing
except for mornings when I take a handful of words
and throw them into the air
so that she dashes up again out of the darkness,

like this–

this is the world.

 
For more information on Mary Oliver, please click here.​
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Poem of the Week, by Alexandra Lytton Regalado

 

IMG_3122

A long time ago, far away, a wiggly baby dressed in a little purple-and-white striped number was handed over to me. She took one look at the tall, strange woman holding her and squinched up her face to cry.

Who could blame her? But I quickly whispered to her that it’s okay, it’s okay, I’m your mama and you’re my little girl and we’re going to have so much fun together. She unsquinched her face and kicked her legs and gave me a big grin and we went back to the hotel. I laid her on my stomach so we could have a chat and get to know each other, whereupon she peed on me a little. Which made me laugh. Which made her laugh. Which made me laugh. Which made her laugh, and this little closed loop of laughing went on for a while.

But then I needed to go to the bathroom, and not knowing yet if she were capable of rolling right off the bed, I lowered her into the little white iron crib that had been set up in the room. It’s okay, I’ll be right back, I said. She stopped laughing and looked up at me with dark, dark eyes. Those dark eyes followed me into the bathroom. She did not smile when I smiled and waved from the open door. She just watched me. I remember being overcome by how a baby has no control –beyond crying– over its world. How everything depends on decisions made by grownups. How the life of this dark-eyed child was now in my hands. The awesome, overwhelming responsibility of it all. Please, please let me be a good mother to her, I remember thinking. Please let me do right by her.

 

The T’ai Chi of Putting a Sleeping Child to Bed
     – Alexandra Lytton Regalado 

        
In the lull of evening, your son nested in your arms
becomes heavier and with a sigh his body
sloughs off its weight like an anchor into deep sleep,
until his small breath is the only thing that exists.

And as you move the slow dance through the dim hall
to his bedroom and bow down to deliver his sleeping form,
arms parting, each muscle defining its arc and release—
you remember the feeling of childhood,

traveling beneath a full moon,
your mother’s unmistakable laugh, a field of wild grass,
windows open and the night rushing in
as headlights trace wands of light across your face—

there was a narrative you were braiding,
meanings you wanted to pluck from the air,
but the touch of a hand eased it from your brow
and with each stroke you waded further

into the certainty of knowing your sleeping form
would be ushered by good and true arms
into the calm ocean that is your bed.

 

For more information on Alexandra Lytton Regalado, please click here

 

 

Never Coming Back(story):

The cabin on Turnip Hill Road that I bought when I moved back home-ish to the Adirondacks was one room. Two hundred and fifty square feet, which, spelled out like that, looked bigger than 250. (Never Coming Back, p. 10)

IMG_5479Fifteen years ago, you signed a series of legal documents faxed to your home in Minneapolis. The legal documents meant that a patch of land in Vermont was now yours. Despite the fact that you knew this particular part of Vermont well, you hadn’t ever seen this particular hill in real life.

 You went to walk the land only after it was yours, driving down the dirt roads that are 70% of all Vermont roads, searching for the unmarked entrance to the rudimentary driveway. What had you gotten yourself into? You lived in Minneapolis, for God’s sake. Yes, you’d always wanted to live in Vermont, but still, you lived in Minneapolis. Were you nuts? Maybe, but you went ahead anyway.

Once there, you couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Those giant trees. That one white pine, my God, you had never seen a white pine so tall, so huge. From the very top of the land you looked east, to New Hampshire, and there was Mt. Monadnock.

A year later, you and your friends put together a tiny one-room cabin from a kit bought off eBay. Another friend cut down some of the little evergreens that were overtaking the slope. Someone else drilled a well, and someone else spread gravel on the driveway. Now there’s a firepit lined with rocks and benches made from boards nailed to stumps. A hammock now hangs from straps encircling two white pines. A clothesline stretches between two trees. There’s a new outhouse, built in a single day by a young woman with muscles and know-how.  

