There is a sparkling choir

Snow fell yesterday in the city in which you live, and like all new snow after weeks of no-snow, it transformed the ugly into the beautiful. Goodbye, brownish clots of street-worn slush. Hello, soft white velvet.

At night, when the snow that has fallen all day ceases to fall and the streetlights come on and the moon rises, the snow sparkles. The dark air sparkles, too.

There were endless warnings last night about bad driving conditions, freezing rain and sleet earlier in the day now overlaid with a deceptive four inches of new snow, and you would have stayed home except that you had to teach an evening workshop just outside the city borders.

So out you went in your giant men’s boots and the mittens your mother gave you for Christmas last year, the ones that everyone covets because they’re fleece-lined wool and so pretty and so warm. You checked the trunk to make sure that the miniature shovel and jumper cables and extra blanket were in there, because

even though there was no chance you would possibly get stuck anywhere you couldn’t walk a few yards and be at someone’s warm house, you like to pretend you’re a pioneer.

You got to the house where the workshop was being held, but you were early, so you kept driving. Around and around unfamiliar streets you drove, slowly, so that you could take it all in.

The lamplit windows and the snow-laden pines in front of them.

The dark cat trotting through the snow at the side of the road.

The streetlights that gave off that yellowish glow that they always do at night in fresh snow.

The unplowed side streets with the single set of tire ruts that every car, no matter what direction it was going, followed.

The couple holding hands and laughing as they broke a path through a small field.

Dog Forest, where you sometimes take your dog so he can run up and down hills and you can tromp through the woods and where neither of you has to pause at the end of blocks to watch for cars.

You taught the workshop and then walked outside into the sparkling air. This was the first time you had worn your giant men’s snowboots since you broke your leg a couple of months ago. They felt great. Your leg felt great too. Almost great, anyway. Good. Pretty good. Good enough to shovel, anyway, which you were secretly longing to do.

You got in the car and meandered quietly back home, hoping that your youthful companion had stayed put while you were teaching and had decided against hauling herself out, shovel in hand. You hoped that when you got home you would find her where you’d left her, sitting on the couch and catching up on one of the several shows she’s addicted to, every episode of which features a gruesome murder and the quirky-but-dedicated team of investigators who solves it.

Sure enough, nothing had changed about either the snow or the youthful companion. This made you so happy. For the first time since the broken leg, you could go out and shovel.

Everyone has a method for shoveling snow. You like to begin with the front steps and sidewalk. If the snow’s not too deep you push the shovel –a bright yellow spring steel snow shovel, thanks– straight ahead of you down the middle of the walkway and sidewalk. Then, from the cleared middle, you shovel short perpendicular sweeps all the way to either side.

You get into a rhythm and don’t break it except to lean on the shovel every once in a while and look up at the dark sparkling night. You love the ache in your back and the ache in your legs and the way your heart beats hard when you shovel.

There’s an etiquette to city shoveling.

You need to clear every bit of your own property, but it’s good form to shovel beyond that into your neighbors’ territory, too. Not too far. Maybe a few feet. Enough so that they know you’re not being selfish and trying to get away with as little shoveling as possible.

With neighbors much older than you, though, neighbors like your 90-year-old neighbor, it’s a little more complicated. Good manners demand that you shovel a few feet beyond your own border, but should you continue on and shovel her entire sidewalk? Her steps?

This is a tricky question. At first it seems obvious: of course you should shovel your neighbor’s entire sidewalk. She’s 90 years old, for God’s sake! But your neighbor is deeply independent and likes to take care of her own house and yard. You’ve often seen her out shoveling her driveway and weeding her lawn.

And there was that one day last summer when you went bursting out your back door to investigate the intensely annoying thock, thock, thock sound you kept hearing, only to find her, at 90, hatcheting down some of the buckthorn on her side of the fence because it was starting to intrude on your side of the fence and she “didn’t want to annoy you.”

Back to the snow. You can tell that the hired shoveling crew who clears her sidewalks has already been by, so you settle for the token-good-manners additional three feet.

A tall man turns the corner at the end of the block and comes walking toward you. You’re shoveling your steps now. Damn, it feels good to be out shoveling. To be doing physical work, the kind of work you love, as opposed to the kind of work that exists all in your head and exhausts you from the inside out.

You give the tall man a big smile when he passes by and he gives you one back and says hello in what you decide is a Middle Eastern accent of some sort.

