I Touch My Face A Lot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aggressive Drafting

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

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

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

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

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

Portland, Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One

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Give Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Year To The Next

I started my thirty-ninth year thinking things would just turn out. I was newly recovered from an injury, running again. My kids were settling better, their second year at our new school. Good friends had just  moved to Korea. I had a writing project to occupy my mind. I decided to return to the English classroom, and applied for an opening. I was just beginning to see a shape for our time in Korea and I was cooking dinner again, sometimes. The year just had to be good. 

I was steady enough that I started going to therapy to work out a few sticking points, address wounds. That check in was essential when I was not hired for a classroom position at our school. I wondered if a midlife crisis was waking up at midnight to run and cry. I did not know what to do. I had just assumed I would have a place in the English department and losing that meant I could not retreat to a familiar, comfortable role. Subbing kills me, at least once a week. Nicking pride, mostly, killing self. So I started retooling my image of the next year or two. I decided I had to figure out how to stand in a roomful of kindergarteners and find a snip of joy to keep my shoulders from tightening. 

I also decided to apply to MFA programs. I was afraid of wasting my time when subbing is an unusual professional gift. Here I have a job that is taxing in the weirdest ways during the workday but leaves my mind largely free to create. I may track my way through the elementary, middle and high schools on a single day, but I am not also consumed by prep or marking work. So I spent the winter researching low residency MFA programs, and the spring revising a fiction portfolio and compiling essays about why I want to be part of this program, where I see myself in the literary landscape, which writers I admire or learn from. 

Also in the spring my body fell apart. It was odd to pursue an MFA, understanding I would finally get the guidance I crave as I put together a narrative collection, and be glad for the way the years ahead might now look, while also feeling like shit. I reinjured my knee, got depressed, and wanted to die. A cave would have been nice. 

I am glad for the patience and kindness of my husband, for the warmth and silliness of my kids, for the good counsel of dear friends. 

At the close of my thirty-ninth year: I am okay. I am accepted to a strong MFA program. I begin in January but am already drafting for workshops and reading for seminars. My body continues to shift its slow way to healing. Most mornings I walk what used to be my warm up run. The miles and miles remain far away, but I will run them again. I cooked a little the other day. My kids are wonders. My husband walks unscathed. I do not hate God but in church last Sunday it was difficult to sing that he is perfect in all of his ways. 

Because I think this past year was a painful stretch of faith. I am more worn than a year ago, but I want it to matter that I remain before God. I messaged a friend that I want my fortieth year to be fucking awesome. Like I deserve reprieve, lightening by way of healing, contentment, joy. Like I deserve blessing. This whole life is blessing, by grace, one year to the next. I would like to know that better. 


I’ll count this as thirty-one of thirty-nine. 616 words. Done enough!

Busan

A couple of weekends ago we took the train to Busan. Our friend Sarah organized a get together with a group of Kuwait friends. We met at the beach. The kids spent the afternoon in the sand and water. We talked and laughed. The next morning I walked to a Starbucks and sat looking out at the sea. I miss the Gulf in Kuwait. I wrote about that. I wrote about how simple it was to sit next to friends I haven’t sat next to in years. That weekend was essential: I needed to know there is a place in Korea that gives me the Gulf, and I learned again how perfect it is that we remind one another who we were, or who we are, with stories, sharing memory.

Back in Seoul, I drafted a thousand words quickly. I let the draft sit a week. Today I took thirty minutes to halve the piece. The idea is to work swiftly. Develop editing intuition.

In my notebook I am turning over the idea of friends gathering after years. I will likely pull together an essay about that afternoon gathering on the beach because there was a moment when Angela remembered us and I saw how she saw me, and I thought that is such a gift, to remember one another to each other. (I wonder who I am, if composed from the memories of others). I may also work that beach afternoon into a fiction piece.

Below, the revised excerpt (447 words) and the quick draft (1006 words). Thirty of thirty-nine.


We took the train to Busan for the beach. I told my husband that we should spend a Saturday in Busan, just to find a place away from Seoul, a place easy enough to get to by train. Thirty minutes into our trip south, the countryside and smaller cities passing by, Justin said, Good idea, dear. And a few hours later, walking down a side street in Haeundae, I decided Busan is our second place in Korea: we turned a corner and there was the beach, a long run of sand, the sea.

