29 October 2003

A few thoughts:

1. "May lightning strike me down if I am not, in fact, the son of God." BANG!

2. Once again, filling my life with artists and musicians. I actually went out for once last Friday night, to see my friend Brian's band Mistletoe play, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was enjoying myself. Maybe I should leave my weary hermitage more often....

3. Finished, finally, the most work-intensive mix tape in the history of my life, and am still not quite happy with it. Nevertheless, insist on clinging to my old ways of tapes and not going over to the dark side of cd burning.... yet.

4. Julia Alvarez's "In the Name of Salome" -- oh my god. Every daughter/mother/sister in the world should read it, and everyone else should as well.

5. How lucky am I to have a boss who suggests I run home and grab the dog before our late night meeting? I am surrounded by dog people at work, and this is a great great thing.

6. Cam & I are moving to South America in 2005, and if Bush gets re-elected, we may never come back.

7. Did I say "finally finished" the mix tape? I meant "accidentally erased the entire second side."

She writes to me as if we still shared
the same language. The page
a laden sky, filled with flying letters
suspended just above the lines
like blackbirds on the horizon;
the accents -- something smaller
they are punishing.

she writes, forgetting that words
cannot pull me by the elbow....

-- Judith Ortiz Cofer

9. Yesterday in 6th Grade:

-- ...and these two redneck kids brought a needle to school and kept poking each other for fun!
-- Hmm, well that's an example of something all right, but I'm not sure if -- yes?
-- I have a question?
-- Yes?
-- What's a redneck?
-- I know! I know!!
-- Yes?
-- Irish! The Irish!!
-- Yeah, Irish!!
-- No, country!
-- Irish country!
-- Yeah, that's it! Irish country!

One of those rare times, I must confess, that I could not entirely suppress my laughter.

And last week:

"I used to live in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, but then I moved to Albuquerque."

"I know for sure that I'm part Welsh, part Scottish, part German, and some other stuff. My mom's Scottish, German...and she's from Illinois, so I guess I'm half-Illinois."

10. En paz descanse Jack Wilson, who died just two weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Rest in peace.

Jack was my uncle, the father of my cousin Diane, my only family out here. He married my Aunt Joyce, one of the oldest sisters in my dad's family of nine, and because my dad was the baby of the family there was a significant age gap between him and Jack. Jack filled the hole in my dad's life left by his abusive and alcoholic father (both my grandparents killed themselves when my dad was a teen). My dad got shipped off to spend summers with Jack & Joyce in Iowa, which is when Jack taught him how to do the "Iowa Wave" (two fingers lifted off the steering wheel as you're going 20 miles an hour down the highway) & how to be a good, caring man. Jack taught high school math & coached every sport & taught driver's ed --- he was the kind of teacher that only lives in a small town, who does everything and teaches everyone. He was Diane's hero, and just a few weeks ago she was joking about how her high school math teacher is still her best friend. When Jack retired, the entire town threw him a huge surprise party, and my dad and Megan and I went down to Iowa for it. He was one of those people who honestly touched thousands of lives.

Hard to believe it was just a few weeks ago that he was joking to me on the phone that I should make Diane spoil me here so she could be ready to spoil him on his Christmas visit.

I never thought I'd find myself at a place in my life where I'm too broke and too busy to fly home for a family funeral. One terrible underestimation I made when moving 1500 miles away from home was how much I need my family at times like this. Of course, I had hoped that after my little cousin Jimmy's funeral last May, my family would somehow be spared, at least for the rest of the year....

I would be such a big fan of a year without any deaths in the family. Even a year with only one death, that would be okay. It just seems wrong that eight people in my family have died in the last five years.

I would also be such a big fan of being able to fly home to Iowa for the funeral on Tuesday, which will be held in the high school gymnasium because they're expecting hundreds of people to attend.

