How To

When the kids were little I’d get a manicure before flying. We might be delayed or tired or cranky but my nails looked nice. This year I schedule a manicure every three weeks. For the first time since the pandemic began, Seoul is under the government’s strictest social distancing level as the delta variant spreads. Summer travel season is quiet. One of the English language papers ran an article about the fun of staycations. At New Year’s, the same paper ran a piece about fun Zoom parties. South Korea’s vaccination campaign is slow but steady. We’ve got another year of masks, on campus and virtual learning, takeaway, limited socializing – the caution is mentally tiring.

The MFA keeps me occupied. Though I am off this semester, I write as I would with a mentor. I started Stonecoast with a set project: short narrative pieces exploring culture and identity, set in places I have lived or traveled. And that first semester I drafted work set in Kuwait and Colombia. Second and third semesters I drafted for two longer works, with an eye on the novella form. Now, with a gap before my thesis semester, I’m returning to my original short narrative collection, generating new pieces. At the same time, I keep the longer works in mind.

Yesterday afternoon I lay on my bed, lethargic. How do I do another year of this. I lay there thinking about this story I am drafting, thinking I should get up and add a hundred words or so, and then thinking about being forty and having skin that is starting to crepe and should I start taking collagen again or is taut lost already and what comes of this vanity that interrupts the scene I hold and build. I need more than nice nails for the year ahead. I got up and sat at the table with my notebook and wrote all the junk before listing what I want to write about writing: no how to but to again record and share this process.

Yes, Let’s

This is week four of virtual school. At lunchtime I leave the apartment. I walk or bike to a nearby café where I order an iced latte and teach my afternoon classes. Today I biked to Shinsegae, ordered my latte and looked around. I started class. Afternoon shoppers got in line for a coffee, or bought pastries, or sat at a table for a late lunch. The space hummed.

For the third day, South Korea reported fewer than one hundred new cases to the WHO. Maybe the sense of urgency lifted? After class I scrolled through the Korea Herald, wondering if there was an announcement to get out, go somewhere, meet a friend, support the local economy. I miss a lot in Korea, for lack of language. And a few days ago I shut off emergency notifications to my phone – the texts announcing COVID19 cases in my area – because I was tired of the small fear that followed reading the names of my neighborhoods.

But maybe I’d missed the go-free-be-well text.

The Korea Herald headlines worried about travelers returning with coronavirus infections. (Our school, and others, asked faculty and students to return this week to begin the government mandated fourteen-day period of self-protection and health monitoring, limiting contact with others to ensure coronavirus is not unknowingly spread in the community. The idea is we’ll all be ready to be on campus after spring break). The Korea Herald also reported another delay to the start of the Korean school year, now pushed to April sixth. And another headline mentioned coronavirus clusters in Seoul: a call center, a church.

So nothing about tossing caution.

I heard five people cough during the four hours I taught and wrote at Shinsegae. I washed my hands four times. I wondered if there would be a Jukejeon cluster next.

At a table near me, three women in their forties and fifties were talking. “Do you speak English?” I asked. One nodded. She wore thick rimmed cat eye glasses. I asked why so many people were out. I explained that last week when I came here in the afternoon, there was hardly anyone out. “Did the government say it’s okay to be out again?” The cat eye woman laughed. She said, “No! It is not recommended to be out.” For a moment the four of us looked at each other, all of us out. “Then why are you out?” I asked.

I know why I’m out. I’m out because I cannot stay in my apartment day and night. I’m out because I want to go for a walk or bike ride midday and get an iced latte. I’m out so I can teach while not glancing at the pile of dishes in my kitchen sink.

But maybe I should stay home.

Last week I took the subway into the city for an appointment and the carriages were Sunday morning light during rush hour. People work from home if they can, and students too.

Should I also stay home? I don’t know.

I like to get out of the apartment.  

I’ve appreciated the lack of panic in South Korea. The response to COVID19 is measured. Informed, thorough and transparent: and because of this, I haven’t felt panic. Caution, yes, but not animal panic. For a couple of days people stocked up on milk. And then a few days later, it was ramen. But we shop as we need. Walkers and runners and bikers are on the river path. By late afternoon most cafes are full of friends catching up, or students and professionals telecommuting.  

But today was the first day I registered a greater volume of people out, moving through public spaces, touching counters and buttons and rails and doors.

To my knowledge, public health officials here have not imposed a social distancing rule as suggested in the States, to keep individuals a certain physical distance apart. So when I stand in line at the grocery store or bakery, the next customer is right behind me, breathing. But I think the worry is somewhat removed by the assurance that we know if a case is near us, or if we had contact and need to quarantine, because South Korea is vigilantly tracking infections, warning citizens and residents, and ensuring proper testing and medical care.

Today at Shinsegae when I asked the women why they were out, we all paused. Then the cat eye woman laughed again. She said, “We are bored of being home!”

Which makes me wonder how long we can go along with the recommendation to social distance, self-quarantine, work from home, attend virtual school. Because when things begin to look good, when it feels like we can all head out for the day, that is when we need to practice social distancing for another week or two. Or three.

I wonder what happens in South Korea as the coronavirus circles the world. Does East Asia wait for the curves to flatten on other continents before we start commuting into work again?

I did not worry until cases in Iran and Italy spiked. Watching Italy, I sense the care we’ve had in South Korea. Watching Italy, I fear for the States. In January and February I read about China, Japan, Cambodia, the cruise ships, and now I read about Iran, Italy, France, the States.

When I called home, my mom gave the rundown of closed schools, my brother’s canceled AP Government trip to D.C., the likely upgrade of internet service to accommodate work and school from home, and my grandma’s report that people really are stocking up on toilet paper. When I talked with Kate, she sent me photos of her trip to the grocery store, the produce and meat gone. My sister joked that homeschooling makes social distancing a little easier.

People talk about living history. Living through history. Yes, let’s.

But after, we live too. We should consider what that might look like.

