Tag Archives: Issue 5

Packing: Writing on the Move

It’s evening and I’m packing for an early morning flight to New York City. Tomorrow I’ll join a large reading focusing on love and hope (something I need more than ever these days), then I’ll host a reading celebrating the work of the writer Rigoberto Gonzalez. I’m used to travel. I can even say I like it. Though, packing always stresses me out. I never know what to wear or what to bring. But I manage to do it because, well, because I have to. Somehow I have to pack, wake up before dawn, and get to where I’m going, and so I do it. This isn’t that unlike writing. It’s hard and you never feel like you’re getting it right, or doing it with finesse, but if you want to get somewhere, you do it anyway. You have to.

When I tell people I’m a writer—a poet at that—they often think of me tucked away in Emily Dickinson’s yellow house strenuously working on putting words together as if my life depended on it. But the truth is, almost 50% of my life is on the road. And because of that I’ve learned to write on the road and I learn to change the way I think of my time. It used to be that I thought of only the time I spend typing on the page as my writing time, now I think it’s all of it. Writing is all of this life. If I’m doing laundry, raking leaves, getting the car fixed, working on a deadline for magazines, or making an avocado sandwich, I’m still writing.

That’s not to say that it’s as important as putting the work in, bowing down to the desk and cranking out drafts, but life is still part of this art. Sometimes I think the travel actually helps with my writing, because I’m constantly allowing myself to be off-kilter, see a new view on the world, a new town, a different plane window. The contemporary writer today is a writer that’s on the move and multitasking. But, even though, all I want to do sometimes is write for hours in my green pajamas and read on the couch until I fall asleep, the travel keeps me engaged with the fact that all of these words serve a purpose. They are connected with real people outside of the walls of my brain and body.

I admit to craving a hermit life and my down time is often spent in glorious isolation eating pistachios, reading and writing, and going a little mad. But the readings and performances and gatherings mean something. Especially now, when the world feels so fractured and brutal, there’s something kind of spectacular about a group of people gathering to hear words, to be changed by them, to want to connect to something outside of themselves. On the road, in cities and small towns around the world, I get the honor of meeting people who aren’t writers, but readers. They come out to hear work and stay to chat not because they’re looking for writing advice, but because they love and buy books like others order and obsess over Netflix movies.

I guess what I saying is, sometimes it’s good to leave the house. Even when life feels really hard and the world feels like it’s something hostile and unwelcoming, it’s good to pack up your things, bring a book for the plane, maybe write a poem on a Delta Airlines cocktail napkin, and go somewhere where people are celebrating words. It’s part of the job as a writer. We get pack what we can on to the page and then pack ourselves into the world.

Ada Limón

Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and was named one of the top five poetry books of the year by the Washington Post. Her fourth book Bright Dead Things was named a finalist for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky.

Limón teaches poetry in our low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program.


Two cafe tables sit side by side onstage. TOBY is already seated at one table, his back to the other table. ERICA sits in the seat directly behind him so they are back to back. When she pulls out her chair, he turns around, they make brief eye contact and share a smile, and then she sits. They both read the menu. After a second, ERICA sneezes.


TOBY: Cute sneeze.
ERICA: What?
TOBY: You have a cute sneeze.
ERICA: Oh. Thanks? You should hear me cough sometime. (she quietly rolls her eyes at herself in a “what is wrong with me” way and goes back to reading the menu.)

Beat. TOBY:Gesundheit, by the way.

ERICA:Thank you.


ERICA:Do you speak German?
TOBY: What?
ERICA: Sorry… Gesundheit is German. I just… nevermind.


TOBY: It’s just a thing people say when you sneeze. ERICA: Right, like “bless you.”
TOBY: Right.


TOBY: If I had said “Bless you” would you have asked if I was a priest? ERICA: No.
TOBY: Okay.

ERICA: Are you?
TOBY: What?
ERICA: A priest?
TOBY: No… I just… you sneezed. ERICA: Right. Yes. This is my fault. TOBY: For sneezing?

ERICA: Kind of. TOBY: That’s silly. ERICA: Yeah.


ERICA: Gesundheit is a fun word.
TOBY: I was just thinking that.
ERICA: Yeah. (realizing she’s interrupting) Sorry. I’ll let you… go back to… not being a German speaking priest or whatever.


TOBY: Have you (clearing his throat) ever been here before? ERICA: Like… do I come here often?
TOBY: No, like, have you ever gotten the salmon?
ERICA: Oh. Yes, actually.

