If We Didn’t Need to Win, Then What?



Manuel Maria

always blinks tightly


with both eyes,

then opens wide


like he has

a startling

piece of news,


or is waiting for it.


I still don’t understand

why his second name


is Maria. An

American thinks


macho means

so many things


that it isn’t.


He brings out the busty statue

of his wife’s great grandfather:


An admiral and commander

of the Spanish naval fleet,


he sailed to Santiago

to break the blockade.


Now, he is a Spanish

hero. And Manuel is


so proud of his wife.

He says her family

is so connected

or important?


That they even print a newsletter.

Back then, Spain

wanted Cuba,


and now Manuel looks

at night for his wife.


She goes about sleeping

while he turns the pages


of beaten words that antes,

had so much longing.

I come on Tuesdays

to sit down with Manuel


and our languages,

these new ways of


wanting to say something

we think we’ve said before.


Today is a history lesson

about the sea,


and the people you can conquer

with a famous fleet.


As he crafts and molds

his words, I wish I could hear


the melody of El Andalus,

or understand a political uniquity.


I wish I couldn’t

see his pain before me,


or the long, bloody sea

stretching out for spaces


that wars and

fleets won’t win.


-Jennifer Sandberg



My grandmother died yesterday at 2:30am. I think she was 88. My sister called me first and then my father, each from hundreds of miles away in Minnesota, while I looked outside my apartment onto the morning sea of Denver trees and buildings. The Rocky Mountains surrounding the city had just begun to turn blue with the air of another approaching Fall; I noticed it day and night as I acquainted myself with a new apartment and a seventh story, West-facing view. There had been something calming about this blueness, registering the feeling of loss and change. As I get older I find myself turning to any vista more often than before. It’s my way of taking a pause, a chance to see the long view of my life and where it fits into the rest of the world.


When each of them calls to share the news, the family tears arise immediately: the ones you feel in the instant you sense a close family member flailing or feeling pain. I never want to make that scrunched up face I see people make when they cry, the one that says, “I’m helpless.” So I cry into my hands a lot and almost always, alone. Sometimes I imagine the generations before me and decide our family learning curve is long. I don’t believe my Swedish ancestors were very good criers, and my grades in the expressing feelings class are still floundering at best. During the conversations with both my sister and my dad, the family tears emerge and I do my best to let them stay briefly, long enough for them to know that being in Denver and living this distance, doesn’t make me far away from them.


My dad looks for the right words to tell me and calls himself a “soft touch.” Just as I have to cry into my hands, my Dad must apologize for being a man who cries. He reads my grandma’s pre-planned service and meal preparations, which she had neatly organized and written down years earlier. She did not want piano, but organ music. She was specific about what foods should be served at her Lutheran church, varying the menus slightly depending on whether lunch or dinner would be served. She wanted “scalloped potatoes with ham, coleslaw, buns, and cake,” the quintessential Minnesotan meal of churches. She requested both decaffeinated and regular coffees, and specified “No Jell-O” in quiet parentheses, a surprise to all of us after years of my sister and I having made grotesque faces at her perennially present green Jell-O salad with carrot shavings on top.


My father alternates between the moments before her death and the funeral details as we talk. He remarks that the East Indian and Native American gals taking care of my grandmother before she died sure did a nice job; he made sure to thank them for their work. As always, he discloses their ethnicities like compelling tidbits of trivia. Two different kinds of Indians? At a rural Minnesotan retirement home? And then, because my father is chronically sensitive to all audiences, perhaps most to his own daughters, he corrects himself slightly and says, “I don’t know why I mention their race, that’s really not important…”


I wonder as I listen to him how often my dad censors, pre-thinks what he wants to say. I can’t tell if he’s still repenting after having been inaccessible for so many years, or if he’s actually a relatively progressive man I haven’t learned to appreciate. When he had surgery for prostate cancer nearly three years ago, he was delighted to report that his “East Indian surgeon does these procedures all day long.” He felt he was in very good hands. And, despite his preoccupation with saying the right thing, and an insatiable desire for approval, I recognize it’s been a relief to date a plethora of men from various countries and never hear anything negative from him regarding their ethnicity. I have to admit my dad is, at least in this way, living uniquely outside his cultural and generational cohort.


