About A Little Kid That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do, Continued

Last night we walked to dinner with another couple whose kids are grown and out of the house. I run with Jen most weekends and am so glad we all got a chance to connect in a new way. My kids need different people in their lives. I get boring. Last night I loved listening to Jen and Erik talk with Claire and Grant. Grant was telling Erik about his story that I’m writing. Today I told him how far I’d gotten and he reminded me what comes next. Tomorrow I’ll try to finish the story and get Grant’s feedback. Below, I’m posting the full story. If you’ve read the first part, skim ahead to the bold sentence.


When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed. Both the knife sharpener and the boy leaned forward as if against a wind. Their eyes scrunched. Over another dozen hills there was a small puff of dust kicked up by horses. And in the small puff of dust, little squares of red. The knife sharpener turned to the boy and said, If you run now you might tell your village. Trife looked from the man to the puff of dust. His legs were tired. The knife sharpener was already hoisting his bag on his back and cutting across a narrow field before Trife could ask what to tell the village and then he understood some resting instinct awakened by a scent like garlic and sweat. Trife started running over the many small hills and the three giant hills to return to his village to tell his father and mother about the puff of dust carrying flags.

He did not make it to his village in time. At the crest of the last giant hill, the horses pounded past. Trife watched from the side of the road. The men riding the horses were strong. They carried so many pointy weapons. The horses looked angry. The men and the horses thundered by without looking at Trife, though they must have seen him as a little dot turning into a boy. Trife coughed on the dust. He raised a hand to his eyes and squinted. For a moment, the whole world was quiet.

Trife waited two days before returning to his village. Something in his stomach said to stay away so he did. He found a tree to climb and waited until the morning of the second day when he saw the puff of dust appear on the other side of his village. Again, the whole world was quiet as he walked the road toward the little hovel where his mother would be poking the cooking fire, his father already lifting rocks from soil, his brothers and sisters carrying sticks for the cooking fire or fetching water or being more useful than he was.

All the village sounds were gone. Trife stopped at the edge of the village and listened. His stomach told him the village was empty of any living people and he didn’t want to see any dead people. But his stomach also said he would die too, if he didn’t eat. He thought for a moment. He could walk to the baker’s hovel and take bread. He walked around the village, along the low stone wall that bordered some of the hovels, and then climbed over the wall at the baker’s hovel, dropped to the ground and saw the baker’s wife and son so dead Trife decided they were only sleeping and he was only being a naughty boy stealing bread and later his father would hear about it and smack Trife’s head. Even though the baker’s wife and son were only sleeping outside, after breakfast, Trife tilted his head up when he walked by so he didn’t have to make up a story about the baker’s son liking to sleep like a fish, with his eyes open. Trife was happy to find a forgotten loaf in the ash of the oven, so burned it blackened his hands when he cracked the crust open to eat the center of the loaf. Trife ate facing the low stone wall and thought if there was anything he needed from his hovel but decided he really couldn’t see his family sleeping in the daytime. This part of him was all gone. He climbed back over the wall and walked back the way he’d come, past the tree he’d climbed two days ago, past the spot the knife sharpener offered a piece of nice, fresh bread. He walked and walked. The sun disappeared. The moon lit the road. The night air got cold. Trife shivered but continued walking, supposing that over this hill there would be a village, or over this hill, or over this hill. Finally, Trife curled up like a fawn and slept.

(672 words added/ story is 1112 words total)

How I Do This Thing

Rarely easily.

Sometimes while wearing earplugs.

Often with a clock ticking down to draining the pasta or bedtime routine or my own sleep.

Often knowing there are half a dozen other things I should be doing instead: stretching my hamstring, stain treating a pile of kids’ clothes, unpacking the last boxes from our move, reading a book, cleaning the fridge, reorganizing art/ craft supply cupboards.

With much joy and doubt.

