This Vantage

Last Sunday we went to Lotte World Tower, bought tickets to the Seoul Sky observatory, took the elevator up one hundred and seventeen floors, and circled the enclosed deck, pausing to read placards telling us how far away landmarks were. We could point to lakes, stadiums, a distant fortress we may have imagined. But what I liked more was the immediate city beneath us. The towering apartment buildings dwarfed like a Lego city on a dining table. The river appearing placid, still. The run of traffic snaking main arteries.

That morning at church our pastor led the congregation through a year end reflection in three parts. We meditated on the love of God, our need for salvation and grace, and the hope to which we are presently and eternally called. Through each meditation, and the exhortation that we now choose to walk in freedom, living holy lives, I waited for the weight of the Holy Spirit. I waited for a sense of lifting, or for a wrap of warmth at the thought of my mighty and personal savior. I diligently prayed as guided, and wrote a few thoughts that came to mind, and worshipped as we sang old hymns, and at the end of the service I packed my bag, talked with a few friends, and left wondering at the silence.

Two things I have been thinking about. Awe for God. And the gap between the Old and New Testaments when God didn’t speak to his people.

A few months ago I started practicing awe. Praise, wonder, respect. The thoughts felt clunky. God is bigger than me. God is amazing. His love is good. God knows me. He knows every person. God loves each person. I am not much better at expressing awe today, but I continue to name the attributes of God, to offer thanks for the many gifts in my life, to remember I am a small part of this story. I had a sense that my spirit needed to praise God to lift myself from myself. I was then (and now) too consumed by my own life.

I think about the Sermon on the Mount too. The lilies, the sparrows.

Most days I sit with my notebook and write for an hour. I circle the same fears each year. A couple of months ago, following a jagged afternoon sobbing without explanation, I decided to begin counseling. There is a short list of big things I need to sort, with guidance. Before I began the sessions, I supposed that my writing practice offered a natural head start, and that is true. I don’t feel too afraid to say what is difficult, complicated or contradictory. Each session I am challenged to consider how to understand a part of me, or how to grow in an area. Now when I run in the mornings, I practice awe. I petition. I turn inward. And all of it makes me want to know the end.

Standing on the observation deck at Lotte, I lifted. There came a lightness to my body and mind. How easy to make ground level thoughts a towering complex, a wide river, a mountain range. I stood nearly five hundred meters in the air looking at a clear day wishing I might keep this vantage. But what I want more is peace when I am on the ground. I want to look up and be answered.


Five of thirty-nine! 568 words. A vignette I will likely use to build a fuller piece. I have another similar experience (or moment of understanding) I want to write as a parallel to this, but while drafting in my notebook I couldn’t find a way to write both at once.

Santa Claus

Earlier this month our school hosted a family Christmas party. The conference hall tables are set with white cloths and Christmas decorations. There is holiday music and a slideshow of family photos playing while we eat our potluck meal. And the potluck set on a long L of tables reminds me of Christmas day growing up, when we joined my mom’s extended family in a church basement or American Legion, all of the kids skimping on mains and sides to fill on cookies and fluffy marshmallow salads. Always the church basements or rented halls were a little chilly at the start, warmed after an uncle turned up the clanking heat or enough of us were gathered in one place, and the family Christmas party was like that this year, held on one of the coldest days yet.

We took the city bus to the stop at the bottom of the hill, and walked up to our school. We arrived early with a few others to set up, but most was ready. Justin filled the hot water dispenser for tea, and he and Gene sorted how to give a crowd their Sunday morning coffee (there’s a coffee maker in the business office, and they brewed pot after pot to fill a thermos dispenser). As families arrived with crock pots and serving platters we made room on the tables. Light conversation about holiday traditions or upcoming travel, a little commiseration about getting the kids out the door on time. But like the family Christmas gatherings of my childhood, once we are all arrived at the conference hall, any bumps or arguments of the morning are smoothed by the camaraderie of us just being together. We all made with our socks on or off, gloves remembered or forgotten, the dishes just right or a little burned.

I meant to start this piece about Santa Claus, but setting the scene gave me these connections to my growing up Christmas day celebrations. This is how my writing works. I drafted the Santa Claus piece in my mind while out on a run, but when I sit to commit the words, the words lead another way. Yesterday on a walk we were remembering our past Christmas days. On the beach in Australia, along the Gulf in Kuwait. Kenya, India. So I was already thinking to write about the holiday, and how Justin and I have made our own family celebration from our separate growing up traditions. Maybe those thoughts, and my own nostalgia (I want to spend a Christmas in Wisconsin, soon) are in the way of drafting the piece about Santa Claus.

So let me start again.

Before the family holiday party, I reminded Claire and Grant not to ruin Santa Claus for any of the other kids. Each year I say something similar at the start of December. I did not grow up in a Santa Claus family but I also did not feel compelled to correct the Santa Claus kids in my class, or to do anything but smile politely and nod when a bank teller or store clerk asked if I was excited for Santa to bring me a gift. I have a dim memory of once saying that my parents were the ones who brought me gifts, and the clerk and my mom laughing together. This kid is in on it.

