Found Sonnet: Comments On Charlottesville

A couple of years ago I thought it’d be fun to write a found sonnet composed of comment snips. I got the idea when one of my advanced creative writing students led a writing exercise via YouTube music and I got lost in a very impassioned comment scroll. Back then I pictured humor or snark or dreamscape lifted from rage, sincerity and screed.

Last week I was thinking about finding a sonnet in the comments when Charlottesville happened. I read a lot. I delved into comments. There are so many voices. I kept thinking about the issues surrounding the Charlottesville march and protest, how anguished I am by racial hate. Living abroad, I sometimes feel useless as an American citizen, watching and thinking about my country but not present to effect immediate change. I wrote about all of this. I’m still writing about it. I pray. For years I’ve asked God to help me see people as people. I don’t want a burden of assumptions. So I ask the same for all of us, that our prejudices are stripped and we see the inherent worth of the men women children here and far away. While that doesn’t answer centuries of oppression, seeing clearly reshapes our daily interactions with neighbors. I ask for more love. I ask Christ for heart change.

My rule for a found poem is to keep as much of an excerpt intact as possible, including errors and typography. I may shorten an excerpt to fit a line or space but not to change its meaning. I may play with syntax of an excerpt but not to change its meaning. For a mixed found poem, I do not identify one excerpt as different from the next. For citations, I reference the piece(s) from which excerpt(s) are pulled.

The following sonnet is sonnet-ish. I kept the line count, aimed for the Petrarchan structure of eight-line stanza answered by a six-line stanza but squidged the per line syllable count and chucked the rhyme scheme.


After Charlottesville, After Heather Heyer

Mr. President – we must call evil by its
name. These were white supremacists and this
was domestic terrorism. It’s all about
upholding the debased ideal of the white
male as earth’s ruling class. I’m sick of the
idea that “both sides are causing this” — which
is exactly what DT’s tweet said. Just once
can an official say, This is right, that is wrong?
Just effing once? BOTH sides are not the same.

– always will.” 25 years ago a co-
worker, angry and envious I was moving
ahead, walked into work one night, handed me
a letter that said “Hitler was right.” “You
[we] will fix it, as you [we] always have and –

 

 

 

From comments on this NY Times piece and New York Magazine piece

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

All the feelings! This time of year is wild/ unfun/ sad/ exhausting/ promising for international teachers. I wanted to find a way to put all of the following in one coherent piece but I’m tired and decided to just share the whole deal in three parts.

Sometime Two Weeks Ago: Selling The Car

I’ve been fraying. A few weeks ago my friend Pamela looked around the apartment and said it could be emptied in three hours. You’d be surprised, she said. At the end of our first year here, someone in the singles apartment shoved a couch out the window and since then I’ve imagined doing the same, just chucking stuff out the window to watch it smash. My high school art teacher told me that’s what he did when his pottery didn’t fire right. He took the contents of the kiln behind a building and threw the plates, bowls, pots at brick wall. Clay leaving chalk marks on the brick, the fine sift of dust. I don’t need to throw anything out the window, it’s just something that sounds fun that I should have done when I was twenty because now it’d get me in too much trouble. When Grant picks up a loose paving stone on a walk and drops it again and again to see how it lands in the grass or sand or on concrete, I tell him to watch his toes. I’m curious how many drops before it cracks too.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Justin what he needed. I’ve been doing this for months, asking what he needs or what Claire or Grant needs, because I’m so keen on having a good farewell to Kuwait that I don’t want to error as wife or mom, missing a moment or experience or conversation that will best exit us from here and shuttle us on to Seoul. On Saturday I realized this was a reach from the start. I took the kids to the Avenues for a last walk around before Ramadan starts. Claire said it was dumb, why’d we have to go, Seoul will have malls too. And I said to her, But I can look around here and see you and Grant when you were toddlers. I won’t have that in Seoul. She patted my arm, gave me a hug. This is difficult, to pay attention to four people at once. Later that afternoon, after a tremendous cry in my bedroom, after Claire and Grant apologized for not listening the first time, after I assured them it wasn’t that, not really, I did say: We have to figure out how to do this together.

Claire and Grant are big enough to get that we are a family together. They get that Justin and I can only do so much. Claire and Grant need to help us be a family too. Some of this has nothing to do with moving. That’s how being a family works. We have a lot going on. And some of what’s happening – not listening, scrapping in the backseat, me yelling in the kitchen – it would happen if we weren’t moving. We’d still have to figure things out. But since we are moving, each of us has heightened emotional responses. Like dropping a grocery bag and breaking glass jars lands me in my bedroom sobbing. It’s like being a teenager. Or pregnant.

