Chapel On The Lake

Quick note: Starting in middle school I attended summer church camp. I was raised in the church which sometimes tricks me into thinking I know exactly how God works or how I work within my faith. Attending church camp gave me more opportunities to talk with all kinds of people who loved Jesus or wanted to or weren’t sure how to. For a while I wavered and wandered and wasn’t sure how to find a way back to a relationship that once felt full. I am so imperfect but I am loved by God who is good. I want to write about this faith, the experiences that build, assure, surprise us – I want to write about the Spirit in a way that doesn’t simplify or frighten. This piece is based on nights at summer camp. I think about the boys and girls who are now men and women and I wonder which of us still seek.


One evening we have chapel on the lake. Benches are built into the slope of a hill so we all look down at a cross in front of a few pines, the lake behind. At this time of day the water is like glass. We can see the swimming area roped off, the dock that ends at the deep end, the buoys we swim to. At this time of day, our bodies are tired from sun and activity and some of us have already cried at our small group, some of us have decided we almost believe, some of us are not sure. There is a boy named Clay who calls himself a Jesus Freak. There is a girl named Melissa who says Mother Mary comforts her. This evening we all sit and listen to the Word. Some of us take notes in bubbled cursive. Some of us trace an arc in the dirt with the toe of our sandal. At the end, we pray and there is a pause after Amen. The pause is met by one of us who stands.

When Ben stands it is like we all knew he would stand. There is a push forward in our chests. He walks to where the youth leader is standing and the youth leader does not look surprised or concerned by this bear of a boy. The youth leader steps aside. Ben puts his hands in his pockets, takes his hands out of his pockets. He looks up at us and squints like the sun is in his eyes, but the sun is behind him, low.

This is not enough, Ben says. We understand. All of us understand. He says it again and again. Each time, his voice is louder but he does not shout. We are all sitting, alert. Ben opens his arms wide and says, This is not enough. This is not enough. This is not enough.

Now we want to move but we aren’t certain how this goes. Ben goes quiet. He drops his arms to his side and we all wait in the hum. Angela stands. This is not enough, she says, I want more. And then a wash and whoosh of Spirit and we breathe like our lungs are deep. Angela calls out, More! And we stand or stay in our seat or go weak but more, more. Ben is standing like a tree. His body does not sway. He keeps his head bowed. Angela is swaying and tears fall from her eyes. She looks at heaven. We are all for a moment not at chapel on the lake. We are all together and alone with God.

No one sees the girl with red hair leave chapel. A few of us catch a movement at the swimming beach and see Kat walking loose limbed across the sand toward the dock. She begins to jog down the dock and those of us who watch hear her feet on the planks as she bursts faster at the end and leaps over the water, her arms outstretched. Those of us who watch see a baptism. Kat plays in the water for a minute or two. She floats on her back. She swims to the shallow water and hauls herself onto the dock where she sits with her feet in the water. She is too far away to know her expression but those of us who watch know it.

This evening ends. A couple of guitars are out. We sing praise. We sing slow. Kat wraps herself in a beach towel left draped over a canoe and rejoins us. She is glowing. We pray like we mean it, in our head or heart, with our lips. This evening ends. Ben finds his feet can move again. Angela dries. We hug one another. We see one another. The youth leader and his wife are tired and pleased. The counselors invite us to make a fire, toast marshmallows. Some of us are tired by the evening and drift down dark paths toward cabins. We brush our teeth and swat mosquitoes and climb into sleeping bags on top and bottom bunks. At this moment we are alive to the work of God in us and we are afraid and not afraid. We cannot see after this evening. One evening we will be older and closer or further. But this evening we rest, full.