You’re both happy to be the only ones out, late at night, in the sparkling air of the sparkling snow.

Some days
the snow has taken me in
to know the time of snow, to live
inside a world so quiet

its music
is all a shimmering. Some evenings
when quite alone
I turn off every light

and watch the snow
enjoy the dark, moving lushly
through spiky air,
finding more time

in time
than when I stretch myself
and am
my father’s father. Oh yes,

there is
a sparkling choir, there surely is,
and dark ice air
through which we fall.

(Snow, by Kevin Hart)

“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” (On teaching, the first in a series.)

The classroom was square and windowless, with white cinder block walls and overhead fluorescent lighting. Six rows of six chairs each filled most of the space, with my gray, regulation-size desk facing them. Behind my desk was a tall filing cabinet. A blackboard covered the wall next to me, a real blackboard with real chalk.

This was a long time ago.

I remember it perfectly. I can still feel what it felt like to walk in there every morning at 6:30 a.m., what it felt like to prop my legs up on the desk, what the buzzer that ripped through our eardrums at the end of every hour sounded like.

I had just moved to Minneapolis from Boston, where I had made enough money to support my life as a writer –meaning enough money to pay the rent on my one-small-room apartment, buy a pumpkin muffin every morning from the market down the street and go to matinee double features at the Harvard Square Cinema– by typing papers for Harvard and MIT students.

Charles Street Typing. $1/page. Quick turnaround. One block from the Charles St. T stop.

This was in many ways a great way to make a living if you were trying to be a writer. Make your own schedule. Get up early, write your own stories, then type other people’s papers. Get paid in cash and checks. I made so little money that I didn’t even have to file income taxes.

When I moved to Minneapolis, all this went away. There was no paper-typing market in Minneapolis, there were no lucrative temp jobs. How was I going to support my writing? I answered an ad in the paper for a part-time community liaison job at South High School. I didn’t get the job, no surprise, seeing as I had no idea what a community liaison did, nor did I know anything about either South High School or Minneapolis in general. I had moved there a few weeks earlier; it took me half the morning just to find the place, given its strange all-numbers address, so typical of Minneapolis.

But the school must have read my quickly-thrown-together resume, which listed my college major as East Asian Studies/Chinese, because they called me a few weeks later to offer me a two-week job substituting for the Chinese teacher, who was going to be out of town.

I accepted. Why not?

Those two weeks are a blur. I don’t remember anything specific about them; I had geared myself up for ten straight days teaching Chinese according to the regular teacher’s lesson plans, and then: Goodbye. Or, as we say in Chinese, zaijian.

But  it turned out that the regular teacher was actually moving to California, and the two-week substitute-teaching job was actually a full-time regular teaching job, and did I want it? This was an odd turn of events and I still, after all these years, don’t fully understand how it came about. The best explanation I can come up with is that the regular teacher loved her job and her students so much that she couldn’t face the fact that she would not be returning.

This makes sense to me, because it took only a month or so in that interior, windowless, cinder-block classroom for me to love those students too. I stayed for four years in that job, a job that was handed to me unexpectedly and that I never would have applied for.

Writer. That was the only thing I ever wanted to be, and it still is. Ask me what I am, what I do, and the only answer you’ll get is “I’m a writer.” It still and always takes me a while to remember that I also teach.

(Teaching is not an “also,” though. Teaching is a more important job, for the good of the world, than writing. It might be the most important job there is. This is something I know in my gut. Knowing it doesn’t make me less of a writer or more of a teacher; it’s a fact that I hold in my hands and heart.)

South High School, back then and still, was a cross-section of the big city of Minneapolis. Some kids who lived in the neighborhood went there because it was their community school. Some went because they were part of an “Open” program (it was easy to tell who the Open students were because of the happiness they took in questioning authority). Some went to South because they had babies and toddlers and they were part of the MICE (Mothers and Infants Childhood Education) program. Others were there because South had a Partnership program, designed to keep kids in serious danger of dropping out, kids with serious family difficulties, kids who often had serious difficulties with the law, in school and on track to graduate. Other students were there for the Arts & Humanities magnet program.

The student body was, and is to this day, representative of all races, economic classes, family backgrounds. Any and all of these children could, and did, take Mandarin; Chinese I, II, and III-IV were electives, part of an international language program that at the time included German, French, Spanish, Latin and Chinese.

