A Memory from the Summer of 2008


We were at a colleague’s Texas wedding, in the backyard of Hill’s Cafe on South Congress in Austin. This was our first night out since his return from seven weeks in the jungles of Trinidad, his annual summer research trek.  Before he left, I believed that I would welcome the break from the exhaustive work of dating so as to have more time to study for my master’s program, to organize outings with girlfriends, to wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Missing him never even occurred to me, but then I pined. Oh Lord, how I pined, struggling against a tropical depression, almost worried that I might be physically sick.

The melancholic resistance to waking up in the mornings for my normal four-mile run with friends only made it worse. Two weeks in, I chastised myself out loud, “Oh damn” as I stood there shaking my head slowly, realizing the obvious: I was in love with him.

I’d nothing against love and in fact welcomed the high, except he was in rubberband mode, floating in and out of the relationship, not with his presence but with … What? Emotion, interest, commitment; wait, who said anything about commitment, or marriage, or love?

He did. Two weeks before he left Texas, he whispered, “I love you,” (first; thank god). I repeated the words but I was hesitant, always afraid of losing myself in a relationship. I kept only toes in, sometimes legs, but never my whole self.

Of course, Allan was different. Now that he’s dead, I wonder if he finally knows that it was me who made the first move, calling his office, leaving a voicemail meant to prompt a response. I expected a phone call back yet was thrilled when he walked into my office, so sure of himself this scientist, determined to do what he had come to do: ask me out on a date.

Now it was eight months later, August of 2008, and I had spent the last week pretending that I was not counting off the days until I could pick him up from the airport, a lack of appetite the only positive by-product of missing him.

“You have it bad,” I kept saying out loud to myself while secretly acknowledging, This is not good if he does not ask you to marry him; in fact, this is quite bad.  He wasn’t like anyone ever, and the lure of him left me wanting his presence 24×7. For the first time in my life, I could see staying instead of leaving, building a life together, being with only him. But, I had no idea what he felt other than that one serious “I love you” spoken months before … before he left for seven weeks, before he communicated from Trinidad by email once a week — three short sentences, sometimes only two. Each morning, my heart pumped in anticipation as I checked my email box for more communication, reluctant to send my own.

Let him do his research; give him space. Why would he need space? From me? Oh my god, is he GLAD to be away from me? And on and on and on.

Now we were standing at this wedding reception, ornamental tunes from The Gourds playing live in the background, and us sipping frozen margaritas from one of the free-flowing liquor stands placed throughout the south Austin venue’s backyard. A professional photographer roamed with his camera, stopping to ask if we would like a picture.

Before we answered, I looked at Allan as joked in reference to my father, “Will I have to ask Lou for your hand in marriage?”

A piercing sigh of relief shot into my chest while simultaneously scaring the crap out of me. He was in love, too. Oh, Thank God. Oh shit. But I did not have to decide anything today. There was time yet to figure everything out. I knew one thing only and that’s what I trusted in as a wide smile crossed my face. I looked up to the man I loved and answered the cameraman at the same time, “Yes,” to a photo of Allan and me.


For Allan, today and always

September 3rd, 2013


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Votary in Miramar

WBR_LetGoOrBeDragged_v3Egyptian mythology says that if we follow the direction of the sun, we will heal our hearts.  I first learned this in Michigan, the halfway point of the driving-around-the-United States road trip. I knew heading east before heading west was the right choice, but I didn’t know why until then.

I do not have to tell you that I miss you or even how it still manifests itself every day. You watched as I jumped off that pendulum of emotions — dying and love; anguish and hope; fear and excitement — ready to live again despite your absence.  That pattern of feelings waged battle after battle, and it’s only now that I can see how you never left my side, not even a little.

You were the only one who knew how broken I was when I set out over a year ago, and you’ve been the only one who has understood how I’ve struggled to let go, let go, let go, let go. Starting over felt like agreeing to forget, so I came here to Miramar Beach, the end of where I’d meant to begin, to say goodbye once more to you and to my still wounded self, to the regret I hold in my heart superseded only by what I learned from loving you.

~  ~  ~

You know how I dream, and two nights ago I had another. I was driving a Jeep, not your burgundy color but a light, feminine gold. There really wasn’t enough room for all the people I’d offered to give a ride, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to invite more and more people to hop into the truck. As each new person’s weight settled in, the floor of the Jeep dropped closer and closer to the ground. I ignored it, pretended I wasn’t worried that I might break down, blindly driving in spite of the too heavy load.

The next scene was this same group of people but now we were returning from wherever it was that we’d come, again with too much weight. Because I was the driver and the last one to get in, I could see clearly how this excessive bulk could damage the truck. In fact, I don’t know how it didn’t damage it on the way to the first location. But I didn’t want to ask anyone to wait behind since I’d encouraged them to come along. It wasn’t far into the trip when I felt the tire go flat. I stopped so people could get out of the Jeep to fix it and that’s when I saw that it wasn’t one flat tire, but that all four were deflated. I’d been driving on three flat tires when the last wheel gave out.

After everything was fixed, after all four tires were inflated, everyone started to climb back in, each person’s weight once again putting too much pressure on the frame. I was standing outside of the vehicle, shaking my head. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but if I didn’t speak up, I risked permanently damaging not only the frames of the wheels but the entire structure of the Jeep.

In the last scene, I arrived at a house and saw a man who was familiar and knew that if I were willing to feign interest, I wouldn’t have to continue being alone. Out loud I said, “I could close my eyes and pretend it was you,” because even in my dream state, you were still dead. I did close my eyes and when I finally woke in the light of reality, I was shaking my head, No.

You have my love forever which did not end with your death, but today and always, I promise these things:

  • to let go
  • to never settle
  • to finish

Votary in Miramar.

~    ~    ~

Allan William Hook, September 3, 2013:  Votary of Nature by Thomas Say

Votary of nature even from a child

he sought her presence

in the trackless wild

To him the shell, the insect, and the flower,

were bright and cherished emblems

of her power

In her he saw a spirit all divine

and worshiped like a pilgrim

at her shrine

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Numeral V of The Gatita Chronicles


View from our apartment in San Pedro. Yes, that’s the ocean. Good-bye!

People say that having a child changes your life.  I say that traveling with a cat alters your destiny or at least your destination.

