Write a poem in 250 characters or less! (Or, let me tell you about my impostor syndrome.)

Last year, I wrote a poem for Button Poetry’s Short Form Contest. I liked the poem I wrote, though it didn’t win. It later became “Unrequited,” and I’m quite proud of it.

As of last year, I’d never entered any of my creative writing into any contest, ever. Not even in college, when I sat on the editorial board of a literary magazine and could have easily, albeit not entirely fairly, included one of my pieces in the publication. (I wouldn’t have done that. I promise.) I’ve always been timid about my own work.

I realize that I have major impostor syndrome. I’ve never published anything, and I’m terrified to submit my writing to agents and publishers. I’m always far more impressed with what I read from others than with what I write myself. I feel, often, like my creative work is clunky, dull, trite, and uninspired. Not always, but often. It can be discouraging, maddening, and sometimes, debilitating.

To be clear, I’m not looking for sympathy. I think this is a battle many creative people fight every day. Some days, I win. Some days, I…stare at a blank screen and procrastinate and (not infrequently) cry, and I definitely don’t win. But on the good days, when everything comes together, I feel like I’ve made magic, and that keeps me working – through the fear, through the doubt, through the impostor syndrome. And I see that you can’t be an impostor in your own life.

The Short Form Contest requires a submission of 250 characters or less. That’s characters, not words. It can be a poem on its own, or an excerpt from a larger piece. When I discovered the contest last year, I felt…I don’t know, compelled to enter. 250 characters? I wouldn’t feel that bad being rejected over 250 characters. Very few people can do something amazing with 250 characters, right? And so, I entered the contest, knowing my poem wouldn’t be selected, and I felt good. It felt amazing just to put something out there.

So, I entered again this year, with a poem inspired by one of my mom’s favorite books, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. (I’m helping my mom start her own business, and she was on my mind.)

I like my poem less than last year’s, but I put it out there, because why not? And I feel good. Maybe I’ll enter some other contests this year, or even submit work to some publications or agents. Maybe this is the year. We’ll see, and until then, I’ll keep writing. I hope, if you’re struggling, you keep writing (or creating whatever you create), too.

Oh, and if you want to read the poem I submitted this year, here it is. Enjoy!

**********

You should have known

I am more than the wings you tried to clip

I am more than meant to fly

You should have known

I am too much to trap and tether

and you are too small to try

Seagull 6

I will never stop learning.

Here’s something I know: I am white.

rehearsal - 087

Here are a few things I also know, because I am white:

I have never had to change how I speak, dress, or do my hair for people to take me seriously and respect my intellect. I have never feared for my life during a police encounter, or worried that, should I be pulled over for a minor offense like speeding, I could be removed from my car and restrained, searched, or handcuffed for no stated reason. I have never questioned my place in society, my ability to access educational institutions, or how others see my humanity. I have never, ever been the minority in any room, ever. I have never been asked if I own my property. I have never been told to “act white.” No one has ever called the police on me for walking in a park, having a barbecue, selling bottled water, or playing with a toy in a public space. No one has ever asked me if my hair is real, and I can go to pretty much any stylist I want to get my hair done. No one has ever attacked me, hurt me, lied about me, or threatened me when I’ve shared my thoughts and stood up for what I believe in. There are no mechanisms of power currently in place to curtail my rights and opportunities in this society, and almost all of my elected leaders look like me. I know that I will be given the benefit of the doubt in my interactions with authorities and employers. I know I will never be treated poorly when moving into a “nice” neighborhood, and that an overwhelming majority of people living in that “nice” neighborhood will look like me. I know that my name will never be laughed at or questioned. I know my family’s name and history going back generations, because they were not stolen from my ancestors, and because my ancestors were not brought to this country in chains.

That’s a lot, right? And these are not things I know because they’ve been taught to me in school. I’ve not read them in books. These are things I know because I live in a society that looks at whiteness as standard, as normal and basic, and everything else as different and other, and, in the worst cases, as dangerous and threatening. These are things I’ve internalized, been born into, without even realizing it.

I’ve always considered myself a smart, curious person, and so it’s been humbling, humiliating, and eye-opening to realize just how much I don’t know about my own country’s history, and how much I didn’t truly understand about how people of color experience life here. As I’ve come to see just how many gaps I have in my knowledge, I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and a little bit of watching). There are lots of lists out there right now for people who want to learn. Here’s one, and another. Here’s one for children. And here’s one for movies, if that’s more your style. And one more. I don’t want to rehash these lists, and I certainly don’t think I can put together anything better, but I do want to share, because people have asked me, just what I’ve been reading and watching.

MEMOIRS AND NON-FICTION

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

A memoir from father to son. Powerful, emotional, personal, eloquent. I’d wanted to read this one for a long time. I’m glad I finally did. I cried a lot.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Devastating, heartbreaking, and inspiring. I read this in college, about thirteen years ago. I felt like it was important to revisit it now, in this moment, with older eyes and more life experience. I was right. And, also, I cried a lot.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for What People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility

Helpful, but humbling. It’s worth noting that this is written by a white person, and specifically targets a white audience.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

White Rage

Shocking, eye-opening. I needed a drink once I finished this one. I couldn’t believe just how much I hadn’t learned in school. It made me angry, and then made me sad, and then made me resolve to keep learning.

