Yes, Let’s

This is week four of virtual school. At lunchtime I leave the apartment. I walk or bike to a nearby café where I order an iced latte and teach my afternoon classes. Today I biked to Shinsegae, ordered my latte and looked around. I started class. Afternoon shoppers got in line for a coffee, or bought pastries, or sat at a table for a late lunch. The space hummed.

For the third day, South Korea reported fewer than one hundred new cases to the WHO. Maybe the sense of urgency lifted? After class I scrolled through the Korea Herald, wondering if there was an announcement to get out, go somewhere, meet a friend, support the local economy. I miss a lot in Korea, for lack of language. And a few days ago I shut off emergency notifications to my phone – the texts announcing COVID19 cases in my area – because I was tired of the small fear that followed reading the names of my neighborhoods.

But maybe I’d missed the go-free-be-well text.

The Korea Herald headlines worried about travelers returning with coronavirus infections. (Our school, and others, asked faculty and students to return this week to begin the government mandated fourteen-day period of self-protection and health monitoring, limiting contact with others to ensure coronavirus is not unknowingly spread in the community. The idea is we’ll all be ready to be on campus after spring break). The Korea Herald also reported another delay to the start of the Korean school year, now pushed to April sixth. And another headline mentioned coronavirus clusters in Seoul: a call center, a church.

So nothing about tossing caution.

I heard five people cough during the four hours I taught and wrote at Shinsegae. I washed my hands four times. I wondered if there would be a Jukejeon cluster next.

At a table near me, three women in their forties and fifties were talking. “Do you speak English?” I asked. One nodded. She wore thick rimmed cat eye glasses. I asked why so many people were out. I explained that last week when I came here in the afternoon, there was hardly anyone out. “Did the government say it’s okay to be out again?” The cat eye woman laughed. She said, “No! It is not recommended to be out.” For a moment the four of us looked at each other, all of us out. “Then why are you out?” I asked.

I know why I’m out. I’m out because I cannot stay in my apartment day and night. I’m out because I want to go for a walk or bike ride midday and get an iced latte. I’m out so I can teach while not glancing at the pile of dishes in my kitchen sink.

But maybe I should stay home.

Last week I took the subway into the city for an appointment and the carriages were Sunday morning light during rush hour. People work from home if they can, and students too.

Should I also stay home? I don’t know.

I like to get out of the apartment.  

I’ve appreciated the lack of panic in South Korea. The response to COVID19 is measured. Informed, thorough and transparent: and because of this, I haven’t felt panic. Caution, yes, but not animal panic. For a couple of days people stocked up on milk. And then a few days later, it was ramen. But we shop as we need. Walkers and runners and bikers are on the river path. By late afternoon most cafes are full of friends catching up, or students and professionals telecommuting.  

But today was the first day I registered a greater volume of people out, moving through public spaces, touching counters and buttons and rails and doors.

To my knowledge, public health officials here have not imposed a social distancing rule as suggested in the States, to keep individuals a certain physical distance apart. So when I stand in line at the grocery store or bakery, the next customer is right behind me, breathing. But I think the worry is somewhat removed by the assurance that we know if a case is near us, or if we had contact and need to quarantine, because South Korea is vigilantly tracking infections, warning citizens and residents, and ensuring proper testing and medical care.

Today at Shinsegae when I asked the women why they were out, we all paused. Then the cat eye woman laughed again. She said, “We are bored of being home!”

Which makes me wonder how long we can go along with the recommendation to social distance, self-quarantine, work from home, attend virtual school. Because when things begin to look good, when it feels like we can all head out for the day, that is when we need to practice social distancing for another week or two. Or three.

I wonder what happens in South Korea as the coronavirus circles the world. Does East Asia wait for the curves to flatten on other continents before we start commuting into work again?

I did not worry until cases in Iran and Italy spiked. Watching Italy, I sense the care we’ve had in South Korea. Watching Italy, I fear for the States. In January and February I read about China, Japan, Cambodia, the cruise ships, and now I read about Iran, Italy, France, the States.

When I called home, my mom gave the rundown of closed schools, my brother’s canceled AP Government trip to D.C., the likely upgrade of internet service to accommodate work and school from home, and my grandma’s report that people really are stocking up on toilet paper. When I talked with Kate, she sent me photos of her trip to the grocery store, the produce and meat gone. My sister joked that homeschooling makes social distancing a little easier.

People talk about living history. Living through history. Yes, let’s.

But after, we live too. We should consider what that might look like.


