I Testify

One of my pastors said that the best testimony was no testimony. My family attended a small church of five or six families and a man named Art who said he voted for the other party to hasten the end times. Pastor Scott was from Wisconsin but moved out to New York to minister to city kids before returning to Wisconsin with his own young family. It’s odd to have church with just twenty or thirty people, half of them children. If a family skips a Sunday, one side of metal folding chairs is lopsided. Always there were empty rows. Always we could sit one row ahead of our parents, if we wanted. Our worship team was one of two married couples, the wife at the piano and the husband empty handed or holding a tambourine. We had no hymnal so all lyrics were written on transparencies. For a while, the first pastor’s daughter switched the sheets to follow the songs. When I was ten or eleven I got to sit next to a friend and switch between verse and chorus, the next song. While the church suffered rifts I didn’t understand as a child and haven’t asked about as an adult, the families remained attuned to the gospel. I believe the small congregation loved Jesus and one another as best as each could.

There is no hiding in a small church. Now I attend a church that might be fifty or sixty people on Sunday morning. We meet in a hotel conference room in Itaewon. During the first several weeks attending this gathering, I cried at each service, and couldn’t say why. Sometimes in the middle of a question or fear or doubt but sensing the edge of understanding is near, I think of my parents being my age once and suffering their own middles, sensing the dull ache or sharp knife of growth, and I remember they did all of this with a small crowd of witnesses.

What Pastor Scott meant by the best testimony is no testimony is that the best witness of Christ’s love is a life lived faithfully start to finish. I wonder what I have said as a teacher or parent that is now lodged unhelpfully in a mind. I don’t think it’s impossible to live faithfully start to finish. There are men and women I look to as examples of reverent, practiced, consistent gospel living. When I was nine or ten I started reading Drama In Real Life. That Reader’s Digest feature was one of my favorites. And our Christian radio station played a Chuck Colson program every Saturday night about sinners who slopped about in mud before hearing about Jesus and turning their lives around. I was hearing how exciting danger and sin might be, the thrill of near misses. But at church I was hearing how much Jesus wanted me to be holy. I don’t remember Pastor Scott going on and on about why he thought a faithful life was preferable to a radically redeemed life but that idea still chafes me, even as I look at my daughter and son and think, Spare them this mess.

I am submitting work for publication. I go through a list of literary journals, visit the sites, guess if my work might sit alongside what is already there. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a cover letter that included the sentence

Help me.

because that is what it will take for my work to ever land in a journal or a book. Someone else will have to read my words, decide to help me lift up all these stories and images for you to see too. When I read published work, I catch the couple of lines about the author. So-and-so has an MFA from -, this grant, that award, a fellowship. Her/ his work has appeared in -, -, -, and is forthcoming in – and -. She/ he lives in (usually) Brooklyn (but sometimes somewhere surprising like Tampa or Calgary).

When we moved to Kuwait, we attended a church where I bristled at and yielded to the constant work of God in my heart. We worshipped on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, and I remember one morning a group of Indian men and women performed a dance to music with words I couldn’t understand. I stood swaying with my infant son wrapped to my torso, crying because these men and women danced with joy and I understood I wanted that joy and held that joy. Because I grew up in a nondenominational church, I had no attachment or perception of particular strains of evangelicalism so when a woman from Bethel prayed fervently for my healing, I agreed. I didn’t care that in California, her church body thought God turned people’s teeth to gold. When we joined a largely Filipino service I wasn’t put off by the many prayers for provision and financial blessing because all around me were men and women working long hours to send money home to parents, siblings, spouses, children. I had friends from the South who voted differently than me. I had a friend whose husband stockpiled assault rifles for the apocalypse. I worshipped with a Polish woman who once clasped my hands and said she could see me laughing with such joy, like a child, and a year later I had joy like a child again. During our last years in Kuwait, I loved Shobha and Asha for their gentleness, honesty and faithfulness: they worked without complaint, loved my children with affection, rested and teased and traveled together, prayed with me, blessed me when I couldn’t ask for blessing.

There are so many people who walk the narrowest path.

Sometimes I fear being a Christian precludes me from being a writer. We all have hang ups. This is one of mine. I look at the pieces where I address my faith and think no one wants to read that. I lack the theological depth or bright pep to appeal to the American evangelical (do I really want to appeal to the American evangelical?). I talk about God like he is God, which is uncomfortable. And then I read the author notes of other writers who probably write with more abandon than me because they aren’t afraid of testifying. I read the author notes of other writers who spool out lines, brick paragraphs like I do, but I am envious with a similar envy I have for my Christian brothers and sisters who marry as virgins, bear three or four or five children, take gorgeous family photographs in knee deep grasses: these authors seem to have also gone the prescribed path. I wander far, teach, scrap together work in spare time. I am bitter there are Christians with the most boring, faithful testimony and I am bitter there are writers who publish because they can’t help but publish after the MFA from -, this grant, that award.

Last night I dreamed I gave birth to an infant I couldn’t see or touch. The dream was of two women caring for my body during and after. The dream was fear I would die because my body wasn’t delivering the placenta. The dream was the sensation of labor, the deep turning and undeniable truth the process cannot stop.

