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.

 

I Sustained Creative Momentum

And survived! This was a great month for me. I filled a notebook and drafted a little over seventeen thousand words. I bush burned. I practiced fiction on a tilt. I wrote about my faith. Really, I just kept going,

I started the month with four rules. (You can go through the month of May to find I ticked each).

  1. Have fun most of the time
  2. Experiment: structure, tense, POV, syntax & usage
  3. Reuse ideas but don’t pick at old drafts
  4. Daydream draft

And I supposed I’d add a fifth rule before the month was up because I prefer odd numbers. (If we have third child, you will know why).

I have been certain of and wobbly about my writing for years. Once or twice a year I make a plan to write a lot and submit work for publication and write amazing pieces about interesting things and then I open my notebook. And then I open my laptop. I do the writing. That was the fun of this month. Sustain creative momentum! Don’t overthink! Generate! Make!

I did find a fifth rule: Figure out what comes next. I ended the month with another conversation with David Lee. We were talking about what comes next. How do you share your work? I write for the pleasure of writing, for the fun of storytelling, to understand or explore. But I am impatient for readers. Unless an editor or agent reads what I have here, and asks for finished work, or unless I spend an hour or two each evening submitting files to literary magazines with the hope my pieces land in print – I won’t make it as a traditionally published writer. For all the certain and wobbly years I’ve picked at publishing, making lists of online and print magazines journals collections that might choose my work, I have published very very little outside this space.

A few years ago I counted my finished work and found a book length multigenre collection. This was an amazing and awful realization. I have finished work no one is reading. Anything I submit for publication likely receives a cursory glance before the form email comes back. But I rarely submit anything. Perhaps because I wrongly (or realistically) lack trust in the traditional publishing process: I have no connections to that world, no boast-worthy MFA, and no wild voice or experience that might find my name on a book cover.

I began Piecemeal to share my practice and chart process. Part of writing is finishing a piece. What I am going to do now is share more finished work here. For years I’ve kept the majority of my finished work in files you don’t read because most literary journals will not publish previously published work. This month I thought how sad that I am always writing about process while keeping a chunk of that process tucked away on the slim hope I hear back from a literary journal. Who reads literary journals?* My writing is not that precious. Read it.

The creative space is saturated by incredible talent and early practice. I think that’s great.** We have an inherent desire to build design write paint sew sing make play. I write because there is joy in creating. There joy in the difficult work of revision. There joy in finding the right way to say what I want to say. And now I share because this ability to make a paragraph or find a line of poetry or shape a story from an image is a gift. You do not have to read what I write, but it will be here if you want to.

So here I start before I’m ready. You can find finished work posted on the Culled page. I will rotate the pieces I share and post a craft essay on each.

 

 


*I write this question totally aware that blogs are not really a thing anymore. And yet, I persist.
**I think being creative is great. I occasionally rant about the attention given to terrible writing (you can sell garbage pile sentences about vampires and sex) but I doubt I’ll top this take on the glut.

About A Little Kid That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do

I had to bring this story to a close. What fun to fill out an idea my son gave me! I asked Grant to illustrate a scene or two from this story. I’ll post those and a light edit/ revision sometime this summer.

I’ll write a reflection on my month of sustaining creative momentum but briefly: writing this wild story was like writing poetry. I loosened my hold on style and syntax. I just had fun. I need to draft like this more often. While I was thoughtful, especially as I neared the end of the story and I wasn’t sure what should come, I was freer in this drafting – there was no pressure to make this story do anything other than show itself.

As before, skip ahead to the bold sentence if you’ve read the previous post – I start you at the beginning of the last paragraph of the previous post. I changed one or two details in that paragraph when I picked up the story.


The Home We Are From

When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed. Both the knife sharpener and the boy leaned forward as if against a wind. Their eyes scrunched. Over another dozen hills there was a small puff of dust kicked up by horses. And in the small puff of dust, little squares of red. The knife sharpener turned to the boy and said, If you run now you might tell your village. Trife looked from the man to the puff of dust. His legs were tired. The knife sharpener was already hoisting his bag on his back and cutting across a narrow field before Trife could ask what to tell the village and then he understood some resting instinct awakened by a scent like garlic and sweat. Trife started running over the many small hills and the three giant hills to return to his village to tell his father and mother about the puff of dust carrying flags.

He did not make it to his village in time. At the crest of the last giant hill, the horses pounded past. Trife watched from the side of the road. The men riding the horses were strong. They carried so many pointy weapons. The horses looked angry. The men and the horses thundered by without looking at Trife, though they must have seen him as a little dot turning into a boy. Trife coughed on the dust. He raised a hand to his eyes and squinted. For a moment, the whole world was quiet.

Trife waited two days before returning to his village. Something in his stomach said to stay away so he did. He found a tree to climb and waited until the morning of the second day when he saw the puff of dust appear on the other side of his village. Again, the whole world was quiet as he walked the road toward the little hovel where his mother would be poking the cooking fire, his father already lifting rocks from soil, his brothers and sisters carrying sticks for the cooking fire or fetching water or being more useful than he was.

All the village sounds were gone. Trife stopped at the edge of the village and listened. His stomach told him the village was empty of any living people and he didn’t want to see any dead people. But his stomach also said he would die too, if he didn’t eat. He thought for a moment. He could walk to the baker’s hovel and take bread. He walked around the village, along the low stone wall that bordered some of the hovels, and then climbed over the wall at the baker’s hovel, dropped to the ground and saw the baker’s wife and son so dead Trife decided they were only sleeping and he was only being a naughty boy stealing bread and later his father would hear about it and smack Trife’s head. Even though the baker’s wife and son were only sleeping outside, after breakfast, Trife tilted his head up when he walked by so he didn’t have to make up a story about the baker’s son liking to sleep like a fish, with his eyes open. Trife was happy to find a forgotten loaf in the ash of the oven, so burned it blackened his hands when he cracked the crust open to eat the center of the loaf. Trife ate facing the low stone wall and thought if there was anything he needed from his hovel but decided he really couldn’t see his family sleeping in the daytime. This part of him was all gone. He climbed back over the wall and walked back the way he’d come, past the tree he’d climbed two days ago, past the spot the knife sharpener offered a piece of nice, fresh bread. He walked and walked. The sun disappeared. The moon lit the road. The night air got cold. Trife shivered but continued walking, supposing that over this hill there would be a village, or over this hill, or over this hill. Finally, Trife curled up like a fawn and slept.