I used to be a spontaneous traveler, a fluid nomad of sub-cultures, a born again gypsy; now I’m a 50-something, widowed too early, with a hairball who holds court appreciating no one and nothing. Tomorrow morning we leave San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, a place I’d planned to be for three full months, but our Air BnB rental was not, as the owner had originally indicated, available for the entire summer. If I were willing to share the apartment with the original tenant who happened to be absent for the month of June, I was welcomed to stay.


I do not want to share a place with a complete stranger, and I definitely do not want to share it with a man. I don’t want to share. There wasn’t enough time to be as upset as I probably should have been. Instead of spending that first week developing a temporary community, I was dedicated to finding a rental with a view for July and August that was a) still available, b) not ridiculously expensive, and c) feline friendly. The San Pedro Air BnB owners, have actually been gracious and kind (aside from this not-so-small booking oversight), inviting me to dine with them on several occasions, no doubt hoping my wine intake would diffuse any travel wrath; it did. But this last week of June, when I should be editing, I have instead been secretly packing, something I must do on the sly so as not to alert Gatita’s now fully formed road phobia.

(Speaking of editing:  I’m making progress! I went off track for a bit with all the road travel in May, but the shortened time in San Pedro actually helped to spur me into rewriting action.)

At the moment, Gatita is napping in the bedroom, something she does 15 to 20 hours a day now.  She is 12 human years which equates to an elder 70 in whiskers age.  I have closed the bedroom door so she will not hear me as I tip toe my luggage and packing containers onto the patio for easy transport. This strategy is a necessary process if I’ve any hope of Gatita remaining calm tomorrow when I place her, my final package, into the Jeep early in the morning. We have a four-hour drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to central California and a place called Morro Bay.  I’d like to remember that coastal drive as howling-free.

But if you were thinking of feeling sorry for me because I have to contend with a psychotic cat, you’ll want to keep reading.  My girl is justified in her newfound dread of the highway. Let’s just hope her experience in the Mojave does not repeat itself, ever … read on:

Cat on a Freeway


Crossing the Mojave via IH-15

Before entering Los Angeles, Gatita and I had to make our way out of the hot state of Nevada and into the arid part of California untouched by ocean breezes or water of any kind.  I’m convinced that someone, somewhere captured photo(s) of the worst ten minutes of Gatita’s and my life on westbound Interstate 15.

Her continuous crying began two days earlier as we left Idaho and headed into Nevada, using all their dusty backroads with heat floating up from asphalt. When we left Las Vegas that morning, I didn’t turn on the air conditioner but instead rolled down the windows so a cross breeze could keep us cooled off.  My more frugal side did this primarily to save on gas, but also because the only temperature that seemed to be coming out of the 2001 Jeep’s outdated air conditioner was warm air.

I tried not to think about what the lack of cold air would mean between Nevada and California, another 200 miles of mostly desert land, better known as the Mojave.  And so it was just outside of Barstow, 60 miles west of Las Vegas when temperatures started to inch towards 100 degrees, and it wasn’t even 10 o’clock in the morning yet.  We passed a white and black road sign that read:

$1,000 fine for abandoned animals on the highway

Who in the hell leaves a pet out here?  I was thinking as we passed through the city of Baker, headed toward an exit for Zzyzx. It’s apparently so scorching in the desert that people gave up trying to use vowels in their town names.

I’d left the Jeep windows down a little lower than usual, not concerned that Gatita would see this as a primary escape route. She was too intent on sitting up towards the back of the truck, her mouth open as she faced the driver behind us, panting as if to cool herself off but really it was flat out dyspnea, so distressed was she from our continued driving.

Then all of a sudden, the 70-mile an hour slowed to 50 mph then 20 then a snail’s 10. Throughout this trip, I have stayed in the far right lane, sometimes designated as the slow car and truck lane. Other cars sped by far faster than the legal 70 mph, oblivious or in defiance of the other posted signs of speed radar by aircraft. Of course, I never saw any aircraft and obviously neither did any of the speeders but it no longer mattered:  All of us were now inching along at a mere 5 miles per hour.

I rolled the windows down even more because our slow speed did not allow for any air, hot or otherwise, to be felt. Gatita had been at the back of the Jeep crying, and I had managed to block out her voice so when the crying stopped, I didn’t notice immediately. It was purely by chance that I thought to glance in the rearview mirror, but when I didn’t see her, I turned my head towards my blind spot, first on the right then on the left. Already, her body was half-way out the window as she dragged her belly through. If I tried to roll up the window to stop her, I would injure her ribs.

“No! Gatita, no!” I yelled but it was too late.

She had done the unthinkable and squeezed her body through a narrow opening of that backseat window, landing in between two lanes of the highway surrounded only by dried, spindly shrubs. Had cars been going their normal 70+ speed, she would have been killed instantly. But when she landed on the freeway, she stayed still. I maneuvered the Jeep onto the shoulder of the road and slammed on the brakes, opening the door before I’d even placed the gear into PARK. Jumping out of the truck, I placed both palms up as I faced drivers while mouthing the word Stop so I could grab her. But one car in a hurry to drive 10 mph instead of 5 mph ignored my plea and sped up in front of Gatita, spooking her and causing her to dart across the final left lane and onto the desert median, almost three lanes in width.

“Gatita, come here little kitty, please girl, please come here.”

I did not dare run after her, but only walked quickly, at a pace that would not frighten her. Every couple of steps, she veered farther south until she was almost halfway across the median. On the other side of the highway, cars were heading east at a normal 70 and 80 mph. She would be hit for sure.  If she weren’t she would be lost forever, her pink collar absent from her neck and no doubt under the Jeep seat where she always managed to get it caught on something, pulling until it snapped off.

“Gatita, please, please stop,” I kept saying in an elevated voice but not yelling, trying hard to sound normal and not desperate.

Yelling would make her quicken as would any speed faster than what I used to keep up with her, praying with every step that I reached her before she reached the other side of that freeway.

All of a sudden, she turned east and began heading back towards Las Vegas. Clearly, she had lost her kitty mind. But, she was not close enough for me to lunge for her so I did the only thing I could: I kept up with her. And we walked like this for a solid five minutes. If I tried to accelerate my stride even a little, she picked up speed. Surely someone was filming this from a smartphone if only to report me to highway patrol when the carcass of my cat was eventually found.