Right now my husband is folding laundry. He is working efficiently. He promised Grant they’d build Lego in a moment. Grant wants to know where the dark gray pieces are. Where’s the dark gray bin, Papa? Justin points toward Grant’s room. I put it in there, he says, It’s there. Go look. Justin is so good at supporting my writing. I don’t think he reads most of what I put up here unless I tell him to, or want his opinion. The content of my writing is of occasional interest to him, though when I give him a piece or ask him to sit and listen while I read, he usually likes what I say. Or has a question. I did not marry a man who thinks my art is hot. And he knows it won’t make money. But still, he tells me to go write. He sends me out to a cafe or folds the laundry while I sit at the dining table with my laptop open. Once or twice a year he braces when I start to weep because I don’t know why I write this much when I haven’t got a way forward I can’t see where it goes I don’t know who will read this I have no connections I am afraid I am too tired each day to make anything really go with this work what is this work why am I doing this I just can’t see what for and why didn’t I start publishing fifteen years ago because no one knows my name I haven’t been anywhere maybe I should self-publish or maybe I should quit.

I can’t quit. Knowing that makes me feel a little ill. I do this on purpose, even when the writing drags and the intrinsic motivation is more habit than hope.

Keep writing, I write in my notebook. Drafts are interrupted with all caps commands: KEEP WRITING KEEP WRITING. I feel a tilt in my work. I have new stories in my head that I put on the page in different ways. KEEP WRITING. I have old stories that deserve work. When I run or while I bike or on the subway platform, I’ll think how to reset a character, reshape the plot.

How I do this is slowly.

Maybe a month ago my friend Tara, a poet and writer, and I talked about how we fit writing in our regular life. Writing is part of our regular life. But we have more hours of practice elsewhere. She is an accomplished educator. We are mothers. She said we should go away for two weeks sometime. Go away and write without distraction.

Around the same time she and I talked, I had another conversation with Justin. I said, I’m not getting an MFA. This is it. That might be the moment I really decided I can’t do an MFA just to do an MFA but I am going to write like I’m earning one. This is good. I can push my writing as far as I can go.

Also around this time I saw a student art show and learned a little about Sammie Kim. Her art is precise, wild, imaginative, odd. She appreciates risk. I told her I wanted to buy one of her pieces because her work is what I want from my own practice: what pleasure to leap, what diligence to work, what trust to risk. I am buying two of her pieces. One, an exact ink drawing of two pinecones and the other a memory of her and her brother during childhood, with thoughts and sketches floating in the air. I love that two such different pieces are from the same creative mind.

From the other room I hear Justin ask Grant if he knew eleven was a prime number. You mean a good number? Grant asks. A prime number, Justin says. It means eleven is divisible by one and itself.

On the living room floor is the art project Claire started. Miniature watercolor paintings the size of playing cards.

Our night is quiet now. I’ve written through bedtime routine. Now to bed. Finally.

(759 words)

Bush Burning

I returned to an old story idea today, working out the way I might move the plot. Thinking about a character. Knowing I would post tonight, I daydream drafted today and am ready to write one or two scenes but that isn’t what I’m giving here. When I started this project (I need a catchy nickname for Sustain Creative Momentum – SCM sounds like a medication – if you say it like Essee-em – or a pyramid scheme, or dirty shorthand, but it might work), I thought I’d be posting lots of new work. Just blow through all my top ideas. Instead I am bush burning.

The metaphor came early. I’d sit to write with the intention of not whingeing about writing or Korea or my old school or the handful of people I find it so, so easy to judge because years ago I was insecure enough to take a sideways glance as condemnation and now it makes me feel better to imagine their veneers are wearing thin. Years ago I was insecure? Make a pie chart of my notebooks and depending on the month or hormone levels or if one of my kids just got pulled into the principal’s office, at least a quarter and up to ninety percent of the pages are worries that I really don’t know what I’m doing. The bigger worry underlying the reality that I often don’t quite know what I’m doing is that you also recognize I don’t know what I’m doing.

Maybe six or seven years ago I got reckless with my writing. Those are the journals you want to steal. Pretty much anything I wrote in Kuwait. And whatever I’m writing now. And probably whatever I’m writing when I die. After Grant was born I got so dark at times and writing everything helped. Much of my notebooks are prayer or working my way toward prayer. Anything sensational I write can probably be bulleted on a single page or may show up in a collection of essays at some point, an entire book of my worst moods and moments. (Please yes, please no).

Anyway. Bush burning.