He woke to a shadow standing over him. Two days had passed but neither the boy nor the shadow knew Trife had lied curled up in a bed of grass for that long. The shadow extended a hand to pull the boy to standing and Trife found his legs didn’t work for a few minutes. Like a fawn or foal he collapsed on his knees, stood wobbly, fell again. The shadow made a tsk tsk sound and sighed, lowered to sit with the boy whose face and arms were imprinted with blades of grass. Trife closed his eyes. He wanted to return to sleep, to drift on a rolling wave of nothing until the soul lifted. A gentle hand touched his brow. The shadow shifted to pull Trife to its lap and then Trife felt his tired body go soft against the soft shadow, and he decided this was a nicer way to drift until the soul lifted. Boy, the shadow whispered, Boy, you can’t go away from here. Trife opened his eyes to see the face of a mother, but not a mother like his own. His own mother had sharp angles and deep lines, eyes that disappeared in a squint, and a frown she wore even on Sundays, but this mother looked at him close and tenderly as though Trife were the loveliest boy she had ever seen. This mother caressed Trife’s dirty face and kissed his brow and whispered that everything was going to be good now, everything, and her voice was calm enough, her eyes clear enough that Trife believed her and didn’t try to do anything except not drift away. The shadow mother and two young men with her lifted Trife onto a cot to carry him down a steep ravine to the edge of a woods. Trife closed his eyes.

The hard part was not drifting. The two young men sang little songs about the trees and sun. The shadow mother chanted quietly. Trife was warm and cold at once. His soul kept slipping from his grasp. He lifted from his body and had to catch hold of his hand to pull himself back on top of his resting form, to suck another breath of air, to stay where he could best hear the young men singing and the shadow mother chanting.

He did not know this next part until he was older, when his shadow mother let slip how afraid she was for the week after they brought Trife to the woods. First, she thought he would die from hunger and thirst, his body eating itself. Then one afternoon Trife was lying on a cot near a fire when he moved to stand and fell into the flames. The children playing nearby shouted and the mothers came to find the boy lying in the flames but when they dragged his body out, they found Trife’s skin was as pale and unblemished as when his shadow mother had washed him that morning, and only his clothes had burned. Now his shadow mother was afraid the boy would be sent away because no one of this world can lie in flames, unburned. That morning the mothers and children agreed not to tell the fathers because as kind as the fathers were, a boy who did not burn in fire was a frightening thing to have in the small tent next to your own. For a week, Trife’s shadow mother stayed near her boy. Later, when Trife was much older, his shadow mother confessed she loved him more because she was afraid how wonderful he was to touch fire and be unburned.

(Many years after, when Trife had his own children who climbed too high and jumped, swam where the current was swift, ate a berry without looking at the color of its hat, or ran a flat palm over a candle flame, Trife understood that wild love his shadow mother had for him, an awe at all a child withstands to grow).

After his shadow mother told Trife the story of his falling into the fire but not burning, he ran across the clearing to his friend Jod’s house to ask what Jod remembered about the day he didn’t burn. Jod pretended he didn’t understand the question until Trife poked him in the ribs and said his shadow mother already said it happened, get on with it, and then Jod confessed he had seen Trife fall into the fire but was too scared to call out. Instead, Jod stayed where he was while the mothers ran from their garden work or cooking fires to pull Trife from the center pit. Jod told him something his own shadow mother hadn’t told him, that the children and mothers and birds all went silent when Trife’s shadow mother rolled him over to see his pale, clean skin unburned.

How long ago was that? Trife asked. Jod shrugged. He said, You didn’t have hair on your face yet. Trife touched the wisps of whiskers on his chin and cheek. Jod said, Now that you know, want to try it again?

Trife thought perhaps he’d used all of his unburning up in one go. His shadow mother regretted telling him the story because her son refused to help kindle a fire for a year after, until it was time for him to leave the woods for his turn. Every boy and girl took a turn. Sometimes a boy or girl left the woods alone but more often they partnered with another boy or girl to leave the woods. After a year or so, when the turn was over, the boy or girl came back to the woods with a sack of spices or herbs or cocoa powder or coins or paints or fruits just about to go bad. In the year he or she had been away, the mother and father prepared a new tent for their son or daughter. The night before Trife took his turn, his shadow mother stayed awake and watched her boy breathe and thought how she had known him his whole life. She could see in his sleeping face the way he looked when he was an infant at her breast, even though this was not how she met her boy. She met her boy at the end of her turn and loved the child so fully to not desire another.

Jod joined Trife on his turn and together they walked the path out of the woods and onto a narrow road cutting through such tall grass the road was invisible at a distance. Trife hadn’t left the woods since the day his shadow mother and the two young men carried him in, so the sun and openness of the land was unsettling. Each night, Trife curled up like a knobby kneed foal, pulled grasses close and covered his head with a cloth. Jod laid an arm’s length away, sleeping as he landed on the ground with arms and legs making funny angles, as comfortable on his back as on his belly. One evening Trife decided to sleep like Jod and Jod decided to sleep like Trife. While Jod rested soundly because he could sleep deeply even in a storm, even with a rock in his ribs, Trife looked up at the stars, terrified. He counted as high as he could, dizzy at the vastness of the sky and thousand points of light, dizzy at the magic that brought those lights to view only at night, and then in fear, he passed out. The next morning, Jod thumped Trife’s shoulder and said, See, boy, it’s good to sleep as you land.

Trife and Jod agreed to walk north. During the first months they ate cheese that reeked because it’d been forgotten in a cave on purpose, and they drank water that tasted of metal, and they walked a ridgeline that would have been their death if a foot stumbled, and they saw a bird with a beak as long as its neck, and they ate a plant they shouldn’t have eaten which made them vomit but not until they’d both seen visions. Trife and Jod were dirty and stinky and no one was there to tell them so. When the pair arrived in a village or town, they took a bed at an inn or found an alley behind a tavern. People moved away from them until Jod grinned and offered a joke. Jod was their way into a dining room or church. Jod was their way into a dance or picnic. They stayed in a village or town for a few days or weeks before continuing their turn and Jod was only tempted once to remain behind when Trife packed his bundle. A girl with red hair in a town of dark hair followed Jod around, turning her back to Trife until Trife understood to leave the couple over the hill behind the mill. When Jod joined Trife for dinner at the inn, Trife said, I think I know the girl’s father, and told the memory of the knife sharpener offering a loaf of bread.

