Finding Form

Finding Form

I still want to figure out the lyric essay so I am practicing with baby essays. I don’t think the following is quite a lyric essay. But it’s a chunk I can work with, developing the strands of settling a new home, being a substitute teacher and running along the river. Maybe I’m too hung up on the idea of writing lyric essays and what I really need to do is write so prolifically I find my own form.

(Which I still hope is lyric essay).


Yesterday I subbed the last block before the weekend, a middle school strings class. About twenty kids came in the room, opened their instruments and started tuning. A few didn’t know how to tune their cellos or violins. One told me the teacher helps them, could I help them? I don’t know how, I said. To the class I asked anyone having trouble tuning to raise their hand and someone nearby would help and that’s what happened. Kids got up, stepped around open cases and music stands, plucked strings, drew a bow across. Heads bent to listen. The first violin played a note for everyone else to tune to. For the first minutes after, everyone practiced their own part of a song. I was standing where the conductor would stand but not on the box. I watched. I thought it was a mess but I liked it so I got out my phone and started to record.

Parts of this transition to Korea are easy. Running outside is easy, even in the rain, even in the humidity, because it feels like my whole body is lifting when I look up and see green hills or heavy clouds. There is so much rain that the river is muddy from runoff. Grasses on the banks and along the paths are flattened by sudden floods. One morning the river licked the path I raced. It was adventure.

Walking across the street for groceries is easy. I shop here the way I shop when we are traveling. I go into a store for milk and carrots and think it’d be nice to buy a zucchini too. I stop at the wines and pick one that doesn’t sound too sweet. I wander back across the street and cook something unremarkable which we eat at our big table before playing Uno or drifting to end the day.

Right now our apartment might be one we booked for a summer out of Kuwait. We learned places in the neighborhood, like where to get kimbap or fried chicken; we found a bike loop and ventured on a few longer rides with promises of a treat midway. I walk a little farther to get a latte served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and that feels like a holiday. Right now our apartment looks transient. One woman told me her boys referred to their apartment as the hotel, for two years. When I couldn’t find the colander to drain pasta, Justin didn’t know where it was either because we haven’t divided our cupboards much beyond where the plates go, where the flatware goes. My dresser drawers are full of winter running gear and the soap, shampoo, toothpaste and powder deodorant I wasn’t sure I’d find here (most of it is here) while the top of my dresser is a mound of clothes. I may as well have a suitcase open on the floor.

We have lived in Korea for one month. We just got our Alien Registration Cards (ARCs). We just got phone numbers and data plans. At school we are all learning something new. I told Justin my brain is full. My brain is like all those middle school strings students practicing their parts. If you listen you’ll pull measures of music from the cacophony. This is why I am so glad I have a river path to run in the morning.

When I run outside, I meditate imagine wander pray draft. The morning run is a gift. I return to the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t mind the repetition. I ask the same provision again and again. I want the Gospel in my heart. I count my sin, seek forgiveness, think how to repent this day. Such promise in the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread: because my daughter announced she doesn’t want to eat rice anymore and I miss cauliflower and I still haven’t figured out our oven. And lead us

I like to break there. I like to think about what it means to choose, what it means to follow.

not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Such mercy.

When I ask for God’s kingdom to come here, for his will to be done here, what I am asking is for the love of our Father and his righteousness to work in and through us. I think what our apartment is when God’s kingdom is present, when his will is at work in each of us individually and together. I want that so I ask again and again. What do we become, in love?

What cacophonous practice. God works our hearts in different ways so we are what the people near us need.

This is what happened yesterday: the middle schoolers finished practicing their parts and one boy counted the tempo, the rest of the students readied their bows and they started to play. It held together and then started to come undone. The boy looked around, nodding at his classmates to tell them faster or slower or it’s your part now. I only watched. They all continued to play. A couple of students spoke aloud, directions to one another. For a moment it seemed the song would quit. Then the melody found itself and the students were at the same measure at the same tempo and it sounded like music I would close my eyes to hear better.

