The Dollar Stays With

This poem comes from an exercise led by Cate Marvin. Each month a Stonecoast faculty Zooms a writing session. I’ve missed poetry, was excited. The return was clunky. I kept at it, had some fun, shared the revision with my kids.

The Prompt

We needed a dollar bill to look at, better if we had one to touch.

The _____ is _____
It looks like a _____, a _____, and/ or a _____
When I see it, I smell _____
When I smell _____, I remember _____
I think of the time _____
It looks like _____ and it makes me dream of _____

We Got Five Minutes to Write

The bill is flat
It looks like a stock or play money or foriegn
When I see it I smell O’Hare
When I smell O’Hare I remember going home
I think of the time I cannot
It looks like my ticket here
And it makes me dream of staying

There was time left so I tried again:

The dollar bill is on my screen
It looks like play money, a game, something squandered
When I see it I smell sitting on a plane
When I smell dry, recirculated air I remember
Wisconsin, humid July
I think of the time we left last
It looks like that is what we did
And it makes me dream of first light

After ELEVEN Pages in My Notebook Over the Next Few Days

Noodling this exercise because I could not allow the poem to rest because it wasn’t really a poem yet. I like the challenge. For me, the point of a writing exercise is just that. I do yoga so I can run. I write from a prompt or imitate or try a new form just to see because all the practice feeds my work.

The Dollar Stays With

I forgot to tell you get a dollar bill. Shit. You
could use foreign currency but let’s stay with
America. Five minutes
:

In my bag a Harraseeket keycard, a sleeve of
disposable masks, lip balm

a thousand won note shades of blue but no
one dollar bill

Let’s stay with America. Front back images
on my screen. I glance at

Washington delicate scrolls blue red fiber
squiggles heavy cream the eye

and light, cheap denomination almighty enough
that people live on

this, a day. The dollar is not in hand. In hand
it looks like a tip

for a tip jar at a cafe, a day old strawberry
doughnut at Skelly’s farmstand,

it looks like one of twenty I give my kids to
buy something American

(mint M&Ms, Lucky Charms, JoJo hairbows,
Doritos, fidget spinners, Silly Putty)

When I see an American dollar bill I smell
the recirculated air of a fourteen

hour flight home – cool dry antiseptic kimchi
lightly perfumed

When I smell a Korean Air cabin I smell
Wisconsin July – cut hay, bonfire

fish fry, my son’s sweaty hair like sun, clean
night slip through window screen

I think of the time when I stood outside during
a tornado warning

the night before our first flight to Seoul, Mom
and me watching dusk roil, churn

cold, strong wind cut a clear thought we could
lose everything here there

We really could. It looks like the four of us
fourteen hours ahead

this summer, and it makes me dream of
choosing this plenty, the dollar

not in hand

Do the Work

There are three friends I remember from Italy. My father was stationed at San Vito and I started kindergarten at the base school. During grade one I walked home with Rosa who was brown, and whose family seemed much more interesting than my own. Rosa’s family spoke Spanish and her older brother, according to Rosa, just stayed home because he felt like it. At sharing time, I stole all of Rosa’s details and brightly relayed that my family spoke Spanish at home. Really? Mrs. O’Brien said, and called my mother. One of many calls during those two years at the base school.

Yolanda was a black girl a year older or younger than me. Our families attended the same church and our mothers got the kids together to play. I admired Yolanda’s hair. Twists and braids. The plastic barrettes shaped like blue cats, green dogs, yellow birds. Hair ties with plastic marbles that click clacked at jumping, running. Yolanda said her mother could braid my hair, and her mother agreed. I sat in a kitchen chair and did not complain at the tugs. I was excited to have hair like Yolanda’s.

Sleep with a kerchief, Yolanda’s mother said. That night I could not sleep. All the tiny plastic barrettes poked my neck and shoulders. Each braid pulled a tight little square of scalp. I unclipped the barrettes and felt terrible. When Yolanda’s mother found out, she laughed. I cannot see her face but I remember her sound was warm.