My dad continues on with the funeral preparations, laughing about my grandmother’s need for efficiency and planning as he reads her self-written obituary. In it, she focused on her acts of service and work, a list of things she did. She was a teacher before she married, involved in the family cabinet business, worked for the East Central Regional Libraries, was a secretary-treasurer of the Rum River Ramblers Camping Club. She was involved in her church, made seasonal church banners, knit blankets and mittens for hundreds. With the loss of my grandmother’s life so freshly filling the air, I suddenly see, without any edge or disdain, the heritage of my Scandinavian roots stamped into her obituary. We are working people, and I am.


Suddenly my yoga teacher’s suggestion that we are human beings rather than human doings seems like a line from Candy Land. I feel a sense of pride burst through my body and think, “I came from her; I’m part of her.” I see my 15 years away from Minnesota, all this yearning to unhinge myself from overworking, of thinking my only identity is what I produce, and find that I’m not condemning the workaholic piece of me at all. It can exist in my Grandmother’s life, in her obituary, in my own thoughts and internal struggles about how to be a good worker without letting it swallow up my life. In my first year of college, I was so attuned to my family’s appreciation of work and productivity that I sent my grandmother a copy of my weekly schedule. I was so proud of myself for being nearly insanely busy with college clubs, projects, and classes and wanted her to be proud, also. It was one of the few ways we knew how to feel close to one another.


I marvel that all of these memories get moving in one 20 minute conversation with my dad. We discuss a few more logistics and hang up, but near the end of the conversation, I try to find a way to tell him I’m sorry. I say I’m relieved that she wasn’t in pain for that long. And I ask if he had the chance tell her everything he wanted to say. “Oh ya, oh ya,” he responds, his Minnesotan accent thick and quick. His immediate answer lets me know something’s hiding in his words, folded tightly and heavily into his heart. Maybe being the eldest son kept him from telling her the deepest, most tender of things. Maybe I’m not supposed to be asking this question. Or maybe he doesn’t know yet. As I picture him watching the life of his mother carried away with cremation workers and a box of button up nightgowns that will be sensibly donated to the local clothing center, I see that a “soft touch” doesn’t mean every feeling must be spoken or even acknowledged. It’s been my fantasy for years that sensitive people can always express the most deeply felt of sentiments. But those with a soft touch, a camp where I’ve begun to include myself, have things rolled down into dark, maroon-y places. Inside things that ache and stay aching until a new light lifts them up. The maroon shifts to red, and orange, and feels like the relief of the sun, but you can’t orchestrate it. You have to let it happen.


I look out the window and see the quilt my grandma made for my high school graduation, hanging on the back of the patio bench and flapping in the Sunday morning breeze. It’s filled with scraps of old doll dresses and blankets my grandma made for me when I was a child, with the year of my graduation sewn into the corner, in pink, crisp letters. The border is solid and strong; it never frays after all these years of lugging it between apartments, lifestyles, relationships and plans. I tell my Dad, as a way to honor both his loss and my grandma’s life that I will sit with her blanket and be with her today. But when our conversation has ended, I find there are so many other things to do.


Jennifer Sandberg, September 2011

Oops. What HAPPENED?

Was it really November 1st that last time I visited this blog? Mercy. Well, I”m coming back soon. Can’t wait to read everyone’s blogs I’ve missed. It’s time. The manicotti is baking, the snow is fallin’, and the pieces are coming together…always a nice time to write. Hasta pronto!

The Utility of Looking Back

How I imagined my life in Andalucia, and how closely it resembles the life I actually lived. Here’s why anniversaries are important, why remembering doesn’t tether you to the past but invites you to celebrate where you are right now. I landed in Jersey a year ago today and think I’ve been home now for a long time. But once you live abroad, and you’ve stuck your feet in the muck and mercy and discovery of another country, you’ll never be the same.



From the plane, flying into Madrid—-Spring 2009


Red shoes. New passport. Glossy love, with real smudges. A longer pony. New earrings. Fish by the sea. New waves of my tongue – in Spanish. Liquid water, lightness, sun. Packages to the U.S. A burst of love to Alex and Dylan. Good-bye to Leyden Street and pristine apartment. Good-bye to Safeway, Tommy’s Thai, Andy the hairstylist, and Thursday nights at La Rumba. A history course. An ease with money. A skip down the beach. Meaningful anger. Booming laughter, at myself and others. Writing stories. Opening the windows to salty air and long sunsets. Weaving history, psychology, and language into a web that explains people’s behavior in Spain/DR/US and ??? Poetry. Colorful things in our apartment. Funny ways to name his scoffing. Solidly yet porous-ly myself. A tailor to make pants for accepted, large be-dunk-a-dunks. Engaged, involved, connected. Still a pony, but looser. Kindness to myself. Dispatching judgment. Loved. Squeezed. Hopeful. Inside, a part of, together. My beloved, that breath, that sigh of home and opening. The voice of the mother, the lap of the father, the guidance of the sister and toughness of the brother. All together. Beloved you. Me. Beloved, open, tingling, exuberant sun of days.   ~



