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

At the end of the school day, Grant and I were waiting for Justin and Claire so the four of us could bike home. Grant and I were sitting on the speckled tile outside the fitness center. He had just bought bright orange cheese balls from a fundraising table and I was thinking about whatever I had yet to get done. I looked over at Grant. Hey, I said, I need a story idea. Can you give me one?

A story?
Yeah. I need to write one. I can’t think of anything.
Write about a little kid that does some things that other people don’t do.
Wow. That’s good.
Can it be about a boy?
What would you name the boy?
That’s you.
Turner. Or – Grant started playing with sounds. Or, Trife. Or Cur – Curft.
How about Trife?
What about Trife?

And then Grant gave me the bones of a story and while he spoke, I typed to keep up: He’s going to go to the woods, that’s what I’m thinking of. And he should be a person who goes to a village and then the village gets invaded, so then he goes all the way into the forest where no one finds him and he meets some people who are really nice to him and they go on a journey to lots of places and then they go back to their town and fix it up.

Now you know the story, but how will it go?

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.

(694 words)

How I Do This Thing

Rarely easily.

Sometimes while wearing earplugs.

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

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

With much joy and doubt.

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

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

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

How I do this is slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(759 words)

Absolutely Not A Shock

Shelly Wheeler was ready when her sons’ school got shot up. She was standing in line at Starbucks when her phone dinged. It was around nine am. Her oldest twin Dylan messaged

Mom somethings wrong were on lockdown i’m ok

Later in interviews, Shelly recalled the next part differently. In interviews with local and national television news crews, Shelly said she knew at that moment her children were in danger. She said it was a mother’s heart. But what happened was she looked at the message and her body and mind paused. The man in line ahead of her ordered his venti americano but she couldn’t move her feet forward to order her usual latte. So maybe she did understand, at a molecular level, that this text signaled a shift in her world, but when her feet would not move and her mouth could not form a word, Shelly didn’t think she was entangled with her sons’ present experience. She thought she was having a stroke. The barista leaned forward a little and asked if Shelly was okay. Before Shelly could will her head to nod or her tongue to work, a woman at nearby table shouted, Oh my God! Oh my God! And jumped so quickly from her seat the chair tipped over. Oh my God, the woman shouted again and then, There’s a shooter at the school!

Shelly turned as though underwater and saw a woman who looked like any number of mothers of teenagers. This woman was already at the shop entrance and then half jogging twenty steps toward a Toyota, key fob in hand, headlights winking. Shelly turned back to the barista whose mouth was open and said, My sons are there. She held up her phone. My twins, she said. Shelly’s legs would still not respond but her thumbs worked again. She messaged Dylan

Put your phone on silent
Tell the others your with
I love you

She messaged her younger twin, Gabe

Baby, are you ok?

She messaged her husband, Don, who was already at his construction site an hour east. Neither Gabe nor Don replied immediately. Shelly looked up to see the barista still waiting, perhaps not for an order but for further news about her boys or the shooting. Another barista called, Jacob, americano. The man and woman in line behind Shelly asked if she needed to sit. That’s what shook her awake again. No, she said, No. I need to go. Thank you. And like that her legs worked and she floated toward the door, across the parking lot, to her sedan. She called her supervisor and said she’d be a little late, that something was going on at the boys’ school. Sirens screamed by. Shelly was split between her body and the space just above. She pushed the ignition start. She used a turn signal to exit her parking spot. At the light she checked her phone but there were no new messages.

By that evening, anyone clicking on an article or news clip about the shooting at Bayfield United High School would see her face, hear her voice and in the following days as she refined her narrative, she would emerge as a representative for the tragedy. Her sons lived and yet she could speak most eloquently about the loss. That morning on the drive across town, Shelly whispered soundbites and dug through her bag with one hand to find her lipstick which she reapplied at the red light before calling Don to tell him he should get in his truck and head home. Don asked was she sure it was a shooter and for the first time since receiving Dylan’s text, she considered the possibility that the lockdown was overprotective. Maybe nothing was wrong. Three years ago when the boys were in eighth grade there was a school shooting in Austin that killed seven kids and she’d watched all the interviews with students, teachers, and parents, and read all the op-eds, followed the trial of a fourteen year old boy who was mad because his girlfriend broke up with him the week before. The girlfriend was among the dead. Shelly devoured the tragedy. She did not understand why anyone was shocked at the tragedy, especially after the photo and story of the ostracized shooter ran on the nightly news. The kid looked nuts.