TOBY: How was it?
ERICA: I got food poisoning.
TOBY: What!?
ERICA: Oh my- I was totally kidding. I really didn’t. That was just a stupid joke. TOBY: Okay.
ERICA: Really, I don’t know why I said that. It just slipped out.
TOBY: Yeah, okay.

ERICA: You’re not going to get the salmon now, are you? TOBY: I’m thinking no.
ERICA: Really, I didn’t/ get food poisoning
TOBY: I’m kidding. I wasn’t going to get it anyway. ERICA: Oh. Good.


ERICA: Soup is good.
TOBY: Which soup?
ERICA: No, sorry, just… in general, I find soup to be… good… most of the time. TOBY: Ah.


TOBY: Are you eating with anyone? ERICA: No.
ERICA: No, I like eating at restaurants alone. TOBY: Is that a joke?

ERICA: That one’s actually not a joke. TOBY: Oh.

ERICA: How about you?

TOBY: I don’t know if I ever thought about it. ERICA: I meant, are you eating with anyone? TOBY: Oh, no, I mean yes, I mean… not right now. ERICA: I can see that.

TOBY: I’m on a blind date.
TOBY: I’m sorry?
ERICA: (lying) Nothing… I just sneezed again… is all.


TOBY: What’s wrong with blind dates?
ERICA: I really sneezed! I wasn’t-
TOBY: My friends set it up for me. I’ve never met her. ERICA: That’s, like, part of the point… right?
TOBY: Yeah… I guess you’re right.

TOBY: She could be perfectly wonderful.
ERICA: Or she could be awful or… a Republican… or eat cotton balls or something. TOBY: Eat cotton balls?
ERICA: People do weird things.

TOBY: If she turns out to be the love of my life, you’re going to feel pretty stupid. ERICA: I feel pretty stupid all the time, not much changes that.
TOBY: Sorry… I shouldn’t have-

ERICA: (laughing) You were kidding, I can appreciate that. Beat.

TOBY: At least my joke was funnier than saying that the salmon gives you food poisoning. ERICA: Are you still on that?
TOBY: I’m just saying.
ERICA: You should focus on your date.

TOBY: She’s not here yet.
ERICA: Well, then maybe focus on the fact that she could have very well have already come in and left the second she saw you.


TOBY: Do people really do that?
ERICA: I was kidding!
TOBY: No, like really, do they really just leave before getting to know you?
ERICA: I don’t know. I mean… I can imagine it happens. But I only ever imagine the worst things happening, okay? So, don’t take my word for it. I don’t know you, I don’t know her, I’m just going to sit here and eat soup because I happen to like most soups.


ERICA: Though, it’s a little hot outside today for soup, so/ maybe I’ll get-
TOBY: I’m not like you, okay. I’m an optimist. I give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume they wouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.
ERICA: Sure.
TOBY: And I think if she did show up and she did walk out… then it’s her loss. Not my loss. Her loss.
ERICA: This is a really good pep talk.
TOBY: Or she could just be running late.
ERICA: Which is also rude.
TOBY: Sometimes people run late.
ERICA: You know, if you eat alone you can avoid that issue altogether.
TOBY:But then who would I talk to?


ERICA: What’s her name?
TOBY: What?
ERICA: Your date? These friends of yours, they told you her name, right?
TOBY: Tiffany.
ERICA: Tiffany. And what’s your name?
TOBY: Why?
ERICA: I wanted to know if your names go well together. Like, my name is Erica so I can’t date an “Eric” or an“Aaron” or a “Cole.”
TOBY: (pronouncing the names) Eric, sure… (Aaron) Errr-on… sure… Co- (wait)… Cole… Why not a “Cole”?
ERICA: I just think Cole is a stupid name.

ERICA: If you’re not going to tell me your name, I’m going to assume you’re a spy or something.
TOBY: I’d be okay with that.
ERICA: Fine. I’m just saying I have an instinct for these things and you not telling me your name is not a great sign.

ERICA: Unless… is your name Cole? TOBY: No.
ERICA: Did I totally offend you, Cole? TOBY: No, no, it’s… I’m Toby. ERICA: Toby.

ERICA: Toby and Tiffany. T-t-t-Tiffany and T-t-t-Toby. Sittin’ in a T-t-t-tree. TOBY: (a little annoyed) Yes, I know, two “T” names.
ERICA: Caught that, did ya?
TOBY: Why do you think I didn’t want to tell you?
ERICA: Relax. You shouldn’t care so much what other people think.