When we were in Australia for Christmas I ran in the mornings. For Christmas we were on the beach and I ran inland up and down hills, past a golf course where I’d see kangaroos on the green, to a road that widened as it turned to gravel. There was a chain link fence and gate bordering the property on one side of the road, and a sign that warned No Trespassing. I think there was a picture of a security camera. It was a mine. On the other side of the road was a ditch, tree line and sparsely treed field. The tree trunks were blackened to about my height from a controlled burn. I stopped the second morning I ran out that way and thought a. I should have brought my phone so I could take a picture b. no one knew where I was c. I would miss my children if I were murdered d. (more likely) I would miss my children if I got bit by one of the thousand outback creatures that kill. Then I went back to looking at the burned trees and midsummer growth.

Sometimes I use my writing practice as an excuse not to push ahead with a new draft or revision. Instead of giving myself an assignment (for what! for what! why! who reads any of this!), I return to a habit of writing whatever mess my headspace is until the time is up, the pages are filled and I’ve ended with a prayer of Dear God, Help. Etcetera. We all need a good bush burning sometimes to keep us from burning down the neighborhood. But what surprises me is that when I sit down to Sustain Creative Momentum, embers flick my page and instead of writing an essay about a weekend in Salento, I end up burning a ditch. Is this a part of the composting process I so adore? Or am I just bush burning fields I could as easily walk by on my way to knock out a good scene or two?

(697 words)

It Takes A Quick Turn

The year I moved to Kuwait I decided to write a book. That idea was always in my mind. Also in my mind was a book title and cover, author photo, blurb and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. What was missing, and remains missing, are all the pages between the front and back cover. But that first year in Kuwait, I had so many promising starts. I just went off the deep end, opening one story something like

You’ve probably heard of my sister. Everyone wants to know did I see it coming?

and then made up a horrifying crime the narrator’s sister committed. This story was started late one night. I remember sitting at the dining table, feeling daring. I was writing about something very bad. And I was making a character interact with this very bad thing to see how she might respond, if she was able to see her sister as her sister was before the very bad thing.

I know why I was writing that story. Every year or two I returned to the story of my own grandmother. Shirley was already a story to me before she was murdered. She was not a kind mother to my father. While she was good to many people in her community, she was controlling and manipulative within her home and I believe she broke her children. I believe her husband suffered at her presence. I doubt anyone knowing the dynamics of that home with its presentable front was surprised when one day the daughter killed the mother.

The sorrow is not for what I had. By the time my aunt murdered my grandmother, I hadn’t spoken with either in years. But I was sad for my dad because now there was no chance to mend, no hope to restore a relationship broken even before his birth.

Not long after Shirley died, my family was camping and I joined them for the day. I was in my early twenties and terrified because I shared blood with this woman. While my parents shielded me and my siblings from so much of their fractured relationship with Shirley, I had an early sense something was off and by the time I was in high school, my phone calls from Wisconsin to North Carolina were short and stilted. On summers home during college I worked with Dad in Madison and he talked a little about his growing up on our commute. Really, so much is not mine. But the vignettes he shared filled in this picture of a boy before and a man after – of his siblings, Dad was the only one to defy his mother by leaving home, moving far away from her sway. I already understood not everything is determined by lineage but still I was afraid because Shirley was a monster in my mind. That afternoon at the campground Dad caught up to me on a path from the lake. We stopped so he could look at me when he said he didn’t want me to be afraid of being like his mother.

I must have said something to him or to Mom about this fear. Maybe he remembers more of the conversation. I remember he told the story of how he thought his mother broke, a single event that cut her heart deep. I wonder how people choose to live or die each day in what they say and do.

Sometimes I go back to Shirley, to my aunt murdering her. There are details that stick. There are parts of the story that may be just that, story. So many of my unfinished pieces are like bush burning. Just roaring through first thoughts. Licking dry tinder. One day I want to write a story about Shirley which will be about her, but about more too. I have kept myself from writing much about her, except in my notebook every year or two, except by proxy of fiction starts.

That dangerous story I started at the dining table did not get finished. My daughter was one year old. The fear I let go years before would return with the birth of my son. I have been angry at Shirley. I have also had compassion for her. She was terrible. She was sad. She was angry. When I write those traits, I see my heart too, the deep cuts I’ve made, my own sorrow and anger, and while I believe I do not need to be afraid of becoming Shirley, I know my heart is unmoved by flesh. I am alive by grace. I am alive in the Spirit. I am loved to love.

