Tuesday, May 15, 2012

a personal epiphany

The one thing I know I have to do, is to make. I must make art in some form. Graphic design was my major, but writing, fashion and jewelry design, photography, cooking, hair styling, make-up artistry—these are outlets for this itching I have to make. There is a buildup of information, color, pattern, inspiration, of ideas. I try to release the pressure in a controlled flow, in different mediums. It does not come out like this. I find that I am too tightly capped. Making is unscrewing a lid that will not budge. Grasping twisting, pain—excellent fun. No, but it has to come out or it buzzes constantly in my left ear. A divine appointment with a picture, a verse, a song, an ad will eventually wander across my path to hit the bottom of the jar. Then, the next twist will pop the lid right off so I can get to the good stuff. It comes in wild, gushing spurts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. –Psalm 40:2

The other day I noticed the little wooden elephant that rides along on my keychain. It was a gift from a high school friend that came back with her from visiting family in India. Its original chain had broken some time back and I had reattached it to my keys by the metal loop in its back. This morning, as I was crossing the parking lot at work, somehow, I looked down at just the right moment to see it there a little bit rolled over with one leg broken off. Contrary to my germ-o-phobic tendencies, I barely hesitated before picking it up and taking it inside. I thought I might just throw it away, but I felt a bit sad for having lost its company on my keychain, though I hadn’t even noticed it was lost before I found it. I decided to clean it up, but while I was doing so another one of the legs and some other bits of wood came off. When I finished I found that it could stand up on its own; better than it would have with its chain or four uneven legs. So, I stood it up next to my two birthday cards on top of the CPU tower on my desk.

As I counted out my 20 seconds of hand washing, I thought about the strangeness of this incident especially what it might mean in the context of this morning. On my drive to work, I was committing to God my worries and fears as well as confessing to Him my fear that perhaps I am not even one of His children, or that He would not even hear me; that I would never make it out of this dark tunnel or ever really be made clean.

Just as I was finishing my hand-washing count, God whispered words of healing and peace to me. Where else could such words have come from? If I, who am human, took notice of such a small, unimportant thing, surely God, who sees all things, notices me and hears me (Genesis 16:13, 2 Kings 20:4-6). Is Jesus not the Good Shepherd whose sheep hear and know His voice (John 10:4, 14-15)? Does He not take notice of, seek out and bring back those who have wandered away (Matthew 18:12-14)? If I took the time to pick up and clean off a tiny wooden elephant that I paid nothing for, how much more time would the Father take to gently pick up His child and wash her clean with something incomparably stronger than a Lysol wipe—His child whose life He paid for with His own (Revelation 5:9). Though I am broken, is He not the One who “heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:2-4)? I could not repair the broken wooden legs of the elephant and had to let them go. Though God’s cleansing will also mean pruning (John 15:2-4), cutting away of things I need to let go…yet will He set my feet upon a rock and cause me to stand firm!

Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
-Psalm 103:1-5

Sunday, August 22, 2010

i am gideon

I know, it's been a while, but I have been writing. I've been debating about whether to share this with the few or possibly many who might come across this blog. Today a friend of mine said something like, "You never know who it might help." So...like I said in the beginning, 'I hope you can use it, find a muse in it, or at least be amused by it.' 

Withdraw is just another word used to euphemize other words like quit and fail. –P. Sodeke

Some people are pushers. They may try to listen, but mostly they just push.

“If your heart is not in it…”

IT NEVER WAS!! I want to yell, but I don’t.

“…then you should withdraw,” she is calmer now. But I know I did not push anyone into this. I was pushed. I was just very good at making her think I wanted to do it—so good, I made myself think so too. Maybe I should get an agent and become an actress.

I do not yell. I am silent, contemplative. Are there other normal people, aside from bums, who are this lazy, unmotivated and ineffective?

She is still pushing even though she appears to be giving me a real opportunity to decide for myself.

i am gideon.

When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." --Judges 6:12

These days, every time I hear someone say that I am meant for “great things”, I think about Gideon. I'm a woman and a minority, the least in my family, and full of doubt. I lie awake some nights trying to untangle the imbroglio of real and imagined fears caught up between my head and my heart. I find myself pleading to God for some unmistakable sign like dew on fleece but not on the ground, though I'm never that specific. But if my family and friends have actually been passing on some divine memo, then, maybe I am Gideon. It’s like getting a memo at work—be sure to wear a fake mustache and dress in all red this Tuesday. Yes. That is about how bizarre their words sound to me. I wonder if Gideon had any trouble holding back a laugh at that “mighty warrior” stuff.

Maybe something is about to happen, but if I’m supposed to be doing something to speed or rather receive it in its coming, well then, I think I might have missed something—like, whatever it is I should be doing other than waiting.

He is in my corner. I shouldn’t doubt that. The Lord is in my corner. I have a lot of prayers in my corner. That is, people praying and therefore prayers for me.

I fear that I am not brave enough to do what it takes to live—well. I am scared stiff, literally paralyzed with fear. I am ashamed too. I have only admitted this to one person, because she was sitting across the table from me with black coffee and open ears.

Today, a friend told me that one of his friends died. I wanted to say something comforting. I just said, “I’m sorry,” and that was all. Why does it seem like we never have the right words when it matters the most?

