Fifteen Gifts – Day Four

On the drive to school this morning, I heard a story on NPR about a recipe for chicken that’s made in the South and is known to be “a punishment and a joy at the same time.” I had to pull out my notebook and write those words down because I knew that anything considered a punishment and a joy had to have a good story to it. Plus, the woman who said those words was Southern, and Southerners, God bless ’em, they know how to tell a story. I’ve never met someone from the South who can’t deliver the you-know-what out of a line.

The story goes that this recipe that calls for loads of cayenne, hot sauce, vinegar, pickle juice and whatever else to make a thick red sauce you slather on the chicken, originated out of a wife’s frustration over her philandering husband. The recipe’s so spicy sweat pops from your forehead and I think your throat’s at risk for closing up shop. Turns out, the cheater loved it, and the recipe, which I think is over 60 years old, took off. I don’t know if he stuck around, and stopped being a donkey. All I know is the punishment was equally brutal and wonderful.

“It’s a craving worse than anything,” one gentleman drawled.

I wish I knew what happened with that woman and her butthead husband. Did the spicy deliciousness bring him to his knees so that he apologized and never said, “I”ll be home late tonight,” again? Did she break off a chicken leg and hit him on the head with it then say, “This is the last meal you’ll ever have in this house I hope you die a little every time you’re eating McDonald’s chicken nuggets”?

I think that’s my problem – I hope for change but it’s likely I’ll ever know if that recipe was good enough to change a jerk and save a marriage. All I know is that I’ve been thinking about this chicken all day and when I see Jesse I’m going to tell him about it. He’s going to try to re-create it, and both of us will be equally terrified and giddy about eating it. We’ll lick our fingers, open another beer, and not think for a second about the change a joyous punishment might bring.

I understand a thing that’s a punishment and a joy. It’s like dwelling in possibility, like a small bird called Hope that sings without words and never stops, and never asks anything of me. “There’s nothing you can do,” Hope says, “I’m perched in your soul, and I come and go as a please.”

These poems of Emily Dickinson’s  I’m harkening back to are what we read in class today. I don’t think the students got them and I’m sure it’s because I didn’t explain them well. I tried to. I tried to talk about the cedars in the second stanza, and how they might be a type of tree, so Possibility might a place to grow. Or maybe since the cedars are referred to frequently in the Bible, Dickinson is suggesting poetry is as holy as scripture. How great, I thought as I prepped my notes. Which one will they dwell in? Or, will they come up with another interpretation?

Some fell asleep. Others threw paper. One went to the nurse and I swear nothing was wrong but I can’t do anything to prove it.

It’s miserable when I can’t connect with them. Still, Hope perches in my soul and it won’t fly away. I don’t think I accept that it won’t ask anything of me, though. How can that be? What is wrong with my belief system that I insist it is all up to me and the work I do and how well I do it that will make Hope stay? How is it that Hope dwells in this house, makes it feel beautiful and capable and full of possibility and never asks for a thing? What kind of love is this where you understand the punishment but refuse to stop because there’s simply to much joy to eat?

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Fifteen Gifts – Day Three

For an explanation of this project, click here.

Today we worked on character, and character for Creative Nonfiction can be a tricky thing because, like all things CNF, you have to work with what’s there. You can’t make someone funny or kind if they’re not. If a person is scared or obnoxious for example, you have to write them that way.

“Don’t write the word obnoxious,” I told the students. I pulled a Mark Twain and told the students to take that old lady out and make her scream. Or, in this case, take her out and make her give you unwanted advice.

I passed out worksheets with about a billion adjectives for personalities on it: eager, quiet, compassionate. I had the students choose one minor character in one of the CNF essays we are studying and circle adjectives for that person.

“Now write that story from this character’s point of view. Given what you understand about their personality, how would this character tell the story?”

At the Festival of Faith and Writing, I went to a seminar about Young Adult Fiction, and I believe it was Bryan Bliss who said that, “love is the realization that someone is real.” I want my 8th graders to write great characters. However,  studying a real person with all their flaws and sins, then writing that person in a way that the reader can relate, understand, or even love that person is the concept I want them to take away from my class.

