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.
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.
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.
An essay from Starbucks. Sit long enough and an essay comes along, I suppose. As I drafted this I thought about tense. I kept the conversation past but I use present tense at points. I like writing conversations in present – that’s why I decided to write this one in past, for the practice, and to see what it feels like after.
This young man sat across from me. He asked, as he pulled the chair from the table, and I nodded as he sat, folded and unfolded his arms across his chest, dropped his hands to his lap. He looked at me directly and said he liked my hair. He thought my hair was beautiful. My husband thinks my hair is beautiful. He tells me he loves the color. The day this young man sat across from me I wore my hair down. Maybe it can be beautiful. This young man introduced himself with an English name, Sean. I asked why he came over to me.
You look interesting, he said, And a little – cute.
On the table between us was my notebook and a novel I was reading and my iced latte. If Sean dipped his head he could have sipped from my straw. I moved the glass closer to me. I said thank you. Then I looked at him. Smooth skin, sparse whiskers at his chin and cheeks. A good haircut. Slender arms, tapered fingers. How old are you, I asked.
How old do you think I am? I’m not playing that game. He told me he is over twenty. I said, Well, I am much older. That doesn’t bother me.
I rested my elbows on the table so he could see my rings and he nodded at my hand. What is the story of that ring, he asked. The story is I’m married, I said. He nodded. Are you a teacher here? I nodded. Where? At an international school? Yes, at an international school. When I said the name of the school he knew it, knew people who went there. I asked about his schooling, what he was studying now. What Trump learned before he became president. I played nice. Business? Sean nodded. What kind of business are you interested in? Like, do you want to manage a business, start your own? What will you do? I want to be like Elon Musk. I want to work with space travel.
He was disappointed when I told him he is the second young man in as many months here who has expressed interest in working with space travel. The first was a graduate I talked with about his future plans, for an alumni post on the school website. Sean, I wanted to say, get over it. A lot of boys want to build a rocket or fund a rocket or ride in a rocket. Sean, I wanted to say, I am being respectful to you but this whole conversation will go nowhere and you’ll walk away feeling a little dumb. Not because I make you feel dumb but because you’ll realize you just spun a fantasy into halting conversation. Sean, I wanted to say, I am not mean enough to tell you to fuck off.
Really, what were my plans for the fifteen minutes he sat across from me? I was midway through a dark thought. I had already regretted wearing eyeliner and mascara when I hadn’t brought a make-up bag for touch ups. Before Sean sat across from me I pulled a long breath through my nose and told myself not to cry, just get through the day without crying in public. Later, in bed with my husband, I said that if an older man had sat across from me, I might have been flattered. Instead I wondered if this was a joke, or a dare. The Starbucks was full of students, clustered around an open text or gossiping or snapping photos of their drinks.
Sean rubbed his chin. It is only fair I ask you how old you are, he said, since you asked me. I’m thirty-eight. You don’t look thirty-eight.
I wanted to say, I feel thirty-eight. I do not feel twenty-nine or twenty-five, or any other elastic age. I feel very thirty-eight. I may be exactly halfway through my life, I wanted to say, or nearer to dead than that. But Sean did not betray surprise. He repeated that age did not matter to him.
When I was twenty I started running again after a year or so of eating Chinese take out and drinking beer. One of my first runs was eight miles and I nearly threw up. I just made myself keep running around the lake eight loops. When I was twenty I was a double major in English and history, with a minor in writing, but I’d drop the history major two or three classes short, swapped for education methods courses. When I was twenty I started going to the Lincoln Hills juvenile correction facility to lead poetry writing workshops with troubled, criminal boys who were not allowed to say last names. When I was twenty I thought I would write poetry forever.
I am writing poetry forever. I think how to write all of this, and before I string a sentence, I float in phrases and dashes, poetry enough.
I waited for Sean to decide our conversation was through. He asked how I liked it in Seoul. He asked what I thought of the culture. We talked about school. I said that I taught in South America and the Middle East before, and that people are people. I said I liked it here. We talked about the pressure people feel here, the students to earn a grade, the parents to raise whatever kind of child, the professional expectations. I wondered if Sean thought about failing at his space venture. I wondered if failure could be trend here. Fail forward. Fail fast, fail often. But I did not ask. I did not feel like extending our conversation. Instead I wanted to return to my own dark thought, or read the novel still open between Sean and me.
As abruptly as Sean sat down, he stood. He thanked me for my time. I said it was nice to meet him and wished him a good rest of the day. He took the stairs up and after his legs were gone from view I stared at the space he’d just been, the empty chair. I wanted to turn to ask the young women nearby did they see that, hear that? What was that? I was thinking about failure or flattery and couldn’t concentrate on the novel. The day was hot but I wasn’t out in it. When I was twenty there was a man at least ten years older than me. He smelled like cigarettes and read my poetry. We sat next to one another and if he ever guessed I wanted to taste the cigarettes on his tongue he was too kind to say.