My sisters are different. They are, what you might call, determined. At this moment I feel most determined to sit right here with my head resting on my arms in front the computer. Yesterday, I was most determined to buy some professional wear for my interview tomorrow. Someone asked if I was nervous about it—the interview. Not anymore. I figure it doesn’t make too much difference whether I get nervous or not, the outcome has been the same so far. If anything different should happen, it will not be anything of my doing. It is out of my hands—always has been. I am determined to do one other thing at this moment. That is, I am quite determined to write. At least that is one small thing I have accomplished already. 

In the words of Michael Westen, I’ve been burned, and I’m not going anywhere.

The word unemployed has a totally different meaning when it applies to you. —P. Sodeke

This is NOT how it was supposed to be. I’m not exactly sure what I was hoping for, but this is most definitely not it. In the beginning, I couldn’t imagine making it to the point of being able to produce good design on my own. When, or if, I finally got there, I hardly noticed it. Then, looking back at my work, at least four months ago, I thought, this is pretty good stuff. Four or five months, a blur of applications, and seven interviews later, I’m not so sure anymore. Let me back up to what you actually wanted me to talk about—the ‘what I was hoping for’ part.

I remember being inspired, early on by Martin Venezky of the Appetite Engineers. One afternoon, after a particularly discouraging day of classes in fine art and pre-graphic design, the words he spoke lifted my spirits. I soared for quite a while on a gust of wind—the words from his mouth, the images that lit the front of the lecture hall. In those moments, I believed that I had something to look forward to. I thought that the many days ahead of suffering and striving would be worth it, if I could one day be a part of the same profession that allowed Martin Venezky to do what he did. I gave an oral/visual presentation on him in my History of Graphic Design class. I attribute my interest in and use of collage and other Venezky-esque tendencies to his lasting influence on me as a designer.

It has probably been almost four years now, since the day Martin Venezky came to give a talk in the basement of Biggin Hall. The day I became so naively optimistic about the profession I was pursuing. Now, I feel like I have been lied to, cheated, and shoved out into the snow with nothing but a wind breaker, when what I really needed was a down, fur coat and a snow mobile. I was hoping for something closer to (not exactly, but closer to) the moon and I got handed a boiled egg instead. Future employers of bacon and eggs benedict:

--“Well, your portfolio was a nice boiled egg, but unfortunately for you, we decided to go for the bacon.”

--“Hey, thanks for trying, but your boiled egg just wasn’t enough. Next time, dress it up as eggs benedict.”

I’m sorry, but I’m not Jesus. I cannot turn water into wine or boiled eggs into caviar.

Writing is the only thing I still feel like I can do well. Perhaps because it hasn’t been exposed to public opinion, outside university. It is raining. The Parents are watching CNN and cracking peanuts. I don’t want to destroy the only pure piece of enjoyment I have left by trying to get it published. But what if that’s the one thing I should be pursuing…? What if I’m not Gideon? What if the situation I’m in, same job, still at home, still in the same city is the belly of a whale? What if, like my mom suggested, I’m Jonah? Maybe I’m a combo. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m leaning towards the latter.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


This is a piece I had worked up and then later edited for a fiction writing class. I think it has a lot farther to go though.
Be mindful that it is rough... It's not a first draft but its definitely still a rough draft to me, so please be kind :-)

School in the summer is miserable. But don’t tell my mother I said that. She’d just say, “There was plenty of time for school during the school year. You chose to go to school in the summer.” Well, if you could choose between doing something you don’t want to do now and doing it later, you might choose to do it later too. You would probably also end up wishing you had just gotten it over with.
It’s not the part about my brother and sister going swimming while I’m doing math, or about hearing the ice cream man go by during a social studies lesson that makes summer school miserable. It’s the heat that’s good for swimming, but not much good for learning. My mouth stays wet, but my throat is so dry that it begins to ache and no matter how many times I swallow, it still hurts. It is an after-recess thirst that cannot be avoided. No one is allowed to sit out at recess. You can either choose to run around or be chased around, so I try to look like I’m hard at play by hanging upside-down on the monkey bars until my head feels heavy enough to fall off. When I put my feet back on the ground my legs wobble under the weight of my head and I see sparkles and spots in front of everything. By the time I recover, it is time for all of us hot, sweaty, miserable children to march back inside.
It’s cool inside and the change from the outside oven to the refrigerated school building makes me shiver. Back in the classroom though, I imagine that everyone has soaked up so much heat from recess that instead of the room cooling us off, we heat up the room. I am tired from hanging upside-down and watching the other kids run around on the grassy sky—tired, just from the heat. I am not ready to learn about the first capital city of Alabama. I’m ready to have a glass of sweet pink lemonade with big drippy ice cubes to suck on afterwards.
I try not to think about that tall, cool glass of pink lemonade. I scratch at my mosquito bites until they smart and some of them start to bleed. I count all of my bites three times. I have seventeen. My bottom is falling asleep under me. I pull my legs up to my chest so that I can rest my head on my knees.
“Isabella!” Mrs. Brooks does not look happy. I don’t know why, because I haven’t been paying attention, but I look up now. “Sit up and put your feet on the floor!” Mrs. Brooks has the best southern drawl you’ll ever hear. I think if Mrs. Brooks went somewhere like New York or California, they would ask her if she was a cowgirl. This thought makes me smile a little. Mrs. Brooks looks even more upset—I can tell because her face gets even redder and her lips press together into thin lines. I put my feet down so fast that I scrape my legs on the edge of the desk and some of my bites start bleeding again. I don’t pay any attention to my bites. I just scoot right up to the desk trying to look like a straight-A student: feet nailed to the floor, back straight, eyes forward, pencil poised, ready for anything. Some kids actually sit like this all the time. Like Cassie Smith, for example; she even dresses smart. At least Mrs. Brooks thinks so. Every morning, Cassie says good morning to Mrs. Brooks in a voice sweet as iced tea and wedding cake. Then, Mrs. Brooks says, “ Good morning Cassie. Don’t you look smart today in that pretty little outfit?” Cassie’s mother is a PTA mother. My mother works the night shift at the hospital and tends to be too tired to associate with parents and teachers. Cassie looks pretty every day (compliments of a PTA mother, I guess). I look pretty good on picture day. Cassie is probably at Disney World this summer. I am in summer school.

