Today I Am Thirty-Seven

There was frost on the ground this morning. The grass made silver green, the wooden bridge a slip underfoot. It is autumn – my first in a decade – and the days pull between two seasons with cold nights and colder mornings, crisp afternoons. I ran this morning. I could see my breath but feel my toes. This year I am running all the seasons. I am warned winter is very cold. I am told winter isn’t so bad. I will know winter in another month or two. Now though, the wild green I drank in August, the wild green I’d missed out the desert window, the wild green is going. Tall grasses along the river wave gold and the leaves of trees growing either side of the river and up the hills are the color of campfire. This morning I noticed the pointy elbows and knobby fingers of bare branches. Soon all the trees will be angles and lines against sky.

Today I am thirty-seven. I thought about this while running. I thought I should feel something about thirty-seven. What I feel is okay and okay is peak compared to the inappropriate, hidden emotions of my last decade of birthdays and anniversaries when, instead of remaining buoyantly thankful/ exuberant/ #blessed, I’d often sink in melancholy at to-date regrets. Then at some point late in the day, Justin would see my disappointment and apologize for not getting a gift of messing up dinner plans. I’d sigh, be held, and think I couldn’t explain my sorrow was not a missed dinner out but the whole course of my life. It was much easier to imagine I was pouty about baking my own cake.

Growing up, birthdays were a big deal. Mom asked what we wanted for our birthday dinner. I remember choosing tacos or fettuccini alfredo. From first waking to right before bed, we’d get songs and hugs and kisses. We were celebrated. We were enjoyed. I don’t remember my siblings or myself feeling jealous of one another’s birthdays because each of us had a turn at choosing our day’s activities and menu. I remember making cards or putting together small gifts for Nate and Joanna and opening their gifts to me.

When I turned seven in second grade, my parents gave me a Lisa Frank watch with a set of bright, interchangeable bands that I wore for two or three years. When I turned eleven in sixth grade, I walked hand in hand with Mom at dusk to a blood drive and watched her donate a pint. I ended up resting with my feet up while my sister ate cookies and drank all the offered juice. When I turned sixteen my junior year, my family showed up during second period choir, dressed as clowns and singing happy birthday before Mom pinned a corsage on my sweater. When I turned twenty-one as a senior in college, my roommates and I drove out of town on a quiet country road and watched the Northern lights.

After college I chose a direction I hadn’t quite meant to choose and there I was in the middle of something good I didn’t want, married and teaching in rural Wisconsin. So each year marked another year deeper in this something good I couldn’t see, another year removed from the direction I didn’t take.

I turned twenty-seven in Colombia, celebrated with a party of new friends, celebrated an age I’d long thought a good number to really do something. The something I did was have a baby, so I celebrated twenty-eight waking with my one-month old daughter. I was bleary and hopeful this would work out okay.

At some point, we let go. I do not mourn growing older. I tell friends I want my forties. But I want my forties because I think then I will do whatever it is I imagine doing well: writing a book you read, sending creative and kind children to the world, falling into enviable late marriage comfort.

Years ago my dad wrote “Be there” on the dedication page of my new Bible, my full name stamped in italic gold at the bottom right of the maroon leather cover. And since then I’ve returned to that exhortation to find its fit for many situations as a quiet command to hold steady in the present, with no rush to the next task or conversation, no rush to the next year or season. How can I explain why this birthday – opened with a cold morning run, closed in a warm bed with my husband – was the birthday I was just there for, not sinking in melancholy, not counting misses and ifs. And this birthday: returning from my run to my son singing the first two lines of happy birthday before telling me to come see what they got for me, opening my eyes to find a tiny cactus spiked with purple blooms at my feet, resting against my husband who is just so good to hold, kissing my daughter’s smooth forehead and thinking some birthday soon we’ll be an even height. And this birthday: a hot shower, good coffee, a catch up with a friend, an hour to write, an hour to read. So much in one day. Errands and chores before we woke up to Monday. A late afternoon snit by my daughter who proclaimed that I am no fun, that I ruin all the fun, that I don’t want her to have any fun. Hodge podge dinner. The last flurry of bedtime. Then the day was over and I was that much into my thirty-eighth year, warm in bed next to my husband and glad for okay.

Maybe even better than okay. I want to know why contentment feels a fight. Why for a decade, more, I couldn’t fully ease into the good I had. Why during those years I pinched at the thought of a parallel track where I lived in a drafty walk up, wearing an old wool sweater through the entire winter, forgetting to eat because I consumed stories instead and emerging in spring with a book of my own.

I am okay and occasionally terrified.

I am thirty-seven and finally thank you Jesus at last glad for marriage and children. But I am also thirty seven and keenly aware what I waste. So now I learn a narrow walk of contentment and pursuit. Now I learn a narrow walk of trust. Now I learn do I reap the years of practice, do I reap the years of choosing to stay, do I reap the years of fighting to yield, do I reap the years of sorrow and fear, do I reap the years of tentative joy, do I reap the years of quiet obedience, do I reap the years of defiance, do I reap. At night, I curl into my husband’s warm body, breathe against his skin. This is comfort, to be near and warm, to tell my mind to be here between the sheets and nowhere else, no parallel Sarah untethered, no shadow fright, no ache for what I am not. At night I may lay awake in terror or I may rest.

No Ideas, But In Things

This exercise comes from 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. 3 AM Epiphany is one of many writing books I’ve browsed in bookstores or spotted on colleagues’ shelves but never bothered reading past a few flipped pages. But a few weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about teaching creative writing and he mentioned how much he loves this book, how great the exercises are for writers. He sounded like me talking about Writing Down The Bones or What If? Later that day I bought the book and found the first exercise I wanted to try.

No Ideas, But In Things

Write a very brief story told only in images – concrete, simple, visually efficient movements and details. This exercise does not ask you to eliminate people from your prose, just too watch what they do and what objects they crave and caress rather than what they say or think about these objects and actions. 300 words.

The book says more about the exercise itself but this was the direction I reread when beginning again. Two comments more, from the book: The phrase no ideas, but in things comes from William Carlos Williams, who firmly believed in presenting the world the way it looked… And: If you need an operating metaphor for this exercise , think in terms of a silent movie or the moments when a contemporary film truly uses visual storytelling.

This is a challenging exercise. I started with two separate images in my mind: a walk up a hill for coffee and a woman digging in dirt. But then I included the narrator’s thoughts. (Which fails the exercise). And then I blew the 300 word limit by a thousand. But go ahead and do the same, for the practice. Or try writing a few short-short, connected pieces.

