Another Wasted Wednesday

My part-time position affords me time to write. If I take it. The afternoons I have off quickly fill with grocery shopping and meal prep, but once or twice a week, I stop for coffee and an hour of writing before heading home. Those cafe hours usually yield scattered writing.

This year I have Wednesday mornings off. I thought:

New work!

The first Wednesday I sent Justin and the kids to school, I locked the door, looked in the mirror and found the tweezers. I shaped my brows. I examined my pores. I decided I should do something so I ran my kilometers on the treadmill. Then I went to the kitchen and ate ice cream from the carton.

Next Wednesday, I said, I must write.

Every Wednesday has taken a similar shape. We have no more ice cream. But I bake good cakes; I sliver off slices. I run. I shape my brows. I think how I should put together a few pieces for another lit magazine. I think why bother.

This morning I spent two hours online. I sat in bed and navigated my favorites in a fruitless loop of frightening, thoughtful and unnecessary news. I ate part of a chocolate bar I brought back from Vienna. Finally, I ran my kilometers, did a little kitchen work and headed to school for my afternoon class.

I must figure my Wednesdays out. There is a kind of hope and dread every Tuesday night when I see the promise and the waste ahead.


Riding The Train In India: A Peek At Revision

I cut a 1009 word piece to 706!

I’ve been going through old essays to find work I might submit. I wrote “Riding The Train In India” in 2011, from a 2009 journal entry. In 2013 I took an online writing workshop and learned the phrase “vicious editor.” I’ve gotten a bit cut-happy. And as I’ve practiced cutting, I’ve gained confidence. I trust myself not to lop off an ear or nose when I’m trimming fringe.

(Though I once cut my fringe while my hair was wet and it dried high on my forehead. It looked terrible. I would have appreciated an undo button).

When I cut a piece, I copy and paste the whole thing  on the same document. The latest revision is always the top of the page. I cut knowing I can always find what’s missing, if it’s that necessary.

I am learning to find the truer story (more on that in another post) in my essay pieces. I think that’s evident in the first few paragraphs of my revised work below. But humor me and read the draft first:

I rode two different classes. The first was second class, from Delhi to Dehra Dun. A few hours in our own cracked brown vinyl seats with armrests and a tray table, we were given a newspaper to read and a complimentary breakfast of wet scrambled eggs, dry toast, and coffee served in a thermos that might not have been washed after its last use. Later on our trip, we rode third class and liked that much better. Third class seats were blue vinyl covered benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal bar covered windows at the other. My brother and his wife, Joie, and their two children Will and Annie, and Justin, Claire and me: three facing three, with baby Claire and little Annie on laps.

Everything before and after and between just sitting on the train is complicated or frustrating or difficult. Names on lists posted in the depot must be checked against the tickets. Sometimes the lists aren’t posted where you expect them. We let my brother do this while we stood in a knot of bags and children. I kept checking to be sure our passports were still where I put them. It felt like a documentary: the mass of men, women, and children on the train platform waiting, nudging, and staring. Porters carrying two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly through and around packs of passengers. I was exhausted after nights of poor sleep, but my senses were prickly alive. I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough.

Boarding the train was hateful. All pushing and pulling and faces mashed into shoulders and unwashed hair an inch from your mouth. I had a baby or a suitcase to carry too. No one was gentle with their elbows or hips and once on, you had to find your seats; once at your seats, they might already be occupied. We sat and soon after, more passengers crowded our benches, pressing us to the window.

Now, enjoy this:

We rode third class was from Dehra Dun to Jaipur: blue vinyl benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal barred windows at the other. We travelled with my brother, Nate, and his family. After spending Christmas together in the Himalayan foothills, we were going to see the Taj Mahal.

At the depot, we stood in a knot of luggage and children. “I don’t like the way those bags are hanging off you,” Nate said to me. I kept checking our passports were still there, exhausted after a week of poor sleep, but prickly awake in the crowd. There was a joke I made, early in our travel through India, about the country being where the world’s sweaters came to die. There was the odor of a diet heavy on onion. A woman opened her infant’s pants and flicked the contents on a track. Porters with two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly around us.