When I asked Justin what he needed he said he needed to sell the car. We’d sold his Pajero, but still had my Kia. He posted the sale online, I called a name another teacher passed along, we stopped at car rental places after school. Our Kia is two years too old, one rental agent said. There are too many cars, he said. We asked what a fair price would be, to ask for our too old Kia, and he suggested we knock about two thousand dollars off our asking price, already down about the same from expected US resale.  He shrugged. No one wanted the car. I thought we might just give it away.

Then we got a call from Sathvik on a Friday afternoon. He showed up with cash in a plastic grocery bag. We sold just below the Kuwait range, on argument that to pass inspection Sathvik may need to replace the pocked hood and chipped windshield. Fair enough. This year when Justin took his car for reregistration, the inspector turned him away for thumb sized scuff on the front passenger door. The guy must not have liked the look of Justin. Sathvik is Indian. A few guys might not like the look of him. In a land that runs on stamps and squiggled signatures, you need a little right place right time luck and a lot of acquiescence. Some nationalities need a little (lot) more luck and acquiescence than we do. I remember years ago asking Adam, a Sudanese man who helps the school with paperwork, how he handled the seeming whim of offices: you go one day and are told to return the next, you return the next and you are told you need an additional stamp, you get the additional stamp and you are told the date on the original document is wrong and now you must begin again. We’d just watched a woman behind the counter shout and fling a file of papers to the floor. Adam said, Sarah, no, when he sensed I was about to stand. We both needed me to be nice. We were next. He has managed nearly two decades of paperwork by letting others be bigger than he is, by saying yes with a smile. Justin painted white out on the scuff and was waved through the next inspection.

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Part Five: Cubic Meters Of Stuff

Part Five: Cubic Meters Of Stuff

When I was in college I read about pioneer women. My family teases me about this because for two or three years I was obsessed. I read books about the trails heading west of Missouri, fascinated by the risks men and women took to stake a claim or meet a spouse or carve a house into dirt when the chance of finding gold or growing a crop was about as good as dying of cholera or going crazy on the prairie. I loved the women. I read their diaries while huddled in a dark booth at the back of the campus coffeehouse, scratching notes in my composition book and flagging pages. I color-coded entries. Like red for illness and death, blue for family or marriage, green for wagon trains. One of my writing professors encouraged my idea to write poetry and narrative based on these women’s experiences so I spent a semester putting together a portfolio Chasing The Sun.

I romanticized the freedom I imagined pioneer women must have sensed, cutting ties to a familiar place. That was very much what I wanted when Justin and I moved abroad. I remember envying pioneer women: they had no Skype.

Now I better appreciate invisible tethers to home. I feel pulls to Wisconsin, Colombia and occasionally Italy, where I was born. But I also feel pulls to places I’ve been only briefly, like Vienna or Budapest, Nairobi, Wadi Rum in Jordan, and imagine this is being a pioneer woman. The belly stir of guessing where we might settle next, connections we rope around the world.

But here is something else I read about the pioneer woman, that when she left a homestead she might first sweep or dust, closing the door to a tidy room, or she might climb up the wagon wheel to join her husband on the buckboard, leaving behind crumbs and a burned skillet on the sawhorse table.

Our last spring in Colombia I came home one afternoon to see a spare apartment. No pictures or mirrors left on the walls, no candles or cloths on end tables, no knick knacks or postcards on the kitchen counter. I found our “us clutter” in a suitcase, breakables wrapped in newspaper or dish towels. I put everything back in its place. We were only in Colombia for two years and clearing the walls and tabletops of stuff took a couple of hours. We’ve been in Kuwait nearly eight years. I might leave a skillet on the table when I go.

We bought our dining table at the end of our first year. I was proud of its sturdiness and shine. I liked sitting our family at one end for dinner or having friends fill the chairs for weekend breakfast. We spend a lot of time at this table. One spring break we turned the table into an art studio, leaving paints and brushes and papers out all week, drifting to and from the watercolor and India ink. Justin and kids construct Lego scenes on the table, each of them working on a different part until the restaurant, bank and pet shop line up. I write at this table sometimes, at night, under the shadow of bad overhead lighting. Justin spends the weekend typing work for his masters classes. During Christmas, this table fills with cookies cooling, icing setting. Lately, we play Uno, crazy eights or Qwirkle with the kids before bed.

I have pounded my fists on the dining table too and sat slumped over its cool shine. Justin and I argue across from each other. We get up and leave, go to another room. The kids refuse to eat what I fix at this table. I sat at this table one morning, holding Grant to my breast, and asked Justin to please not go to school today, the sky outside just lightening to another long short day. This is the table I drop my bags on, when I come in. I leave my jacket hanging over a chair.

