1. hats and frogs and art and rocks and bones and books and bits of broken things, findings.
2. words and thoughts.
I bring the outside in:
1. a honeycomb
2. a robin’s nest
3. a turtle shell
4. a snakeskin
5. a mammoth’s tusk and humerus
6. assorted bones and teeth of various deer
7. a paper wasp’s nest
They are in a bowl on my dining room table. What’s left of a feast. They are the inside out.
To do today: write.
allow me to get a grip, to weigh my options, to put my grief into
perspective. Couples in counseling are often instructed to list
the things they still love about each other, their lists of
loathsome qualities having already introduced the discourse of
divorce. We are told to list the pros and cons of moving,
of changing careers, of getting a new dog. Lists are
instant therapy. When my grandparents died, I scavenged for
memories, looking for shining bits of them to place in the crow’s
nest of my mind. I found a sparkle in the hall closet, in
their coat pockets: tissues, gently rumpled; packets of Sweet ‘n’
Low; origami birds and matchbooks; a baggie for what’s left
on the restaurant table; a grocery list in both their hands—her
cook’s cursive, his draftsman’s block; and the smell
of Aramis and old lipstick, which burned through the must.
I keep the beautiful ones in hat boxes stacked on one another in the hallway, the wool ones on the top shelf of the coat closet, the ones I wear regularly on wall hooks above the hatboxes. In the attic is a basket of old hats with exotic feathers and veils, finery from Hutzler’s that my grandmother wore. I own:
suede patchwork hat from Utah;
I have so many hats because only my head stays the same size. My favorite hat, brown felt and unadorned, cost me $4 at the Gap about a dozen years ago. My mother says it looks like it used to belong to an old Indian. The other day, I wore it to Home Depot with a Mexican Poncho and dark sunglasses, and a man asked if I was Clint Eastwood. No one’s husband, that guy. Last spring, while we were pumping gas, a toothless redneck with a raggedy pickup truck admired my brown hat. He said, “’At’s a nice hat.” I said, “Thanks.” He said, “Yup, ‘at sure is a nice hat. Yes, indeed.” “Thanks,” I said. “I really like ‘at hat,” he said. I smiled. He smiled back and said, “I got a nicer truck at home; ‘is is just my work truck.”
take away the list, or merely imply it, and the poem might lose
its charm. “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William
Carlos Williams, is vexed—and vexing. “So much
depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow,” he says. But
he doesn’t say the farm, the white chickens, the rain. He
doesn’t say the corn depends on it, the dirt road, the old
dog who often pulls up lame, the snapshot, the future of poetry.
Had he offered it up as a list—using several sheets of
prescription pad paper—it might have worked for me. Perhaps
no one else would have paid it any mind, as there’d have
been no need to invent the things upon which the red wheel barrow
depends, no high-school poetry lesson in it.
One species looks just like a German shepherd dog with its tongue sticking out. One species looks like an onion. One looks like an octopus. One looks like a human nose. One looks like the kind of fancy shoes that a king might wear. One looks like Mickey Mouse. One looks like a monkey. One looks dead.
college composition class reads this book in preparation for a
research paper. In addition to using secondary sources,
they are to interview a collector about his collection—of
salt and pepper shakers, of war paraphernalia, of fountain pens,
of shoes, of codpieces, of antique dolls. I want to know
everything there is to know about collecting Beanie Babies, model
planes, baseball cards, autographs, license plates. I want
to know how much they fetch on Ebay, where collectors find one
another, who has the biggest collection, how and where they are
stored. I read them passages from The Orchid Thief
each week, underlining, italicizing, capitalizing, and boldfacing
all the lists.
Favorite Beer Names:
(How’sabouta Wouldyalikea Cold Beer,)
in my creative nonfiction course take advantage of my weakness
for lists, including in their essays the ten most awful ways to
die, seven different types of scars, and descriptions of how
eight different types of dirt look under a microscope. In
an irresistible tale of chores men can’t do once they leave
their childhood homes, Brian Uapinyoying describes a sink piled
high with “pans encrusted with bits of egg, dishes caked
with rice (or maybe last week’s carrot cake), a pot of
half-eaten macaroni, cups of coffee three-fourths empty, a can of
Mountain Dew, and some solidified spaghetti sauce with dried
noodles—all lying in a cesspool of red grease.” I
am addicted to those bits of egg, these crumbs, the whole
There were the names that set out to describe, often with the help of a well-picked metaphor: the green-as-a-bottle Bottle Greening, the Sheepnose, the Oxeheart, the Yellow Bellflower, the Black Gilliflower, the Twenty-Ounce Pippin. There were the names that puffed with hometown pride, like the Westfield Seek-No-Further, the Hubbardston Nonesuch, the Rhode Island Greening, the Albemarle Pippin (though the very same pippin was known as the Newtown nearer to Newtown, New York)....
list, as they say, goes on. And delightfully on.
6. and anything that ends in a long o sound, except avocado.
imagine most writers compose, as I do, with composure—until
it is time for a list. And then we morph into Beethoven,
sitting at our keyboards, plunking and then pounding out the
notes, orchestrating them, arranging them, reading them back,
finishing with a coda, and then, like Beethoven, another coda,
and another, topping off all the multi-syllabic, voluminous false
endings with a final one, leveling a three-note boom: “One
1. I was one when Kennedy was assassinated.
2. I was six during the Baltimore race riots, and my babysitter took me and my younger sister to them.
3. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I was 6 and at a block party in Indianapolis; we had a small, black and white TV outside to watch the landing. All I cared about was that it was well past my bedtime.