The week before, I laid on my osteopath’s table while he manipulated, coaxed my body into alignment. I began seeing Dr. Joseph after a running injury. My left side was weak, arch to hip. Progress is incremental but my body is more balanced now, stronger, and Dr. Joseph tells me I need to run again. It is like I must teach my body it is healed. At that appointment, Dr. Joseph asked, What is your emotion? 

I miss the Gulf in Kuwait. I miss our Friday walks along the corniche, the kids biking ahead, pausing at playgrounds to climb, jump. I miss the wind and choppy water, the heat shimmer on stone, the occasional and welcome gray day. I miss the palms and grassy spaces families settled, spreading blankets and unpacking carafes of tea, the kids running out from these hubs, and back again for a juice or ice cream money or an afternoon nap. The pace of our walks along the Gulf was only unhurried. 

Our bodies are so much water. Our bodies respond to the presence of water. Dr. Joseph pressed one palm at my back, the other on my hamstring, and held. He said, You should go to the sea. The water calms. I know this from the Gulf, its undulation a meditation. I am finite. I am finite but God is more than sea and sky. 

I did not grow up near an ocean. I grew up with lakes of the midwest. Quiet, mirror surfaces at dawn. Lake Michigan was the wildest water I knew and at oceans after I recognized the belly pull to be near a body I could not contain. I do not need to surf or sail, but only be near the sea. And so at Busan. There was a ledge, a small leap down to the sand. I sat. I rolled my neck, turned my face to the sun. Claire crouched next to me. Mom, she said, We have to come back here. Grant was already at the tide line. Claire jumped to the sand and I watched her return to the sea too.


First Draft

We took the train to Busan for the beach, and to visit with friends. To visit with friends at the beach. I wanted both when I told my husband we should go spend a Saturday in Busan, just to find a place away from Seoul, a place easy enough to get to by train since we do not own a car. We like not owning a car, but for two years we’ve been hemmed in by the subway system. Thirty minutes into our trip south, the countryside and smaller cities passing by, Justin and I decided we should do this again. And a few hours later, checked into our hotel and walking down a side street in Haeundae I thought how this could be our second place in Korea. We could belong here too. We could take the train on a Friday afternoon, sleep, wake up and walk to the beach. 

I miss the Gulf. I miss our lazy Friday or Saturday walks along the corniche, the kids biking or rollerblading ahead, pausing at the playgrounds to climb and jump. I miss the wind and choppy water, the heat shimmer on stone, the occasional and welcome gray day. I miss the palms and wide grassy spaces families would settle, spreading blankets and unpacking carafes of tea. I miss the kids running out from these hubs, and back again for a juice or ice cream money or an afternoon nap. The pace of our walks along the Gulf was only slow. 

Busan is more relaxed than Seoul. I heard this from Koreans and expats. We turned off the side street and there was the beach, a long run of sand, the sea. The water relaxes Busan. My osteopath told me to go to the sea, to be near the water. Our bodies are so much water. Our bodies respond to the presence of water. The water calms us. I know this from the Gulf, its undulation a meditation. I am finite, and this is a reassuring truth. I am finite but God is more than the sea and sky. 

I did not grow up near an ocean. I grew up with lakes of the midwest, swimming the width of one at summer camp. Lake Michigan was the wildest water I knew and at oceans after I recognized the belly pull to be near a body I could not contain. I do not need to surf or sail, but only sit, be near the sea. And so at Busan. There was a ledge, a leap down to the sand, and I sat. Claire crouched next to me. Mom, she said, We have to come back here. 

Our friends arrived. The day was warm, bright. All week was cold, they said, We had rain. We sat in a line on the ledge, talking about the years in Korea, or remembering Kuwait, naming old friends and where they were now. Our kids and the Nelson kids reacquainted themselves and chased after one another, built a sand city below the tide line, looked for crabs, collected shells and thought they found a shark egg. We filled in the years. Iain and Angela’s child was a toddler when I last saw him. There were two children whom I hadn’t met before, belonging to a couple who moved to Brazil after Kuwait, and then to their hometown in Canada. Why did you leave? I asked Scotty. He laughed. Years of dinner conversations about when we should move abroad again, he said. So they sold their house. We’re international now, he said. Sarah set out snacks on the ledge, and Justin went to the GS25 for beers, and the sky moved to early evening.

