My first book is available from Cavendish Square Publishing

Cavendish Square Publishing releases books for the school library markets in the United States and Canada. My first title with this publisher is on the topic of human rights in contemporary African countries and includes a chapter for each of the regions of the continent: Northern, Western, Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa.

photo courtesy of Cavendish Square Publishing

Find the book here: https://www.cavendishsq.com/title/Human-Rights-in-Contemporary-Africa

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In Praise of Lichens

Here’s a link to a lyric essay I co-wrote with a lichenologist, John Villella, which PAN Journal published in 2014. Lichens are one of my favorite things on the planet.

Read the full essay at Researchgate

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Critical Thesis Published at Numéro Cinq Magazine

 I’m pleased to announce that my graduate critical thesis, A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, went online today at Numéro Cinq Magazine. I hope this will become a useful resource for literary scholars, artists, teachers, readers, writers, and anyone who likes to look at pretty pictures.

pilgrim epigraph page

pilgrim page 98

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Whirlpools, a collaboration with Steven David Johnson

 

An expanded version of the “Whirlpools” collaboration published in Flycatcher Journal, now out of publication. A PDF of the essay is viewable here: Flycatcher

Whirlpool

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The Sisters of Cootes Store in Newfound Journal

Steven and I collaborated on another photo-essay about Cootes Store, this time about our daughters’ relationship to place.  We’re excited that the essay found a good home at the online journal, Newfound: An Inquiry of Place.

The Sisters of Cootes Store

The Sisters of Cootes Store
Steven David Johnson & Anna Maria Johnson

Magdalena and Eliza, our daughters, are untroubled by the mixture of natural and human-made materials in their environment. When Eliza was very small, perhaps two or three, she casually mentioned that fingernails were made of plastic. At nine, she now knows about keratin, but mixes real and artificial flowers into a bouquet without feeling a need to separate them. Likewise, her sister, Maggie, sees no inconsistency in crafting a “Queen of the Nature” costume that includes PVC pipe.

Read more at Sisters of Cootes Store

 

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Two photo-essays, from Steven and me

Steven and I collaborated on two photo-essays recently, which are both published online at Numéro Cinq.  Enjoy!

by Steven David Johnson

Riffing on Whirlpools

What It’s Like Living Here

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Erasure Poem

An interesting contemporary form of making poetry is to take a page of text from a source (say, an out-of-print book, for example), and carefully select some of the words to make a new poem or story.  The remaining words are crossed out, painted over, or covered with collages.

This is a simple attempt of mine, prompted by an online contest through the website Numero Cinq.

The original text is a page from a how-to manual on sword-fighting.  After my changes, the remaining text says something about persistence, and could be applied to sword-fighting, the writing craft, a relationship, or anything you have to set your mind to and work at, despite the feeling that you’re hitting a wall.

If the text is hard to read at this size, click on the picture to open a larger image.

Parry the Wall

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Parallel Universes

After more than a decade of being married to a web designer, I finally became interested in learning about hand-coding.  Last night, Steve showed me the rudimentary skills of how to construct tags, with their corresponding end tags, then opened the text in Firefox to see how it looked, and voilà! it struck me that coding was very much like knitting.

In knitting, every stitch must be correctly formed and integrally linked to the adjacent stitches, or else the fabric will unravel.  It’s a methodical crafting process in which every detail is important–any pattern mistakes will show up in the finished piece.  Likewise, in coding, one has to pay attention to every keystroke so as not to screw up the web page.

Then I thought of math–say, geometry or algebra or calculus–where each symbol is a vital part of the solution.  For every problem, there’s an elaborate system that must be taught step-by-step in order for a person to grasp what is happening in the mathematical system.

Music, too.  While anyone can listen to and appreciate music (I’ve even heard a deaf person sing), it takes a slow accumulation of details for someone to grasp music theory, which is like a universe unto itself, to create meaningful harmonies and musical structures.

Suddenly each of these different systems of thought struck me as separate worlds, each constructed slowly over hundreds of years by different people dedicated to mastering the details, building on previous knowledge, whiling away hours in an abstract place of the imagination, somewhat separate from the ordinary, animal things of life–cooking, eating, sleeping, fighting, sex.

Each of these systems converge somewhere in “real life,” as when building with wood, or using Facebook, or singing, yet those practical uses represent only tiny points contained in the giant universes that exist as systems of thought, whether in music theory, programming, geometry or calculus.

As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, each of these different intellectual pursuits seemed to me like parallel universes, ever-expanding, strange places to those who haven’t spent a lifetime of study learning to navigate their vast territories.

It occurs to me that written language–even spoken language–is yet another of these vast universes.  People talk about literature taking you to another world, putting it metaphorically.  But language itself, a pattern of syllables and symbols, is its own universe, too–a system of thought that exists parallel to the bodily one in which we live.

Somehow, this all seemed very deep as I was falling asleep, which is probably why I’ve never felt a need to experiment with marijuana.  Suddenly I got a little silly, and started singing, “A Whole New World,” and told Steven that he and I had been like Aladdin and Princess Jasmine on the magic carpet, when he was showing me about coding.  (Again, no need for mind-altering substances here.)

Today, as I spend the day alone in my old farmhouse, practicing scales on the piano, blogging, drawing, and writing, it’s as though I’m traveling between different universes, trying to learn the languages, taste the cultures, wondering how long it will take to feel like a resident in one of these places instead of a hitchhiker.