I only became impatient with Santa Claus as a parent. The story of Saint Nicholas is beautiful, but he isn’t the Santa of songs or malls or holiday parties. But my real qualm is the lie. I don’t want to lie to my kids. And for years I could say to Claire and Grant that Santa is a fun story, but some families pretend the story is real. So don’t tell kids that Santa doesn’t exist. Please don’t call the Santa who shows up at our holiday party a fake. Keep your mouth shut, kids. Santa is the opiate of the child masses. Which takes me to the reason I resist this easy lie. I do believe God exists. I talk to God, I talk with my kids about God. We attend church as a family. I read that old book full of beautiful poetry, yearning, hard answers and wild, uncomfortable stories. Faith is a stretch. And as I live my faith for my kids to see, that they may know who God is by the way I walk through the days, I am aware that I am asking my kids to call real the very being many reject. But if I say Santa Claus is real and God is real, what happens one day in elementary or middle school when another kid wise to the unreality of Santa spoils the belief for my kids – do I still insist that this other, crazier story of God really is real, really? So I do not present God as pretend. God is God. Santa is a fun holiday story.

This year Claire asked did she have to sit on Santa’s lap. No, I said. (In light of the MeToo movement, is anyone still insisting their daughters and sons sit on an old man’s lap for the photo op? Sure. This is Santa, not your boss, CEO or director). Grant wanted to know the same. Look, I said, Neither of you have to sit on Santa’s lap. He’s going to give you a present. You can say thank you, smile for the camera, and that’s fine. Claire and Grant agreed to play the moment as they felt most comfortable.

While I didn’t stand in line at the mall to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas, Dad’s company party had a Santa who gave generous gifts and we went a couple of times. I probably asked for art supplies. I might have admitted my unbelief to the man with a fake beard. As a kid, I remember feeling a little smug or superior that I understood Santa wasn’t real, not like God was real. I felt smug about God too. (That may be another essay entirely). For now, understand the intervening years blessedly stripped my pride, though I continue to swell and fall. What I want for myself and my kids is a wrestle with belief in God, and not smugness but humility as faith increases.

The only reason I am writing this at all is because a few days after the family Christmas party, Claire and I were walking to Hyundai department store after school to get black pants and a black shirt for her winter concert. The walk was longer than expected, we were cold, and Claire started a debate with her position that all kids should believe in Santa Claus. It isn’t fair that any kid shouldn’t get Santa Claus. It’s magical. At least the toddlers should have Santa Claus. I thought of the howling toddlers held in place on Santa’s lap for the quick photo while the other kids and parents laughed or made sympathetic faces. I thought of Claire and Grant during their own toddler years wanting nothing to do with the Santa Claus who showed up at holiday parties. I doubt most toddlers would protest being kept safe, away from the totally unfamiliar costumed man, magical or not. After I said this to Claire, that most toddlers didn’t seem to actually enjoy Santa very much and was it kind for parents to make their kids feel afraid, Claire repeated that Santa is fun, Santa is magical, before arriving at her point, that we should celebrate Santa too.

I like the story of Saint Nicholas, I said.
That isn’t Santa, she said.
You’re right, I said, But we can celebrate Saint Nicholas. We can give to the poor.

How did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus? Why celebrate Christmas with coerced good behavior and wish lists when we could celebrate with an excess of giving to the least of these? Claire was unmoved. I get her feeling of loss. Every family has its culture, its beliefs that inform who we are, what we are about, and as kids we learn the differences between one family and the next, one way to believe and another, and as we grow we wonder and ask. Just as Claire was then doing. I tried again to explain why we didn’t do Santa. We don’t hide Santa from the kids. The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas we watch Santa movies: Miracle On 34th Street, The Santa Clause, Arthur Christmas, Elf. We like but don’t elevate Santa. And for years I just did not think this was a big deal to Claire or Grant. Then on this cold walk, Claire unraveled her certainty that because Santa is magical, it is cruel for parents not to let kids have him.

One day I will talk with Claire and Grant about ways I have failed as their parent. I told Claire that on our walk. There are things that I did wrong or feel badly about, I said. I apologize as I go, but one day when the kids are older, I will open a dialogue to address my own regrets and hear any hurts they harbor too. I value honesty. I value perspective. I value truth.

But I am not sorry my kids missed thinking Santa Claus is real. Claire, I said, You know I tell you the truth. She nodded. I said, You know I answer your questions. She nodded again. I said, Claire, I don’t want to lie to you. Sometimes I don’t tell you everything because of your age. But I don’t lie. That’s why we don’t do Santa. I don’t want to lie to you.

This did not soften Claire. She was belligerent at the injustice of me keeping Santa Claus from her, at ruining Christmas magic. Just suck it up, Mom, Claire yelled at me. Call it a Christmas miracle I did not push my screaming daughter in the river. Instead I thought for a moment. I sat down at the edge of the path, even though it was cold and we both wanted to get the errand done, have dinner. I sat down because sometimes I need to physically still my body to really know what to do or say next. I wasn’t bothered by Claire questioning our decision to skip Santa, but I was upset at the tone, the irrational banging on and nonsensical yelling that I needed to just suck it up. If I laughed, the conversation would end and Claire would be too wounded to hear anything I said. If I yelled, I would only fuel Claire’s anger. Oh the many crucibles of parenting.

