A Stone At Notre-Dame

The day we went to Notre-Dame it was raining. We were in Paris for a week and I arrived as I usually arrive to a new place, without expectation but glad to be there. On the train from Frankfurt, I drank the green we passed: fields, trees. And in Paris, our children ran through the thick grass lawns of important buildings and parks. The day we went to Notre-Dame I followed Justin from our ground level apartment along narrow streets and wider streets, over a bridge. We walked quickly because the sky was heavy, gray clouds first silvered by the sun and then only a dark, mottled sky. We stood in front of Notre-Dame, Grant in his pack on Justin’s back, Claire at my side, looking up at the wild, swooping, spikey features of the cathedral.

I go many places because my husband has the idea to go, and I follow. He plans, books tickets, runs Airbnb choices by me, reads about the city, country, region to list what we should visit, talks with other travelers about their experiences. I pack the bags and airplane snacks, my thoughts of Paris abstract until I am walking the low architecture of the city to stand now before Notre-Dame. We go inside.

My mother told me she stepped inside Notre-Dame and wept, as she had years before when she stood under the dome at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I imagined being so moved. I wanted that, really, to sense the spiritual heft or lift (I would take either) to be in a space occupied by generations of worshippers and seekers before. How many prayers sent to the arched ceiling, tracing up the spire. Of petition, thanksgiving and reverence, perhaps most of petition. I stood for a moment but no shimmer of heaven.

We moved to one side, to begin walking the perimeter of pews, pausing at alcoves of candles, statuary. The saints, saints martyred. Windows so high up. Intricate edges and stonework. Justin and the children went ahead. I stared up at faces made of marble, the cold folds of linen. The small cuts of colored glass. The shadows deeper for a sky that cracked lightning and thunder. I took pictures and most have a grainy quality – no flash photography. I glanced through a brochure about the Friends Of Notre Dame, forever rescuing the crumbling structure, washing away the soot, bolstering its bones, sautering the gaps. Look what we make with our own hands. Look what we make! The architects, artists, engineers who designed pieces of Notre-Dame, and the craftsmen and workers who built pieces of Notre-Dame, creating and building for decades, hundreds not seeing the finished work of their hands, what would stand for centuries as refuge, symbol, heart in a city, cathedral in turn revered, celebrated, neglected, found again.

No shimmer of heaven, no span of the Spirit (or perhaps, yes), but an understanding: how finite we are and how we build to stay a little longer than our breath. Look what we make with our own hands! The innate desire to create. A few years after this week in Paris a student asked me what I wanted to leave behind, after I am dead and I answered, A body of work. Writing like art. I paused before answering, but didn’t need the moment to think. I paused to decide which answer to give. I pour into my children. I am near my friends and family. I love my husband. I want a tracing of my lived love on the lives of my children and their children, yes. But I write and will leave that too, and I want what I leave to be art. Look what I make. Remember the men and women who made a cathedral to God, for us to see God anew.  

I woke one morning that week in Paris, sunk deep in a soft mattress, and cried, wanting anything but what I had in that moment but rising to join my family at breakfast. I do not like this part of my story – early ambivalence toward motherhood, still occasional hatred of marriage, selfishness crowding simple joy. We had a beautiful week in Paris but I was still there too. What I forget to remember is that over my own war, I got out of bed, dressed, held my daughter’s hand, kissed my son’s cheek, took my husband’s arm and walked through the day, summer streets, one park and pastry to the next. There are landmarks of my early motherhood where I might have set a stone to remember here I yielded more, here I surrendered to present, here I loved again as best I could, here, knowing more is asked tomorrow.

Outside Notre-Dame again we crossed a street for lunch at a small counter. We shared croque monsieur, standing under a narrow awning and looking at the stained stone, the pointy details, the gargoyles and spire, the rain funneling off the roof. I did not think we would go back, not for some time at least. I had a stomach urge to touch the cathedral once more – wet, rough rock – but I stayed on the stoop feeding bites of bread and cheese to my children. The rain did not let up. We walked away  to find our next warm, dry place, two to an umbrella, Justin carrying Grant, Claire and me matching small steps.


Sixteen of thirty-nine. 905 words.

Small Talk

Another piece from my time in Williamson, West Virginia. Small talk is great. I want draft an essay about how our students eased (or bumped) into small talk as they stepped from a reticent culture into a place where trust is built on personableness. But here I highlight a few of my own small talk conversations, the ones that helped me understand the town better. I left people unnamed.


One late afternoon in Williamson I walked up and down the main streets hoping to find a cafe. I’d order a tea and pastry, sit at a table near a window of spring light, open my notebook. My head was full from being in this small town, reading its history, meeting its residents – the ones impassioned to save, the ones wanting or not wanting salvation (all of us). I walked by an eatery open four or five hours a day, closed now, and a bakery that might have served coffee, also closed now, and I wandered into the Mountaineer Hotel with its deep circular booths at the reception desk and an invitation to ring a bell for service. Instead I looked at the glass cases displayed in the lobby, a photo of President Kennedy greeting West Virginians in Williamson, and a plastic sleeved copy of the speech he delivered, reminding Americans the poor are people in our country. I left having not said hello to anyone at the hotel and at the next crossing raised a hand at a stopped police car.

