The True Beginning

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Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res.  No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story sets about.

-George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

We have to start somewhere. Where is the True Beginning, and what does it look like? What did things look like before the beginning? There were no books, no language, no words to describe it. If we cannot describe it, can we only imagine it? And can we go from imagining to knowing? Or does that only lead to more questions? (and is that a problem?) Must we settle for a ‘make-believe’ beginning? Is that going to have to be enough? (and is that a problem?)

It has taken years of experience, both in the classroom and out, for me to learn that the only place I can start is with the fact that I don’t know where to start, either in my own thoughts or standing in front of a group of strangers on the first day of a class about speaking, listening, writing, reading.  So much history there, a group of individuals with their own stories, opinions, ideas, questions. Some of them are tired, overburdened with jobs and loan obligations, confused, elated, distracted, in love, heartbroken, maybe a little hung over, any or all. If you hold still enough and let the silence stretch out, you can almost begin to hear beneath it the chaotic, conflicting, agreeing, harmonic buzzing of all of those thoughts.  So many lives, sitting in chairs.

So in my hypothetical class (remember this is an imagined hybrid, a cobbled-together thought experiment made of things I’ve done that worked), I start with silence. It’s unnerving for everyone. There’s lots of looking around, phone-checking, fidgeting.

What is it like to sit in silence? What is it like to have no memory, no language, no words? What is it like to sit in prehistory?

Because I am a storyteller, and a reader, and a writer, I think to start with books, then quickly realize that doesn’t go back far enough. Texting? Facebook? That jumps too far ahead. I have to go to cave paintings, the birth of spoken language-what the hell did that look like, anyway?-around-the-fire tales, scraps of spoken epics, cuneiform inscribed clay tablets recording the trades and inventories of ancient commerce, China, Sumer, the ‘Dreamtime’ of the Australian Aborigines in which gods and men roamed the outback, creating crisscrossing paths across its vast expanse, naming its features and speaking them into existence, inscribing them in swirls of dots on crumbling canvases.

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Artist Unknown https:/www.aboriginal-art-australia

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CALIE.org: Hubble Telescope Image of Thor’s Hammer nebula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because I am a person who, as Anne Lamott once phrased it, is ‘all of the ages…[I]…have ever been,’ I think to start with birth, when silence ends and noisy life begins.

This has some promise: everyone in this room has being alive in common. They may love to read, or write, or talk, or all three; they may hate it. But all of them have a life, have had a childhood they are preparing to both leave behind and carry with them all their lives.

So, okay, we’ll go with life.

I break the silence, finally, to everyone’s relief, by showing them this:

We are born into a world that already exists, of course, in medias res, which is where all stories begin, but we each must make our own true beginning, take our place in the world by naming it and making it ours: creating it. We do that by reaching out and touching and testing at first, then gesturing, then making noises that eventually shape themselves into words, then with questions, then with imagination and experiments and ideas. In combining all of the above we make a story, and that story becomes the world in which we live. And in those stories are all of the questions and answers and experiments and ideas people have ever had. This class is going to examine some of them, and ask these people in chairs to join the conversation that makes the world.

So let’s start there.

Each Class/Workshop will include an Exercise that can be used either as a class activity or as a homework assignment. They will appear at the end of posts just as this appears: red, centered.

[NOTE: Some posts will include messages to those who might be interested in using this material in the classroom (or anywhere else, for that matter). These will appear at the ends of posts just as this appears: bracketed, italicized, in purple.]

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Four: Do No Harm

Ted Detmer, Age 46

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sciencenewsjournal-com

sciencenewsjournal.com

What am I doing. Well. Do you want the methodical answer, or the existential one? I’ll confess, as a research physician, that I prefer the former. My cocktail-party rap about my research is that I am in the business of blocking microscopic traffic.  You see, there are these proteins. Well (*chuckle*, sips drink), that’s pretty much all there are, actually. But the ones I’m interested in are the ones that block other proteins from rushing like repair teams to damaged DNA, lashing it back together before it collapses like a rickety ladder or a rope bridge across a chasm. If my interlocutor’s eyes haven’t glazed over by now, he or she might ask ‘well, why would you want to block something that fixes damage?’ I then can give him or her the lip-twitch ironic smile I’ve been perfecting since high school and say ‘well, what if that DNA codes for cancer cells?’ Depending on how late the party has gone, it can take from seconds to a full minute for this to sink in.