At Starbucks at a small square table by the third floor window. From here I can watch foot traffic. I can see houses built close together up a hill. Yesterday I was here to draft in my notebook. Today I came to draft on my laptop but when I arrived, taking this table away from the ac vent, not under a speaker, I sat unmoving for a long time, thinking about how my own suffering affects my husband and children. Since mid January my left knee has swollen every other week. An exhausting cycle. In June an MRI confirmed cartilage damage, a nearly healed bone bruise. I quit walking in the mornings. I continued physical therapy exercises. I cut sugar from my diet. But the pattern holds. In June, the doctor prescribed medication with the caution to take the little pills only for a little while, and only when needed. The anti-inflammatory probably eats my stomach lining. So I took the pills to reduce swelling. The swelling did not reduce. I took the pills when I had no swelling, thinking to stave off the next round of swelling, but the swelling came. I quit the pills and the swelling was on schedule, no better or worse.
When my knee is swollen I must be more cautious. I am slower. I usually wake to weep before I carry on with the day ahead. Sometimes I think of chopping my leg at mid thigh or taking a hammer to my kneecap. This injury is healing. The mystery of such an exact pattern of swelling is what walks me along the line of despair, a small fear at my neck that I am somehow making this happen to my body, that my mind is fucking my joint, because the injury should be healed now with the rest/ medication/ pt exercise/ ice and heat therapy/ rest/ more rest/ fasting/ other dietary changes/ prayer/ rest.
I ask the Holy Spirit to renew my mind. I think about the net of fascia the length of my body, the kinks in my nerves, knots in my muscles. Heal my body. I wonder if I am supposed to be magic about this suffering. Like once I knock out the right ratio of hope and joy in the middle of suffering, perhaps then my body will release itself to heal. I miss the cadence and breathing of a morning run, and the work of my body, the sweat and calm after. But I really miss the ease of a day. When I make plans now I count out the days to know my swollen knee might make the walk difficult – it isn’t really the walk that is difficult at all, only the effort of keeping a plan, the effort of keeping on. I am tired of thinking that this must be the last time my knee swells. This must be it. This time for sure.
I am not healed yet. I will heal but I am the middle of not healed yet. Maybe I am at the middle end of not healed. Maybe in a month I will wake up and not weep because my whole being will just know this particular light momentary affliction is over. That is what I am like – I have these moments of clarity when I know the shift in my body or mind, when I can recognize an end or beginning, when a truth settles.
This healing is not for my own body only. Justin reminds me nothing is wasted. I think I could take the mind or the body but both at once is a bit much. And both at once is wearing on my family. We make a joke of it but I cooked a dozen times since January, and when Claire said she missed family dinners like what I used to make, I bought box macaroni and cheese: this is not a joke. This is terrible. I keep thinking I will unearth old motivation. I make myself do things now. I make up reasons why it matters that I keep doing things. This summer I spent seventy dollars on board games, an aspirational purchase for the winter evenings ahead when we’ll sit around the table playing a game and eating popcorn. This summer I also burrowed under a blanket and told Justin I was tired of trying and now I want to try not trying at all.
Claire looked at me the other day and told me I wasn’t fine, that I didn’t need to pretend I was fine. But she wants me to be fine. I want me to be fine. Yet we live with a weird dichotomy. I am fine and not fine. Today I am asking the Spirit can I please be okay where I am? Can I be okay even if my body continues to disappoint? Can I have peace before I ask? I do not need to be pleased with my circumstance to accept how it may work my body and mind for my good and God’s glory and to ask for that, at least: do what must be done to make me more of who I am in Christ. Any day, situation, relationship shapes me. So this too. So this too!
Yet. Now I am thinking what to do for my husband and kids if this goes on for much longer. Both children expressed they miss me on family ventures around the city. My knee is stable enough I can go along, but slowly. The slowness frustrates me. But Justin and the kids love me enough to walk alongside, slowly. I would rather try not trying. I would rather hide in a darkened room. Points earned for going to the park or making a meal are not adding up to what I want and there is my mistake, thinking that once my knee heals and I can move through the day with ease, then everything will be okay. It is true that I will feel better when my body is healed: I will move again, my brain will welcome endorphins with sweet relief. Probably I will sleep better. Likely I will spend fewer hours staring out a window. And it is true that my family will feel better when I am healed: imagine me making crepes just because, or trekking Seoul Forest with the kids while Justin takes a home day. But I don’t really want to wait until my body heals for all of us to be over this suffering.