Boarding the train was hateful. No one was gentle with elbows or hips in the push up the stairs. I balanced a baby and a bag or two, mashed into the shoulder of a man with dirty hair. I swore. I hadn’t come to India for its romance. We found our seats. Other passengers found our seats too.

That alone was a cut of 113 words! And I got to add my joke about the sweaters!

I will leave this piece alone for a few days and reread it. I think it’s very close to finished.

Prompt: Prepping Edition

A couple of years ago I wrote a story about a young couple, Jonah and Lily, whose first year of marriage centers on his prepper instincts. They move to the middle of nowhere and begin stockpiling goods. I revised the piece a couple of times and think I’d like to return to it soon.

I started the piece from curiosity about the prepper community. I’m fascinated by people who make preparation for catastrophe their end. Google any combination of:

off the grid
food stockpiles
shelf life
water purification
more guns
also bullets

Okay. I’m making fun with the last few. But guns seem to be a part of the prepper population. And if you want to go down a rabbit hole, go ahead and Google what everyone is prepping for:

world financial collapse
nuclear war
(do the above three go together?)
biological warfare
chemical warfare

Okay. Making fun again. I’ll be begging for their tinned meat in twenty years. And my only stockpile is chocolate bars.

I started thinking about Jonah and Lily again because of the current coverage of Ebola. Pictures of DIY hazmat suits and coverage of the U.S. congressional freakout about borders make light of the greater, truer tragedy in western Africa. And though religious and environmental reasons may play into a prepper’s motivation, a primary ingredient of the lifestyle is panic. If not panic for the present, then panic for what might happen.

Because what might happen can take its time, there are websites posting expiration of dry goods and hosting forums about whether you can eat mealy flour.

Go write about prepping. The world ends in fire or disease or war and you’ve got a year’s supply of dry beans, chlorine tablets and flares. If you’re a really good prepper, you’ve got more than that. Go explore the prepper lifestyle.

If you’re a prepper who found this post hoping for a tutorial on boiling water using a piece of tinfoil and a cloudy sky (and that last joke didn’t completely offend), please post your blog or recommended sites in the comments. I often write about what I don’t know to learn it.

Try This: Sweet Syntax

I love Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The following is one of my favorite writing exercises from her book (my paraphrase):

1. Find three or four lines from your writing practice. The sentences do not have to be brilliant.
2. Copy those three or four lines at the top of a new page.
3. Picture each word as a wooden block. For a quarter or a third of the page, set one block next to another next to another. To keep yourself from the intrinsic impulse to make sense, try this: only glance at the top lines for your next word; be quick about it. Block block block. You will repeat the words from your three or four lines. Don’t worry about making it all come out even.
4. Now, this is the picky part. Add punctuation. Copy the block block block, adding punctuation to make visual sense.
5. Read aloud, with expression. Make auditory sense. Notice what role punctuation plays. Also note any fun phrases or images that inadvertently appeared.

Here’s mine:

I ran unplugged for only part of my run this morning, sometimes more distressed by what I may hear or what I may think – too distressed by what may come up to really want quiet.

unplugged part distressed what part I may quiet really want the by may hear or what what sometimes this for I the to by I more what distressed really up come hear think ran unplugged part this run may by I the think more what for I only this think what morning to think run part only unplugged up to run sometimes the distressed quiet may for may what hear may the want ran part by more quiet really or sometimes I only or may really

Whoa. If that doesn’t rattle your teeth.

Unplugged, part distressed, what part I? May quiet: really want by may hear or. What! What sometimes this for I the to? By I more what distressed really up come hear think; ran unplugged part this.Run may by I the think more what for I only! This think what morning to think run part only. Unplugged up to. Run sometimes the distressed quiet may – for may what hear? May the want ran part? By more quiet. Really or sometimes, I only or may really.

Language is less intimidating if we take time to play with it. Mess around with syntax. No one has to know but you.

