This is an update from Katherine Standefer.  
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from the notebook
"In those years, Hamilton was a cotton and cattle town. Tobacco failed the first settlers, and so the fields went thigh high with cotton bolls instead, summers full of the humming of gins down at Pecan Creek. Town turned black in the smoke of the burr furnace, a red-brick column just half a block off the square, where they burned what was caught in the cotton. There were cottonseed oil presses, to harvest seeds into lamplight, and there were grain mills. In the summer, everything was heat, a dripping windless humidity, the occasional darkening storm. Pecans, blackened with mold, split beneath the boot." 
— Essay drafting, "In Search of Lena Proctor"

Hello loves,
This is the week that marks a year of chaos in my life: a year since the afternoon, flying from Cleveland to Chicago en route to Colombia, that my defibrillator began to gently vibrate inside my chest. Low battery. In the small town of Villa de Leyva, in the Colombian highlands, I sat on a balcony and watched the rain come down over the cobblestoned square, sipping a round red glass of wine. The water turned the streets to streams, gold light glancing off the wet, and I wondered what would become of me. 

Since then, I have lived in the low light of the awareness of death-- from the first should-be-easy ICD replacement to the second procedure to remove a crushed wire from my body, a wire that then broke off, and which now for nearly a year has dangled like a limp noodle down my inferior vena cava. To travel with a broken wire is to remember plastic insulation that can flake off into the chambers of the heart, clots that can catch, tissue that becomes inflamed, and still I went to the African continent in early June, in search of some part of the self I have always wanted to be. I wrote from the soupy Kenyan coast, worked an 8-week global citizenship program for teens in Tanzania, traveled to the western edge of Rwanda to crawl down the sandy shaft of a mine. Then, when I arrived back home, I collapsed, the imprint of death's proximity too heavy.

How do we live in the face of the lion? We don't; we let death take its quiet leave, and do not return to it until we absolutely have to. Life, otherwise, becomes impossible, our bodies flooded with cortisol--on attack or curled in the corner, depending on the moment and how we're built. I, too, have tried to forget, to go into that sleeping space, the one that lets you live. But in early January a yellow SUV turned a sudden left into my old Subaru Outback, and the long crunching collapse of metal, the airbag punching my defibrillator into my chest wall, required me to remember again the fragility of a body: that one need not have a broken wire to be dancing with death every day of her life.

When we are allowed to forget it, we are at our luckiest: and here say a prayer, the world over, for all who are not. 

How do we live in the face of the lion? For more than two months now I have been walking the long blocks from my house downtown or hauling a day's supplies on my bike, skittering on gravel. For the space of a week, after I badly sprained my ankle at a park, I crawled on the tile floor of my house, used the yucca staff an old lover had carved for me to walk gingerly, surrendered to the friends picking me up and dropping me off, the taxi drivers letting me lean on their arms, this total vulnerability, this knowledge that--in another place, one more tenuous, Aleppo during the siege, eastern Congo during an attack--I might be left behind, left defenseless, might die as a result of the crippling. And now when I pump those pedals I feel not only the challenge of running a life in Tucson without a car (ten miles a day, twenty, the ass sores at the place my thighs fold, the tiny packages of recycled toilet paper tucked into my panniers because bulk is too big, the stupid trucks veering at me who could end my life in an instant) but the possibility of it. I put on a song and ride as hard as I can. I imagine myself riding towards the writing career I have long been building, arriving breathless and fragrant, darkened by the sun, hardened by the miles, and for a moment or two death seems impossible. I will just not have the next surgery, I tell myself; I will forget the risk of the wires, I will never again be hit by a car. For the strange thing about this year is that, although I am not allowed to forget my body a single day, I also find these other dreams drawing nearer, the anthology invitations and conference presentations, the sparkling readings, the classes selling out, the e-mails from editors and agents, the book proposal chipping itself into being. My writing has never felt so good, never felt so possible; a pregnancy, then. The unmistakeable shape of a long-built thing coming to form.

What does it mean for the same chariot of months to carry such joy and grief?