And so, in honor of my Uncle Jack, an excerpt from an essay my dad wrote about him:

Jack and I spent many hours together at countryside intersections
in rural Iowa (is that redundant?). His summer job, which is when
I’d be indentured, er, visiting, was to count the cars coming through
the intersection. Just because there weren’t very many cars
coming through doesn’t mean it wasn’t a challenge to Jack’s high
level math skills, because he also had to record the direction they
came from, and the direction they went. “So let’s see,” he might
say, “we had three cars come from the north and turn west, two
went straight, and four turned east.” Wow, I’d say. I think we set a
new record for the southbound cars turning east, didn’t we?”
“Well, the mode is 2.85 and the median is....” Jack was fastidious
in every job I saw him do, including this one, but sometimes I
couldn’t tell whether he was kidding me or not. I liked that. I figured
that counting job was pretty close to the mythical Iowa recreational
activity of watching the corn grow, which I actually came to be
better at than counting cars.

Jack was one of the nicest people I have ever known. He was a lot
like my mother in that way, which is probably why Joyce fell in love
with him. I learned a lot of value lessons from Jack just listening to
him react to Joyce’s sometimes outrageous sense of humor. I don’t
remember the joke, but I do remember the interchange when
Joyce told Kathy and me a funny story about “toe jam”, and Jack
reacted with his calm Southern Iowa accent to say, “Now Joyce,
you shouldn’t be telling those kinds of jokes around these kids.” I
have rarely told a toe jam joke because of the positive influence of
my brother-in-law Jack Wilson.

Jack was also a good role model for me as a father. He wouldn’t
let his four little brats (just kidding) get away with much, and it was
always clear that his love was unqualified. Jack was a great man
and his spirit will live on through me.


"Pain tempers our love of the world, makes it more durable, more real."
– Mark Baechtel

21 October 2003

Multi-tasking right now, which always makes me feel a little chaotic in thought.... It's Sunday night, time to do all the domestic chores I didn't do over the weekend. Currently, I'm running a load of laundry in the wash, and another in the dryer, and--

-- and then Megan called, and I talked to her for almost an hour. We talked about how we both bought big jugs of apple cider and little pumpkins to put on our windowsills, and how it's going to be in the 80s tomorrow in both Albuquerque and Milwaukee.

Zeke is snoring in my bed, the laundry's finished (I folded and put it all away while talking to Megan), and I'm a little nervous about how not-tired I am. I have to drive out to Moriarty tomorrow morning and be there in time for first period, which means I'll need to leave the house around 7:00. The only good thing about that is that I can listen to Morning Edition while I drive, which should make the trip slightly less boring than usual.

Another good thing is that I replaced my favorite halogen lamp (left in Des Moines with Cam, I believe) last week for a mere $4.22. Working in a thrift store is so convenient! Also, I now have a big mattress supplementing my air-mattress, so my bed looks more like a real bed, and less like a poor college student's floor mattress. These are good things. And now, with my many candles and my lamp, I finally can achieve the quality of lighting I like best in my room, the kind that softens the corners and hides the dog hair.

The highlight of the weekend was yesterday, when Lisa and I spent several hours wandering around Albuquerque posting poetry in public spaces: on bulletin boards, on kiosks, in bathroom stalls, in laundry mats, in parking garages, and in phone booths. We put up somewhere around 100 copies, I think, because I printed out four copies of each of twenty-something poems. The titles now gracing our fair city are as follows:

John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons
John Ashbery, The Painter
W. H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts
Elisabeth Bishop, One Art
Eavan Boland, The Lost Land
Billy Collins, The Flight of the Reader
Rita Dove, Flash Cards
Louise Erdrich, Windigo
Allen Ginsberg, A Supermarket in California
Jorie Graham, The Geese
Robert Hass, Letter
HD (Hilda Doolittle), #39 from The Walls Do Not Fall
LeRoi Jones, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
John Keats, To Autumn
Audre Lorde, Hanging Fire
Edgar Lee Masters, George Gray
Pablo Neruda, Puedo Escribir Los Versos...
Frank O¡¯Hara, Why I Am Not A Painter
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
Adrienne Rich, Song
Wallace Stevens, The Plain Sense of Things
Derek Walcott, The Season of Phantasmal Peace
Richard Wilbur, The Writer

We noticed that many of them -- the Erdrich, the Graham, the Hass, the Keats of course, the Oliver, Rich, Stevens, and even the Walcott, a little -- are autumn poems, but they're autumn poems by northern poets. Lots of falling leaves and flying geese, things we're not getting too much of out here. Ah, well.... Also, I made sure to hang the Walcott over these posters advertising the "George Bush School for Public Administration." Phantasmal peace is right....

