Keeping Things Whole

Trey Ratcliff:

A field. Emptiness and wholeness.

Today, I treat you to a favorite poem by Mark Strand, “Keeping Things Whole.” It goes everywhere with me in the pocket of my writer’s notebook. It’s mostly memorized. I still remember where I was sitting when I first read this poem. I was in a Parlin classroom on the UT-Austin campus, and spring was coming. There was construction going on outside. I could hear a squirrel, and the poem made me cry.

Keeping Things Whole

In a field

I am the absence

of field.

This is

always the case.

Wherever I am

I am what is missing.

When I walk

I part the air

and always

the air moves in

to fil the spaces

where my body’s been.

We all have reasons for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.


Visit this poem and others at POETRY OUT LOUD.

Facing Frailty (Death)

From a sequence of images on aging by Marilylle Soveran

Dying sucks. And saying, “dying sucks” is a way of trivializing my terror. Because I am really, really afraid of dying. Also, I would prefer for all my loved ones to continue to live. I recognize that this goes against the order of the world we live in. I know I ought to be comforted by the idea that the end of this life doesn’t mean the end of all life, but this is the only life I know.

Talk of heaven doesn’t make me feel better. Not that I don’t believe in it, but I just don’t get it. Who wants gold streets when I have the dirty, real streets of this world? My son’s milky breath, the fatigue and intimacy at the end of a long day, fresh-baked bread, snow—I want it all.

Today I try to face frailty—the fact of death—by thinking through some smarter people’s reflections on living and dying. So here goes.

“That is simply what happened. The main thing was being alive. That was the main thing.” –Rilke, from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

What I love about this quotation is how it reflects the kind of stuttering sense of urgency I feel about living. It’s the main thing, the main thing, the only thing, the only thing I can imagine.

“We keep waking from a dream we can’t recall, looking around in surprise, and lapsing back, for years on end. All I want to do is stay awake…” –Annie Dillard, “The Present,” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Dillard is talking about being present to the world around us, about really taking it in rather than being washed along without noticing. But I want to stay awake—alive—as long as I can. Liam, our little boy, cries big boy tears now, big, fat, and salty. I know they’re salty because I’ve tasted them. His smiles go straight to my heart. I want to be awake to all this for a long time.

“There is the sleep that demands I lie down/ and be fitted to the dark that comes upon me/ like another skin in which I shall never be found,/ out of which I shall never appear.” –Mark Strand, “The Sleep”

Darkness as death. Death as burrowing into the skin of the earth. Death as disappearance. These are not comforting images. They are images I’ve tried to face. They are images that terrify me. Could heaven be darkness as peace? Or light through the stillness and darkness of whatever radical thing that it is that’s so different from being alive? I don’t get it. But I know that pearly gates and gold streets can’t possibly be all.

“Loss turned you to yourself by bankrupting all the usual distractions.” –Glen Duncan, Death of an Ordinary Man

When people we love die, something opens up inside us. This is scary. It’s also an opportunity. Note to self: do not tweet or text or otherwise fritter away this opportunity.

“And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier” –Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

“Song of Myself” is one of the most beautiful affirmations of life in this world. So I’m going to hold onto the idea, with Whitman, that life out of this world is different and luckier than what I can imagine.

How do you eat an elephant?

Joan M. Mas:

Sweet elephant…

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time?

Okay, so I chose a cartoon elephant for my post image because, obviously, none of us are actually interested in eating elephants. I mean, come on–tough gray hide, yech.

But the whole idea, that even an enormous task is possible one small action at a time, is tremendously important to me. (I had never heard this saying until someone put it in my mailbox during final weeks the first semester of my freshman year in college. And man, did I ever need the perspective.)

The one bite at a time plan is the only way I get anything done, I think. I hold fast to the belief that the little that I can do right now actually matters to the giant task I’m trying to accomplish.

I’ve been reading a book a day since January in preparation for my PhD exams. But I break every single text down into at least 5 sections so that I can take it one “bite” at a time. It’s exciting to look back over the semester and see that I’m getting closer to the bones of my elephant. (Yesterday I think I bit off its tail!)

I’m also writing my third novel in 15 minutes a day. I’m hoping to take bigger and more frequent bites off my novel elephant once I finish my PhD exams, but I’m not waiting until then to do something about it.

What elephants are you waiting to face? Would you like a little ketchup with your elephant?

Rilke’s no-foolin’ advice for writers (good for living well, too)

Rainer Maria Rilke has been one of my favorite poets for a long time. Recently as I was digging through an old writer’s notebook (from 4 years ago), I came across this list of advice I gathered from Letters to a Young Poet:


You can see some quotations from Letters to a Young Poet here on wikiquote. Also, I didn’t realize it, but that last bit totally showed up in my personal mission statement, which I wrote about here.