It’s like I have to transcend this shit. Quit playing if. If my body were healed I would have gone for a run this morning, come home and kissed the kids while I was still hot and sticky from the humidity, stood in a cool shower, dressed without thinking what pants still fit. We would have left the apartment twenty or thirty minutes later than we did because I could have kept a walking pace. I might have googled “best brunch in Itaewon” and found a new cafe to try while the kids went to VBS, or I would have walked to our old favorite cafe down the hill, or hiked up the hill to a trendy spot for a Dutch cold brew served with a square of dark chocolate. Now I would be walking back to church to pick up the kids. I’d have drafted the story I woke up thinking about, instead of staring at the sidewalk below, or the shops across the way. If my body were healed I would hop on my bike when we get home this afternoon and head to Shinsegae for dumplings because Grant and I have been craving dumplings. And after we’d all head outside for a warm evening stroll and ice cream. I would go to bed expecting another lovely, uncomplicated day tomorrow.
Tomorrow I will wake up and have to get over this all over again. But I want to do more than get over the suffering and through the day. I want this middle to not feel like a waste of ticking days until I get to the part where I don’t have to pep talk myself in the bathroom, whispering that I am okay, this is okay, I belong here now. I love the people near me, dearly. I ask the Spirit for joy in my heart. The mercy of this year has been that joy hasn’t gone completely dark. I want more though. I want a ridiculous portion of joy. I want to know better how to love my family. I want my husband and children to be okay even while I am not. But God I want to be okay too. I want to know better that the process matters, that this long wait to heal my body and mind is part of healing my body and mind. There is no way to end this.
Twenty-two of thirty-nine. More wandering than I prefer. 1486 words. There are ideas here I want to say the right way, like the weird dichotomy, like wanting me to be better not just because I will directly (finally, gladly) benefit, but because I also feel terribly about the burden my suffering is for others. No glamour in this, just the shit of it. And my desperate holy reach for the Spirit to move.
I need more funny. My body is falling apart and my mind is very tired of dealing with the body. No one wants that essay (but you’ll get it at some point!). I get tired of raking my brain for what I need to do to get well. Despair is a swift undercurrent these days. So: more funny. I spent Sunday in bed (air mattress) reading Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different and on Monday I went to coffee with Justin in the morning, deciding to draft something other than the undercurrent. Here you go:
There is nothing really wrong. I broke my ankle two years ago, got a pin put in. When the weather turns my ankle aches. And sometimes my ankle just aches so at the end of most days I watch Netflix and do an ice heat therapy. All day I have this ankle with me. I flex. I make the alphabet with my toes pointed. I stand on tiptoes, rock back on my heel. The idea is to stretch and strengthen my whole lower leg, strengthen my arch, all the little muscles between my metatarsals. The idea is to always be aware I have a leg and ankle.
I also have a dog I cannot forget about.
I work on Petz, an app you probably know. It’s like a dayplanner for your furbaby but possibly worse because the whole thing is meant to discover patterns to suggest a new diet or walking route or play thing for you pet but what happens is that if you don’t update Petz like every twenty minutes you get a notification. And after three dings the notification is accompanied by puppy eyes. I wrote that and I am sorry. But most users love this. It’s like Facebook or Instagram for furbabies except furbabies cannot open the app with their tiny claws so we’re all really guessing that Moofie loves the organic vegan chewy.
I have a dog on Petz. A furbaby. I hate that term. I campaigned for a change at the last retreat. Mostly because we’re about to launch a feature for fish, reptiles, snakes, etc. and scalebabies sounds gross. Say it. This is my scalebaby. Ew. But it might work. If everyone was bonkers for Petz harassment puppy eyes, they might like scalebabies, and I really don’t care. What is the expression? Not my circus. Not my monkey. Not my iguana.
But I like my work. It’s technically challenging, for a product I don’t think anyone needs. The idea is to get experience, more experience, and then even more experience to stack into a career that nets some kind of achievement to point to and say, I did that. I did that. Right now I can say I did puppy eyes. And a bunch of coding that aligns columns, drops confetti (tiny cats and dogs). Right now I’m working on a notification that suggests you get off your phone and play with your furbaby.
So my furbaby. This is how that happened. I have a Petz account for Grover, my made up snickerpoodle. There are so many breeds I figured that must be one when Taylor (round three interview) asked about my own furbaby. Or babies! she said, Hard to have only one! Easier to have none! I said and laughed. You know microexpressions? I caught one of Taylor’s, a tiny pinch in her smile, jaw clench. So I said, But none is no fun! Of course I have a pet furbaby! Grover! After Cleveland, not Sesame Street! He’s a – snickerpoodle! The last time I spoke with so many exclamation points I was in grade six inviting Libby (popular Libby, not violinist Libby) to my twelfth birthday party. She declined, but to my astonishment Petz hired me and on top of a bloated salary (yes please) the contract included a lifetime Petz account (no thank you) which I quickly populated with photos of my friend Caroline’s mutt. Rocky looks nothing like that I imagine a snickerpoodle would look like. But Rocky lives nearby and Caroline lets me borrow him for walks so I can capture his/ our cuteness #furbaby #Petz #morningwalk #doggieparty #yougetthepoint.
