Ordinary Suffering/ Suffering Is Ordinary

Last week I was writing about suffering. I have been writing about suffering for years (because that’s a fun way to fill a notebook, right?) but this year I churn when I sit to write about suffering, with impatience to reach conclusion about what I see in the world, what I see in dear friends’ lives, what I feel in my body and mind. When considering others’ losses, I wonder if my own suffering is selfish. Does God care to comfort me when I am sad for nothing much, compared?

A few weeks ago, after a family suffered the death of their baby girl, my friend Sabrina listened to my very wandering thoughts about everything and said to think about what I am learning from the people in my life who suffer much. This circle of suffering friends includes Sabrina, in her first year of widowhood, her first year of single parenting. So last week when I was writing about suffering and a colleague asked what I was working on, I told him and he quoted an Auden poem – “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters: how well they understood” – which I looked up. Which sent me to Pieter Brueghel’s painting “Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus.” I read the poem, looked at the painting and found a way in.

The Fall Of Icarus

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Ordinary Suffering/
A Response To “Musee des Beaux Arts”
Sarah Marslender

I was on the way to the airport to fly to Australia
when my grandfather died in Wisconsin,
but I read the news at the gate, leaned against
my husband. I thought, Grandpa knows everything/
I was at my work study when a plane flew into
the World Trade Center – we turned the radio on,
we thought it was impossible but true, returned
to our work/ Two weeks ago, I was walking down
a school hall when I checked my messages to
learn a friend’s baby died. With the time
difference between here and there, I couldn’t
remember what I was doing when this baby girl
left all of this world

I think about that – what I am doing when a
plane explodes in the air, or barrel bombs rain,
or the earth shakes foundations, slips mud, eats
half a mountainside town. I think about where I
am when, as if it matters at all

to join the suffering. We do not all turn away
from the boy who falls from sky. The fisherman
with his slender rod, the hawk on its slender branch,
the shepherd staring at sky – we do not all turn
away from ordinary suffering but you cannot
see our heads turn, our feet move before we
think, or how we lay that night seeing it again,
you cannot see what paint dried

Ordinary suffering/ suffering is ordinary, not
less than/ greater than, only part of being here
where people may fall from sky, or wake with a
mouthful of mud, or witness the brightest/ most
excruciating light before dark, or walk the next
day with empty hands

Midwinter Rant – & Revision

It’s day three hundred and seventeen of winter. We’re halfway to spring!

I underestimated the work of just getting through a transition year. This week I nearly missed the bus home from school. I sat in my seat, whispered a gentle fuck and then quietly cried for most of the commute. Three nearby colleagues noticed, patted my shoulder or said a kind word when they stood for their stop, offered a little commiseration, sympathy. Later in the week when Claire stood in front of me on the sidewalk and declared, You don’t get it! I am having a tough week! All week I am sad! You don’t understand! I thought of being the grown up who two days earlier cried on the bus ride home from school.

Because rants are allowed transitionless tangents:

I spent the week thinking about one essay I am revising. I worked on this essay a little each day. I thought about this essay on my morning runs. I dreamed this essay. I actually dreamed a paragraph to add, woke up and made a note.

Personal narrative is exhausting. This particular essay is a challenge because it centers on the years following the death of my friend’s infant and after two years of drafting and revising it is near completion though, as I added in a line, the conclusion I reach is that I will continue to ponder these things for years to come. There is no neat, tidy or uplifting package for the initial loss or grief and what I saw as I allowed time to write and think about that summer and my intersection with the event and lives involved – what I saw is that a first grief can open other griefs.

This must be true at any tragedy. We think we are sad for one thing because we are sad for that one thing, but then we are also sad for this other thing and soon our grief for the two entwines.

I was angry for three years after this infant died. I thought I was angry at the loss or the situation or even certain people present then, but the anger may also have been for the way this one grief made me see another, different sorrow I was holding.

If I didn’t keep a notebook or draft personal narrative, I might be better at sitting on a bus and pretending everything was fine.

This essay. I might have ruined it with the latest revisions. At the least I have taken the term personal literally and explored desires and fears circling motherhood, desires and fears I was already examining when my friend’s infant died and, in the years since, I linked those desires and fears with that summer’s grief.

One afternoon I took the kids to a small cafe for hot chocolate. I sat with my laptop open, adding to this essay, and Claire asked why I like to write. I said I want to make art. But when I consider why I write personal narrative, I have no good answer. A couple of weeks ago I was out to coffee with my friend Erin and I found a way to say why personal narrative is difficult: there is a pressure to really get it right. Especially the tough parts. I often start writing about something just because I need to write about that something but when I decide to turn the idea into a (someday) shared essay, there is terrible dread I won’t say what I need to say in a way that translates to understanding.

Early in the week my friend Sarah messaged me a quote from Australian author John Clarke.

“Writing another draft” sounds exhausting. “Having a bit of a tinker” sounds delightful.

And a day or two later Erin messaged me a link to a Reading My Tea Leaves post about writing or creating while also being a mother, a thoughtful reminder that what I am doing piecemeal adds to my craft. More, that motherhood adds to my craft.

Yesterday Grant looked at my engagement ring and asked if it is a real gem. I said yes. He asked, A diamond? A real diamond? Yes. His eyes got big. He said, We’re so rich! We are, in so many ways.