The magic tree: Ashley’s flickr fantasies

Trey Ratcliff:

Doesn’t the tree make you think of bodies climbing up?

Check out this exquisite photograph I took in a Cambodian temple. Oh, wait. I didn’t actually take it. That was just a fantasy I had while stalking Austin-based photographer Trey Ratcliff on (check out his award-winning blog, Stuck in Customs, here).

I can almost imagine taking it, though. That’s because sometimes I go to flickr and stare at the images until I can imagine myself behind the camera. In the case of this beautiful image, I can almost feel the loose sand over the cracked paving tiles in the temple and hear the rustle of leaves far overhead. I wrote a while ago about saying goodbye to art photography as an active, creative practice in my own life, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fantasize about capturing and creating beautiful images.

About the photo: is it just me, or do these intertwined trunks make you think of river nymphs flowing up to the top of the tree? 

Launched in Bloomington

Gettin’ my author on with a little talk before the party…

So Saturday’s launch party was officially a success, thanks to the hard work and support of Bloomington folks! This post is all about pictures: get a look inside the amazing Boxcar Books, check out Arnie’s BIG-ASS poster (which I L.O.V.E.), see me in stripes, and drool over baked goods from G.G.’s Sweetery. Bonus points if you identify the other published Bloomington YA author in the crowd. 

Speaking of photos, all these were taking by the inimitable and lovable Arnulfo Pérez and other guests, but I’m also looking forward to seeing the images snagged by a photojournalism student who used the event as the basis of one of her projects AND bought a book (thanks, Christy!).


Arnie printed this big-ass poster using graphic art from the designer at Carolrhoda LAB and technical support from Justin of


Piles of books and loads of new readers to read them. We sold 23 books, and I signed 8 more that folks had bought in advance. This is good!


People talking about books and eating. Juanes, Maná, and other Latin music playing in the background.


Gwenette Gaddis, the talent behind GG’s Sweetery, baked up this lovely spread. This is BEFORE it was devastated by the hungry hordes.


Chef Matt O’Neill of The Runcible Spoon donated their famous, locally roasted coffee as well as a scrumptious creamy vegetarian pasta. Three years ago, Matt also donated the funds for a scholarship I received to the IU Writers Conference. That year I took the manuscript that is now What Can’t Wait. Double thanks to Matt and the Spoon!


Julia Karr, author of XVI (Speak, 2011), came to my party. Read an excerpt from XVI and find other cool stuff at her website,


Boxcar Books was a stellar host for the party; special thanks to Will for organizing the event. Boxcar Books is a very special place. It’s a volunteer-run not-for-profit store that uses proceeds to fund community outreach and a Pages to Prisoners program. (Read their mission statement and history here.)  In addition to a fine collection of books, they’ve got all sorts of zines and other quirky findings. Also, your coolness quotient go up the minute you step through the doors. I’ll be sending Bloomington folks here for my book from now on!

Coming home to my first readers

Left to right: Christine Vaughn, Daniela Garza, me, Jennifer Orrellana, and Josh Jernigan.

By now I’ve probably said this in a dozen different places, but here goes again: I wrote What Can’t Wait for my students in Houston. Last weekend, they came out in full force for my booksigning. They rocked my world by coming through that door all afternoon long, by enduring my hugs, and by giving me “the rest of the story”: what they’re doing now, who they’ve become. Moments like these are what we teacher folks live for.

We teacher types also LOVE hearing that our former students have become teachers themselves, as was the case for one of mine, Vivian Fernández, who now teaches high school math in HISD. (Harder than you thought, eh, Vivian?) Jessica Guillen, Elizabeth Flores, and Roston Veal stopped by to tell me that they’re working on becoming teachers as well. Jessica Van Ravenhorst, another rockstar scholar, now runs her own home daycare, which is a goal she’s had since her days in my classroom.

AshCassandraOne of my students, Cassandra Flores, brought in a copy of the original manuscript of (the novel now known as) What Can’t Wait for me to sign along with the finished novel. I taught Cassandra in 2006. The fact that she kept that tattered pile of pages (with its regretable opening chapter) was the sweetest vote of confidence. Diana Alvarez, another early and immensely helpful reader of the first draft, also came by with her million-dollar smile.