After Austin, Shelly followed every school shooting, even the under-reported ones like Milltown and Chattanooga where the loss of two and three students respectively did not garner national interest. If Don noticed the tabs on her computer, he didn’t say anything. Shelly joined the PTO and pushed the district to adopt a program that educated the student body about the effects of bullying and funneled troubled students into counseling. At each new school shooting she recognized herself in the semicircle of parents gathered at the fire station or holding candles at a vigil or speaking in the weeks or months after in the halls of state and national government offices.

Shelly said to Don, It’s real. I know it is. That exchange played well when Pepper Nelson of NBC spoke with Shelly while Don was at her side. Don nodded solemnly and said to Pepper, My girl knew and I’m glad I had the sense to listen.

Shelly knew just what to say when Pepper cued the cameraman. Shelly turned her face a little to the right and said it was such a shock that this kind of thing could happen in Bayfield. This wasn’t the kind of place where something so tragic could happen. This was fabulous against the backdrop of the now empty school building whose doors were wrapped with yellow police tape. This was fabulous interspersed with footage of the evacuation of students with hands on their heads, FBI and law enforcement in crouched positions on rooftops, behind cars in the lot. Shelly sniffed a little and said she mourned with the other mothers and fathers. We are all Bayfield today, she said.

That evening at home, jittery from adrenaline and rank from fear and worry, Shelly sank on the couch between Dylan and Gabe and pulled them to her, awkwardly. They were sixteen years old, tall and muscular, probably the kind of students who walked by the shooter without saying hi. The boys let their mother hold them pressed against her breasts. Shelly relaxed her arms and the boys sat up. Mom, Dylan said, I was really scared. I thought I might die. For a moment, Shelly wished he’d said that when Brock Evans interviewed the family an hour earlier, because it was so vulnerable and perfect for the story. If a boy like Dylan could be afraid, what was America coming to? She kissed his cheek, patted his hand. I’m sorry, sweetie, she said. Gabe cleared his throat. Gabe hadn’t talked since she’d picked him up from the football field where the student body congregated after the shooter was apprehended. Shelly turned to her younger son. He opened his mouth as if to speak. She looked just above his head where she knew he was.

(1185 words)

Yet I Hold What I Have

For a few years I expected the worst. Justin would be late from work and I’d stand at the window looking out at the desert, certain he was dead. When he traveled I would imagine if he didn’t return. I realized I didn’t know anything about chunks of our shared life. He tracked our finances. He knew how to fix a wobbly chair. He planned our summer vacations. For years I expected the worst but continued to allow the kids to climb, jump, run and bike fast. Now the fear that my spouse or child might die is a fear that keeps quiet, but during my early motherhood that fear would swell to a point of certainty. If I called Justin and he didn’t answer, I began to cry. The afternoon I saw my two year old daughter had opened her bedroom window by standing on a little chair and was sweeping dust off the sill with her hand, I went cold. I didn’t shout but I held her tightly, feeling dizzy at the thought. We found a way to lock the sliding window and screen.

I might have expected the worst because I understand that the worst can happen to people. I was Polly Klass’s age when I saw her picture on People magazine at the checkout. I was twelve or thirteen when I read The Diary Of Anne Frank. I heard about an Olympic runner in Bosnia who trained despite having to dodge bullets. I learned about mental illness. I read about the Holocaust. I didn’t understand Rwanda. My great-grandmother told me her mother and infant brother died in the flu epidemic and when her father could not raise his remaining two children, he gave my great-grandmother and her brother to a couple who provided, but were not warm. The worst can happen to people.

And people live through. Continue. During those early years of motherhood, two things happened that started to shape my relationship with fear, suffering and grief. Midway through a difficult pregnancy, my friend Liana gave birth to her third son who lived one hour in the hands of his dad. That is now seven years ago but the memories of Liana on bedrest, and the phone call that told me she’d lost her son, still turn my heart. A few days after she was released from the hospital, I stopped by a cafe to pick up a coffee and saw her a moment before she saw me. She was sitting at a table waiting for her husband who was inside with their boys. She was empty armed and blank faced. The mercy was, Liana didn’t try to rearrange her features to make me okay. The second thing that happened was my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. I did not know Rose well, but I knew she loved her son, wanted another baby, was excited about homeschooling. One summer I talked with Rose in my mom’s kitchen, encouraged by her straightforward faith in Christ. But when Rose died, I ached with shame at how much I worked at love, how uncertain I was at parenting. I ached with fear I might die before I learned how to love my children simply, sacrificially.