I kept thinking of all the times I went out with Nat to hang posters for YB shows, how we'd discuss which posters on a kiosk should be covered or not, how sometimes we'd argue about it, where I'd be defending one poster or event or group, for no real reason but that for some reason it spoke to me, and other times we'd be in total agreement about who should be covered up by the YB posters. Also, I thought of the year I was the Bob's publicity manager, how I'd spent between two and six hours every week walking up and down campus, hanging signs. I had a system down then, wore my rolls of masking tape like bracelets, made five or six different signs at a time and sorted them into piles such that I never hung two of the same signs side by side on the loggia walls. Many weeks, I timed my postering so that I might just casually run into a crush as he got off work, or so I could end my posterwalk in the PEC when Ali was working.

Too, as I wandered through campus with Lisa, and listened to her stories about different classrooms and dorms, I tried to imagine how my life would have been if I had come here for college according to 15 year old Molly's plan. This kind of musing reminds me of geometry, of the logic lessons of conjunctions and disjunctions. If not a, then not b. Only these historical equations tend to turn into long domino chains: If not Grinnell, then not Ali, not Kevin, not Cam, not Carrie, not Jamie, not Mary, not Mark, not Rashmi, not Jean, not Zeke, etc.... My first thoughts are always of people, of course, but I can do it in terms of writing as well: If not Grinnell, then not Bittersweet, not Hanging in the Spaces, not Benediction, not The Bog Girl's Reply, not Habeas Corpus, and so forth. The longer I play this game in my head, the more the equation builds, until it must be reduced for simplicity's sake. The reduction being, of course, if not Grinnell, then not Molly. At least, not this Molly.

Rachel Clark's plan today was all about things she misses. She's in Senegal now, in the Peace Corps with her husband, and she faces the problem that many of us now seem to be bringing upon ourselves: the more places you pull under the umbrella called "home," the less likely you'll ever be able to be home, one hundred percent, ever again. For Rachel, home is Washington (both Sedro-Wooley and Seattle), Iowa, Sri Lanka, and now Senegal. Her plan was familiar to me, of course, because every day is its own list of what's missing in my life. Reading Rachel's list, it occurred to me that any list of what's absent says a lot about what's there. Rachel's list of what she misses tells me more about her day-to-day life than any email or letter.... and I wonder what will be on her missing list in a year and a half, when she and her husband return to the states. Surely Senegal will feel like home when they leave it, maybe even moreso than Seattle will when they return. And I wonder, how many places can a person call home before the word loses its meaning?

Leaving these questions tonight, I'm content to call this place, with Zeke snoring in my bed and pictures of Megan, Ali, Cindy, Tim, Kevin, Ila, Cam, the Fun Nuns, the Thursday night kids, Ma'Pickett, and my parents all gracing the wall above my computer, with my halogen lamp and candles and little pumpkins on the windowsills, with apple cider and a train crying in the distance, for the time being, home.

16 October 2003

Nothing takes the edge off a Monday morning like fanmail!

Time: Mon, 16 Feb 2004 06:56:28 -0800 (PST)
From: emily westergaard
To: molly_backes@alumni.grinnell.edu
Subject: amazing

hi molly,
just got into work this morning and have spent the last 20 minutes reading your echolocation. it's absolutely brilliant and beautiful. it is, like all your stories, amazing, and after the first few lines, i was hooked.

i've also been meaning to write you and tell you that i spent some time reading your poetry on your website (i was looking for inspiration), and my god those pieces are unbelievable. i was captured, just reading them one after the other. half of them i was in tears and the other half i just kept thinking, jesus, this woman is a genius.

anyway, i really enjoy reading all your stuff, and am amazed at the words that lie inside you.

take care
em westergaard

Yay! This means so much to me because Em Westergaard is one of the most beautiful and strong women I've ever known. Thank you, Em!!