Another month or two passed before Jod asked if Trife might find his way to his village. They were walking on a long stretch of road between one lost village and the next, and no one had passed them for hours. All they had between them was time. Trife was quiet, thinking of the way to his village, remembering a hill he’d see from his hovel’s westward window, a giant hill with lumps like a rooster comb. I don’t know it’s still there, Trife finally said, It might be all gone.

But you remember where? Jod asked.
I do. Or I think I do. There’s a hill like a rooster comb.
We can find that.
We can.
Let’s go on then. Let’s go find your village.

From then, their turn became a search. Most boys and girls took wandering turns of happenstance. Most boys and girls arrived back at the woods with goods and stories and a sense that it might be better to settle the tent made for them, to do the work ready for them, to bear the children waiting for them, better to take the woods than wander. But Trife and Jod infused their turn with mission. Find the rooster comb. Find the village. At each village or town, at each roadside inn, Jod leaned across the table or counter and asked, Did you ever see a hill like this? And he would set a hand on his head, waggle his fingers. Like a rooster? Trife took a needle and thread from his bundle, took off his shirt and stitched the outline of the hill across its belly so the next time they asked, Have you seen a hill like this? they might only point to the tiny measured stitches rolling up and down Trife’s torso. For another month or two they asked. And then one night at the hearth of a poor inn whose fire died early, another traveler recognized the hill.

Jod elbowed Trife and said the traveler, This boy is from there.
From where?
A village near.
Near the hill? That village – was it a village?
Village enough. There was a baker and butcher, Trife said.
That village is gone.
Gone! said Jod.
I know, Trife said, But I want to see.
I can tell you it’s gone. I was there not a week ago. I passed around. I don’t go through places like that.
Places like what? Jod took a long drink of ale. He looked at Trife. Gone? You know it’s gone?
I was there, or near, when the village went away. I was half this.
Sleeping death? Pox? Fire? Jod finished his ale.
It was men with swords and spears, Trife said and the traveler crossed himself and murmured. And I don’t know why. I’ve wondered why. But after, that’s when I came home.
You have two homes.
One, I think.
Two. Or one now, seeing how the first is gone. Jod patted Trife’s back. You still want to go then?

The next morning, Trife and Jod set out with directions from the traveler. They thought they’d gone so far north as to tip over the earth, and maybe they nearly had, but now their long days of walking had brought them near to the village, near to the woods where they’d started their turn eight or nine or ten months before. While they walked, Jod wanted to know all Trife remembered of his childhood. What was your family like? What did your mother cook? What did your father do with his hands? Did you have a brother? A sister? Did you sleep on a cot or on the floor? Who were your neighbors? Was there a pretty girl? Did you learn numbers? Did you have a festival? Where the seasons as they are in the woods? Though Jod had drank the ale, Trife felt the after in his own body. His head was swollen, his tongue slow, his stomach unsettled. Finally, all of Jod’s questions unanswered, the pair settled into silence. That night when they lay at the side of the road, Trife curled and Jod sprawled, Jod reached across the space to take Trife’s hand. Jod whispered, I won’t go if you don’t want to go. Trife held Jod’s hand, missing his shadow mother who still held his hand and kissed his brow. Both boys drifted to sleep like that.

In the morning Trife propped on his elbow watching his friend sleep. Trife lived in one half of his life. This was easier. He didn’t go to the village in his mind, rarely in his dreams. His body made shell around his other body so Trife could leave the small child curled like a fawn, dying, while he grew taller and learned to weave, plant and harvest, hunt. The small child had stayed in his shell since Trife arrived in the woods. No one asked to see the small child. His shadow mother held him most of his first year in her tent, looking into his eyes as she spooned broth into his mouth, looking into his eyes as she rubbed the atrophied muscles of his limbs, looking into his eyes as she sang stories. He was born new. So he did not live that other half. Now, he saw how abandoned Jod was in his sleep and he wondered if all the woods children slept like that, if his own shadow mother slept like that before he came and she curled her form around his to still his shivers and heal his heart. What had he missed by living the first half of his life?

On the third day walking, they recognized landmarks the traveler gave. The village was one or two days from where they slept that night. After Jod fell asleep, Trife got up and walked back to the road. He stood looking toward where his village was gone. Once when I was very young. Trife held that phrase in his mind for a moment. He made his lips shape the words. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young. And then he waited to see if the boy might crack his shell to say what happened once when he was very young. I can wait, he whispered, I can wait all night if you like. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young.

Trife would have liked to sit on his father’s knee and hear the gruff voice say something silly. Trife would have liked to hide his face in his mother’s apron and feel her hand pat his hair. He would have liked to be in a pile with his brothers and sisters on the dirt floor of their hovel, laughing and rolling. He would take a moment at dawn when his mother scraped porridge from the pot or a moment at dusk when his brother shared a blanket. For a long time Trife stood in the middle of the road waiting for the boy to tell him a story, and then he returned to where Jod lay undisturbed, and curled his body around the boy he was. Before his mind went quiet, he remembered remembering. He remembered something important, before his mind went quiet. And when his mind went quiet, the boy in his shell woke so that Trife’s dream was of his hovel. Perhaps he was three or four, in the dirt and grass out front. A sister with him. And nearby, his mother nursing a swaddled baby. The sunlight was bright but cool. Trife wanted to turn and look at his mother or reach out to his sister but in this dream he was only a little boy drawing lines and figures in the dirt.

The next morning they woke to mist, started walking the direction they supposed would show them the hill like a rooster comb. Trife thought about the dream, his little boy self making lines and figures in the dirt. He would lay down now, to sleep to dream again of that same little boy self, but they continued walking. Jod was unusually quiet, a mercy which allowed Trife the hours to examine each part of that scene in the front of his hovel, playing in the dirt and grass. His sister was to his left and he saw her finger draw a long line before she swept the line away with her palm to draw it again. What he wanted was to see her face, the color of her hair and eyes. He wanted to know if this sister was also a friend, if they were fond of each other, if she was tender enough to save the heel of bread when he was sent away without a meal, if this sister was someone he had trusted. He wanted that to be true but the dream did not tell. In the woods he did not guess if someone loved him. His shadow mother loved him. Jod loved him. Trife returned to the dream. One dream was not enough to know.