Tracking the Coronavirus: How Crowded Asian Cities Tackled an Epidemic” from the New York Times
The Korea Herald
The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff” from The Atlantic

I Touch My Face A Lot

Mid-January, I connected in Hong Kong on my flight back from the States. Within days there was conversation about coronavirus and within a week our school asked any faculty member or student who traveled to mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau over Lunar New Year to remain off campus for two weeks. When I woke up in the morning I checked the WHO situation report before getting out of bed. Korea held steady at twenty-some cases. I read about quarantined cities in China, and the cruise ships docked and waiting. (For so many reasons I will never take a cruise). Teaching friends who left China for their Lunar holiday resettled in other parts of the world while Covid19 spun through the country’s population. Korea asked universities to push back the start of the spring term, to delay the expected influx of Chinese students.

(Read more about this elsewhere, but East Asia is a tightly connected region – Korea and China have important diplomatic, economic and educational ties. A swift travel ban on all Chinese could have caused long term harm to their relationship).

Each morning I’d lay in bed and read another expert counter the effectiveness of closing borders or scroll through the search results of “south korea coronavirus” before returning to a page listing symptoms of Covid19, reassuring myself that for most people (for eighty percent of those infected!) the illness is akin to its more popular cousin, the common cold. There was comfort knowing that only a minority of those infected experienced serious, hospital-visit-worthy symptoms, and that around two percent of infected people die.

Covid19 favors killing elderly men. I am not an elderly man. But I am the favored age of the 1918 flu, the pandemic that killed my great-great grandmother and her infant son. So I am glad it is not 1918. For weeks I woke up like this, with these thoughts.  

My nose was a little runny. Grant had a cough. At school a student would sneeze or cough and another student might shift in their seat. I wore a mask on the subway. The masks – and we should all know this – are best worn by ill people to catch sprays of fluid. Covid19 lives in snot and spit and can survive on surfaces: so wash your hands. And quit touching your face.

I touch my face a lot. I just touched my face. I may as well lick all the surfaces near me.

The comparisons to SARS and MERS did not help me. SARS and MERS are more deadly coronaviruses, but less contagious. Covid19 spreads through a population quickly, perhaps because its symptoms may be mild and dismissible by eighty percent of us. Or perhaps because the incubation period is two weeks and we may be contagious before exhibiting any symptoms. So I only appreciated the two percent mortality rate of Covid19 for a few days. Then I looked at the tens of thousands infected, the hundreds (now thousands) dying. But how many people are exposed who do not get sick? Millions in a city do not catch the virus, or do not get terribly ill, but we fixate on the hospital lines and empty streets.

Please don’t die, I whispered to my husband one night in bed. Okay, he whispered back.

Monday night I could not sleep. I lay awake at midnight, at one. I sat up and cried. On Monday our school prepared to launch virtual school. All day on campus we learned online platforms to facilitate teaching classes linked by screens. I whispered “fuck.” Not because I am uncertain about manipulating the tech, but because I worried what the shift means to classroom dynamic: what is the dynamic when you are together apart? I am a month into covering a maternity leave and I still mix up a few students’ names. I wondered how to ensure the academic integrity of an in-class essay. How do I teach while parenting my own kids who are home too? So I also whispered “please” because I need help to accept more change.

Teachers and their families started booking flights out of Korea. Justin messaged me about a couple more departing families. I’m fine staying, he texted. Some people worry about the stress Covid19 places on Korea’s medical infrastructure – if you have a small child or baby who needs care, will you be able to see a physician easily or safely? Some people worry about home country borders closing or quarantine times. I understand the decision to leave Korea.

But I am also fine staying. When the SARS and MERS comparisons were no longer reassuring to me I thought about how viruses just do this to a population. Covid19 will carry on and we might get ill. The unlikely could happen too. On Monday I was more overwhelmed by the change to our daily routine.

Our school is on a synchronous schedule which means I see my students during our usual class time. So I am trying to do what we’d do in class. It takes more time to share content or generate discussion because we aren’t physically present to read cues. Today I let a few long pauses sit until a student filled the gap. This will work!

But while I am teaching and Justin is EdTeching (and teaching) we have two kids who are doing school. Claire is on the same synchronous schedule as me and has set up a camp (lair) under her loft bed. Twinkle lights, lots of pillows and blankets, and one hot laptop. During a lull in my work I peak into her room. On the first day the novelty of being allowed unfettered screen time for eight hours was a marvel and she balanced her device on the kitchen counter while cutting an apple at lunchtime, laughed at something her friend chatted. She is occupied by her teachers and classmates, all of them meeting virtually each block.

But Grant is free range. Or neglected. We have to figure out how to do Grant’s school, I said to Justin this morning. Yes, he said. Next week, I said.

In the morning Grant shows me his Google Classroom posts. The kid has quite the schedule, all of the tasks connected to a pdf or video or doc. Yesterday I thought a change of venue might be nice so he and I headed to a favorite café after lunch. While I taught two classes he sat glassy eyed, hunched over his device at a nearby table. I checked in with him a couple of times. Did you watch the video about student-led conferences? Can you listen to the read aloud? How about writing? You can do math when Papa gets home. And then I gave up because I had grading and planning to do and I am not a person who thrives on doing more than one thing at a time. I don’t feel efficient or accomplished or #hustle when I whack-a-mole life.