In his essay "The Aquarium," Aleksandar Hemon writes, "One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling--that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation."  A friend of mine, seasoned by long years of chronic illness, calls those who refuse to really see us The Bright Siders. "I saw you got Bright-Sided on Facebook," she said the other day-- referring to a person whose impulse was, yes, to point out the bright side, to move from the darkness I'd shared into some kind of quick okay-ness. And I nearly cried with relief; Amen, Aleksandar, I want to say. I am neither noble nor a pessimist. For the lion's breath is not a strange and seasonal wind, not a failure of the spirit or a call to cultivate gratitude, but something real and coming for all of us in time. We need what is beautiful: of course. Even if I tried I could not avoid the beauty, heart-wrenching, always there. But too often the act of bright-siding is a dismissal, a move made out of discomfort, a quick tidying-up. And if indeed one's life is so quickly tidied up, what a privilege; what a moment to then move one's attention toward others in the depth of their pain, whether sickness or war, marginalization or violence, financial strain, loneliness. What a moment to see their pain not as the fires that will forge them, whether or not it is, but as the pain that is present in that moment in a real way that deserves attending to. If the election of this President comes to anything good, it will be because he so clearly points out those who will receive the violence; it is the clearest kind of invitation into our best selves, for the rest of us. ("Somehow the worse it gets," a friend wrote on Facebook, "the better it gets.") Meaning: more tenderness for each other. More audacious acts of allyship, self-education, engagement. Meaning that maybe the gratitude and joy we seek is unburdened only when we know others' griefs, when we acknowledge that some things are very wrong and unfixable by Bright Siding alone.

Which, I suspect, brings us more clearly and meaningfully into our own griefs.

Is suffering ennobling? Oh Aleksandar, I do not know. I know that to tell someone in the midst of suffering that they will be ennobled, that they will be so strong, makes you an asshole. (Don't do it.)  Yet in my writer-heart, flaking wires and all, I find myself leaning most closely to the words of Eve Ensler: "My job was to survive and find a way of imagining all this so that I could transform and tolerate it. My job was to find the poetry." Poetry is gratitude, but poetry is also pain. Poetry is the clearest kind of seeing. And so perhaps if suffering is not ennobling, it offers a specific kind of challenge, one not unlike the one politics is offering at this moment: To see. To allow what is clearly seen. Maybe to live in the face of a lion is to rise to the writing of death; maybe writing is the ultimate redemptive act. After all, a good reporter looks long. A good reporter listens, takes notes, finds a way to stay in the room that scares her.

In two months, I will, it seems, mount an airplane towards that next surgery, toward the fate of the wires in my heart. In the meantime, I will be writing my book, and I will be teaching. Will you come join me? I promise to be with you. 

With gratitude,



Be infinitesimal under that sky, a creature 
even the sailing hawk misses, a wraith 
among the rocks where the mist parts slowly.

Recall the way mere mortals are overwhelmed
by circumstance, how great reputations
dissolve with infirmity and how you, 
in particular, stand a hairsbreadth from losing 
everyone you hold dear.

Then, look back down the path to the north,
the way you came, as if seeing 
your entire past and then south 
over the hazy blue coast as if present
to a broad future.

Recall the way you are all possibilities 
you can see and how you live best 
as an appreciator of horizons 
whether you reach them or not.

Admit that once you have got up 
from your chair and opened the door, 
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary you have become 
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story
and the one, coming back
from the mountain,
who helped to make it.

-David Whyte

p.s. Have you been looking for a way to support smart writers of color? It would mean the world to me if you would support Aisha Sabatini Sloan's indiegogo campaign to hire a publicist for her latest book, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit.  We need her words.

p.p.s. "I am pretty f'ing ennobled," my friend with chronic illness says, upon reflection. "But I didn't become wise because I was sick. I became sick by fighting for my life."

p.p.p.s. Call me if you know a reliable little red pickup truck for under $10,000. 

in the classroom

The Telling Itself:
Illness Narratives As Healing & Craft

6 Wednesdays, March 22- April 26
Southern Arizona Work Space

"Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick," writes Susan Sontag. In this six-week class, writers will craft personal nonfiction narratives their explore the experience of illness. Together, we'll consider how craft choices such as chronology, framing, and a widening of the narrative lens can elevate the personal to the universal, as well as how to avoid common illness narrative pitfalls, including overly technical language and the onerous play-by-plays of treatment. We'll discuss the established therapeutic values about writing about illness, exploring the difference between writing that primarily seeks to heal and writing that seeks to reach literary audiences.

