Special Event Story

Here is my third piece of thirty-nine. Yee-haw! (Already working out how to modify this project because I am not made of as many words as I first thought. More on that soon). This essay ends on an idea I want to explore more. 


A couple of months ago I was at a Special Event in the basement marketplace of a department store. Special Events – usually street food stalls or specialty foods and wines – are a great way to sample what I will likely never cook. I have two favorite snacks I look for when I see a Special Event sign. One is hoduk, a griddle-fried flat, round pastry filled with seeds, nuts and brown sugar. The other is a Korean pancake sandwich: shrimp or bacon stacked between two small cabbage pancakes, sloppy drizzles of brown and white sauces and a scoop of papery fish flakes on top. So good. And a couple of months ago I was just returned to Korea after summer in Wisconsin (nary a papery fish flake to be found), when I saw the sandwich vendor. Two, please, I said. When the server picked up a single sandwich container I thought he misunderstood. I gestured to the sandwiches again and said, Two, please. Then I pointed at the bigger box next to the small containers. At this, the server made a small x, crossing one wrist over the other, and said, That is for three.

Ah, I said, Two will also fit. I smiled, but he looked distressed, emphasized the x. I said, I don’t think it’s impossible. Two will fit!

An aside: Not long after this Special Event exchange I attended a workshop about understanding Korean culture and the speaker addressed social microaggression. As in, don’t engage. I thought of my cheerful bullying, a thin cover for irritation at the very idea boxing two sandwiches in a box that fit three is impossible.

To my small credit, I didn’t say to the server, This will blow your fucking mind, to break the three sandwich rule, but go ahead! Try it! Two fit! But I also didn’t relent. I could see he was upset. Boxing two sandwiches together in a box made for three sandwiches was not allowed. I briefly thought of ordering a third sandwich, but I didn’t want a third sandwich. And I preferred later discarding one paper box to two plastic tubs. In the middle of this moment, and now, I did not like who I was. I smiled and gestured how two sandwiches would fit perfectly. Perfectly! The server sweated. We were at a moment of decision. He reached for the box, put two sandwiches side by side, doused both with sauce, added papery fish flakes. He did not look at peace with his decision. He remained conflicted. I bowed my head in thanks, walked away thinking this is how neighbors end up slaughtering each other. This is how the Nazis kept on for so many years. Because of rule followers.

Every place I have lived, I bump against my most awful bits. Unexpected rage, judgement, hate. In Colombia I shook a fist a truckful of men who hissed and hollered as I ran up Cañas Gordas. In Kuwait I brake checked an SUV flashing its lights to pass. When I moved here I wanted the grace of cultural acceptance. But I moved here. I am not yet as gracefully accepting as I might be one day. During our first year in Korea I cried to my husband because we keep doing this on purpose – we choose to live and travel in places we don’t know until we’re there, figuring out how to turn the heat on during the first weeks of winter, or looking for an ingredient we miss. To mitigate the shock of a new home, I learned what I could about Korea in the months before our move.

I called my friend Kate. I called Kate because we grew into adulthood together, hundreds and later thousands of miles apart, but checking in via long emails or wandering phone calls. I also called Kate because she studied Asian languages in college, married a Korean American, and had actually traveled to Seoul a few years earlier. When Kate visited Kuwait during my last spring in the desert, we talked about two different places. I told her about the Middle East I grew to love. She told me about the Korea I now hope to love.

One night we went to the old souk in Kuwait. We ordered two platters of rice and fish, and lemon mint drinks. On the drive back it rained and the traffic slowed. Over the few days she visited we dropped and picked up conversations easily. Looking ahead at the red taillights, the rain falling, I said how fortunate I felt that Korea is so safe, you know, with the kids. Our Kuwait neighborhood was increasingly unsafe and I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone with Claire and Grant anymore, so moving to South Korea where the crime rate is low answered a want I didn’t know I had. Well, it’s a shame culture, Kate said, No one wants to bring shame on their family.

I still think of that revelation. We all know shame. And shame serves a purpose. But I hadn’t thought how shame might serve to bring the behavior of a whole population in line. The upside of shame culture is good norms are enforced. When I run in the morning, it’s dark and I am not afraid of being attacked under a bridge or being killed by a stray bullet. In the afternoon when my kids want to spend their allowance at Dream Depot, I send them on their way without worry and they come back to me with art supplies and gummy candies. The downside of shame culture is the limitation of expression. Coupled with adherence to hierarchy, everyone stays in their place. My understanding is small, mostly circling education, but I ask questions to understand better. In Kuwait one of our neighbors was a Korean woman who occasionally shared fresh kimchi with me, and enrolled her son, my son’s friend, in a  Saturday Korean class. Only after nearly a year in Korea, when Joohee and her son visited Seoul and we met for brunch, did I ask about her education experience. It was awful, Joohee said. Grades were posted so everyone could see who was doing poorly.

That pressure first learned in school years carries into the military and business world. Young men serve two years in the military and abuse, though addressed and lessened today, remains a concern. After a workday, there is a tradition of bosses taking employees out to dinner, and subordinates drinking to keep up, drinking to stupor and vomit. Gender inequality and harassment are issues as well. All of this, and a pressure to excel despite (or more likely, because of) the strictures of shame.

When we were living in Kuwait, my brother and his family was living in Seoul. You should move here, they said to us. You’d like it. I very much doubted I’d like it. Liking sushi (Japanese) and Pocky sticks (also Japanese) is just not enough of a reason to move to Korea. I had in my head only a couple of scraps of information about Korea, lifted from living in the international dorm during college, reading, and knowing North Korea exists with a desire to obliterate South Korea (it’s more complicated than that). And as my philosophy of education developed, I didn’t believe my approach to teaching or curriculum would match what I perceived about East Asian education.

Yet here I am. And where I am I learn. During our school orientation I marveled at the ingenuity and resilience of the Korean people. I wowed the satellite photo of the many dolmens dotting the country. I wiped tears at the story of men and women giving their gold and jewelry to stabilize the economy in 1998. I wanted to know this country, fastrack my love for the new place, people and culture. One morning I was running along the river path. Dragonflies! Tall grasses! Water over rocks! And many people weaving. As a runner, I made myself as a deer, leaping and bounding to the side as men and women listed from one side to the other. I thought of the Japanese building crooked little wooden bridges and wondered if this was similar. Were these men and women evading evil spirits? I asked a couple of friends who’d lived in Seoul longer than me. No, no one was evading evil spirits. They just weren’t walking in a straight line. I liked my conjecture better, especially as the year went on.

When I run a crowned surface – path or road – I alternate sides to keep my body from taking on unnecessary muscle imbalances, tilts, injuries. So on the river path. I run alternating sides. Usually this is totally fine. I am not the only person walking or running on the wrong side of the path, but I am often the only foreign woman on the wrong side of the path. So during the first year running in Korea, several old men stopped me to say I was running on the wrong side of the path. When I see another person coming my way I guess if they are moving to the inside of the path or the middle of the path, and adjust my approach. Usually, this is totally fine. But when I see an old man walking my way, I gauge the situation differently. Sometimes the old man looks to make way for us to pass and at the last moment, he turns to cut me off. I stop and listen to him tell me, Wrong side! Wrong side! Then he points to the other side of the path and says, Right side! Right side! A few times I’ve tried explaining why I switch sides to run on, only to be waved off or shouted at again. Right side! Right side!

Once I stayed my course until I was an arm length from plowing into an old man staying his course. That time I was the one who spoke loudly and gestured. Why? Why? The old man did not understand me. He was only out in the cold winter for a quiet morning walk and now I was gesturing my own incomprehension: why do we not move for one another? Why must I be the one to give way to old men? After that I decided to be kind, or try, to just move over for all the old men. But even making way does not work if I am still running the wrong side of the path and some old man wants to make that point.

I am thinking about getting tiny cards made up, to explain why I alternate sides, to emphasize my joy at living in such a lovely land as Korea, and to wish a best day. I could carry these cards and produce one for the next old man who cuts my stride. But I doubt tiny cards are an answer.

I bend.