After school I take exactly 1,137 steps from school up the stairs to the door of apartment 11B. Inside I tip toe around the house like a ballerina without a tutu. My mother is still asleep. I sit right in front of the TV with a box of Cheerios and the volume turned down so everything sounds far away. The sound of a door jerking out of its frame makes me jump.
“I wish your daddy would fix this door,” my mother says behind me. I keep my head low hoping to blend into the carpet like a chameleon.
“How was school?” I turn around now and her hands are held out to me so I go over to her. My mother’s hair is messy and her hands are warm. She’s looking at the TV when she asks me, “Did you finish those books we got from the library?”
“Um, not all of them,” I say.
“Why don’t you go read and turn off the TV, or I can help you with your times tables?”
“Okay.” I take the Cheerios and leave without turning off the TV.
There is a stack of library books beside my bed. They have been sitting there since we brought them back from the library a week ago. I take the one on top, open to the first page and read the first line. I turn the pages, counting how many are in the first chapter—five. I flip to the end—88 pages. I turn back to the beginning and stare at the words until they start to shift and vibrate on the page. I put the book back on top of the stack of library books. Then I feed Mary Elizabeth and John Peter who swim up to catch the flakes drifting on the surface of the water. Mary Elizabeth doesn’t swim in circles. She swims up and down, watching John Peter all the time and breathing bubbles at him. I know that she is really whistling; that she is proud of her younger brother John Peter just for swimming in circles and eating all his food.
My sister is back from the pool and she climbs up to sit on the top bunk in her wet swimsuit. She is flipping her hair around the way she’s been doing since April when she and Phillip turned thirteen. She’s getting me wet so I tell her to quit it. She rolls her eyes and goes to lock herself in the bathroom. I hear Phillip in the hallway. He has to pee and Anna is taking her time. He comes to the doorway to dance around with his legs crossed.
“Did you feed Mary Liz and J.P.?” he asks.
I nod my head yes and ask, “Did you have fun at the pool?”
He yells over his shoulder for Anna to hurry up. “It was too hot,” he says.
“That’s why the pool is there, to cool you off,” I say.
“Yeah, but,” he looks down at his feet, “it was too crowded. Half the kids in Montgomery were there.”
“Wish I could have been there.”
He shrugs and says, “It wasn’t much fun at all.” I give him a look and he just shrugs again and smiles with one side of his mouth.

When I hear daddy coming in from work I run into him at the door knocking him back two steps. He hugs me back and when I look up he is smiling down at me but his eyes are tired.
“How’s my baby girl?” he asks.
“I did all my homework yesterday,” I say.
“Did you?” He is looking over my head now at the news on TV. Then my mother and the twins come to steal him away.
We have fried catfish, green beans, and field peas for supper. We have rolls too, but I can’t have any because I do not like field peas.
Daddy asks me, “How was school?” and I tell him, fine. He asks Phillip and Anna “How was the pool?” Anna starts to talk about practicing diving. She says that it is hard and something else that I don’t hear because Phillip starts to sing a song that makes me laugh too hard and our mother tells him to stop singing at the table. Anna’s mouth is full of field peas and braces. She explains that it is important to dive in without making a big splash. Her thin hair is flipping. My mother and daddy just nod and nod.
I reach for a roll, but daddy gives me a look and says, “No beans, no bread.”
My mother presses her hair down on one side. She is talking about multiplication now. She says that if I tell her four multiplication tables, I can have a roll. I look at my mother’s face. Her big hair is curling up on one side in a way that reminds me of looking at my face in the bathroom mirror. My mother’s eyebrows are raised. My daddy is picking at his fishbone. His head is tilted with one ear up. Phillip smiles at me halfway. Anna does not say anything anymore.
I push my chair back. “I have to pee.”