Well, this rant wound down nicely. It is still cold. We are trading coughs. Strawberries cost as much as a dollar apiece. And it is still cold.

Hosier Lane, Melbourne

Melbourne HL Looking Up

Agnes named two places we should go in Melbourne. When I mentioned wanting to see street art, she said, Go to Hosier Lane. And she said to eat at The Hardware Societe. She described the dish she ate, how she couldn’t explain why such a simple dish of egg and avocado was the most delicious, but it was.

Agnes and Rob are friends of friends. During our stay in Maryborough we spent an afternoon at their house. They have an acre in a small subdivision off a highway, a big yard for the kids, with a teepee at the back lot line, perfect for planning adventure or hiding. The kitchen opens to a large outdoor room and I spent the afternoon there, sitting at a round table made for company and long, lazy lunches. I watched the kids run around, race a remote control car, jump on the trampoline. Wherever I travel I imagine living. The outdoor spaces built into Australian homes are gorgeous – not the patio or screened porch of the Midwest, but an easy flow from inside to outside, like homes I remember in Cali, Colombia. So one day, I think while sitting at Rob and Agnes’s table, When I live in Australia or South America, I will make an outdoor space to read or write, a place to think, nap, drink a little, eat. (Maybe what I need is a tent).

That afternoon I was quiet and tired, thinking of my family in Wisconsin and why we choose to be so far away. (Why do we choose to be so far away?) But I was also thinking how, after only two or three days on my sixth continent, I was already deciding to return. (Why do we choose to be so far away?)

Melbourne MosaicMy first morning in Melbourne I ran a path south along the Maribyrnong River, toward the port, and found street art hidden on a short stretch connecting the quiet river path to a busier road route. A low brick wall was a surprise of bright color, swoops and angles, cartoon illustrations. A small utility building with a Danger High Voltage Keep Out sign was painted a weave of flames. There was a sculpture of a fish-man on a bicycle, welded from scrap metal. Running back, I looked up to see a small square tile mosaic installed on a metal and concrete bridge. I immediately thought: this is my writing.

Probably I make too much about me. But I saw that little piece of art tucked where a few people see it and I ran away ready to do the same with my work this year. Street art is daring and vulnerable. You make something to share, on purpose. You make someone see:

I put a mosaic together
I spray paint at midnight
I write poetry
I play a song without words

And you hope when someone sees they connect/ interact with/ respond to your work. We don’t always get to know that part. I wish I could tell the maker of that tiny mosaic how glad I was to see art on a trestle.

That morning we took the tram downtown. When Agnes talked about Hosier Lane I imagined a mile of painted brickwork. I imagined a whole street angling through downtown Melbourne, like where we might shop or stop for a bite, just lucky enough to be surrounded by an artist’s late night work. But Hosier Lane is an alley, wide enough to work and no storefronts to fuss. The buildings on either side are three or four stories. Giant canvases. Agnes told me wedding parties visit Hosier Lane because the backdrop is so wild. That weekday there were no wedding parties but we arrived to see other tourists with their heads thrown back to see the tallest art, to take in as much wall as they could. What I saw was all the cameras. All the poses.

Melbourne HL 4I took a couple of pictures of Justin and the kids, then left them for the hour. The lane is short enough, only a city block or so, that we bumped into each other but I didn’t pay them much mind except to shoo Claire out of a shot and tell Grant to wait a minute. Now that seems embarrassing, a little greedy. Didn’t I want Claire to see something she might do one day, paint for an audience? Didn’t I want Grant to see how unpredictable art is? But while there, I didn’t bother about my kids’ responses to the brick walls of spray paint, and I didn’t care whether Justin was enthralled. Instead I got sucked into other people’s interactions with Hosier Lane. I watched tourists like me put on faces for a camera, for a phone. And those were the pictures I wanted. I walked up and down the lane, pausing to watch and listen, waiting for the moment one person raised a camera to another. I fit that pull in the small frame of my phone screen. When someone noticed, usually after, I talked with them, said I like the picture of you taking a picture here. I asked, Do you mind if I take another? Sometimes I would take another. I didn’t ask names or places. I didn’t ask permission.

Melbourne HL Looking At MeThere was a couple with good cameras and good style hanging out at this fantastic orange and blue painting of a woman’s profile, her face surrounded by angles and arsenal, plump lips a slight smile. This couple took turns posing. They looked at one another’s photos. They might have been doing what I was doing, watching everyone else too. At one moment I stood directly across from this couple and she looked at me.

There were two girls, maybe twelve or thirteen, with phones and tall convenience store slurpees. Both wore short shorts and one tugged at her tube top. When either girl posed, it was any of: pop a hip, step up, arch back, lean, slouch, raise arms, pout, barely smile, try on serious. Between poses the two girls conferenced, switched rolls. I asked did they mind and then took a few pictures. One I really like is of the girl in yellow wearing mirrored aviators. She’s pigeon toed and looking up. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands so she drops them to the front of her waist, politely. She looks like a child and she looks like a million models.

There was an Indian family. A young family and a set of grandparents. I would have liked getting a picture of the grandmother in her bright sari. She might look like a dash of paint standing still. I could have asked. Instead I watched. At one point the family wandered away from the young son and I saw this echo: a boy painted on the wall, a boy standing next to the wall.

