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Kirsten Rian is widely published as a journalist, essayist and poet. Her work has appeared in magazines, international literary journals and anthologies, and she is the author of two books. Her newest book, Life Expectancy, was released in 2018 as part of the Pacific Northwest Writers Series through Redbat Books.
Life Expectancy is now available at any of the following:
Redbat Books
Broadway Books
Annie Bloom’s Books
Powell’s Books
Barnes & Noble

Life Expectancy: Completed during her residency in Siglufjörður, and funded in part with a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, this book project was released first in 2015 as a limited edition artist book and then selected to be published in 2018 as part of the Pacific Northwest Writers Series through Redbat Books. Past-present-future. Beginning-middle-end. Mama-daughter-son. Life goes the way it goes, and usually in unexpected directions. Rian looks far back to her Scandinavian roots to explore what remains, cultural and genetic ties as tethers to something bigger than the literal visceral skewing of life expectancy statistics relative to her own health and her family. Rian’s son was born with medical issues, cuing a decade and a half journey of doctors, tests, fights with insurance, surgeries, and scans. When her children were 10 and 12 their father suddenly and inexplicably passed away at age 44. While driving home from the beach after scattering his ashes, and thinking about when they had married on that very beach years before, she absent-mindedly felt the side of her head and noticed a lump. Past-present-future. Beginning-middle-end. What remains.

She has led creative writing workshops both domestically, as well as internationally in locations like post-war Sierra Leone and refugee relocation centers in Finland, and with human trafficking survivors, using creative writing as a tool for literacy and peacebuilding, and locally is a volunteer language facilitator for non-native speakers. She is the recipient of numerous artist fellowships and grants.

  • Adjunct Professor, Portland State University, English department, 2009-present.
  • Adjunct Professor, University of Portland, English department, 2013-present.
  • Poetry Editor; book reviewer, The Oregonian, 2012-2016.
  • Columnist, Daylight Magazine. Author of “The Alphabet of Light,” a weekly column for international photography magazine; featured writer for the publication’s iPad app, 2012 -present.
  • Instructor, Literary Arts, Portland, Oregon. Taught writing to at-risk and regular education high school students in Portland Public School District through the Writers in the Schools program, 2005-2010.
  • Instructor, Fishtrap International Literary Festival, creative writing, Wallowa Lake, OR, 2009-2012.
  • Instructor, Pacific Northwest College of Art, poetry, Fall, 2011.
  • Writer in Resident/Instructor, Multnomah County Library system. Conducted poetry workshops with refugee and immigrant communities at library branches throughout Portland. Produced anthology of work catalogued within library system, 2007, 2008.
  • Volunteer language group facilitator, Multnomah County Library, Talk Time: conversation practice for non-native speakers, 2012 to present.
  • Curator and host of monthly author series, Comma, at Broadway Books, Portland, OR, 2011-present.
  • Freelance grant writer and book editor for creative and arts organizations in Portland, OR and San Francisco Bay Area. Rian has written for and coordinated the production of 80 books and catalogues, 1989-present.
  • Writing workshop program development. Conducted writing workshops introducing creative writing as a tool for literacy, self-expression, and trauma processing for refugee and immigrant individuals and trafficked women. IRCO (Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization), Portland, Oregon, 2005-2007; Naistari International Center for Migrant Women, Tampere, Finland, 2004; The IRC (International Rescue Committee) in Boise, Idaho, 2006, 2007; Catalyst Peacebuilding, Sierra Leone, 2007. Contapolous Music Therapy and The Soul Care House Therapy, San Diego, California, 2014, 2015.
  • Instructor, Saturday Academy. Taught creative writing, composition, journalism, art history, visual arts to middle and high school students, 2008, 2009.
  • Instructor, I Have a Dream Foundation. Taught creative writing and composition to at-risk eighth graders, summer 2008.
  • Poetry workshop instructor with homeless population. Workshops held at Sixth Street Center, San Francisco, California, 2006-2010.
  • Writer in Residence, Atkinson Elementary. Grant received from Artists for the Arts to work with third grade Spanish immersion students using poetry as a tool for story telling. Book produced, 2006/2007 academic year.
  • Selection Committee, Soapstone, a non profit literary residency program, 2006.
  • Languages and Literature Sub-Committee Task Force for Scandinavian Heritage Foundation, Portland, Oregon.  Developed multi-cultural programs that preserve and present Scandinavian authors and languages to the greater Portland community, 2004, 2005.
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) tutor for recently relocated refugee and immigrant adults in Portland area, 2004-present.