In Kuwait there was a Sudanese man named Adam who shepherded the expat teachers through the many pieces of paperwork needed to keep a visa, get a driver license, obtain a marriage or birth certificate. Once he and I were shuttling between different government offices after my passport was confiscated at customs. I needed to get a chest x-ray, the record showed. I’d been pregnant with my son so requested a deferral for the x-ray, and then in the space of about one year, I had three chest x-rays to ascertain I didn’t suffer tuberculosis – the first was this time, to satisfy my visa requirement. Adam waited while I stood in line, my breasts leaking. We took the paper showing my x-ray was clear to another office. There I saw men drinking tea at desks. I saw a pile of passports on a table. Adam sensed my panic and sent me out of the room. From the hall I watched the casual gestures of the men sipping tea, the slight bow by Adam. Back in Adam’s old Pajero, I asked how he did it. I thought I was going to lose it, just seeing the pile of passports and nonchalance of the officials. Adam said he made himself small. You make yourself small, you be kind, he said to me. When I talk, he said, I let them be bigger than me.

Small. Kind. I continued to chafe in Kuwait even as I grew to care deeply for the country and region. Appreciating a culture is not to acquiesce. So now in my second year in Korea, having pushed a Special Events server into giving me one box for my two sandwiches, and actually considering having tiny cards printed to explain why I am on the wrong side of the path, I wonder what the balance is to be open and closed in a new place. I do not live in Korea to make it my way. And though I had no great affinity for Korea when we chose to come, my respect grows as I learn the stories of this place.

Kate told me that her mother-in-law was a little girl during the Korean war. Her family house was commandeered. Executions took place in their courtyard. The family ate acorn soup to survive. I think of the suffering and resilience and I soften toward the old men and women who still walk without deviating from the right side of the path, and those who stand bow-legged at bus stops. Soon after arriving in Korea, I went on a school trip to the eastern shore. Each morning I woke before the students to run a road along the beaches. I stopped to take a photo of the sunrise. Chain link fence topped with barbed wire snaked along many of the beaches and later I asked someone why. Because in the seventies North Korea sent small boats to coastal towns, conducting midnight kidnappings – I want to know more about this, but even a sketch of why barbed wire is strung along beachfronts points to the civilian good of adherence to rules. I soften. But I also think of the protests in the eighties when workers wanted fair pay, and when people questioned the ruling order, and I wonder if the old men cutting to tell me I am on the wrong side of the path were the same old men who lockstepped with the military to put down student uprisings, to take people off the street, to ruin a woman. Or did they look away. Or were they on the right side, then. This whole country tells stories to keep children in school until late at night, to ensure more children are born, to secure prestigious work, to keep the streets clean, to keep the air polluted, to honor the elderly, to keep a faith in their own people.

Sometimes I consider if I chose this life abroad to lift away from the stories of my own country (the stories I don’t like), or to escape the stories of my own self (the stories I don’t like). But stories follow. Stories collect. When I drop into another country, I reckon with another set of standards, learn through different stories, see how I am not so far from where I started, and despair a month or several before deciding to keep on. I still might get the tiny cards printed. But next time I order two sandwiches I’ll take however I am served.


Three of thirty-nine! 2573 words. Started in November, first draft finished 14 December.

Which Goat Was This Name

This story came to me two or three years ago. I started drafting with the end in mind. I quit because I couldn’t think how to write the end (I didn’t want the end), and when I returned to the draft in November I was surprised the story I’d nearly finished in my head was only a five hundred word start. Before you read: I wrote this story first thinking of Syria and the refugees desperate to escape death, and then I thought about this story as response to the horror of Yemen’s famine. Now I finished the story and am afraid to post but will. Please do not read what you do not want.


The children came ashore in three low, leaky boats and sat on the white sand. Two resort cleaning staff crossing behind the beachfront villas saw the children’s hunched shadows and called Sandu who was just rising to start his day. He walked quickly to the beach and saw the silent children sitting in three lines facing the water. Sandu motioned to his staff and from a distance they conferred. The guests would wake soon. There was a woman who practiced yoga at sunrise. Sandu called his superior who was still sleeping. It was no use. The cleaning staff looked at Sandu and then past the children, to the empty boats bumping in the shallows of the four star Cherish Resort. Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear, a habit of childhood that returned rarely: at his wedding to a woman he met two weeks previous, at his promotion, at news of the death of his father. He dialed his superior again and left a voice message. We are being invaded.

One of the cleaning staff suggested they take the children back to their quarters. There are too many, another argued. Sandu counted and said, Fifty-seven, plus or minus two or three. He couldn’t tell if some of the bigger children were holding infants or bags to their chests. We have to go see, sir. Sandu nodded. You go, he said. He watched the two cleaning staff amble across the sand toward two of the bigger children. They all kept their voices low. Sandu looked down the row of villas and checked the time. The sky was just getting light. That yoga woman could never sleep in. But if she did it was possible, wasn’t it, to get the children off the beach, maybe into a conference room, though that would be a far walk from here. The boats came from a neighboring island, loosed by wind perhaps. Sandu looked at the sky, looked at his watch. The children were silent.

One of the cleaning staff came back up to Sandu. There are seventy-one at the start. Only sixty-three now. We might have miscounted at the start. Sandu rubbed his jaw, then tugged gently at the hair behind his ear. He asked, Where are they from?

Sir, they thought they were going to Australia.
In those boats?
Yes, sir, they are on the sea for seven days.

Sandu walked down the beach to the yoga woman’s villa. She was here by herself. Miss Elena. She wore linen in shades of fog. He’d been in her room twice, once to deliver an airmail letter she’d requested be delivered day or night (he’d been thankful the letter arrived midmorning and he only interrupted her tea) and once to pick up a package for overnight courier service. She kept her villa clean, seemed only to sit in one chair at the table and on one sofa in the front room. She practiced yoga at sunrise, and took long baths in the evening. The more Sandu considered, he decided she was the guest that concerned him least. She would not howl about the children.

There were four other villas on this beach and two of them occupied for the week, one by a British couple in their seventies who read through the morning and napped through the afternoon, and the other by an Arab couple in their thirties who called Sandu with endless requests. Colder ice, more towels, an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker. The Arab couple would not be pleased. Perhaps they would accept an upgrade to a villa on the Blue Lagoon beach.

Sandu neared Miss Elena’s villa as she opened the door so that when she looked up, she startled to see him. He and other resort staff attended the villas as anonymously as possible to give guests a sense of privacy and ownership. Unless requested, no villa offered a butler, maid or nanny but Sandu took care to anticipate wants and needs and after nearly two decades of hospitality he understood how to provide or fulfill without crossing an illusionary line, without causing imbalance or discomfort; equally important, Sandu understood how to leave a guest alone, how to wait for a raised hand, tilted head, uneaten lunch that said a want or need. Now Miss Elena, whom Sandu knew preferred to be left alone, startled but calmed when Sandu said, It is me, Miss Elena. Sandu from the resort. I know you enjoy sunrise yoga and I hoped to show you another beach you may enjoy.

If it okay, Sandu, I prefer our beach. She gently closed the door to her villa and stepped onto the sand.
It is okay, but this morning the beach is occupied and I know you enjoy solitude.
Miss Elena looked at him for a moment and Sandu realized how this must appear. A male staff member luring a single woman to a secluded beach. Sandu coughed and said, I do not mean to alarm. I only – I – and Sandu had no words. He did not want to say what came out of his mouth. Miss Elena, he said, There are children on the beach.

Children?
They arrived at dawn on boats.
Boats?

I do not want you or the other guests disturbed, that is all. If you are amenable to practicing yoga on a different beach – Sandu gestured toward a path leading over a small, manicured hill of low plants and tall trees. For a moment it seemed Miss Elena would not take his direction, but then she nodded. He walked ahead of her, silently, and left her where the path returned to sand.

It is very beautiful, she said, Thank you.

You are welcome. Sandu turned to walk back through the resort, to the beach with children. Already he was afraid what the cleaning staff might have decided without him.

What will happen to the children?

Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear. He said, I do not know. We will take care. Then before she could ask any more questions, he set off, more quickly now, and when out of view, started to run back to the beach with children.

The children were silent yet. This surprised Sandu. He motioned again for the cleaning staff to join him. His supervisor was still not answering the phone and the other guests could wake or the younger children could cry. Three empty boats drifted in the shallows. Sandu said quietly, This is what we must do. We must take the children to the field behind our housing and sit them in rows on the grass there. We will ask the kitchen to prepare rice and fruit. Sandu called the kitchen manager who was often last to bed and first to rise and requested rice and fruit. Then he walked to the edge of the water and stood before the rows of children sitting cross-legged on the sand. He raised his hands to get their attention but all the little faces were already looking up at him, waiting, so he coughed to cleared his throat. He spoke without raising his voice, in English. He could not guess if they children understood. A few blinked. A few nodded. He used gestures, pointed at the cleaning staff, and at the instructions of a couple of the older children, the group stood and formed two lines and without much rustle, followed the cleaning staff off the beach, along a path that made its way to the field.