Is there a cafe here? A place to sit? Tea? The officer rubbed his chin for a moment, named the short-houred eatery. Or the 7Eleven just up there, they’ve got coffee. I can’t think of another place. There used to be a coffee shop but it closed.

(Seven dollar gourmet coffees, I learned from the man who served a three dollar pie on the house, a man you’ll meet in a moment, in a town where you can by a whole breakfast for six dollars).

I walked in the direction of the 7Eleven, bought a pack of M&Ms because I’d walked in (a pack I brought all the way back to Korea), and decided it was the Track’s End, then, a restaurant and hotel that did good business with the ATVers riding the Hatfield and McCoy trail system. The breakfasts were good, I heard, and you could order a dinner for eight dollars. The dining room was black and white squares on the floor, formica tables and booths, fluorescent lighting and view to the kitchen with its prep counter, grill, fryer and Hobart. There was one man keeping the evening there. I looked at the menu. Two desserts offered. Pistachio pie or hot fudge brownie. The man wrote my order and asked for a minute. I’m the only one here, he said, and I took a seat in the middle booth. There couple sat to my front, a single man to my back.

I took out my notebook. The server cook brought out two baskets and plates for the couple. I watched without staring. I caught snips of conversation. I opened my notebook to write when the man behind me asked where I was from. Turns out this man behind me – I twisted in the booth to talk over my shoulder – travels to Williamson for work every week or so, but I cannot remember what the work is, and stays at Track’s End which he tells me isn’t bad, is clean, has good food. This man has phone he spools through to show me a picture of his granddaughter who has him wrapped around his pinky, he says. This girl is his light. His face is happy to talk about this four year old with a little sass. This man has no wife anymore, but wants to be around for his daughter and granddaughter.

When I talk with people in Williamson I say that I grew up in Wisconsin but that my father is from North Carolina and I remember summer trips to the region, driving through West Virginia on the way to or from my great-grandma Davis’s home in Virginia. What I remember as a kid is marveling at the towns notched up hills or holding tight at a stream bed, and how each little town had a baseball diamond, a near miraculous flat of land with scuffed baselines and a scoreboard on stilts. My talk slows. I do not drawl, but want to, because the accent is patient and rich.

The server cook brings me a small plate with a slice of pistachio pie: graham cracker crust filled with pastel green pudding, a smooth whipped cream and a sprinkle of brown pistachio nuts. It is not a pie I would think to make or order any other time, but this time, at this booth, it is just the right taste of sweet and salt and I eat all of it. The server cook brings out the traveling man’s takeaway and he scoots out of his booth, tells me it was nice to meet me, and walks down a hallway I hadn’t noticed before to his room upstairs. It was nice to meet him too.

The couple in front of me finish their baskets of dinner. The woman is missing teeth so her lips go thin and suck in a little. I see a lot of missing teeth that week and think of my own inheritance of poor enamel, the two crowns I could afford last summer and the more coming, sure, no matter the brushing. The couple stands and the server cook buses their table and three others. Then he is back at the counter with the register and I am bent over my notebook which is a useless task. There’s a television mounted to the wall, tuned to an old Charlie’s Angels episode and the drama is a missing actress, a shady stage manager or agent, the sobbing mother who knew something was wrong when her daughter – I give up. I turn sideways in my booth and talk across the ten feet of space, thank the man for a good pie. He asks where I’m from, what brings me here. He tells me that usually he’s not on his own at the restaurant but one of the gals got sick so he’s here, but that’s okay because he took culinary classes and can cook anything on the menu, but what’s hard is keeping up if it’s busy.

Now the Track’s End is quiet though. All the crumbs wiped off the tables. Seats pushed in. I must have asked how long he worked there, or how he got started cooking. It just doesn’t take much to get a conversation but listening takes practice. Maybe because I want to write better, I make myself listen first, quiet my internal voice nipping with an echoed story of my own so I can first hear who you are, what your story is. (Sometimes I listen well. Sometimes I have something smart to say, or something I think is smart. Because I want to write better, and tell true stories, I really am trying to practice good questions and good listening. It helps to remember I’m not as interesting as I might think I am). This server cook is small but sturdy, thinning hair. I guess about fifty but when conversation turns to the flooding I recalculate.

What happened in Williamson is a few things. First, coal, and jobs promised at the mine as soon as a young man graduated high school, or before, and enough money to buy a house or start a kid at college (if that kid resisted the starting wage call of the mines). Then in 1977 the Tug River flooded the town, cresting at fifty feet and leaving downtown Williamson under a dozen feet of water which drained to the damage of many homes. Sludge. River mud in the sewers, a mess to clean, dry out, rebuild. Many families returned though. I wasn’t around for the ‘77, but I was around for the ‘84, the server cook said. Another woman (my age) I met days later showed me the side of a downtown building painted with floodlines and told me she remembered climbing the rooftop of house with her grandfather to survey the flooded downtown after the ‘84 flood. After the ‘84 flood, the man told me, fewer families moved back. It was hard enough to rebuild once. In two decades’ time, Williamson’s population declined from a peak of ten thousand to its present three thousand, or just under. In 2015, coal mines took a hit under Obama’s EPA, and now the state and region are reckoning what comes next. Lumber, if harvested sustainably, or tourism, or maybe tech – always tech. Before the server cook was a server cook, he was a firefighter who retired after twenty-two years, a job he started as a paramedic while still in high school. If I’d started a job out of high school, the right kind of job with benefits and a pension, I might be retired now too.

