"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: My Own True Name: New and Selected Poems for Young Adults

My Own True Name: New and Selected Poems for Young Adults
My Own True Name: New and Selected Poems for Young Adults by Pat Mora

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From My Own True Name, by Pat Mora:

Two Worlds

Bi-lingual, Bi-cultural
able to slip from "How's life"
to "M'estan volviendo loca,"
able to sit in a paneled office
drafting memos in smooth English,
able to order in fluent Spanish
at a Mexican restaurant,
American but hyphenated,
viewed by anglos as perhaps exotic,
perhaps inferior, definitely different,
viewed by Mexicans as alien
(their eyes say, "You may speak
Spanish but you're not like me")
an American to Mexicans
a Mexican to Americans
a handy token
sliding back and forth
between the fringes of both worlds
by smiling
by masking the discomfort
of being pre-judged

This book by Pat Mora is subtitled "New and Selected Poems for Young Adults" but really it is for anybody. Anybody who has ever struggled with identity, anybody who has deeply loved (and maybe lost) a family member, anybody who likes a good poem.

In many of the pages of this book (which is divided into three sections-- Blooms, Thorns, and Roots), Mora gives a voice to Mexican-Americans struggling to find their place in two different worlds. In "Los Inmigrantes" she paints a picture of immigrants who "wrap their babies in American flags" and give them American names and feed them hot dogs and apple pie, hoping they will be accepted. In "Elena" and "Learning English: Chorus in Many Voices", Mora tackles the topic of Spanish-speaking mothers trying to learn English for their children, and the effect is heart-wrenching. The poet captures the hurt, the embarrassment, and the feeling the women have that their children are slipping away from them in an honest and compassionate way.

Other poems in the collection cross cultural boundaries. "Teenagers" and "To My Son" are both beautiful poems about children growing up and leaving home. And while most of the poetry in the book is in free verse, I was surprised and delighted to see a villanelle about "Strong Women" on page 70.

My Own True Name is a book of very personal poems about life and family and fitting in. Young and old and in between, any reader will find something in its pages that touches the heart.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Happy Reunion-- Meeting Amy Spear

I’m a sucker for a reunion.  A missing cat returns to its owner, the Brady Bunch gets back together, a lone sock reunites with its long lost mate—whatever it is, there is just something about a reunion that makes me smile.  So yesterday was a very special day for me because I got to be a part of the reunion between Amy Spear and the student ID she lost twenty-eight years ago.

If you’re just tuning in to this tale of strange coincidences and internet stalking, you may want to take a moment to catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 of the story.  The short version is that during my freshman year at UT, I found underneath my bed the ID card of a girl who lived in the room ten years before me.  Last week, I posted a picture of the card on my blog and asked my readers to help me find her.  Within twenty-four hours, we were Facebook friends.

So… this weekend I drove to Houston to meet Amy in person and finally reunite her with her long-lost ID.  It was awesome.

I saw this on my way to meet Amy.
It seemed appropriate for the occasion.

Meeting Amy Spear

I arrived at Starbucks (our designated meeting spot) first.  When Amy arrived, I recognized her at once.  She immediately gave me a big smile and a hug, which is when I noticed how much taller she is than I am.   Then we sat down at a table with our drinks (chai for me and an Americano with a few embellishments for her) and got to know each other.  I had worried that the meeting might be awkward, that she would be hesitant to share things with me, and long silences would punctuate our time together.  But my anxieties were unfounded because Amy was chatty and friendly from the moment she walked in.  During the hour we spent with one another, we talked about everything from middle school English classes to how glad we are that Facebook did not exist when we were in college.  Honestly, it really did feel more like a reunion of old friends than a first time meeting.  I dug the treasures from Jester room M645 out of my purse and spread them on the table.  We laughed over the relics dating back to 1977 and hypothesized about how fate had landed them beneath the dorm room bed.  Then I had a few questions for this woman who I had been curious about for so long.

What was her UT experience like?

Jester Dorm
Amy started out as an economics major, but ended up earning a degree in both economics and accounting.  She later graduated from UT Law School.  She said her friends were surprised to learn that she lived in Jester, the giant, prison-like dorm at UT.  Amy said, “I didn’t know any better!”  She came to UT from out of state and wasn’t familiar with the dorm options.  She roomed during her freshman year with a girl she had met during orientation.