Sometimes I dream that Phillip, Anna and I are triplets. We are all tall and lacy-boned and have our mother’s dark eyes and our daddy’s pale thin hair. Tonight when I close my eyes, I have fins and gills. When I swim in circles my mother smiles and blows bubbles at me. When I eat all my flakey supper my daddy says, “That’s my girl.”
In the morning, I remember that Mrs. Brooks had given us a worksheet to do at home. I take it out and in the first blank for five times seven, I write 1,137. In the second blank for three times four, I write eight. On my birthday last year, I had a white cake with strawberry icing and eight pink candles. After finishing my homework, I fold the worksheet in half three times and put it away. When I look up, Phillip is in his blue-green swimming trunks feeding Mary Elizabeth and John Peter.
He asks me over his shoulder, “Did you do your homework?” I take out my worksheet and hold it up from across the room. When Phillip turns around, he looks at me past my worksheet. He lifts his hands to pile them on top of his head and he smiles daddy’s smile. “Good.” My lips don’t work right when I try to smile back so I crush my paper into me to press each fold flatter before I squat down to put it away again. Anna stands in the doorway now tapping her bare foot. Her toenails are the color of bright yard sale signs and I can’t tell if they are pink or orange. Phillip takes a step toward the door.
“Multiplication is too hard.” I stand up in front of Anna—in front of the door. Phillip stops in the middle of his step like he is playing freeze tag.
He opens his mouth, but Anna says, “You have to practice, Isabella,” she flips her hair twice, “just like I practice diving. The Olympic divers make it look so easy, but it’s not. Sometimes, when I do lots of really bad dives, I just want to quit, but I can’t because, then I won’t be good enough to make the diving team when I get to high school.” Phillip shakes his head, grinning like daddy again.
Somewhere after step 93, I lose count. I do not think diving is anything like multiplying. People do not go to the Olympics for being good at multiplication. Diving is good for the heat; multiplication is not. Even when I practice multiplication tables inside with my mother, I sweat. Somehow, Phillip and Anna make times tables look easier than swimming.
My worksheet is the only one folded three times. Mrs. Brooks stops to unfold my paper and she does not look pleased at all. She sighs and leans against the front of her desk. She asks the class where the first capital of Alabama was. There are no hands up because people like Cassie Smith do not go to summer school. Mrs. Brooks is glaring at all of us over the top of her glasses. I raise my hand one finger at a time, higher until my sweaty palm catches the cooler air above my head. When Mrs. Brooks sees my hand, she blinks twice before calling on me.
I say, “Montgomery?”
She says, “No. I asked where the first capital was.” She is looking at me. My throat is aching. I try to swallow but all my spit is gone. I look down to study the floor like the answer is written somewhere on the white tiles. When I squint up at Mrs. Brooks she’s still watching me waiting for me to answer, so I just shrug my shoulders and look out the window at nothing.
After three more hours of school everyone is getting ready to leave for home. That’s when Mrs. Brooks calls me up to her desk and the other kids start making ooohing sounds like I’m in trouble. Mrs. Brooks puts her hand up and starts to count to three until everyone hushes. She has my creased worksheet on the desk in front of her and the corners of her mouth are turned down. I look down at my shoes, which are tied in double knots so they won’t come out.

I take out the yellow slip Mrs. Brooks gave me in class today. The house is quiet and the hallway is dark except for the muffled noise and blue glow coming from the TV at the end of the hall. I keep my hand on the wall as I inch down the hallway to the living room where my daddy is slumped on the couch, his head drooping to his chest.
“Daddy?” I say. He snorts awake and shields his eyes from the TV. “Daddy, Mrs. Brooks said you’re supposed to sign this.” I hold it out to him and he squints at it in the dim light. He switches on a lamp so he can see what it says.
He turns to me and he asks me, “Did you do your homework?” He has already taken a pen from his pocket and is holding it over the yellow slip. I say yes, so he signs.
“Aren’t you going to check my answers?” I ask.
He sighs. “In the morning.”
In the morning daddy is running late for work. I know that six times six is probably not twenty-four and eight times eight isn’t forty-two, but Anna has locked herself in the bathroom, Phillip is still at a sleepover, and my mother is not home from work yet, so I am taking 1,137 steps to go fail a test on multiplication tables.

Mrs. Brooks is collecting the homework. She asks me for mine. She wants to know if I got the yellow sheet signed. I tell her that I forgot it at home. Mrs. Brooks just raises an eyebrow at me.
She is passing out the test now, telling us to be quiet and keep our eyes on our own papers. I write my name at the top of my paper. The first problem is five times two. A week ago, on the same day my mother took me to the library, she was saying that I should at least remember that I have five fingers times two. She’d said, “That’s just common sense.”
I write ten in the first blank. I look at the other problems and then out the window. I try to remember the silly rhymes in a song about times tables that Phillip tried to teach me once. I try to come up with good answers for each problem. I do not care if I cannot win a gold medal. I try until my head hurts and my palms are slick with sweat.
When I turn in my test, Mrs. Brooks glances down at my paper then up at me and, maybe it’s the heat, but it looks as if she is not frowning at me. It is possible that she is smiling at me. A little bit.

The day after summer school is out, Phillip and Anna take me to the pool with them. There are only seven other kids there. It is too hot and I can already feel fresh beads of sweat coming out on the surface of my skin. I jump in and let myself sink all the way to the bottom to touch the floor before I come up. Anna is diving. Phillip and I are playing Marco Polo. We play five games and I win every time. 