I have the habit of making parallel lives for myself. The woman who showed me the flood markers on a brick downtown building is my age, with a junior in high school. I learned about the junior first because she talked about wanting to move to Tennessee which gives free instate tuition the first two years of college, but her son would need to be living there two years first, and now the peach orchard they had their eye on got bought by someone else. I was surprised she thought of moving. She is a champion of community in Williamson and in the week there I saw her a couple of times at work to teach wellness, involved in the elementary school and with a sober living house. But we think about our own kids too. Tennessee is a lot like West Virginia with better roads, she said, a joke I heard about Kentucky’s good roads too, They get us there. People there are like us.

For a couple of days that week in Williamson I thought about what it’d be like to move my family to that small town, to dig into the shared work of raising up a healthy community, to serve in a new way. I get zealous for want of purpose, forgetting where I am is purpose and charge enough. But the growth of Williamson must be born of her own first. But her own leave. There are empty houses on each street. Empty houses collapsing, buckling. I met a contractor and asked about the foundations of homes built into hills, can a house just fall off the mountain? And he told me about going into homes and wondering how no one noticed the slope, the whole house tipped with ground washing out under. I walked all over town that week, in the dark mornings, and out to the edge of town along a mountain and the mountains in West Virginia leak, drips tracing their way from hundreds of feet up to the rock foot carved to make way for a road, the rock slick with wet from old rain. The mountains shift. Foundations slip. But the empty houses, this is something the town sits with, tied by property owners who are gone, or inheritances not yet claimed, the expense of legally razing the abandoned buildings too much for the town. I peeked into a couple of empty buildings. The bottles and fabric of squatters, stripped walls.

There is one house abandoned years ago when one of the pill mill doctors in Williamson left. This is another story of Williamson. The hard work of mining breaks bodies, and bodies in pain want pills, and bodies without work are bored, and bored bodies want pills, and two or three doctors and pharmacies in this tiny, struggling town upended the place with an opioid epidemic. (Every family affected I heard again, again). This abandoned house, right off downtown and next door to one of two bed and breakfasts in town, is federally seized property, its owner fined but never jailed for the chaos of her medical malpractice, and now living between different states. She left two midsize luxury cars, a Mercedes and a BMW, parked in the drive. The house is yellow brick but the white siding accent near the roof is warped and peeled away. Another five years of rain and sun, the siding will fall to the house’s poured concrete porch – white columns, big front door, lots of windows all around the house, one of the nicest in town with no one to loot it good.

The wellness woman is bothered by the abandoned houses and buildings. Some are taken back by the hills, vines and grasses wrapping the wood frames so that when the spring green is full the structures disappear entirely. But most gape, tilt, fall. Dark windows, a danger to explore, narrow streets and alleys and precarious stairs connecting neighbors who aren’t there anymore. Whispers of what the town was when you could get a job out of high school or just before, when the buildings downtown could keep a shop open for more than a year or two, before the hold of tiny pills, before empty churches (churches every third corner, the smallest congregations), before kids moved away for good. I made a history of this town on small talk.


Fifteen of thirty-nine. 2182 words. I really need to get reckless if I’m going to make it to ThirtyNine Stories.

I Think In Stories

On our first full day in North Carolina, I am sitting with a group of sophomore and junior high school students around a conference room table on the Duke campus. The windows looking out are gothic with heavy leaded panes, new made to look old, like other features of the grounds and academic buildings such as chimneys without fireplaces and stone steps sloped to intimate hundreds of years of scholars’ feet smoothing the stones on their heady walks to and from chapel. We are sitting with the leftovers of lunch in front of our places, picking at kettle fried chips while we listen to one other share expectations for the trip ahead. Tomorrow we will go to a small town in West Virginia to learn about a region grappling with what comes after coal. All school year our students have learned about the most pressing health issues of a people without access to affordable, regular medical care, and how lifestyle and diet can balloon routine concerns to life threatening conditions like COPD and diabetes. Now we have traveled nearly twenty hours to work alongside community health workers at a clinic or on home visits, for our students to observe what public health looks like, and to practice talking with clients about their choices and needs, but first we are in a conference room on the Duke campus. Dr. Robert Malkin, founder of the program we are part of, Global Public Service Academies (GPSA), asks each of us to share what we will contribute to the people of Williamson, and what challenges we anticipate.

Our students are each part of the program because they are interested in pursuing medical careers, but they don’t know what that might look like yet, or the range of studies and positions that support medical practice. Just that morning we listened to a biomedical engineer share about her work in Uganda, helping to problem solve how to ensure neurosurgery can be safe and accessible to head trauma patients. I am proud of our students as they speak. They are self-aware and thoughtful as Dr. Malkin presses to understand more. I believe they are learning their own vulnerability as they answer. They expect to contribute by talking with clients about healthy choices and taking blood pressure and pulse measurements, by learning what they might do in their own careers one day. One student wonders how he can apply the tenets of GPSA to his home in Seoul. They are nervous about making eye contact or taking an inaccurate blood pressure reading. They will be challenged by the unfamiliarity of the culture, how to bridge their experiences with the clients’ lives. One student shares why she is afraid her shyness will get in the way of her service. By the end of our week together, I will know each student better but the hour at the conference room table first cracks an opening for me to see these kids as they are.

