Waking Sleeping Town

This idea came a few years ago and I love the idea (which is why I returned to this story a couple of times over the last year) but I do not like the story draft here. Parts, yes. Ideas, yes. But the idea deserves a better draft. Before posting I read through to think what I wanted to share about the process. Instead of front-loading my thoughts here, my responses are italicized. I recommend reading a third or half of the piece if you want, but don’t bother doing more than skim the rest. Friends, I promised drafts.


I am the only one awake now. Two days ago Mom said she was tired and that she was sorry. We were at the kitchen table. She was paying bills online and I was doing homework, physics. She closed her laptop and asked me to look at her. There was a tiny moment before I looked up from my notebook when I tried to guess what I was supposed to look like now, when I met her eye and said it’d be okay, I’d be okay. Really, I didn’t know what to feel when she said she was tired. I don’t know what my face looked like. Hers was crinkly and wet. This was harder for her. So we sat holding hands across the table and I absorbed what she had to say. I didn’t hear anything so I hope her words are hiding somewhere in my body, in a muscle or tooth, and I hope her words come to me when I need them because I will need them now that I’m the only one awake.

There are other families like ours, everyone but one sleeping. You’re supposed to report to county health or a hospital when you’re the last one awake but I haven’t done that yet. When I do, if I do, I’ll get a sticker to place on our front door or window so police and social services know to periodically knock, find out if the last one’s down too. I really don’t know what happens then. I think we get moved to a care facility. Our city won a state contract to build and staff a sleep center but it’s only a giant rectangular cut in land right now, ready for its concrete foundation pour.

I saw pictures in National Geographic of sleep centers around the country. Church basements, American legions, empty classrooms. One picture was of a triple stacked bunks, all you could see where the tops of heads resting on pillows and iv lines dropped from the ceiling. Another picture was of twin girls turned on their sides to face one another, their hands touching but maybe not feeling, feeding tubes running through their nostrils. I really don’t want to end up like that.

Mom went upstairs to wash her face and brush her teeth. She came back wearing a nightgown, carrying a sleep kit. She’d ordered one for each of us after Josh went to sleep. Mine is under my bed. I closed my physics text and notebook, slid both into my backpack. Mom opened the box. She found the catheter with its tiny accordion of instructions. I think it’s better if I do this now, she said, I don’t want you to have to do it later. I followed her to the living room where we surveyed the floor space and guessed what might work best. Dad, Josh and Bud were on the queen sized mattress Mom and I brought down from her room after Bud fell asleep too. Then Taylor went to sleep and we put her on the futon mattress. Mom could lay next to Taylor. She’d fit. Or she could lay next to Dad and we’d move Bud to share the futon. I guess the question is how you’d roll us, Mom said. She looked at me. You pick, she said.

I feel like you should be next to Dad, I said. So we moved Bud to the futon.

Looks good, Mom said. She unfolded the absorbent blue sheet from the sleep kit and laid it next to Dad. While she went to the bathroom with the catheter in hand, I sat on the couch and thought how I should check fluids or ports or turn everyone to the other side. I didn’t get up from the couch though. When people first started falling asleep, there were all these PSAs about staying awake. Exercise, eat healthy, get eight hours a night. It’s always that and it never quite works. Mom quit buying Cheetos after Josh fell asleep. She cooked again. We didn’t order pizza for three months until Bud knocked off and Taylor asked what was the point, really? Mom was running seven or eight miles a day, making Taylor and me bike to school while three bodies occupied a mattress between the couch and television. I was looking at that television when Mom came back downstairs.

Honey, you think you’re going to fall asleep, go to Mrs. Johnson, Mom said. Mrs. Johnson is a woman Mom knows from church. She’s a nurse. Mom laughed. She said, Don’t try this at home.

I smiled a little. Taylor and Mom would fight but Mom and I didn’t fight much. She opened her arms to me. I got up for the hug. We held on for a little while. She was warm. Tomorrow her body would feel cooler. She kissed my forehead, my cheeks. She touched her nose to mine. I love you, Chelsea, she said. I love you too, Mom, I said. She laid down in the space between Dad and Josh. She turned on her side to face Dad and sighed. This feels good in a funny way, she said, I’ve missed laying next to your father. She propped up on an elbow, leaned forward to kiss his dry, parted lips. He didn’t move.

Alright, she said, I guess this is it. They’ll figure it out, honey. Keep going to school.

I watched Mom fall asleep. When Josh fell asleep we all thought he was just being lazy one morning. Then Dad took a nap in his recliner, watching the game, and didn’t get up. Bud said he felt weird at dinner one night. I think Mom knew what was going to happen because she gathered him in her arms and snuggled while reading the last four chapters of Mouse And The Motorcycle. Taylor asked for privacy while she fell asleep. But Mom doesn’t mind if I watch. She rolls her head to look at me, upside down. She looks like when I was little kid and she’d pull a face to make me laugh. I smile, she smiles. She shuts her eyes, relaxes her face and breathing. I watch her whole body go soft before I turn on the television.

I went to school the next day. At lunch, Ezra asked how the home fires burned. I shrugged and ate his potato chips. There are posters all over school that say Stay Awake! Find A Friend! A support group meets after school in the choir room. The bike rack is out front of the classroom. I unlocked my bike. I saw the kids arriving to the support group, taking places in a circle of chairs. I’d never gone but Taylor used to. She said it helped. It made a living room of sleeping family seem okay. A living room of sleeping family is not okay. A girl in the choir room saw me looking. She raised a hand. I got on my bike and pedaled away.

At the end of that first day, I sat cross legged on the couch watching television. On the futon, Taylor and Bud were still. I thought Taylor should be where I was now, she’d be better at this, she’d go to county health and get a stock of ivs and supplements, she’d check our temperatures and measure our waste and calculate just how much to adjust our fluid intake. She’d go to the support group and take tissues by twos and threes, lean on a friend’s shoulder while saying she missed tossing popcorn at Bud during family movie night.

For two weeks I only roll Dad, Mom, Josh, Taylor and Bud. I check the iv lines, swap empty bags for full, regulate the drips. I avoid checking the catheters, instead only unclipping the urine bags and taking them to the hall toilet for a flush. I know I’m supposed to check the catheters for irritation or infection. I know I’m supposed to wash the genitals but I don’t want to. I think about calling the number listed on all the Stay Awake! posters and asking county health to send someone to the house but I’m afraid that might result in everyone going to one of those quiet shelf spaces I saw in National Geographic.

Before Mom and Taylor fell asleep, they’d talk to Josh, Dad and Bud. Mom was on a lot of message boards. She’d forward articles to Taylor and me and Taylor would bring home pamphlets from the support group. Your voice and presence may have power to remind your sleeping loved one(s) that he or she is important to you. Talk to your sleeping loved one(s) as you would speak to him or her at the dinner table. You may want to pause as if waiting for an answer from your sleeping loved one(s). This may give your sleeping loved one(s) an opportunity to form a response in his or her brain. That sense of connection may be an important part of waking.

But no one was waking yet.

The longest sleepers were child refugees from Syria and Iraq. Three years ago BBC and CNN posted short articles, video links of kids temporarily resettled in Scandinavia who were running up and down sidewalks, eating unfamiliar food at a school cafeteria while their siblings were laid out on cots in small bedrooms. There was a photo of a mother sitting at the feet of her sleeping son, trimming his toenails. I don’t think anyone paid much attention until later, when people who hadn’t just barely escaped war fell asleep too. Then we all went to archives to read about these first sleepers who still hadn’t woken up, whose parents were learning Swedish or Norwegian now because how do you move a family who is half asleep? The mother clipping her sleeping son’s toenails, the entire time she was talking to him in Arabic. What are you saying, the reporter asked. She looked up, answered. The translation read, I am telling him about making his favorite food when he wakes. I am telling him about his sister learning to walk.

I tried talking to them. My voice sounded funny. A little too loud, bright. It has this shine on it like when Mom would wake us up early to load the car for a summer road trip and you could hear her tone trying to say this was going to be an adventure, a great fun day in the car, you could hear that in her voice. That’s how I am talking about eating lunch with Ezra. He shared chips! We studied for Spanish! After a month it’s easier to be quiet. How’s the ashram? Ezra asks at lunch one day. I glare at him but think it’s funny too. I can’t help but laugh. And after that, the name sticks. We call my house the ashram.

I like the story to this point. I like the idea of sleepers. I can picture the news coverage, the think pieces, the curated photo spreads. I can also imagine the panic, the screaming stupid. And I can imagine pretending this isn’t really happening.

I like Chelsea and I am glad Ezra is sticking around. I do not want to get bogged down in the medical stuff as the writer, so I let Chelsea skip over it too, for now.

Most afternoons, Ezra walks me home from school even though it’s out of his way. Sometimes he comes in to say hi to the family, make microwave popcorn, help me with physics. He asks if I want to go to the homecoming dance and I close the front door, turn the deadbolt, and watch him go back the way we came, hands in his pocket. I stand at the living room window and watch him walk down the block, halfway down the next until he’s out of the frame. He walks on the balls of his feet as if he might skip or run at the next step. When I can’t see him anymore, I cry. This is the first time I feel how alone I am, thinking that if I went to the homecoming dance I’d have to find a dress and do my own hair and take a selfie. Later that night the phone rings and I jump. It’s Ezra’s mom. Lisa.


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It Had Been Revealed

One of my go-to fiction writing exercises is to write from a PostSecret prompt. Most weeks I read PostSecret but I only mine the site for a story idea when I want to write a story but don’t want to commit. So: lightly edited flash fiction. Extend this exercise by choosing a parameter(s) – POV, tense, word count, sentence/ paragraph length, syllables per word – for the piece. This week PostSecret included a video of spiritual secrets and I wrote down a few, including the prompt for the following:

I’m not religious anymore but listening to the Christmas story I grew up with is the only thing that stops my panic attacks.

A fuller piece I want to write is about where the church camp kids are, twenty years on, after we sang all the songs and cried about Jesus loving us, and shared inside jokes, wrote as penpals one summer to the next. I’m interested in why some of us keep the faith of our childhood, and others of us do not, and to consider where parental belief or church doctrine ends, and our own understanding and faith begins.

As I wrote this piece (maybe five or six hours, over four days) I reread the Christmas story account from Luke, the one read before opening gifts at my grandparents’ on Christmas Eve. There is assurance, peace and wonder, and I can easily imagine the words soothing a panic.


On the morning commute to Itaewon Julie could feel the clamping. She got off two stops early just to be out of the subway car, the smell of kimchi and garlic on skin. This happened sometimes, though it wasn’t the close space or the body smells of fellow commuters that bothered her. When it happened – the clamping, as she started calling her attacks when she was a child, before she knew there was a name for drowning in air and feeling her body go numb – Julie had a plan, and the plan had evolved as she did, from a childhood chanting in far bathroom stalls, to an adolescence resting in the spoken words of her mother, to an adult whose three years of therapy was helpful to understanding her panic attacks but did not offer an end to them. That had been a disappointment. Julie stood on the platform. She put her hands in her pant pockets and pinched the flesh of her thighs because this minor physical pain was often enough to shake the clamp loose. She pressed her fingernails into her soft flesh. Anyone looking wouldn’t know the tiny, perfect pain that spiked her brain. It was enough for this minute. Keeping one hand in a pocket she left the platform, walked up the stairs, through the turnstiles, up more stairs to the street, the fingers in her pocket playing with nubs of flesh to give short, bright pain, enough to regain her breath.