(732 words)

It Takes A Quick Turn

The year I moved to Kuwait I decided to write a book. That idea was always in my mind. Also in my mind was a book title and cover, author photo, blurb and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. What was missing, and remains missing, are all the pages between the front and back cover. But that first year in Kuwait, I had so many promising starts. I just went off the deep end, opening one story something like

You’ve probably heard of my sister. Everyone wants to know did I see it coming?

and then made up a horrifying crime the narrator’s sister committed. This story was started late one night. I remember sitting at the dining table, feeling daring. I was writing about something very bad. And I was making a character interact with this very bad thing to see how she might respond, if she was able to see her sister as her sister was before the very bad thing.

I know why I was writing that story. Every year or two I returned to the story of my own grandmother. Shirley was already a story to me before she was murdered. She was not a kind mother to my father. While she was good to many people in her community, she was controlling and manipulative within her home and I believe she broke her children. I believe her husband suffered at her presence. I doubt anyone knowing the dynamics of that home with its presentable front was surprised when one day the daughter killed the mother.

The sorrow is not for what I had. By the time my aunt murdered my grandmother, I hadn’t spoken with either in years. But I was sad for my dad because now there was no chance to mend, no hope to restore a relationship broken even before his birth.

Not long after Shirley died, my family was camping and I joined them for the day. I was in my early twenties and terrified because I shared blood with this woman. While my parents shielded me and my siblings from so much of their fractured relationship with Shirley, I had an early sense something was off and by the time I was in high school, my phone calls from Wisconsin to North Carolina were short and stilted. On summers home during college I worked with Dad in Madison and he talked a little about his growing up on our commute. Really, so much is not mine. But the vignettes he shared filled in this picture of a boy before and a man after – of his siblings, Dad was the only one to defy his mother by leaving home, moving far away from her sway. I already understood not everything is determined by lineage but still I was afraid because Shirley was a monster in my mind. That afternoon at the campground Dad caught up to me on a path from the lake. We stopped so he could look at me when he said he didn’t want me to be afraid of being like his mother.

I must have said something to him or to Mom about this fear. Maybe he remembers more of the conversation. I remember he told the story of how he thought his mother broke, a single event that cut her heart deep. I wonder how people choose to live or die each day in what they say and do.

Sometimes I go back to Shirley, to my aunt murdering her. There are details that stick. There are parts of the story that may be just that, story. So many of my unfinished pieces are like bush burning. Just roaring through first thoughts. Licking dry tinder. One day I want to write a story about Shirley which will be about her, but about more too. I have kept myself from writing much about her, except in my notebook every year or two, except by proxy of fiction starts.

That dangerous story I started at the dining table did not get finished. My daughter was one year old. The fear I let go years before would return with the birth of my son. I have been angry at Shirley. I have also had compassion for her. She was terrible. She was sad. She was angry. When I write those traits, I see my heart too, the deep cuts I’ve made, my own sorrow and anger, and while I believe I do not need to be afraid of becoming Shirley, I know my heart is unmoved by flesh. I am alive by grace. I am alive in the Spirit. I am loved to love.

Shirley was murdered on a hot August day. She might have lived a little while. She might have thought for moment of each of us, or she might only have seen her world go dark.

(813 words)

One Day I’ll Write When I’m Through

A couple of months ago I sent out an essay titled “The Grave Garden” and a couple of weeks ago the essay was rejected for publication. I started writing the essay three years ago and tacked on the latest expansion earlier this year. The piece wanders. As it is, the essay is what I first supposed it might be, written only for me. I started writing about the death of infant Kaiden, my friends’ firstborn, and the years after when I was surprised by how sad and angry I remained. I remember writing the first draft. Parts were jagged, like you might snag on an inappropriate observation or emotion.

Right now I’m not certain why I committed that first draft to a file. I was already writing about the Senger family, their loss and second son, the community that walked alongside. Their grief would surface in me throughout that first year after Kaiden died, but what also came was the anger I wanted better to understand. What I’ve noticed about my more personal essays is that anything I finally type is something I’ve written by hand before, more than once. I love Natalie Goldberg’s idea that writers compost their ideas, turning over the soil until it’s rich enough to grow the right words. “The Grave Garden” essay as it is, even called finished, is likely one more part of the compost, one more turn of the soil until I know just how to talk about

what I really want to say, which is:

(I just spent ten minutes rewording a few sentences to whittle the years of this lesson to something that makes me seem more wise than ugly). Let’s try this again:

I didn’t want to be a mom more than anything in the world. And when I watched Christie, a woman who wanted to be a mom more than anything in the world, grieve the death of her son, her loss underscored the gain I held. I condemned myself for not wanting motherhood, for having to work so hard at enjoying the role, for the effort of love.