(1212 words)

Wide Open And Weary: I Wanted To Be A Backpacker

On Wenceslas Square we saw a man playing a makeshift instrument, a table top criss-crossed with piano wire. The man bent over the wires and tapped them with a wooden mallet. Two dreadlocked backpackers leaned over the wires too, grinning and nodding like this unremarkable plunking was brilliant.

I never got to be a backpacker. I likely would have jumped in the wrong jeep on the promise of an unexplored waterfall and ended up dead or pregnant. My thirty-something self doesn’t trust my early twenty-something self to buy a Euroline pass and crash in cheap hostels. I know the messes I made, sans language barrier.


Backpacker culture intrigues me. I like the range of it. I like the girls in flowy skirts and the boys with shaggy hair. I like the just going part. Here, I’ve seen graying men shoulder packs and lean into the uphill walk.

My first impression of backpacker culture was when Justin and I went to Taganga on the Colombian Caribbean coast. It was hot, but I ran every morning, chased by dogs, to Santa Marta and back. We laid around on the beach, drinking beer and reading paperbacks. I ate the best coconut pie I’ve ever had at a place called La Ballena Azul and went back twice more just for the pie. I felt very alive, walking up rutted gravel paths in the dark, my belly full of pie, swatting bugs I couldn’t see, nearly tripping over lazy dogs.

I was twenty-six. Around me were men and women a few years younger, scuffed packs at their feet, sheens of sweat on their skin. I remember eating ceviche one night, watching a young woman on the porch hold court, three or four men trying. What I remember best are her bare legs and feet. She had dancer legs she stretched out then pulled to her chest, flopped open like butterfly wings. The men laughed at what she said and she laughed at what they said and they all took pulls on sweating beers. There was possibility and sex in her smile and splayed legs, in the men’s ropey arms resting on chair backs.

One day we went to Tyrona, got caught in Biblical rain and hiked out in heavy boots. We boarded a full bus, the few backpackers on board wearing our own exhaustion. Even that travel-worn posture was enviable. I wanted to be mistaken for a backpacker, wide open to what comes, a little weary after. I wanted to seem like the kind of person who would just leave their country to go see what South America was like in November.

I felt late to my adventure. I felt a little planned. I had a husband and a job. Within a year, I’d have a baby. Sitting in that restaurant, eating ceviche scooped from a plastic bucket, watching a girl get all the flattery I craved, I thought I should have gone when I first felt it. But then I’d be dead now, or parenting an adolescent itching for his or her own adventure.

May Revision: Essays That Nearly Killed Me

I revised five pieces this month. Let me tell you a little about each, most waiting for a better title than their topics:

Comparison: I pulled this piece from a long rant, bringing into focus my insecurity about parenting. This insecurity comes and goes. And that made revising this piece difficult: while I have hope for myself and my children (let us quit the comparison game!), I still wobble. There isn’t a tidy summary to this unflattering view of me.

Envy: The second piece pulled from the aforementioned rant, with an eye on wanting what I can’t have. For years I was sure I shouldn’t have become a mom because I can be so selfish. I looked at the childless people with an envy that occasionally bordered on hate. In this piece I write about contentment. I am really sad for that stretch when I couldn’t see the joy I possessed because my eyes were on what I didn’t have.

Rose: Rose is a woman whose death brought my own sin into painfully sharp focus. She was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and died within a month. And that month for me was perhaps the peak of my anger and discontent at being a wife and mother. I can see that now, a little over a year away: a shift begun when I thought about this mom who knew she wouldn’t see her eight year old son turn nine. The challenge of returning to this piece, and a couple of others, is that I wanted to write about the experience as I see it now, or as I have (or haven’t) grown since.  Instead, I kept the piece in present tense, editing to tighten.

The Year After Grant: Also about a year ago, I wrote two essays back-to-back about the year following the birth of my son. That year was wonderful and awful and I was looking for a way to say all of it. With this revision, I combined the two pieces. The challenge was finding an appropriate tone. I’m letting this piece sit right now: it’s stronger, but not finished.

To An Affair I Haven’t Had: A Confession To My Husband: Oh, the one piece with a title. Also written a year ago. This essay partners with a couple of my fiction pieces. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I returned to this piece: it is hot, raw, sad. I center on the fight of flesh and spirit, knowing right and wanting wrong (Romans 7). I returned to this piece less concerned with keeping the details of my own situation accurate, and more concerned with writing a work that encompasses the absolute despair and suckiness of wanting an affair you can’t have. And shouldn’t have!

Title of my first collection: Wanting What I Can’t Have. Joking. Kinda. Sometimes in the middle of WP or drafting, I write God. I might follow that with a quick prayer like help or I might take a page to pour out the spiritual or faith side of topic. When I returned to these pieces, I did pray. Because I get shaky writing these things honestly, now with the intent to share. I am fast reaching the point where I don’t care what ugly bits of me you see, so long as you also see my faith worked out. So during this month of revising (and drafting) tough pieces, I returned to this question: what purpose does my transparency serve?