When she was in the middle of a clamping, she could not think to take exit four instead of seven, so on the street she turned around slowly to orient herself, and then began walking to work. Autumn in Seoul was gorgeous. The trees went red, gold. Platter sized leaves littered the sidewalks, dropping from shade trees cultured by the Japanese. The air was clean for a last month before winter smog settled the region. Julie pulled deep breaths through her nose, exhaled fully. She was feeling steady again. Julie took out her phone and earbuds.

What worked best was for someone to read to her. Something about the unrehearsed speech quieted her. When Julie was in middle school, home midday after throwing up in PE or dissolving in tears in the counselor’s office, her mom would tuck her into bed, bring her hot cocoa, and read, first from the Bible and then from whatever book Julie had dogeared on her bedside table. The words – and the pauses, mispronunciations and corrections, coughs, throat clearings, water sips – were just the cadence that brought Julie’s mind and body to rest. Her mom seemed to recognize this too, and began to read with Julie each evening before bed. When Julie went to college, her mom sent a box of audiobook cds along, and a couple of years after when Julie started therapy hoping to solve the clamping forever, she realized her mom understood a way to help even if she hadn’t understood a better way to help. And it had worked, hadn’t it, better than a gym membership or therapy or keeping a gratitude journal or praying fervently.

The audiobooks were not the same. The first months of freshman year were a disaster. Julie went home at Thanksgiving and spent two days in bed listening to her mom read Psalms and Harry Potter for an hour or so at a stretch, listening to her family cooking, eating, playing board games downstairs. Julie’s older sibling, Matthew, brought his girlfriend to meet the family, a biology major named Taylor who, when Julie joined the family on Friday, said quietly that student services offered counseling and that might help. Julie nodded and thought to call when she returned to campus. She didn’t call until her junior year. And then, sitting in a tiny campus counseling office with platitude posters on the walls, she wondered why no one saw what Taylor had seen, that Julie needed. But at age nineteen or twenty, Julie couldn’t have said what she needed. For a decade the clamping had been a part of her life and sometimes it was okay, and sometimes it was not.

Julie found the album she liked. Last Christmas she flew home from Korea to surprise her family. She moved to Korea a year after graduating college, at the end of her third year of therapy. The college therapist recommended a woman Julie might continue her work with, and so Julie stayed in her college town, kept her job at Starbucks and picked up more shifts, and talked her way to deciding to move to Korea to teach English. This was an apt fit for Julie. The move itself was a series of clampings but once in a rotation of lessons, Julie was surrounded by such beautifully unrehearsed speech as her elementary students read from slim books about sport games, trips to the zoo, and eating at a restaurant. She often left the brightly lit hagwon feeling relaxed. She went home that first Christmas because while she liked teaching the elementary students to read and write English, she was lonely. Her workday began at two in the afternoon, and finished at nine in the evening. Five of the other teachers had arrived together the previous term and there was no breaking into that group, and the rest of the teachers had been living in Korea too long to care about meeting a new expat. Everyone was nice, but no one was kind. When she went home at Christmas, she wasn’t wholly certain she would return to Korea.

The first Sunday home she went to church. Since leaving for college, she’d only gone to church on the weekends home. Julie thought she still believe in God. But she had prayed for the clamping to go away. Beginning as a girl in elementary school when her prayer was as uncomplicated as, Please, God, make me feel okay. And Julie prayed in middle school and high school, with her mom, or alone, praying for this sensation and the fears to leave her alone.

Julie pressed the arrow and adjusted the volume to hear her mother’s voice. At church that first Sunday home, she listened to the advent reading, watched the candle flame waver. She almost prayed, or prayed in a way she didn’t know was prayer. Her parents wanted to know about Korea and Julie made the move sound like the right choice. It was as right as another. They were happy she was happy, and she was happy, but also lonely and the thought of returning to lonely kept her in bed for a day, which she passed off as jetlag. She made her whole body tense, and then let go. She tracked her breath. She pinched her inner thighs, she burrowed under the heavy quilts. On Christmas Eve, Julie sat with her parents in the living room. The tree lights were on, and Christmas music, and they drank hot cocoa or eggnog and briefly Skyped with Matthew and Taylor who were in South Dakota where her family lived. Her dad took his Bible from a shelf and opened to the book of Luke. He began to read and Julie felt her chest open for a full breath. Wait, Dad, she said and found her phone charging in the kitchen. She opened a recording app and pressed start. He began again. In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

After her dad read through the angels and shepherds, Julie asked her mom to read the same passage and she did, continuing to tell of Simeon and Anna the prophetess, and the holy family’s return to Nazareth. Julie began to cry a little. She could return to Korea and she could make a friend. Julie saved the recordings and pulled one up when she needed to listen to someone read: on the plane returning to Incheon, during break her first day back at the hagwon, through the smoggy spring and humid summer. She walked more now and that was helping too, to be outside with sky and trees, the rivers and hills. The clamping was less frequent now and Julie thought of the recordings as her talisman.

Now she stood on a residential street, a short cut to work, and listened to her mom read. Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Julie took her hand from the pant pocket. She tucked her hands instead into her jacket, closed her eyes and continued drawing steady breaths. When she was a girl she thought the Holy Spirit was like wisps of fog on country roads and when her pastor prayed that the Holy Spirit be present here, now, she peeked to see if the aisles of church were misty here, now. Someone bumped by her, and then another someone. Julie listened again to the story. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Julie’s phone rang, pausing the reading. She answered. She’d lost track of time. She was coming in, yes. Julie removed her earbuds. One day she thought she might understand Simeon, his certainty at seeing the Christ child because of a whispered promise, but she could not now imagine carrying such hope for so many years. She walked along, scuffing leaves, thinking, like a child.


Nine of thirty-nine. 1699 words.

Write A Wild Story

When I moved to Kuwait I had a plan to stay home with my daughter and write while she napped. I supposed after a year or two I would have a book and be on my way to an enviable writing life. During those first years in Kuwait I did not write a book but I did learn to finish stories, at their expense, and to no reader’s pleasure. I spent forty pages on a jewelry store clerk and another forty pages on a young soldier. The clerk wept and the soldier died, but it took forever to move them to their ends. My son was born and the year after I continued to peck at fiction though the richer work was my journal.

And then, while both of my children were little, there was a stretch of bruising and blooming. There was a man I wanted, and he wasn’t my husband. I indulged the fantasy briefly, as I’d indulged any other fantasy since understanding the belly pull of sex, with guilt. But this time, with sorrow too, that I could not be content in the confines of my marriage, and anger that I could not just once and go have a fuck to have a fuck. So during this time I wrote stories about married women with young children who were attracted to men they were not married to. I wrote an essay about wanting an affair and not having an affair. When I showed my husband the essay he asked if it was fiction. I wish. Even my fiction wives could not betray their fiction husbands. None of us got to take a trip to Dubai or smash against a body in an elevator. We all just stayed married and true. And glad for it. As I journaled and drafted the thinnest veil of fiction over my own experiences, vulnerability gained traction. Even now I am uncertain at the literary integrity of those stories about wives wanting and not having, but I am certain that the practice of writing plainly the beautiful ugly complicated parts of being a person allowed me to grow compassion, extend grace to myself and others wrestling spirit and flesh.

An unexpected mercy during this time was reading George Saunders. Years earlier someone suggested I read him. Civilwarland In Bad Decline, this someone said, was awesome. I probably nodded, thought what a stupid title that was, and went back to reading Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler. But then I bought the book and read it on Kindle while powering through elliptical workouts each morning. And I read In Persuasion Nation and his then latest, The Tenth Of December. I overdosed on Saunders’s short fiction. Yet I still wanted to read more of the similar, fiction on a tilt, so at the suggestion of a writer and editor I read I Want To Show You More by Jamie Quatro. It was odd timing that I was then writing about searing lust in journal and essay, playing out scenarios in fiction, when here was another woman writer who’d published a collection of overlapping stories with characters who loved God, loved spouses, and still craved sin. I Want To Show You More gave an answer to how I might also write about my faith.

My fear was/ is I misrepresent the Christian faith because I don’t have the theological training to satisfy debate, but I live it with wrestle and doubt, peace and rest, and during my years in Kuwait I got comfortable talking simply about how faith works in my life. I am totally aware conversations about sin or repentance or grace sound ridiculous to a lot of people. I am also totally aware that a segment of my brothers and sisters are offended by confession of sin, confession of doubt, because sin and doubt seem a failure of faith in some way. But when I was in the middle of wanting to fuck a man I wasn’t married to I was so glad another woman wrote plainly about faith and lust, the flesh and spirit. I read Quatro and thought how I might follow her and Saunders. Why not write the gritty mess of loving Jesus as is. Why not trust readers to be along for the story, to accept unpolished faith.

Growing up I read a lot of Christian fiction. There was a series set in the northwoods of Wisconsin. The settlers logged, and the children carried lunch pails to their one room schoolhouse, and each book centered on a mystery that also revealed a spiritual truth to the protagonists, about pride or caring for the poor. I read This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti and sometimes the idea of invisible angels and evil at work around us flashes up and I look over my shoulder. I read Brock and Bodie Thoene whose historical fiction was well researched and characters round enough to suffer flaws too. I also read a lot of Janette Oke whose pioneer heroines always, always found love at an unexpected time/ in an unexpected place/ with an unexpected person. I didn’t read the popular Christy series by Robin Jones Gunn, who wrote books she wanted the girls of her church youth group to read, because Mom thought they were too old for me when I asked and I didn’t ask again, and by the time I was making my own book choices at the public library, I really didn’t care to read how a good Christian girl likes a good Christian boy who likes her back and is willing to stay pure until a blissful nondescript wedding night. At that point in my adolescence there were no good Christian boys who liked me and if I was going to read about a life that wasn’t mine, I preferred Kurt Vonnegut (why, why!).

I still read an occasional Christian fiction book. I remember reading a book about a church singles group that goes the beach for a weekend. A light read. Just fun. There is chaste flirting. There is a date or two. There is wondering about the will of God. But there is no masturbation in the tiny, shared bathroom while the roommates are fetching hamburger to grill, no gossip about which church lady would be a beast of a mother-in-law. No matter the crisis, no matter the longing or fear, Christian lit takes a didactic turn. So for years when I wrote anything complicated, in essay especially, I wound down to an ending that patted the reader’s hand, even if my own hands were fists. Finally I was in a workshop with a woman who encouraged me to be a little less tidy about the endings, and that’s reflective of my faith, really. If I write about my faith plainly, I can trust you will see how I work it out over the years. And if I commit to write about my faith plainly, I am free to include the wobbly bits too, without shame, because those add to my body of work and a fuller understanding of my faith.