Jessica was white and in my class at school. She had a parakeet and gave me a packet of smelly markers as a goodbye gift and really, that’s about all I remember of her.

I began second grade in Wisconsin and graduated from a small white town. Small white town: mostly/ predominantly. Diversity existed. An Albanian family moved to my hometown. A black teenager joined my sophomore English class. Our sport conference included a team from Beloit, the nearest city with a black population. Diversity existed: barely/ rarely. But my small American town isn’t different from many places around the world – I now live as the minority in a homogenous culture. I don’t fault a place for lacking diversity.

But populations migrate. I think this is a gift.   

When we moved from Italy to Wisconsin, my parents eventually bought a house one town over from my mother’s hometown. I remember her joking that she’d never be local.

When we moved to South America, it was like going home. Maybe my childhood seeded the comfort of being foreign. Maybe I wanted to find another Rosa, another Yolanda after years of Jessicas.

I used to wonder what I’d be like if we’d stayed in Italy, if my father’s service moved us to another country, and another, if I learned alongside kids from Texas, Virginia, Japan. Here is what I am getting at: place is not at fault.

Our hearts. But when our hearts change, won’t our places also change?

All week, a growing tiredness. A necessary heavy spirit. Sisters and brothers, we have sisters and brothers born into an exhaustion made of exclusionary ordinances, inadequate healthcare, unequal and unfair education, voter suppression, racist criminal justice systems, and prejudice coming even from the mouths and hearts of people professing Christ. This ought not be.

Our hearts: we cannot know fully. Ask. And lament. We have much to grieve, and we ought to grieve, and we must accept that the process of this grief is not a season of protest or support but the ongoing work of repentance and restoration. Be a neighbor. Do the work of loving others. Listen. Listen. Listen.

I want to say this too. The American church permits the hijacking of its faith by a political party that does not love the least of these. Too many have been wrongly swayed to think that governments bear little responsibility for people in need. Systemic racism is just that. People do not choose to be born with a knee on their neck. We need social programs, from the government, church or other organizations: we must give food to the hungry, support people suffering addiction, offer literacy programs, and provide housing and healthcare. We must elevate those who are low. Lift. Raise.

The hijacking of our faith. I think this happened thirty years ago when the pro-life stance guaranteed Republican votes. I understand voters for whom the pro-life issue is their single issue. Moral contortion to vote against the least of these and for the least of these at once. What I say to these voters is: vote for the unborn, but live for the born.

Live for the born: sisters and brothers, we have sisters and brothers born into an exhaustion made of exclusionary ordinances, inadequate healthcare, unequal and unfair education, voter suppression, racist criminal justice systems, and prejudice coming even from the mouths and hearts of people professing Christ. This ought not be.

Be a neighbor. Do the work of loving others. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Language of the Unheard

The first George Floyd protest was peaceful. Bystanders called out to police officers to let the man go, to let him breathe, he’s saying he can’t breathe, come on. No one threw a bottle at the police officer kneeling on the neck of a man on the ground. No one picked up a rock to smash a window. And no one listened.

On Saturday night I couldn’t sleep. I scrolled through photos of graffiti, tributes to Floyd and calls to pursue justice. On a stop sign, “don’t” spray-painted above STOP. On a wall: black lives fucking matter.

I think about my son who is white. His growing up fears are different than those of his black and brown peers. A decade from now, my son will not be afraid at a traffic stop – the taillight is out, speeding, sure – but will a black man still tense at the wheel, talk himself calm?

Black lives matter.

Listen.
People can’t breathe.

Yes, Let’s

This is week four of virtual school. At lunchtime I leave the apartment. I walk or bike to a nearby café where I order an iced latte and teach my afternoon classes. Today I biked to Shinsegae, ordered my latte and looked around. I started class. Afternoon shoppers got in line for a coffee, or bought pastries, or sat at a table for a late lunch. The space hummed.