It was on a morning walk with Rocky/ Grover that I missed a curb, turning my ankle and half falling into a puddle. A runner jogged across the street. Whoa, he said, You need help. I looked up from a crouch and said I was fine. He shrugged but didn’t run off. Then I had to be fine. Rocky/ Grover licked my face. I stood up. The pain was magnificent. There, I said, Fine. Mr. Runner patted Rocky/ Grover’s head, scratched behind the ears, bent close to Rocky/ Grover’s wet nose and said in a cutesy voice, You take care of your mama. Yes you do, yes you do. You love your mama. Rocky/ Grove and I watched him run down the walk. I looked down at the mutt. I am not your mother, I said. But he already knew I am the least cool aunt too.
I really couldn’t walk but did anyway, all the way to Caroline’s where she made me sit on her couch with my foot propped on a pile of laundry. My swollen ankle was a steady pulse of pain. I was wearing pink flannel pajama pants, the conceit being #justrolledouttabed #withmyfurbaby. I’d have to scrap the other three outfits and two locations. The week ahead would be a lot of close ups of Rocky/ Grover, re-filters of old snaps. Caroline put a frozen plastic cylinder on my ankle.
I don’t have ice, she said, This is from my Contigo. So. What happened? I tripped. You need to get this looked at. Can I get a photo with Rocky first? I was near to passing out from the pain but Caroline put her dog on my lap and handed me a tube of lip gloss. I cropped out the mud on my thigh.
Well that was two years ago and against all odds (our users are gluttons for punishment) Petz is still a thing which means I am still walking Rocky/ Grover, taking him for an afternoon of wardrobe changes to restock the scroll. Caroline is the hero of this story.
At Petz we have all these retreats. Once a month it feels like. Once a quarter, really, but we’re all supposed to bring our furbabies for weekends of the most interrupted focus sessions. I made up an ex who shares custody of Grover and my ex is a real jerk who won’t let me switch weekends, what a bummer, yeah, I know, geez. Well, anyway. Carpool?
But now Taylor moved to a building a block away and she keeps saying we should walk our pups together. In the hallway kitchen she popped a pod into the Nescafe and we both listened to its quiet whir. Then she asked, So what time do you walk Grover?
Four thirty, I said. In the morning? Yup. Wow. What about at night? Oh, he only likes one walk a day now. Recent change. Is that normal? I picked at a hangnail. Her coffee dripped to a finish but Taylor didn’t move to take her mug. She was totally on to me. I refused to look up. She held the pause, then delicately cleared her throat, took a tone like she was good cop. Well, I just love your Petz scroll. And it looks like Grover loves his walks.
Taylor was more an equal than superior now but she was still one of the first hires at Petz and that had to count for something, and I wasn’t ready for the gig to be up. The insurance is awesome. I sighed and looked up from my angry hangnail. You’re right, I said, Grover loves his walks. Can I – can I tell you something? Taylor softened her body, angled toward me. I whispered like I was dying of embarrassment. Sometimes I have a hard time making friends. A walk – a walk with our furbabies would be nice. Taylor made a cooing noise, opened her arms for a hug. Sweetie! Babe! Come here!
I called Caroline to ask how she felt about true joint custody. It’d make dog walking dates with Taylor much, much easier.
Exactly how good is the insurance? Caroline asked. Pretty good. You don’t even like dogs! Gro – Rocky’s alright. I like Rocky. I like Rocky! Well. I love Rocky, so there. Please. I’m sorry. I didn’t think it’d last this long. Caroline sighed. I said, I have an idea. We do this for a like a month, two tops, three tops tops, so everyone at Petz meets Grover and then Grover gets hit by a car and you get Rocky all to yourself, forever. You’re sick. I know. I wrote the alphabet with my ankle, waiting for Caroline to concede.
Twenty-one of thirty-nine. 1383 words. Soon I’ll write about posting first halves of some of my fiction work rather than throwing whole drafts here.
This summer I join Justin on his morning bike ride. Country road, bike path, side streets, giant hill to a coffee shop that opens at five. We don’t arrive at five. We get there around seven, seven-thirty, stay an hour or so. Justin orders a latte. I drink green tea, not because I’m a tea fanatic but because I intermittent fast. I am not fanatic about intermittent fasting either, but it’s what works for my body/ mind now.