What was left on the beach were pocks of footprints, fans where tiny hands played with the white sand. In the shallow water, the three empty boats. Sandu rolled his pant legs and waded to the nearest boat. It was lined with plastic. It reeked of urine and feces. The children had arrived from somewhere, with nothing. Sandu called Manny at the Cherish Marina, to see about removing the boats. He left a message. He called his supervisor again who still did not answer. He swept the beach quickly and thought which embassy might have an answer, which charity or mission on one of the other islands might send a ferry to rescue the children.

By noon his supervisor was still not returning his calls. Only a text: Take care of the children. The boats were gone from the beach. Where the children had sat silently, the old British couple now dozed under the shade of an umbrella, their rum diluted by melted ice. Sandu hadn’t seen the Arab couple, which wasn’t unusual. For three days they requested brunch mid afternoon. He was not worried about disturbing them. He was worried about Miss Elena. He now understood what would come of the children and he should not have said a word to Miss Elena that morning. He lacked discretion. No, he lacked foresight. Sandu did not want to see Miss Elena before the children were gone from the field because he did not want to say any more of the truth to her, about what he was now arranging, about what would be finished by the time she decided to call the concierge to ask to speak to Sandu because he was not answering her calls and she wanted to know about the children on the beach.

The children on the beach? the concierge would ask.
Yes, Sandu told me this morning that boats arrived. Boats with children.
The concierge would pause, having no knowledge of boats arriving or children on the beach.

Sandu again called the kitchen manager, asked to speak with the butcher. Each week Cherish resort slaughtered its own pigs, chickens and ducks. But now the butcher did not understand his request. He balked at what Sandu asked. Sandu could feel the situation slipping. The children could not sit in quiet rows in the sun for too much longer. Two months ago his supervisor instructed him to take care of the cats, feral cats who had come over on a day ferry and were pissing on the beach sand. The year before that Sandu took care of guest’s child bride who wailed for two days before Sandu offered the girl a strawberry juice at dinner, laced with sedatives. Sandu spoke again to the butcher, to be understood plainly. I need three sharp knives, Sandu said, For goats in the field. Sandu bit each word, then softened his tone. He was lightheaded, and asked for a box of sandwiches to also be ready when he came by the kitchen.

When the butcher slaughtered, he worked in a space hidden from Cherish Resort guests, a small patch of dirt behind the storage shed where white plastic chairs, folding tables, old clothes and table settings, extra plumbing fixtures, and the bounce houses were kept. Sandu carried a bag with the three knives and sandwich box past the rows of children (sixty-seven, the accurate count). He opened the storage shed and found a white bucket and filled it with water from a spigot. Then he called one of the cleaning staff to come to him. There were few times when Sandu had to speak with threats. Usually his requests were reasonable. Even the unreasonable requests of guests he could phrase to make the chore simple, and he understood when to couple a task with the promise of a reward, but very occasionally Sandu exercised fear to inspire compliance. Now Sandu showed the cleaning staff the knives and said what he would do and how the cleaning staff would help. You will bring the children, one child at a time, he said. He spoke slowly.

You will not show any fear.
You will not alarm the children.
You will not speak of this to any other person.
And if you do, you will not go home to your own children.

Ever. Do you understand?

Sandu’s phone beeped then and he checked the number, answered and replied to a question about pineapples and mangoes while looking at the cleaning staff. He hung up and said, There is no other way. No one will take these children. They are not even children. I think they are goats. Yes, it will be like goats.

One cleaner looked about to be sick. Sandu gestured to a bush and the man leapt across the dirt to bend over and heave. When the cleaner was finished, he dipped a hand in the bucket of water and rinsed his mouth, then walked away without looking at Sandu. Tell the children there is a boat to take them to Europe, Sandu said, and the cleaner raised a hand to acknowledge. For a few minutes Sandu waited, wanting to look around the storage shed but not looking, trusting the cleaner wanted to see his own children again, here on earth, so when the cleaner came with the first child, Sandu smiled. His smile was kind, warm, nearly tricking the hand that reached for the knife so that Sandu had to let go the smile, take the child’s arm, press a palm to the mouth and nose of the child and quickly cut her throat. The cleaner recoiled. Sandu set the knife down, lifted the girl’s body and carried her to a wheelbarrow. He rinsed his hands, patting them dry on his pants, and dialed another number to call for Manny who did much worse to beat down civil uprisings, who could not find work anywhere but far from home and who did not speak about his past except when very drunk, such as one time when Sandu found him on a guest’s yacht. Manny trekked the wheelbarrow back and forth, dirt patch to quiet cove, for the hours it took to kill the sixty-seven children, and dropped the bodies in old rowboats he covered with blue tarpaulins.

The first twelve were children. Even as Sandu held a hand over tiny mouths, stilled the wriggling bodies by crushing ribs with his thighs as though taking a piggyback ride, even as he drew the knife quick and deep across tiny necks, he understood these first twelve were children with mothers and fathers who thought a boat ferried safety. These twelve boys and girls had aunties who kissed their cheeks, uncles who slipped a candy into tiny hands, cousins who chased up trees and down streets. There were signs of love, like thread bracelets or improbably tidy braids or a careful patch on a shirt or a thin silver ring. The first twelve were children who saw Sandu with a light trust for the barest moment before he grabbed at them to press his hand tightly, to keep their screams inside. And then after the first twelve, all the children were goats, even the smallest who would not learn to speak, until the end.

There was more blood than Sandu anticipated. Manny worked diligently with downturned eyes. Sandu lost count. He was hot and the iron smell nauseated him. He asked the cleaner what number this was as Manny pushed the wheelbarrow down a narrow path, and was surprised to learn he was only just past halfway. He sighed. His arms were sore from holding the goats, from pulling the knife. He didn’t want to ask the time. He remembered the sandwiches and rinsed his hands in the bloody water but had no dry, clean spot on his pants or shirt to pat dry. He picked up a sandwich. The bread turned pink. The cleaner watched without speaking, eyes glazed like fever. Sandu ate quickly and gestured the cleaner to go bring another goat.

He was nearly finished. The children were nearly finished. The cleaning staff and Manny were nearly finished. The children were children again, these last six or seven. One boy had a grain of rice on his chin which Sandu noticed as he reached for the thin arm, thin boy, thin neck. And after him, the last of the goats were children who could not be made goats. Sandu’s back ached and his hands hurt. At the end he stretched his arms overhead, rolled his neck. He spoke briefly with Manny who only needed short words to understand the children must go far out to sea, away from any current that might bring their bodies to any shore. He spoke for a longer time with his cleaning staff who could not meet his eyes until he commanded them to look up. This could not be helped, Sandu said, There is no good place for children who come from nowhere. To show kindness, Sandu allowed the next day off and dismissed them to their night. He stayed behind the storage shed to empty the bucket of bloody water. There was a great mess of blood and dirt, a thick sludge Sandu hadn’t noticed in the middle of his work and it was too much to call usual for a slaughter. The ground took the blood quickly as it took rain and there was no way to dig its depth. Sandu thought for a moment how to take the blood from the earth and decided instead to give more earth to the blood. He pushed Manny’s wheelbarrow to the cove where the children now lay in neat rows under blue tarpaulin and walked the wheelbarrow into the shallows to rinse the blood, then scooped sand with his hands to fill the wheelbarrow before returning to the red dirt and emptying the load. He did this twice more to be certain, then found a rake and pulled the earth over the blood.

Leaving the patch behind the shed, swinging the bucket at his side, the knives ruined now, Sandu crossed to where the cleaning staff asked the children to sit. The children were silent all day which Sandu thought a curious blessing. Sandu surveyed the grass where the children had waited to board the boat taking them to Australia or Italy or wherever they thought they were going to live. He nudged a tuft of grass with his toe. The area looked clean. It was secluded. Likely no one saw the children. And the story of what happened was that the children boarded boats for another island, which may be true if Manny chose an island bog. Manny he could trust. The cleaning staff were diligent but he saw how they could not look at him, how they bowed their head when they approached with the next goat, how they could not lift their heads until he commanded it. Sandu was not yet sure what he would do about the cleaning staff.

At his small living quarters, Sandu turned on the shower. Always he was economical. He turned the water off to lather. He rinsed quickly. He took a nail brush to clean the red brown under his nails, staining his cuticles. Sandu finished and stood wet and naked in the tiny bathroom. He was suddenly very tired. He turned the water on again, to its hottest, steaming the round mirror and scalding his back.