For the third day, South Korea reported fewer than one hundred new cases to the WHO. Maybe the sense of urgency lifted? After class I scrolled through the Korea Herald, wondering if there was an announcement to get out, go somewhere, meet a friend, support the local economy. I miss a lot in Korea, for lack of language. And a few days ago I shut off emergency notifications to my phone – the texts announcing COVID19 cases in my area – because I was tired of the small fear that followed reading the names of my neighborhoods.

But maybe I’d missed the go-free-be-well text.

The Korea Herald headlines worried about travelers returning with coronavirus infections. (Our school, and others, asked faculty and students to return this week to begin the government mandated fourteen-day period of self-protection and health monitoring, limiting contact with others to ensure coronavirus is not unknowingly spread in the community. The idea is we’ll all be ready to be on campus after spring break). The Korea Herald also reported another delay to the start of the Korean school year, now pushed to April sixth. And another headline mentioned coronavirus clusters in Seoul: a call center, a church.

So nothing about tossing caution.

I heard five people cough during the four hours I taught and wrote at Shinsegae. I washed my hands four times. I wondered if there would be a Jukejeon cluster next.

At a table near me, three women in their forties and fifties were talking. “Do you speak English?” I asked. One nodded. She wore thick rimmed cat eye glasses. I asked why so many people were out. I explained that last week when I came here in the afternoon, there was hardly anyone out. “Did the government say it’s okay to be out again?” The cat eye woman laughed. She said, “No! It is not recommended to be out.” For a moment the four of us looked at each other, all of us out. “Then why are you out?” I asked.

I know why I’m out. I’m out because I cannot stay in my apartment day and night. I’m out because I want to go for a walk or bike ride midday and get an iced latte. I’m out so I can teach while not glancing at the pile of dishes in my kitchen sink.

But maybe I should stay home.

Last week I took the subway into the city for an appointment and the carriages were Sunday morning light during rush hour. People work from home if they can, and students too.

Should I also stay home? I don’t know.

I like to get out of the apartment.  

I’ve appreciated the lack of panic in South Korea. The response to COVID19 is measured. Informed, thorough and transparent: and because of this, I haven’t felt panic. Caution, yes, but not animal panic. For a couple of days people stocked up on milk. And then a few days later, it was ramen. But we shop as we need. Walkers and runners and bikers are on the river path. By late afternoon most cafes are full of friends catching up, or students and professionals telecommuting.  

But today was the first day I registered a greater volume of people out, moving through public spaces, touching counters and buttons and rails and doors.

To my knowledge, public health officials here have not imposed a social distancing rule as suggested in the States, to keep individuals a certain physical distance apart. So when I stand in line at the grocery store or bakery, the next customer is right behind me, breathing. But I think the worry is somewhat removed by the assurance that we know if a case is near us, or if we had contact and need to quarantine, because South Korea is vigilantly tracking infections, warning citizens and residents, and ensuring proper testing and medical care.

Today at Shinsegae when I asked the women why they were out, we all paused. Then the cat eye woman laughed again. She said, “We are bored of being home!”

Which makes me wonder how long we can go along with the recommendation to social distance, self-quarantine, work from home, attend virtual school. Because when things begin to look good, when it feels like we can all head out for the day, that is when we need to practice social distancing for another week or two. Or three.

I wonder what happens in South Korea as the coronavirus circles the world. Does East Asia wait for the curves to flatten on other continents before we start commuting into work again?

I did not worry until cases in Iran and Italy spiked. Watching Italy, I sense the care we’ve had in South Korea. Watching Italy, I fear for the States. In January and February I read about China, Japan, Cambodia, the cruise ships, and now I read about Iran, Italy, France, the States.

When I called home, my mom gave the rundown of closed schools, my brother’s canceled AP Government trip to D.C., the likely upgrade of internet service to accommodate work and school from home, and my grandma’s report that people really are stocking up on toilet paper. When I talked with Kate, she sent me photos of her trip to the grocery store, the produce and meat gone. My sister joked that homeschooling makes social distancing a little easier.