Although the air felt cooler outside of the Jeep, I knew this was a deceptive dry heat, famous for its ability to send a body into heat stroke or exhaustion, the lack of humidity detrimental regardless of human, animal or plant. Now I knew why the Department of Transportation for Nevada and California put up the white with black lettering signs — for idiots like me.

Gatita seemed determined to walk all the way back to Las Vegas while I wondered how long I could stay out here parched. I’d already stopped sweating in the dried air, a bad sign for both of us.  Maybe she’ll wear herself out and let me catch up.  I pictured us both passing out on that median, nobody dumb enough to stop and help us. There would be no point. There was nothing and nowhere to go for sixty miles in either direction and only barren land on both sides of the highways.

Then a trucker beeped his horn causing Gatita to jump and veer back north towards the westbound lanes we had come from. I smoothed my voice even more as I made non-stop lip smacking sounds, difficult from my saliva-free mouth. She was so close to the shoulder of the lanes now and even though the cars were slow moving, they weren’t stopped. She was scared enough to run directly in front of a rolling tire.

I whispered, “Gatita, como estas chica, que paso?”

And that’s what did it, hearing Spanish because she was, after all, a Mexican cat, born in the state of Morelos, the city of Cuernavaca. She is what I brought back with me on the airplane after my Mexico sabbatical ten years prior. When she heard the familiar Spanish, she stopped abruptly on the shoulder, crouched into a tight position, miserable as her tiny paws rested on the hot road, but allowing me to catch up to her.

“Okay, okay,” I whispered as I reached down. She didn’t try to fight as I gently picked her up, wrapping my arms around her.

I pet as I cooed, “You’re such a good kitty,” while thinking, I’m going to kill this cat!

“It’s hot, I know, but we’re almost there.” Damn it, Gatita!

The westbound lanes were still backed up but not going as slowly as before, and impatient drivers were still hurrying to go nowhere. Once she was in my arms, most cars slowed down in anticipation of me crossing the highway lanes, but the semi-truck that I needed to cross in front of had a loud motor sending Gatita back into a panic. I felt her struggle against me as I realized that she could still spastically bolt from my arms.  The truck driver must have noticed when I did because he turned off his engine, the silence calming as I looked up to mouth, ThankYou!

Once we were both inside the over-heated Jeep again, I continued to hold Gatita until I turned the key in the ignition so I could roll up all of the powered windows. When the engine was running, I tried the air conditioner. Still warm air.  Dammit!

As pissed as my cat was at me, she did not leave my lap right away. Instead, she moved her face so that her mouth was next to my ear, better for me to hear her cry I guess. But I was sweating in that Jeep.

“We’re stuck with each other until we get to Cali,” I said as I placed her on the passenger seat.

She meowed as she walked across the console and onto the baggage in the back of the Jeep to stand once again facing the drivers behind us, her mouth open while she panted. There was little for me to do except hope the traffic started up quickly. We still had another hour of desert highway to cross, two hours until temperatures started to fall by twenty degrees.

I inched the windows down. Try to get out of that!  Within minutes, the flow of traffic started to accelerate to 25 mph until we were going 70 mph again. All of a sudden we had the cross-winds and it was as if that bizarre ten minutes on Interstate 15 never happened.

By the time we reached L.A., the Jeep’s air conditioner was pushing out a cooler temperature once again.

The Gatita Chronicles I to IV

So where it used to be only the veterinarian or a male stranger who received a hiss, now it is me, her beloved owner, a misinformed Herodotus who thought to honor this Siamese by taking her along on a 10,000 mile road trip.  I don’t always know when it’s coming, that sharp pressure of air pushed out from her opened mouth, her body stiffening while her ears flatten. Sometimes she gives me a half-second warning of a low growl, while her tail moves in between her legs as though she’s having a flashback and before her paw swipes at whatever part of my body is closest to her.

If you’re wondering about the first four Gatita Chronicles, they look like this:

  I.   North Carolina: a drive-by from Hurricane Joaquin and red fox

 II.   Michigan:  blizzards and water leaks

III.  South Dakota and Montana:  tipis, torrential rains, snowstorms, coyotes, and mountain lions

 IV.  Wyoming:  bison, grizzly bear, and altitude

   V.  Nevada:  no air conditioning crossing the Mojave

  VI.  California:  earthquake and probably mountain lion (recent sightings in the Morro Bay area!)

Maybe there really will be #TheGatitaChronicles but I can promise, she will not want to star in them.

More from Morro Bay … so long as we can keep this to a minimum:

When she hears the click-click-click of the keyboard, she decides it's nap time in my arms.

When she hears the click-click-click of the keyboard, she decides it’s nap time in my arms.

Very difficult to type like this.

Very difficult to type like this.

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The Complexity of Simplicity

Tatanka in Yellowstone National Park; photo taken from inside the safety of the Hook Jeep!

CLICK to enlarge: Tatanka in Yellowstone National Park; photo taken from inside the safety of the Hook Jeep.

Before this current sabbatical, I would have said that I was torn between my love of the ocean and that of the mountains.  After spending a month and a half in South Dakota then three weeks in Montana, my desire to see and hear big bodies of water overshadowed the rugged beauty of both of those states. That is until I entered Yellowstone in Wyoming, a perfect combination of wilderness, hills, and water, and where I rented a bathroom-less cabin for two nights on the grounds of Old Faithful as I fretted about whether a cat could outrun a grizzly or a buffalo.

Yellowstone hosts a number of retirees who live in the park for half of the year while they work as energetically as teenagers and college students, taking on the tasks needed to keep the park running for the overburdening tourists, their trade for the gift of being surrounded by nature.  Each time I drove through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, pausing at every bubbling geyser or crystal blue lake dwarfed by snow-peaked mountains, I wondered: What was it like before the paved roads and man-made structures? 