Considering Criticism & Rewriting As Revision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Growing Into Who I Am

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

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

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

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Part Four: Bucket List

A lot of my current writing centers on leaving Kuwait, what this place and moment are for me, and I’m just going with it, writing what sits in my head. I also have two nonfiction (Kuwait related) projects I want to finish by the end of May. I think I’m writing as much of this country as I can in one sitting.


kites17

In the courtyard a week ago, Tim asked about my bucket list. I don’t think I have one, I said. Sure you do, he said, You just don’t know it yet. A small circle of us talked about what to do before leaving Kuwait, what others had done before leaving Kuwait. We joked about ordering delivery breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. Or pulling up to a bakala, rolling down the window and asking for a pack of gum, blocking traffic while we wait for a hundred fils change. We tried to remember how others had left Kuwait. What essential last things had they done?

The next morning we went for breakfast at Early Bird, then for a walk in Fahaheel. It was National Day weekend and a group of men played cricket on the beach, giant rocks as bases. Other families were out for picnics. The kids ran through the sand. From Fahaheel we headed to a spot in the desert for the Al Farsi kite festival. We’d gone a few years ago and had talked about going again but hadn’t. Tim was right I had a bucket list and didn’t know it. That Saturday morning I thought of the kites and realized this was a day I wanted again before it was gone, before we couldn’t drive past oil refineries that look like an imaginary machine of pipes bending and jutting, stacks like lit birthday candles. Before we couldn’t drive past all the tents that pop up in the desert during winter, televisions and fridges inside powered by generators; before we couldn’t drive past a herd of camel again, before we couldn’t drive another road cut through sand sand sand.

So we drove out to the kite festival. Years ago, staring at kites mattered to me. Sometimes we get a day we didn’t know we needed. Then and last weekend, my face turned up to the sky to marvel at the giant billows and flaps of color, I got what I needed. And when I looked around me, I got what I needed. I will miss these people: the stair step children dressed identically as Kuwaiti flags, the woman whose hijab and abaya sparkles with Swarovski crystals, the man in a winter dishdasha and wrapped gutra, the fat adolescent in sweatpants, the young woman with sunglasses and a bag that cost my month’s salary. I’ll miss the nannies in their uniform pajamas and rubber sandals, the men who pick up what gets left at a table or dropped on the ground, the cluster of workers at a restaurant booth making change as fast as they can.

Knowing this would be our last year in Kuwait, I returned in August saying goodbye. I ordered as much shwarma in three months as I’d eaten the previous three years. Every other week, I bought a half dozen pistachio maamoul. I returned to almond stuffed and coconut rolled dates. We ordered bigger spreads of Lebanese food, stopped off for falafels and hummus on the way home. It isn’t sustainable, eating my way through goodbye. I want to miss pistachio maamoul, not be bored of the treat.

When the weather cooled, I put the kids’ bikes in the car for afterschool rides. We’re usually out on the weekends once or twice but this was it, next year no Gulf, so we added midweek walks. I found myself missing my old routine, writing in a café on the way home from school, so I did that a couple of times but it was different because I sat at the end of a long day thinking what to make for dinner when I got home instead of having drifty thoughts or lines of poetry or stories come together over coffee.

I am trying to notice things. Like the stretch along the thirty that was only light poles and sand when we arrived is now giant villas side by side. Or the spot Justin remembers blooming with tiny yellow flowers one spring that hasn’t bloomed like that since. The rain that leaves dust pocks on our cars. The smell of gas in Fahaheel. The stink of dumpsters on a hot day. Even Hussein’s morning call to prayer. I have a bucket list like some people write their to-do list after chores and errands: I know what is on my list right in the middle of seeing a father hand his infant to his wife in the front seat, right in the middle of a Filipino wait staff shout singing happy birthday to a surprised and embarrassed man, right in the middle of crossing the campus courtyard and looking up at small leafed trees. My Kuwait is small, built of routine. Even so, there are many things I will do and think, this is it here, and I might be a little sad or I might feel pleased in the moment, full up with joy. I don’t know how this goes.