What I did was say I am sorry she feels like she got left out of something fun. I am sorry she feels gypped a dose of magical thinking. She softened a little. And then I repeated that I am not sorry we didn’t pretend Santa was real. Before Claire could relaunch her lines, I asked what all of this was about. Why is this a question now? What prompted this conversation? Claire told me she is practicing debate. Fifth graders are working their way toward presenting arguments about the urgency of environmental problems, and how to share potential solutions. So they are practicing debate strategies. Telling someone to suck it up is not a good strategy, I said. She laughed. Really, I said, Don’t say that again to me. We walked on. By the time we reached Hyundai department store, our feet were cold. We were hungry. We sat side by side at a noodle counter.

I know the conversation isn’t over. Maybe Santa Claus isn’t a big deal, but there are other ideas we explore too, because ideas and beliefs inform our actions. I don’t think it is a mistake to make Santa a story, or to emphasize the greater work of Saint Nicholas, or to altogether axe Elf on the shelf in favor of Christ in a manger.

Because I started the writerly asides: Here I wonder how to end the piece. I want to go on about my own parenting questions. There are lines I draw that may prove inconsequential. Santa seems like such a stupid argument. But I remember a colleague telling me he was devastated when he learned Santa isn’t real. Why would parents risk that betrayal? As for magical thinking, isn’t childhood woven through with pretend and fantasy by way of practicing how to be a person? Even now, at age thirty-eight I live in stories. I crave fantasy. Simple fantasy constructed in a moment, like gorgeous hair, or smart conversation. Wild fantasy constructed over years, like a craftsman house I inherit in Seattle or a collection of my best work. I am a fan of magical thinking. I like to think how what is real might tilt just so at the unfurl of a thought or prayer. And perhaps because I write, drink too much wine on occasion, and talk freely, my imagination is no mystery to friends and family. (At a revision of this piece, I would parse imagination and magical thinking. Or cut this altogether).

Here is where I am, a few days after Christmas: At my kitchen table. Dinner is in the oven. I am eating blueberries and pomegranate arils and have already had my small fear of the day, wondering if Justin and I will make it through marriage and parenting and still like one another in fifteen years. God have mercy. This morning I thought how to end this essay. This is probably not how to end this essay, but if my aim is to generate (churn/ toss on the page/ draft/ spit/ fling) thirty-nine pieces before I celebrate thirty-nine years, well: cannot be picky. One day, maybe, this gets revised. One day, maybe, I’ll say it perfectly. But saying things just so keeps me from sharing here. That isn’t fair to my practice. It isn’t fair to the process. One day I’ll write another essay about Santa Claus and you will recognize a few lines from this first piece. And one day Claire will argue about more than Santa Claus, with such conviction and clarity she won’t need to shout to be understood.


Four of thirty-nine stories. 2379 words, including asides. I’m counting it all. Drafted over a week, mostly during a two hour chunk the day after Christmas.

Which Goat Was This Name

This story came to me two or three years ago. I started drafting with the end in mind. I quit because I couldn’t think how to write the end (I didn’t want the end), and when I returned to the draft in November I was surprised the story I’d nearly finished in my head was only a five hundred word start. Before you read: I wrote this story first thinking of Syria and the refugees desperate to escape death, and then I thought about this story as response to the horror of Yemen’s famine. Now I finished the story and am afraid to post but will. Please do not read what you do not want.


The children came ashore in three low, leaky boats and sat on the white sand. Two resort cleaning staff crossing behind the beachfront villas saw the children’s hunched shadows and called Sandu who was just rising to start his day. He walked quickly to the beach and saw the silent children sitting in three lines facing the water. Sandu motioned to his staff and from a distance they conferred. The guests would wake soon. There was a woman who practiced yoga at sunrise. Sandu called his superior who was still sleeping. It was no use. The cleaning staff looked at Sandu and then past the children, to the empty boats bumping in the shallows of the four star Cherish Resort. Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear, a habit of childhood that returned rarely: at his wedding to a woman he met two weeks previous, at his promotion, at news of the death of his father. He dialed his superior again and left a voice message. We are being invaded.

One of the cleaning staff suggested they take the children back to their quarters. There are too many, another argued. Sandu counted and said, Fifty-seven, plus or minus two or three. He couldn’t tell if some of the bigger children were holding infants or bags to their chests. We have to go see, sir. Sandu nodded. You go, he said. He watched the two cleaning staff amble across the sand toward two of the bigger children. They all kept their voices low. Sandu looked down the row of villas and checked the time. The sky was just getting light. That yoga woman could never sleep in. But if she did it was possible, wasn’t it, to get the children off the beach, maybe into a conference room, though that would be a far walk from here. The boats came from a neighboring island, loosed by wind perhaps. Sandu looked at the sky, looked at his watch. The children were silent.

One of the cleaning staff came back up to Sandu. There are seventy-one at the start. Only sixty-three now. We might have miscounted at the start. Sandu rubbed his jaw, then tugged gently at the hair behind his ear. He asked, Where are they from?

Sir, they thought they were going to Australia.
In those boats?
Yes, sir, they are on the sea for seven days.

Sandu walked down the beach to the yoga woman’s villa. She was here by herself. Miss Elena. She wore linen in shades of fog. He’d been in her room twice, once to deliver an airmail letter she’d requested be delivered day or night (he’d been thankful the letter arrived midmorning and he only interrupted her tea) and once to pick up a package for overnight courier service. She kept her villa clean, seemed only to sit in one chair at the table and on one sofa in the front room. She practiced yoga at sunrise, and took long baths in the evening. The more Sandu considered, he decided she was the guest that concerned him least. She would not howl about the children.