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Part Four: Bucket List

A lot of my current writing centers on leaving Kuwait, what this place and moment are for me, and I’m just going with it, writing what sits in my head. I also have two nonfiction (Kuwait related) projects I want to finish by the end of May. I think I’m writing as much of this country as I can in one sitting.


kites17

In the courtyard a week ago, Tim asked about my bucket list. I don’t think I have one, I said. Sure you do, he said, You just don’t know it yet. A small circle of us talked about what to do before leaving Kuwait, what others had done before leaving Kuwait. We joked about ordering delivery breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. Or pulling up to a bakala, rolling down the window and asking for a pack of gum, blocking traffic while we wait for a hundred fils change. We tried to remember how others had left Kuwait. What essential last things had they done?

The next morning we went for breakfast at Early Bird, then for a walk in Fahaheel. It was National Day weekend and a group of men played cricket on the beach, giant rocks as bases. Other families were out for picnics. The kids ran through the sand. From Fahaheel we headed to a spot in the desert for the Al Farsi kite festival. We’d gone a few years ago and had talked about going again but hadn’t. Tim was right I had a bucket list and didn’t know it. That Saturday morning I thought of the kites and realized this was a day I wanted again before it was gone, before we couldn’t drive past oil refineries that look like an imaginary machine of pipes bending and jutting, stacks like lit birthday candles. Before we couldn’t drive past all the tents that pop up in the desert during winter, televisions and fridges inside powered by generators; before we couldn’t drive past a herd of camel again, before we couldn’t drive another road cut through sand sand sand.

So we drove out to the kite festival. Years ago, staring at kites mattered to me. Sometimes we get a day we didn’t know we needed. Then and last weekend, my face turned up to the sky to marvel at the giant billows and flaps of color, I got what I needed. And when I looked around me, I got what I needed. I will miss these people: the stair step children dressed identically as Kuwaiti flags, the woman whose hijab and abaya sparkles with Swarovski crystals, the man in a winter dishdasha and wrapped gutra, the fat adolescent in sweatpants, the young woman with sunglasses and a bag that cost my month’s salary. I’ll miss the nannies in their uniform pajamas and rubber sandals, the men who pick up what gets left at a table or dropped on the ground, the cluster of workers at a restaurant booth making change as fast as they can.

Knowing this would be our last year in Kuwait, I returned in August saying goodbye. I ordered as much shwarma in three months as I’d eaten the previous three years. Every other week, I bought a half dozen pistachio maamoul. I returned to almond stuffed and coconut rolled dates. We ordered bigger spreads of Lebanese food, stopped off for falafels and hummus on the way home. It isn’t sustainable, eating my way through goodbye. I want to miss pistachio maamoul, not be bored of the treat.

When the weather cooled, I put the kids’ bikes in the car for afterschool rides. We’re usually out on the weekends once or twice but this was it, next year no Gulf, so we added midweek walks. I found myself missing my old routine, writing in a café on the way home from school, so I did that a couple of times but it was different because I sat at the end of a long day thinking what to make for dinner when I got home instead of having drifty thoughts or lines of poetry or stories come together over coffee.

I am trying to notice things. Like the stretch along the thirty that was only light poles and sand when we arrived is now giant villas side by side. Or the spot Justin remembers blooming with tiny yellow flowers one spring that hasn’t bloomed like that since. The rain that leaves dust pocks on our cars. The smell of gas in Fahaheel. The stink of dumpsters on a hot day. Even Hussein’s morning call to prayer. I have a bucket list like some people write their to-do list after chores and errands: I know what is on my list right in the middle of seeing a father hand his infant to his wife in the front seat, right in the middle of a Filipino wait staff shout singing happy birthday to a surprised and embarrassed man, right in the middle of crossing the campus courtyard and looking up at small leafed trees. My Kuwait is small, built of routine. Even so, there are many things I will do and think, this is it here, and I might be a little sad or I might feel pleased in the moment, full up with joy. I don’t know how this goes.

Tomorrow we’re out for another walk. This one to Marina with the bikes. We’ll have a fatayer picnic after. The kids will want ice cream because it’s getting warm enough for that again and I’ll send them with a KD to a little stand. We’ll stay on a patch of grass through the afternoon because we won’t get many more of these, the sun tiring me even though I only sit and read or talk or watch. We’ll come home to our concrete courtyard and the kids will have energy enough to run around before bed, before another early start to another week. I won’t miss all of this. But I don’t want to miss what I will.

Part Three: Now We Know Where

We are moving to

Korea!

But wow how that came about.

One week ago, I opened an email from my brother’s school in Kenya, read the salutation and the first line, thought it was an interview request. Justin’s character references were contacted the previous week but mine weren’t so we thought what it’d look like for me to stay home a year, commit to publishing, help at one of the myriad charitable/ missions programs in Nairobi. Just the salutation and I imagined nieces and nephews in my kitchen, knowing which is the cup cupboard, helping Joie and me carry weekend lunch to the patio.