Selected Publications–Visual Arts & Literature

  • Author, Life Expectancy, Redbat Press, Northwest Writers Series, a full-length collection of poetry, 2018.
  • Author, Life Expectancy, limited edition artist book with letterpress cover, Wynscope Press,  2015.
  • Author, Waltz in Mars Time, Berberis Press/Lewis & Clark College, a limited edition letterpress chapbook in a 4-part series of regional poets produced by the College,  2013.
  • Author, Kalashnikov In The Sun, Pika Press, an anthology of Sierra Leonean poetry, 2010.
  • Co-author, Walking Bridges Using Poetry As Compass, Urban Adventure Press, a collection of contemporary poetry funded in part with a grant from Regional Arts & Culture Council, 2007.
  • Essays, Daylight Magazine, web; iPad app; physical magazine, 2012-present.
  • Articles and bi-weekly poetry column, The Oregonian, 2012 to 2016.
  • Author, Fugue, a limited edition artist book of essays and poems, Laurwyn Press, 2009.
  • Monograph essay, Bruce Haley, Home Fires, Daylight, US, 2021.
  • Monograph essay, Emily Matyas, Celebrating Home, Daylight Books, USA, 2018
  • Monograph essay, Lisa McCarty, Transcendental Concord, Radius Books, USA, 2018
  • Monograph essay, Moses Kainwo, Ayo Ayo and Other Love Songs, Sierra Leoneon Writers Series, Sierra Leone, 2015
  • Monograph poem, Michael Lange, Fluss, HatjeCantz, Germany, 2015
  • Monograph poem, Hiroshi Watanabe, The Day the Dam Collapses, Daylight Books, US, 2014.
  • Monograph essay, David Maisel, Black Maps, Steidl, Germany, 2012.
  • Monograph essay, Taj Forer, Stone by Stone, Kehrer Verlag/Germany, 2011.
  • Monograph essay, Bruce Haley, Sunder, Charta/Daylight, Italy/NY, 2011.
  • Monograph essay, Hiroshi Watanabe, Findings, CMPL, Los Angeles, CA, 2007.
  • Monograph essay, Ann Ploeger, Untitled, Franklin Beedle, Portland, OR, 2007.
  • Writing published in numerous magazines and national literary journals, including Oregon Poets Against the War, Rainy Day Press, 2004; Top-25 winner in poetry for Glimmer Train Journal, 2004; RHINO Literary Journal, Chicago, IL, Spring 2005, 2011; Upstreet Literary Journal, Boston, MA, Spring, 2007; Jefferson Monthly, Ashland, OR, Fall, 2008; On the Issues Magazine, online, Winter, 2008; Not A Muse Anthology, Hong Kong, 2010; Oregonian, Portland, OR, 2011; Rhino (runner-up, Founder’s Prize), Chicago, IL, 2011; Broadriver Review, Raleigh, NC, 2011; Daylight Magazine, New York, NY, weekly, 2011-present; Portland Magazine, Portland, OR, 2011, 2012.
  • Work nominated for inclusion in Best New Poets anthology, 2008.
  • Critic’s Pick, The Oregonian, May 1, 2008.
  • Review, The Oregonian, November 3, 2005.
  • Critic’s Pick, The Portland Mercury, Vol. 6, No. 23, 2005.

Selected Readings & Lectures –Visual Arts & Literature

  • Featured reader, Annie Bloom’s Books, May, 2018.
  • Featured reader, Powell’s Books, January, 2017.
  • Featured reader, Broadway Books, May, 2015.
  • Featured speaker, Notre Dame University, International Peace Studies department, Creativity and Compassionate Presence: the arts and healing, 2013.
  • Featured reader, University of Portland, English department sponsored reading series, 2012.
  • Featured speaker, Linfield College, English department symposium on war, 2012.
  • Featured poet & speaker, Lawson Inada Poetry Festival, Southern Oregon University, 2011.
  • Featured speaker, Portland Center Stage, panel discussion on visual art and war following a performance of The Iliad, 2010.
  • Featured speaker, Oregon Humanities, Think & Drink series explores photography and war, 2010.
  • Featured poet, Lewis & Clark College, International Affairs symposium on peace, May, 2009.
  • Featured poet, William Stafford birthday celebration, Multnomah County Library, Central Library, January, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.
  • Featured poet, Verse in Person series, Multnomah County Library, 2008.
  • Featured poet, Wordstock Literary Festival, 2008.
  • Featured poet, Annual William Stafford Memorial Poetry & Potluck event, September, 2007.
  • Featured poet, San Francisco Center for the Book, Poets Pulling Poems series, funded in part with a grant from Poets & Writers. Limited edition letterpress broadside produced at event, 2006.
  • Featured poet, Second Sundays Series, Stayton, OR, November, 2007.
  • Featured poet, Portland Bridge Walk, Portland Parks & Recreation, July, 2006.
  • Invited lecturer to Portland State University practicum linguistics students in Spring, 2005; Fall, 2006; Winter, 2006; Winter, 2007; Fall, 2007; Winter, 2008; creative writing as a tool for literacy and healing with alternative populations.
  • Invited presenter, ORTESOL conference, Fall 2005, presented seminar on use of poetry in a workshop setting with refugee and immigrant communities to foster literacy and the sharing of language and stories.

