Sometimes I start with a character. Sometimes I start with a situation. I like to write a first draft quickly, within two or three hours or two or three days. Pin that butterfly to the paper, as per Ann Patchett. When I am mired by the details (smudging the delicate wing) I quit the story for a week or fifty-two, or steamroll ahead for the sake of finishing a draft. But if I decide I want the story to be a story, not its first nebulous idea – beautiful and blurred from a distance – I begin my revision in note form.
First I reread the draft, or give the piece to a friend or editor to read. Now I am revising a story whose first thought was lifted from a few places. I want to write more about the places I’ve lived or traveled. I also explore questions in fiction, for the fun or empathy of knowing that life. So this story is about a Korean man marrying an American woman after meeting in college, somewhere in the midwest. At one point in the story, they visit Seoul with their son, and the father is out of place in this city so different from the one he knew as a boy and adolescent.
When I first drafted this story at the end of last summer I was frantic to make it work. There were claws at my shoulders. I am not a Korean man but I wrote myself into his character. He is initially afraid of fatherhood. He carries guilt about a wish. He goes home to Korea and knows he cannot be at home in Korea again. Yet he is also not at home in the States. He worries for how his son fits in a small white suburb. He is afraid his guilt is manifested in the disease his body suffers. I really thought I might write this story and be delivered from my own fear and shame, that my body might let go its injury too. So I wrote the draft quickly to make it end. And at the end I thought I made something worth revising.
Now I revise. I am glad for the help of an editor who asks good questions. After our conversation, I reread the draft and notes from our conversation. That afternoon and again today I sat with a coffee and my notebook and thought about who this Korean man is, who this American wife is. I should know the scene of their meeting, the weeks after, the attraction, marriage and sex, the optimism of meeting neighbors who later bring a card to wish a happy Chinese new year. I should know the work of this man and woman, their parsing of household chores and bills. I should know the son and his hobbies and his response to that trip to Seoul. Before Seoul, the son only heard his father speak Korean while on the phone with a grandmother the son did not know for the distance of geography and language.
Now I know my characters. I understand their motives. When I revise, “because I say so” is not a reason to the reader. “Because I say so” is not a reason for me, the writer, either. There is no satisfaction in because. But also there is no satisfaction in a deluge of detail. In one of my first college workshops the professor (a poet who loved Florida and wore cowboy boots in all weather) assigned a character exercise from the first edition of What If? We answered approximately thirty-four hundred questions about our character. Picking a favorite song or food or giving a character a superstition was supposed to help us write details into the story but I only ended up bored of my character. Since then I’ve been wary of dating my characters. There is so much I don’t care to know. Yet.
What a balance, to spend time shaping who this Korean man is, who this American woman is, who this son is, to then decide what a reader must also know, and how to show or tell them these details that will answer motive or emotion or dynamic. I have not yet returned to the draft to revise. I want to keep my notes another day or two. Before I begin adding whole scenes, sentences, or clauses, I will reread the piece again with my notes (new knowledge) in mind to see what I might need to cut or move to enmesh this better understanding of my characters, to tell a fuller story.
Just this afternoon, on the way home from a cafe, I saw an English teacher friend. She is glad for me to apply to MFA programs, and offered to read my work. I said it’s a little weird to tell people I’m working on a story. I write a story, but I also work on a story. Most people don’t know what that means but she understands. For a moment it was good to stand on a corner appreciating how unmagical writing is, and to know that sometime this week I’ll revise the draft, share it with my friend who will recognize the hours but still critique the gaps so that on the third or fourth revision, the story will stand. And not just because I say so.
Eighteen of thirty-nine. My baby can drink soju in Korea. 892 words.
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.
On our first full day in North Carolina, I am sitting with a group of sophomore and junior high school students around a conference room table on the Duke campus. The windows looking out are gothic with heavy leaded panes, new made to look old, like other features of the grounds and academic buildings such as chimneys without fireplaces and stone steps sloped to intimate hundreds of years of scholars’ feet smoothing the stones on their heady walks to and from chapel. We are sitting with the leftovers of lunch in front of our places, picking at kettle fried chips while we listen to one other share expectations for the trip ahead. Tomorrow we will go to a small town in West Virginia to learn about a region grappling with what comes after coal. All school year our students have learned about the most pressing health issues of a people without access to affordable, regular medical care, and how lifestyle and diet can balloon routine concerns to life threatening conditions like COPD and diabetes. Now we have traveled nearly twenty hours to work alongside community health workers at a clinic or on home visits, for our students to observe what public health looks like, and to practice talking with clients about their choices and needs, but first we are in a conference room on the Duke campus. Dr. Robert Malkin, founder of the program we are part of, Global Public Service Academies (GPSA), asks each of us to share what we will contribute to the people of Williamson, and what challenges we anticipate.
Our students are each part of the program because they are interested in pursuing medical careers, but they don’t know what that might look like yet, or the range of studies and positions that support medical practice. Just that morning we listened to a biomedical engineer share about her work in Uganda, helping to problem solve how to ensure neurosurgery can be safe and accessible to head trauma patients. I am proud of our students as they speak. They are self-aware and thoughtful as Dr. Malkin presses to understand more. I believe they are learning their own vulnerability as they answer. They expect to contribute by talking with clients about healthy choices and taking blood pressure and pulse measurements, by learning what they might do in their own careers one day. One student wonders how he can apply the tenets of GPSA to his home in Seoul. They are nervous about making eye contact or taking an inaccurate blood pressure reading. They will be challenged by the unfamiliarity of the culture, how to bridge their experiences with the clients’ lives. One student shares why she is afraid her shyness will get in the way of her service. By the end of our week together, I will know each student better but the hour at the conference room table first cracks an opening for me to see these kids as they are.
And then it is my turn. I will contribute by listening and observing, to tell the stories. At the end of our experience, each student will remember a moment from our week in West Virginia and craft a narrative to share with a middle school audience. I will help workshop the stories. But also I will write my own stories, because I do. And I will contribute encouragement because it is really hard to be uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place and press on – but we won’t know that until we’re in the middle of an overheated house that smells of cigarette smoke, talking with a man whose poor physical health draws the small circle he can travel. My challenge will be to remain present with people, even in a dim house that smells of cigarette smoke, because the man in front of me once had a dream to see Alaska in the summer. Most days he goes as far as the porch door but I won’t know any of that if I drop our conversation for the worry my hair holds smoke. After I learn this man once hoped to see Alaska in the summer, that detail will matter to me for months, though I won’t understand why, and I will be glad I asked if he ever traveled away from West Virginia, and glad he answered, and glad he will be more in my mind after.