Then I read the email and my body went tight, like my blood and breath paused. It was the start of last period, my prep, and I took three flights of stairs to Justin’s room, knocked at the door. He stepped into the hall. Did you check email? I asked. I could hear his students. He looked happy. I said, Nevermind. You have class. No one died.

What? he asked.

My voice was a whisper. I said the name of the school. I said the position was filled. We looked at each other for a moment, I touched his arm, said I was sorry. He returned to his freshman Geometry students and I to my classroom where I locked the door, drew the curtains closed, unrolled my yoga mat, found a box of tissue and got to the business of crying.

What a gift, to cry. I don’t remember words, only the hidden work of crying. I don’t resist a cry and my heart mind spirit body knows which form to take: quiet tears cheek to chin or dry, shaking sobs or open-mouthed thick-throated moans or infant whimpers. At the end, I rolled my yoga mat, opened the curtains, unlocked the door.

At bell, Justin came to my room. I don’t remember what we said. Probably something about understanding why it made sense from the school’s perspective. (Because it does make sense. Finding the right combination of teachers to staff openings is tough for any school). The director ended the note cheerily, that he would love to see us join their school in the future. Later, looking up rents in Budapest, I’d think an unemployed interim year might make the director’s wish possible. But then, sitting across the table from Justin, my voice was low. I might have been saying, Don’t move. Be calm. There’s a grizzly over there.

My head was full and blank. I took the kids for a walk along the Gulf. I called Mom when we got home. She was sad with me. She reminded me nothing is wasted.

This is something I’m thinking about now, even after the week yielded a wild, perfect turn that takes us to Seoul next year. I know nothing is wasted. I know God works and reworks. But yesterday and today, even having the gift of a new home, I wondered why I spent a year longing for the wrong next place. Justin and I talked about the mercy of no. The no we got on Monday meant sleeplessness. The no brought me to prayer, repetition of what I know and need to know: You withhold no good thing. The no allowed us to be open in a revived way, waiting to see what God would work.

Tired, sad but still at peace. On Tuesday, I lay down thinking of how babies sleep wrapped, secure.

Wednesday we got an email from two former colleagues now in Seoul. Would Justin be interested in joining the EdTech team? I reread the email. I opened the job description. I thought of being near my friend Erin again. Justin and I texted back and forth. This was possible. This was a reach. We wanted to know more. Thursday we talked with Daniel and Paul and learned what the school was like, what the position entailed, why they thought Justin might be a good fit.

Starting anything new is intimidating. Justin has a lot to learn. But as he and I talked the next couple of days we came back to the fun he could have repurposing his strengths. He’s a great classroom teacher who aspires to make math applicable to his students. He’s interested in the relevance of what we learn, making connections between the text and other knowledge, the world we live in. As Daniel and Paul talked with Justin I saw my husband in a new way. Justin takes initiative, they said. I thought of all the shelves and tables he’s put together in our foyer, economical with scrap wood and near empty paint cans. I remembered coming home one day, annoyed he’d bolted another cabinet to my kitchen wall. I can list the places we’ve gone because Justin booked tickets when I waffled. Or the times we’d be just home from travel and he’d unzip the suitcases, make piles on the dining table. Everything organized. His projects usually turn out. He puzzles through.

And now we have a kid-size rainbow picnic table in the courtyard. And that cabinet is full of platters, serving bowls and glasses. And we’ve seen the Taj Mahal. And suitcases empty faster than if I’m in charge.

We had a good interview. Comfortable, wandering conversation brought back to thoughtful questions that helped all of us figure out if we’d do well in Seoul, how our family might add to the school community. From the open of Daniel’s first email and our subsequent conversation with him and Paul and then the interview, Justin and I were surprised to realize this might work. And what grace to open that email only after no woke openness to

Anything.

In the space of those few days I prayed as I’d been praying. I asked for the right door to open. When we started this process two years ago, knowing this would be our last in Kuwait, I started asking God to move people who need to move to make space for us. I prayed for the men or women we’d replace. I prayed for the men or women who’d replace us. I asked for new friends. Claire asked for snow.

Yesterday Claire and I googled pictures of Seoul. The cherry blossoms, autumn leaves and the snow. We scrolled through pictures of the city softened by snow, footprints on snowy paths, snow sculptures. Claire grinned. She said, Oh my gosh, my eyes are filling with water I’m so happy.


Take  a look at our new school!