ARTICLES

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

“How I Discovered I am White” by renegademama

“In other words, it’s ‘white’ until further notice. It’s ‘white’ until proven otherwise. It’s ‘white’ or it’s the ‘other,’ and it has nothing to do with actual numbers, percentages of ‘minority’ population. It has to do with power. It has to do with the culture of power. What do I mean? If a comedy film features a white family, it’s a comedy. If it features a black family, it’s a comedy for people of color. Think about it.”

“It’s Time to Listen and Believe” by Ben R. Williams

“But when someone points to the iconography of the Civil War era and says, with heart-breaking honesty, that those symbols are a painful daily reminder of the horror that their ancestors endured? When someone says that many of these symbols were erected during the Civil Rights era to intimidate people like them and keep them in line?

My responsibility is to listen to them and believe them.

When someone tells you what hurts them, you don’t get to tell them they’re wrong.”

MOVIES

13th

This was so, so hard to watch. But is so, so important to watch. You think slavery is a thing of the past? This documentary will make you think again.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

A mockumentary that plays with the idea that the Confederacy won the Civil War.

WHAT’S NEXT?

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist

I’m reading this one now, and I’m a little less than halfway through. So far, I’m struck by Kendi’s honesty, and this book feels very personal and intimate.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad

Me and White Supremacy

This one was recommended to me by a friend. I’m intrigued and excited by the title and the premise. I’ll probably start on it next week.

The Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson

This is a collection of ten plays, each of which takes place in a different decade of the 20th century. I read all ten in college, and I think it’s time to reread them. They made a huge impact on me back then, and I expect they’ll do it all over again.

This is not a conclusive list, and I am not done. I won’t ever be done. I will keep learning, because even though I am sad, ashamed, and exhausted, it is my responsibility to educate myself and be better.

I’ve been encouraging others to do the same. It has not always gone well. It’s hard to hear that your people are the villains in someone’s story. It’s hard to see that your ancestors weren’t on the right side of history. It’s hard to contend with being part of systems you didn’t build and didn’t notice but have still benefitted from. I know that. I’m struggling with it, too. But it’s a necessary struggle, and it’s part of a necessary change that’s incredibly, tragically overdue.

Share Your Shakespeare

“Shakespeare – the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God.” –Laurence Olivier

Books

I got my first book of Shakespeare’s plays in middle school.  I won’t pretend that I could actually read them, but they waited for me.  The best stories do that.  And Shakespeare told the best stories.

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to play Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I’d like to think I did well.  Whether I did or not, I enjoyed just being able to take part in a little piece of Shakespeare’s world.

Hermia

Yeah, that’s me, in high school, trying to claw out Helena’s eyes.  I’m not sure why the guy behind me is wearing an M&M shirt.  High school’s a strange time.

In college, I decided to study literature, and read a paper at a Shakespeare conference at the Virginia Military Institute.  My paper…did not win, but again, I felt fortunate to just be involved.

I still read Shakespeare.  Pretty frequently, in fact.  I’m not going to wax poetic about Shakespeare’s influence on…well, everything…because I don’t know that I could cover it all in one blog post.  I think the most wonderful thing about Shakespeare’s body of work is just how interdisciplinary and universal it is – there’s something for the readers, the psychologists, the sociologists, the historians, the philosophers, and, of course, the actors.  There’s even a little something for the conspiracy theorists.  There’s a reason Shakespeare is still with us, hundreds of years after his death and several evolutions of our language later.  Very few writers observe and capture so well all of the best and the worst of humanity.

And so, today, on the day that we celebrate the birthday of the Bard, and in the spirit of the theatre, revelry, and bringing literature to life – and embracing our own flawed humanity – here’s my Shakespeare:

I probably should have warned you that I’m no actor.  But, come on, everyone recites Shakespeare when they drink wine, right? RIGHT?!  Anyway, you don’t have to be a great actor to enjoy Shakespeare.  He gave all of us plenty to love, whether we experience it on the stage or on the page.

And there’s something comforting about knowing that long after I’m gone, and hopefully this video is, too, Shakespeare will still be here.

Anybody else in need of a good book or several?

It’s been a rough and stressful few weeks, hasn’t it?  I was planning to write a post about the best spots to hike in and around Loudoun County, and I might do that in the next few months; but, with the CDC recommending some serious social distancing measures and with many people opting to stay away from public places and, you know, inside, I thought a reading list might be more appropriate and helpful.  And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably feeling like you’ll need a lot of books to get through this.

Bookshelves

*The lovely chaos that is bookshelves in my home.

So, I’ve listed below several books that I’ve enjoyed over the last year or so.  They’re not in any particular order, but I’ve categorized them loosely, and if they’re part of a series, I’ve generally listed the first book and added an asterisk.  I’ve linked their Goodreads or Amazon pages and quoted summaries, as well.  I hope you find something here that you’ll enjoy, and I wish you happy reading, good health, and abundant toilet paper in the weeks to come!

Adult Fiction

The Sun Down Motel, by Simone St. James

“The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.”

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman

“It’s time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn’t convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It’s going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.”

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

“In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and their teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago.”

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

“Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.”