ERICA: (singing DEEP BLUE SOMETHING under her breath) “And I said ‘what about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’ You said ‘I think I remember the film’-”
TOBY: It’s doomed. This is going to be terrible.
ERICA: T-t-t-terrible.

TOBY: I’m serious.
ERICA: Don’t- You’re going to be fine.
TOBY: What if I’m not? What if she’s… I dunno, what if she hates me?

ERICA: This is why I don’t like blind dates. There’s all of this expectation and build up over someone you don’t even know.
TOBY: Aren’t all dates like that?
ERICA: I don’t know… It’s just dinner. Shouldn’t you eat with someone you’re comfortable with? Who you can talk to like they’re, like, ordinary.

TOBY: Well, yeah, ideally. But how often does that happen?


TOBY: You’re probably right.
ERICA: Who knows, anyway.
TOBY: I didn’t mean to disrupt your dinner or anything. ERICA: I’m actually not that hungry.
ERICA: I mostly came in to… nevermind.
TOBY: What?
ERICA: It’s embarrassing.
TOBY: Okay.

TOBY: I’m not going to push it or anything, but I am imagining a lot of embarrassing things you could say right now and none of them are as embarrassing as the salmon-food-poisoning joke. ERICA: I just- I came in to feel busy.
TOBY: What?
ERICA: See, nevermind.
TOBY: No, I’m not… I don’t think I understand.
ERICA: When you’re sitting in a restaurant you have things to do. Decisions to make. Things to read. It’s better than just wandering aimlessly.
TOBY: Do you wander aimlessly?
ERICA: Everyone’s gotta have a hobby.
TOBY: Okay.

TOBY: I don’t think that’s embarrassing.
ERICA: Really?
TOBY: No more embarrassing than being on a blind date.
ERICA: Yeah. I mean, no, but… yeah, thank you for saying that anyway.


ERICA: Do you think- TOBY: I think that’s her. ERICA: What?

TOBY: My date. Tiffany.
ERICA: Oh. Tiffany. Well. There ya go. She didn’t come in and leave. TOBY: Or she changed her mind.
ERICA: That too.
ERICA: Well, have fun.
TOBY: Hopefully.

ERICA stands to leave.

ERICA: You should get the salmon. TOBY: (laughs) Okay.

ERICA exits. TOBY looks after her possibly? Or is he looking at the girl walking in? You can’t tell. Lights down.



I look at reflections through a plate;

this is what it’s come down to

for not having stepped out since

their gardens aren’t for chaste

lemons; plants on this turf have not

seen weightless days under the sun.

The sky hangs them like unfallen

rain waiting to be picked,
nights scrape their faces for zest

never getting to the whites
of their skins, cutting a blade
too deep for bitterness to overflow,

remembering the surface is sweeter

in a cage of sugar nests, and also

because lemons mix well with water.

I know where I belong

on a plate like a tiny cut

cube of jelly

submerged in glucose—
bland, translucent and tasteless—

the safer way to be on a dessert

plate of a ravenous jaw.


Most every night as a teenager:

my face lit by television,

dull and pastel glaze 

molting from the small screen.

Common comedy. Late-night

talk shows with scripted jubilance. 

Hard not to see these evenings 

as wasted, spent knelt at a vapid altar. 

When the shows melted into infomercials, 

I’d roll my unfinished body

in the shoal-dark. Some future I awaited

approached with the aching pace

of a spoon tunneling into a concrete cell wall,

its mystery as cold and illegible

as snowfall over ocean.


When Claire traveled, which she did often, she left a message in the bathroom of every hotel room she slept in, for the eyes of whoever stayed there after she had gone. She would write it on the mirror, in big letters, with a bar of soap, smearing the soap thickly onto the mirror, then gently cleaning most of it off, with the care and precision of an art historian cleaning a painting, or anyone cleaning something that actually mattered. When she was done, it looked as if there were nothing written on the mirror, but left behind was a residue that would be invisible until the next guest took a shower, filling the room with steam that revealed to him the hidden message. That person, whoever he was, would pull the shower curtain back and see what Claire had left for him to read.

Sometimes Claire would write just one word, whichever came to mind when she had the idea to write a word, like LIAR, maybe, or PONTOON, or NOUGAT, or RAPIST. 

More often, she wrote entire phrases, like LEAVE IT BEHIND and IT MIGHT BE BENIGN.

YOU KILLED THEM, she wrote on a hotel room mirror in Ann Arbor, to excite the conscience of whoever saw the words she wrote. Who knew? Maybe the next guest was an actual murderer. Maybe he would be moved by her message to confess his crimes to the authorities. 