There were four other villas on this beach and two of them occupied for the week, one by a British couple in their seventies who read through the morning and napped through the afternoon, and the other by an Arab couple in their thirties who called Sandu with endless requests. Colder ice, more towels, an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker. The Arab couple would not be pleased. Perhaps they would accept an upgrade to a villa on the Blue Lagoon beach.

Sandu neared Miss Elena’s villa as she opened the door so that when she looked up, she startled to see him. He and other resort staff attended the villas as anonymously as possible to give guests a sense of privacy and ownership. Unless requested, no villa offered a butler, maid or nanny but Sandu took care to anticipate wants and needs and after nearly two decades of hospitality he understood how to provide or fulfill without crossing an illusionary line, without causing imbalance or discomfort; equally important, Sandu understood how to leave a guest alone, how to wait for a raised hand, tilted head, uneaten lunch that said a want or need. Now Miss Elena, whom Sandu knew preferred to be left alone, startled but calmed when Sandu said, It is me, Miss Elena. Sandu from the resort. I know you enjoy sunrise yoga and I hoped to show you another beach you may enjoy.

If it okay, Sandu, I prefer our beach. She gently closed the door to her villa and stepped onto the sand.
It is okay, but this morning the beach is occupied and I know you enjoy solitude.
Miss Elena looked at him for a moment and Sandu realized how this must appear. A male staff member luring a single woman to a secluded beach. Sandu coughed and said, I do not mean to alarm. I only – I – and Sandu had no words. He did not want to say what came out of his mouth. Miss Elena, he said, There are children on the beach.

Children?
They arrived at dawn on boats.
Boats?

I do not want you or the other guests disturbed, that is all. If you are amenable to practicing yoga on a different beach – Sandu gestured toward a path leading over a small, manicured hill of low plants and tall trees. For a moment it seemed Miss Elena would not take his direction, but then she nodded. He walked ahead of her, silently, and left her where the path returned to sand.

It is very beautiful, she said, Thank you.

You are welcome. Sandu turned to walk back through the resort, to the beach with children. Already he was afraid what the cleaning staff might have decided without him.

What will happen to the children?

Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear. He said, I do not know. We will take care. Then before she could ask any more questions, he set off, more quickly now, and when out of view, started to run back to the beach with children.

The children were silent yet. This surprised Sandu. He motioned again for the cleaning staff to join him. His supervisor was still not answering the phone and the other guests could wake or the younger children could cry. Three empty boats drifted in the shallows. Sandu said quietly, This is what we must do. We must take the children to the field behind our housing and sit them in rows on the grass there. We will ask the kitchen to prepare rice and fruit. Sandu called the kitchen manager who was often last to bed and first to rise and requested rice and fruit. Then he walked to the edge of the water and stood before the rows of children sitting cross-legged on the sand. He raised his hands to get their attention but all the little faces were already looking up at him, waiting, so he coughed to cleared his throat. He spoke without raising his voice, in English. He could not guess if they children understood. A few blinked. A few nodded. He used gestures, pointed at the cleaning staff, and at the instructions of a couple of the older children, the group stood and formed two lines and without much rustle, followed the cleaning staff off the beach, along a path that made its way to the field.

What was left on the beach were pocks of footprints, fans where tiny hands played with the white sand. In the shallow water, the three empty boats. Sandu rolled his pant legs and waded to the nearest boat. It was lined with plastic. It reeked of urine and feces. The children had arrived from somewhere, with nothing. Sandu called Manny at the Cherish Marina, to see about removing the boats. He left a message. He called his supervisor again who still did not answer. He swept the beach quickly and thought which embassy might have an answer, which charity or mission on one of the other islands might send a ferry to rescue the children.

By noon his supervisor was still not returning his calls. Only a text: Take care of the children. The boats were gone from the beach. Where the children had sat silently, the old British couple now dozed under the shade of an umbrella, their rum diluted by melted ice. Sandu hadn’t seen the Arab couple, which wasn’t unusual. For three days they requested brunch mid afternoon. He was not worried about disturbing them. He was worried about Miss Elena. He now understood what would come of the children and he should not have said a word to Miss Elena that morning. He lacked discretion. No, he lacked foresight. Sandu did not want to see Miss Elena before the children were gone from the field because he did not want to say any more of the truth to her, about what he was now arranging, about what would be finished by the time she decided to call the concierge to ask to speak to Sandu because he was not answering her calls and she wanted to know about the children on the beach.

The children on the beach? the concierge would ask.
Yes, Sandu told me this morning that boats arrived. Boats with children.
The concierge would pause, having no knowledge of boats arriving or children on the beach.

Sandu again called the kitchen manager, asked to speak with the butcher. Each week Cherish resort slaughtered its own pigs, chickens and ducks. But now the butcher did not understand his request. He balked at what Sandu asked. Sandu could feel the situation slipping. The children could not sit in quiet rows in the sun for too much longer. Two months ago his supervisor instructed him to take care of the cats, feral cats who had come over on a day ferry and were pissing on the beach sand. The year before that Sandu took care of guest’s child bride who wailed for two days before Sandu offered the girl a strawberry juice at dinner, laced with sedatives. Sandu spoke again to the butcher, to be understood plainly. I need three sharp knives, Sandu said, For goats in the field. Sandu bit each word, then softened his tone. He was lightheaded, and asked for a box of sandwiches to also be ready when he came by the kitchen.