Once, the cabin did not exist. It was a dream in the mind of a young woman who had always wanted to live in Vermont. It doesn’t make sense to buy a patch of forest you’ve never seen, you told yourself. It doesn’t make sense to build a one-room cabin in Vermont when you live in Minneapolis. But you went ahead anyway.

From something that was not real and that didn’t exist came something real. Something you can touch. The top of a tall hill, from which you can see a far horizon. A narrow porch looking out over the low mountains of southern Vermont, trees turning to flame in autumn. And so it goes. Things don’t make sense, but we do them anyway. What exists at first only in someone’s heart turns, over years, into something real.

 * * *

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 4.04.18 PMNever Coming Back, my new novelwrote itself in a compulsive rush. Questions tumbled out across the pages, fierce questions that I have spent my own life asking myself. Why do we so often hide so much from the people closest to us? Why, much of the time, do we assume that there will always be more time? Why, for so many of us, is it only at the end of life that we spill our secrets, desperately seeking to close the distance between ourselves and the people we most love?

How well can we ever really know one another?

Faulkner’s famous, ferocious question was one of the guiding lights behind Never Coming Back, a book about the relationship between two people –Tamar Winter and her daughter Clara– who, despite their profound love for each other, have never been able to talk about the secrets they hold in their hearts. But now Tamar has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and time is running out. Tamar and Clara struggle and stumble toward reconciliation, resolution, and clarity. They try, and try, and try again. Like most of us.

Poem of the Week, by Francine J. Harris

img_3343Sometimes I think cruel things about other people. I don’t want to think these things and sometimes I hate myself for doing so. You say that all matters to you is being kind, I think, and that was so unkind. Sometimes I try to be Buddhist about it: Recognize. Acknowledge. Sit with it. Let it go. Sometimes I turn to one of my lifelong mantras to forestall future cruel thoughts: You don’t know what his story is, Alison, or, You don’t know what his home life is like, Alison, or, She was once somebody’s baby, you know.

Even though I don’t say these cruel things out loud, they bother me. Which might be why this poem upset me so much the first time I read it. As the lines gathered speed, and the poem gathered torment, it seemed so full of cruelty that I had to get away from it, had to push it away from me. It brought back so much awfulness from the past: cruelty of the school bus, cruelty of creative writing workshops, cruelty witnessed on the sidewalks and in school hallways and . . . everywhere. Especially these days, under our current regime.

But I kept reading. And when I got to the ending, that is when I knew that the poet was like me, but braver. She made herself go into the cruelty so that she could come out the other side. 

 

Katherine with the lazy eye. short. and not a good poet, by Francine J. Harris

This morning, I heard you were found in your McDonald’s uniform.
 
I heard it while I was visiting a lake town, where empty woodsy highways
turn into waterside drives. I’d forgot
 
my toothbrush and was brushing with my finger, when a friend
who didn’t know you said he heard it like this: You know Katherine. Short.
 
with a lazy eye. Poet. Not a very good one. Yeah, well she died. the blue
 
on that lake fogs off into the horizon like styrofoam. The picnic tables
full of white people. I ask them where the coffee is. They say at Meijer.
 
I wonder if you thought about getting out of Detroit. When you read at the open mike
you’d point across the street at McDonald’s and told us to come see you.
 
Katherine with the lazy eye. short and not a good poet, I guess I almost cried.

I don’t know why, because I didn’t like you. This is the first time I remembered your name.
 
I didn’t like how you followed around a married man. That your poems sucked
and that I figured they were all about the married man.
 
That sometimes you reminded me of myself, boy crazy. That sometimes
I think people just don’t tell me that I’m kind of, well…slow.
 
Katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.
I didn’t like your lazy eye always looking at me. That you called me
 
by my name. I didn’t
like you, since the first time I saw you at McDonald’s.
 
You had a mop. And you were letting some homeless dude
flirt with you. I wondered then, if you thought that was the best
 
you could do. I wondered then if it was.
 
Katherine with the lazy eye, short, and not a good poet.
You were too silly to wind up dead in an abandoned building.
 