Here is the yield.


Isaac walked up the hill for coffee. The walk up the hill was shadowed. On one side of the quiet street was a cement wall painted white and from the other side of the wall trees grew tall enough to shadow the street. On the wide sidewalk where he walked, smaller trees with smooth bark were planted in dirt squares bordered by red brick. The roots of these smooth bark trees were just beginning to lift slabs of sidewalk at a corner to catch the toe of a shoe, make a stutter step. Isaac walked up the hill for coffee and to think a little before returning to campus to pick up his grade twos from P.E. or art or music, one of the specials that gave him this moment to walk up the hill.

He went to a place called Zoo Coffee which served coffees and juices and sandwiches without meat. The barista knew enough English to spare him gestures. She would duck her head a little and turn to tamp espresso grounds, press buttons, add a pump of syrup. He would take his drink, sit at the long table near the front of the cafe. He would take out his phone and scroll through the news, reread an email he should reply to, like photos his sister posts. At two or three other tables, housewives or women his mother’s age sat with their cups and small plates of cake or rolls but he didn’t look at them, only knew  they were there. After ten or so minutes he would push back his chair, bow slightly at the barista who echoed his kamsahamnida. Then he walked back down the hill to campus to prepare his room for the next morning or do paperwork or discover where one of the students hid morning snack. At 2:13 he would pick up his grade twos for the very last part of the school day.

When he walked up the hill he might see an older man with a dog on a leash or a woman pushing a stroller or a man or woman walking with hands clasped at the back. He might not walk up the hill for coffee if the street was loud, if he had to cross a busy intersection, if he bumped into others.

One afternoon he saw an old Korean woman squatting  by a smooth bark tree, trailing a finger over the hardened dirt, around a root. The tree was the first on its block, at the bottom of the hill. Isaac neared the old woman, ready to bow a greeting, but the woman was intent at the pattern she made with the pads of her fingers, quiet waves radiating from the base of the tree. He continued up the hill. She was there when he walked down the hill, coffee in hand. She did not show she heard him walk by.

On Monday morning, after walking his class to art (walking feet, walking feet! Thank you), Isaac checked his phone for messages and emails, saw he had no meetings, nothing he couldn’t do in twenty minutes when he was back, and walked out the back gate, turned right to go up the hill. The old woman was at the fourth tree now, squatting nearest the curb. She must start the day at one side, he thought, and circle her way around the tree as the day goes. Again, the old woman did not look up as Isaac passed her on the way to Zoo Coffee or when he returned, caramel macchiato in hand. He stopped at the bottom of the hill before crossing and turned to watch her. He took a drink of coffee. It was  a little too sweet but he didn’t buy a caramel macchiato every day. Most days he filled his mug at a colleague’s ever brewing pot. He took another drink. The old woman reminded him of his mother or grandmother, both of them gardeners who didn’t squat but knelt at the soil, who spoke to the soil as this old woman was now doing. Isaac couldn’t hear any language sounds but the woman’s lips moved. She nodded agreement or affirmation.

On Tuesday Isaac was right. The old woman was at the fifth tree and on Wednesday, at the sixth tree. Her posture and attentiveness remained the same. Her clothes changed but Isaac wouldn’t have noticed if he were not now watching for this old woman. She wore patterned blouses and pants and this too reminded him of his mother and grandmother – as they wore endless combinations of black and gray, this woman seemed to have a closet composed of wildflower and rose prints. On Thursday the old woman was halfway up the hill at the seventh tree. On Friday she looked up as Isaac passed and said in English, Is here. She patted the dirt with her small palm, erased the waves she’d made. Isaac squatted next to her. What’s here, he asked. What is here? He pointed to the dirt. The old woman began to make waves again. Isaac felt a twinge in his knee. His thighs burned. He wondered how she squatted like that, hours a day he guessed, without her limbs going to needles. He asked again, What is here? but the old woman didn’t seem to hear and when she shifted her weight to move she didn’t look at Isaac to ask with her eyes that he move over too. He stood then, stepped back so the old woman could have her next place. He wiggled his toes to wake his calves, bowed his head in a farewell the old woman didn’t see and walked up the hill to order a caramel macchiato even though he was tired of caramel macchiatos.

He was surprised by the old woman’s English. He wondered if he imagined the English. If his brain reconstructed the old woman’s sounds into a word he could hear. He wanted to know her name. He opened a translation app on his phone, typed

my name is
what is your name

and practiced making his mouth and tongue fit the pronunciations. He looked up

what are you doing

and went to bed thinking of this old woman tending dirt, just drifting when he remembered to email his father in the morning to wish him a happy birthday.

The next day, Friday, Isaac wasn’t certain he would see the old woman. He had a team meeting in the morning and report card comments were due at the end of the day. He typed through lunch and his second prep, pausing only for refills from his colleague’s ever brewing pot. All day Isaac thought of the old woman, of the designs she drew in the dirt. He practiced his phrases in whispers. At the end of the day, a little jittery from a skipped lunch and the ever brewing coffee, he cut through the back gate to see if the old woman was still at the tree she would have been at all day. She was there. Isaac practiced his phrases. They jumbled on his lips. He slowed his steps, took out his phone, opened the app and typed

my name is Isaac

watched the Hangul characters appear. He looked up.

Her head was low on her breast, like her neck was the neck of a duck, able to bend, turn, tuck. She was still. For a moment Isaac thought she was sleeping. Her hands were at the dirt, fingers spread but curled at the knuckles like claws on a perch. The dirt was brushed, fanned, swiped away from the tree roots. There were divots in the packed earth. Pocks. It was then the old woman uncurled her fingers so her hands rested flat. Her nails were broken, peeled back, packed with dirt. She was bleeding. Isaac held his breath without knowing. His thumb moved and a woman’s voice intoned a string of syllables and his name. The old woman’s head swiveled. Isaac felt his empty lungs. She looked at him – she might have glared – and then looked away, but Isaac didn’t understand if she said anything to him in that moment she held his gaze, before her head was back at her breast.

Her shoulders lifted, ribs expanded with a full inhalation which she let go in a shudder. Isaac realized the old woman was crying. He took a breath as full as hers, slid his phone in his back pocket. He stood above this sad woman, wanting to say something but all he knew was hello, thank you and how to say shrimp when ordering kimbap.