Amy was a good student and hard worker, but she also knew how to have fun.  When she heard that her college ID had been found in her old dorm room, she asked, “Which one?  My real one or my fake one?”  The legal drinking age in Texas was nineteen in 1985 (it was raised to twenty-one in 1986) and Amy, a young freshman, had a little help getting into some of the downtown clubs.

What’s her life like today?

It is apparent upon meeting Amy that she is a happy person.  Her bubbly personality and big smile assure you of that.   And why shouldn’t she be?  It sounds like she has a great life.  Amy and her husband got married in 1993 while they were both attending law school at UT, so by the time I found her ID in 1996, she had already been going by her married name for three years.  She and her husband have three children, two boys and a girl.  (Her friends think her 1985 photo looks a lot like her daughter.)   Amy no longer practices law, but she still works part time.  She and her husband just celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary in—where else?—Austin.  In fact, she was only a few miles from my house the day I posted the story to my blog. 

How did she react when she heard that I was looking for her?

Amy was on her way back from Austin when her friend Julie called.  Julie had been contacted by her friend Missy who had been contacted by my friend Bruce.  (Only four degrees separated us.)  But at that point Julie wasn’t entirely sure what she was getting her friend into.  Her tone was careful and it put Amy on guard.  Julie asked slowly, “Did you live in Jester in 1985?”  When Amy said yes, Julie told her that someone had found something in her old dorm room and it was on the internet.  Amy asked, “Is it bad???”

Her trepidation was understandable—I mean, who doesn’t have a few skeletons in their college closet?  But after she went to my blog and saw the full story, she thought it was funny and sent me a friend request.  We connected, and from there on out she was happy to participate in my quest to reunite her with her ID card.

What’s the worst thing she's ever lost?

Her wedding ring.  About a year ago, Amy lost the ring in her office.  She and her coworkers have gone over and over the events of the day and have decided there is no other place it could be than in the office, but despite their searching, it has yet to turn up. 

When I asked if the loss was devastating to her, she said no, she dealt with it practically.  It was just a thing after all.  Although it was sad to lose the ring, it doesn’t do anything to diminish the twenty happy years she’s had with her husband—who, she noted, is on his third wedding band.  She has a new ring now and knows the other one still may turn up one day.  She did say, though, that since my friend Bruce is so good at finding things, she may need him to come look around her office.  There would be more cookies for him if he found her ring!

What’s the strangest thing she's ever found?

She had to think on this question and finally decided it was some letters that were tucked away in a piece of built-in furniture in a house she lived in. She contacted the previous owners and mailed the letters to them.  But she says she is the kind of person who is more likely to lose things than find them.

And last, but not least, I wanted to know… 

How many people told her that she shouldn’t meet me because I was probably a psychopath?

Amy laughed at this and shook her head as if it was a silly question, but then she went on to admit that her husband had joked that she should get to the coffee shop early to case the place and check me out, and a friend of hers did a little internet searching of her own and gave Amy the rundown on me—“married, no kids, she’s a writer.”  Apparently nothing too incriminating showed up, because she agreed to meet me.  I wasn’t the least offended by the caution, whether it was a joke or not.  That just goes to show she has good friends.  (I have good friends too.  I had to text two different people after I left Starbucks to assure them I had not been murdered or kidnapped by Amy Spear.)

The End of the Story

The hour I spent with Amy passed quickly and all too soon it was time for her to pick up her daughter from dance class.  Before we parted, however, Amy had a question for me.  When her friend Julie called with the news of her semi-stardom on my blog (and after she figured out that the found item was just her ID card and none of those skeletons in her closet), her first thought was, WHY?  “Why,” she asked me, “did you keep it all these years?”  And for just a moment, her question stumped me.

It’s true that I am intrigued by lost items, and it’s also worth noting that these little Jester treasures really didn’t take up any space in my life—they’ve spent the past eighteen years tucked snugly between the pages of my journal.  But there is more to it than just a fascination with the past and the fact that storage wasn’t a problem.  I’ve only called myself a writer for a little over a year now, but I’ve always wanted to be one.  I’ve always loved a good story.  I think I keep the strange things I find because deep down I think there might be a story behind them, and if I hold onto them long enough, someday I’ll find it.

I no longer have Amy Spear’s 1985 UT student ID card.  I gave it back.  But I finally found its story, and because of that, I’m glad that I kept it all those years. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Well That Was Fast! - Finding Amy Spear

El mundo es un pañuelo.

I have always preferred the Spanish version for the saying, “It’s a small world.”   It’s so much more poetic.  And this week, I can truly say that el mundo es un pañuelo.  The world is indeed a handkerchief.

