Fiction and other bits of prose
Thank goodness for the Wendig Challenges that keep me writing. My random elements: A time travel romance, a vampire’s subterranean lair, and a dream.
I met Michael several months ago in a vivid blue dream set in my favorite adobe villa outside of Tucson. He joined me as I enjoyed a glass of wine and the expansive blood red sunset. He looked exactly like his picture from 1862, but his contemporary clothing told me the Concern had done their job. I wouldn’t have to convince Michael that time travel was, yes, very possible before I even discussed why we wanted him.
“Nice place,” Michael said as he sat down, surprising me with the jolt his presence sent up my spine.
“Thanks. It’s my favorite. Strange, though—it’s usually gold and green. The blue is something new.”
“Well, I like it. Blue is my favorite color.” We talked long into the dream until the insistent mewing of my cat demanding breakfast woke me at sunrise.
Michael and I met for several weeks, discussing his role in the case. I was struck by his easy acceptance of what had to be the oddest experience of his life. I was also taken by his quiet power, a sense of agelessness that enveloped me when I was near him, leaving me feeling safer than I’d ever felt in my life. As our dream meetings came to an end, there was a seed of sadness that I would be saying farewell. I was careful to not let Michael see what I couldn’t quite accept myself. I was in love with him. Ridiculous and awkward, but there it was.
In our last meeting I detailed for Michael the next steps, which included jigging from 1862 to our present time, two hundred years in his future.
“And then I will meet you in the flesh?”
“No. After this meeting, we won’t see each other again.” I looked away, fearful he would see my emotions.
“I don’t understand.”
“My job is to prepare you for the task. You can only jig twice—once to this time, where you will complete the mission, and then once to return to your own time. Anything more is dangerous. We call it jigging, but that’s more ironic than truthful. There’s a sticky little issue of death for travelers who attempt more than two jigs. Dream Scoping allows us to prepare travelers so they need only make one round trip.”
“What if I don’t wish to return?”
“That’s not possible.”
Michael reached for my hand. “Anything is possible.” I began shimmering in the blue of the dream, as if I had become light, waves of color rising. I took my hand out of Michael’s.
“Not this one. Besides, I have a distinct distaste for closed spaces. Especially ones carved into the earth. ”
“I will keep you safe.”
I believed Michael with everything in me, but the fact remained, I wouldn’t be allowed to accompany him beyond this final dream.
“Besides,” Michael continued, “I can simply say I won’t – jig—unless you are with me.”
“Please don’t say that.”
“I already did. So to whoever monitors these dreams, hear me—Mari is with me, or I refuse to go.”
I jerked awake to the ringing of my cell phone. I braced myself for the wrath about to be unleashed on me and picked up the phone.
Michael was true to his word. He refused to jig, standing his ground though the Concern reasoned, beseeched, and threatened. Finally, all attempts exhausted, I found myself before three unsmiling Travel Agents who spoke in monotone about what I would and wouldn’t do, and the dire consequences if I chose to break another rule.
“And for God’s sake,” one admonished, “Do not do anything to encourage Michael’s feelings for you. Is that understood?” With a purse of her lips, the woman gave a short nod. I heard the door open behind me and turned to see Michael. Fighting every desire to run across the room and into his arms, I reached out a hand, keeping a professional distance.
“Very nice to meet you.”
And that is how I found myself more than eleven hundred feet beneath the Sonoran desert. I wasn’t being coy when I told Michael I didn’t like closed spaces. The expansiveness of the lair we stood in did little to calm my shaking hands. I turned my attention to the room, trying to dismiss the idea of a quarter mile of dirt and stone between me and the sun. The room was remarkable. Comfortable chairs, paintings, sculptures, and woven Persian rugs filled the space with an air of luxury that was still somehow welcoming. Candles flickered, reflected in crystal vases. The carved stone walls carried the music of Vivaldi around us. I caught the scent of leather from the rows of books lining one full wall of the chamber.
“This is incredible,” Michael whispered.