Selected Awards and Grants

  • Grant recipient, Regional Arts and Culture Council, 2015.
  • Artist Residency Grant, Herhusid Foundation, Iceland, 2014, 2018.
  • Fellowship recipient, Oregon Arts Commission, 2013.
  • Artist Grant, Catalyst Foundation, grant to travel to Sierra Leone and hold writing workshops with war survivors, 2007.
  • Work nominated for inclusion in Best New Poets anthology, 2008.
  • Regional Arts & Culture Council, project grant in partnership with co-author for book project, 2007.
  • Graduate Fellowship, Portland State University, full tuition and stipend to obtain MFA at Portland State University, 2009.
  • Artist Grant, Artists for the Arts, funded artist residency at Atkinson Elementary School.
  • Awarded 2005 Soapstone poetry artist residency, May 2005.

Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights forecast says not today, but maybe tomorrow. I check every day, in case the sky looks promising for the night ahead. Satellite images zero in on the northern fjords where I am on an artist residency in Iceland, with hemispheric power of 22.37 GW. And Stan Lee, creator of all that is superpowerful in both hemispheres, died yesterday. 

 My son, Clarke, a college student in Los Angeles, is upset about Lee. This comes on day 5 of an unraveling braid of events that began with a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks he narrowly averted by minutes, followed the next day by standby emergency evacuation protocols for the fiercest set of fires California has seen in years just outside his dorm, to the next day his sister’s campus on the other side of LA experiencing an active shooter scare, to yesterday additional fires jumping freeways and cropping up closer and closer, to his school becoming an evacuation station for the entire surrounding community, to last night’s campus bomb threat and lock down. 

 His school sent a notice saying police presence would be high today on campus, the perpetrator is not caught. In class yesterday, the first day back, Clarke said it was just depressing. People crying, people scared. One professor, a classical cellist, brought his instrument to class and spent the whole period just playing for his students, giving them the only gift he could think of, giving them what he had.

 There are not many kids who can say, now or ever to come, they were in the same room with one of the greatest storytellers, with one of the greatest believers in humanity, as Stan Lee. A few years after Dave, my husband and the kids’ father died, I let my son and daughter each choose a special place they wanted to see just with me. Anywhere they wanted. Soph and I explored New York, went to see Wicked, walked through Central Park, ran our hands across fabrics at Mood. 

 Clarke chose San Diego ComicCon. It took three years to get tickets, but I did. And for four days we immersed ourselves in story, surrounded by people who cared as much about good overpowering evil as we did. We waited in a long line for a long time to get a seat in the hall where Stan Lee was set to talk. He was predictably late. He was old. But he was there. Clarke simply could not stop smiling.

 It wasn’t so much the costumes or celebrities, but rather, honestly sharing that space with people who understood that sometimes when life doesn’t deliver, a good story will. In our time at ComicCon, we attended a panel with the writers of Captain America, and they spoke about process, about transitioning Stan Lee’s grasp of transcendent narrative to the big screen. We walked out thinking not so much about the storyline, not about the actors or cinematography, or even the superhero components, but rather about themes. 

 It was always justice. Hope. Belief. Mustering that tiny hidden fragment of strength when nothing else is left. And certainly in those years directly following Dave’s death and my health scare, and certainly in the years since, and certainly in the past five days, we needed to be reminded that those themes are part of what make humans human, they’re in us, it’s a given we just get to trust, even when we can’t see it in ourselves or in any single soul around us.

 That’s part of what’s getting to Clarke, I think. This week has been an assault on what to believe, on what to trust. On top of this, for a man who built his prolific 75 year career on writing, Lee himself stood as an iconic literary convention, a metaphor, a symbol, for my son. I fell in love with Dave, partly because of his willingness to still, even as a grown man, inhabit this space of unabashed love for superheroes and what they stood for–and that all began with Stan Lee. 

 When Clarke was a small child, it was Dave who introduced him to every single Marvel character, who explained the differences between DC and Marvel, told him about Jack Kirby, who sat cross-legged on the floor with Clarke playing with action figures. He and both kids snuggled on the couch on rainy, wintery Sunday movie days, fast-forwarding through the age-inappropriate parts despite the protests of the Soph and Clarke. Dave and I would often joke, his job was popular culture with the kids, mine was other kinds of culture. And so we did and our kids got the best of both exposures, the best of both of us.