This morning I did not check the WHO situation report. Last night at eleven an emergency alert interrupted my sleep to tell me via Google Translate that a man with coronavirus had visited our neighborhood. I touch my face a lot. More families are flying out. Justin texted me: I’m fine staying. We are fine staying.

This afternoon I biked to run class from Shinsegae. I asked my advisory students to give high/ lows of the week. More sleep is a high. No morning or afternoon commute is a high. Autonomy is a high. My latte from Baekmidang is a high. Where are you Ms. Marslender? one of them asked. Most students are sequestered in their bedrooms. I walk ten steps a day, a sophomore told us. I tell the group to try yoga, if you can’t leave the apartment.

I started yoga at the end of December. I wake up and move my body through an hour of held poses. My feet are stronger. My left side is finding its balance again. When coronavirus headlines began showing at the top of a scroll, I told my kids to wash hands, drink water, sleep. The idea that if we keep our body well, our body has a better chance at resisting Covid19. I quit thinking about this during yoga. I am quiet. I breathe. I go through the poses and wonder if I could live in our apartment for a month. I make a note to buy more soap and pick up dishwasher tabs. Outside today the air is clean, the sky unseasonably colored.


WHO COVID-2019 Situation Reports
Reuters Graphics: “The Korean Clusters”
“Why the Coronavirus Seems to Hit Men Harder Than Women”
Baekmidang coffee is a definite high

Portland, Maine

I am in Maine to begin my MFA program. I arrived a couple days early to shift my body to east coast time. Yesterday I walked downtown and sat to write.

When I return to Korea I am covering a maternity leave. One of the classes I’ll teach is creative writing – I’ve missed teaching this course and had fun planning. One of the books I pulled material from is Writing Alone & With Others by Pat Schneider, and yesterday I practiced the following exercise from memory. Which means I didn’t do the exercise exactly.

Take a small bit of writing – a page or so – from your journal. Or write a straight narrative account of something that happened to you. (Give yourself only five or seven minutes to do this, and write fast, without editing). 

When you have finished, put it aside, and without looking at it, begin again to write the same narrative. Do not look back! Allow yourself to say exactly the same words if they come to you, or to change it in any way you wish. After a bit, introduce into the narrative an object that was not there in the first draft, and that was not there in your memory. Make it completely imagined. Go on writing the narrative for a bit, and then introduce a character (again, completely imagined) that wasn’t there, and give him or her a significant place in the narrative.

This is fun – and for many people it simply magically erases the big problem of how to break out of literal memory into imagined scenes and characters.

I wrote for a couple of hours. What I did was quick write the narrative. One block page. Then I rewrote this narrative twice, introducing a new object in the second telling, and playing with dynamic between the two characters in the third. The point is to get comfortable pulling from life, turning fiction. Successive rewrites are a constraint too, pressing your creativity to work with your immediate imagination – one, two, three – rather than giving space between drafts. Successive rewrites are also a challenge to keep yourself interested as you write. I like the way I finally describe the salt rimed sidewalk, and the subtle (uncomfortable) conflict of the third draft.

Try this by way of Schneider’s original exercise, or with my accidental modification.

One

Continue reading

Give Thanks

I started a gratitude journal once, years ago. I made a numbered list of things I was thankful for and a few months later when I needed a writing notebook, I tore out the single sheet. The entire notebook was supposed to be full of thanks. I’d barely managed one page. 

I am better practiced at fear and complaint. And I suppose that is the point of keeping a gratitude journal, to counter the inclination to worry and wallow. 

Also years ago, a Lebanese woman named Adele took my hands after a church service in Kuwait. She was tender with her wisdom, and I prayed with her often. That Friday morning Adele opened her eyes at amen and said, Sarah, I see you like a child in a field of flowers. So much joy. Laughing. I nodded. I was glad someone could imagine joy for me. Adele spoke a promise I needed at the middle end of a dark run, and I still keep her words. I remember her warm hands holding mine, that we kissed cheeks at parting. I remember walking into the bright heat of day, looking at the sky and whispering please. Later that summer when I laughed like a child spinning circles I whispered thank you. 

I am just out of another dark run. When I look at the shadows I lived in for months I am sad. I don’t want to go back. But I want to carry what I understood in the shadows. A thought came when I curled in bed, unmoving after sobs, to give thanks. A thought came at the tightening of fear in my body, to praise. When I prayed, gladness was like rocks in my mouth. Praise tasted like metal. But I expanded my prayer, reading the Psalms to speak wild glory like a new language. I practiced the sacrifice of praise. 