Tracking the Coronavirus: How Crowded Asian Cities Tackled an Epidemic” from the New York Times
The Korea Herald
The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff” from The Atlantic

Story As Story

We went to Petra but did not see the monastery. When you go, Marcia said, you have to see the monastery. She followed a Jordanian guide at night, to see the sky, but rain came, the rock was slick, and the sky hid. We walked to Petra in the bright morning, leaving a street of restaurants and souvenir shops to wind through ancient, quiet caverns. Claire was two and half and surprised us by walking all the way to the Treasury, racing ahead and turning back, cheeks pinked by the early heat. Grant was six months and I carried him, belly to belly, dipping my face to blow air on his neck, lifting him to nurse in the dark mouth of a cave carved from red stone, soot on its ceiling, a scent of cat piss. We ate mid afternoon lunch with a crowd of tourists. We talked about what to see next. The monastery, I said, thinking of Marcia telling me that even in the rain, it was beautiful. Claire was tired and Grant was heavy and the monastery was up a steep hill of uneven steps. We could ride a skinny mule led by a skinny boy. We wandered dusty ruins, walked past impossible columns, stood in the amphitheater. And I knew we wouldn’t trek up to the monastery. We could. We could but we were tired. That year after my son was born was a yield to motherhood, and that afternoon in Petra a stone to mark: let go, let go.

I remember the late afternoon sun turning my children’s hair to gold. We walked out of Petra and I thought I probably would not see the monastery, ever, and that was heavy and light.

Now I am wondering what to do with this story.

Now I am thinking of story as story, only.

When my daughter was born, I labored several hours alone before I called my husband to come home, it is time. I was alone when the baby shifted and my right leg went numb. I sat wide to ease the pressure on my hips and the baby dropped. In my body it was like an audible pfff-wok, two distinct, startling movements setting my daughter in place to be born. I looked down at my swollen belly and said to her, You’re ready. She and I were about to be new, together.

These two experiences are more than the words here.

I am writing a collection of stories about living abroad. A year ago I wondered if I could write a multigenre collection, tucking essay alongside fiction. A year ago I thought I might write a memoir about summers home, that odd way of knowing family, friends and country six weeks at a time.

Since January I have played with a different idea, to write a collection of stories without distinguishing my lived experience from the work of my imagination.

I lived it
if I put it on the page
I was there
when it happened

These are first thoughts. But I am finding a way to tell it all.

He Sat Across From Me

An essay from Starbucks. Sit long enough and an essay comes along, I suppose. As I drafted this I thought about tense. I kept the conversation past but I use present tense at points. I like writing conversations in present – that’s why I decided to write this one in past, for the practice, and to see what it feels like after.

This young man sat across from me. He asked, as he pulled the chair from the table, and I nodded as he sat, folded and unfolded his arms across his chest, dropped his hands to his lap. He looked at me directly and said he liked my hair. He thought my hair was beautiful. My husband thinks my hair is beautiful. He tells me he loves the color. The day this young man sat across from me I wore my hair down. Maybe it can be beautiful. This young man introduced himself with an English name, Sean. I asked why he came over to me. 

You look interesting, he said, And a little – cute. 

On the table between us was my notebook and a novel I was reading and my iced latte. If Sean dipped his head he could have sipped from my straw. I moved the glass closer to me. I said thank you. Then I looked at him. Smooth skin, sparse whiskers at his chin and cheeks. A good haircut. Slender arms, tapered fingers. How old are you, I asked. 

How old do you think I am?
I’m not playing that game.
He told me he is over twenty. I said, Well, I am much older.
That doesn’t bother me. 

I rested my elbows on the table so he could see my rings and he nodded at my hand. What is the story of that ring, he asked.
The story is I’m married, I said.
He nodded. Are you a teacher here?
I nodded.
Where? At an international school?
Yes, at an international school. When I said the name of the school he knew it, knew people who went there. I asked about his schooling, what he was studying now.
What Trump learned before he became president.
I played nice. Business?
Sean nodded.
What kind of business are you interested in? Like, do you want to manage a business, start your own? What will you do?
I want to be like Elon Musk. I want to work with space travel.

He was disappointed when I told him he is the second young man in as many months here who has expressed interest in working with space travel. The first was a graduate I talked with about his future plans, for an alumni post on the school website. Sean, I wanted to say, get over it. A lot of boys want to build a rocket or fund a rocket or ride in a rocket. Sean, I wanted to say, I am being respectful to you but this whole conversation will go nowhere and you’ll walk away feeling a little dumb. Not because I make you feel dumb but because you’ll realize you just spun a fantasy into halting conversation. Sean, I wanted to say, I am not mean enough to tell you to fuck off.

Really, what were my plans for the fifteen minutes he sat across from me? I was midway through a dark thought. I had already regretted wearing eyeliner and mascara when I hadn’t brought a make-up bag for touch ups. Before Sean sat across from me I pulled a long breath through my nose and told myself not to cry, just get through the day without crying in public. Later, in bed with my husband, I said that if an older man had sat across from me, I might have been flattered. Instead I wondered if this was a joke, or a dare. The Starbucks was full of students, clustered around an open text or gossiping or snapping photos of their drinks. 

Sean rubbed his chin. It is only fair I ask you how old you are, he said, since you asked me.
I’m thirty-eight.
You don’t look thirty-eight.

I wanted to say, I feel thirty-eight. I do not feel twenty-nine or twenty-five, or any other elastic age. I feel very thirty-eight. I may be exactly halfway through my life, I wanted to say, or nearer to dead than that. But Sean did not betray surprise. He repeated that age did not matter to him. 

When I was twenty I started running again after a year or so of eating Chinese take out and drinking beer. One of my first runs was eight miles and I nearly threw up. I just made myself keep running around the lake eight loops. When I was twenty I was a double major in English and history, with a minor in writing, but I’d drop the history major two or three classes short, swapped for education methods courses. When I was twenty I started going to the Lincoln Hills juvenile correction facility to lead poetry writing workshops with troubled, criminal boys who were not allowed to say last names. When I was twenty I thought I would write poetry forever. 

I am writing poetry forever. I think how to write all of this, and before I string a sentence, I float in phrases and dashes, poetry enough.

I waited for Sean to decide our conversation was through. He asked how I liked it in Seoul. He asked what I thought of the culture. We talked about school. I said that I taught in South America and the Middle East before, and that people are people. I said I liked it here. We talked about the pressure people feel here, the students to earn a grade, the parents to raise whatever kind of child, the professional expectations. I wondered if Sean thought about failing at his space venture. I wondered if failure could be trend here. Fail forward. Fail fast, fail often. But I did not ask. I did not feel like extending our conversation. Instead I wanted to return to my own dark thought, or read the novel still open between Sean and me.