 After Dave died, I started taking Clarke to Marvel movie premieres, until he became about a junior in high school and wanted to drive himself and his friends to opening night midnight showings. To keep up our tradition, though, Clarke would go see every movie all over again with me. Because by now I, too, was immersed in this world of Asgard and Infinity Stones and S.H.I.E.L.D.

And so Stan Lee died. And this morning my son will brush his teeth and pack up his laptop and his books. He’ll head to his classes, walk past police, smell smoke, and hope the bomb threat remains just a threat. He’ll try to focus, but I can tell he could care less about his papers and exams. 

 And I’m checking the satellite map to see if the skies will be clear tonight where I am, halfway across the earth from my kids. Because if I receive one single more text from one of my children in the middle of the night saying there’s a shooter or a bomb or a raging fire, I’m going to need to look up, straight up, and the sky better deliver.

It better bring color and movement and particle fluxes headed for Earth, straight for Earth. It better bring exploding collisions between electrically charged particles and the atmosphere. Those magnetic poles had better catch and hold on tightly to every single piece of light, every single stream, arc, ripple, and shooting piece of glorious sun. The dark, the light, the hope, the justice, the sky, all of the sky — absolutely all of it — had better deliver.

What the Light Brings

My son, daughter, and I often take our dog out around dusk. We are held by the light as it changes, and the darkening occurs softly, and without our noticing. And it is often at this time of day that color blooms across the arc of earth, and cobalt will singe with rose before giving in to black. It is a contest to see who can find the first star of the night, and when one of us calls out and points up, we stop walking and make a wish. It is the only time it occurs to me–in my solidly adult life of bill-paying, meal-fixing, laundry-cleaning–to stop and stand exactly where I am, to pause a thought, to wish. And it is because the sky and its syllable of light asks.

One evening when my daughter was younger, she wondered what made the sky spill with paint, how the color and light arrived, newly each day, and why it changed and disappeared. I use words like “electromagnetic spectrum,” and “atmosphere,” “dust particles,” “gas molecules,” “water droplets….” Violet is the shortest wavelength, red the longest. Colors are continuously radiated and absorbed, deflected, reflected. Seen. Blue scatters across the sky, at the horizon it is a lighter shade because it is farther away. At dusk there is less light to carry the shorter-wavelength colors like blues and greens to our eyes, the longer-wavelength colors can sustain, reach further like the fingers of an outstretched hand. So we look up and wait for the colors of a particular day to reveal themselves.

Years ago my son lay in the bore of an MRI machine. A mirror was positioned in the tunnel so that he could see me standing at the foot of the flatbed. We both had to be stock-still for an hour. My view consisted of his still-chubby toes (he’d removed his socks prior, trying to eliminate everything that could possibly cause an itch) and above the machine, high on the wall near the ceiling, was a small window, about one and half feet by two. Much more difficult than his previous MRI, partly because he had a headache going into it, this time midway through they needed to inject him with contrasting fluid. He has historically thin-walled veins that collapse easily, so finding a line in was tricky, took attempts on both arms by two different people, bruised him up, and just plain hurt. He never made a noise, but while they were sticking him with needles he just lay there and the tears quietly rolled down.

I wiped them and squeezed his hand, and after they pushed him back in the bore to complete the rest of the scans, and I stood back at my post in front of his toes, I looked up at that window for the remaining 30 minutes, at the square of sky that wasn’t going anywhere, either. The blue was dense and static, the visual timbre of a resonant note, an oboe perhaps. Several tree branches extended into the frame, the remaining leaves the color of sparks. Clouds interrupted and hung. A breeze pushed around the branches, and while time and our bodies were frozen inside that room, hinged on necessary stillness, the movement outside continued on, the branches conducting the sky, and I could watch through that small rectangle of glass, and the blue it contained, the bit of tree, the clouds, focus my thoughts away from my son’s tears, away from the new prick marks on the inside of his arm, removed from the clanging, banging sounds of the machine to what was waiting on the other side of the window. I had someplace else to look.

I maintain looking for light, whether in the sky or in ourselves, is an element of survival. Viewed from a certain angle, adult life could be seen as a continual drought of metaphorical light. We keep trying to verify where we are, even if it means squinting here and there, or re-creating sky in whatever ways we’re able. One of my favorite photographs of my children was taken years ago on a rainy Portland winter day. They’re toddlers, over-sized sheets of paper are clipped to each of their little easels, empty yogurt cups filled with paint are lined up on the table. They each hold brushes, and are standing in their underwear with huge grins pasted across their faces. The paper remains white. Their bodies, however, are covered with every color of dawn, day, and dusk. They’ve painted each other’s backs, too. I remember my daughter exclaiming, “Look, Mama! We’re painting the sky on our tummies!”