“It is. Quite beautiful. I could see myself living here, except for the whole—“
“Subterranean thing?” Michael finished. He gave me a reassuring smile.
“Let’s get this over with so we can get out of here.” I reached for the gun. “The sooner we’re done, the sooner I’m sunbathing.”
“So this man is on the Concern’s Most Wanted List. Seems crime does pay.”
“I don’t know about that. Crossing the Concern isn’t a smart thing to do.”
“I would think the Concern would want to question him rather than kill him. Shape Jumping sounds like something they would want to know more about.”
“I’m just here to do a job.” Micahel pulled me close, kissing the top of my head. “Don’t be in such a hurry to be rid of me.”
“Please, Michael, I don’t want to think about what happens when we finish this job.”
“Listen to me. I’m not jigging back. I have a plan. Trust me.” I melted into him, closing my eyes and willing this moment to stretch into eternity.
The click of footsteps brought us back to attention. He strode into the room, oblivious to our presence until he was almost upon us. He stopped, fear crossing his face, but didn’t speak. The three of us stood in the flickering light, “Le’estate” swelling around us. As I watched him regard Michael, I thought I saw recognition in his eyes. He visibly relaxed. I pointed my gun at him.
“Don’t move,” I said, trying to muster some semblance of grit. The man stiffened again, a question crossing his face.
“Michael,” he said, so softly I almost didn’t hear him. I looked to Michael, unsure what was happening.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Do you know him?” Michael didn’t take his eyes off the man. “That’s impossible. You can’t know him.” The gun shook in my hand. Michael reached over and gently took it from me.
“Mari, you beautiful woman, come here.”
Terror filled me. How was this happening? How could this man and Michael, separated by two hundred years, know each other? Michael took my arm, a tender touch, and led me to the man.
“Mari, this is the love of my life.” Michael reached out to stroke the man’s face. The man inclined his cheek, smiling. “I would like you to meet Elizabeth.”
I shook my head. The music grew around me, pushing out any coherent thought.
“I truly care about you, Mari. But Elizabeth and I have been separated for so long. Two hundred years, waiting for the opportunity to be reunited. Imagine how frustrating it’s been for Elizabeth, Shape Jumping again and again, waiting for technology and history to catch up. But now, here we are. Finally.”
The man’s soft voice fluttered like the candles around us. “Michael, we must finish this. Time is running out.” The man turned to me, pulling me towards his broad chest. “I promise, this won’t be painful. You’ll be a dizzy—but then it will be over.” And with that, the man clamped his mouth over mine.
Vivaldi fading, light fading, all the world fading. Faintly, I heard Michael beside us.
“Darling, could you consider letting Mari stay? I think the two of you would get along splendidly.”
I heard Elizabeth’s voice coming from me. “Men.”
The darkness gave to light. The candles came back into focus, Vivaldi pulsing from the walls. I looked at Michael and the woman next to him holding his arm. Michael raised the gun and pointed it at me.
“So sorry, darling. I did try. You understand, right?”
I slammed to the hard floor. Above me was the ceiling, solid rock a thousand miles from the light of Tucson. Blue light filled the space, entering the gaping wound in my chest, pouring into the body that wasn’t mine, filling the mouth and ears and eyes that weren’t mine. The blue light grew brighter and brighter still.
Another Wendig Challenge short, in which I fabricate a future travel story.
Recreating a Grandmother’s Journey
Jacked up on adrenaline and nostalgia, two women set out to retrace their grandmothers’ 1983-era road trip, sans all the comforts of the 21st century.
As I pull on a thick rubber boot, Eva, my traveling companion, says to me over her shoulder, “It’s said that our grandmothers walked this beach barefoot.” She shakes her head at the wonder of it. “Can you imagine walking on that– barefoot?”
Eva points across the expanse known as Venice Beach. In the sunlight, the thick oil shimmers, fracturing light into greasy rainbows. I take a deep breath through my mask. Not only can I imagine my grandmother walking this beach, but I am about to retrace her steps.