The War on Cancer. Dramatic, sexy, an heroic standoff with the forces of chaos. But cancer is really quite methodical, tedious even.  It makes petty plans and carries them out pretty much the way people do: sophisticated but often fucked up communication, ill-advised liaisons, mixed messages, amassing of armies, sabotage, subterfuge, disguise.

All you really have to know is how to look really closely, for a really long time, at really small things, and be willing to do that over and over and over again.

I once thought I’d work with patients, but that was the existential end of the continuum and it turned out not to suit me: too many variables, or too few.  I realized this very early on, my third year of med school, rounding through the psych unit where I met my wife. I saw it as a choice: I could try to slam the gate after the horse had escaped, talk patients down as I scrambled for a treatment, an explanation, a reason to fight, or I could climb into the stall myself, corner that fucking horse at the molecular level and take him out.

So let’s go with methodical: I’m emptying out a bag of things I found in Wyatt’s closet. In order of extraction, I find the following:

  1. child’s plastic princess crown, symmetrical placement of false gems in a blue, clear, pink, green, yellow progression, one (pink) missing
  2. small plastic sandals, colloquially termed ‘mules,’ pink, with a kitten heel and a vamp made of puffy pink and white synthetic feathers
  3. child-sized kimono-style robe, red synthetic satin, machine-embroidered floral details at hem, collar and sleeves
  4. iridescent, semi-translucent rainbow-hued scarf, fabric unknown

    pinterest-com

    pinterest.com

It is perhaps more challenging to identify and assess my reaction (mouth goes dry, heart rate quickens, mood darkens and edges toward anger: he has hidden them! he has deceived me! we had an agreement!), and it is unclear whether it would serve any useful purpose: it is familiar and chaotic at once; it is both fully aware and utterly bewildered.  It explains everything and nothing at all.

None of this is new; he has had the scarf since he was 3, snatched from a bin at Goodwill while shopping with his mother. He enjoyed lying on his back and arranging it over his face so that the world bloomed into color as he looked up through it. He danced, flounced, squealed, *lisped*: behaviors I’d always understood as learned, acquired, socially and politically inflected, and have now been forced to attribute to…what?  Where could he have learned this? Where acquired? At 3?

This is where my reaction gets chaotic, and hence not helpful, and I have borne this in mind when I have talked to Wyatt, who is old enough, at 5, to be talked to; old enough, at 5, to understand that there are things you do, and things you don’t do, depending on who you are. We don’t get to decide what we are any more than we get to decide whether or not to be born. It is not about *us.*  We are all prisoners of our bodies: capricious, prone to failure, stubbornly insistent on being what they are. The sooner peace can be made with that, well, let’s just say I want to spare my son the exhausting and futile task of trying to make himself into whatever he wants to be.

It’s just not that simple.

These things are scripted, okay? DNA is an instruction manual: what you will become, how, when, everything but the why. We don’t get to write it.  It writes us.

Trust me.  I’m a doctor.

So I was methodical with Wyatt, a year ago, and it appeared to gain purchase: you are a boy, Wyatt; it is what you are. These things are what girls do, and I don’t want you to feel confused. We reached an agreement, I thought: together he and I gathered up the clothing, the toys, the Barbies with their tiny pointy shoes, the kitchen things, the toy vacuum cleaner (such oppressive roles!), the miniature cosmetics, all the girl stuff (Amy has poor boundaries with these things, more often than not simply buying him what he asks for rather than asking why or- and I don’t think she has this in her- simply saying no), and boxed them up for his new little cousin in Seattle, just born into her body, just beginning to sense the limits, the possibilities, the finite number of options.