And then it is my turn. I will contribute by listening and observing, to tell the stories. At the end of our experience, each student will remember a moment from our week in West Virginia and craft a narrative to share with a middle school audience. I will help workshop the stories. But also I will write my own stories, because I do. And I will contribute encouragement because it is really hard to be uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place and press on – but we won’t know that until we’re in the middle of an overheated house that smells of cigarette smoke, talking with a man whose poor physical health draws the small circle he can travel. My challenge will be to remain present with people, even in a dim house that smells of cigarette smoke, because the man in front of me once had a dream to see Alaska in the summer. Most days he goes as far as the porch door but I won’t know any of that if I drop our conversation for the worry my hair holds smoke. After I learn this man once hoped to see Alaska in the summer, that detail will matter to me for months, though I won’t understand why, and I will be glad I asked if he ever traveled away from West Virginia, and glad he answered, and glad he will be more in my mind after.

Karl, one of our GPSA team leaders, shares next. He echoes my challenge of remaining present in a situation or conversation. The way his mind works is to sift interactions and observations for abstract conclusions: how does this woman’s health compare with other women’s health and what can that say about the state of women’s healthcare in West Virginia? This kind of thinking is a gift for the public health PhD program he is set to begin. But because his mind snags a detail to mull abstracts, Karl pulls away from the conversation in front of him, rushing to discover or conclude a thesis instead of simply talking with a person who wants to tell something about her day or breathing difficulty or what she wishes. I think in abstracts, he says. As Karl talks, I look around and see a few students nod in recognition. When Karl finishes speaking, someone else says, I think in equations. And as we’re preparing to leave the conference room I say to Karl, I think in stories.

Just that morning we attended a talk with a woman named Brittany, a biomedical engineer who spent two months in Uganda answering the question of what it takes to allow a neurosurgeon to operate in a hospital there. As she talked about overcrowded wards, understaffed ICUs, hospital systems and infrastructure I imagined her standing in a tall ceilinged ward making notes about how many nurses were attending how many patients, and what that could mean to patient recovery statistics. I imagined her interviewing surgeons in an underfunded hospital, learning how they improvise by using a power drill instead of a bone drill, sterilizing the bits between patients. I imagined her respect at the improvisation, and her frustration because these men and women should not have to improvise medical treatments like that and if – if – if. She talked about service contracts that medical equipment companies like Siemens and Phillips sell to hospitals, to guarantee the upkeep of CT scanners or X-ray machines, contracts as expensive as the millions of dollars the equipment itself costs, contracts that underfunded hospitals cannot afford so that when the very necessary CT scanner breaks it sits useless and throws doctors and surgeons to waiting for clinical symptoms to indicate what is happening in the body.

So as Brittany talked, I thought of two ways I might tell this story. I could ask for an interview and write a creative nonfiction piece, supplementing with additional interviews and research about the lucrative business of service contracts (already studied and, presumably, reported elsewhere). And I could learn all the language of biomedical engineering, the names of Ugandan cities, towns, roads. The cultural challenges she encountered traveling alone, the shifts in her mindset as she spoke with medical professionals working around the poor infrastructure of their hospitals. I could ask about the food she ate, the ailments she endured, what she wants for the places she visited, who she hopes to see again. So I could write all of this as a creative nonfiction piece. Or I could shape what I learn into fiction. Lift and modify elements of Brittany’s two months to tell a similar story. I would keep the service contracts, a detail so sinister I’d want people to wonder why we allow medical equipment companies to abandon their machines to inevitable disrepair in countries struggling to care for patients when the electricity might blink off after a rain.

I like that I think in stories. Sometimes I wonder why I want to tell stories, fiction or nonfiction. Always I’ve worked my imagination. Such a gift. But for two decades I’ve also practiced craft in the middle of my present. A line from a conversation or detail of the room or a question about an interaction comes to me highlighted and underlined: this is a story. And then I am thinking how to pull disparate elements of a scene into narrative: what to cut, how to order. Much of my story thinking lands in my notebook to stay in cursive because most momentary sparks don’t light a story for want of time or tension. (The man who wishes he’d seen Alaska years ago will land in my notebook, and so will Brittany, but one may be anecdote and the other a story). But still I draft in the middle. I think in stories so when I write stories I know a little more how to show you what I see.


Fourteen of thirty-nine. 1477 words.

First Third Infant

Oh, this piece is beautiful. This story came as a whole while I laid on my bed with a fever today, listening to a piano playlist and drifting. I am glad this story is here now.


