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.

The New Normal: Tales From International School Teachers

The New Normal: Tales From International School Teachers

This book supports Children of Haiti Project! Curated by Matt Minor and Kevin A. Duncan and featuring

Stories from 24 countries including: Colombia,​ Costa Rica,  Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, USA, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Vietnam

Please visit the book’s (fantastic!) student created site to learn more. I love the collaborative effort of this finished work.

You can purchase a copy at Amazon or Createspace to support COHP.

Part Five: Cubic Meters Of Stuff

Part Five: Cubic Meters Of Stuff

When I was in college I read about pioneer women. My family teases me about this because for two or three years I was obsessed. I read books about the trails heading west of Missouri, fascinated by the risks men and women took to stake a claim or meet a spouse or carve a house into dirt when the chance of finding gold or growing a crop was about as good as dying of cholera or going crazy on the prairie. I loved the women. I read their diaries while huddled in a dark booth at the back of the campus coffeehouse, scratching notes in my composition book and flagging pages. I color-coded entries. Like red for illness and death, blue for family or marriage, green for wagon trains. One of my writing professors encouraged my idea to write poetry and narrative based on these women’s experiences so I spent a semester putting together a portfolio Chasing The Sun.

I romanticized the freedom I imagined pioneer women must have sensed, cutting ties to a familiar place. That was very much what I wanted when Justin and I moved abroad. I remember envying pioneer women: they had no Skype.

Now I better appreciate invisible tethers to home. I feel pulls to Wisconsin, Colombia and occasionally Italy, where I was born. But I also feel pulls to places I’ve been only briefly, like Vienna or Budapest, Nairobi, Wadi Rum in Jordan, and imagine this is being a pioneer woman. The belly stir of guessing where we might settle next, connections we rope around the world.

But here is something else I read about the pioneer woman, that when she left a homestead she might first sweep or dust, closing the door to a tidy room, or she might climb up the wagon wheel to join her husband on the buckboard, leaving behind crumbs and a burned skillet on the sawhorse table.

Our last spring in Colombia I came home one afternoon to see a spare apartment. No pictures or mirrors left on the walls, no candles or cloths on end tables, no knick knacks or postcards on the kitchen counter. I found our “us clutter” in a suitcase, breakables wrapped in newspaper or dish towels. I put everything back in its place. We were only in Colombia for two years and clearing the walls and tabletops of stuff took a couple of hours. We’ve been in Kuwait nearly eight years. I might leave a skillet on the table when I go.

We bought our dining table at the end of our first year. I was proud of its sturdiness and shine. I liked sitting our family at one end for dinner or having friends fill the chairs for weekend breakfast. We spend a lot of time at this table. One spring break we turned the table into an art studio, leaving paints and brushes and papers out all week, drifting to and from the watercolor and India ink. Justin and kids construct Lego scenes on the table, each of them working on a different part until the restaurant, bank and pet shop line up. I write at this table sometimes, at night, under the shadow of bad overhead lighting. Justin spends the weekend typing work for his masters classes. During Christmas, this table fills with cookies cooling, icing setting. Lately, we play Uno, crazy eights or Qwirkle with the kids before bed.

I have pounded my fists on the dining table too and sat slumped over its cool shine. Justin and I argue across from each other. We get up and leave, go to another room. The kids refuse to eat what I fix at this table. I sat at this table one morning, holding Grant to my breast, and asked Justin to please not go to school today, the sky outside just lightening to another long short day. This is the table I drop my bags on, when I come in. I leave my jacket hanging over a chair.

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Long Pause, Planning & Please Let This Work

I have two projects I wanted to work on throughout the school year and now it’s April. I have been thinking about these two projects while doing nothing. Usually I say count daydreaming as drafting. Perhaps I can. One of the projects is to write about the bathroom ladies. In Kuwait, there are bathroom ladies who keep the bathrooms cleaned and stocked, who sit on plastic stools when they aren’t wiping down sinks and faucets, who accept leftovers from The Cheesecake Factory as a tip, who stay inside a bathroom longer than my working day.  I just think, what an interesting life. Maybe it’s great employment given prospects in their home country. Maybe it’s degrading. Maybe it’s weird to accept someone else’s leftover pasta as a thank you for wiping an already clean toilet seat. Or maybe the pasta is really good. Sometimes I wonder why people come to Kuwait. Some workers here are promised one kind of job and arrive to another. So I wonder, what did these women expect? What have they found? What do they enjoy? What do they wish? I wonder what workers here left behind and if they think this day is worth that loss.

These aren’t new thoughts for me. I know a few of the bathroom ladies I see regularly. And now I want to tell their stories. Even then, there are barriers. Language. Purpose. I started to wonder how one-sided this project might feel. I want to interview these women about why they chose to leave their homes and the minute I form that question with her face in my mind, I also see my face and wonder why I’m asking. Over the year I’ve wondered about my intent. I think speaking with bathroom ladies, telling their stories, gives voice to a microcosm of Kuwait. There is this idea of examining something small to tell a bigger story. The thing is, I don’t like the bigger story I see when I zoom out. There are a lot of unchecked labor practices in the region. Part of me wanted to examine recruitment, contracts and visas, the unfulfilled promises given these workers. Part of me wanted to hold these women up as martyrs of a kind, paid nearly nothing to send money home to children they see once every two or three or four years. And I do think that’s a story worth telling. This region can be difficult to document. So much about poor treatment of laborers, maids and nannies is hearsay and anecdotal but that doesn’t imply a story isn’t there to tell. Just that as I thought about my intent – writing about bathroom ladies – I had to reckon my reflex to tell a flat story of a poor bathroom lady against an oil rich backdrop. I don’t have the desire or resources to write a sweeping vilification of labor practices in a country dependent on migrant workers. More, I do not believe that honors the women I want to write about.