On the other side of the island, guests played in the water or laid on the beach or lost the afternoon to expensive wine or platters of food. Miss Elena did not call Sandu or the concierge to ask about the children. She rested in her bed made up with white linen, then bathed in water scented with lavender oil, then dressed in shades of ocean to walk to the main hotel for dinner, rather than order room service as she preferred. Perhaps because her day began in so unusual a way, it must end with a slight, evening deviation from routine. At the hotel, Miss Elena asked to sit on the patio where she could see and smell the water. Near her table was the old British couple puzzling over a piece of paper the man held in his palm. Miss Elena lifted a hand when the woman looked up. Miss Elena asked what was interesting on that piece of paper and then joined the British couple at their table at their invitation. The three of them passed the paper.

I don’t read Arabic, Miss Elena said. Perhaps one of the staff?
We like a good mystery, see, said the old woman.
So when we found this in the sand, the old man continued, We thought to find what is written, by whom and why.
I think I may know, Miss Elena said. I woke early and this morning Sandu told me boats arrived in the night, boats of children. Perhaps one of them, from a pocket?
Boats of children? The old woman furrowed her brow. Wouldn’t we have heard something?
I did not hear a thing, Miss Elena said, They were quiet at ghosts.
Did you see them?
No.
What has come of them?
I don’t know. I imagine they are cared for.

The table let the conversation lapse as drinks were delivered and after, each was lost to his or her own ideas about boats of children arriving in the night, and where those children might be. Miss Elena looked at the scrap of paper now in the center of the table and touched its edges. It is curious, she said, and when she looked up she saw Sandu across the patio speaking with one of the waitstaff. Miss Elena lifted a hand to call him over. He walked toward her, smiling first at her and then at the old British couple.

If I remember correctly, Sandu said, You are each near the end of your stay at Cherish.
Yes, the old woman said, And it has been lovely. We chose dates to return.
Wonderful, Sandu said. He turned to Miss Elena. And you? For you it has also been a pleasant stay?

Miss Elena said yes. There was a pretend game between Sandu and his guests. The pretend he didn’t already know the answer to his question, the pretend that the guest’s life and stay were truly private, the pretend he could smooth any ill. When he looked at Miss Elena looking up at him now, he saw how pale her neck was, how childlike. Miss Elena smiled. I am curious, Sandu, about the boats of children. Can you tell us what happened?

Sandu cleared his throat. I made a call, he said, And spent the day moving the children from the island. He dropped his voice and said, I really prefer, Miss Elena, that we not talk of the children. It was never my intent for any guests to know of their arrival or, now, of their departure. Sandu looked at the old British couple, to include them in his confession. He bent at the waist a little and said, I am relieved to tell you each child is moved to safety.

Miss Elena put a hand to her heart. She closed her eyes. Thank you, she said, All day I wondered.

Sandu straightened. He was about to move through the patio, to check on other guests, to assure his staff of his returned presence, when he saw a slip the slip of paper. He tilted his head. He knew the paper. He saw these little papers all day, pinned to tee shirts or peeking from pockets. Miss Elena followed his gaze and picked up the paper, held it out for him to see. We found it, she said, Well they found it. On the beach. It looks like Arabic and I thought perhaps a note from one of the children. Do you read Arabic?

Sandu shook his head no. He did, a little. I can look into this, he said, and put the slip of paper in his pocket. It may only be a note from one of our other guests, he said, and smiled. I would not want their privacy compromised in any way. Miss Elena dipped her head, like a schoolgirl in trouble with her teacher, and Sandu again saw her neck. He could sense in his body how close he was to slipping, how careful he now had to be to keep his mind from spilling out his mouth. He remembered the other times followed by this same crucial turn, and pulled at the hair behind his ear. Sandu nodded to the old British couple, to Miss Elena, and before he left, promised to tell her the message, if it were not private. Miss Elena smiled. Sandu walked away but watched Miss Elena throughout her meal. Watcher her drink wine and talk lightly with the old British couple. Watched her play with the pendant of her necklace. Watched her shift her weight in her chair, watched her laugh after a second glass of wine. He thought he could not sleep if Miss Elena did not show him what he needed to know, and he nearly ruined it by returning to the table with a made up translation of the note – a line from a love poem, easily attributed to the Gulf guests – when she laughed and Sandu understood she believed him that the children were on boats again, going away to live. What else would she prefer to believe?

Sandu left the patio then, walked along manicured paths passing guest villas, passing staff lodging where he paused to listen under the dark window of the room shared by the cleaning staff but hearing nothing, walked on to his own small rooms where he took the paper from his pocket and read the name, the place, and wondered which goat was this name, this place.


This is story two of thirty-nine. Started two or three years ago. Draft finished 2 December. 4244 words.

The Holy Posture Of Whatever

Last week I interviewed for a teaching position at our school. For international educators, autumn is a season of big decisions and Justin and I already made ours, signing on to stay in Korea for two more years, but then I had the opportunity to apply to return to a high school English classroom. When we left Kuwait, there was no English position open for me at our new school, and I was relieved for the year rest. A year in the utility department allowed me to see the elementary, middle and high school equally. I learned more about our school. I am glad to be at our school for the many ways I see learning happen, for the many colleagues I observe and collaborate with. This time last year, I was energized by the newness of every day. When asked if I was interested in joining the middle or high school staff, I declined to apply. I liked the fun of each day different. I liked the work I was doing with school publications. This time last year I didn’t think what I might want now, during my second year as a full time substitute, when the unpredictability of each day is more tiring than energizing. So when talk started of who was staying and who was going, I listened for rumors of English teachers whose contracts were up and wondered if I might fit with the department.

Fit is one of my idols. In college I roamed from one group to the next. This is a fun way to learn a little about a lot. And after college when I was keen to move abroad, my secret hope was to find a place where I fit perfectly. I imagined cobbled streets and sun dappled sidewalk cafes. I imagined solitude. I imagined a crowd happy to land me in their crew.

But now when I thought of how I might fit in the English department, I was a little nauseated. I couldn’t dredge any storyline of how my presence was essential to the department, or how wonderful the school day would be, to have my own classroom. To open my own door each morning, to greets students I know, to know where the projector remote is kept, to always have a tissue box. I can picture returning to the classroom. My year away (and this second year away) from teaching literature and writing confirms I really like teaching literature and writing. Yet I cannot pretend that I am absolutely the best fit for a teaching position at our school because I know two things: I would do well, and so would someone else. I was nauseated at the thought of fitting not because it was the idea I might fit the English department or fit the needs of our students or fit the high school community, but because I already do fit where I am. As kindly pointed out by a friend when I lamented this chase to find my place. Why do I question where I am? I am here. And so this is where I belong.

I am here in Korea for two more years. Maybe longer. As long as I am here, I am right where I belong.

Unfinished. A week or two before the announcement internal openings I was laying in bed one night when I felt my upper body slowly paralyze. I lay still for a moment. The sensation is familiar, born of fear. Two years ago at the start of our job search to leave Kuwait, I woke in the middle of the night to pins and needles across my chest, down my left arm and most alarmingly, in patches on the left side of my face. I called my dad who the summer before suffered Bell’s palsy. I thought maybe that was it, that or a stroke. The pins and needles did not indicate palsy or stroke, only anxiety at a new height.

I like to think I am calm. I like that idea that following Christ grants peace that passes understanding. So that night a couple of weeks ago when my upper body went numb I sat up, flexed my fingers, rolled my neck and said to the dark, Where is my peace?

Rolled into this present experience is a past hurt and a potentially wrong conclusion. Two years ago I was set to go to Kenya. I remember a near maniacal hope. I remember believing that since I wasn’t seeking anything overtly wrong for my life or my family, since I wasn’t scrambling for money or comfort, that my want had to be answered by a move to Nairobi. This could not possibly counter what God had in mind for us. But we did not get hired by a school in Kenya. Instead, in the days after that option closed, I cried and wondered what am I supposed to want. This question persists. What am I supposed to want? What do my desires matter? When we planned to leave Kuwait, Justin and I made a list of wants. Our kids added to the list too. We wanted to bike to school. I wanted to run outside. Claire wanted snow. One night after losing Kenya, I could not sleep. I walked through our dark apartment and stood at the big windows where I watched the cars and buses below. I stood in the middle of our playroom. I wept. I was so sad. When I think about this night, I am there again. I could not see how the months ahead would open to where we are. For me to even consider where we are now, I needed to absolutely lose the chance of going where I thought we belonged. A day or two later, we got an email from Korea.