For a time I sat next to Angela. I remember going to your apartment, she said, And setting Jameson down in a little chair. Grant was there. I remember your baking, she said, and asked if I still bake. In Kuwait I baked bread, cakes, bars, cookies and carried plates to neighbors. I once spent eight hours baking a single cake, whisking salted caramel and remaking the ganache, whipping buttercream that didn’t break. But I don’t bake often now. It was odd to sit on a beach in Busan and remember that in Kuwait I sifted powdered sugar and fine almond meal half a dozen times before folding the ingredients into macaron batter. Remember me back to me. When I think of Angela there are a handful of vignettes I keep, but one I go to first, of an evening I stopped at her apartment because I thought of her, due soon. We stood in the arc of the open door. She kept a hand at her belly. I’m ready, she said, or, I am so ready. Her son was born the next day, and at his doljanchi a year later, I watched him lean forward, reaching for his future. 

Later at dinner, Christy looked at our four children drawing together. Look at them, she said, and I did. Two years is not so long. We ordered hommos, tabbouleh, fattoush, kebab, shawarma, curries, Lebanese bread and naan. We ordered what we missed from Kuwait.

Before we parted that night, Christy said, You know what Elsie remembered about Claire? She remembered a kitty cat game they played. Claire would be the mama cat with all her kittens. I looked at Elsie, two years taller with more of her father’s expression on her face now. The kitty game, I said, I remember the kitty game! When would I have remembered the kitty game if Elsie had not remembered it first? How good to be with people who give us our stories. We said goodbye, promised to meet again, and soon. The next day we met the Love family at the same beach and I thought again how long and short the time apart is, how easily we can slip into conversation again, how simple our kids are about reestablishing a dynamic. We spot the easy change. We recognize the core of friendship.

Who Edits My Personal Essay?

I am thinking about the personal essay, whose story I tell. My own and, tangentially, others’. I am thinking about how to write my family. I am thinking about how to write an experience from my perspective while respecting personal and professional relationships. 

Years ago I had a conversation with Tara, a friend and writer, about what to do with all of our writing. She remembered telling a boyfriend the creative process was enough, that she didn’t need to share the finished poem or essay, and he said, Bullshit. Tara and I had this conversation when she was midway through an MFA in poetry and I was writing (generating, generating), sharing with a small circle of friends or posting to Piecemeal. And I wanted to believe that making a story or essay was plenty. I explore genre. I make up exercises with arbitrary deadlines. For a decade I have steadily developed my craft and now I agree with that old boyfriend: the creative process is awesome, but I write to share. This is now the direction I will go.

I am not afraid of sharing my fiction. I pull from my life. I imagine other. The fiction I share with few qualms. I am not afraid of sharing personal essay either, but I am more aware an obligation I have to the people who show up alongside my thoughts. So when I see other writers wrestle these questions, I am heartened. 

This weekend I read “Great Draft, Dad. I Have Some Notes” by Dan Kois. He and his wife took their two daughters around the world for a year, learning to navigate new cultures as a family. Along the way Kois drafted a memoir. His twelve year old daughter asked to read and edit passages involving herself. Kois was hesitant. But I like how his position evolved as a writer, allowing his daughter a voice in the process too. And I also like that Kois is not making an absolute rule about how he writes personal narrative, or who is involved in the editorial process. 

One Day A Mosaic

I rarely know the response or conversation my posts generate but in her comment to my last post, my mother-in-law suggested I find an antidepressant and see a therapist. She opened with love, but my first thought was that her note was great email content. But if I write publicly about being sad, well. 

Each day there is something – a gesture or conversation or street, a layer of sound or smell – that I think how to turn into words. This is me being a writer. And sometimes the things I turn into words are difficult or sharp, complicated, unflattering. And sometimes I choose to write about my mental health, not to mire in a situation but to be plain about the experience. 