CLICK to enlarge

There is at least one lake in the Grand Tetons that allows visitors to take a motorboat into the water, the sparkling liquid polluted a little bit more each time. Nausea settled in my stomach when I saw the boats, a feeling similar to the acidic anxiety that forms in my gut when I have to toss plastic into a garbage can instead of a recycling bin.  Reluctantly, I placed my hypocrisy back into the Jeep as I drove my motorized vehicle out of the Wyoming parks and into Nevada for the first desert stopover in Ely, inside a motel painted in aqua blue with the sole word “Motel” as its name.  The changeable letter signage advertised “pet friendly” and “free wifi,” two basics that lured me in there and in Las Vegas.  After a four-hour drive on a back road with Gatita crying non-stop, something I failed to hear in that final hour, those last sixty miles hazy in the 90-degree arid heat, my mind created so many water mirages on the asphalt that I thought I was hallucinating.  By the time we reached Vegas, the cat and I were both so wigged out, our bodies still vibrating from the constant hum of rubber hitting the road, that we collapsed onto the musty smelling, hookers-pay-by-the-night sin city motel bed until our bodies cooled off, overheated because of the Jeep’s lame air conditioner.  But, we are two blocks from Interstate 15 which will take us into California and our final destination of the Pacific Ocean.

For the first time during this 12-month trip, I used a short-term rental service (AirBnB) to secure a 1 to 3 month apartment in San Pedro, California.  From the photos, it’s quaint and airy with the perfect writing desk facing a large bay window that offers a partial view of the Los Angeles/San Pedro Port. The owners advertised “no pets,” but of course I asked if they would consider an exception, briefly explaining my solo writing journey, and Gatita’s perfect feline behavior in hotels, cottages, apartments, tipis, and cabins.

But before I cast off even farther west, I want to return briefly to that one lone week in this sabbatical when I sought out Native American reservations, sitting down with descendants from nation(s) that came before us.

~     ~     ~

Honoring the Past

“Those hills are our sacred land,” a Lakota man told me.

At the end of one is a buffalo tooth; at the end of the other is buffalo bone.

CLICK to enlarge: At the end of one is a buffalo tooth; at the end of the other is buffalo bone. Pine Ridge hosts a plethora of artists many of whom sell their work at the Singing Horse Trading Post which also rents rooms to travelers.

He was only one of the many Native Americans I spoke with in my drive across the states of South Dakota and Montana, through prairie land then rolling hills then mountainous ranges, the changing of topography as varied as the native reservations themselves.

It was not my intention to be another American trespasser onto the Lakota’s Paha Sapa, but I inadvertently was as are three million other visitors a year to Mount Rushmore, those American faces looking out over the Lakota’s Black Hills, and not the United States’ as tourist websites read.  In 1868, the U.S. asked for a peace treaty at Fort Laramie which guaranteed the Black Hills to the Lakota.  Then gold was discovered.

I gave the only heart offer I could after standing in the freezing rain, harsh drops pelting my face as I tightened my thighs for traction against the wind, shivering at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge reservation. Shaking my head, I closed my eyes as I recalled the history:

Over 300 Lakota killed in 1890, women and children on foot, chased up to two miles by U.S. military on horseback; one baby found two days later in a blizzard, still alive and sucking his dead mother’s breast.

Recommended reading relative to Little Big Horn but also the treaty history between the U.S. and Native Americans.

CLICK to enlarge: Recommended reading relative to Little Big Horn but also the treaty history between the U.S. and Native Americans.

In my research, I discovered that the U.S. awarded more “medals of honor” for the Wounded Knee Massacre than they did during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Afghanistan, or Iraq.  Surely the American descendants of those soldiers know the truth by now and have discarded those medals as many recipients of medals during the Vietnam war did.

When I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield, originally designated as a national monument in revisionist history to ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ it was comforting to see that the fallen Lakota and Cheyenne were now also being honored, two nations that bonded to protect their land and people from invasive Americans.

Battle of Little Big Horn

CLICK to enlarge: Battle of Little Big Horn

Inside the Little Big Horn museum, I listened as a video narrator said, “The Crow sided with the United States Army against the Lakota and Cheyenne.” But that same voice failed to mention that the Crow were offered a land treaty in exchange for helping the U.S.  The Crow, of course, lost everything just as the Lakota and Cheyenne did, and eventually all of the 200,000 Native Americans who weren’t killed off watched as over 500 peace treaties offered by the U.S. were subsequently violated, culminating with the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears in the south and the Oceti Sakowin‘s Wounded Knee in the north.


CLICK to enlarge: The many uses of Tatanka

I never visited any gold rush museums that romanticized “how the west was won.”  Even in Las Vegas, there is a motel that glorifies “Buffalo Bill,” who shot thousands of precious Tatanka, a critical essential to the nomadic “life way” of the Lakota who used every part of the bison for their survival.  For each buffalo killed, a Native American died so that when there were only 200,000 native People left, there were also only 200,000 Tatanka.

All of nature is sacred to the native People; Mitakuye Oyasin: “We are related to everything that lives and breathes.” One never killed animals indiscriminately for sport. Instead, you thanked the deer or the buffalo for their meat that would feed your family or their hide that would warm your body; to harm nature is to harm yourself.

We cannot undo the past.

I met a German woman living with the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge reservation.  She said that growing up in Germany, kids are taught in school early about the Holocaust.  German kids read Anne Frank, visit a concentration camp, and are shown horrid photos of that time in history.  She answered my questioning look.

“We’re taught the truth so that we never make those mistakes again,” she said then paused before continuing, “And we learn about the Native Americans, too.”

In German schools, young adults choose a Native American tribe to study in depth, learning their language, culture, government, and any other characteristics particular to that clan. She chose the Lakota, a dialect under the Oceti Sakowin, what Americans know as “Sioux.” Out of the nine reservations that exist in South Dakota, I visited five – Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Rosebud, Pine Ridge – and even though I’m multiple states away now, I still cannot let go of what I experienced.

To make it easier to share, I condensed what I absorbed into three areas:  Philosophy; Industries and Misconceptions;  A New Future

~     ~     ~

Philosophy:  Life Way

CLICK to enlarge: A visual of Oceti Sakowin: The Seven Council Fires.

CLICK to enlarge: A visual of Oceti Sakowin: The Seven Council Fires.

Oceti Sakowin /oh-cheh-ti  sha-koh-we/ is The Seven Council Fires, for the seven nations they represent, which includes three dialects:  Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota.  All legal U.S. documentation identifies these clans and their reservations as “Sioux,” a shortened French re-spelling of a (derogatory) name Nadowe Su meaning “little rattle,” the sound a snake makes before biting.  Sometimes, Nadowe Su was a reference to those who lived by the ‘snake river’ except not all Oceti Sakowin are from the Dakotas or even lived by the Missouri River.