Underscoring Nothing

Today I played with syntax. More on that tomorrow. Near the end of my writing session, I decided: One more page. Usually one more page is my push to say what I really want to say, but today, it was my push away from what I really want to say. We all have things that show up in our notebooks every other session. Sometimes I want a break from that repetitive thought – whether an idea, worry, memory, feeling, prayer. Sometimes I just want to not scratch the itch. I want to pretend ___ isn’t there.

I think composting is a valuable part of writing practice, but sometimes I just don’t want to rake through the mulch again. So today when I sat to write one more page, I was (and wasn’t) surprised how difficult it was not to give ___ its space, or even to name it.

Because I’d just finished messing around with a syntax exercise, some of my phrases seem looser, coming unbidden. That was unexpected and fun.

In the following I’ve boldfaced ideas I might return to. Do that in your own WP, circling or underlining words, phrases or ideas that you want to come back to at another session.

I want to rearrange, order effort my home. Pull a room from dropping off. All there out there first thoughts penned carefully one word one word one word but still a tinge of wild, like smeared paint. This is what happens when I quit thinking about ___ (always at the base of my skull, a little stone). I need a break from ___.

Steadily writing one plodding word after another, one more away from ___ which shows up here even when I want to quit thinking it: a little stone taking up space in my page as a short underscore. Underscoring nothing. Literally underscoring nothing.

All that nothing holds at least a hundred words I am not wanting here because those hundred words (more) have been written a few pages back, a few notebooks back; those hundred words have been prayed on the treadmill, cried on my bedroom floor, whispered at the kitchen sink. If only I could whittle ___ to one hundred words.

I would feel better and worse about everything.

I was going to write about my home. ___ gets in my way. God, please.

My daughter wants an art table. I want one too, to keep our dining table. Our dining table. We orbit. We put stuff on every surface. I have a box of papers I think might be too important to pitch but I’m not sure. Sometimes I think about the mess we’d leave if we all died in a car accident: know our lives by a cupboard of child’s drawings, bins of Lego, hidden chocolate bars, writing on walls, garlic stuffed green olives, a baking stone, mismatched furniture. It kills me to think of anyone else deciding what to keep when they open a drawer of hair bands, sunglasses and a lone playing card.

This makes me sad. It makes me want a kind of order. An art table. A world map.

I think I can stop now. I can go home and open the drawers, decide what we keep.  I am afraid once I quit putting one word after another here that I’ll be full of ___ again, giving ___ more than a hundred words. I almost want to write my way through the end of this notebook, about anything but ___. Fuck. Instead, I finish here. Go make room for an art table.

The Brown Sisters

<p>1990, Woodstock, Vt.</p>

<p>2007, Cataumet, Mass.</p>

I keep thinking about these photographs documenting four sisters over four decades. We don’t know their full lives, only the age of their faces and bodies from one year to the next, all change subtle unless we skip ahead ten years. More, we see what remains the same: posture, gaze.

My husband tells me I look as I did when we married nearly a decade ago. I was twenty-four. I look firmly planted in my thirties, with lines at my eyes and mouth. My eyes are slightly different shapes, the right lid a little droopy, more so now when I’m tired. I am more muscled than I was ten years ago and marked by pale lines where my body gave way to pregnancy. I feel fuller.

I think differently about my body now. My younger impatience to straighten my teeth or smooth cellulite from my thighs or grow three inches taller (all by wishing) has given way to a kind of acceptance. I appreciate my body more. I don’t pretend to like what I don’t like but I am not anxious to change minor flaws.

Minor flaws: as per genetic code, accident, injury, life, carelessness, age.

This body houses me. When I look at the Brown sisters from one year to the next I get the same sense as when I glance in the mirror and see my mom. This body is not designed to halt at twenty-something. This body is made to carry me through all my years. When I look at the Brown sisters, I think of our fortune to grow old, to wear the sag of our flesh and the cut lines of our face. I also think how much I want to see our present beauty – conventional or not, secret or shown. I do not want a photograph to tell us what we missed in the mirror ten years ago.

