Hosier Lane, Melbourne

Melbourne HL Looking Up

Agnes named two places we should go in Melbourne. When I mentioned wanting to see street art, she said, Go to Hosier Lane. And she said to eat at The Hardware Societe. She described the dish she ate, how she couldn’t explain why such a simple dish of egg and avocado was the most delicious, but it was.

Agnes and Rob are friends of friends. During our stay in Maryborough we spent an afternoon at their house. They have an acre in a small subdivision off a highway, a big yard for the kids, with a teepee at the back lot line, perfect for planning adventure or hiding. The kitchen opens to a large outdoor room and I spent the afternoon there, sitting at a round table made for company and long, lazy lunches. I watched the kids run around, race a remote control car, jump on the trampoline. Wherever I travel I imagine living. The outdoor spaces built into Australian homes are gorgeous – not the patio or screened porch of the Midwest, but an easy flow from inside to outside, like homes I remember in Cali, Colombia. So one day, I think while sitting at Rob and Agnes’s table, When I live in Australia or South America, I will make an outdoor space to read or write, a place to think, nap, drink a little, eat. (Maybe what I need is a tent).

That afternoon I was quiet and tired, thinking of my family in Wisconsin and why we choose to be so far away. (Why do we choose to be so far away?) But I was also thinking how, after only two or three days on my sixth continent, I was already deciding to return. (Why do we choose to be so far away?)

Melbourne MosaicMy first morning in Melbourne I ran a path south along the Maribyrnong River, toward the port, and found street art hidden on a short stretch connecting the quiet river path to a busier road route. A low brick wall was a surprise of bright color, swoops and angles, cartoon illustrations. A small utility building with a Danger High Voltage Keep Out sign was painted a weave of flames. There was a sculpture of a fish-man on a bicycle, welded from scrap metal. Running back, I looked up to see a small square tile mosaic installed on a metal and concrete bridge. I immediately thought: this is my writing.

Probably I make too much about me. But I saw that little piece of art tucked where a few people see it and I ran away ready to do the same with my work this year. Street art is daring and vulnerable. You make something to share, on purpose. You make someone see:

I put a mosaic together
I spray paint at midnight
I write poetry
I play a song without words

And you hope when someone sees they connect/ interact with/ respond to your work. We don’t always get to know that part. I wish I could tell the maker of that tiny mosaic how glad I was to see art on a trestle.

That morning we took the tram downtown. When Agnes talked about Hosier Lane I imagined a mile of painted brickwork. I imagined a whole street angling through downtown Melbourne, like where we might shop or stop for a bite, just lucky enough to be surrounded by an artist’s late night work. But Hosier Lane is an alley, wide enough to work and no storefronts to fuss. The buildings on either side are three or four stories. Giant canvases. Agnes told me wedding parties visit Hosier Lane because the backdrop is so wild. That weekday there were no wedding parties but we arrived to see other tourists with their heads thrown back to see the tallest art, to take in as much wall as they could. What I saw was all the cameras. All the poses.

Melbourne HL 4I took a couple of pictures of Justin and the kids, then left them for the hour. The lane is short enough, only a city block or so, that we bumped into each other but I didn’t pay them much mind except to shoo Claire out of a shot and tell Grant to wait a minute. Now that seems embarrassing, a little greedy. Didn’t I want Claire to see something she might do one day, paint for an audience? Didn’t I want Grant to see how unpredictable art is? But while there, I didn’t bother about my kids’ responses to the brick walls of spray paint, and I didn’t care whether Justin was enthralled. Instead I got sucked into other people’s interactions with Hosier Lane. I watched tourists like me put on faces for a camera, for a phone. And those were the pictures I wanted. I walked up and down the lane, pausing to watch and listen, waiting for the moment one person raised a camera to another. I fit that pull in the small frame of my phone screen. When someone noticed, usually after, I talked with them, said I like the picture of you taking a picture here. I asked, Do you mind if I take another? Sometimes I would take another. I didn’t ask names or places. I didn’t ask permission.

Melbourne HL Looking At MeThere was a couple with good cameras and good style hanging out at this fantastic orange and blue painting of a woman’s profile, her face surrounded by angles and arsenal, plump lips a slight smile. This couple took turns posing. They looked at one another’s photos. They might have been doing what I was doing, watching everyone else too. At one moment I stood directly across from this couple and she looked at me.