Isaac bent a little at the waist, reached a hand to touch the old woman’s shoulder. He hesitated, fingertips hovering where his own shoulders tightened, and then she drew another giant breath so her shoulders rose to his fingertips and he kept his hand steady through her shuddering exhale. She didn’t flinch or turn stone or scoot away. He kept his hand steady on her warm shoulder where a tight cord tied to a delicate knob of bone and they stayed like that for a while until Isaac’s back pinched near the waist from leaning over this old woman, sorry for something he didn’t know.

Every Time I Draft A Piece I Ask Why

Here is something I’ve been thinking, in essay form. Well, in a first draft form I’ll let sit for a while. I always think I’ll let a draft sit, get ready for that magic day when I have the best way to finish the piece. But then I think, For what. Why am I writing this. I get apathetic enough that I don’t bother with question marks. Instead, it’s flat, unanswerable. Why am I writing this. For the piece below, I have an answer: I couldn’t not. There’s a memory that’s hard to look at and spiritual truth I barely touch and as is usual of my personal essay drafts, the writing itself was unpleasant because I think there is something more to say and a better way to say it, but I can’t yet. I hope there is a reason I commit any of this to a page. More, I hope I find a magic day to rework this draft to honor two of my repetends.

With that. I know I am not the only one.


I keep thinking about this boy who died. I was junior in college and he was freshman. We lived in the same residence hall at the edge of campus and fell into step one afternoon. I was a community advisor who put up bulletin boards and hosted ice cream parties and floor meetings but I rarely saw him around the hall. He lived on the third floor, went home on the weekends and ducked his head when walking by the front desk. I remember the day being cold. Maybe an in between day in Wisconsin when autumn is over but air doesn’t yet bite. He had his hands in his front pockets. He was lean like some boys are when they just graduate high school and he walked like he felt too tall, making his shoulders narrow. Maybe because we were walking side by side he could talk a little, tell me he was from a small town on Lake Michigan and that’s where he went every weekend to fish. He had a boat or his father had a boat.

I think we talked about siblings. I think he had a sister still in high school. I think he was studying in the College Of Natural Resources.

I keep thinking about this boy. His name was Nathan. That first afternoon, walking side by side back to our residence hall on an almost winter day, he smiled. I remember feeling like I won because here was this quiet boy who ducked when he walked by people and he’d just smiled at something we said.

He went home on the weekends to take his boat or his father’s boat out on Lake Michigan so I didn’t see him much and had no reason to knock on his door and ask about his day. One night I couldn’t sleep. I laid in bed thinking of his sloping body he hadn’t yet grown into, thinking of that smile I caught when I glanced up.

I thought about boys like that. Boys I’d just met or boys I knew and saw in a different way, suddenly. I constructed so many lives from chance smiles or gestures, from a name called on a roster the first day of a history class, from a long bike ride with childhood friend. At twenty, the years spin out in any direction. I could see myself in Ireland, Alaska or Kenya as easily as I could see myself married to a bank teller, artist or fisherman. When I had class with a boy from Portland I imagined us walking under a shared umbrella. So when I met Nathan, I imagined his whole family I’d never meet. His mother cooked a full breakfast and put an arm around her son’s waist when he came in from an early morning on the lake. Her cheeks flushed like his did. His father was as silent as he was. The house had windows in the right places to send squares of sun on scuffed hardwood. At breakfast his sister and mother talked, pulled Nathan and his father into conversation, and after, each carried his or her own plate and glass to the kitchen counter.

That winter I came in from a night class, carried my bike to the basement room where the residence hall staff had weekly meetings. I opened the door and there was a group of guys having a Bible study. I was surprised. They were surprised. Nathan ducked his head. I rolled my bike to its place against a wall, apologized and left. I thought, He is a brother.

Nathan drowned that spring. He and a friend or cousin were out on the lake when a storm came up and capsized the boat. I remember hearing the boy he was with lived. I remember hearing Nathan saved the boy he was with by pushing him toward floating debris. I remember seeing this story in my mind, the thrash of Nathan’s legs, the heaviness of his wet clothing and boots, the whiteness of his face and hands in the frigid water, the last energy in his limbs propelling another to safety. I remember feeling a little sick. I remember being conflicted that I’d imagined meeting his mother.

I google combinations to find the story again: Nathan uwsp lake michigan drowning, 2001 lake michigan drown uwsp student, uwsp student Nathan drown, uwsp student Nate drown 2001. I can’t find anything. Instead I dredge articles about annual numbers of drownings, reasons why the Great Lakes are dangerous, drunk college students walking into water. There’s an article about another underclassman who killed himself over Thanksgiving weekend that year, after dropping out of college to go live with friends in Madison. I try to remember Nathan’s hometown. I try to remember was it 2000 or 2001. I think about emailing the alumni office but I’m not sure what they could tell me about a freshman (was he a sophomore) who drowned in Lake Michigan before graduating from the College Of Natural Resources, before deciding to move north to Superior or west to Denver, before falling in love and staying awake thinking how to marry this woman, before losing his heart or holding his firstborn, before waking tired each day, before eating slivers of ripe peach on a long summer morning.

I used to think about dying all the time. I’ve wanted death at different times. In middle school I was on a youth group camping trip and a few of us went to a playground, spun around in tire swings and talked about the best way to die. One girl said she wanted to drown because it sounded romantic to drown. She leaned back to watch the sky circle above.

My family camped on Lake Michigan for a few summers, going for a week after the season was over when the water was the warmest it’d be for the year. The campground was nearly empty, the beach ours. Mom talked to us before going into the water. She told us about the undertow and what to do if we got pulled under, how to swim parallel to the shore, not to panic. We were strong swimmers. I went into deep water,  where the waves rolled before taking a cap and crashing. In water up to my chest, I could feel the suck of the water, pulling back into the lake, but my feet didn’t go from under me, the sand didn’t slip. I didn’t drown or almost drown or save anyone from drowning. I put goggles on, sank my belly to the bottom of the lake to pretend I was in the bigger ocean, touching the undulating sand and, for short moments, holding everything in my body still to feel the weight and weightlessness of water and death.

When Nathan died, we must have talked as residence hall staff. One of my friends lived on Nathan’s floor and told me the guys made a bulletin board in remembrance, writing notes about Nathan on small construction paper fish. I heard his parents were coming to clean out his side of a room he shared with another freshman boy. I had this idea that Nathan, now dead, could see the story I’d made up for us. Still when I think of this I am embarrassed, a little defensive, a little angry at all the alternate lives I’ve made and loosed while I wound my way to now – a small apartment in a suburb south of Seoul, a late thirties version of myself I couldn’t have thought up when I was twenty because this present version has stretch marks, Legos underfoot, a pretween daughter. But I keep thinking of this boy who died because he isn’t here to be any version of who he made up when he was out on his boat or his father’s boat each weekend.