The “kids” (got to put quotation marks since these guys are all adults now… and older than I was when I started teaching) in the picture at the top of this post were in my AP Lit class (except for Christine on the far left; she’s just a groupie that I WISH I had taught). Other folks who stopped by from their class included Juan Torres and Larry Vuong. Jonathan Gomez, an AP Lit scholar from the previous year, put in an appearance with his partner in crime, Vivian Rodriguez.

Another student, Baltazar Diaz, helped me hold down the fort for a good hour, and his visit was special because whenAshBaltazar Baltazar was in my class, he H.A.T.E.D. to read. Oh, how the mighty have fallen… fallen in love with books! Baltazar is now a reader, but he hasn’t lost his sassy sense of humor. I taught Baltazar for two years (before he escaped my grasp his senior year), but there was also a crew of kids who had me for sophomore, junior and senior year. Did we bond? Yes, we bonded!

From that group, I saw Ana Figueroa, Eric Vitales, and Rey Mejía. Ana’s gone from giggly girl to a serious student and mother on her way to being a dental assistant. Eric inspired me by sticking with writing in my class and working through many lunch periods to get through tasks that weren’t always his favorite. Rey carried Harry Potter around like the bible and infected me with his laughter daily while persuading lots of his classmates that reading is actually pretty kick-ass. One time Rey wrote about a math teacher he’d had in the past who shared his own goals and dreams (becoming a college prof, I think) with his students. I remember having a kind of Aha! moment… You mean I could share something of my life with my students? Get out!


From the very first group of students who I taught as seniors at Chavez back in 2004, I saw Roston Veal, Rocío Vasquez, Jeanette Perez, and Andrea Mouzakis. They’re all grown with kids of their own, but they honored me by remembering me and coming out to show the love.

I also saw Hector Gallardo, who wrote a play in my class that was a finalist for an Alley Theatre competition and has the distinction of being the only student whose name I (TEMPORARILY) forgot. Sorry, Hector, but do I get any credit for remembering what the play was about? Alberto Garcia came by with a bear hug and news of other students–he didn’t love my class from the start, but I remember him as slipping appreciative notes and apologetic looks my way when his best buddy got out of line.

If I missed anybody in this note, y’all know I love you and am just getting old! Thank you, scholars, for helping me celebrate the book that wouldn’t exist without you.

The Trailer Story

A while back I promised that I would explain the following (completely true) statement: I once fantasized about living in a trailer. Actually, this statement has been true at a number of points in my life.

When I was a kid, my grandparents had a travel trailer parked next to their house, and my brother, cousins and I would go out there to play. I’m pretty sure I wanted to live there.

The real fantasies kicked in when I was fifteen. I had lots of friends and even boyfriends during my (two) years in high school (Wondering why just two? Go back and check out this post), but I felt lonely most of the time. This was partly due to some family problems I didn’t want to talk about, but the roots of the situation were deeper. Although I seem outgoing to most people, in fact I’m very shy and self-conscious, and this was even more the case when I was younger.

Whenever I was around people, I felt horribly exposed and vulnerable, and no matter how nice or protective my friends were of me, I always feared that things could change in an instant. When I felt this way, I would imagine being married and living in a trailer. For some reason, this made me feel less afraid. I pictured myself reading books in this snug space. I imagined that a kind of belonging and peace would fill me there. I imagined being loved. I can see now that I imagined a magic trailer.

Lucky for me, I also had lots of academic ambitions, so I moved past this little fantasy and became more confident (slowly). I found love elsewhere, too.

Now, I don’t fantasize about living in a trailer, but I would love having one to write in. Author Laura Resau made me drool with this tour of the trailer she uses as her writing space. But let’s face it: I would only want to write in a trailer if I could have Laura come make it beatiful for me first.

There you have it: the trailer story.

Diversity in YA Guest Post

Y’all hop over to the Diversity in YA blog for my guest post today on cussing, cockroaches, and my audience. It’ll be grand!

Also, don’t forget: Launch party for What Can’t Wait on Saturday, March 26, from 7-10 p.m. at Boxcar Books in Bloomington, IN. All the details are here.

Launch Party, March 26

Yay, yay! It’s a book! And a party! Come on out Saturday, March 26, from 7-10 p.m. at Boxcar Books in Bloomington, Indiana, for a book signing and celebration of What Can’t Wait‘s publication. Delicious vittles will be provided by GG’s Sweetery and the Runcible Spoon.

I promise to be in proper authorly form and to say 5-minutes-worth of authorly things. The rest? Having fun and celebrating the journey to publication! Come out, drop by, stay late, bring your friends–whatever works for you! But whatever you do, help us make it a night to remember.

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All materials © 2022 Ashley Hope Pérez. Author website by Websy Daisy.