Before Kaiden died I wrote a couple of essays about contentment. Envy, comparison and finding contentment. I like to believe I really was on the way to figuring out how to enjoy motherhood, all by myself. I ran, journaled, listened to podcast sermons, laid on the floor to pray, confessed, begged for joy. I was too good at recognizing my lack. If I’d been a little dumber or kinder to myself, I probably wouldn’t have worried my initial fear or ambivalence about parenting meant always and forever selfishness. Also before Kaiden died, my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. Rose’s death shocked my apathy toward marriage and parenting. I was writing a lot about how much a fight it is to just be where you are, to yield to the difficult and boring work of loving a husband and small children, when Rose was diagnosed. Without knowing it, she celebrated her last Christmas. Without knowing it, she welcomed her last new year. And she would not see spring. The morning I learned Rose died, I stood in the shower crying for her son, but also crying for her because no matter the frame of faith and a better place, she was missing out on what I once wished away.

So “The Grave Garden” contains different sorrows. The loss suffered by Kaiden’s parents. My tangential grief for a different kind of loss, suffering what I’d missed having: a first full love of motherhood. “The Grave Garden” tries to make sense of my interaction with the Senger family’s loss and my parallel sorrow. While all the threads belong together, the essay shows me deciphering my emotions and responses in way that feels a little too raw. There is not a tidy way to write any of what I am writing in that piece, but I respect the story enough to find a way to tell it well.

I just finished Educated by Tara Westover. She journaled all the way through her wild growing up years in rural Idaho, all the way through her sense of inadequacy. She learned how to say the truth plainly in the pages of a notebook. And then, much later, she put her experiences together in a memoir that talks intimately about tragic and difficult moments. At no point in the narrative does the reader wonder if Westover is just figuring out what she needs to survive her family, to thrive away from Idaho, to pursue meaningful work she couldn’t have imagined a decade before. While she walks us through her realizations, while we watch her grow, we trust she tells us her story from a place that is through – maybe still in the middle on some days, but mostly secure in her present place.

Perhaps drafting and revising “The Grave Garden” stood in for what I should have done, which is go to therapy. It’s upsetting to write hard words in my own hand. To say to myself what hurts. Really, I think I could have done a few sessions, whacked my way through a couple of big issues, been lifted more quickly than three years of writing about my grief for the Sengers, my grief for myself, the anger. I wrote from the middle. I wasn’t through much of anything when I started drafting the essay. I wanted to be through, I wanted to understand what we learn from such tragedy, what forgiveness I might extend myself, I wanted to know I could be a good mom even if I hadn’t wanted motherhood more than anything in the world. I very much started “The Grave Garden” in the middle and its revision is ungainly but I don’t negate the need for the work. How else might I learn to write about difficult things except to write about difficult things?

(994 words)

When I Decided To Write Forever

During freshman year of college I met Andy Pech who read my poetry with a neutral face and then asked what was the point of all the different fonts. We were sitting knee to knee in a tiny cubicle of the Writing Lab in the campus library. He tapped the page with his pen and waited for an answer. I burned. I said something about emphasis and his sigh made clear several fonts in a skinny poem did not emphasize anything. At another session Andy asked if I really wanted to learn anything about writing. I was showing up for writing feedback once a week or so, getting a few pieces together for the campus literary magazine but not actually trusting Andy to spot necessary revision. Rather than accept criticism, I defended my fonts. (Somewhere in central Wisconsin there is a tiny paperback 1999 edition of Barney Street with a wildly fonted poem by sarah burchell or Sarah Burchell or however I was signing my name then). But a decade later in my own creative writing classroom I waited for answers from my own students because Andy taught me to have a reason for your writing choice. And, perhaps, don’t hold a draft too tightly.

