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.

Considering Criticism & Rewriting As Revision

In December I submitted this essay for publication. I received brief editorial comments on the piece earlier this month:

Need to stick to a focus/theme and tell a story that supports it. I think the theme is that she was going through similar life changes, questioning, forming an identity much like her senior class. But there is no story to show this. As I read it, I can identify this theme, but then if you were to ask me for examples from the story that support this theme, I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea why this class was so memorable to her because there is no small story to show it. She jumps form “this class meant a lot to me, we were going through the same thing” to “I was sad to say goodbye” There needs to be a middle part.

Everything that doesn’t support this theme should be cut so that the focus is maintained throughout the piece.

Sentence structure is very loose. It is hard to follow at times. I get lost in run on sentences and fragments. It sounds like a stream of conscious thinking instead of well formed sentences.

I thought What a jerk. I do not know the editor. I don’t have a name. She is a she but I don’t know if that matters. I reread the comments at each stoplight on my drive home, adding to my argument against her points. This isn’t supposed to be a five paragraph personal narrative. This is associative on purpose. It’s a lyric essay (or another of my half dozen attempts). Fragments aren’t evil! The core of her critique is not knowing why the class matters at all and I thought about that between lights, tried to list scenes that illustrate why that group is important to me and I realized those senior English classes matter mostly because people and places near us when we figure something out or grow or stumble are entwined with our figuring out, growing or stumbling.

What I don’t understand is why I entwined my growth with three dozen teenagers whose names and faces, along with mine, fade to single memories summing a whole year, or why I felt urgently sentimental enough to write an essay about it.

But I did. And then I got a critique. And called a faceless editor a jerk. But when I got home and reread my entire essay I cringed. It is hard to follow. You really  have no idea why I like this class. I cram too much in a small space, ruminations that might sound whiny or didactic. I copy/ pasted the whole piece and kept the word cut in my head, paring down to the idea of parallel experiences. I still didn’t have a good single story to illustrate love for a class roster I’d need to look up to fully remember. But I found a better way in to explaining the year. Revision included a lot of new writing, big cuts, and rearranging. I did this because I want to publish and how will I ever manage that if I don’t practice applying editorial critique? The following essay is different and better than the original.


Growing Into Who I Am

The college essay feels intimidating from the start. Admissions committees judge your merit on GPA, letters of recommendation and the essay you hope shouts like me! Choose me! When I introduce the essay in September, students stress about which prompt might show them best. The first week of drafting is like watching a group of friends pose for pictures, turning a head first this way and then that, popping a hip, kissing the camera, brushing hair from the face, trading a smile for a smirk. They don’t know what they want to say about who they are. They don’t totally know who they are.

Last year I felt much the same. My seniors were choosing a future they couldn’t see. During their college essay drafting and revision work, conversations echoed from one student to the next. Tareq wanted to be a doctor, maybe, or an engineer. Nadine was interested in business. No one wanted to be a literature teacher. I thought how I got here. One afternoon I drafted my own essay, written from the other side of college after things have mostly turned out alright: Why I Am Still An English Teacher. Just as my classes were thinking up small stories to illustrate how compassionate or curious they were, I was mining my years in the classroom for reasons why I’d returned that fall. For years, I admitted, I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher. I thought I was more a writer. I was waiting to be more a writer.

But what happened, I explained, is that I practiced teaching day after day after day and became a good teacher. What happened is we moved abroad and teaching was my job. What happened is I found enough joy in the classroom to stay. As I wrote my essay and then modeled expansion and cuts with my classes, I thought how much becoming a teacher mirrors the writing process. So much messy work at the start. A few gorgeous images. But over the academic years, smoother transitions and more hearty middle paragraphs, perhaps even a bold imitation of another’s style.

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A 50 Minute Paragraph

About a year and a half ago I drafted a story in three parts about a town somewhere out west. The story came to mind as I read my way through Psalms.

From Psalm 135

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
16 They have mouths, but do not speak;
    they have eyes, but do not see;
17 they have ears, but do not hear,
    nor is there any breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them become like them,
    so do all who trust in them!