Part Two Of Leaving Kuwait: Can’t Be Smug About Waiting, Can Doubt

We don’t have a job yet. We probably won’t get a contract until January or February. Friends who ask if we know where we are going yet rearrange their faces when we say no. There isn’t much exciting or possible about no. The other day a friend I hadn’t seen in a month assured me, “It’s still early. If it were March I might be worried for you guys.” If it were March I’d be negotiating rent and commune-like cooking promises with my parents who still have four kids living at home. If it were March, we might fire sale our belongings and put up rent for a year of homeschooling in Budapest. If it were March we might look for a rental in our college town and scrape by on sub pay. But it isn’t March. It’s mid December and international schools are starting holiday break and our applications are in a few someones’ inboxes, waiting for whim or vision to turn into an interview offer.

There isn’t a lot to say about waiting. Except waiting works your character.

Can’t be smug about waiting.

Last week one of my students said to me, “Pray for me, Miss. I find out if I got into NYU at one in the morning!” I pictured her refreshing her email. Please please please. I do the same. I check my email. No one wants an interview yet. I wait another hour or two and check email again. No one wants an interview yet. When it is midday in South America, I check email again. No one wants an interview yet. Later, a quiet voice tells me not to check email again but I open my email again and still no one wants an interview. I whisper fuck.

At church this week, a woman talked about doubt. What do you do with doubt? She preached from Matthew 11, when John the Baptist wonders if Jesus is “the one to come, or shall we look for another?” So John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus even though he knew. He’d already leapt in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth greeted Mary. He’d already spent years in the wilderness, unbound by convention, prophesying Christ to come. But Jesus didn’t show up so bold as John might have imagined a savior should, so John had to ask, “Are you the one to come, or shall we look for another?” John’s doubt wasn’t unbelief and Jesus didn’t belittle his cousin for wanting another confirmation. Instead, Jesus sent word back: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Doubt that God will do as he says can grow faith. Consider the disciple Thomas. Others went around talking about the resurrection and Thomas is like, I’m not buying it unless I touch the wounds, put my hand in Jesus’s side. Imagine Thomas later when he sees Jesus standing in front of him. I might feel shame or embarrassment. I might try to duck out because Jesus knew what I’d said, my bluster about putting a hand to his crucifixion wounds. But Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wounds. Thomas’s doubt led to an encounter that radically confirmed his faith. I listened to the sermon.

Last night I didn’t sleep. I have a pinched nerve in my neck that sends sparkles down my left arm, numbs the thumb a little. I bit the pad of my thumb to test if it was worse. I sat up in bed. I laid on my side. I turned on my belly. I thought about the perfect will of God and his permissive will. I rolled over onto my back. I pressed into the cords of my neck and shoulder, looking for the muscle that cut my nerve. When I woke, I felt terrible.

On the drive to work I yelled at my son because he lost his winter coat, the puffy inside jacket and the heavy shell. I’ve been telling myself I am not anxious about this move. We are fine leaving Kuwait. I want to go. But I want to know where we go. And this week showed me in boldface underline highlight that I need to learn how to wait. How to pray. How to hope. How to trust. I need to learn how to wait because it matters to God that I rest in his love and peace. It matters to my husband and kids, colleagues and students. If I am consumed by fear, I lose this place in front of me. But I can’t make myself rest and that’s an accepted mystery of faith for me, that I go to Jesus and say my questions and lay down my fear and doubt again again again, more often than I check my email or refresh job postings, and I trust God kneads the tight cords in my heart and body, works out the fear I hold.

When something is out of my control, I like to look around and pick up what I can control. Sometimes this is a friendship I stoke for the pleasure of being liked. More often, it is the food that goes in my mouth or the miles I put on my body. I like physical, measurable control. This week I wanted to tally my food, I wanted to run when I hurt. But I saw this behavior in a new way, the sin of holding part of my life with my own hands when Christ says to follow him is to surrender all. To follow Christ is to surrender even this waiting time to God’s glory. I am not supposed to wait in worry or feed my pride with what I manage to hold on my own. Over and over in the Word, I see God is for me. What happens if I say, take this body too, the knots of anxiety I pretend aren’t there, the belly that eats doubt, the legs that want to run away forever: work out this waiting perfectly, physically, in my bones, in my blood and brain, over my muscles and skin so I rest and wake in peace.

I know doubt. And like Thomas, I’ve put up challenges to more faith. God answers and I believe. I falter and God answers and I believe. This year, I don’t doubt God provides. I don’t doubt his faithfulness. This year, I’ve got no one to seek but Jesus, like John the Baptist sending a message directly to his cousin to find out if what he believed really was true. I want to know where we go. I want to know do I teach. I want to know what relationships wait for our family. Instead of worrying these questions with a best laid plan, I press into doubt, honestly and a little afraid. This year I wait, sit with uncertainty, and read the Word for assurance. I know my God. But like John the Baptist, like Thomas, I want to know again.