All spring I put together an MFA application portfolio and a week ago submitted the work to two programs. Then I fretted about one of the fiction pieces because it needs more revision before I’d call it really done. (I like to revise for months or years though, so). Then I found a small typo in an essay. So this morning I sat with my green tea and an open notebook, thinking whether to email program directors to ask permission to resend an essay (the errant s removed) and the latest revision of a piece I titled but think of by its protagonist, Eugene. As in: I’ve got to work on Eugene or I keep picking at Eugene. I will get to those emails. But first.
I opened my notebook to write some calm. When the kids were little and squabbling I’d say, I want peace in the house. They picked up on this and the phrase still comes as a reminder to ourselves or a prayer, that we want peace in our house, minds, bodies. Sometimes I write my way to steady. This morning I just wanted to remind myself again that
will be okay. I was a sentence into fear that everything will not be okay when the table next to me started talking about hotel stays. A couple in their sixties, another woman in her fifties or sixties. Last month the couple showed up at a hotel and at check-in were asked to please check the room and if it didn’t meet their standard the hotel would provide a different room. We had a couple of farmers in last night, the clerk told the couple, And we’ve changed all the bedding but the scent lingers.
So at that point I just start transcribing the lines I catch. The couple couldn’t sniff out farmer in their hotel room but their friend remembered working at Farm & Fleet, following men’s muddy footprints around with a mop and bucket. No way their wives would put up with that! she said, At least kick your boots!
Maybe it was the cadence of their voices, or volume, but I could not not listen. The range of conversation! A house on fire, or thought to be on fire. The temperature yesterday, ninety-six degrees. An elderly mother who refuses to eat more than two bites of supper. Orange-y sweaters. Waiting in line to be served. A man with gout who might have quit drinking except the pain was too great. Desire to be a homebody. An angry man who never meant to hurt her. He was creative too. One of the women said, A lot of creative people are troubled. They think too much. The man said, Sometimes creative people are angry. The other woman said, Look at Hemingway. He shot himself.
I have salvaged one line and will start a story with: I don’t take the heat like I used to. Give me a week.
I am waiting for the early rains and the late rains. Years ago I read that verse in James: See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Today is a beautiful day. Cool, breezy, bright sun. The kids and I were out earlier, returning at lunch, and I went to bed for the afternoon. I laid in bed thinking some, but mostly just sensing the tick and hum of being alive. I am near the end of a difficult year. Remember I count by school calendar years, and this is our second in Korea.
Last year was good and tough. This year was mostly tough. Last year I thought I might make a place for myself at the school by writing for the school, and I continue to do that, but it isn’t my paid role. I am a substitute teacher and this year reckoned with anxiety as I have little control over my daily work schedule and am often in classrooms and situations that are new. Last year I was energized by the novelty of stepping into a junior kindergarten class or guiding a psychology class discussion. This year I am mostly just tired. I do my work, and well or well enough, but knowing I am in this role for at least one more school year (likely two), I struggle to surrender to being uncomfortable. Also, how to let go the pride that nags me: I applied for a teaching job and was not hired, and I miss the arc of a school year in my own room, the rapport I have with a single group of students.
I do not have eyes to see why I am here, except that here is a good place for my husband and our kids. And here can be a good place for me too, but this year brought me low and I was hoping spring might be more than metaphor, that the change of season might lift me.
Now I am like fallow ground. I am waiting and learning the work of waiting again. I am waiting for my knee to heal so I can run in the mornings as I like. I am waiting to know which MFA program will accept me, to begin study next year. I am waiting for the slips of ideas I have about pieces and books to write to weave together, hold tight, and show up on paper. I am waiting for my husband to know rest too, after his year carrying so much in our house. I am waiting for my kids to forget for a time, how slow they had to walk so I could keep up.
I was made slow this year. I was made weak this year. There were things I wanted to do that I could not. And there were days when I did not want to rise but got up and went on, but really, I don’t know that I am better for getting up and going on with a day that only challenged my mind to keep the face, voice and body on pace when the mind wanted to let my face, voice and body return to bed or lay in a quiet room and not move for a long time.
So much was not terrible! So much was lovely. But also, so much was a choice. Such effort to walk into a classroom and say good morning, or into church to greet a brother or sister. Such effort to make a day pleasant for the kids or to join my husband for a breakfast out. Such effort to continue the physical therapy knowing the incremental progress of making a strong arch ankle knee hip.
In January, I thought the year was going to be okay. I was running again. I was in counseling to address anxiety and what I might do professionally or personally to mediate the fear. Later in January my body broke again, my mind stuttered. The few months since have been about truth and patience. Telling myself the truth, including that this light momentary affliction is preparing me for an eternal weight of glory. Or framing my suffering as pruning, to bear fruit. Or repeating snippets of verses: do not be anxious, in everything give thanks, rejoice always, pray without ceasing, do not be afraid. I walk around moving my lips. I take halting deep breaths. There is nothing to do but live each day. There must be freedom in this ability to be patient with today, unhurried for tomorrow. This is not my first go at being present: the lesson is hard, frequently revisited. Laying in bed helps.
