My neighbor, who strolls to work

e7c31270d4edaa92_barefoot-walking.xxxlarge_1There he is,

Across the street,

Emerging silently from his house

(Confederate gray with

Neat navy and burgundy trim,

And flowers–

Pink and white and alive–

Spilling from the window boxes).

Every morning he comes out as the

Sky is pinkening,

The eastern exposure of the

Neighborhood houses

Glowing softly,

The various greens of the grass and leaves

Hazy and still.

It’s 6:25 a.m.

In the summer,

I am on the front porch at this time,

Doing my writing

When he steps onto the sidewalk,

Slinging his backpack over his left

Shoulder like a

Teenager,

In a t-shirt even on the cool mornings.

He steps out of the house

Where I’ve seen him

Watering his flowers with a

Girlfriend, or maybe now a

Wife.

“There he is,”

I whisper to Joe

Who’s come out to

Kiss me good morning.

“Look how he walks.”

And we watch him.

His walk is gentle,

Gentle.

Watching him is like

Listening to a delicious voice speaking.

He strolls silently and slowly,

Looking around the

Treetops of his neighborhood

Like a visitor,

Taking it all in.

His left hand

Loosely clutching his backpack strap,

His right arm swinging mildly.

“I love watching him walk,”

I whisper to Joe.

“He walks so slowly.

And I think he’s on his way to work,

Probably to the bus stop.”

Who, I always think

When I see him,

Strolls

To

Work,

Looking around his neighborhood

As if he’s

Never seen it before?

Walking for me is

Charging.

“I recognized you by

Your walk,”

Joe said to me recently.

“How do I walk?”

I’d wondered.

“It’s…

Purposeful,” Joe had said.

“That’s how I walk,”

Joe points out on the porch this morning,

A little piqued,

Because I’m always telling him to

Hurry up,

Or I walk ahead of him,

And then wait impatiently for him to

Catch up.

Walking is all about

Getting somewhere,

Doing something,

Especially on the

Way to work.

Supposedly,

There is such a thing as

Walking meditation,

Where,

Ever so mindfully,

One places one’s bare foot

On the grass,

Relishing the

Textures and

Temperature and

Aliveness,

Observing how one’s

Arms and

Shoulders and

Torso and

Hips respond to the

Movement.

I’ve tried it

Once or twice.

It’s lovely and

Difficult.

These days,

I experience strolling

Vicariously,

Through my neighbor.

I take a long breath and

Watch him walk and

Think how lovely it must be to

Just stroll.

 

 

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Leaving my child by boat, like my ancestors did

P1040960I had never left

My first boy

In such an ancient way:

By boat.

Shiny, modern airports

Have always been the scenes of

Our parting.

Tears in the security line,

And then the suddenness

Of a plane trip

Away from my boy.

And a mere few hours later

I’m eight time zones,

One ocean,

And half a continent away from my son.

This time was different.

This time, at the end of our

Big family trip through Europe

The five of us

Said good-bye to Victor for

His summer in Finland with his dad,

And we got on a boat

In a harbor in Helsinki,

And set off into the

Baltic Sea for Germany,

Where we would fly home.

Once on the ferry,

After the craziness of getting

The rest of the kids out of the

Car hold and

Our stuff deposited in our

Cabin for the 30-hour trip,

Joe took the kids

And I had a few minutes alone.

I sat on the bed and

Watched out the window as

The boat chugged along the

Pine-forested coast of Finland and

Out into the Baltic Sea.

The steady rate at which the boat moved

Me away from my boy

Felt humane and natural

Compared to the

Otherworldly shock

Of the airplane lift-off.

With every few meters and

Knots the ship moved,

I acclimated to my boy’s

Physical absence.

It was a slower,

Gentler parting.

And I realized,

As I sat cross-legged on the bunk

Watching the sea swirl and foam,

One that I’m not the

First in my family to have made.

At the turn of the century,

My Finnish great-great-grandparents

Left for America

By boat,

Leaving behind their

Teenaged daughter–

My great-grandmother Selma–

And her younger brother Toivo.

A year later, in 1906,

The siblings would make the

Trip together:

A 16-year-old and a 12-year-old,

Traveling for weeks across the

Atlantic to

Meet their parents in

Their new homeland in 1906.