My circumstance did not change. I was not suddenly content in my work, or healed in my body. I was still sad most days. But last spring, a ripple of impatience: I did not want just healing or just satisfaction in the day. I asked instead for peace in the middle. I asked for joy. What I wanted was to know that God really is enough. Enough is a tough measure. Enough is letting go of the scramble for more or better. Enough is trust that what I hold is good. 

Last Sunday our church celebrated Thanksgiving. We sang “Blessed Be Your Name.” This was a song at my brother’s wedding. Blessed be your name in the land that is plentiful. A perfect marriage song, our mom said. This was the song I cried with my dear mom friends in Kuwait, the morning after Liana delivered a son who lived an hour in his daddy’s arms. Blessed be your name when I’m found in the desert place. This is the song my friend Els chose for her funeral. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, given slim hope of living another five years. Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering. Though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name. After the service, Els told me that in the weeks after her diagnosis she understood that no part of her illness was a surprise to God. She read from the Psalms. She ached for her young children. She ached for her husband. But she also lived. Els made dinner, read to her children, nurtured friendships. She is alive today, and that is a miracle. All that she knew of her faith was pressed into daily practice during her illness, and she has not forgotten her God who was present in her suffering. She sings her funeral song.

So I do not want to forget what I understood in the shadows. Again and again I read from 1 Thessalonians, writing in my notebook

Rejoice always
pray without ceasing
give thanks in all circumstances
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus
Do not quench the Spirit

On Sunday the message centered on this passage. Such direct instruction. I have learned this before. I know this. And in the shadows these past months I obeyed. I lived my sorrow deeply, honestly. But I also recognized the everyday swells of joy: the limbs of my children stretched either side of me at bedtime, as we read or talked about the day. My son playing with Lego, scripting the minifigures and animating planes and boats. My daughter bent over her sketchbook, humming. My husband turning to me in the night. The mountains on our summer drive west. The taste of a gin fizz twenty minutes in the making. The fun of a full dining table, a card game, and family stories. 

Singing praise as you fall apart is heart work. Singing praise is trust, naming a God whose glory transcends circumstances. There is so much I do not understand. There is reason for this exhortation to give thanks. Gratitude is good for the body and mind. Something intangible turns on thanksgiving. 

Knowing my proclivity for fear and discontentment, I couple my sacrifice of praise with another prayer. Renew my mind. I live in a body that will go to ash. I cannot hinge joy on what I touch. So renew my mind, I ask, so that gratitude becomes a natural breath in my day. I do not know what will follow this practice, but I am far enough in my faith to choose to continue on, even after a long stretch of darkness. 

I am not starting another gratitude journal. But when I flip through the muddle of my notebook, I want to see thanks between the story drafts, petitions, and wandering thoughts. So too in my day. Amen.

One Year To The Next

I started my thirty-ninth year thinking things would just turn out. I was newly recovered from an injury, running again. My kids were settling better, their second year at our new school. Good friends had just  moved to Korea. I had a writing project to occupy my mind. I decided to return to the English classroom, and applied for an opening. I was just beginning to see a shape for our time in Korea and I was cooking dinner again, sometimes. The year just had to be good. 

I was steady enough that I started going to therapy to work out a few sticking points, address wounds. That check in was essential when I was not hired for a classroom position at our school. I wondered if a midlife crisis was waking up at midnight to run and cry. I did not know what to do. I had just assumed I would have a place in the English department and losing that meant I could not retreat to a familiar, comfortable role. Subbing kills me, at least once a week. Nicking pride, mostly, killing self. So I started retooling my image of the next year or two. I decided I had to figure out how to stand in a roomful of kindergarteners and find a snip of joy to keep my shoulders from tightening. 

I also decided to apply to MFA programs. I was afraid of wasting my time when subbing is an unusual professional gift. Here I have a job that is taxing in the weirdest ways during the workday but leaves my mind largely free to create. I may track my way through the elementary, middle and high schools on a single day, but I am not also consumed by prep or marking work. So I spent the winter researching low residency MFA programs, and the spring revising a fiction portfolio and compiling essays about why I want to be part of this program, where I see myself in the literary landscape, which writers I admire or learn from. 

Also in the spring my body fell apart. It was odd to pursue an MFA, understanding I would finally get the guidance I crave as I put together a narrative collection, and be glad for the way the years ahead might now look, while also feeling like shit. I reinjured my knee, got depressed, and wanted to die. A cave would have been nice. 

I am glad for the patience and kindness of my husband, for the warmth and silliness of my kids, for the good counsel of dear friends. 

At the close of my thirty-ninth year: I am okay. I am accepted to a strong MFA program. I begin in January but am already drafting for workshops and reading for seminars. My body continues to shift its slow way to healing. Most mornings I walk what used to be my warm up run. The miles and miles remain far away, but I will run them again. I cooked a little the other day. My kids are wonders. My husband walks unscathed. I do not hate God but in church last Sunday it was difficult to sing that he is perfect in all of his ways. 