During my sophomore year I got a B- on an essay and scheduled an appointment with the professor who said, You are wordy. The end. He was right. He glanced at my paper and said, For example here… A handful of extra words, a redundant sentence. Four or five years ago I worked with a woman who gave me the Vicious Editor game which I adore: cut one third of the words.

I was often one of the best writers in my college workshops. Sometimes I met with another strong writer outside of workshop so we could have a rigorous discussion of our pieces. I won awards from the English department and it gave me pleasure to know these men and women who instructed my craft also appreciated my craft. One November, to celebrate my twentieth birthday, I read poetry at the Mission Coffee House. My dad drove three hours to surprise me in the audience. At the podium, I looked out at friends. I looked out at my dad who tells me every year or so that I should write a book. I looked out at Andy, leaning against a door frame with his arms crossed, smiling just a little.

Sometimes I google one of the names I remember from writing workshops. Or I think of emailing my old professors. I want to know who is still writing. I want to say I am still writing.

The semester I decided I would write forever was when I took a fiction workshop with Larry Watson. At this point I was already enrolled in the School of Ed., and starting the English methods block. I supposed I would teach a few years before enrolling in an MFA program. The day before winter break I had an appointment with Professor Watson. He held my story. He wasn’t effusive but he told me I was good writer, asked if I was going to go to grad school, said he’d be happy to write me a letter. Very likely, Larry Watson does not remember me, or if he remembers me it is only a smudge of my face or a part of the story I wrote that semester. The story he held was “Rose Petal Lips” and it was while drafting that story that I knew I would write forever. I only recall a couple of images and plot points of “Rose Petal Lips” but the process of drafting that story is what stays. I remember running in the dark early morning with scenes and dialog in my mind, trying to hold the turns/ details/ lines until I could get back to my notebook. I remember stopping and crying because I figured out why a character was so broken. I told Professor Watson I wasn’t sure.

Daydream drafting. Parking at a table to fill pages. Revising until the piece is what I want, or as close. This is a practice I choose. I am compelled to shape stories and poems. I cannot only journal. Truly, I do not understand why I open to a story, why I want to explain that time or place, why I find myself thinking a line of poetry when I look at my son. What I need to do is set explanation aside and write without fear why or how, without fear no one reads, without fear. Maybe what I am doing is writing and writing so that when a story comes along, I am not afraid to commit its words to paper but am instead prepared to use those words perfectly. No wild fonts or wordiness or pride or uncertainty. Only a story shot through my mind, shaking my body.

(818 words)

I Testify

One of my pastors said that the best testimony was no testimony. My family attended a small church of five or six families and a man named Art who said he voted for the other party to hasten the end times. Pastor Scott was from Wisconsin but moved out to New York to minister to city kids before returning to Wisconsin with his own young family. It’s odd to have church with just twenty or thirty people, half of them children. If a family skips a Sunday, one side of metal folding chairs is lopsided. Always there were empty rows. Always we could sit one row ahead of our parents, if we wanted. Our worship team was one of two married couples, the wife at the piano and the husband empty handed or holding a tambourine. We had no hymnal so all lyrics were written on transparencies. For a while, the first pastor’s daughter switched the sheets to follow the songs. When I was ten or eleven I got to sit next to a friend and switch between verse and chorus, the next song. While the church suffered rifts I didn’t understand as a child and haven’t asked about as an adult, the families remained attuned to the gospel. I believe the small congregation loved Jesus and one another as best as each could.

There is no hiding in a small church. Now I attend a church that might be fifty or sixty people on Sunday morning. We meet in a hotel conference room in Itaewon. During the first several weeks attending this gathering, I cried at each service, and couldn’t say why. Sometimes in the middle of a question or fear or doubt but sensing the edge of understanding is near, I think of my parents being my age once and suffering their own middles, sensing the dull ache or sharp knife of growth, and I remember they did all of this with a small crowd of witnesses.