We can be rich, easy with fantasy when we are nineteen or twenty. We can’t know any different then. Our years are long.

My brother was teaching in India when one of his students died in a car accident over a break. My brother wrote that as teachers we think we are adding to early parts of a person’s life with the introduction and encouragement of passions or pursuits, the space we make to hear a student’s theory or doubt, the sense we have about a student, that he or she will -. But sometimes we are adding to the last lines of a student’s life.

I think about how to close a piece of writing. I think about the revision and edits I make when I write. What makes a last line. One of my college composition classes I took my junior year, the year I met Nathan and the year he died, my professor told us to write a page from our autobiography. Page two twenty-something. I can’t remember what I wrote but I remember wondering how long the book was. Now I am thirty-six and thinking about Nathan and I can’t answer why that smile stays in my mind, why now I want to understand why he was finished then and I am not now. My page two twenty-something might be years away. I might have written it yesterday. I have this wrong view of how death might work.

A couple of years ago we were visiting my brother and his family in Nairobi, my niece’s friend Anna died. Anna was playing on a jungle gym in the yard of her family’s compound when she fell. She was in a coma for a couple of days. She was brain-dead. My sister-in-law came down the stairs one morning and I saw her tiredness, knew she had been awake praying for this family, praying for her own daughter who was going to lose a good friend. We were in Nairobi for the week after Anna died. At different points, we talked about the accident and death. Anna was eight or nine. She loved Jesus. At Anna’s memorial, her family described her kindness toward others, a sense of compassion already whole in short years, love in her conversation with and care for the needy around her. I look at my own daughter differently. I have this animal need to wrap my body around my daughter, around my son, when I think of either of them leaving this earth. I am not afraid but I am aware.

My sister-in-law, in her grief for this girl, wondered if God is merciful like this, allowing death to spare a greater suffering. Life is hard, she said. She spoke carefully. She spoke like she’d been thinking how to say why Anna died when we believe a God of miracles. And she said what some of us (how many of us) think when a person dies at the cusp of more because we want to think it matters, when a person dies. A death at eight or nineteen is different from a death at eighty-one. There must be reason.

When Nathan died I was sad in an abstract way. I was secure and insecure in my youth. I glanced at Nathan’s death. I was sad for his family but I didn’t know them and felt weird I’d even imagined knowing them at all. The made up visit to his home, the made up rock of his boat or his father’s boat, the made up smiles I’d win. Now I am sad in this way: he was spared but this suffering is sweet. This hard life is sweet. I have wished its end. I have made up escape.

Sometimes I think what I still need to get right. I forget the gospel. I am whole in Christ. The Spirit works in and through me to finish the good work begun. My wrong view of death comes from this idea that it’s the good work in my life that needs to finish – the good work in my small, forgettable life. But the good work spans time and place to tell God’s glory, to show his great power and love and I am a stroke of the pen. I might be a smudge in the margin. I might show up on two pages. I might be a footnote. I believe Nathan and Anna had more good life. They had suffering ahead, and sweetness. They had days of wonder and sorrow and rest ahead.

Nathan and Anna are repetends to me. I think of each irregularly. I did not know Nathan and I did not meet Anna but I think of them. I think of how their lines in the story show up in all sorts of books. How many of us in how many places know their lines in the story and how many of us in how many places are now shaped by their lines in the story, thinking about what it means to love a merciful and frightening God who can work the drowning of a boy, the sudden death of girl into a plot that holds. I don’t know how the plot holds. I haven’t gotten to that part yet.

Finding Form

Finding Form

I still want to figure out the lyric essay so I am practicing with baby essays. I don’t think the following is quite a lyric essay. But it’s a chunk I can work with, developing the strands of settling a new home, being a substitute teacher and running along the river. Maybe I’m too hung up on the idea of writing lyric essays and what I really need to do is write so prolifically I find my own form.

(Which I still hope is lyric essay).


Yesterday I subbed the last block before the weekend, a middle school strings class. About twenty kids came in the room, opened their instruments and started tuning. A few didn’t know how to tune their cellos or violins. One told me the teacher helps them, could I help them? I don’t know how, I said. To the class I asked anyone having trouble tuning to raise their hand and someone nearby would help and that’s what happened. Kids got up, stepped around open cases and music stands, plucked strings, drew a bow across. Heads bent to listen. The first violin played a note for everyone else to tune to. For the first minutes after, everyone practiced their own part of a song. I was standing where the conductor would stand but not on the box. I watched. I thought it was a mess but I liked it so I got out my phone and started to record.

Parts of this transition to Korea are easy. Running outside is easy, even in the rain, even in the humidity, because it feels like my whole body is lifting when I look up and see green hills or heavy clouds. There is so much rain that the river is muddy from runoff. Grasses on the banks and along the paths are flattened by sudden floods. One morning the river licked the path I raced. It was adventure.

Walking across the street for groceries is easy. I shop here the way I shop when we are traveling. I go into a store for milk and carrots and think it’d be nice to buy a zucchini too. I stop at the wines and pick one that doesn’t sound too sweet. I wander back across the street and cook something unremarkable which we eat at our big table before playing Uno or drifting to end the day.

Right now our apartment might be one we booked for a summer out of Kuwait. We learned places in the neighborhood, like where to get kimbap or fried chicken; we found a bike loop and ventured on a few longer rides with promises of a treat midway. I walk a little farther to get a latte served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and that feels like a holiday. Right now our apartment looks transient. One woman told me her boys referred to their apartment as the hotel, for two years. When I couldn’t find the colander to drain pasta, Justin didn’t know where it was either because we haven’t divided our cupboards much beyond where the plates go, where the flatware goes. My dresser drawers are full of winter running gear and the soap, shampoo, toothpaste and powder deodorant I wasn’t sure I’d find here (most of it is here) while the top of my dresser is a mound of clothes. I may as well have a suitcase open on the floor.

We have lived in Korea for one month. We just got our Alien Registration Cards (ARCs). We just got phone numbers and data plans. At school we are all learning something new. I told Justin my brain is full. My brain is like all those middle school strings students practicing their parts. If you listen you’ll pull measures of music from the cacophony. This is why I am so glad I have a river path to run in the morning.

When I run outside, I meditate imagine wander pray draft. The morning run is a gift. I return to the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t mind the repetition. I ask the same provision again and again. I want the Gospel in my heart. I count my sin, seek forgiveness, think how to repent this day. Such promise in the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread: because my daughter announced she doesn’t want to eat rice anymore and I miss cauliflower and I still haven’t figured out our oven. And lead us

I like to break there. I like to think about what it means to choose, what it means to follow.

not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Such mercy.

