Next week, if enough of my colleagues sign up to attend, I’ll run a short poetry writing workshop. I’ve missed writing poetry this year – one of the functions of teaching a poetry unit to creative writers is actually writing a ton of poetry. Those six years reading and writing poetry alongside students stretched my usual practice. Poetry shakes loose writing inhibitions. But after years of writing poetry, you really must take Raymond Carver’s advice and make use of the things around you.

This week, that is tattoos. I half listened in on a conversation between colleagues about tattoos they have, tattoos they want, tattoo artists here in Seoul, plans to go, maybe, and at the end of the conversation, perhaps sensing my eavesdropping, Daniel turned to me and asked did I want to get a tattoo. I said I’ve been thinking about my tattoo for twenty years. So.

I’ve Thought About My Tattoo For Twenty Years

One summer I sat next to a boy at church camp,
saw GRACE tattooed in black letters on the inside
of his forearm – this tenet of faith extended to
him to extend to others. I asked did he have any
other tattoos? He said yeah, they were where
he couldn’t show me and others at the lunch table
laughed while I blushed. He patted my shoulder,
said he was only joking

That summer I thought about the tattoo I might
get, a tiny Christian fish on my foot, walking the
gospel, or maybe a winged fleet foot at the ball
of my ankle because I was running and running
and one day going to run very, very far

In college I saw enough tattoo regrets to stick
to piercings. Bleeding ink, misshapen faces,
calligraphed anything, kanji you can only hope
reads hope, thick useless bands around biceps,
nosegays, suns, stars and compasses, an animal
kingdom of cartoons, four leaf clovers and realistic
wolves. I stumbled the gospel more than walked,
relieved I wasn’t also advertising my failure

When I returned to amazing grace I remembered
GRACE, turned my wrist over to imagine grace the
color of a freckle on delicate skin. Or a thin line like
pencil lead sketching the Holy Spirit dove in one line

After a long winter I wanted a piece of green
somewhere on my body, and in Colombia I saw the
many shapes leaves take in a climate of perpetual
spring, perpetual fall – but I did not make myself
a forest. I thought to dash watercolor at my right
collarbone. I thought to tattoo a favorite piece of
punctuation, the –

Or I might use my flesh to write what is written
on my heart, words of life I reread, memorize in
shorthand: rejoice, give thanks, pray/ belong to
the day/ in everything/ workmanship/ faith, hope,
love/ unstained/ draw near/ pleasant places. Each
year or season collects phrases I whisper, pray –
these are for my whole life and for the moment in
front of me. My body would be covered in affirming,
uncomfortable, confrontational scripture to complicate
or clarify my living any of this

Finally I think of white ink. Draw the borders of each
country I have lived, draw the borders one over
another so the thin lines entwine, knot

The marks on my body are not inked. I have freckles
the color of freckles. I have a birthmark like a brushstroke.
I have stretch marks at my hips, like wavery white ink,
and age draws fuschia squiggles on my thighs. I am a
body marked, but –

I Used To Call In Sick On April Twentieth

I was a high school senior in Wisconsin when a freshman boy in Kentucky opened fire on a circle of students gathered in prayer, killing three and wounding five. Later that winter the school shooting was a discussion on Dawson McAllister Live, a Christian call-in show for teens carried by the station our family radios were tuned to. I listened from the backseat of the minivan, staring out the window at the dark evening, hearing stories from witnesses. I remember McAllister talked about having compassion for the shooter’s sister. I remember we were all silent, maybe a little uncomprehending. Something inside me wanted to scream. If I held myself still enough, if I didn’t let a sound out – I watched the dark sky, the shapes of trees.

Also in that minivan was my then infant sister, Mary Grace, who is now graduated after twelve years of homeschool. My sister Ruth is just graduated after completing her senior year at public school. Ellie and David are attending that same school as a junior and sophomore, while the youngest of us siblings, Danny, is in seventh grade homeschool. All of my youngest siblings have grown up or are growing up during a time when the US moved from shock, sorrow and outrage at school shootings to a kind of apathetic acceptance that these tragedies are now part of our culture – attributed to  a diet of violent media or bullying or family dysfunction or mental illness or, ultimately (obviously) easy access to guns.

One of my friends, also a teacher, posted his response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Facebook. He acknowledged there are deeper issues to address – I think of how many students question their inherent worth, how we might restore value to the least of these, how we might increase our love for one another in community. And he also stated the necessity of gun restriction discussion and change.

And change.

I am heartened by the Florida high school students who are not retreating to thoughts and prayers but are saying we do need change, now. It is now.