I didn’t like you because, what was I supposed to tell you. What.
Don’t let them look at you like that, Katherine. Don’t let them get you alone.
 
You don’t get to laugh like that, like nothing’s gonna get you. Not everyone
will forgive the slow girl. Katherine
 
with the fucked up eye, short. Poetry sucked, musta’ knew better. I avoided you
in the hallway. I avoided you in lunch line. I avoided you in the lake.
 
I avoided you. My lazy eye. Katherine with one hideous eye, shit.
Poetry for boys again, you should have been immune. you were supposed
 
to be a cartoon. your body was supposed to be as twisted as
it was gonna get. Short. and not a good poet. Katherine
 
with no eye no more. I avoided you, hated it, when you said my name. I
really want to leave Detroit. Katherine the lazy short.
 
not a good poet. and shit. Somewhere someone has already asked
what was she like, and a woman has brought out her wallet and said
 
This is her. This is my beautiful baby.    

 

 

For more information about Francine J. Harris, please click here.

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Never Coming Back(story): Letter to my sixteen-year-old self

The memory of a night the spring of my senior year in high school flooded into my head. I had been out at a party, one of the constant parties that seniors seem to have, the same franticness to all of them, as if time were running out. (Never Coming Back, p. 140)

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Dear sixteen-year-old self,

This is the only photo I could find of you. You held an instamatic out in front of you, hoping somehow to capture your own face, and pressed the little black button. I remember exactly when you took that photo. You had just gotten out of the shower. You were wearing cut-offs and that blue workshirt you wore every day back then.

You wondered if maybe you could capture something in a photo that would tell you something you didn’t know about yourself.

Now I look at that photo and I think: You were on the verge. Of so much.

You don’t think of yourself as unhappy right now. You go to high school out in the country, you have friends, you belong to a bunch of things. You don’t think of yourself as lonely.

But in retrospect, you’re waiting and you don’t even know it. You’re waiting for the doors of your life to blow open, for the sky to lift high overhead.

What can I tell you now, from this long perspective of time?

You can let up some. You think you have to push yourself every day, that you have to maintain some high rigid standard, be ultra-disciplined, but you don’t. Why are you setting your alarm every morning for 4:45? So sleepy.

Then again, that discipline will come in handy years later, when you have three little kids –yes! you do end up with three kids, just like you wanted!– and you get up at four because it’s the only time you can write in silence.

So many things that you think matter so much right now do not, in the end, matter. Or they matter, but in a way that you’re too young to understand yet.

That one night you’re thinking about, when they took off and left you there? When you get to my age, instead of blaming yourself –too ugly, too boring, all my fault– you’ll shrug and think, it’s clear that whatever I was back then, I at least wasn’t mean.

All those times on the schoolbus, in school, walking the dirt roads past broken-down trailers, when you feel helpless in the face of others’ pain, will eventually be transformed into art. Even if you feel right now as if you’ll break apart from it, it will be worth it.

Most everything that you are going to live through will, in the end, be worth it.

It’s too late to go back and re-do things, but if I could, I’d tell you a few things that you’re too young to know:

When your grandmother and your father and your mother tell you not to change your plans, that the tickets are nonrefundable, that he knew how much you loved him, don’t listen to them. Go to your grandfather’s funeral, because when you don’t, you will forever regret it.

You don’t need to wash your hair every day.

Don’t listen when people tell you that love fades, that it becomes humdrum, ordinary, that this is the way it is for everyone. It’s not.

You are not ugly the way you fear you are.

Don’t be so afraid, out of self-consciousness, of trying things that it seems as if everyone around you already knows how to do. Skiing, for example. In two years you’re going to go to a college that has its own snow bowl; learn to ski.

Four years from now, when that boy you have the massive crush on comes to your room in Hepburn Hall with a bottle of wine and a bunch of roses, invite him in. Do not stand there in dumb shyness, your heart beating like a hummingbird’s, and thank him politely and watch his face fall and say goodnight and shut the door. Because that’s something else you’re going to regret forever.

When you’re afraid of something, tell someone.

When you need help, ask for it.