“All are lost so easily,” Amy Friend writes, referencing a photograph–the paper, the inevitable fade of the image, the context; but also remarking on the days, memories, a life, plans.

We need light to see. Our life. Its colors.

Too much light can blind.

And it’s the space between the dichotomies that daily lives are built. It’s there we must linger. It’s there we must hold onto every single thing that light illuminates, that gives light.

The sky is not maneuverable by statistics; and data of diminishing brightness and color informs of tangible implications of visibility impact, but it cannot explore or implicate the emotional tethers created when one’s head is thrown back and for a second or two, we just look. At where the light is shed, onto what it spills. In those moments, a day is contained with clouds, or color, with one thing, perhaps the only thing, that remains steadily and constantly there: the promise of light on the other side of everything.


It’s mathematics. Angles, coefficients, line integrals. Algorithms. Formulas. Infinite numbers and inversions and rotations around an axis. Like last night, when walking down the hill toward home, you swung yourself around the signpost pole and twirled. It looked something like this:

You grabbed my arm, laughing at the dizziness. The autobiography of a day is told in the grey light of dusk. You tilted your head back and fixed your young eyes on the sky, walking that way for three straight blocks while I steered, pulling your arm if you veered too close to the parking strip, and warning of upcoming curbs. You said you were watching the day disappear, you didn’t want to miss a thing.

Quantifying light. Rotation around an axis. Parallel beam geometry. I have a decision to make. I have a manila folder jammed with articles, abstracts, definitions, research study data, mathematical equations, charts, graphs, print outs from the Food and Drug Administration and the National Cancer Institute. They are smathered with highlighter pen markings and notes in the margins.

I work in photography. I arrange photos in a particular order to tell stories on walls, in books. I pull together exhibitions and write about such imagery, for cover jackets, for the interior essays. In one book about war and its aftermath, there is a picture of turkeys and geese in a foot-worn yard. In front of the house on a patch of grass is a table where three women sit on milk crates, breaking off chunks of bread, dipping in tins of soup. We are somewhere in eastern Europe. In another image, broken power lines reach down to earth like arms, the poles, straight like spines facing off with the sky. Lines run over faces, and across tilled, careful rows of soil; clothes wires divide the sky like a horizon, and serpents of pipes stretch out to the picture’s edge.

So what, really, is relevant about images? In photography, there is aesthetic, and then there is just truth. Staring you straight in the eye: a burned-out building, ships moored by the circumstance of land, a spigot, a window, a door, chickenwire, clapboard, home, the inside of my son’s head viewed from every angle. I have a decision to make.

There are patterns to how we survive. To how we fight wars, to how we contain our lives. Etched in the geography of memory is gesture. And it is within these gestures, and their repetition, that the stories are told. On whatever square of earth, we stand holding together all our parts: the threads of our history, the way our bodies merge with the landscape. We are pieces. We are broken. We are composites of the parts that stay hinged, stuck, wrapped in the arms of grey light, found.

I write about holding that light and the pictures of life it carries on its rays, placed on a piece of paper, and called a photograph. Alpha particles can be stopped with a sheet of paper. Beta particles, with a strip of aluminum foil.

Clarke’s headaches are worse. His hearing is at an all-time low. There is 10% of a pearlescent orb still in his mastoid, the part they couldn’t remove two and a half years ago. In the photograph the doctor took during the surgery, the mass is nestled in red, wedged in the bones. There is aesthetic, and then there is truth.

Radiation. Sunlight. Sky. The Rocky Mountains emit 40 millirems (mrem) per year. Three Mile Island, dose at plant site during the accident on March 28, 1979: 80 mrem. CT scans: 2,500 mrem.

It all begins a long time ago. Clarke has just had his first CT scan. He is 18 months old. He reacts to the anesthesia. His torso is burning and fever spiking a degree a minute, while his extremities are ice cold and turning brownish blue. I sit in ER on top of a bed encircled by a plastic curtain while, for six hours, they try to stabilize my boy. After, they send us upstairs to the pediatric ward to stay overnight for observation. All the beds are taken by other sick children and scared parents. I curl around him on a mat on the floor. He sleeps. I listen to the children in our room breathe, I listen to the mother in the bed above me murmur to her daughter. I listen to the footsteps in the corridor.

Radiation. From sunlight.

It is 104 months past that night. Clarke’s headaches are worse. I have one ally: an internationally-recognized otolaryngologist and neurological surgeon, also a professor and Associate Dean at one of the country’s most prominent medical schools. I have fought with and dismissed over 30 doctors. He is the one willing to continue investigating. He orders another MRI, a new hearing evaluation. And another, 5th, CT scan. Then Clarke and I are to get on a plane and go see him. I cry rain because I have made a decision. I have to say no, to another doctor for another reason, again. One CT scan equals 312 X-rays. Clarke has had four CT scans, 1,248 X-rays. Clarke will have no more CT scans. And I am scared because it has been 10 years and I am rather out of doctors.

