Places I Know

For a long time all of my fiction was set in the Midwest. When I moved to Kuwait I was determined to write a book in one year and the first stories were all set in Wisconsin, pulling from my hometown or college town settings. I had just moved from Colombia and was living in a desert on the Gulf and still, I could only write of four seasons and small towns. I wrote lives I didn’t live. I think that’s fine, but as I practiced writing more fiction I put my places into the pieces. I took a cue from my essay work which relies on place, because place is often important to our situation, perception and insight, and practiced setting my characters in the Middle East or on holiday in Eastern Europe. Now I pull from all the places I know. I still love a good Midwest setting. The piece I’m writing now is set in Wisconsin but one of the characters is Korean, and the return trip to Seoul is informed by my living here now.

Before summer break, a writing friend recommended The Portable MFA by the New York Writers Workshop, and this summer I started flipping through the first pages. There is a prompt called Poem, Dream, Conflict that the story below comes from. Think of a line of poetry, a recent dream, and a problem you’re having with another person. Write flash fiction pulling from those three things:

  1. Poem. Write one or two paragraphs based on the resonant line of poetry (or prose) you chose. Then skip a line.

  2. Dream. Write one or two paragraphs using fragments of themes from your dream. (It’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to the text you used for step one.) Again, skip a line.

  3. Conflict. Write one or two paragraphs concerning the conflict you thought of. (Again, it’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to steps one or two.) Skip a line.

  4. Putting it all together. Begin weaving together elements from steps one through three. Follow your impulses. Something is probably already occurring to you.

And here, the piece that came from this exercise. Set in Kuwait. What I wonder when I write a place that many people may not know, is which details set the place. The Kuwait in this story is different from the Kuwait of my neighborhood, is different than the Kuwait of our weekend walks along the Gulf.


The Water From The Air

The sand was hot. Joelle high stepped to the water’s edge and waded to her thighs. The sun was bright, the air already an oven midmorning. Sweat beaded her hairline and breastbone. Cool water lapped her thighs. In college she’d read a poem by Maxine Kumin and lines stayed with her a decade later. I took the lake between my legs. / Invaded and invader, I / went overhand on that flat sky. Joelle dipped under. She swam a little ways to where she couldn’t touch the sand with her toes and treaded water there, facing the beach. The first time Zaid brought her to his family’s chalet he told her everything that was different from when he was a boy.

Joelle tilted back in the water so she floated. The sky was white. She closed her eyes. She rolled onto her belly and swam to the beach, rose from the water and ran across the sand to the shade of the veranda where she rinsed her feet before going inside, dripping footprints on the cold tile.

Zaid lay on a couch in the main room. He might have been asleep. It was Ramadan but he fasted loosely – a cigarette in the morning, an apple or glass of water in the afternoon – or not at all. Joelle bent to kiss his brow. He made a small sigh. Joelle went to the shower and stood under the warm water. Once, she told Zaid she knew she’d regret these long showers when the world was without an excess of clean water and he replied the world would be gone before then. She finished rinsing and dressed in loose linen, picked out a book to read in the main room. Days at the chalet reminded her of that scene in Gatsby – Daisy and Jordan unmoving on chaise lounges, deciding to go to town because. Joelle arranged herself in an oversize shair opposite Zaid. She opened a bottle of sparkling water, and her book.

Zaid woke an hour or so later, after noon. You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long, he said. Joelle shrugged. You looked peaceful, she said. He propped on an elbow. I was not peaceful, he said, I was dreaming you are away from me. It was not peaceful. It was like a long journey without a map. I couldn’t see the storm. Zaid sat up. He said, I reached out to you like this and you were not there. Sometimes when Zaid spoke he sounded like a child who was part of not this world. Joelle unfolded her legs and went to Zaid. He wrapped his arms around her waist, rested against her breasts. Please, he said, Please don’t go from me.

Joelle kissed the top of Zaid’s head. I have to go, she said.