The passage startled me. It’s vivid and frightening. I thought what it might look like if a group of people went mute, deaf, bowed before silver and gold idols. If they became as those chunks of metal, without breath. I wrote the draft quickly. About a year later I workshopped the story with some friends, all of whom wanted the piece to be expanded.

I agreed. And tucked their notes away. I took the notes with me to Budapest this past summer. I flipped through the pages, thinking how to revise. But I didn’t write. I didn’t make any new notes.

I’ve had this story in my head since I first drafted it. I can see the landscape. The faces of the Edges. I want to get it right and I know any revision risks getting it only almost right. (Like the butterfly Ann Patchett talks about in “The Getaway Car,” the beautiful vision we’ve got for a piece that we pin down on the page at the cost of smudging its wing). Even so, today I sat at the dining table with the notes out again, opened my notebook, and started writing more. One paragraph more. The first wedge of expansion.

The one paragraph felt good to write. Lately I’ve opened my notebook to journal or pray or think in loops but this afternoon it felt good to return to fiction and better to start a revision I’ve put off. At the end, I had a page of writing, most of it with lines drawn through, a single paragraph hidden in the sticks, a single paragraph that opens the way for more paragraphs to tell the better story.


The discovery of gold in surrounding fields.

The gold rush was already five years on. In forty-nine and fifty, a few townsmen cut south to join wagon trains west, sending occasional letters home reporting rain and sun but no news of gold. Most of the men and women in town didn’t have an appetite for gambling on a stream bed. Their great risk taken a few generations before, the very risk that planted them at a yawning canyon, was tempered by a sense of practicality, also traced back a few generations, that supposed the land at the canyon was enough and there was no need to find clearer air than this, or a deeper river or darker soil. Most of the town agreed the sun turning the canyon to gold in late afternoon was rich enough. Before forty-nine, settlers continued to find their way to Canyon Ledge by way of misreading maps, following the wrong river or falling out with wagon masters. Those settlers arrived surprised by the tidy grid of a town, the surveyed acreage. There was no need to push on after a night’s rest. But Californian gold calibrated hearts due west so the town received no more stragglers, no more accidental settlers, so that when Marshall Severson turned up yellow metal with his plow, the only men and women in town were those who could’ve gone on quite happily without the  gold or the ribbons, shoes, pianos, bridles, window panes and pigs it might buy.

A Long(ish) Narrative Poem

This morning my daughter and I went to a cafe. She ordered a hot chocolate and scone. I got got a flat white and sparkling water. We spent a couple of hours sitting across from each other. She read a book, drew pictures. I wrote the start of an essay that might never become an essay and, feeling like I’d wasted pages and needed to salvage the morning, I returned to my short narrative poem to draft its expansion. When I write / revise poetry, I like to start in my notebook. I also like to stare out windows or at ceilings.

Margaret (Margit) Island Run

She wakes just after four when the sky
leaves night. When she cannot sleep again
she puts on running shorts and a bright coral
shirt made to feel like nothing at all, even
when it’s hot. She finds her shoes, unlocks the door
and walks three flights to the street, turns left
on a street of antique (antik) shops, galleries,
cafes. There are stoops wide enough for sleeping
homeless men (she counts three but returning
an hour and a half later, only one, arms crossed,
eyes closed like an infant, and where the others
were, the smell of urine). She crosses the bridge.
There are trails of urine from dogs or
men on their way home and a broken bottle,
its glass pieces catching sun, precise like
cut jewels. A pack of drunk young men cheer
when one of them runs backwards, keeps
her pace for ten or fifteen meters.
She looks at him, waiting to see what
the joke is but that’s it. He smiles, winks.

On Margaret (Margit) Island she passes
a woman bent over a metal bin
retrieving wine and beer bottles she
stands in a white plastic bag. There are other
bags full of upright bottles. Different
heights, shades, shapes. All open-mouthed, empty.
Maybe every Sunday this woman digs through
bins to pay each month’s electric or water.