He might be guilty of a figurative murder. Maybe he had killed someone’s hopes and dreams.

She’d had the idea to start doing this thing one morning in Sacramento, when she’d emerged from the shower to see streaks left in the mirrorsteam. The streaks she saw did not form words, they were mere streaks. But she formed words there, after searching online for the best method for writing words on a bathroom mirror that would be invisible until the onset of steam. The best method involved the use of soap, said the internet. And so she used soap.

The first words she wrote, in that Sacramento hotel bathroom, weren’t much to look at. She wrote CLAIRE RULES. 

It was the first thing she’d thought of, when she had the idea to write something. 

It did not communicate much. It communicated CLAIRE RULES.

She knew that sometimes the women of housekeeping must have cleaned her words off the hotel room mirrors by washing the mirrors as soon as she was gone. She also felt confident that at least some of the time they didn’t clean the mirrors. So often, when she stepped out of the shower herself, streaks were left there, providing no meaning but offering evidence that someone had touched the mirror with greasy fingers and the mirror had not since then been cleaned. 

At a Radisson in Cleveland, she left behind a mirror message that read, HOPE IS BAD, which she hoped would be seen by someone who knew a woman named Hope. It wasn’t what she meant when she first wrote it; she had only meant to communicate that hope is bad, not for any particular reason.

In the bathroom of a room on the 4th floor of a Hilton in Chicago, she was met with a mirror much larger than the ones she was used to. Surely, she’d thought, when she’d seen the hotel on her itinerary, there has been some mistake. This room is too much. It cost too much. Just look at this mirror. SURELY, she wrote on the mirror, THERE HAS BEEN SOME MISTAKE.

Claire traveled often. She had to, for her job, which was to travel to different offices across the country and hire people on behalf of whatever company had hired her to deliver the news. She was an intermediary, a middlewoman, a professional hirer. Her job was to give good news to people who needed good news—not to give them jobs, but to tell them they now had jobs. She was a messenger who only ever delivered one message, to many people.

She liked her job. She got it when the recession ended, just as she finished college and people started getting hired again, usually for less money than they’d made when they lost their jobs at the start of the recession. 

She never thought for very long about what message she would write. It would have been contrary to the spirit of the thing. She had to write the first thing that came into her mind when she saw the mirror, just before she wrote on it. If she did it any other way, it would mean that she was taking the whole enterprise too seriously. It would mean that what had started as a lark had become a hobby. 

Claire had no hobbies. Her only hobby was not about to be the writing of messages on mirrors that were meant for strangers she would never see.

And she wasn’t the only one who did this thing with mirrors. She learned as much after months of mirror writing, at a La Quinta in Kansas City.

She took two showers in every hotel room she stayed in: one as soon as she arrived, usually, to get the plane grease off her skin, the other the next morning, before she left to do her work and left on a plane later in the day, to whatever city someone was to be hired in next. 

In Kansas City, she was especially eager to leap into the shower, for a woman on the plane, or a man on the plane, had left some hand sanitizer on the handle of the door to the airplane bathroom, for the next plane bathroom patron to deal with. It had gotten on her fingers, on her way out of the facilities, and she was deeply worried that it had traveled to other parts of her body, when she later put her hand on her neck or her leg or her face. Claire was no germophobe; she was reasonable; but she had no proof that what had been on the door handle was in fact hand sanitizer. As soon as she’d felt something on the handle, she’d wanted to go back in and wash her hands again, and again and again, but another woman had already pushed past her and shut the door. 

JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE, the Kansas City mirror said. 

She hadn’t written it. She was not the author of JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE. 

What she had done, upon bursting through the hotel room door, was wash her hands for the second time since exiting the plane, and with the soap write EATING IS BAD FOR YOU, elsewhere on the mirror. She would have known it if she’d written EATING IS BAD FOR YOU and JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS together as a kind of if/then statement, like, as long as all eating is bad for you then you might as well enjoy the clams. 

She stood in the shower, dripping and watching the words slowly disappear from view as the steam left the room. As the words faded, her own body appeared before her in their place, fuzzy at first and then less fuzzy. She watched the words go for a long time, and she didn’t especially like to see her body, enough that before dismissing the idea as absurd she wondered for a moment if writing messages on all those mirrors across the country was a figurative way for her to write over the space where her body would otherwise appear, a means for her to claim authority over a space where she was otherwise faced with her lack of control, with her body the features of which she’d had no hand in deciding. 