Melbourne HL 1There were two friends out for the day. I offered to take their picture on one of their phones and one of them offered to take my picture. I didn’t get a good picture of myself. While the one woman snapped photos of me standing in front of Hosier Lane mural, the other kept asking questions. So my face is doing this talking-while-smiling thing that doesn’t look cool or casual. I have a slightly droopy eyelid. One day my face will look old but right now my face just looks tired. I should have posed instead, like the stylish couple, close lipped, head slightly tilted, hands in my front pockets like I walk around like this all day.

We ate at The Hardware Societe, a thirty minute wait for a shared table to learn Agnes was right.

Sometimes Days, Then One Hour

I am in Melbourne now. The day before we flew to Australia to meet friends for Christmas, I learned my grandpa had fallen and his body, weakened by Parkinson’s disease, was unlikely to recover. That afternoon I laid on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, and drifted between tears and sleep. The next morning I called Mom. I wasn’t sure if I needed to be home. Last time I visited Grandpa, we said a kind of goodbye and in the months since I prayed for his heart as he endured.

My own heart did not know what was right when I learned, kindly said, that it was only a matter of time. I am still not certain I did what was right, going to Australia on holiday when the man who set me on the crossbar of ten-speed bike to race down a hill, telling me to hold on the short ride down, returning to the top of the hill for another go, this time taking my brother, before my second, third turns – when that man was dying and I still might go to his side and say again: I remember how strong you were and see how strong you are even in this weakness. And your weakness does not change my love or affection or memory of who you are.

In the airport Justin showed me the email Mom sent that Grandpa had died. I thought what I’d been doing four hours ago. The flight was long. We landed in Queensland and I made it through a full day, woke early to run. For a week I ran with stray thoughts that brushed against prayer and poetry. I started immediately to write a poem I could see coming together, eventually. I wrote and rewrote and supposed at structure, organization for pages and days. Below is the latest draft, written today in a cafe, across from my daughter who sat reading her book. I will return to this, puzzle the best way for this poem.

A couple of weeks before he died, I sat in a different cafe, alone, thinking about Grandpa meeting Grandma, thinking about the care, chance and appointment that line up our lives; thinking the ways we are made to be here now. I am glad for my grandparents, glad for my parents, glad now for my children who will one day have their own moment of wild reflection: all the ones who bring us here now, all the ones who follow.


Maryborough, Queensland

4.Island Plantation Road

I am where I want to be
at the edge of sugarcane fields
under a hot, blue morning,
feeling my heart. The air is
sweet. I stand still long enough
for sweat to salt my arms, legs –
long enough to listen to
how quiet the world is, finally,
long enough to decide
I must go back. The roads back
are  the roads I look for
when I run: roads of
narrow width
single lane stretches
neglected asphalt
gravel
Those roads go where I want

3.Saltwater Creek Road

This must go somewhere to
nowhere, this busy road out
of town, this busy road must
give me a two lane road, at least,
a two lane road that loses
its shoulder, that gives me
a woman and her dogs out
as early as I. This woman and
her shepherding dogs stop. She
tells me the roads cutting
through these fields are
quiet and if I take this one –
There. She points –
I can go right to the creek

2.Walker Street

Far away from me my grandfather
is newly dead, awaiting burial

Maybe this is why I run all
the short paths in this cemetery,
correcting my mistake, thinking
at a distance this is an empty
cemetery. The markers are flat
and the cemetery is full

Luther Valley cemetery is full
of tall, old stones weatherworn so
it is easier to feel rather than read
names and dates etched or raised
Full also of sharply cut new
headstones like the one my family
will stand at when my
grandfather is given back

1.No Through Street

The town is a crosshatch of
wide, crowned roads that end at
field river highway. On a map,
the town’s edges look frayed
I run Lennox, Moreton, Bazaar,
Pallas, Albert, Queen
looking for a way out,
finding instead how this town
wakes, slow in bright, hot air,
slow at summer Christmas

 

Today I Am Thirty-Seven

There was frost on the ground this morning. The grass made silver green, the wooden bridge a slip underfoot. It is autumn – my first in a decade – and the days pull between two seasons with cold nights and colder mornings, crisp afternoons. I ran this morning. I could see my breath but feel my toes. This year I am running all the seasons. I am warned winter is very cold. I am told winter isn’t so bad. I will know winter in another month or two. Now though, the wild green I drank in August, the wild green I’d missed out the desert window, the wild green is going. Tall grasses along the river wave gold and the leaves of trees growing either side of the river and up the hills are the color of campfire. This morning I noticed the pointy elbows and knobby fingers of bare branches. Soon all the trees will be angles and lines against sky.

Today I am thirty-seven. I thought about this while running. I thought I should feel something about thirty-seven. What I feel is okay and okay is peak compared to the inappropriate, hidden emotions of my last decade of birthdays and anniversaries when, instead of remaining buoyantly thankful/ exuberant/ #blessed, I’d often sink in melancholy at to-date regrets. Then at some point late in the day, Justin would see my disappointment and apologize for not getting a gift of messing up dinner plans. I’d sigh, be held, and think I couldn’t explain my sorrow was not a missed dinner out but the whole course of my life. It was much easier to imagine I was pouty about baking my own cake.

