Wednesday, March 16, 2011

seven-sentence essays

On waking up in the morning:

Every day, before sunrise and without fail, the cat appears next to my head to snuffle and paw her way under the covers. Once she emerges at the foot of the bed, my husband gets up to close the bedroom door leaving her on the other side to chirrup at regular intervals in an attempt to get fed.

I put my pillow over my head.

NPR clicks on and is promptly snooze-buttoned until the faint morning light makes itself visible. My husband gives in and gets up to feed the vocalizing cat. Several snooze buttons later, his movements downstairs signal that it's time for me to get out of bed as well. For a couple committed to reducing our environmental impact, our roles are clear: he handles the morning cat routine and I drive him to work in our shared car still in my pajamas, without coffee and without complaint.

On kindness:

Kindness isn't random. It's built-in mostly, though it can be learned as well. It's in the way you meet someone's eyes, or the tone of your voice when making a request.

People I consider to be kind listen attentively to the often-repeated stories told by the elderly or allow young children to direct them in imaginative play. Suffering halitosis for the sake of someone else's pride is another sure sign.

When it comes down to it, there are those who consider others and those who don't. What kind are you?

On collecting:

The thing is to remain lightweight. That's the guiding principle behind wilderness backpacking and traveling in foreign countries. Carry too much and your heart will begin to beat faster from the effort required. Leave most of it behind and your heart will be lighter with the freed-up space.

What would those who amass piles upon piles of possessions do when faced with fire or flood? Could they flee their homes in an instant, unburdened like me by worldly goods, to save their own skins? Or would they cleave to the spot, unwilling to part with a lifetime of collectings, and await the ruin?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

you are where you eat

Originally posted on April 19, 2010 at

The eastern boundary of my Minneapolis neighborhood is formed by the Mississippi River, while the western edge follows a line of industrial buildings along Hiawatha Avenue. Some of the buildings are in use, some are vacant, but one grain elevator in particular, with broken windows and a faded wheat stalk painted on its side, catches my attention each time I pass by.

My house in Ghana was on the edge of the village, between the road, the clinic, and the neighbors’ steeply sloping farm fields. Local livestock – cows, goats, chickens – frequented my yard for grazing, but one rooster in particular, with curly feathers and a jerking, frenetic stride, caught my attention each time he trotted by.

What do these two images have in common? How can a grain elevator in a Midwestern American city be connected to a rooster roaming through a West African village? They both share an important place in my mind. I see the elevator daily, and I once interacted daily with free-ranging African livestock. Both images present a source of food: one an anesthetized, defunct food-processing building; the other a living animal and potential meal.

The wheat-stalk-painted grain elevator on Hiawatha Avenue is no longer in use, but it sits directly across the street from a functioning flourmill. When the weather turns warm in the springtime, I open up the house to the night air and hear the sounds of the flourmill drift through my bedroom window. Like the background hum of a highway, I hear the steady grind of wheat into flour, plants into food, and the clanking of rail cars carrying away the finished product. While some of that flour will be distributed to local food businesses, the company that owns the mill also sends its grain worldwide. Will this flour join other milled grains in the bags of USAID staple flour provided to refugees and people living with AIDS in developing countries?

In the village in Ghana, I lived in direct association with the animals and plants that would become my food. The plantain and papaya trees growing outside my door, the animals that frequented my yard, all were my daily companions and they fed me directly. A chicken would be roaming and grazing one day, and the next it was dead and eaten. This close relationship with my food enlarged my consciousness of what I take from the earth and showed me the direct consequences of my consumption.

Back in America, I notice sharply the long separation between me and my food. Wheat is grown somewhere in the Midwestern region, it is trucked and ground and packaged, and flour ends up on the shelf at a big chain grocery store. There is a real disconnect between food and consumer, created by the miles of transportation and layers of packaging that lie between us. In Ghana I knew what I ate intimately enough to give it a name – I affectionately called that flashy rooster “Fabs.” Here in America, the only relationship I have with my food is the act of buying it. You are what you eat, the saying goes, but if I don’t know what I eat, do I know what I am?