When I ask for God’s kingdom to come here, for his will to be done here, what I am asking is for the love of our Father and his righteousness to work in and through us. I think what our apartment is when God’s kingdom is present, when his will is at work in each of us individually and together. I want that so I ask again and again. What do we become, in love?

What cacophonous practice. God works our hearts in different ways so we are what the people near us need.

This is what happened yesterday: the middle schoolers finished practicing their parts and one boy counted the tempo, the rest of the students readied their bows and they started to play. It held together and then started to come undone. The boy looked around, nodding at his classmates to tell them faster or slower or it’s your part now. I only watched. They all continued to play. A couple of students spoke aloud, directions to one another. For a moment it seemed the song would quit. Then the melody found itself and the students were at the same measure at the same tempo and it sounded like music I would close my eyes to hear better.

Found Sonnet: Comments On Charlottesville

A couple of years ago I thought it’d be fun to write a found sonnet composed of comment snips. I got the idea when one of my advanced creative writing students led a writing exercise via YouTube music and I got lost in a very impassioned comment scroll. Back then I pictured humor or snark or dreamscape lifted from rage, sincerity and screed.

Last week I was thinking about finding a sonnet in the comments when Charlottesville happened. I read a lot. I delved into comments. There are so many voices. I kept thinking about the issues surrounding the Charlottesville march and protest, how anguished I am by racial hate. Living abroad, I sometimes feel useless as an American citizen, watching and thinking about my country but not present to effect immediate change. I wrote about all of this. I’m still writing about it. I pray. For years I’ve asked God to help me see people as people. I don’t want a burden of assumptions. So I ask the same for all of us, that our prejudices are stripped and we see the inherent worth of the men women children here and far away. While that doesn’t answer centuries of oppression, seeing clearly reshapes our daily interactions with neighbors. I ask for more love. I ask Christ for heart change.

My rule for a found poem is to keep as much of an excerpt intact as possible, including errors and typography. I may shorten an excerpt to fit a line or space but not to change its meaning. I may play with syntax of an excerpt but not to change its meaning. For a mixed found poem, I do not identify one excerpt as different from the next. For citations, I reference the piece(s) from which excerpt(s) are pulled.

The following sonnet is sonnet-ish. I kept the line count, aimed for the Petrarchan structure of eight-line stanza answered by a six-line stanza but squidged the per line syllable count and chucked the rhyme scheme.


After Charlottesville, After Heather Heyer

Mr. President – we must call evil by its
name. These were white supremacists and this
was domestic terrorism. It’s all about
upholding the debased ideal of the white
male as earth’s ruling class. I’m sick of the
idea that “both sides are causing this” — which
is exactly what DT’s tweet said. Just once
can an official say, This is right, that is wrong?
Just effing once? BOTH sides are not the same.

– always will.” 25 years ago a co-
worker, angry and envious I was moving
ahead, walked into work one night, handed me
a letter that said “Hitler was right.” “You
[we] will fix it, as you [we] always have and –

 

 

 

From comments on this NY Times piece and New York Magazine piece

One Week In

One Week In

We are in Korea! This piece comes from my notebook. While drafting, I used present and past tense. I decided to keep all the first week experiences in present tense because that’s what being in a new place feels like. And because I like to play with form, I structured the piece in short paragraphs, again to echo the content. During revision, I read closely to check the order of images and ideas. During a later revision I might think how to braid the images better. Right now the paragraphs are like single snapshots. It reminds me of picking up a photo envelope at Walgreens and flipping through quickly to check it’s yours. That’s why I insert more paragraph breaks, to slow the flipping.

I am returning to fiction drafts this fall (no professional pages or cover letters to write!). Right now, oddly, I am more comfortable sharing chunks of my life than showing fiction narrative. I need to get further into that work again, before I post from any of it.


One Week In

I eat bibimbap on the plane. The lunch comes with an instruction card. Add the sesame oil, add the chili paste. Mix it, eat it. I sit cramped in economy thinking how lucky I am to move to a country whose food I like.

A few nights ago we find a restaurant friends recommended, ordered bibimbap and ramen. Claire calls the ramen spicy but eats it anyway. She drinks four cups of water. Grant likes the bap. We share a kimbap roll. Justin adds more sweet chili to his bowl.

I can’t figure out how to eat the ramen. The noodles slip off the spoon. There is no fork. I bend my head right over the bowl to slurp.

Today I ask a colleague how she eats noodle soup. She catches the noodles with chopsticks.

I go to five grocery stores and one small market. The box of nectarines I buy are actually plums, as good in cereal. I think, Why would I suppose nectarines would be so small here?

All the aisles are new. I go through a grocery store slowly, walking up and down each aisle to see what’s hiding. I can’t read any of the signs. Claire and I lean close to a cellophane package to see what those things are. They are tiny dried fish with dark dots for eyes.

Because no one has time to cook anymore, or no one has time to cook the many sides that land at a Korean table, a grocery store might feature a cooler of soy sauce black beans and marinated lotus root and chopped pickled vegetables.

I pay fourteen dollars for two hundred grams unsalted butter. I buy long slender cucumbers for two dollars apiece. I spend thirty dollars on a bottle of wine that cost half that this summer home.

I learn that cauliflower is near impossible to find. So are green beans.

We will eat a lot of cabbage. This will be no problem for me.

I buy a bag of bean sprouts because I will always be able to buy a bag of bean sprouts. At home that night, I rinse a bowl of sprouts and eat them raw which is probably the worst way to eat bean sprouts.

Claire complains I am killing her when we go for a walk up a hill in our neighborhood. She stops on the sidewalk and refuses to go one step further so I walk on without her, up the hill. Soon she is at my side again, to complain about walking, to stop and start. She says, My feet hurt. I hate this. This is your fault.

This is my fault. I split blame with Justin that we are here, walking on sidewalks. One morning I am so mad at the unceasing complaints I turn to Claire and say, Look where we are. We can see trees and a stream and mountains here. I say, Mahboula was a shitty neighborhood. We couldn’t walk like this.

But this is my fault: everything is new: unfamiliar: unusual: awful. We arrive to where we are walking and I take my sandals off to show Claire a blister on my heel, another on my toe. We are all getting used to walking, I say.

I run in the morning saying thank you.