This class is hosted in Tucson's Historic Warehouse Arts District, beneath the high rafters and cheerful chipping red brick of Southern Arizona Work Space, located behind Exo Roast Co. (Sign up here.)

A Sex Positive Workshop

5 Tuesdays, April 11-May 9
Tucson Hop Shop
$180-$230  Sliding Scale

All too often, submitting sexually explicit material in a nonfiction workshop elicits one of three responses: avoidance (commenting on everything but the sex), an instinct to censor ("I didn't want to know that"), or overstimulation (a giddy delight with the material that precludes examining it through a craft lens). In a sex-negative culture, it can feel unsafe and excruciatingly vulnerable to share essays about sex and sexuality in workshop-- but it's never been more important to write and publish these stories.

NSFW (Not Safe For Workshop) is a sex writing sprint, challenging writers to turn in two essays for workshop and requiring three nonfiction books: Sallie Tisdale's Talk Dirty To Me, Sarah Hepola's Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, and Alain de Botton's How To Think More About Sex. Working to avoid the potholes of sex negativity, we'll bring a sharp eye to micro-level concerns like sex scenes and macro-level questions about what it means to be a sexual being. The class is hosted in Tucson Hop Shop's literary loft. (Sign up here.)

in the world
  • "It's always a flag for me when I want to die--that what I want is actually to live. And it's a sign of how deep despair can be, that at the exact moment we so crave living, we think it so impossible that dying is better. " Listen to my recent appearance on The Depression Session Podcast, Episode 53: Brain Fry, with host Laura Milkins. 
  • "Whenever I finish reading "The Other Side of Fire," I find myself lit with an understanding about trauma: A thing never happens once. A thing happens all the time, is happening right this instant--to us or to other people." My essay "On the Mysterious Leslie Ryan and the Structure of a Trauma Narrative" came out last month in the anthology How We Speak To One Another, ed. Ander Monson & Craig Reinbold, from Coffee House Press, and the piece got a shoutout in our Kirkus ReviewJoin us for our Tucson book release party at Antigone Books on Friday, April 14 at 7pm. (Event info here)
  • A high-ceilinged room at Casino del Sol with middle-aged secretaries & accountants processing to "Sex On Fire" & "Dynamite": This winter, I was a Finalist for the Tucson Woman of Influence Award in Arts/Culture from Tucson Local Media, and Arizona Humanities'  Rising Star Award. (I did not win either.)
  • "I was naked in protest of something I was just learning to put a finger on, something to do with how deeply our lives were sculpted, the way we required our bodies be trimmed and tucked and hidden — our disdain for the animal form, our unwillingness to let both land and bodies just be." Despite a publication delay, "Geography of Control" is now up at The High Country News!
  • "Is this bit of metal leaning on my heart, with its fingers plugged into the valves, not a part of me? Doesn't it listen to my every move, kiss the inside of my chest? Is it not somehow me, now... when it is gently covered in waves of clots, flowers of the body cavity?"  My essay "Shock to the Heart, Or: A Primer On the Practical Applications of Electricity" will appear in the anthology Beautiful Flesh: A Body of Essays, ed. Stephanie G'Schwind, out next month from The Center for Literary Publishing, alongside essays from Floyd Skloot, Dinty W. Moore, Steven Church, and others. (Out May 15; pre-order now, preferably from your independent bookstore.)

from the bookshelf
“All that isolation, all that violence and fear and pain: it was the consequence of wishing to make contact by way of the body. The body, the naked body, burdened and miraculous, all too soon for flies.”

If you've asked me recently what to read, it's likely I told you to put yourself in the way of Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: Adventures In the Art of Being Alone. The book is stunning, less a set of adventures than an odyssey into the dark center of art-- that place where our loneness, our unsatiated desire, requires us to create. Laing makes her way by exquisite research, reanimating the life of artists like Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, & David Wojnarowicz, telling the story of a New York City built by the act of bodies seeking one another--bodies pushing against the loneliness left to them by policy or birth.
"What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we're not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don't find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?"
Copyright © 2017 Katherine E. Standefer, All rights reserved.

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