Waiting is difficult. It is like the early morning on the river path when I walk though my body wants to run and still I continue to walk, hoping healing is soon made complete. Or it is the ground left to enrich. I look at this year and see harvested stalks tilled under. This year will compost. I will turn it over, feed air to the beetles and worms. There is a crop, grasses or wildflowers that will root in this soil. I have to believe that this empty field is not empty and the soil is good, will not waste an early rain, and will be ready for the late rain.
The day we went to Notre-Dame it was raining. We were in Paris for a week and I arrived as I usually arrive to a new place, without expectation but glad to be there. On the train from Frankfurt, I drank the green we passed: fields, trees. And in Paris, our children ran through the thick grass lawns of important buildings and parks. The day we went to Notre-Dame I followed Justin from our ground level apartment along narrow streets and wider streets, over a bridge. We walked quickly because the sky was heavy, gray clouds first silvered by the sun and then only a dark, mottled sky. We stood in front of Notre-Dame, Grant in his pack on Justin’s back, Claire at my side, looking up at the wild, swooping, spikey features of the cathedral.
I go many places because my husband has the idea to go, and I follow. He plans, books tickets, runs Airbnb choices by me, reads about the city, country, region to list what we should visit, talks with other travelers about their experiences. I pack the bags and airplane snacks, my thoughts of Paris abstract until I am walking the low architecture of the city to stand now before Notre-Dame. We go inside.
My mother told me she stepped inside Notre-Dame and wept, as she had years before when she stood under the dome at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I imagined being so moved. I wanted that, really, to sense the spiritual heft or lift (I would take either) to be in a space occupied by generations of worshippers and seekers before. How many prayers sent to the arched ceiling, tracing up the spire. Of petition, thanksgiving and reverence, perhaps most of petition. I stood for a moment but no shimmer of heaven.
We moved to one side, to begin walking the perimeter of pews, pausing at alcoves of candles, statuary. The saints, saints martyred. Windows so high up. Intricate edges and stonework. Justin and the children went ahead. I stared up at faces made of marble, the cold folds of linen. The small cuts of colored glass. The shadows deeper for a sky that cracked lightning and thunder. I took pictures and most have a grainy quality – no flash photography. I glanced through a brochure about the Friends Of Notre Dame, forever rescuing the crumbling structure, washing away the soot, bolstering its bones, sautering the gaps. Look what we make with our own hands. Look what we make! The architects, artists, engineers who designed pieces of Notre-Dame, and the craftsmen and workers who built pieces of Notre-Dame, creating and building for decades, hundreds not seeing the finished work of their hands, what would stand for centuries as refuge, symbol, heart in a city, cathedral in turn revered, celebrated, neglected, found again.
No shimmer of heaven, no span of the Spirit (or perhaps, yes), but an understanding: how finite we are and how we build to stay a little longer than our breath. Look what we make with our own hands! The innate desire to create. A few years after this week in Paris a student asked me what I wanted to leave behind, after I am dead and I answered, A body of work. Writing like art. I paused before answering, but didn’t need the moment to think. I paused to decide which answer to give. I pour into my children. I am near my friends and family. I love my husband. I want a tracing of my lived love on the lives of my children and their children, yes. But I write and will leave that too, and I want what I leave to be art. Look what I make. Remember the men and women who made a cathedral to God, for us to see God anew.
I woke one morning that week in Paris, sunk deep in a soft mattress, and cried, wanting anything but what I had in that moment but rising to join my family at breakfast. I do not like this part of my story – early ambivalence toward motherhood, still occasional hatred of marriage, selfishness crowding simple joy. We had a beautiful week in Paris but I was still there too. What I forget to remember is that over my own war, I got out of bed, dressed, held my daughter’s hand, kissed my son’s cheek, took my husband’s arm and walked through the day, summer streets, one park and pastry to the next. There are landmarks of my early motherhood where I might have set a stone to remember here I yielded more, here I surrendered to present, here I loved again as best I could, here, knowing more is asked tomorrow.
Outside Notre-Dame again we crossed a street for lunch at a small counter. We shared croque monsieur, standing under a narrow awning and looking at the stained stone, the pointy details, the gargoyles and spire, the rain funneling off the roof. I did not think we would go back, not for some time at least. I had a stomach urge to touch the cathedral once more – wet, rough rock – but I stayed on the stoop feeding bites of bread and cheese to my children. The rain did not let up. We walked away to find our next warm, dry place, two to an umbrella, Justin carrying Grant, Claire and me matching small steps.
Another piece from my time in Williamson, West Virginia. Small talk is great. I want draft an essay about how our students eased (or bumped) into small talk as they stepped from a reticent culture into a place where trust is built on personableness. But here I highlight a few of my own small talk conversations, the ones that helped me understand the town better. I left people unnamed.