I run in the morning along the river because I am afraid of getting lost at street level and because the river is quiet. But busy. So many are walking, sometimes elaborating their stride with claps to the front and back, alternating arm raises, open and closed hands, fist pounds to the lower abdomen. Occasionally I pass someone walking backwards.

Koreans have a long life expectancy, which I learn from a video shown during orientation. I also learned that when the country was set to default a global debt, men and women lined up at banks to donate their gold. I almost cry thinking about that.

One morning I run in mist that turns to rain. Few people are out. The cicadas are quiet.

Grant is interested in cicadas so we google them. Such ugly insects!

Dragonflies are out. They jump and weave through the air.

One morning I am running and need a toilet. There are public toilets along the river path but I don’t know if you need a coin or if the toilet is pit or squat or clean. I open the door. The toilets are clean. Piano music plays. Over the sink is a button for police emergencies.

I eat a red bean popsicle because it’s such an odd idea. I like it. Justin likes it. All week I try food like this, taking a little of each dish at orientation lunches. My friend Kate told me that Korean food is very one note, like the same flavors are repackaged for the next meal. Another colleague said that at one point during her first year here she couldn’t eat kimchi anymore.

If the kids stop liking rice, we’re in trouble.

Last spring I ordered dried seaweed on Amazon and couldn’t talk Claire or Grant into trying it. Eat these like chips, I said. At dinner this week I have a package open and Grant takes a leaf, like drawing from an Uno pile. He eats it, asks for more.

I find a new favorite Starbucks drink, an iced oatmeal latte. It is a just sweet enough and served with a scoop of puffed cereal and dried fruit on top.

We meet friends for an afternoon at a Lego play cafe. Grant and Claire choose kits and sit at low tables, building a pet shop or plane, putting the finished work in a clear plastic bin to be disassembled for the next kid.

Someone says that  during our time in Korea we’ll see things that prompt the thought Why isn’t that everywhere? and other times we’ll see things that prompt the thought What the.

Justin read the recycling rules and I laughed like it was stand up.

At Starbucks I see people layer three or four sleeves the length of their cups.

The compost bin is inscrutable to us yet so we put a ziplock of food waste in the freezer to keep it from stinking our kitchen.

I iron clothes for the first time in a decade.

I scrub a toilet for the first time in a decade.

I learn there is a woman looking for housekeeping work and say, Yes. Please. Please get us in touch.

We have no SIM cards. I have no data on my phone so while waiting at a curb I am not checking messages or reading a map of where we are or seeing how many stars this chicken place has. Claire and I get lost on a ten minute walk from our apartment but it feels enough like an adventure neither of us are cross. Blessing.

I will probably have no idea where I am going for another year or two. People reference a neighborhood or landmark or say “in the city” and none of it means anything yet. My concept of space and distance is skewed. The first morning I head out for a run I stop an American woman to ask which direction the path goes and learn the Han river is seventeen or eighteen miles away. Seoul is suddenly much bigger.

On bus rides to and from school I look out the window. The blocks of  apartment towers all look the same. At street level there is an overwhelming amount of signage. A colleague and I remark how ordered and pretty Korean letters are, how lovely the language sounds, soft babbling with upticks.

I only know one Korean word now.

Kamsahamnida.

I have to practice it in my head before opening my mouth. I ask the convenience store clerk, Did I say that right?

Kuwait Was

Kuwait Was

My last morning in Kuwait I woke to the first call to prayer. Hussein, who works with his two sons providing gate security for our building, sings the first call. He has a morning voice. He clears his throat, hits off key. He wakes us during summer months before three in the morning. Sometimes I drift back to sleep but on my last morning I lay between wake and sleep, not ready for the day. I got up and ran the last kilometers I’d log on my treadmill, patted its control panel. I drank the last Caribou Coffee I’d have delivered to my apartment. Then I went through the day. A little scramble. A little still.

At points in each pregnancy, I wanted the baby born. I wanted the slow turning baby inside to be out and I didn’t want to wait the days she or he needed. And at points in each pregnancy, I wanted the baby to wait because I wasn’t ready for the squall of new life in my arms. This last year in Kuwait was like that, wanting the last day to come, wanting the last day to wait.

I thought the end of Kuwait would see the sum of many parts equaling a more complete me.

The last two weeks in Kuwait were full. I was tired. Our family was tired. We went from one visit to the next and found joy in those conversations, shared meals, but we were tired too. Our apartment was a mess of open suitcases labeled Wisconsin To Seoul, Wisconsin To Stay. There were piles of laundry, books, papers. The night we left, another couple came for our mattress. We left furniture I’d used well, a kitchen counter and my writing desk. I didn’t need to worry about leaving an empty space. Our nanny, Emy, and her friends came to clear out the place, taking what they might use or sell.

Be generous at the end, or try.

I was so tired at the end of that last day. We said goodbye to dear friends. We ordered pizza. Later, Grant and I sat at one end of the couch, he eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream Emy dished for him, me taking pleasure in the sound of his spoon clinking the glass bowl, taking pleasure in the fun he had eating ice cream after bedtime. He and I spent many nights on that couch his first year. I could see in the dark, the street light glow, could see his suck and swallow at my breast. After a couple of months he nursed efficiently enough I could drift a little, dream a little. I knew the time by the traffic outside our building.

Justin said it was time to go. He’d taken our luggage to the courtyard and then loaded the bus we’d take to the airport. And very suddenly I didn’t want to go. I looked in our kids’ bedroom, at the graffitied bunk bed. I glanced into our room, the left behind rugs, towels, lamps. It was the last moment that space belonged to me, with me standing in its middle.

See what you will miss, or try.

The night before we left Colombia I didn’t sleep. I lay awake sure we were making a mistake, feeling that in my belly. The crunch and ache of loss for a place where we had adventure, made a baby, decided the way of our life was to live far away from home.

Now we have many homes.

In the courtyard Hussein wanted pictures with the kids. Young Hussein shook our hands. Nasser woke to say goodbye to us. These men saw us daily, greeted us kindly, lifted the kids when they were little, gave high fives when they were older. These men left their wives and children in Egypt to work in Kuwait. That moment at the gate – you can’t hold on to anything. Yellow brick building, cement courtyard, palm trees out front. I boarded the bus.

There’s a window walled bowling alley near the apartments. I looked over as we left the neighborhood and saw a group of young men in white dishdashas sending bowling balls down the lanes. I was never able to pretend Kuwait was any place but Kuwait, except for rare late mornings in bed, looking out the window at a sky that might be anywhere.

