The One About The Traffic

The traffic is like the weather here, a topic of small talk. There is usually only one thing to say about that traffic and that is that it is bad. A lot of us have favorite accident stories, like the memory of a car suspended between two palm trees, because how does that happen? My first year here I saw a red car door in a merge lane. Shortly after, I noticed all the streaks of paint on the concrete dividers and the sprays of shattered glass at intersections. A wreck might sit on the side of a highway for a few days. I thought maybe as a warning. My first year I wrote with an art teacher who banned herself from mentioning the traffic in her notebook because all it did to write about the commute was make her mad. I get it. I’ve yelled fucking asshole at men and women who scream up my side or cut in and I’ve watched them weave their reckless way forward to take the next exit.But the other day someone complimented my driving. I’m calmer now (thank you Jesus), though anger still flares. The fear that I might die or my kids might die because some (created in the image of God) person is selfish enough to need to be in front of me and then in front of the next person and the next infuriates me. When I cry on the highway it is often at the state of my heart because when I am cut off or swerved at or flashed (high beams mean move out of my big trucking way) I really hate the other driver. It isn’t about me being in front of the other driver so much as it is about me and mine staying alive while the other driver gets ahead. So I cry because God wants me to love people and I think he includes that jerk in the Nissan Patrol.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard about a teacher who got hit while crossing the street in Salmiya. A couple of months ago, another woman was hit on the side of the highway while changing a tire. The man who’d stopped to help was also hit. All three are alive and while I don’t know the condition of the man, the two women have a long physical recovery ahead. Bones shattered, flesh too damaged to sustain operation, internal injuries, atrophied muscle. I can’t call either situation an accident when the more likely explanation for plowing two people in an emergency lane is carelessness and the more likely explanation for flipping a woman over a car is also carelessness.

I have a friend connected to both women. She talked about the teacher hit while crossing the street and the story stayed. A few days after, I started writing poems around the image of her laying on the street, surrounded by men who wouldn’t talk to her. A woman walking by cut through the men and sat down, stayed with her.

I Saw The Car

I had a dream like this, me looking up
looking down at my crumpled body on
cracked asphalt, circled by men with
unhurried voices. I am the only one who
hears my bones splinter again, who
hears the needle in my ear

The men do not kneel, touch,
pray over or speak to me. I saw the car.
I lift my head to say I saw the car
weaving speeding but I couldn’t
shout or step back from this cliff

A woman comes then, takes my hand
and stays. I say I couldn’t run or take it
harder than bruised and broken. I am
limp and rigid, my lips don’t work. The
woman closes her eyes for a moment
(I think it may be my death), says Jesus
in a land that calls him a man, only

I saw the car weaving speeding,
I saw my body balance between up
and down for a moment longer
than I thought possible

For N

Revised And Done

Starting small helps. This revision is of a piece I wrote a year ago about a woman who visits her old house at night, after work, before returning to her husband and kids in their apartment. I liked the story then, as it came together, because I liked the woman. I could feel her loss. I wanted you to get that. The challenge of this revision was my choice not to expand. I’m attached to its bare bones. Even so, after workshopping with friends (such willing readers!), I understood better how to reorder the scenes.

I’m calling this done. But I still have no title. Let me think on that.


Jon knows but doesn’t ask. I keep the key to our old house in the cup holder of my car and stop there after my nursing shift. The family that lived there before us had three kids. They left their swing set when they heard we were expecting a baby. The swing set is still in the yard, but no sleds or snow angels. If I stay at the house late enough, Jon is sleeping when I get to the apartment.

The apartment has a front door like it’s a cheap motel. I go in quietly. The smoke from the last tenant is worse now that it’s winter and our boots track in snow. When I crawl into bed, Jon scoots near me, throws an arm over my waist, kisses my shoulder. Sometimes he whispers and I roll over. I pretend we are back in our house.

The bank owns our house. Elliot was sick, admitted to the ER. Then Jon lost his job a month later. I picked up extra shifts but we couldn’t make the mortgage.