Growing up, birthdays were a big deal. Mom asked what we wanted for our birthday dinner. I remember choosing tacos or fettuccini alfredo. From first waking to right before bed, we’d get songs and hugs and kisses. We were celebrated. We were enjoyed. I don’t remember my siblings or myself feeling jealous of one another’s birthdays because each of us had a turn at choosing our day’s activities and menu. I remember making cards or putting together small gifts for Nate and Joanna and opening their gifts to me.

When I turned seven in second grade, my parents gave me a Lisa Frank watch with a set of bright, interchangeable bands that I wore for two or three years. When I turned eleven in sixth grade, I walked hand in hand with Mom at dusk to a blood drive and watched her donate a pint. I ended up resting with my feet up while my sister ate cookies and drank all the offered juice. When I turned sixteen my junior year, my family showed up during second period choir, dressed as clowns and singing happy birthday before Mom pinned a corsage on my sweater. When I turned twenty-one as a senior in college, my roommates and I drove out of town on a quiet country road and watched the Northern lights.

After college I chose a direction I hadn’t quite meant to choose and there I was in the middle of something good I didn’t want, married and teaching in rural Wisconsin. So each year marked another year deeper in this something good I couldn’t see, another year removed from the direction I didn’t take.

I turned twenty-seven in Colombia, celebrated with a party of new friends, celebrated an age I’d long thought a good number to really do something. The something I did was have a baby, so I celebrated twenty-eight waking with my one-month old daughter. I was bleary and hopeful this would work out okay.

At some point, we let go. I do not mourn growing older. I tell friends I want my forties. But I want my forties because I think then I will do whatever it is I imagine doing well: writing a book you read, sending creative and kind children to the world, falling into enviable late marriage comfort.

Years ago my dad wrote “Be there” on the dedication page of my new Bible, my full name stamped in italic gold at the bottom right of the maroon leather cover. And since then I’ve returned to that exhortation to find its fit for many situations as a quiet command to hold steady in the present, with no rush to the next task or conversation, no rush to the next year or season. How can I explain why this birthday – opened with a cold morning run, closed in a warm bed with my husband – was the birthday I was just there for, not sinking in melancholy, not counting misses and ifs. And this birthday: returning from my run to my son singing the first two lines of happy birthday before telling me to come see what they got for me, opening my eyes to find a tiny cactus spiked with purple blooms at my feet, resting against my husband who is just so good to hold, kissing my daughter’s smooth forehead and thinking some birthday soon we’ll be an even height. And this birthday: a hot shower, good coffee, a catch up with a friend, an hour to write, an hour to read. So much in one day. Errands and chores before we woke up to Monday. A late afternoon snit by my daughter who proclaimed that I am no fun, that I ruin all the fun, that I don’t want her to have any fun. Hodge podge dinner. The last flurry of bedtime. Then the day was over and I was that much into my thirty-eighth year, warm in bed next to my husband and glad for okay.

Maybe even better than okay. I want to know why contentment feels a fight. Why for a decade, more, I couldn’t fully ease into the good I had. Why during those years I pinched at the thought of a parallel track where I lived in a drafty walk up, wearing an old wool sweater through the entire winter, forgetting to eat because I consumed stories instead and emerging in spring with a book of my own.

I am okay and occasionally terrified.

I am thirty-seven and finally thank you Jesus at last glad for marriage and children. But I am also thirty seven and keenly aware what I waste. So now I learn a narrow walk of contentment and pursuit. Now I learn a narrow walk of trust. Now I learn do I reap the years of practice, do I reap the years of choosing to stay, do I reap the years of fighting to yield, do I reap the years of sorrow and fear, do I reap the years of tentative joy, do I reap the years of quiet obedience, do I reap the years of defiance, do I reap. At night, I curl into my husband’s warm body, breathe against his skin. This is comfort, to be near and warm, to tell my mind to be here between the sheets and nowhere else, no parallel Sarah untethered, no shadow fright, no ache for what I am not. At night I may lay awake in terror or I may rest.

Every Time I Draft A Piece I Ask Why

Here is something I’ve been thinking, in essay form. Well, in a first draft form I’ll let sit for a while. I always think I’ll let a draft sit, get ready for that magic day when I have the best way to finish the piece. But then I think, For what. Why am I writing this. I get apathetic enough that I don’t bother with question marks. Instead, it’s flat, unanswerable. Why am I writing this. For the piece below, I have an answer: I couldn’t not. There’s a memory that’s hard to look at and spiritual truth I barely touch and as is usual of my personal essay drafts, the writing itself was unpleasant because I think there is something more to say and a better way to say it, but I can’t yet. I hope there is a reason I commit any of this to a page. More, I hope I find a magic day to rework this draft to honor two of my repetends.

With that. I know I am not the only one.


I keep thinking about this boy who died. I was junior in college and he was freshman. We lived in the same residence hall at the edge of campus and fell into step one afternoon. I was a community advisor who put up bulletin boards and hosted ice cream parties and floor meetings but I rarely saw him around the hall. He lived on the third floor, went home on the weekends and ducked his head when walking by the front desk. I remember the day being cold. Maybe an in between day in Wisconsin when autumn is over but air doesn’t yet bite. He had his hands in his front pockets. He was lean like some boys are when they just graduate high school and he walked like he felt too tall, making his shoulders narrow. Maybe because we were walking side by side he could talk a little, tell me he was from a small town on Lake Michigan and that’s where he went every weekend to fish. He had a boat or his father had a boat.