Because I think this past year was a painful stretch of faith. I am more worn than a year ago, but I want it to matter that I remain before God. I messaged a friend that I want my fortieth year to be fucking awesome. Like I deserve reprieve, lightening by way of healing, contentment, joy. Like I deserve blessing. This whole life is blessing, by grace, one year to the next. I would like to know that better. 


I’ll count this as thirty-one of thirty-nine. 616 words. Done enough!

One Day A Mosaic

I rarely know the response or conversation my posts generate but in her comment to my last post, my mother-in-law suggested I find an antidepressant and see a therapist. She opened with love, but my first thought was that her note was great email content. But if I write publicly about being sad, well. 

Each day there is something – a gesture or conversation or street, a layer of sound or smell – that I think how to turn into words. This is me being a writer. And sometimes the things I turn into words are difficult or sharp, complicated, unflattering. And sometimes I choose to write about my mental health, not to mire in a situation but to be plain about the experience. 

I write, pray and talk to process the workings of my mind and settle my heart. Some of that shows up in essay drafts here, but the purpose of Piecemeal is to share my writing practice. When I sat to write about that conversation with my son I was not sad or anxious. I was curious how to write about the idea that one year measures differently to a child than to an adult. There was a lot I wanted to put on the page and I had thirty minutes at a Starbucks before meeting my family for dinner. I listed, started with unwieldy thoughts before deciding to make all of it bite size. How could I compress complexity into a vignette?

Yesterday morning on a walk (early and dark, light rain, swollen river) I pulled at a few ideas. I am thinking about the confrontation of vulnerability and the physicality of emotions. I also return to my motivation in sharing such personal experiences. I write my own life to examine, understand. But my mother-in-law’s comment makes me wonder why I choose to share details that make me weak. My temperament tends toward melancholy, yes. Darker moments are the go to stories of any day. For a few years I have written a lot about suffering as I’ve been near to those who suffer, gone through our family transition to a new country, learned more about how grief wracks a body, and walked through another long round of depression. I am comfortable being open, because I believe storytelling increases our empathy. I also believe that telling your story shapes your sense of self: know the narrative you carry. So the present answer to why I share is that this (the writing practice, drafting) is part of my process.

Alongside despair, hope. I journal. I meditate. The work of hope is like. The gift of hope is like. I wrangle my faith and hope into tangible images. This year prayer was desperate. My whole body prayed. In the middle of being afraid or angry, clear thoughts came, scraps of childhood church songs and memory verses from the Bible. Give thanks. Give thanks in all circumstances. Praise. Offer a sacrifice of praise. It is a choice, to speak thanksgiving. But I cannot help but remind God how glad I would be if – and I follow my thank you with another plea. And that word sacrifice! Again, the choice to give up self. I am not required to sacrifice my very breath, but with my breath I offer sacrifice, speak what is difficult, praising a God who is at work in the middle of these light momentary afflictions. So hope is present in the mystery that centers my heart again on Christ. 

Suffering is a rich mine. But before I posted a rough start to my thoughts confrontational vulnerability, or about the physicality of emotion (rage, sorrow: the favorites), I thought I should interject these notes. Just so you all know I am doing okay. I am at the middle end of a difficult stretch. Feeling that furious impatience to heal or understand or move on: recognizing the turn of my heart, the peace in my body. I want a thoughtless, easy day, and soon. But I also accept that I trade one bit of suffering for another. As I go I glean from each trial. But I also cry because when you are broken you cannot see how the pieces might form a beautiful mosaic.

Ms. Avery’s Serial

Likely the last of this I will post, though I will continue to write the story. So twenty-six of thirty-nine with 1714 words (624 new).


On her drive to Colorado, Jennifer stopped a night in Nebraska. She went through a McDonald’s drive thru and watched half an episode of CSI Miami before turning off the television. The motel was near the interstate. There was the hum of traffic, even that late, and the sounds of a family just arriving two or three doors down, and a ringing in her ears brought on, she guessed, but driving at ninety with the windows rolled down and the radio cranked. She remembered to call her mom. Later, signing the lease in Denver, and then the teaching contract, seeing Pete for an evening that closed with a handshake, spending a Sunday night meal prepping for the week, purchasing a coral cardigan from a shop her mom liked, deciding that she would be Ms. Avery even if she married (someone, someday) – later, Jennifer would feel like an adult but that night in the motel she considered driving back to Wisconsin. Her job was gone. Her classroom was already someone else’s. The last week of school she told her students she was moving west, like it was an adventure, and she wrote her personal email on the board, promised to write back, thanked them for such a great year of learning together. The news traveled through the grades and her former students stopped by to write their emails on slips of paper Jennifer tucked into a manila envelope. In Nebraska Jennifer was afraid she would not be as loved ever again. 