Shortly after Saunders and Quatro, I found an anthologized story about a woman in the middle end of a stalled marriage, who is worried about how her son is doing at preschool. In that piece, the woman slowly lifts from the ground, a gentle defiance of gravity. All of that work turned over this idea that I too might write a wild story. I was writing about women whose script was essentially mine. But I was reading all these stories that asked me to accept slight (not-so slight) variations on reality. In the middle of this mix I took a fiction workshop, generated a lot of work that had nothing to do with straying wives, relieved to welcome new characters and situations. Writing fiction was just fun again. Work to make it work, but more fun than drawing too much from my own lost wants.

One afternoon I was at a stoplight listening to the BBC when an interview came on about someone doing something amazing in the middle of devastation. Are you a hero? I remember the question being direct, and the quick demur from the guest. I remember rolling my eyes. I remember thinking no one is allowed to call themselves a hero. They would be crucified in the comments. That blip of a thought started an improbable story.

From there, I set off on a number of reckless, wild drafts, most never written to completion, for the practice of writing fiction on a tilt, of placing stretched imagination on the page, to play with storytelling and style. I extended permission to my personal essay: forsake the tidy end, write the first thought (to later revise, or not) because there isn’t a safe way to write about anything personal, and trust the reader to at least momentarily accept the world I share: of motherhood, marriage, faith, want, hope.

But how to share with readers, and who are my readers? Last summer I googled book agents. A lot of agents aren’t interested in representing “religious” writing. I stalled there because I don’t know what to call my writing except narrative. I write about faith because it is. I write about marriage because it is. I set pieces in Kuwait because it is. I let my imagination run. I give chase. Now I am writing to compile a body of narrative work honest to my experience, questions and stories, pieces that speak of God, frailty, fear, peace, place. I write the body, I write the spirit. I write the fun, the pain, the whatever in between, because how else.


Eight of thirty-nine, a natural follow to seven of thirty-nine. 1610 words. 

From The Vault & Behind The Curtain

Today I watched freshmen play variations of handball and thought about this story I wrote five years ago. I remember the idea taking bones on a commute in Kuwait. I was at a stoplight waiting to merge onto the Thirty, heading home, and the BBC was on (I listened to a lot of BBC while driving around Kuwait) and I heard this interview in which someone (man? woman? I don’t recall because what sticks is what s/he said) answered that no, no s/he was not a hero. I remember rolling my eyes because this person was a hero, really. Probably saved dozens of souls, but was too humble to admit heroic action. I just did what any person would do blah blah. So I thought, what if someone in one of these interviews just said, Yeah, I am a hero. I carried eight kids out of a burning building! I got kneecapped for telling the truth! I assassinated a terrorist! Yeah, I’m a hero! Yeah! I thought a person would be crucified in the comments if they said such a thing. And then I had a place to start.

Part of the challenge of Thirty-Nine Stories is to generate new work. But some of my new work feels a little too raw to share yet. There’s a reason why we revise before publishing, and most of what I’ve been writing is more a slog through self-doubt and fear interrupted with pep and prayer for peace, contentment. A few pieces are taking shape (Deo volente might be my first tattoo) but nothing is okay to post here yet. So today when I remembered that weird story I wrote – well, here you are. Never before posted. I actually workshopped this with an editor who had reservations about the ending.

I like the ending. I like the whole piece. Once the BBC interview sparked a what if? all I had to do was find a situation calling for heroic acts, and make a character admit that, yes, he or she is a hero.

Now. A peek behind the curtain. I found my character one day while I ordered a coffee. Behind me was a crew of five or six painters contracted to paint the new shops at the Avenues mall in Kuwait. The one man was broad and muscled and sex just rolled off him. How does that happen? How do some people vibe potency like that? Here is the thing, friends. If you write, you talk with all kinds of people, even the ones that make your insides quiver, and when you talk you learn all kinds of things like that this broad, muscled man from LA paints stores for Victoria’s Secret, and that he’s dying for a drink in a dry land. Also behind the curtain is a podcast host I followed through his move from LA to Seattle. Also behind the curtain is the fear I had while living in Kuwait where security seemed a little loose for the region, that I might die the victim of a spectacular, poorly planned but well executed terrorist attack.

This piece is about as final as you’ll read on this blog. I drafted extra scenes as I wrote, revised two or three times before sharing with an editor, cut a lot, and today I line edited a few things but kept the piece largely same. Before I call this piece finished finished I’ll take a close look the dialogue (structure, tags and interspersed action), and (maybe) the last lines. I like the ending, but. Hm. Oh, as with other pieces, please stop if you must.


The worst part came after the bombing, when Jake was home in LA. He said yes, he was a hero, and talk radio, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up. “Don’t look at it,” Krissy said, closing her laptop, “Don’t.” She looked like she might be sick. He took the computer and opened it to a CNN blurb about the quote Jake gave. There were hundreds of comments, mostly angry. Jake didn’t need to hear the clip on repeat. It was in his head. “People you rescued call you their guardian angel or their hero. Are you a guardian angel?” Jake had laughed a little, “No.” The reporter followed up, with a laugh of his own, “Then are you a hero?” And Jake said, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.” The aired interview and the blurbs cut the quote there. It didn’t matter that Jake said he was a hero alongside other heroes of the day. What mattered was that he owned the title. There was a website selling tee shirts and shot glasses with the quote, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.”

He was dying for a drink but Krissy tossed even the miniature Baileys she kept for her Saturday morning coffee. He didn’t think she had any other bottles hidden. Jake scrolled through a dozen comments and handed the laptop back to Krissy. “Baby,” she said, but he was already on his way to the bedroom, pulling the blackout curtains, closing the door.

He was in Kuwait to paint murals in the Victoria’s Secret store opening in the Grand Avenue mall. The job was slated to take two weeks, ten hour days. A week into the job, the boss called LA and said they needed another week. The other guys bitched about having to stay another week in a dry country – someone had gotten ahold of date rum, but two bottles between five guys lasted only a few nights. Jake didn’t mind not having booze easily available. A year ago he’d gone to Dubai to touch up The Rainforest Café and the guys got wasted nightly. That’d been hard, at the start of his sobriety.

Painting Victoria’s Secrets was one of his favorites. It was hard to mess up cream bows and pink swirls, gold accents. He listened to music and painted his panel. It wasn’t like painting a patterned grid. Bows didn’t have to be equally pleated.

All the guys had something they added to their panels, nearly invisible signatures. Jake liked to put a circle somewhere in the panel. Once, on the checkered wall of an expensive boutique, Jake painted a circle small as a thumbprint. At Victoria’s Secret, he added a tiny circle at the end of a curlicue. Laura called that cheating. She’d joined their crew a few months before. “Curlicues already have circles,” she said. He shrugged. Laura hid her initials in the panels. They weren’t supposed to be artists with names. “One day I’ll have a show and sell a ton of shit and these crappy bows will be worth something,” Laura said, nose close to a corner of her panel, using the tiniest brush she owned to make nearly invisible cursive letters: LPA. Laura was a few years out of art school and leased studio space with four other artists, took this job as a muralist to pay bills. Two of the other guys had gone that route too: art school, small shows, maxed out credit cards, job as a muralist.

One thing Jake missed about drinking with the crew were the stories. He still ate dinner with the group but when one of them suggested a bar or nightcaps at the hotel, he left. He missed the bullshitting and storytelling and laughing. He missed hearing about cut up credit cards and girlfriends’ cats and the one painting that sold for seven hundred dollars. He didn’t get the jokes told the next day.

The morning of the bombing, before there was a bombing, Krissy called. Jake was drinking his second cup of coffee and had ten minutes before the van took the crew to the Grand Avenue. He could hear a late show on the TV, during the pauses. “I gotta go,” Jake finally said and Krissy murmured something he didn’t catch. “Love you too,” he said. He stood and finished the last of the coffee, patted his back pocket for his wallet, and left.

He was jetlagged. When he got to the mall, he stopped at Starbucks for a latte. He’d order another on his morning break, another in the afternoon. By the end of the day his arms felt tingly from the reach and precision of painting, but also from the caffeine.

It didn’t happen until eleven that morning. By then, they’d been painting for nearly four hours. The boom was thunderous but distant. Jake muted his music and held still, listening. Laura climbed down from her ladder and walked toward the store entrance, opened a door cut into the drywall and turned back toward the guys. That’s when the second bomb went off, at their end of the mall. Jake heard a sharp crack and shattering, then a deafening explosion in his body, in his teeth. He jumped from the platform before he fell. Laura staggered back. Jake ran toward her and shut the door. The wide palm lined path was already rolling with dust and smoke. They stood, uncertain, in the middle of the store. A siren went off with a whoop, interrupted by evacuation instructions in Arabic and English. Jake felt his pockets for his phone and wallet. His heart was wild.

“I don’t think we should go out yet,” Scott said, “What if there’s a third?”

“Give it five minutes, then we leave,” Laura said. They waited, ears ringing. Laura got on her phone to check Twitter. A few witnesses had already uploaded pictures. “Oh my God,” she said. There were numerous routes out of the mall. They decided to run for it: open the door and take the clearest exit.

At first, Jake just saw the structural catastrophe. Mounds of concrete and metal. The few standing palms had no leaves. Plate glass windows blown out. Café chairs and tables scattered and twisted. Where the blast occurred, the high domed ceiling of metal triangles and thick glass was blown open to show sky. The air was gritty. Jake coughed, pulled his tee shirt over his nose and mouth. The broadcast warnings continued, a calm female voice urging exit. Scott pointed at the short staircase where they entered each day. They could go down to the parking area, cut through the cars to outside. Others were already moving in that direction. Some walked or shuffled. A few ran. More hesitated.

Laura saw the first body, a woman slumped against the giant gold brick of Harvey Nichols. Laura went to the body, knelt. Jake followed. Dust settled like snow on the woman. Jake hadn’t seen anyone dead before, like this. He made a slow circle. There were more, bodies thrown like the café chairs and display tables. The surfaces were hard and sharp. Jake was strong, muscled, but the edges and jags of damage made him feel soft.

“She’s alive. Hey.” Laura looked up at Jake. The woman took the shallowest of breaths. Her forehead was broken open. “We can’t leave her,” Laura said. Scott was at the stairs. Jake waved him on, but he shook his head and came toward them.

Now other bodies were waking. Jake heard whimpers and moans, crying. Jake and Scott left Laura holding the woman’s hand. They walked zigzag from body to body to see who was alive. Further down, a store ceiling collapsed; they dropped to the ground, cutting their knees and palms on glass. For another minute it was quiet again. Jake could hear rescuers shouting. He got up and walked toward Starbucks where another hall opened to more stores and more halls: the blast destroyed that section entirely.

Later, Jake showed Krissy where he’d been, pointing on the mall blueprint everyone saw in the days after the attack. “I went here on breaks.” He traced his finger from Victoria’s Secret to Starbucks. “But that morning, I wanted to finish my panel first.” He shivered. His memory was smaller than the casualty and costs numbers reported.

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Along The Way

Eleven years ago (this very month!) I googled “running while pregnant” because I’d just learned I was pregnant and I worried pregnancy necessitated a change to my routine. Already I was grappling with the surprise of this baby on her way, re-staging my next forever years in my mind, and eating the most colorful diet I could since the only prenatal vitamin I could find in Colombia was nearly two dollars a pill. At one of my early appointments I asked the doctor about a folic acid supplement and he shrugged, told me to eat well and that was all that was necessary. Those pills, he said, go out in your pee. While he didn’t worry about my diet, he was adamant that I quit running. I did not quit running. Instead I found a number of moms blogging about running through pregnancy. I followed the adventures of a mom training for Kona, another hoping to qualify for the Olympic Trials, and an expat mom who found ultrarunning. For a few years we traded comments on one another’s posts. Those blogs were a peek into entirely different kinds of lives – lawyer, stay-at-home mom, entrepreneur, medical resident – but we were all moms and we were all runners.