As abruptly as Sean sat down, he stood. He thanked me for my time. I said it was nice to meet him and wished him a good rest of the day. He took the stairs up and after his legs were gone from view I stared at the space he’d just been, the empty chair. I wanted to turn to ask the young women nearby did they see that, hear that? What was that? I was thinking about failure or flattery and couldn’t concentrate on the novel. The day was hot but I wasn’t out in it. When I was twenty there was a man at least ten years older than me. He smelled like cigarettes and read my poetry. We sat next to one another and if he ever guessed I wanted to taste the cigarettes on his tongue he was too kind to say.

Twenty-three of thirty-nine. 1111 words!

It Had Been Revealed

One of my go-to fiction writing exercises is to write from a PostSecret prompt. Most weeks I read PostSecret but I only mine the site for a story idea when I want to write a story but don’t want to commit. So: lightly edited flash fiction. Extend this exercise by choosing a parameter(s) – POV, tense, word count, sentence/ paragraph length, syllables per word – for the piece. This week PostSecret included a video of spiritual secrets and I wrote down a few, including the prompt for the following:

I’m not religious anymore but listening to the Christmas story I grew up with is the only thing that stops my panic attacks.

A fuller piece I want to write is about where the church camp kids are, twenty years on, after we sang all the songs and cried about Jesus loving us, and shared inside jokes, wrote as penpals one summer to the next. I’m interested in why some of us keep the faith of our childhood, and others of us do not, and to consider where parental belief or church doctrine ends, and our own understanding and faith begins.

As I wrote this piece (maybe five or six hours, over four days) I reread the Christmas story account from Luke, the one read before opening gifts at my grandparents’ on Christmas Eve. There is assurance, peace and wonder, and I can easily imagine the words soothing a panic.

On the morning commute to Itaewon Julie could feel the clamping. She got off two stops early just to be out of the subway car, the smell of kimchi and garlic on skin. This happened sometimes, though it wasn’t the close space or the body smells of fellow commuters that bothered her. When it happened – the clamping, as she started calling her attacks when she was a child, before she knew there was a name for drowning in air and feeling her body go numb – Julie had a plan, and the plan had evolved as she did, from a childhood chanting in far bathroom stalls, to an adolescence resting in the spoken words of her mother, to an adult whose three years of therapy was helpful to understanding her panic attacks but did not offer an end to them. That had been a disappointment. Julie stood on the platform. She put her hands in her pant pockets and pinched the flesh of her thighs because this minor physical pain was often enough to shake the clamp loose. She pressed her fingernails into her soft flesh. Anyone looking wouldn’t know the tiny, perfect pain that spiked her brain. It was enough for this minute. Keeping one hand in a pocket she left the platform, walked up the stairs, through the turnstiles, up more stairs to the street, the fingers in her pocket playing with nubs of flesh to give short, bright pain, enough to regain her breath.

When she was in the middle of a clamping, she could not think to take exit four instead of seven, so on the street she turned around slowly to orient herself, and then began walking to work. Autumn in Seoul was gorgeous. The trees went red, gold. Platter sized leaves littered the sidewalks, dropping from shade trees cultured by the Japanese. The air was clean for a last month before winter smog settled the region. Julie pulled deep breaths through her nose, exhaled fully. She was feeling steady again. Julie took out her phone and earbuds.

What worked best was for someone to read to her. Something about the unrehearsed speech quieted her. When Julie was in middle school, home midday after throwing up in PE or dissolving in tears in the counselor’s office, her mom would tuck her into bed, bring her hot cocoa, and read, first from the Bible and then from whatever book Julie had dogeared on her bedside table. The words – and the pauses, mispronunciations and corrections, coughs, throat clearings, water sips – were just the cadence that brought Julie’s mind and body to rest. Her mom seemed to recognize this too, and began to read with Julie each evening before bed. When Julie went to college, her mom sent a box of audiobook cds along, and a couple of years after when Julie started therapy hoping to solve the clamping forever, she realized her mom understood a way to help even if she hadn’t understood a better way to help. And it had worked, hadn’t it, better than a gym membership or therapy or keeping a gratitude journal or praying fervently.

The audiobooks were not the same. The first months of freshman year were a disaster. Julie went home at Thanksgiving and spent two days in bed listening to her mom read Psalms and Harry Potter for an hour or so at a stretch, listening to her family cooking, eating, playing board games downstairs. Julie’s older sibling, Matthew, brought his girlfriend to meet the family, a biology major named Taylor who, when Julie joined the family on Friday, said quietly that student services offered counseling and that might help. Julie nodded and thought to call when she returned to campus. She didn’t call until her junior year. And then, sitting in a tiny campus counseling office with platitude posters on the walls, she wondered why no one saw what Taylor had seen, that Julie needed. But at age nineteen or twenty, Julie couldn’t have said what she needed. For a decade the clamping had been a part of her life and sometimes it was okay, and sometimes it was not.

Julie found the album she liked. Last Christmas she flew home from Korea to surprise her family. She moved to Korea a year after graduating college, at the end of her third year of therapy. The college therapist recommended a woman Julie might continue her work with, and so Julie stayed in her college town, kept her job at Starbucks and picked up more shifts, and talked her way to deciding to move to Korea to teach English. This was an apt fit for Julie. The move itself was a series of clampings but once in a rotation of lessons, Julie was surrounded by such beautifully unrehearsed speech as her elementary students read from slim books about sport games, trips to the zoo, and eating at a restaurant. She often left the brightly lit hagwon feeling relaxed. She went home that first Christmas because while she liked teaching the elementary students to read and write English, she was lonely. Her workday began at two in the afternoon, and finished at nine in the evening. Five of the other teachers had arrived together the previous term and there was no breaking into that group, and the rest of the teachers had been living in Korea too long to care about meeting a new expat. Everyone was nice, but no one was kind. When she went home at Christmas, she wasn’t wholly certain she would return to Korea.