I sense something wrong with our relationship to our food in America, and the broken grain elevator at the edge of my neighborhood is a physical reminder of this disconnect. Locally grown grain was once processed here for local distribution, but the old mill is no longer in use, and the newer mill sends its flour far away. The people living closest to the flourmill are not being fed by what comes out of it, and I think this does us a disservice. When we ship our grain far away and we import processed foods, we not only waste precious resources, but we miss an opportunity to connect to the food with which we meet our most basic needs. Producing our own food could give us a sense of self-sufficiency, purpose and pride in this 21st century that has been buffeted with social and economic instability.

For my part, I continue to be the connection between my two far away homes and their differing food systems. I want them to share an important place not just in my mind, but in my actions. Having once grown my own vegetables in Ghana, I am producing more and more of my own food now that I own a home in Minneapolis – strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, peppers and greens – all in the back yard of my city lot. Using what I learned in Ghana, I will increase my self-sufficiency, create a sense of food security, and cultivate a stronger connection to this land that ultimately feeds us all.

former glory

Originally posted on February 19, 2010 at

When I look at this grain elevator, I see the history and former glory of my neighborhood. Rather than research the building’s owner, its purpose, or its future, I like to imagine its back-story and former backdrop.

I see a booming milling operation in the 1930’s. I see the city of Minneapolis sprouting up; the Longfellow neighborhood growing out of the ground around the base of this grain elevator just like the wheat stalk painted on its flank. I see a place of business, proud and useful, train tracks carrying loads of wheat into its ground level then ground flour out. I see workers arriving on foot for their shifts then whistling the short walk home to cozy craftsman bungalows built from blueprints out of a Sears catalog. I see family-owned corner grocery stores at frequent intervals throughout the neighborhood, and a crop of new school buildings to serve its growing number of residents. I see holiday picnics at Minnehaha Falls with women in long skirts and men in moustaches. I see civic pride in its days of glory.

But I’m not in the 1930's, I'm standing on the frozen ground of February 2010. The wheat stalk so lovingly painted on the side of this now abandoned building has faded. Corner groceries in the Longfellow neighborhood, my new home, have closed their doors while the majority of its school buildings are being shuttered or sold. Foreclosed houses sit vacant waiting to be bought, while former industrial buildings are turned into luxury condos. I never knew this neighborhood in its heyday of housing the mill town’s workforce. I live here now.

I could let the loss of purpose and pride embodied by this abandoned, broken-windowed building sadden me, but I won’t. I don’t foresee a sad fate for my neighborhood. With the cyclical swings of demographics, we’ll need our school buildings again in time and our empty houses will eventually be bought. And over time, the fading of one industry from prominence leaves room for a new one to take its place.

When I look at the light rail trains that run at frequent intervals past this grain elevator, I see my neighborhood’s new glory.

wreckage & recovery

Originally posted on April 14, 2010 at

On the evening of August 1, 2007, after calling my family members and friends to make sure they were all safe, I proceeded to ignore the collapse of the 35W bridge into the Mississippi River. When the TV news broadcast images of the collapse, rescue and recovery efforts, I changed the channel. Crossing the river in downtown Minneapolis I drove the long way around to avoid catching sight of the disaster site. For a while I stopped listening to Minnesota Public Radio because its coverage of the unfolding recovery was so thoroughly ever-present. Nine months before the bridge collapse I had returned from living in Sub-Saharan West Africa where I watched the disaster of AIDS take its daily toll on innocent lives. It was just too much for me to process the reality of a disaster here at home, here where we supposedly have the benefit of public infrastructure and modern technology to prevent the loss of innocent life. For a time following the bridge collapse – which killed 13 and injured more than a hundred in an instant – I traveled in intentional oblivion of our local disaster.