There were two girls, maybe twelve or thirteen, with phones and tall convenience store slurpees. Both wore short shorts and one tugged at her tube top. When either girl posed, it was any of: pop a hip, step up, arch back, lean, slouch, raise arms, pout, barely smile, try on serious. Between poses the two girls conferenced, switched rolls. I asked did they mind and then took a few pictures. One I really like is of the girl in yellow wearing mirrored aviators. She’s pigeon toed and looking up. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands so she drops them to the front of her waist, politely. She looks like a child and she looks like a million models.

There was an Indian family. A young family and a set of grandparents. I would have liked getting a picture of the grandmother in her bright sari. She might look like a dash of paint standing still. I could have asked. Instead I watched. At one point the family wandered away from the young son and I saw this echo: a boy painted on the wall, a boy standing next to the wall.

Melbourne HL 1There were two friends out for the day. I offered to take their picture on one of their phones and one of them offered to take my picture. I didn’t get a good picture of myself. While the one woman snapped photos of me standing in front of Hosier Lane mural, the other kept asking questions. So my face is doing this talking-while-smiling thing that doesn’t look cool or casual. I have a slightly droopy eyelid. One day my face will look old but right now my face just looks tired. I should have posed instead, like the stylish couple, close lipped, head slightly tilted, hands in my front pockets like I walk around like this all day.

We ate at The Hardware Societe, a thirty minute wait for a shared table to learn Agnes was right.

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.

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

All the feelings! This time of year is wild/ unfun/ sad/ exhausting/ promising for international teachers. I wanted to find a way to put all of the following in one coherent piece but I’m tired and decided to just share the whole deal in three parts.

Sometime Two Weeks Ago: Selling The Car

I’ve been fraying. A few weeks ago my friend Pamela looked around the apartment and said it could be emptied in three hours. You’d be surprised, she said. At the end of our first year here, someone in the singles apartment shoved a couch out the window and since then I’ve imagined doing the same, just chucking stuff out the window to watch it smash. My high school art teacher told me that’s what he did when his pottery didn’t fire right. He took the contents of the kiln behind a building and threw the plates, bowls, pots at brick wall. Clay leaving chalk marks on the brick, the fine sift of dust. I don’t need to throw anything out the window, it’s just something that sounds fun that I should have done when I was twenty because now it’d get me in too much trouble. When Grant picks up a loose paving stone on a walk and drops it again and again to see how it lands in the grass or sand or on concrete, I tell him to watch his toes. I’m curious how many drops before it cracks too.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Justin what he needed. I’ve been doing this for months, asking what he needs or what Claire or Grant needs, because I’m so keen on having a good farewell to Kuwait that I don’t want to error as wife or mom, missing a moment or experience or conversation that will best exit us from here and shuttle us on to Seoul. On Saturday I realized this was a reach from the start. I took the kids to the Avenues for a last walk around before Ramadan starts. Claire said it was dumb, why’d we have to go, Seoul will have malls too. And I said to her, But I can look around here and see you and Grant when you were toddlers. I won’t have that in Seoul. She patted my arm, gave me a hug. This is difficult, to pay attention to four people at once. Later that afternoon, after a tremendous cry in my bedroom, after Claire and Grant apologized for not listening the first time, after I assured them it wasn’t that, not really, I did say: We have to figure out how to do this together.

Claire and Grant are big enough to get that we are a family together. They get that Justin and I can only do so much. Claire and Grant need to help us be a family too. Some of this has nothing to do with moving. That’s how being a family works. We have a lot going on. And some of what’s happening – not listening, scrapping in the backseat, me yelling in the kitchen – it would happen if we weren’t moving. We’d still have to figure things out. But since we are moving, each of us has heightened emotional responses. Like dropping a grocery bag and breaking glass jars lands me in my bedroom sobbing. It’s like being a teenager. Or pregnant.

When I asked Justin what he needed he said he needed to sell the car. We’d sold his Pajero, but still had my Kia. He posted the sale online, I called a name another teacher passed along, we stopped at car rental places after school. Our Kia is two years too old, one rental agent said. There are too many cars, he said. We asked what a fair price would be, to ask for our too old Kia, and he suggested we knock about two thousand dollars off our asking price, already down about the same from expected US resale.  He shrugged. No one wanted the car. I thought we might just give it away.