Writing Creative Nonfiction is an act of faith for me. Don’t get me wrong, I rarely pray. I never witness. I swear quite a bit and I’m a bit of a gossip. But when I sit down to write, I imagine God asking this: LOOK! (and yes, I think he says this in all caps) HERE’S WHAT I GAVE YOU. WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO WITH IT?” It seems that, to name something about a person is a bit like writing them off. “She’s smart.” He’s reliable.” “He’s boisterous.” “She’s manipulative.” It’s been my experience that when I can’t use those words and I have to instead write about a time when someone was that way, I see more to the story. I see more to that person. So I write, and I say to God, (not in all caps because I’m shy), “Here’s what You gave me. Here’s what I did with it. What do you think?” I suppose trying to teach the 8th graders CNF is a little like sharing my faith with them.

After our break, we worked on poetry. “Barbara Frietchie” was the poem we looked at.

“That’s a man named Barbara!” one of the students said, looking at the poet’s picture.

“What?” another student said. “Why would any parents name their boy Barbara?”

“HE HAS A BEARD!” one student exclaimed, tapping the textbook.

“Well, he didn’t have a beard when he was a baby,” another one reasoned.

“Who cares? You don’t name a baby boy Barbara!”

“‘Barbara Frietchie’ is the title of the poem,” I told the class. “The author is John Greenleaf Whittier.”

“OH!!!!! HAHAHAHAHA! WE thought that man’s name was Barbara! HAHAHAHAHA!”

We read the poem and discuss rhythm and rhyming patterns. We talk about iambic tetrameter and I reminded the class that Romeo and Juliet is written in iambic pentameter. We talked a bit about what this woman did and how she must’ve been pretty brave.

I am fascinated by authors’ ability to write evocative stories in a specific form, but I didn’t share that observation with the class. My writing has felt tired lately, and a friend suggested I try writing an essay in form: lyric, or braided, for example. I’ve been paying attention and wondering about telling a story in form, and today was one of those instances when my writing habits got too close to my students and I wasn’t bold enough or sure enough to tell them sometimes, especially now, I am afraid to write.

Instead, I handed them a photocopied page of one of the CNF essays they’ve read. I explained that they need to create a Black Out Poem. This is a fun poem to make. What you do is find a set of words throughout the page that create poetry, then black out the rest.

“What’s the meter?” one student asked.

“No meter,” I said.

“Does it have to rhyme?” another one wondered.

“Nope. You can’t add words, and the poem must start at the top and read down the page,” I told them.

They lifted their pencils. They pressed their faces close to the paper. Some smiled. Some rolled their eyes. Some talked to their friends. Others shot baskets with empty (and full) water bottles. Some lifted their poems from their desk and reached them toward me. “Is this right?” they asked. “What do you think?”

I walked around the room watching what they would do with what they’ve been given. What else could they find on that page? What is it they can make real that we will love?

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Fifteen Gifts – Day Two

(For an explanation of this project, click here.)

Turns out, that nut I was referring to last time is the Brazilian nut. Also, it takes anywhere from 10 to 30 years to produce a crop. Could be year eleven, fifteen, could be year twenty-eight when that thing is ripe for the picking. (Picking? Do you pick a Brazilian nut?) Once you pick it, it’s fourteen months before you can eat it. That’s a lot of time – a lot of uncertainty – providing for a thing, giving it what it needs to grow. Seems to me you have to have a lot of faith that something you’re doing is right and something good will happen at some point in time (though you may never know).

My new friend told me this about the Brazilian nut. She handed me a beautiful white box filled with chocolates and mixed nuts just before I went to class. “Did you know,” she told me, “that their shell is nuclear?” I told her I did not know this and she said, “Yes, and they aren’t allowed into Germany with their shells.”

“Interesting,” I told her, holding the box she gave me and thinking about the sort of damage that is caused when we hold on to what is inside of us because we are afraid to give it away.

“But you know,” she continued, “what’s inside provides a lot of nutrients. There’s a lot of good stuff inside.”

“You have to break the shell,” I said.

“You have to break the shell,” she smiled.

I gave her a hug. I don’t hug people. I’m not a hugger, and I’d prefer not to do it ever, but I hugged her.

