Interrupted Scattered Writing

In Prague I was spoiled by a cafe around the corner. A few times on our walks home, I stopped for a mocha and an hour of writing while Justin took the kids back to the apartment to play with Lego. I sat in the sun filling my pages, finding my way to a start or flash fiction or prayer. I had time to wander my way into writing.

I lack the discipline to open my notebook and say: This Topic and only This Topic. I do much better to spend a page going on about my present worry or insecurity (usually same as yesterday’s) and then beg God for a little more grace. By the end of a page like that I might feel guilty for not offering gratitude, so I start the next page with all the reasons why I should feel content. About halfway through that I might beg for sincere contentment, the ability to actually live presently and, for good measure, a little more grace.

Then, finally, I might turn to a prompt or pick up a previous WP session and rip through another page or two. Even so, my discipline might be sidelined by the sudden thought of my imminent death (eternal perspective). I throw myself into a paragraph about purpose. I write myself a note to not fuss so much. I start to hate introspection. I return to my work, skipping a line as if to mark an end to that wandering mess. I go on.

Today I had a chunk of writing time, stopping at a cafe (okay, it was a Starbucks and don’t be judge-y about me sitting in a Starbucks when Vienna is littered with real cafes) – anyway, I stopped at a STARBUCKS and sat upstairs facing a wall. I’ve got a fiction start I like enough to keep writing. But I was distracted by the coffee splatter on the wall and the teeny tiny table and people walking inches behind me on their way to the toilet, so I moved to a stool at a high table where I was distracted by the other people in the room (English, Spanish, American) and all the people crossing the intersection I could see out the window.

You know, I wasn’t allowed to drink chocolate milk when I was in grade school and I think I should scale back on the espresso shots now.

This was going somewhere.

Before this afternoon at Starbucks, I worked my WP into our evening. This is the worst time for me to write. If I’ve got something hot, it’s interrupted and I get cranky. More likely, I haven’t got anything hot and the pages trudge through a mire of self-loathing. Sometimes, when I have a few lines left at the bottom of the notebook page I write

End of page
end of page.

just to get it over with.

But I still manage to write. I find pockets of time to sit with my notebook or stand typing on my laptop or read through revision notes. I find time to do this! If I went through my last few notebooks, maybe a fifth (fifteenth?) of the pages contain something I write into an essay or a fiction piece. But all of the pages feed my process.

I have a husband and two kids. They are lovely and they interrupt me. I put my notebook away or close the file and practice living presently. I think

this is a big deal

I think I am learning to trust that the necessary WP, drafting and revising will get done and may get done well. I think I may be a little closer to being okay with my interrupted, scattered writing. I keep showing up at the page for more.


Let This Be Enough

This is one of my prayers, whispered at any moment of the day or night. Let this be enough. I seek contentment where I am, as I am, trusting God to continue his good work. Today I was thinking about my prayer and remembered a poem I loved from the first reading, “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon. I read “Otherwise” in a writing workshop in college and didn’t have a partner or a dog or work that I loved, but the piece spoke its simple gratitude. And today, praying Let this be enough when I leaned in to kiss my son or when my husband tilted forward to kiss my cheek or when I held my daughter and looked in her eyes: this was enough.


Jane Kenyon, 19471995
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Pinkas Synagogue

Prague’s old Jewish quarter is one of few that mostly survived Nazi occupation. The Old Jewish Cemetery dates to the fifteenth century, packed with stones, graves layered according to religious law when more land could not be purchased. I wanted to see the stones crammed and leaning under the shade of trees, roots and graves underfoot.

I wasn’t prepared for Pinkas Synagogue though, the first building we walked through. Panels of lists of names are painted onto the walls of each room, recording the Jews from Prague and surrounding communities who died in concentration camps. It took me a moment to know what I was looking at and then I read the dates following each name. I remember visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. when I was twelve or thirteen and feeling a similarly slow absorption of how great a loss was suffered. Name after name after name.

Photography is not permitted inside Pinkas Synagogue. This image is pulled from Flickr.