By afternoon the mist burned away and Jod saw the hill like a rooster comb. Trife was just imagining his first mother had loved him very much, and his father too, and his brothers and sisters whose names and faces were smudges in his mind. If the day his shadow mother found him, the day she held him close, the days that followed when she sang to him and spooned food to his mouth, if he had then remembered his first mother and father and brothers and sisters would their names and faces now be smudges? Many years from this afternoon standing at the top a one hill to identify the rooster comb of another hill, Trife would look up at a sky like this and ask for more than the first and only dream he’d had of playing in dirt in front of the hovel. And many years after that, with his own children having their own children, those dreams fell from a sky like this and he lay in dirt shaking and crying and laughing because all the dreams at once was too much for an old man.

The village was not entirely gone. When Jod and Trife returned to the woods to end their turn, they brought a hammered copper bowl, tiny glass bottles, and a sharp knife they’d taken from what Trife thought was his hovel.

Don’t you remember then? Jod asked, when the two boys stood in front of a low stone outline of a hovel. The wood and straw that built the hovel to standing height was gone. The table near the cooking fireplace was missing a leg. Trife turned a slow circle. The other nearby hovels looked much the same. The only hovels that he knew hadn’t been his were the ones with an odd silver candlestick or a piece of mirror. The baker’s hovel had his oven, the butcher’s hovel had his smoke shed leaning to one side. Trife looked back at this hovel in front of him and shrugged. He said, This is it. Jod put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Jod said, Should we bury the dead? Both boys looked around and saw only fragments of the dead. It seemed the village returned to itself. Neither boy wanted to touch the spare bones.

Can you imagine, if you hadn’t run off?
I didn’t run off.
You did.
I had to find work to eat.
You’d be dead like this now. You’d be earth.
Yes.
I’m glad you ran off.
I had to.
Yes, and I’m glad.

The boys were not spooked as some travelers were by the abandoned village, the story of its demise. They decided to sleep nearby and Trife lay like Jod, looking at the sky with stars in its mouth and thought that if ever a dream of his days in that hovel or the nearby fields would come, it would be that night, and he welcomed sleep with the hope his dream would be peace. We know he did not dream of this early time until his very late time, but that night Trife did dream of peace.

A year or so after his shadow mother and her companions carried him into the woods, Trife climbed so high in a tree he tasted a cloud. He opened his mouth to breathe in the cloud. He made a nest in the crook of a two limbs and rested.

(855 words added/ story is 4716 words total)

About A Little Kid That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do

I’ll cut my own slack and say that while this story isn’t finished – which would have been a great culminating post for a month all about sustaining creative momentum – I will finish the story tomorrow or the next day. Today I subbed in a grade one classroom and as energetic and wild and fun as a roomful of seven year olds is, I’m too knackered to think of a good end to Trife and Jod’s turn. Pick up at the bold sentence if you’ve read the previous post. Sorry to say I end the draft mid-sentence. But try it sometime. Feels good. 


The Home We Are From

When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed. Both the knife sharpener and the boy leaned forward as if against a wind. Their eyes scrunched. Over another dozen hills there was a small puff of dust kicked up by horses. And in the small puff of dust, little squares of red. The knife sharpener turned to the boy and said, If you run now you might tell your village. Trife looked from the man to the puff of dust. His legs were tired. The knife sharpener was already hoisting his bag on his back and cutting across a narrow field before Trife could ask what to tell the village and then he understood some resting instinct awakened by a scent like garlic and sweat. Trife started running over the many small hills and the three giant hills to return to his village to tell his father and mother about the puff of dust carrying flags.

He did not make it to his village in time. At the crest of the last giant hill, the horses pounded past. Trife watched from the side of the road. The men riding the horses were strong. They carried so many pointy weapons. The horses looked angry. The men and the horses thundered by without looking at Trife, though they must have seen him as a little dot turning into a boy. Trife coughed on the dust. He raised a hand to his eyes and squinted. For a moment, the whole world was quiet.

Trife waited two days before returning to his village. Something in his stomach said to stay away so he did. He found a tree to climb and waited until the morning of the second day when he saw the puff of dust appear on the other side of his village. Again, the whole world was quiet as he walked the road toward the little hovel where his mother would be poking the cooking fire, his father already lifting rocks from soil, his brothers and sisters carrying sticks for the cooking fire or fetching water or being more useful than he was.

All the village sounds were gone. Trife stopped at the edge of the village and listened. His stomach told him the village was empty of any living people and he didn’t want to see any dead people. But his stomach also said he would die too, if he didn’t eat. He thought for a moment. He could walk to the baker’s hovel and take bread. He walked around the village, along the low stone wall that bordered some of the hovels, and then climbed over the wall at the baker’s hovel, dropped to the ground and saw the baker’s wife and son so dead Trife decided they were only sleeping and he was only being a naughty boy stealing bread and later his father would hear about it and smack Trife’s head. Even though the baker’s wife and son were only sleeping outside, after breakfast, Trife tilted his head up when he walked by so he didn’t have to make up a story about the baker’s son liking to sleep like a fish, with his eyes open. Trife was happy to find a forgotten loaf in the ash of the oven, so burned it blackened his hands when he cracked the crust open to eat the center of the loaf. Trife ate facing the low stone wall and thought if there was anything he needed from his hovel but decided he really couldn’t see his family sleeping in the daytime. This part of him was all gone. He climbed back over the wall and walked back the way he’d come, past the tree he’d climbed two days ago, past the spot the knife sharpener offered a piece of nice, fresh bread. He walked and walked. The sun disappeared. The moon lit the road. The night air got cold. Trife shivered but continued walking, supposing that over this hill there would be a village, or over this hill, or over this hill. Finally, Trife curled up like a fawn and slept.

He woke to a shadow standing over him. Two days had passed but neither the boy nor the shadow knew Trife had lied curled up in a bed of grass for that long. The shadow extended a hand to pull the boy to standing and Trife found his legs didn’t work for a few minutes. Like a fawn or foal he collapsed on his knees, stood wobbly, fell again. The shadow made a tsk tsk sound and sighed, lowered to sit with the boy whose face and arms were imprinted with blades of grass. Trife closed his eyes. He wanted to return to sleep, to drift on a rolling wave of nothing until the soul lifted. A gentle hand touched his brow. The shadow shifted to pull Trife to its lap and then Trife felt his tired body go soft against the soft shadow, and he decided this was a nicer way to drift until the soul lifted. Boy, the shadow whispered, Boy, you can’t go away from here. Trife opened his eyes to see the face of a mother, but not a mother like his own. His own mother had sharp angles and deep lines, eyes that disappeared in a squint, and a frown she wore even on Sundays, but this mother looked at him close and tenderly as though Trife were the loveliest boy she had ever seen. This mother caressed Trife’s dirty face and kissed his brow and whispered that everything was going to be good now, everything, and her voice was calm enough, her eyes clear enough that Trife believed her and didn’t try to do anything except not drift away. The shadow mother and two young men with her lifted Trife onto a cot to carry him down a steep ravine to the edge of a woods. Trife closed his eyes.