Everything in the city was thin. The walls of their apartment were thin, and the young men wore thin suits. The floors and ceilings of the apartment were thin, and the women were thin. Pants cropped at the ankle revealed thin ankles. The glass of their drying room was thin, the caulk at the pane was just thinly separated to allow wisps of polluted air into their home. In the center of the bedroom an air purifier whirred, and another sat whirring in the hall at the door of the children’s room. On the seventh day of bad air, the view of high rises and mountains obscured, the view as a dense fog she might see on a summer country road when the early morning land and air couldn’t find hot or cold, Norah went out for packing tape and ran that around each window frame. On the eighth day she was ill. Ethan took the children to school, and Norah shivered in bed. Her body ached, her skin was warm, her feet cold. At the side of her bed she set a glass of water to drink when she woke.

Norah drifted but did not sleep. She thought of the young mothers with infants snug at their chests, or balanced on hip carriers. She thought of her own two children, boys who were now four and six, and the conversation she and Ethan opened occasionally, about conceiving a third child or adopting a third child and her reasons why – because it was her reasons why a third child might round out the family. Norah rose and turned on the bluetooth speaker, put on a piano playlist to drift to. Ethan was wanted a third child for the delight of holding a baby again, the fun of toddling and first words, the marvel of watching a son or daughter become more who they are one day to the next. He was just thirty-eight, and Norah thirty-seven so it was possible they might conceive. The first two were a thought and then conception. Ethan felt lucky at that, to duck out of wringing fertility issues, and lucky at Norah’s easy carriage of both pregnancies, and lucky at simple births and infants who gained on the percentile. He wasn’t certain luck would hold for a third pregnancy, third delivery, third baby.

Just under the piano music Norah could hear rustling like fabric. She thought is was her ears being louder because she was ill, the way her eyes sometimes went glassy and sharp with tears so she could see clearly without squinting. She thought it was an auditory trick of her duvet when she shifted slightly. She drifted. She remembered the birth of her firstborn, the warm gush of her last push to bring her son to light and air, the way he did not cry but only looked at her like he had waited to meet this mother whose voice sang in the car, whose hips swayed a dance down the halls. The rustling was not her ears. There was something wrong with the bluetooth. Thin ceilings and floors. It was connected to another device, under her own piano music.

She recognized the sounds then. A baby monitor. Norah lay still to listen better to the soft rustle of blankets or kicking feet, waving arms. A tiny infant voice trailed just over a measure of steady notes. Norah held her body through its shiver to not move at all.

They had a third baby. Ethan and Norah met spring of their sophomore year of college and both stayed on campus through the summer to run freshman orientation programs. By Christmas of their junior year they introduced one another to parents, siblings, best friends from hometowns. A year after they met, she was pregnant. They were only sporadically careful about sex, as sporadic as Norah’s periods were. Norah felt the tiniest shift in her person, the making of a second person, but she didn’t say anything for a week because it seemed too early to know for sure. She felt that same identifying shift in her womb at each of her sons’ conceptions. A clear signal to her breasts and brain that a baby was now alive in secret. When Norah told Ethan on a walk from the dining hall to the dorm where they worked as residential advisors, Ethan was silent and then said he didn’t think that was really possible. Don’t I usually pull out? he asked. Sure, but not all the time, she said, Listen, I just think something is different. He asked was she going to take a test.

When Norah remembers her first baby she counts how old this baby would be. Now, wrapped in a down duvet, her whole body aching, she whispers, Sixteen. What an amazing thought, to be raising a teenager in a tiny Seoul apartment, to likely have one or two more older children because it would have made sense to give the first a close sibling. She might not know the four year old or six year old. They might be gone from her life. Or Ethan might be gone from her, and from the first child they made. She might be on her own in Guatemala or Kenya or Hungary with a teenager learning a second and third languages. Ethan might fly to meet them a couple of weeks at a time, or their son or daughter (she thinks daughter) might fly to join his family for the summers, a lovely illustration of errant college decisions.

The infant sounds continue. The baby is not distressed, only murmuring or sighing to soothe him or herself. Norah sighs. She imagines a third infant at her breast, her breast full again. She imagines tucking a baby into a stretchy wrap at her torso, kissing the fontanelle. Norah’s whole body burns and shivers. For the rest of her years this first infant will come to her as the third following the two boys, as though she might again conceive the very baby implanted on her twenty-one year old uterus. Or this first infant will come to her as an entirely different life because she would be a mother to a teenager now instead of practicing single digit addition or cutting crusts off sandwiches.

Ethan was relieved when Norah got her period. She told him only that, and he said, I didn’t think you were pregnant. But she was. For three days she cramped and bled as she hadn’t before, and worried if she should make an appointment with student health. She had a low fever, like the fever she had now in bed, and she knew her body was letting go a tiny person who would now be sixteen years old. Norah was relieved and sad then, and at the start of her second pregnancy she recognized that quiet signal her invisible fertilized egg zigged up her belly to her heart, and told Ethan, I was pregnant before.

What? When? Me?
Yes, you. Remember junior year, second semester when my period was late, really late? I was pregnant.
Did you take a test?
No. I was going to and then my period came. I miscarried. It was a lot of blood.

Ethan was quiet for a time at this revelation. He tried to remember did Norah say anything at the time, was there a clue he’d missed? He only remembered their first year of dating as fun. They didn’t fight or argue even silly matters. Norah was quick to laugh, he remembered, and go along with his ideas for a date or weekend. Ethan didn’t talk with Norah about this first, miscarried baby he could not remember until one afternoon when Norah’s uterus cramped and she began crying. They called the doctor, took a cab to the hospital and had an ultrasound, listened to the whoosh of the baby’s rapid heartbeat. The uterus expands like cramps, the doctor said, and Norah confessed to Ethan on the cab ride home that was what it felt like when she miscarried.

