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.

Considering Criticism & Rewriting As Revision

In December I submitted this essay for publication. I received brief editorial comments on the piece earlier this month:

Need to stick to a focus/theme and tell a story that supports it. I think the theme is that she was going through similar life changes, questioning, forming an identity much like her senior class. But there is no story to show this. As I read it, I can identify this theme, but then if you were to ask me for examples from the story that support this theme, I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea why this class was so memorable to her because there is no small story to show it. She jumps form “this class meant a lot to me, we were going through the same thing” to “I was sad to say goodbye” There needs to be a middle part.

Everything that doesn’t support this theme should be cut so that the focus is maintained throughout the piece.

Sentence structure is very loose. It is hard to follow at times. I get lost in run on sentences and fragments. It sounds like a stream of conscious thinking instead of well formed sentences.

I thought What a jerk. I do not know the editor. I don’t have a name. She is a she but I don’t know if that matters. I reread the comments at each stoplight on my drive home, adding to my argument against her points. This isn’t supposed to be a five paragraph personal narrative. This is associative on purpose. It’s a lyric essay (or another of my half dozen attempts). Fragments aren’t evil! The core of her critique is not knowing why the class matters at all and I thought about that between lights, tried to list scenes that illustrate why that group is important to me and I realized those senior English classes matter mostly because people and places near us when we figure something out or grow or stumble are entwined with our figuring out, growing or stumbling.

What I don’t understand is why I entwined my growth with three dozen teenagers whose names and faces, along with mine, fade to single memories summing a whole year, or why I felt urgently sentimental enough to write an essay about it.

But I did. And then I got a critique. And called a faceless editor a jerk. But when I got home and reread my entire essay I cringed. It is hard to follow. You really  have no idea why I like this class. I cram too much in a small space, ruminations that might sound whiny or didactic. I copy/ pasted the whole piece and kept the word cut in my head, paring down to the idea of parallel experiences. I still didn’t have a good single story to illustrate love for a class roster I’d need to look up to fully remember. But I found a better way in to explaining the year. Revision included a lot of new writing, big cuts, and rearranging. I did this because I want to publish and how will I ever manage that if I don’t practice applying editorial critique? The following essay is different and better than the original.


Growing Into Who I Am

The college essay feels intimidating from the start. Admissions committees judge your merit on GPA, letters of recommendation and the essay you hope shouts like me! Choose me! When I introduce the essay in September, students stress about which prompt might show them best. The first week of drafting is like watching a group of friends pose for pictures, turning a head first this way and then that, popping a hip, kissing the camera, brushing hair from the face, trading a smile for a smirk. They don’t know what they want to say about who they are. They don’t totally know who they are.

Last year I felt much the same. My seniors were choosing a future they couldn’t see. During their college essay drafting and revision work, conversations echoed from one student to the next. Tareq wanted to be a doctor, maybe, or an engineer. Nadine was interested in business. No one wanted to be a literature teacher. I thought how I got here. One afternoon I drafted my own essay, written from the other side of college after things have mostly turned out alright: Why I Am Still An English Teacher. Just as my classes were thinking up small stories to illustrate how compassionate or curious they were, I was mining my years in the classroom for reasons why I’d returned that fall. For years, I admitted, I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher. I thought I was more a writer. I was waiting to be more a writer.

But what happened, I explained, is that I practiced teaching day after day after day and became a good teacher. What happened is we moved abroad and teaching was my job. What happened is I found enough joy in the classroom to stay. As I wrote my essay and then modeled expansion and cuts with my classes, I thought how much becoming a teacher mirrors the writing process. So much messy work at the start. A few gorgeous images. But over the academic years, smoother transitions and more hearty middle paragraphs, perhaps even a bold imitation of another’s style.

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Learning My Kuwait

Every August, new teachers arrive to Kuwait. No one really knows what they’re getting into. That’s the nervy part of moving to a new place. For those of us who know the country, the challenge is to keep some things to ourselves. I think it’s important to let a person discover their relationship with a place. I also think it’s good for old expats to spare spoiling a place for new expats. The first weeks and months are rich with impressions. 


I remember standing on the tarmac of the Frankfurt airport, waiting to board our first flight to Kuwait. Ahead of me was a woman wearing a black abaya. Her abaya rippled. She took a step up and I followed. That was the moment it stuck that we were moving to the Middle East, a prick of uncertainty at my neck. For me, Kuwait was a place on the TV in a friend’s basement, the channel changed by parents to news coverage of a city lit up by mortar fire. I knew nearly nothing about the country we were moving to. In our round of interviews, the superintendent said Kuwait was like Dubai (it isn’t) and his wife told me I could wear short sleeves (I can). Teaching colleagues who’d lived in Kuwait five or six years before praised the food and recalled the friendly gratitude citizens expressed toward Americans because, you know, they aren’t Iraqis today. I knew there was a pool at our apartment complex and that chocolate chips were hard to find.

First weeks in a new place are like shuffled snapshots. We landed at night, welcomed by school admin and a few teachers who handed us bottles of water. The airport was busy, the languages around me indecipherable. There was an Egyptian bride wearing a wedding dress and thick make-up, smiling a fuchsia smile, carrying a bouquet, ushered through the crowd by attendants and a videographer. Her face sparkled. One of the teachers told me Egyptian brides arrive like that. Sometimes they dress on the plane. I took a picture of the bride, all the people near her happy. I haven’t seen an Egyptian bride arrive in a wedding dress since.