Shirley was murdered on a hot August day. She might have lived a little while. She might have thought for moment of each of us, or she might only have seen her world go dark.

(813 words)

One Day I’ll Write When I’m Through

A couple of months ago I sent out an essay titled “The Grave Garden” and a couple of weeks ago the essay was rejected for publication. I started writing the essay three years ago and tacked on the latest expansion earlier this year. The piece wanders. As it is, the essay is what I first supposed it might be, written only for me. I started writing about the death of infant Kaiden, my friends’ firstborn, and the years after when I was surprised by how sad and angry I remained. I remember writing the first draft. Parts were jagged, like you might snag on an inappropriate observation or emotion.

Right now I’m not certain why I committed that first draft to a file. I was already writing about the Senger family, their loss and second son, the community that walked alongside. Their grief would surface in me throughout that first year after Kaiden died, but what also came was the anger I wanted better to understand. What I’ve noticed about my more personal essays is that anything I finally type is something I’ve written by hand before, more than once. I love Natalie Goldberg’s idea that writers compost their ideas, turning over the soil until it’s rich enough to grow the right words. “The Grave Garden” essay as it is, even called finished, is likely one more part of the compost, one more turn of the soil until I know just how to talk about

what I really want to say, which is:

(I just spent ten minutes rewording a few sentences to whittle the years of this lesson to something that makes me seem more wise than ugly). Let’s try this again:

I didn’t want to be a mom more than anything in the world. And when I watched Christie, a woman who wanted to be a mom more than anything in the world, grieve the death of her son, her loss underscored the gain I held. I condemned myself for not wanting motherhood, for having to work so hard at enjoying the role, for the effort of love.

Before Kaiden died I wrote a couple of essays about contentment. Envy, comparison and finding contentment. I like to believe I really was on the way to figuring out how to enjoy motherhood, all by myself. I ran, journaled, listened to podcast sermons, laid on the floor to pray, confessed, begged for joy. I was too good at recognizing my lack. If I’d been a little dumber or kinder to myself, I probably wouldn’t have worried my initial fear or ambivalence about parenting meant always and forever selfishness. Also before Kaiden died, my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. Rose’s death shocked my apathy toward marriage and parenting. I was writing a lot about how much a fight it is to just be where you are, to yield to the difficult and boring work of loving a husband and small children, when Rose was diagnosed. Without knowing it, she celebrated her last Christmas. Without knowing it, she welcomed her last new year. And she would not see spring. The morning I learned Rose died, I stood in the shower crying for her son, but also crying for her because no matter the frame of faith and a better place, she was missing out on what I once wished away.

So “The Grave Garden” contains different sorrows. The loss suffered by Kaiden’s parents. My tangential grief for a different kind of loss, suffering what I’d missed having: a first full love of motherhood. “The Grave Garden” tries to make sense of my interaction with the Senger family’s loss and my parallel sorrow. While all the threads belong together, the essay shows me deciphering my emotions and responses in way that feels a little too raw. There is not a tidy way to write any of what I am writing in that piece, but I respect the story enough to find a way to tell it well.

I just finished Educated by Tara Westover. She journaled all the way through her wild growing up years in rural Idaho, all the way through her sense of inadequacy. She learned how to say the truth plainly in the pages of a notebook. And then, much later, she put her experiences together in a memoir that talks intimately about tragic and difficult moments. At no point in the narrative does the reader wonder if Westover is just figuring out what she needs to survive her family, to thrive away from Idaho, to pursue meaningful work she couldn’t have imagined a decade before. While she walks us through her realizations, while we watch her grow, we trust she tells us her story from a place that is through – maybe still in the middle on some days, but mostly secure in her present place.

Perhaps drafting and revising “The Grave Garden” stood in for what I should have done, which is go to therapy. It’s upsetting to write hard words in my own hand. To say to myself what hurts. Really, I think I could have done a few sessions, whacked my way through a couple of big issues, been lifted more quickly than three years of writing about my grief for the Sengers, my grief for myself, the anger. I wrote from the middle. I wasn’t through much of anything when I started drafting the essay. I wanted to be through, I wanted to understand what we learn from such tragedy, what forgiveness I might extend myself, I wanted to know I could be a good mom even if I hadn’t wanted motherhood more than anything in the world. I very much started “The Grave Garden” in the middle and its revision is ungainly but I don’t negate the need for the work. How else might I learn to write about difficult things except to write about difficult things?