Clarke is rocking in his bed, holding his head, sobbing. It is night. And then it is morning. And it is the same.

CT stands for “computed tomography.” A tomograph rotates around the axis of the patient, scanning, capturing cross-sectional images, pictures in parts, to create a tomogram, and the pieces become the whole. The etymology of tomography is derived from the Greek tomos, part, and graphein, to write. I write my way backwards. A pocketwatch with a radium dial emits 6 mrem per year. Naturally-occurring radiation exposure is called “background” radiation–it comes from the earth, from water, cosmic rays from space, airborne dust and particulates in the atmosphere. The time period for equivalent dose from natural background radiation: 8 months per CT scan.

In 2008, researchers reported findings that 25,000 Japanese post-atomic bomb survivors were exposed to roughly the same amount of radiation of two CT scans.

One of those CT scan looks something like this:

An Austrian mathematician designed a mathematical basis for tomography called the Radon Transform–integral geometry, hyperplanes, equations, letters, numbers, symbols, mastoid, 10%, measure, image, logic, sky, logic, earth, pieces, logic, irrelevance.


Visible light is electromagnetic radiation. With it, I can see my son’s face. Without it, I can see his shadow on the sidewalk under the streetlamp while he swings his body in a circle around the axis of the pole. A spiral scanner rotated around his head in one continuous motion in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2007. Shooting in light, targeting X-ray sensors, in a perfect, algebraically-configured circle.

I let this happen.

At dusk, each evening of each day when you and I walk the dog up the hill and back again, the light, it is grey. It could be a photo.


“Mom, I need a ramp.”

I’m washing up the dinner dishes. I have the flu. This morning I woke to a soaking couch and the living room hardwoods slick with water. It is spring in Portland. It is raining hard. My roof is apparently leaking.  After teaching earlier in the day, I pick up the kids from their schools and we sit in yet another doctor’s waiting room. It’s half an hour past our appointment and we are still waiting. Clarke looks at me, “Mama, let’s just go. They can’t do anything any way.”  I look at him. “It’s been nine years,” he says. “It’s not going to get any better.”

“You don’t know that,” I say.

“Yes I do,” he says.

I stand up. Soph puts down her magazine. We walk out. I tell him we are not giving up, that is not an option. Pain and hearing loss are at an all-time low. We have to boost his immunity, he has another infection. We have to deal with his resistance to antibiotics. I’m done with surgeons. Done. I call his acupuncturist, whom we haven’t seen in two years. Needles and herbal concoctions are not Clarke’s most favorite combination. I tell Clarke I’ll pay him to do this, a dollar a visit. He smiles and says okay.

So I am thinking about a lot of things, washing the dishes after dinner. Soph is in the tub, and Clarke still needs a ramp. I tell him to look at the house with ramp-maker eyes, I tell him I’ll help when I finish. I finish cleaning the kitchen, put in another load of laundry and go to check the bucket in the living room. Across the floor Clarke has piled up CDs, books, tupperware. A cutting board is the main ramp, propped up with a book and plastic lids. The path leading to the ramp is a road of CD cases butted up against one another: Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Ani di Franco, Wilco, Smashing Pumpkins…Clarke has his remote control car poised on Tom Jobim, the first CD of the path, he pushes the lever and the car sails across the music, angles up the ramp, and plows straight into a stack of blocks topped with Steve Kuhn, Radiohead and The Arcade Fire CDs. They go flying. “Yes!” he shouts.

Tonight at dinner Soph calls a family meeting. She started something called the BLDCB, which stands for the Breakfast-Lunch-Dinner-Communication-Book and if anyone has something to talk about they write it in this little spiral notebook. Then we talk about it and end the discussion by going around the table and reading a poem, selected from a stack Soph keeps on the floor of the kitchen nook where we eat. This was all her deal, I had nothing to do with any of this. So tonight she presents an old empty tea canister in which she’s placed folded up pieces of paper. She instructs us to close our eyes and draw three. It turns out they’re new jobs for the week. I draw Harold (the guinea pig) feeding chores, setting the table, and Job Judge, which apparently is quality control…there is also the Clutter Helper (picking up around the house), food preparation (I had to modify that one a bit, considering no one knows how to use a knife or the gas stove but I…), and Ruby (the cat) and Clara (the other guinea pig) chores.