My first thought about the bathroom ladies was only to know more who they are. Several years ago I met a woman who likes to draw once her bathroom is tidy. I saw a few of her sketches. There is one woman I see who reads her tiny Bible in a corner. A couple of ladies watch an Indian soap opera on the tiny screen of a phone. So I am returning to that first thought, shaping an essay that tells more who these women are.

Last month I asked one woman if she’d sit with me and talk, tell me a little about her life. She agreed. I’ll speak with her soon. This week I will ask two others to speak with me, but the challenge is language. I remember the first time one woman, newly arrived from Nepal, said hello to me in English and I just thought how lazy I am that I live abroad so easily, assuming everyone everywhere knows a little English. The two women I want to include in the essay do not speak much English. We’ve communicated with facial expression and gesture. I have to figure this part out. I may check my church for translators.

My vision for the bathroom ladies piece is to write a lyric essay. There are so many beautiful and startling images to include and I believe the strength of this piece will be its pauses. What I want is for the essay to show who these three women are.

Perhaps I have been working on this piece all year. I’ve talked about it with a couple of friends. I’ve thought the best way to go about it. For a while I was unsure how much I wanted to appear in the essay. My complicated feelings about entitlement, shame and pity. My alternate apathy and anger at my fortune and others’ (perceived) misfortune. My mess of self-righteousness and prayer for humility. My wrestle with how much blessing Christ really bestows on the poor. I feel like a lot of this comes up for me when I think of my relationship to and with bathroom ladies in Kuwait because for years I’ve asked my perception to shift to see these women as women, not any way lesser for their poverty, not to be pitied, only as equal in worth and counted better than myself. One day I might find a way to say this, what is to love the poor and the rich when I might be called either in this country. But right now, with the months I have left here, my writing work is to listen first.

Considering Criticism & Rewriting As Revision

In December I submitted this essay for publication. I received brief editorial comments on the piece earlier this month:

Need to stick to a focus/theme and tell a story that supports it. I think the theme is that she was going through similar life changes, questioning, forming an identity much like her senior class. But there is no story to show this. As I read it, I can identify this theme, but then if you were to ask me for examples from the story that support this theme, I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea why this class was so memorable to her because there is no small story to show it. She jumps form “this class meant a lot to me, we were going through the same thing” to “I was sad to say goodbye” There needs to be a middle part.

Everything that doesn’t support this theme should be cut so that the focus is maintained throughout the piece.

Sentence structure is very loose. It is hard to follow at times. I get lost in run on sentences and fragments. It sounds like a stream of conscious thinking instead of well formed sentences.

I thought What a jerk. I do not know the editor. I don’t have a name. She is a she but I don’t know if that matters. I reread the comments at each stoplight on my drive home, adding to my argument against her points. This isn’t supposed to be a five paragraph personal narrative. This is associative on purpose. It’s a lyric essay (or another of my half dozen attempts). Fragments aren’t evil! The core of her critique is not knowing why the class matters at all and I thought about that between lights, tried to list scenes that illustrate why that group is important to me and I realized those senior English classes matter mostly because people and places near us when we figure something out or grow or stumble are entwined with our figuring out, growing or stumbling.

What I don’t understand is why I entwined my growth with three dozen teenagers whose names and faces, along with mine, fade to single memories summing a whole year, or why I felt urgently sentimental enough to write an essay about it.

But I did. And then I got a critique. And called a faceless editor a jerk. But when I got home and reread my entire essay I cringed. It is hard to follow. You really  have no idea why I like this class. I cram too much in a small space, ruminations that might sound whiny or didactic. I copy/ pasted the whole piece and kept the word cut in my head, paring down to the idea of parallel experiences. I still didn’t have a good single story to illustrate love for a class roster I’d need to look up to fully remember. But I found a better way in to explaining the year. Revision included a lot of new writing, big cuts, and rearranging. I did this because I want to publish and how will I ever manage that if I don’t practice applying editorial critique? The following essay is different and better than the original.


Growing Into Who I Am

The college essay feels intimidating from the start. Admissions committees judge your merit on GPA, letters of recommendation and the essay you hope shouts like me! Choose me! When I introduce the essay in September, students stress about which prompt might show them best. The first week of drafting is like watching a group of friends pose for pictures, turning a head first this way and then that, popping a hip, kissing the camera, brushing hair from the face, trading a smile for a smirk. They don’t know what they want to say about who they are. They don’t totally know who they are.

Last year I felt much the same. My seniors were choosing a future they couldn’t see. During their college essay drafting and revision work, conversations echoed from one student to the next. Tareq wanted to be a doctor, maybe, or an engineer. Nadine was interested in business. No one wanted to be a literature teacher. I thought how I got here. One afternoon I drafted my own essay, written from the other side of college after things have mostly turned out alright: Why I Am Still An English Teacher. Just as my classes were thinking up small stories to illustrate how compassionate or curious they were, I was mining my years in the classroom for reasons why I’d returned that fall. For years, I admitted, I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher. I thought I was more a writer. I was waiting to be more a writer.

But what happened, I explained, is that I practiced teaching day after day after day and became a good teacher. What happened is we moved abroad and teaching was my job. What happened is I found enough joy in the classroom to stay. As I wrote my essay and then modeled expansion and cuts with my classes, I thought how much becoming a teacher mirrors the writing process. So much messy work at the start. A few gorgeous images. But over the academic years, smoother transitions and more hearty middle paragraphs, perhaps even a bold imitation of another’s style.

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