One Situation, Three Flash Fiction Pieces

I’ve been working on one school’s application for two weeks and I wish that was an exaggeration. The application is made up of tough questions I can’t answer in the space provided, questions that would meet a pause before answering in an interview. I understand the thoroughness of the process – the school is Christian in deed, not just name, and administrators want to know not only what kind of teacher I am but also how my faith works. And in between drafting and revising the application for this school, I’m writing cover letters to other places too.

This is not a post about job search stuff though. This is a post about how I missed writing fiction and joined a class for one of my favorite exercises from What If? which is to write five mini-stories of a single situation. 

Situation examples:
Mom walks into her daughter’s room
Two strangers next to each other on a plane
Someone takes something from someone else

I stole the last idea from a student (apropos) but only managed three mini-stories. Even so, what fun and challenge to step away from cover letter land.


Some Of Us Know
The sophomores were stealing again. Mr. Shannon already talked about it at the grade level assembly in October, then again in December. Don’t leave your bags around, he said, but the kids all left their bags in heaps outside the canteen or strewn like dots on the outside of the track. Security and maintenance staff had to show their backpacks, turn out their pockets at the end of a shift. Then the scholarship kids got called in one by one. A girl named Valentina laughed when Mr. Shannon asked if she knew who was stealing. You think it’s me, she said, Because I wear sandals from Bata?

It was too easy, Eduardo found. And fun, to slow his breathing and steady his pulse. The first time he stole on a dare. He took the slim phone to a booth in Unicentro, swapped the sim card and sold it for the cost of a good sushi dinner to a taxi driver. Now, in history class, Eduardo saw a rose gold line under a paperback on Catalina’s desk. He hadn’t stolen from a girl before. He had a small collection of black and silver devices at the back of his wardrobe that he almost wanted his maid to find, for the relief of contrition and repentance. Daniel and Santiago hadn’t stolen since right before winter break. Eduardo wasn’t sure anyone else was still in the game.

Catalina looked up then. Eduardo didn’t look away. She bent over her notebook, one hand cupped around what she wrote. Then she tore the page from its spiral and folded it over twice. Catalina held the note in her hand. Eduardo got up and walked over to her, took the note. His heart was wild. He sat at his desk again and unfolded the paper. Some of us know. Eduardo swallowed. He could feel Catalina waiting. He looked up but she was only bent over a book, her finger following the lines.

I Give You
For a week I do not put you in a bassinet or crib. I hold you against my breast, let you suck. I have no milk yet. I have only white pain at your strong suck. For a week I wait for my milk to come and you pull at the nipple, turn away, sleep, wake to pull again while I believe all the literature I read about colostrum nourishing you until my body decides the milk comes. I drink a beer. There is something about the malt. I remember a woman saying a beer relaxes the mother, reminds her body to let go. I hold you and wonder what I need to let go. Women carry emotion in their hips, I read.

My hips sink into the sofa. Paper dolls come with little skirts or shorts that fold over the abdomen, the upper thigh. That’s what hurts, the middle band of my body, like my hips opened all their doors and everything fell out. Your suck tightens my uterus. I know this is good. I read it was good.

I haven’t held a baby in years but now, you fit my arms. You snug against my belly. You flop over my shoulder. When you are nursing, I watch your jaw work. I touch the nape of your neck. This is the most delicate we are, together, and I have this surge that goes up my body that makes me say out loud, Be careful. I am so tired. For a week I have dozed and started, afraid to let go of you. But now I am tired and make a little nest for you on the floor next to the sofa and I stretch my legs out and close my eyes. We sleep for a long time.

When I wake, my breasts are engorged. I read this might happen. How the milk comes fast and fills the soft tissue to bursting. I sit up. I need you more now. I pick you up and hold you to my breast, help you latch because the nipple isn’t slipping easily into your mouth. I watch your jaw work. My breast is like a firework, warm sparks of milk letting down and you choke, pull away. My breasts are leaking and I help you again. You find a steady suck and I think of the empty cradle of my hips, the better weight of you in my arms, and I wonder what we will hold together as we make our way.

What I Can Do
Tasha’s daughter came down the stairs one morning with her hair combed in a slant across her face. Tasha said, “Lizzi, I can’t see your eyes,” and reached a hand to brush aside the curtain but Lizzi ducked away, went to the cupboard for a bowl. “You look mysterious,” Tasha said but Lizzi only hunched over her cereal. When the style lasted a few days, Tasha suggested they go to the Cut ‘n Curl next weekend, have the fringe done like that actress that’s everywhere, what’s her name. Lizzi didn’t answer. “Would you like that?” Tasha asked. Lizzi said she guessed so. A year ago, Lizzi dyed a pink streak in her hair. She’d worn a red cape to school most of spring semester. Now in seventh grade, Lizzi didn’t know if she wanted her hair cut.