I think we talked about siblings. I think he had a sister still in high school. I think he was studying in the College Of Natural Resources.

I keep thinking about this boy. His name was Nathan. That first afternoon, walking side by side back to our residence hall on an almost winter day, he smiled. I remember feeling like I won because here was this quiet boy who ducked when he walked by people and he’d just smiled at something we said.

He went home on the weekends to take his boat or his father’s boat out on Lake Michigan so I didn’t see him much and had no reason to knock on his door and ask about his day. One night I couldn’t sleep. I laid in bed thinking of his sloping body he hadn’t yet grown into, thinking of that smile I caught when I glanced up.

I thought about boys like that. Boys I’d just met or boys I knew and saw in a different way, suddenly. I constructed so many lives from chance smiles or gestures, from a name called on a roster the first day of a history class, from a long bike ride with childhood friend. At twenty, the years spin out in any direction. I could see myself in Ireland, Alaska or Kenya as easily as I could see myself married to a bank teller, artist or fisherman. When I had class with a boy from Portland I imagined us walking under a shared umbrella. So when I met Nathan, I imagined his whole family I’d never meet. His mother cooked a full breakfast and put an arm around her son’s waist when he came in from an early morning on the lake. Her cheeks flushed like his did. His father was as silent as he was. The house had windows in the right places to send squares of sun on scuffed hardwood. At breakfast his sister and mother talked, pulled Nathan and his father into conversation, and after, each carried his or her own plate and glass to the kitchen counter.

That winter I came in from a night class, carried my bike to the basement room where the residence hall staff had weekly meetings. I opened the door and there was a group of guys having a Bible study. I was surprised. They were surprised. Nathan ducked his head. I rolled my bike to its place against a wall, apologized and left. I thought, He is a brother.

Nathan drowned that spring. He and a friend or cousin were out on the lake when a storm came up and capsized the boat. I remember hearing the boy he was with lived. I remember hearing Nathan saved the boy he was with by pushing him toward floating debris. I remember seeing this story in my mind, the thrash of Nathan’s legs, the heaviness of his wet clothing and boots, the whiteness of his face and hands in the frigid water, the last energy in his limbs propelling another to safety. I remember feeling a little sick. I remember being conflicted that I’d imagined meeting his mother.

I google combinations to find the story again: Nathan uwsp lake michigan drowning, 2001 lake michigan drown uwsp student, uwsp student Nathan drown, uwsp student Nate drown 2001. I can’t find anything. Instead I dredge articles about annual numbers of drownings, reasons why the Great Lakes are dangerous, drunk college students walking into water. There’s an article about another underclassman who killed himself over Thanksgiving weekend that year, after dropping out of college to go live with friends in Madison. I try to remember Nathan’s hometown. I try to remember was it 2000 or 2001. I think about emailing the alumni office but I’m not sure what they could tell me about a freshman (was he a sophomore) who drowned in Lake Michigan before graduating from the College Of Natural Resources, before deciding to move north to Superior or west to Denver, before falling in love and staying awake thinking how to marry this woman, before losing his heart or holding his firstborn, before waking tired each day, before eating slivers of ripe peach on a long summer morning.

I used to think about dying all the time. I’ve wanted death at different times. In middle school I was on a youth group camping trip and a few of us went to a playground, spun around in tire swings and talked about the best way to die. One girl said she wanted to drown because it sounded romantic to drown. She leaned back to watch the sky circle above.

My family camped on Lake Michigan for a few summers, going for a week after the season was over when the water was the warmest it’d be for the year. The campground was nearly empty, the beach ours. Mom talked to us before going into the water. She told us about the undertow and what to do if we got pulled under, how to swim parallel to the shore, not to panic. We were strong swimmers. I went into deep water,  where the waves rolled before taking a cap and crashing. In water up to my chest, I could feel the suck of the water, pulling back into the lake, but my feet didn’t go from under me, the sand didn’t slip. I didn’t drown or almost drown or save anyone from drowning. I put goggles on, sank my belly to the bottom of the lake to pretend I was in the bigger ocean, touching the undulating sand and, for short moments, holding everything in my body still to feel the weight and weightlessness of water and death.

When Nathan died, we must have talked as residence hall staff. One of my friends lived on Nathan’s floor and told me the guys made a bulletin board in remembrance, writing notes about Nathan on small construction paper fish. I heard his parents were coming to clean out his side of a room he shared with another freshman boy. I had this idea that Nathan, now dead, could see the story I’d made up for us. Still when I think of this I am embarrassed, a little defensive, a little angry at all the alternate lives I’ve made and loosed while I wound my way to now – a small apartment in a suburb south of Seoul, a late thirties version of myself I couldn’t have thought up when I was twenty because this present version has stretch marks, Legos underfoot, a pretween daughter. But I keep thinking of this boy who died because he isn’t here to be any version of who he made up when he was out on his boat or his father’s boat each weekend.

We can be rich, easy with fantasy when we are nineteen or twenty. We can’t know any different then. Our years are long.

My brother was teaching in India when one of his students died in a car accident over a break. My brother wrote that as teachers we think we are adding to early parts of a person’s life with the introduction and encouragement of passions or pursuits, the space we make to hear a student’s theory or doubt, the sense we have about a student, that he or she will -. But sometimes we are adding to the last lines of a student’s life.