So as I sailed away from Finland,

Leaving my son behind for the summer,

I thought of my great-great-grandparents

Doing essentially the same thing

110 years earlier.

My situation,

Of periodic, international separation

From my little boy,

Feels abnormal from my

Low-boil heartbreak perspective.

But I know it’s actually not.

Parents and children

Are separated in our world

All the time,

And they always have been.

Whether through

Wartime chaos,

Arbitrary national boundaries,

Military service,

Difficult circumstances and decisions,

Sickness and death,

Addiction,

Incarceration,

Parents parent from a

Distance as best they can–

Or are unable to parent at all.

I think about the

Parents I know who

Don’t experience separation from

Their minor children

Sometimes with envy,

Until I remember that

Those of us who do

Endure it

Are only experiencing a

Premature and

Exaggerated

Version of what every parent

Eventually has to do,

Which is

Let

Go

And turn our children over to

The world and

The universe with

Trembling hands.

Whether they’re eight or

Eighteen or

Twenty-eight,

It has to be done.

What was that like for my

Great-great-grandparents,

I wondered as I watched the

Sea pass beneath our ship.

Did parents experience the

Maternal and paternal instinct in the

Same way back then

And back there,

When infant mortality was

30 times higher

Than it is today

And many families lived in

Third-world conditions?

I imagine they

Loved and grieved their children

With the same ferocity

As we in first-world modernity,

But perhaps there was a

Certain resignation

We don’t have today

To the fact of

Tragedy and pain,

Such as through separation from

A child.

It’s always been a comfort to me

To know that,

Though it feels like it sometimes,

I’m not the only one

Enduring the absence of my child

In this world.

The idea for

The novel I just finished the first draft of,

Firebird,

Comes from the stories of

Undocumented worker parents in our country

Deported,

Leaving their children behind,

Sometimes separated from them

Forever.

Those stories hurt my heart

So I wrote about them to

Soothe myself.

I’m fortunate.

I know I can get out my credit card

And my passport

At any time

And be with my boy within

24 hours, if I really needed to.

Not every parent in my

Situation has that luxury.

And certainly my

Great-great-grandparents didn’t.

In a few weeks, it will be time to

Go to the airport and

Wait outside the frosted glass

Sliding doors of

International arrivals,

Craning my neck to watch for him

Every time the doors open.

Maybe this time I’ll

Think about my great-great-grandparents

Waiting at the train station in

Waukegan, Illinois for their

Children whom they hadn’t seen in

More than a year.

How much taller would they be?

Was everything okay on the trip?

And most importantly,

Which train car would they step off?

There my boy will be,

Bigger and wearing new clothes,

Pulling his suitcase and

Pushing his glasses up on his face.

When he sees me

His mouth will twist up into the

Sly, embarrassed smile he gets with a

Rush of strong feeling.

I’ll squeeze his bones like a

Bundle of long sticks

And lift him off the ground,

Which I can just barely still do.

On the car ride home,

I’ll tell him about his

Great-great-grandmother’s journey from

Finland to America.

He’ll probably have questions about the

Boat and the

Train.

Logistics are important to him.

And he’ll know

That he’s not alone

In this family by

Splitting his life between two countries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gonna write another novel

photo-46I’m going to write another novel.

I surprise myself by

Saying it/

Writing it

Out loud.

There’s a certain hubris to saying

I’m going to do something like that,

Like saying I’m going to

Run a marathon

Before I’ve gone out for my first jog.

In fact,

They are not dissimilar,

Writing novels and training for marathons.

I’ve never run a marathon,

But from what I understand,

It’s a lot of

Inglorious training:

Getting up early in the dark

When everyone else is still asleep.

Sacrifices and trade-offs made.

Can’t stay up to watch

Sunday night football.

Gotta get to bed early,

Get up early for my

Morning training.

I feel okay telling you

I’m going to write a novel because

I’ve done it before.

Twice, actually.

(Both unpublished!)

So I know I can do it.

I think it would be possible to

Write one or two novels,

And run one or two marathons

With your eye on the result,

Yet hating the day-to-day training.

Bumbling out of bed,

Dreading the blank page or the

Cold concrete.

And making yourself do it

Anyway.