(994 words)

When I Decided To Write Forever

During freshman year of college I met Andy Pech who read my poetry with a neutral face and then asked what was the point of all the different fonts. We were sitting knee to knee in a tiny cubicle of the Writing Lab in the campus library. He tapped the page with his pen and waited for an answer. I burned. I said something about emphasis and his sigh made clear several fonts in a skinny poem did not emphasize anything. At another session Andy asked if I really wanted to learn anything about writing. I was showing up for writing feedback once a week or so, getting a few pieces together for the campus literary magazine but not actually trusting Andy to spot necessary revision. Rather than accept criticism, I defended my fonts. (Somewhere in central Wisconsin there is a tiny paperback 1999 edition of Barney Street with a wildly fonted poem by sarah burchell or Sarah Burchell or however I was signing my name then). But a decade later in my own creative writing classroom I waited for answers from my own students because Andy taught me to have a reason for your writing choice. And, perhaps, don’t hold a draft too tightly.

During my sophomore year I got a B- on an essay and scheduled an appointment with the professor who said, You are wordy. The end. He was right. He glanced at my paper and said, For example here… A handful of extra words, a redundant sentence. Four or five years ago I worked with a woman who gave me the Vicious Editor game which I adore: cut one third of the words.

I was often one of the best writers in my college workshops. Sometimes I met with another strong writer outside of workshop so we could have a rigorous discussion of our pieces. I won awards from the English department and it gave me pleasure to know these men and women who instructed my craft also appreciated my craft. One November, to celebrate my twentieth birthday, I read poetry at the Mission Coffee House. My dad drove three hours to surprise me in the audience. At the podium, I looked out at friends. I looked out at my dad who tells me every year or so that I should write a book. I looked out at Andy, leaning against a door frame with his arms crossed, smiling just a little.

Sometimes I google one of the names I remember from writing workshops. Or I think of emailing my old professors. I want to know who is still writing. I want to say I am still writing.

The semester I decided I would write forever was when I took a fiction workshop with Larry Watson. At this point I was already enrolled in the School of Ed., and starting the English methods block. I supposed I would teach a few years before enrolling in an MFA program. The day before winter break I had an appointment with Professor Watson. He held my story. He wasn’t effusive but he told me I was good writer, asked if I was going to go to grad school, said he’d be happy to write me a letter. Very likely, Larry Watson does not remember me, or if he remembers me it is only a smudge of my face or a part of the story I wrote that semester. The story he held was “Rose Petal Lips” and it was while drafting that story that I knew I would write forever. I only recall a couple of images and plot points of “Rose Petal Lips” but the process of drafting that story is what stays. I remember running in the dark early morning with scenes and dialog in my mind, trying to hold the turns/ details/ lines until I could get back to my notebook. I remember stopping and crying because I figured out why a character was so broken. I told Professor Watson I wasn’t sure.

Daydream drafting. Parking at a table to fill pages. Revising until the piece is what I want, or as close. This is a practice I choose. I am compelled to shape stories and poems. I cannot only journal. Truly, I do not understand why I open to a story, why I want to explain that time or place, why I find myself thinking a line of poetry when I look at my son. What I need to do is set explanation aside and write without fear why or how, without fear no one reads, without fear. Maybe what I am doing is writing and writing so that when a story comes along, I am not afraid to commit its words to paper but am instead prepared to use those words perfectly. No wild fonts or wordiness or pride or uncertainty. Only a story shot through my mind, shaking my body.

(818 words)

I Testify

One of my pastors said that the best testimony was no testimony. My family attended a small church of five or six families and a man named Art who said he voted for the other party to hasten the end times. Pastor Scott was from Wisconsin but moved out to New York to minister to city kids before returning to Wisconsin with his own young family. It’s odd to have church with just twenty or thirty people, half of them children. If a family skips a Sunday, one side of metal folding chairs is lopsided. Always there were empty rows. Always we could sit one row ahead of our parents, if we wanted. Our worship team was one of two married couples, the wife at the piano and the husband empty handed or holding a tambourine. We had no hymnal so all lyrics were written on transparencies. For a while, the first pastor’s daughter switched the sheets to follow the songs. When I was ten or eleven I got to sit next to a friend and switch between verse and chorus, the next song. While the church suffered rifts I didn’t understand as a child and haven’t asked about as an adult, the families remained attuned to the gospel. I believe the small congregation loved Jesus and one another as best as each could.