I think about how to close a piece of writing. I think about the revision and edits I make when I write. What makes a last line. One of my college composition classes I took my junior year, the year I met Nathan and the year he died, my professor told us to write a page from our autobiography. Page two twenty-something. I can’t remember what I wrote but I remember wondering how long the book was. Now I am thirty-six and thinking about Nathan and I can’t answer why that smile stays in my mind, why now I want to understand why he was finished then and I am not now. My page two twenty-something might be years away. I might have written it yesterday. I have this wrong view of how death might work.

A couple of years ago we were visiting my brother and his family in Nairobi, my niece’s friend Anna died. Anna was playing on a jungle gym in the yard of her family’s compound when she fell. She was in a coma for a couple of days. She was brain-dead. My sister-in-law came down the stairs one morning and I saw her tiredness, knew she had been awake praying for this family, praying for her own daughter who was going to lose a good friend. We were in Nairobi for the week after Anna died. At different points, we talked about the accident and death. Anna was eight or nine. She loved Jesus. At Anna’s memorial, her family described her kindness toward others, a sense of compassion already whole in short years, love in her conversation with and care for the needy around her. I look at my own daughter differently. I have this animal need to wrap my body around my daughter, around my son, when I think of either of them leaving this earth. I am not afraid but I am aware.

My sister-in-law, in her grief for this girl, wondered if God is merciful like this, allowing death to spare a greater suffering. Life is hard, she said. She spoke carefully. She spoke like she’d been thinking how to say why Anna died when we believe a God of miracles. And she said what some of us (how many of us) think when a person dies at the cusp of more because we want to think it matters, when a person dies. A death at eight or nineteen is different from a death at eighty-one. There must be reason.

When Nathan died I was sad in an abstract way. I was secure and insecure in my youth. I glanced at Nathan’s death. I was sad for his family but I didn’t know them and felt weird I’d even imagined knowing them at all. The made up visit to his home, the made up rock of his boat or his father’s boat, the made up smiles I’d win. Now I am sad in this way: he was spared but this suffering is sweet. This hard life is sweet. I have wished its end. I have made up escape.

Sometimes I think what I still need to get right. I forget the gospel. I am whole in Christ. The Spirit works in and through me to finish the good work begun. My wrong view of death comes from this idea that it’s the good work in my life that needs to finish – the good work in my small, forgettable life. But the good work spans time and place to tell God’s glory, to show his great power and love and I am a stroke of the pen. I might be a smudge in the margin. I might show up on two pages. I might be a footnote. I believe Nathan and Anna had more good life. They had suffering ahead, and sweetness. They had days of wonder and sorrow and rest ahead.

Nathan and Anna are repetends to me. I think of each irregularly. I did not know Nathan and I did not meet Anna but I think of them. I think of how their lines in the story show up in all sorts of books. How many of us in how many places know their lines in the story and how many of us in how many places are now shaped by their lines in the story, thinking about what it means to love a merciful and frightening God who can work the drowning of a boy, the sudden death of girl into a plot that holds. I don’t know how the plot holds. I haven’t gotten to that part yet.

Finding Form

Finding Form

I still want to figure out the lyric essay so I am practicing with baby essays. I don’t think the following is quite a lyric essay. But it’s a chunk I can work with, developing the strands of settling a new home, being a substitute teacher and running along the river. Maybe I’m too hung up on the idea of writing lyric essays and what I really need to do is write so prolifically I find my own form.

(Which I still hope is lyric essay).


Yesterday I subbed the last block before the weekend, a middle school strings class. About twenty kids came in the room, opened their instruments and started tuning. A few didn’t know how to tune their cellos or violins. One told me the teacher helps them, could I help them? I don’t know how, I said. To the class I asked anyone having trouble tuning to raise their hand and someone nearby would help and that’s what happened. Kids got up, stepped around open cases and music stands, plucked strings, drew a bow across. Heads bent to listen. The first violin played a note for everyone else to tune to. For the first minutes after, everyone practiced their own part of a song. I was standing where the conductor would stand but not on the box. I watched. I thought it was a mess but I liked it so I got out my phone and started to record.

Parts of this transition to Korea are easy. Running outside is easy, even in the rain, even in the humidity, because it feels like my whole body is lifting when I look up and see green hills or heavy clouds. There is so much rain that the river is muddy from runoff. Grasses on the banks and along the paths are flattened by sudden floods. One morning the river licked the path I raced. It was adventure.

Walking across the street for groceries is easy. I shop here the way I shop when we are traveling. I go into a store for milk and carrots and think it’d be nice to buy a zucchini too. I stop at the wines and pick one that doesn’t sound too sweet. I wander back across the street and cook something unremarkable which we eat at our big table before playing Uno or drifting to end the day.

Right now our apartment might be one we booked for a summer out of Kuwait. We learned places in the neighborhood, like where to get kimbap or fried chicken; we found a bike loop and ventured on a few longer rides with promises of a treat midway. I walk a little farther to get a latte served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and that feels like a holiday. Right now our apartment looks transient. One woman told me her boys referred to their apartment as the hotel, for two years. When I couldn’t find the colander to drain pasta, Justin didn’t know where it was either because we haven’t divided our cupboards much beyond where the plates go, where the flatware goes. My dresser drawers are full of winter running gear and the soap, shampoo, toothpaste and powder deodorant I wasn’t sure I’d find here (most of it is here) while the top of my dresser is a mound of clothes. I may as well have a suitcase open on the floor.