Bellewether, by Susanna Kearsley

“Some houses seem to want to hold their secrets.”

*Tsumiko and the Enslaved Fox, by Forthright

“A letter from a long-lost aunt names Tsumiko heiress to an ancestral estate and its accompanying fortune. Only the legacy comes with an aloof heirloom: an inhuman butler. Argent has served the Hajime family for centuries, and Tsumiko must renew the generational bond or he’ll die. Argent hates her for the hold she has over him, but he craves her soul almost as much as he craves his freedom.”

The Widow’s House, by Carol Goodman

“This chilling novel from the bestselling, award-winning author of The Lake of Dead Languages blends the gothic allure of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and the crazed undertones of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper with the twisty, contemporary edge of A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife—a harrowing tale of psychological suspense set in New York’s Hudson Valley.”

Short Story Collections

Burning Bright, by Ron Rash

“In these stories, Rash brings to light a previously unexplored territory, hidden in plain sight—first a landscape, and then the dark yet lyrical heart and the alluringly melancholy soul of his characters and their home.”

Shatterday, by Harlan Ellison

“…legendary author Harlan Ellison dissects the primal fears and inherent frailties common to all people and gives voice to the thoughts and feelings human beings bury deep within their souls. Unflinching and unapologetic, Ellison depicts men and women in all their ugliness and beauty, and humanity in all its fury and glory.”

Half Wild: Stories, by Robin MacArthur

“Spanning nearly forty years, the stories in Robin MacArthur’s formidable debut give voice to the hopes, dreams, hungers, and fears of a diverse cast of Vermonters—adolescent girls, aging hippies, hardscrabble farmers, disconnected women, and solitary men. Straddling the border between civilization and the wild, they all struggle to make sense of their loneliness and longings in the stark and often isolating enclaves they call home—golden fields and white-veiled woods, dilapidated farmhouses and makeshift trailers, icy rivers and still lakes that rouse the imagination, tether the heart, and inhabit the soul.”

Poetry Collections

Our Numbered Days, by Neil Hilborn

“In 2013, Neil Hilborn’s performance of his poem ‘OCD’ went viral. To date, it has been watched over 10 million times. Our Numbered Days is Neil’s debut full-length poetry collection, containing 45 of Neil’s poems including ‘OCD’, ‘Joey’, ‘Future Tense’, ‘Liminality’, ‘Moving Day’, and many, many never-before-seen poems.” 

The People Look Like Flowers at Last, by Charles Bukowski

The People Look like Flowers at Last is the last of five collections of never-before published poetry from the late great Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski.”

New American Best Friend, by Olivia Gatwood

“Gatwood’s poems deftly deconstruct traditional stereotypes. The focus shifts from childhood to adulthood, gender to sexuality, violence to joy. And always and inexorably, the book moves toward celebration, culminating in a series of odes: odes to the body, to tough women, to embracing your own journey in all its failures and triumphs.”

Young Adult Fiction

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.”

 *Red Winter, by Annette Marie

“Emi is the kamigakari. In a few short months, her life as a mortal will end and her new existence as the human host of a goddess will begin. Carefully hidden from those who would destroy her, she has prepared her mind, body, and soul to unite with the goddess-and not once has she doubted her chosen fate. Shiro is a yokai, a spirit of the earth, an enemy of the goddess Emi will soon host. Mystery shrouds his every move and his ruby eyes shine with cunning she can’t match and dares not trust. But she saved his life, and until his debt is paid, he is hers to command-whether she wants him or not. On the day they meet, everything Emi believes comes undone, swept away like snow upon the winter wind. For the first time, she wants to change her fate-but how can she erase a destiny already wrought in stone? Against the power of the gods, Shiro is her only hope… and hope is all she has left.”

Highfire, by Eoin Colfer

“From the New York Times bestselling author of the Artemis Fowl series comes a hilarious and high-octane adult novel about a vodka-drinking, Flashdance-loving dragon who lives an isolated life in the bayous of Louisiana—and the raucous adventures that ensue when he crosses paths with a fifteen-year-old troublemaker on the run from a crooked sheriff.”

*City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab

“Cassidy Blake’s parents are The Inspecters, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one. When The Inspecters head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly.”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

“In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place. Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.”

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness

“What if you aren’t the Chosen One? The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death? What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again. Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life. Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions…”

Manga and Graphic Novels

*Noragami, by Adachitoka

“Yato is a homeless god. He doesn’t even have a shrine, not to mention worshippers! So to achieve his ambitious goals, he’s set up a service to help those in need (for a small fee), hoping he’ll eventually raise enough money to build himself the lavish temple of his dreams. Of course, he can’t afford to be picky, so Yato accepts all kinds of jobs, from finding lost kittens to helping a student overcome bullies at school.”

*The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman

“New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman’s transcendent series SANDMAN is often hailed as the definitive Vertigo title and one of the finest achievements in graphic storytelling. Gaiman created an unforgettable tale of the forces that exist beyond life and death by weaving ancient mythology, folklore and fairy tales with his own distinct narrative vision.”