She runs a path that loops the island, sees
a couple who is like a performance piece:
standing toe to toe, his head bent to hers,
unmoving. She passes another couple
kissing on a bench, limbs overlapping. And
then the path is empty for a stretch
and she goes to a quiet place (breath, footfall),
running steady, keeping her feet straight,
seeing the work of her body in her mind:
counting her cadence, reminding her hip
flexors and glutes they are made to move
like this and faster, telling her core be
strong. She comes together beautifully
on mornings like this, when she gets quiet
enough to listen hard, when she lets the work
of her limbs loosen her mind, calm her spirit.

Flow & Revision Work (!)

This year I thought a lot about flow. I really wanted to flow. I was annoyed how easily distracted I am. Especially when I sabotage myself. More BBC? More TV? More recipe feeds? All the while thinking my writing never goes anywhere. So this afternoon I had this clear moment. There’s a story I need to revise and I’ve been thinking about it all week because I care about how it’s told. And this afternoon I got out comments from a few friends who read the piece and started drafting expansion in my notebook and then moved over to my desk to open the file and actually make my writing go somewhere.

All the before thinking helps. I mull pieces. So I’ve had this piece in my head off and on for over a year since I drafted it. I’m not done, but I spent two hours standing, typing and thinking at my desk. Claire was on her bed reading Boxcar Children. Grant pushed his giant green dump truck back and forth. Justin was in the hall sawing and hammering. Then all three of them decided to move the keyboard from one end of the apartment to the other and Claire started a dance party. This is the space I have and I kept at it, cutting and expanding, all the way to the last scene which needs more help and focus than I’ve got in me now. But what happened was I looked at the clock and realized I’d been at my desk for two hours. My jaw dropped. I didn’t think that happened, the jaw dropping. But now I know (again) I can flow with Claire playing boogie woogie and Grant making truck / plane / train noises and Justin taking a passing kiss.

Here’s a sample of my revision work. The original first:

Dawn ran north, each step sparkle of pain on the top of her foot. She turned on a narrow crowned road and ran toward the county line marked by a small green sign. There was a corner she called hers. She’d found it on one of her first long runs, when she’d been out of breath and stopped to stretch. She’d looked up and seen that no one was around. No long gravel drive to a hidden house, no field entrance. She’d hear or see a car in time to resume running or duck into the windbreak. Once or twice a month, on a weekend run, she came here to think. For ten minutes or twenty, she’d look up at the sky or cut through the windbreak to stare at the field or squat to examine tiny rocks tarred to the road.

It was almost noon when Dawn made it to the corner. She cut into the windbreak to relieve herself, pulled her running tights up as a car passed. She watched from the windbreak as the vehicle dipped and surfaced on the retreating hills. Her foot was broken. She was sure of it. She flexed the toes, toward and away from her shin. Knowing what would happen – a splinter of white – she jumped on the injured foot. A gray knot in her stomach now and the orange fringe at her shoulder. She was five or so miles from home. She had limped most of the last mile here.

Maybe a rest, she thought, stupidly. A rest wasn’t going to heal the invisible fracture on the second metatarsal. She run through pain before. Splintering shins, a rite of her first marathon training. Deep hip pain that came and went. Tight calves. A tight piriformis that tugged her gait to one side. Sparklers under her kneecaps. A knot just under her left shoulder blade. Singing hip flexors. Tendonitis in her ankle. And now her foot. Dawn hopped on the injured foot one more time, to be sure.

And the revised:

Dawn ran north, each step a sparkle of pain on the top of her foot. She turned on a narrow crowned road and ran toward the county line marked by a small green sign. Up ahead, at the top of a slope was a corner she called hers. The t of Northpoint and Portage. She’d found it on one of her first long runs, when she’d been out of breath and stopped to stretch. She’d looked up to see that no one was around. On one side of Northpoint a long windbreak of scrub pines protected a corn field. On the other side, maples and oaks. No long gravel drive to a hidden house, no field entrance. She could hear or see a car in time to resume running or duck into the windbreak. Once or twice a month, on a weekend run, she came here to think. For ten minutes or twenty, she’d look up at the sky or stare at the field or squat to examine tiny rocks tarred to the road. During the fall, she ran there to see the maples turn yellow and red, the oaks turn orange. All winter, brittle rust oak leaves held onto their twigs while the maples reached knuckled fingers to the white sky. Now it was spring and Dawn watched the ditches for new grass.