The hard part was not drifting. The two young men sang little songs about the trees and sun. The shadow mother chanted quietly. Trife was warm and cold at once. His soul kept slipping from his grasp. He lifted from his body and had to catch hold of his hand to pull himself back on top of his resting form, to suck another breath of air, to stay where he could best hear the young men singing and the shadow mother chanting.

He did not know this next part until he was older, when his shadow mother let slip how afraid she was for the week after they brought Trife to the woods. First, she thought he would die from hunger and thirst, his body eating itself. Then one afternoon Trife was lying on a cot near a fire when he moved to stand and fell into the flames. The children playing nearby shouted and the mothers came to find the boy lying in the flames but when they dragged his body out, they found Trife’s skin was as pale and unblemished as when his shadow mother had washed him that morning, and only his clothes had burned. Now his shadow mother was afraid the boy would be sent away because no one of this world can lie in flames, unburned. That morning the mothers and children agreed not to tell the fathers because as kind as the fathers were, a boy who did not burn in fire was a frightening thing to have in the small tent next to your own. For a week, Trife’s shadow mother stayed near her boy. Later, when Trife was much older, his shadow mother confessed she loved him more because she was afraid how wonderful he was to touch fire and be unburned.

(Many years after, when Trife had his own children who climbed too high and jumped, swam where the current was swift, ate a berry without looking at the color of its hat, or ran a flat palm over a candle flame, Trife understood that wild love his shadow mother had for him, an awe at all a child withstands to grow).

After his shadow mother told Trife the story of his falling into the fire but not burning, he ran across the clearing to his friend Jod’s house to ask what Jod remembered about the day he didn’t burn. Jod pretended he didn’t understand the question until Trife poked him in the ribs and said his shadow mother already said it happened, get on with it, and then Jod confessed he had seen Trife fall into the fire but was too scared to call out. Instead, Jod stayed where he was while the mothers ran from their garden work or cooking fires to pull Trife from the center pit. Jod told him something his own shadow mother hadn’t told him, that the children and mothers and birds all went silent when Trife’s shadow mother rolled him over to see his pale, clean skin unburned.

How long ago was that? Trife asked. Jod shrugged. He said, You didn’t have hair on your face yet. Trife touched the wisps of whiskers on his chin and cheek. Jod said, Now that you know, want to try it again?

Trife thought perhaps he’d used all of his unburning up in one go. His shadow mother regretted telling him the story because her son refused to help kindle a fire for a year after, until it was time for him to leave the woods for his turn. Every boy and girl took a turn. Sometimes a boy or girl left the woods alone but more often they partnered with another boy or girl to leave the woods. After a year or so, when the turn was over, the boy or girl came back to the woods with a sack of spices or herbs or cocoa powder or coins or paints or fruits just about to go bad. In the year he or she had been away, the mother and father prepared a new tent for their son or daughter. The night before Trife took his turn, his shadow mother stayed awake and watched her boy breathe and thought how she had known him his whole life. She could see in his sleeping face the way he looked when he was an infant at her breast, even though this was not how she met her boy. She met her boy at the end of her turn and loved the child so fully to not desire another.

Jod joined Trife on his turn and together they walked the path out of the woods and onto a narrow road cutting through such tall grass the road was invisible at a distance. Trife hadn’t left the woods since the day his shadow mother and the two young men carried him in, so the sun and openness of the land was unsettling. Each night, Trife curled up like a knobby kneed foal, pulled grasses close and covered his head with a cloth. Jod laid an arm’s length away, sleeping as he landed on the ground with arms and legs making funny angles, as comfortable on his back as on his belly. One evening Trife decided to sleep like Jod and Jod decided to sleep like Trife. While Jod rested soundly because he could sleep deeply even in a storm, even with a rock in his ribs, Trife looked up at the stars, terrified. He counted as high as he could, dizzy at the vastness of the sky and thousand points of light, dizzy at the magic that brought those lights to view only at night, and then in fear, he passed out. The next morning, Jod thumped Trife’s shoulder and said, See, boy, it’s good to sleep as you land.

Trife and Jod agreed to walk north. During the first months they ate cheese that reeked because it’d been forgotten in a cave on purpose, and they drank water that tasted of metal, and they walked a ridgeline that would have been their death if a foot stumbled, and they saw a bird with a beak as long as its neck, and they ate a plant they shouldn’t have eaten which made them vomit but not until they’d both seen visions. Trife and Jod were dirty and stinky and no one was there to tell them so. When the pair arrived in a village or town, they took a bed at an inn or found an alley behind a tavern. People moved away from them until Jod grinned and offered a joke. Jod was their way into a dining room or church. Jod was their way into a dance or picnic. They stayed in a village or town for a few days or weeks before continuing their turn and Jod was only tempted once to remain behind when Trife packed his bundle. A girl with red hair in a town of dark hair followed Jod around, turning her back to Trife until Trife understood to leave the couple over the hill behind the mill. When Jod joined Trife for dinner at the inn, Trife said, I think I know the girl’s father, and told the memory of the knife sharpener offering a loaf of bread.

Another month or two passed before Jod asked if Trife might find his way to his village. They were walking on a long stretch of road between one lost village and the next, and no one had passed them for hours. All they had between them was time. Trife was quiet, thinking of the way to his village, remembering a hill he’d see from his hovel’s westward window, a giant hill with lumps like a rooster comb. I don’t know it’s still there, Trife finally said, It might be all gone.

But you remember where? Jod asked.
I do. Or I think I do. There’s a hill like a rooster comb.
We can find that.
We can.
Let’s go on then. Let’s go find your village.

From then, their turn became a search. Most boys and girls took wandering turns of happenstance. Most boys and girls arrived back at the woods with goods and stories and a sense that it might be better to settle the tent made for them, to do the work ready for them, to bear the children waiting for them, better to take the woods than wander. But Trife and Jod infused their turn with mission. Find the rooster comb. Find the village. At each village or town, at each roadside inn, Jod leaned across the table or counter and asked, Did you ever see a hill like this? And he would set a hand on his head, waggle his fingers. Like a rooster? Trife took a needle and thread from his bundle, took off his shirt and stitched the outline of the hill across its belly so the next time they asked, Have you seen a hill like this? they might only point to the tiny measured stitches rolling up and down Trife’s torso. For another month or two they asked. And then one night at the hearth of a poor inn whose fire died early, another traveler recognized the hill.