Pinkas Synagogue also featured an exhibition of artwork done by children at the Terezin or Theresienstadt Ghetto, a transit camp for Czech Jews run from 1942 – 1945. The room was small, displaying a fraction of the art created by the thousands of children moved through the ghetto, but the pieces showed a range of subjects: life before, places left, holidays, transport trains, family, fairy tales, Bible stories, life in the ghetto. A small placard next to each painting or drawing gave the name of the child, their birth date, the date they entered Terezin, and for the majority, their death date and the camp at which they died. Only a handful of the works had a placard ending with Survived.

I read a short explanation of the purpose behind art classes for the children. Elders in the ghetto recognized that children were as susceptible to depression as adults and saw art and poetry as expressions that could give children ways to remember their former life and think about their present reality.

I will write about this more, in my WP. I am a little too scattered to post more than first thoughts now – art, expression, permission. I stood still, looking at drawings on cream paper, thinking about the wisdom of handing a child a pencil, telling them to draw what they may not be able to say in words.

This collage is by Ruth Gutmannova. She was born in 1930 and died at Auschwitz in 1944. I bought a reproduction of one of her watercolors. This collage pulled from the blog The Delights of Seeing.

Running Prague

I like to run the city I travel. This summer is the first in three years that I’m able to start my mornings with a long outdoor run. Here, I’m doing out-and-back runs with branches off to see neighborhoods or parks.

I begin at the edge of Charles Park and run downhill to the Vltava River. I follow the river past the Charles Bridge and take a slope down to a cobbled dock. I run early enough to see the orange and blue suited sanitation workers sweeping up last night’s party near the bridge, but the dock collects a few empty wine bottles too. Before starting their sweep of the dock, a man and woman recline in an old Volvo, smoking. Their two little dogs are nearby, sniffing along the wall.

I am not on the dock long. The riverboats are quiet. I see a couple on a bench; he woofs at me and she doubles over in laughter. A few men are at the edge of the dock, fishing and talking, not bothering to glance up at passersby. There are some other runners out, but mostly bikers whooshing by on my left and dog-walkers on my right.

I find a trail. Crushed rock cutting through a wide field of tall grass and short trees. Other paths break from the main, weaving their way toward a busier street of office and apartment buildings. Homeless sleep in the field at night and we nod at each other in the morning – an old man carrying a back and rolled mat steps out from the weeds and I am one of many striding by in the day, seeing a tree as a tree rather than as a roof.

The trail is short. I pretend I’m in the middle of nowhere because that is where I’d like to run one day. The crushed rock is a break for my legs. The rest of the my run through Prague is on tiny square paving stones, cobbles or asphalt; all of it uneven, sloping or crowned. The trail is a flat, forgiving surface. I hold my gait but there is less work to my running: no curb to hop or stairs to climb. It is  perfect, boring trail.

I run back the way I came. Commuters are on their way to early shifts. Trams are fuller. There are more cars at the intersections. I learn which blocks are busy and skirt them. When I reach my landmark, I walk, sweaty, ready for the day.

Flash Fiction: Only Here. Only Now.

I am having fun getting my WP pages in each day! Here is flash fiction pulled from a Lucille Clifton poem. And because I’m in Prague, working that city into my pieces too.

Erica read “the mississippi river empties into the gulf” while sitting in her residence hall lobby, waiting for a boy from her Eng 210 class. She wanted him to see her reading poetry and ask. She wanted to look up and sigh, close the book and stand. She wanted to say, “Shall we?” and let him open the door. She read the poem dozens of times, waiting. Finally, she closed the book and texted him: ??? At the exam, he apologized, said have a good time abroad.

Prague wasn’t as cold as Minneapolis in January, but it was darker. She went to class and found a cafe she liked and finally quit thinking about the boy when she met an Australian who made her try Vegemite. By March, Erica decided she couldn’t leave when the term ended. She would stay through summer at least.

The tourists came – packs from Scandinavian and Asian countries – and backpackers, but the Australian left. She got the tattoo in July after stopping along the Vltava River, suddenly reminded of the murk of her own Mississippi. But her river was wider and swifter. Erica thought of the poem and the boy. She thought of the lonely first weeks in Prague, before she met the Australian, and started to cry, staring at the Vltava. She turned away, walking uphill toward her apartment.

