“Write a letter to the bright-eyed job seeker interested in following in your footsteps. Illuminate. Opine. Advise. But do not exceed 800 words.”
So You Want to Be an Ex-Expatriate Poet/Nigerian Dwarf Goatherd/Adjunct English Professor/Soccer Mom
When you are twelve, teach yourself Spanish by memorizing García Lorca: Qué esfuerzo del perro por ser golondrina! How hard the dog tries to become a swallow!
Join the Peace Corps at twenty-two. Ride an hour and a half to work in the back of a dump truck. Teach English to classes of forty eighth graders who stare blankly while you ask them questions. How are you? What is your name? How old are you?
Finally, after much chatter and giggling and note-passing, one boy boldly ventures a response: I am apple.
The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love? Until you deliver a slippery eight-pound baby into an inflatable bathtub in your bedroom. Until you watch your eight-year old pushed into the mud by a boy twice his size. Until your five-year old says, in the same tone you know you’ve used before, “I hate my life.”
But first: go to graduate school in English. Try not to fall asleep in your Chaucer seminar while staring at the ice fisherman on Lake Mendota. Avoid the urge to throw yourself into the holes in frozen Lake Mendota when at the end of the semester you realize you have to write twenty pages on texts you can’t remember reading.
Drop out of graduate school.
Swear you’ll never again refer to books as “texts.”
Enroll in graduate school for creative writing in another state.
Show up six months pregnant.
Dare anyone to notice.
Grumble to your husband and new mommy-friends about how your fellow students get to spend all their time drinking and talking about poetry and even–yes–writing poems, while you push the swing at the playground and mash sweet potatoes.
Write a collection of (very short) poems that treat sleep the way courtly literature treated sex–as something mystical, alluded to only through oblique metaphor, highly desirable but unattainable.
Move back to the suburb where you grew up, where you swore you’d never live.
Have two more babies.
Move to Brazil.
Watch your sons run barefoot under the banana trees, kicking a soccer ball. Feed the marmosets in the tree bits of banana. Marvel at their delicate, nearly human hands.
Rush your youngest son–vomiting violently, body gone limp–to the hospital in the middle of the night.
Try not to listen to the gossip about armed assaults in close proximity to your condominium in broad daylight.
Miss your family more than you care to admit.
When in doubt, read Vinícius de Moraes, who also left Bahia:
Mas que seja infinito enquanto dure. But let it be infinite while it lasts.
Move back to the suburb you swore you’d never move back to.
When in doubt, reread Pessoa: “I’ve never herded sheep, but it’s as though I had.”
Name your goats (sheepishly) for the daughters you don’t have.
Deduct points for: Any sentence beginning “Life is…” Amnesia as a plot device. Anything written from the point of view of a dog.
Remember: “Kids will jump over, crawl under, squeeze through, stand on, lean against, and circumvent any boundary…in any other way they can discover or invent.”
So will goats.
Think of them as hooved dogs.
Deduct points for the following words: weary, behold, flutter, destiny.
Show, don’t tell.
Trim hooves before taking animals to the ring.
Points are deducted for the following faults: a curly coat, roman nose, pendulous ears.
Ask yourself: have you discovered new questions you need to investigate?
Ask yourself: what are the author’s credentials?
Find open space.
To juggle efficiently, you need to feel comfortable and balanced.
Extra points for: Placing the comma inside the quotation marks. Any story featuring a character who is not a twenty-year old stoner/skateboarder/lapsed Catholic with an Oedipus complex/English major. (Unless said character is a dog.)
They have been described as “eating machines” or “biological control agents.” But contrary to popular belief, goats will not eat tin cans or mow your lawn.
Remember the goats in Cape Verde? Feral, bony creatures, they foraged the barren hillsides and trash-filled ravines. If they could live in that lunar landscape, anything is possible: maybe your students will come to understand the difference between a dependent and an independent clause. Maybe someone will publish your second book. Maybe your sons will put their socks and shinguards in the laundry without you asking them.
You should be ready to move in any direction.
Whatever you do, don’t close your eyes.
Or, as they say in Portuguese, não come a bola. Don’t eat the ball.
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