Jod elbowed Trife and said the traveler, This boy is from there.
From where?
A village near.
Near the hill? That village – was it a village?
Village enough. There was a baker and butcher, Trife said.
That village is gone.
Gone! said Jod.
I know, Trife said, But I want to see.
I can tell you it’s gone. I was there not a week ago. I passed around. I don’t go through places like that.
Places like what? Jod took a long drink of ale. He looked at Trife. Gone? You know it’s gone?
I was there, or near, when the village went away. I was half this.
Sleeping death? Pox? Fire? Jod finished his ale.
It was men with swords and spears, Trife said and the traveler crossed himself and murmured. And I don’t know why. I wondered why. But after, that’s when I came home.
You have two homes.
One, I think.
Two. Or one now, seeing how the first is gone. Jod patted Trife’s back. You still want to go then?

The next morning, Trife and Jod set out with directions from the traveler. They thought they’d gone so far north as to tip over the earth, and maybe they nearly had, but now their long days of walking had brought them near to the village, near to the woods where they’d started their turn eight or nine or ten months before. While they walked, Jod wanted to know all Trife remembered of his childhood. What was your family like? What did your mother cook? What did your father do with his hands? Did you have a brother? A sister? Did you sleep on a cot or on the floor? Who were your neighbors? Was there a pretty girl? Did you learn numbers? Did you have a festival? Where the seasons as they are in the woods? Though Jod had drank the ale, Trife felt the after in his own body. His head was swollen, his tongue slow, his stomach unsettled. Finally, all of Jod’s questions unanswered, the pair settled into silence. That night when they lay at the side of the road, Trife curled and Jod sprawled, Jod reached across the space to take Trife’s hand. Jod whispered, I won’t go if you don’t want to go. Trife held Jod’s hand, missing his shadow mother who still held his hand and kissed his brow. Both boys drifted to sleep like that.

In the morning Trife propped on his elbow watching his friend sleep. Trife lived in one half of his life. This was easier. He didn’t go to the village in his mind, rarely in his dreams. His body made shell around his other body so Trife could leave the small child curled like a fawn, dying, while he grew taller and learned to weave, plant and harvest, hunt. The small child had stayed in his shell since Trife arrived in the woods. No one asked to see the small child. His shadow mother held him most of his first year in her tent, looking into his eyes as she spooned broth into his mouth, looking into his eyes as she rubbed the atrophied muscles of his limbs, looking into his eyes as she sang stories. He was born new. So he did not live that other half. Now, he saw how abandoned Jod was in his sleep and he wondered if all the woods children slept like that, if his own shadow mother slept like that before he came and she curled her form around his to still his shivers and heal his heart. What had he missed by living the first half of his life?

On the third day walking, they recognized landmarks the traveler gave. The village was one or two days from where they slept that night. After Jod fell asleep, Trife got up and walked back to the road. He stood looking toward where his village was gone. Once when I was very young. Trife held that phrase in his mind for a moment. He made his lips shape the words. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young. And then he waited to see if the boy might crack his shell to say what happened once when he was very young. I can wait, he whispered, I can wait all night if you like. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young.

Trife would have liked to sit on his father’s knee and hear the gruff voice say something silly. Trife would have liked to hide his face in his mother’s apron and feel her hand pat his hair. He would have liked to be in a pile with his brothers and sisters on the dirt floor of their hovel, laughing and rolling. He would take a moment at dawn when his mother scraped porridge from the pot or a moment at dusk when his brother shared a blanket. For a long time Trife stood in the middle of the road waiting for the boy to tell him a story, and then he returned to where Jod lay undisturbed, and curled his body around the boy he was. Before his mind went quiet, he remembered remembering. He remembered not burning once before. He remembered something important, before his mind went quiet. And when his mind went quiet, the boy in his shell woke so that Trife’s dreams were of his

(908 words added/ story is 3872 words total)

About A Little Kid That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do

I thought I might finish Grant’s story today – but. Still, I am having so much fun working from the character name and short plot sketch Grant gave me! As a reminder, his prompt to me is: He’s going to go to the woods, that’s what I’m thinking of. And he should be a person who goes to a village and then the village gets invaded, so then he goes all the way into the forest where no one finds him and he meets some people who are really nice to him and they go on a journey to lots of places and then they go back to their town and fix it up.

If you’ve read the first two parts, skip ahead to the bolded sentence. I promise a finish next post.


The Home We Are From

When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed. Both the knife sharpener and the boy leaned forward as if against a wind. Their eyes scrunched. Over another dozen hills there was a small puff of dust kicked up by horses. And in the small puff of dust, little squares of red. The knife sharpener turned to the boy and said, If you run now you might tell your village. Trife looked from the man to the puff of dust. His legs were tired. The knife sharpener was already hoisting his bag on his back and cutting across a narrow field before Trife could ask what to tell the village and then he understood some resting instinct awakened by a scent like garlic and sweat. Trife started running over the many small hills and the three giant hills to return to his village to tell his father and mother about the puff of dust carrying flags.

He did not make it to his village in time. At the crest of the last giant hill, the horses pounded past. Trife watched from the side of the road. The men riding the horses were strong. They carried so many pointy weapons. The horses looked angry. The men and the horses thundered by without looking at Trife, though they must have seen him as a little dot turning into a boy. Trife coughed on the dust. He raised a hand to his eyes and squinted. For a moment, the whole world was quiet.

Trife waited two days before returning to his village. Something in his stomach said to stay away so he did. He found a tree to climb and waited until the morning of the second day when he saw the puff of dust appear on the other side of his village. Again, the whole world was quiet as he walked the road toward the little hovel where his mother would be poking the cooking fire, his father already lifting rocks from soil, his brothers and sisters carrying sticks for the cooking fire or fetching water or being more useful than he was.

