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First Person

Award-Winning Prose

Anne Lacy

This May, Anne Lacy received the Myra Sklarew Award in Prose for "Other Animals," the thesis she wrote and revised during her time in AU's MFA Program in Creative Writing. "After being in the program, I have more confidence in my initial drafts and in my ability to edit my own work and transform it into something more resonant," Lacy says.

Named after Professor Emerita Myra Sklarew, the award is given by the MFA faculty each year to the graduating MFA students with the most original prose and poetry theses.

Below, Lacy shares an excerpt from "Sinkholes," one of twelve pieces included in her thesis.



There is a sinkhole in the middle of Daisetta, Texas. Currently, it is wider than two football fields are long and about as deep as the National Cathedral is tall, but it is growing. It is partially filled with an oil based sludge that will probably keep anything from growing here for years upon years upon years. And right now it is also filled with rain water brought in by Hurricane Ike so that it looks like a small lake, innocuous except for the smell: like exhaust from a diesel truck. Hidden below the water's surface are a cat, an alligator, a tractor, a shed, and an eighteen-wheeler. These are the things I know about.

I am standing at the barricade on the edge of this mess—the barricade consists of a log blocking the driveway and a padlocked yellow gate that could probably keep out a cow, but not much else. Drunken teenagers could get in a lot of trouble here. There is something exhilarating about a place this awful; still there is a part of me that would rather not know about this hole. There is a part of me that longs for a certain spot in a certain library where there is a tranquil little view. From there, the whole world is a beautiful, benign dove-gray.            

But here I am, standing next to a sinkhole on ground that may or may not be stable. Across the hole there is a depression extending forty feet from the water's edge; this land will soon slide into the sinkhole. I am fifteen feet from the waters edge.

Sinkholes do sometimes just happen. Things under the earth's surface shift just a little or just enough bedrock gets washed away and voilà. But that isn't what happened here. This sinkhole used to be a waste well, a hollowed out salt cavern where the by-products of oil drilling could be "safely" deposited. With a salt cavern when a little goes in a little comes out. It's a balancing act. Here, it was too much, too fast and the whole thing collapsed. At first, it was a twenty foot hole, but it grew; it grows. It is hard not to look at this hole and not see a metaphor for national excess, a culture precariously built on the principle of too much, too fast.   

Because the word is relatively new in non-medical circles—introduced to us civilians in 1994—the definition of pareidolia isn't quite fixed and there are a few, subtly differing ones to choose from, but I prefer that first definition because it is the broadest and because it most closely suits what I want the word to mean. In that 1994 article for a bimonthly publication called the Skeptical Inquirer, Steven Goldstein dismisses handwriting analysis and astrology as pareidolia: "the human infusion of patterns or meaning on random audio or visual events."

Meet pareidolia's most famous case: the Man in the Moon. See also: Rorschach ink blots, cloud animals and the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. I like pareidolia because I'm obsessed with finding meaning in the things I see, not because I believe, as some do, that spirits are communicating with me, but because I believe this: We are what we notice.              

My presence in Daisetta is incidental. Though I've wanted to visit the sinkhole since I first heard about it—a few days after that initial collapse—the circumstances of my life, namely living half-way across the country from this site, have prevented it until now when Thanksgiving dinner with family in neighboring Liberty has finally made it possible. As I boarded the plane to come out here the procession down the center aisle halted long enough for me to overhear a conversation between two teenaged girls. They were discussing skydiving: risk vs. reward. One of the girls concluded like this, "Yeah, you might die, but at least you get to see Hawaii from like a thousand feet up." Standing on that plane, I could not imagine a view worth dying for. The whole first hour I kept looking out the window thinking, Nope, not worth it. And then we were over a stretch of rural land. The earth is blanketed in snow but the trees had shaken free. Green on white. I began to see things. From the plane window: the head of a ram tilted for battle, a hand closed in a fist, the long slippery body of an eel, coiled in an S, set to strike.

The woman sitting next to me was elegant, wore all black and spoke with a foreign accent. She surprised me by crying when we hit turbulence on our descent into Houston and surprised me further by revealing a set of chunky, metal braces on her teeth; they matched the robot-silver polish on her nails. We were going down so fast, we were in the clouds, there was turbulence, and out the window there was only white. She held onto the armrests and cried. "Don't worry," I said and we dropped again. She reached out, instinctively, I think, toward my hand, then gripped the armrest again. I put my hand on her arm.  

"It'll be alright," I said. "We'll be out of these clouds soon and then everything will be fine," I said. "It's almost over," I said.

Behind us, kids squealed with delight as we plummeted again. Against her arm, my hand looked like a ball of raw dough in need of an oven, but my fingernails were as dark as a redwood forest. And then, we were out of the clouds and the turbulence stopped. Out the window I could see swimming pools and boat houses and the low, wide bridge that cut across the belly of Lake Houston like a belt that had never been tightened. She looked at me as if I had performed a miracle.  

Visual pareidolia requires contrast. White clouds against blue sky. Black ink on white paper. Green trees on pale snow. Light next to dark. Always, always.  

I ate Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt's house. After dinner, my family sat around the dining room table and watched my uncle's camcorder footage of the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. On the screen the whole world was sepia. Everywhere there was sand. Behind us, the sideboard was laden with pies: pumpkin and pumpkin chiffon, apple and pear and lemon, lemon meringue, lemon chiffon, pecan, toffee pecan, chocolate pecan. I could go on. Variations on abundance. So much. As we watched scene after scene of wreckage, another aunt told us about what her students came home to after the evacuation, the ones who still had homes. One girl came home to find a shrimp boat in her back yard. One boy found a school of dead fish covering his yard like carpet and, nestled among them, a pair of dentures. One kid came home to find his goat, a rope tangled around its neck, hanging from a tree.

That night, still full from dinner, I imagine another meal. I plan courses. Cream of carrot and celery soup. Turnip puree. Potato gratin. Stewed beets. Candied sweet potatoes. It is only in retrospect that I notice this is a meal comprised entirely of root vegetables. It is only in retrospect that I wonder why I would crave these things that are buried under the earth.