And then his mother allowed him to be a Disney mermaid for Halloween, dismantling it all with one swoop. ‘There are things we just don’t understand, Ted,’ she said. ‘But we can understand what he wants.’
‘He doesn’t know what he wants!’ I shouted.  ‘He made a deal with me, Amy. We had an agreement. We gave away the girl things. He was fine with it.’
‘Fine with it? Fine with it? Is that why he’s out back right now dancing around in a plastic seashell bra?’
You bought it for him!’
He wanted it!”
‘It’s going to Sophia. He and I tomorrow will put it in a box, and it is going in the mail to Sophia.’

Can we just have a few things that are clear and unambiguous? Can we just agree on that? And could one of them be my child’s gender? I’d be fine with a clear message. It doesn’t have to be the one I’d prefer; the clarity would be sufficient.

I was the only one who could comfort him, right from the beginning. He was born crying, howling in protest. Amy likes to say she felt him wailing before he’d even left her body, but Amy is like that: prone to hyperbole and excess, needing a steady hand. I sometimes wonder whether she loves that I saved her more than she loves me.

And of course there was the question of whether to have children at all. The nifty little salt that settles Amy’s brain-no one has ever been abled to explain why-has been linked to heart defects in infants; when she turned up pregnant with Riley, unplanned, we did a risk-benefit with her ob who, once he’d read her history, advised her to stay on it. We’ve kept an eye; Riley’s heart ticks as steadily and soundly as a Swiss watch.

Were we gambling when we opted for a second? I am not a gambler by nature, and Amy has learned caution the hard way. I think it was more that we carefully looked off the other way and let it sneak up on us. Can you plan to be surprised?

She’d call me in tears, Wyatt wailing in her arms, beg me to come home.  I’d take him from her and he’d settle instantly, which only upset her more. We were spoiled by Riley. He was an easy baby, fooled us into thinking we knew what we were doing. I’d sit with Wyatt as he fought sleep, fix him on my lap and page with him through the color plates in my medical books, the stained microscopic images of cancer cells: the swirling shapes and brilliant colors, which I would explain in a sleepy, lulling murmur aren’t their actual colors

cancer-research-uk

cancerresearchUK

but rather a broad range of contrast media saturated with ultraviolet and infrared light: it defined them more clearly. It isn’t art, Wye, I’d murmur. It’s science. He’d stare, transfixed, lay his fingers on the glossy images, nod into sleep, eyes rolling back and his heavy head dropping against my chest.

I sit on the bed, lift a shoe, drop it, pick up the crown, perch it on my head, lift it off, drop it.  The door opens and slams downstairs, a murmur of voices: Amy, Riley, Wyatt, back from some errand or other.

I have samples to culture, rows of test tubes in wire baskets (that’s not strictly true; I have techs and assistants for all that by now, but I prefer thinking that this is what I still do.  The writing and grant-grubbing and lecture circuit and panel-sitting are wearing away at me. It’s not what I am good at).

Oh, Wyatt.  Oh, Wye. I stand and bundle all of the stuff into my arms, lift and shake you open, bag, to jam it all back in, and find that I cannot do it, the way that on my honeymoon, two thirds of the way from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, clouded in so that I could see nothing but my feet below me, I could suddenly no longer walk, could suddenly no longer detach myself from the rock face behind me. I was nearly there.  Nearly there.

‘Pick a snack, Wye, then nap,’ I hear Amy say.  They’ll be heading up soon.  We’ve talked about naps, that, at 5, he has surely outgrown them, but he insists, sinking into them like a fainting lady on a couch, as eagerly as he resists going to sleep at night. I stand there for a moment longer, drop you on the floor so that I can use both hands to place Wyatt’s

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things on the bed, laying down the scarf first and arranging the crown, shoes, and kimono on top of it,  a neat colored square, a contrast medium, everything carefully arranged.  I step away, assess the symmetry, make a few adjustments, stand there a moment longer,  then turn and leave the room.

 

 

 

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Footloose

Bill Salter

Untrammeled, freed, set loose, released, let go –
I wander blameless where no one would know
the things I’ve done, or have not done, or do.
And best of all, they do not know of you.

Arriving here, where not a soul aspires
to circumvent the heat of my desires,
I make my old course in a country new,                        footloose
and fancy free. (Except I think of you.)