All the village sounds were gone. Trife stopped at the edge of the village and listened. His stomach told him the village was empty of any living people and he didn’t want to see any dead people. But his stomach also said he would die too, if he didn’t eat. He thought for a moment. He could walk to the baker’s hovel and take bread. He walked around the village, along the low stone wall that bordered some of the hovels, and then climbed over the wall at the baker’s hovel, dropped to the ground and saw the baker’s wife and son so dead Trife decided they were only sleeping and he was only being a naughty boy stealing bread and later his father would hear about it and smack Trife’s head. Even though the baker’s wife and son were only sleeping outside, after breakfast, Trife tilted his head up when he walked by so he didn’t have to make up a story about the baker’s son liking to sleep like a fish, with his eyes open. Trife was happy to find a forgotten loaf in the ash of the oven, so burned it blackened his hands when he cracked the crust open to eat the center of the loaf. Trife ate facing the low stone wall and thought if there was anything he needed from his hovel but decided he really couldn’t see his family sleeping in the daytime. This part of him was all gone. He climbed back over the wall and walked back the way he’d come, past the tree he’d climbed two days ago, past the spot the knife sharpener offered a piece of nice, fresh bread. He walked and walked. The sun disappeared. The moon lit the road. The night air got cold. Trife shivered but continued walking, supposing that over this hill there would be a village, or over this hill, or over this hill. Finally, Trife curled up like a fawn and slept.

He woke to a shadow standing over him. Two days had passed but neither the boy nor the shadow knew Trife had laid curled up in a bed of grass for that long. The shadow extended a hand to pull the boy to standing and Trife found his legs didn’t work for a few minutes. Like a fawn or foal he collapsed on his knees, stood wobbly, fell again. The shadow made a tsk tsk sound and sighed, lowered to sit with the boy whose face and arms were imprinted with blades of grass. Trife closed his eyes. He wanted to return to sleep, to drift on a rolling wave of nothing until the soul lifted. A gentle hand touched his brow. The shadow shifted to pull Trife to its lap and then Trife felt his tired body go soft against the soft shadow, and he decided this was a nicer way to drift until the soul lifted. Boy, the shadow whispered, Boy, you can’t go away from here. Trife opened his eyes to see the face of a mother, but not a mother like his own. His own mother had sharp angles and deep lines, eyes that disappeared in a squint, and a frown she wore even on Sundays, but this mother looked at him close, tenderly as though Trife were the loveliest boy she had ever seen. This mother caressed Trife’s dirty face and kissed his brow and whispered that everything was going to be good now, everything, and her voice was calm enough, her eyes clear enough that Trife believed her and didn’t try to do anything except not drift away. The shadow mother and two young men with her lifted Trife onto a cot to carry him down a steep ravine to the edge of a woods. Trife closed his eyes.

The hard part was not drifting. The two young men sang little songs about the trees and sun. The shadow mother chanted quietly. Trife was warm and cold at once. His soul kept slipping from his grasp. He lifted from his body and had to catch hold of his hand to pull himself back on top of his resting form, to suck another breath of air, to stay where he could best hear the young men singing and the shadow mother chanting.

He did not know this next part until he was older, when his shadow mother let slip how afraid she was for the week after they brought Trife to the woods. First, she thought he would die from hunger and thirst, his body eating itself. Then one afternoon Trife was lying on a cot near a fire when he moved to stand and fell into the flames. The children playing nearby shouted and the mothers came to find the boy lying in the flames but when they dragged his body out, they found Trife’s skin was as pale and unblemished as when his shadow mother had washed him that morning, and only his clothes had burned. Now his shadow mother was afraid the boy would be sent away because no one of this world can lie in flames, unburned. That morning the mothers and children agreed not to tell the fathers because as kind as the fathers were, a boy who did not burn in fire was a frightening thing to have in the small tent next to your own. For a week, Trife’s shadow mother stayed near her boy. Later, when Trife was much older, his shadow mother confessed she loved him more because she was afraid how wonderful he was to touch fire and be unburned.

(Many years after, when Trife had his own children who climbed too high and jumped, swam where the current was swift, ate a berry without looking at the color of its hat, or ran a flat palm over a candle flame, Trife understood that wild love his shadow mother had for him, an awe at all a child withstands to grow).

After his shadow mother told Trife the story of his falling into the fire but not burning, he ran across the clearing to his friend Jod’s house to ask what Jod remembered about the day he didn’t burn. Jod pretended he didn’t understand the question until Trife poked him in the ribs and said his shadow mother already said it happened, get on with it, and then Jod confessed he had seen Trife fall into the fire but was too scared to call out. Instead, Jod stayed where he was while the mothers ran from their garden work or cooking fires to pull Trife from the center pit. Jod told him something his own shadow mother hadn’t told him, that the children and mothers and birds all went silent when Trife’s shadow mother rolled him over to see his pale, clean skin unburned.

How long ago was that? Trife asked. Jod shrugged. He said, You didn’t have hair on your face yet. Trife touched the wisps of whiskers on his chin and cheek. Jod said, Now that you know, want to try it again?

Trife thought perhaps he’d used all of his unburning up in one go. His shadow mother regretted telling him the story because her son refused to help kindle a fire for a year after, until it was time for him to leave the woods for his turn. Every boy and girl took a turn. Sometimes a boy or girl left the woods alone but more often they partnered with another boy or girl to leave the woods. After a year or so, when the turn was over, the boy or girl came back to the woods with a sack of spices or herbs or cocoa powder or coins or paints or fruits just about to go bad. In the year he or she had been away, the mother and father prepared a new tent for their son or daughter. The night before Trife took his turn, his shadow mother stayed awake and watched her boy breathe and thought how she had known him his whole life. She could see in his sleeping face the way he looked when he was an infant at her breast, even though this was not how she met her boy. She met her boy at the end of her turn and loved the child so fully to not desire another.

Jod joined Trife on his turn and together they walked the path out of the woods and onto a narrow road cutting through such tall grass the road was invisible at a distance. Trife hadn’t left the woods since the day his shadow mother and the two young men carried him in, so the sun and openness of the land was unsettling. Each night, Trife curled up like a knobby kneed foal, pulled grasses close and covered his head with a cloth. Jod laid an arm’s length away, sleeping as he landed on the ground with arms and legs making funny angles, as comfortable on his back as on his belly. One evening Trife decided to sleep like Jod and Jod decided to sleep like Trife. While Jod rested soundly because he could sleep deeply even in a storm, even with a rock in his ribs, Trife looked up at the stars, terrified. He counted as high as he could, dizzy at the vastness of the sky and thousand points of light, dizzy at the magic that brought those lights to view only at night, and then in fear, he passed out. The next morning, Jod thumped Trife’s shoulder and said, See, boy, it’s good to sleep as you land.