In spite of the man she’d brought back to her room at a Holiday Inn in Seattle, three months prior, who behaved toward Claire as if she had revealed to him at last what a woman was, she did not consider her body to be something to admire. She felt strongly that her hips didn’t quite match her legs, and found she could not explain just what she meant by that in Seattle, to her gobsmacked admirer, who said her body was perfect, which made her laugh.  

She couldn’t explain to him what she meant; nor could she explain to herself convincingly the presence in the La Quinta of the words she didn’t write. 

Did someone else have the same idea she’d had? It was possible. It seemed likely that someone else would think, at some point, to write things on bathroom mirrors. 

It seemed less likely to her that whoever this person was would choose to write messages as nonspecific yet evocative as hers were. That’s how she thought of them, at least.

Did another guest write the other words? Was it a hotel employee who’d done it? Was the hotel itself sentient; had the La Quinta become self-aware, or been outfitted with an artificial intelligence that had predicted she would write something, not knowing what that would be, and preempted it? Was the place fucking haunted?

All of these things she considered as she dried off and wrapped the towel around her weird hips. As she continued thinking—something she did more or less constantly, even when she’d tried and failed to meditate, with that guy in Seattle the second time she went to Seattle, looking him up before she arrived, since she was going to be in town anyway—the words disappeared from what then appeared to be a plain mirror without any writing on it.

When she returned to the room, later that evening, after hiring an ecstatic man who overreacted to being granted a customer support position at a corporate headquarters where, without a college degree, he would never make more than $28,000 a year—$30,000 if he was lucky—the mirror still looked like nothing. 

When she emerged from the shower the following morning, no new words had been written there.

She bid them goodbye, and left for her flight to somewhere North Dakota, where a fracking company was hiring a new engineer. 

Engineers were the most fun to hire, because they rarely seemed very pleased to be hired. Almost to a man they were stonefaced, and they were nearly all men.

For another eight months, she continued to write messages on hotel room mirrors.

In that time, she stayed at 111 hotels in 28 states. She hired almost 200 people, and was growing tired of her job. As joyful a thing as it was to hire people, she was beginning to feel a little pointless, to feel somewhat or very purposeless, like a tool that was invented not because there was any need for it but because it hadn’t been invented yet. She felt like the human equivalent of a piece of metal that would help screwdrivers drive screws.

She felt also like a midwife who delivers a thousand babies but never has any of her own. After hiring so many people, she wanted to be hired herself. She wanted to partake in some of the satisfaction she saw on the faces of the people she hired. It had been long enough since she’d been granted her current position, she’d forgotten what it felt like.

Mostly, she wanted to get a different job that made more sense to her. 

She had asked men and women at the companies that brought her in why they’d bothered bringing her in, why they hadn’t just done the hiring themselves. 

It’s not hard to do, she’d said, imperiling her livelihood. You just tell them they’re hired.

Most of them said it was something they were required to do by their corporate higher-ups. Others explained that it was just better this way, that many of the people they hired wouldn’t be with the company long, and so if an intermediary did the hiring it would make the separation easier, later on. Not much later on. 

Having you here, said a man to Claire in Albuquerque, is like pulling off a Band-Aid. It’s always better if you can get Mom to do it. 

Claire didn’t like that the man had essentially just said that she was playing the role of his mother. There was nothing about it that she liked. But she knew she would never see him again. So, whatever.

She had had enough, by then, of the job and of the travel. 

It was no coincidence that she had gotten tired of writing messages on mirrors. Usually, now, when she looked at a mirror, she felt utterly uninspired. 

At a Holiday Inn in Columbus, she had written on a mirror I AM OUT OF IDEAS. 

Soon, somewhere in America, she would probably end up writing CLAIRE RULES again. 

At a La Quinta in Kansas City, the last La Quinta she would ever stay in for work, she wrote on the mirror EATING IS BAD 4 U. 

The news of Prince’s death had just arrived. She was trying to process it.

She looked at what she’d written, sighed, and took a shower. 

When she stepped out of the shower, minutes later, the entire mirror was covered with writing. 

Holy shit, she said aloud, brushing back her hair. 

DON’T TELL ME THAT EATING IS BAD 4 U, it read. JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE. The words overlapped in some places; it was a clumsy mess, up there on the mirror. 

But the message was clear.