It was almost noon when Dawn made it to the corner. She cut into the windbreak to relieve herself, pulled her running tights up as a car passed. She watched from the windbreak as the vehicle dipped and surfaced on the retreating hills. Her foot was broken. She was sure of it. She flexed the toes, toward and away from her shin. Knowing what would happen – a splinter of white – she jumped on the injured foot. She was five or so miles from home and she’d limped most of the last mile here. Once more she jumped on the injured foot and let out a cry. The fringe drifted a little over her shoulder and she swatted at it. She took off her shoe and pressed her thumb the length of each metatarsal.

Maybe a rest, she thought, stupidly. A rest wasn’t going to heal the invisible fracture on the second metatarsal. She ran through pain. Splintering shins, a rite of her first marathon training. Deep hip pain that came and went. Tight calves. A tight piriformis that tugged her gait to one side. Sparklers under her kneecaps. A knot just below her left shoulder blade. Singing hip flexors. Tendonitis in her ankle. And now her foot. She put her shoe back on but didn’t pull the laces tight.

Now wasn’t that a fun two hours!

When You Need A Little Hope, Revise

I’ve been working this essay about Ramadan dresses (dara’as, caftans) and while the process is fun (interviewing! I’m interviewing people who can teach me more!) and I’m learning about the region’s holy month traditions and drafting real time, I really needed a chunk of writing to go somewhere this week. The Ramadan dress essay is like a sheep going from one tuft of grass to the next. I really don’t know where it starts or ends right now.

But
yay
for
revision
work.

I returned to the first essay I wrote for the creative nonfiction class I’m taking, reread comments and questions before parking myself in front of the draft to revise. I was a revision rock star. It helps that I’ve been thinking about this essay since first drafting it. It helps that I decided to do as I say: I sat in a chair and made myself revise. Discipline has its appeal.

What follows will get another go at some point. For now, mostly finishing a piece feels so good.

Fahaheel Sea Walk

One Saturday I take the kids for a walk in Fahaheel. This Saturday feels like one of the last cool days before the heat arrives to keep us moving from one air-conditioned place to the next, from apartment to car to shopping mall. During the summer I miss the Gulf. I miss its changing colors, grays and blues mostly but sometimes turquoise or murky green. I miss standing on the rocks off the path, watching waves form and crash. So this Saturday I want the Gulf. We park at the Sea Club and start walking south on the palm lined cobbled path. Claire and Grant jumped from the low wall to the sand and run alongside. When I first found this path, I had only Claire. And the next year I had Grant too, wrapped snug against my belly. The three of us made a twenty or thirty minute walk stretch the morning. On this Saturday my kids race ahead, circle back. Grant holds out his hands to show me treasure: popsicle sticks, a bottle cap, a cracked Happy Meal toy. He has an eye for screws, nuts, nails too, anything his dad might use on a project.

“Can we play here?” Claire asks. We’re halfway to AlKout, halfway to the coffee and hot chocolate we’ll have at a café there. Claire jumps up and down when I say sure, go, go play. She yells for Grant to follow. I sit cross-legged on the low wall. I can see Claire and Grant bending over something on the sand, then race toward the edge of the beach where a shisha bar overlooks the Gulf. They run back and forth like that, pausing to dig holes with pink Baskin Robbins spoons or examine shells. I remember pausing here when Claire was a toddler, squatting to speak with her. We came that morning with a group of moms and strollers and kids but at the first zig in the path, Claire sat down. The others waited a polite distance ahead. When we walked together, we were always pausing for someone to catch up but that morning Claire wouldn’t go. I waved at Jamie. “Go on ahead,” I called, “We’ll catch up.” She called back, “You sure?”

I wasn’t sure about much that year. I don’t remember how long I squatted there, Grant wrapped against my belly and Claire sitting, resolved. I am sure I sighed. That year was knit in sighs of tiredness, frustration, sorrow, surrender. I remember speaking gently. “Come on, we’re almost there. We’ll get a hot cocoa,” I might have said. And when Claire’s little legs still wouldn’t take another step, I’d promise a croissant too. I remember being gentle but not feeling gentle and when Claire finally got up and took my hand, I wanted to hold her hand so tight it hurt. The group was too far ahead to catch up but we walked toward them anyway.