Friday, January 29, 2010

A win, win: more creative nonfiction

This is the creative nonfiction essay that I referenced in How To Dance the Tarantella:

A win, win

Sugar and spice

Mrs. Zane has placed Wendy Michaels in the desk that is in the exact center of her first grade classroom. There are nineteen other students whose desks surround her like a halo. For the most part all the desks face the front of the room where Mrs. Zane is standing at the chalkboard, writing things first grade teachers write on chalkboards. She asks the class for answers and her voice twangs and scratches like a smoking fiddle. In a sea of small hands, one stands out unmistakably—the hand of Wendy Michaels. Wendy is sparingly freckled, as if someone has sprinkled cinnamon on her face only in the cutest places: nose and cheeks, with honey hair swinging at a sweet length just above her shoulders and wide blue eyes level at just the right height for a six-year-old girl. Yes. Just right. Wendy Michaels is the brilliance shinning right in the middle of Mrs. Zane’s classroom.

Somewhere off to the right sits another first grader. A little girl who knows that she is a little too tall for age six, and that her hair will never swing except under great duress. This little girl, the one off to the right, does not raise her hand even when she knows the answer. She is convinced that if she is finally called on, her answer will be wrong. Then, Mrs. Zane will turn her wildish grey loud-haired head to Wendy Michaels, who will give the correct answer. I bet nobody would have thought that an elementary school class could have an “it” girl, but mine did. In fourth grade, it was Anna Ryder; in third grade, our class somehow got overlooked; in second grade, it was Jane Shelton; in first grade it was Wendy Michaels. Wendy was probably the nicest and most likeable of the three, which makes me feel even worse for what I did to her one day after music class. Mrs. Zane must have been extra oblivious to the fact that there were other students in her classroom that day. I was past sulking in the playhouse loft during reading time; I was as fed up as the old gum I had been chomping on all morning. As we lined up to go back to Mrs. Zane’s room, I was standing behind Wendy and for one moment, just long enough, I am ashamed to say that I think I hated her. Without her doing anything but showing up, without her even having to try, it was obvious that everyone liked her, especially Mrs. Zane. I took the gum out of my mouth, then and cautiously pressed it into a few of Wendy’s swinging locks of hair. Of course, when the gum was discovered, Wendy was near to tears and Mrs. Zane was horrified.

“How did it get there…who would do such a thing?” Mrs. Zane was loudly drawling more hoarsely than ever, fluttering and worrying herself over the gummed-up hair like a large mother bird. A lot of the class was crowded around the mother bird, anxious to see her poor sticky-haired fledgling. I just sat there watching from somewhere off to the right, at a safe distance.

Leila Huddle sat across from me. She was not an “it” girl and the girls in our class weren’t exactly tripping over each other to be her best friend, but I wanted to be Leila’s best friend. I was doing pretty well, or so I thought, at becoming Leila’s best friend. We were inseparable at school, we played together and had sleepovers on the weekends, she had written a little book and I had illustrated it. We went to the zoo together; we celebrated birthdays together. Sixteen years later I made her cheeks turn red by telling her boyfriend about how we had even taken baths together then. What I didn’t know was that Leila already had the makings of a true best friend in the boyishly wild, superbly funny Elle Wang. Elle went to one of the other elementary schools in town. Years later, Elle was the one Leila would talk to about how she was always sad and how she couldn’t sleep. Elle Wang would be the one standing by her side while Leila watched her daddy die. At this time, I would feel like a fake when I tried to be part of her life again. I would feel helpless because I could not comfort her. Not like Elle—in the way only a best friend can.

Wendy Michaels’ birthday is in October. After surviving the gum incident, she still had plenty of hair left to continue being the “it” girl in Mrs. Zane’s class, which meant that all the girls wanted to be invited to Wendy’s birthday party. My insides were turning the day she handed out those invitations. No one knew that I had put the gum in her hair, but I am afraid that somehow she knew. I am afraid that Leila will be invited and I will not. I’m now afraid that someone will recognize this story, regardless of the fact that I have changed people’s names, and will try to sue me for whatever people sue for. When Wendy finally got to me she held out her hand and in her brilliant little hand was the best gift she could have given me. It was an invitation with my name on it. My invitation to Wendy Michael’s sleepover, where I will feel guilty because we watched Hocus Pocus and my parents didn’t allow me to watch such movies then; we will play games, we will eat junk food and I will wake up in the middle of Wendy Michaels’ living room with my sleeping bag right next to hers.

Turkish Delight

My fourth grade class has three reading levels. Let’s call them, Easy Peasy, Not Quite, and Brilliant Fun. The slow learning and apathetic inhabit level Easy Peasy. The naturally average and smart kids who don’t try are in level Not Quite. The genius students, who are already bound for the Ivy Leagues are in level Brilliant Fun. I am not particularly fond of reading, so I am in level Not Quite, where we are reading a book about a porcupine who makes waves among his fellow porcupines by walking upright. One of our new vocabulary words from this book is committee. During reading group time, we talk about the committee in this book about the talking, upright-walking, wave-making porcupine—committee. And we spell it. C-O-M-M-I-T-T-E-E. I do not want to know what they do in level Easy Peasy.

All four members of level Brilliant Fun are reading The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. I have no idea what they talk about during reading group time because I am not brilliant. They do always seem to be laughing, though, about the things only brilliant people think are funny. The brilliant people have all the fun. One day during reading group time, all of us at the level Not Quite table look up as Brilliant Fun erupts in a small puff of excitement. Later, we find out that they will actually get to make Turkish delight. I have no idea what that is, but in Not Quite we never make anything. When I develop a healthy appetite for reading, I will receive the whole Narnia series for Christmas. I will read them and find out that Turkish delight is some tasty treat that the character Edmund cannot get enough of. On the day they make the Turkish Delight, I can hear their laughter from down the hall. I can smell the stuff baking in the community kitchen. I imagine our teacher, Mrs. Taylor, dressed in furs like the White witch, serving Turkish delight to the four children.