I am disheartened to think how we have become an unreasonable nation, to resist this change. No. One political party has become unable to attend the morality of gun control debate and legislation. And that is unreasonable. This morning I thought how many Republicans love the Christian right vote. I thought about how many Christians want their rights protected in the US, to the point of canceling other people’s constitutional rights, to the point of negating compassion. I think these voters and lawmakers are afraid. Our country is not listening to one another. Our mouths are full of old arguments.

We possess innate morality. We are not born good but we are born to know the difference between good and evil. It is evil to neglect our children. It is evil to pretend any preventative measure of gun violence is an infringement of civil liberty. It is evil to only send up thoughts and prayers when we are also given wisdom to end the massacre.

Columbine happened spring of my freshman year of university. I came home from class and a girl named Jenny asked did I hear what happened? A school shooting in Colorado. She had her television on CNN coverage and I stood in her room for a few minutes, long enough to read the scroll of what was known so far, long enough to hear conjecture, long enough to see the line of students evacuating their school, the teenagers dangling and dropping from classroom windows. I ran out of my residence hall, that shuddering fury I felt when I heard accounts of Paducah returned, and I cut across campus, gasping a little. I looked up at the sky and asked God why. I don’t understand why I was so affected by this shooting but it happened as I was considering a teaching degree. Later that evening after I returned to my hall, after Jenny told me they got the shooters, the shooters were dead, I sat at my narrow desk by the window and wrote. I wrote I wasn’t sure if I could teach if this is what school meant now. I wrote my worry and fear.

I began my teaching career with a wary eye on the slumped boy, the angry girl. I assessed my classroom for barricade potential. I counted how long it would take to lock my classroom, turn the lights out, draw blinds. During my first years teaching in Wisconsin, April twentieth was difficult – I was anxious the weeks before and the day of I might call in sick or schedule a medical appointment. The year before I moved abroad, I decided I could go to school on the anniversary of Columbine but during first period I asked the office for sub coverage, left school midmorning.

April twentieth is not charmed. Nor is it cursed. It is only a date. And there are so many that followed.

Since leaving Wisconsin I have taught in Colombia, Kuwait and now, Korea. Each of these places have their own risks but I am not afraid of going to work as an educator or of sending my kids to their classrooms.

My daughter was in kindergarten when Newtown happened and there was a stretch of time I was most afraid for my children because humans are capable of such atrocities. The likelihood of a shooter firing into my son’s preschool room was so minimal but after Newtown I could imagine anything, and did. I hated the stay-in-place drills. My son’s teacher asked parents to send comfort objects for the boys and girls to hold during a scheduled drill. If there was a terrorist attack or a shooter on campus there would be no blankies, no stuffies, only thumps and cracks, a siren punctuated by a female voice urging

Stay — in place
Stay — in place

What followed Newtown was a slow realization I could not return to live in my country. I was as saddened and shocked by the details of the attack as I was by the federal government’s inability to enact gun restrictions which would make such mass murders more difficult to commit. The years since have entrenched an oligarchy placed by corporate interests, kept by voter suppression; and an ugly, entitled turn of political bias that refuses practical or difficult compromise necessary in such a diverse nation as ours.

At one point, I started a short story about the fabled good guy with a gun. He received address, dates and times and if he could only get through gate check and catch his plane, if he could only make his way through rush hour traffic he’d protect this school or that movie theater from a barrage of bullets. His performance review was shit.

I was mad. Just after Newtown a neighbor told me his plan to buy one or two assault rifles that summer when he was home, before Obama signed any gun control legislation reducing his right to bear arms. Why do you need a gun like that? I asked. Because it’s fun, he said. I remembered that conversation two years later when a nine-year-old girl at a firing range accidentally killed her instructor because she was unable to manage the power of an Uzi. Was that fun?

I wish I didn’t know the phrases “high capacity magazine” or “bump stock.”

Restrictions are imperative. Boundaries, rules, expectations can be gifts that shape fuller, longer lives. This morning I read about the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas – those cropped photos and short descriptions we are all familiar with. I watched a clip of David Hogg telling our representatives they are adults who need to do something. All the children in the US start kindergarten in a country where school is not safe.

Our last year in Wisconsin there was a school shooting in a neighboring district. I remember reading the email sent to all staff. We were supposed to continue teaching. That night on the news, the story told of a boy who walked into school, shot and killed his principal. Last school year, my siblings’ Janesville high school was put on lockdown and later closed while local, state and FBI law enforcement searched for a man who burgled a gun store and mailed a manifesto to the White House. The man was apprehended in the southwest part of the state, a little less than a hundred and fifty miles away from where my family lives. I still haven’t asked Mom what it was like to know three of her children were on lockdown because of a credible threat from a man with lots of guns. Weirdly, when I heard the story I didn’t feel alarmed or afraid. I had no deep feelings, not even rich gratitude for my siblings’ safety. The incident seemed regular.