When the butcher slaughtered, he worked in a space hidden from Cherish Resort guests, a small patch of dirt behind the storage shed where white plastic chairs, folding tables, old clothes and table settings, extra plumbing fixtures, and the bounce houses were kept. Sandu carried a bag with the three knives and sandwich box past the rows of children (sixty-seven, the accurate count). He opened the storage shed and found a white bucket and filled it with water from a spigot. Then he called one of the cleaning staff to come to him. There were few times when Sandu had to speak with threats. Usually his requests were reasonable. Even the unreasonable requests of guests he could phrase to make the chore simple, and he understood when to couple a task with the promise of a reward, but very occasionally Sandu exercised fear to inspire compliance. Now Sandu showed the cleaning staff the knives and said what he would do and how the cleaning staff would help. You will bring the children, one child at a time, he said. He spoke slowly.

You will not show any fear.
You will not alarm the children.
You will not speak of this to any other person.
And if you do, you will not go home to your own children.

Ever. Do you understand?

Sandu’s phone beeped then and he checked the number, answered and replied to a question about pineapples and mangoes while looking at the cleaning staff. He hung up and said, There is no other way. No one will take these children. They are not even children. I think they are goats. Yes, it will be like goats.

One cleaner looked about to be sick. Sandu gestured to a bush and the man leapt across the dirt to bend over and heave. When the cleaner was finished, he dipped a hand in the bucket of water and rinsed his mouth, then walked away without looking at Sandu. Tell the children there is a boat to take them to Europe, Sandu said, and the cleaner raised a hand to acknowledge. For a few minutes Sandu waited, wanting to look around the storage shed but not looking, trusting the cleaner wanted to see his own children again, here on earth, so when the cleaner came with the first child, Sandu smiled. His smile was kind, warm, nearly tricking the hand that reached for the knife so that Sandu had to let go the smile, take the child’s arm, press a palm to the mouth and nose of the child and quickly cut her throat. The cleaner recoiled. Sandu set the knife down, lifted the girl’s body and carried her to a wheelbarrow. He rinsed his hands, patting them dry on his pants, and dialed another number to call for Manny who did much worse to beat down civil uprisings, who could not find work anywhere but far from home and who did not speak about his past except when very drunk, such as one time when Sandu found him on a guest’s yacht. Manny trekked the wheelbarrow back and forth, dirt patch to quiet cove, for the hours it took to kill the sixty-seven children, and dropped the bodies in old rowboats he covered with blue tarpaulins.

The first twelve were children. Even as Sandu held a hand over tiny mouths, stilled the wriggling bodies by crushing ribs with his thighs as though taking a piggyback ride, even as he drew the knife quick and deep across tiny necks, he understood these first twelve were children with mothers and fathers who thought a boat ferried safety. These twelve boys and girls had aunties who kissed their cheeks, uncles who slipped a candy into tiny hands, cousins who chased up trees and down streets. There were signs of love, like thread bracelets or improbably tidy braids or a careful patch on a shirt or a thin silver ring. The first twelve were children who saw Sandu with a light trust for the barest moment before he grabbed at them to press his hand tightly, to keep their screams inside. And then after the first twelve, all the children were goats, even the smallest who would not learn to speak, until the end.

There was more blood than Sandu anticipated. Manny worked diligently with downturned eyes. Sandu lost count. He was hot and the iron smell nauseated him. He asked the cleaner what number this was as Manny pushed the wheelbarrow down a narrow path, and was surprised to learn he was only just past halfway. He sighed. His arms were sore from holding the goats, from pulling the knife. He didn’t want to ask the time. He remembered the sandwiches and rinsed his hands in the bloody water but had no dry, clean spot on his pants or shirt to pat dry. He picked up a sandwich. The bread turned pink. The cleaner watched without speaking, eyes glazed like fever. Sandu ate quickly and gestured the cleaner to go bring another goat.

He was nearly finished. The children were nearly finished. The cleaning staff and Manny were nearly finished. The children were children again, these last six or seven. One boy had a grain of rice on his chin which Sandu noticed as he reached for the thin arm, thin boy, thin neck. And after him, the last of the goats were children who could not be made goats. Sandu’s back ached and his hands hurt. At the end he stretched his arms overhead, rolled his neck. He spoke briefly with Manny who only needed short words to understand the children must go far out to sea, away from any current that might bring their bodies to any shore. He spoke for a longer time with his cleaning staff who could not meet his eyes until he commanded them to look up. This could not be helped, Sandu said, There is no good place for children who come from nowhere. To show kindness, Sandu allowed the next day off and dismissed them to their night. He stayed behind the storage shed to empty the bucket of bloody water. There was a great mess of blood and dirt, a thick sludge Sandu hadn’t noticed in the middle of his work and it was too much to call usual for a slaughter. The ground took the blood quickly as it took rain and there was no way to dig its depth. Sandu thought for a moment how to take the blood from the earth and decided instead to give more earth to the blood. He pushed Manny’s wheelbarrow to the cove where the children now lay in neat rows under blue tarpaulin and walked the wheelbarrow into the shallows to rinse the blood, then scooped sand with his hands to fill the wheelbarrow before returning to the red dirt and emptying the load. He did this twice more to be certain, then found a rake and pulled the earth over the blood.