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Revised And Done

Starting small helps. This revision is of a piece I wrote a year ago about a woman who visits her old house at night, after work, before returning to her husband and kids in their apartment. I liked the story then, as it came together, because I liked the woman. I could feel her loss. I wanted you to get that. The challenge of this revision was my choice not to expand. I’m attached to its bare bones. Even so, after workshopping with friends (such willing readers!), I understood better how to reorder the scenes.

I’m calling this done. But I still have no title. Let me think on that.


 

Jon knows but doesn’t ask. I keep the key to our old house in the cup holder of my car and stop there after my nursing shift. The family that lived there before us had three kids. They left their swing set when they heard we were expecting a baby. The swing set is still in the yard, but no sleds or snow angels. If I stay at the house late enough, Jon is sleeping when I get to the apartment.

The apartment has a front door like it’s a cheap motel. I go in quietly. The smoke from the last tenant is worse now that it’s winter and our boots track in snow. When I crawl into bed, Jon scoots near me, throws an arm over my waist, kisses my shoulder. Sometimes he whispers and I roll over. I pretend we are back in our house.

The bank owns our house. Elliot was sick, admitted to the ER. Then Jon lost his job a month later. I picked up extra shifts but we couldn’t make the mortgage.

The first time I went by after my shift, I was surprised the key turned. I thought the bank would’ve changed the locks. We brought our sons home to that house. I painted its walls. Jon tiled the bathroom. That house held us for eight years.

Bluebird Acres has a playground we can see from the living room. Elliot thought it was awesome he could slide the patio door open and race across the grass to play. He and Sam are usually the only two kids out. I thought maybe it was because of tv. Another mom two doors down said the complex had eleven registered sex offenders. Everyone can see the playground, she said. I followed the boys out one afternoon and sat in a swing facing the U of apartments, watching for blinds and curtains to move aside. I didn’t see anything. It might be a terrible idea to let them out by themselves.

Jon is with the boys all the time now. He made friends with the manager and gets a few jobs thrown his way, mostly painting when tenants move out. This winter he’s shoveling and salting the walks. He’d take a job at a gas station or flipping burgers but the hours aren’t fixed. I keep adding extra shifts each week. I’m never home a full day.

When we moved, I didn’t walk through our house a last time, after the boxes were out. We put nearly everything to storage. I was there with my mom, making sure stuff we needed at the apartment didn’t go in the locker when Jon drove up and parked, called me over to the truck.

Wanna go take a last look?

Mom said she could watch the boys. I shook my head. Jon turned off the ignition and got out, pulled me into a sweaty hug. That house was good to us, he said. I nodded against his chest. He kissed the top of my head. My throat hurt to swallow but I didn’t cry. I didn’t want the boys to think anything was wrong.

I want to move to Towering Pines in the spring. It’s next to the highway, cutting ten minutes from my commute. It’s two hundred more a month. We moved to Bluebird Acres to save for another down payment. I don’t think we’ll be allowed to buy another house again, but Jon believes in discipline. We don’t touch the savings unless one of us is dying, he says. I think of Elliot’s illness. If we’d had savings then, we’d still have our house. That isn’t true at all, but I think it anyway.

I go online and look up how many registered sex offenders are at Towering Pines. Two. And it’s a huge complex. Jon thinks the boys are okay because he’s around. He’s probably right.

At night when I visit our house, I do math in my head. I buy a cheaper car. We don’t fix the truck. We don’t have pizza night. We eat more rice. None of it adds up to cover the hospital bill and Jon’s missing income.

I walk from room to room. My sons are alive but I see their ghosts. Elliot took his first steps in the kitchen. Sam in the living room. We had our Christmas tree in this corner. We pulled up carpet in the boys’ room and found a girl’s diary from twenty years ago. Sam played hide and seek in our closet. The boys built a Lego city in the hall upstairs.