The first Sunday home she went to church. Since leaving for college, she’d only gone to church on the weekends home. Julie thought she still believe in God. But she had prayed for the clamping to go away. Beginning as a girl in elementary school when her prayer was as uncomplicated as, Please, God, make me feel okay. And Julie prayed in middle school and high school, with her mom, or alone, praying for this sensation and the fears to leave her alone.

Julie pressed the arrow and adjusted the volume to hear her mother’s voice. At church that first Sunday home, she listened to the advent reading, watched the candle flame waver. She almost prayed, or prayed in a way she didn’t know was prayer. Her parents wanted to know about Korea and Julie made the move sound like the right choice. It was as right as another. They were happy she was happy, and she was happy, but also lonely and the thought of returning to lonely kept her in bed for a day, which she passed off as jetlag. She made her whole body tense, and then let go. She tracked her breath. She pinched her inner thighs, she burrowed under the heavy quilts. On Christmas Eve, Julie sat with her parents in the living room. The tree lights were on, and Christmas music, and they drank hot cocoa or eggnog and briefly Skyped with Matthew and Taylor who were in South Dakota where her family lived. Her dad took his Bible from a shelf and opened to the book of Luke. He began to read and Julie felt her chest open for a full breath. Wait, Dad, she said and found her phone charging in the kitchen. She opened a recording app and pressed start. He began again. In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

After her dad read through the angels and shepherds, Julie asked her mom to read the same passage and she did, continuing to tell of Simeon and Anna the prophetess, and the holy family’s return to Nazareth. Julie began to cry a little. She could return to Korea and she could make a friend. Julie saved the recordings and pulled one up when she needed to listen to someone read: on the plane returning to Incheon, during break her first day back at the hagwon, through the smoggy spring and humid summer. She walked more now and that was helping too, to be outside with sky and trees, the rivers and hills. The clamping was less frequent now and Julie thought of the recordings as her talisman.

Now she stood on a residential street, a short cut to work, and listened to her mom read. Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Julie took her hand from the pant pocket. She tucked her hands instead into her jacket, closed her eyes and continued drawing steady breaths. When she was a girl she thought the Holy Spirit was like wisps of fog on country roads and when her pastor prayed that the Holy Spirit be present here, now, she peeked to see if the aisles of church were misty here, now. Someone bumped by her, and then another someone. Julie listened again to the story. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Julie’s phone rang, pausing the reading. She answered. She’d lost track of time. She was coming in, yes. Julie removed her earbuds. One day she thought she might understand Simeon, his certainty at seeing the Christ child because of a whispered promise, but she could not now imagine carrying such hope for so many years. She walked along, scuffing leaves, thinking, like a child.

Nine of thirty-nine. 1699 words.

Places I Know

For a long time all of my fiction was set in the Midwest. When I moved to Kuwait I was determined to write a book in one year and the first stories were all set in Wisconsin, pulling from my hometown or college town settings. I had just moved from Colombia and was living in a desert on the Gulf and still, I could only write of four seasons and small towns. I wrote lives I didn’t live. I think that’s fine, but as I practiced writing more fiction I put my places into the pieces. I took a cue from my essay work which relies on place, because place is often important to our situation, perception and insight, and practiced setting my characters in the Middle East or on holiday in Eastern Europe. Now I pull from all the places I know. I still love a good Midwest setting. The piece I’m writing now is set in Wisconsin but one of the characters is Korean, and the return trip to Seoul is informed by my living here now.

Before summer break, a writing friend recommended The Portable MFA by the New York Writers Workshop, and this summer I started flipping through the first pages. There is a prompt called Poem, Dream, Conflict that the story below comes from. Think of a line of poetry, a recent dream, and a problem you’re having with another person. Write flash fiction pulling from those three things:

  1. Poem. Write one or two paragraphs based on the resonant line of poetry (or prose) you chose. Then skip a line.

  2. Dream. Write one or two paragraphs using fragments of themes from your dream. (It’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to the text you used for step one.) Again, skip a line.

  3. Conflict. Write one or two paragraphs concerning the conflict you thought of. (Again, it’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to steps one or two.) Skip a line.

  4. Putting it all together. Begin weaving together elements from steps one through three. Follow your impulses. Something is probably already occurring to you.

And here, the piece that came from this exercise. Set in Kuwait. What I wonder when I write a place that many people may not know, is which details set the place. The Kuwait in this story is different from the Kuwait of my neighborhood, is different than the Kuwait of our weekend walks along the Gulf.

The Water From The Air

The sand was hot. Joelle high stepped to the water’s edge and waded to her thighs. The sun was bright, the air already an oven midmorning. Sweat beaded her hairline and breastbone. Cool water lapped her thighs. In college she’d read a poem by Maxine Kumin and lines stayed with her a decade later. I took the lake between my legs. / Invaded and invader, I / went overhand on that flat sky. Joelle dipped under. She swam a little ways to where she couldn’t touch the sand with her toes and treaded water there, facing the beach. The first time Zaid brought her to his family’s chalet he told her everything that was different from when he was a boy.

Joelle tilted back in the water so she floated. The sky was white. She closed her eyes. She rolled onto her belly and swam to the beach, rose from the water and ran across the sand to the shade of the veranda where she rinsed her feet before going inside, dripping footprints on the cold tile.

Zaid lay on a couch in the main room. He might have been asleep. It was Ramadan but he fasted loosely – a cigarette in the morning, an apple or glass of water in the afternoon – or not at all. Joelle bent to kiss his brow. He made a small sigh. Joelle went to the shower and stood under the warm water. Once, she told Zaid she knew she’d regret these long showers when the world was without an excess of clean water and he replied the world would be gone before then. She finished rinsing and dressed in loose linen, picked out a book to read in the main room. Days at the chalet reminded her of that scene in Gatsby – Daisy and Jordan unmoving on chaise lounges, deciding to go to town because. Joelle arranged herself in an oversize shair opposite Zaid. She opened a bottle of sparkling water, and her book.

Zaid woke an hour or so later, after noon. You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long, he said. Joelle shrugged. You looked peaceful, she said. He propped on an elbow. I was not peaceful, he said, I was dreaming you are away from me. It was not peaceful. It was like a long journey without a map. I couldn’t see the storm. Zaid sat up. He said, I reached out to you like this and you were not there. Sometimes when Zaid spoke he sounded like a child who was part of not this world. Joelle unfolded her legs and went to Zaid. He wrapped his arms around her waist, rested against her breasts. Please, he said, Please don’t go from me.