Then we got a call from Sathvik on a Friday afternoon. He showed up with cash in a plastic grocery bag. We sold just below the Kuwait range, on argument that to pass inspection Sathvik may need to replace the pocked hood and chipped windshield. Fair enough. This year when Justin took his car for reregistration, the inspector turned him away for thumb sized scuff on the front passenger door. The guy must not have liked the look of Justin. Sathvik is Indian. A few guys might not like the look of him. In a land that runs on stamps and squiggled signatures, you need a little right place right time luck and a lot of acquiescence. Some nationalities need a little (lot) more luck and acquiescence than we do. I remember years ago asking Adam, a Sudanese man who helps the school with paperwork, how he handled the seeming whim of offices: you go one day and are told to return the next, you return the next and you are told you need an additional stamp, you get the additional stamp and you are told the date on the original document is wrong and now you must begin again. We’d just watched a woman behind the counter shout and fling a file of papers to the floor. Adam said, Sarah, no, when he sensed I was about to stand. We both needed me to be nice. We were next. He has managed nearly two decades of paperwork by letting others be bigger than he is, by saying yes with a smile. Justin painted white out on the scuff and was waved through the next inspection.

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Part Three: Now We Know Where

We are moving to

Korea!

But wow how that came about.

One week ago, I opened an email from my brother’s school in Kenya, read the salutation and the first line, thought it was an interview request. Justin’s character references were contacted the previous week but mine weren’t so we thought what it’d look like for me to stay home a year, commit to publishing, help at one of the myriad charitable/ missions programs in Nairobi. Just the salutation and I imagined nieces and nephews in my kitchen, knowing which is the cup cupboard, helping Joie and me carry weekend lunch to the patio.

Then I read the email and my body went tight, like my blood and breath paused. It was the start of last period, my prep, and I took three flights of stairs to Justin’s room, knocked at the door. He stepped into the hall. Did you check email? I asked. I could hear his students. He looked happy. I said, Nevermind. You have class. No one died.

What? he asked.

My voice was a whisper. I said the name of the school. I said the position was filled. We looked at each other for a moment, I touched his arm, said I was sorry. He returned to his freshman Geometry students and I to my classroom where I locked the door, drew the curtains closed, unrolled my yoga mat, found a box of tissue and got to the business of crying.

What a gift, to cry. I don’t remember words, only the hidden work of crying. I don’t resist a cry and my heart mind spirit body knows which form to take: quiet tears cheek to chin or dry, shaking sobs or open-mouthed thick-throated moans or infant whimpers. At the end, I rolled my yoga mat, opened the curtains, unlocked the door.

At bell, Justin came to my room. I don’t remember what we said. Probably something about understanding why it made sense from the school’s perspective. (Because it does make sense. Finding the right combination of teachers to staff openings is tough for any school). The director ended the note cheerily, that he would love to see us join their school in the future. Later, looking up rents in Budapest, I’d think an unemployed interim year might make the director’s wish possible. But then, sitting across the table from Justin, my voice was low. I might have been saying, Don’t move. Be calm. There’s a grizzly over there.

My head was full and blank. I took the kids for a walk along the Gulf. I called Mom when we got home. She was sad with me. She reminded me nothing is wasted.

This is something I’m thinking about now, even after the week yielded a wild, perfect turn that takes us to Seoul next year. I know nothing is wasted. I know God works and reworks. But yesterday and today, even having the gift of a new home, I wondered why I spent a year longing for the wrong next place. Justin and I talked about the mercy of no. The no we got on Monday meant sleeplessness. The no brought me to prayer, repetition of what I know and need to know: You withhold no good thing. The no allowed us to be open in a revived way, waiting to see what God would work.

Tired, sad but still at peace. On Tuesday, I lay down thinking of how babies sleep wrapped, secure.

Wednesday we got an email from two former colleagues now in Seoul. Would Justin be interested in joining the EdTech team? I reread the email. I opened the job description. I thought of being near my friend Erin again. Justin and I texted back and forth. This was possible. This was a reach. We wanted to know more. Thursday we talked with Daniel and Paul and learned what the school was like, what the position entailed, why they thought Justin might be a good fit.

Starting anything new is intimidating. Justin has a lot to learn. But as he and I talked the next couple of days we came back to the fun he could have repurposing his strengths. He’s a great classroom teacher who aspires to make math applicable to his students. He’s interested in the relevance of what we learn, making connections between the text and other knowledge, the world we live in. As Daniel and Paul talked with Justin I saw my husband in a new way. Justin takes initiative, they said. I thought of all the shelves and tables he’s put together in our foyer, economical with scrap wood and near empty paint cans. I remembered coming home one day, annoyed he’d bolted another cabinet to my kitchen wall. I can list the places we’ve gone because Justin booked tickets when I waffled. Or the times we’d be just home from travel and he’d unzip the suitcases, make piles on the dining table. Everything organized. His projects usually turn out. He puzzles through.