In fact, these are the final steps in an odyssey that began months before, when I came into possession of my grandmother’s diaries. She came of age before the era of technology that gave us cell phones, the Internet—even microwave ovens. These diaries were my only source of reading for several weeks when, tucked in the early entries, I came across the pages that would send me on the adventure of a lifetime. In these pages she wrote about a ‘road trip’ she took with her best friend Sharon Shields from New Mexico to California. As I read the recounting, a small thought came to me: I could do this. I could take that same journey and record my memories as she had. Not only that, I would locate a relative of her companion to go with me. Together, we would recreate the California Road Trip Adventure of 1983.
A short Google search located Eva, the granddaughter of Shields. I contacted her, unsure how she would take such a wild idea from a perfect stranger. I was thrilled to receive her response: “That sounds like a blast! I’m in!” I wasn’t quite as thrilled to read the rest of her message. Eva had the idea that if we were to truly appreciate what our grandmothers had accomplished, we should travel as they did. Eight hundred miles without the safety net of technology—no phones, Internet, GPS, Ipods, Kindles, laptops, tablets, satellite radio—nothing but the grace of a combustion engine, four good tires, and a cassette of Journey’s album Escape playing on continuous loop in a 1982 Mazda RX-7. The very car our grandmothers drove.
I confess it took me a bit to warm up to Eva’s idea, but on March 31st, we set out. Following the route our grandmothers followed marked on a vintage Rand McNally Road Atlas, we headed west at a leisurely fifty-five miles per hour, the legal speed limit in 1983. Eva and I immediately noticed the scenery—while it was quite different from the landscape our grandmothers watched (the movement to blacktop all available space happened some decadess after 1983), the slow drive allowed us to see what we normally wouldn’t notice. The novelty of the scenery helped alleviate the tedium as well as the frustration of not being able to manipulate the Journey cassette as we would our own media players.
By the end of the first day we had reached Kingman, Arizona, and gratefully checked into a local hotel. Eva had researched the hotels in Kingman, attempting to find one that would be similar in style and amenities that our grandmothers would have in 1983. While she had little luck finding one without WiFi or satellite television, we were delighted to find a retro Motel Six, complete without coffee, hair dryers, or irons in our room. As I sat in the growing dark, the silence surrounding me (we chose to not turn on the television, to preserve the recreation), I scribbled a few lines on the day, “Open Arms” on repeat in my head. I felt a growing sense of depression and exhaustion spreading throughout my body, and a look at Eva revealed she was feeling the same way. I dug into my bag and found a notebook I had purchased for this trip. Without the convenience of my tablet, I needed a way to bring my notes and quotes from other travel writers, bits of wisdom and sustenance that carry me along. Dropping the antiquated paper notebook in my bag had given me a sense of solidarity with other ancient adventurers. I found the quote I sorely needed:
To be a traveler in such circumstances can be inconvenient at best, fatal at worst. But if the traveler manages to breeze past such unpleasantness on tiny feet, he or she is able to return home to report: ‘I was there. I saw it all.’ –Paul Theroux
With Theroux’s quote buoying my flagging spirits, I fell into a restful sleep.
The morning brought our next challenge. Finding coffee was paramount, but we could not use the usual sources—no Satellite, Starbucks, or Seattle’s Best. We were forced to find a small diner and order our coffee along with breakfast.
The hours passed more quickly the second day, in part because we chose to shut off Journey and talk. Eva shared with me stories of her own grandmother, and I was pleased to discover Eva had actually known my grandmother because the two ladies had shared a room in the retirement home my grandmother lived in until her death. I did not have the good fortune to visit with my grandmother the final years of her life, so listening to Eva talk about her was like listening to an undiscovered podcast.
And now I stand on Venice Beach, about to take the final steps of my grandmother’s 1983 journey. I look up into the brown sky and say a prayer to my grandmother’s spirit: Are you proud of me, Meemaw? Do I make you smile?
Eva and I will say our goodbyes later this afternoon. She will fly back to New Mexico while I go to the next location and the next story. When we part, it will be as different women. Extraordinarily different women.