When your insides are whirling around and you feel as if you’re drowning, panicking and desperate, don’t put a calm smile on your face and walk around as if you’re fine.

There are lots of people who would love to help you.

There are lots of people who love you. You don’t know that yet, but you will.

In some ways, you’re going to live your life in reverse of most people your age. Awful things are going to happen to you when you’re young, and you’re going to feel much older than your friends. For many years your interior will not match your exterior.

But guess what? Time will go by, and your friends will catch up to you. Life catches up to everyone. The older you get the happier you get, the more rebellious, the less willing to suffer fools, to put up with bad behavior. You’re going to feel so free when you get older.

You are going to be so much happier when you’re older than you can believe possible right now. Most of that happiness will come when you let go of trying to come across a certain way, when you just let people see you for who you are.

It makes me sad that this is going to take you a long time to learn, and I wish I could change it for you, but I can’t.

So many years from the day you held that camera out and hoped this photo would reveal something you couldn’t explain, something you wanted so badly to know about yourself, you will look at it and feel a big sweep of love for that young girl, her whole life stretching out before her, as if she isn’t you.

But she is.

 * * *

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 4.04.18 PMNever Coming Back, my new novelwrote itself in a compulsive rush. Questions tumbled out across the pages, fierce questions that I have spent my own life asking myself. Why do we so often hide so much from the people closest to us? Why, much of the time, do we assume that there will always be more time? Why, for so many of us, is it only at the end of life that we spill our secrets, desperately seeking to close the distance between ourselves and the people we most love?

How well can we ever really know one another?

Faulkner’s famous, ferocious question was one of the guiding lights behind Never Coming Back, a book about the relationship between two people –Tamar Winter and her daughter Clara– who, despite their profound love for each other, have never been able to talk about the secrets they hold in their hearts. But now Tamar has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and time is running out. Tamar and Clara struggle and stumble toward reconciliation, resolution, and clarity. They try, and try, and try again. Like most of us.

Never Coming Back(story) #1

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 4.04.18 PMHow well can we ever really know one another?

Faulkner’s famous, ferocious question has been with me throughout my life. It was one of the guiding lights behind my new novel Never Coming Back (out on October 10), a book about the relationship between two people –Tamar Winter and her daughter Clara– who, despite their profound love for each other, have never been able to talk about the secrets they hold in their hearts. But now Tamar has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and time is running out.

Never Coming Back wrote itself in a compulsive rush. Questions tumbled out across the pages, fierce questions that I have spent my own life asking myself. Why do we so often hide so much from the people closest to us? Why, much of the time, do we assume that there will always be more time? Why, for so many of us, is it only at the end of life that we spill our secrets, desperately seeking to close the distance between ourselves and the people we most love?

As I wrote the book I made a silent vow, not for the first time in my life, to talk, truly talk, with the people closest to me. To make sure they know how much I love them. That feels easy. But what about the regrets I have? What about the things I wish I’d done or could undo in my life? What about the conversations I didn’t have when I still had the chance, when some of the people now gone from the earth, people I loved with all my heart, were still alive?

These questions were troubling through me again a few days ago while hiking. You can’t go back in time, Alison, was the answer that kept coming to me, the same answer that has always come to me. Because it’s true, right? You can’t.

Then another thought came floating in, which was that I can do anything I want if I disregard the time-space continuum. I can talk to my lost loved ones as if they were still alive. I can go back in time, even if only in my own mind, and re-do conversations and actions the way I wish I had the first time.

In Never Coming Back, Tamar and her daughter Clara know that time is not on their side. They struggle and stumble toward reconciliation, resolution, and clarity. As I wrote the book I struggled and stumbled along with them. I watched from the sidelines as they tried and tried again. I love these two women as if they have been part of my life since birth. Maybe they have.

Reviews so far have been good. 