The tattoo place had a yellow sign out front and steps that led to a small basement room. Erica was hungry and tired, but knew she had to put the Mississippi on her body, sorry she’d stayed away for as long as she had. But when asked to write the word, she wrote the last two lines of the poem instead, chose ink the color of her freckles and pointed to the inside of her left wrist.

whispering mistakenly:
only here. only now.

Wide Open And Weary: I Wanted To Be A Backpacker

On Wenceslas Square we saw a man playing a makeshift instrument, a table top criss-crossed with piano wire. The man bent over the wires and tapped them with a wooden mallet. Two dreadlocked backpackers leaned over the wires too, grinning and nodding like this unremarkable plunking was brilliant.

I never got to be a backpacker. I likely would have jumped in the wrong jeep on the promise of an unexplored waterfall and ended up dead or pregnant. My thirty-something self doesn’t trust my early twenty-something self to buy a Euroline pass and crash in cheap hostels. I know the messes I made, sans language barrier.


Backpacker culture intrigues me. I like the range of it. I like the girls in flowy skirts and the boys with shaggy hair. I like the just going part. Here, I’ve seen graying men shoulder packs and lean into the uphill walk.

My first impression of backpacker culture was when Justin and I went to Taganga on the Colombian Caribbean coast. It was hot, but I ran every morning, chased by dogs, to Santa Marta and back. We laid around on the beach, drinking beer and reading paperbacks. I ate the best coconut pie I’ve ever had at a place called La Ballena Azul and went back twice more just for the pie. I felt very alive, walking up rutted gravel paths in the dark, my belly full of pie, swatting bugs I couldn’t see, nearly tripping over lazy dogs.

I was twenty-six. Around me were men and women a few years younger, scuffed packs at their feet, sheens of sweat on their skin. I remember eating ceviche one night, watching a young woman on the porch hold court, three or four men trying. What I remember best are her bare legs and feet. She had dancer legs she stretched out then pulled to her chest, flopped open like butterfly wings. The men laughed at what she said and she laughed at what they said and they all took pulls on sweating beers. There was possibility and sex in her smile and splayed legs, in the men’s ropey arms resting on chair backs.

One day we went to Tyrona, got caught in Biblical rain and hiked out in heavy boots. We boarded a full bus, the few backpackers on board wearing our own exhaustion. Even that travel-worn posture was enviable. I wanted to be mistaken for a backpacker, wide open to what comes, a little weary after. I wanted to seem like the kind of person who would just leave their country to go see what South America was like in November.

I felt late to my adventure. I felt a little planned. I had a husband and a job. Within a year, I’d have a baby. Sitting in that restaurant, eating ceviche scooped from a plastic bucket, watching a girl get all the flattery I craved, I thought I should have gone when I first felt it. But then I’d be dead now, or parenting an adolescent itching for his or her own adventure.

Two People

Yesterday morning I went for a run along the Vltava River in Prague. It was an early Sunday morning for me and a late Saturday night for a number of others along the river. On my way back to the apartment I passed a tram stop. An old woman was holding on to the bench, her ass in the air and her face bent close enough to kiss the cold metal bench. On the ground, one of her black wedges. She was hanging on and swaying. I thought I could help her sit on the ground, or maybe lay down until she sobered.

We didn’t share a language. We barely shared a consciousness. She was wasted. She wore cheap sweats and a tee-shirt, an old cardigan over top. Her hair dyed yellow and her skin tanned orange. Her fingernails and toenails were painted hot pink. One of her toes was cut where her shoe had rubbed. The soles of her feet were filthy.

She had giant eyes, the lightest blue irises. I spoke to her gently. I patted the ground. She started to sit, tipped and banged her head on the glass shelter. She moaned. She started snoring. I wondered if I should finish what I started, to make her more comfortable and safe until she sobered. I saw a man watching us from across the way. I felt like an idiot, kneeling and rubbing this woman’s back and whispering, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” She looked up at me with those giant eyes, tears dropping.