Teaching Fun! A Poetry Reading Exercise

I’m teaching a middle school summer session enrichment class. Reading and Writing Workshop. Every year I do something a little different than the year before. This time, summer school began  just after I finished a two day professional development workshop with a visiting Columbia University professor, Sheridan Blau. For two days we talked about reading and writing. I loved it. Professor Blau offered practiced classroom activities. We read poetry and wrote commentaries. We talked about what a commentary is. Conversation wandered into philosophical ends of education. All of this I loved. I want more opportunities like this, to nudge my content knowledge and teaching enthusiasm, and at the end of those two days, I wondered how much ambivalence or discouragement in this profession might be reckoned by a few days of thoughtful, practical PD.

And application. In the middle of the first poetry reading exercise I thought, I’m using this. Here it is:

Read the poem three times
Each time, underline words/ phrases/ parts you don’t know or understand (use different colored pencils, inks or highlighters if you have them)
Make margin notes as needed
At the end of each reading, rate your understanding of the piece (1low – 10high)
At the end of each reading, ask a question or two
After three readings, write the story of your reading

One thing Professor Blau emphasized is the value of rereading. We need to encourage more of that. Students who might not understand much after a first reading will probably understand more after a second and third reading. More yet after writing about their reading. More yet after talking with others about the reading.

I think a lot about time and flow in the classroom. This particular reading exercise requires sustained attention to a single piece of literature. The order and repetition of tasks is a kind of promise that you too can glean something from this poem you’ve never seen before, just by following directions. The process sets the reader up for success. Everyone has something to say about the piece. Everyone has an unanswered question.

The other day I tried this exercise with a small group of middle schoolers. We read “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I chose this poem because it’s short. It’s a little, nonthreatening vignette. You don’t need to feel super smart to get a picture in your mind. I appreciate how literally accessible imagist poetry is.

We read the poem three times, marking lines and notes. Depending on age group, you might pause after each reading so all students catch up before starting the next reading. First time through, you might say aloud each step. Do this exercise along with your students. Be surprised by your own new reading.

This time, my reading hinged on the line “Forgive me.” A kind of command, softened by lack of punctuation. No period, no exclamation point, but no question mark either. I say prayers like that, with the expectation God forgives. I drop the please. This time I thought why there is no sorry first.

One of the students noticed the language too. When we talked as a group, the question came up, How old is the speaker? A couple of boys pictured a kid because the action, eating fruit meant for later, calling it delicious and sweet, seemed childish to them. But another kid raised the point that the kid doesn’t say sorry. Wouldn’t a kid say sorry? I asked what the relationship might be, between the speaker and to whom he is speaking. Child/ parent. Spouses. And which makes more sense? Spouses. Because of the line “Forgive me” instead of any apology first.

Then one boy said, What if it’s about more? I thought we were done talking about the poem. I was happy we figured out what an ice box was and glad the group talked about voice. I hadn’t been sure what we might find when we read. I asked what he meant. What if he’s sorry for something else he did? Like what? Something he shouldn’t have. A couple of other boys nodded. Why do you think that? Because fruit isn’t that big a deal, we decided.

I extended our discussion by showing a few other poems by Williams Carlos Williams. Just looking at the shape of each piece, what do you notice? They’re all short. We talked about Williams’s career as a doctor, how he wrote poems on prescription pads in his office. I love this detail about Williams’s writing. When I bring it up in classes, I ask students how the shape of their notebook or screen influences how or what they write.

A couple of days later, we returned to this exercise, reading “I Died For Beauty, But Was Scarce” by Emily Dickinson.

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, -the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

I chose this poem because it isn’t so simple as eating cold, sweet plums your wife was saving for breakfast. This poem challenges a young reader, vocabulary first. Once we sorted out scarce, adjoining, brethren and kinsmen, we had an odd scene to think about. The group was more attentive to the steps of the reading exercise this time and during discussion, we went quickly to the philosophical: are truth and beauty equal? Can an ugly truth be beautiful? How do you die for beauty? And then the image of moss reaching our lips. Why moss? Maybe because it’s gross to say our tongues are eaten by worms and that’s why we can’t talk anymore. But what about truth and beauty being family?

We talked more about how we read the poem, about how much nicer it is to reread and grip the content of a piece and, by the third reading or as you write the story of your reading, form an idea about the piece’s meaning. But better to talk after reading, to compare your understanding with others’ and ask questions, take a thought prompted by literature and talk about what it means to you. Earlier this year I had a conversation with a colleague about the intended social nature of reading, how we add to one another’s understanding because each of us have different perceptions/ associations/ experiences and the whole wandering conversation opens doors in our understanding of literature but also of people.

I love that about reading, teaching literature. Let us go humbly to these conversations.

 

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

All the feelings! This time of year is wild/ unfun/ sad/ exhausting/ promising for international teachers. I wanted to find a way to put all of the following in one coherent piece but I’m tired and decided to just share the whole deal in three parts.

Sometime Two Weeks Ago: Selling The Car

I’ve been fraying. A few weeks ago my friend Pamela looked around the apartment and said it could be emptied in three hours. You’d be surprised, she said. At the end of our first year here, someone in the singles apartment shoved a couch out the window and since then I’ve imagined doing the same, just chucking stuff out the window to watch it smash. My high school art teacher told me that’s what he did when his pottery didn’t fire right. He took the contents of the kiln behind a building and threw the plates, bowls, pots at brick wall. Clay leaving chalk marks on the brick, the fine sift of dust. I don’t need to throw anything out the window, it’s just something that sounds fun that I should have done when I was twenty because now it’d get me in too much trouble. When Grant picks up a loose paving stone on a walk and drops it again and again to see how it lands in the grass or sand or on concrete, I tell him to watch his toes. I’m curious how many drops before it cracks too.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Justin what he needed. I’ve been doing this for months, asking what he needs or what Claire or Grant needs, because I’m so keen on having a good farewell to Kuwait that I don’t want to error as wife or mom, missing a moment or experience or conversation that will best exit us from here and shuttle us on to Seoul. On Saturday I realized this was a reach from the start. I took the kids to the Avenues for a last walk around before Ramadan starts. Claire said it was dumb, why’d we have to go, Seoul will have malls too. And I said to her, But I can look around here and see you and Grant when you were toddlers. I won’t have that in Seoul. She patted my arm, gave me a hug. This is difficult, to pay attention to four people at once. Later that afternoon, after a tremendous cry in my bedroom, after Claire and Grant apologized for not listening the first time, after I assured them it wasn’t that, not really, I did say: We have to figure out how to do this together.