“[A] quietly powerful novel….fans will appreciate McGhee’s magnetic prose and her ability to pack a richly detailed story into a slim novel. Atmospheric and introspective.”—Booklist

“A luminous novel….the author’s gift for subtly poetic language and her believable dialogue make Clara’s journey worth following. McGhee has an almost musical ability to repeat the themes of her novel with enough variation to keep them fresh. Fierce, complicated characters appear to grow out of the severe Adirondack landscape, and McGhee swerves away from sentimentality in addressing the relentlessly changing relationship at the novel’s core.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[A] poignant meditation on the relationship between a mother and daughter….Though this well-written story will appeal to a broad range of readers for its rich characterization, mothers and daughters will especially find Clara’s and Tamar’s story moving and memorable.”—Publishers Weekly

Never Coming Back is a deeply moving exploration of growing up and growing old, and the ties that bind parents and children – and the mysteries that sometimes keep us apart.”—Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of The Sleepwalker, Midwives, and The Sandcastle Girls

“A wise, humane book and a very special novelist.”—George Hodgman, New York Times bestselling author of Bettyville

“Alison McGhee returns to the landscape of the Adirondacks in this beautifully devastating novel about the things that remain unspoken between parent and child. Never Coming Back is an exquisite book, brim-full with nostalgia, love, regret, humor, yearning–and unforgettable prose.”—Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members

Poem of the Week, by Albert Goldbarth

21034365_1822136601133837_3288638729780497471_nHurricanes and earthquakes and floods and the ongoing human cruelty inflicted by our elected employees against their fellow human beings. Jeez. It’s enough to make me understand (a tiny bit, anyway) why religious people start tossing around terms like “the end times.” Screw that, though. Enough good people determined to make the world better will do just that. Let us be like the whales in this strange and unforgettable poem by Albert Goldbarth, and sing to each other.

 

Forces, by Albert Goldbarth

It’s different for the spiderweb: 
the only architecture 
in a five-block radius not 
undone by yesterday’s tornado. 

Out at the More-4-Less, strands 
of uncooked spaghetti were driven, 
unbroken, like nails, through concrete. 
Different levels: different forces. 

I remember when Anna told me 
about the deep-sea dive that almost 
killed her, hammered and disoriented 
and tossed like debris in the middle 

of two converging vectors of power. 
That’s what she said. The whales 
only knew they were singing 
to each other. 

 

 

​For more information on Albert Goldbarth, please ​click here.

Pablo and Birdy: Immigration Story #4

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrWhat sticks with me about this tiny story, more than anything, is the fact that when she told it to me, my grandmother used the term “slavery” with regard to her grandfather. As a child, I thought slavery was confined to the U.S., the great and irredeemable horror and shame of white people owning black people. But according to my grandmother, there were slaves in Denmark, white slaves, and my great-great-grandfather was one of them.

As a child, that word “slave” haunted me. Now I know, thanks to Google, that he must have been not a slave, exactly, but a serf, a villein, who was legally bound to the land and the landowner.

My ancestor supposedly did not have a last name, as he was a serf. But when he was a young man, his landowner’s son fell into a river and nearly drowned. My great-great-grandfather jumped in and saved the child’s life. As a reward, his Danish owner freed him from his indentured servitude and also gave him his own surname, “Hoff,” followed by “beck,” which means river in Danish. (Or so I was told; I don’t speak Danish.)

And my ancestor, now a freeman, and bearing the last name of Hoffbeck, made his way to America to seek a new life. Which tends to be the story, with the single and huge exception of those who lived here before the white conquerors came and claimed it for their own, of pretty much every other American family.

* * *

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” 

Pablo and Birdy: Immigrant Story #3

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrMe on the way to the airport and halfway into a deep conversation about religious extremism (any religion) with my Somali-born Uber driver: “It horrifies me. How does the longing for purpose and passion that every young person has turn into the belief that their god is the only god, and that their god justifies murder and mayhem and terror?”

Him (31 years old, handsome, laughing, who along with his Somali-born wife works full-time on different shifts so that they can trade off taking care of their four little kids): “I will tell you something. I almost became one of them.”

Pause.

“Um. . . you did?”