What Pastor Scott meant by the best testimony is no testimony is that the best witness of Christ’s love is a life lived faithfully start to finish. I wonder what I have said as a teacher or parent that is now lodged unhelpfully in a mind. I don’t think it’s impossible to live faithfully start to finish. There are men and women I look to as examples of reverent, practiced, consistent gospel living. When I was nine or ten I started reading Drama In Real Life. That Reader’s Digest feature was one of my favorites. And our Christian radio station played a Chuck Colson program every Saturday night about sinners who slopped about in mud before hearing about Jesus and turning their lives around. I was hearing how exciting danger and sin might be, the thrill of near misses. But at church I was hearing how much Jesus wanted me to be holy. I don’t remember Pastor Scott going on and on about why he thought a faithful life was preferable to a radically redeemed life but that idea still chafes me, even as I look at my daughter and son and think, Spare them this mess.

I am submitting work for publication. I go through a list of literary journals, visit the sites, guess if my work might sit alongside what is already there. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a cover letter that included the sentence

Help me.

because that is what it will take for my work to ever land in a journal or a book. Someone else will have to read my words, decide to help me lift up all these stories and images for you to see too. When I read published work, I catch the couple of lines about the author. So-and-so has an MFA from -, this grant, that award, a fellowship. Her/ his work has appeared in -, -, -, and is forthcoming in – and -. She/ he lives in (usually) Brooklyn (but sometimes somewhere surprising like Tampa or Calgary).

When we moved to Kuwait, we attended a church where I bristled at and yielded to the constant work of God in my heart. We worshipped on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, and I remember one morning a group of Indian men and women performed a dance to music with words I couldn’t understand. I stood swaying with my infant son wrapped to my torso, crying because these men and women danced with joy and I understood I wanted that joy and held that joy. Because I grew up in a nondenominational church, I had no attachment or perception of particular strains of evangelicalism so when a woman from Bethel prayed fervently for my healing, I agreed. I didn’t care that in California, her church body thought God turned people’s teeth to gold. When we joined a largely Filipino service I wasn’t put off by the many prayers for provision and financial blessing because all around me were men and women working long hours to send money home to parents, siblings, spouses, children. I had friends from the South who voted differently than me. I had a friend whose husband stockpiled assault rifles for the apocalypse. I worshipped with a Polish woman who once clasped my hands and said she could see me laughing with such joy, like a child, and a year later I had joy like a child again. During our last years in Kuwait, I loved Shobha and Asha for their gentleness, honesty and faithfulness: they worked without complaint, loved my children with affection, rested and teased and traveled together, prayed with me, blessed me when I couldn’t ask for blessing.

There are so many people who walk the narrowest path.

Sometimes I fear being a Christian precludes me from being a writer. We all have hang ups. This is one of mine. I look at the pieces where I address my faith and think no one wants to read that. I lack the theological depth or bright pep to appeal to the American evangelical (do I really want to appeal to the American evangelical?). I talk about God like he is God, which is uncomfortable. And then I read the author notes of other writers who probably write with more abandon than me because they aren’t afraid of testifying. I read the author notes of other writers who spool out lines, brick paragraphs like I do, but I am envious with a similar envy I have for my Christian brothers and sisters who marry as virgins, bear three or four or five children, take gorgeous family photographs in knee deep grasses: these authors seem to have also gone the prescribed path. I wander far, teach, scrap together work in spare time. I am bitter there are Christians with the most boring, faithful testimony and I am bitter there are writers who publish because they can’t help but publish after the MFA from -, this grant, that award.

Last night I dreamed I gave birth to an infant I couldn’t see or touch. The dream was of two women caring for my body during and after. The dream was fear I would die because my body wasn’t delivering the placenta. The dream was the sensation of labor, the deep turning and undeniable truth the process cannot stop.