There is no hiding in a small church. Now I attend a church that might be fifty or sixty people on Sunday morning. We meet in a hotel conference room in Itaewon. During the first several weeks attending this gathering, I cried at each service, and couldn’t say why. Sometimes in the middle of a question or fear or doubt but sensing the edge of understanding is near, I think of my parents being my age once and suffering their own middles, sensing the dull ache or sharp knife of growth, and I remember they did all of this with a small crowd of witnesses.

What Pastor Scott meant by the best testimony is no testimony is that the best witness of Christ’s love is a life lived faithfully start to finish. I wonder what I have said as a teacher or parent that is now lodged unhelpfully in a mind. I don’t think it’s impossible to live faithfully start to finish. There are men and women I look to as examples of reverent, practiced, consistent gospel living. When I was nine or ten I started reading Drama In Real Life. That Reader’s Digest feature was one of my favorites. And our Christian radio station played a Chuck Colson program every Saturday night about sinners who slopped about in mud before hearing about Jesus and turning their lives around. I was hearing how exciting danger and sin might be, the thrill of near misses. But at church I was hearing how much Jesus wanted me to be holy. I don’t remember Pastor Scott going on and on about why he thought a faithful life was preferable to a radically redeemed life but that idea still chafes me, even as I look at my daughter and son and think, Spare them this mess.

I am submitting work for publication. I go through a list of literary journals, visit the sites, guess if my work might sit alongside what is already there. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a cover letter that included the sentence

Help me.

because that is what it will take for my work to ever land in a journal or a book. Someone else will have to read my words, decide to help me lift up all these stories and images for you to see too. When I read published work, I catch the couple of lines about the author. So-and-so has an MFA from -, this grant, that award, a fellowship. Her/ his work has appeared in -, -, -, and is forthcoming in – and -. She/ he lives in (usually) Brooklyn (but sometimes somewhere surprising like Tampa or Calgary).

When we moved to Kuwait, we attended a church where I bristled at and yielded to the constant work of God in my heart. We worshipped on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, and I remember one morning a group of Indian men and women performed a dance to music with words I couldn’t understand. I stood swaying with my infant son wrapped to my torso, crying because these men and women danced with joy and I understood I wanted that joy and held that joy. Because I grew up in a nondenominational church, I had no attachment or perception of particular strains of evangelicalism so when a woman from Bethel prayed fervently for my healing, I agreed. I didn’t care that in California, her church body thought God turned people’s teeth to gold. When we joined a largely Filipino service I wasn’t put off by the many prayers for provision and financial blessing because all around me were men and women working long hours to send money home to parents, siblings, spouses, children. I had friends from the South who voted differently than me. I had a friend whose husband stockpiled assault rifles for the apocalypse. I worshipped with a Polish woman who once clasped my hands and said she could see me laughing with such joy, like a child, and a year later I had joy like a child again. During our last years in Kuwait, I loved Shobha and Asha for their gentleness, honesty and faithfulness: they worked without complaint, loved my children with affection, rested and teased and traveled together, prayed with me, blessed me when I couldn’t ask for blessing.

There are so many people who walk the narrowest path.

Sometimes I fear being a Christian precludes me from being a writer. We all have hang ups. This is one of mine. I look at the pieces where I address my faith and think no one wants to read that. I lack the theological depth or bright pep to appeal to the American evangelical (do I really want to appeal to the American evangelical?). I talk about God like he is God, which is uncomfortable. And then I read the author notes of other writers who probably write with more abandon than me because they aren’t afraid of testifying. I read the author notes of other writers who spool out lines, brick paragraphs like I do, but I am envious with a similar envy I have for my Christian brothers and sisters who marry as virgins, bear three or four or five children, take gorgeous family photographs in knee deep grasses: these authors seem to have also gone the prescribed path. I wander far, teach, scrap together work in spare time. I am bitter there are Christians with the most boring, faithful testimony and I am bitter there are writers who publish because they can’t help but publish after the MFA from -, this grant, that award.