Trife and Jod agreed to walk north. During the first months they ate cheese that reeked because it’d been forgotten in a cave on purpose, and they drank water that tasted of metal, and they walked a ridgeline that would have been their death if a foot stumbled, and they saw a bird with a beak as long as its neck, and they ate a plant they shouldn’t have eaten which made them vomit but not until they’d both seen visions. Trife and Jod were dirty and stinky and no one was there to tell them so. When the pair arrived in a village or town, they took a bed at an inn or found an alley behind a tavern. People moved away from them until Jod grinned and offered a joke. Jod was their way into a dining room or church. Jod was their way into a dance or picnic. They stayed in a village or town for a few days or weeks before continuing their turn and Jod was only tempted once to remain behind when Trife packed his bundle. A girl with red hair in a town of dark hair followed Jod around, turning her back to Trife until Trife understood to leave the couple over the hill behind the mill. When Jod joined Trife for dinner at the inn, Trife said, I think I know the girl’s father, and told the memory of the knife sharpener offering a loaf of bread.

Another month or two passed before Jod asked if Trife might find his way to his village. They were walking on a long stretch of road between one lost village and the next, and no one had passed them for hours. All they had between them was time. Trife was quiet, thinking of the way to his village, remembering a hill he’d see from his hovel’s westward window, a giant hill with lumps like a rooster comb. I don’t know it’s still there, Trife finally said, It might be all gone.

But you remember where? Jod asked.
I do. Or I think I do. There’s a hill like a rooster comb.
We can find that.
We can.
Let’s go on then. Let’s go find your village.

From then, their turn became a search. Most boys and girls took wandering turns of happenstance. Most boys and girls arrived back at the woods with goods and stories and a sense that it might be better to settle the tent made for them, to do the work ready for them, to bear the children waiting for them, better to take the woods than wander. But Trife and Jod infused their turn with mission. Find the rooster comb. Find the village. At each village or town, at each roadside inn, Jod leaned across the table or counter and asked, Did you ever see a hill like this? And he would set a hand on his head, waggle his fingers. Like a rooster? Trife took a needle and thread from his bundle, took off his shirt and stitched the outline of the hill across its belly so the next time they asked, Have you seen a hill like this? they might only point to the tiny measured stitches rolling up and down Trife’s torso. For another month or two they asked. And then one night at the hearth of a poor inn whose fire died early, another traveler recognized the hill.

(1846 words added/ story is 2958 words total)

Chance Chanced Upon Us

April was rough. Claire named one of our tough spring events The Devastating Time and by mid-April I decided the title was apt for the whole month. Now near the end of May I can’t remember exactly what made all of April a slog but I do remember one evening at the dining table when the kids suggested a game, we started playing and I was totally blank. I played my turns, but I couldn’t laugh. Inside, I wondered if I’d finally broken something. April was the month I considered revising our four or five year plan to settle this place. Perhaps just one more year. I was sad again we’d missed moving to Kenya. I was tired of the effort of being here.

This weekend I met my friend Erin for coffee. I am so glad we get to be near one another again. That wouldn’t happen if I were in Nairobi. All year Erin has encouraged me with her kindness, listening and wisdom. She has heard me draft versions of my experience here. What happened when we got jobs and planned to move to Korea was Justin and I were certain we belonged in Korea. And when we arrived, we were certain we belonged in Korea. We are still certain this is a good place for us, a right place, and we are glad for the events and people and ideas that brought us here.

At church we just finished a study of the book of Ruth. Through the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, the author illustrates the perfect provision of our God – there’s a phrase used at the beginning of the story to show the happenstance of Ruth gleaning in Boaz’s wheat field. Chance chanced upon her. Reading now, and knowing the lineage of Ruth and Boaz, knowing that so many generations away is King David, and so many generations after is Jesus, we know this is not chance but divine orchestration. After church today we all headed to the Han for a picnic and I sat with an older woman named Els who echoed in her own life the care God has to place us here or there with this person or ready for that event. Els said, God is sovereign. I know that chance chanced upon us in our coming to Korea, a country and region that we had not considered but then recognized as our fit.

But once I arrived, once I had my work and routine, I wasn’t certain why I am here. That is what Erin hears when I talk. That I am glad we are here. That I think we belong here. And that I have no idea what I am doing here. But this weekend when she and I talked, I understood something in a new way.

My position as school is in the Utility department. I am a full-time substitute teacher. Most of the time this is really fun. Some of the time, it’s really difficult. Rarely, it’s terrible. Being a full-time sub means I may wake up one day and teach junior kindergarten and wake up the next day to teach AP Psychology. Sometimes I am in the elementary, middle and high schools in a single day.

One of the reasons I am here is to learn how to be where I am.

Being present is important to me. I try. I really, really try. And in the years since my son was born, I’ve felt less and less a fight to stay with what’s in front of me: marriage, children, work, writing, relationships. In Kuwait, I meditated on Psalm 16:5, 6.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places: Be here, now. Grow here, now. Enjoy here, now. So while I was in Kuwait, I started learning this practice, to be where I am, to be useful and open and ready where I am, to love and desire what is right where I am. And in Kuwait I had the lines I traveled to school, to the Gulf, to coffee, to church, to the Gulf, to the Avenues, to brunch. I had so many little routines, like a coffee order each morning or stretching each evening or running my miles each day or walking a loop around campus between classes. All these little routines I could expect or anticipate just made the day work.

And then I move to Korea where my work day is just not the same from one to the next. Outside of the school day we scrambled for a new routine of walks or games or dinner, a new way of gathering with friends, new transportation. And inside the school day, we made our way too. But instead of enjoying a sense of control or competence in a new classroom, I’d surrendered to this odd, challenging role as a sub. What I love about the work is seeing the school from the unique vantage of stepping into a variety of grade levels and subject areas, appreciating the work of so many of my colleagues, enjoying the fun of so many different student ages and personalities. But the work can feel disjointed. On Friday I conferenced with grade seven writers, but unless I make a point to return to their classroom in another week or two, I won’t read the finished essays. One day I was in the pool encouraging kids to kick with straight legs, put their faces in the water to blow bubbles, while one boy didn’t want to get into the water at all, despite gentle coaxing – and I wonder if he got his body wet by the end of his swimming unit. My first day in junior kindergarten I sat cross-legged with a couple of boys building Lego and one girl walked up to me, put her hands on my cheeks and made a fish face. We laughed. So I really love this job but it’s stretched me to be where I am.

I think that’s why I’m here. One of the whys of Korea is for me to better learn how to be where I am. Love and serve where I am. Surrender to the moment, the work, the conversation. Chance chanced upon us and we are here in Korea, nearing the end of our first school year and it is good we are here and I am glad we will return.

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