But she was loved again, by childlike eleven and twelve year olds who wrote fantastical stories or single sentences in the course of two hours, who played Bananagrams, who brought tamales to share. A dozen of her Wisconsin students emailed that first year, and fewer in the second year, and then it was only Vanessa sending out a line every year or two as she graduated university, married, had a baby, surpassing Jennifer who dated occasionally and thought her students were babies enough. Vanessa continued to address Jennifer as Ms. Avery, though Jennifer signed her replies with Best, Jennifer. Best, but far away. 

Vanessa’s emails were mostly bright, a little gossipy, returning Jennifer to names and situations she would otherwise forget. I went to the five year reunion at Riley Lake which was a mistake, Vanessa wrote, because Bethie came up to me when I was talking to Del like she thought I was coming on to him. I’m only telling you this Ms. Avery because you were there when I broke up with him. And now I’m engaged so I showed Bethie the ring and she said out of nowhere that her and Del slept together while he was dating me. Jennifer read that email during a lull at the cafe one morning. She remembered Bethie at the high school commencement practice, rolling her eyes at the partners, glaring when Vanessa laughed at something Del said. And after the ceremony when all the families gathered in the foyer, spilled onto the school’s lawn, when Jennifer moved from student to student to wish the best, shake hands, offer brief side hugs, she found Del and Bethie standing together, Bethie wearing heels she tottered on and a brown lipstick. Stunning, Jennifer said, and Bethie smirked. So Vanessa’s emails were like a rope that went slack for a time but snapped tight to connect Jennifer again to this other time. She was surprised by what Vanessa would confess, maybe a holdover from the journal practice Jennifer instilled in each class, the permission to write anything. Jennifer wrote back a congratulations on the engagement, and observed Vanessa was the exact age she’d been when she moved to Cross Plains to teach her first class ever.

Ms. Avery’s Serial

Still twenty-six of thirty-nine, with 751 words so far (328 new today). Not much to show for two hours of note form drafting. I’m working out the story of Del and Bethie. But I can’t put that together yet. I need to stay with Jennifer rather than stray from her point of view.


Jennifer left Cross Plains to follow her ex-boyfriend to Denver. In college half their friends talked about heading west for the climbing or the mountains, and Jennifer wondered if this yearn for adventure was a trickle down doubt in Norwegian and German family lines who hadn’t pressed west a hundred and fifty years earlier. After graduation, Jennifer and Pete, like most of their friends, took the first jobs offered in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Illinois. But after three years in Cross Plains Pete quit his job, packed his hatchback to the roof, and left. If I have to do another winter here, he said, and shuddered. It was August, the start of Jennifer’s fourth school year with the district, and she’d just arrived back to their apartment after the first day of inservice. I can’t just leave! she said. She pointed at the flowers in a vase on the kitchen table. I thought – I thought you were proposing, she said. Pete shrugged. They were fifty percent off at the grocery store, he said, Sorry. 

Even so, they parted amicably. That winter Jennifer was probably as depressed as Pete had been the previous winter, seeing only the churches, bars and snowmobile trails. At school she was bright and continued to stay late to help student council run the concession stand at basketball games or wrestling matches. She revamped curriculum, attended professional development courses. She wrote college recommendation letters for the seniors who had continued to drop by her room through their sophomore and junior years. My babies! she had teased Vanessa and Del when they asked her for letters. At home Jennifer went to bed within an hour of locking the door. Finally she called Pete to ask did he mind if she joined him? By the fourth quarter when Vanessa came to her after school crying because Del broke up with her, Jennifer was starting to guess why most teachers quit during their first five years in the profession.

Making More Work, But The Best Kind

Today is my first Flash Five story. The cheapest way to knock out five pieces, remember? I biked to Shinsegae this morning, sat with an iced latte and a blank page. Yesterday I was subbing in a grade four classroom and during the writing workshop a boy sat near me on the floor, spinning in a tight circle and whispering to me that he didn’t know what to write. Just start writing, I whispered back, and your mind will give you a story. I thought of that kid this morning. I wrote through two pages before starting a story. And one (long) paragraph in I realized it isn’t a flash fiction piece and I wasn’t going to unravel the characters in an hour. So I’m interrupting Flash Five before it’s begun and will instead post this untitled start serially for the next couple of days.