He didn’t want her to miscarry. He didn’t want her to have miscarried his child. He didn’t understand why this event wasn’t also burned on his mind. I told you I thought I was, Norah said, And you said I probably wasn’t. To herself then and now, Norah supposes Ethan did not want to put a potential baby into words when they were still in college, unmarried, when he was raised Catholic and she Evangelical, when everyone would know their shared life began out of order. Probably it was okay that she miscarried, Norah decided. A baby might have rushed their marriage which was not vowed for another seven years. A baby might have broken them apart. A baby might have curbed his business career, or cut her education short.

Yet after the first boy was born, Norah thought what she missed too. She looked at girls who where at the edge of adolescence and wondered how she would raise a girl. And at the second pregnancy she pleaded to carry, healthy, because she was afraid what she might lose, knowing how precious the first son was to hold and nurse and nurture. All of this was private wondering and grief.

Norah’s brain is just warm enough to give the sense the thin wail of the infant from the monitor is her own child and she turns to the other side as she did cosleeping with her sons, and keeping her eyes closed, unbuttons the four buttons of her nightgown to give way to her deflated breast and soft nipple. She shushes her first third infant and feels the sensation of let down at her nipples, up her neck, and it is the fever gift to nurse the baby she lost.


Story thirteen of thirty-nine. About two hours to draft these 1634 words.

Winter’s End: That Saturday And This

That Saturday mid morning I am propped in my bed, my left knee again elevated. I once diligently tracked my miles, injuries, twinges. Now I cannot say how many times this knee has waylaid a day’s plans. Enough. The night before I prayed because I still believe there are miracles even for those of us whose needs are comparatively small. When I ask for my own healing, I also plead provision for Syrians, Yemenis, North Koreans, and when I wake with my knee to swollen to walk, I wonder if there was a choice at the front desk and it just made sense to nourish a child instead. For an hour or so, I think and write about the distribution of miracles, the needs of our world, the fear I have that I am blind to the good I have, the fear I have that I cannot hear what I must, in my heart, to live. And then I use crutches to go from one room of our apartment to the next, to see the children who are just fine, and perhaps glad, at not having to rise and dress for the day, or do anything at all.

The children are sunk in beanbag chairs with their little screens close to their little faces. I ask my girl to help make egg for breakfast. Egg and avocado. Egg and hash browns. Egg and ketchup. Scrambled or fried. Orange juice or milk. Their little faces look up, my girl gets up and she is helpful in the kitchen. My kids know I am broken today but my girl is tender in a way that surprises me, asking can she get this for me, or that, do I need anything, am I okay? My boy remains slouched in his beanbag chair. Unless I say otherwise, he will stay in underwear the entire weekend. My girl too. I look at them both, with their plates balanced on pale legs, screens blinking and singing, and return to my bed.

I make a heat pack from my husband’s sock and two cups of dry rice. I microwave the sock for four or five minutes. Ice does nothing for my knee. The heat feels so good. I arrange pillows to elevate my knee again. I have water within reach. I have a chocolate bar. I have my laptop and earbuds and a ranked list of the Oscar nominated movies.

For three days we eat rice and seaweed for dinner. There is a little restaurant on the block that sells bap for a thousand won and I send the kids to get three bowls. We sit in a line on our sofa and watch Isle Of Dogs, Apollo 13, Castaway. I send them to bed with kisses and lopsided snuggles, and heat my rice sock, prop my knee and watch another movie in bed. The pattern works in a way I don’t like.

That Saturday I was supposed to rise and run, return and make breakfast. Perhaps bacon and eggs, or crepes with whipped cream and strawberries. I was supposed to bike to a French cafe for lunch, a monte cristo or mushroom risotto. I was supposed to return home and make a coffee, write at the table while my children play outside or build a fort inside. That Saturday mid morning I think what is the point of being extra miserable when I am already miserable, and I eat two chocolate bars fast, and a lot of popcorn while watching Can You Ever Forgive Me, which is a truly terrific movie. Then I watch The Wife (Glenn Close is great, but the book is better). I read Moo by Jane Smiley. I write. I read Ephesians. I start a series I heard was good. Before the weekend is over I finish eight hours of an HBO series and one more movie. I cannot remember a more concentrated time of television watching. The last time I might have consumed so much of a screen was thirteen years ago when Justin and I bought the first two seasons of The Office, binged on a hot day with the curtains closed and ac cranked. Then we took a break to pick up pizza. Now I break to rewarm my rice sock.