The following few years I practiced more honesty in my faith, more neediness. Motherhood was a catalyst to surrender, heart change, fuller joy. Fear subsided as I learned my identity in Christ, as I preached to myself the great care the Father has for each of his children. But fear also subsided as I witnessed others suffer loss and walk sorrow.

I am still finding a way to say this next part. During this past year I imagined myself inoculated against those losses we count as worst: spouse or partner, child, body. I am so comfortable with my ordinary suffering. The low grade depression like a background hum, ready to swell or lessen with the roll of my month or year. The pains of having much and so managing or neglecting gifts, like hiring help with housework, deciding where to get take away, sorting a closet full of clothes, or choosing what to do on a wide open Saturday. I like my ordinary suffering. I have witnessed others’ suffering. I have empathized and entangled. I do not want to wash my child’s dead body. I do not want to kiss my husband’s dead body. When I stepped into a conversation about suffering and grief with Sabrina, she surprised me by saying God does not give us more than we can bear: a platitude I would not say to any bereaved person, she could say within the year her husband died. She carries so much. She is as loved as I and we are both held in the Spirit, but when she said that I thought, Well, there you go. I can’t bear it. That single truth summed up my supposition that God understood I could be near grief, intercede, care for others, but that I am also ill prepared to suffer anything more than a lifetime of mild depression.

All of us are ill prepared to suffer anything more than a lifetime of mild depression and some of us can barely handle that. While I pretend proximity to great loss might inoculate me against great loss, the better comfort is this: we all suffer, we all lose. I move toward and away from this thought but find such comfort in the connectedness of my experience and yours, the lack of anything new under the sun, the truth that we all suffer, we all lose. I do not need to stand at the window waiting my turn. I am allowed to live with peace and joy. I surrender fear. Let my husband go away from me and return. Let my children bike ahead and arrive. Let me run alone at dawn. Liana and Sabrina live and grieve and live. Rose grieved and died. I hold what I have. I cannot do more today.

(1011 words)

Bush Burning

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

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

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

Anyway. Bush burning.

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

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

(697 words)


I just read the following to Claire and she loves the last two paragraphs. Me too. I want to write more of this, the lovely everyday. 

I gave birth to Claire in a fluorescent lit room. I kept my eyes closed. My mind worked differently, to protect me from panic at the massive work of my body. For most of the labor and delivery I was calm, or even blissed out. Justin was in and out of the room and the one moment of near fear I remember happened at the first urge to push when I realized my body was going to birth a baby and I had best be okay with the process. I had a moment of fear at motherhood, not the first of the pregnancy and not the last of motherhood. At one point near the end I glanced to my left and saw four or five interns and doctors lined against the wall watching because it was rare for a woman to choose no epidural. I met Claire and Justin followed her to the little station where she was measured and weighed. She was so pink. I shivered and nurses placed a heavy blanket over me. My body lost so much blood I later passed out but no one seemed worried, so I didn’t worry either. I asked to see the placenta. After reading so much about pregnancy and birth, I respected this whole new organ my body grew to support my daughter. The doctor held the slick, deep red placenta up like he was a waiter carrying a tray. Wow, I said. It’s a good size, he said, and dropped it into the medical waste bin with a thwack.

I gave birth to Grant in a dimly lit room. Justin attended me the whole time. My mind again carried me away from fear. This time I knew I was having a boy and we had chosen his name so I said to Grant to move so he was ready to be born. I said to Grant we were together in this. This labor was different. The sensations were less intense. My water broke with a loud pop and splash while I was pushing and my doctor, a Lebanese woman, laughed. Yulla! Yulla! she said. I met Grant whom I already loved. I rested. We ordered breakfast delivered to the birthing suite. In our room alone I marveled how tiny this new person was. I laid on my belly for the first time in months. I nursed my baby. I watched him sleep.

When I met Claire, she was place on my right breast so she looked up at me. When I met Grant he was placed on my left breast so he looked up at me. I love to hold my children in a hug and look down to see them look up at me.