Tomorrow we’re out for another walk. This one to Marina with the bikes. We’ll have a fatayer picnic after. The kids will want ice cream because it’s getting warm enough for that again and I’ll send them with a KD to a little stand. We’ll stay on a patch of grass through the afternoon because we won’t get many more of these, the sun tiring me even though I only sit and read or talk or watch. We’ll come home to our concrete courtyard and the kids will have energy enough to run around before bed, before another early start to another week. I won’t miss all of this. But I don’t want to miss what I will.

2017 Writing Goals

I don’t think I actually set 2016 writing goals unless they’re listed in a buried notebook. I did challenge myself to revise work and while I had a tantrum and didn’t manage to knock out the one-a-week revision edition, I did steadily  practice revision all year, sometimes playing for the sake of playing (like with poetry), sometimes finishing a story because it was time, and twice revising to publish (here and hopeful). A year ago I also started exploring creative nonfiction through an online course. That class woke up an interest in telling true stories and showed me the time involved in telling a story well. Meaning that while 2016 is the year I decided I can be a teacher and writer, 2016 is also the year I realized there are some stories/ projects I need time to commit to doing well.

But this post promised my 2017 writing goals. So, here they are:

  1. One notebook a month
  2. FINISH Canyon Edge story
  3. Practice looooonger essays/ expansion as revision
  4. Write a sonnet composed of found comments on a single article/ issue/ video
  5. Submit five pieces for publication to at least three different magazines/ sites

I can do that.

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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One Situation, Three Flash Fiction Pieces

I’ve been working on one school’s application for two weeks and I wish that was an exaggeration. The application is made up of tough questions I can’t answer in the space provided, questions that would meet a pause before answering in an interview. I understand the thoroughness of the process – the school is Christian in deed, not just name, and administrators want to know not only what kind of teacher I am but also how my faith works. And in between drafting and revising the application for this school, I’m writing cover letters to other places too.

This is not a post about job search stuff though. This is a post about how I missed writing fiction and joined a class for one of my favorite exercises from What If? which is to write five mini-stories of a single situation. 

Situation examples:
Mom walks into her daughter’s room
Two strangers next to each other on a plane
Someone takes something from someone else

I stole the last idea from a student (apropos) but only managed three mini-stories. Even so, what fun and challenge to step away from cover letter land.


Some Of Us Know
The sophomores were stealing again. Mr. Shannon already talked about it at the grade level assembly in October, then again in December. Don’t leave your bags around, he said, but the kids all left their bags in heaps outside the canteen or strewn like dots on the outside of the track. Security and maintenance staff had to show their backpacks, turn out their pockets at the end of a shift. Then the scholarship kids got called in one by one. A girl named Valentina laughed when Mr. Shannon asked if she knew who was stealing. You think it’s me, she said, Because I wear sandals from Bata?

It was too easy, Eduardo found. And fun, to slow his breathing and steady his pulse. The first time he stole on a dare. He took the slim phone to a booth in Unicentro, swapped the sim card and sold it for the cost of a good sushi dinner to a taxi driver. Now, in history class, Eduardo saw a rose gold line under a paperback on Catalina’s desk. He hadn’t stolen from a girl before. He had a small collection of black and silver devices at the back of his wardrobe that he almost wanted his maid to find, for the relief of contrition and repentance. Daniel and Santiago hadn’t stolen since right before winter break. Eduardo wasn’t sure anyone else was still in the game.

Catalina looked up then. Eduardo didn’t look away. She bent over her notebook, one hand cupped around what she wrote. Then she tore the page from its spiral and folded it over twice. Catalina held the note in her hand. Eduardo got up and walked over to her, took the note. His heart was wild. He sat at his desk again and unfolded the paper. Some of us know. Eduardo swallowed. He could feel Catalina waiting. He looked up but she was only bent over a book, her finger following the lines.