Claire and Grant are big enough to get that we are a family together. They get that Justin and I can only do so much. Claire and Grant need to help us be a family too. Some of this has nothing to do with moving. That’s how being a family works. We have a lot going on. And some of what’s happening – not listening, scrapping in the backseat, me yelling in the kitchen – it would happen if we weren’t moving. We’d still have to figure things out. But since we are moving, each of us has heightened emotional responses. Like dropping a grocery bag and breaking glass jars lands me in my bedroom sobbing. It’s like being a teenager. Or pregnant.

When I asked Justin what he needed he said he needed to sell the car. We’d sold his Pajero, but still had my Kia. He posted the sale online, I called a name another teacher passed along, we stopped at car rental places after school. Our Kia is two years too old, one rental agent said. There are too many cars, he said. We asked what a fair price would be, to ask for our too old Kia, and he suggested we knock about two thousand dollars off our asking price, already down about the same from expected US resale.  He shrugged. No one wanted the car. I thought we might just give it away.

Then we got a call from Sathvik on a Friday afternoon. He showed up with cash in a plastic grocery bag. We sold just below the Kuwait range, on argument that to pass inspection Sathvik may need to replace the pocked hood and chipped windshield. Fair enough. This year when Justin took his car for reregistration, the inspector turned him away for thumb sized scuff on the front passenger door. The guy must not have liked the look of Justin. Sathvik is Indian. A few guys might not like the look of him. In a land that runs on stamps and squiggled signatures, you need a little right place right time luck and a lot of acquiescence. Some nationalities need a little (lot) more luck and acquiescence than we do. I remember years ago asking Adam, a Sudanese man who helps the school with paperwork, how he handled the seeming whim of offices: you go one day and are told to return the next, you return the next and you are told you need an additional stamp, you get the additional stamp and you are told the date on the original document is wrong and now you must begin again. We’d just watched a woman behind the counter shout and fling a file of papers to the floor. Adam said, Sarah, no, when he sensed I was about to stand. We both needed me to be nice. We were next. He has managed nearly two decades of paperwork by letting others be bigger than he is, by saying yes with a smile. Justin painted white out on the scuff and was waved through the next inspection.

Continue reading

Long Narrative Poem

The story behind this poem and a link to the full piece is below.

Amy And Ali Get Married

Our marriage is not just a piece of paper
Our marriage is many pieces of paper

First, a letter via the US Embassy in Bayan,
by appointment. First, a letter with signatures
and stamps vouching Amy is presently
unmarried so able to marry Ali who is allowed
(but will not take) three more wives
after this first marriage, his to Amy

This letter in hand, Amy takes a number
251
waits under fluorescent light in a big room
before she is redirected to a small room
off to one side, the ladies’ waiting room
which provides women privacy from stares
and which is also mostly ignored. She sits
alone, watching through the doorframe
all the men go to the counters. She calls Ali
to say she doesn’t think anyone will
remember her here. She returns to the big
fluorescent room and the electricity flickers,
the red number counter goes black, the lights
hum back on but no one is counting whose
turn it is

She waits with letter in hand so she can
marry the Lebanese man she didn’t imagine
when she left Illinois five years ago. She waits
among men who shuffle around her to make
their way to a counter where papers are
thumbed. She waits until the red number
counter blinks on and now
1083
she has missed her
turn! She weaves, nudges her way forward,
shows her number
251
smiles winningly
and waits for the man to look at her letter,
reach for a stamp, sign it so she can chase
the next piece of paper. But the man doesn’t
reach for a stamp or pen. He looks up at Amy who
is still smiling and he says, Go to America, get this
stamped, come back
No
and I will stamp
No

Amy leaves the big fluorescent room, walks into
midday winter, calls Ali who arrives in his car, leaves
it running while they sit in the front seat thinking
how to get married now

Read the complete poem: Amy And Ali Get Married Story behind the poem:

One day I sat at the teacher table during lunch and caught the end of Amy’s story about getting married here. The story has a lot of parts. I asked her to retell it. While I listened I thought two things: one, this should be an essay; two, is this mine to tell? But even as Amy was finally standing before a judge and legally marrying Ali, I could see her story in paragraphs and dialogue. I was imagining how many people might love to read the absurdity, not of marrying, but of marrying here, of the many turns you must take to get anything done within this particular bureaucracy. Paperwork snags here. It might be another stamp you need or a particular official who is now traveling or a law that changed two weeks ago. So while many of us haven’t been married in Kuwait, we recognize the wait times, the scavenger hunt, the comic frustration of compiling and re-compiling documents for (seemingly) whim approval. We recognize the exhausted or furious relief at obtaining chased visa or certificate or registration.

I thought about interviewing Amy and Ali, writing their marriage in those blocks of text I saw as Amy spoke. But as I’ve been considering whose story [this] is to tell, I’ve also been thinking about audience and purpose. So when I first thought about writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story, I wondered why their particular paperwork chase appealed to me and why I wanted anyone else to read it and the answer is: I am curious. I like to read and watch and listen to other peoples’ stories because I only get one life. There is a lot of the world I will never see. There are a lot of adventures and routes I won’t take. And the answer is: you are curious too. The purpose of writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story is to show you what it’s like to navigate paperwork. But more. Amy and Ali are a cross-cultural couple who encountered some prejudice as they pursued legal marriage. This is a rich and challenging commitment, choosing to love someone whose family/ religion/ ethnicity/ culture is so different than your own.

As for whether this is my story to tell, I spoke with Amy shortly after that lunch. I rethought my essay approach. Instead, I chose to draft a narrative poem. I chose poetry for the flexibility offered to form and language. I drafted just enough to know the piece could work and then spoke with Amy. I asked permission to write their marriage story. I decided the final piece would be to her and Ali, a wedding gift of sorts. Knowing that helped me choose which details to include. I took some liberty with narrative voice. I had direction too, to trace Amy and Ali’s love over each step. Early in the drafting, I returned to Amy to get a better sequence of events. I spoke with her about using some of my own images in the piece, pulling from my own experience of waiting rooms or government offices here. I did not speak with Ali before or during drafting, relying instead on one version of the story to tell the whole, but I also trusted my intent to honor Amy and Ali with this work. At the end of drafting, I shared the whole piece with Amy, fact-checked and revised a few things and waited for her to read the final version with Ali before sharing here. Ali corrected a piece of information which I included in the poem with an asterisk.

This poem is to Amy and Ali but it is for all of us to read. Both are fine with me sharing this work with you. As I continue to play with this piece, I will share its revisions with Amy and Ali. When/ if the piece it published in some form, it is first to the two of them, with my hope for their good marriage.