And now we have a kid-size rainbow picnic table in the courtyard. And that cabinet is full of platters, serving bowls and glasses. And we’ve seen the Taj Mahal. And suitcases empty faster than if I’m in charge.

We had a good interview. Comfortable, wandering conversation brought back to thoughtful questions that helped all of us figure out if we’d do well in Seoul, how our family might add to the school community. From the open of Daniel’s first email and our subsequent conversation with him and Paul and then the interview, Justin and I were surprised to realize this might work. And what grace to open that email only after no woke openness to

Anything.

In the space of those few days I prayed as I’d been praying. I asked for the right door to open. When we started this process two years ago, knowing this would be our last in Kuwait, I started asking God to move people who need to move to make space for us. I prayed for the men or women we’d replace. I prayed for the men or women who’d replace us. I asked for new friends. Claire asked for snow.

Yesterday Claire and I googled pictures of Seoul. The cherry blossoms, autumn leaves and the snow. We scrolled through pictures of the city softened by snow, footprints on snowy paths, snow sculptures. Claire grinned. She said, Oh my gosh, my eyes are filling with water I’m so happy.


Take  a look at our new school!

Growing Into Who I Am

A couple of months ago a writer friend forwarded an email call for submissions to an ebook collection of stories from expat teachers. Such a specific author call! I thought of what essays I might rework or draft. I wrote around a couple of ideas, let the work drift. Then a few weeks ago, my friend and I decided let’s do it, set up workshop via Google docs and drafted, commented and revised to hit today’s submission deadline. The whole collection will support the Children of Haiti Project.

I’ll let you know if my essay is published and where to purchase the collection when it’s released. Meantime, here is the essay I submitted. I can’t get away posting much of my finished work but think it’s okay to post this here.

On the writer side of things: titles. What do I call this? I titled the piece “Choosing Heartbreak” and then “We Choose Heartbreak.” Both titles are dumb, to me. “Growing Into Who I Am” fits but also sounds dumb. I suck at titles. Read the piece and if you have a title idea, please please please leave a comment.


As Yet Untitled, In My Mind

For years I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher until a decade passed and I couldn’t pretend I was actually a writer anymore. Instead, all those semesters of practice made me a good teacher. I have joy in the classroom. I wake up tired, run my treadmill miles, negotiate traffic with kids in the backseat, order a coffee I pick up from gate two on campus and walk back to my classroom, open the door to first period.

We aren’t always ready for first period. Students trail in five or ten minutes into class, find a desk. We roll our bodies and minds into the school day. A few years ago I started asking students to “be present” in my class and I do the same. We enjoy the people nearest us for fifty-five minutes. We learn what we can in fifty-five minutes. The joy I have in my classroom stems from affection for people as they are and belief those fifty-five minute classes matter to more than academic growth.

Still, last year was a wrestle with identity: am I more teacher or writer?

I had a group of seniors preparing for college: essay, applications, college visits and fairs, acceptances and rejections. These young men and women were making such big decisions. Sometimes they asked about my experience or opinion. Everything matters: small liberal arts college, Ivy League school, state university; declared or undecided major; visa issues in UK or US. I assured a few students they would be okay, wherever they landed, eventually, maybe. I went to a university that promised a scholarship, supposing I’d transfer after a year or two but instead I studied English which led to me choosing a teaching certification which wandered me from Wisconsin to Colombia to Kuwait. No choice is inconsequential and that’s a terrifying thought for an eighteen year old. It’s a terrifying thought for a thirty-five year old. I saw parallels between my seniors learning who they were, what they wanted next, and my own questions about why I was in the Middle East and what I was doing with my piles of notebooks and files of finished poetry and narrative pieces.

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Part Two Of Leaving Kuwait: Can’t Be Smug About Waiting, Can Doubt

We don’t have a job yet. We probably won’t get a contract until January or February. Friends who ask if we know where we are going yet rearrange their faces when we say no. There isn’t much exciting or possible about no. The other day a friend I hadn’t seen in a month assured me, “It’s still early. If it were March I might be worried for you guys.” If it were March I’d be negotiating rent and commune-like cooking promises with my parents who still have four kids living at home. If it were March, we might fire sale our belongings and put up rent for a year of homeschooling in Budapest. If it were March we might look for a rental in our college town and scrape by on sub pay. But it isn’t March. It’s mid December and international schools are starting holiday break and our applications are in a few someones’ inboxes, waiting for whim or vision to turn into an interview offer.