Frankly, I don’t remember much.
Granted, I’ve been out of school much longer than I ever spent in classes, but casting back over the memories, I realize that while I recall many events—dances, playground games, pranks on teachers, the loss of classmates—I can recall very little about what was happening inside the classroom.
The times I remember clearly are snapshots—I can see my English classroom, feel the sting of tears in my eyes as the teacher reads Little Ann’s death scene in Where the Red Fern Grows. I can clearly recall the moment in algebra when I turned the equations into mystery stories, becoming a detective who methodically solves case after case of the identity of the mysterious Mr. X and his wicked accomplice Miss Y. I remember wriggling creatures trapped between two pieces of glass under the microscope, bugs pinned to boards, frogs splayed on dissecting plates, and all manner of strange creatures floating in formaldehyde in the science classrooms. All these little memories, but nothing on a large scale.
There is, however, one experience that stands out clearly. One day in History, our teacher presented to the class a mystery: What killed Catherine of Aragon? And with that call to adventure, we began a journey through Tudor history that has remained with me throughout life. I learned how to research and explore, how to connect events, how to organize my ideas in a cohesive and clear manner. This was before the Internet, so this took work—we didn’t have Google to answer the question, didn’t have Showtime’s The Tudors for reference, and our small school library in a rural town in the far reaches of New Mexico wasn’t well stocked with English history. But I found my way through it, and produced an answer to his question.
What made this experience different from all the others? Why do I remember it so clearly? I can see now that it was because this teacher invited us into a story. He figuratively, and thus literally, presented us with a gift wrapped in layers of tissue and encouraged us to fold back the pieces until we came to the divine quartz in the center. This kind of teaching takes an artist. The educator who claims for him or herself the title of artist hands the student a map and says “Let’s go find a chalice” and then steps back and lets the student lead the way.
It is critical for educator-artists to lead the charge for reform. We are not characters from an episode of I Love Lucy, working the assembly line, struggling to insert the next piece of information into students until they come to the end of the conveyor belt, nicely wrapped and ready for shipping. If we continue to insist on this assembly-line approach to education, we will certainly send out into the world students well-suited to an assembly-line life. I’m speaking metaphorically here—assembly lines are for products that require consistency and standardization. Students are not products, but our approach to education treats them as such and has created generations of people who often cannot, will not, or are unable to break free of a linear path of thinking or acting, and are thus not able to think or act in ways that lead to great solutions or innovations, not just for the world’s sake, but for their own families and lives.
The call to teach students creative and critical thinking skills is loud and clear. But the only way to do that is through example. Students will not learn to think creatively (or, more accurately, continue to think creatively) unless they are immersed in opportunities to do so. The path to higher student success does not lie in increasing requirements or raising test scores, in compartmentalized learning experiences or skills drills. It lies with the educators, in giving us the freedom to create meaningful, integrated learning experiences that will stay with students. Likewise, this freedom does not rely on canned professional development from outside our own schools, but rather in allowing our current educator-artists to show us the way into the story. It lies in giving us the opportunity to work together towards a common vision instead of coming at some obscure idea or mandate from many directions.
It lies within every educator to claim for him or herself the title of artist and set out to find the chalice.
I did an Internet search of Catherine of Aragon while I was thinking about that project. It took me five minutes to read what took weeks to learn—while there was some speculation that Catherine had been poisoned by Henry VIII, modern experts agree that the black growth on her heart, discovered during embalming, was likely cancer. Somehow, the tidy Wikipedia entry just wasn’t as satisfying as that moment three decades ago when Kelly and I found that information in a stack of books at the Fort Lewis College library.
Life has its moments
Now and then
When I am
A fish out of water
Asking “Why am I here?”