Joelle kissed the top of Zaid’s head. I have to go, she said.

No, no, no. Zaid said this when they talked about what Joelle was late to realize, that Zaid may keep her for himself, but not to marry. She could have left then but she liked his company, liked his gifts, liked the distraction he was. In a month she would leave Kuwait with little more than she arrived with two years before.

I can fix your visa. You can have my apartment in Salmiya. Zaid had said this before. He would do that, if she agreed. Joelle kissed the top of his head again, tugged gently at his hair so he tipped up to see her face. She kissed his brow, his cheek, the corner of his mouth.

It wouldn’t be fair, she said, To me. Or to your family or to the woman you are supposed to engage. It wouldn’t be fair to you.

Before it was for play, Zaid said, But this is not for play.

Pretend it is, Joelle said. Zaid was only ever gentle so when she shifted to step out of his embrace, he let her.

The next day Zaid fasted. Joelle ate alone in the kitchen. She read a second book. She let Zaid sleep and pray. The chalet was quiet, which they both preferred, and that evening as Joelle prepared iftar her belly was full of possibility – if Zaid married her, if she carried his child, if they were fair to one another, if each gave more than the other. She arranged dates on a plate, poured sweetened labneh in a glass, and waited until it was time for Zaid to break his fast. She could see he’d honored the day. He was calm. He followed her to the table on the veranda and took a slow drink of the labneh.

I think you are right, he said. He put a hand over hers. He said, I am not fair to you. I am not kind to you, to do like this. You are beautiful, Joelle. You are pleasure and joy. Zaid removed his hand from hers. She would eat with him now, but not sleep with him later. They would return to the city – he, rested – and in a month she would call the day before her flight out, to say goodbye, and they would cry.

But that night when they lay in bed together for a last, chaste time, Zaid touched her hair and cheek. He leaned over to kiss her tenderly. He fell asleep and dreamed she was away from him but in the morning all he remembered was a taste of peace like dates. Joelle lay awake in Zaid’s bed until she could not guess the hour and then she got up from the bed and walked quietly through the large cool rooms.

The sand was warm but the moon did not burn. At the water’s edge she dropped her towel and walked into the Gulf. She swam again to where she could not touch. Here she rested back on the water and then, letting her belly go, she began to sink. Another line from the poem came to her. Joelle opened her eyes and for a dizzy moment, could not tell the water from the air.


Read about Maxine Kumin or enjoy her poem “Morning Swim”

How It Is Working Out

Today I finished Chapter One. I woke up this morning and my knee was slightly swollen and it still is this evening. But I did finish Chapter One of a book I am writing to get the feel of writing a book.

I am writing this book like I write anything else. A little bit, a little bit. I do not know how else to do it. I miss the flow of running when my thoughts wandered and I could develop a new idea, or sketch a scene in my mind. This summer I made myself write a couple of short stories. Just parked in a coffee shop and wrote. In one story, lovers break away from each other. In the other, a woman decides to kill herself. So it follows that I chose this stretch of time to start a practice book.

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

I’ll cut my own slack and say that while this story isn’t finished – which would have been a great culminating post for a month all about sustaining creative momentum – I will finish the story tomorrow or the next day. Today I subbed in a grade one classroom and as energetic and wild and fun as a roomful of seven year olds is, I’m too knackered to think of a good end to Trife and Jod’s turn. Pick up at the bold sentence if you’ve read the previous post. Sorry to say I end the draft mid-sentence. But try it sometime. Feels good. 

The Home We Are From

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.

He woke to a shadow standing over him. Two days had passed but neither the boy nor the shadow knew Trife had lied curled up in a bed of grass for that long. The shadow extended a hand to pull the boy to standing and Trife found his legs didn’t work for a few minutes. Like a fawn or foal he collapsed on his knees, stood wobbly, fell again. The shadow made a tsk tsk sound and sighed, lowered to sit with the boy whose face and arms were imprinted with blades of grass. Trife closed his eyes. He wanted to return to sleep, to drift on a rolling wave of nothing until the soul lifted. A gentle hand touched his brow. The shadow shifted to pull Trife to its lap and then Trife felt his tired body go soft against the soft shadow, and he decided this was a nicer way to drift until the soul lifted. Boy, the shadow whispered, Boy, you can’t go away from here. Trife opened his eyes to see the face of a mother, but not a mother like his own. His own mother had sharp angles and deep lines, eyes that disappeared in a squint, and a frown she wore even on Sundays, but this mother looked at him close and tenderly as though Trife were the loveliest boy she had ever seen. This mother caressed Trife’s dirty face and kissed his brow and whispered that everything was going to be good now, everything, and her voice was calm enough, her eyes clear enough that Trife believed her and didn’t try to do anything except not drift away. The shadow mother and two young men with her lifted Trife onto a cot to carry him down a steep ravine to the edge of a woods. Trife closed his eyes.

The hard part was not drifting. The two young men sang little songs about the trees and sun. The shadow mother chanted quietly. Trife was warm and cold at once. His soul kept slipping from his grasp. He lifted from his body and had to catch hold of his hand to pull himself back on top of his resting form, to suck another breath of air, to stay where he could best hear the young men singing and the shadow mother chanting.

He did not know this next part until he was older, when his shadow mother let slip how afraid she was for the week after they brought Trife to the woods. First, she thought he would die from hunger and thirst, his body eating itself. Then one afternoon Trife was lying on a cot near a fire when he moved to stand and fell into the flames. The children playing nearby shouted and the mothers came to find the boy lying in the flames but when they dragged his body out, they found Trife’s skin was as pale and unblemished as when his shadow mother had washed him that morning, and only his clothes had burned. Now his shadow mother was afraid the boy would be sent away because no one of this world can lie in flames, unburned. That morning the mothers and children agreed not to tell the fathers because as kind as the fathers were, a boy who did not burn in fire was a frightening thing to have in the small tent next to your own. For a week, Trife’s shadow mother stayed near her boy. Later, when Trife was much older, his shadow mother confessed she loved him more because she was afraid how wonderful he was to touch fire and be unburned.