There isn’t a lot to say about waiting. Except waiting works your character.

Can’t be smug about waiting.

Last week one of my students said to me, “Pray for me, Miss. I find out if I got into NYU at one in the morning!” I pictured her refreshing her email. Please please please. I do the same. I check my email. No one wants an interview yet. I wait another hour or two and check email again. No one wants an interview yet. When it is midday in South America, I check email again. No one wants an interview yet. Later, a quiet voice tells me not to check email again but I open my email again and still no one wants an interview. I whisper fuck.

At church this week, a woman talked about doubt. What do you do with doubt? She preached from Matthew 11, when John the Baptist wonders if Jesus is “the one to come, or shall we look for another?” So John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus even though he knew. He’d already leapt in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth greeted Mary. He’d already spent years in the wilderness, unbound by convention, prophesying Christ to come. But Jesus didn’t show up so bold as John might have imagined a savior should, so John had to ask, “Are you the one to come, or shall we look for another?” John’s doubt wasn’t unbelief and Jesus didn’t belittle his cousin for wanting another confirmation. Instead, Jesus sent word back: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Doubt that God will do as he says can grow faith. Consider the disciple Thomas. Others went around talking about the resurrection and Thomas is like, I’m not buying it unless I touch the wounds, put my hand in Jesus’s side. Imagine Thomas later when he sees Jesus standing in front of him. I might feel shame or embarrassment. I might try to duck out because Jesus knew what I’d said, my bluster about putting a hand to his crucifixion wounds. But Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wounds. Thomas’s doubt led to an encounter that radically confirmed his faith. I listened to the sermon.

Last night I didn’t sleep. I have a pinched nerve in my neck that sends sparkles down my left arm, numbs the thumb a little. I bit the pad of my thumb to test if it was worse. I sat up in bed. I laid on my side. I turned on my belly. I thought about the perfect will of God and his permissive will. I rolled over onto my back. I pressed into the cords of my neck and shoulder, looking for the muscle that cut my nerve. When I woke, I felt terrible.

On the drive to work I yelled at my son because he lost his winter coat, the puffy inside jacket and the heavy shell. I’ve been telling myself I am not anxious about this move. We are fine leaving Kuwait. I want to go. But I want to know where we go. And this week showed me in boldface underline highlight that I need to learn how to wait. How to pray. How to hope. How to trust. I need to learn how to wait because it matters to God that I rest in his love and peace. It matters to my husband and kids, colleagues and students. If I am consumed by fear, I lose this place in front of me. But I can’t make myself rest and that’s an accepted mystery of faith for me, that I go to Jesus and say my questions and lay down my fear and doubt again again again, more often than I check my email or refresh job postings, and I trust God kneads the tight cords in my heart and body, works out the fear I hold.

When something is out of my control, I like to look around and pick up what I can control. Sometimes this is a friendship I stoke for the pleasure of being liked. More often, it is the food that goes in my mouth or the miles I put on my body. I like physical, measurable control. This week I wanted to tally my food, I wanted to run when I hurt. But I saw this behavior in a new way, the sin of holding part of my life with my own hands when Christ says to follow him is to surrender all. To follow Christ is to surrender even this waiting time to God’s glory. I am not supposed to wait in worry or feed my pride with what I manage to hold on my own. Over and over in the Word, I see God is for me. What happens if I say, take this body too, the knots of anxiety I pretend aren’t there, the belly that eats doubt, the legs that want to run away forever: work out this waiting perfectly, physically, in my bones, in my blood and brain, over my muscles and skin so I rest and wake in peace.

I know doubt. And like Thomas, I’ve put up challenges to more faith. God answers and I believe. I falter and God answers and I believe. This year, I don’t doubt God provides. I don’t doubt his faithfulness. This year, I’ve got no one to seek but Jesus, like John the Baptist sending a message directly to his cousin to find out if what he believed really was true. I want to know where we go. I want to know do I teach. I want to know what relationships wait for our family. Instead of worrying these questions with a best laid plan, I press into doubt, honestly and a little afraid. This year I wait, sit with uncertainty, and read the Word for assurance. I know my God. But like John the Baptist, like Thomas, I want to know again.