One blogger whose tagline was “Running is my therapy, what’s yours?” started posting affiliate links, reviewing nutrition bars and running or travel gear. Her posts rambled. Her grammar, usage and punctuation was hit or miss. Her photos were unedited. But the tone was cheerful, a little hurried because she really was trying to be a good mom and still get a run in the day. Hers was the first regular mom blog I saw gain any kind of sponsorship, and I wonder if she sustained a readership.

I rarely check those running mom blogs now. I wasn’t much of a running mom poster then or now. I don’t tally my miles or times, or talk at length about my pelvic floor rehabilitation, or share my strength training schedule, or declare any running goals. The blog I kept during early parenting faltered because I wasn’t sure how to use the space: talk about parenting, talk about running, talk about God, talk about living overseas, talk about travel, talk about recipes, talk about marriage, talk about worry. Starting Piecemeal gave all of my talking a focus: writing process and craft. I can write about whatever, but as I do I think about how this might later become a finished piece, or I consider a better word, or I move paragraphs around before posting. Piecemeal is about practice. I don’t think any of the running moms followed me here, though they may check in if my name flashes in their mind, as theirs do in mine and I google to learn she competed at Kona again, and she conceived with IVF (many congratulations!), and she is continuing to knock out PRs.

I was thinking about those early running mom blogs because I just read blogger Christie Tate’s Washington Post op-ed about her daughter asking her to please take down all of the content she’s featured in, and Tate’s response giving her daughter some control over future images, while continuing to largely write what she wants. I only read Tate’s piece after reading some of the backlash to her opinion. And then I thought to see what Tate was actually writing about her daughter (or family or therapy group) but found her site is now protected, probably because when we live in the ether, it’s easy to pile on.

Long before this latest consideration of our children’s right to privacy, I was mulling my role as storyteller. A few years ago a writer friend shared a podcast with me, a woman talking about who tells the story, and how it matters for people to tell their own stories. The recording was a workshop of sorts and one person in the audience asked about writing the stories of minority groups, disenfranchised people. The writer’s response was thoughtful but firm. What I remember of the answer is that writers should help others tell their stories, but we should not take them as ours to tell.

Yet, how many other peoples’ stories touch my own? That is what I thought about again when I read various responses on why writers and bloggers should/ not pull drafts from the daily life of their own kids. I mine the regular and find sweet moments, suffering, understanding, growth. I mine the regular for the very process of digging, turning over, setting aside, burying again. All parts of my life are in the mix as I write in my notebook, but I do not share all parts of my life when I publish. While I write about my parenthood and my kids, I am mindful of intent and purpose in a piece, and if an anecdote or illustration involving my kids will stand to their own reading of it later. I learn from my kids. Will they know when they read me? Does my love show too? The wrestle with self as I sort who I am to me, to them? My kids are here now, in the middle with me, going away from me one day, though we remain part of one another, always. Why would I not write my children into my work? This week I was thinking about how mother artists draw on motherhood to create art, working with the very material which added this lovely, complex dimension to our identities, our very children. I am richer for my parenting. I am richer for knowing my daughter and son.

Years ago I found the work of Sally Mann. Later, I watched a documentary featuring her process, and telling the story of her earlier work with her own kids. Always with Mann’s art is controversy of her choosing to photograph her naked son and daughters. When Mann began photographing her children, she was already an artist. She was living in the country, raising babies and they were subjects available to shoot, develop, print, share. In 2015 Mann wrote an article for the New York Times two decades after the debate over Immediate Family, the culmination of a decade of photographing her three young kids, and she closes the piece with this: “As ephemeral as our footprints were in the sand along the river, so also were those moments of childhood caught in the photographs. And so will be our family itself, our marriage, the children who enriched it and the love that has carried us through so much. All this will be gone. What we hope will remain are these pictures, telling our brief story.”

I doubt the majority of mommy bloggers (or kid bloggers, as one mommy blogger corrected me years ago) will encounter the criticism that Christie Tate is now shoveling her way through. I wonder at the reward of the genre. Perhaps the elements of art considered before posting. Likely the likes and shares, the small communities built in the comments. I do admire Sally Mann who worked for unremarked years before her art, beautiful and complicated and sometimes uncomfortable, was noted. Art is rarely as instant as a blog post. Music, words, visual art inspired by our children is revised and workshopped, started again, left to rest before deciding the piece is finished to share. Along the way let me learn my motherhood in a new way, see my daughter and son, catch these brief days and say it all.


Six of thirty-nine. 1252 words. For a counter to Christie Tate read Emily Bazelon’s 2008 “ground rules for writing about your kids.”

This Vantage

Last Sunday we went to Lotte World Tower, bought tickets to the Seoul Sky observatory, took the elevator up one hundred and seventeen floors, and circled the enclosed deck, pausing to read placards telling us how far away landmarks were. We could point to lakes, stadiums, a distant fortress we may have imagined. But what I liked more was the immediate city beneath us. The towering apartment buildings dwarfed like a Lego city on a dining table. The river appearing placid, still. The run of traffic snaking main arteries.

That morning at church our pastor led the congregation through a year end reflection in three parts. We meditated on the love of God, our need for salvation and grace, and the hope to which we are presently and eternally called. Through each meditation, and the exhortation that we now choose to walk in freedom, living holy lives, I waited for the weight of the Holy Spirit. I waited for a sense of lifting, or for a wrap of warmth at the thought of my mighty and personal savior. I diligently prayed as guided, and wrote a few thoughts that came to mind, and worshipped as we sang old hymns, and at the end of the service I packed my bag, talked with a few friends, and left wondering at the silence.

Two things I have been thinking about. Awe for God. And the gap between the Old and New Testaments when God didn’t speak to his people.

A few months ago I started practicing awe. Praise, wonder, respect. The thoughts felt clunky. God is bigger than me. God is amazing. His love is good. God knows me. He knows every person. God loves each person. I am not much better at expressing awe today, but I continue to name the attributes of God, to offer thanks for the many gifts in my life, to remember I am a small part of this story. I had a sense that my spirit needed to praise God to lift myself from myself. I was then (and now) too consumed by my own life.

I think about the Sermon on the Mount too. The lilies, the sparrows.

Most days I sit with my notebook and write for an hour. I circle the same fears each year. A couple of months ago, following a jagged afternoon sobbing without explanation, I decided to begin counseling. There is a short list of big things I need to sort, with guidance. Before I began the sessions, I supposed that my writing practice offered a natural head start, and that is true. I don’t feel too afraid to say what is difficult, complicated or contradictory. Each session I am challenged to consider how to understand a part of me, or how to grow in an area. Now when I run in the mornings, I practice awe. I petition. I turn inward. And all of it makes me want to know the end.

Standing on the observation deck at Lotte, I lifted. There came a lightness to my body and mind. How easy to make ground level thoughts a towering complex, a wide river, a mountain range. I stood nearly five hundred meters in the air looking at a clear day wishing I might keep this vantage. But what I want more is peace when I am on the ground. I want to look up and be answered.


Five of thirty-nine! 568 words. A vignette I will likely use to build a fuller piece. I have another similar experience (or moment of understanding) I want to write as a parallel to this, but while drafting in my notebook I couldn’t find a way to write both at once.

Santa Claus

Earlier this month our school hosted a family Christmas party. The conference hall tables are set with white cloths and Christmas decorations. There is holiday music and a slideshow of family photos playing while we eat our potluck meal. And the potluck set on a long L of tables reminds me of Christmas day growing up, when we joined my mom’s extended family in a church basement or American Legion, all of the kids skimping on mains and sides to fill on cookies and fluffy marshmallow salads. Always the church basements or rented halls were a little chilly at the start, warmed after an uncle turned up the clanking heat or enough of us were gathered in one place, and the family Christmas party was like that this year, held on one of the coldest days yet.

We took the city bus to the stop at the bottom of the hill, and walked up to our school. We arrived early with a few others to set up, but most was ready. Justin filled the hot water dispenser for tea, and he and Gene sorted how to give a crowd their Sunday morning coffee (there’s a coffee maker in the business office, and they brewed pot after pot to fill a thermos dispenser). As families arrived with crock pots and serving platters we made room on the tables. Light conversation about holiday traditions or upcoming travel, a little commiseration about getting the kids out the door on time. But like the family Christmas gatherings of my childhood, once we are all arrived at the conference hall, any bumps or arguments of the morning are smoothed by the camaraderie of us just being together. We all made with our socks on or off, gloves remembered or forgotten, the dishes just right or a little burned.

I meant to start this piece about Santa Claus, but setting the scene gave me these connections to my growing up Christmas day celebrations. This is how my writing works. I drafted the Santa Claus piece in my mind while out on a run, but when I sit to commit the words, the words lead another way. Yesterday on a walk we were remembering our past Christmas days. On the beach in Australia, along the Gulf in Kuwait. Kenya, India. So I was already thinking to write about the holiday, and how Justin and I have made our own family celebration from our separate growing up traditions. Maybe those thoughts, and my own nostalgia (I want to spend a Christmas in Wisconsin, soon) are in the way of drafting the piece about Santa Claus.

So let me start again.

Before the family holiday party, I reminded Claire and Grant not to ruin Santa Claus for any of the other kids. Each year I say something similar at the start of December. I did not grow up in a Santa Claus family but I also did not feel compelled to correct the Santa Claus kids in my class, or to do anything but smile politely and nod when a bank teller or store clerk asked if I was excited for Santa to bring me a gift. I have a dim memory of once saying that my parents were the ones who brought me gifts, and the clerk and my mom laughing together. This kid is in on it.

I only became impatient with Santa Claus as a parent. The story of Saint Nicholas is beautiful, but he isn’t the Santa of songs or malls or holiday parties. But my real qualm is the lie. I don’t want to lie to my kids. And for years I could say to Claire and Grant that Santa is a fun story, but some families pretend the story is real. So don’t tell kids that Santa doesn’t exist. Please don’t call the Santa who shows up at our holiday party a fake. Keep your mouth shut, kids. Santa is the opiate of the child masses. Which takes me to the reason I resist this easy lie. I do believe God exists. I talk to God, I talk with my kids about God. We attend church as a family. I read that old book full of beautiful poetry, yearning, hard answers and wild, uncomfortable stories. Faith is a stretch. And as I live my faith for my kids to see, that they may know who God is by the way I walk through the days, I am aware that I am asking my kids to call real the very being many reject. But if I say Santa Claus is real and God is real, what happens one day in elementary or middle school when another kid wise to the unreality of Santa spoils the belief for my kids – do I still insist that this other, crazier story of God really is real, really? So I do not present God as pretend. God is God. Santa is a fun holiday story.