A quiet day alone can sometimes feel like rush hour in Union Station.

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On Happiness

In college, a good friend used to wear a purple T-shirt that said, “Choose to be Happy.”  At that time, being of a certain fatalist bent, I interpreted the shirt to mean that, regardless of one’s circumstances, whether plagued by bad weather or torture, one could always choose one’s attitude.  My friend, however, interpreted his shirt in a different manner–that a person has the power to make choices that can lead towards greater happiness, and should choose things that will make him or her happy, rather than favoring, say, money, security, or guilt.

At least, this is how I remember the conversation.  (If this friend of mine is reading my blog, he can correct me in the comment section.)

A decade later, reflecting on that conversation, I suppose we were both right.  But these days, I’m going with his version.

Back in college, I think I had a bit of a martyrdom complex.  More about that in a future post.  (Look for “On Martyrdom,” coming up!)  Part of that was maybe fueled by personality, part by upbringing, part environment (fervently evangelical Christian college campus).   Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to critique the idea of self-sacrifice.  But there’s sometimes a tendency for some of us (women, especially, it seems) to choose self-sacrifice when it’s not being asked, when it’s not required, maybe it’s not even useful.

Too much needless self-sacrifice can make a person resentful, bitter. Glum, depressed.  Not very nice to hang around with. Which basically defeats the point of being self-sacrificial.

This is why, in the last couple of years, I’ve decided to adopt my friend’s interpretation of his T-shirt.  I’m making choices–some small, some large–that lead to my happiness.  I don’t mean I’m going completely selfish.   At least, I hope not.   What I mean is, I’m allowing myself to do more of the things that make me happy instead of automatically assuming that I have to sacrifice my happiness for other people’s sakes.

For instance?

Okay, here’s a big one.  For a very long time I wanted to go to grad school.  I love to learn, and am good at academics.  But I didn’t think I should use so much of our family’s financial resources –including taking on debt–for myself.  I thought I should resign myself to doing housework and laundry and taking care of my husband and kids.  Because they’re more important than my dreams and desires, right?  Of course.

But here’s the thing.  I was a sullen housewife!  I would fold laundry and feel angry that my life had been reduced to this domestic drudgery, while my husband went off daily to an interesting job that used his talents and considerable creativity while paying him money, and my kids went to school and ballet classes where they got rewarded for their accomplishments.  As for me, no matter how hard I tried to change my attitude, I seemed incapable of being happy about washing dishes and mating socks. (Where on earth do those socks go, anyway?!)

Finally my husband, in desperation after yet another banal argument about housekeeping roles, insisted that I think harder about my goals and dreams, and work on pursuing them.  “I don’t care if you do the laundry, just be happy!”

What a guy, huh.

So now I’m studying fiction in grad school, and I’m mostly happy.  These days, I feel good even when folding laundry because I’m thinking about stories to write instead of, “Woe is me! how sacrificial I am.”

Everyone in the house benefits because when Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.  And as it turns out, the husband and kids are perfectly capable of matching their own socks.

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Rondeau

I am not a poet, but sometimes I like to play with a very structured form, such as a haiku, villanelle, or a rondeau, and see what happens. Structured poetic forms appeal to the mathematical side of me, I suppose, the part that finds freedom and creativity through boundaries. I love to make lists of rhyming words, count up the syllables, and arrange them neatly into the form’s required slots until something comes together.

There are two blogs that I religiously follow. One is Steven David Johnson’s luscious photo-blog, Virginia Journal, at www.virginiajournal.org. The other is Numero Cinq, a literary blog dreamed up by Douglas Glover, one of the faculty in my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Art. Glover occasionally runs little contests on his site, and I always try to enter something, just for fun. Right now, there are three days left to the Rondeau contest. I dare you to write something and enter it! (If you, like me until last week, don’t know what a rondeau is, run over to his rondeau contest page and find out.)

Here is John McCrae’s famous rondeau:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And here is mine, not yet famous:

The Way To A Man’s Heart is Through His Stomach, or
Kitchen Ostinato

In the kitchen, eating avocado,
Sits a housewife and a desperado.
He weeps gently while she peels a carrot.
“Things are not what they seem!” squawks her parrot,
then with his beak, pecks an ostinato.

The housewife drinks some amontillado
then scoops a handful of turbinado
to sweeten the tea before they share it
in the kitchen.

The cowboy, trouble aficionado,
tells her that his name is Leonardo.
He’s wasted years on things without merit.
Would he settle down now? Could he dare it?
He gives her a stolen carbinado
in the kitchen.

I’ve chosen to use a feminine rhyme scheme (which means two or more rhyming syllables, ie. carrot /parrot) to reflect the domestic imagery.

I’m obsessed with the kitchen, maybe because I spend half my time there, or perhaps because it’s the pumping, four-chambered organ of the home. Or possibly, it’s just the light. Our kitchen was formerly an enclosed sun porch, long before we moved here, and as such, has two walls composed almost entirely of windows. Whatever the reasons, kitchen imagery has become iconic in my visual art and tends to show up in my writing too.

If you don’t choose to enter your own rondeau in the contest, you can still go to the rondeau page and vote for your favorite entries. Voting will start after all entries are received on November 21st.

And if you have a literary bent, I recommend Numero Cinq as a rich resource for your writing and reading life. If you don’t, just enjoy looking at all the pictures on Virginia Journal!

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