Many of my students were first- or second-generation immigrants from Southeast Asia: Hmong, Vietnamese or Laotian, for the most part, with a few Chinese kids who spoke Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin, which I taught) at home.

This was my first experience with Hmong culture and history. I had no idea until then that the U.S. hired Hmong men in the mountains of Laos as guerrilla fighters before and during the Vietnam war. I had no idea that after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, these men and their families were in danger of their lives. I had no idea that, when offered asylum in the U.S., they ended up in Minnesota and California because that was where churches sponsored them.

All this was new to me. But everything was new to me: Minneapolis, teaching, and especially teaching Chinese. I was teaching myself how to teach as much as I was teaching the students Chinese.

Three images come shimmering up every time I think back to that classroom.

Lighting. The windowless room had overhead caged fluorescent tubes that buzzed and cast that eerie pallor over everyone’s face. Fluorescent lighting is horrible for many reasons, including its ugliness and the eyestrain it causes, so the first thing I did, when I got that job, was buy lots of lamps at garage sales and plug them in with extension cords (probably breaking fire code). We turned the lamps on and the overhead off, and the room was lit with soft, warm incandescence.

Pillows. The floor of our classroom was covered with thin, tough, ugly industrial tan carpet. I had an old green sewing machine that I found at a thrift shop, the one that I still sew on, come to think of it, and I made a bunch of big pillows out of corduroy in brown and red and ochre and orange. They were heaped in a pile in a corner and the students were free to haul them out and sit or lean on them when they worked on projects or assignments.

Dark brown eyes. These are the eyes of my students, the immigrant students who wanted to take Chinese because it was closest to the languages spoken in their homes. Vue* and May and Thuyen and Phuc and Hai, dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. After a while, some of them began to come in to the classroom during lunch, or after school, and stand in front of the desk or sit in the chair I kept next to it, and talk. Their stories are with me still.

That high school classroom was my teaching crucible. What I learned in it, about teaching, about observing, about connection, about being a human being, has stayed with me my entire life.

(To be continued. *All names and identifying characteristics have been and will be changed.)

Another Picture Book Writing Workshop, Saturday, April 7


Greetings, writers!

Any of you picture book writers out there still feeling isolated? I’m offering another one-day picture book manuscript workshop on Saturday, April 7.

We’ll talk about the fascinating/fiendish (take your pick) specific challenges of writing these fabulous little books, including the essential elements of picture book writing: characters, story arc, language, beginnings and endings, voice and tension.

If you wish, you can bring in copies of a manuscript of your own (no more than 400 words) and we’ll read it aloud and discuss it. Or, just come and absorb whatever’s useful to you and your current or future work. Workshop is limited to a maximum of eleven.

Date: Saturday, April 7, 12:30-4:30 p.m.
Place: my house in Uptown Minneapolis.
Cost: $50 (payable by check or Paypal), including hand-outs and some kind of tasty homemade treat. Please email me at if you have questions or would like to sign up, and please feel free to forward this notice to any interested friends.

The Archaeology of Snow

That photo over there is a photo of the steps that lead up to her house. There are six steps, wide and shallow, covering a vertical distance of approximately four feet from bottom to top.

That’s what she remembers, anyway. There might be five steps, or seven. Who can tell, under all that snow?

She did a little experiment earlier. She stood at the top of where she thought the top step might be, and then she leaped. She landed, she thinks, on the sidewalk. But who’s to know, under all that snow?

Earlier in the day she put on her boots and hauled her yellow steel-spring snow shovel upstairs to her bedroom. Outside the large bedroom window is a small slanted roof (one of several, because it’s a house with several peaks and slants), a roof piled so high with snow that half the window was obscured.

Which would have been fine, because what’s a little more whiteness on top of whiteness, except that she noticed a crack in the wall, right through the plaster and paint, directly underneath the window and running its entire width.

No! This could mean only one thing: The Ice Dam Cometh.

Up to the bedroom she went, lugging the shovel. She pushed open the large window, which is on hinges, and hauled herself and the shovel onto the roof. Then she commenced shoveling.

The top foot or so was easy. Feathery light sparkling snow, the kind that whisks off the shovel and flies up in your face with the slightest breeze. Somewhat out of control, but weightless, so that it’s not really a bother.

Fling, fling, fling, gone. She considers this top layer Ectomorphic Snow. Given her body type, if she were snow, this is the kind of snow she would be.