People talk about living history. Living through history. Yes, let’s.

But after, we live too. We should consider what that might look like.


Tracking the Coronavirus: How Crowded Asian Cities Tackled an Epidemic” from the New York Times
The Korea Herald
The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff” from The Atlantic

Story As Story

We went to Petra but did not see the monastery. When you go, Marcia said, you have to see the monastery. She followed a Jordanian guide at night, to see the sky, but rain came, the rock was slick, and the sky hid. We walked to Petra in the bright morning, leaving a street of restaurants and souvenir shops to wind through ancient, quiet caverns. Claire was two and half and surprised us by walking all the way to the Treasury, racing ahead and turning back, cheeks pinked by the early heat. Grant was six months and I carried him, belly to belly, dipping my face to blow air on his neck, lifting him to nurse in the dark mouth of a cave carved from red stone, soot on its ceiling, a scent of cat piss. We ate mid afternoon lunch with a crowd of tourists. We talked about what to see next. The monastery, I said, thinking of Marcia telling me that even in the rain, it was beautiful. Claire was tired and Grant was heavy and the monastery was up a steep hill of uneven steps. We could ride a skinny mule led by a skinny boy. We wandered dusty ruins, walked past impossible columns, stood in the amphitheater. And I knew we wouldn’t trek up to the monastery. We could. We could but we were tired. That year after my son was born was a yield to motherhood, and that afternoon in Petra a stone to mark: let go, let go.

I remember the late afternoon sun turning my children’s hair to gold. We walked out of Petra and I thought I probably would not see the monastery, ever, and that was heavy and light.

Now I am wondering what to do with this story.

Now I am thinking of story as story, only.

When my daughter was born, I labored several hours alone before I called my husband to come home, it is time. I was alone when the baby shifted and my right leg went numb. I sat wide to ease the pressure on my hips and the baby dropped. In my body it was like an audible pfff-wok, two distinct, startling movements setting my daughter in place to be born. I looked down at my swollen belly and said to her, You’re ready. She and I were about to be new, together.

These two experiences are more than the words here.

I am writing a collection of stories about living abroad. A year ago I wondered if I could write a multigenre collection, tucking essay alongside fiction. A year ago I thought I might write a memoir about summers home, that odd way of knowing family, friends and country six weeks at a time.

Since January I have played with a different idea, to write a collection of stories without distinguishing my lived experience from the work of my imagination.

I lived it
if I put it on the page
I was there
when it happened

These are first thoughts. But I am finding a way to tell it all.

I Touch My Face A Lot

Mid-January, I connected in Hong Kong on my flight back from the States. Within days there was conversation about coronavirus and within a week our school asked any faculty member or student who traveled to mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau over Lunar New Year to remain off campus for two weeks. When I woke up in the morning I checked the WHO situation report before getting out of bed. Korea held steady at twenty-some cases. I read about quarantined cities in China, and the cruise ships docked and waiting. (For so many reasons I will never take a cruise). Teaching friends who left China for their Lunar holiday resettled in other parts of the world while Covid19 spun through the country’s population. Korea asked universities to push back the start of the spring term, to delay the expected influx of Chinese students.

(Read more about this elsewhere, but East Asia is a tightly connected region – Korea and China have important diplomatic, economic and educational ties. A swift travel ban on all Chinese could have caused long term harm to their relationship).

Each morning I’d lay in bed and read another expert counter the effectiveness of closing borders or scroll through the search results of “south korea coronavirus” before returning to a page listing symptoms of Covid19, reassuring myself that for most people (for eighty percent of those infected!) the illness is akin to its more popular cousin, the common cold. There was comfort knowing that only a minority of those infected experienced serious, hospital-visit-worthy symptoms, and that around two percent of infected people die.