I am not a particularly sulky kid and I’ve never actually gotten in trouble in school. Well, once in kindergarten, though that wasn’t my fault and once in third grade when I ended up not really being in trouble, though I’d already gone through the terrifying experience of being punished. In fourth grade, I did have to “flip my card” once for not participating in the committee I had been assigned to within my reading group. I had decided not to take part because nobody wanted to hear what I had to say. My committee, apart from my friends within the group, was only interested in making “it” girl, Anna Ryder the leader and dictator of the group. So the White Witch sent my friends and I to flip our cards and put our heads down at our desks for retreating under a table to sulk about our misfortunes. Then, during recess, our fur-clad teacher forbade my friends and I to play together! Well, she did separate us to prevent us from having our own private pity party on the monkey bars. Getting in trouble still wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been if my friends hadn’t been right there with me.


I promise that I wasn’t one of those kids that cried over spilled Nestle Quik, but I think I had plenty to cry about one afternoon at camp. All the fourth grade classes got to go to 4-H camp. My mom was one of the moms who came along as a chaperone. This didn’t bother me. I had three friends I hung out with at camp and the four of us were busy enough that I didn’t see my mom too much. Four is the best number because nobody gets left out. No one can be a tag-along, unless, of course, the activity involves a three-kid canoe team. Our group of four was standing ready, armed with life jackets and oars, but we knew we would have to be broken up so that a group of two kids could have a third kid. No one volunteered, of course, so the activity counselor picked me out of the four to complete the other group. I went over to the group of two girls, my heart sinking with every step, wondering why she had to choose me. I might have overcome this experience had I not been placed in a group that simply could not get it together. I should have known things wouldn’t get any better when we had almost flipped over just trying to get into the boat. I watched, floating near the dock, as all the others rowed out on to the lake farther and farther away. No matter how we tried or were coached by the activity counselor, we never got even two feet from the dock before the counselor finally put me out of my misery and told us to come back in. The counselor made a point of apologizing to me personally, because she probably felt bad about how things had turned out for me as result of her executive decision. I couldn’t feel any better though; I couldn’t help it, I cried. Not because I hadn’t gotten to be with my friends or because I didn’t get to row out like all the others, but deep down I think I felt that a great wrong had been done to me. My mom was not happy, but neither was she the type to yell and stir things up. She just cheered and watched the next day, as I made it all the way to the top of the rock wall on the hardest skill level.

My heart is still unsettled as I watch this little girl in my memory as if it were happening now but there is still nothing I can do about it. I’m not sure why it still upsets me so much, even right this moment, though it has been twelve years since that day at camp. I am forced to think about why I need to tell these stories and why I may always remember them a certain way. I can’t fully explain it, but I know it has to do with why I cried that day. Some part of me is certain I stood out to that counselor from my three friends because I was the only dark-skinned one. It would be difficult to say she did not simply play the matching game by placing me in a group with two other black girls. I cannot shake that same feeling like a ball of terror and frustration rising up from the pit of my stomach. I still feel it when I remember some of these things or now when I feel as though I’ve been dismissed as person, or assumed guilty without a trial. I suppose I assume that everyone at first glance is quite ready to think the very least of me. Ridiculous. But it makes me feel as though I will never measure up. No matter how hard I try, I will always feel the need to prove myself—to everyone.

Striving to always give the right answer or be the best friend, I find I’m still failing at that—being the best. I know I don’t have to; that I can’t. I don’t know that it isn’t necessary to over amplify myself so that I am not dismissed. So that I can be heard saying, don’t put me in a box! I will not be a victim of typecasting in my own life. I behave as if I need people and papers telling me that I am smart or good at something in order to believe it. It is as if I cannot unlearn the idea that the number of friends I have or the grade I get on a test somehow corresponds to my worth as person. There are some things I know now that help me to get past that same awful feeling that comes with some memories. People are for the most part as oblivious of me as I am of them, everyone tends to have their favorites, it takes work to be a good friend, and I myself am just as capable of dismissing people as everyone else is of dismissing me.

The Rainbow Fish

My second grade teacher read a book to our class about a fish born with brilliant, shining, colorful scales. This fish stood out from all the others around her. In the story, the fish gives away all her beautiful scales to the other fish, one by one so that they can have a bit of brilliance amongst their own scales. After listening to the story, we all made our own shiny, colorful fish from colored tissue paper and aluminum foil. Everyone around me finished pretty quickly. But I sat there and cut out foil and tissue paper in the shape of scales and glued them down in layers one by one. My fish looked the most like the one in the book. I am proud of that; that I didn’t settle for a fish that looked like everyone else’s. In fact, I still had that fish in a box under my bed until very recently when I decided it was time to let it go. I‘m almost sorry I did now. Though, it is not likely employers will want a portfolio that includes work that I did when I was seven. I hope I saw myself that day as different from others in a positive way rather than in a negative way, maybe for the first time. I don’t think I was trying to be a bigger, more perfect version of myself. I was just being me and it was good. I want to be like that little girl again, because I had it right, then—at seven years old.

