Every week, I’ll be doing a mini feature on my site (& blasting it on social media) on activists, artists, and educators who are doing important things in the world. Like Levar Burton says, the only thing these folks have in common is that I like them, and I hope you do too.
Today’s feature is Caitlin Thornbrugh.
Cailtin and I met at UCLA in 2011, as Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writing Fellows. We’d been invited, along with a group of other queer writers, to come to Los Angeles for a week of intensive workshops, panels, and readings. I was introduced to Caitlin before I was introduced to her work, and immediately felt at home with her. She is a kind and energetic person, who listens deeply. She seems, at first conversation, a person deeply rooted in who she is. It didn’t take long for her to talk about Kansas City, her hometown– I remember her saying, sitting in a dorm room together, that the Missouri side of the city wasn’t the same as the Kansas side. How a city could be divided like that. It stuck with me. And when I was able to finally read Caitlin’s writing, I saw that sense of place imbued through out it. I’m happy to read that, seven years later, it still here.
Where can we find your work?
Sending my work out is something I struggle with! I’m working on doing this more frequently. Most recently, I’ve been writing some small pieces for Boston Hassle, links to my older work and any updates can be found at caitlinthorn.com
What themes or ideas do you feel your work engages with?
I like exploring gender and desire, what home means and how identity is connected to place, inheritance from our families (both biological and chosen). Recently, I’m writing about our relationship with nature, and human engagement with land. I’m interested in the boundaries we create both with geography and in relationships. How do we cross them, straddle them, tear them down? I also just like writing about women at all ages, teenage girls facing crossroads and women in their 60’s starting over. Returning to these complicated, but often times resilient moments, feels powerful and generating.
What were you like as a child?
I’m lucky enough to have a friend, Brigid, I’ve known since I was five (we met playing soccer, I was the flower picking goalie) and when I asked her for help with this question, she unhesitatingly replied, “Creative and bossy, but not in a bad way, and not super into listening to adults.”
This cracked me up and is all true. I went to a Catholic school and remember raising my hand in religion class in third grade to ask why women couldn’t be priests. I kept asking for the next nine years, and was never given a good answer. I also think I was a dreamer. Growing up surrounded by big sky and endless plains, in the center, but in the middle of nowhere, made me feel like the world held lots of possibilities. Now, my relationship with Kansas is much more complicated, but still a place I have deep roots, a place I hold close to my heart.
Can you remember the first piece of art– performance, literary, fine, street–you saw/read that wowed you?
I grew up in Kansas City and from a very young age remember going to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Fine Art to see Claus Oldenburg’s “Shuttlecocks.” The giant sculptures are on either side of the large building and my grandpa told me that at night friendly giants played badminton, hitting them back and forth over the museum. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite museums in the world (and it’s free)!
This is cheating the question a bit because it was in the last several years, but the first time I read C.D. Wright’s One with Others, I was wowed in a way a book had never wowed me before, it felt so different from anything I had ever read. The same for reading Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name in college.
What work do you do in the world that you feel proud of?
I teach writing at a college in Boston and love being able to assign readings that help students engage with issues of race, class, and gender. In class discussion, I try not to shy away from difficult conversations while making sure that all voices in the class are valued and heard.
This semester, I’m teaching service-learning classes for the first time. This means my students volunteer three to four hours a week with Boston area nonprofits and this community engagement is connected to our coursework and their writing. During our class discussion about this Grace Lee Boggs quote: “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it; unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it”
one of my students brought up gun violence and what it means to swipe away a news alert on your phone, he talked about how we’re all complicit and responsible for one another. This inspired me and also made me proud. Those are the teaching moments I live for. When, in my head, I’m dancing and shouting, “They’re getting it! They’re getting it!”
Outside of my day job, I volunteer for the Wilderness Heals pledge hike that raises money for the Elizabeth Stone House. Each year, women from all over New England hike for three days in an effort to support domestic violence victims. I love this organization for bringing together women of all ages and backgrounds to engage with nature (no experience necessary) and all the money raised goes directly to the Stone House community.
What’s keeping you embodied right now?
Small things like solo bike rides around Boston, reading poetry (I recently found a used copy of Fruits and Vegetables by Erica Jong that I’m excited about), and playing with watercolors. I’ve always thought of writing as completely separate from visual art, but have found more and more than I’m drawn to my small set of paints and sketchbook.
I also draw energy from talking with people who care about and engage with their communities in meaningful ways. More and more, I want to hear from people who are enraged, inspired, and finding new ways to keep fighting, keep persisting. It grounds me and makes me feel less alone to talk with friends, teachers, writers, artists, musicians, community activists, and students about their lives, what they care about, what they’re thinking about how we can all move forward together. Let’s all keep talking it out.
Conversations about all topics, big and small, feel even more important in the current political climate. I recently visited a friend and fellow writer, John Shakespear (yep, that’s his real name) in Nashville. It felt important both to talk about the mayor and Black Lives Matter Nashville meetups, the writing projects we were both working on, our travel dreams about Yunnan and getting back to Cambodia, the music we heard Friday night, and what we were going to have for breakfast. Feeling joy, feeling the day-to-day, but also not ignoring the work that needs to be done.
Tell us a story.
It was the strangest double date of my life: a six day river trip down the Owyhee River with my new boyfriend, his mom Denise, and stepdad Curt.
Our first hour of put-in, Curt handed me his Leatherman. “Cut the tags off,” he said. I’m holding what looks like a baseball sized silver insect with chompers. Each newly inflated raft has paper numbers zip-tied to a loop on the front, a record of the boat’s previous trip. I approach my target with everyone waiting. I can’t get the knife underneath the tie in order to cut. I struggle, imagine stabbing the boat with the knife, it deflating, a sad puddle of rubber on the beach.
Instead, I shove the knife through—success! But then, surreally, I’ve cut myself open in the follow through; I’m spurting red profusely.
Chad and Denise are there. Chad holding my arm, Denise saying she’ll get her kit, both of them saying, “Shit, shit. Shit!”
I try not to look at anything and am blurry eyed, dizzy. I see Denise bending over, pouring gobs of clear sanitizer over her hands, it dripping into the Oregon dirt leaving a dark puddle. She stops the bleeding, puts two surgical tape strips across the cut, and cleaned some of the blood off my arm.
Later that night, eating chicken, Chad would realize my blood was still under his fingernails.
Now, a year later, Chad and I are just friends, but my scar is still bright. A small pink caterpillar, inching up my arm.
Caitlin Thornbrugh is a writer and Kansas City native. While writing primarily nonfiction, she likes to explore genre boundaries and write along the edges of poetry and fiction. Her nonfiction has appeared in Honest Noise, Portal del Sol, and Parcel Literary Journal. Her piece, “Ahuacatl Agovago, Avocado: The Corrupt Alligator Pear” was a 2014 Notable Best American Essay. She has received fellowships and grants from The Lambda Literary Foundation and The Dickinson House-Belgium.
In 2014, she spent a year as an international teaching fellow for Princeton in Asia at The University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. She has an MFA from the University of Kansas where she was a founding editorial board member of Beecher’s Literary Magazine. Currently in Boston, she teaches for Northeastern University’s Writing Program. Since moving to New England, one of her favorite organizations to volunteer with is the Wilderness Heals-Elizabeth Stone pledge hike. Her recent writing projects include a nonfiction piece exploring the disputed Owyhee Canyonlands in Eastern Oregon.