08 October 2003

Today was a perfect October day, with gray skies and thick clouds against which the Golden Rabbitbush along the sides of the winding mountain roads are even more stunning than usual. (Tiska gave me a book of flowers, so I can learn some names!) I love the October combination of so many grays behind the vivid yellows and oranges and reds of the autumn leaves and flowers. Apparently it was actually flooding in Albuquerque, it was pouring so hard, but up in the East Mountains it was more drizzly and spitty than rainy. (I’m listening to an autumn mix I made in 1999, and appropriately Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song” comes on: I hear the drizzle of the rain / like a memory it falls / soft and warm continuing / tapping on my roof and walls....)

In rain, the mountains are amazing. From a distance, they turn dark, growing into shades of indigo and navy, but often they’re mostly obscured by the clouds that drape themselves across the inky peaks and ruffles like carelessly tossed jackets. (Joni Mitchell’s “Rainy Night House” comes on next – this obsession with October rain is nothing new with me.) Often, driving from Moriarty back west to Tijeras and Cedar Crest, I watch the mountains and have to tell myself that they’re not just clouds; when we were kids, we always pretended that piles of afternoon clouds sitting on the horizon were Wisconsin mountains, and now I have to remind myself that this rumbling horizon really is made of stone and not air. Today, though, I had to promise myself that there were indeed mountains beneath the thick piled clouds.

It was cool enough that I could wear a cardigan all day! I went by myself to Moriarty, had to take both Sarah (the bearded dragon) and Kernel (the corn snake) in my truck, and since they got front seat privileges, everything else had to go in the back. Jennie was at the ABQ store all day, so I spent the entire day by myself at the Cedar Crest store, then at the center in Tijeras, the afternoon in Moriarty, and then back at my office in Cedar Crest. I had a very Type-A kind of day, and so when Jennie finally got up to Cedar Crest around 5:00, I had accomplished a ridiculously large amount of work. Then I came home (luckily Danielle got the message I left on our machine this morning and closed all our windows before it started to rain in earnest!), scoured the kitchen, spent too much time and far too much money at the grocery store (and learned that, similar to how you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, you also shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re feeling all nostalgic about midwestern autumns past, because you’ll end up with way too many apples and too much cheese and bread and apple cider and squash and merlot in your basket), came home and channeled my inner-soccer-mom and made a huge batch of puppy chow for the East Mountain Health & Wellness Coalition meeting Thursday night, and then took Zeke on a long puddle walk through the dark, pretty streets.

Of the whole day, the one moment that really stays with me is from just after work, when I stopped for gas just down the road from the store. A little more than mist, and less than rain, the late afternoon was all gray wraiths snaking up from the valleys and twisting through the trees. Where the clouds parted, I could see the stones in the hillside, mossy green and in appearance very much like the quartzite bluffs of southern Wisconsin. I hugged my cardigan around me, listening to the sshhhhing of the yellow aspens and cottonwoods. No more than that; just one moment of peace in a world of flurry.

...and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

– from Derek Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”

05 October 2003

Such a weekend! I am torn between the desire to describe every moment and the desire to go to bed, so I’m compromising by writing until the dryer’s finished running its cycle, figuring that I need to stay up until the laundry’s done anyhow. Zeke’s already in bed, stretched across all the pillows, snoring like the crusty old man he is. Every snore from his salt&pepper nose tempts me to bed, so I’ll type quickly.

Friday night, I went with Tiska to an opening at the Coleman Gallery on Central/Rte 66. I love that Tiska keeps inviting me to these artistic events; without the impetus of her company I probably wouldn’t go, but there is something inherently healthy about an artistic space. Wandering around Page’s gallery, I was struck by her ethereal landscapes, but even more, I was struck by peace of the gallery, and thought about the hours I spent wandering the Falconer Gallery at Grinnell....