This year Claire asked did she have to sit on Santa’s lap. No, I said. (In light of the MeToo movement, is anyone still insisting their daughters and sons sit on an old man’s lap for the photo op? Sure. This is Santa, not your boss, CEO or director). Grant wanted to know the same. Look, I said, Neither of you have to sit on Santa’s lap. He’s going to give you a present. You can say thank you, smile for the camera, and that’s fine. Claire and Grant agreed to play the moment as they felt most comfortable.

While I didn’t stand in line at the mall to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas, Dad’s company party had a Santa who gave generous gifts and we went a couple of times. I probably asked for art supplies. I might have admitted my unbelief to the man with a fake beard. As a kid, I remember feeling a little smug or superior that I understood Santa wasn’t real, not like God was real. I felt smug about God too. (That may be another essay entirely). For now, understand the intervening years blessedly stripped my pride, though I continue to swell and fall. What I want for myself and my kids is a wrestle with belief in God, and not smugness but humility as faith increases.

The only reason I am writing this at all is because a few days after the family Christmas party, Claire and I were walking to Hyundai department store after school to get black pants and a black shirt for her winter concert. The walk was longer than expected, we were cold, and Claire started a debate with her position that all kids should believe in Santa Claus. It isn’t fair that any kid shouldn’t get Santa Claus. It’s magical. At least the toddlers should have Santa Claus. I thought of the howling toddlers held in place on Santa’s lap for the quick photo while the other kids and parents laughed or made sympathetic faces. I thought of Claire and Grant during their own toddler years wanting nothing to do with the Santa Claus who showed up at holiday parties. I doubt most toddlers would protest being kept safe, away from the totally unfamiliar costumed man, magical or not. After I said this to Claire, that most toddlers didn’t seem to actually enjoy Santa very much and was it kind for parents to make their kids feel afraid, Claire repeated that Santa is fun, Santa is magical, before arriving at her point, that we should celebrate Santa too.

I like the story of Saint Nicholas, I said.
That isn’t Santa, she said.
You’re right, I said, But we can celebrate Saint Nicholas. We can give to the poor.

How did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus? Why celebrate Christmas with coerced good behavior and wish lists when we could celebrate with an excess of giving to the least of these? Claire was unmoved. I get her feeling of loss. Every family has its culture, its beliefs that inform who we are, what we are about, and as kids we learn the differences between one family and the next, one way to believe and another, and as we grow we wonder and ask. Just as Claire was then doing. I tried again to explain why we didn’t do Santa. We don’t hide Santa from the kids. The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas we watch Santa movies: Miracle On 34th Street, The Santa Clause, Arthur Christmas, Elf. We like but don’t elevate Santa. And for years I just did not think this was a big deal to Claire or Grant. Then on this cold walk, Claire unraveled her certainty that because Santa is magical, it is cruel for parents not to let kids have him.

One day I will talk with Claire and Grant about ways I have failed as their parent. I told Claire that on our walk. There are things that I did wrong or feel badly about, I said. I apologize as I go, but one day when the kids are older, I will open a dialogue to address my own regrets and hear any hurts they harbor too. I value honesty. I value perspective. I value truth.

But I am not sorry my kids missed thinking Santa Claus is real. Claire, I said, You know I tell you the truth. She nodded. I said, You know I answer your questions. She nodded again. I said, Claire, I don’t want to lie to you. Sometimes I don’t tell you everything because of your age. But I don’t lie. That’s why we don’t do Santa. I don’t want to lie to you.

This did not soften Claire. She was belligerent at the injustice of me keeping Santa Claus from her, at ruining Christmas magic. Just suck it up, Mom, Claire yelled at me. Call it a Christmas miracle I did not push my screaming daughter in the river. Instead I thought for a moment. I sat down at the edge of the path, even though it was cold and we both wanted to get the errand done, have dinner. I sat down because sometimes I need to physically still my body to really know what to do or say next. I wasn’t bothered by Claire questioning our decision to skip Santa, but I was upset at the tone, the irrational banging on and nonsensical yelling that I needed to just suck it up. If I laughed, the conversation would end and Claire would be too wounded to hear anything I said. If I yelled, I would only fuel Claire’s anger. Oh the many crucibles of parenting.

What I did was say I am sorry she feels like she got left out of something fun. I am sorry she feels gypped a dose of magical thinking. She softened a little. And then I repeated that I am not sorry we didn’t pretend Santa was real. Before Claire could relaunch her lines, I asked what all of this was about. Why is this a question now? What prompted this conversation? Claire told me she is practicing debate. Fifth graders are working their way toward presenting arguments about the urgency of environmental problems, and how to share potential solutions. So they are practicing debate strategies. Telling someone to suck it up is not a good strategy, I said. She laughed. Really, I said, Don’t say that again to me. We walked on. By the time we reached Hyundai department store, our feet were cold. We were hungry. We sat side by side at a noodle counter.

I know the conversation isn’t over. Maybe Santa Claus isn’t a big deal, but there are other ideas we explore too, because ideas and beliefs inform our actions. I don’t think it is a mistake to make Santa a story, or to emphasize the greater work of Saint Nicholas, or to altogether axe Elf on the shelf in favor of Christ in a manger.

Because I started the writerly asides: Here I wonder how to end the piece. I want to go on about my own parenting questions. There are lines I draw that may prove inconsequential. Santa seems like such a stupid argument. But I remember a colleague telling me he was devastated when he learned Santa isn’t real. Why would parents risk that betrayal? As for magical thinking, isn’t childhood woven through with pretend and fantasy by way of practicing how to be a person? Even now, at age thirty-eight I live in stories. I crave fantasy. Simple fantasy constructed in a moment, like gorgeous hair, or smart conversation. Wild fantasy constructed over years, like a craftsman house I inherit in Seattle or a collection of my best work. I am a fan of magical thinking. I like to think how what is real might tilt just so at the unfurl of a thought or prayer. And perhaps because I write, drink too much wine on occasion, and talk freely, my imagination is no mystery to friends and family. (At a revision of this piece, I would parse imagination and magical thinking. Or cut this altogether).

Here is where I am, a few days after Christmas: At my kitchen table. Dinner is in the oven. I am eating blueberries and pomegranate arils and have already had my small fear of the day, wondering if Justin and I will make it through marriage and parenting and still like one another in fifteen years. God have mercy. This morning I thought how to end this essay. This is probably not how to end this essay, but if my aim is to generate (churn/ toss on the page/ draft/ spit/ fling) thirty-nine pieces before I celebrate thirty-nine years, well: cannot be picky. One day, maybe, this gets revised. One day, maybe, I’ll say it perfectly. But saying things just so keeps me from sharing here. That isn’t fair to my practice. It isn’t fair to the process. One day I’ll write another essay about Santa Claus and you will recognize a few lines from this first piece. And one day Claire will argue about more than Santa Claus, with such conviction and clarity she won’t need to shout to be understood.


Four of thirty-nine stories. 2379 words, including asides. I’m counting it all. Drafted over a week, mostly during a two hour chunk the day after Christmas.

Special Event Story

Here is my third piece of thirty-nine. Yee-haw! (Already working out how to modify this project because I am not made of as many words as I first thought. More on that soon). This essay ends on an idea I want to explore more. 


A couple of months ago I was at a Special Event in the basement marketplace of a department store. Special Events – usually street food stalls or specialty foods and wines – are a great way to sample what I will likely never cook. I have two favorite snacks I look for when I see a Special Event sign. One is hoduk, a griddle-fried flat, round pastry filled with seeds, nuts and brown sugar. The other is a Korean pancake sandwich: shrimp or bacon stacked between two small cabbage pancakes, sloppy drizzles of brown and white sauces and a scoop of papery fish flakes on top. So good. And a couple of months ago I was just returned to Korea after summer in Wisconsin (nary a papery fish flake to be found), when I saw the sandwich vendor. Two, please, I said. When the server picked up a single sandwich container I thought he misunderstood. I gestured to the sandwiches again and said, Two, please. Then I pointed at the bigger box next to the small containers. At this, the server made a small x, crossing one wrist over the other, and said, That is for three.

Ah, I said, Two will also fit. I smiled, but he looked distressed, emphasized the x. I said, I don’t think it’s impossible. Two will fit!

An aside: Not long after this Special Event exchange I attended a workshop about understanding Korean culture and the speaker addressed social microaggression. As in, don’t engage. I thought of my cheerful bullying, a thin cover for irritation at the very idea boxing two sandwiches in a box that fit three is impossible.

To my small credit, I didn’t say to the server, This will blow your mind, to break the three sandwich rule, but go ahead! Try it! Two fit! But I also didn’t relent. I could see he was upset. Boxing two sandwiches together in a box made for three sandwiches was not allowed. I briefly thought of ordering a third sandwich, but I didn’t want a third sandwich. And I preferred later discarding one paper box to two plastic tubs. In the middle of this moment, and now, I did not like who I was. I smiled and gestured how two sandwiches would fit perfectly. Perfectly! The server sweated. We were at a moment of decision. He reached for the box, put two sandwiches side by side, doused both with sauce, added papery fish flakes. He did not look at peace with his decision. He remained conflicted. I bowed my head in thanks, walked away thinking this is how neighbors end up slaughtering each other. This is how the Nazis kept on for so many years. Because of rule followers.

Yet. Following rules has also worked dramatically in Korea’s favor as the country catapulted its economy and grew its infrastructure in only three decades. Men, women and children were told what to do for the collective, and they did it, and though Korea is now reconsidering the (recently) traditional long workday, following rules by way of memorizing academic texts at school, snapping to attention in the military, forging strong business relationships, developing innovative medical techniques, and relentlessly pursuing more and better made a way for Korea to climb from the devastation of its war.*

Every place I have lived, I bump against my most awful bits. Unexpected rage, judgement, hate. In Colombia I shook a fist a truckful of men who hissed and hollered as I ran up Cañas Gordas. In Kuwait I brake checked an SUV flashing its lights to pass. When I moved here I wanted the grace of cultural acceptance. But I moved here. I am not yet as gracefully accepting as I might be one day. During our first year in Korea I cried to my husband because we keep doing this on purpose – we choose to live and travel in places we don’t know until we’re there, figuring out how to turn the heat on during the first weeks of winter, or looking for an ingredient we miss. To mitigate the shock of a new home, I learned what I could about Korea in the months before our move.

I called my friend Kate. I called Kate because we grew into adulthood together, hundreds and later thousands of miles apart, but checking in via long emails or wandering phone calls. I also called Kate because she studied Asian languages in college, married a Korean American, and had actually traveled to Seoul a few years earlier. When Kate visited Kuwait during my last spring in the desert, we talked about two different places. I told her about the Middle East I grew to love. She told me about the Korea I now hope to love.

One night we went to the old souk in Kuwait. We ordered two platters of rice and fish, and lemon mint drinks. On the drive back it rained and the traffic slowed. Over the few days she visited we dropped and picked up conversations easily. Looking ahead at the red taillights, the rain falling, I said how fortunate I felt that Korea is so safe, you know, with the kids. Our Kuwait neighborhood was increasingly unsafe and I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone with Claire and Grant anymore, so moving to South Korea where the crime rate is low answered a want I didn’t know I had. Well, it’s a shame culture, Kate said, No one wants to bring shame on their family.