On Sunday I sit on the couch and look at the smog. The air purifiers are both running high and the apartment hovers at an AQI of forty-seven. I hobble to the door of our drying room and feel a tiny slip of air at the jamb, find packing tape and tape the door sealed. Our AQI drops thirty points. I think about taking a picture of the smog. I cannot. For the same reason I cannot take a photo of my grossly swollen knee. I can remember both well enough, without proof. Years ago I read a blog post by a woman recounting her car accident while on vacation in Costa Rica. She included a photo of herself sobbing on the roadside. The equivalent for me is staring at the middle distance of our view, a forested hill made invisible by smog, and wondering how to write a sentence to explain the fear knotting my belly at the thought of staying in Korea for another two years of bad air, and all the tangential thoughts that follow: the utter selfishness of corporations banking their dirty, under(or un)regulated industry on China’s east coast, the impotence of regional governments to cut coal in favor of renewable or nuclear power energy options, my own careless use of plastic.

I briefly consider another fast, for the sense of control. To show I am doing something to heal my body, in petition. I tell the children we need to tidy the apartment. The girl helps. The boy helps, but grumbles. I say to him, I would like to be able to do all of this by myself but I need your help. That is it, that I need your help. My husband is away, my body is broken, my mind is tired. When my husband messages me from Cuba I hate him just a little.

A friend and her son visit and for an hour or so we talk about the air and our fortune (we can monitor and control the air we breathe, while much of the world cannot), and about books or movies. Our boys play nicely. I tell her I’ve decided to quit drinking coffee and alcohol. I read that both cause inflammation. What I will miss is the ritual of an afternoon latte and open notebook, a glass of wine while I cook, or two glasses with a friend. I can do anything for a time. I can quit caffeine and alcohol. My body will heal. I cannot be inflamed forever.

Can I. There is a flame in my body. If I might have some oxygen to burn. When I do fast, I feel my body burn. I go warm at night, wake with sweat. It’s delicious to be warm of my own burning body.

I want to run. This thought is not far from any other thought. Between that Saturday and this the swelling leaves my knee and I learn to walk again. I watch my ankle and foot through the motion. Heel roll up outside ball big toe heel roll up outside ball big toe. I watch to keep my knee over my ankle. I watch to keep my ankle steady. I watch to keep my toes awake. My foot is tired after one day. Between that Saturday and this my husband returns from travel, marvels at the smog, unpacks souvenirs from Cuba. I want to run. He turns forty and I promise to celebrate better when the air is clean and we can go for an afternoon bike ride along the river, and we will. But also, this year I did not I want to run have the energy I want to run to go out with the kids to let them I want to run choose a gift or decorate the apartment for his birthday with I want to run a banner or balloons. I bake a cake, make a promise and the next morning he is sick.

This Saturday my husband lays on the couch, unmoving. Drink water, I say, and he does. He takes medicine. He sleeps. I take the kids on a bike ride, what we might have done last Saturday if, and I go slow behind my boy and girl, watch my knee when I drive the pedal down, watch my ankle when I drive the pedal down, watch my knee and ankle through the motion to keep the joints aligned. And it is perhaps too much work to heal at all. I am mildly annoyed my husband traveled to clean air and warm climate with health and returned to be sick so that my run of solo parenting extends to the small interventions of a Saturday afternoon. The children squabble while we are out. I speak loudly so they can hear all the way down their bodies that love is a choice. And you cannot control the other. Love between two is never equal. Sometimes you give more. Sometimes your brother or sister gives more. You love without supposing to earn anything. Be nice even if you don’t have to be nice. Be kind. Generous. I am loud enough I see a woman turn to look at me. I am loud enough to hear all the way down my body.

The kids apologize to one another, and to me, and I say what I say, that I love them very much. My girl is put in her own thoughts on our ride home, hopping off her bike to walk for a stretch before resuming at racing speed. My boy asks if his sister is okay when she stops again to walk and we continue on, and I say, She knows the way home.

Sometimes I am afraid I am too honest about how much work it is to be a person, to love at all, to follow Jesus. I am afraid I discourage my children. Or I am afraid that what they might take on as natural and easy, I turn to a hard way because for me being a person, loving, following Jesus is hard.

When I am home again I balance on one leg, and then the other. I do this because I want to run. Yet this Saturday I am made to be slow. We eat two dozen strawberries. I finish reading a book. My boy kicks a soccer ball with a friend. My girl rearranges her room again. My husband rests his body on the couch. I feel how my belly and thighs go soft now. I see the middle distance return to our view. Before the children go to bed they come to me to snuggle and we lay together in my bed. I am glad for my children. They are lights. They tell little jokes they have between themselves or the three of us. We tickle and nuzzle. We sigh because sleep is near, and they leave to their separate rooms to dream. I stay awake a little longer to do this, to remember that Saturday and this Saturday at the smoggy end of winter.


Twelve of thirty-nine. 1894 words.

I Would Go Back (I Cannot)

To borrow from Sharon Olds, I go back. I go back to my last night in Colombia and think what I would do again, or differently. That night remains such a sorrow to me because when brought right against the hour I had to leave, I knew it was wrong to leave, that we made a mistake in going away from Cali, and I still believe we left too soon. But I cannot go back. I have written about this night many times in a decade of journaling since, and yesterday this night came to me again when I was having coffee with friends and we were talking about why we are here in Korea, what for, what can we see, what can we not see.

There are decisions I would change but then I would not be here. Or I would be here, but differently. This is a tricky, useless regret, but I sat at the edge of my bed and felt that last night in Colombia again. And then I wrote.