Karl, one of our GPSA team leaders, shares next. He echoes my challenge of remaining present in a situation or conversation. The way his mind works is to sift interactions and observations for abstract conclusions: how does this woman’s health compare with other women’s health and what can that say about the state of women’s healthcare in West Virginia? This kind of thinking is a gift for the public health PhD program he is set to begin. But because his mind snags a detail to mull abstracts, Karl pulls away from the conversation in front of him, rushing to discover or conclude a thesis instead of simply talking with a person who wants to tell something about her day or breathing difficulty or what she wishes. I think in abstracts, he says. As Karl talks, I look around and see a few students nod in recognition. When Karl finishes speaking, someone else says, I think in equations. And as we’re preparing to leave the conference room I say to Karl, I think in stories.
Just that morning we attended a talk with a woman named Brittany, a biomedical engineer who spent two months in Uganda answering the question of what it takes to allow a neurosurgeon to operate in a hospital there. As she talked about overcrowded wards, understaffed ICUs, hospital systems and infrastructure I imagined her standing in a tall ceilinged ward making notes about how many nurses were attending how many patients, and what that could mean to patient recovery statistics. I imagined her interviewing surgeons in an underfunded hospital, learning how they improvise by using a power drill instead of a bone drill, sterilizing the bits between patients. I imagined her respect at the improvisation, and her frustration because these men and women should not have to improvise medical treatments like that and if – if – if. She talked about service contracts that medical equipment companies like Siemens and Phillips sell to hospitals, to guarantee the upkeep of CT scanners or X-ray machines, contracts as expensive as the millions of dollars the equipment itself costs, contracts that underfunded hospitals cannot afford so that when the very necessary CT scanner breaks it sits useless and throws doctors and surgeons to waiting for clinical symptoms to indicate what is happening in the body.
So as Brittany talked, I thought of two ways I might tell this story. I could ask for an interview and write a creative nonfiction piece, supplementing with additional interviews and research about the lucrative business of service contracts (already studied and, presumably, reported elsewhere). And I could learn all the language of biomedical engineering, the names of Ugandan cities, towns, roads. The cultural challenges she encountered traveling alone, the shifts in her mindset as she spoke with medical professionals working around the poor infrastructure of their hospitals. I could ask about the food she ate, the ailments she endured, what she wants for the places she visited, who she hopes to see again. So I could write all of this as a creative nonfiction piece. Or I could shape what I learn into fiction. Lift and modify elements of Brittany’s two months to tell a similar story. I would keep the service contracts, a detail so sinister I’d want people to wonder why we allow medical equipment companies to abandon their machines to inevitable disrepair in countries struggling to care for patients when the electricity might blink off after a rain.
I like that I think in stories. Sometimes I wonder why I want to tell stories, fiction or nonfiction. Always I’ve worked my imagination. Such a gift. But for two decades I’ve also practiced craft in the middle of my present. A line from a conversation or detail of the room or a question about an interaction comes to me highlighted and underlined: this is a story. And then I am thinking how to pull disparate elements of a scene into narrative: what to cut, how to order. Much of my story thinking lands in my notebook to stay in cursive because most momentary sparks don’t light a story for want of time or tension. (The man who wishes he’d seen Alaska years ago will land in my notebook, and so will Brittany, but one may be anecdote and the other a story). But still I draft in the middle. I think in stories so when I write stories I know a little more how to show you what I see.
This idea came a few years ago and I love the idea (which is why I returned to this story a couple of times over the last year) but I do not like the story draft here. Parts, yes. Ideas, yes. But the idea deserves a better draft. Before posting I read through to think what I wanted to share about the process. Instead of front-loading my thoughts here, my responses are italicized. I recommend reading a third or half of the piece if you want, but don’t bother doing more than skim the rest. Friends, I promised drafts.
I am the only one awake now. Two days ago Mom said she was tired and that she was sorry. We were at the kitchen table. She was paying bills online and I was doing homework, physics. She closed her laptop and asked me to look at her. There was a tiny moment before I looked up from my notebook when I tried to guess what I was supposed to look like now, when I met her eye and said it’d be okay, I’d be okay. Really, I didn’t know what to feel when she said she was tired. I don’t know what my face looked like. Hers was crinkly and wet. This was harder for her. So we sat holding hands across the table and I absorbed what she had to say. I didn’t hear anything so I hope her words are hiding somewhere in my body, in a muscle or tooth, and I hope her words come to me when I need them because I will need them now that I’m the only one awake.
There are other families like ours, everyone but one sleeping. You’re supposed to report to county health or a hospital when you’re the last one awake but I haven’t done that yet. When I do, if I do, I’ll get a sticker to place on our front door or window so police and social services know to periodically knock, find out if the last one’s down too. I really don’t know what happens then. I think we get moved to a care facility. Our city won a state contract to build and staff a sleep center but it’s only a giant rectangular cut in land right now, ready for its concrete foundation pour.
I saw pictures in National Geographic of sleep centers around the country. Church basements, American legions, empty classrooms. One picture was of a triple stacked bunks, all you could see where the tops of heads resting on pillows and iv lines dropped from the ceiling. Another picture was of twin girls turned on their sides to face one another, their hands touching but maybe not feeling, feeding tubes running through their nostrils. I really don’t want to end up like that.
Mom went upstairs to wash her face and brush her teeth. She came back wearing a nightgown, carrying a sleep kit. She’d ordered one for each of us after Josh went to sleep. Mine is under my bed. I closed my physics text and notebook, slid both into my backpack. Mom opened the box. She found the catheter with its tiny accordion of instructions. I think it’s better if I do this now, she said, I don’t want you to have to do it later. I followed her to the living room where we surveyed the floor space and guessed what might work best. Dad, Josh and Bud were on the queen sized mattress Mom and I brought down from her room after Bud fell asleep too. Then Taylor went to sleep and we put her on the futon mattress. Mom could lay next to Taylor. She’d fit. Or she could lay next to Dad and we’d move Bud to share the futon. I guess the question is how you’d roll us, Mom said. She looked at me. You pick, she said.
I feel like you should be next to Dad, I said. So we moved Bud to the futon.
Looks good, Mom said. She unfolded the absorbent blue sheet from the sleep kit and laid it next to Dad. While she went to the bathroom with the catheter in hand, I sat on the couch and thought how I should check fluids or ports or turn everyone to the other side. I didn’t get up from the couch though. When people first started falling asleep, there were all these PSAs about staying awake. Exercise, eat healthy, get eight hours a night. It’s always that and it never quite works. Mom quit buying Cheetos after Josh fell asleep. She cooked again. We didn’t order pizza for three months until Bud knocked off and Taylor asked what was the point, really? Mom was running seven or eight miles a day, making Taylor and me bike to school while three bodies occupied a mattress between the couch and television. I was looking at that television when Mom came back downstairs.