Then I begin
To make my
A battered landscape
Out of my comfort zone
A time of darkness illuminated
Another Wendig challenge– this one involves choosing a picture from Buzz Feed’s “50 Unexplainable Black and White Photos.” These range from hilarious to a bit on the scary side, but the minute I saw this one:
Jimmy was never good to me. Even Sissy says so. And she should know—she slept with him while I was in the hospital having Trinnie, our third baby. By that time, though, I couldn’t care less about who Jimmy was chasing. Fifteen years I spent with him, and in all that time I’m pretty sure Jimmy didn’t spend a single week faithful to me. So when my own sister came to me crying in her guilt, all I could do was shrug my shoulders and tell her it just didn’t matter anymore.
It’s true blood is thicker than water, but there’s another truth that doesn’t get knocked around much. The truth that when a group of women come together because of a shared misery, no man can stand for long. And Jimmy was a shared misery for a lot of us. Besides Sissy, there was my cousin Gina, two neighbors, the waitress at the Busyness Café, and the sweet-faced store clerk where Jimmy worked. There was a lot more, but you can only kill a man so many times.
I don’t remember whose idea it was. That doesn’t matter anyway. It could have been any of us, or all of us. Maybe the thought came to every one of us at the same time. That’s what a shared misery does. But the thought came, and after the thought was the plan, and the plan, it worked perfectly. For that I have to give credit to Jimmy. Without his absolute willingness to be exactly who he was, we would never have gotten the job done.
I won’t tell you any more about the plan other than to say, next time you’re in the Busyness Café, take the table nearest the kitchen. Sit on the long vinyl bench. Feel the rip on the seat cut into the back of your leg. Look out the dirty window at the parking lot. Pay attention to the trash caught in the barbed wire that runs along the south end of the property. Rub
your hand over the worn surface of the table and feel revenge run up your fingertips and into your heart. Notice how bright the sun is when you walk out of that little diner, how it lights up your eyes so you can see clearly for the first time in your life. That’s what it looks like when the misery ends.
When Jimmy came home that night, the kids and I were gone. I left him a note with his dinner telling him I was at Sissy’s. Gina showed up soon after, and it didn’t take much convincing for her to get Jimmy into the narrow bed in our spare room. Imagine his surprise when all of us walked in on him waiting for Gina. Imagine his stuttering, his nervous laugh, his attempts to cover his naked self as if he had suddenly discovered some humility. We didn’t make him suffer. In fact, we took care of the job more quickly than any of us had anticipated. I think we expected a little more fight, but Jimmy just gave in. It was kind of anticlimactic, how easy it turned out to be.
When it was over, we buried his body in the tomato bed. For the next few summers none of us will be able to eat a tomato from those vines with a straight face. But when I bite into one and let those ruby red juices run down my wrist, I’ll know Jimmy is finally doing good by me.
It’s time for another Wendig challenge. This one involves a title using alliteration and a story to go along with it, under 1000 words. I woke up one night last week with the first line in my head, so it’s nice to actually do something with it. So here we go:
I was nowhere near Toby when the door slammed on his fingers. I was across the room, watching the night through the bedroom window. Granted, by the time Aunt Noble and Uncle Charlie forced the door open I was there, but it was to stare at Toby’s severed pinky finger lying on the floor. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the odd shape, the waxy object that didn’t look like a finger at all, like something that had just a few moments before been a part of a living body. That’s all I was doing when Noble and Charlie forced the door open and Toby’s screams rushed in at full force—I was not, as Aunt Noble insisted, pushing the door against them.
Noble never believed me when I swore I had done nothing wrong. As more accidents befell Toby, she became
convinced I was evil, hell-bent on killing Toby. She would turn on me, fury darkening her face and the veins in her neck pulsing as she screeched, “If you didn’t do it, then who, Haley? Who?” The answer bubbled up my throat,
but always I closed my mouth tight against it.
But it wasn’t me who pushed Toby from the tree when we were six, even though Aunt Noble watched as her son flew sideways from the branch he was on before plunging to the ground and landing on the raised root of the cottonwood tree, shattering his arm so badly he would never again be able to lift it above his head. When Toby was ten and came home with a broken nose due to the slender silver end of an umbrella being shoved up his nostril, Noble refused to listen to my explanation that yes, I was holding the umbrella, but it was a mystery to me how it leapt from my hands and attempted to embed itself in Toby’s face. At thirteen, Toby spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from poisoning. He
had eaten the mushrooms on his salad, which I had prepared. It didn’t help my case that no one else who had also eaten salad remembered there being any mushrooms. Toby was seventeen when he lost his pinky finger, but it was the
infection that almost killed him, coursing through his body for weeks and leaving him a wasted version of the teenager he had been.