Loosed to create in any shape and size,
the things I’ve lost I find that I reprise
and shackle new found freedom to redo
the whole world that I built and lost with you.

For though my elder self pursues the new,
inside is my old younger self, and you.

©Bill Salter, 2016

Bill Salter “was born by the river in a little tent Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since It’s been a long time, a long time coming But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will…” [Sam Cooke]

Spirit Flight

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Dear Valued Customer,
Thank you for flying with us! 
We would like to get your input on your recent experience with this flight by completing this quick survey.  We recognize that listening to our customers is one of the most important things we can do, and your response will help us ensure that your next experience exceeds your expectations.

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Well, that’s a tough one, frankly. My overall experience on December 04, 2016 from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Baltimore, MD (BWI) was really not at all about Spirit Airlines, until, abruptly, it was. My overall experience was about my father in the hospital, dying, in Baltimore, and me, in Chicago, trying to get out to see him for the last time. So as you can imagine, Spirit Airlines, my overall experience that evening was both all I could think about, and all I could not think about.  Instead, I focused on details: the email you considerately sent informing me that the flight had been delayed by 45 minutes; the amount of shit I could cram into a carry-on that would be light enough not to be confiscated at the gate, at which point I would be charged $100 to check it; rushing to the airport. I was not overly concerned with missing the flight (I had some other things on my plate, like getting someone in to feed the cats, finding a place to park the car that wouldn’t overdraw my checking account, merging onto the rush-hour Kennedy Expressway, speaking to the nurse who stood at my father’s  bedside, her voice timid and southern-inflected in the Bluetooth-configured cabin of my car, assuring me that while he could not speak, he smiled as he heard my voice: ‘I’m on my way, Dad. Hang in there. I’m on my way.’

You had assured me there was a delay, Spirit Airlines, and I had left enough time that I was certain to be at the gate before even the flight’s originally scheduled departure.

There was plenty of time.

I was reassured, upon arriving at the airport, that the delay was still in place: all six monitors I obsessively checked assured me of this.  So imagine my surprise when, upon arriving at the gate, 15 minutes prior to the *original* departure time, I was informed that the plane had already left and was taxiing down the runway.

If you actually gave a shit, Spirit Airlines, about your employees, those beleaguered and expressionless gate agents who have to break this kind of news and then endure the blowtorch of wrath from your paying customers, you would ask these particular two what they had to hear from me, maybe have given them a little bonus, or at the very least a day off.  There was a lot of obscenity, some flying spit (I’m a theater major; my professor tells me if you aren’t drenching the people in the first row you’re not enunciating sufficiently), some tears, some flung baggage.  What could they do? The plane was on the runway. My father was, as the doctors called it, ‘actively’ dying. I was, I’m embarrassed to confess, on my knees, clutching my head, wailing.

Oh well!

I’m going to assume that ‘overall experience’ includes my attempt to reach your customer service line, a succession of cheery bots who led me in a mechanical circle right back to where I’d begun, so I’ll toss that into the mix too.

My overall experience? Are you sure you really want to ask me that?

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Hmm. The primary reason.  How about ‘you fucking suck’?  I think that about covers it.  I have not filled in any of the holes above because there is not a number low enough. How likely? How likely?

departureWell, now, see, this is easy, because none of this part ever actually happened. It’s hard to assess a boarding process when you didn’t get to even fucking board.  I mean, I suppose I could apply this to the flight the following morning, but I was a little distracted by the fact that by the time we landed in Baltimore my father was dead, and I had an email from you, time-stamped two hours earlier, assuring me that the delay on the flight that had departed before its scheduled departure time the previous evening was still in place, so hey! No rush!

Now, this afternoon, in the Uber on the way to the funeral home, I have occasion to ponder your choice of name. Spirit. I assume it’s meant to evoke a sprightly will, a zest for life, a seize-it-by-the-horns, embark on an exciting journey kind of feeling. But I find myself drawn-chalk it up to the emotional intensity of the present moment, I guess-to its more ethereal, metaphysical connotations: spirits, like that of my dead father, like mine, like those of all of your other passengers, all of whom, I’m guessing, have reasons to travel that are, well, shall we say, pressing.