Covid19 favors killing elderly men. I am not an elderly man. But I am the favored age of the 1918 flu, the pandemic that killed my great-great grandmother and her infant son. So I am glad it is not 1918. For weeks I woke up like this, with these thoughts.  

My nose was a little runny. Grant had a cough. At school a student would sneeze or cough and another student might shift in their seat. I wore a mask on the subway. The masks – and we should all know this – are best worn by ill people to catch sprays of fluid. Covid19 lives in snot and spit and can survive on surfaces: so wash your hands. And quit touching your face.

I touch my face a lot. I just touched my face. I may as well lick all the surfaces near me.

The comparisons to SARS and MERS did not help me. SARS and MERS are more deadly coronaviruses, but less contagious. Covid19 spreads through a population quickly, perhaps because its symptoms may be mild and dismissible by eighty percent of us. Or perhaps because the incubation period is two weeks and we may be contagious before exhibiting any symptoms. So I only appreciated the two percent mortality rate of Covid19 for a few days. Then I looked at the tens of thousands infected, the hundreds (now thousands) dying. But how many people are exposed who do not get sick? Millions in a city do not catch the virus, or do not get terribly ill, but we fixate on the hospital lines and empty streets.

Please don’t die, I whispered to my husband one night in bed. Okay, he whispered back.

Monday night I could not sleep. I lay awake at midnight, at one. I sat up and cried. On Monday our school prepared to launch virtual school. All day on campus we learned online platforms to facilitate teaching classes linked by screens. I whispered “fuck.” Not because I am uncertain about manipulating the tech, but because I worried what the shift means to classroom dynamic: what is the dynamic when you are together apart? I am a month into covering a maternity leave and I still mix up a few students’ names. I wondered how to ensure the academic integrity of an in-class essay. How do I teach while parenting my own kids who are home too? So I also whispered “please” because I need help to accept more change.

Teachers and their families started booking flights out of Korea. Justin messaged me about a couple more departing families. I’m fine staying, he texted. Some people worry about the stress Covid19 places on Korea’s medical infrastructure – if you have a small child or baby who needs care, will you be able to see a physician easily or safely? Some people worry about home country borders closing or quarantine times. I understand the decision to leave Korea.

But I am also fine staying. When the SARS and MERS comparisons were no longer reassuring to me I thought about how viruses just do this to a population. Covid19 will carry on and we might get ill. The unlikely could happen too. On Monday I was more overwhelmed by the change to our daily routine.

Our school is on a synchronous schedule which means I see my students during our usual class time. So I am trying to do what we’d do in class. It takes more time to share content or generate discussion because we aren’t physically present to read cues. Today I let a few long pauses sit until a student filled the gap. This will work!

But while I am teaching and Justin is EdTeching (and teaching) we have two kids who are doing school. Claire is on the same synchronous schedule as me and has set up a camp (lair) under her loft bed. Twinkle lights, lots of pillows and blankets, and one hot laptop. During a lull in my work I peak into her room. On the first day the novelty of being allowed unfettered screen time for eight hours was a marvel and she balanced her device on the kitchen counter while cutting an apple at lunchtime, laughed at something her friend chatted. She is occupied by her teachers and classmates, all of them meeting virtually each block.

But Grant is free range. Or neglected. We have to figure out how to do Grant’s school, I said to Justin this morning. Yes, he said. Next week, I said.

In the morning Grant shows me his Google Classroom posts. The kid has quite the schedule, all of the tasks connected to a pdf or video or doc. Yesterday I thought a change of venue might be nice so he and I headed to a favorite café after lunch. While I taught two classes he sat glassy eyed, hunched over his device at a nearby table. I checked in with him a couple of times. Did you watch the video about student-led conferences? Can you listen to the read aloud? How about writing? You can do math when Papa gets home. And then I gave up because I had grading and planning to do and I am not a person who thrives on doing more than one thing at a time. I don’t feel efficient or accomplished or #hustle when I whack-a-mole life.