The same friend who kindly reminded me I fit where I am, at the outset of this current search, also said to me, Trust the process. He may have said this half jokingly. Let go and let God, he said, Trust the process. Years ago in Colombia I worked with a couple who eventually left international teaching to open a Bikram yoga studio in southern California, and when I saw Katy in her new life wearing a tee shirt that said Trust The Process, I wanted the shirt. I’ve long adored the idea of process, if not the real in-the-middle work of process. My notebooks are full of the reminder to trust the process. Faith works out through experience. Writing is crafted during revision. Relationships strengthen or break by the addition of a day, hardship, disagreement, joy. Raising my children is an illustration of process. Such comfort to know I am yet unfinished.

But what process do I trust? This last week, before and after interviewing for a teaching position, I practiced articulating what I want to say about this current process, my waiting to know what more the next two years in Korea might hold. There is God at work. There are people at work. There is a lot I do not know about what happens if I teach literature and writing, or what happens if I remain in my current role at the school. And I can see both ways working well.

Losing Kenya comes back to me now as caution not to want too much. Losing Kenya comes back to me now as a question of what I really want. Losing Kenya comes back to me now as a rebuke that I may not know what I most need. That was my angst when my friend grinned and said, Let go and let God. Trust the process. We play glib about this. But I’ve come around to the glib repose of whatever. I want to teach so I applied to teach so I interviewed to teach so I wait to teach. But whatever. Next year I will teach or not teach, and I cannot say now. Losing Kenya may have wrecked me for hope in me, and perhaps that is the point. I continue to pour into marriage and parenting, with hope. I continue to write and work, with hope. I continue to daydream where to live next or where to travel, with hope. But my hope is not in my own ability or achievement. I follow Christ who exacts the high price of everything, to know the love of God now, to live in love now and forever. Faith necessitates a hope in what I cannot see in full: that God is good. All of me is one line of a story, one thread in a tapestry, one note, one brush of paint that adds to his name, defines his glory. If I accept God is at work in and through me as I seek to be more as Christ, then I am free to trust that any bit of this time on earth (this process) is useful. And then I am free to accept, or even welcome, all the little bits that make up my time on earth: relationships, work, writing, Korea, losing Kenya.

My hope is that as I chase wants and needs, I am not lost to those wants and needs. I trust that God attends the moment and tomorrow. I do not quit my dreams, and I am not lazy at my pursuits, but I am beginning to understand there is a holy posture called whatever: whatever the day is, whatever the year is, let my heart be right. Give me the wisdom, fun, creativity for the moment and again, tomorrow.

Still. After the interview I walked home with Grant. Along the river path I wondered if my levelness was peace or passivity. Am I just totally at peace with what comes next, or am I surrendered instead to familiar passivity, accepting least resistance as the right way forward. Later at home I was in the kitchen and stood quiet. Do I know what I want at all? I am now partnered for sixteen years, raising two children, living abroad for over a decade. I want to teach, so I applied to teach. But is there a deeper want yet? Is there something more for my time? I worked in the kitchen, worked my way toward whatever. That is where I am now. I will continue to think about what to want, peace and passivity, surrender to whatever may come today and again, tomorrow, but now I wait while there are other minds at work to set in place where I fit next year which is, always, right where I am.


Story One. 1769 words. Drafted 25 & 26 November. 

Thirty-Nine Stories

Today I am thirty-eight years old. When I think about my age, I take inventory against whatever my mother was doing at my age. There is no way to say if she was better than me at her age thirty-eight, or if I am inching ahead at my age thirty-eight, but for the marvel of comparison I can’t help but tick through the list. She celebrated the first birthday of her fourth child while her first child started university. She paid a mortgage, drove a minivan, and meal planned. My daughter just turned ten, my son eight, and university enrollment is still far enough away that I sometimes wonder if the world will end before the kids get a chance to be adults – even though statistically (where are those statistics!) now is supposed to be a safer, less violent, better time to be alive than any of our previous centuries. I am living in an apartment I didn’t choose, and I ride a bike or take the subway. I never meal plan.

Maybe I will turn this little paragraph into an essay. Maybe I’ll ask my sister Joanna if she does the same thing. Or my brother Nate, if he thinks of Dad as he adds a year. Maybe Mom thinks of her mother. Mom and I are both firstborns. We made our mothers. Or maybe on my birthday, Mom remembers who she was when she was thirty-eight, chalks up a similar list. Yes, maybe this will become an essay. One of thirty-nine stories I will write to celebrate this, my thirty-ninth year.

Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to work in an office or be a teacher. Both of these jobs seemed like play. One year I received a desk organizer for my birthday and I kept the little compartments stocked with paper clips, pens, post-its, and smiley face stickers. I took a highlighter and pen to the JC Penney catalog, circling and crossing out items, taking calls from imaginary customers and enjoying how official I sounded when I repeated item numbers, sizes, colors. Dad would hand over a thick stack of those postcards you get in magazines, all advertising something computer related, and I filled our fictitious names and addresses. This was office. School was an old teacher’s edition of a grade two or three language arts text, its gloss pages bound by a thick white metal spiral. I gave spelling tests. I asked the comprehension questions. I flipped through the pages efficiently. I used a teacher voice that could border on insincere patience. But then I wanted to be a writer.

There is no way to play at being a writer. If you want to be a writer you cannot pretend to write. You must write. What you can pretend – what I have often pretended – is that you have a readership, that a book deal is nigh, that what you write won’t disappear in thirty years. Thirty-Nine Stories is not about pretend. Thirty-Nine Stories is about me being a writer, for real.

During my thirty-eighth year I cornered Justin in the bedroom one night. This does not go anywhere fun. I put my hands on his shoulders and said, Look at me. Still not going anywhere fun, even though that evening I’d had two glasses of wine. Justin looked at me and I said, I missed an MFA. I am going to write like I’m getting an MFA. He said, Okay.

Well, here is the fun part. Parameters! Thirty-nine stories completed in one year. Stories: narrative fiction or nonfiction. I can revive old ideas, return to incomplete drafts, but I must also write totally new work. The quality of pieces will vary. I will revise what I want to revise. By the end of the year, I want fifteen strong pieces. Pieces: may vary in length: ten (or fewer) pieces of 500 – 1000 words; at least ten pieces of 5000 – 10,000 words; at least three pieces of 10,000+ words. And for the readership (you) I will post excerpts/ full drafts of each finished story, though process posts may be more interesting because even I want to know how I plan to write thirty-nine stories in one year.

On My Walk Home

Tonight I went down into the subway while it was light. Gray, like rain coming, and near evening, but not dark yet. Maybe twenty minutes later I came up from the subway and the sky was dark. We are at that part of the year, when night comes in twenty minutes. Most trees still have leaves – a riot of copper, orange, yellow, the occasional and startling red – but those leaves will go soon. Near my apartment I looked up. There was the early evening sky, lights from the path, dark shadow trees. And this thought that I am walking my stories around, little steps and breaths with me, while I keep from writing what I want. I write a lot of what I want. Mostly junk. But recurring in my writing life is a paralyzing fear that if I write this story or that story, then something awful will happen, like I pour out a reckless well crafted work and you either read it and hate it, or read it and hate me. Or, worse, that I pour out a reckless well crafted work that is as inconsequential, finite as any other little thing we all do/ make each day. There are two things I am feeling lately. One is that I am again at an edge. Two is that I am very small indeed.

Already This Has Happened

If I wait for people to die
before I tell these stories
the words will leave me to find

an open mouth, a writing
hand, a mind to play syntax
to play with (or at) syntax,
a body to take tensions
and releases/ the joys and
sorrows of these (my) stories

Already this has happened —
I am terrified: the cost
of my voice to tell freely

Ordinary Suffering

This is a draft I’ll revisit. Right now, wandering. While I have talked around these ideas with a few friends, and written much in my notebooks, I was uncertain how to shape ordinary suffering into a single piece. And maybe ordinary suffering will be the thing I explore for a while, uncovering/ discovering the equality of suffering. That’s what I’ve come to, that suffering is suffering. Or maybe the equality is in our human needs, no matter the degree of suffering.


Seven years ago my right knee swelled. My quads were tight, the knee joint twinged when I squatted to help my son put his shoes on. The next day my knee was swollen. For a year and a half I couldn’t run. Some days it was difficult to walk. Swelling extended above the knee joint. The swelling would come and go, a routine of so many days fine, so many days swollen. There was no physical pain in the joint and when I finally got an MRI after nearly a year, because something must be wrong for my body to behave like this, the imaging revealed a perfectly fine knee joint with no ligament or tendon strain, no cartilage damage. But still, the knee swelled.