The air outside was hot. That night was humid, like the taking a deep breath in a sauna. Later, when the humidity left, my skin got tight in the dry sun. My lips chapped. It was Ramadan so we went on errands with water bottles hidden in our bags. I remember shopping for groceries, all the new teachers piled on a bus and told not to buy too much because we’d have to carry it all back on the bus. We walked up and down the store aisles, converting dinars to dollars, reading labels, finding familiar brands. Kellogg’s in Kuwait? I’m not sure what I expected of a grocery store in Kuwait and it only sounds dumb now, to admit paralysis in front of a wall of jam jars, finally choosing a French brand for its pretty label. But other expats were doing the same. One couple joked about the debate they had over a frozen chicken. We eat chicken, he said, But do we need this chicken? Grocery shopping is ordinary. But living in Kuwait wasn’t ordinary for any of us so the aisles were a trek, discovery. We didn’t know what we were like in Kuwait. When we picked up a deli container of hummus, we didn’t know we’d eat hummus and flatbread for lunch two months straight.

The Kuwait I moved to was different than the Kuwait I live in now. Our apartment windows faced a wide stretch of sand that became soccer and cricket pitches in the late afternoon as men gathered for a game after work. Standing at the window, I watched women in saris walk across the sand, their jewel tone fabrics a contrast to the blues and browns men wore. I followed the routes of water trucks sloshing over rutted sand, of cars and trucks that cut games in two for a moment. My view of the Gulf is smaller now. I watched buildings go up one floor at a time. At night I watched two men paint the dome of the mosque across the street.

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Kleines Cafe, Vienna

This is an essay draft, the ideas from a late morning coffee. Verb tense is a small mess. I need to read the whole thing aloud to hear what I want it to sound like. This next school year will very likely be our last in the Middle East and lately I’ve been feeling more afraid than hopeful for change. Also, this summer I’ve been seeing pregnant women, babies and toddler every third step and that’s turned over more thinking about my early motherhood, a time that remains lovely and difficult to remember. Anyway, there might be something to this start. I’ll find out if I go back to it in a month or two.

The online reviewers give Kleines Café 4.3 stars. There’s a note about Kleines being a café locals go to and a picture of a latte in a clear mug so you can see the band of espresso between the whole milk on bottom and the frothed milk on top. That was the latte I ordered after finding the place a couple of blocks off Stephansplatz. I navigated what looks like easy turns following the blue dot on Google maps and then, even with the café in front of me saying Kleines Café with two doors open to its small rooms, I looked at the map and saw the pin dropped maybe fifty meters further and wondered if there were two Kleines Cafes in the same block. Be where you are, I told myself, and stepped into an alcove of a dining room.

I was going to write. When you go somewhere to write, be a little picky about where you sit. I like to sit at the side or back of a room but not with my back to others because the pause between thoughts or paragraphs is a good time to see what people are like. There really isn’t a back or side at Kleines. You go in and you’re in the middle of the whole room wherever you sit. Cracked, cigarette scarred vinyl upholstered benches line either side of the room. A bar with three wood backed swivel stools is where the waiter double checks orders before carrying trays out to the patio tables where most patrons sit. I could have sat outside but the tables and chairs are wood slatted with spindly metal legs standing on cobblestone. I don’t like to write at a wobbly table. I sat near the door at a marble topped table with enough space for my latte, water and notebook if I set the sugar, salt and pepper and ashtray on a chair. There were two more tables on my side and then a few steps down to the toilets and a narrow hall opening to a second room. I don’t know what’s in that second room. Maybe another bar. The kitchen has to be back there somewhere too.

I ordered a latte and opened my notebook. All morning I’d thought about the regret I have, for a couple of years when the kids were little and I wavered, insecure and angry but recognizing those currents and seeking security and peace in God. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m enjoying my kids more now than when they were babies and sometimes I feel bad about that. Some of the new joy is attributable to relative ease of having school age children who tie their shoes, wipe their bottoms, read books and play Lego. And some of the joy stems from a shoot of security I root daily, that I am loved by God. Maybe it was my age or being a new mom, but when the kids were babies I looked at myself and saw this vein of pride that for years had pushed me to seek the approval of others.

Parenting is humbling. And parenting in a social media blitz of links and posts is devastating if you aren’t sure of your own purpose. Even if you are sure. So I opened my notebook to write more about this. I didn’t figure it out. Instead I sort of paralyzed myself playing a highlight reel of my approval seeking ventures.

My daughter strings together nonsensical lyrics, walks through the street pretending she’s a husky, wears polka dot socks with stubby blue leather boots and carries a smartphone made out of a Tic Tac box covered with stickers. I sat in Kleines Café thinking I can’t watch her lose any of that sureness. I thought of my mom too who was my age, thirty-five, when I was a sophomore in high school. What did she see when she watched me walk out the door wearing old corduroys I’d salvaged from St. Vinny’s thrift shop? Did she think I was making it okay? When I was fifteen I had a shell of superiority, not too different from armor most teenagers wear. Now, at thirty-five, I get a little nauseous at the thought like me because it’s a heavy chain to drag through all my places and relationships.

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