The message that lay behind inside the written message grew even clearer, the longer Claire stood there, the more the words and the steam faded and her hips and the rest of her body grew less obscure. If she had stayed in this room three times in the nearly three years she’d had her job, and had written on the mirror on each visit, and hadn’t recognized the room on her return visits, and in all that time no one had cleaned the mirror thoroughly enough to remove the words she had written, then it was time to switch careers, to settle down and stop staying in hotels, or at least to find work with a company that would put her up in better hotels. 

There would be no tip for housekeeping that morning. As she waited for the Uber she ordered, she gave notice in a terse email to her supervisor, whom she had only met once, when he’d hired her. He had done it himself. The rest of the time, she had been on the road. 

She would travel to hire only eight more people in the two weeks that followed, at the end of which she would be done hiring people on behalf of the cowards who couldn’t face the temporary employees who didn’t know they were temporary. 

Her final mirror message, written in the bathroom of the apartment she moved into in St. Louis after quitting her job, because she had family in St. Louis, was written for herself. 

It was EGGENPLATZENSCHLATZ. It was a word she had made up on the spot, but she swore that when she found a job she wouldn’t travel for, except when commuting, she would decide what it meant. 

Or maybe she would have someone over. Maybe the guy from Seattle would visit, and he would take a shower in her rented bathroom, and see the message, and together they would decide the meaning of EGGENPLATZENSCHLATZ. 

It probably wouldn’t be the guy from Seattle. 

There was no telling what might happen, though, in St. Louis.


From the winter’s blue dark, the crows

floated in through the open window

where my mother and I slept in our shared bed.

They came and burrowed under the quilts,

one on my chest, embracing my heart.
My mother laid motionless. She did not cry

and in the blackness I strained to speak

but my breath froze in the glacial air.

I tried slipping out from beneath the cobalt weight,

as if this burden were a baby

nursing until desiccation.
Corvus lay atop me. Iridescent claws

clasped my sternum, tightened their hold.
Her shadowy feathers only ruffled in reposition

like a mother nesting on top of her clutch,

assiduous and de nite,

until something fragile finally cracks.


He’s the original Adam, cable-knit sweater pulled down

over his missing rib. He’s thinking about ending things

with Eve—not because he doesn’t love her, I mean God,

look at their history—but because he can’t remember

what it was like before he had this slack fleshy gap

in his bones, a tender fontanelle that seems to invite

every sharp counter corner and heedless bicycle handlebar

and other glancing jabs, like the absence of notches

on his bedpost and numbers in the little black book

with page after page of inkless lines. It prompts him

to prod the hollow lamella over his cartilaginous cage,

to wonder if this perpetual stitch will ever ossify

and heal the horrible discomfort of knowing

there is only one woman who was made for him.


The weather forecasters called it an Arctic Dome, but those of us who lived in northwestern Wyoming that winter pronounced it colder than a well digger’s behind.  For seven days the mercury in our thermometer never ventured above zero, even at high noon.  Snow squeaked beneath our boots.  Ice draped windows so thickly one had to rub a viewing portal to the great white way beyond.

All of this was very bad news for me, the family woodchopper.  Our primary source of heat was a freestanding wood stove whose shallow breath warmed the living room.  A cast-iron cook-stove in the kitchen chased ice from the corners of that room.  Both ran on wood scavenged from the county dump where my little brother and I spent each Saturday loading our old Dodge truck with the detritus of other neighbor’s lives.  We scampered over frozen grounds like sparrows, snatching up wrecked floorboards, grizzled fence posts, and a variety of warped and weathered sideboards from fallen outbuildings.  Each evening I labored to transform the wood into firebox-sized morsels for our hungry stoves.

Thoreau wrote of his fuel gathering, “Every man looks at his wood pile with a kind of affection.”  I viewed mine with dread.  For the uninitiated, it’s important to know the difference between wood splitting and wood breaking.  Splitting wood is for those fortunate enough to possess the means to slice up logs or boards into woodbox-sized lengths, usually accomplished with a large, tractor-driven buzz saw or a chain saw.  This cuts across the wood’s grain, stealing its structural integrity.  One need only drive an axe-head or a wedge down into the pale meat of the wood to split it.

Breaking wood is entirely another matter.  Instead of going with the grain one must bludgeon the wood along its latitude where there is no predilection to cleave.  The cells interlock as a bulkhead, an impeccable feat of natural engineering to keep trees upright against whims of wind.  To my woodchopper’s chagrin, many of the timbers seemed designed also to resist my own terrible storm of blows.  A length of oak could seemingly transform the ruthless steel of the axe head to rubber. 