How To Dance the Tarantella

Sorry I haven't written in a while, but I'm going to post some of my writing from the classes I took for my English minor. This first one is from a class called Personal Essay...great class! Thank you, Prof. Walters! The genre is creative nonfiction and this particular essay was meant to say something about the process of writing creative nonfiction, hopefully for the benefit of other writers. Here it is:

How To Dance the Tarantella

It is ten-o-clockish and I am still doing a dance to and from my computer and pen. It is the same dance I do every time I have something to write—a dance to bring a downpour of creative writing energy. I tap, wiggle and fidget to and fro until I decide to just sit myself down, even if it is in front of a blank page, listening to the clock tick-tick-tick. I am trying to get past page two of my second creative nonfiction essay, which is due in rough draft form tomorrow at 9:00 am. I am miffed about missing out on seeing “Where the Wild Things Are” with my friends. One day your work will be on a best-seller list. I have to keep telling myself something to feel better about missing the movie, to get myself going. Still, I am sitting slumped over in front of my computer with a self-pitying grimace on my face. I try another more self-encouraging pep talk. You will be a better writer for having stayed home. It works this time—well, at least I am sitting up a little straighter now.

While reading back over the two pages I have, I find areas that need a bit of editing. But what I’m really looking for is a piece of something, anything to get me across the three inches of white space between page two and page three—a spark that will light up the rest of the story. There are no sparks, though, not even a piece of driftwood to float across on. So, I decide that it must be time to make the box of brownies that has been sitting next to the toaster for about a week. I take the time while the brownies are baking up warm and chocolaty to google random things of interest on the Internet. I don’t think I have checked my email in a while, or at least since this morning. There is an email about a Halloween bash…hmm…Turkish delight. It’s 12:41 am. I make some notes: 4th grade reading groups
· We read about porcupines making pacts
· The advanced group read the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and got to make Turkish delight and eat it
I’ve worn myself out doing approximately nothing at all and so I retire to bed. In the morning, at 5:00 to be exact, I can move forward after sleep. I take whatever verb tense comes to me and just let it flow from my head to my fingertips, listening to the loveliest clickety-tap sound of the story being typed out. This is a rough draft. Just do it. The story stretches to page four by 5:50 am.

Upon meeting with my professor I am forced to think about why I’m telling these stories, why I remember those specific frames of my childhood. I can write things down, tell a story, but ask me to find the meaning and to sew it into my own work and my creative mind freezes as if from shock. Finding the significance in a story I want to tell is a little like plowing through a brick wall with all the human force I can muster into a toothpick. In my struggle to find this significance, I try to string my stories together, but I can’t even push the thread through that tiny needle hole. I just end up writing, pen to paper, pouring out any thoughts I have, at anytime, that either seem to connect or don’t seem to connect. I find myself doing some soul-searching, because there is something I need to say about what all my memories mean to me. Sometimes I feel crazy, jotting down these rambling thoughts. I know, though, that it is an active search for meaning—maddening, like when I’m searching for the right word that stubbornly remains on the tip of my tongue. Eventually, I realize that I have two more stories to tell. In the physical process of living and jotting down, listening to people, including myself and learning and scribbling, the stories collide at the point of my pen with a very-real-life significance. I can’t think about what I want readers to take away from my story to get to this point. That doesn’t take me anywhere but straight into a creative brain freeze every time. Maybe it’s self-centered, but I have to know what I take away from it. It is important to me that an audience gets something out of reading what I’ve written. What I’m hoping is that, somehow, if it is truly meaningful to me, then it will mean something to everyone else.

Now, I’m going back and forth again, trying to figure out what to say about creative nonfiction. How do I write about writing? I can do it indirectly by way of the above narrative, or I can face it head on, like so. It’s a fight, an inconstant process to get the words down on the page—a little of what I imagine it would be like to dance the tarantella. At some point the story finally just seems to resolve itself and then I realize that I haven’t paid a bit of attention to how I got there. I can’t keep track of all the conscious and unconscious decisions that make the essay what it is in the end—the how of telling the story, which is actually my favorite part.

One conscious decision I remember making on that second essay was to use Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp to inspire its form. Music of the Swamp is a narrative of a boy’s coming of age in the form of a cohesive collection of fictional short stories. Some of the stories border on creative nonfiction where Nordan himself said that some of the people and the stories were actually real and that he almost got in trouble for using their real names. I like the rhythm of Music of the Swamp and I wanted my essay to sing like Nordan’s work does. So, I separated my memorable stories into vignettes and gave them titles, but I gave all the people aliases, so no one would try to hunt me down and sue or anything of that sort. I kept a similar tone and attitude toward my memories to tie the vignettes together. I noticed that I did change the voice somewhat in the last two stories. It just felt right and it seemed like it was working, though I didn’t set out to do it. I had to step into my character from where I am now, speaking from my adult voice. That voice change is where I started fleshing out the significance of the stories and presenting the reader with what they mean to me now. At some point it pulls away from the narrative told from the perspective of my grade school age self and, I hope flows into a sort of adult author’s reflection. The last vignette is sort of a combination of the very short-story-like narratives that I start the essay out with and the vignette before it in which I start to talk about significance in that adult voice. The last story is from a memory of a second grade art project, but I narrate it from my adult perspective. I didn’t think about this being a good form or method to help tie the two perspectives together. The only thing I thought about was the fact that I was doing something different and when it seemed to fit I continued on in that way.

