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.”

MISSILE THREAT INBOUND

 

No Ideas, But In Things

This exercise comes from 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. 3 AM Epiphany is one of many writing books I’ve browsed in bookstores or spotted on colleagues’ shelves but never bothered reading past a few flipped pages. But a few weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about teaching creative writing and he mentioned how much he loves this book, how great the exercises are for writers. He sounded like me talking about Writing Down The Bones or What If? Later that day I bought the book and found the first exercise I wanted to try.

No Ideas, But In Things

Write a very brief story told only in images – concrete, simple, visually efficient movements and details. This exercise does not ask you to eliminate people from your prose, just too watch what they do and what objects they crave and caress rather than what they say or think about these objects and actions. 300 words.

The book says more about the exercise itself but this was the direction I reread when beginning again. Two comments more, from the book: The phrase no ideas, but in things comes from William Carlos Williams, who firmly believed in presenting the world the way it looked… And: If you need an operating metaphor for this exercise , think in terms of a silent movie or the moments when a contemporary film truly uses visual storytelling.

This is a challenging exercise. I started with two separate images in my mind: a walk up a hill for coffee and a woman digging in dirt. But then I included the narrator’s thoughts. (Which fails the exercise). And then I blew the 300 word limit by a thousand. But go ahead and do the same, for the practice. Or try writing a few short-short, connected pieces.

Here is the yield.


Isaac walked up the hill for coffee. The walk up the hill was shadowed. On one side of the quiet street was a cement wall painted white and from the other side of the wall trees grew tall enough to shadow the street. On the wide sidewalk where he walked, smaller trees with smooth bark were planted in dirt squares bordered by red brick. The roots of these smooth bark trees were just beginning to lift slabs of sidewalk at a corner to catch the toe of a shoe, make a stutter step. Isaac walked up the hill for coffee and to think a little before returning to campus to pick up his grade twos from P.E. or art or music, one of the specials that gave him this moment to walk up the hill.

He went to a place called Zoo Coffee which served coffees and juices and sandwiches without meat. The barista knew enough English to spare him gestures. She would duck her head a little and turn to tamp espresso grounds, press buttons, add a pump of syrup. He would take his drink, sit at the long table near the front of the cafe. He would take out his phone and scroll through the news, reread an email he should reply to, like photos his sister posts. At two or three other tables, housewives or women his mother’s age sat with their cups and small plates of cake or rolls but he didn’t look at them, only knew  they were there. After ten or so minutes he would push back his chair, bow slightly at the barista who echoed his kamsahamnida. Then he walked back down the hill to campus to prepare his room for the next morning or do paperwork or discover where one of the students hid morning snack. At 2:13 he would pick up his grade twos for the very last part of the school day.

When he walked up the hill he might see an older man with a dog on a leash or a woman pushing a stroller or a man or woman walking with hands clasped at the back. He might not walk up the hill for coffee if the street was loud, if he had to cross a busy intersection, if he bumped into others.

One afternoon he saw an old Korean woman squatting  by a smooth bark tree, trailing a finger over the hardened dirt, around a root. The tree was the first on its block, at the bottom of the hill. Isaac neared the old woman, ready to bow a greeting, but the woman was intent at the pattern she made with the pads of her fingers, quiet waves radiating from the base of the tree. He continued up the hill. She was there when he walked down the hill, coffee in hand. She did not show she heard him walk by.

On Monday morning, after walking his class to art (walking feet, walking feet! Thank you), Isaac checked his phone for messages and emails, saw he had no meetings, nothing he couldn’t do in twenty minutes when he was back, and walked out the back gate, turned right to go up the hill. The old woman was at the fourth tree now, squatting nearest the curb. She must start the day at one side, he thought, and circle her way around the tree as the day goes. Again, the old woman did not look up as Isaac passed her on the way to Zoo Coffee or when he returned, caramel macchiato in hand. He stopped at the bottom of the hill before crossing and turned to watch her. He took a drink of coffee. It was  a little too sweet but he didn’t buy a caramel macchiato every day. Most days he filled his mug at a colleague’s ever brewing pot. He took another drink. The old woman reminded him of his mother or grandmother, both of them gardeners who didn’t squat but knelt at the soil, who spoke to the soil as this old woman was now doing. Isaac couldn’t hear any language sounds but the woman’s lips moved. She nodded agreement or affirmation.