Part One Of Leaving Kuwait: I Tried On Hope And Went To A Job Fair

I tried on hope. I tried on fearless hope. And for a few days I felt like the name-it-claim-it-Oprah’s-secret kind of people might really have something, like the send-it-out-to-the-universe people might be right. I was high on hope. I thought maybe I’d been missing something essential in my faith for decades and now, look, I was unstoppable and sure and able because I wore hope. Not long ago, my friend sent me one of those daily affirmation emails that landed in her inbox. The message was to change your narrative. I’d been thinking about that in light of faith, reminding myself of who I am in Christ. We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what we can or can’t do, about what we should or shouldn’t want. We need to learn true stories.

So I tried on hope. I have this faith that says I can do all things in Christ. I have this faith sewed up with hope and trust. But for years I worked hope in private, praying for healing or joy or contentment in my own body and mind. And when I admitted hope to others, I couched assurance in maybe later or probably not. Like I know it’s a long shot to write a book in Budapest or run a hundred miles or climb Kilimanjaro but I still hope I do.

Maybe I confuse hope and dream. A dream is like spun sugar. Even dark dreams are made of spindly wisps. But hope is a cinder block. Hope has weight and sharp corners. Your arms get tired and scraped carrying hope around. That’s it then. Hope isn’t a fuzzy shawl that imbues you with certainty. Hope is a cinder block that cuts into your palms. True story: hope is hard to carry. I must be doing it wrong.

I want to live in Nairobi. This desire surprised me a year ago. We visited my brother and his family and all I could see was green trees and red clay. My sister-in-law took us to an outdoor market where vendors expected bartering but charged a Western price anyway. I ran the hills each morning, up and down quiet streets lined with gated properties. I found alleyways and narrow paths cutting through fields. When we drove out of Nairobi, I imagined us in our own boxy jeep exploring the plains. I have this spun sugar dream of a linen shirt, kicked off hiking boots and a cold beer. I have this spun sugar dream of running to the edge of quiet and standing very still under sky unrolled by God. I have this spun sugar dream of my kids climbing backyard trees, eating thick skinned fruit.

I made Nairobi tangible. So when Justin and I decided this is our last year in Kuwait, I saw us going to Nairobi. I saw my kids growing up with cousins. I saw weekend morning coffee with a splash of Baileys. I saw Justin biking to work. This is about the time I decided to try on a fanatic brand of hope, making Nairobi something that just had to happen because it had to happen because I was hoping hard enough that this city was our next home. And I thought God had to give me this. I wasn’t asking for France or Argentina. I was asking for a country with fire ants and the nearby threat of al-Shabaab.

We had an opportunity. Our first interview in eight years. Later, I’d think how underwhelming we were, lacking concision and polish. Later, I’d cry because I supposed I’d wanted this place too much.

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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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When You Need A Little Hope, Revise

I’ve been working this essay about Ramadan dresses (dara’as, caftans) and while the process is fun (interviewing! I’m interviewing people who can teach me more!) and I’m learning about the region’s holy month traditions and drafting real time, I really needed a chunk of writing to go somewhere this week. The Ramadan dress essay is like a sheep going from one tuft of grass to the next. I really don’t know where it starts or ends right now.

But
yay
for
revision
work.

I returned to the first essay I wrote for the creative nonfiction class I’m taking, reread comments and questions before parking myself in front of the draft to revise. I was a revision rock star. It helps that I’ve been thinking about this essay since first drafting it. It helps that I decided to do as I say: I sat in a chair and made myself revise. Discipline has its appeal.

What follows will get another go at some point. For now, mostly finishing a piece feels so good.

Fahaheel Sea Walk

One Saturday I take the kids for a walk in Fahaheel. This Saturday feels like one of the last cool days before the heat arrives to keep us moving from one air-conditioned place to the next, from apartment to car to shopping mall. During the summer I miss the Gulf. I miss its changing colors, grays and blues mostly but sometimes turquoise or murky green. I miss standing on the rocks off the path, watching waves form and crash. So this Saturday I want the Gulf. We park at the Sea Club and start walking south on the palm lined cobbled path. Claire and Grant jumped from the low wall to the sand and run alongside. When I first found this path, I had only Claire. And the next year I had Grant too, wrapped snug against my belly. The three of us made a twenty or thirty minute walk stretch the morning. On this Saturday my kids race ahead, circle back. Grant holds out his hands to show me treasure: popsicle sticks, a bottle cap, a cracked Happy Meal toy. He has an eye for screws, nuts, nails too, anything his dad might use on a project.