We went for dinner with friends, my last night in Colombia. All of us sat at a long table outside at Las Palmas in Ciudad Jardin. Justin and I were the first to leave, and after I said goodbyes the length of the table and turned to walk to our waiting cab, I did not look back. I remember thinking to not look back. I remember walking like I was learning to walk, having to consider the movement of first one leg, then the other. The weeks before that last day were full of the logistics of moving from one country to another: closing accounts, selling or giving away goods, ticking through our favorites in Cali. And then the last day in Colombia was that day, the last night that night. Leaving our dinner, my body moved toward something I did not want.

I would go back to that year and decide to stay another, even if we would choose to move the following year. I would stay for the green on green, mountains, insect noise, the language and music, empanadas, rain that made our street a river. I would tell the desert to wait one more year.

At our apartment the cab waited while we went inside to tell Patricia, our daughter’s nanny, and her two daughters goodbye. Claire was asleep in her crib. Early in the morning she and I would fly out and Justin would stay another week for paperwork, and to help Patricia organize and clean the apartment we were leaving. Patricia and her girls stood when we entered and we helped them carry the things I’d set aside to give them. Kitchen items, a throw rug, couch pillows, a lamp. We carried these to the cab whose driver popped the trunk and helped. Then Patricia and I said goodbye.

I would go back to this moment too because when we parted from our hug, her crying was so distraught I understood again how she cared for my baby, and that her day would look so different tomorrow without a snuggle from Claire, or a walk around the big yard, or time sitting together on the swing. Patricia took two steps toward our apartment. I thought she would run and wake the baby. I should have told her to run and wake the baby, to hold Claire close once more, kiss those fat cheeks and breathe her and lay her down again. I didn’t have the Spanish and Patricia didn’t have the English so we were left with our faces and tears. Patricia pushed against whatever kept her from running up the driveway, but then turned to her daughters who took her hands and helped her into the cab.

That night I did not sleep. For the first part I held Patricia’s parting in my body. I wanted then to go back and give her Claire to hold one more last time.

I replayed when Patricia and her daughters arrived that last night, as they had arrived one or two other nights that spring when Justin and I went for dinner together, and Patricia said to me, Que linda! and I smiled, a little embarrassed. Her daughters showed me what they brought for Claire. A book, inscribed with a note from them to Claire, and a small pink My Little Pony in its plastic packaging with a 3+ label. I set the My Little Pony aside, in a suitcase in the bedroom, imagining gifting the tiny horse with its shiny tail to Claire when she turned three and telling her it was from her first nanny, Patricia, and her daughters. I would go back and not take the My Little Pony from the daughters. I must have seemed ridiculous to those daughters then, dumb about what baby girls like to play with, dumb about the daughters who played with my daughter. Because why in the moment we were about to walk out the door was I suddenly concerned about age appropriate toys? Or worried what Claire would put in her mouth? Why, when we let her jam a capped Pony Malta bottle in her mouth to gnaw relief for her swollen gums. I was hot and weak that I’d spoiled a gift.

For the second part I held Colombia in my body and wept.

This was the country I moved to first, after years of wanting far away. I was relieved when the plane departed from Miami. My breath caught when the plane banked to descend and I saw Cali, her lights like gold glitter flung in the valley, over the foothills. I learned this country, and not as well as I would have liked. But I learned the words I needed, and the roads up and down to the places I went, the fruits and flowers. I hiked to ruins. I hiked through Tayrona. I saw blocks of plastic wrapped cocaine. I saw a man shot dead, slouched in the front seat of his car, the door open, on my walk to La14. I cut plantain, staining my hands, and fried the plantain, flattened the softened disks with a rock before refrying. I ate the best eggs with orange yolks. I ate pan de bono if it was offered. I took a bus to Salento, a bus to Medellin, a bus to Barricharra, a bus to Villa de Leyva. I stood under a small waterfall. I took outdoor showers. I ignored the cockroaches in my bookshelf. I obeyed soldiers with guns who asked to see my cedula. I walked rows of coffee plants and leaned back to see the top of wax palms. I got chased by dogs when I ran. I jumped in a pool after a long, hot run, or bought an ice cold Coke to guzzle. I biked up a long hill. I sweat my days and nights. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the English daily papers. I learned stories of Colombia. The scars on the land and people taught me to hope for a place that was mine only for a time. I reckoned my way to motherhood in the perpetual autumn/spring of winter in Cali. I slept the afternoon rains that brought a curtain of quiet. I gave birth in this country, and did not know much but enough to delight in our infant, and wonder. I supposed we would return.

Our marriage became more our own in Colombia, but I walked through the desert to know it.

While I did not sleep that last night, my daughter slept. My husband slept. I touched the mosquito netting. I got up to drink water and look at the dark rooms of our apartment. I begged for sleep but my body held its grief awake.

At the last part of night when it was near time I would dress and dress Claire, and go to the airport, I cried because we did not know anything. We thought we were doing right, to leave. I cried because in front of leaving I knew it was not right. I would go back for one more year, or two. I would go back but that would undo the desert time. Maybe I would undo the desert time to keep the green on green, but then I might undo my son, or my marriage. I might undo my breath. I cried so my body was worn at the start of its journey away.


Eleven of thirty-nine. 1242 words.

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.