I still think of that revelation. We all know shame. And shame serves a purpose. But I hadn’t thought how shame might serve to bring the behavior of a whole population in line. The upside of shame culture is good norms are enforced. When I run in the morning, it’s dark and I am not afraid of being attacked under a bridge or being killed by a stray bullet. In the afternoon when my kids want to spend their allowance at Dream Depot, I send them on their way without worry and they come back to me with art supplies and gummy candies. The downside of shame culture is the limitation of expression. Coupled with adherence to hierarchy, everyone stays in their place. My understanding is small, mostly circling education, but I ask questions to understand better. In Kuwait one of our neighbors was a Korean woman who occasionally shared fresh kimchi with me, and enrolled her son, my son’s friend, in a  Saturday Korean class. Only after nearly a year in Korea, when Joohee and her son visited Seoul and we met for brunch, did I ask about her education experience. It was awful, Joohee said. Grades were posted so everyone could see who was doing poorly.

That pressure first learned in school years carries into the military and business world. Young men serve two years in the military and abuse, though addressed and lessened today, remains a concern. After a workday, there is a tradition of bosses taking employees out to dinner, and subordinates drinking to keep up, drinking to stupor and vomit. Gender inequality and harassment are issues as well. All of this, and a pressure to excel despite (or more likely, because of) the strictures of shame.

When we were living in Kuwait, my brother and his family was living in Seoul. You should move here, they said to us. You’d like it. I very much doubted I’d like it. Liking sushi (Japanese) and Pocky sticks (also Japanese) is just not enough of a reason to move to Korea. I had in my head only a couple of scraps of information about Korea, lifted from living in the international dorm during college, reading, and knowing North Korea exists with a desire to obliterate South Korea (it’s more complicated than that). And as my philosophy of education developed, I didn’t believe my approach to teaching or curriculum would match what I perceived about East Asian education.

Yet here I am. And where I am I learn. During our school orientation I marveled at the ingenuity and resilience of the Korean people. I wowed the satellite photo of the many dolmens dotting the country. I wiped tears at the story of men and women giving their gold and jewelry to stabilize the economy in 1998. I wanted to know this country, fastrack my love for the new place, people and culture. One morning I was running along the river path. Dragonflies! Tall grasses! Water over rocks! And many people weaving. As a runner, I made myself as a deer, leaping and bounding to the side as men and women listed from one side to the other. I thought of the Japanese building crooked little wooden bridges and wondered if this was similar. Were these men and women evading evil spirits? I asked a couple of friends who’d lived in Seoul longer than me. No, no one was evading evil spirits. They just weren’t walking in a straight line. I liked my conjecture better, especially as the year went on.

When I run a crowned surface – path or road – I alternate sides to keep my body from taking on unnecessary muscle imbalances, tilts, injuries. So on the river path. I run alternating sides. Usually this is totally fine. I am not the only person walking or running on the wrong side of the path, but I am often the only foreign woman on the wrong side of the path. So during the first year running in Korea, several old men stopped me to say I was running on the wrong side of the path. When I see another person coming my way I guess if they are moving to the inside of the path or the middle of the path, and adjust my approach. Usually, this is totally fine. But when I see an old man walking my way, I gauge the situation differently. Sometimes the old man looks to make way for us to pass and at the last moment, he turns to cut me off. I stop and listen to him tell me, Wrong side! Wrong side! Then he points to the other side of the path and says, Right side! Right side! A few times I’ve tried explaining why I switch sides to run on, only to be waved off or shouted at again. Right side! Right side!

Once I stayed my course until I was an arm length from plowing into an old man staying his course. That time I was the one who spoke loudly and gestured. Why? Why? The old man did not understand me. He was only out in the cold winter for a quiet morning walk and now I was gesturing my own incomprehension: why do we not move for one another? Why must I be the one to give way to old men? After that I decided to be kind, or try, to just move over for all the old men. But even making way does not work if I am still running the wrong side of the path and some old man wants to make that point.

I am thinking about getting tiny cards made up, to explain why I alternate sides, to emphasize my joy at living in such a lovely land as Korea, and to wish a best day. I could carry these cards and produce one for the next old man who cuts my stride. But I doubt tiny cards are an answer.

I bend.

In Kuwait there was a Sudanese man named Adam who shepherded the expat teachers through the many pieces of paperwork needed to keep a visa, get a driver license, obtain a marriage or birth certificate. Once he and I were shuttling between different government offices after my passport was confiscated at customs. I needed to get a chest x-ray, the record showed. I’d been pregnant with my son so requested a deferral for the x-ray, and then in the space of about one year, I had three chest x-rays to ascertain I didn’t suffer tuberculosis – the first was this time, to satisfy my visa requirement. Adam waited while I stood in line, my breasts leaking. We took the paper showing my x-ray was clear to another office. There I saw men drinking tea at desks. I saw a pile of passports on a table. Adam sensed my panic and sent me out of the room. From the hall I watched the casual gestures of the men sipping tea, the slight bow by Adam. Back in Adam’s old Pajero, I asked how he did it. I thought I was going to lose it, just seeing the pile of passports and nonchalance of the officials. Adam said he made himself small. You make yourself small, you be kind, he said to me. When I talk, he said, I let them be bigger than me.

Small. Kind. I continued to chafe in Kuwait even as I grew to care deeply for the country and region. Appreciating a culture is not to acquiesce. So now in my second year in Korea, having pushed a Special Events server into giving me one box for my two sandwiches, and actually considering having tiny cards printed to explain why I am on the wrong side of the path, I wonder what the balance is to be open and closed in a new place. I do not live in Korea to make it my way. And though I had no great affinity for Korea when we chose to come, my respect grows as I learn the stories of this place.

Kate told me that her mother-in-law was a little girl during the Korean war. Her family house was commandeered. Executions took place in their courtyard. The family ate acorn soup to survive. I think of the suffering and resilience and I soften toward the old men and women who still walk without deviating from the right side of the path, and those who stand bow-legged at bus stops. Soon after arriving in Korea, I went on a school trip to the eastern shore. Each morning I woke before the students to run a road along the beaches. I stopped to take a photo of the sunrise. Chain link fence topped with barbed wire snaked along many of the beaches and later I asked someone why. Because in the seventies North Korea sent small boats to coastal towns, conducting midnight kidnappings – I want to know more about this, but even a sketch of why barbed wire is strung along beachfronts points to the civilian good of adherence to rules. I soften. But I also think of the protests in the eighties when workers wanted fair pay, and when people questioned the ruling order, and I wonder if the old men cutting to tell me I am on the wrong side of the path were the same old men who lockstepped with the military to put down student uprisings, to take people off the street, to ruin a woman. Or did they look away. Or were they on the right side, then. This whole country tells stories to keep children in school until late at night, to ensure more children are born, to secure prestigious work, to keep the streets clean, to keep the air polluted, to honor the elderly, to keep a faith in their own people.

Sometimes I consider if I chose this life abroad to lift away from the stories of my own country (the stories I don’t like), or to escape the stories of my own self (the stories I don’t like). But stories follow. Stories collect. When I drop into another country, I reckon with another set of standards, learn through different stories, see how I am not so far from where I started, and despair a month or several before deciding to keep on. I still might get the tiny cards printed. But next time I order two sandwiches I’ll take however I am served.


Three of thirty-nine! 2573 words. Started in November, first draft finished 14 December.

* This paragraph is added after Kate’s thoughtful response to the initial post. I am very interested in how the Korean War has nettled the psyche of the country, and what different stories are told to explain even present behaviors. For example, the old ladies who push past me at a grocery store shelf may be pushing because that was just how you got food during shortages, by pushing past the person in front of you. Or they may be high on being old and revered, supposing I’m unlikely to bodycheck them in response. Or they may just be impatient that I’m taking too long deciding if I will really use a bag of bean sprouts this week. 

Which Goat Was This Name

This story came to me two or three years ago. I started drafting with the end in mind. I quit because I couldn’t think how to write the end (I didn’t want the end), and when I returned to the draft in November I was surprised the story I’d nearly finished in my head was only a five hundred word start. Before you read: I wrote this story first thinking of Syria and the refugees desperate to escape death, and then I thought about this story as response to the horror of Yemen’s famine. Now I finished the story and am afraid to post but will. Please do not read what you do not want.


The children came ashore in three low, leaky boats and sat on the white sand. Two resort cleaning staff crossing behind the beachfront villas saw the children’s hunched shadows and called Sandu who was just rising to start his day. He walked quickly to the beach and saw the silent children sitting in three lines facing the water. Sandu motioned to his staff and from a distance they conferred. The guests would wake soon. There was a woman who practiced yoga at sunrise. Sandu called his superior who was still sleeping. It was no use. The cleaning staff looked at Sandu and then past the children, to the empty boats bumping in the shallows of the four star Cherish Resort. Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear, a habit of childhood that returned rarely: at his wedding to a woman he met two weeks previous, at his promotion, at news of the death of his father. He dialed his superior again and left a voice message. We are being invaded.

One of the cleaning staff suggested they take the children back to their quarters. There are too many, another argued. Sandu counted and said, Fifty-seven, plus or minus two or three. He couldn’t tell if some of the bigger children were holding infants or bags to their chests. We have to go see, sir. Sandu nodded. You go, he said. He watched the two cleaning staff amble across the sand toward two of the bigger children. They all kept their voices low. Sandu looked down the row of villas and checked the time. The sky was just getting light. That yoga woman could never sleep in. But if she did it was possible, wasn’t it, to get the children off the beach, maybe into a conference room, though that would be a far walk from here. The boats came from a neighboring island, loosed by wind perhaps. Sandu looked at the sky, looked at his watch. The children were silent.

One of the cleaning staff came back up to Sandu. There are seventy-one at the start. Only sixty-three now. We might have miscounted at the start. Sandu rubbed his jaw, then tugged gently at the hair behind his ear. He asked, Where are they from?

Sir, they thought they were going to Australia.
In those boats?
Yes, sir, they are on the sea for seven days.

Sandu walked down the beach to the yoga woman’s villa. She was here by herself. Miss Elena. She wore linen in shades of fog. He’d been in her room twice, once to deliver an airmail letter she’d requested be delivered day or night (he’d been thankful the letter arrived midmorning and he only interrupted her tea) and once to pick up a package for overnight courier service. She kept her villa clean, seemed only to sit in one chair at the table and on one sofa in the front room. She practiced yoga at sunrise, and took long baths in the evening. The more Sandu considered, he decided she was the guest that concerned him least. She would not howl about the children.

There were four other villas on this beach and two of them occupied for the week, one by a British couple in their seventies who read through the morning and napped through the afternoon, and the other by an Arab couple in their thirties who called Sandu with endless requests. Colder ice, more towels, an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker. The Arab couple would not be pleased. Perhaps they would accept an upgrade to a villa on the Blue Lagoon beach.

Sandu neared Miss Elena’s villa as she opened the door so that when she looked up, she startled to see him. He and other resort staff attended the villas as anonymously as possible to give guests a sense of privacy and ownership. Unless requested, no villa offered a butler, maid or nanny but Sandu took care to anticipate wants and needs and after nearly two decades of hospitality he understood how to provide or fulfill without crossing an illusionary line, without causing imbalance or discomfort; equally important, Sandu understood how to leave a guest alone, how to wait for a raised hand, tilted head, uneaten lunch that said a want or need. Now Miss Elena, whom Sandu knew preferred to be left alone, startled but calmed when Sandu said, It is me, Miss Elena. Sandu from the resort. I know you enjoy sunrise yoga and I hoped to show you another beach you may enjoy.