Because it’s one of your life goals:

To write a novel,

Or run a marathon.

But to keep doing it

Year after year,

Marathon after marathon,

Novel after novel,

You’d have to figure out

How to enjoy the daily training.

To not dread it.

To go to sleep at (8:00 at) night

Looking forward to your alarm going off at

4:00 a.m.

Because you’ve built your

Life around this

Hobby,

This passion.

Because you love it.

You love not just

Completing the marathon (the novel)

Or even the daily training exercise.

You love the daily training

Itself.

My first two novels

Were so willful.

I was so fixated on the result of

Having Written A Novel,

That I dreaded the practice of writing.

“I hate writing;

I love having written,”

Said one famous author.

But that’s not sustainable.

What’s the point?

It’s very possible I

Won’t make a cent on my novels,

That they’ll get rave reviews from

Close friends and family,

And that’s it.

They might completely suck.

It’s a hobby,

And a pretty demanding one,

So I’d better enjoy it.

It’s taken

Years

For me to learn how to enjoy a

4:00 a.m. writing session.

Mornings are best

Because I don’t have

Time to talk myself out of it.

Alarm goes off at 4:02 a.m.,

No snooze,

No thinking,

Just up.

(That’s the name of my alarm:

“Up.”)

Creep around the bedroom with my

Flashlight app,

Pulling on my training clothes–

Running shoes because

I write standing up.

Downstairs in the dining room,

I set up my writer’s space.

Virginia Wolff was wrong.

A woman does not need

Money

And a room of her own

To write fiction.

The dining room table is my desk.

In the still-dark early morning,

I fill it up with candles, talismans and tchotchkes.

I provide myself tiny comforts:

Hot tea,

My cozy red bathrobe,

Thermostat set at a decadent 72 degrees,

Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis on Pandora.

It takes patience

To settle into the

Experience

Of the daily practice of writing.

And strangely enough,

It’s the disappointments

(Two novels, not even published let alone

Best-sellers)

And a little suffering

(Drunkenness and then the bracing sobriety journey)

That have given me this

Patience gift.

Writing novels takes the ability to both

Be in the moment,

And have the long view.

I can sustain both best in the early morning quiet

Of my candle-lit dining room,

My family sleeping around me.

In the soundtrack to my life,

This scene of me starting to write novels again

Would be set to

“Fire On The Mountain,”

Grateful Dead:

Long distance runner, what you holdin’ out for?
Caught in slow motion in a dash for the door.
The flame from your stage has now spread to the floor
You gave all you had. Why you wanna give more?
The more that you give, the more it will take
To the thin line beyond which you really can’t fake.

Fire! Fire on the mountain!

That’s not my name: Mrs. Joe Brzycki

It’s started

Just as I knew it would:

With Christmas cards the first holiday season

After the wedding

Addressed to

Mr. and Mrs. Joe Brzycki.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful,

Because I truly enjoy Christmas cards,

Even the drugstore ones with the dashed-off signature and nothing else.

But it makes me chuckle:

Mrs. Joe Brzycki?

There’s no such person.

I get it:

People assume that I changed my name,

Because that’s what most women do.

Or they don’t know my last name,

Or they know it but are unsure of the spelling.

Actually,

Of the three last names in our house,

Mine is probably the easiest to spell:

Brzycki (Joe and his kids),

Hietalahti (my son),

Niemela, (me).

I’ve thought about those smooth gray stones

You can order at the State Fair:

“Welcome to the Smiths!”

The neat and tidy family surname:

Everyone in the house with the same last name!

We’d need a boulder for all the names in our family.

But I love all our last names.

There’s a lot of history,

In the grand sense:

Polish and Scandinavian immigration to America–

And the modern dramatics of a blended family–

Marriage, kids, divorce, remarriage.

(And now another kid on the way who,

Incidentally,

Will have my last name

Because,

Why not?)

Here’s the deal,

Ladies:

I don’t care what you do.

Change it,

Keep it,

Hyphenate it,

Tack it on at the end,

Slip it into the middle,

Make up a whole new name so

Everyone has to get a new drivers license!

For me,

Ever since the age of eight or nine,

When I realized that

Most women take their husband’s names,

I knew I would keep mine.

I haven’t wavered in that.