(Many years after, when Trife had his own children who climbed too high and jumped, swam where the current was swift, ate a berry without looking at the color of its hat, or ran a flat palm over a candle flame, Trife understood that wild love his shadow mother had for him, an awe at all a child withstands to grow).

After his shadow mother told Trife the story of his falling into the fire but not burning, he ran across the clearing to his friend Jod’s house to ask what Jod remembered about the day he didn’t burn. Jod pretended he didn’t understand the question until Trife poked him in the ribs and said his shadow mother already said it happened, get on with it, and then Jod confessed he had seen Trife fall into the fire but was too scared to call out. Instead, Jod stayed where he was while the mothers ran from their garden work or cooking fires to pull Trife from the center pit. Jod told him something his own shadow mother hadn’t told him, that the children and mothers and birds all went silent when Trife’s shadow mother rolled him over to see his pale, clean skin unburned.

How long ago was that? Trife asked. Jod shrugged. He said, You didn’t have hair on your face yet. Trife touched the wisps of whiskers on his chin and cheek. Jod said, Now that you know, want to try it again?

Trife thought perhaps he’d used all of his unburning up in one go. His shadow mother regretted telling him the story because her son refused to help kindle a fire for a year after, until it was time for him to leave the woods for his turn. Every boy and girl took a turn. Sometimes a boy or girl left the woods alone but more often they partnered with another boy or girl to leave the woods. After a year or so, when the turn was over, the boy or girl came back to the woods with a sack of spices or herbs or cocoa powder or coins or paints or fruits just about to go bad. In the year he or she had been away, the mother and father prepared a new tent for their son or daughter. The night before Trife took his turn, his shadow mother stayed awake and watched her boy breathe and thought how she had known him his whole life. She could see in his sleeping face the way he looked when he was an infant at her breast, even though this was not how she met her boy. She met her boy at the end of her turn and loved the child so fully to not desire another.

Jod joined Trife on his turn and together they walked the path out of the woods and onto a narrow road cutting through such tall grass the road was invisible at a distance. Trife hadn’t left the woods since the day his shadow mother and the two young men carried him in, so the sun and openness of the land was unsettling. Each night, Trife curled up like a knobby kneed foal, pulled grasses close and covered his head with a cloth. Jod laid an arm’s length away, sleeping as he landed on the ground with arms and legs making funny angles, as comfortable on his back as on his belly. One evening Trife decided to sleep like Jod and Jod decided to sleep like Trife. While Jod rested soundly because he could sleep deeply even in a storm, even with a rock in his ribs, Trife looked up at the stars, terrified. He counted as high as he could, dizzy at the vastness of the sky and thousand points of light, dizzy at the magic that brought those lights to view only at night, and then in fear, he passed out. The next morning, Jod thumped Trife’s shoulder and said, See, boy, it’s good to sleep as you land.

Trife and Jod agreed to walk north. During the first months they ate cheese that reeked because it’d been forgotten in a cave on purpose, and they drank water that tasted of metal, and they walked a ridgeline that would have been their death if a foot stumbled, and they saw a bird with a beak as long as its neck, and they ate a plant they shouldn’t have eaten which made them vomit but not until they’d both seen visions. Trife and Jod were dirty and stinky and no one was there to tell them so. When the pair arrived in a village or town, they took a bed at an inn or found an alley behind a tavern. People moved away from them until Jod grinned and offered a joke. Jod was their way into a dining room or church. Jod was their way into a dance or picnic. They stayed in a village or town for a few days or weeks before continuing their turn and Jod was only tempted once to remain behind when Trife packed his bundle. A girl with red hair in a town of dark hair followed Jod around, turning her back to Trife until Trife understood to leave the couple over the hill behind the mill. When Jod joined Trife for dinner at the inn, Trife said, I think I know the girl’s father, and told the memory of the knife sharpener offering a loaf of bread.

Another month or two passed before Jod asked if Trife might find his way to his village. They were walking on a long stretch of road between one lost village and the next, and no one had passed them for hours. All they had between them was time. Trife was quiet, thinking of the way to his village, remembering a hill he’d see from his hovel’s westward window, a giant hill with lumps like a rooster comb. I don’t know it’s still there, Trife finally said, It might be all gone.

But you remember where? Jod asked.
I do. Or I think I do. There’s a hill like a rooster comb.
We can find that.
We can.
Let’s go on then. Let’s go find your village.

From then, their turn became a search. Most boys and girls took wandering turns of happenstance. Most boys and girls arrived back at the woods with goods and stories and a sense that it might be better to settle the tent made for them, to do the work ready for them, to bear the children waiting for them, better to take the woods than wander. But Trife and Jod infused their turn with mission. Find the rooster comb. Find the village. At each village or town, at each roadside inn, Jod leaned across the table or counter and asked, Did you ever see a hill like this? And he would set a hand on his head, waggle his fingers. Like a rooster? Trife took a needle and thread from his bundle, took off his shirt and stitched the outline of the hill across its belly so the next time they asked, Have you seen a hill like this? they might only point to the tiny measured stitches rolling up and down Trife’s torso. For another month or two they asked. And then one night at the hearth of a poor inn whose fire died early, another traveler recognized the hill.

Jod elbowed Trife and said the traveler, This boy is from there.
From where?
A village near.
Near the hill? That village – was it a village?
Village enough. There was a baker and butcher, Trife said.
That village is gone.
Gone! said Jod.
I know, Trife said, But I want to see.
I can tell you it’s gone. I was there not a week ago. I passed around. I don’t go through places like that.
Places like what? Jod took a long drink of ale. He looked at Trife. Gone? You know it’s gone?
I was there, or near, when the village went away. I was half this.
Sleeping death? Pox? Fire? Jod finished his ale.
It was men with swords and spears, Trife said and the traveler crossed himself and murmured. And I don’t know why. I wondered why. But after, that’s when I came home.
You have two homes.
One, I think.
Two. Or one now, seeing how the first is gone. Jod patted Trife’s back. You still want to go then?

