'Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe' by Benjamin Alire Sáenz | Credit: Courtesy

For the third year, the Independent has teamed up with the Santa Barbara Public Library to hold a community writing contest open to teens and adults based on the year’s Santa Barbara Reads selection. The chosen tome for 2019 was Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s young adult novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

For the writing contest, entrants were to choose one of several prompts offered that speak to the book’s narrative and write a poem or essay relating to it. In the adult category, 97-year-old Lisl Auf der Heide won with her touching ode to the memory of her father, using “I came to understand that my father was a careful man…” as the starting point. Sixteen-year-old Emily Esquivel took top honors for her essay that reflected on “Birds exist to teach us things about the sky. … If we studied birds maybe we could learn to be free.” Here are the winning pieces.


My Father and Rain

by Lisl Auf der Heide

I am walking in the rain.
Earth exhales fresh, soothing fragrance,
trees shudder as they weep,
car-wheels hiss past now and then,
and my ears strain into the mist for the sound of his feet. 

And I think of rains in my life:
watching small rivers running over window-panes sky split with gaping, golden wounds
the shock of thunder, violent, harsh,
rumbling softer and farther away,
a large dog growling himself to sleep.
Then only drops where rivers had been
while gutters gurgle and mutter
alive with bits of wood and debris. 

When we lived in the country my father could barely wait for the last cloudburst to end
before he headed for the woods.
He was a quiet man and I sometimes felt 

I was intruding on some strange private rite, watching him stop among the trees
stare upward, fill his lungs with moist air listen to the tom tom beat of myriad branches sending myriad droplets to the ground.

“Mushrooms are coming up” my father would say
and beneath pine needles began the stirring and unfolding,
and soon mushroom-scent reached our noses.
Unmindful of showers, we pushed aside branches
gathered the smooth, brown-capped mushrooms
hunting for one more and still one more until the sky again opened.

And I remember another rain.
It was the gray, gloomy day when I failed in arithmetic. I stood before the school building
the street awash and shiny,
gutters glumly carrying off garbage and litter,
people, faces grim, bent into the sheets of water tearing the sky apart.
I walked home slowly. Rain and wind
bit into my skin and I held my face up
to be slapped by stinging drops.
My father was ill and at home that day.
Dripping, wordless, I handed him the report.
He read it slowly, laid it down on the table
and said quietly and firmly:
“Next time you will do better.”

The day my father died was hot and still with a sky so blue one would swear
no cloud was nearer than a week away.

But the next morning, as Father lay pale and stiff in that dark, closed room
all the waters of the world came down.
Mother asked me to sit with him for a little.

As I came in, I caught a glimpse of myself in the slightly askew mirror
a gawky, gangling, pimply fourteen.
I sat down and stared

at the angular bones of my knees. Knowing I wouldn’t be intruding
I touched his waxy hand.

I did not then or ever quite figure out how I felt about him, but whenever I am in the woods
and the rain is trailing off
and the scent of mushrooms

begins to seep through the brush
I see my father standing there
mouthing the savor of earth and sky
and the growing things around him
allowing me to be there, but never allowing any part of his big, whole person to be chipped away.


Birds Exist to Teach Us

by Emily Esquivel

Growing up I was always fascinated by the little things.

From the way the breeze blew through the trees, to the tiny sugar ants that would crawl up my Band-Aid-littered legs.

Childhood innocence gave me the freedom to enjoy all of life’s smallest treasures.

But what’s left once life’s taken its toll?

The hollowing loss of innocence, maybe? Or the lack of motivation to even get up in the morning?

With that, how could anyone take the time to notice the ravens call?

I certainly didn’t.

It wasn’t until I had reached my lowest, until I felt I had nothing left to lose, that my attention was suddenly pulled towards the playful hops of a group of Mexican Grackles. The funkiest little guys in Dallas.

I began praying to be as free and unbothered as them. I became infatuated with the idea of soaring through life without any insecurities. To wake up singing in the morning, grateful for another day, instead of with a grunt and a heavy heart. The more I watched these beautiful creatures, the more inspiration I had to wipe my frown away and replace it with a smile.

A new hope, an unfiltered faith in life, was what I was gifted with.

A common bird, ones I’d seen my entire life but never really noticed, had suddenly brought a warmth to the cold world I’d been living in. They started a spark that over time become a burning fire, lighting my way through a rough journey full of darkness.


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