This year my left knee swelled. One afternoon in June I rode my bike home and noticed my knee popping. That night I massage a tight muscle in my calf. I woke up barely able to walk. My knee was puffy and unstable. I texted my weekend running partner I couldn’t make it that morning. I elevated my leg and massaged my lymph nodes. We had brunch plans and I hobbled to the subway, hobbled to the restaurant where a waiter brought me a plastic bag of ice. I spent two weeks moving very slowly, limping when the knee was swollen, and going about my usual day when the joint returned to normal. Again, there is no pain in the joint. Over the summer I saw a sports physical therapist who manipulated my knee to check for pain, any pain at all, nothing? I suspect an MRI would reveal no damage.

But I am damaged. My routine is damaged. The way I make my day is changed because I cannot rise, leave the apartment and run for an hour or so before going to work. I do not have that time alone on the river path, to think or pray or wonder. All summer I was in the way of myself. I went grocery shopping one day and hated how slowly I had to walk, how careful I was of moving my body through the aisles, of getting into or out of the car. A man noticed I was limping and said, I thought you had an artificial limb! But I see you’ve got your foot. What happened?

When I explain these injuries I say the joint swells in reaction to a muscle imbalance. Probably hip flexors or glutes. Or maybe a weak ankle. I do physical therapy exercises. A strong core is not magic. I go to an osteopath, which is also not magic. I pray, and wish that was magic.

I get to run again, I know. There is nothing I can do for this except to wait for the body to sort itself, for the muscles running from the top of my head to my toes to align and strengthen again, to support my stride and cadence down the river path. But the waiting time –

Always there is a waiting time. Before we moved to Korea, we waited to know where. When we moved to Korea, we waited to feel like we fit here. We wait for test results. We wait for babies. We wait to accept, wait to wake up and feel whole again, wait to eat with an appetite. We wait to call because we don’t know what to say. We wait for the end. We wait, to test trust. We wait in faith or anger or doubt. We wait to heal. We wait to grow. We wait for understanding, comfort, peace.

Last year one of my first friends in Seoul was a woman named Sabrina. Only a few months before, her husband of seven years died of cancer. She has a daughter and son, like me, and we spent a lot of time together that fall – her kids joined mine on the playground or at our apartment while she visited a variety of doctors to figure out what was happening to her body. What was happening was grief. Over the course of her first year of widowhood, her body turned on itself, weakened, reacted in fear, until she finally found a diagnosis of PTSD. We were alongside Sabrina, loving in practical ways. I listened. We talked about her grief and our shared faith in Christ. Sometimes I could feel myself talking to a point, like if I could only find the right way to empathize, if I could only find the right word of encouragement, Sabrina might then lift.

Last year was difficult for me too. While we were pleased with our move, glad for our new school environment, all the new was overwhelming and I was unsteady in my professional value and place. My daughter also had a tough adjustment to our new school and I carried concern and fear for her. At home I frayed. We didn’t have a housekeeper helping to run our home. I couldn’t find ingredients to cook what I liked. I didn’t want to cook anyway. I wanted to hide, or go to bed early. My marriage was okay but neither Justin nor I were satisfied in our partnership, or glad at how our family dynamic worked.

But I was ever conscious of how small my complaints were. I had a widow friend whose regular day made my sorrow ridiculous. This tension was familiar and I hated it – the scold that my everyday sorrow is lesser because someone else is always in the middle of a greater trial. By springtime I was finding words to sum up what I first remember sensing seven years ago. Seven years ago I was just leaving a brutal postpartum year. I lost running. I confronted sin in my life. I felt like a mess. And I had a friend who gave birth to her son at nineteen weeks, whom her husband held for an hour before the infant died. In the months after, I watched Liana navigate deep grief. We were part of a small group of women who studied the Bible, prayed for one another, endeavored to live our faith, and I remember wanting to qualify my prayer for healing. Should I ask God to heal my knee because I miss running? We asked God to keep Liana well through her pregnancy.

One afternoon last spring, Sabrina and I were talking on the phone. We were each ready for the school year to be over. She was ready to move to China to live near family friends. I was ready to place the transition year in the past. I remember the call as thoughtful, revisiting some of our open conversations, affirming our trust in a God who is good even in the middle of most difficult stretches. Sabrina talked like she was on a beach, lounging in a hammock. Totally relaxed. In the background her son asked a question and then we returned to the idea that God meets us where we are. I believe this, absolutely.  We work out our faith in the regular day. When Sabrina said she believes God doesn’t give us more than we can bear, I murmured agreement because she should know, really, going through her first year of widowhood, wondering what the stretch of decades ahead will look like for her and the kids. But I also felt a kind of rebuke.

Can my faith be measured by the suffering I endure? By my right heart in the middle of most difficult stretches? My faith increases when pressed. My trust is tested. Sabrina’s comment is cliche because plenty of us figure it’s true that God gives us only what we can handle.

What does that imply about my faith? Am I so immature a Christian, so lacking in faith, that the most burden I can endure is a move to Korea, a change in my routine, a sadness? The prosperity gospel suggests we can measure our faith by the material increase we’re granted – while I believe that is false doctrine, did I just draft an equally false suffering gospel that measures faith by the sorrow I’m entrusted? I wanted to climb out of my body. I turned inward.

For the past few months I’ve sifted the years for stories of suffering. My own, those losses belonging to family and friends. In that same afternoon conversation with Sabrina, I told her about a few women I’ve watched endure great loss. Selfishly I wonder why I was placed in Liana’s circle, or near Sabrina, because I often wonder how to love, and I question the merit of my own dull sorrow in light of greater loss. This is how I know Sabrina is a friend, that she did not hang up. Instead she encouraged me to see what I learn from these suffering women. So that is what I am doing even now, writing this. Pulling threads from all the stories to braid a conclusion.

Here is what I have:

A couple of weeks ago I had a big fight with Justin. He likes to say I am always in the middle of a crisis. This is probably true. I am always in the middle of thinking or working out some emotional/ mental/ spiritual idea or question and it can feel like a crisis because I want to talk with Justin and then I cry and feel like I’m never ever going to be okay until I’m dead. So, sure, always in the middle of a crisis. And a couple of weeks ago, nearing a summary about suffering and what I’ve learned from Liana, Sabrina and others, I thought:

This is suffering enough.

Ordinary suffering is the most difficult stretch. (Now is where you may choose to quit reading, because what follows is tenuous, and I haven’t got my phrasing just so, to make any of this less offensive). (Also, if you like me, you may not like me after this next bit). There were times last year when I was navigating the new culture and food, when my daughter was so needy, when my husband seemed far away, when I would have liked to have one giant horrible loss to point to and say, That is why I feel so awful. That is why I don’t want to wake up. That is why I can’t be bothered with dinner. That is why I am crying on the subway or screaming into my pillow. Surely I am not so sad because I miss the Gulf, or because the old women here rarely smile. Surely I am not so overwhelmed by feeding my family, or sharing a bed with my spouse. I got sad and dark. I recovered. I got sad and dark. I negated my need to see how deep my suffering was because always, always there is another whose suffering is deeper still. I wondered if God dolloped out peace in accordance to the true measure of suffering his children experience. For the child in Syria, a bucket poured out in the morning and evening. For Sabrina, a liter a day. For me and my whimpering, a half pint meant to last the year. What if I want the bucket of peace? What if knowing that I have more than most, I still feel so sad, so dark that I really do need a sloshing bucket of peace dumped over my head?

There is more to this ordinary suffering.

Sorrow, loss, hardship, challenge, frustration grows us. What is the purpose of this light momentary affliction? Refine me. Make me as Christ. Make me loving and kind. Make me patient and joyful. The suffering is selfishness burning up as I yield to what is holy, as I yield to living the gospel in the practical, uncomfortable, unremarked everyday situations. I am entrusted with ordinary suffering. One day Justin and I stood with the kids on the subway platform and he made that comment about my crisis to crisis life, I practiced how to express what I am learning about the necessity of ordinary suffering. What I said was cutting and crass. What I said was, I don’t have a dead husband. I don’t have a dead child. But I am walking through the regular shit and it is fucking tough. Justin hushed me, like the kids hadn’t heard me say fuck before and I turned on him. It is fucking tough! It is hard to surrender self! It isn’t fun!