*Yona of the Dawn, by Mizuho Kusanagi

“Princess Yona lives an ideal life as the only princess of her kingdom. Doted on by her father, the king, and protected by her faithful guard Hak, she cherishes the time spent with the man she loves, Soo-won. But everything changes on her 16th birthday when she witnesses her father’s murder! Yona reels from the shock of witnessing a loved one’s murder and having to fight for her life. With Hak’s help, she flees the palace and struggles to survive while evading her enemy’s forces. But where will this displaced princess go when all the paths before her are uncertain?”

Memoirs, Academia, and Non-Fiction

The Oxford Inklings: Their Lives, Writing, Ideas, and Influence, by Colin Duriez

“A unique account of one of history’s most intriguing literary groups, which will find itself on the reading list of every serious Tolkien, Lewis, or Inkling fan. The Inklings were an influential group, along the lines of the Lake Poets or the Bloomsbury Group. Acclaimed author Colin Duriez explores their lives, their writings, their ideas, and, crucially, the influence they had on each other.”

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie

“When his mother passed away at the age of 78, Sherman Alexie responded the only way he knew how: he wrote. The result is this stunning memoir. Featuring 78 poems, 78 essays and intimate family photographs, Alexie shares raw, angry, funny, profane, tender memories of a childhood few can imagine–growing up dirt-poor on an Indian reservation, one of four children raised by alcoholic parents. Throughout, a portrait emerges of his mother as a beautiful, mercurial, abusive, intelligent, complicated woman.”

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, by Neil Gaiman

“Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.”

The Hidden Power of F*cking Up, by Keith Habersberger, Zach Kornfeld, Eugene Lee Yang, and Ned Fulmer

“To be our best selves, we must become secure in our insecurities. In The Hidden Power of F*cking Up, The Try Guys – Keith, Ned, Zach, and Eugene – reveal their philosophy of trying: how to fully embrace fear, foolishness, and embarrassment in an effort to understand how we all get paralyzed by a fear of failure. They’ll share how four shy, nerdy kids have dealt with their most poignant life struggles by attacking them head-on and reveal their – ahem – sure-fail strategies for achieving success.”

Educated, by Tara Westover

“Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.”

Snow Moon

It had been an in-between sort of winter – too warm for snow, and too cold for much of anything else.  Days and days of frigid rains and half-lit skies had passed in a steely, gloomy blur, giving way to more of the same.  All of that would change tonight.

From her cubicle window, Julia watched a robin perch on a ledge of the neighboring office building, and wondered if the little thing knew what was coming.  Her farmer grandparents had taught her that nature always knows, and is prepared, and she wondered why humans so often counted themselves as separate animals.  No one at work seemed prepared today.  Forecasters anticipated the storm’s arrival by 7:00, and now, at 4:45, the office was still abuzz with talk of this meeting and that presentation.  She just wanted to get out the door, onto the road home before the inevitable, interminable traffic jam, and only two emails and a check-in with her manager stood in her way.

Twenty more minutes, she thought, tops.  Just twenty more minutes, and then she’d be on her way to pajamas and hot chocolate and BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, her snow-day traditions from high school onward, and tomorrow, she’d take a walk and make a snow angel.  She wanted hers to be the first footprints.  That had been her favorite thing, when she was young and living on a farm way out in the country with her parents and her grandparents.  She always wanted hers to be the first set of footprints on a fresh fallen snow.  It proved that she, and not anyone else, loved the snow best.  And that had been so important, when she was ten.

Snow Day Footprints

Maybe she’d even build a snowman, she thought.  She hadn’t built a snowman since college.  “Let’s get crazy,” Julia mumbled to herself.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh,” Julia said.  She should have known nothing is ever just to yourself when you work in a cubicle farm.  “Sorry,” she told Sarah-from-the-next-cube.  “I was talking to myself.”

She watched as Sarah nodded and went back to her work.  Julia hated working in an office environment like this.  There was never privacy, but you had all the anonymity you never wanted.  Everything was tinged in somber shades of off-gray – the desks, the carpet, the overhead lights – and people seldom smiled.  Not even the company’s monthly “happy hour” was truly happy.  It was just a tired-out group of not really friends pretending they weren’t networking to get ahead, trying not to appear as drunk as they were.  Artifice and gameplay dressed up in business casual, that’s all it was.

But this job paid the bills, and the bills fed her, kept her in books and clothes, and allowed her the little luxury of a trip here and there when she needed to get away.  She was planning to visit England in the summer, to see Bath.  She’d always dreamed of going to England, and the salary from this job made it possible.  You had to work to live, and work wasn’t always fun, she told herself, over and over.  Her life was just like everyone else’s, she reasoned.  And then she wondered when she had decided to be okay with that, and resolved to start looking for something new, just as soon as she got back from her summer trip.  Maybe she would even move back to the country and take up work on the farm with her parents.  It would be nice to be with her family again.

Two emails and a useless but thankfully brief meeting with her boss later, Julia had packed her messenger bag with her laptop, power cord, mouse, and notes on her priority assignments, and was standing in the elevator, waiting for it to make its slow, creaky way from floor eleven to the lower deck of the parking garage.  She sighed and leaned her head against the wall.

“You look tired,” said an amiable, masculine voice from the other corner.