One of Jennifer’s former students emailed her about the murder. Vanessa Ridge neé Speth, a student in her freshman English class who was now a nutritionist and last emailed to announce the birth of a son, a year or two ago. Vanessa – all of her first freshmen – were now older than Jennifer had been when she moved to Cross Plains to begin her teaching career. The first year of teaching is supposed to be a nightmare but hers was not. She stayed late nearly every day, wrote lengthy responses to even banal notebook entries, cajoled Jeremiah to write one more paragraph, found audiobooks for Amber, decorated her classroom with literary quotes and twinkle lights, bought floor pillows and beanbags for Reading Fridays, stocked her class library with YA bestsellers and graphic novels. She let students bring their lunches to her room, spent one prep period taking on a study hall. Jennifer adored the need of her kids. She kept granola bars and crackers in a filing cabinet, half pints of milk in her mini dorm fridge. She listened to hour long recounts of family drama, and placed a hand on the shoulder of a student near or in tears, sat across many of those same confessing students in the counselor’s office as next steps were determined. (Her boyfriend called these kids her rescue project, and so what if they were?) Other students, like Vanessa who thought to email her a decade after that freshman English class, were bright with hope, excited to be in high school, arriving the first day wearing unscuffed shoes and toting backpacks full of clean spiral notebooks. These were the students who revived a dead socratic seminar, remembered to MLA format their essays, and returned books with an expectation to discuss what Jennifer thought too, before asking for another recommendation. Jennifer loved doling out, and her kids gave in return: cookies baked over the weekend, an invitation to a quinceañera, nods in the hall or calls out at a football game – Ms. Avery! Ms. Avery! Over here! – with introductions to parents (who never replied to her class updates emails), handwritten notes delivered in person the day before summer break, and later, hugs and ecstatic smiles at graduation. Jennifer stayed in Cross Plains four years to see Vanessa and her class graduate. Rereading the email, Jennifer remembered now that Del was Vanessa’s processional partner, and that the woman who would murder him was then only a girl named Bethie who was partnered with Jeremiah, and following a few paces back.


Twenty-six of thirty-nine. 423 word start!

Reading Response

Of course I googled Lindsey Stone while reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Last week one of our school administrators referenced the cautionary tales featured in Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, a jokey but serious reminder to be careful what we say and share. I remember the Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco messes unfolding, and when Lindsey Stone was under fire I was one of the people who just could not understand how stupid a person had to be to pose next to the tomb of a soilder while flipping the bird. Ronson’s book provides context to all three stories. Lehrer was busy and lazy. And a bestselling author, brought low by a no name blogger (named Michael Moynihan). Sacco had a small Twitter following and a string of odd tweets before she boarded her flight to South Africa. AIDS isn’t funny and racism isn’t funny and the two side by side are really, really not funny, and by Sacco’s admission hers is not the voice to deliver any sarcastic public commentary. Knowing your audience isn’t an adage when your audience is a potentially unknowable everyone and their opinions are all over and you cannot be certain what might blow up because you don’t really expect anything to blow up. Stone knew her audience – Facebook friends who got her irreverent humor – and never intended her photo at Arlington to be judged publicly. 

A year ago one of my new colleagues was tagged in a photo on Facebook. In the picture she is sitting next to the bronze statue of a woman, laughing. I recognized the memorial to Korea’s comfort women and that morning approached my colleague and let her know she should ask the poster to remove the photo. She told me they were out in the city and she was being goofy, sitting next to this statue woman. Like, hello friend! The moment after the picture was taken she read the plaque explaining who the comfort women of Korea are, and she quit laughing. But it wasn’t her photo and when her friend posted it she had qualms. When I spoke with her, she decided to talk with her friend, ask for the photo to be removed. And it was. 

At the same school meeting last week another administrator said if it isn’t an amen, it’s an ouch. When I think about Sacco and Stone: was the pile on good? People cried ouch but what was accomplished? The comments were brutal. The judgement went beyond the behavior. Unnatural consequences. If the critique had been quieter both women still might have lost their jobs. (I did wonder where the adults Stone was chaperoning in DC were when she was fake shouting and giving the middle finger). And a quieter critique would likely have yielded introspection. Sacco and Stone might have retreated, cleaned up their online presence, thought how to rebuild. But what happened to both women was such a thorough tear down. 

I put myself in this. 

I say I am so glad I went to university before smartphones. A few regrettable, lost messages on ICQ. A few terrible photos. Emails gone from all but gray memory. My siblings are on Instagram and I look at an occasional post and think about the work of making life look just so. 

Yet I am not spared the desire to document and share. I keep a line between my notebooks and what I publish but even so, I am comfortable sharing the muddle of working out my faith. I am comfortable writing about anger, suffering. Parenting. I am comfortable writing about the uncomfortable. I am practicing how to write, how to say what I want to say. I compost, writing around the same ideas and events for months or years. 

