Editor’s Note: “Leftover Astonishments” is a sneak peek chapter from the new memoir by Callie Feyen that will release in 2019—Twirl: My Life With Stories, Writing & Clothes
It is Friday night, and I am staring at one of our bookshelves, wearing sweatpants and my white T-shirt. I’m looking for a story to tell me about myself. I need to see something I haven’t seen or have forgotten was there. I’m staring at my books hoping one of them will say, “Here I am,” and, in turn, “Here you are.”
I pull three books from the shelf: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, Astonishments: Selected Poems by Anna Kamienska, and a third, a book about the Enneagram. I walk them over to my white chair next to a window, sit down, and set them on my lap. Then, I promptly get back up and walk to my phone and return with it to my chair.
“You wanna feel better about your classroom management and discipline skills?” I am texting my friend, Stephanie. “I said, ‘bullshit’ to my 6th graders today.”
Stephanie is a poet and a fellow middle school teacher. We met a few years ago and I like to think we are the female versions of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Our friendship was formed from a deep love of stories and language, teaching and wit, and pints of Guinness and baked goods.
“Oh, boy,” Stephanie texts back. “That must’ve been so satisfying.”
I love Stephanie for many reasons, but one of them is she doesn’t use emojis and never texts, “LOL.”
“I’m surprised we don’t use profanity more frequently,” she adds.
Something loosens within me, and I pick up Astonishments, and look for Anna’s gratitude poem. I remember a verse in it about gratitude being homeless and I want to share that with Stephanie.
Once I find it, I bend the crease so the book lays flat. I’ve been told I’m not very nice to books. I underline authors’ words—in pen—I write in the margins, I write the date every time I read a book or poem, but my worst offense is the way I treat the spines. A book I read ought to have the sturdiest of spines, because if I love the story I’m taking everything I can from it, and cracking and creasing the spine is my way of getting as close to the words as I can in the hopes I’m molded by them in some way.
“Do you know any of Anna Kamienska’s poetry? Astonishments is my favorite,” I text Stephanie. “I’ve been contemplating the last two lines of her ‘Gratitude’ poem: ‘Gratitude is a scattered / homeless love.’”
I found those lines recently when I was looking for something else and I paused, reading them. Nothing else from the poem was underlined except those two lines, and I didn’t write anything in the margins. I must’ve underlined the words because I liked them. It would’ve happened in winter of 2013 and I would’ve either been in a carrel at the Germantown Public Library, or in a cottage on Whidbey Island. I was reading Anna’s poetry for graduate school and it felt like I was being doused with words and was drowning in stories. It was an unsettling time trying to learn and do what I loved, and looking at Anna’s thoughts on gratitude must’ve soothed me. Reading them again now, I think I must’ve been relieved to know being thankful happens in a scattered, confusing way. Gratitude knows no home. It doesn’t stay in one place.
“That’s lovely,” Stephanie texts back.
I shift and look out the window. Two neighbor ladies stand outside of their homes and talk. I pick at the hem of my sweatpants and watch them. We haven’t lived here long, but I can tell they’re old friends. One of them has a bench in her front yard and the other walks over and sits with her; their two dogs prance around while the women talk. I’ve seen them working in each other’s yards, or walking around the neighborhood. They seem to be the kind of neighbors that meet in each other’s kitchens for coffee or bring over measuring cups of sugar for a cake one of them is trying to bake.
Jesse comes downstairs, walks into the kitchen, and opens the fridge.
“I took out leftover chili from the freezer,” I say.
“Perfect,” he says, and finds the Tupperware and pulls it from the fridge. I can hear him placing the chili in a pot and setting it on the stove.
I go back to Anna’s poetry and flip through her pages, reading her words, but also mine: what I underlined and the notes I wrote. I’m looking for something I knew once and have forgotten about. Something I can use now. Something leftover. “She’s giving us the world but it’s a messy world,” I wrote in the margin of “The Other World.” I remember writing that, but they’re not my words. Jeanne Murray Walker told me this about Anna’s poem. She walked me through this poem, and I remember she had on a jeans jacket and something yellow, maybe it was a scarf, and I remember she was so good to listen to. “Everything has a duality to it,” she said, and I wrote that down, too. I remember thinking I wanted to give people a world that is messy, but also show that mess has another side. I remember possibility burning inside of me.
I continue to flip through Anna’s book. In the back are excerpts from the notebooks she kept, and they read like poetry to me. I don’t think I have any notes in the margins, just lots of underlines, starts, a few hearts next to her phrases. I circled “laborious astonishments,” and seeing that, I remembered: the wind of Whidbey Island, sailing along the Whale Trail to Port Townsend. I remembered teaching across the hall from Stephanie, discussing Tolkien with utter joy and bafflement. I remembered walking through used bookstores with her searching for the perfect book for each of our students. I think of the snowflake eel in the library. I feel so fragmented, so scattered, so confused, but I am remembering, and remembering, I am grateful.
“Astonishments is my go-to book of poetry,” I tell Stephanie. I look out the window to see if the neighbor ladies are still outside. They are, sitting on the bench while their dogs play.
My mom used to say that some recipes were better as leftovers because the different ingredients had a chance to make friends. “You have to give it time to let them sit with each other, so don’t throw what’s leftover away,” she’d said.
Stephanie and I continue to converse as the sky darkens and the chili on the stove warms. I suppose nothing has changed except that gratitude has paid me a visit and left me Stephanie, and poetry, and a pile of leftover astonishments.
Print Edition coming in February 2019