The second foot or so was what she thinks of as ordinary, run of the mill winter snow. Solid, well-packed, not a lot of air. Difficult to shovel but certainly not impossible. She thinks of this kind of snow as exercise snow. Spend an hour shoveling this snow –she will call it Mesomorphic Snow– and there is no need to go lift weights at the Y. Mesomorphic snow is rewarding.

Her youngest child, if she were to turn into snow, would be this kind of snow.

The last foot and a half proved very grim. At first glance, this bottom layer looked manageable –granular, crusty, “corn” snow, as they say on the slopes. She attacked it with vigor, believing herself to be nearly finished, and a job well done at that. But the corn snow had been waiting, and it was going to take its time.

You think you are nearly done, O Woman With the Sock Monkey Snow Hat, but how wrong you are.

The corn snow –perhaps better termed the Borderline Personality Disorder Snow– was like a blind date gone horribly wrong. An unassuming, even pleasant appearance, a sociable hello, and then all hell breaks loose.

How long had the BPD snow been lying in wait? A long time, she realized. Months, perhaps, as far back as November. It would go to its death, yes, but it would not gently into that good night.

At this point, halfway through the dour BPD snow struggle, her neighbor emerged from her house to call up to her that she needed to get off the roof immediately because “You will die!”

She would not die, but the BPD snow would. She waved and smiled and carried on. Her neighbor, having done her duty, retreated into the safety of her own home.

And that is how it came to pass that her backyard clothesline, normally a comfortable few inches above her head, now hangs mere inches above the backyard snowdrift composed of Ectomorphic, Mesomorphic, and Death by Being Methodically Chopped Into Small Pieces and Flung Overboard snow.

Creative Writing Three-Day Intensive Workshops


If you’re a wordsmith looking for a brief, fun and intensive workshop, you might be interested in one of the three-day classes that fellow writer Brad Zellar and I are launching in January.

These new workshops, each of which focuses on a different subject, are ideal for writers with significant life experience – fifty and up, say – but open to writers of any age and experience level who would enjoy and benefit from a focused creative writing experience.

The workshops will be team-taught by Brad and me, and the first two will be offered in January 2009 at the Minneapolis Central and Washburn Community Libraries. Registration is limited, and cost is $150. Descriptions are below. For more information, please email us here or at

Workshop #1: Writing From Photographs: Inside and Outside the Frame
Dates and Time: January 6-8, Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

It’s said that every picture tells a story, but that’s only true if we apply our memories and imaginations to reconstructing or re-imagining the constellation of circumstances and details that literally frame all photos. In a sense, then, a photo is actually a mere scene from a story –a beginning or an end, perhaps, or a mysterious, poignant, or telling incident that unlocks the story’s secrets. A photo is a connection to the past, a memory, a tangible connection, but it’s far more than that. What at first glance appears to be the main focus – the person or building or scene – is only a hint of what came before and after.

Consider the periphery – what was happening in the margins of the frame? And what about the world beyond the frame – what was left out or cropped? What would the complete picture have shown that the photo does not? What happened just before the shutter was snapped, and just after? Time is forever frozen in the image, but life went on before and after that particular moment, and that life, and those details, are the proper story of the most evocative photos.

Bring in three photos of your own, ones whose largely untold stories fascinate or resonate on some imaginative level, and we’ll provide others. Through a series of guided writing exercises, discussion, and analysis of both published and peer writing, you’ll come away with insights and techniques for character development, scene setting and
storytelling, both real and imagined. This workshop is designed for writers of fiction, memoir, poetry and essays. Ideal for ages 50+, but open to anyone. All experience levels welcome.

Workshop #2: Writing from Place
January 13, 14, and 16 (note: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday), 12:30-3:30 p.m.

Recall some of your favorite books. What part did the setting and landscape play in making these books unforgettable? Is there a place in your own life that haunts you, that is inextricably bound with your memories and the experiences that made you who you are? All writing, no matter the subject or genre, is made more powerful by a powerfully-evoked setting. This three-day intensive class will help you conjure places of great meaning to you, whether beautiful or ugly, real or imagined, and translate that power onto the page.

Through a series of guided writing exercises, discussion, and analysis of both published and in-class writing, you’ll come away with insights and techniques for conjuring place, whether from your own life or a fictive world. This workshop is designed for writers of
fiction, memoir, poetry and essays. Ideal for ages 50+, but open to anyone. All experience levels welcome.