Honey, you think you’re going to fall asleep, go to Mrs. Johnson, Mom said. Mrs. Johnson is a woman Mom knows from church. She’s a nurse. Mom laughed. She said, Don’t try this at home.
I smiled a little. Taylor and Mom would fight but Mom and I didn’t fight much. She opened her arms to me. I got up for the hug. We held on for a little while. She was warm. Tomorrow her body would feel cooler. She kissed my forehead, my cheeks. She touched her nose to mine. I love you, Chelsea, she said. I love you too, Mom, I said. She laid down in the space between Dad and Josh. She turned on her side to face Dad and sighed. This feels good in a funny way, she said, I’ve missed laying next to your father. She propped up on an elbow, leaned forward to kiss his dry, parted lips. He didn’t move.
Alright, she said, I guess this is it. They’ll figure it out, honey. Keep going to school.
I watched Mom fall asleep. When Josh fell asleep we all thought he was just being lazy one morning. Then Dad took a nap in his recliner, watching the game, and didn’t get up. Bud said he felt weird at dinner one night. I think Mom knew what was going to happen because she gathered him in her arms and snuggled while reading the last four chapters of Mouse And The Motorcycle. Taylor asked for privacy while she fell asleep. But Mom doesn’t mind if I watch. She rolls her head to look at me, upside down. She looks like when I was little kid and she’d pull a face to make me laugh. I smile, she smiles. She shuts her eyes, relaxes her face and breathing. I watch her whole body go soft before I turn on the television.
I went to school the next day. At lunch, Ezra asked how the home fires burned. I shrugged and ate his potato chips. There are posters all over school that say Stay Awake! Find A Friend! A support group meets after school in the choir room. The bike rack is out front of the classroom. I unlocked my bike. I saw the kids arriving to the support group, taking places in a circle of chairs. I’d never gone but Taylor used to. She said it helped. It made a living room of sleeping family seem okay. A living room of sleeping family is not okay. A girl in the choir room saw me looking. She raised a hand. I got on my bike and pedaled away.
At the end of that first day, I sat cross legged on the couch watching television. On the futon, Taylor and Bud were still. I thought Taylor should be where I was now, she’d be better at this, she’d go to county health and get a stock of ivs and supplements, she’d check our temperatures and measure our waste and calculate just how much to adjust our fluid intake. She’d go to the support group and take tissues by twos and threes, lean on a friend’s shoulder while saying she missed tossing popcorn at Bud during family movie night.
For two weeks I only roll Dad, Mom, Josh, Taylor and Bud. I check the iv lines, swap empty bags for full, regulate the drips. I avoid checking the catheters, instead only unclipping the urine bags and taking them to the hall toilet for a flush. I know I’m supposed to check the catheters for irritation or infection. I know I’m supposed to wash the genitals but I don’t want to. I think about calling the number listed on all the Stay Awake! posters and asking county health to send someone to the house but I’m afraid that might result in everyone going to one of those quiet shelf spaces I saw in National Geographic.
Before Mom and Taylor fell asleep, they’d talk to Josh, Dad and Bud. Mom was on a lot of message boards. She’d forward articles to Taylor and me and Taylor would bring home pamphlets from the support group. Your voice and presence may have power to remind your sleeping loved one(s) that he or she is important to you. Talk to your sleeping loved one(s) as you would speak to him or her at the dinner table. You may want to pause as if waiting for an answer from your sleeping loved one(s). This may give your sleeping loved one(s) an opportunity to form a response in his or her brain. That sense of connection may be an important part of waking.
But no one was waking yet.
The longest sleepers were child refugees from Syria and Iraq. Three years ago BBC and CNN posted short articles, video links of kids temporarily resettled in Scandinavia who were running up and down sidewalks, eating unfamiliar food at a school cafeteria while their siblings were laid out on cots in small bedrooms. There was a photo of a mother sitting at the feet of her sleeping son, trimming his toenails. I don’t think anyone paid much attention until later, when people who hadn’t just barely escaped war fell asleep too. Then we all went to archives to read about these first sleepers who still hadn’t woken up, whose parents were learning Swedish or Norwegian now because how do you move a family who is half asleep? The mother clipping her sleeping son’s toenails, the entire time she was talking to him in Arabic. What are you saying, the reporter asked. She looked up, answered. The translation read, I am telling him about making his favorite food when he wakes. I am telling him about his sister learning to walk.
I tried talking to them. My voice sounded funny. A little too loud, bright. It has this shine on it like when Mom would wake us up early to load the car for a summer road trip and you could hear her tone trying to say this was going to be an adventure, a great fun day in the car, you could hear that in her voice. That’s how I am talking about eating lunch with Ezra. He shared chips! We studied for Spanish! After a month it’s easier to be quiet. How’s the ashram? Ezra asks at lunch one day. I glare at him but think it’s funny too. I can’t help but laugh. And after that, the name sticks. We call my house the ashram.
I like the story to this point. I like the idea of sleepers. I can picture the news coverage, the think pieces, the curated photo spreads. I can also imagine the panic, the screaming stupid. And I can imagine pretending this isn’t really happening.
I like Chelsea and I am glad Ezra is sticking around. I do not want to get bogged down in the medical stuff as the writer, so I let Chelsea skip over it too, for now.
Most afternoons, Ezra walks me home from school even though it’s out of his way. Sometimes he comes in to say hi to the family, make microwave popcorn, help me with physics. He asks if I want to go to the homecoming dance and I close the front door, turn the deadbolt, and watch him go back the way we came, hands in his pocket. I stand at the living room window and watch him walk down the block, halfway down the next until he’s out of the frame. He walks on the balls of his feet as if he might skip or run at the next step. When I can’t see him anymore, I cry. This is the first time I feel how alone I am, thinking that if I went to the homecoming dance I’d have to find a dress and do my own hair and take a selfie. Later that night the phone rings and I jump. It’s Ezra’s mom. Lisa.
When I moved to Kuwait I had a plan to stay home with my daughter and write while she napped. I supposed after a year or two I would have a book and be on my way to an enviable writing life. During those first years in Kuwait I did not write a book but I did learn to finish stories, at their expense, and to no reader’s pleasure. I spent forty pages on a jewelry store clerk and another forty pages on a young soldier. The clerk wept and the soldier died, but it took forever to move them to their ends. My son was born and the year after I continued to peck at fiction though the richer work was my journal.