Go read the article. Go look.

Lit Mag Crush

A writing friend introduced me to Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. The other night I clicked through back issues, choosing pieces at random. I also read a couple of the craft essays. The promise of short pieces means we can read a few different voices at one sitting.

If I want to publish, I need to know what’s being published and where. I am sorely under-informed about literary magazines I might submit to; online publication is a wide world. I remember standing in a Barnes & Noble one Saturday. I was in my early twenties and often drove to Madison on the weekends, to buy books, get a coffee and write. I remember standing in the middle of the store and looking at all the shelves packed with books I would never read. I started to cry. I was so sad at all the reading I’d miss, all the ideas and voices I wouldn’t hear.

I know. Really. I used to weep on solo nature walks too. I got caught once, startled by an environmental ed major on his own nature walk. “Are you okay?” he asked. I sniffed and pointed at a shrub. I said, “It’s just – it’s just so beautiful.”

Publication looks overwhelming right now, and just so beautiful. I have talent enough to land in a few lit mags and I should go for it. But I can be smart about the process. I need to read more online lit mags. Brevity is a great start. But only a start. I can also look for sites or blogs that take guest writers and see if any of my finished work might fit.

But I can’t just stand in the middle and cry.

Neglecting Affection: Why Did I Think Hugging A Boy Was Two Steps From The Bedroom?

My last post: I was trying to write too much in a short space. I wanted to talk about the evangelical emphasis on virginity that turns nearly every physical encounter into foreplay. And I wanted to talk about another kind of passion, extolled in the Bible, to leave everything and follow Christ. Instead, the last post launched this in my WP notebook:

In Colombia, I had a class of seniors who were reading. All of their big adult bodies in narrow rows of desks, the boys with their long legs kicked out; the girls sitting with one leg crossed over the other, ankles turning circles. They leaned back in their chairs or slouched over their desks, flipping pages in the afternoon heat. I glanced around the room and saw a boy take a long strand of a girl’s hair and twirl it around his fingers. I saw a girl place her hand on a boy’s thigh. They rested against each other, reading and turning pages.

I didn’t have that growing up. As an adolescent, I got a very limited view of what physical affection was appropriate between boys and girls. My parents were affectionate with each other and with us, but I was a Christian teenager in the nineties when the True Love Waits campaign collected signatures from kids vowing abstinence until marriage. I got a chastity ring with a tiny heart and cross that I got tired of explaining and once told a boy was an Irish wedding ring.

The church itself said sex was sacred and the marital union represents Christ and his bride, the church. Sacred sounds mysterious and mysterious sounds like you aren’t supposed to ask questions. But what virgin wants to ask why God chose sex as a metaphor of Christ’s love for the church: it’s too much to think about when you’re fifteen.

The closest I got to an honest discussion about the emotional aspects of sex was at church camp one summer when the boys and girls split. We all knew this meant the boys would talk about porn and the girls would talk about saving your heart and dating Jesus.

(Which still sounds weird to me. Dating Jesus. He’s God. You don’t date God.)

But that summer, we knew the couple who’d gotten drunk at homecoming and had sex and regretted it. So the female campers and counselors really dug into the idea of guarding your heart, a charge given to all Christ followers and relating to far more than your private bits. It was the first time I heard the term “second virginity” which I hate about as much as “dating Jesus” but still, it prompted me to think about what happens when good Christian kids lose it.

And I’ve thought about this a lot since. After moving to Colombia and seeing the open affection between teenage girls and boys, I wondered why I grew up afraid of touching a boy. Afraid, really, that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself and one teensy tiny touch would spark this giant sex torch and burn the place down. And by touch, I mean: hug, kiss, hold hands, lean against, breathe in. I don’t mean hands down the pants. That might burn the place down.