The first time I went by after my shift, I was surprised the key turned. I thought the bank would’ve changed the locks. We brought our sons home to that house. I painted its walls. Jon tiled the bathroom. That house held us for eight years.

Bluebird Acres has a playground we can see from the living room. Elliot thought it was awesome he could slide the patio door open and race across the grass to play. He and Sam are usually the only two kids out. I thought maybe it was because of tv. Another mom two doors down said the complex had eleven registered sex offenders. Everyone can see the playground, she said. I followed the boys out one afternoon and sat in a swing facing the U of apartments, watching for blinds and curtains to move aside. I didn’t see anything. It might be a terrible idea to let them out by themselves.

Jon is with the boys all the time now. He made friends with the manager and gets a few jobs thrown his way, mostly painting when tenants move out. This winter he’s shoveling and salting the walks. He’d take a job at a gas station or flipping burgers but the hours aren’t fixed. I keep adding extra shifts each week. I’m never home a full day.

When we moved, I didn’t walk through our house a last time, after the boxes were out. We put nearly everything to storage. I was there with my mom, making sure stuff we needed at the apartment didn’t go in the locker when Jon drove up and parked, called me over to the truck.

Wanna go take a last look?

Mom said she could watch the boys. I shook my head. Jon turned off the ignition and got out, pulled me into a sweaty hug. That house was good to us, he said. I nodded against his chest. He kissed the top of my head. My throat hurt to swallow but I didn’t cry. I didn’t want the boys to think anything was wrong.

I want to move to Towering Pines in the spring. It’s next to the highway, cutting ten minutes from my commute. It’s two hundred more a month. We moved to Bluebird Acres to save for another down payment. I don’t think we’ll be allowed to buy another house again, but Jon believes in discipline. We don’t touch the savings unless one of us is dying, he says. I think of Elliot’s illness. If we’d had savings then, we’d still have our house. That isn’t true at all, but I think it anyway.

I go online and look up how many registered sex offenders are at Towering Pines. Two. And it’s a huge complex. Jon thinks the boys are okay because he’s around. He’s probably right.

At night when I visit our house, I do math in my head. I buy a cheaper car. We don’t fix the truck. We don’t have pizza night. We eat more rice. None of it adds up to cover the hospital bill and Jon’s missing income.

I walk from room to room. My sons are alive but I see their ghosts. Elliot took his first steps in the kitchen. Sam in the living room. We had our Christmas tree in this corner. We pulled up carpet in the boys’ room and found a girl’s diary from twenty years ago. Sam played hide and seek in our closet. The boys built a Lego city in the hall upstairs.

I sit in my bedroom, where our bed was. The light from the street and moon falls in slants on the painted wood. When I was in nursing school, one of my roommates did sitting meditation. I think of her when I am in my bedroom, the slants of light moving incrementally closer to me. I think of my friend breathing the quietest deepest breaths, facing a wall. I breathe deeply. I try to let it out slowly. I get caught on a jagged cry every time. I can’t stop anything.

When I go home and kiss Jon, I whisper for Towering Pines. We won’t get a house, I say, But we could live somewhere better than this. Jon holds me so tight I can’t breathe. He puts his lips close to my ear. His whole body trembles. I don’t know what he will say. When his body relaxes, I touch his face. I tell him I’m sorry, I know we’re okay here.

The next morning, Jon lets me sleep late while he gets the boys breakfast and walks them to school. When he returns, I’m still in bed. I can’t move. He lays down with his winter coat on, his giant boots hanging off the edge. He nudges me, says, Let’s go take a last look. His cheeks are chapped red. I close my eyes. Come on, he says. He gets up and pulls the blankets from the bed, tosses a pair of jeans at me.

We take my car over. The heat kicks in as I pull to the curb and park. I take the key from the cup holder and we go up the walk, let ourselves in. It looks different in the day. Empty, but not as sad. The rooms echo with our footsteps. Jon rubs a thumb on the doorframe marking our boys’ heights. I open the kitchen cabinets and drawers, the liner paper with tiny orange flowers. We stand in the doorway of the boys’ room, looking in like we did most nights before going downstairs to our bedroom.