No, no, no. Zaid said this when they talked about what Joelle was late to realize, that Zaid may keep her for himself, but not to marry. She could have left then but she liked his company, liked his gifts, liked the distraction he was. In a month she would leave Kuwait with little more than she arrived with two years before.

I can fix your visa. You can have my apartment in Salmiya. Zaid had said this before. He would do that, if she agreed. Joelle kissed the top of his head again, tugged gently at his hair so he tipped up to see her face. She kissed his brow, his cheek, the corner of his mouth.

It wouldn’t be fair, she said, To me. Or to your family or to the woman you are supposed to engage. It wouldn’t be fair to you.

Before it was for play, Zaid said, But this is not for play.

Pretend it is, Joelle said. Zaid was only ever gentle so when she shifted to step out of his embrace, he let her.

The next day Zaid fasted. Joelle ate alone in the kitchen. She read a second book. She let Zaid sleep and pray. The chalet was quiet, which they both preferred, and that evening as Joelle prepared iftar her belly was full of possibility – if Zaid married her, if she carried his child, if they were fair to one another, if each gave more than the other. She arranged dates on a plate, poured sweetened labneh in a glass, and waited until it was time for Zaid to break his fast. She could see he’d honored the day. He was calm. He followed her to the table on the veranda and took a slow drink of the labneh.

I think you are right, he said. He put a hand over hers. He said, I am not fair to you. I am not kind to you, to do like this. You are beautiful, Joelle. You are pleasure and joy. Zaid removed his hand from hers. She would eat with him now, but not sleep with him later. They would return to the city – he, rested – and in a month she would call the day before her flight out, to say goodbye, and they would cry.

But that night when they lay in bed together for a last, chaste time, Zaid touched her hair and cheek. He leaned over to kiss her tenderly. He fell asleep and dreamed she was away from him but in the morning all he remembered was a taste of peace like dates. Joelle lay awake in Zaid’s bed until she could not guess the hour and then she got up from the bed and walked quietly through the large cool rooms.

The sand was warm but the moon did not burn. At the water’s edge she dropped her towel and walked into the Gulf. She swam again to where she could not touch. Here she rested back on the water and then, letting her belly go, she began to sink. Another line from the poem came to her. Joelle opened her eyes and for a dizzy moment, could not tell the water from the air.

 


Read about Maxine Kumin or enjoy her poem “Morning Swim”

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 Poetry Obstacle Course

This week I asked my students to try an exercise by Marcia Southwick, from The Practice Of Poetry.

Write a poem in which you include approximately on object and one action per line. Each individual line should make sense in and of itself, but don’t worry about connecting one line logically to the next.

I attempted this exercise a couple of times – every line self-contained but a whole, random mess – before deciding to anchor my lines to a place. A month ago I wrote about one of my favorite walks here, a short path in Fahaheel. For this piece I made the lines center on our walk along the corniche in Salmiya. We take this walk nearly every Friday or Saturday during winter. I started with images or scenes I could contain in single lines. I wasn’t sure how I’d break or order the lines later.

Here are some lines from my notebook, cross-outs included:

My daughter finds a starfish washed in

My daughter finds a starfish she must keep
She makes a home from a styrofoam cup

I try to  explain no: the starfish needs his sea

The rocks meet the sea
We lost our secret beach last year
The path crowds and thins

It goes on like that for three pages. One object, one action per line seems like an easy exercise which is why I’ve skipped over it when looking for a writing prompt. But this time I read the prompt and thought it might be a way to think about the lyric essay form. I wrote each line not thinking where it might fit in the revised piece, though I chose a coherent whole by picking the corniche. When I reshaped the piece, I structured the poem to follow our walk. I also cut words so lines connected. I broke up long lines. Here’s the piece I shaped from today’s practice:

On A Nice Day

Rocks meet the sea
The path crowds and thins
My daughter parts the crowd,
climbs down the rocks to the sea
and finds a starfish she must keep,
makes him a home from a Styrofoam cup