The poem book Sophie hands me tonight is one of Billy Collins’s. I read a poem called Love. About a girl, a boy, a cello, and a train. If only it were that simple, I think. Or maybe it is, and I just don’t get it. Clarke reads Dog Love from this kids’ pet poems book. He takes every opportunity possible to remind me on my promise to get them a dog, finally, one year from this June. Soph chooses Paul Merchant, and his Greek translations of Yannis Ritsos, and straight-faced reads a piece that contains the words “A cigarette. And the moon on your breast.” At which point she and Clarke double over in howling laughter that lasts for seven minutes and results in spilled yogurt and rice on the floor.

We continue giggling throughout the rest of dinner. And in those moments I do not care about the roof. I do not care about the flu. I do not care about surgeons.

In our little family we play a game called, “I love you more than…,” and depending on the mood, the stakes vary. One day it could be, “I love you more than green tea,” at which point Soph will ask me, bagged or that expensive loose stuff you buy…again, my answer depends on my mood. Tonight while tucking them in, Clarke trumps my “I love you more than chocolate,” with “I love you more than everything.” Soph says she loves me more than the world.

In the world of our house, tonight after dinner, we noticed that the tiniest corn and tomato starts popped up out of the soil. Their little pots are on the kitchen table and the kids have been diligently spraying them with water. In maybe two weeks we’ll transplant them outside. In the summer we like to sit on our back patio and eat from our garden.

My son does not believe his pain will ever go away. This is what he believes. And I can’t change that. Can’t seem to fix it. And every time I think about that, some piece of me somewhere cracks a little. He’s right, nine years is a long time. I don’t know what I believe in anymore. About medicine, about love, about war, about the weather. But what I do know, is that when my kid reads Greek poetry and erupts into laughter, or when the other one builds a ramp with my cutting board and CDs, that ramp extends straight to all the parts in me that hurt.  And in those moments, quite literally nothing else matters except that exact map-pin point of geography where I’m standing, except that exacting light threaded through the needle to all the pieces of ourselves we sew together and patch over and over and over and over.

An opeideoscope illustrates sound with rays of light

In the video from this afternoon, Clarke is holding Count Dooku in one hand, and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the other. He is making whistling and whoosh whoosh pshoo pshoo noises as he clicks their blue and red light sabers together. He has propped up my phone on his bed, placed it in video mode, kneeled down on the floor in front and the screen is filled with his face and the palm-sized action figures. His lips pucker with each sound affect, his hands move up and down and dart around as the Jedi and Sith battle. Clarke arcs his hand and Count Dooku nosedives into the cushions. Obi-Wan does a little dance on the bed, and Clarke leans into the lens making his face larger than life, and whispers, “And he won…”

It is the night before Clarke’s 10th birthday. The house smells of cinnamon and ginger. He always requests pumpkin pie for breakfast on his day. It cannot be store-bought. It must be made the night before so it has time to cool and set. Thus, it is 11 pm and I am writing while it is baking.

There are instruments for measuring or examining anything. Selenoscopes view the moon. Serimeters test the quality of silk. Topophones determine the direction and distance of a fog horn. Xanthometers measure the color of sea or lake water.

All summer Clarke has been making his films, as he calls them. There’s one of me toasting a bagel. He follows the dog around the yard. A month ago he panned the phone  around the interior of our car, my hands on the steering wheel, Sophie in the seat next to me with her headphones on, and then he turns it out the window as we left Wallowa County at the far eastern edge of the state, heading home from one of our summer road trips. The sky is blue and flawless like hope and he divides the frame in half at the horizon line and holds it there as we speed on toward the wheatfield plains outside Pendleton. Lucinda Williams is on the car stereo and plays like the soundtrack to his piece. At the end of each little movie, he always turns the camera on himself, to grin, or to add some commentary. He’s 10 and he has a signature, a look to what he makes.

He won’t wear his hearing aid anymore, and I don’t make him. If walking the dog, he’ll move himself to my left so his right hear can pick up my words and we can talk. The rest of the time we make songs out of the word, “What?” Anything said enough times becomes some kind of truth.

Fifty-one and a half weeks out of the year I’m fine with this. A chromatoptometer measure’s the eyes’ sensitivity to color and I have learned to lean into grey most of the time.

With a megameter I could determine longitude by observing stars. And sometimes I try. Always on the night of August 11, because I never sleep on this night. On this night, I wait to take pie out of the oven and I sit on my porch and I feel like shit. And I let myself feel like shit. And I cry a year’s worth of tears, and that’s just the way it is.

I found a note Clarke wrote to himself today while waiting for me to finish teaching.

Hi I’m Clarke and tomarrow is my birthday! I am excited. The sad thing is I can’t wait. Here is my skedgewel…

And he outlines the day we have planned. He is asleep now, and he will wake early, and we will have pie.