On Living from the Low Places

As you get older, you learn to listen from the places inside of you that have always been speaking to you, but that have been in hiding. Here’s to honoring those places. This one’s for Johanna, Mindy, Angela, and Carema. And the rest of the women in my life who are living from these places.



Oh, the tides are low. Let them be low. Let them be sinking, maroon, purple, deep, burgeoning. Let them be what they are. They have little faces  – little bodies and lives, these tides in you. You can’t take them out of you – they ARE you, so live them, sweetness. Take a hold of them like they’re your only child. Rock them. Feel their purpleness. Remind them they aren’t bruised or bruising or lost or found. Tell them they are welcome anytime to be a part of who you are, parts that you recognize and honor each day. Now you know, at this age, more intimately than you have before, that these low things in you are not for being shamed. They give you richness, boldness, force. They help you bring a knife to the things in your life that truly need to be cut. They speak to you: frank things, right things, honest things. Beneath their bubbly, wispy, watery swirls, the tides come bellowing up from your sea. They help the waters blend and mix. They make the sea life talk to each other. Little seahorses to fish, and fish to turtles, and turtles to whales. They are all the forgotten pieces of you that are always waiting to be seen. Let them out. Let them move. Their longing is so deep. They are what give you depth. No one else needs to call you love. Tell yourself. Tell yourself, like you’re five and still feel the currents in every step you take. Tell yourself with the urgency of a life wanting to be fully lived, that the low things make you move.


~Jennifer Sandberg

Jaime Sabines

One of my all time favorites.

For the delicate balance of learning what to say or not say, and when. And for knowing what’s being said without any words.




Tu cuerpo está a mi lado
fácil, dulce, callado.
Tu cabeza en mi pecho se arrepiente
con los ojos cerrados
y yo te miro y fumo
y acaricio tu pelo enamorado.
Esta mortal ternura con que callo
te está abrazando a ti mientras yo tengo
inmóviles mis brazos.
Miro mi cuerpo, el muslo
en que descansa tu cansancio,
tu blando seno oculto y apretado
y el bajo y suave respirar de tu vientre
sin mis labios.
Te digo a media voz
cosas que invento a cada rato
y me pongo de veras triste y solo
y te beso como si fueras tu retrato.
Tú, sin hablar, me miras
y te aprietas a mí y haces tu llanto
sin lágrimas, sin ojos, sin espanto.
Y yo vuelvo a fumar, mientras las cosas
se ponen a escuchar lo que no hablamos.

-Jaime Sabines

The Objective Version of Moving On





There was a splinter between us,

something binding us together.

Its ends poked into our

same-sized waists, making

us reach for each other

to dislodge it. Or make it stay?


You held me

while I tried to shimmy it free.

I put salve on the skin

where it pierced you, and watched

as you puffed small sighs of relief my way.


We did this for years, swaddling the splinter,

never giving it a name but knowing its need

to mend one of us back to standing.


It was the cruelest method

of being close, having to move so carefully.

Any thoughtless bend or shift

made us grimace with pain.


When my soft rubbing and gentle humming

brought you back to balance,

it was my turn to get screechy.

And you cooed gently in my direction.


I mistook your attentive gestures

for loyalty. You thought mine were devotion.

We confused closeness with fear.


And in the sooty shift from day to night

we slept, wondering how we

loved so much and felt so frozen.


So we filed the pain, and asked

for reassurances. A sigh, a moan,

a whistle: our techniques were

brilliant and golden.


It took us so long to see the splinter,

and longer yet to give it a name.

We did it intermittently, silently,

and alone.


When at last you counted to three and backed up,

I said your real name for the first time, and meant it.


The splinter that held us together

fell like a feather to the floor.



I see a glistening strand

that sways between us.


I say your name so sweetly,

and then I say my own.




~Jennifer Sandberg