If it okay, Sandu, I prefer our beach. She gently closed the door to her villa and stepped onto the sand.
It is okay, but this morning the beach is occupied and I know you enjoy solitude.
Miss Elena looked at him for a moment and Sandu realized how this must appear. A male staff member luring a single woman to a secluded beach. Sandu coughed and said, I do not mean to alarm. I only – I – and Sandu had no words. He did not want to say what came out of his mouth. Miss Elena, he said, There are children on the beach.

Children?
They arrived at dawn on boats.
Boats?

I do not want you or the other guests disturbed, that is all. If you are amenable to practicing yoga on a different beach – Sandu gestured toward a path leading over a small, manicured hill of low plants and tall trees. For a moment it seemed Miss Elena would not take his direction, but then she nodded. He walked ahead of her, silently, and left her where the path returned to sand.

It is very beautiful, she said, Thank you.

You are welcome. Sandu turned to walk back through the resort, to the beach with children. Already he was afraid what the cleaning staff might have decided without him.

What will happen to the children?

Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear. He said, I do not know. We will take care. Then before she could ask any more questions, he set off, more quickly now, and when out of view, started to run back to the beach with children.

The children were silent yet. This surprised Sandu. He motioned again for the cleaning staff to join him. His supervisor was still not answering the phone and the other guests could wake or the younger children could cry. Three empty boats drifted in the shallows. Sandu said quietly, This is what we must do. We must take the children to the field behind our housing and sit them in rows on the grass there. We will ask the kitchen to prepare rice and fruit. Sandu called the kitchen manager who was often last to bed and first to rise and requested rice and fruit. Then he walked to the edge of the water and stood before the rows of children sitting cross-legged on the sand. He raised his hands to get their attention but all the little faces were already looking up at him, waiting, so he coughed to cleared his throat. He spoke without raising his voice, in English. He could not guess if they children understood. A few blinked. A few nodded. He used gestures, pointed at the cleaning staff, and at the instructions of a couple of the older children, the group stood and formed two lines and without much rustle, followed the cleaning staff off the beach, along a path that made its way to the field.

What was left on the beach were pocks of footprints, fans where tiny hands played with the white sand. In the shallow water, the three empty boats. Sandu rolled his pant legs and waded to the nearest boat. It was lined with plastic. It reeked of urine and feces. The children had arrived from somewhere, with nothing. Sandu called Manny at the Cherish Marina, to see about removing the boats. He left a message. He called his supervisor again who still did not answer. He swept the beach quickly and thought which embassy might have an answer, which charity or mission on one of the other islands might send a ferry to rescue the children.

By noon his supervisor was still not returning his calls. Only a text: Take care of the children. The boats were gone from the beach. Where the children had sat silently, the old British couple now dozed under the shade of an umbrella, their rum diluted by melted ice. Sandu hadn’t seen the Arab couple, which wasn’t unusual. For three days they requested brunch mid afternoon. He was not worried about disturbing them. He was worried about Miss Elena. He now understood what would come of the children and he should not have said a word to Miss Elena that morning. He lacked discretion. No, he lacked foresight. Sandu did not want to see Miss Elena before the children were gone from the field because he did not want to say any more of the truth to her, about what he was now arranging, about what would be finished by the time she decided to call the concierge to ask to speak to Sandu because he was not answering her calls and she wanted to know about the children on the beach.

The children on the beach? the concierge would ask.
Yes, Sandu told me this morning that boats arrived. Boats with children.
The concierge would pause, having no knowledge of boats arriving or children on the beach.

Sandu again called the kitchen manager, asked to speak with the butcher. Each week Cherish resort slaughtered its own pigs, chickens and ducks. But now the butcher did not understand his request. He balked at what Sandu asked. Sandu could feel the situation slipping. The children could not sit in quiet rows in the sun for too much longer. Two months ago his supervisor instructed him to take care of the cats, feral cats who had come over on a day ferry and were pissing on the beach sand. The year before that Sandu took care of guest’s child bride who wailed for two days before Sandu offered the girl a strawberry juice at dinner, laced with sedatives. Sandu spoke again to the butcher, to be understood plainly. I need three sharp knives, Sandu said, For goats in the field. Sandu bit each word, then softened his tone. He was lightheaded, and asked for a box of sandwiches to also be ready when he came by the kitchen.

When the butcher slaughtered, he worked in a space hidden from Cherish Resort guests, a small patch of dirt behind the storage shed where white plastic chairs, folding tables, old clothes and table settings, extra plumbing fixtures, and the bounce houses were kept. Sandu carried a bag with the three knives and sandwich box past the rows of children (sixty-seven, the accurate count). He opened the storage shed and found a white bucket and filled it with water from a spigot. Then he called one of the cleaning staff to come to him. There were few times when Sandu had to speak with threats. Usually his requests were reasonable. Even the unreasonable requests of guests he could phrase to make the chore simple, and he understood when to couple a task with the promise of a reward, but very occasionally Sandu exercised fear to inspire compliance. Now Sandu showed the cleaning staff the knives and said what he would do and how the cleaning staff would help. You will bring the children, one child at a time, he said. He spoke slowly.

You will not show any fear.
You will not alarm the children.
You will not speak of this to any other person.
And if you do, you will not go home to your own children.

Ever. Do you understand?

Sandu’s phone beeped then and he checked the number, answered and replied to a question about pineapples and mangoes while looking at the cleaning staff. He hung up and said, There is no other way. No one will take these children. They are not even children. I think they are goats. Yes, it will be like goats.

One cleaner looked about to be sick. Sandu gestured to a bush and the man leapt across the dirt to bend over and heave. When the cleaner was finished, he dipped a hand in the bucket of water and rinsed his mouth, then walked away without looking at Sandu. Tell the children there is a boat to take them to Europe, Sandu said, and the cleaner raised a hand to acknowledge. For a few minutes Sandu waited, wanting to look around the storage shed but not looking, trusting the cleaner wanted to see his own children again, here on earth, so when the cleaner came with the first child, Sandu smiled. His smile was kind, warm, nearly tricking the hand that reached for the knife so that Sandu had to let go the smile, take the child’s arm, press a palm to the mouth and nose of the child and quickly cut her throat. The cleaner recoiled. Sandu set the knife down, lifted the girl’s body and carried her to a wheelbarrow. He rinsed his hands, patting them dry on his pants, and dialed another number to call for Manny who did much worse to beat down civil uprisings, who could not find work anywhere but far from home and who did not speak about his past except when very drunk, such as one time when Sandu found him on a guest’s yacht. Manny trekked the wheelbarrow back and forth, dirt patch to quiet cove, for the hours it took to kill the sixty-seven children, and dropped the bodies in old rowboats he covered with blue tarpaulins.

The first twelve were children. Even as Sandu held a hand over tiny mouths, stilled the wriggling bodies by crushing ribs with his thighs as though taking a piggyback ride, even as he drew the knife quick and deep across tiny necks, he understood these first twelve were children with mothers and fathers who thought a boat ferried safety. These twelve boys and girls had aunties who kissed their cheeks, uncles who slipped a candy into tiny hands, cousins who chased up trees and down streets. There were signs of love, like thread bracelets or improbably tidy braids or a careful patch on a shirt or a thin silver ring. The first twelve were children who saw Sandu with a light trust for the barest moment before he grabbed at them to press his hand tightly, to keep their screams inside. And then after the first twelve, all the children were goats, even the smallest who would not learn to speak, until the end.

There was more blood than Sandu anticipated. Manny worked diligently with downturned eyes. Sandu lost count. He was hot and the iron smell nauseated him. He asked the cleaner what number this was as Manny pushed the wheelbarrow down a narrow path, and was surprised to learn he was only just past halfway. He sighed. His arms were sore from holding the goats, from pulling the knife. He didn’t want to ask the time. He remembered the sandwiches and rinsed his hands in the bloody water but had no dry, clean spot on his pants or shirt to pat dry. He picked up a sandwich. The bread turned pink. The cleaner watched without speaking, eyes glazed like fever. Sandu ate quickly and gestured the cleaner to go bring another goat.

He was nearly finished. The children were nearly finished. The cleaning staff and Manny were nearly finished. The children were children again, these last six or seven. One boy had a grain of rice on his chin which Sandu noticed as he reached for the thin arm, thin boy, thin neck. And after him, the last of the goats were children who could not be made goats. Sandu’s back ached and his hands hurt. At the end he stretched his arms overhead, rolled his neck. He spoke briefly with Manny who only needed short words to understand the children must go far out to sea, away from any current that might bring their bodies to any shore. He spoke for a longer time with his cleaning staff who could not meet his eyes until he commanded them to look up. This could not be helped, Sandu said, There is no good place for children who come from nowhere. To show kindness, Sandu allowed the next day off and dismissed them to their night. He stayed behind the storage shed to empty the bucket of bloody water. There was a great mess of blood and dirt, a thick sludge Sandu hadn’t noticed in the middle of his work and it was too much to call usual for a slaughter. The ground took the blood quickly as it took rain and there was no way to dig its depth. Sandu thought for a moment how to take the blood from the earth and decided instead to give more earth to the blood. He pushed Manny’s wheelbarrow to the cove where the children now lay in neat rows under blue tarpaulin and walked the wheelbarrow into the shallows to rinse the blood, then scooped sand with his hands to fill the wheelbarrow before returning to the red dirt and emptying the load. He did this twice more to be certain, then found a rake and pulled the earth over the blood.

Leaving the patch behind the shed, swinging the bucket at his side, the knives ruined now, Sandu crossed to where the cleaning staff asked the children to sit. The children were silent all day which Sandu thought a curious blessing. Sandu surveyed the grass where the children had waited to board the boat taking them to Australia or Italy or wherever they thought they were going to live. He nudged a tuft of grass with his toe. The area looked clean. It was secluded. Likely no one saw the children. And the story of what happened was that the children boarded boats for another island, which may be true if Manny chose an island bog. Manny he could trust. The cleaning staff were diligent but he saw how they could not look at him, how they bowed their head when they approached with the next goat, how they could not lift their heads until he commanded it. Sandu was not yet sure what he would do about the cleaning staff.

At his small living quarters, Sandu turned on the shower. Always he was economical. He turned the water off to lather. He rinsed quickly. He took a nail brush to clean the red brown under his nails, staining his cuticles. Sandu finished and stood wet and naked in the tiny bathroom. He was suddenly very tired. He turned the water on again, to its hottest, steaming the round mirror and scalding his back.

On the other side of the island, guests played in the water or laid on the beach or lost the afternoon to expensive wine or platters of food. Miss Elena did not call Sandu or the concierge to ask about the children. She rested in her bed made up with white linen, then bathed in water scented with lavender oil, then dressed in shades of ocean to walk to the main hotel for dinner, rather than order room service as she preferred. Perhaps because her day began in so unusual a way, it must end with a slight, evening deviation from routine. At the hotel, Miss Elena asked to sit on the patio where she could see and smell the water. Near her table was the old British couple puzzling over a piece of paper the man held in his palm. Miss Elena lifted a hand when the woman looked up. Miss Elena asked what was interesting on that piece of paper and then joined the British couple at their table at their invitation. The three of them passed the paper.