Ever.

There are so many reasons I’ve kept my last name

Through one marriage and into another.

(Never had to change my passport

Once.)

Yes, it’s about

Gender politics,

Symbols, and–

Dare I say the F-word–

I’m gonna say it–

Feminism.

To me,

The idea of being Mrs. Joe Brzycki

Subsumes me into Joe

In a way that anyone who knows us

Would find absurd.

But I also kept my last name

Because I just like it.

I know what it means:

Peninsula, in Finnish.

I imagine a point wooded with pine and birch

Jutting into a clear,

Boulder-bottomed lake.

Like a Boundary Waters campsite.

I’m a writer.

Words–

Names are words–

Are important to me.

Not just the aesthetics of how a word looks

Or sounds.

But what words mean.

Why choose one word over another?

Loneliness,

Or solitude?

Brzycki,

Or Niemela?

Does it matter?

It does,

To me.

Professionally,

Personally,

Even as part of a family unit,

It’s my policy to keep a part of myself

Just for me.

And my own name,

From beginning to end,

Is a manifestation of that part of myself.

It’s like the

Silent,

Black

Space

Just before I fall asleep at night,

When no children,

No husband,

No job,

Need me.

The divine chemicals of sleep

Bathe my tired brain.

It’s just me: Jennifer Niemela

At rest.

Hello, have we met before?: A night with my old journals

I was paging through my old journals

The other night.

1987 (13 years old)

To the present.

A couple times I chuckled

A couple times I cringed:

The obsessions and

Vapid concerns of the

Teenage or early-20s

Me.

Declarations of love to

High school boyfriends;

Gut-twisting fears of

Friends turning on me.

And booze running through like a

Narrow, toxic river.

Who was that person?

That girl-woman

Flailing forward–

I did move forward despite the booze–

Functional, they call it.

I suppose I’m the same person,

Really.

Leaner and more

Focused.

Quieter in my neuroses,

Or more deliberate about sharing them

(Like starting a blog!)

Not quite as naive about

Love–

Although I still surprise myself.

And the booze river?

Dried up.

The river bed still cutting through,

Permanent and available;

A tender scar.

Writing in Helsinki

My second book I wrote in Helsinki.

We had a one-bedroom apartment

Above a YMCA,

And our windows looked out on

Snowy pine trees.

The entryway to our apartment was a

U-shaped staircase with a landing,

And above the landing was a huge window and wide window sill.

I would sit in the window sill and paint wine bottles.

For writing,

I would move the rocking chair to the top of the staircase

So I was facing the window and the snowy trees,

The stairs falling away below me.

It gave the illusion that the

Room

Had

No

Floor,

Like I was floating toward the

Snowy pine trees

With my notebook in my lap

And a pen entwined in my fingers.

I finished that book in a different apartment.

Less geometrical.

But by then I was

Pregnant,

And my growing belly gave the space

The dimension it needed.

I finished the novel Aug. 20

And my son was born Aug. 22.

Creating, creating.

Learning to write in Seattle

My first book I wrote in Seattle.

I was living in an apartment on a hill above downtown.

There was a view of Lake Union from the bathroom window.

I would pack my swimming gear and my

Laptop into my backpack and

Glide down the hill on my bike

Into downtown.

I would swim laps in the small basement pool at the YMCA,

Then go across the street to the public library.

I’d find my study carrel,

Usually the same one on the second floor,

And set up:

Laptop, CD player,

A secret snack in the backpack at my feet.

The library was full of homeless people.

Homeless men, boys, girls.

Gutter punks who rode the rails to this corner of our nation.

The young boys and girls

Pierced and tattooed and tired and wary under

Black sweatshirt hoods.

The older men were ragged and bearded in

Dusty military fatigues.

I’d see the same ones often.

They would put their heads down on the desk

For a few minutes of sleep before a security guard would

Nudge them awake.

I would look up,

Pausing to ruminate, and

Consider these folks.

They felt like my co-workers.

If I ever had to get up to use the bathroom,

I had to take everything with me,

Or it would be gone when I returned.

Meanwhile, the dimensions of my surroundings,

The mountain ranges to the east and west,

The narrow plunges and curves of the city streets,

Helped frame up the space I’d made for myself

For writing.