You bear each of our spirits into the air and back down again. We give you our money. We pass through security, throw away our water bottles, take off our shoes, stand in the backscatter booths with our arms over our heads like caught criminals, participate in the magical-thinking rituals, reassuring ourselves that we will not fall from the sky or careen headlong into an office building, screaming the names of our children, our parents, our lovers. We run down the concourse, draw up breathless at the gate, only to find that you have left us.We trust you with our lives and those of the people we love. But you have left the gate, and as one of the blank-eyed gate agents told me, almost wistfully, ‘I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.’

But I’m here now, Spirit, and I have to pay the driver and go in to pick a coffin. I hope that this survey will help you ensure that my next experience exceeds my expectations.

images

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

From the Clickbait Archives: The Cycle

clickbait

scribblelive.com

i.

He brings his girlfriend to the hospital to deliver
quintuplets
But gets a huge
surprise
instead

Their baby seemed normal
Then they saw this

Nine Secrets
Doctors Wish
Parents knew

Are we over vaccinating our children
The answer might surprise you.

Three year old hears for first time

The things this four year old is doing?
So cute
The reason he’s doing them?
Heartbreaking

She was bullied for being different
So she did this
And stunned everyone

As soon as I
Heard
Them
Sing
I knew

These girls are the future

 

ii.

Something totally bizarre is happening in
Alabama
Texas
Kansas
Massachusetts

Enter your name
Wait 17 seconds

This drunk girl wrote notes to her sober self

Her dress dropped jaws

I was a
Teenage
Lesbian
Cybersex
Junkie

A stranger approaches a woman’s bed
Puts an onion in her sock
You won’t believe
the results

iii.

So I have been
using this every day for about

3 weeks now.

I can’t begin to desribe how incredibly this works!
Ladies, if you
want
feels
free
from wrink-kle
lets try this soon

Watch a married couple
Confront each other
About other sexual partners

Eleven reasons
You need to make your
Divorce Lawyer
Your BFF

iv.

Celine Dion’s
Announced the launch
that is because her husband is deid
and she is very sad

Madonna weeps
Oprah weeps
Ellen weeps
Mariah weeps
Fans Furious
The treachery

I’m crying!
I’m shocked!
The Dirt
Linked to their name
I’m stunned!
I can’t stop laughing!

I was speechless
I am speechless
Speechless
Speechless

I’m destroyed

The judges have no explanation
Bankers don’t want you to know this

v.

20 Celebrities you didn’t know were
Gay
Muslim
Actually Black
Bi
Trans
Men
Women
Dead
Living
Citizens
Twins
Cancer Survivors
Real Life Disney Princesses
Real Life Superheroes

Where are they now?

 

vi.

UGH…
after Menopause
I had bigtime problems
with sun-spots & wrinkles.

Now my husband can’t get over it…

The wrinkels that covered my forehead,
eyes
neck
just
vanished like
ghosts

Even after I showed him, he still can’t believe
this is what cut half-our-years-off our faces!

OMG
This botched plastic surgery
Is HORRIBLE

vii.

a folding robot
made of pig parts
removes batteries from stomachs
with magnets

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself
not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.

this really made me think

I really need a potato ricer

Ducklings see water for the first time
Cows see fields
This dog was left out in the rain
Just look at him now

O Brave New World
You won’t believe what happens next

[all misspellings are verbatim]
©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Annapolis Poem

“The William Paca Garden is a two acre oasis of natural beauty in the bustling center of Annapolis’ Historic District.  Although many colonial Annapolitans had gardens, only Paca’s has been returned to its original splendor and opened to the public.  Intrigued by garden details in the background of Charles Willson Peale’s 1772 portrait of Paca, researchers were able to reconstruct the site from a series of archeological digs that turned up evidence of the garden’s former glory.”
-from the Historic Annapolis site:
http://www.annapolis.org/historic/william-paca-garden

 

Ruth Johnston

unknown-5

 

 

 

 

 

In Paca Garden, walled and dry
they built the Old World in the New,
and there walked girl and woman, I
with man and boy (remember?), you.