Three days ago, I wrote on my blog about things that are lost and things that are found.  I posted a story about a student ID card from 1985 that I found under my dorm room bed in 1996, and still have in my possession today.  And I pleaded with my readers to find the girl named Amy Spear who lived in my Jester dorm room ten years before I did and help me reunite her with her lost ID.  I even promised homemade cookies to the person who found her for me.

I thought it would make a good story.  I thought it might stir up some fun discussions and speculations.  I expected some half-hearted Googling and a few good leads.  At best, I considered that someone might find this woman and contact her, only to be disappointed that she never wrote back.

What I did not expect was to get a Facebook friend request from Amy Spear less than twenty-four hours after posting the story.

My husband often tells me that he should write my blog because he has a different take on the stories I tell.  (I say go ahead, but he’s yet to make good on his threat.)  I can sit here and serenely describe how, at that moment, I felt an undeniable connection with the universe, and how I could not wait to learn the details behind that little notification on my computer screen.  But if Mark were writing this, he would tell you how he heard squealing coming from my office.  “AAA!  Oh my God!  Mark!  Mark!  AMY SPEAR JUST SENT ME A FRIEND REQUEST!  I feel like hiding under my desk.  I feel like she can see me through my computer.  Am I crazy?”

Of course, Mark lies, which is why you should never believe anything he writes about me.

It is true though, that I am now Facebook friends with Amy Spear, who slept in the same little Jester dorm room that I did, ten years before me.  How did it happen?  It was pretty simple, really.  My friend Bruce read my blog, did some Googling, and saw a connection between a woman he thought might be Amy Spear and his friend Missy.  Bruce contacted Missy.  She did not know Amy Spear, but she passed on the information to her friend Julie, who has the reputation of knowing “everybody in Texas”.  And it must be true, because Julie knew Amy Spear, who lives in Houston, just two and a half hours away from me.

It turns out that after eighteen years of carrying around her ID, Amy Spear and I were only four degrees of separation apart.  And this coming Saturday, I’ll be driving to a coffee shop near Houston to meet her and give her back a memento from her college days.

El mundo es un pañuelo.

I can’t wait to talk to Amy, find out what her UT experience was like, hear about her life today, see her reaction when I hand over this little piece of plastic she lost so long ago.  But I’ll have to think about that later.  Right now, I’ve got to finish baking these cookies for Bruce.  I swear, that guy will do anything for food.

[Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to this story!]

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Things That Hide Under Our Beds

Recently I have been re-reading some of my old journals.  (More snippets, secrets, and sneak peeks coming soon.)  On July 30, 2001, I wrote:

“Cousin Kelley has a little leprechaun named Liam who steals her stuff.  Meaning, of course, that everything she has ever lost she assumes is in the possession of this little green man.  You may call her a lunatic, but I call her an optimist.  Why?  Because she really believes that one day Liam will show up, hand her a brightly-colored box, and return all of her long-lost belongings.  Maybe that is what Heaven is like.”

It’s 2013 now, and as far as I know Liam has yet to return anything, but Cousin Kelley remains hopeful.

Lost & Found

Me -- 1996
wearing the infamous
blue flower necklace
The idea of Liam intrigues me because I am obsessed with lost items.  I don’t lose things often, but when I do it haunts me.  I still remember the cheap little blue flower necklace I used to wear in college.  I bought it from the discount bin of some Claire’s-like store at the mall and I wore it every day.  Then one day I got on the elevator at UT’s Waggoner Hall with the necklace in my hand and got off the elevator without it.  Some part of me still wants to crawl around in the bowels of that building looking for my lost friend.

But (and maybe this is not surprising) I am equally obsessed with found items.  I guess it’s because I know how much it troubles me to misplace a treasure of my own—I can’t help but feel the loss and the importance of the treasures of others when they fall into my hands.

For instance, there used to be a box in the Yarborough Branch of the Austin Public Library that just broke my heart.  Sitting there amidst the “regular” lost and found items (sunglasses, gloves, tote bags, maybe a child’s shoe) was a box of birthday cards.  And ticket stubs.  And poems.  And love notes.  And photographs, photographs, photographs.  It was a box of all the items people used as bookmarks, all the items they lost when they carelessly returned the books to the library. 

Seeing that box, I couldn’t believe more people didn’t realize their mistake, drive back to the library, and search, if necessary, every book on the shelves, to get back these lost pieces of their lives.  I couldn’t believe that the librarians didn’t take the time to check the database of each book with treasure tucked inside so they could contact the heartbroken souls and reunite them with their belongings. 