This morning I did not check the WHO situation report. Last night at eleven an emergency alert interrupted my sleep to tell me via Google Translate that a man with coronavirus had visited our neighborhood. I touch my face a lot. More families are flying out. Justin texted me: I’m fine staying. We are fine staying.

This afternoon I biked to run class from Shinsegae. I asked my advisory students to give high/ lows of the week. More sleep is a high. No morning or afternoon commute is a high. Autonomy is a high. My latte from Baekmidang is a high. Where are you Ms. Marslender? one of them asked. Most students are sequestered in their bedrooms. I walk ten steps a day, a sophomore told us. I tell the group to try yoga, if you can’t leave the apartment.

I started yoga at the end of December. I wake up and move my body through an hour of held poses. My feet are stronger. My left side is finding its balance again. When coronavirus headlines began showing at the top of a scroll, I told my kids to wash hands, drink water, sleep. The idea that if we keep our body well, our body has a better chance at resisting Covid19. I quit thinking about this during yoga. I am quiet. I breathe. I go through the poses and wonder if I could live in our apartment for a month. I make a note to buy more soap and pick up dishwasher tabs. Outside today the air is clean, the sky unseasonably colored.


WHO COVID-2019 Situation Reports
Reuters Graphics: “The Korean Clusters”
“Why the Coronavirus Seems to Hit Men Harder Than Women”
Baekmidang coffee is a definite high

As I Draft: Choosing One Story (but Writing Two)

In Kuwait I got massage from a Filipino woman named ­Charo. (Her name is not Charo). In our time together she told me stories about arriving to Kuwait, working for an abusive family, finding placement in salons, learning massage, supporting her family back home. For a few years I thought about how to make a story of that story. I was naked. She was clothed. Something about that dynamic – the physical reversal of constructed authority (me, a white woman in the hands of brown woman in a country where racism was daily apparent) and Charo’s interruption of the usual relationship between masseuse and client, her filling all the silence with her story so that I had to listen – something about that dynamic is powerful.

I began to draft the story and yesterday I thought there should be something else happening to the narrator too. Like Charo’s story is a contrast or complement to another narrative. Many of my stories are like this: two or three lines to trace through. One of the stories I submitted to winter workshop is about a woman looking for the hottest water at a public bath in Budapest. But inside that story is another, of the trauma she carries around. Because that is how it works to be a person: we walk through good and terrible days carrying a bunch of good and terrible things.

And events or emotions entangle. I appreciate and examine the complication. There was a year when I wanted to have an affair. That same year a friend’s infant died. When I think of one, I often think of the other. Or when I remember traveling to Australia, I go my grandfather. We were at the gate when I saw my mother’s email. When I think of Australia, I think of a twinned narrative: that I might have canceled a plan and gone home to Wisconsin winter instead. When I think of Australia, I am seven, balancing on the crossbar of Grandpa’s ten-speed, racing down the hill. There was wind and his perspiration and the command not to fidget.

So yesterday I thought about what to add to this Charo story. Give the narrator a separate experience. Entwine the two. But I wonder if the better story is to understate the narrator’s separate life: it is there, given in a few lucid details, but not brought forward.

I consider who is telling the story. And whose story am I telling. The narrator is a white woman like me. I want her to listen like I listened to Charo. How do I write to make the narrator listen, to let the reader hear too? I think now this story is still an entanglement of two: listening is its own story.

Aggressive Drafting

Semester one of Stonecoast MFA: cannot be precious about drafting. Must draft. I am so glad for Anne Lamott’s birds right now. I am also glad for a café with good light and ginger lattes. I am glad for my kids who come along with their art supplies so I am not always off alone.

When I write essay, I am quick. I am only quick because I’ve banked dozens of pages on an idea already so that when I decide to write its essay, the sentences are easier to put together. So the first draft is really a midway iteration of what I am trying to say. When I write fiction, I putz. I daydream. I note draft. I think it is probably a dumb story I shouldn’t bother with. Then I write out a few paragraphs. Sometimes I type two or three pages before I decide I have a better idea and it isn’t this story at all – it’s a new story, one that catches me before revealing that it is also probably a dumb story too. Finally I draft a story to its completion. Then the (great) work of revision. Then the wonder if the finished story ever is.