Though the Coleman was lovely and full of wonderful pieces, I was actually more taken with the New Grounds Print Shop next door. It’s a combination gallery/workshop/classroom, and artists can rent time in the print shop, which is wonderful because presses are very expensive and few beginning artists can afford their own. New Grounds had the same ambience I so valued in the painting & drawing studios at Grinnell. "There is a sort of energy here [in the studio], a tangible vibration of creation. It is in the finished or near-finished works on the walls, the still lifes in the center of the room, the easels standing ready to hold blank canvases, eager to hold up art... " (3 October, 1999)

Later, Tiska and I went for dinner with her friends Val and Liz at Taj Mahal on Carlisle (only a few blocks from my house!). It was a funny dinner because Val and Liz kept asking me questions about the midwest: "What do people eat there?" "What jobs do people have?" "What do people do for fun?" "How do they talk?" I loved talking about Iowa and Wisconsin, of course, but I felt kind of weird and kept saying, "It is the same country, after all." But I tried to explain about hot dish, and potlucks, and getting lost in cornfields when we were kids. Later, I said something to Tiska about their fascination, and she said something about the midwest being exotically normal.

Saturday, I helped Tiska cover the pond so falling leaves don’t muck it up, and after a long conversation about our usual topics – how stupid Bush is, and how scary the country is – we watched part of the movie "Punch Drunk Love," but hated it and turned it off.

Saturday night I went with my friend Lisa to this great coffee shop in Cedar Crest to support Jennie and her friends. They had an evening of psychic events, and because Lisa and I were too poor to afford to pay anyone for a reading, Jennie and her friends offered to do some gratis readings for us. Jennie is one of those rare people who becomes vital to me within days of our meeting, like Ali. She "read my crystals" which – like most things with Jennie, I suppose – sounds completely crazy but at the time, because I trust Jennie so much and because she has such a deep sense of honesty about her, it seemed perfectly natural. Also, the things Jennie told me affected me in a deep way, and part of this, I think, had to do with this very strong conviction I suddenly had that I was loved and valued. Later that night, after I dropped Lisa off at her mountain house in the countryside between Cedar Crest & Edgewood, I drove home on Rte 66, listening to "The Joshua Tree," enjoying the chilly night air (!!), and watching the mountains, black against the lighter blue of night sky. I began to feel that this is home....

This morning, I got up at 4:00 AM and with Danielle and her parents headed down to the Balloon Fiesta. When we got to the grounds, it was still very dark, and very cold (yay!! I even got to wear mittens!!). While Danielle’s father went to save us a picnic table on the launching grounds, Danielle, her mother, and I went in search of breakfast burritos and coffee. Breakfast burritos: disgusting in Iowa, delightful in Albuquerque. Packed with hot green chile and cheese.... mmmm. Just before 6:00 the first balloon went up. Dawn was still a while off, but the mountains behind us were already beginning to take shape against the lightening sky. The first balloon was yellow, lit up by its propane flames like a giant chinese lantern against the still dark sky.

The whole AIBF scene was like a cross between a state fair (with all the booths and people selling all kinds of randomness – we even saw two alpacas) and RAGBRAI (with all the "teams" and balloonists). Just after dawn, the field began to fill with balloonists inflating their balloons, and by about 7:00 there were already two or three long rows of balloons waiting to begin the mass ascension. Of course, the first two balloons of the mass ascension were the POW-MIA balloon and the Zia (New Mexico flag) balloon, both carrying giant American flags. For the next few hours, the lift-offs were non-stop. Every minute another balloon took off, and we were close enough to see the specifics of the take-offs quite clearly: handlers dropped the anchors, a referee with a dog hat on (haven’t figured that one out yet) blowing a whistle, clearing a path through the crowd for the gondola to bump along the ground several feet until it gains a bit of height and floats up to join the rest. We stayed until about 9:30, at which point the crowds were becoming rather unbearable, and the sky was filled with hundreds of balloons, with hundreds more on the ground waiting for their cues to begin inflation and ascension. It was pretty incredible, though I wished there was a part of the field reserved for spectators who promised to be totally silent and not say irritating things. Something about the giant balloons slowly lifting into the sky and then hanging aloft against the morning blue calls for quiet and peace. Next year, you’ll have to come down and experience this for yourself; it’s too big for pictures or words. I’m hoping that later in the week I’ll be able to find a good watching place high above the crowded fields from which I can watch the Glow (all the balloons lighting up after sunset) and "afterglow" fireworks.