Night fell before I finished lugging buckets of grain and water to pigs, chickens, cattle, horses, and sheep.  I scattered fresh straw for the animals to insulate themselves against the long sub-zero night ahead.  I then went inside for a last moment of creature comfort, turning my backside to the wood-stove.  Squeals and shouts from somewhere deep in the house told of my younger brothers and sisters at play.  Mom’s empathetic hand found my shoulder.   “It’s supposed to blizzard all night and maybe all day tomorrow.  The stoves will really gobble the wood.”

I nodded glumly.  The tall windows of the kitchen were black as carbonized wood.  Points of white flashed by like miniature meteors to signal that the advance guard of the big storm had arrived.

Alone on the edge of our hill, I was nearly blinded by snow driven from the north.  I needed shelter for my task so I commandeered a tin meter house we had hauled in earlier that summer from an abandoned oil field.  Six feet to a side, the shed nonetheless afforded me protection from stinging darts of snow.  I hung a flashlight from the ceiling with a corkscrew of baling wire and went to work in the jittery cone of light.  The first board was a ten-footer from an old granary.  The board stuck out through the open door and snow sifted in to flour me like a pan-fried trout.

The little room echoed with the whunk, whunk of the falling axe-head as slowly, very slowly, boards succumbed.  One piece of hardwood played hard to get so I attacked it with special fervor.  It broke with a sound of a donkey bray.  I pinned the remaining length with my boot and brought the axe down hard.  The axe-head caromed off the board and smashed sideways into my inner ankle.  I screamed every foul epithet in my lexicon while I rubbed the contusion growing under my skin like a summer strawberry.  

On and on I chopped under the pale light, my ragged breaths were spumes of frost filling the claustrophobic hut.  Ever so slowly the pile grew to fill my wood basket and I trudged through the icy veil toward the house, which appeared as a faint yellow blur–a lonely star fallen to ground.

Mom received me into the cozy kitchen, instructed me to warm up by the woodstove.  She pried up a stove lid over the firebox and stuck in several pieces of my newly chopped wood.  She took them right out of the box I barely had set down.  The wood lay in the bed of orange coals for seconds and then its pale flesh caught fire.  Every moment I stood there was witness to five minutes of my labor gone up the chimney in smoke.

“Okay–bring us more wood!”  Mom enthused.

I was a madman of axe-wielding intensity.  Steam gushed from my coat sleeves and collar.  My disappointment spoke for me and it was not a good advocate.   “How come you’re using it up so fast?”

Mom smiled.   “Hear the wind whistling down the chimney?  It’s sucking up heat like milk through a straw.”  An awful truth presented itself.  The fires were gobbling up the wood fast as I chopped it.  The night was deepening and the storm was getting worse.  The trek back out to the hut was interminable.  Wind slammed me and pelted my face with pellets hard as thrown rice.  The pile of boards was now a skein of snowy lumps.  Anger heated me from stomach to ears.  I yelled into the white night.  “This is nineteen sixty-SEVEN!”  I also wanted to shout that this is the age of Apollo astronauts circling the planet in spaceships.  Not to mention the age of people in town summoning warmth to their rooms with a mere twitch of a thermostat.

The next box took longer to fill because of the search to excavate boards from the snowy heap at the edge of the hill.  I arrived in the kitchen weary and chilled to the bone.   “Better get a hustle on, honey.  We’re almost down to the last stick.”  I dropped the box.   “It’s not fair!  Everybody else in here is nice and warm and I’m out freezing my a–”  Mom’s eyes widened and I throttled the expletive mid-tongue.

“It’s your job, son.”

“Yeah but Jim doesn’t have to do anything.”

“He has his chores, but he’s younger.  He doesn’t have your strength”

I recoiled at having my own qualities turned against me.  I sunk into self-pity cold as the drift just outside the back door.

“Why don’t we have natural gas heat like normal people?” I pouted.

“You know why, son.”

Yes, I knew.  We were poor.  Poor enough to qualify for government commodities.  There was no one to blame.  My stepfather, Bill, worked hard at the grain elevator for low wages.  He swept grain spilled from big trucks (more sparrow work) as they made the sharp turn into the elevator.  He brought home the sweepings to help feed our livestock.

“I’m tired.  I can’t keep up.”

“You have to. You know Bill’s back is out.”