And so it has been for Toby and me. Aunt Noble does little to hide her mistrust or her distaste for me, but family is family, and Toby has never let his mother’s accusations cloud his affection for me. We are as close as two people can be. And no matter what my aunt thinks of me, I’m terrified. Each time an accident visits Toby it is more serious than the one before. I can’t help but imagine that the next one will kill him and take him from me forever. We never talk about how they happen or why only to Toby, and we never, ever discuss our fear that one more will be the end. We look away from each other, speaking of everything else as if there is not a monster in the room with us, smiling a sick smile as it waits its turn. That is the way of people who share a secret.
Katherine was three and Toby and I almost five when we wandered to the ditch behind our grandmother’s house, something we knew better than to do. Katherine slipped on the edge of the crumbling bank and began fighting against the sweep of the rock and dirt carrying her to the water. Toby lunged onto his stomach and reached for her, and in her panic she began pulling him down with her. There was nothing for me to do but pull Toby back, prying Katherine’s hands from his wrists to save him. As Katherine slid into the current she opened her mouth, gasping for air before the water had even begun to fill her lungs. She never took her eyes off mine, and in them I watched her fear become confusion, then rage. Toby and I watched Katherine disappear into the muddy water, saw the current thrash for what seemed too short a time. I grabbed Toby’s hand, pulled him away from the water and told him, “It’s too late to get help.”
No one asked us what happened that day, where we were when Katherine drowned. It was easier for our family to believe Katherine had become separated from us and fallen into the ditch alone than to face that their children could stand and watch another die. My mother, Toby’s mother, Katherine’s mother—all are complicit in our sin. Every adult who shook their heads as they patted ours and murmured how terrible, how tragic, how upsetting, are complicit. Their collusion made the truth unbearable to speak then, and impossible now. If they had demanded, if they had just forced from us the truth, Katherine would not need to seek her vengeance.
Revenge pays back much more than the original act. I chose one cousin over the other, and the price—well, I know Katherine intends a mighty recompense. Aunt Noble is right—Toby’s cousin is trying to kill him. She just has the wrong one in mind.
I have bounced this little story around in my head for a week, waiting for a few minutes to write it. It came from a challenge by Chuck Wendig (if you’re a writer and don’t know the force that is Chuck Wendig…well, do something about that!). I was quite excited to post it until I read the directions closer. I missed the deadline by two hours. TWO hours. Sigh. Regardless, I am posting it here. One hundred words, exactly, and using the word frog.
Frog pushed the edge of the steak knife against Mrs. Estes’ throat. It was a quick, graceful move, practiced countless times growing up when he would clutch an animal by its scruff, press a stick against what he thought was the jugular, then laugh as he tossed the animal aside. Now, as he held the back of her head, I watched a line of red on pale skin begin rising. Just like old times, Frog was laughing. But this time he wasn’t letting go. As blood started coursing down Mrs. Este’s neck, I began having serious doubts about our friendship.
The weekend is carrying me along in its stream, perhaps faster than I’d like. I have enjoyed two days of downtime, but it’s been far from unproductive. I finally had time to watch my new video Mythic Journeys. This film is a beautiful mix of animation and documentary addressing the role of myth in our human consciousness and our growing need to find a new myth. Because of recent conversations I’ve had with good friends in just the past week, one quote in the film struck me:
Sometimes the obstacle is in the way. Sometimes, the obstacle is the way.