Which is why one part of Lehrer’s experience made me nervous. The initial schadenfreude was too delicious (and the judgement deserved) but once journalists started fact-checking his work, Lehrer was called out for self-plagiarizing, recycling sentences or paragraphs from one article to the next. And then I wondered about bloggers who find book deals, upcycling old posts. Ally Brosh, Ree Drummond. I also compost. I rewrite. I lift a phrase I like from an old draft. I want what I do to be distinguished from what Lehrer did because my notebooks and Piecemeal are together one big practice for the collections or novels I will publish. My transparent process is my justification. Piecemeal contains drafts of what I will or have finished, some pieces I would consider including in a book. Brosh and Drummond’s books evolved from their blogging existence too. I think of this as an extension of creative work, finding new form. Maybe this kind of self-plagiarism is okay. Art has echoes. But Lehrer work wasn’t about a new form or platform. He robbed one previously published article to pad another.

And how the mighty fall. And get up again. Ronson asked what comes after a public shaming. For Lehrer, a public apology that doubled as a second round of tar and feathering. And then sleepless nights writing and writing until he put together a book about love, the necessity and security of primary relationships. Years ago I picked up and put down Lehrer’s How We Decide, probably because I’d read The Tipping Point. Also years ago I glanced at Imagine in a book store. I don’t know if I’ll read A Book About Love but I am interested in how Lehrer recenters his writing purpose and work. Ronson caught a raw moment of Lehrer’s experience. Publicly Shamed is four years old now. Schadenfreude goes a little stale. Lehrer’s writing will now be more scrutinized and criticized and that’s fair, but.

There is a frightening, unreasonable permanence to our online presence. We have to be allowed to live beyond single horrifying moments or choices. Keep the consequences, sure, but when I googled Lindsey Stone I hoped the results would be varied as promised by a reputation.com. Publicly Shamed left Stone in a new job working with autistic children, desperate to keep her Arlington photo a secret, desperate to reclaim some normalcy after a year hiding in her parents’ home. I don’t know what Stone is doing today. The top result for her name is the Arlington photo. She is a lifelong object lesson. Sacco too, perhaps. Her tweet is one of her top results. But also her new employment, returning to IAC as a publicist for Match Group. CEO Joey Levin said to Recode, “With one noteable exception, Justine’s track record speaks for itself. Very few people in the business world have Justine’s indomitable spirit, tenacity and drive to persevere.” I love that. 

Last thing. I like to think I wouldn’t go to an eighteenth century public shaming but there are two literary shamings I stood on tiptoe to watch. One was Mike Daisy. I loved his This American Life story about visiting Apple factories in China. And then I really loved his conversation with Ira. Daisy shared with Ronson that he considered suicide. I do not love that at all. The public shaming I first savored though was when Oprah called James Frey to her couch after the factuality of his memoir A Million Little Pieces was challenged. I drove home from school, parked on the couch with a bag of chips, and hooted at the stern undoing. Frey and Daisy both cited artistic license to reason their lies. But their fault was not hyperbole or poor metaphors. Their fault was purposely misleading their audience to believe a story was real. (Quick digression: I do wonder if the great appeal of Daisy’s work was how fantastic the story was, the image of the old man with a damaged hand marveling that the iPad screen was like magic. And Frey’s recovery was so much more for the depth of the pit. And all those broken teeth. So I wonder if the stories would have had the reach or impact – Daisy’s story prompted scrutiny of Apple’s employment practices, and Frey humanized addiction – if the stories were presented as fiction. Fiction is powerful too). But you know, Frey kept writing. He made up with Oprah. His memoir-ish is a movie. And Daisy keeps telling stories too. 

I have to ask what I would do. 

Probably I will not be publicly shamed any time soon. What I take from Ronson’s book and my subsequent googling is that people can suffer great falls for big and small transgressions and still recover. There are moments I relive with a cringe. Sometimes I slip into a cringe coma. Maybe shame replays coincide with certain ages or places or vulnerabilities. Maybe my shame replays are brought on by a shuddery hormonal cocktail. The point is, we all understand shame. And none of us like to live in it. Shame isn’t healthy. I tell my kids (and myself) to tell yourself true things. Sometimes the truth is you did something terrible but the truth is also that you suffered the consequences, that you learned, that you got up in the morning when you didn’t feel like getting up in the morning. The truth is that you keep on. The truth is that you are still very loved. I want Ronson to return to the subjects of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in another decade, to show how a brief, startling and awful shaming looks against a stack of years. But I don’t think we need that book. Let’s do our own work, stack our own years.


Twenty-four of thirty-nine. 1588 words. I do think about shame often. I currently live in a culture that – I don’t know how to put it. Does Korea value shame? Shame can teach us. Shame can keep us in line, though what that line is varies. I’m not so interested in sussing the giant, awful wrongs people do to one another, universal wrongs. But I am interested in the range of shamed behaviors and the unspoken ways we shame one another. I am interested in why shame is hard to shake. I am also interested in what my faith says about shame and why it is difficult to live as free.