I don’t read Arabic, Miss Elena said. Perhaps one of the staff?
We like a good mystery, see, said the old woman.
So when we found this in the sand, the old man continued, We thought to find what is written, by whom and why.
I think I may know, Miss Elena said. I woke early and this morning Sandu told me boats arrived in the night, boats of children. Perhaps one of them, from a pocket?
Boats of children? The old woman furrowed her brow. Wouldn’t we have heard something?
I did not hear a thing, Miss Elena said, They were quiet at ghosts.
Did you see them?
No.
What has come of them?
I don’t know. I imagine they are cared for.

The table let the conversation lapse as drinks were delivered and after, each was lost to his or her own ideas about boats of children arriving in the night, and where those children might be. Miss Elena looked at the scrap of paper now in the center of the table and touched its edges. It is curious, she said, and when she looked up she saw Sandu across the patio speaking with one of the waitstaff. Miss Elena lifted a hand to call him over. He walked toward her, smiling first at her and then at the old British couple.

If I remember correctly, Sandu said, You are each near the end of your stay at Cherish.
Yes, the old woman said, And it has been lovely. We chose dates to return.
Wonderful, Sandu said. He turned to Miss Elena. And you? For you it has also been a pleasant stay?

Miss Elena said yes. There was a pretend game between Sandu and his guests. The pretend he didn’t already know the answer to his question, the pretend that the guest’s life and stay were truly private, the pretend he could smooth any ill. When he looked at Miss Elena looking up at him now, he saw how pale her neck was, how childlike. Miss Elena smiled. I am curious, Sandu, about the boats of children. Can you tell us what happened?

Sandu cleared his throat. I made a call, he said, And spent the day moving the children from the island. He dropped his voice and said, I really prefer, Miss Elena, that we not talk of the children. It was never my intent for any guests to know of their arrival or, now, of their departure. Sandu looked at the old British couple, to include them in his confession. He bent at the waist a little and said, I am relieved to tell you each child is moved to safety.

Miss Elena put a hand to her heart. She closed her eyes. Thank you, she said, All day I wondered.

Sandu straightened. He was about to move through the patio, to check on other guests, to assure his staff of his returned presence, when he saw a slip the slip of paper. He tilted his head. He knew the paper. He saw these little papers all day, pinned to tee shirts or peeking from pockets. Miss Elena followed his gaze and picked up the paper, held it out for him to see. We found it, she said, Well they found it. On the beach. It looks like Arabic and I thought perhaps a note from one of the children. Do you read Arabic?

Sandu shook his head no. He did, a little. I can look into this, he said, and put the slip of paper in his pocket. It may only be a note from one of our other guests, he said, and smiled. I would not want their privacy compromised in any way. Miss Elena dipped her head, like a schoolgirl in trouble with her teacher, and Sandu again saw her neck. He could sense in his body how close he was to slipping, how careful he now had to be to keep his mind from spilling out his mouth. He remembered the other times followed by this same crucial turn, and pulled at the hair behind his ear. Sandu nodded to the old British couple, to Miss Elena, and before he left, promised to tell her the message, if it were not private. Miss Elena smiled. Sandu walked away but watched Miss Elena throughout her meal. Watcher her drink wine and talk lightly with the old British couple. Watched her play with the pendant of her necklace. Watched her shift her weight in her chair, watched her laugh after a second glass of wine. He thought he could not sleep if Miss Elena did not show him what he needed to know, and he nearly ruined it by returning to the table with a made up translation of the note – a line from a love poem, easily attributed to the Gulf guests – when she laughed and Sandu understood she believed him that the children were on boats again, going away to live. What else would she prefer to believe?

Sandu left the patio then, walked along manicured paths passing guest villas, passing staff lodging where he paused to listen under the dark window of the room shared by the cleaning staff but hearing nothing, walked on to his own small rooms where he took the paper from his pocket and read the name, the place, and wondered which goat was this name, this place.


This is story two of thirty-nine. Started two or three years ago. Draft finished 2 December. 4244 words.

The Holy Posture Of Whatever

Last week I interviewed for a teaching position at our school. For international educators, autumn is a season of big decisions and Justin and I already made ours, signing on to stay in Korea for two more years, but then I had the opportunity to apply to return to a high school English classroom. When we left Kuwait, there was no English position open for me at our new school, and I was relieved for the year rest. A year in the utility department allowed me to see the elementary, middle and high school equally. I learned more about our school. I am glad to be at our school for the many ways I see learning happen, for the many colleagues I observe and collaborate with. This time last year, I was energized by the newness of every day. When asked if I was interested in joining the middle or high school staff, I declined to apply. I liked the fun of each day different. I liked the work I was doing with school publications. This time last year I didn’t think what I might want now, during my second year as a full time substitute, when the unpredictability of each day is more tiring than energizing. So when talk started of who was staying and who was going, I listened for rumors of English teachers whose contracts were up and wondered if I might fit with the department.

Fit is one of my idols. In college I roamed from one group to the next. This is a fun way to learn a little about a lot. And after college when I was keen to move abroad, my secret hope was to find a place where I fit perfectly. I imagined cobbled streets and sun dappled sidewalk cafes. I imagined solitude. I imagined a crowd happy to land me in their crew.

But now when I thought of how I might fit in the English department, I was a little nauseated. I couldn’t dredge any storyline of how my presence was essential to the department, or how wonderful the school day would be, to have my own classroom. To open my own door each morning, to greets students I know, to know where the projector remote is kept, to always have a tissue box. I can picture returning to the classroom. My year away (and this second year away) from teaching literature and writing confirms I really like teaching literature and writing. Yet I cannot pretend that I am absolutely the best fit for a teaching position at our school because I know two things: I would do well, and so would someone else. I was nauseated at the thought of fitting not because it was the idea I might fit the English department or fit the needs of our students or fit the high school community, but because I already do fit where I am. As kindly pointed out by a friend when I lamented this chase to find my place. Why do I question where I am? I am here. And so this is where I belong.

I am here in Korea for two more years. Maybe longer. As long as I am here, I am right where I belong.

Unfinished. A week or two before the announcement internal openings I was laying in bed one night when I felt my upper body slowly paralyze. I lay still for a moment. The sensation is familiar, born of fear. Two years ago at the start of our job search to leave Kuwait, I woke in the middle of the night to pins and needles across my chest, down my left arm and most alarmingly, in patches on the left side of my face. I called my dad who the summer before suffered Bell’s palsy. I thought maybe that was it, that or a stroke. The pins and needles did not indicate palsy or stroke, only anxiety at a new height.

I like to think I am calm. I like that idea that following Christ grants peace that passes understanding. So that night a couple of weeks ago when my upper body went numb I sat up, flexed my fingers, rolled my neck and said to the dark, Where is my peace?

Rolled into this present experience is a past hurt and a potentially wrong conclusion. Two years ago I was set to go to Kenya. I remember a near maniacal hope. I remember believing that since I wasn’t seeking anything overtly wrong for my life or my family, since I wasn’t scrambling for money or comfort, that my want had to be answered by a move to Nairobi. This could not possibly counter what God had in mind for us. But we did not get hired by a school in Kenya. Instead, in the days after that option closed, I cried and wondered what am I supposed to want. This question persists. What am I supposed to want? What do my desires matter? When we planned to leave Kuwait, Justin and I made a list of wants. Our kids added to the list too. We wanted to bike to school. I wanted to run outside. Claire wanted snow. One night after losing Kenya, I could not sleep. I walked through our dark apartment and stood at the big windows where I watched the cars and buses below. I stood in the middle of our playroom. I wept. I was so sad. When I think about this night, I am there again. I could not see how the months ahead would open to where we are. For me to even consider where we are now, I needed to absolutely lose the chance of going where I thought we belonged. A day or two later, we got an email from Korea.

The same friend who kindly reminded me I fit where I am, at the outset of this current search, also said to me, Trust the process. He may have said this half jokingly. Let go and let God, he said, Trust the process. Years ago in Colombia I worked with a couple who eventually left international teaching to open a Bikram yoga studio in southern California, and when I saw Katy in her new life wearing a tee shirt that said Trust The Process, I wanted the shirt. I’ve long adored the idea of process, if not the real in-the-middle work of process. My notebooks are full of the reminder to trust the process. Faith works out through experience. Writing is crafted during revision. Relationships strengthen or break by the addition of a day, hardship, disagreement, joy. Raising my children is an illustration of process. Such comfort to know I am yet unfinished.

But what process do I trust? This last week, before and after interviewing for a teaching position, I practiced articulating what I want to say about this current process, my waiting to know what more the next two years in Korea might hold. There is God at work. There are people at work. There is a lot I do not know about what happens if I teach literature and writing, or what happens if I remain in my current role at the school. And I can see both ways working well.

Losing Kenya comes back to me now as caution not to want too much. Losing Kenya comes back to me now as a question of what I really want. Losing Kenya comes back to me now as a rebuke that I may not know what I most need. That was my angst when my friend grinned and said, Let go and let God. Trust the process. We play glib about this. But I’ve come around to the glib repose of whatever. I want to teach so I applied to teach so I interviewed to teach so I wait to teach. But whatever. Next year I will teach or not teach, and I cannot say now. Losing Kenya may have wrecked me for hope in me, and perhaps that is the point. I continue to pour into marriage and parenting, with hope. I continue to write and work, with hope. I continue to daydream where to live next or where to travel, with hope. But my hope is not in my own ability or achievement. I follow Christ who exacts the high price of everything, to know the love of God now, to live in love now and forever. Faith necessitates a hope in what I cannot see in full: that God is good. All of me is one line of a story, one thread in a tapestry, one note, one brush of paint that adds to his name, defines his glory. If I accept God is at work in and through me as I seek to be more as Christ, then I am free to trust that any bit of this time on earth (this process) is useful. And then I am free to accept, or even welcome, all the little bits that make up my time on earth: relationships, work, writing, Korea, losing Kenya.

My hope is that as I chase wants and needs, I am not lost to those wants and needs. I trust that God attends the moment and tomorrow. I do not quit my dreams, and I am not lazy at my pursuits, but I am beginning to understand there is a holy posture called whatever: whatever the day is, whatever the year is, let my heart be right. Give me the wisdom, fun, creativity for the moment and again, tomorrow.

Still. After the interview I walked home with Grant. Along the river path I wondered if my levelness was peace or passivity. Am I just totally at peace with what comes next, or am I surrendered instead to familiar passivity, accepting least resistance as the right way forward. Later at home I was in the kitchen and stood quiet. Do I know what I want at all? I am now partnered for sixteen years, raising two children, living abroad for over a decade. I want to teach, so I applied to teach. But is there a deeper want yet? Is there something more for my time? I worked in the kitchen, worked my way toward whatever. That is where I am now. I will continue to think about what to want, peace and passivity, surrender to whatever may come today and again, tomorrow, but now I wait while there are other minds at work to set in place where I fit next year which is, always, right where I am.


Story One. 1769 words. Drafted 25 & 26 November.