Last night I dreamed I gave birth to an infant I couldn’t see or touch. The dream was of two women caring for my body during and after. The dream was fear I would die because my body wasn’t delivering the placenta. The dream was the sensation of labor, the deep turning and undeniable truth the process cannot stop.

(1212 words)

Sustain Creative Momentum

Earlier this year I was reading my colleague David Lee’s manuscript about what it looks like to shape curriculum around design thinking and applied learning. David is finishing his fifth year at Korea International School and has spent a great chunk of his time learning how to implement design thinking in his makerspace and working with his colleagues to develop applied learning transdisciplinary units. He writes about process. One part of the process is to sustain creative momentum.

I paused at that phrase. Sustain creative momentum. I wrote it at the top of a page in my notebook. And in the time since, I’ve turned the phrase over in my mind, written it in the middle of my writing practice, considered what it means to sustain creative momentum when I don’t know why.

This transition year is tough. I expected my role as a school wide utility teacher (I’ve stepped into JK and AP rooms) to afford me more creative energy to write – after all, as a substitute I don’t plan or grade. But just the move to Korea made everything new: neighborhood, routine, transportation, food, apartment. And at school I am constantly in the middle of new situations: an age group I haven’t taught before, a subject I don’t understand, another teacher’s space. While I might be able to leave school at school (I try), our family life is a flux of whatever any one of us is dealing with re: transition, change. So much about this move is good but the difficult parts feel like absolute disaster.

One of my personal disasters is writing. The other night I told Justin that I am not working as I expected to, not starting anything new, just sorta picking at work that’s done, sending revised pieces out with the slimmest hope any editor decides to print one of my essays or stories. When I sit to write, I journal or pray. I’m fortunate to write/ edit a little for the school and I don’t discount that work as useful or good practice. But years ago I decided writing matters enough to me that I want to keep at the craft. More, I decided I want to share what I write. This year I am not doing much of either. And that makes me sad. I cannot develop my craft without developing my craft. I doubt I will touch art if I don’t write prolifically. But this year I thought would deliver flow is as fragmented as any other so when I read

sustain creative momentum

I knew that’s what I need to do as a writer, but how?

I have a project. In a week I will probably think it’s the stupidest thing I could do with my time. (Looking at a file of unpublished stories I sometimes think how great a cook I could be if I quit bothering the words). But I will do this project because it will teach me something I don’t know yet. This project is manic. But whatever. For the month of May I will write daily and post 500-1000 words on the odd days. Narrative and/ or poetry. Stand alone or serial posts. Personal, outlandish, boring, safe, fun. I’ll pick up and drop themes. I’ll probably whinge. For sure I’ll write a lot of junk and it’s a little frightening to think of spending a month being less precious about what I toss up on this space but whatever. Really. This project is about choosing to sustain creative momentum when I don’t know why.

Rules

  1. Have fun most of the time
  2. Experiment: structure, tense, POV, syntax & usage
  3. Reuse ideas but don’t pick at old drafts
  4. Daydream draft
  5.   

At some point during the month I’ll add a fifth rule. I can already feel my shoulders tightening, a slight pull in my neck at the anticipation and dread of making this project work, and a stone in my belly at the thought that this month, like so much of my other writing, will only pile on the practice while failing to call out a fuller writing life. I am good at calling my pessimism or apathy realistic and I am good at cutting tiny sprigs of hope from my heart. This year, this wonderful and tough year in a new country, this year of feeling out of place or inadequate, this year I occupy my mind with sorrow and fear, this year of faded, renewed and early friendship; this year wondering why I am here – this is the year I realized I am missing deep hope. I want hope like a wildflower garden spilling down a hill or crowding a yard. My hope is more like a row of marigolds edging the vegetable garden, more practical than pretty, present because I’m supposed to have hope, but kept in line.

I want to practice hope this month. I practice craft with the hope I write art one day. I draft with the idea someone will read this piece and respond. But those tiny sprigs are crowded by stalks of fear and doubt. What happens if I decide to write without any expectation beyond: practice craft, have fun. What happens if this month I hope for thousands of words and two or three really good starts? What a nice, safe hope. What happens if this month I hope for a clear idea of what comes next for my writing work? Start before you’re ready. This month I will sustain creative momentum, with hope.

(915 words)

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.