This morning I was thinking about Paducah because it was not so long ago when this carnage was truly uncommon. I googled “paducah ky school shooting” and first results included news articles about Kentucky’s most recent school shooting which left two dead and fourteen injured. That happened January 23, 2018. I hadn’t heard of it. You probably haven’t heard of it. Two dead and fourteen wounded is no longer national news.

If all gun deaths were national news, what might happen? Could we say the number out loud? Two here, five there has become nothing but each is a life our nation let go.

Following Christ exacts a high cost. Deny yourself. Be angry but do not sin. So far as you are able, keep peace. Be humble. Love even the ones who are difficult to love. This is my anger: the political party who wants most to align itself with Christianity has twisted my faith to prosperity gospel, hypocritical prolife sentiment, protection from any “other,” and the right to bear an arsenal. How has personal liberty in the US usurped freedom in Christ – who will now deny themselves a military grade weapon? who will now lay down the handgun when they leave the house to buy groceries?

Not all will follow Christ. Not all will choose the hard work of love. But it is not the end. But, oh God, we are fucked as a nation if we cannot come to this issue humbly, openly, willing to draw necessary restrictions to help curb all gun violence in America.

Notes: I am a hit and miss expat voter newly resolved to vote, regardless the inconvenience. While at different points I thought I could not return to live in the States, I know that my life is best lived where I am and if I am one day back in the US, I will be glad. Also, I pray. I do believe prayer matters. But wrestle the issues, persist. Learn to listen. Last, while I am far away from my home country, it is my home country and I care deeply for the men, women and children living in its borders.

Please take time to read “A ‘Mass Shooting Generation’ Cries Out For Change.”

Midwinter Rant – & Revision

It’s day three hundred and seventeen of winter. We’re halfway to spring!

I underestimated the work of just getting through a transition year. This week I nearly missed the bus home from school. I sat in my seat, whispered a gentle fuck and then quietly cried for most of the commute. Three nearby colleagues noticed, patted my shoulder or said a kind word when they stood for their stop, offered a little commiseration, sympathy. Later in the week when Claire stood in front of me on the sidewalk and declared, You don’t get it! I am having a tough week! All week I am sad! You don’t understand! I thought of being the grown up who two days earlier cried on the bus ride home from school.

Because rants are allowed transitionless tangents:

I spent the week thinking about one essay I am revising. I worked on this essay a little each day. I thought about this essay on my morning runs. I dreamed this essay. I actually dreamed a paragraph to add, woke up and made a note.

Personal narrative is exhausting. This particular essay is a challenge because it centers on the years following the death of my friend’s infant and after two years of drafting and revising it is near completion though, as I added in a line, the conclusion I reach is that I will continue to ponder these things for years to come. There is no neat, tidy or uplifting package for the initial loss or grief and what I saw as I allowed time to write and think about that summer and my intersection with the event and lives involved – what I saw is that a first grief can open other griefs.

This must be true at any tragedy. We think we are sad for one thing because we are sad for that one thing, but then we are also sad for this other thing and soon our grief for the two entwines.

I was angry for three years after this infant died. I thought I was angry at the loss or the situation or even certain people present then, but the anger may also have been for the way this one grief made me see another, different sorrow I was holding.

If I didn’t keep a notebook or draft personal narrative, I might be better at sitting on a bus and pretending everything was fine.

This essay. I might have ruined it with the latest revisions. At the least I have taken the term personal literally and explored desires and fears circling motherhood, desires and fears I was already examining when my friend’s infant died and, in the years since, I linked those desires and fears with that summer’s grief.

One afternoon I took the kids to a small cafe for hot chocolate. I sat with my laptop open, adding to this essay, and Claire asked why I like to write. I said I want to make art. But when I consider why I write personal narrative, I have no good answer. A couple of weeks ago I was out to coffee with my friend Erin and I found a way to say why personal narrative is difficult: there is a pressure to really get it right. Especially the tough parts. I often start writing about something just because I need to write about that something but when I decide to turn the idea into a (someday) shared essay, there is terrible dread I won’t say what I need to say in a way that translates to understanding.

Early in the week my friend Sarah messaged me a quote from Australian author John Clarke.

“Writing another draft” sounds exhausting. “Having a bit of a tinker” sounds delightful.

And a day or two later Erin messaged me a link to a Reading My Tea Leaves post about writing or creating while also being a mother, a thoughtful reminder that what I am doing piecemeal adds to my craft. More, that motherhood adds to my craft.

Yesterday Grant looked at my engagement ring and asked if it is a real gem. I said yes. He asked, A diamond? A real diamond? Yes. His eyes got big. He said, We’re so rich! We are, in so many ways.

Well, this rant wound down nicely. It is still cold. We are trading coughs. Strawberries cost as much as a dollar apiece. And it is still cold.