We have lived in Korea for one month. We just got our Alien Registration Cards (ARCs). We just got phone numbers and data plans. At school we are all learning something new. I told Justin my brain is full. My brain is like all those middle school strings students practicing their parts. If you listen you’ll pull measures of music from the cacophony. This is why I am so glad I have a river path to run in the morning.

When I run outside, I meditate imagine wander pray draft. The morning run is a gift. I return to the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t mind the repetition. I ask the same provision again and again. I want the Gospel in my heart. I count my sin, seek forgiveness, think how to repent this day. Such promise in the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread: because my daughter announced she doesn’t want to eat rice anymore and I miss cauliflower and I still haven’t figured out our oven. And lead us

I like to break there. I like to think about what it means to choose, what it means to follow.

not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Such mercy.

When I ask for God’s kingdom to come here, for his will to be done here, what I am asking is for the love of our Father and his righteousness to work in and through us. I think what our apartment is when God’s kingdom is present, when his will is at work in each of us individually and together. I want that so I ask again and again. What do we become, in love?

What cacophonous practice. God works our hearts in different ways so we are what the people near us need.

This is what happened yesterday: the middle schoolers finished practicing their parts and one boy counted the tempo, the rest of the students readied their bows and they started to play. It held together and then started to come undone. The boy looked around, nodding at his classmates to tell them faster or slower or it’s your part now. I only watched. They all continued to play. A couple of students spoke aloud, directions to one another. For a moment it seemed the song would quit. Then the melody found itself and the students were at the same measure at the same tempo and it sounded like music I would close my eyes to hear better.

Found Sonnet: Comments On Charlottesville

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

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

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

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


After Charlottesville, After Heather Heyer

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

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

 

 

 

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

Long Narrative Poem

The story behind this poem and a link to the full piece is below.

Amy And Ali Get Married

Our marriage is not just a piece of paper
Our marriage is many pieces of paper

First, a letter via the US Embassy in Bayan,
by appointment. First, a letter with signatures
and stamps vouching Amy is presently
unmarried so able to marry Ali who is allowed
(but will not take) three more wives
after this first marriage, his to Amy

This letter in hand, Amy takes a number
251
waits under fluorescent light in a big room
before she is redirected to a small room
off to one side, the ladies’ waiting room
which provides women privacy from stares
and which is also mostly ignored. She sits
alone, watching through the doorframe
all the men go to the counters. She calls Ali
to say she doesn’t think anyone will
remember her here. She returns to the big
fluorescent room and the electricity flickers,
the red number counter goes black, the lights
hum back on but no one is counting whose
turn it is

She waits with letter in hand so she can
marry the Lebanese man she didn’t imagine
when she left Illinois five years ago. She waits
among men who shuffle around her to make
their way to a counter where papers are
thumbed. She waits until the red number
counter blinks on and now
1083
she has missed her
turn! She weaves, nudges her way forward,
shows her number
251
smiles winningly
and waits for the man to look at her letter,
reach for a stamp, sign it so she can chase
the next piece of paper. But the man doesn’t
reach for a stamp or pen. He looks up at Amy who
is still smiling and he says, Go to America, get this
stamped, come back
No
and I will stamp
No

Amy leaves the big fluorescent room, walks into
midday winter, calls Ali who arrives in his car, leaves
it running while they sit in the front seat thinking
how to get married now

Read the complete poem: Amy And Ali Get Married Story behind the poem:

One day I sat at the teacher table during lunch and caught the end of Amy’s story about getting married here. The story has a lot of parts. I asked her to retell it. While I listened I thought two things: one, this should be an essay; two, is this mine to tell? But even as Amy was finally standing before a judge and legally marrying Ali, I could see her story in paragraphs and dialogue. I was imagining how many people might love to read the absurdity, not of marrying, but of marrying here, of the many turns you must take to get anything done within this particular bureaucracy. Paperwork snags here. It might be another stamp you need or a particular official who is now traveling or a law that changed two weeks ago. So while many of us haven’t been married in Kuwait, we recognize the wait times, the scavenger hunt, the comic frustration of compiling and re-compiling documents for (seemingly) whim approval. We recognize the exhausted or furious relief at obtaining chased visa or certificate or registration.

I thought about interviewing Amy and Ali, writing their marriage in those blocks of text I saw as Amy spoke. But as I’ve been considering whose story [this] is to tell, I’ve also been thinking about audience and purpose. So when I first thought about writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story, I wondered why their particular paperwork chase appealed to me and why I wanted anyone else to read it and the answer is: I am curious. I like to read and watch and listen to other peoples’ stories because I only get one life. There is a lot of the world I will never see. There are a lot of adventures and routes I won’t take. And the answer is: you are curious too. The purpose of writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story is to show you what it’s like to navigate paperwork. But more. Amy and Ali are a cross-cultural couple who encountered some prejudice as they pursued legal marriage. This is a rich and challenging commitment, choosing to love someone whose family/ religion/ ethnicity/ culture is so different than your own.