“I am,” Julia answered.  She hadn’t realized anyone else was in the elevator with her, but that wasn’t surprising.  Her mind had been running on one track since this morning – get home before the snow, enjoy the snow, daydream about snow – and now, at the end of the day, there just wasn’t any room for anything else.  “But I’m really excited for the snow,” she added.

“So, you’re one of the people who likes snow?”

Julia straightened up and turned, and saw that her companion wore a smoky-colored gray suit and light blue tie, and a pocket square.  A pocket square, of all things.  She thought she’d seen him before, was fairly certain of it, but you could never tell.  He looked familiar, but so did every other Caucasian male sporting a dad-bod wrapped up in a suit and tie in the entire building.  Dark hair, brown eyes, and not very memorable at all.  But he looked friendly enough, casual and relaxed, his hands in his pockets.

“I am,” she answered.  “What about you?”

“I love snow,” he said, “and I like this time of year.”

“Really?”

“I do.  I like the feeling of starting fresh.”  He smiled.  Julia noticed his straight, white teeth.

“Most people feel that way about January.”  Julia smiled back.  It felt like the right thing to do.  She hated office banter.

“Sure,” he answered, “but I like February better.  You know it comes from an old Latin word?  Februa, to cleanse.”

Julia hadn’t known that, and said so.

“The Romans had this festival, the Februalia.”

Julia hmmed and nodded.

“And I really do love the snow.  The best snows are always in February.”

Julia nodded again, and hummed a noncommittal “Mmhmm.”

“I’m boring you.”

“No!”  He was, and she would have loved a quiet ride, but she certainly didn’t want him to know that.  “Not at all.  I love snow, too.  When I was little –”

Before she could say more, the elevator lurched to a stop.  Floor two.  Julia felt stuck in a nightmare.  Bad enough being trapped in the elevator.  Worse being trapped in the elevator with an almost complete stranger right before a snowstorm.  They could be in here for hours.

“I don’t think it will be long,” the man said.

Well, that was strange, Julia thought.  “I hope not,” she replied.

“When you were little…”

“What?”

“You were talking about the snow, when you were little.”  The man raised a hand from his pocket, prompting her to continue.

Julia had lost the thread of the conversation when the elevator stopped.  “Um, yeah, when I was little.”  She struggled to collect the thought.  The man waited.  “When I was little, I used to stay up all night waiting for snow.  I wanted to be the first one outside.  I wanted to make the first footprints.”

“I get that,” the man said.

“I just thought snow was the most magical thing.  I still do, actually.  Work is boring, you know?  It’s like life just gets in the way of the things we should be enjoying.”

“Yeah,” the man replied.

“I think if I could just live in a snow day forever, I’d be okay with that.”

“Really?”  The man raised an eyebrow.

“Of course!”  Julia found she couldn’t really stop herself from adding, “everything slows down when it snows.  People actually take the time to be happy.  It’s like they can’t do that on a normal day.  Because there’s too much to do.”  Julia paused for a moment, to take a breath.  “Snow means you have to stop.  You just have to stop and appreciate the moment for once, and I love that moment.”

The man smiled again, and Julia realized it wasn’t an unpleasant smile.  “I think everyone has a moment they’d like to live in forever,” she said, “and that’s just mine.”

“I can see that,” the man said.

“Well, what’s yours?”  Julia asked.

The man opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, the elevator jerked into motion.  “Well,” he said, “that wasn’t so bad.”

“No,” Julia said, and asked again, “so, what’s your moment?”

The doors pinged open on level two of the garage, and the man stepped out.  “I’m made of moments,” he said.  He winked as the door closed.

That had certainly ended abruptly, Julia thought as she went down one more level, and then walked to her silver sedan.  5:31 – earlier than she’d left in days, and plenty of time to beat the storm home, if she took a few neighborhood roads and shortcuts.

********************

It snowed for a solid fourteen hours, give or take.  Julia spent the time looking out the window, curled up in her favorite overstuffed armchair.  She caught up on some reading, drank hot chocolate, and watched some of her favorite BBC miniseries.  She stayed up all night.  When the snow stopped, she put on her winter coat and galoshes and walked for an hour or so, enjoying the crunch of the crisp white powder under her feet, and the fresh, icy smell of a winter finally come.  Hers were the first footprints.  She made a snow angel, and she built a snowman, and when the sun went down on the glistening landscape, she sat on her front porch steps and stared at the full moon, high and bright and silver against a dark blue satin sky.  Yes, she thought, I could live in this moment forever.

********************

A desk in the corner in the corner of a nondescript office building sat empty.  A manager approached Human Resources, asking to hire for a position, and curious as to why it had never been discussed before.  The work went on as it always had, as if Julia had never existed at all.

The man in the gray suit had moved on, too.  A new office building, a new elevator.  He found himself alone with a young man, on the tenth day of March at 5:16 in the afternoon.  The young man looked on the verge of tears, his eyes glassy and rimmed with red, and his hands trembling as they tried to grasp the handle of a black canvas laptop bag.

“Rough day?” the man in the gray suit asked.

The young man dropped his laptop bag to his feet.  It landed with a thud on the floor of the elevator.  “Yeah, people suck.  But it’s just a job.”  He took a deep, shaky breath and said again, “It’s just a job.”

“Sounds like it’s not the right job,” the man in the gray suit replied.

“Yeah, really,” the young man snorted.