Now, I believe we have giant moments in life that radically alter our course. And so I do not say that extraordinary suffering is less. But in the years I have thought about suffering, I began to bump against a thought that both comforts and offends, that suffering is equal. As Sabrina said God does not give more than we can bear, I also suppose that in his mercy he does not pour out all the suffering our bodies and minds might withstand. What refines Sabrina now is the stretch of her trust in a God who is good, though this same God did not heal her husband for life on earth. What refines me now is the daily slog of marriage and parenting, the test of practicing hope. What I understand is that I must live the gospel where I am, applied to present, ordinary suffering. I know that one day I will endure extraordinary suffering but the gospel does not wait for awful need. When James exhorts us to consider it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, he really does mean trials of various kinds, because every kind of trial may test our faith, establish steadfastness.

Without running I have a difficult time balancing my mind. I joke that Justin misses my endorphins. For a couple of decades I have reliably used running and exercise to manage my emotions, steady my thoughts, calm my body. Movement is such an easy way for me to abbreviate anxiety or depression. When I cannot run or exercise much, like now while my knee heals, my brain is off. I have to make myself aware of what is true. I despair. I don’t want to do anything. I imagine how to punish myself for feeling like shit. I get angry that I feel this way at all, when I do not have a dead husband or a dead child, when I can count my suffering as truly light. This time I am belligerent though. I do not want to sink into this depression but I also do not want to pretend my upended routine is okay because at least I do not have cancer, at least I have two legs, at least my husband is tender. Praise and gratitude is necessary practice in my faith. But praise and gratitude do not pretend away the present suffering. There is reprieve or perspective, when I ride my bike along the river and name the ways God is worthy of praise: the blades of grass, the wisp of clouds, the apartment towers full of people he knows and loves. There is joy when I name what I am glad for: the way my daughter and son curl into me for a bedtime snuggle, the honey taste of espresso, the clean air.

One day I will write from the perspective of a woman who endures extraordinary suffering. I thought about that yesterday afternoon when my husband called in a panic because he couldn’t feel his arms and his whole body hurt. He’d stayed home sick, vomiting, and hadn’t taken any water for twelve hours. Later, I was mad at him for his carelessness. Drink water, I said that morning when I left with our kids. I told him to add electrolyte tabs to his water. And then he was calling, afraid, sweating and shaking, feeling like this body was quitting. On the taxi to our apartment I thought briefly of his death. It has to happen, at some point. He will die or I will die and we will be apart. Of course I thought of Sabrina. I thought of life insurance we are applying for. I thought how stupid if he died of dehydration. I found him in the apartment, got him to the taxi, and took him to the ER. There was a row of patients with IV stands sitting along one wall. Gurnees with elderly patients. Husbands, wives or daughters attending the needs of their patient companions. People vomited. People lay or lolled unresponsive. People went into one of the side rooms to get an IV or oxygen tube. I stood next to Justin not wanting to touch anything, watching the doctors, nurses and orderlies move through our sick mass, and thought I could never work in healthcare. Justin would be fine. He had food poisoning and was careless about taking water during his illness, nothing more, but we stayed at the hospital for four hours.

I helped Justin wrap in a blanket and pushed him out of the ER, to the Starbucks in the lobby where he dozed and I read while his IV dripped. In Korea, patients wander the hospital and grounds. Sons or daughters wheel their elderly parents on gurnees. Aides offer a stable arm to the infirm who want to walk. Near the end of the night, I saw an older woman sitting in a wheelchair. She had her head wrapped in a scarf. She had no eyebrows. Her skin was sallow, slack, with purple bruising on her arms and legs. A man, maybe her husband, stood near her. When I walked by this couple again, she was part of a small circle of men and women who stood with their heads bowed, and I stopped a few meters away to be silent. I listened to a prayer in a language I hear but don’t know. When the minister finished his prayer, I walked over and touched this woman’s shoulder, then touched the shoulder of her friend or sister who stood near.

Do you work here? the friend asked. I answered no, but that I just saw and – I said, I hope you have peace in your spirit. The friend nodded and I dipped my head in a bow and walked away. Outside the lobby entrance I leaned against the smooth, cool wall. It was raining, lightly, and the fresh air felt nice on my face. Justin was well enough to walk, only waiting for his discharge. I messaged I didn’t want to return to the ER. He could come to me.

There is one more thing I want to observe about ordinary suffering. Years ago I was at a church service, feeling the mess of my heart and a pinch in my shoulder, when a man redirected the service to prayer, calling out three or four specific needs, including a hurting left shoulder. The gathering was small. I may not have been the only woman with a knot beneath the left shoulder blade, but I turned to the group near me and said, I think that’s me, and they prayed for healing and I stood there wondering if God really works like this anymore, to give anything instant. I stood holding my son, my head bowed to kiss the top of his head, and inside I fought to believe this was possible, that my God loves me enough to just give relief. That afternoon and for the next several days, I tested my shoulder. I searched for the knot I was accustomed to kneading. I was healed. In the weeks that followed this tangible healing, I sensed my heart accept God’s equal ability to heal my intangible, hidden pains.

I do not know how to trace the way I came to think that ordinary suffering is undeserving of God’s attention, why I suppose the regular everyday does not merit his care, but I doubt I am the only one who wonders if God has the time or love to meet me where I am, when there are so many others with greater needs. My suffering is ordinary. Yet I believe the same God who comforts the widow, who gives peace to the dying, can also meet me in the middle of meal prep or on a bike ride to work or when I kiss my daughter and son goodnight. What I have decided is to trust God completely with my ordinary suffering. Teach me, refine me. Make me as Christ. I cannot wait for extraordinary suffering to work its excruciating, glorious change to my spirit: instead, let me be faithful now.

Places I Know

For a long time all of my fiction was set in the Midwest. When I moved to Kuwait I was determined to write a book in one year and the first stories were all set in Wisconsin, pulling from my hometown or college town settings. I had just moved from Colombia and was living in a desert on the Gulf and still, I could only write of four seasons and small towns. I wrote lives I didn’t live. I think that’s fine, but as I practiced writing more fiction I put my places into the pieces. I took a cue from my essay work which relies on place, because place is often important to our situation, perception and insight, and practiced setting my characters in the Middle East or on holiday in Eastern Europe. Now I pull from all the places I know. I still love a good Midwest setting. The piece I’m writing now is set in Wisconsin but one of the characters is Korean, and the return trip to Seoul is informed by my living here now.

Before summer break, a writing friend recommended The Portable MFA by the New York Writers Workshop, and this summer I started flipping through the first pages. There is a prompt called Poem, Dream, Conflict that the story below comes from. Think of a line of poetry, a recent dream, and a problem you’re having with another person. Write flash fiction pulling from those three things:

  1. Poem. Write one or two paragraphs based on the resonant line of poetry (or prose) you chose. Then skip a line.

  2. Dream. Write one or two paragraphs using fragments of themes from your dream. (It’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to the text you used for step one.) Again, skip a line.

  3. Conflict. Write one or two paragraphs concerning the conflict you thought of. (Again, it’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to steps one or two.) Skip a line.

  4. Putting it all together. Begin weaving together elements from steps one through three. Follow your impulses. Something is probably already occurring to you.

And here, the piece that came from this exercise. Set in Kuwait. What I wonder when I write a place that many people may not know, is which details set the place. The Kuwait in this story is different from the Kuwait of my neighborhood, is different than the Kuwait of our weekend walks along the Gulf.


The Water From The Air

The sand was hot. Joelle high stepped to the water’s edge and waded to her thighs. The sun was bright, the air already an oven midmorning. Sweat beaded her hairline and breastbone. Cool water lapped her thighs. In college she’d read a poem by Maxine Kumin and lines stayed with her a decade later. I took the lake between my legs. / Invaded and invader, I / went overhand on that flat sky. Joelle dipped under. She swam a little ways to where she couldn’t touch the sand with her toes and treaded water there, facing the beach. The first time Zaid brought her to his family’s chalet he told her everything that was different from when he was a boy.

Joelle tilted back in the water so she floated. The sky was white. She closed her eyes. She rolled onto her belly and swam to the beach, rose from the water and ran across the sand to the shade of the veranda where she rinsed her feet before going inside, dripping footprints on the cold tile.

Zaid lay on a couch in the main room. He might have been asleep. It was Ramadan but he fasted loosely – a cigarette in the morning, an apple or glass of water in the afternoon – or not at all. Joelle bent to kiss his brow. He made a small sigh. Joelle went to the shower and stood under the warm water. Once, she told Zaid she knew she’d regret these long showers when the world was without an excess of clean water and he replied the world would be gone before then. She finished rinsing and dressed in loose linen, picked out a book to read in the main room. Days at the chalet reminded her of that scene in Gatsby – Daisy and Jordan unmoving on chaise lounges, deciding to go to town because. Joelle arranged herself in an oversize shair opposite Zaid. She opened a bottle of sparkling water, and her book.