Leaving the patch behind the shed, swinging the bucket at his side, the knives ruined now, Sandu crossed to where the cleaning staff asked the children to sit. The children were silent all day which Sandu thought a curious blessing. Sandu surveyed the grass where the children had waited to board the boat taking them to Australia or Italy or wherever they thought they were going to live. He nudged a tuft of grass with his toe. The area looked clean. It was secluded. Likely no one saw the children. And the story of what happened was that the children boarded boats for another island, which may be true if Manny chose an island bog. Manny he could trust. The cleaning staff were diligent but he saw how they could not look at him, how they bowed their head when they approached with the next goat, how they could not lift their heads until he commanded it. Sandu was not yet sure what he would do about the cleaning staff.

At his small living quarters, Sandu turned on the shower. Always he was economical. He turned the water off to lather. He rinsed quickly. He took a nail brush to clean the red brown under his nails, staining his cuticles. Sandu finished and stood wet and naked in the tiny bathroom. He was suddenly very tired. He turned the water on again, to its hottest, steaming the round mirror and scalding his back.

On the other side of the island, guests played in the water or laid on the beach or lost the afternoon to expensive wine or platters of food. Miss Elena did not call Sandu or the concierge to ask about the children. She rested in her bed made up with white linen, then bathed in water scented with lavender oil, then dressed in shades of ocean to walk to the main hotel for dinner, rather than order room service as she preferred. Perhaps because her day began in so unusual a way, it must end with a slight, evening deviation from routine. At the hotel, Miss Elena asked to sit on the patio where she could see and smell the water. Near her table was the old British couple puzzling over a piece of paper the man held in his palm. Miss Elena lifted a hand when the woman looked up. Miss Elena asked what was interesting on that piece of paper and then joined the British couple at their table at their invitation. The three of them passed the paper.

I don’t read Arabic, Miss Elena said. Perhaps one of the staff?
We like a good mystery, see, said the old woman.
So when we found this in the sand, the old man continued, We thought to find what is written, by whom and why.
I think I may know, Miss Elena said. I woke early and this morning Sandu told me boats arrived in the night, boats of children. Perhaps one of them, from a pocket?
Boats of children? The old woman furrowed her brow. Wouldn’t we have heard something?
I did not hear a thing, Miss Elena said, They were quiet at ghosts.
Did you see them?
No.
What has come of them?
I don’t know. I imagine they are cared for.

The table let the conversation lapse as drinks were delivered and after, each was lost to his or her own ideas about boats of children arriving in the night, and where those children might be. Miss Elena looked at the scrap of paper now in the center of the table and touched its edges. It is curious, she said, and when she looked up she saw Sandu across the patio speaking with one of the waitstaff. Miss Elena lifted a hand to call him over. He walked toward her, smiling first at her and then at the old British couple.

If I remember correctly, Sandu said, You are each near the end of your stay at Cherish.
Yes, the old woman said, And it has been lovely. We chose dates to return.
Wonderful, Sandu said. He turned to Miss Elena. And you? For you it has also been a pleasant stay?

Miss Elena said yes. There was a pretend game between Sandu and his guests. The pretend he didn’t already know the answer to his question, the pretend that the guest’s life and stay were truly private, the pretend he could smooth any ill. When he looked at Miss Elena looking up at him now, he saw how pale her neck was, how childlike. Miss Elena smiled. I am curious, Sandu, about the boats of children. Can you tell us what happened?

Sandu cleared his throat. I made a call, he said, And spent the day moving the children from the island. He dropped his voice and said, I really prefer, Miss Elena, that we not talk of the children. It was never my intent for any guests to know of their arrival or, now, of their departure. Sandu looked at the old British couple, to include them in his confession. He bent at the waist a little and said, I am relieved to tell you each child is moved to safety.

Miss Elena put a hand to her heart. She closed her eyes. Thank you, she said, All day I wondered.

Sandu straightened. He was about to move through the patio, to check on other guests, to assure his staff of his returned presence, when he saw a slip the slip of paper. He tilted his head. He knew the paper. He saw these little papers all day, pinned to tee shirts or peeking from pockets. Miss Elena followed his gaze and picked up the paper, held it out for him to see. We found it, she said, Well they found it. On the beach. It looks like Arabic and I thought perhaps a note from one of the children. Do you read Arabic?

Sandu shook his head no. He did, a little. I can look into this, he said, and put the slip of paper in his pocket. It may only be a note from one of our other guests, he said, and smiled. I would not want their privacy compromised in any way. Miss Elena dipped her head, like a schoolgirl in trouble with her teacher, and Sandu again saw her neck. He could sense in his body how close he was to slipping, how careful he now had to be to keep his mind from spilling out his mouth. He remembered the other times followed by this same crucial turn, and pulled at the hair behind his ear. Sandu nodded to the old British couple, to Miss Elena, and before he left, promised to tell her the message, if it were not private. Miss Elena smiled. Sandu walked away but watched Miss Elena throughout her meal. Watcher her drink wine and talk lightly with the old British couple. Watched her play with the pendant of her necklace. Watched her shift her weight in her chair, watched her laugh after a second glass of wine. He thought he could not sleep if Miss Elena did not show him what he needed to know, and he nearly ruined it by returning to the table with a made up translation of the note – a line from a love poem, easily attributed to the Gulf guests – when she laughed and Sandu understood she believed him that the children were on boats again, going away to live. What else would she prefer to believe?