“I always thought I’d be doing something more interesting,” the man in the gray suit said.  “I’ve never liked working in an office, but it sure is convenient.”

“I hate it,” the young man said.  He ran his fingers through his hair and added, “I’d rather be hiking.”

“I love hiking,” the man in the gray suit said.  “What’s your favorite trail?  I’ve heard there are lots of good ones around here.”  The man in the gray suit did not hike.

“Oh, man, when I was a kid, there was this trail out west that we used to go to every year and –”

The elevator jerked to a stop between the fourth and fifth floors.  The man in the gray suit smiled.  “And?”

********************

Winter turned to spring, and then to summer and fall, and then winter again, and again many times.  Julia’s face grew fine, spidery lines, and her hair turned coarse and ashen.  Hers were still the first footprints.  And as the world outside moved on, one season after another, year after year, she sat on her front porch steps and stared at the full moon over the diamond-bright snow.  Yes, she thought, I could live in this moment forever.

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Unrequited

You asked me once,

Do you love me?

and I said,

Yes, I do.

What I should have said was

You are a beautiful dress in just my size that doesn’t fit

on purpose.

I should have said I never learned how to love something

that didn’t hold me too tight

and make me beautiful in all the wrong places.

Hearts

Story Time

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.” –Neil Gaiman

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Let’s rewind the clock.  By a lot.

At the end of 2018, I came up with a list of several things I wanted to do with this blog.  I’d not written anything for it in ages, and I knew I wanted to create something a little different than what it had been before.  So, I redesigned the page, curated and edited previous posts, and created Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages.

And then – nothing.  The blog fell off my radar, again, for the better part of a year.  Life gets busy, you know?  2020 is a new time, though, and this year I’m dedicated to writing.  I hope you’ll read and stick with me, because I’ve got some cool stuff planned.

First on that agenda – the short story series I started on January 31st.  I’ve always enjoyed reading short stories, but I haven’t really focused on writing them since college.  They’re great practice, though – there’s no better way to focus on tight, consistent plotting and deliberate, concise word choice – and actually pretty fun.  I’m planning to publish a new story each month this year.  I’ll be asking for ideas and inspiration, so please feel free to leave feedback and share your thoughts.  Stories, after all, are meant to be shared with others.

Though I’ll certainly be writing all sorts of posts in the future, I wanted to share this particular information now, because I think we should go on this adventure together.  And I’ve never been one to say no to an adventure.

Charmed

Avery Dye came home one snowy night in January to a dark, quiet house and a cold casserole dish on the kitchen counter with a note inside that read “Be back never, you sick bastard.”

The Holler in Snow

**********

Elsewhere, about five hundred miles away and a little over six miles above his head, his wife Kelly sat in the middle seat of a mostly empty flight.  Kelly had planned every detail of her escape for months, right under Avery’s nose and without any guilt.  In the mornings, smudging a thick layer of cheap concealer over last night’s bruises.  At midday, between errands.  In the evenings, over the finely cracked, delicate porcelain of their civil dinner conversation.  This was the first thing that she’d really done just for herself in her entire twenty-nine years, and if it was selfish, she didn’t have the energy left to care.

When she thought of Avery, alone in the empty kitchen staring down a life without her as his domestic attendant, his living punching bag, his arm décor and bed warmer and everything he thought a “wife” should be, she smiled.  Let him live out his days alone, eating fast food roast beef sandwiches and drinking store-brand soda.  If he bought himself an actual punching bag and a body pillow, he might not even notice.

The plane bounced.  Kelly gripped the armrest.  She’d never flown before, had never traveled far beyond the little hollow between two mountains where she grew up, and each time the engine decelerated, or the wings began to angle, or the ping of the “fasten seat belts” sign sounded, her heart beat faster.  She looked down at her hand.  Her knuckles were white.  How many hours, she wondered, before I’m on the ground again?

“It won’t be long now,” said a soft, lightly-accented voice to her left.

“Excuse me?”

“Before we land.  It won’t be long now.”

“Did they announce it?”

“No, but I’ve flown this route many times before.”

Kelly took a moment to look at the woman sitting next to her.  She’d been so preoccupied before, she hadn’t noticed much of anything.  This woman, elegant in a light blue silk scarf with her dark hair neatly pinned in a bun at her neck, had clearly never lived in a white clapboard shack, had never cooked anything in a casserole dish, and had certainly never worn drug store makeup.

“Oh,” Kelly said, and then added, before she could help herself, “You don’t look like you’d have any reason to visit out this way.”  Though it occurred to her, after she said it, that she was the farthest from home she’d ever been.

The woman waved a thin hand in the air, “Everyone has reasons.  I go where I’m most needed.”

Kelly knew that aid workers of every variety often came to help in the mountains, working at free clinics and repairing rundown houses and such.

“And right now,” said the woman, as she rested a firm but gentle hand on Kelly’s own, “this is where I’m most needed.”

“What kind of work do you do?”  Kelly felt uncomfortable being touched, had not been touched with care in so long, but she tried to dismiss it.  This woman was someone worth impressing, the first one in Kelly’s new life.  This woman, she was certain, had seen the world, had been kissed on both cheeks by handsome Frenchmen in corner cafés, had probably ridden camels in Egypt and eaten real Chinese food in China.  Kelly suddenly felt small.  And why shouldn’t she, she chided herself.  Her world was the size of a high school education and a bad marriage.