One late afternoon in Williamson I walked up and down the main streets hoping to find a cafe. I’d order a tea and pastry, sit at a table near a window of spring light, open my notebook. My head was full from being in this small town, reading its history, meeting its residents – the ones impassioned to save, the ones wanting or not wanting salvation (all of us). I walked by an eatery open four or five hours a day, closed now, and a bakery that might have served coffee, also closed now, and I wandered into the Mountaineer Hotel with its deep circular booths at the reception desk and an invitation to ring a bell for service. Instead I looked at the glass cases displayed in the lobby, a photo of President Kennedy greeting West Virginians in Williamson, and a plastic sleeved copy of the speech he delivered, reminding Americans the poor are people in our country. I left having not said hello to anyone at the hotel and at the next crossing raised a hand at a stopped police car.
Is there a cafe here? A place to sit? Tea? The officer rubbed his chin for a moment, named the short-houred eatery. Or the 7Eleven just up there, they’ve got coffee. I can’t think of another place. There used to be a coffee shop but it closed.
(Seven dollar gourmet coffees, I learned from the man who served a three dollar pie on the house, a man you’ll meet in a moment, in a town where you can by a whole breakfast for six dollars).
I walked in the direction of the 7Eleven, bought a pack of M&Ms because I’d walked in (a pack I brought all the way back to Korea), and decided it was the Track’s End, then, a restaurant and hotel that did good business with the ATVers riding the Hatfield and McCoy trail system. The breakfasts were good, I heard, and you could order a dinner for eight dollars. The dining room was black and white squares on the floor, formica tables and booths, fluorescent lighting and view to the kitchen with its prep counter, grill, fryer and Hobart. There was one man keeping the evening there. I looked at the menu. Two desserts offered. Pistachio pie or hot fudge brownie. The man wrote my order and asked for a minute. I’m the only one here, he said, and I took a seat in the middle booth. There couple sat to my front, a single man to my back.
I took out my notebook. The server cook brought out two baskets and plates for the couple. I watched without staring. I caught snips of conversation. I opened my notebook to write when the man behind me asked where I was from. Turns out this man behind me – I twisted in the booth to talk over my shoulder – travels to Williamson for work every week or so, but I cannot remember what the work is, and stays at Track’s End which he tells me isn’t bad, is clean, has good food. This man has phone he spools through to show me a picture of his granddaughter who has him wrapped around his pinky, he says. This girl is his light. His face is happy to talk about this four year old with a little sass. This man has no wife anymore, but wants to be around for his daughter and granddaughter.
When I talk with people in Williamson I say that I grew up in Wisconsin but that my father is from North Carolina and I remember summer trips to the region, driving through West Virginia on the way to or from my great-grandma Davis’s home in Virginia. What I remember as a kid is marveling at the towns notched up hills or holding tight at a stream bed, and how each little town had a baseball diamond, a near miraculous flat of land with scuffed baselines and a scoreboard on stilts. My talk slows. I do not drawl, but want to, because the accent is patient and rich.
The server cook brings me a small plate with a slice of pistachio pie: graham cracker crust filled with pastel green pudding, a smooth whipped cream and a sprinkle of brown pistachio nuts. It is not a pie I would think to make or order any other time, but this time, at this booth, it is just the right taste of sweet and salt and I eat all of it. The server cook brings out the traveling man’s takeaway and he scoots out of his booth, tells me it was nice to meet me, and walks down a hallway I hadn’t noticed before to his room upstairs. It was nice to meet him too.
The couple in front of me finish their baskets of dinner. The woman is missing teeth so her lips go thin and suck in a little. I see a lot of missing teeth that week and think of my own inheritance of poor enamel, the two crowns I could afford last summer and the more coming, sure, no matter the brushing. The couple stands and the server cook buses their table and three others. Then he is back at the counter with the register and I am bent over my notebook which is a useless task. There’s a television mounted to the wall, tuned to an old Charlie’s Angels episode and the drama is a missing actress, a shady stage manager or agent, the sobbing mother who knew something was wrong when her daughter – I give up. I turn sideways in my booth and talk across the ten feet of space, thank the man for a good pie. He asks where I’m from, what brings me here. He tells me that usually he’s not on his own at the restaurant but one of the gals got sick so he’s here, but that’s okay because he took culinary classes and can cook anything on the menu, but what’s hard is keeping up if it’s busy.