Sandu left the patio then, walked along manicured paths passing guest villas, passing staff lodging where he paused to listen under the dark window of the room shared by the cleaning staff but hearing nothing, walked on to his own small rooms where he took the paper from his pocket and read the name, the place, and wondered which goat was this name, this place.


This is story two of thirty-nine. Started two or three years ago. Draft finished 2 December. 4244 words.

The Holy Posture Of Whatever

Last week I interviewed for a teaching position at our school. For international educators, autumn is a season of big decisions and Justin and I already made ours, signing on to stay in Korea for two more years, but then I had the opportunity to apply to return to a high school English classroom. When we left Kuwait, there was no English position open for me at our new school, and I was relieved for the year rest. A year in the utility department allowed me to see the elementary, middle and high school equally. I learned more about our school. I am glad to be at our school for the many ways I see learning happen, for the many colleagues I observe and collaborate with. This time last year, I was energized by the newness of every day. When asked if I was interested in joining the middle or high school staff, I declined to apply. I liked the fun of each day different. I liked the work I was doing with school publications. This time last year I didn’t think what I might want now, during my second year as a full time substitute, when the unpredictability of each day is more tiring than energizing. So when talk started of who was staying and who was going, I listened for rumors of English teachers whose contracts were up and wondered if I might fit with the department.

Fit is one of my idols. In college I roamed from one group to the next. This is a fun way to learn a little about a lot. And after college when I was keen to move abroad, my secret hope was to find a place where I fit perfectly. I imagined cobbled streets and sun dappled sidewalk cafes. I imagined solitude. I imagined a crowd happy to land me in their crew.

But now when I thought of how I might fit in the English department, I was a little nauseated. I couldn’t dredge any storyline of how my presence was essential to the department, or how wonderful the school day would be, to have my own classroom. To open my own door each morning, to greets students I know, to know where the projector remote is kept, to always have a tissue box. I can picture returning to the classroom. My year away (and this second year away) from teaching literature and writing confirms I really like teaching literature and writing. Yet I cannot pretend that I am absolutely the best fit for a teaching position at our school because I know two things: I would do well, and so would someone else. I was nauseated at the thought of fitting not because it was the idea I might fit the English department or fit the needs of our students or fit the high school community, but because I already do fit where I am. As kindly pointed out by a friend when I lamented this chase to find my place. Why do I question where I am? I am here. And so this is where I belong.

I am here in Korea for two more years. Maybe longer. As long as I am here, I am right where I belong.

Unfinished. A week or two before the announcement internal openings I was laying in bed one night when I felt my upper body slowly paralyze. I lay still for a moment. The sensation is familiar, born of fear. Two years ago at the start of our job search to leave Kuwait, I woke in the middle of the night to pins and needles across my chest, down my left arm and most alarmingly, in patches on the left side of my face. I called my dad who the summer before suffered Bell’s palsy. I thought maybe that was it, that or a stroke. The pins and needles did not indicate palsy or stroke, only anxiety at a new height.

I like to think I am calm. I like that idea that following Christ grants peace that passes understanding. So that night a couple of weeks ago when my upper body went numb I sat up, flexed my fingers, rolled my neck and said to the dark, Where is my peace?

Rolled into this present experience is a past hurt and a potentially wrong conclusion. Two years ago I was set to go to Kenya. I remember a near maniacal hope. I remember believing that since I wasn’t seeking anything overtly wrong for my life or my family, since I wasn’t scrambling for money or comfort, that my want had to be answered by a move to Nairobi. This could not possibly counter what God had in mind for us. But we did not get hired by a school in Kenya. Instead, in the days after that option closed, I cried and wondered what am I supposed to want. This question persists. What am I supposed to want? What do my desires matter? When we planned to leave Kuwait, Justin and I made a list of wants. Our kids added to the list too. We wanted to bike to school. I wanted to run outside. Claire wanted snow. One night after losing Kenya, I could not sleep. I walked through our dark apartment and stood at the big windows where I watched the cars and buses below. I stood in the middle of our playroom. I wept. I was so sad. When I think about this night, I am there again. I could not see how the months ahead would open to where we are. For me to even consider where we are now, I needed to absolutely lose the chance of going where I thought we belonged. A day or two later, we got an email from Korea.

The same friend who kindly reminded me I fit where I am, at the outset of this current search, also said to me, Trust the process. He may have said this half jokingly. Let go and let God, he said, Trust the process. Years ago in Colombia I worked with a couple who eventually left international teaching to open a Bikram yoga studio in southern California, and when I saw Katy in her new life wearing a tee shirt that said Trust The Process, I wanted the shirt. I’ve long adored the idea of process, if not the real in-the-middle work of process. My notebooks are full of the reminder to trust the process. Faith works out through experience. Writing is crafted during revision. Relationships strengthen or break by the addition of a day, hardship, disagreement, joy. Raising my children is an illustration of process. Such comfort to know I am yet unfinished.

But what process do I trust? This last week, before and after interviewing for a teaching position, I practiced articulating what I want to say about this current process, my waiting to know what more the next two years in Korea might hold. There is God at work. There are people at work. There is a lot I do not know about what happens if I teach literature and writing, or what happens if I remain in my current role at the school. And I can see both ways working well.