And then, while both of my children were little, there was a stretch of bruising and blooming. There was a man I wanted, and he wasn’t my husband. I indulged the fantasy briefly, as I’d indulged any other fantasy since understanding the belly pull of sex, with guilt. But this time, with sorrow too, that I could not be content in the confines of my marriage, and anger that I could not just once and go have a fuck to have a fuck. So during this time I wrote stories about married women with young children who were attracted to men they were not married to. I wrote an essay about wanting an affair and not having an affair. When I showed my husband the essay he asked if it was fiction. I wish. Even my fiction wives could not betray their fiction husbands. None of us got to take a trip to Dubai or smash against a body in an elevator. We all just stayed married and true. And glad for it. As I journaled and drafted the thinnest veil of fiction over my own experiences, vulnerability gained traction. Even now I am uncertain at the literary integrity of those stories about wives wanting and not having, but I am certain that the practice of writing plainly the beautiful ugly complicated parts of being a person allowed me to grow compassion, extend grace to myself and others wrestling spirit and flesh.
An unexpected mercy during this time was reading George Saunders. Years earlier someone suggested I read him. Civilwarland In Bad Decline, this someone said, was awesome. I probably nodded, thought what a stupid title that was, and went back to reading Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler. But then I bought the book and read it on Kindle while powering through elliptical workouts each morning. And I read In Persuasion Nation and his then latest, The Tenth Of December. I overdosed on Saunders’s short fiction. Yet I still wanted to read more of the similar, fiction on a tilt, so at the suggestion of a writer and editor I read I Want To Show You More by Jamie Quatro. It was odd timing that I was then writing about searing lust in journal and essay, playing out scenarios in fiction, when here was another woman writer who’d published a collection of overlapping stories with characters who loved God, loved spouses, and still craved sin. I Want To Show You More gave an answer to how I might also write about my faith.
My fear was/ is I misrepresent the Christian faith because I don’t have the theological training to satisfy debate, but I live it with wrestle and doubt, peace and rest, and during my years in Kuwait I got comfortable talking simply about how faith works in my life. I am totally aware conversations about sin or repentance or grace sound ridiculous to a lot of people. I am also totally aware that a segment of my brothers and sisters are offended by confession of sin, confession of doubt, because sin and doubt seem a failure of faith in some way. But when I was in the middle of wanting to fuck a man I wasn’t married to I was so glad another woman wrote plainly about faith and lust, the flesh and spirit. I read Quatro and thought how I might follow her and Saunders. Why not write the gritty mess of loving Jesus as is. Why not trust readers to be along for the story, to accept unpolished faith.
Growing up I read a lot of Christian fiction. There was a series set in the northwoods of Wisconsin. The settlers logged, and the children carried lunch pails to their one room schoolhouse, and each book centered on a mystery that also revealed a spiritual truth to the protagonists, about pride or caring for the poor. I read This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti and sometimes the idea of invisible angels and evil at work around us flashes up and I look over my shoulder. I read Brock and Bodie Thoene whose historical fiction was well researched and characters round enough to suffer flaws too. I also read a lot of Janette Oke whose pioneer heroines always, always found love at an unexpected time/ in an unexpected place/ with an unexpected person. I didn’t read the popular Christy series by Robin Jones Gunn, who wrote books she wanted the girls of her church youth group to read, because Mom thought they were too old for me when I asked and I didn’t ask again, and by the time I was making my own book choices at the public library, I really didn’t care to read how a good Christian girl likes a good Christian boy who likes her back and is willing to stay pure until a blissful nondescript wedding night. At that point in my adolescence there were no good Christian boys who liked me and if I was going to read about a life that wasn’t mine, I preferred Kurt Vonnegut (why, why!).
I still read an occasional Christian fiction book. I remember reading a book about a church singles group that goes the beach for a weekend. A light read. Just fun. There is chaste flirting. There is a date or two. There is wondering about the will of God. But there is no masturbation in the tiny, shared bathroom while the roommates are fetching hamburger to grill, no gossip about which church lady would be a beast of a mother-in-law. No matter the crisis, no matter the longing or fear, Christian lit takes a didactic turn. So for years when I wrote anything complicated, in essay especially, I wound down to an ending that patted the reader’s hand, even if my own hands were fists. Finally I was in a workshop with a woman who encouraged me to be a little less tidy about the endings, and that’s reflective of my faith, really. If I write about my faith plainly, I can trust you will see how I work it out over the years. And if I commit to write about my faith plainly, I am free to include the wobbly bits too, without shame, because those add to my body of work and a fuller understanding of my faith.
Shortly after Saunders and Quatro, I found an anthologized story about a woman in the middle end of a stalled marriage, who is worried about how her son is doing at preschool. In that piece, the woman slowly lifts from the ground, a gentle defiance of gravity. All of that work turned over this idea that I too might write a wild story. I was writing about women whose script was essentially mine. But I was reading all these stories that asked me to accept slight (not-so slight) variations on reality. In the middle of this mix I took a fiction workshop, generated a lot of work that had nothing to do with straying wives, relieved to welcome new characters and situations. Writing fiction was just fun again. Work to make it work, but more fun than drawing too much from my own lost wants.
One afternoon I was at a stoplight listening to the BBC when an interview came on about someone doing something amazing in the middle of devastation. Are you a hero? I remember the question being direct, and the quick demur from the guest. I remember rolling my eyes. I remember thinking no one is allowed to call themselves a hero. They would be crucified in the comments. That blip of a thought started an improbable story.
From there, I set off on a number of reckless, wild drafts, most never written to completion, for the practice of writing fiction on a tilt, of placing stretched imagination on the page, to play with storytelling and style. I extended permission to my personal essay: forsake the tidy end, write the first thought (to later revise, or not) because there isn’t a safe way to write about anything personal, and trust the reader to at least momentarily accept the world I share: of motherhood, marriage, faith, want, hope.
But how to share with readers, and who are my readers? Last summer I googled book agents. A lot of agents aren’t interested in representing “religious” writing. I stalled there because I don’t know what to call my writing except narrative. I write about faith because it is. I write about marriage because it is. I set pieces in Kuwait because it is. I let my imagination run. I give chase. Now I am writing to compile a body of narrative work honest to my experience, questions and stories, pieces that speak of God, frailty, fear, peace, place. I write the body, I write the spirit. I write the fun, the pain, the whatever in between, because how else.
Eight of thirty-nine, a natural follow to seven of thirty-nine. 1610 words.
Today I watched freshmen play variations of handball and thought about this story I wrote five years ago. I remember the idea taking bones on a commute in Kuwait. I was at a stoplight waiting to merge onto the Thirty, heading home, and the BBC was on (I listened to a lot of BBC while driving around Kuwait) and I heard this interview in which someone (man? woman? I don’t recall because what sticks is what s/he said) answered that no, no s/he was not a hero. I remember rolling my eyes because this person was a hero, really. Probably saved dozens of souls, but was too humble to admit heroic action. I just did what any person would do blah blah. So I thought, what if someone in one of these interviews just said, Yeah, I am a hero. I carried eight kids out of a burning building! I got kneecapped for telling the truth! I assassinated a terrorist! Yeah, I’m a hero! Yeah! I thought a person would be crucified in the comments if they said such a thing. And then I had a place to start.