My son has his father’s hands. My daughter has my hands. I watch how these hands work. Grant draws intricate plans for a ship. He rolls bits of paper into smokestacks to glue on the deck of a cardboard ship. He digs in the dirt for rocks he calls gems. When he rides his bike, he sometimes lets one arm loose at his side and once I saw him lift both hands from the handlebar just to see if he could. Claire makes a flat screen alive with whatever world she’s constructed. She taps and scrolls to edit a stopmotion video. She picks up a pencil, a marker, a paintbrush to make the picture in her mind show up on paper. She makes clothes for her doll. Both of my children hold my hand and that is a daily pleasure.

(595 words)

Chapel On The Lake

Quick note: Starting in middle school I attended summer church camp. I was raised in the church which sometimes tricks me into thinking I know exactly how God works or how I work within my faith. Attending church camp gave me more opportunities to talk with all kinds of people who loved Jesus or wanted to or weren’t sure how to. For a while I wavered and wandered and wasn’t sure how to find a way back to a relationship that once felt full. I am so imperfect but I am loved by God who is good. I want to write about this faith, the experiences that build, assure, surprise us – I want to write about the Spirit in a way that doesn’t simplify or frighten. This piece is based on nights at summer camp. I think about the boys and girls who are now men and women and I wonder which of us still seek.

One evening we have chapel on the lake. Benches are built into the slope of a hill so we all look down at a cross in front of a few pines, the lake behind. At this time of day the water is like glass. We can see the swimming area roped off, the dock that ends at the deep end, the buoys we swim to. At this time of day, our bodies are tired from sun and activity and some of us have already cried at our small group, some of us have decided we almost believe, some of us are not sure. There is a boy named Clay who calls himself a Jesus Freak. There is a girl named Melissa who says Mother Mary comforts her. This evening we all sit and listen to the Word. Some of us take notes in bubbled cursive. Some of us trace an arc in the dirt with the toe of our sandal. At the end, we pray and there is a pause after Amen. The pause is met by one of us who stands.

When Ben stands it is like we all knew he would stand. There is a push forward in our chests. He walks to where the youth leader is standing and the youth leader does not look surprised or concerned by this bear of a boy. The youth leader steps aside. Ben puts his hands in his pockets, takes his hands out of his pockets. He looks up at us and squints like the sun is in his eyes, but the sun is behind him, low.

This is not enough, Ben says. We understand. All of us understand. He says it again and again. Each time, his voice is louder but he does not shout. We are all sitting, alert. Ben opens his arms wide and says, This is not enough. This is not enough. This is not enough.

Now we want to move but we aren’t certain how this goes. Ben goes quiet. He drops his arms to his side and we all wait in the hum. Angela stands. This is not enough, she says, I want more. And then a wash and whoosh of Spirit and we breathe like our lungs are deep. Angela calls out, More! And we stand or stay in our seat or go weak but more, more. Ben is standing like a tree. His body does not sway. He keeps his head bowed. Angela is swaying and tears fall from her eyes. She looks at heaven. We are all for a moment not at chapel on the lake. We are all together and alone with God.

No one sees the girl with red hair leave chapel. A few of us catch a movement at the swimming beach and see Kat walking loose limbed across the sand toward the dock. She begins to jog down the dock and those of us who watch hear her feet on the planks as she bursts faster at the end and leaps over the water, her arms outstretched. Those of us who watch see a baptism. Kat plays in the water for a minute or two. She floats on her back. She swims to the shallow water and hauls herself onto the dock where she sits with her feet in the water. She is too far away to know her expression but those of us who watch know it.

This evening ends. A couple of guitars are out. We sing praise. We sing slow. Kat wraps herself in a beach towel left draped over a canoe and rejoins us. She is glowing. We pray like we mean it, in our head or heart, with our lips. This evening ends. Ben finds his feet can move again. Angela dries. We hug one another. We see one another. The youth leader and his wife are tired and pleased. The counselors invite us to make a fire, toast marshmallows. Some of us are tired by the evening and drift down dark paths toward cabins. We brush our teeth and swat mosquitoes and climb into sleeping bags on top and bottom bunks. At this moment we are alive to the work of God in us and we are afraid and not afraid. We cannot see after this evening. One evening we will be older and closer or further. But this evening we rest, full.

(732 words)

It Takes A Quick Turn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(813 words)

One Day I’ll Write When I’m Through

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

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

what I really want to say, which is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(994 words)

When I Decided To Write Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

(818 words)