“Yes. After we fled the civil war in Somalia we lived in Nairobi for three years and I went to a new mosque. I was 18. And the leader taught hate. I began to be filled with hate and to think that others should suffer and die.”

“What changed?”

“I felt my heart turning hateful. And I decided to bring a notebook to the mosque with me for one week. I had one column Hate and another column Love and I kept track of what he was teaching. At the end of the week it was all hate. And I stopped going to the mosque.”

“And now? Did you find a mosque in Minneapolis that feels right to you?”

“I don’t go to any mosque anymore. I don’t raise my kids in any religion. If I want to pray, I pray inside my own head. My religion is two words only. You want to know what they are?”

“I do.”

“Don’t hate.”

* * *

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

Pablo and Birdy: Immigrant Story #2

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrI’m thinking of Cheng right now. He was a skinny, small kid with huge black glasses who always wore a plaid shirt and big tie shoes, a student of mine long ago when I first moved to Minneapolis and took a job teaching Mandarin at a big urban high school. Cheng sat in the front of the class. His voice cracked frequently. He was full of a nervous energy and he had a nervous laugh to go with it. He had one friend, a near-silent boy with dark, dark eyes. Cheng’s parents had a tiny Asian restaurant and they worked nearly around the clock in it. Cheng’s time outside school was spent on homework and washing dishes at the restaurant.

Chinese was an elective, meaning that no one was forced to take it, which translated into a classroom full of students from all walks of life. Some were focused on futures which included college, others on vocational schools, others on high school graduation.

Many were first-generation immigrant students who, as a result of the Secret War in southeast Asia (which preceded the official Vietnam war),  had grown up in refugee camps in Thailand. Their families were originally from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. Most of them spoke English with a strong accent and unconventional grammar, and they studied Chinese because it was an Asian language, closer to their own than German or French or Spanish.

At parent-teacher conferences, if the parents of my immigrant students came, their children came with them to translate. Many of their parents, who had lived powerful lives in their native countries and had been forced to flee because of direct threats to their lives, were either unable to find work in this country or worked intensely hard shifts at minimum wage, barely able to support their families. My students constantly navigated a delicate balance between dutiful child and not-quite-adult interpreter of all things American for their parents. 

I used to have a potluck party at my house every June, to celebrate the end of the year. We set up badminton on my tiny city front lawn and set out food on the dining table inside. All my students were invited.

Cheng was more nervous than usual in the weeks preceding the party.

“When is it?” he would ask. “Where is your house again? What should I bring? What time does it start? Is everyone invited?”

On the day of the party, I was outside welcoming students and directing them where to put their potluck offerings. A big, old, rattly car pulled up to the curb. It was stuffed full of adults and children, Cheng among them. They all poked their heads out the window, chattering in a language I couldn’t understand. Cheng emerged, clutching a big brown take-out bag. He ran up the walk toward me, then turned around and ran back to the car, which was belching exhaust at the curb. The people inside urged him on and he came back to where I was waiting on the steps.

“Mai Laoshi (my teacher name), here you go!”

He pushed the heavy bag into my hands and crouched down to untie those big lace shoes. He placed them carefully on the steps (it’s customary in Asia to remove your shoes before entering a home) and made his way into the house.

I looked in the bag. Six heavy take-out containers full of stir-fried shrimp. No rice, just shrimp. Jumbo prawns. I knew that all that shrimp had come from his family’s restaurant. How much had it cost them? I looked down the walk at that big family car, still lingering at the curb, dark heads still poking out the window, watching me. I smiled and waved, and so did they. Eventually they pulled away from the curb, still looking back at me. Cheng’s mother put her hands together and bowed her head. 

When I went into the house, Cheng was leaning up against the kitchen counter. He looked so unsure of himself. His plaid shirt was tucked into his black pants. His sock-clad feet looked even bigger than usual. 

“Cheng, stir-fried prawns are my favorite dish,” I said. “Thank you so much for bringing all these shrimp.”

He looked up. He was about to cry.

“Mai Laoshi,” he said. “This is my first party. I don’t know what to do.”

* * * 

 

My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.