“A little of many things,” answered the woman.  “None of them are truly work.”

“I guess it’s not really work if you love what you do.”

“Exactly,” said the woman, and winked a perfectly lined eye.  “Tell me about yourself,” she said.  “I love hearing someone’s story.”

A flight attendant came by just then, and the woman ordered a glass of champagne for them both.  Kelly had never tasted champagne.  She and Avery had toasted with 7 Up at their wedding.  She took the glass, sipped it, was surprised by its tart flavor.  So this was it, she thought, as her ears went warm.  This was her new life, the life she’d dreamed of and finally had the courage to pursue.  This was her breakout, her freedom, finally, come to fruition.  She allowed herself to feel little glamorous, for the first time, sitting beside this beautiful stranger on her way to a new adventure.

“There’s not much to tell,” Kelly replied, embarrassed all over again at her small life and her limited choices, all of them bad and many of them not really choices at all – nothing to do in her small town but visit the local library, no money for college or travel, no good jobs to make money.  At the beginning of her adult life, still a baby, really, at only eighteen, the stability of a marriage to a well-loved local boy, the safety of a roof over her head and food at her table, had seemed like the highest bar Kelly could reach.

“Oh, I doubt that,” the woman said.  “Everyone has a story.”

Something about the rich caramel in her voice, the solid weight of her hand on Kelly’s, the conspiratorial twinkle in her eye, all convinced Kelly, though she didn’t know why exactly, to talk.  And once she got started, as the woman cooed affirmations and tenderly held her hand, Kelly found that she couldn’t stop.  She laid out all of her broken pieces – her sorrows, her regrets, her shame, her dreams – and began to feel lighter with every word.

“Darling,” said the woman, “how much you’ve been through, and you can’t be more than thirty.  But look,” and she motioned out of the window, “we’re here now.”

“We are!”  Kelly hadn’t noticed the plane descending, through layers of clouds and above crystal blue water and white sand.  “I’ve talked your ear off!  I’m so sorry.”

“No, on the contrary, I enjoyed your story.  I’ll keep it close, just like the others I’ve collected.  And I hope you find your burden lighter.”

Kelly thought for a moment.  There had been a burden, hadn’t there?  She’d been worried about something, hadn’t she, frightened even, when she stepped onto this plane?  Only she wasn’t sure now.  Perhaps it was the champagne, she thought.  To be polite, she replied, “I’m sure I will,” and, “thank you.”

“Thank you,” said the woman, and stood to begin a slow walk down the aisle of the plane, humming lightly as she went.

Kelly stood up, as well, and grabbed her overhead bag.  She wandered off the plane and into the terminal, daydreaming about dewy air and warm saltwater.

Blue Water

She thought of nights spent listening to the sound of waves lapping on the shore, and of being alone in a pillowy bed with a good book.

She felt a nagging tug, though, somewhere in the back of her mind, that an empty bed would be terribly lonely, and that the beach would be sticky and too hot, and she wondered if she shouldn’t move to the mountains.  A small town in the mountains, perhaps, where she would meet a rugged, handsome man, and live a simple, charmed life.

**********

The woman watched Kelly go, though Kelly would hardly have noticed.  Her job done, and the fine, wispy strand of story and memory tucked firmly into her palm, the woman turned and walked to Gate A6.  She tucked Kelly’s story into a handkerchief, glowing faintly and still humming a sad, hollow tune, and placed it in her pocket.  She sat down beside a young lady in black leggings and an oversize sweater, with her arm in a sling and a backpack resting on her thighs.

“It won’t be long now,” the woman said.  She ran a hand with sparkling, black nails through her hair, now worn in loose, blonde curls streaked with bright blue.

The young lady turned.  “Huh?”

“Our flight boards in fifteen minutes.  Tell me, are you traveling for business or pleasure?”

The young lady thought for a moment, and said, “Both.  Or neither?  I’m not so sure.”  A tear slid down one cheek, and she adjusted her sling at her shoulder.

“Well, why don’t you tell me all about it?  Maybe I can help you decide.”  The woman smiled, and watched as the young lady’s expression went slack, and then sharp again.

“I don’t know where to start,” she said, but she did start, and she laid out her troubles and her dreams, and the woman listened.

The woman always went where she was needed, and she was always needed.  She never had a moment to feel bored or lonely, because some poor soul was always wishing for an escape, a new start free from pain or fear.  It was a delicate and a daunting job, collecting these stories, weaving them into an even thread that could be pulled out clean and quick.  How fragile, the woman thought, were stories and memories, and how easy they were, once the thread was done, to take forever, and how little they were missed.

**This is the first in a series of stories I’m planning to post.  I’ll write more about it soon.**

Newspaper Memories

When I graduated from college, I knew two things:

  • I had a degree!
  • I had no idea what to do with it…

I’d spent the last three years devoting myself to reading and writing, and I’d earned my bachelor’s degree in English a year early and with honors.  In college, I was “the wunderkind.”  My professors respected my work and encouraged my curiosity.  Out of college, I was a twenty-year-old kid with a lot of debt and no real job experience.