The next morning, Trife and Jod set out with directions from the traveler. They thought they’d gone so far north as to tip over the earth, and maybe they nearly had, but now their long days of walking had brought them near to the village, near to the woods where they’d started their turn eight or nine or ten months before. While they walked, Jod wanted to know all Trife remembered of his childhood. What was your family like? What did your mother cook? What did your father do with his hands? Did you have a brother? A sister? Did you sleep on a cot or on the floor? Who were your neighbors? Was there a pretty girl? Did you learn numbers? Did you have a festival? Where the seasons as they are in the woods? Though Jod had drank the ale, Trife felt the after in his own body. His head was swollen, his tongue slow, his stomach unsettled. Finally, all of Jod’s questions unanswered, the pair settled into silence. That night when they lay at the side of the road, Trife curled and Jod sprawled, Jod reached across the space to take Trife’s hand. Jod whispered, I won’t go if you don’t want to go. Trife held Jod’s hand, missing his shadow mother who still held his hand and kissed his brow. Both boys drifted to sleep like that.

In the morning Trife propped on his elbow watching his friend sleep. Trife lived in one half of his life. This was easier. He didn’t go to the village in his mind, rarely in his dreams. His body made shell around his other body so Trife could leave the small child curled like a fawn, dying, while he grew taller and learned to weave, plant and harvest, hunt. The small child had stayed in his shell since Trife arrived in the woods. No one asked to see the small child. His shadow mother held him most of his first year in her tent, looking into his eyes as she spooned broth into his mouth, looking into his eyes as she rubbed the atrophied muscles of his limbs, looking into his eyes as she sang stories. He was born new. So he did not live that other half. Now, he saw how abandoned Jod was in his sleep and he wondered if all the woods children slept like that, if his own shadow mother slept like that before he came and she curled her form around his to still his shivers and heal his heart. What had he missed by living the first half of his life?

On the third day walking, they recognized landmarks the traveler gave. The village was one or two days from where they slept that night. After Jod fell asleep, Trife got up and walked back to the road. He stood looking toward where his village was gone. Once when I was very young. Trife held that phrase in his mind for a moment. He made his lips shape the words. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young. And then he waited to see if the boy might crack his shell to say what happened once when he was very young. I can wait, he whispered, I can wait all night if you like. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young.

Trife would have liked to sit on his father’s knee and hear the gruff voice say something silly. Trife would have liked to hide his face in his mother’s apron and feel her hand pat his hair. He would have liked to be in a pile with his brothers and sisters on the dirt floor of their hovel, laughing and rolling. He would take a moment at dawn when his mother scraped porridge from the pot or a moment at dusk when his brother shared a blanket. For a long time Trife stood in the middle of the road waiting for the boy to tell him a story, and then he returned to where Jod lay undisturbed, and curled his body around the boy he was. Before his mind went quiet, he remembered remembering. He remembered not burning once before. He remembered something important, before his mind went quiet. And when his mind went quiet, the boy in his shell woke so that Trife’s dreams were of his

(908 words added/ story is 3872 words total)

I Used To Call In Sick On April Twentieth

I was a high school senior in Wisconsin when a freshman boy in Kentucky opened fire on a circle of students gathered in prayer, killing three and wounding five. Later that winter the school shooting was a discussion on Dawson McAllister Live, a Christian call-in show for teens carried by the station our family radios were tuned to. I listened from the backseat of the minivan, staring out the window at the dark evening, hearing stories from witnesses. I remember McAllister talked about having compassion for the shooter’s sister. I remember we were all silent, maybe a little uncomprehending. Something inside me wanted to scream. If I held myself still enough, if I didn’t let a sound out – I watched the dark sky, the shapes of trees.

Also in that minivan was my then infant sister, Mary Grace, who is now graduated after twelve years of homeschool. My sister Ruth is just graduated after completing her senior year at public school. Ellie and David are attending that same school as a junior and sophomore, while the youngest of us siblings, Danny, is in seventh grade homeschool. All of my youngest siblings have grown up or are growing up during a time when the US moved from shock, sorrow and outrage at school shootings to a kind of apathetic acceptance that these tragedies are now part of our culture – attributed to  a diet of violent media or bullying or family dysfunction or mental illness or, ultimately (obviously) easy access to guns.

One of my friends, also a teacher, posted his response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Facebook. He acknowledged there are deeper issues to address – I think of how many students question their inherent worth, how we might restore value to the least of these, how we might increase our love for one another in community. And he also stated the necessity of gun restriction discussion and change.

And change.

I am heartened by the Florida high school students who are not retreating to thoughts and prayers but are saying we do need change, now. It is now.

I am disheartened to think how we have become an unreasonable nation, to resist this change. No. One political party has become unable to attend the morality of gun control debate and legislation. And that is unreasonable. This morning I thought how many Republicans love the Christian right vote. I thought about how many Christians want their rights protected in the US, to the point of canceling other people’s constitutional rights, to the point of negating compassion. I think these voters and lawmakers are afraid. Our country is not listening to one another. Our mouths are full of old arguments.

We possess innate morality. We are not born good but we are born to know the difference between good and evil. It is evil to neglect our children. It is evil to pretend any preventative measure of gun violence is an infringement of civil liberty. It is evil to only send up thoughts and prayers when we are also given wisdom to end the massacre.

Columbine happened spring of my freshman year of university. I came home from class and a girl named Jenny asked did I hear what happened? A school shooting in Colorado. She had her television on CNN coverage and I stood in her room for a few minutes, long enough to read the scroll of what was known so far, long enough to hear conjecture, long enough to see the line of students evacuating their school, the teenagers dangling and dropping from classroom windows. I ran out of my residence hall, that shuddering fury I felt when I heard accounts of Paducah returned, and I cut across campus, gasping a little. I looked up at the sky and asked God why. I don’t understand why I was so affected by this shooting but it happened as I was considering a teaching degree. Later that evening after I returned to my hall, after Jenny told me they got the shooters, the shooters were dead, I sat at my narrow desk by the window and wrote. I wrote I wasn’t sure if I could teach if this is what school meant now. I wrote my worry and fear.

I began my teaching career with a wary eye on the slumped boy, the angry girl. I assessed my classroom for barricade potential. I counted how long it would take to lock my classroom, turn the lights out, draw blinds. During my first years teaching in Wisconsin, April twentieth was difficult – I was anxious the weeks before and the day of I might call in sick or schedule a medical appointment. The year before I moved abroad, I decided I could go to school on the anniversary of Columbine but during first period I asked the office for sub coverage, left school midmorning.