I sit in my bedroom, where our bed was. The light from the street and moon falls in slants on the painted wood. When I was in nursing school, one of my roommates did sitting meditation. I think of her when I am in my bedroom, the slants of light moving incrementally closer to me. I think of my friend breathing the quietest deepest breaths, facing a wall. I breathe deeply. I try to let it out slowly. I get caught on a jagged cry every time. I can’t stop anything.

When I go home and kiss Jon, I whisper for Towering Pines. We won’t get a house, I say, But we could live somewhere better than this. Jon holds me so tight I can’t breathe. He puts his lips close to my ear. His whole body trembles. I don’t know what he will say. When his body relaxes, I touch his face. I tell him I’m sorry, I know we’re okay here.

The next morning, Jon lets me sleep late while he gets the boys breakfast and walks them to school. When he returns, I’m still in bed. I can’t move. He lays down with his winter coat on, his giant boots hanging off the edge. He nudges me, says, Let’s go take a last look. His cheeks are chapped red. I close my eyes. Come on, he says. He gets up and pulls the blankets from the bed, tosses a pair of jeans at me.

We take my car over. The heat kicks in as I pull to the curb and park. I take the key from the cup holder and we go up the walk, let ourselves in. It looks different in the day. Empty, but not as sad. The rooms echo with our footsteps. Jon rubs a thumb on the doorframe marking our boys’ heights. I open the kitchen cabinets and drawers, the liner paper with tiny orange flowers. We stand in the doorway of the boys’ room, looking in like we did most nights before going downstairs to our bedroom.

Now Jon and I hold each other in our room, standing where I’ve spent the last six months sitting. Anyone walking by could see us embracing in an empty room. I pull a deep breath in, let it out slowly. I don’t cry. I look up at Jon. We look at each other. We must want to say something. Little puddles of melted snow show where we’ve been.

 

One A Week: Revision Edition

A year ago I challenged myself to write one story a week. This year I challenge myself to revise one story a week. Five weeks, five revisions. Drafts and revisions posted on the next five Fridays. At some point during each week, I’ll check in here to tell about the piece in progress or my process.

I’m doing this because I need to respect my writing enough to work with a piece through its completion. It’s easy for me to keep a notebook and write down my rattling thoughts and it’s easy to do the same writing exercises I assign my students and it’s easy for me to think that some of this work will get read someday. Some and someday are so broad I can feign commitment to writing without honing the craft. But if I practice the craft and honor this gift, my writing will be ready and worth sharing. So I make up these games and start before I’m ready.

This week I’m revising a story that is such a mess only a couple of people have ever read it. I remember feeling very brilliant while I wrote the first draft. The story nearly turned into a Jodi Piccoult novel. Which I realized after I’d slogged through to the end, tears on my cheeks. Even so, I wanted to revise it and did, a couple of years ago. I didn’t like the result much and only reread it this past week. Until then, it’d been a file on my computer I’d avoid eye contact with.

Why pick this for the first of five? Because it’s so bad it can only get better. And because I abandoned a good first sentence for a terrible story. And because I must start somewhere.

Poetry Revision

I haven’t played with poetry this semester as much as I have in past semesters. Even so, this week I sat down to practice revision. I used revision suggestions from The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.

First, a quick edit of my draft:

Gray day facing the sea,
waves turning over seaweed,
plastic bottles, shells,
our kids in the froth

Between us we’ve touched
all continents but Antarctica
We know how to pack a suitcase,
bringing what we’ll miss most:
cheese, chocolate, vodka,
the right pens, affordable shoes
Between us we know how to make
temporary permanent enough
so our kids make it through okay
and our marriages do alright
We paint walls, hang photos,
insist on familiar, heavy books
to fill shelves

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end
Oil and water,
your body and all the others
Even if you want to like it,
you can’t

Our kids come up from the waves,
shivering, kicking up sand,
hungry from play

It is good to sit
and look at the sea,
making it enough

And now, with lines cut and slight changes to how it looks on the page:

Gray day facing the sea,
waves turning over seaweed,
plastic bottles, shells,
our kids in the froth
Between us we’ve touched
all continents but Antarctica
We know how to pack a suitcase:
cheese, chocolate, vodka,
the right pens, affordable shoes
Between us we know how to make
temporary permanent enough
so our kids make it through okay
and our marriages do alright
We paint walls, hang photos,
insist on familiar, heavy books
to fill shelves