Part of the challenge of Thirty-Nine Stories is to generate new work. But some of my new work feels a little too raw to share yet. There’s a reason why we revise before publishing, and most of what I’ve been writing is more a slog through self-doubt and fear interrupted with pep and prayer for peace, contentment. A few pieces are taking shape (Deo volente might be my first tattoo) but nothing is okay to post here yet. So today when I remembered that weird story I wrote – well, here you are. Never before posted. I actually workshopped this with an editor who had reservations about the ending.
I like the ending. I like the whole piece. Once the BBC interview sparked a what if? all I had to do was find a situation calling for heroic acts, and make a character admit that, yes, he or she is a hero.
Now. A peek behind the curtain. I found my character one day while I ordered a coffee. Behind me was a crew of five or six painters contracted to paint the new shops at the Avenues mall in Kuwait. The one man was broad and muscled and sex just rolled off him. How does that happen? How do some people vibe potency like that? Here is the thing, friends. If you write, you talk with all kinds of people, even the ones that make your insides quiver, and when you talk you learn all kinds of things like that this broad, muscled man from LA paints stores for Victoria’s Secret, and that he’s dying for a drink in a dry land. Also behind the curtain is a podcast host I followed through his move from LA to Seattle. Also behind the curtain is the fear I had while living in Kuwait where security seemed a little loose for the region, that I might die the victim of a spectacular, poorly planned but well executed terrorist attack.
This piece is about as final as you’ll read on this blog. I drafted extra scenes as I wrote, revised two or three times before sharing with an editor, cut a lot, and today I line edited a few things but kept the piece largely same. Before I call this piece finished finished I’ll take a close look the dialogue (structure, tags and interspersed action), and (maybe) the last lines. I like the ending, but. Hm. Oh, as with other pieces, please stop if you must.
The worst part came after the bombing, when Jake was home in LA. He said yes, he was a hero, and talk radio, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up. “Don’t look at it,” Krissy said, closing her laptop, “Don’t.” She looked like she might be sick. He took the computer and opened it to a CNN blurb about the quote Jake gave. There were hundreds of comments, mostly angry. Jake didn’t need to hear the clip on repeat. It was in his head. “People you rescued call you their guardian angel or their hero. Are you a guardian angel?” Jake had laughed a little, “No.” The reporter followed up, with a laugh of his own, “Then are you a hero?” And Jake said, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.” The aired interview and the blurbs cut the quote there. It didn’t matter that Jake said he was a hero alongside other heroes of the day. What mattered was that he owned the title. There was a website selling tee shirts and shot glasses with the quote, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.”
He was dying for a drink but Krissy tossed even the miniature Baileys she kept for her Saturday morning coffee. He didn’t think she had any other bottles hidden. Jake scrolled through a dozen comments and handed the laptop back to Krissy. “Baby,” she said, but he was already on his way to the bedroom, pulling the blackout curtains, closing the door.
He was in Kuwait to paint murals in the Victoria’s Secret store opening in the Grand Avenue mall. The job was slated to take two weeks, ten hour days. A week into the job, the boss called LA and said they needed another week. The other guys bitched about having to stay another week in a dry country – someone had gotten ahold of date rum, but two bottles between five guys lasted only a few nights. Jake didn’t mind not having booze easily available. A year ago he’d gone to Dubai to touch up The Rainforest Café and the guys got wasted nightly. That’d been hard, at the start of his sobriety.
Painting Victoria’s Secrets was one of his favorites. It was hard to mess up cream bows and pink swirls, gold accents. He listened to music and painted his panel. It wasn’t like painting a patterned grid. Bows didn’t have to be equally pleated.
All the guys had something they added to their panels, nearly invisible signatures. Jake liked to put a circle somewhere in the panel. Once, on the checkered wall of an expensive boutique, Jake painted a circle small as a thumbprint. At Victoria’s Secret, he added a tiny circle at the end of a curlicue. Laura called that cheating. She’d joined their crew a few months before. “Curlicues already have circles,” she said. He shrugged. Laura hid her initials in the panels. They weren’t supposed to be artists with names. “One day I’ll have a show and sell a ton of shit and these crappy bows will be worth something,” Laura said, nose close to a corner of her panel, using the tiniest brush she owned to make nearly invisible cursive letters: LPA. Laura was a few years out of art school and leased studio space with four other artists, took this job as a muralist to pay bills. Two of the other guys had gone that route too: art school, small shows, maxed out credit cards, job as a muralist.
One thing Jake missed about drinking with the crew were the stories. He still ate dinner with the group but when one of them suggested a bar or nightcaps at the hotel, he left. He missed the bullshitting and storytelling and laughing. He missed hearing about cut up credit cards and girlfriends’ cats and the one painting that sold for seven hundred dollars. He didn’t get the jokes told the next day.
The morning of the bombing, before there was a bombing, Krissy called. Jake was drinking his second cup of coffee and had ten minutes before the van took the crew to the Grand Avenue. He could hear a late show on the TV, during the pauses. “I gotta go,” Jake finally said and Krissy murmured something he didn’t catch. “Love you too,” he said. He stood and finished the last of the coffee, patted his back pocket for his wallet, and left.
He was jetlagged. When he got to the mall, he stopped at Starbucks for a latte. He’d order another on his morning break, another in the afternoon. By the end of the day his arms felt tingly from the reach and precision of painting, but also from the caffeine.
It didn’t happen until eleven that morning. By then, they’d been painting for nearly four hours. The boom was thunderous but distant. Jake muted his music and held still, listening. Laura climbed down from her ladder and walked toward the store entrance, opened a door cut into the drywall and turned back toward the guys. That’s when the second bomb went off, at their end of the mall. Jake heard a sharp crack and shattering, then a deafening explosion in his body, in his teeth. He jumped from the platform before he fell. Laura staggered back. Jake ran toward her and shut the door. The wide palm lined path was already rolling with dust and smoke. They stood, uncertain, in the middle of the store. A siren went off with a whoop, interrupted by evacuation instructions in Arabic and English. Jake felt his pockets for his phone and wallet. His heart was wild.
“I don’t think we should go out yet,” Scott said, “What if there’s a third?”
“Give it five minutes, then we leave,” Laura said. They waited, ears ringing. Laura got on her phone to check Twitter. A few witnesses had already uploaded pictures. “Oh my God,” she said. There were numerous routes out of the mall. They decided to run for it: open the door and take the clearest exit.