I Give You
For a week I do not put you in a bassinet or crib. I hold you against my breast, let you suck. I have no milk yet. I have only white pain at your strong suck. For a week I wait for my milk to come and you pull at the nipple, turn away, sleep, wake to pull again while I believe all the literature I read about colostrum nourishing you until my body decides the milk comes. I drink a beer. There is something about the malt. I remember a woman saying a beer relaxes the mother, reminds her body to let go. I hold you and wonder what I need to let go. Women carry emotion in their hips, I read.

My hips sink into the sofa. Paper dolls come with little skirts or shorts that fold over the abdomen, the upper thigh. That’s what hurts, the middle band of my body, like my hips opened all their doors and everything fell out. Your suck tightens my uterus. I know this is good. I read it was good.

I haven’t held a baby in years but now, you fit my arms. You snug against my belly. You flop over my shoulder. When you are nursing, I watch your jaw work. I touch the nape of your neck. This is the most delicate we are, together, and I have this surge that goes up my body that makes me say out loud, Be careful. I am so tired. For a week I have dozed and started, afraid to let go of you. But now I am tired and make a little nest for you on the floor next to the sofa and I stretch my legs out and close my eyes. We sleep for a long time.

When I wake, my breasts are engorged. I read this might happen. How the milk comes fast and fills the soft tissue to bursting. I sit up. I need you more now. I pick you up and hold you to my breast, help you latch because the nipple isn’t slipping easily into your mouth. I watch your jaw work. My breast is like a firework, warm sparks of milk letting down and you choke, pull away. My breasts are leaking and I help you again. You find a steady suck and I think of the empty cradle of my hips, the better weight of you in my arms, and I wonder what we will hold together as we make our way.

What I Can Do
Tasha’s daughter came down the stairs one morning with her hair combed in a slant across her face. Tasha said, “Lizzi, I can’t see your eyes,” and reached a hand to brush aside the curtain but Lizzi ducked away, went to the cupboard for a bowl. “You look mysterious,” Tasha said but Lizzi only hunched over her cereal. When the style lasted a few days, Tasha suggested they go to the Cut ‘n Curl next weekend, have the fringe done like that actress that’s everywhere, what’s her name. Lizzi didn’t answer. “Would you like that?” Tasha asked. Lizzi said she guessed so. A year ago, Lizzi dyed a pink streak in her hair. She’d worn a red cape to school most of spring semester. Now in seventh grade, Lizzi didn’t know if she wanted her hair cut.

That Saturday, Lizzi sat in a salon chair while Tasha watched her daughter from a fake leather couch, flipping through a magazine. The stylist was a woman in her early twenties who asked questions about school and favorite bands. Lizzi was quiet. The stylist got quiet too. She took her time, pulling lengths of hair to check evenness and snip strays before blow drying the cut, showing Lizzi how to work a bit of gel through her hair for texture. “There,” the stylist said, “You look great. This cut suits you.” Lizzi looked at her reflection and smiled. Tasha wanted to hold her daughter, kiss her forehead. They bought a bottle of gel and a round brush. Tasha hugged the stylist.

On the sidewalk, Tasha reached for Lizzi’s hand and for a couple of blocks, it felt like nothing invisible had shifted, like Tasha had only imagined the tremor. Tasha suggested a pastry or hot chocolate. A trio of girls was walking toward them. Lizzi’s grip tightened. All three girls smiled. “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” Lizzi ducked her head. “You must be Lizzi’s mom,” said one of the girls.

“I am,” Tasha said.

“Lizzi is in my social studies class with Ms. Bryant,” said the girl.

“Lizzi, your hair looks gorgeous,” said the second girl.

“Did you go to Candace?” asked the third girl.

Lizzi didn’t say anything. The girls blocked the sidewalk. They looked from Lizzi to Tasha with wide eyes and lip gloss smiles. Tasha understood then. There had been a tremor in her daughter. Tiny fractures in rock that could shift and open a wound at the surface.

“Excuse us, girls,” Tasha said and the three made way for her and Lizzi to walk on. Tasha could hear the trio behind them now. “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” Tasha held Lizzi’s hand all the way to the bakery, ordered two mugs of hot chocolate and two almond croissants and found the table near the bookshelf where they always sat. “Lizzi,” Tasha said.