(1212 words)

Sustain Creative Momentum

Earlier this year I was reading my colleague David Lee’s manuscript about what it looks like to shape curriculum around design thinking and applied learning. David is finishing his fifth year at Korea International School and has spent a great chunk of his time learning how to implement design thinking in his makerspace and working with his colleagues to develop applied learning transdisciplinary units. He writes about process. One part of the process is to sustain creative momentum.

I paused at that phrase. Sustain creative momentum. I wrote it at the top of a page in my notebook. And in the time since, I’ve turned the phrase over in my mind, written it in the middle of my writing practice, considered what it means to sustain creative momentum when I don’t know why.

This transition year is tough. I expected my role as a school wide utility teacher (I’ve stepped into JK and AP rooms) to afford me more creative energy to write – after all, as a substitute I don’t plan or grade. But just the move to Korea made everything new: neighborhood, routine, transportation, food, apartment. And at school I am constantly in the middle of new situations: an age group I haven’t taught before, a subject I don’t understand, another teacher’s space. While I might be able to leave school at school (I try), our family life is a flux of whatever any one of us is dealing with re: transition, change. So much about this move is good but the difficult parts feel like absolute disaster.

One of my personal disasters is writing. The other night I told Justin that I am not working as I expected to, not starting anything new, just sorta picking at work that’s done, sending revised pieces out with the slimmest hope any editor decides to print one of my essays or stories. When I sit to write, I journal or pray. I’m fortunate to write/ edit a little for the school and I don’t discount that work as useful or good practice. But years ago I decided writing matters enough to me that I want to keep at the craft. More, I decided I want to share what I write. This year I am not doing much of either. And that makes me sad. I cannot develop my craft without developing my craft. I doubt I will touch art if I don’t write prolifically. But this year I thought would deliver flow is as fragmented as any other so when I read

sustain creative momentum

I knew that’s what I need to do as a writer, but how?

I have a project. In a week I will probably think it’s the stupidest thing I could do with my time. (Looking at a file of unpublished stories I sometimes think how great a cook I could be if I quit bothering the words). But I will do this project because it will teach me something I don’t know yet. This project is manic. But whatever. For the month of May I will write daily and post 500-1000 words on the odd days. Narrative and/ or poetry. Stand alone or serial posts. Personal, outlandish, boring, safe, fun. I’ll pick up and drop themes. I’ll probably whinge. For sure I’ll write a lot of junk and it’s a little frightening to think of spending a month being less precious about what I toss up on this space but whatever. Really. This project is about choosing to sustain creative momentum when I don’t know why.

Rules

  1. Have fun most of the time
  2. Experiment: structure, tense, POV, syntax & usage
  3. Reuse ideas but don’t pick at old drafts
  4. Daydream draft
  5.   

At some point during the month I’ll add a fifth rule. I can already feel my shoulders tightening, a slight pull in my neck at the anticipation and dread of making this project work, and a stone in my belly at the thought that this month, like so much of my other writing, will only pile on the practice while failing to call out a fuller writing life. I am good at calling my pessimism or apathy realistic and I am good at cutting tiny sprigs of hope from my heart. This year, this wonderful and tough year in a new country, this year of feeling out of place or inadequate, this year I occupy my mind with sorrow and fear, this year of faded, renewed and early friendship; this year wondering why I am here – this is the year I realized I am missing deep hope. I want hope like a wildflower garden spilling down a hill or crowding a yard. My hope is more like a row of marigolds edging the vegetable garden, more practical than pretty, present because I’m supposed to have hope, but kept in line.

I want to practice hope this month. I practice craft with the hope I write art one day. I draft with the idea someone will read this piece and respond. But those tiny sprigs are crowded by stalks of fear and doubt. What happens if I decide to write without any expectation beyond: practice craft, have fun. What happens if this month I hope for thousands of words and two or three really good starts? What a nice, safe hope. What happens if this month I hope for a clear idea of what comes next for my writing work? Start before you’re ready. This month I will sustain creative momentum, with hope.

(915 words)