Now Jon and I hold each other in our room, standing where I’ve spent the last six months sitting. Anyone walking by could see us embracing in an empty room. I pull a deep breath in, let it out slowly. I don’t cry. I look up at Jon. We look at each other. We must want to say something. Little puddles of melted snow show where we’ve been.


Stuck In A Pleasant Place

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Psalm 16:5,6 ESV

Friday afternoon I sat down with a coffee, my notebook and a couple of verses. I chose a phrase from the above to meditate on

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places

and wrote the line followed by a thought on the phrase. Then I rewrote the line followed by another thought on the phrase. I did that fifty times.

When you write and respond to phrase thirty or fifty times, something shifts. You have to abandon expectation around fifteen or twenty and open yourself to looser associations or unexpected connections. You let your mind and heart wander without judgement. I’ve tried this exercise with the phrases Because, I love you and Thank you. When a friend mentioned this approach as a spiritual exercise to exploring a single verse in the Bible, we talked about the necessity of repetition to rooting ourselves firmly in our faith. There are prayers and rituals, but there is also the need to say truth more than once. And so I have stretches when I reread a single book of Bible or return to a couple of chapters to tell myself again what I need to hear for the day.

I was a senior in college when I first read The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places (NIV) and it meant something to me. In the years since, God has brought that verse to mind as a promise. After last week, I returned to Psalm 16. Perhaps guessing it’s a go-to for fast assurance, a little spirit pep talk about contentment. But when I spent an hour responding to the single phrase, more came: prayer and repentance. This life is not about my happiness but about God’s glory. God gives great joy and walks us through great sorrow. But to suppose my faith inoculates me against unpleasant places, people and situations is wrong. There’s a leap I have to make to say The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places and that leap is more trust in God. I don’t lie about where I am here on earth, but I yield to God’s sovereignty.

Right now, where I am is a difficult place to live. For me. So to spend time rewriting The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places was a small fight. I heard the line fifty times. I saw it in my own handwriting fifty times. There is no “maybe” or “sometimes” that opens the phrase. Instead the line is declarative. I humble myself to God’s mercy and authority. My complaints do not negate his love. If I trust more (Spirit, help me), then I open to this understanding: where I am is a pleasant place, not for the soil or water or air itself, but for the God who knows me and draws lines in the sand and says Even here. 

I will think about this for a while yet.

Scratch That

Putting a hold on One A Week: Revision Edition. I started. I spent a couple of days rewriting the terrible story, long enough to know I still think it’s worth revising. One afternoon I used commute time to make a voice memo I planned to transcribe as a new opening. But I also stabbed my notebook with a pen and threw it across the room and very nearly chucked a shelf of notebooks out the window.

What kept me from throwing six years of notebooks out the window? Only knowing that the gesture couldn’t remain anonymous when I live in a stack of apartments with my coworkers. I was yelling, though, so one or two neighbors might have been privy to my rant re: everything.

I wish the yelling and sobbing gave way to bolstered hope. I try at many things and I try very hard at a few things and this week it seemed none of my effort mattered more than chance. So I had a couple of dark days. And I haven’t learned anything. This is where I am. Can I be faithful where I am? Can I enjoy the gifts I have? I made a list in my notebook of the gifts I have. Making a list did not make me more grateful. I’ve been like this before, low and clear and aware of keeping flesh on my bones. I’ve waited for an answer before.

But I don’t know what I’m asking this time. I don’t know the name of this restless sorrow in my body. I’m tired enough.

And I felt stupid this week. I felt really stupid for setting up another writing game to generate finished pieces when I’m afraid to send anything out for publication, when no one is asking for my work, when I suppose there isn’t a market for whatever I am. I make too much of this about myself. There are lies I like to trace because they sound better than the truth. I’m nearing the end of me. This happens over and over, incrementally yielding to Christ. Can I remain faithful?

So my revision project is on hold. Maybe only a week or two. I’d like to decide what to do about feeling stuck here. I’d like to lean in to God more and hear truth. I need to practice a difficult kind of faithfulness, living in boundary lines I haven’t drawn for myself. No wonder the restless sorrow.