Fourth Grade Flashbacks

Flashback to the fourth grade. The year that Mrs. Lucey died and Mrs. Dexter took her place but none of it mattered because I was in the tall and willowy Ms. Anthony’s class while my best friend learned down the hall. The year we had math together with Mrs. Gillis, a firecracker of a teacher who actually threw a wet sponge at a student and caught him—splosh—right in the face. I have no recollection of his trespass but I can’t forget the noise of that sponge making contact. The year I wrote my first book and mailed it off to an editor with Ms. Anthony’s help.

Laboring over that story of Mr. Merman and his friend Lobster (and yes, it was before Disney’s The Little Mermaid and a century and a half after Hans Christian Andersen’s original). Pecking away at the Apple IIGS keyboard in the corner of the guestroom. My mother helping me type. Printing from the dot matrix printer and tearing off the sides of the continuous feed paper. Addressing and sealing the manila envelope, headed straight from Small Town, Connecticut to New York, NY. The feelings are forgotten. Was I certain of my creative brilliance? Nervous about a response? Even aware of what it meant to submit a piece of writing?

The tender rejection letter was crafted carefully, with encouraging words, written by a kind editor who had mercy on a fourth-grader. Today I remember this because I just submitted a query for an article and I’m certain that while a rejection letter may follow, no tender editor will write me back. I’m no longer 9 and writing in blue ink on my dad’s dot matrix printer. Which translates to no kindness headed my way.

I know better now, what it means to bare my soul in writing. If the piece were in a manila envelope at the end of my driveway, I would have snatched it back already but I hit “send” and my options are gone. In all likelihood, I won’t hear anything and that wound smarts more than the rejection.

I don’t write to be published. I don’t write to be read. I write to write. May I remember that today.

Friend: Five Minute Friday

Five Minute Friday Writing on Fridays with Lisa Jo Baker and the great crew of writers at Five Minute Friday (join us? It’s so much fun and good for the soul!)

I spent the morning cleaning Aisle 6 (the pet food/cleaning supplies/greeting card aisle) of Fitch’s IGA in this tiny town. If I hadn’t done that, my thoughts on friendship would have poured out differently. I would have surely written about the friend I met when she was seventeen, whose phone number is ingrained so deeply that I’ve dialed it with ease from half a dozen countries, whose time is so precious that I pick up a call no matter what, no matter where, whose voice is so familiar it feels like home again. She called yesterday and I picked up despite crying children and a hungry husband and an imminent nap time. Because it was Ashley. My second son bears a part of her name. Her friendship is wrapped up in and through my life such that no amount of teasing could unweave that thread without leaving me in tatters.

But I did spend the morning cleaning the local grocery store. And these thoughts of friendship blossomed and expanded past the one to the many. To the new friend—my partner in cleaning, coaching me as I fumble to re-position the tall and ridiculously clattery Glade bottles of air freshener. This new friend who receives my ESL teacher input about her pronunciation as we share ideas of all that we are called to do on this planet. This new friend who makes my sons smile at lunch across the table at an institutional cafeteria.

The friend who is in Central Asia this week, experiencing all I’ve ever hoped for her to experience. The friend I’ve lost touch with, who taught me how to be relaxed and real and honest when someone tells you they’ve just signed themselves out of the mental hospital. The friend whose passport picture remains on my fridge, whose baby is named after me, who will never forget me–the oddball foreigner whom she nurtured into grown-up life in the Horn of Africa–the talking, the cooking, the cleaning, the water-jug filling–and I will never forget her. The friend I grew up with, the artist who was going to join the Peace Corps while I went to med school who graduated from Brown with her medical degree while I spent the better part of the last decade in humanitarian work in Africa.

These women who shaped me. These women have labored with me and helped me give birth to new sides of myself I didn’t even know would come. These friends I thought would be there forever and aren’t; the friend I thought was not for me who has been here forever now. Gifts through and through. Through pain and tears and laughter, I receive these gifts.

Jump: Five Minute Friday

Five Minute Friday

Today is Friday: the day of writing to write, not to edit or analyze. I write with a great group of people at Five Minute Friday. Set the timer, write what comes to mind and join the stream-of-consciousness joy!

“They told me to jump and I understood them!” she shared with a flourish peculiar to young twenty-somethings from Los Angeles, California.

Her language learning had been stalled for months. The reasons manifold, the consequences disastrous. Blocked from the lived story unfolding around her, the wall of noise barricaded her from all that she thought she would experience. Suggestions abounded and flashcards were made. Dictionaries purchased and grammars poured over. Finally, finally, we met to talk about a new way. A way of language learning that went beyond language into the story.

I hate language learning. And I love language learning. Put me in a classroom and ask me to memorize, write out verb paradigms and translate texts and you will see a caged animal. I’ve done it plenty. My undergraduate degree is in ancient languages. My graduate degree is in teaching others to learn language. I’ve studied more languages than most Westerners: Latin, French, Greek, Swahili, Aramaic, Somali, Hebrew. But that whole classroom language learning thing—that isn’t what I love. My passion, now dormant in America, is to live into a whole new story—so to enter the narrative of another people that I see what they see, live what they live and say what they would say. To enter the story unfolding around me to the degree that I am participating, to the degree that there is no “us” and “them” but instead a “we.”

That kind of language learning ceases to be language learning and starts to be a way of life. A life of participation. A life that eschews the cultural anthropologist’s close-and-distant perspective of observer and dives in to the growing participation of a new member, an unfolding member, a gently nurtured member of a story.