Losing Kenya comes back to me now as caution not to want too much. Losing Kenya comes back to me now as a question of what I really want. Losing Kenya comes back to me now as a rebuke that I may not know what I most need. That was my angst when my friend grinned and said, Let go and let God. Trust the process. We play glib about this. But I’ve come around to the glib repose of whatever. I want to teach so I applied to teach so I interviewed to teach so I wait to teach. But whatever. Next year I will teach or not teach, and I cannot say now. Losing Kenya may have wrecked me for hope in me, and perhaps that is the point. I continue to pour into marriage and parenting, with hope. I continue to write and work, with hope. I continue to daydream where to live next or where to travel, with hope. But my hope is not in my own ability or achievement. I follow Christ who exacts the high price of everything, to know the love of God now, to live in love now and forever. Faith necessitates a hope in what I cannot see in full: that God is good. All of me is one line of a story, one thread in a tapestry, one note, one brush of paint that adds to his name, defines his glory. If I accept God is at work in and through me as I seek to be more as Christ, then I am free to trust that any bit of this time on earth (this process) is useful. And then I am free to accept, or even welcome, all the little bits that make up my time on earth: relationships, work, writing, Korea, losing Kenya.

My hope is that as I chase wants and needs, I am not lost to those wants and needs. I trust that God attends the moment and tomorrow. I do not quit my dreams, and I am not lazy at my pursuits, but I am beginning to understand there is a holy posture called whatever: whatever the day is, whatever the year is, let my heart be right. Give me the wisdom, fun, creativity for the moment and again, tomorrow.

Still. After the interview I walked home with Grant. Along the river path I wondered if my levelness was peace or passivity. Am I just totally at peace with what comes next, or am I surrendered instead to familiar passivity, accepting least resistance as the right way forward. Later at home I was in the kitchen and stood quiet. Do I know what I want at all? I am now partnered for sixteen years, raising two children, living abroad for over a decade. I want to teach, so I applied to teach. But is there a deeper want yet? Is there something more for my time? I worked in the kitchen, worked my way toward whatever. That is where I am now. I will continue to think about what to want, peace and passivity, surrender to whatever may come today and again, tomorrow, but now I wait while there are other minds at work to set in place where I fit next year which is, always, right where I am.


Story One. 1769 words. Drafted 25 & 26 November. 

Thirty-Nine Stories

Today I am thirty-eight years old. When I think about my age, I take inventory against whatever my mother was doing at my age. There is no way to say if she was better than me at her age thirty-eight, or if I am inching ahead at my age thirty-eight, but for the marvel of comparison I can’t help but tick through the list. She celebrated the first birthday of her fourth child while her first child started university. She paid a mortgage, drove a minivan, and meal planned. My daughter just turned ten, my son eight, and university enrollment is still far enough away that I sometimes wonder if the world will end before the kids get a chance to be adults – even though statistically (where are those statistics!) now is supposed to be a safer, less violent, better time to be alive than any of our previous centuries. I am living in an apartment I didn’t choose, and I ride a bike or take the subway. I never meal plan.

Maybe I will turn this little paragraph into an essay. Maybe I’ll ask my sister Joanna if she does the same thing. Or my brother Nate, if he thinks of Dad as he adds a year. Maybe Mom thinks of her mother. Mom and I are both firstborns. We made our mothers. Or maybe on my birthday, Mom remembers who she was when she was thirty-eight, chalks up a similar list. Yes, maybe this will become an essay. One of thirty-nine stories I will write to celebrate this, my thirty-ninth year.

Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to work in an office or be a teacher. Both of these jobs seemed like play. One year I received a desk organizer for my birthday and I kept the little compartments stocked with paper clips, pens, post-its, and smiley face stickers. I took a highlighter and pen to the JC Penney catalog, circling and crossing out items, taking calls from imaginary customers and enjoying how official I sounded when I repeated item numbers, sizes, colors. Dad would hand over a thick stack of those postcards you get in magazines, all advertising something computer related, and I filled our fictitious names and addresses. This was office. School was an old teacher’s edition of a grade two or three language arts text, its gloss pages bound by a thick white metal spiral. I gave spelling tests. I asked the comprehension questions. I flipped through the pages efficiently. I used a teacher voice that could border on insincere patience. But then I wanted to be a writer.

There is no way to play at being a writer. If you want to be a writer you cannot pretend to write. You must write. What you can pretend – what I have often pretended – is that you have a readership, that a book deal is nigh, that what you write won’t disappear in thirty years. Thirty-Nine Stories is not about pretend. Thirty-Nine Stories is about me being a writer, for real.

During my thirty-eighth year I cornered Justin in the bedroom one night. This does not go anywhere fun. I put my hands on his shoulders and said, Look at me. Still not going anywhere fun, even though that evening I’d had two glasses of wine. Justin looked at me and I said, I missed an MFA. I am going to write like I’m getting an MFA. He said, Okay.

Well, here is the fun part. Parameters! Thirty-nine stories completed in one year. Stories: narrative fiction or nonfiction. I can revive old ideas, return to incomplete drafts, but I must also write totally new work. The quality of pieces will vary. I will revise what I want to revise. By the end of the year, I want fifteen strong pieces. Pieces: may vary in length: ten (or fewer) pieces of 500 – 1000 words; at least ten pieces of 5000 – 10,000 words; at least three pieces of 10,000+ words. And for the readership (you) I will post excerpts/ full drafts of each finished story, though process posts may be more interesting because even I want to know how I plan to write thirty-nine stories in one year.