“Can we play here?” Claire asks. We’re halfway to AlKout, halfway to the coffee and hot chocolate we’ll have at a café there. Claire jumps up and down when I say sure, go, go play. She yells for Grant to follow. I sit cross-legged on the low wall. I can see Claire and Grant bending over something on the sand, then race toward the edge of the beach where a shisha bar overlooks the Gulf. They run back and forth like that, pausing to dig holes with pink Baskin Robbins spoons or examine shells. I remember pausing here when Claire was a toddler, squatting to speak with her. We came that morning with a group of moms and strollers and kids but at the first zig in the path, Claire sat down. The others waited a polite distance ahead. When we walked together, we were always pausing for someone to catch up but that morning Claire wouldn’t go. I waved at Jamie. “Go on ahead,” I called, “We’ll catch up.” She called back, “You sure?”

I wasn’t sure about much that year. I don’t remember how long I squatted there, Grant wrapped against my belly and Claire sitting, resolved. I am sure I sighed. That year was knit in sighs of tiredness, frustration, sorrow, surrender. I remember speaking gently. “Come on, we’re almost there. We’ll get a hot cocoa,” I might have said. And when Claire’s little legs still wouldn’t take another step, I’d promise a croissant too. I remember being gentle but not feeling gentle and when Claire finally got up and took my hand, I wanted to hold her hand so tight it hurt. The group was too far ahead to catch up but we walked toward them anyway.

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The One About The Traffic

The traffic is like the weather here, a topic of small talk. There is usually only one thing to say about that traffic and that is that it is bad. A lot of us have favorite accident stories, like the memory of a car suspended between two palm trees, because how does that happen? My first year here I saw a red car door in a merge lane. Shortly after, I noticed all the streaks of paint on the concrete dividers and the sprays of shattered glass at intersections. A wreck might sit on the side of a highway for a few days. I thought maybe as a warning. My first year I wrote with an art teacher who banned herself from mentioning the traffic in her notebook because all it did to write about the commute was make her mad. I get it. I’ve yelled fucking asshole at men and women who scream up my side or cut in and I’ve watched them weave their reckless way forward to take the next exit.But the other day someone complimented my driving. I’m calmer now (thank you Jesus), though anger still flares. The fear that I might die or my kids might die because some (created in the image of God) person is selfish enough to need to be in front of me and then in front of the next person and the next infuriates me. When I cry on the highway it is often at the state of my heart because when I am cut off or swerved at or flashed (high beams mean move out of my big trucking way) I really hate the other driver. It isn’t about me being in front of the other driver so much as it is about me and mine staying alive while the other driver gets ahead. So I cry because God wants me to love people and I think he includes that jerk in the Nissan Patrol.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard about a teacher who got hit while crossing the street in Salmiya. A couple of months ago, another woman was hit on the side of the highway while changing a tire. The man who’d stopped to help was also hit. All three are alive and while I don’t know the condition of the man, the two women have a long physical recovery ahead. Bones shattered, flesh too damaged to sustain operation, internal injuries, atrophied muscle. I can’t call either situation an accident when the more likely explanation for plowing two people in an emergency lane is carelessness and the more likely explanation for flipping a woman over a car is also carelessness.

I have a friend connected to both women. She talked about the teacher hit while crossing the street and the story stayed. A few days after, I started writing poems around the image of her laying on the street, surrounded by men who wouldn’t talk to her. A woman walking by cut through the men and sat down, stayed with her.


I Saw The Car

I had a dream like this, me looking up
looking down at my crumpled body on
cracked asphalt, circled by men with
unhurried voices. I am the only one who
hears my bones splinter again, who
hears the needle in my ear

The men do not kneel, touch,
pray over or speak to me. I saw the car.
I lift my head to say I saw the car
weaving speeding but I couldn’t
shout or step back from this cliff

A woman comes then, takes my hand
and stays. I say I couldn’t run or take it
harder than bruised and broken. I am
limp and rigid, my lips don’t work. The
woman closes her eyes for a moment
(I think it may be my death), says Jesus
in a land that calls him a man, only

I saw the car weaving speeding,
I saw my body balance between up
and down for a moment longer
than I thought possible

For N