April twentieth is not charmed. Nor is it cursed. It is only a date. And there are so many that followed.

Since leaving Wisconsin I have taught in Colombia, Kuwait and now, Korea. Each of these places have their own risks but I am not afraid of going to work as an educator or of sending my kids to their classrooms.

My daughter was in kindergarten when Newtown happened and there was a stretch of time I was most afraid for my children because humans are capable of such atrocities. The likelihood of a shooter firing into my son’s preschool room was so minimal but after Newtown I could imagine anything, and did. I hated the stay-in-place drills. My son’s teacher asked parents to send comfort objects for the boys and girls to hold during a scheduled drill. If there was a terrorist attack or a shooter on campus there would be no blankies, no stuffies, only thumps and cracks, a siren punctuated by a female voice urging

Stay — in place
Stay — in place

What followed Newtown was a slow realization I could not return to live in my country. I was as saddened and shocked by the details of the attack as I was by the federal government’s inability to enact gun restrictions which would make such mass murders more difficult to commit. The years since have entrenched an oligarchy placed by corporate interests, kept by voter suppression; and an ugly, entitled turn of political bias that refuses practical or difficult compromise necessary in such a diverse nation as ours.

At one point, I started a short story about the fabled good guy with a gun. He received address, dates and times and if he could only get through gate check and catch his plane, if he could only make his way through rush hour traffic he’d protect this school or that movie theater from a barrage of bullets. His performance review was shit.

I was mad. Just after Newtown a neighbor told me his plan to buy one or two assault rifles that summer when he was home, before Obama signed any gun control legislation reducing his right to bear arms. Why do you need a gun like that? I asked. Because it’s fun, he said. I remembered that conversation two years later when a nine-year-old girl at a firing range accidentally killed her instructor because she was unable to manage the power of an Uzi. Was that fun?

I wish I didn’t know the phrases “high capacity magazine” or “bump stock.”

Restrictions are imperative. Boundaries, rules, expectations can be gifts that shape fuller, longer lives. This morning I read about the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas – those cropped photos and short descriptions we are all familiar with. I watched a clip of David Hogg telling our representatives they are adults who need to do something. All the children in the US start kindergarten in a country where school is not safe.

Our last year in Wisconsin there was a school shooting in a neighboring district. I remember reading the email sent to all staff. We were supposed to continue teaching. That night on the news, the story told of a boy who walked into school, shot and killed his principal. Last school year, my siblings’ Janesville high school was put on lockdown and later closed while local, state and FBI law enforcement searched for a man who burgled a gun store and mailed a manifesto to the White House. The man was apprehended in the southwest part of the state, a little less than a hundred and fifty miles away from where my family lives. I still haven’t asked Mom what it was like to know three of her children were on lockdown because of a credible threat from a man with lots of guns. Weirdly, when I heard the story I didn’t feel alarmed or afraid. I had no deep feelings, not even rich gratitude for my siblings’ safety. The incident seemed regular.

This morning I was thinking about Paducah because it was not so long ago when this carnage was truly uncommon. I googled “paducah ky school shooting” and first results included news articles about Kentucky’s most recent school shooting which left two dead and fourteen injured. That happened January 23, 2018. I hadn’t heard of it. You probably haven’t heard of it. Two dead and fourteen wounded is no longer national news.

If all gun deaths were national news, what might happen? Could we say the number out loud? Two here, five there has become nothing but each is a life our nation let go.

Following Christ exacts a high cost. Deny yourself. Be angry but do not sin. So far as you are able, keep peace. Be humble. Love even the ones who are difficult to love. This is my anger: the political party who wants most to align itself with Christianity has twisted my faith to prosperity gospel, hypocritical prolife sentiment, protection from any “other,” and the right to bear an arsenal. How has personal liberty in the US usurped freedom in Christ – who will now deny themselves a military grade weapon? who will now lay down the handgun when they leave the house to buy groceries?

Not all will follow Christ. Not all will choose the hard work of love. But it is not the end. But, oh God, we are fucked as a nation if we cannot come to this issue humbly, openly, willing to draw necessary restrictions to help curb all gun violence in America.

Notes: I am a hit and miss expat voter newly resolved to vote, regardless the inconvenience. While at different points I thought I could not return to live in the States, I know that my life is best lived where I am and if I am one day back in the US, I will be glad. Also, I pray. I do believe prayer matters. But wrestle the issues, persist. Learn to listen. Last, while I am far away from my home country, it is my home country and I care deeply for the men, women and children living in its borders.

Please take time to read “A ‘Mass Shooting Generation’ Cries Out For Change.”

Writing From Headlines: Hawaii Emergency Alert

The Hawaii emergency alert. I read about this and maybe a day or two went by and I was still thinking about this because it makes your stomach funny to think about such a horrible thing happening, to spend a very long short time supposing you might die imminently. I am morbid enough to think about these things even when there isn’t a supporting current headline. Around the world and throughout history, men women children are put right next to their cut from life to death, made to see it, think it, wait for it. So when I read about Hawaii, of course I thought what I would do. And then I very quickly put me out of my mind because it’s really awful to think about.

Instead, I made a writing exercise. I want to create a full piece with different voices to tell the story of not quite an hour. I avoided reading personal accounts of those terrifying/ surreal/ unsettling minutes until I had a few ideas drafted in note form. Below are the first two of five situations. Finished, the five parts contribute to one piece.

Writing fiction is one way I think about who I am. My notebooks are almost entirely filled with journaling and prayer, notes, lists. The Hawaii emergency alert reminds me of my own fears and I might have written an essay about those specific fears but I’m bored of or over or far away from those fears. I know those fears very well. What I don’t know is what it’s like to find out you may die or breathe radiation this morning. I think we should all take time to be a lot afraid of terrible things but not live in that fear for very long, just long enough to be glad when you breathe where you are again.

One more note on the following. The first piece, “Do That Thing,” is about honeymooners. They have sex. They waited until they were married to have sex and now they are on their honeymoon and a ballistic missile is headed their way and, really, I think this is a nightmare scenario for any purity pledging young person even if they believe God is good. I actually really like this piece because it was tragic and funny and tragic to write but sex happens in the story and if that is uncomfortable to read, skip ahead to “Basketball Camp.”