In my elementary thinking, I wondered why they allowed themselves to be called ‘Sioux’ at all.  But of course, I do not have 238 years of broken legal agreements with the United States government.  The reluctance of the Seven Council Fires to initiate a name change is understandable:  It could negatively affect active treaties when already it is difficult to keep the U.S. from violating centuries-old agreements.

When I arrived at the Yankton reservation (Ihanktonwan Dakota Oyate), I shook the tribal leader’s hand; mine a firm grasp demonstrating my purpose and gratitude; his only allowed for the soft touch of fingers to fingers, no palm.  No matter how hard I tried to hold on, he let go. I was too much of something, too much American maybe.

I’m writing a blog, I say, about what it means to be “Sioux,” using the improper designation while he gently corrects me without correcting me, pronouncing Oceti Sakowin out loud, then his clan name. I repeat the names over and over again until I say them perfectly.

“The ‘n’ is silent,” he says.  Then, “You are a quick learner,” but it’s possible my eagerness is annoying him.  I have shown up without an appointment and although he is clearly busy, his staff continuously walking into his office with paperwork, asking him to sign here or initial there, he has invited me to sit at his round conference table.

I do not ask the questions my juvenile brain wants to know:  What did you use in place of toilet paper? Did you brush your teeth or just chew mint leaves?  What plant did you use for soap? How did women deal with menstruation? What if a woman didn’t like to cook?  I can use the internet to find these answers, and he did not live in the time when the Dakota roamed their own lands.  Instead, I ask 21st Century questions beginning with the philosophy of The Seven Council Fires.

Q.  Knowing what you know today and if you lived in the 1500s, would you still help the Europeans?

Without the native People helping the British and the French, Western Europeans would not have survived. The Yankton tribal leader said that books have been written about the removal of the nomadic ‘way of life’ and that yes, this was as detrimental as the reverse assimilation so that instead of Europeans learning the culture and languages of his land, they forced English and English ways on the People. Nevertheless, he replies “Yes” to my question, because it is the “life way” of the Oceti Sakowin.

“If you ask for help, you receive help,” he said.

I try to re-state the question, emphasizing the destruction of his land and murder of his people.  He understands what I am asking, but I’m unable to process what he means until he says, “We are all going to the same place. You have to see the simplicity of people; the humanity of us all.”

No two reservations gave the same answer yet their philosophies were aligned:  All of them strive for harmony and peace.  One Lakota man admitted, “I wouldn’t want to help, but the People would.”  The Oceti Sakowin are/were democratic societies, as were most of the native clans across North America.  Even with all the genocide committed, their families torn apart in the name of Christianity, their history rewritten so that American children were taught “Indians are bad,” even through all this, they would still have welcomed foreign people “to share” their land.

You and I are those foreign people.

~     ~     ~

Industries and Misconceptions

A monument on the Lower Brule reservation lists the name of every Sicangu Lakota who fought in a war beginning with the Indian War against the United States then fighting on behalf of the U.S. in the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

CLICK to enlarge: A monument on the Lower Brule reservation lists the name of every Sicangu Lakota who fought in a war beginning with the Indian War against the United States then fighting on behalf of the U.S. in the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

National newspapers are quick to report about the high poverty and crime on the reservations, and city locals who have never visited their neighbors many times perpetuate only these negatives.  When I pulled into the parking lot of the Lower Brule (Sicangu Lakota), I was surprised at the obvious prosperity. Their administration building had to be at least 10,000 square feet, double-level, and overlooking the west bank of the Missouri River while cement tipi poles peeked out from the backside.

Lower Brule has several industries that it relies on from wildlife services to irrigation programs to popcorn production.  One of their products, Lakota Popcorn, is a far superior kernel to anything currently on the market or at least that is what my stomach communicated to my brain. It’s not easy to find in local grocery stores, but when I did finally stumble upon it, I purchased as much as I dared, adding to my already over-stuffed truck.

If you want to pop the kernel the old-fashioned way, buy this brand of Lakota popcorn.

You can purchase all Lakota Popcorn products online: https://www.lakotafoods.com/

Three of the biggest misconceptions about Native American reservations are what they receive revenue-wise from the operation of casinos, their “ownership” of tribal land, and the opinions of non-native Americans.

Casinos & Revenue:  If you work for a casino on a reservation, you receive a regular salary of minimum wage or whatever is the going rate for that position. Yes, the reservations that have a casino do receive some nominal funds for allowing the business on the land, but it’s only the investors who actually own the operation, usually non-native Americans, that benefit from the multi-million dollar revenues generated.  The reservations are in need of any businesses that have jobs for their people so they allow the casinos to operate.

Tribal Land and Taxes:  Native Americans do not “own” their reservations.  All 56.2 million acres of tribal lands are held “in trust” involuntarily and permanently to the United States government. This means that individuals do not possess a title to the land and cannot sell it off or use it as collateral to buy something else off the reservation.  Basically, it would be like forever renting and never owning your home, never building equity in anything.  And reservations are not exempt from taxes.  They may not have a state tax, but they are subject to federal tax from the I.R.S. just like any American.

Negative Press:  90% of non-native Americans who have a poor opinion of the native People have either never met them and/or have never been to any of the 326 Native American reservations still in existence in the U.S.  My staple question, when I hear a negative reference shared second hand, is:  “Have they ever visited a reservation or sat down with a Native American?”  Actually, this is something every American could do:  Visit a reservation or museum in whatever state you live or travel to for your next holiday.

~     ~     ~

It was a small group of men who spoke with me in the tribal office at the Crow Creek reservation (Mdewakanton Dakota and Ihanktonwan Nakota), east of that Missouri River and across from their Lower Brule friends.  Crow Creek does not have the varied industries as their neighbors do, their leasing of farm land to non-native Americans a small revenue-generator for them.

“We have our issues just like anyplace else,” one of them says, but there is more significance to them than only this.

Q.  If there was one thing you wanted non-native Americans to know about you, what would it be?

“This is not our home.”