Let’s not undersell self-control. And let’s not neglect the gift of affection. Here in the Middle East, I see teenage boys hold hands, kiss cheeks, pat backs in camaraderie. And the girls, as is given everywhere there are girls, hug and walk close. Though public affection here is usually kept to same gender, it is still treated in a way I didn’t see in the States.

As in: affection isn’t just sexual. I remember watching the seniors in my Colombian classroom, wondering if I should say something, as I might have in Wisconsin. Something like a whispered “Hands to yourself please.” That makes sense after coming from a school where an eighth grade boy was caught with a hand down his lab partner’s pants; from a country whose high school dance rules have to specify no simulated sex acts at prom.

It was another month or so before I understood that the affection between my senior boys and girls didn’t necessarily indicate who was dating whom or whether there was any sexual interest. Living in Colombia and now Kuwait, and seeing normal affection between teenagers, I wonder what got skewed during my adolescence. By the time I went to college and started dating, I had no sense of reasonable physical boundaries. Everything felt really good and really bad. Only one young man I dated held a more careful approach to our physical relationship and the affection shared was truly that, unattached from sexual expectation.

So I’ve been writing around this for nearly a decade, sorting out my own experience and observing what cultures practice. Sometimes I’m angry because I think it’s horrible to act as if a couple kids snuggling during a movie is robbing them of sexual joy in a distant marriage. I wonder if the hook-up culture in the States (and elsewhere) is partly born of neglecting affection. We crave touch and if the touch available is an accelerated sexual relationship, then maybe that’s what we take. But what if girls and boys keep the affection they have as kindergarteners, leaning on each other during reading time, linking arms across campus? What if kids got to keep touch that wasn’t tied to sex?

I may be speaking to the limited experience of Christian kids told sex is beautiful / holy / sacred / special / awesome, but only within marriage. I may be speaking of those same Christian kids whose every physical pleasure came with guilt and fear that this was too far. But if this was too far, why not go ahead with that too, in a spirit of equal sin and delayed repentance?

This is widening to bigger things and I’ll go there, but not now.


Follow up: I read Ephesians this morning and chapter five addresses expectations for husbands and wives, tall orders to both partners in a marriage, and the union’s illustration of Christ and the church. It’s worth reading carefully, as I believe the whole marriage (not just sex)  is designed to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.

More follow up: The adults in my younger life, especially my parents and church community, were good examples of living our faith. When I consider my fear that physical affection was as sinful as sleeping around: that’s my mess. My parents didn’t put that on me. Because I didn’t date until college, a lot of my questions about what was okay were not answered. I only had this idea that sex was special and worth waiting for – a message repeated in many forms in evangelical media. Consequences like pregnancy were obvious, but no one had a concrete emotional or intellectual reason why abstaining was worth it.

I suppose that’s a kind of the point. Faith doesn’t always lend well to concrete intellectual reasoning. We have to take a leap.

But still. I wish I’d been fifty times less freaked out about whether it was okay to hold hands. I was not chaste, but a constantly fretful, guilty college freshman. So I keep writing to understand that part of me and other good Christian kids, who fell short on purity but still yearned to get faith right.

Christ wants it all. Every part of our lives. And when I was a teenager, it seemed it was my responsibility to steer clear of sex. I don’t agree with that anymore. My holiness is not dependent on my careful choices. I am made holy only in Christ.

I pray differently because of my wider Romans 7 experiences. I pray my appetite is changed. My physical, emotional, and spiritual appetites do change. I beg to want what is right. I ask again and again.

I didn’t know how to ask like that when I was a college freshman.

Yet more follow up: As for the hook up culture and returning simple affection to adolescents: I think young men and women need to know the value of their lives and bodies and treat one another with tenderness. If sex distracts from a better relationship, quit. Know a person more than their body. But this also goes to the heart. If we’re motivated by fear or guilt or selfishness, love gets choked.

Last follow up: This is what happens in my head, readers. I’ll keep writing around this topic and find a story. Maybe not anytime soon. But write fearlessly. Write the tough stuff. Write the offensive stuff. Write the confusing stuff. It’s much easier to close the notebook, but give yourself another page or two.