The Mississippi River forms the eastern boundary of Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood where I’ve bought my first home. A few blocks from my house is access to a public bike path and walking trail along the Mississippi River bluff. To the south, the path leads to Minnehaha Falls, while to the north it descends from the bluff into the river flats and eventually leads to downtown. Traveling north on the bike path, on a brimming spring day two and a half years after the 35W bridge collapse, I rode past an unlikely ghost yard of twisted steel wreckage. In that instant, my self-imposed disaster oblivion came to an end.

Salvaged beams from the collapsed 35W bridge spread out along the banks of the Mississippi River in what was once a city park called Bohemian Flats. In the shadow of the University of Minnesota’s Washington Avenue Bridge, Bohemian Flats sits directly between the river and the Mississippi River Road with its accompanying recreational trails. A line of metal fencing separates bikers, joggers, walkers and the curious from a large collection of laid-out metal beams, each with its own identifying mark. Riding along, enjoying the river on a spring day, it was a shock to encounter the remains of this bridge that failed us, these broken pieces that caused so many broken lives.

No longer able to ignore it, I have finally engaged with this local disaster that took place so close to my home. After my bike ride, I looked into the story of the bridge wreckage and learned that the litigation resulting from this wrenching failure of modern infrastructure is far from over. Two and a half years on, lawsuits are still pending, and those marked pieces of steel are active pieces of legal evidence. The web of litigation reaches wide and has entangled the Minneapolis Park Board and the Minnesota Department of Transportation as legal antagonists with a mutual goal. Both agencies want the wreckage removed from the river flats, but the Park Board wants it removed immediately, refusing renewal of MNDOT’s park-use permits for its storage. MNDOT is seeking legal protection from any liability for tampering with evidence before it commits to moving a single beam. Between the river and the road, the bridge wreckage lies in a hard place.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, claims that in times of disaster people tend to engage with their community and work together for the common good, but my experience doesn’t directly support that idea. I responded to the 35W bridge collapse by not responding at all. As a bystander to disaster, unable to provide immediate service as a rescuer of victims or re-builder of the bridge, I felt it was a better use of my time to disengage from the media frenzy of hashing and re-hashing the circumstances of a tragedy. I and my own were unaffected by the bridge collapse, so what good would my avid attention to the anxiety-producing aftermath do for the real victims? And how much disaster can one person truly absorb in one year?

As it turns out, now that I’ve re-engaged with this important piece of our local history, one act of the ongoing bridge collapse drama is taking place just down the road. With the acute action of the bridge collapse long-finished, I am engaging with the more mundane story of its restitution. Having a home and roots along the river bluff, and knowing more about the long-term effects of our local disaster, I have reason to engage in my community’s struggle with those effects. Reason, even, to attend and participate in future community council meetings.

recycling work

For the next few posts I'll be re-publishing here some of the posts I wrote for my class this past spring. The class was called, "Collisions of Beauty and Violence: Terry Tempest Williams and the Mosaic of Community." The readings focused around author/activist Terry Tempest Williams' works and the works of those that inspired or were inspired by her. The class culminated with a 3 day campus visit by Williams during which we attended a writer's interview with her, conducted by our instructor and one of our class members.

Throughout the class we read a lot of creative nonfiction, writing about home, place, landscape, community, democracy, and people's connections to one another. Our major assignments involved writing around the theme of "Broken Midwest," for which I wrote two individual blog posts. I wrote a third post as part of a group project centered around the theme of Landscape, Home & Community, and the book "A Paradise Built in Hell" by Rebecca Solnit. (I highly recommend Solnit's work - she is amazingly smart, does deep and thorough research, and writes in a truly engaging and personable style.) We ended up looking at Minneapolis' 35W bridge disaster in 2007 from our three different perspectives, inspired by Solnit's examination of how people come together during times of catastrophe.

Since I posted so little over the summer, I want to remember that I really have been writing - just not necessarily up in here. So even though the next few posts will have been recycled, at least they're new to this blog.