Fishermen send loops of line out and wait,
reel in, snag rock, send out again

We all walk or ride bikes or pause to watch

My daughter carries the starfish in his cup
He is small and needs the sea

Dozens of pairs of shoes line the mosque steps
Prayer mats on grass angle toward Mecca
Men raise flat hands to their ears,
move their lips, bow

Old women claim the shade of low trees,
watch the path move without moving

The starfish needs his sea

My daughter climbs a playground
sitting on sand like a shipwreck
while I go to the fountain fed by sea
and listen to water sound

A couple sits on a bench, whispering
Their knees touch,
their hands move like small birds

Boys box on trampled grass

Grass makes a floor where
families unroll carpets and eat lunch
I see the chin of a woman
who lifts her niqab to drink tea

My daughter takes her starfish back to his sea,
holds her arm straight like a stick over the water,
turns her hand so he drops
She climbs the rocks, doesn’t look back

We eat fatayer, cucumbers, ice cream
Lunch and sun make me heavy
The languages around me make me quiet
I sit cross-legged and read my book

My daughter runs barefoot from one tree
to the next, testing the low branches,
swinging a leg up, yelling for me to look at her
hanging upside down from a tree

I wave her over, kiss her hair
She smells like being here, like sun and dirt
When the breeze lifts our hair, I think
we, right here, we need our sea

Church

Last of the single syllable vignettes. I have an order in mind for the pieces. After revision, I’ll post the all four as I want them read. But now, the last draft. As with the sea walk, I’ve more to say about church. But this is the simplest of starts.

House Church

We hear of a house church, go for a month or two. Our girl is small. She cries and I take her up the stairs to a bright yard fenced by shrubs. We wait. There is a cow tank in the yard. We quit church.

When we go back to the house church we have our boy too. We are tired each day. While the church sings I nurse my boy and give my girl bread and fruit. I eat truth. I am still tired.

God wants all of me. There are parts I do not yield. I think I want to. I can’t see how. The church sings, lifts hands, shouts. I sing, lift my hands. I weep. I have this hurt I want healed. I shout for that, when I am in the car with my girl and boy in their seats. I drive and shout I want this hurt gone. This hurt has a deep root and takes years to heal. I ask. God is firm and kind. I ask. He does not stop a good work. I ask for love and joy. I need love for my girl and boy. I want joy for my day.

At church there is a song or word or verse and I break. All week this goes on. A song or  word or  verse and I fall. This is what it is like to be made. I want to quit. I beg for more love, more joy, more peace.

I let go more.

One day the church can’t meet in a house. It’s a law so we leave the house and move from one hall to the next. The halls aren’t clean, but we go. The church sings, lifts hands, shouts. I still can’t shout. But I want to know how much is all.

I Find The Sea

I thought, I can watch a BBC mystery show or I can post the third piece. Virtue won. Vice can wait twenty minutes.

This is another single syllable vignette, again set in Kuwait. I’d wanted to write about my sea walks for a long time. This form works but I think a long essay is waiting its turn too.

I Find The Sea

I find the sea one year. I take my girl and boy south and walk a path lined with palm trees. We are slow. We stop to look at ants, dirt, leaves. I hold my boy while he sleeps and watch my girl kick sand. There is a place I like to stay. It is at an edge. I look out at the sea and think. The weight of my boy and the hand of my girl make me turn back.

There is a walk I love, the sea at my side, my girl and boy near. They play while I look at them and think how much I know and don’t know at once, and how much I want for them and me and us. They can’t know all I hold in my mind when my breath goes tight. My girl runs at me. I catch her. Her hair smells like the sun.

The sea is new each walk. I go for that. I like to see how the sun and sky work the sea to make it gray or blue or green, to make it calm or loud, flat or heaved. My son likes the men who fish. They cast a line, pull it in, send it out. They shoo the cats who want bait. One man shows my boy the fish he caught, a slick fish with wet eyes.