That’s why we don’t go close. Really.

I spent maybe ten or fifteen minutes with this woman. I finally left her in much the same way I found her.

Later, I saw another person we don’t go near. I saw a young man on his knees, forehead to the ground, his hat turned up in front of him. He blocked part of a walkway, the current of tourists stepping around this stone of a man. I was out with my family and told Justin to wait. I watched this man. He took a few coins from his hat, pocketed them, put the hat back, his head to the ground.


Not even playing an old violin.

I watched him a moment longer. I wondered why he was here. Sometimes I strip the adult away and wonder who a person was as a child. I always want them to be loved as a child. I want them to have kisses on the forehead and hugs. I want them to have a mother and father waiting.

I took a coin and knelt. “Here,” I said.

He turned his head, startled, scabs on his face. “I no English,” he said.

“That’s okay,” I said. Something turned inside me. I want a better language.

He nodded, turned his face back to the ground. I went to Justin. I said to him, “I have to stop doing that.”

“What?” Justin said.

“Giving coins.”

It isn’t enough. That man with scabs on his face. He probably picks them when he’s high. And I give him a coin. He suffers under a weight I can’t see and I speak to him in English. If that same young man were standing, he’d be a grungy backpacker on summer break, bunking in hostels and eating street food in the shadow of cathedrals. I saw a woman take a photo of him, like he was something to show people back home.

Some people have so much nothing they prostrate themselves and don’t look up when coins fall.

Enough is a hard measure.

Traveling With Kids

I once started a how-to essay about traveling with kids. The first line was: Don’t. The essay didn’t go much further than that and for a couple of years I followed my advice. I quit traveling with kids except for our annual summertime trek home. But even those weeks confirmed the imbalance of joy and sacrifice that comes with traveling with kids, or maybe just comes with kids. But it gets easier, my mom told me. When we decided to skip the States this  year and head to Eastern Europe, I hoped she was right.

So far, yes. On preparing and packing: very easy this time as I left most of it to Justin, after ruling out a twenty-something-backpacker-style tour of cities in favor of parking it for a couple of weeks each at two places. When he showed me apartments, I pointed to the ones I liked. Then a couple of weeks before our departure, he started packing suitcases, remembering more than I would have. He brought nail clippers.

The plane was better too. We had a six-hour flight to London and I hid a few surprises in the kids’ backpacks but wholly endorsed their plugging in to the little screens mounted to the seat backs in front of them. I didn’t watch anything, high on the fun of reading and drinking wine before lunch. And then, because the other three remained glued to their screens, I pulled my tray table forward and took my notebook out. I wrote junk but it was up in the air junk.

That was the first flight since motherhood that I wasn’t pawed constantly and I missed it only a little. I didn’t miss screaming or hairpulling or elbows or poop. When I went to the toilet I looked at the bite-size changing table and thought Thank you. I have sat on an airplane toilet with a baby wrapped to my torso and a toddler between my knees.

On the second flight, Claire and I shared a row with a young businessman; Justin and Grant shared the row behind with that man’s companion. I looked at the young man – Phillip from the Netherlands – as Claire and I settled in our seats and told him it wouldn’t be that terrible. “Actually, it might be that terrible,” I said. We were all tired from an early morning and delayed flights and about to crash on all the extra carbs. Phillip laughed. But mid-flight when Claire launched into an original song, I noticed Phillip’s hands were clenched and his jaw set.

“Are you okay?” I said. I was going to say if Claire was bothering – but he quickly explained. He has terrible motion sickness. I immediately apologized for eating half a bag of parmesan Goldfish crackers next to him. He shook his head. He was worried about an announcement the captain made, about turbulence ahead. As often as he travels, the turbulence gets him every time.

“I can never go on a ship,” he said.

“I’d probably fall over on a ship,” I said.

Claire sang about the sky and bumps in the air while Phillip clenched and unclenched his hands. We talked about small things until the planed landed. We gave each other thumbs up. I’d made it through a travel day without crying and Phillip made it through a flight without vomiting. Winners, all.

I’ll post more of-the-moment  journals over the next month as we travel.