It is a strange thing, the difference between actual people and my creative nonfiction representation of them as characters. I control the characters in so much as how I present them as I see them now, how I saw them in the past, or how I want them to be seen, though the people are who they are. I don’t actually create them; I interpret them and draw a version of them to fit nicely into the creative narrative. It is surprising, though, how much there is left to manipulate in this character representation. Maybe it’s just as tricky, if not more so, than creating a new character. It was important that the characters I wrote of people in my second essay represented my memories of them and how I felt about them. I didn’t care if that representation was true to life or reasonable in light of my adult hindsight. In the beginning, I actually set out to let the stories have a sort of slant to them. I wanted the people and events to seem somewhat exaggerated, because that is how I remember them and that is how I still can’t help seeing them even as an adult. I used the most exaggerated descriptions at the beginning of the essay to present the creative nonfiction character Wendy Michaels. I felt that I had to introduce her in the following way so that the reader could sit at my desk and see what I saw:
Mrs. Zane has placed Wendy Michaels in the desk that is in the exact center of her first grade classroom. There are nineteen other students whose desks surround her like a halo. For the most part all the desks face the front of the room where Mrs. Zane is standing at the chalkboard, writing things first grade teachers write on chalkboards. She asks the class for answers and her voice twangs and scratches like a smoking fiddle. In a sea of small hands, one stands out unmistakably—the hand of Wendy Michaels. Wendy is sparingly freckled, as if someone has sprinkled cinnamon on her face only in the cutest places: nose and cheeks, with honey hair swinging at a sweet length just above her shoulders and wide blue eyes level at just the right height for a six-year-old girl. Yes. Just right. Wendy Michaels is the brilliance shinning right in the middle of Mrs. Zane’s classroom.
I have done the same thing simultaneously with the description of Mrs. Zane. I present the reader with over-amplified versions of my interpretation of these people. These versions are also meant to give readers a clearer portrait of the six-year-old character me. If the reader sees Mrs. Zane the way I did maybe they will begin to understand why I put gum in Wendy Michael’s hair one day.

I had my doubts. I mean, about creative nonfiction. Maybe, it wouldn’t be as much fun to write as fiction. For me, as it turned out, it is a lot more fun to already know the story I’m writing. No surprises there, at least to some extent. The difficulty I have with spinning a good story almost from scratch takes some of the enjoyment out of fiction writing for me. With creative nonfiction, I am free to enjoy the art of putting it down in words. It isn’t that my life is so much more interesting than anything I could imagine up…well actually, it very well might be. This is not because I have such a terribly eventful life, but because my skill in spinning a great story from scratch definitely leaves something to be desired. I know that my fictional stories are not completely fictional so that I’m never truly starting from nothing. My creative nonfiction is never truly non-fictional either, since my memory is quite unreliable and I do like to remember things in a certain way that isn’t necessarily the right way. However, creative nonfiction, allows me to focus, in a way that fiction does not, on how the story is told and also on what it can all mean to me and then to the reader.

I’m not going to dance back and forth any longer for this essay. If there is one thing I always seem to know in writing my essays, it is where the end should go. Sometimes during the creative nonfiction writing process I know what I want to do and am conscious of the steps I take, of counting them like in a waltz. Most of the time, it is a fight between that process and myself. I can’t seem to make headway except under the pressure of a close deadline. Then I am writing in a waking dream and I don’t remember how I got from page three to page four or from narrative to exposition. It is always an erratic dance of exhausting frenzied spurts of thoughts intermingled with the occasional flow of elegant prose, as my mind and feet take me in and out of telling my story.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I was just reading from 2 Samuel 9:1-13 (click here to read it online). King David seeks out any members of Jonathan's household who he can show kindness to for his friend Jonathan's sake. This passage (you should read it, its only 13 verses) is such a beautiful reminder of what God did for us!

He sought us out to bring us to Him by sending His only Son Jesus to earth..."for the Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10) and "The Word [Jesus] became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Then, He restored us, giving back to us what sin and Satan has robbed us of! David restored to Mephibosheth the land that had belonged to his grandfather Saul, the former king. As if that wasn't enough, David asks Mephibosheth to sit at his table and eat with him always! God has made a place for us at His table! He has called us His children. "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1: 12-13).

If Jesus is the King of Kings that makes us princes and princesses! He has crowned us with love and compassion! Though we are lowly, we are nothing—Mephibosheth puts it this way "What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?" and Psalm 8:4 asks of God "what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" YET, God still seeks us, brings us, restores us and makes us part of His family!! What loving-kindness! How David must have loved his friend Jonathan! How much more does God love us?!!

This is it, my friends: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life." —Titus 3:3-7

I urge you, if you haven't done so, to receive Jesus Christ, to believe in his name and that he lived a perfect life and died an innocent but terrible death on a cross to take the punishment that we all deserve for our wrongs, he rose again 3 days later and now sits at the right hand of God the Father in heaven—he lives to intercede (plead on our behalf) for us (Hebrews 7:25)! I urge you to turn from the passions and pleasures that enslave you and turn to God with your whole heart! Receive assurance of His presence with you now and of being with Him, rather than being separated from Him forever when your life on earth is over. Then claim your right to live for and be a child of the Most High God!! Pray to Him right now, He's waiting for you! What are you waiting for?!