For now though, the laundry’s done and Zeke’s kicking in his sleep, so I’m signing off for tonight, to catch up on some of the bedtime hours I spent this morning jumping around a frosty pre-dawn field (in a sweatshirt and jeans and mittens!!).

01 October 2003

around midnight, mountain time, home

Too much happens in one day to capture any but flashes. Each sunset alone warrants epic description, moment to golden orange moment. Tonight after work I went hiking in the Manzanos and a line from DBQ was running through my head: "What impressionism takes us to is the belief that at every single second the world is change." I felt that intensely tonight, personally, as the sky changed color around every single curve. I imagined what it must be like to be an impressionist, to be dragging an easel and canvas and paints down into the canyon instead of just a nalgene bottle and journal. Coming up out of the canyon as the sun was setting, I kept stopping in the road to jot just one more line – just one more line – just one — and as I was standing under a golden oak, a group of mountain biking boys rode past me and stopped a few yards up the trail, laughing and punching one another and joking about who did or did not make it up certain parts of the trail, and I could hear them whisper about me and was suddenly conscious of who I was at that moment: the crazy girl scribbling in a book, leaning against a tree and looking up at the changing sky every few moments. So be it. I’m sure the farmers who came across Pissarro or Monet whispered and wondered as well, and no one who knew Turner thought he was normal when he tied himself to the prow of the ship in order to paint the storm.


The hike was a strange and beautiful blend of the familiar and the foreign. I was so happy to be surrounded by these rock faces like the bluffs along the Mississippi in southern Wisconsin, hung with orange and crimson ivy, and to follow a creek – to cross a creek on a natural bridge of boulders! – to smell the deep, sharp scents of fallen leaves and drying grasses.... I thought of all the times a crisp autumn afternoon would impel me to grab a loaf of french bread, some cheese, some apples perhaps, and go wandering through Horicon Marsh (in particular one long, lovely day in late September, maybe 1997, watching Canada geese with Ila, driving home in the lights of too many trucks, in her old gray station wagon) or trek out to Picnic Point, or down to my darling “Jenni & Kyle Guerkink” bench in the arboretum — thought of the autumn days at Wyalusing with the Catlins, and later with half of the sixth graders at Oregon Middle School, of days at Devil’s Lake, climbing until everything was fiery trees and sparkling lakeview....

And then driving home, winding around and around through the Cibola forest, through the Manzano Mountains, toward an ever changing sky spiked with sunbeams like the cover of an inspirational Hallmark card, or a child’s mountain sunset in crayon. The mountain profiles soft and indigo against an apricot dusk. I imagine you here with me, imagine taking your hand as we search for red leaves in the canyon, imagine you in the seat next to me as the truck pulls around another curve and the first star appears in the cup of sky between two peaks. You, all of you. I wish to be a camera at every moment, to share each slow breath and every swooping bird, want to show you what it is to stand atop a granite shelf overlooking a long canyon of dusty smooth stone and charred boughs as the salmon clouds define the delicate contours of cliff against sky.

I want to share this all with you, and I am struggling in the limitations of my language, straining against the boundaries of what I can name. My specificity is limited by all the words I do not know, all the words I do not have, and as I walk sometimes I spin through words in my mind and wonder where they fit in this valley: saguaro, sage, piƱon. In my mind, David Campbell is saying, “We don’t have the words to love this place,” and I am naming everything I can: oak leaf, prickly pear, southwestern paintbrush, juniper, aspen. Sunset. Mountain. Autumn.