I wasn’t scared for my future. I had an abundance of confidence, but not cash.  So I did what any slightly lost, mostly broke kid would do:  I applied to every job for which I was even marginally qualified.  Thankfully, a couple of employers took a chance on me.  One of those employers was the local newspaper – a freelance gig, sure, but a chance to get my name out there and make money doing something I loved.

Growing up in the theater had cured me of shyness, and college had taught me to write well and concisely (and quickly, if I had to).  Writing for a newspaper – interviews, deadlines, etc. – was a natural fit and I loved it immediately.  Talking to people and writing about it didn’t feel like work.  Having the opportunity to meet people in my community and share their accomplishments was a privilege.

My first article was about a sweet elderly lady who made prayer bears and prayer flowers for grieving families and families whose loved ones were in the hospital.  In the fall of 2007, I sat with her for a couple of hours in her living room.  I’d prepared questions, but the conversation was so easy and so honest, I didn’t need them.  As I was packing to leave, she made me a set of my own prayer flowers, and prayed for my health and success.

From there, I met with a 97-year-old ham radio operator and we talked about the days when radio was new and exciting.  To her, it still was.  I interviewed two little boys who decided to grow out their hair and donate it.  They wanted to honor their grandmother, and they didn’t care at all that people said they looked like girls.  I walked around a hospital and spoke to volunteers who often came home utterly exhausted and still wondered if they could do more.  I spent an afternoon with a church youth group as they were preparing for a mission trip.  For many of them, it would be their first airplane ride, and not one of them was afraid.  They were just excited and eager to help.

I handled quick deadlines.  I worked late.  I wrote on my lunch break.  I skipped dinner.  I learned to take decent photographs for the first time in my life (much more difficult than I thought it would be…).  More than anything, I realized that people have good things to say, and it’s important to hear them.

In 2009, Graham and I moved from Abingdon for what we thought would be a temporary stay in Northern Virginia.  The prayer flowers from my very first story came with us.  All these years later, they still sit on a shelf in my study.

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I look at them often, and they remind me that the people we meet are never just a means to an end, and that kindness and compassion are real, tangible, and enduring.

Beowulf, Epics, and Why Curiosity Matters

I can’t remember what first sparked my interest in Beowulf.  I was in high school.  I was hungry for stories and itching to immerse myself in subjects that challenged me.  It could have been that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was going strong in theaters, stoking the collective imagination of a generation ready for magic and epic battles between good and evil (having been primed by Harry Potter and his many adventures).  It could have been a new phase in my lifelong interest in historical esoterica.  I’m not really sure, and it doesn’t really matter, because I’ve loved Beowulf ever since, and I’m not about to stop now.

My first encounter with Beowulf was shepherded by Seamus Heaney, and I’ve often called his work the “gateway translation.”  This is the iteration that gets you into the story.  Heaney’s meticulous attention to the cadence of the verse; his talent for turning arcane sensibilities into relatable one-liners; and his easy dedication to presenting Beowulf – the original man, myth, and legend – as not only an adventurous, brave soul in search of a noble calling higher than himself (and seeking a little glory along the way, because why not?), but a flawed human being just like all the rest of us, all serve to draw new readers into this old story.

I’ve read Heaney’s translation now more than any other, and I’m about to do it again.

Over breakfast last week, I read a magazine article called “Beowulf is Back” by James Parker.  The crux of the article – that this ancient epic just won’t go away – got me thinking, not only about Beowulf and why I love it, but about why people love epics.  Why do we obsess over heroes?  Why do we frame our world in terms of good and evil?  Why do we love a battle scene?  Why do we still look to a text older than our language to find answers about ourselves today?  And what does all of that say about us?

I don’t know.

Really, I’m not sure.  I could fill pages with my assumptions, but I don’t really want to do that, and I don’t think anyone really wants to read it.  Instead, I’m going to look at Beowulf with fresh eyes, and see what I learn.

Here’s the plan:

Over the next four weeks, I’m going to reread Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and then I’m going to read, for the first time, three graphic novelizations of the story that James Parker mentioned in his article.

I’m looking at this challenge in two ways.  First, it’ll be fun – I love Beowulf, and I’ll have four weeks’ worth of Beowulf, and that is exciting.  Second, it’ll satisfy my curiosity.  What can these different interpretations of the same story tell me about why we just won’t let Beowulf fade into obscurity?

If I haven’t yet convinced you that Beowulf is worth your time, or if you’re not into old stuff, or if, for reasons I will never understand, you don’t like to read, I’m sure you’re asking yourself why I want to do this.  The simple answer is, because I am curious.  I want answers.  I want answers to lots of questions, actually, but I’ll settle for the Beowulf-related ones for now.  I believe that we should always be thinking, we should always be asking questions, and we should always, always, always be curious.  A curious mind is a powerful one.  People who ask questions make discoveries, and sometimes those discoveries change the world.  Sometimes, they just scratch the intellectual itch that people like me can never quite shake.  But, and at any rate, no one ever amounted to anything who didn’t first ask questions.

And so, off I go, into Heorot once more, to see what I can learn with thirty-year-old eyes and a brain that often forgets where I left my car keys.

And it all begins with “Hwæt…”

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