One reason I chose to pursue an MFA was for its rigor and due dates. I got really tired of making up my own assignments. Now I have lots of pages of new fiction due each month. I had the smallest panic my first week back in Korea when I thought about how to manage the process while also covering a maternity leave and then decided that no one dies if I teach well or even adequately (rather than spectacularly), but I don’t want to squander this MFA. I think teachers aren’t supposed to admit to doing enough. We’re supposed to froth inspiration. But I trust my teaching ability and care, and know that I can guide this group for the next few months without ruining my sleep or neglecting my own creative work. I shared this with a colleague who said it was great, that saying no to more for more feels good. My identity was entangled with my profession and I realized that when I left my own classroom and its warm circle of routine and rapport. Really I was headed this way, to let go teaching to pursue writing, but I didn’t know when: well, now.

This is what my writing looks like: on the flight back to Korea I sketched out two story ideas. I love note drafting. For the first few days back I steadied myself at school and continued to roll around a story, started drafting in my notebook. Then I parked myself last weekend for a couple of hours and typed. I thought I must be halfway to a page count. I was about a fifth of the way. Think of the birds. Midweek I got bogged by how to write one part of the story so I just typed LEAP and then wrote another block of story. All of this gets rearranged or removed or rewritten anyway. Yesterday I drafted a piece of flash fiction alongside the creative writing class and today I typed that up with light revision, to add it to my page count – flash pieces are like little pep talks: look what you can do! Then I wrote a lovely scene for the story at hand, a return to Colombia, the town a mash of two places Justin and I visited when Claire was a baby. It’s a little like going back which is nice on this dead winter day.

And this work is so much fun. Absolutely pleased to be aggressively drafting.

Portland, Maine

I am in Maine to begin my MFA program. I arrived a couple days early to shift my body to east coast time. Yesterday I walked downtown and sat to write.

When I return to Korea I am covering a maternity leave. One of the classes I’ll teach is creative writing – I’ve missed teaching this course and had fun planning. One of the books I pulled material from is Writing Alone & With Others by Pat Schneider, and yesterday I practiced the following exercise from memory. Which means I didn’t do the exercise exactly.

Take a small bit of writing – a page or so – from your journal. Or write a straight narrative account of something that happened to you. (Give yourself only five or seven minutes to do this, and write fast, without editing). 

When you have finished, put it aside, and without looking at it, begin again to write the same narrative. Do not look back! Allow yourself to say exactly the same words if they come to you, or to change it in any way you wish. After a bit, introduce into the narrative an object that was not there in the first draft, and that was not there in your memory. Make it completely imagined. Go on writing the narrative for a bit, and then introduce a character (again, completely imagined) that wasn’t there, and give him or her a significant place in the narrative.

This is fun – and for many people it simply magically erases the big problem of how to break out of literal memory into imagined scenes and characters.

I wrote for a couple of hours. What I did was quick write the narrative. One block page. Then I rewrote this narrative twice, introducing a new object in the second telling, and playing with dynamic between the two characters in the third. The point is to get comfortable pulling from life, turning fiction. Successive rewrites are a constraint too, pressing your creativity to work with your immediate imagination – one, two, three – rather than giving space between drafts. Successive rewrites are also a challenge to keep yourself interested as you write. I like the way I finally describe the salt rimed sidewalk, and the subtle (uncomfortable) conflict of the third draft.

Try this by way of Schneider’s original exercise, or with my accidental modification.

One

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Give Thanks

I started a gratitude journal once, years ago. I made a numbered list of things I was thankful for and a few months later when I needed a writing notebook, I tore out the single sheet. The entire notebook was supposed to be full of thanks. I’d barely managed one page. 