That Saturday, Lizzi sat in a salon chair while Tasha watched her daughter from a fake leather couch, flipping through a magazine. The stylist was a woman in her early twenties who asked questions about school and favorite bands. Lizzi was quiet. The stylist got quiet too. She took her time, pulling lengths of hair to check evenness and snip strays before blow drying the cut, showing Lizzi how to work a bit of gel through her hair for texture. “There,” the stylist said, “You look great. This cut suits you.” Lizzi looked at her reflection and smiled. Tasha wanted to hold her daughter, kiss her forehead. They bought a bottle of gel and a round brush. Tasha hugged the stylist.

On the sidewalk, Tasha reached for Lizzi’s hand and for a couple of blocks, it felt like nothing invisible had shifted, like Tasha had only imagined the tremor. Tasha suggested a pastry or hot chocolate. A trio of girls was walking toward them. Lizzi’s grip tightened. All three girls smiled. “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” Lizzi ducked her head. “You must be Lizzi’s mom,” said one of the girls.

“I am,” Tasha said.

“Lizzi is in my social studies class with Ms. Bryant,” said the girl.

“Lizzi, your hair looks gorgeous,” said the second girl.

“Did you go to Candace?” asked the third girl.

Lizzi didn’t say anything. The girls blocked the sidewalk. They looked from Lizzi to Tasha with wide eyes and lip gloss smiles. Tasha understood then. There had been a tremor in her daughter. Tiny fractures in rock that could shift and open a wound at the surface.

“Excuse us, girls,” Tasha said and the three made way for her and Lizzi to walk on. Tasha could hear the trio behind them now. “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” Tasha held Lizzi’s hand all the way to the bakery, ordered two mugs of hot chocolate and two almond croissants and found the table near the bookshelf where they always sat. “Lizzi,” Tasha said.

“Don’t, Mom.”

“Lizzi, those girls might never be nice to you.”

“I know, Mom. I don’t care.”

Tasha didn’t say anything for a moment. She cared. Those tiny fractures in rock might not open a gaping ravine at the surface. Those tiny fractures might instead compound where no one sees, turn rock to gravel, cause a landslide. Tasha took a sip of hot chocolate. She watched Lizzi bite into the croissant. “Tell me what I can do, love,” Tasha said. Lizzi looked up, powdered sugar on her lip. “This is nice, Mom.” Tasha had another sip of hot chocolate. “This is nice,” she said.

Part One Of Leaving Kuwait: I Tried On Hope And Went To A Job Fair

I tried on hope. I tried on fearless hope. And for a few days I felt like the name-it-claim-it-Oprah’s-secret kind of people might really have something, like the send-it-out-to-the-universe people might be right. I was high on hope. I thought maybe I’d been missing something essential in my faith for decades and now, look, I was unstoppable and sure and able because I wore hope. Not long ago, my friend sent me one of those daily affirmation emails that landed in her inbox. The message was to change your narrative. I’d been thinking about that in light of faith, reminding myself of who I am in Christ. We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what we can or can’t do, about what we should or shouldn’t want. We need to learn true stories.

So I tried on hope. I have this faith that says I can do all things in Christ. I have this faith sewed up with hope and trust. But for years I worked hope in private, praying for healing or joy or contentment in my own body and mind. And when I admitted hope to others, I couched assurance in maybe later or probably not. Like I know it’s a long shot to write a book in Budapest or run a hundred miles or climb Kilimanjaro but I still hope I do.

Maybe I confuse hope and dream. A dream is like spun sugar. Even dark dreams are made of spindly wisps. But hope is a cinder block. Hope has weight and sharp corners. Your arms get tired and scraped carrying hope around. That’s it then. Hope isn’t a fuzzy shawl that imbues you with certainty. Hope is a cinder block that cuts into your palms. True story: hope is hard to carry. I must be doing it wrong.

I want to live in Nairobi. This desire surprised me a year ago. We visited my brother and his family and all I could see was green trees and red clay. My sister-in-law took us to an outdoor market where vendors expected bartering but charged a Western price anyway. I ran the hills each morning, up and down quiet streets lined with gated properties. I found alleyways and narrow paths cutting through fields. When we drove out of Nairobi, I imagined us in our own boxy jeep exploring the plains. I have this spun sugar dream of a linen shirt, kicked off hiking boots and a cold beer. I have this spun sugar dream of running to the edge of quiet and standing very still under sky unrolled by God. I have this spun sugar dream of my kids climbing backyard trees, eating thick skinned fruit.

I made Nairobi tangible. So when Justin and I decided this is our last year in Kuwait, I saw us going to Nairobi. I saw my kids growing up with cousins. I saw weekend morning coffee with a splash of Baileys. I saw Justin biking to work. This is about the time I decided to try on a fanatic brand of hope, making Nairobi something that just had to happen because it had to happen because I was hoping hard enough that this city was our next home. And I thought God had to give me this. I wasn’t asking for France or Argentina. I was asking for a country with fire ants and the nearby threat of al-Shabaab.