At first, Jake just saw the structural catastrophe. Mounds of concrete and metal. The few standing palms had no leaves. Plate glass windows blown out. Café chairs and tables scattered and twisted. Where the blast occurred, the high domed ceiling of metal triangles and thick glass was blown open to show sky. The air was gritty. Jake coughed, pulled his tee shirt over his nose and mouth. The broadcast warnings continued, a calm female voice urging exit. Scott pointed at the short staircase where they entered each day. They could go down to the parking area, cut through the cars to outside. Others were already moving in that direction. Some walked or shuffled. A few ran. More hesitated.
Laura saw the first body, a woman slumped against the giant gold brick of Harvey Nichols. Laura went to the body, knelt. Jake followed. Dust settled like snow on the woman. Jake hadn’t seen anyone dead before, like this. He made a slow circle. There were more, bodies thrown like the café chairs and display tables. The surfaces were hard and sharp. Jake was strong, muscled, but the edges and jags of damage made him feel soft.
“She’s alive. Hey.” Laura looked up at Jake. The woman took the shallowest of breaths. Her forehead was broken open. “We can’t leave her,” Laura said. Scott was at the stairs. Jake waved him on, but he shook his head and came toward them.
Now other bodies were waking. Jake heard whimpers and moans, crying. Jake and Scott left Laura holding the woman’s hand. They walked zigzag from body to body to see who was alive. Further down, a store ceiling collapsed; they dropped to the ground, cutting their knees and palms on glass. For another minute it was quiet again. Jake could hear rescuers shouting. He got up and walked toward Starbucks where another hall opened to more stores and more halls: the blast destroyed that section entirely.
Later, Jake showed Krissy where he’d been, pointing on the mall blueprint everyone saw in the days after the attack. “I went here on breaks.” He traced his finger from Victoria’s Secret to Starbucks. “But that morning, I wanted to finish my panel first.” He shivered. His memory was smaller than the casualty and costs numbers reported.
Eleven years ago (this very month!) I googled “running while pregnant” because I’d just learned I was pregnant and I worried pregnancy necessitated a change to my routine. Already I was grappling with the surprise of this baby on her way, re-staging my next forever years in my mind, and eating the most colorful diet I could since the only prenatal vitamin I could find in Colombia was nearly two dollars a pill. At one of my early appointments I asked the doctor about a folic acid supplement and he shrugged, told me to eat well and that was all that was necessary. Those pills, he said, go out in your pee. While he didn’t worry about my diet, he was adamant that I quit running. I did not quit running. Instead I found a number of moms blogging about running through pregnancy. I followed the adventures of a mom training for Kona, another hoping to qualify for the Olympic Trials, and an expat mom who found ultrarunning. For a few years we traded comments on one another’s posts. Those blogs were a peek into entirely different kinds of lives – lawyer, stay-at-home mom, entrepreneur, medical resident – but we were all moms and we were all runners.
One blogger whose tagline was “Running is my therapy, what’s yours?” started posting affiliate links, reviewing nutrition bars and running or travel gear. Her posts rambled. Her grammar, usage and punctuation was hit or miss. Her photos were unedited. But the tone was cheerful, a little hurried because she really was trying to be a good mom and still get a run in the day. Hers was the first regular mom blog I saw gain any kind of sponsorship, and I wonder if she sustained a readership.
I rarely check those running mom blogs now. I wasn’t much of a running mom poster then or now. I don’t tally my miles or times, or talk at length about my pelvic floor rehabilitation, or share my strength training schedule, or declare any running goals. The blog I kept during early parenting faltered because I wasn’t sure how to use the space: talk about parenting, talk about running, talk about God, talk about living overseas, talk about travel, talk about recipes, talk about marriage, talk about worry. Starting Piecemeal gave all of my talking a focus: writing process and craft. I can write about whatever, but as I do I think about how this might later become a finished piece, or I consider a better word, or I move paragraphs around before posting. Piecemeal is about practice. I don’t think any of the running moms followed me here, though they may check in if my name flashes in their mind, as theirs do in mine and I google to learn she competed at Kona again, and she conceived with IVF (many congratulations!), and she is continuing to knock out PRs.
I was thinking about those early running mom blogs because I just read blogger Christie Tate’s Washington Post op-ed about her daughter asking her to please take down all of the content she’s featured in, and Tate’s response giving her daughter some control over future images, while continuing to largely write what she wants. I only read Tate’s piece after reading some of the backlash to her opinion. And then I thought to see what Tate was actually writing about her daughter (or family or therapy group) but found her site is now protected, probably because when we live in the ether, it’s easy to pile on.
Long before this latest consideration of our children’s right to privacy, I was mulling my role as storyteller. A few years ago a writer friend shared a podcast with me, a woman talking about who tells the story, and how it matters for people to tell their own stories. The recording was a workshop of sorts and one person in the audience asked about writing the stories of minority groups, disenfranchised people. The writer’s response was thoughtful but firm. What I remember of the answer is that writers should help others tell their stories, but we should not take them as ours to tell.
Yet, how many other peoples’ stories touch my own? That is what I thought about again when I read various responses on why writers and bloggers should/ not pull drafts from the daily life of their own kids. I mine the regular and find sweet moments, suffering, understanding, growth. I mine the regular for the very process of digging, turning over, setting aside, burying again. All parts of my life are in the mix as I write in my notebook, but I do not share all parts of my life when I publish. While I write about my parenthood and my kids, I am mindful of intent and purpose in a piece, and if an anecdote or illustration involving my kids will stand to their own reading of it later. I learn from my kids. Will they know when they read me? Does my love show too? The wrestle with self as I sort who I am to me, to them? My kids are here now, in the middle with me, going away from me one day, though we remain part of one another, always. Why would I not write my children into my work? This week I was thinking about how mother artists draw on motherhood to create art, working with the very material which added this lovely, complex dimension to our identities, our very children. I am richer for my parenting. I am richer for knowing my daughter and son.
Years ago I found the work of Sally Mann. Later, I watched a documentary featuring her process, and telling the story of her earlier work with her own kids. Always with Mann’s art is controversy of her choosing to photograph her naked son and daughters. When Mann began photographing her children, she was already an artist. She was living in the country, raising babies and they were subjects available to shoot, develop, print, share. In 2015 Mann wrote an article for the New York Times two decades after the debate over Immediate Family, the culmination of a decade of photographing her three young kids, and she closes the piece with this: “As ephemeral as our footprints were in the sand along the river, so also were those moments of childhood caught in the photographs. And so will be our family itself, our marriage, the children who enriched it and the love that has carried us through so much. All this will be gone. What we hope will remain are these pictures, telling our brief story.”