Now the Track’s End is quiet though. All the crumbs wiped off the tables. Seats pushed in. I must have asked how long he worked there, or how he got started cooking. It just doesn’t take much to get a conversation but listening takes practice. Maybe because I want to write better, I make myself listen first, quiet my internal voice nipping with an echoed story of my own so I can first hear who you are, what your story is. (Sometimes I listen well. Sometimes I have something smart to say, or something I think is smart. Because I want to write better, and tell true stories, I really am trying to practice good questions and good listening. It helps to remember I’m not as interesting as I might think I am). This server cook is small but sturdy, thinning hair. I guess about fifty but when conversation turns to the flooding I recalculate.
What happened in Williamson is a few things. First, coal, and jobs promised at the mine as soon as a young man graduated high school, or before, and enough money to buy a house or start a kid at college (if that kid resisted the starting wage call of the mines). Then in 1977 the Tug River flooded the town, cresting at fifty feet and leaving downtown Williamson under a dozen feet of water which drained to the damage of many homes. Sludge. River mud in the sewers, a mess to clean, dry out, rebuild. Many families returned though. I wasn’t around for the ‘77, but I was around for the ‘84, the server cook said. Another woman (my age) I met days later showed me the side of a downtown building painted with floodlines and told me she remembered climbing the rooftop of house with her grandfather to survey the flooded downtown after the ‘84 flood. After the ‘84 flood, the man told me, fewer families moved back. It was hard enough to rebuild once. In two decades’ time, Williamson’s population declined from a peak of ten thousand to its present three thousand, or just under. In 2015, coal mines took a hit under Obama’s EPA, and now the state and region are reckoning what comes next. Lumber, if harvested sustainably, or tourism, or maybe tech – always tech. Before the server cook was a server cook, he was a firefighter who retired after twenty-two years, a job he started as a paramedic while still in high school. If I’d started a job out of high school, the right kind of job with benefits and a pension, I might be retired now too.
I have the habit of making parallel lives for myself. The woman who showed me the flood markers on a brick downtown building is my age, with a junior in high school. I learned about the junior first because she talked about wanting to move to Tennessee which gives free instate tuition the first two years of college, but her son would need to be living there two years first, and now the peach orchard they had their eye on got bought by someone else. I was surprised she thought of moving. She is a champion of community in Williamson and in the week there I saw her a couple of times at work to teach wellness, involved in the elementary school and with a sober living house. But we think about our own kids too. Tennessee is a lot like West Virginia with better roads, she said, a joke I heard about Kentucky’s good roads too, They get us there. People there are like us.
For a couple of days that week in Williamson I thought about what it’d be like to move my family to that small town, to dig into the shared work of raising up a healthy community, to serve in a new way. I get zealous for want of purpose, forgetting where I am is purpose and charge enough. But the growth of Williamson must be born of her own first. But her own leave. There are empty houses on each street. Empty houses collapsing, buckling. I met a contractor and asked about the foundations of homes built into hills, can a house just fall off the mountain? And he told me about going into homes and wondering how no one noticed the slope, the whole house tipped with ground washing out under. I walked all over town that week, in the dark mornings, and out to the edge of town along a mountain and the mountains in West Virginia leak, drips tracing their way from hundreds of feet up to the rock foot carved to make way for a road, the rock slick with wet from old rain. The mountains shift. Foundations slip. But the empty houses, this is something the town sits with, tied by property owners who are gone, or inheritances not yet claimed, the expense of legally razing the abandoned buildings too much for the town. I peeked into a couple of empty buildings. The bottles and fabric of squatters, stripped walls.
There is one house abandoned years ago when one of the pill mill doctors in Williamson left. This is another story of Williamson. The hard work of mining breaks bodies, and bodies in pain want pills, and bodies without work are bored, and bored bodies want pills, and two or three doctors and pharmacies in this tiny, struggling town upended the place with an opioid epidemic. (Every family affected I heard again, again). This abandoned house, right off downtown and next door to one of two bed and breakfasts in town, is federally seized property, its owner fined but never jailed for the chaos of her medical malpractice, and now living between different states. She left two midsize luxury cars, a Mercedes and a BMW, parked in the drive. The house is yellow brick but the white siding accent near the roof is warped and peeled away. Another five years of rain and sun, the siding will fall to the house’s poured concrete porch – white columns, big front door, lots of windows all around the house, one of the nicest in town with no one to loot it good.
The wellness woman is bothered by the abandoned houses and buildings. Some are taken back by the hills, vines and grasses wrapping the wood frames so that when the spring green is full the structures disappear entirely. But most gape, tilt, fall. Dark windows, a danger to explore, narrow streets and alleys and precarious stairs connecting neighbors who aren’t there anymore. Whispers of what the town was when you could get a job out of high school or just before, when the buildings downtown could keep a shop open for more than a year or two, before the hold of tiny pills, before empty churches (churches every third corner, the smallest congregations), before kids moved away for good. I made a history of this town on small talk.
Fifteen of thirty-nine. 2182 words. I really need to get reckless if I’m going to make it to ThirtyNine Stories.