I do not know how to interpret this so he explains: The people of Crow Creek called “home” the land we know today as the state of Minnesota.  This is how far south and east Oceti Sakowin spanned.  South Dakota is where many of the descendants were exiled to after they staged an uprising and killed white women and children, in retaliation for the 300 native women and children who had already starved to death over a three-year period, food kept from them by a liaison with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who had a Marie Antoinette moment when he told them to “eat grass” if they were hungry.  When the liaison was killed, his mouth was stuffed with grass. All of this I learned from reading the Crow Creek reservation website; and when I asked the men questions, they hid nothing.

Those Dakota who hadn’t died from starvation or been hanged after the uprising formed an internal alliance of Hunkpati, translated to mean ‘Making of relatives, to live,’ something they originally thought possible when they allowed the first Europeans to share their land. But even after hundreds of years, their sense of displacement runs deep.  Being the transient American that I am, I still did not know how to comprehend this.

As though reading my mind the leader continued, “What happened happened,” and he goes on to explain that although they did not choose to move to South Dakota, they were not destroyed.

“We’re still standing; we’re still here,” he said as he explained how most reservations are in an era of “self-determination.” Where before they were swindled century after century, in the present day they’re prepared to defend their treaties.

All of Oceti Sakowin stands together against the proposed oil pipelines that would stretch across tribal lands, eventually contaminating the only water source for the Rosebud reservation. And these same Native American reservations will not accept money in exchange for the continued violation of the Black Hills.  Yes, there is poverty; yes there is crime aligned with a too elevated high school drop-out rate. But frustrated Baby Boomers and more and more GenXs and Millennials growing up on “the rez” are becoming lawyers, learned in Native American treaties; doctors and psychologists willing to return to the reservations to address some of the long-standing issues that have been in existence for decades; teachers and professors willing to learn the culture and languages so they can be taught and passed on to the next Native American generations.

They were indeed decimated, but they are still here.

~     ~     ~

A New Future


CLICK to enlarge: Tipi stays on the Rosebud reservation

When the temperatures rose in South Dakota and the Great Plains warmed up briefly, I drove to the Native American Advocacy Program (NAAP) which offers Cultural and Youth Camp services for the Rosebud people, but also tipi stays for travelers interested in living and breathing the Lakota.

Much like it is in the contemporary U.S., it was the women of Oceti Sakowin who managed the pointed house dwellings. The difference is they were responsible for the inside and the outside, processing the heavy buffalo hide that would wrap around the six heavy, wooden poles until the structure was firm and steady.  All of this I heard as I struggled to lift the 18-foot poles for my own tipi, my lack of upper body strength making me glad I was living in 2016 and not 1416.

At the NAAP offices, I spent a full day in a classroom-like atmosphere listening intently, hurrying to write as many notes as possible in my journal, confirming phonetic spellings as I practiced the guttural sound that easily lent way to a rich past.

Q.   What does it mean today to be Oceti Sakowin?

Black, White, Red, Yellow are colors specific to the Lakota. Other clans honor other colors.

CLICK to enlarge: Black, White, Red, Yellow are colors specific to the Lakota. Other clans honor other colors.

I learned about the importance and sacredness of four for the Lakota — Life Cycles, Colors, Nature, Ceremonies — all of which sound simple when explained but feel complex when trying to keep track of which tribal member does what and when and why. Every person has a role. What was the significance of a feather again? Some practices can be witnessed during PowWows, explained in their glory; these events originally created to hide tribal gatherings from the U.S. government when ceremonies were forbidden.

  • 1890 census: Native children removed from families; Punished for practicing language/culture.
  • 1920-1930: Adults are forbidden from leaving the reservation without a government pass.
  • 1970s: Forced boarding schools finally closed; Ceremonies legal again.
  • 2000s: Era of self-sufficiency for the reservations; Reclaiming their names; Developing a life way that incorporates history with the present.

These are not the most important dates nor are they meant to discount the destruction in the population of the People from the 1400s to the 1800s, going from more than four million to a mere 200,000.  But remember, we cannot undo the past.  We can, however, teach this history in depth in schools, acknowledging the tragedies on both sides, so that we never repeat it again.

~     ~     ~

When I was driving across Iowa, farmers purchased multiple billboards that read:  Stop Eminent Domain Abuse.  But it was eminent domain abuse that allowed for Oceti Sakowin to lose their original lands.  This is how history repeats itself.

In Montana, I was starved for social interaction so I used my time to connect via meet-ups with groups of American women, all of whom seemed laid back and welcoming. During one coffee talk, the subject turned to Presidential candidates and their state visits. One woman said, “We don’t like people from the outside coming in and telling us how to run things.”

“That’s how the Native Americans felt,” I say because the connection was too obvious.  She shrugged her shoulders as though that past didn’t affect her present or her future.

For those who say, “Stop looking back,” you are the ones destined to repeat the worst of history with the slight hiccup that the oppressor becomes the oppressed, shocked when no one stands up for you; beleaguered from the remnants of your own suffering while others say, “Stop looking back.”

~     ~     ~

HDU_PowWowThose PowWows that were invented to hide native ceremonies are now some of the largest celebrations held on Native American reservations during the summer months. Americans and other foreigners are welcomed to attend and participate, engaging in select portions of these rituals meant to honor traditions and losses of the past while preparing the mind and the spirit for the future. Whatever state you live in or visit, you can research online for the Native American reservations that exist there. Almost all of them have websites and contact information listed.

Of course, there is so much more that I heard and so much more scribbled notes in my journal, but the reality is that I received only a glimpse into a culture that would take much longer than one week to understand and more than one blog post to convey. Certainly, a true journey could be had by living among the Lakota through four seasons, everything in four. Maybe that’s my next sabbatical; maybe it’s yours.

But now my focus must return to my personal history and how I continue to make sense of loss, love, and starting over again. So simple to live yet complex to edit; still I continue.

This post is dedicated to all Native Americans especially the Oceti Sakowin at Yankton, Lower Brule, Crow Creek, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge in South Dakota:  Wopila Tanka!