I am better practiced at fear and complaint. And I suppose that is the point of keeping a gratitude journal, to counter the inclination to worry and wallow. 

Also years ago, a Lebanese woman named Adele took my hands after a church service in Kuwait. She was tender with her wisdom, and I prayed with her often. That Friday morning Adele opened her eyes at amen and said, Sarah, I see you like a child in a field of flowers. So much joy. Laughing. I nodded. I was glad someone could imagine joy for me. Adele spoke a promise I needed at the middle end of a dark run, and I still keep her words. I remember her warm hands holding mine, that we kissed cheeks at parting. I remember walking into the bright heat of day, looking at the sky and whispering please. Later that summer when I laughed like a child spinning circles I whispered thank you. 

I am just out of another dark run. When I look at the shadows I lived in for months I am sad. I don’t want to go back. But I want to carry what I understood in the shadows. A thought came when I curled in bed, unmoving after sobs, to give thanks. A thought came at the tightening of fear in my body, to praise. When I prayed, gladness was like rocks in my mouth. Praise tasted like metal. But I expanded my prayer, reading the Psalms to speak wild glory like a new language. I practiced the sacrifice of praise. 

My circumstance did not change. I was not suddenly content in my work, or healed in my body. I was still sad most days. But last spring, a ripple of impatience: I did not want just healing or just satisfaction in the day. I asked instead for peace in the middle. I asked for joy. What I wanted was to know that God really is enough. Enough is a tough measure. Enough is letting go of the scramble for more or better. Enough is trust that what I hold is good. 

Last Sunday our church celebrated Thanksgiving. We sang “Blessed Be Your Name.” This was a song at my brother’s wedding. Blessed be your name in the land that is plentiful. A perfect marriage song, our mom said. This was the song I cried with my dear mom friends in Kuwait, the morning after Liana delivered a son who lived an hour in his daddy’s arms. Blessed be your name when I’m found in the desert place. This is the song my friend Els chose for her funeral. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, given slim hope of living another five years. Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering. Though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name. After the service, Els told me that in the weeks after her diagnosis she understood that no part of her illness was a surprise to God. She read from the Psalms. She ached for her young children. She ached for her husband. But she also lived. Els made dinner, read to her children, nurtured friendships. She is alive today, and that is a miracle. All that she knew of her faith was pressed into daily practice during her illness, and she has not forgotten her God who was present in her suffering. She sings her funeral song.

So I do not want to forget what I understood in the shadows. Again and again I read from 1 Thessalonians, writing in my notebook

Rejoice always
pray without ceasing
give thanks in all circumstances
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus
Do not quench the Spirit

On Sunday the message centered on this passage. Such direct instruction. I have learned this before. I know this. And in the shadows these past months I obeyed. I lived my sorrow deeply, honestly. But I also recognized the everyday swells of joy: the limbs of my children stretched either side of me at bedtime, as we read or talked about the day. My son playing with Lego, scripting the minifigures and animating planes and boats. My daughter bent over her sketchbook, humming. My husband turning to me in the night. The mountains on our summer drive west. The taste of a gin fizz twenty minutes in the making. The fun of a full dining table, a card game, and family stories. 

Singing praise as you fall apart is heart work. Singing praise is trust, naming a God whose glory transcends circumstances. There is so much I do not understand. There is reason for this exhortation to give thanks. Gratitude is good for the body and mind. Something intangible turns on thanksgiving. 

Knowing my proclivity for fear and discontentment, I couple my sacrifice of praise with another prayer. Renew my mind. I live in a body that will go to ash. I cannot hinge joy on what I touch. So renew my mind, I ask, so that gratitude becomes a natural breath in my day. I do not know what will follow this practice, but I am far enough in my faith to choose to continue on, even after a long stretch of darkness. 

I am not starting another gratitude journal. But when I flip through the muddle of my notebook, I want to see thanks between the story drafts, petitions, and wandering thoughts. So too in my day. Amen.