I write, pray and talk to process the workings of my mind and settle my heart. Some of that shows up in essay drafts here, but the purpose of Piecemeal is to share my writing practice. When I sat to write about that conversation with my son I was not sad or anxious. I was curious how to write about the idea that one year measures differently to a child than to an adult. There was a lot I wanted to put on the page and I had thirty minutes at a Starbucks before meeting my family for dinner. I listed, started with unwieldy thoughts before deciding to make all of it bite size. How could I compress complexity into a vignette?

Yesterday morning on a walk (early and dark, light rain, swollen river) I pulled at a few ideas. I am thinking about the confrontation of vulnerability and the physicality of emotions. I also return to my motivation in sharing such personal experiences. I write my own life to examine, understand. But my mother-in-law’s comment makes me wonder why I choose to share details that make me weak. My temperament tends toward melancholy, yes. Darker moments are the go to stories of any day. For a few years I have written a lot about suffering as I’ve been near to those who suffer, gone through our family transition to a new country, learned more about how grief wracks a body, and walked through another long round of depression. I am comfortable being open, because I believe storytelling increases our empathy. I also believe that telling your story shapes your sense of self: know the narrative you carry. So the present answer to why I share is that this (the writing practice, drafting) is part of my process.

Alongside despair, hope. I journal. I meditate. The work of hope is like. The gift of hope is like. I wrangle my faith and hope into tangible images. This year prayer was desperate. My whole body prayed. In the middle of being afraid or angry, clear thoughts came, scraps of childhood church songs and memory verses from the Bible. Give thanks. Give thanks in all circumstances. Praise. Offer a sacrifice of praise. It is a choice, to speak thanksgiving. But I cannot help but remind God how glad I would be if – and I follow my thank you with another plea. And that word sacrifice! Again, the choice to give up self. I am not required to sacrifice my very breath, but with my breath I offer sacrifice, speak what is difficult, praising a God who is at work in the middle of these light momentary afflictions. So hope is present in the mystery that centers my heart again on Christ. 

Suffering is a rich mine. But before I posted a rough start to my thoughts confrontational vulnerability, or about the physicality of emotion (rage, sorrow: the favorites), I thought I should interject these notes. Just so you all know I am doing okay. I am at the middle end of a difficult stretch. Feeling that furious impatience to heal or understand or move on: recognizing the turn of my heart, the peace in my body. I want a thoughtless, easy day, and soon. But I also accept that I trade one bit of suffering for another. As I go I glean from each trial. But I also cry because when you are broken you cannot see how the pieces might form a beautiful mosaic.

56 Words

Over the summer two things happened. First I wanted to quit trying. Like quit quit. Trying was getting me nowhere. And then in August, a turn. New impatience to move on, be okay again. This was a relief, the furious impatience. Reckon the circumstance. Reckon the heart.

(I want to rage, really. I have this desire to scream, to be out with all the anger, hurt and fear. I want to rage until peace settles my body).

Recently a friend called me on seeing only myself in a certain situation. And he was right. I saw my frustration, my dissatisfaction. I could not think beyond my own want rooted in insecurity. The past year (longer) I have struggled to accept loss forever, yes, but also to accept those good things I hold. But along the way I discounted how who I am where I am affects those nearest me, so inside of my suffering that I could lack empathy for others.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with my son that made me think about how my kids experience – I don’t know how to talk about this. I can articulate how depression works for me, what my body and mind feel like. But I wonder at what it means for my daughter and son to see their mother as frail or sad or apathetic or afraid or angry, what it means for them to watch me work out the mess of my mind, hold slim hope, keep a faith that looks like letting go.


You know how I am sometimes sad – a question or statement. A late afternoon when I sit with my son. We lean together on the couch, look ahead. A lot of the times, he says. Earlier I cried, and he knows. For a year I’ve wept. It is a lot. He is right. We wait. Hold.


Twenty-nine of thirty-nine. Fifty-six words. From an old exercise: tell a story in ten sentences. First sentence has ten words, second has nine words, and so on. The last sentence is a single word.