A scenic rest stop in Chamberlain, South Dakota, overlooking the Missouri River

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Sleeping in South Dakota


An on-going excavation in Mitchell, South Dakota, that opened to the public on April 1st. The director of the village connected me to the Rosebud Sioux for a tipi stay. The Rosebud folks connected me to Pine Ridge …

In Mitchell, South Dakota, population 16,000, I wait for the weather to warm up and the Great Plains wind to die down, so I can sleep in a tipi for two nights on the Rosebud Sioux reservation.  After Rosebud, I’ll continue west across the state to the Pine Ridge reservation and sleep at the Singing Horse Trading Post, where I’ll learn about the Oglala Lakota and Red Cloud, one of the last Sioux warriors to make a stand against the U.S. Army in 1868.

I’m outside of the normal tourist season for South Dakota, but that’s not the only reason everyone here seems so, well, nice.  In person or over the phone, South Dakotans are a welcoming bunch.  Even the lodge in Mitchell, where two nights have turned into a full week, extends a level of hospitality above the norm, a soft reminder of the friendliness found in family-owned places in the Midwest. And just like that, I miss the comfort and togetherness of my Michigan family while typing away in this quiet, pet-friendly room with the perfect writing desk set against a large window for me and you-know-who to look out, our view that of green grass instead of snow and ice.  Still, my family, I miss them.

~    ~    ~


Map of nine Sioux reservations in the U.S. state of South Dakota

Since I’m on the far east side of South Dakota, I’ll visit as many of the nine reservations on my driving path as I can where descendants of Lakota, Nakota, Dakota, The People of Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires, aka “Sioux” reside. As I experience more, I’ll share more but only after I’ve seen the resting place of Red Cloud and paid homage at the Wounded Knee Massacre, visited the monument of Crazy Horse, another Oglala Lakota, and listened to the wise spirit of Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota. When I’ve acknowledged Oceti Sakowin and the travesties that took place, I will look upon the presidential faces on Mt. Rushmore, knowing we cannot undo the past but wondering what have we learned really, as a nation and as a new people.  Is it enough to prevent us from repeating manifest destiny-like mistakes and to alter the now we live in today?

This afternoon, I drive south to the Yankton Sioux reservation where the Ihanktonwan Dakota Oyate reside, but I’ll miss a chance to participate in one of their PowWows, usually occurring in the middle of July.  Do something with me: pronounce the name out loud, giving it the nasal accent previously attributed to Sioux dialects and found in today’s American Midwesterners:  Ihanktonwan Dakota Oyate

/Ee-hunk-too-wah  Dakota  Oh-yah-tay/

Is that not the absolute coolest sound?  But really put your heart into it and envision a great warrior announcing his clan.

~    ~    ~

Before leaving Michigan, I printed out 335 pages of a rough draft of my novel (renamed), “In The Land of Oz.” I took the title of a blog post I wrote from Australia, when once before I journeyed out so I could find my way home again. This unexpected delay in Mitchell is, of course, allowing me to stay close to the story, keeping a creative momentum going instead of the anxiety and sleepless nights which can follow when I drive for too many days in a row.  But that’s not the singular cause for the lack of sleep ….

Act I:  Good Morning

I have upended her daily program again with our drive out of Michigan. This is not the only reason she disrupts my sleep, the hour later than what it seems because we left the east and entered a central time zone.  But I am recovering from driving mode, unable to nod off until after midnight, sleeping longer than normal in these windy South Dakota mornings.

It begins with the soft pawing on my cheeks until I emit a grunt, the blankets still wrapped around my shoulders and neck.  Always, she’s the first to lull me from my dreams, which I resent because they’re thought provoking; I need more time in them to remember whatever it is that my subconscious is trying to teach. But the paw brushes against my cheek again, then again, until I push out a second grunt then a third.

Act II:  Get Up

Strolling over my body, she begins at my ankles, slightly zig-zagging upward, moving her languid legs over me, back and forth, until she is walking across my chest. Sometimes she pauses there or on my arm if I’m lying on my side, the full weight of her 12 pounds pressing into me from her front paws.

Refusing to open my eyes, I shake my shoulders and mumble, “Stop it.”

She leaves my upper body and does another walkabout, back and forth across my stomach then my thighs then back up to my abdomen again.  I know the moment eye contact is made, meowing will begin.  Oh, but I have passed out of the depth of sleep that would allow me to return to dream state.  Why so early?  I know what she wants, as I feel her shift then jump off my body, crouching on the side of the bed near my head, her breath close to my own.  Even though I cannot see, I can sense her wide-open stare, those blue eyes impatiently waiting for my still closed brown ones to open.  She inches closer and closer until a furry muzzle is almost under my blanket.  I can resist no more.  My eyelids flutter open, and even though the tip of her face is buried in my blanket and her eyes are no longer facing mine, she knows I am awake.  A tender meow confirms.

“Yes,” I laugh, “I know what you want.”

I lift up the covers, creating a makeshift tunnel, a place she can burrow into then circle around until she plops down, the length of her body stretched against mine.  I scratch the sides of her mouth, wondering if she’ll let me fall back to sleep, each stroke I offer matched by a droop of my lids.  Ah, but I know better!  If I try to nod off now, the knuckles of my hand will feel a slight pressure from her teeth, harder each time I hesitate the scratch.  Sometimes the pawing to my cheeks will come back, but this time with the ever so light touch of a claw.  She will not be satisfied until my hand moves from her face to a soft belly rub, and this is when the purring begins.  If I fail to stay awake and the belly rub stops, a slight meow comes just before the not-so-tender love bite.

“Ow!” I say in my owner’s voice.

She backs off but not until she feels the scratching again.

Act III:  Real Sleep

An hour later, I have showered and dressed.  Two hours later, she is fast asleep on the spot where my warm bodied once laid.  If I try to disrupt her sleep as she did mine, I am reminded with a quick swipe that one of us has wicked sharp nails and it’s not me. After sleeping for two hours on the bed, she lifts her head up and looks for her owner. When she spies me, her lethargic cat body raises itself up, arching first her spine for a long stretch followed by one or two back legs.  The next time I notice, she is standing by my chair, looking up in expectation, waiting for me to stop typing and to pull away from the table so she can land safely on my lap.  I click SAVE.  I know the routine. She wants a new, warm place to rest and until she gets this, there will be no error-free typing.

I guess I should just be happy that I’m not being pooped on.