We all face obstacles. They carry many faces and swords of varying length. Often we perceive an obstacle or trial as an evil in our lives, something that raises its dragon head just when we set out to follow a path that will take us to a higher level as humans. We stare at it defiantly, daring it to try and sway our resolve, bracing ourselves for battle. Sometimes the complication makes sense—if you decide to run a marathon, strained muscles and shin splints can arise. Other times, however, the dragon appears for no good reason at all, just decides to snap at our heels for no other purpose than making life more difficult. Why? we ask. Why, just when I say Ok, that’s it, I take the vow to become a better person and make my little piece of the universe a better place does something have to cause a problem? I mean, come on! I’m trying to do something good here, universe!
The easy answer is often that obstacles build character. The Hero’s Journey talks of the descent into the belly of the whale, of the requisite dying to the old so that the new may be born. Ok. We can all use a little shaping-up. A wee bit of spring cleaning for our souls. However, I believe that often, obstacles do not come because we embark on the journey, but that when we embark on the journey we encounter obstacles.
Stay with me here. There is a difference. Many times we see obstacles as presenting themselves to challenge us, to deter us from the path we have chosen or to mold us, harden our core. That is looking at the obstacles from our own ego… and fear. Conversely, I argue that obstacles do not present themselves to us. Instead, the moment we make the decision to strike out, to leave our comfortable crop circle of existence where we have everything mashed down in comfortable patterns, we enter a universe in which countless whales swim. The difference is, while we cannot avoid the whales, or dragons, or meerkats, or whatever animal fits your imagination, we can choose to perceive them differently. Obstacles aren’t lying in wait for us. They’re not meeting in secret assemblies conspiring to thwart us in our endeavors. They’re just doing what whales and dragons and meerkats do. And when we can learn to see them in that manner, an obstacle doesn’t stop being an obstacle—it’s our role that changes.
We stop being a victim. We no longer look at the dragon and ask Why me? Why doesn’t anything ever go right for me?
Instead we look at the dragon and say Ah—there you are. I’ve been expecting you. Now, what do you have to teach me?
It’s Sunday and I am enjoying one of the last warm afternoons of the fall. If the weather forecasters are to be believed, this time next week the temperatures will be at least twenty degrees cooler, so for now I will enjoy the burn of the autumn sun on my neck.
It’s also a weekend without essays to grade. Just last weekend I was faced with this:
A small stack, in composition terms.
It wasn’t like this even a year ago. Before moving and taking
a different job, that stack of essays was easily multiplied by at least three and as many as six. The energy spent reviewing all those papers left little to none for my own writing and art.
Let me make this clear—this is about balance, not complaint.
Finding balance in life that allows us to work and create in equal parts is an absolute obligation. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I can say that I am closer to it than I’ve ever been in life. Some of that is a result of conscious choice on my part, but even more the blessings of the universe and opening doors I never expected. As I reach a place of equilibrium between teaching and art, both become better. I’ve learned that throwing all my energy into teaching doesn’t make me a better educator—it makes a drained one who loses the ability to appreciate the incredible voice of the writers I work with because I’m pushing as hard as I can to get everything done and returned. It makes me a shadow artist who cannot write or paint or hear the song of the poet.
This I believe.
I must take the time to sit in the sun and watch humanity move around me. I must scribble found conversations in my notebook and watch the trees outside my apartment window change colors so that the leaves catch the evening sun and fill the world with golden light that spills into my window. I must take the time to define my own bliss, to sign that contract with the universe so that when I ask students to write of their dreams, it is as a fellow journeyer who understands just how terrifying it is to say “This is who I am.” And I want to be able to read their dreams and plans through my artist’s eyes, my heart swelling from the piercing beauty of their words and the total belief that they can make it all come true.
That is absolutely where I need to be.
I recently posted on one of my social networks that my uncle is figthing lung cancer. In the midst of the well-wishes and expressions of sympathy, the wonderful poet Chelsea B said to me, “Grief is love at its most helpless.”
It was a powerful line. Powerful enough for me to issue a challenge to my writing friends: Write a poem that includes that line. I couldn’t think of a better response to the pain than to commit an act of creation.
Here, I am posting three of the poems. As others are finished I will add them. Each line I have the honor of putting here is a clear message that love never fails.