“Don’t, Mom.”

“Lizzi, those girls might never be nice to you.”

“I know, Mom. I don’t care.”

Tasha didn’t say anything for a moment. She cared. Those tiny fractures in rock might not open a gaping ravine at the surface. Those tiny fractures might instead compound where no one sees, turn rock to gravel, cause a landslide. Tasha took a sip of hot chocolate. She watched Lizzi bite into the croissant. “Tell me what I can do, love,” Tasha said. Lizzi looked up, powdered sugar on her lip. “This is nice, Mom.” Tasha had another sip of hot chocolate. “This is nice,” she said.

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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A Poem That Waited For Me

Four years ago, I found a blog out of Syria. Citizen journalism, mostly cell phone video and unedited, graphic descriptions of the daily violence parts of the country suffered. For a short while, I checked the blog often. One night I saw a video of a man carrying a girl, looking for help that was clearly beyond reach. I watched the video twice. I felt sick. I cried. Someone knocked on our apartment door and I answered. Our friend Harvey asked what was wrong and I said, Syria. I asked if he ever got caught up with a story like that, sad for a country you’ve never been to, hurt for people you won’t meet. Of course. I can’t remember how he explained the line he draws to keep from feeling consumed by tragedy but it was something like: know what is happening but look away when you need to, live.

Watching clip after clip of rubble streets, dust-covered bodies and women shouting to the sky breaks the heart. I think we need to feel broken for others. Empathy, deep sorrow, births prayer and action, even as we live in safe places. I still follow what is happening in Syria, and once checked to see if that blog was still up. It isn’t. But what I saw then, at the opening of Syria’s war, stays with me as horror that continues.

That clip of the man and girl is a scene I’ve written around before but last week I found a new way into the idea of what that girl’s life might look like now, if. I asked students to write a poem using a pre-Socratic epigraph to open. This is an exercise from The Practice Of Poetry that moves your poem in unexpected directions. A philosophical quote prompts wandering thought. The challenge is to tether your thoughts to images. Some epigraph options include

Actions always planned are never completed.
Democritus

The path up and down is one and the same.
Heraclitus

All things were together. Then mind came and arranged them.
Anaxagoras

I chose

Worlds are altered rather than destroyed.
Democritus

and because my seniors are finishing a unit on satire, I thought about the crass irony of calling a destroyed world altered. Yes, altered. Terribly altered. I thought of Syria, those before and after photos we’ve seen of market halls and streets, showing a world altered. I wrote and revised the following over a few days. I can’t include the epigraph in the final poem. Syria breaks my heart. This girl breaks my heart.


She Might Now

The video is jumpy, drops and whirls like
the men it follows, the men circling
a father carrying his dark-haired daughter
He carries her last minutes in his arms
Her lips move like a fish breathing
Her eyes are open, looking it seems, looking
Her voice does not speak or cry. The only
sounds come from the mouths of men,
noise that needs no translation because
I understand when the father turns
so the camera shows this girl’s dark hair
cut away at the back, a hole the size
of a fist in her skull, pink brain slipping out

When the camera returns to the girl’s face
I wonder does she see anything at all or
is her being now made from the fabric of her
father’s shirt, the smell of midday sun, the
muted waves of men’s voices in an alley,
the whisper of air on her lips as her father
turns and turns looking for someone to
come, take his daughter, make her whole

She would now be twelve or thirteen
She might now tuck her dark hair under
hijab and help her mother in the kitchen,
walk with her brother to a reopened school,
kiss her father’s cheek at his return late
afternoon, before they sit in slanting light
to eat food from chipped plates. She
might write songs with her shiny pink
brain, its delicate stem running nerves the
length of her limbs so she spins, arms
open, turning and turning in the last slip
of light day gives

A 50 Minute Paragraph

About a year and a half ago I drafted a story in three parts about a town somewhere out west. The story came to mind as I read my way through Psalms.

From Psalm 135

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
16 They have mouths, but do not speak;
    they have eyes, but do not see;
17 they have ears, but do not hear,
    nor is there any breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them become like them,
    so do all who trust in them!