4. When I learned Elvis died, I was riding to Security Square Mall with Wendy Baer; her mom was driving, and she cried.
5. When I learned Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham had died by suffocating in his own puke, I was smoking one of my first cigarettes on one of my first days of college at Towson State.
6. When John Lennon was shot, I was studying for finals that same semester.
7. When the Shuttle Challenger exploded, I was watching it on television.
8. When the World Trade Centers came down, I had just come from dropping my daughter at preschool. My neighbor, who had old plumbing fixtures on her lawn, yelled to ask if I’d seen “the mess.” I thought she was talking about her house until I turned on the television. After a few minutes, I went back to school to pick up my daughter.
I picture Brian Doyle, writer and editor of Portland Magazine, as a crazed composer of words. In his essay, “Being Brians,” first published in Creative Nonfiction, he says:
There are 215 Brian Doyles in the United States.... One of us is paralyzed from the chest down; One of us is eighteen and “likes to party”; one of us played second base very well indeed for the New York Yankees in the 1978 World Series; several of us have had problems with alcohol and drugs; one of us is nearly finished with his doctorate in theology; one of us is a nine-year-old girl; one of us works for Promise Keepers; one was married while we were working on this article; one welcomed a new baby; one died.
lists everything, from the streets on which the Brians live to
the jobs they held to the ways in which their names have been
misspelled. It is laugh-out-loud funny. It is sob-silently
sad. Such a gem, this is, that you would want to fold it up
and put it in your breast pocket; if it were a song, you would
play it again and again, wear a groove in it, know it like you
know your own pillow. Doyle tells me, “O, I love
lists, which are so much more than lists when you play with them,
and arrange them in funky ways—they can rise to be litanies
and chants, poems and songs, parades and narratives.” They
do rise, like incense and smoke and spirits.
What I like about you: You are still reading.
the Romantics like about you is that you keep them warm at night,
hold them tight, know how to dance. The Police list the
times they’ll be watching you in “Every Breath You
Take.” Sting called it a paranoid and obsessive song,
written because his marriage and band and life were all breaking
up. And Paul Simon lists the “Fifty Ways to Leave
Your Lover.” Each of these list songs was wildly
On my husband’s nightstand, you will find:
1. at least four books against George W. Bush, one for him, a biography he has yet to read (for a year now, Theodore Rex), and two selected works of Neitzsche, sandwiched between silver elephant bookends that he didn’t want and, if it were up to him, wouldn’t have;
2. a pair of dollar-store reading glasses;
3. a lamp;
4. the telephone;
5. two alarm clocks set to beep and to chime at five and five ten a.m.
In a box of polished agate with a hinged lid, a gift from someone who visited Zion National Park, Utah, I keep body parts:
1. my daughter’s umbilical cord, which now resembles a pinched, blue rock;
2. my grandmother’s upper bridge;
3. four wisdom teeth, extracted from tissue, rather than bone, in 1982;
4. a cracked crown, replaced last month;
5. the piece of thumbnail left on the basement floor when I sliced off the top third of my thumb with an x-acto knife in August of ‘96;
6. and one each of a whisker, toe pad, and claw, fallen from one or more of my dogs. I add to this collection when I can, taking no delight in the events themselves, but hoarding the beauty of the disembodied parts.
Even the less lyrical lists uncover gems, assist the detectives. A character in a novel I would like to finish writing buys tofu, yogurt, apples, and Entennmann’s chocolate-covered donuts. My own grocery list is heavy on meat and vegetables, light on snack foods and carbohydrates. Once, a checker at the Safeway scanned my list-come-to-life and remarked, as an Atkins snack bar stopped on the belt, that low-carb diets were unhealthy. The person behind me had four bagels, a box of Frosted Flakes, and a frozen pizza. The guy ahead of me was buying the makings for hot fudge sundaes. Sei Shonagon would have found hateful the supermarket checker who comments on your groceries. “Ah, tampons and Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. Wonder what that’s about. Wink, wink.”
Things I won’t buy at Safeway, one block from my house, because my husband is the social studies teacher at the Catholic school two blocks from my house, and everyone knows us:
3. pregnancy test kits (especially if I’m also buying condoms)
4. hemorrhoid and yeast infection creams
5. nudie magazines
6. K-Y jelly.
year, I, like millions of others, billions of others around the
world, will resolve to eat less, want less, consume less, waste
less. I will resolve to see more, feel more, give more,
love more, and write more—more words, more lists.
Blast, burst, clap, crack, crash.
Leslie F. Miller likes to break things and put them back together in a random, yet tasteful, order. A writer, designer, and mosaicist, Leslie’s poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in numerous publications, including Weight Watchers Magazine, Kit Cat Review, Yowl, Main Street Rag, Gargoyle, Sojourn, and Maryland Poetry Review. She won first place in City Paper’s 2003 fiction contest. She has been an adjunct English instructor at University of Baltimore and Towson University for sixteen years. Leslie holds an MA in Publications Design and is currently working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. She is writing a book about cake.
2006, Leslie F. Miller. ©
This work is protected
under the U.S. copyright laws.