I doubt the majority of mommy bloggers (or kid bloggers, as one mommy blogger corrected me years ago) will encounter the criticism that Christie Tate is now shoveling her way through. I wonder at the reward of the genre. Perhaps the elements of art considered before posting. Likely the likes and shares, the small communities built in the comments. I do admire Sally Mann who worked for unremarked years before her art, beautiful and complicated and sometimes uncomfortable, was noted. Art is rarely as instant as a blog post. Music, words, visual art inspired by our children is revised and workshopped, started again, left to rest before deciding the piece is finished to share. Along the way let me learn my motherhood in a new way, see my daughter and son, catch these brief days and say it all.
Six of thirty-nine. 1252 words. For a counter to Christie Tate read Emily Bazelon’s 2008 “ground rules for writing about your kids.”
Last Sunday we went to Lotte World Tower, bought tickets to the Seoul Sky observatory, took the elevator up one hundred and seventeen floors, and circled the enclosed deck, pausing to read placards telling us how far away landmarks were. We could point to lakes, stadiums, a distant fortress we may have imagined. But what I liked more was the immediate city beneath us. The towering apartment buildings dwarfed like a Lego city on a dining table. The river appearing placid, still. The run of traffic snaking main arteries.
That morning at church our pastor led the congregation through a year end reflection in three parts. We meditated on the love of God, our need for salvation and grace, and the hope to which we are presently and eternally called. Through each meditation, and the exhortation that we now choose to walk in freedom, living holy lives, I waited for the weight of the Holy Spirit. I waited for a sense of lifting, or for a wrap of warmth at the thought of my mighty and personal savior. I diligently prayed as guided, and wrote a few thoughts that came to mind, and worshipped as we sang old hymns, and at the end of the service I packed my bag, talked with a few friends, and left wondering at the silence.
Two things I have been thinking about. Awe for God. And the gap between the Old and New Testaments when God didn’t speak to his people.
A few months ago I started practicing awe. Praise, wonder, respect. The thoughts felt clunky. God is bigger than me. God is amazing. His love is good. God knows me. He knows every person. God loves each person. I am not much better at expressing awe today, but I continue to name the attributes of God, to offer thanks for the many gifts in my life, to remember I am a small part of this story. I had a sense that my spirit needed to praise God to lift myself from myself. I was then (and now) too consumed by my own life.
I think about the Sermon on the Mount too. The lilies, the sparrows.
Most days I sit with my notebook and write for an hour. I circle the same fears each year. A couple of months ago, following a jagged afternoon sobbing without explanation, I decided to begin counseling. There is a short list of big things I need to sort, with guidance. Before I began the sessions, I supposed that my writing practice offered a natural head start, and that is true. I don’t feel too afraid to say what is difficult, complicated or contradictory. Each session I am challenged to consider how to understand a part of me, or how to grow in an area. Now when I run in the mornings, I practice awe. I petition. I turn inward. And all of it makes me want to know the end.
Standing on the observation deck at Lotte, I lifted. There came a lightness to my body and mind. How easy to make ground level thoughts a towering complex, a wide river, a mountain range. I stood nearly five hundred meters in the air looking at a clear day wishing I might keep this vantage. But what I want more is peace when I am on the ground. I want to look up and be answered.
Five of thirty-nine! 568 words. A vignette I will likely use to build a fuller piece. I have another similar experience (or moment of understanding) I want to write as a parallel to this, but while drafting in my notebook I couldn’t find a way to write both at once.
Last week I interviewed for a teaching position at our school. For international educators, autumn is a season of big decisions and Justin and I already made ours, signing on to stay in Korea for two more years, but then I had the opportunity to apply to return to a high school English classroom. When we left Kuwait, there was no English position open for me at our new school, and I was relieved for the year rest. A year in the utility department allowed me to see the elementary, middle and high school equally. I learned more about our school. I am glad to be at our school for the many ways I see learning happen, for the many colleagues I observe and collaborate with. This time last year, I was energized by the newness of every day. When asked if I was interested in joining the middle or high school staff, I declined to apply. I liked the fun of each day different. I liked the work I was doing with school publications. This time last year I didn’t think what I might want now, during my second year as a full time substitute, when the unpredictability of each day is more tiring than energizing. So when talk started of who was staying and who was going, I listened for rumors of English teachers whose contracts were up and wondered if I might fit with the department.
Fit is one of my idols. In college I roamed from one group to the next. This is a fun way to learn a little about a lot. And after college when I was keen to move abroad, my secret hope was to find a place where I fit perfectly. I imagined cobbled streets and sun dappled sidewalk cafes. I imagined solitude. I imagined a crowd happy to land me in their crew.
But now when I thought of how I might fit in the English department, I was a little nauseated. I couldn’t dredge any storyline of how my presence was essential to the department, or how wonderful the school day would be, to have my own classroom. To open my own door each morning, to greets students I know, to know where the projector remote is kept, to always have a tissue box. I can picture returning to the classroom. My year away (and this second year away) from teaching literature and writing confirms I really like teaching literature and writing. Yet I cannot pretend that I am absolutely the best fit for a teaching position at our school because I know two things: I would do well, and so would someone else. I was nauseated at the thought of fitting not because it was the idea I might fit the English department or fit the needs of our students or fit the high school community, but because I already do fit where I am. As kindly pointed out by a friend when I lamented this chase to find my place. Why do I question where I am? I am here. And so this is where I belong.
I am here in Korea for two more years. Maybe longer. As long as I am here, I am right where I belong.
Unfinished. A week or two before the announcement internal openings I was laying in bed one night when I felt my upper body slowly paralyze. I lay still for a moment. The sensation is familiar, born of fear. Two years ago at the start of our job search to leave Kuwait, I woke in the middle of the night to pins and needles across my chest, down my left arm and most alarmingly, in patches on the left side of my face. I called my dad who the summer before suffered Bell’s palsy. I thought maybe that was it, that or a stroke. The pins and needles did not indicate palsy or stroke, only anxiety at a new height.
I like to think I am calm. I like that idea that following Christ grants peace that passes understanding. So that night a couple of weeks ago when my upper body went numb I sat up, flexed my fingers, rolled my neck and said to the dark, Where is my peace?
Rolled into this present experience is a past hurt and a potentially wrong conclusion. Two years ago I was set to go to Kenya. I remember a near maniacal hope. I remember believing that since I wasn’t seeking anything overtly wrong for my life or my family, since I wasn’t scrambling for money or comfort, that my want had to be answered by a move to Nairobi. This could not possibly counter what God had in mind for us. But we did not get hired by a school in Kenya. Instead, in the days after that option closed, I cried and wondered what am I supposed to want. This question persists. What am I supposed to want? What do my desires matter? When we planned to leave Kuwait, Justin and I made a list of wants. Our kids added to the list too. We wanted to bike to school. I wanted to run outside. Claire wanted snow. One night after losing Kenya, I could not sleep. I walked through our dark apartment and stood at the big windows where I watched the cars and buses below. I stood in the middle of our playroom. I wept. I was so sad. When I think about this night, I am there again. I could not see how the months ahead would open to where we are. For me to even consider where we are now, I needed to absolutely lose the chance of going where I thought we belonged. A day or two later, we got an email from Korea.