MRI. Magnetic resonance imaging technology to obtain scans of the interior of the body. His last one was three years ago. It took 54 minutes. I was allowed in the room, to be with him, to hold his foot as it stuck out of the tube. With headphones he listened to a Magic Tree House book on CD I checked out from the library. He was told to not move, blink, sniff. I was told to not even shift weight from one foot to the other. The machine clanked and whirred. The techs and our doctor said it was unlikely he, at his age, would be able to remain that still for as long as was necessary to get the kinds and number of pictures needed. But he did. When they clicked off the machine and pulled him out, he sat up and one of the techs asked him how he did it. He said he pretended he was a Jedi knight.

There are instruments for examining anything. Except, it would seem, for looking accurately at my son’s head and defining, resolving, the obelisk mother of pearl mass, 10% of which remains, embedded, enmeshed, stealing sound. The acoustics of happiness are quiet. Ideology, harmonics. The volume to promises, knobs twirling around and around, endless orbit to dial-in a waiting morning on the other side of a night sky that smells of spice, is bigger than I, black, quiet, and untitled.



Night Landing

“I am giving up the landmarks by which I might be taking my bearings.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, pilot

The hours that counted were measured by how much sand

was left in my pocket after charming you on the beach,
by the derivative of a voice over the single engine

as I remembered
back that far. You know,
time is not what I wanted–
fly past the horizon enough
and the moon on the starboard side
cuts visibility in half every time.

Besides, it’s change in atmospheric pressure
that’s going to get us all in the end, anyway.

No, when hovering
over the Sargasso Sea
at night looking for landmarks,
it was etymology I wanted,

anthropological evidence it’s not words that remain,
it’s the space left when it quiets, the assumption of miracles.

And now it is morning
even thought it is still dark,
it is morning–not last night, not last year,
it is morning.

On this earth it is always morning, somewhere.

The Waltz of Siglufjörður

The Waltz of Siglufjörður is earth-toned oils
on canvas, center frame a man sitting on a herring barrel
holding a squeezebox, villagers encircling, the harbor

and horizon in the background. It is a balanced
and composed scene. It is always light here
this time of year near the Arctic Circle,

even with the shades drawn, the pitch of day
remains ever-morning and I can’t sleep and can’t let go
of the wish for dark. Patterns are hard to break.

But then again, so is the time signature of a song,
1-2-3, 1-2-3, beginning-middle-end, past-present-future.
When one breaks into spontaneous laughter (repetitive

breath expiration), the average sustained duration
is 3.7 seconds. All 3 chest wall compartments engage.
It takes 2-3 breaths upon laughter cessation to

resume normal breathing patterns. This is science,
it is balanced and composed. But I laugh out loud
to test the theory, and find the breakdown of an exhale

is in the pattern of a waltz, my laughter is rhythmically
a waltz. The souvenir of all our years apart is a waltz
and we will dance and laugh, and I will learn how

not to be bothered by the light.

Emil Thoroddsen, 1898-1944, studied art, as well as music, in Copenhagen. He was best known as a composer and pianist, playwright, critic and translator. Thoroddsen’s best known paintings include Siglufjarðarvalsinn (e. The Waltz of Siglufjörður) from 1922.

Border Crossing

There’s a beat-up canopied pickup truck
crammed with men, stops a few miles out

from here hills underfoot
easier to hide, to slip through
around, under, get
to some other side

I can see you but you can’t see me

Prayers said out into the canyon air down there
mingling with pinholes of dawn desert light

The deal with light is sometimes it’s a consequence

And the problem with small spaces–pinholes, trucks–
there’s more–light, room–on the other side

Light can’t be trusted

Lose a day like a limb

divisible by riddles:

I cannot even save
my own children

So I get them a dog
And I wash strawberries for breakfast
And we talk about wars and borders
And this is our circumstance–

this is how sound travels

Sitting In a Hut with a Rimur Chanter

Back in the old days,
they wanted to hear
the stories intoned,

not acted out, not sung,
not merely told, and then
a prayer would follow,

and then sleep. Night
after night this habit
repeated until it became

a pattern, or pattern
until it became a habit.
Never breaking fully

into song, but never plain-
speaking, somewhere
inbetween the way

I tell you ordinary things
about the spent day in my
ordinary voice, and the way

birds release a new day,
before anything has happened
except the miracle of waking

up again–the tumor didn’t
kill me tonight. Patterns imply
a before and a to come,

a rolling over again, again,
is it a habit to stay alive?
Patterns break. Somewhere

inbetween the beginning
and the breaking is
no wishes, no inevitable,

just the sound of stories
with end rhymes and internal
rhymes, the same sounds

repeating so that in any
language the ear notices
the vowels and consonants

surviving the nothing
hushed-tone days, and singing,
despite themselves, all

the way to all we’ve got.