One day we walk on the rocks. The path is too smooth. In my mind, I go where I can see my feet are the first feet to walk these rocks. I feel a kind of wild. You can, I tell my boy, and he steps a gap. There is trash in the cracks. My girl is mad at the trash. She wants to know why.

I lose my fear to the crash and turn of the waves. I am small and loved. That truth is good. Let me hold on. Let my girl and boy know I will not let go. And one day, give them a sea to go to, where they may think.

The Appeal Of Single Syllable Writing

Clearly, not demonstrated by the title or this first sentence! Today I joined a class for their WP and wanted to write

I tell myself

except myself is two syllables so I came up with

I tell my mind

Single syllable writing is cracking open my expression the long (short word) way around and while I won’t make this a signature style, I’ve knocked out three Kuwait vignettes. And paradoxically, as I’ve reduced my syllable count, I’ve also written about depression, something I write about often enough in my WP but over many pages. In these latest pieces, I allude to my depression without explanation. I’ve gone on many sunny day trips carrying rocks without names.

While I didn’t intend to write depression into any of the vignettes, I did because it was there, a middle gray I sometimes live in. But what also shows up is plain thinking, lovely habit. Very often hiding in thinking (gray or bright) is prayer.

Since one syllable words stretch syntax and create unexpected poetry, I play with imagery too.

The Ridge

We are where there is flat sand and swooped sand. We go off the road, bump on a soft track, pass parked trucks and cut to the ridge. For a few hours it is our ridge to climb and scuff. My girl and boy start up the slope, fall, get up.

At the top I look for a way down. I did not want to come. While there is light I see mess is here too. I tell my mind, Look up.

We make it new. We know sand but not this sand. We know the sky but not this piece. I help my girl and boy walk down the ridge. There is a tail in the path. A dried, scaled tail my girl and boy poke at, pick up. They want to know who wore this tail last.

The sun falls from the sky. I am cold.

We have a fire and warm our food. My boy kicks sand on the meal. I eat the grit, breathe smoke. The stars are near and they are what I need. I wash the grit from my mouth and eat the stars.

I ask for more.

My girl and boy smell like fire. They have sand in their hair. I think, We might stay. We might be a kind of wild. But we leave. We go back to the lights we can see, the lights in a line.

Single Syllable Writing

I’ve been thinking about how constraints allow a different kind of creativity. Last month students tried two poetry exercises I promised would yield poems they wouldn’t have otherwise written. Safe bet I was right. And you’ve experienced the same in your writing when you follow a prompt or form.

This week I gave another challenge: single syllable writing. This is an old favorite that slows me down. I start with an idea and then spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling. Try it for ten minutes. Write a poem, journal, draft a story.

I decided to write about going to the desert last winter to see the kites. I went with that idea because kite is a single syllable word. After finishing the piece I thought about what else I could tell using one syllable words. I’d like to draft another two or three vignettes of our life in Kuwait and see how they read as a whole.

See The Kites

One day we go see the kites. We drive to a stretch of sand and wind and walk to where men send kites in the air, the strings staked in place. The kites are big. On the ground, a kite looks like a tent laid out. In the air it takes shape, sharp and bright on the sky. We squint, point. There is fish. There is a bird.

The wind plays with my girl’s hair. The wind takes my boy’s shout.

More come by noon. The kids run, yell, laugh. I stand back. I like to see how the day looks. There is a tent where tea and snacks are served. Out front of that, rugs are laid on the sand and chairs set so we can sit and look up. The kites whip and flap, dive and rise. Kites crowd the sky, some so close I think their strings weave knots. They snap and shake, dance and fall but don’t come loose. My mind goes still. Wind goes through me. The sun keeps me in one place.

There is still day left when we go. Out of the wind there is no sound. The kites get small. Blue dots, orange squares, green tails on a white sky.