Zaid woke an hour or so later, after noon. You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long, he said. Joelle shrugged. You looked peaceful, she said. He propped on an elbow. I was not peaceful, he said, I was dreaming you are away from me. It was not peaceful. It was like a long journey without a map. I couldn’t see the storm. Zaid sat up. He said, I reached out to you like this and you were not there. Sometimes when Zaid spoke he sounded like a child who was part of not this world. Joelle unfolded her legs and went to Zaid. He wrapped his arms around her waist, rested against her breasts. Please, he said, Please don’t go from me.

Joelle kissed the top of Zaid’s head. I have to go, she said.

No, no, no. Zaid said this when they talked about what Joelle was late to realize, that Zaid may keep her for himself, but not to marry. She could have left then but she liked his company, liked his gifts, liked the distraction he was. In a month she would leave Kuwait with little more than she arrived with two years before.

I can fix your visa. You can have my apartment in Salmiya. Zaid had said this before. He would do that, if she agreed. Joelle kissed the top of his head again, tugged gently at his hair so he tipped up to see her face. She kissed his brow, his cheek, the corner of his mouth.

It wouldn’t be fair, she said, To me. Or to your family or to the woman you are supposed to engage. It wouldn’t be fair to you.

Before it was for play, Zaid said, But this is not for play.

Pretend it is, Joelle said. Zaid was only ever gentle so when she shifted to step out of his embrace, he let her.

The next day Zaid fasted. Joelle ate alone in the kitchen. She read a second book. She let Zaid sleep and pray. The chalet was quiet, which they both preferred, and that evening as Joelle prepared iftar her belly was full of possibility – if Zaid married her, if she carried his child, if they were fair to one another, if each gave more than the other. She arranged dates on a plate, poured sweetened labneh in a glass, and waited until it was time for Zaid to break his fast. She could see he’d honored the day. He was calm. He followed her to the table on the veranda and took a slow drink of the labneh.

I think you are right, he said. He put a hand over hers. He said, I am not fair to you. I am not kind to you, to do like this. You are beautiful, Joelle. You are pleasure and joy. Zaid removed his hand from hers. She would eat with him now, but not sleep with him later. They would return to the city – he, rested – and in a month she would call the day before her flight out, to say goodbye, and they would cry.

But that night when they lay in bed together for a last, chaste time, Zaid touched her hair and cheek. He leaned over to kiss her tenderly. He fell asleep and dreamed she was away from him but in the morning all he remembered was a taste of peace like dates. Joelle lay awake in Zaid’s bed until she could not guess the hour and then she got up from the bed and walked quietly through the large cool rooms.

The sand was warm but the moon did not burn. At the water’s edge she dropped her towel and walked into the Gulf. She swam again to where she could not touch. Here she rested back on the water and then, letting her belly go, she began to sink. Another line from the poem came to her. Joelle opened her eyes and for a dizzy moment, could not tell the water from the air.

 


Read about Maxine Kumin or enjoy her poem “Morning Swim”

How It Is Working Out

Today I finished Chapter One. I woke up this morning and my knee was slightly swollen and it still is this evening. But I did finish Chapter One of a book I am writing to get the feel of writing a book.

I am writing this book like I write anything else. A little bit, a little bit. I do not know how else to do it. I miss the flow of running when my thoughts wandered and I could develop a new idea, or sketch a scene in my mind. This summer I made myself write a couple of short stories. Just parked in a coffee shop and wrote. In one story, lovers break away from each other. In the other, a woman decides to kill herself. So it follows that I chose this stretch of time to start a practice book.

Going For It Because There Is No Right Time For Any Of This

If I write a chapter, my knee will heal because I will have yielded to this thing I am supposed to do: write a fucking book. This book is not a fucking book, but the process looks like a fucking process from here. This is a book I have imagined for nearly two decades. I have ideas: a collection of short stories with overlapping characters or place, essays or stories for each country stamp in my passport, a multigenre meditation on faith and motherhood. Rarely have I wanted to write a novel, but I have two situations I might develop. One, a year at an international school in South America. Two, a month home. Each of those situations would read a little memoir-ish to anyone who knows me. Four or five years ago I decided to pursue publication. But my effort was lukewarm and now I am more apathetic than hopeful that I’ll publish anything substantial, though I continue to write and revise while wondering to what end.

So when my knee quit a couple of months ago, at the end of our first year in Korea, I thought of how tightly controlling I am with my body. Prone to anxiety and melancholy, I rely on running to unwind the tensions I carry. I crave the work of my body, the sweat and effort, the ease of falling into a cadence. A couple of months ago, this daily tack was gone and though I believe God works through ordinary suffering, I am selfish to admit I’d rather endure extraordinary suffering than lose my routine. I left Korea with a limp, apopros the transition year in southeast Asia, and spent a gorgeous summer in Wisconsin not waking early to run, and instead padding my ass and waist with beer and cheese. On a walk one morning I thought about this book. That morning I was in a better mood, thinking how this time away from running might be a blessing to my body and mind. Now, two months into an endorphin shortage, I think of either going on antidepressants or bashing my knee in to end all hope of recovery, because I think it’s the hope that kills me. The glimmer of something that might turn out okay, or even good. When I think of faith, hope and love, I understand the faith required, the love necessary to get through my time on earth, but I fall short on hope.

There are times when I think I need to let this book go or write it all at once, on fire. Now I have tied this book to my knee, which is probably superstitious and stupid, unless it isn’t and what I need to do to heal my body is commit to an idea that’s been residing in my bones for years. On better days I do not think of this project as a fucking book, but just the book or Chapter One. If I can get a first chapter drafted, the rest of the book will line up. Something about writing Chapter One feels insurmountable but I liken these first pages as a signatory commitment to the full book, finished within a year.

I wonder if my pores will clear when I finally write this fucking book too. It is this: long ago I decided to be a writer and the weight of a book just sits in my belly. Now, unable to run my feelings quiet, and sitting in the middle of the living room while my daughter hot glues a cracked plastic tub together so she and her brother can make a habitat for sea creatures, I wonder if the only way out of a book is to write it, even though I am afraid. I am in the middle of noise and helpless waiting so this is as good a year as any to write a book, with dread. But maybe also with hope. I have been starting Chapter One for years.

 

CRAFT Essay: Kleines Cafe, Vienna

Read the first draft of the piece here and the finished essay here


I wrote the first draft of this essay in Kleines Cafe, on a three day trip to Vienna from Budapest. When I returned to Budapest I set my laptop on a dresser in the front bedroom of our apartment there and typed from the notebook, posted with a quick look for minor errors. I always miss something.

(One time when I was six or seven years old I drew a woman wearing a dress made of ruffles, a dress so long that I used two sheets of paper. I put the drawing on the fridge and a day or two later noticed that under her puffy sleeves, I’d forgotten her arms).

That summer we were in Budapest, preparing for our last year in Kuwait. We understood the school year ahead would be made of decisions that shaped our individual and family life. I was thinking about my history of passive decision making and how I now wanted certainty as we chose a new country. What I didn’t want was to just land somewhere. What I really wanted was to have a place in mind and go there. At that point I could not guess where I might be when I was writing notes in December 2017 of my new dayplanner. The thought was promise. The thought was fear.

I returned to the essay – thinking of the first thoughts as potential essay – last autumn when I reread the piece and found more to explore, particularly the faith element. I also asked an editor to read through the first draft, to help with verb tense and structure. A couple of years ago, I decided to practice expansion as revision. Paring down is great. Knowing when to open is also great and my editor helped me see what a reader might want answered.

I grew the essay from its first typed draft by writing around ideas (identity and faith) I wanted to expand. While I am less afraid to write about what I believe, I am more wary of getting something really wrong and misleading readers by not fully examining my faith – even the tricky bits  which necessitate faith. Always I find starting in my notebook best. I see my thoughts in my hand. I use the pages to pace. I jump around and repeat, cross out. During this process I questioned why I write about anything personal. There are two impulses when I write from my mind heart body spirit: tell all like I’m naked, or shut up. What I wanted from this revision is a piece that looks at my past to understand the present of that summer, to better explain why I wanted to make a good decision – perhaps less for the country we’d move to, and more for the process of trusting God to lead as I listen.