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.