I guess not everyone is as sentimental as I am.

I have found many objects over the years that I kept, either in hopes of someday reuniting them with their owners or because I felt that someone should treasure them.  And some I just I thought were cool.  I have a small rubber frog that has ridden around on the dashboard of my car since 2009 when I picked it up in the parking lot of a church where I was attending a funeral.  I also have a purple cashmere shawl that I found in an alley in downtown Austin in February of 2007, but to be honest I’m more attached to the frog.

My favorite found things, however, have been in my possession since the spring of 1996, when I lived in good old Jester Dorm for my freshman year at the University of Texas.

Asthmatics Beware:  This Part Will Make You Sneeze

Jester is the UT dorm at the corner of Speedway and 21st Street that looks kind of like a big brown prison.  During our freshman year, my roommate Alli and I lived in room 645 on the sixth floor of Jester East.  (Side note:  the actual address for the room was M645.  Jester West rooms start with a W; Jester East rooms start with an M.  It’s a leftover from when the dorm was separated into Men’s and Women’s sections.) 

Our dorm room was small.  There was no bathroom—we used the community bath down the hall—but we had a sink and a mini-fridge/microwave combo and each of us had a bed, a desk, a large bulletin board, and a small closet.  Our beds were situated directly under our bulletin boards and each one sat atop two large heavy storage drawers.  The beds could be pushed into the wall a few inches to allow more floor space and create the illusion of a couch or pulled all the way out to their full twin-sized expanse.

My UT student ID.
(As if the photo wasn't bad enough, a giant bubble formed over my face.)
I don't know how UT handles IDs these days, but when I was there
you got a sticker for every semester, sports package, etc. until the ID
looked like the passport of a world traveler.

One night in the spring of 1996, a photo fell off the bulletin board above my bed, and I watched it do two graceful flips in the air before making a perfect swan dive through the tiny crack between my bed and my wall, disappearing from view.  I assumed that it had landed in one of the large drawers underneath, but when I pulled them out, the picture wasn't there.  That's when I realized it had gone UNDER the drawers.  Those things were full of clothes and blankets and all sorts of junk and they were heavy, but I unloaded everything, wrestled the giant drawers out, and poked my head into the space under my bed.

That’s when I found my picture.  And a LOT of dust.  And proof that no one had cleaned underneath that dorm room bed for at least nineteen years.  Because along with the photo that had just taken the swan dive off my wall, I found treasures dating back to 1977.

And Now Things Get a Little Stalker-y

Under my bed, I found… an undated photo of three women in a living room, two high school yearbook photos from the eighties with classic “friends forever” messages on the back, a UT ID and a course schedule from 1985, a corner torn from the Daily Texan newspaper in August of 1983 (with a Jester room number and phone number written on it), and a receipt from September of 1977.



Yeah, good job Jester cleaning staff.

Over the years, I have kept all of these items and have wondered about the people in all of the photos.  Who were they?  What were their lives like?  Where are they today?  I assume the girls pictured in the yearbook photos are friends of students who lived in my room, mementos to keep them from being homesick in the big new world of college.  But the one person who has always intrigued me the most is Amy Spear, the owner of the 1985 ID card.  Because, in my imagination at least, she lived in the same dorm room I did exactly ten years before me.  In her first semester at UT, she lost her ID and had to go through the frustrating rigmarole of replacing it.  I can picture her looking all over for it, trying to remember where she’d seen it last, going crazy because she is sure that she put it on that shelf above her bed, and all that time it was right underneath where she slept.  I’ve always felt sorry for Amy for losing an ID with such a great picture (compare it to mine and you’ll see what I mean) and I’ve always wanted to meet her.

So… what the heck.  It’s 2013.  I’ve been holding onto this ID for eighteen years now.  We’ve got the internet and Facebook and Twitter and there are a whole lot of people out there who are way better at Googling than I am.  So, readers, I present you with this challenge:  Find Amy Spear, who was a freshman at UT in the fall of 1985 and, without being creepy or doing anything that will make her want to mace you, tell her that I would like to meet her and return her college ID to her and buy her a cup of coffee.  I want to do for Amy what Cousin Kelley believes Liam the leprechaun will someday do for her.  I want to give back a tiny little piece of her past that she lost long ago.

If anyone out there succeeds in helping me to reunite Amy with her lost ID, I will bake you cookies.  I promise.