As if to keep all life at bay
and shut our eyes to hear a story
we dressed the truth in solemn play:
my quiet house of ancient glory,

linen and tea; your Russian home,
the dying count, a summons back
Were those bricked streets our sunny Rome,
or Paris?  You spotted in a crack

a flash of gold; I wore it round
my neck for days.  You wondered why
I prized the broken chain you found;
you feared and could not meet my eye.

We played pretend, but much came true:
our Old World gave us the refrain,
with words dictated by the New.
I have, but never wear, the chain.

Like faery queen and knight of old
we lingered in determined bliss:
a string of nonsense, trampled gold,
a small thing, but too bright to miss.

©Ruth Johnston, 2016

Ruth Johnston is a writer. See her work at ruthjohnston.com.

Introduction

I’ve taught writing (and reading, and philosophy, and literature) to students of every age. It took me a long time to figure out that stories, and the fact that we are all storytellers, were my way in: they’re the bag of tricks, my song and dance, my sure-fire way to get and hold and focus attention. In the preschool classroom there was, of course, the RUG, where we’d sit and read book after book after book and construct around–the-circle stories of our own, each kid picking up the thread the kid beside him or her had spun, tracing it out, passing it on to the next kid. Goofy tangents and vivid detail abounded.  And, amazingly but maybe not so amazingly, inherent structure emerged, meaning and shape that connected each member of the little group to every other, and made something entirely new out of words and imagination. Once we had that, there was a reason why we traced letters in sand, copied them onto paper, arranged magnet letters on a metal board.  It was all about getting to the story. Sitting in that circle was where I began to dimly suspect that we are all of us, maybe even from birth, ‘wired’ for this.

omg_regular_bears_1024x1024

Jay Ryan, Regular Bears thebirdmachine.com

These were the easiest students, these little guys: still jazzed, amazed, unfettered in their imaginative flights, still discovering and feeling their way to all the cool things people are able to do and making them their own. I was unaware of it at the time, but my experience with 3 and 4 year olds had laid the groundwork for the approach I would take all through my career as a teacher of writing, reading, thinking, listening, questioning and arguing and discussing: reawaken that jazzed, amazed feeling about stories, about imagination, about the things people do with both spoken, written and read language, humanity’s most powerful tool.

It took elementary and high school kids a little longer, and the older they got, the longer it took: the journey back to wonder was winding and dimly lit. They were asking for more than magic-on good days wanting explanations, context, purpose; on bad days a shortcut, a snow day, head-on-desk naps, smartphone games and texts. Assignments piled up, pressure about Their Future was brought to bear, sitting and absorbing then mechanically repeating back information took precedence and then, suddenly, a lot of them were in college, a few of them sitting in my classroom, in a course that would require them to write, and read, and talk, and think.  With the exception of a few who appeared curious and engaged, it was a grim and apprehensive crowd.

Where to begin? It took me a long time to figure it out.  What follows is a hypothetical approach to the teaching of writing, reading, thinking, listening, questioning and arguing and discussing-a prototype, I suppose you could call it. It’s made of my ideas and experiences teaching at all grade levels, and the ideas and experiences of others; plans and exercises; clipped quotes and videos, passages from favorite books; the things that worked from all of the various classes and students I’ve taught.  I attempt to tailor the approach here and there to different age groups, although I’ve found from experience that there isn’t much tweaking required from one age to another: simplifying language in some places; shortening or lengthening various exercises, focusing on ‘external’ spoken and performed stories with younger children, more ‘internal’ written pieces for older ones;  dredging long-term memory with older adults, skimming the short-term with younger; dropping or adding some theoretical or historical offshoots. Its essential structure, though, aspires to one-size-fits-all. It’s a sprawling Dr. Suess structure, constantly under construction, never finished, new things tacked onto old, often disorderly, propped up with sticks: sloppy but with what I hope is at least a stab at coherence.  It’s ongoing; it’s accumulative; it’s recycled.

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Next post: The True Beginning