 ~    ~    ~

So I am sleeping but not sleeping in South Dakota, in the Great Plains, where buffalo still roam.  Maybe I’ll feed her to a bison when I get out to Rosebud or Pine Ridge. Some photos from my visit to Mitchell’s Prehistoric Indian Village.  And, the director told me to let you know that they appreciate all donation$!


Not all native People slept in tipis /teepees/. At the Prehistoric Indian Village in Mitchell, South Dakota, one housing exhibit was created to depict the living quarters in this part of the Great Plains, thought to be a major bison processing center for other tribes.


Prehistoric Indian Village in Mitchell, South Dakota. Unfortunately, my inner scientist did not take a photo of the archaeological site, estimated to be over 1,000 years old, and housed in a second building in the prehistoric village.

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Remembrance and Reverence


There is something honorable about remembering those who passed before us, choosing a day or two to give reverence. For some, it is the anniversary of their death in human form or the anniversary of their birth on earth, or even both dates.

Many native American tribes had different rituals for how they respected and recognized the dead. The Apache tradition was never to speak the deceased person’s name again. They believed that to do so might impede their journey or “ascent” into another world. The Lakota, a tribe of the Sioux nation, understood that the spirit never dies, but that death of the body was part of nature, and nature was to be revered, always.

I treated last night, Holy Thursday, as a penitent evening even though I no longer practice Catholicism. Still, it’s hard not to wonder, if you knew you were going to die the next day, what last words would you speak and to whom? What face would you hope looked upon your own with love as you said good-bye to this life?

It’s a miraculous event to witness someone take their last breath, much as I imagine it is to watch a soul take its first gulp of air.  I like Good Friday because whether one practices Buddhism or Catholicism or Hinduism or Islam or Judaism or Mormonism (only some of the organized religions of the world), it is a day of remembrance and reverence not only of one man, but anyone that we’ve ever loved or cherished, and whose soul we hope to re-connect with when it is our time to leave.  These lives we are in today are neither the beginning nor the ending of our spirits. But, there is a complexity of now that is trying to teach us to love and to give and to be — in this moment — so that we may have unity of hearts instead of division of minds.

Sometime in the 1st century, a man named Jesus was crucified by the Jewish population under Roman law.  From this sprang up Christianity and Holy Wars between Christians and Jews. Today, these two factions break bread together, still disagreeing but often coming to one another’s aid, even though their history was one of betrayal and brutality: first the Jews to the Christians, then the Christians to the Jews.

It’s amazing what happens when we extend respect in the form of remembrance and reverence. Most of you have someone you love or lost, and whose absence has been or would be devastating to you. If we took a fraction of that love and those memories and extended it out, we’d find peace between each other.

“Everything means something / Even if it’s Nothing …” – Fred Chappell, Poet Laureate

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Kathryn and Me

Over the weekend, I engaged in a heavy dose of self-torture by reading about literary genius, Jonathan Franzen, and how he came to be so god-like to book critics. This followed with a dream in which I met Franzen, who refused to speak to me HDU_Lovebecause he was disgusted with my writing.  It was, of course, a metaphor for my secret fear about my own work.

On productive days, I am happy with my progress, the shape of my story coming to me with consistent pieces.  On unproductive days, I question what to write next or is it time to print it all out and start massaging, or worse: the story doesn’t make any sense and I need serious guidance with pulling it all together.

I used to think that my greatest fear was that I’d get to the end of this writing sabbatical and have an unfinished novel.  After being snubbed by Franzen-in-my-dream, I realize that writing a mediocre book would harm my spirit more.  So I decided not to do that — to write a crappy book.

Then I read about Franzen’s partner and fellow writer, Kathryn Chetkovich, who wrote a beautiful essay a few years after Franzen’s first bestseller, The Corrections, sold over 3 million copies. The memoir essay, “Envy,” haunts in its honesty as Chetkovich describes living under those victorious years with Franzen while she plugged along, her feeble attempts to finish a book in the overwhelming shadow of her lover’s success. Reading Chetkovich helped me to understand that there would be something far grosser than to write a substandard novel: to live with Jonathan Franzen while I wrote it. Writing rumor has it that Franzen is less prickly than he used to be, now that the world has acknowledged his literati greatness, but the thought of having him as a live-in critic would be enough to make me break my no-alcohol-for-Lent vow. So I’m not going to do that either — go live with Jonathan Franzen.

I will never be a Franzen.  I would need to redo childhood, probably attend a different school system; read more books, read the right books, not that that wouldn’t be fantastic but it’s not reality. I can be a better writer than I am today, though. I’ve seen improvements in my own work over the last four years before I hit the road and opened the sabbatical up to more than only writing.

That enigma of a story, “From Down Under,” (renamed In The Land of Oz) which I began in late 2014 is already being reshaped since I kicked off my writing journey.  I am doing most days what I set out to do until I compare myself to great novelists, or other non-Franzen writers, ones whose content is not in the same genre as mine or even literary fiction at all. But I compare.  I compare because they’ve finished and I haven’t. They’ve published and I haven’t. They did what they set out to do, and I’m still a work in progress.

So I pull inward, reminding myself that Rosemary-time is not Franzen-time, and I let go. I let go of Jonathan Franzen and allow Kathryn Chetkovich to be my guide. Sometimes I spend more than six hours a day with the novel (Franzen), but sometimes significantly less, and yes, sometimes no actual writing at all but pondering and thinking and reading (Kathryn), always the reading of those writers I would be honored to emulate.

On this made-up adventure-by-highway, purposefully solo if one isn’t counting the cat, I continue to do my best to address those hidden fears and unacknowledged insecurities so that they are not barriers but motivators, pushing me into a realm of doing what I do not already know how to do but doing it anyway.  Most of all, and this is the best part, I am humbly reminded of why I am writing in the first place:  Because I live for the flow of the words and with each sentence that I write, especially the run-on ones, I am able to love my husband all over again.

If Kathryn can live with Jonathan and still produce the lovely essay, “Envy,” and eventually write two books on her own — in the face of Franzen’s fifth novel and second blockbuster, Freedom — then this soothes my yet-to-be-published self.  And I thank her, I thank Kathryn, for reminding me that all writers struggle, that to be a better writer, one must be willing to put in the work, even if you’re living with Jonathan Franzen.

Kathryn Chetkovich’s essay, “Envy,” published in 2003.  Truly touching:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jun/22/extract

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