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end

Our kids come up from the waves,
shivering, kicking up sand,
hungry from play

And last, paring to the stanza that sparked the poem, and trying new:

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end
rural Wisconsin
New York
Kuwait
Even if you want to like it
you can’t
marriage
new motherhood
church
I make love a duty
to like this day enough

I drew the draft from a day at the beach with other expat moms, and from separate conversations over the years here. I like that a first draft turned out two different pieces. And I really like the line another woman said

Some places you just can’t make it

and how I finished it

from the start or near the end

The second revision includes another idea I’ve been thinking about, that sometimes love is a duty and there isn’t anything wrong admitting feeling comes much later, or not at all. That we love because it is right.

Riding The Train In India: A Peek At Revision

I cut a 1009 word piece to 706!

I’ve been going through old essays to find work I might submit. I wrote “Riding The Train In India” in 2011, from a 2009 journal entry. In 2013 I took an online writing workshop and learned the phrase “vicious editor.” I’ve gotten a bit cut-happy. And as I’ve practiced cutting, I’ve gained confidence. I trust myself not to lop off an ear or nose when I’m trimming fringe.

(Though I once cut my fringe while my hair was wet and it dried high on my forehead. It looked terrible. I would have appreciated an undo button).

When I cut a piece, I copy and paste the whole thing  on the same document. The latest revision is always the top of the page. I cut knowing I can always find what’s missing, if it’s that necessary.

I am learning to find the truer story (more on that in another post) in my essay pieces. I think that’s evident in the first few paragraphs of my revised work below. But humor me and read the draft first:

I rode two different classes. The first was second class, from Delhi to Dehra Dun. A few hours in our own cracked brown vinyl seats with armrests and a tray table, we were given a newspaper to read and a complimentary breakfast of wet scrambled eggs, dry toast, and coffee served in a thermos that might not have been washed after its last use. Later on our trip, we rode third class and liked that much better. Third class seats were blue vinyl covered benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal bar covered windows at the other. My brother and his wife, Joie, and their two children Will and Annie, and Justin, Claire and me: three facing three, with baby Claire and little Annie on laps.

Everything before and after and between just sitting on the train is complicated or frustrating or difficult. Names on lists posted in the depot must be checked against the tickets. Sometimes the lists aren’t posted where you expect them. We let my brother do this while we stood in a knot of bags and children. I kept checking to be sure our passports were still where I put them. It felt like a documentary: the mass of men, women, and children on the train platform waiting, nudging, and staring. Porters carrying two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly through and around packs of passengers. I was exhausted after nights of poor sleep, but my senses were prickly alive. I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough.

Boarding the train was hateful. All pushing and pulling and faces mashed into shoulders and unwashed hair an inch from your mouth. I had a baby or a suitcase to carry too. No one was gentle with their elbows or hips and once on, you had to find your seats; once at your seats, they might already be occupied. We sat and soon after, more passengers crowded our benches, pressing us to the window.

Now, enjoy this:

We rode third class was from Dehra Dun to Jaipur: blue vinyl benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal barred windows at the other. We travelled with my brother, Nate, and his family. After spending Christmas together in the Himalayan foothills, we were going to see the Taj Mahal.

At the depot, we stood in a knot of luggage and children. “I don’t like the way those bags are hanging off you,” Nate said to me. I kept checking our passports were still there, exhausted after a week of poor sleep, but prickly awake in the crowd. There was a joke I made, early in our travel through India, about the country being where the world’s sweaters came to die. There was the odor of a diet heavy on onion. A woman opened her infant’s pants and flicked the contents on a track. Porters with two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly around us.

Boarding the train was hateful. No one was gentle with elbows or hips in the push up the stairs. I balanced a baby and a bag or two, mashed into the shoulder of a man with dirty hair. I swore. I hadn’t come to India for its romance. We found our seats. Other passengers found our seats too.

That alone was a cut of 113 words! And I got to add my joke about the sweaters!

I will leave this piece alone for a few days and reread it. I think it’s very close to finished.