There was nowhere to turn except toward the door to the blizzard.  I grabbed the empty wood-box and trudged back to my prison shed.  Snow was so deep I was forced to liberate the flashlight from its wire harness to search for likely boards.  I dug like a dog and finally found one.  I lugged it to the shack, re-hung the flashlight, and began to chop.  It was another ‘rubber board.’  I gave it a vicious whack only to be rewarded by a flash of pain in my left instep.  I threw down the axe and hobbled backwards.  My heel caught on the door threshold and I pitched out backwards into a pillow of snow.  I lay stunned, arms outstretched like a child making a snow angel.  Pellets of snow wedged under my eyelashes and flew up my nostrils.  I limped back into the shed and grabbed the board, enraged sufficiently to imagine snapping it with my bare hands.  I swung it wildly, heard it smash into the flashlight.  The stricken light fell to the frozen floor and went out.

I stood in utter darkness.  Blinked.  Experienced for the first time in my life utter despair.  I pictured the fires in the house burning low, winking out ember by ember until the fireboxes were graves of cold ash.  The house would grow colder, still colder.  Then, one by one, my brothers and sisters, my Grandmother, Mom, and Bill, would begin to grow drowsy with the onset of disaster.

I could manage only one cogent thought.  Escape!  Flee the scene.  Throw my fate to the prowling winds and predacious snows.  Suddenly, a ray of light illuminated my dark reverie.  A beautiful voice floated in on a tide of snowflakes.

“You about played out?”


Here she was, clad in her insulated jacket and pants with a wool scarf tied over her gray hair.  She handed me her flashlight and I secured it in the overhead harness.  In its glow my four-foot-ten inch Grandmother looked like a denim angel of mercy–which of course she was.

We quickly worked out a scheme.  I retrieved my flashlight to excavate boards from the snowy hillside pile.  These were brought to the little tin hut where Grandma made quick work of them.  Once, after I propped a cedar post inside the door, I stood and watched Grandma work.  Though she was nearly sixty years old and so small she was forced to chose clothes from the junior’s section of mail order catalogs, my Grandmother proved to me that night neither size nor gender have much to do with success in the Herculean art of breaking wood.

I observed this master at her craft and noticed that before she attacked the board with muscle and steel she studied it.  She rotated it in her gloved hands, examined one end and then the other.  She told me what she looked for in each board–the pattern of the grain.  She said this was to understand the way the tree had lived its life and responded to challenges and opportunities from nature.  A more open grain suggested access through a well-aimed axe blow to split even a “rubber” board along its length.  Hard wood thus could be reduced in girth to be more easily broken into stove-sized lengths.  Other boards revealed knots, birthplaces of branches that could prevent a clean, longitudinal split.  Grandma would sink the axe-head in the end of one such piece, and then propel the other end into a solid object.  This whiplash effect used the helpful physics of momentum to force the axe-head in deeper.  A few taps were generally enough to cleave the wood.  

And so it went.  Grandma rendered ‘rubber’ boards so handily I worked up a sweat ferrying them in from the snowy pile.  We worked for an hour, our rhythm broken only by my dashes to the house to unload boxes heaped with freshly broken wood.  When Grandma finally straightened up from dispatching her last board she announced we had enough stacked along the wall of the shed to keep the fires happy all night.  I stood close by my Grandmother, surveying the tidy stack of wood.  It was a miracle.

“You must be ten times stronger than me, Grandma.”

She chuckled.  “No, but I‘ve had a few years to learn the hard way and then the other ways to do this.”  

Before she returned home to her ranch in Montana a few weeks later, Grandma showed me how to use the head on my shoulders as well as the one at the end of my axe.  There were little things like clutching the shank of the axe at varying points to gain appropriate leverage, or sizing up each board to locate vectors of vulnerability such as dry rot or natural fractures.  There were lessons about feathering knotty wood to make kindling sticks, rather than expending energy to render such pieces for mature fire duty.  Finally, Grandma taught me about the importance of working hard on fair weather days to chop a goodly pile of wood as a reserve against the inevitable blizzard.

Years passed before I realized Grandma had taught me something else that frigid night.  She had helped me to gauge my own hidden textures and to learn the nature of my own grain.

There were moments during lonely afternoons of wood breaking when I encountered wood so resistant to my engineered blows I retired it for a day when it might be used as a pillar of support in an outbuilding.  Such inner strength, I reasoned, deserved more honorable duty.  It reminded me in turn of my Grandmother because she had become a pillar of my life education.  I was fortunate indeed to have her demonstrate skill and wisdom in action because it taught me that one might endure in the face of most any challenge–rubber boards or blizzards or storms of self-doubt.  That revelation, like a surprise Chinook wind, warms me yet, even on the coldest of nights.