We had an opportunity. Our first interview in eight years. Later, I’d think how underwhelming we were, lacking concision and polish. Later, I’d cry because I supposed I’d wanted this place too much.

Continue reading

Drive Words Poetry Exercise

This writing exercise comes from Thirteen Ways Of Looking For A Poem by Wendy Bishop.

First, list four or five words for each of the following categories:

Flowers or plants
Metals
Animals
Types of landscape or weather
Parts of the body
Words you simply like the sound of
Colors
Scents

List quickly. Don’t overthink. Then circle five words. Those are your drive words. Now, go to a poem you like and circle five words that seem to resonate with the poet. When I choose drive words from a poem, I look for repetends, strong verbs and imagery.

Write five couplets. Each couplet must contain two drive words, one from your list and one from the other poet’s list. You are going to write a poem you wouldn’t otherwise write. Have fun. Putz around or rip through the couplets.

Like most poetry writing exercises, this doesn’t yield a finished poem. Instead, you’ll find an unexpected place to start with a new image or phrase or narrative.


I assigned this exercise to my creative writing classes last week. It’s an easy prompt to start but difficult to finish because we ask too much of our writing exercises. We don’t want any of the lines to land with a thunk. We want the right phrase on the first try. And exercises like this might take multiple attempts before we manage a so-so finish, which can feel like a waste of time but isn’t a waste at all if your writing expectation is to enjoy putting words on paper.

As an aside, I haven’t posted anything here for a month because we’ve been getting school off the ground, jumping into and out of our weekday routine (a week off for Eid, after two short weeks of school; a three day weekend for Islamic New Year), and I’ve been consumed with writing a bio for our job search (maybe more on the bio later as the process mirrored my seniors’ college application essay writing), and now I finally have a poem to post here and my kids are squabbling from top bunk to bottom bunk about feet and flashlights. So every bit that you just read was interrupted like ninety times. But I’m not quitting. Give me credit for not quitting yet.

Seven or eight notebook pages, mostly crossed-out lines and couplets. My drive words: weeds, silver, hip, field, please. From Wendy Bishop’s “Your Apple Tree”: link, crack, empty, fuel, unwilling.

From the first try, I wrote about my tight hip, an old injury that is healing, slowly. I wanted to write about the year I first noticed my muscles pulling my gait to one side, the sense something was wearing out but I didn’t want to stop long enough to heal because I had to keep running. I’d go out and run and run and run. I still do this, without good reason. Only that when I run, I calm.

But as I wrote through several drafts, I wasn’t sure I’d get to say everything I wanted to say while adhering to the rules. I left the exercise unfinished for a few days. Today I followed the rules.

Of This Hurt

When my hip cracks I see silver go white
I catch my breath, say what I say

when I pray Please […] Amen
This injury links hurt the length of

me: foot ankle shin knee hip neck/
pull strain swell pop break. I empty

my body. For years, unable (unwilling)
to see my heart, I ran a grid of fields –

corn, soybean, weeds – on a fuel of
restless anger. I think that is the cradle

Fluorescent Truth

I just finished week one of a new school year. Everyone is writing. My creative writing students are (re)establishing their writing practice with timed writing and go-to prompts (like I Remember…) but I fit in one exercise with a group.

As You Like It from Room To Write by Bonni Goldberg

Today draw comparisons between two things. Choose at least one from your surroundings. The other can be an object, a person, or an abstract concept like love, jealousy, fate. How many ways can you compare them? Go for at least twenty-five. Stretch yourself.

I looked up at my classroom ceiling. I wasn’t going to compare a ceiling tile to anything. I wrote down Fluorescent Light. Then I cheated a little, thinking of two or three immediate comparisons, and wrote Truth. We gave ourselves fifteen minutes. I got to number five in my list and blanked. It got easier around number fifteen or sixteen, until I got to number twenty-four.

  1. glaring
  2. can be harsh
  3. brings clarity to a situation
  4. not shy
  5. unavoidable
  6. hidden until a switch is thrown
  7. runs on a current
  8. can prompt finding a softer alternative
  9. sometimes unwelcome
  10. long lasting
  11. hums under conversation
  12. made strong through/ by reflection
  13. sees the way flesh goes: cellulite, bruising, pores, lines, veins
  14. can yellow
  15. not always everywhere we go
  16. may cause a headache
  17. wakes you up, ready or not
  18. knows not everyone is a fan
  19. offers no apology or excuse
  20. can change the atmosphere of a room
  21. conserves energy
  22. eliminates shadow
  23. necessary
  24. blinds
  25. restricts what happens next

Try it. Turn it into a poem. Or explore a comparison from your list.