The same friend who kindly reminded me I fit where I am, at the outset of this current search, also said to me, Trust the process. He may have said this half jokingly. Let go and let God, he said, Trust the process. Years ago in Colombia I worked with a couple who eventually left international teaching to open a Bikram yoga studio in southern California, and when I saw Katy in her new life wearing a tee shirt that said Trust The Process, I wanted the shirt. I’ve long adored the idea of process, if not the real in-the-middle work of process. My notebooks are full of the reminder to trust the process. Faith works out through experience. Writing is crafted during revision. Relationships strengthen or break by the addition of a day, hardship, disagreement, joy. Raising my children is an illustration of process. Such comfort to know I am yet unfinished.
But what process do I trust? This last week, before and after interviewing for a teaching position, I practiced articulating what I want to say about this current process, my waiting to know what more the next two years in Korea might hold. There is God at work. There are people at work. There is a lot I do not know about what happens if I teach literature and writing, or what happens if I remain in my current role at the school. And I can see both ways working well.
Losing Kenya comes back to me now as caution not to want too much. Losing Kenya comes back to me now as a question of what I really want. Losing Kenya comes back to me now as a rebuke that I may not know what I most need. That was my angst when my friend grinned and said, Let go and let God. Trust the process. We play glib about this. But I’ve come around to the glib repose of whatever. I want to teach so I applied to teach so I interviewed to teach so I wait to teach. But whatever. Next year I will teach or not teach, and I cannot say now. Losing Kenya may have wrecked me for hope in me, and perhaps that is the point. I continue to pour into marriage and parenting, with hope. I continue to write and work, with hope. I continue to daydream where to live next or where to travel, with hope. But my hope is not in my own ability or achievement. I follow Christ who exacts the high price of everything, to know the love of God now, to live in love now and forever. Faith necessitates a hope in what I cannot see in full: that God is good. All of me is one line of a story, one thread in a tapestry, one note, one brush of paint that adds to his name, defines his glory. If I accept God is at work in and through me as I seek to be more as Christ, then I am free to trust that any bit of this time on earth (this process) is useful. And then I am free to accept, or even welcome, all the little bits that make up my time on earth: relationships, work, writing, Korea, losing Kenya.
My hope is that as I chase wants and needs, I am not lost to those wants and needs. I trust that God attends the moment and tomorrow. I do not quit my dreams, and I am not lazy at my pursuits, but I am beginning to understand there is a holy posture called whatever: whatever the day is, whatever the year is, let my heart be right. Give me the wisdom, fun, creativity for the moment and again, tomorrow.
Still. After the interview I walked home with Grant. Along the river path I wondered if my levelness was peace or passivity. Am I just totally at peace with what comes next, or am I surrendered instead to familiar passivity, accepting least resistance as the right way forward. Later at home I was in the kitchen and stood quiet. Do I know what I want at all? I am now partnered for sixteen years, raising two children, living abroad for over a decade. I want to teach, so I applied to teach. But is there a deeper want yet? Is there something more for my time? I worked in the kitchen, worked my way toward whatever. That is where I am now. I will continue to think about what to want, peace and passivity, surrender to whatever may come today and again, tomorrow, but now I wait while there are other minds at work to set in place where I fit next year which is, always, right where I am.
Today I am thirty-eight years old. When I think about my age, I take inventory against whatever my mother was doing at my age. There is no way to say if she was better than me at her age thirty-eight, or if I am inching ahead at my age thirty-eight, but for the marvel of comparison I can’t help but tick through the list. She celebrated the first birthday of her fourth child while her first child started university. She paid a mortgage, drove a minivan, and meal planned. My daughter just turned ten, my son eight, and university enrollment is still far enough away that I sometimes wonder if the world will end before the kids get a chance to be adults – even though statistically (where are those statistics!) now is supposed to be a safer, less violent, better time to be alive than any of our previous centuries. I am living in an apartment I didn’t choose, and I ride a bike or take the subway. I never meal plan.
Maybe I will turn this little paragraph into an essay. Maybe I’ll ask my sister Joanna if she does the same thing. Or my brother Nate, if he thinks of Dad as he adds a year. Maybe Mom thinks of her mother. Mom and I are both firstborns. We made our mothers. Or maybe on my birthday, Mom remembers who she was when she was thirty-eight, chalks up a similar list. Yes, maybe this will become an essay. One of thirty-nine stories I will write to celebrate this, my thirty-ninth year.
Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to work in an office or be a teacher. Both of these jobs seemed like play. One year I received a desk organizer for my birthday and I kept the little compartments stocked with paper clips, pens, post-its, and smiley face stickers. I took a highlighter and pen to the JC Penney catalog, circling and crossing out items, taking calls from imaginary customers and enjoying how official I sounded when I repeated item numbers, sizes, colors. Dad would hand over a thick stack of those postcards you get in magazines, all advertising something computer related, and I filled our fictitious names and addresses. This was office. School was an old teacher’s edition of a grade two or three language arts text, its gloss pages bound by a thick white metal spiral. I gave spelling tests. I asked the comprehension questions. I flipped through the pages efficiently. I used a teacher voice that could border on insincere patience. But then I wanted to be a writer.
There is no way to play at being a writer. If you want to be a writer you cannot pretend to write. You must write. What you can pretend – what I have often pretended – is that you have a readership, that a book deal is nigh, that what you write won’t disappear in thirty years. Thirty-Nine Stories is not about pretend. Thirty-Nine Stories is about me being a writer, for real.
During my thirty-eighth year I cornered Justin in the bedroom one night. This does not go anywhere fun. I put my hands on his shoulders and said, Look at me. Still not going anywhere fun, even though that evening I’d had two glasses of wine. Justin looked at me and I said, I missed an MFA. I am going to write like I’m getting an MFA. He said, Okay.
Well, here is the fun part. Parameters! Thirty-nine stories completed in one year. Stories: narrative fiction or nonfiction. I can revive old ideas, return to incomplete drafts, but I must also write totally new work. The quality of pieces will vary. I will revise what I want to revise. By the end of the year, I want fifteen strong pieces. Pieces: may vary in length: ten (or fewer) pieces of 500 – 1000 words; at least ten pieces of 5000 – 10,000 words; at least three pieces of 10,000+ words. And for the readership (you) I will post excerpts/ full drafts of each finished story, though process posts may be more interesting because even I want to know how I plan to write thirty-nine stories in one year.