On that day, after months of failure, isolation and discouragement, she got it. The rains had come; the desert ground rejected them, leaving us with rivers of water to jump over to get to our bus. She left her front door as she had hundreds of times and heard, instead of that wall of noise, a simple command from neighborhood children: “Jump!” “Bod!” She was only a minor character in the story of that people; two years later she left for good. But in those moments, she lived the most precious privilege offered to those of us living far from home: she found her place in another story and understood the words well enough to live her part.

Here: Five Minute Friday

Five Minute Friday

On Fridays I write with these beautiful ladies at Five Minute Friday: no editing, no over-thinking, no major corrections, just writing because writing gives us life.

Just here.  With the yeasty dough smell wafting under the pantry door to my irritated nostrils as I boil water for my second cup of tea.  Here with cool spring air seeping through these drafty windows, beckoning my boys to stand at the door and plead to run free.  Here with an up-much-too-early toddler whose tired red eyes awaken compassion in me as his whiny tantrums make me want to run and hide.  Here is where my life is formed, my soul is changed.  Here is where I take shape.

John Ortberg writes in Leadership Journal what he hates about spiritual formation:

I hate how spiritual formation gets positioned as an optional pursuit for a small special interest group within the church. People think of it as an esoteric activity reserved for introverted Thomas-Merton-reading contemplatives. I hate that. Spiritual formation is for everyone. Just as there is an “outer you” that is being formed and shaped all the time, like it or not, by accident or on purpose, so there is an “inner you.” You have a spirit. And it’s constantly being shaped and tugged at: by what you hear and watch and say and read and think and experience. Everyone is being spiritually formed all the time. Whether they want to or not. Whether they’re Christian or not. The question isn’t if someone will sign up for spiritual formation; it’s just who and what our spirits will be formed by.

I hate that too, Mr. Ortberg.

Because here is the most forming moment I’ve ever faced.  Not there and not then.  I spent days in silence at a monastery before I was married.  Maybe I needed it then.  But in eight minutes with my children, bending low to look in needy eyes, holding tight to wriggling bodies, feeding open mouths: in these minutes I am more formed than days at a monastery, alone.

With one minute and twenty seconds left to write, a small hand grasps my arm and tells me that his little brother’s hand is stuck.  I want to write but I choose to pause my timer, only to find a tiny arm lodged in the shape sorter, attempting to wiggle free but only worsening his bondage.  So I don’t write as much as I want or as long as I want or as free as I want but I take new shape, shape that God is surely molding.

My husband tells me I write about being a mother too much.  I am slightly offended; he softens the comment by explaining that he likes my thoughts on so many topics and couldn’t I share about other things, too?  But it is here, in this motherhood monastery, the rhythm of life shared with littles, the finding of self while losing, here I take shape slowly.  I still lock the door and hide in the bathroom.  I settle them with Baby Einstein so I can write my five minutes.  I wait at the screen door in running shoes like an anxious dog, blowing past my husband before he can say hello as I ache for the freedom of wide open spaces ahead of me and no small pitter-patter behind me.  But here is a good place to be formed.  Right here.


To write for twenty minutes no matter how it feels, to write as discipline, to write the way I used to. This is pushing me hard past what I enjoy to what I need. I like writing when the prompt comes through email from Lisa Jo and I automatically know what I should write. The five minutes flow effortlessly and the post is done and it feels so good. But to be a real writer again means I have to write on the days when it spurts and spits and flowing can only describe the irritated words swimming in my mind and sometimes out of my mouth. To write for twenty minutes today when I drove for 13 hours yesterday home from the best wedding I’ve ever been to, arriving at a barren refrigerator and a bathroom that smells like a four year old boy has bad aim. To write when there are taxes to pay and laundry to fold and a kitchen table that looks like a cross between a dishwasher, a sporting goods store, a pharmacy and a Hot Wheels storage bin. To write while the children are asleep and to lay down my precious few minutes, the primary currency of my greed these days, to use it all up on this writing life. To write when no one will read it or see it. To write when the words don’t feel good. To write when I want to stop.

This is the writing life and is the only kind of writing that will make me a writer. If I only write when I want to, I will write the way I run: a few months out of the year with no right to claim the title runner. Let’s be honest: I’m a fair-weather jogger. I might achieve my dream of running a 5K but I still don’t even know my race pace so when my marathon-running, hardcore brother writes me letters about how to increase my speed, I realize I need to start by buying a watch. I’m never going to be a runner.

But I already was a writer. I cloaked myself in that identity for years and stowed it away quickly, thoughtlessly when I ran amok in fear. The rattling tin cans inside quieted down enough this year to hear that writer’s voice. Quieter than she used to be and definitely out of practice, she demanded a chance to write again. I had forgotten the disciplines of this kind of art. Writing is not for the good days or the inspired days or the beautiful days. It is for every day or I won’t grow. Most days I don’t even want to grow. I don’t publicize my blog; my poor mother doesn’t even know I’m writing again. But no matter how much I try to smother or stifle or lay a fat down pillow over her face, this writing voice is calling out, her echo bouncing around in my soul that it is time to write again. Twenty minutes a day, I’m getting back in shape, learning to listen to her, seeing the world again through words. Painting pictures in my mind of how I would describe that playground hazy with second-hand smoke in rural Tennessee, surrounded by parents who reveal far more tattoo ink than I’m accustomed to. Distractedly writing letters as I drive through the mountains. Trying on words like most women try on clothes and finding them wanting. By the end it starts to feel like I’m getting my feet under me and I know I can set the timer again tomorrow.