On Tuesday Isaac was right. The old woman was at the fifth tree and on Wednesday, at the sixth tree. Her posture and attentiveness remained the same. Her clothes changed but Isaac wouldn’t have noticed if he were not now watching for this old woman. She wore patterned blouses and pants and this too reminded him of his mother and grandmother – as they wore endless combinations of black and gray, this woman seemed to have a closet composed of wildflower and rose prints. On Thursday the old woman was halfway up the hill at the seventh tree. On Friday she looked up as Isaac passed and said in English, Is here. She patted the dirt with her small palm, erased the waves she’d made. Isaac squatted next to her. What’s here, he asked. What is here? He pointed to the dirt. The old woman began to make waves again. Isaac felt a twinge in his knee. His thighs burned. He wondered how she squatted like that, hours a day he guessed, without her limbs going to needles. He asked again, What is here? but the old woman didn’t seem to hear and when she shifted her weight to move she didn’t look at Isaac to ask with her eyes that he move over too. He stood then, stepped back so the old woman could have her next place. He wiggled his toes to wake his calves, bowed his head in a farewell the old woman didn’t see and walked up the hill to order a caramel macchiato even though he was tired of caramel macchiatos.

He was surprised by the old woman’s English. He wondered if he imagined the English. If his brain reconstructed the old woman’s sounds into a word he could hear. He wanted to know her name. He opened a translation app on his phone, typed

my name is
what is your name

and practiced making his mouth and tongue fit the pronunciations. He looked up

what are you doing

and went to bed thinking of this old woman tending dirt, just drifting when he remembered to email his father in the morning to wish him a happy birthday.

The next day, Friday, Isaac wasn’t certain he would see the old woman. He had a team meeting in the morning and report card comments were due at the end of the day. He typed through lunch and his second prep, pausing only for refills from his colleague’s ever brewing pot. All day Isaac thought of the old woman, of the designs she drew in the dirt. He practiced his phrases in whispers. At the end of the day, a little jittery from a skipped lunch and the ever brewing coffee, he cut through the back gate to see if the old woman was still at the tree she would have been at all day. She was there. Isaac practiced his phrases. They jumbled on his lips. He slowed his steps, took out his phone, opened the app and typed

my name is Isaac

watched the Hangul characters appear. He looked up.

Her head was low on her breast, like her neck was the neck of a duck, able to bend, turn, tuck. She was still. For a moment Isaac thought she was sleeping. Her hands were at the dirt, fingers spread but curled at the knuckles like claws on a perch. The dirt was brushed, fanned, swiped away from the tree roots. There were divots in the packed earth. Pocks. It was then the old woman uncurled her fingers so her hands rested flat. Her nails were broken, peeled back, packed with dirt. She was bleeding. Isaac held his breath without knowing. His thumb moved and a woman’s voice intoned a string of syllables and his name. The old woman’s head swiveled. Isaac felt his empty lungs. She looked at him – she might have glared – and then looked away, but Isaac didn’t understand if she said anything to him in that moment she held his gaze, before her head was back at her breast.

Her shoulders lifted, ribs expanded with a full inhalation which she let go in a shudder. Isaac realized the old woman was crying. He took a breath as full as hers, slid his phone in his back pocket. He stood above this sad woman, wanting to say something but all he knew was hello, thank you and how to say shrimp when ordering kimbap.

Isaac bent a little at the waist, reached a hand to touch the old woman’s shoulder. He hesitated, fingertips hovering where his own shoulders tightened, and then she drew another giant breath so her shoulders rose to his fingertips and he kept his hand steady through her shuddering exhale. She didn’t flinch or turn stone or scoot away. He kept his hand steady on her warm shoulder where a tight cord tied to a delicate knob of bone and they stayed like that for a while until Isaac’s back pinched near the waist from leaning over this old woman, sorry for something he didn’t know.

Every Time I Draft A Piece I Ask Why

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Form

Finding Form

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

(Which I still hope is lyric essay).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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