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First grade and my father shows me I can whistle to the chickadees and they will answer. I learn at the bottom of our driveway waiting for the school bus.

Around the same time, I learn that the delicate parts of food, like broccoli florets, are digested by the body first. I start to think about dying for the first time. About which parts of my dinner might be left over.

I am fascinated by how our house has scissors we use for everything, including haircuts, thrown into a junk drawer that barely closes and my friend’s house has everything organized in neat jars by color. …

from the desert, once a week

I am woken around one in the morning to the sound of a bird in pain. I have never heard a bird in pain. Their voice—a quail’s, I think—is strangled. Their call is slowed down and dragged out. They sound, again and again, slower and slower, more and more in pain in a sound I can’t make, for reasons I don’t know.

Half awake, I wonder if they have been caught by a snake or if their family has been annihilated. These are the only two scenarios I can imagine.

I’m trying to remember that the animal world has less emotions, but there is no mistaking the pain she is in. I’ve seen the quails here; nimble and together. Tiny families. …

from the desert, once a week.

Sometimes, when I whisper for my cat to join me, she does. Hops or crawls up, her thick pink belly swinging. She folds her paws under herself and stares at me, angles herself to be pet the way she likes.

Other times, she will not.

This is love. Coming and watching and sometimes saying no, with your body. Mostly, though, saying yes with everything.


Middle of the day, I am crying. My friend reaches for her coffee and I think she is going to hug me. I bark, “I don’t want a hug! …

from the desert, once a week

A bird calls. I forget to listen to it. Someone else answers. More bird, better bird, good bird.

It hurts and I don’t say anything. Silent bird, quiet bird. I just don’t have it in me right now. Little bird.

I play records and the sky is on fire. I can crawl into the corner of my apartment and have a window and it is lovely in the way anything we never thought we would have is lovely.

I make decent coffee and swallow these pills and make eye contact with my cat and listen to the same song twenty, thirty times. Nesting bird, chirping bird. …

from the desert, once a week

I would like the ocean’s small mouth noises in a tub in my backyard. What does that say about me?

I am sad and the clock, which is fine, tells me it is 8:36am. I have made coffee, squinted at the sun, spilled water all over the counter, put on a bathrobe, written, read.

I have mostly lived where everything would not shutup — the car horns, the children, the ice cream truck, the mosquitos, the crickets, the television, the neighbors, the ambulances. Here it is quiet or quails or birds I don’t know or music I’ve put on. …

from the desert, once a week

When God was still good, I was seven.

I drew my name on the manila sides of my bible and thought about the boy I liked who sat a few rows behind me. Nothing ever sunk in—not the devil, not the disciples, not the crosses or the ways I was supposed to be a better child.

When God was still good, I was seven, and everything to happen to me. I still thought saying no was a sin. I guess that sunk in.

When God was still good, I was seven and I thought he must live in the Bingo Hall basement of my church and smoke cigarette after cigarette after cigarette. And God cared what I did, not what was done to me. …

little bits from the desert, once a week.

Last night I had a dream that you said, “Tell me everything” and I knew where to begin. I can’t remember where that was now.

Here, now, is the desert. Early morning where the windows can still be open and I watch which birds fly overhead to see if I know any of them by wing tips or calls, though I’ve given little energy to any research on birds of the desert. …

written after Mary Ruefle’s MONUMENT

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A small world had ended. Like all worlds, it was made of time. The Canadian-American border stood between us would never vanish. I had moved to the island because you were there. I had flown back and forth, and you had been still. And now, I was sitting on a ferry, watching sky eat ocean. The water was the same, but now it was the one that washed me away from you. It was a rainy day on the island and people were wearing raincoats and scarves, dazed by the rain, which was not the typical rain of summer, which had surprised them, but the weight of it was the end of another small world, which had also ended, spring. I knew I would call on this memory of the end of us and I had gotten on the ferry boat willingly, no longer able to battle for us, as I had always been the one fighting, and the only skill I had left other than loving you was to leave, and to leave was to end everything. I was staring at the back of the seat in front of me, the ferry boat was full that day, the little girl with her fathers was swinging her feet, and I had begun to cry, and to think of our last kiss, which was a rushed kiss, and I had set my notebook next to me so I might write, might capture the world once between us, set in the center of my notebook, a summary of the world that made sense. And perhaps also in my mind was the hope that using only the middle of the notebook meant the rest could be for the rest of us, because surely this was not the end, our language had words no one else knew and our universe had constellations we had named on our backs, they might have looked like the Big Dipper, but we had named parts of it Arrow Home and Nigel and Elaine, after our love and our middle names, and our names became synonyms for love and our love became synonyms for names, and no one would understand if they overheard, and this could fill many notebooks. And then I saw the little girl turn and face me, her hair blonde and her eyes blue, my fully-grown face twisted in aching, and by then I was crying noticeably and still not writing, though there was the pen in my hand — like the ink knew everything and just needed to write it quickly — but there was no way to write about us because I could barely see, and the boat was rocking at a steady pace now which meant we had reached a certain knot and that certain knot meant I was already miles away even though I had just been in the vehicle, holding your hand while you did not cry, and the little girl watched everything left after and I said nothing and she said nothing except to watch me and I did not mind her being the one who watched. But the little girl’s fathers turned and saw me, resigned and weeping, and one whispered to the little girl to turn around and she did and I was alone again. With no one to watch my pain, I tried my notebook again and then the water, thinking I might see a whale or a dolphin or some other sign I could interpret as a good omen — I wanted to believe there was a good omen, anything — and I remembered in pain that nothing the ocean gave was meant for humans, even when the world is ending, and what a terrible categorization of our world, of breaking, of hearts, when I had left a future because I could not stand to live only on our island, not when we were so young, not when there were other places to see, I wanted only to see all that I could before we came back and built a cabin with our hands under a canopy of pine trees near the ocean, and you were good with your hands, had built us shelves and racks and small shelters when we needed them, and could build a home on the coastline where we could speak our language with more words, but I remembered you did not want it. I looked up then, and what happened next I can only describe as human touch when human touch is gone: I grabbed the net of the seatback chair and pulled as hard as I could with both hands until I was tired and still thinking of you. The little girl did not turn around again and the ferry made it to the other shore, the one you would not marry yourself to, and I made my way to the ferry deck and saw before the world had ended. …

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85.9% of librarians in America are white. [1]

Let’s start there.

Libraries, beloved institutions touted as one of the “last bastions of our democracy,” held in high esteem for being free and “for all” by famous writers, educators, politicians, and actors — by you, yourself, perhaps — are run by white people in a huge majority.

In 2017, 149,692 librarians were white. 11,213 were Black. 6,938 were Asian. 4,975 were of two or more races. 1,002 identified as Other. 545 were American Indian.

The long-standing and widely held belief that libraries are separate or “safe” from, or resolutely and unanimously against, racism and police violence is grotesquely incorrect. …

Mind Games

Now, I see my former trauma as an opportunity for growth

A selfie photo of the author with short cropped hair.
A selfie photo of the author with short cropped hair.
Photo courtesy of the author.

For five years I’ve kept the bones of an essay about having alopecia on my desktop. That essay begins by telling the reader about the first time someone pointed out a bald spot on my head. It was Josh Pfolhs — the most popular boy in the fifth grade — loudly, during a spelling test. Then there are a few pages about my childhood and a few more pages about high school and college and a sort of log of each major flare-up.

Then I stop writing or editing it. Sometimes for a year or longer.

Because I have never been able to figure out what, exactly, I want to say about alopecia. …


Amanda Oliver

writer & former librarian • A LIGHT forthcoming from Chicago Review Press 2022 •

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