The passage startled me. It’s vivid and frightening. I thought what it might look like if a group of people went mute, deaf, bowed before silver and gold idols. If they became as those chunks of metal, without breath. I wrote the draft quickly. About a year later I workshopped the story with some friends, all of whom wanted the piece to be expanded.

I agreed. And tucked their notes away. I took the notes with me to Budapest this past summer. I flipped through the pages, thinking how to revise. But I didn’t write. I didn’t make any new notes.

I’ve had this story in my head since I first drafted it. I can see the landscape. The faces of the Edges. I want to get it right and I know any revision risks getting it only almost right. (Like the butterfly Ann Patchett talks about in “The Getaway Car,” the beautiful vision we’ve got for a piece that we pin down on the page at the cost of smudging its wing). Even so, today I sat at the dining table with the notes out again, opened my notebook, and started writing more. One paragraph more. The first wedge of expansion.

The one paragraph felt good to write. Lately I’ve opened my notebook to journal or pray or think in loops but this afternoon it felt good to return to fiction and better to start a revision I’ve put off. At the end, I had a page of writing, most of it with lines drawn through, a single paragraph hidden in the sticks, a single paragraph that opens the way for more paragraphs to tell the better story.


The discovery of gold in surrounding fields.

The gold rush was already five years on. In forty-nine and fifty, a few townsmen cut south to join wagon trains west, sending occasional letters home reporting rain and sun but no news of gold. Most of the men and women in town didn’t have an appetite for gambling on a stream bed. Their great risk taken a few generations before, the very risk that planted them at a yawning canyon, was tempered by a sense of practicality, also traced back a few generations, that supposed the land at the canyon was enough and there was no need to find clearer air than this, or a deeper river or darker soil. Most of the town agreed the sun turning the canyon to gold in late afternoon was rich enough. Before forty-nine, settlers continued to find their way to Canyon Ledge by way of misreading maps, following the wrong river or falling out with wagon masters. Those settlers arrived surprised by the tidy grid of a town, the surveyed acreage. There was no need to push on after a night’s rest. But Californian gold calibrated hearts due west so the town received no more stragglers, no more accidental settlers, so that when Marshall Severson turned up yellow metal with his plow, the only men and women in town were those who could’ve gone on quite happily without the  gold or the ribbons, shoes, pianos, bridles, window panes and pigs it might buy.

Fluorescent Truth

I just finished week one of a new school year. Everyone is writing. My creative writing students are (re)establishing their writing practice with timed writing and go-to prompts (like I Remember…) but I fit in one exercise with a group.

As You Like It from Room To Write by Bonni Goldberg

Today draw comparisons between two things. Choose at least one from your surroundings. The other can be an object, a person, or an abstract concept like love, jealousy, fate. How many ways can you compare them? Go for at least twenty-five. Stretch yourself.

I looked up at my classroom ceiling. I wasn’t going to compare a ceiling tile to anything. I wrote down Fluorescent Light. Then I cheated a little, thinking of two or three immediate comparisons, and wrote Truth. We gave ourselves fifteen minutes. I got to number five in my list and blanked. It got easier around number fifteen or sixteen, until I got to number twenty-four.

  1. glaring
  2. can be harsh
  3. brings clarity to a situation
  4. not shy
  5. unavoidable
  6. hidden until a switch is thrown
  7. runs on a current
  8. can prompt finding a softer alternative
  9. sometimes unwelcome
  10. long lasting
  11. hums under conversation
  12. made strong through/ by reflection
  13. sees the way flesh goes: cellulite, bruising, pores, lines, veins
  14. can yellow
  15. not always everywhere we go
  16. may cause a headache
  17. wakes you up, ready or not
  18. knows not everyone is a fan
  19. offers no apology or excuse
  20. can change the atmosphere of a room
  21. conserves energy
  22. eliminates shadow
  23. necessary
  24. blinds
  25. restricts what happens next

Try it. Turn it into a poem. Or explore a comparison from your list.