As for whether this is my story to tell, I spoke with Amy shortly after that lunch. I rethought my essay approach. Instead, I chose to draft a narrative poem. I chose poetry for the flexibility offered to form and language. I drafted just enough to know the piece could work and then spoke with Amy. I asked permission to write their marriage story. I decided the final piece would be to her and Ali, a wedding gift of sorts. Knowing that helped me choose which details to include. I took some liberty with narrative voice. I had direction too, to trace Amy and Ali’s love over each step. Early in the drafting, I returned to Amy to get a better sequence of events. I spoke with her about using some of my own images in the piece, pulling from my own experience of waiting rooms or government offices here. I did not speak with Ali before or during drafting, relying instead on one version of the story to tell the whole, but I also trusted my intent to honor Amy and Ali with this work. At the end of drafting, I shared the whole piece with Amy, fact-checked and revised a few things and waited for her to read the final version with Ali before sharing here. Ali corrected a piece of information which I included in the poem with an asterisk.

This poem is to Amy and Ali but it is for all of us to read. Both are fine with me sharing this work with you. As I continue to play with this piece, I will share its revisions with Amy and Ali. When/ if the piece it published in some form, it is first to the two of them, with my hope for their good marriage.

Long Pause, Planning & Please Let This Work

I have two projects I wanted to work on throughout the school year and now it’s April. I have been thinking about these two projects while doing nothing. Usually I say count daydreaming as drafting. Perhaps I can. One of the projects is to write about the bathroom ladies. In Kuwait, there are bathroom ladies who keep the bathrooms cleaned and stocked, who sit on plastic stools when they aren’t wiping down sinks and faucets, who accept leftovers from The Cheesecake Factory as a tip, who stay inside a bathroom longer than my working day.  I just think, what an interesting life. Maybe it’s great employment given prospects in their home country. Maybe it’s degrading. Maybe it’s weird to accept someone else’s leftover pasta as a thank you for wiping an already clean toilet seat. Or maybe the pasta is really good. Sometimes I wonder why people come to Kuwait. Some workers here are promised one kind of job and arrive to another. So I wonder, what did these women expect? What have they found? What do they enjoy? What do they wish? I wonder what workers here left behind and if they think this day is worth that loss.

These aren’t new thoughts for me. I know a few of the bathroom ladies I see regularly. And now I want to tell their stories. Even then, there are barriers. Language. Purpose. I started to wonder how one-sided this project might feel. I want to interview these women about why they chose to leave their homes and the minute I form that question with her face in my mind, I also see my face and wonder why I’m asking. Over the year I’ve wondered about my intent. I think speaking with bathroom ladies, telling their stories, gives voice to a microcosm of Kuwait. There is this idea of examining something small to tell a bigger story. The thing is, I don’t like the bigger story I see when I zoom out. There are a lot of unchecked labor practices in the region. Part of me wanted to examine recruitment, contracts and visas, the unfulfilled promises given these workers. Part of me wanted to hold these women up as martyrs of a kind, paid nearly nothing to send money home to children they see once every two or three or four years. And I do think that’s a story worth telling. This region can be difficult to document. So much about poor treatment of laborers, maids and nannies is hearsay and anecdotal but that doesn’t imply a story isn’t there to tell. Just that as I thought about my intent – writing about bathroom ladies – I had to reckon my reflex to tell a flat story of a poor bathroom lady against an oil rich backdrop. I don’t have the desire or resources to write a sweeping vilification of labor practices in a country dependent on migrant workers. More, I do not believe that honors the women I want to write about.

My first thought about the bathroom ladies was only to know more who they are. Several years ago I met a woman who likes to draw once her bathroom is tidy. I saw a few of her sketches. There is one woman I see who reads her tiny Bible in a corner. A couple of ladies watch an Indian soap opera on the tiny screen of a phone. So I am returning to that first thought, shaping an essay that tells more who these women are.

Last month I asked one woman if she’d sit with me and talk, tell me a little about her life. She agreed. I’ll speak with her soon. This week I will ask two others to speak with me, but the challenge is language. I remember the first time one woman, newly arrived from Nepal, said hello to me in English and I just thought how lazy I am that I live abroad so easily, assuming everyone everywhere knows a little English. The two women I want to include in the essay do not speak much English. We’ve communicated with facial expression and gesture. I have to figure this part out. I may check my church for translators.

My vision for the bathroom ladies piece is to write a lyric essay. There are so many beautiful and startling images to include and I believe the strength of this piece will be its pauses. What I want is for the essay to show who these three women are.

Perhaps I have been working on this piece all year. I’ve talked about it with a couple of friends. I’ve thought the best way to go about it. For a while I was unsure how much I wanted to appear in the essay. My complicated feelings about entitlement, shame and pity. My alternate apathy and anger at my fortune and others’ (perceived) misfortune. My mess of self-righteousness and prayer for humility. My wrestle with how much blessing Christ really bestows on the poor. I feel like a lot of this comes up for me when I think of my relationship to and with bathroom ladies in Kuwait because for years I’ve asked my perception to shift to see these women as women, not any way lesser for their poverty, not to be pitied, only as equal in worth and counted better than myself. One day I might find a way to say this, what is to love the poor and the rich when I might be called either in this country. But right now, with the months I have left here, my writing work is to listen first.