Today in class I passed back everything they’ve written so far in the quarter. We are studying Creative Nonfiction and today marked the beginning of a huge project I’m going to walk the 8th graders through. They are to create a Creative Nonfiction scrapbook with 10 samples of writing. Hundreds of papers were passed back today (they’ve done a lot of writing), but one kid, a worried look on his face says, “Mrs. Feyen, I’ve lost everything.” He has papers everywhere: on his desk, on the floor, strewn over his backpack. I kneel down next to his desk, and every time I do this in class I wonder a little bit about washing feet on Maundy Thursday. I pick up a stack of papers. I show him what he hasn’t lost. “You have a lot of good writing here,” I tell him. He smiles and I can see his face relax. Not too much has been lost.

Another boy, one who is maybe three feet taller than me and who does a perfect impression of Chewbacca at the most inconvenient times (but really, when is it a good time to sound like Chewbacca in English class?), wrote a persuasive argument about social media and video games. It is articulate and thoughtful and I’m proud of him. I tell him that when I hand him the paper. I have to sort of yell it because it’s so loud in my classroom, but he hears me and nods. It’s a shocked, sort of, are you sure you’re talking about me nod. He looks closely at his paper and I wonder if he’s making sure he’s the one who wrote it. He is.

When the papers are all passed back and I’ve explained the project, I have them take out a piece of notebook paper. “Before you begin to revise what you’ve written,” I tell them, “I want you to write one more piece for me.”

I tell them that Creative Nonfiction is about handling the truth, and sometimes that means wondering about the truth. Today, I want them to wonder about the truth, and I have them write a letter to their future selves. Specifically, April 2017, when they’re almost finished with their Freshman year.

“What do you want to tell yourself? What do you hope? What do you wonder about? What do you want to accomplish?” I tell them I will mail them the letter a year from now. It’s what my 8th grade English teacher did for me, and reading it my Freshman year was weird and sweet and sort of like being haunted by a friendly, scared ghost. A ghost with no shell, just a whisper of what she wanted to become when she walked into that great, big school not sure if she was ready to do more of the work of figuring herself out.

They write and they are so quiet wondering about the truth of the future. I sit down at my desk and wait.

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Fifteen Gifts – Day One

{An Introduction} This Monday was a terrible, no good, very bad day with my 8th graders. There was yelling. I kicked a girl out of class. I cried on the way home from school, and that hasn’t happened in a while between this group and I. I was crying so hard I had to pull over and collect myself so that I wouldn’t upset Hadley and Harper when I picked them up from school. I did not want to go back. Even now as I write this I’m fantasizing about working at some kind of cute stationary/coffeeshop/wine store where I get to design paper products and write book reviews and read and write my own stuff. We’re going to hold book readings and poetry readings and writing workshops and the only rule is you can’t write on a computer. You have to bring in notebooks and pens or pencils. You don’t have one? That’s OK. They’re on sale in my cute staionary/coffeeshop/wine store. Yes, I made those sugar cookies. Yes, you can have two. What’s that? You’d like me to read an excerpt from my latest Newberry? Oh goodness, OK. But just this one time, and then you need to go write.

I did go back, and I was sitting at my desk in the classroom looking over my lesson plan for the day, trying to figure out what it is I’m doing wrong so I can make it right. Two women walk in, they were substitute teachers, but in my mind they were angels because they stood with me for about fifteen minutes and they talked with me about this class. They made me laugh. One of them said, “My kids are grown and they refer to   the middle school years as the ‘years that must not be named.'” The other one told me about a kind of nut that takes years and years to grow and rarely does anyone see the change. “They’re not like peanuts,” she told me. These nuts have more of a journey to take.

The women met with a group of kids in the back of the room for a few minutes, and when they were finished, one of them asked me if I’d read the latest Ann Voskamp blog. “It’s about feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. You know, never feeling like you can get a handle on any of it.” She put a pen she borrowed back on the desk. “It’s about grace, too.”

I don’t normally read Ann Voskamp, but I read it and she had me hooked when she wrote that grace doesn’t always feel good. I don’t like it when people tell me grace should feel good because I don’t always believe that. I wondered if maybe what I am experiencing with this group of 8th graders is grace.

Before these women came into the classroom, I was counting how many days I had left with these kids (I know, I’m awful). Fifteen days. Two weeks. I was thinking of giving myself fifteen little gifts for getting through each day: a pair of flip flops one day, a donut another. Maybe I buy myself flowers on another day. After they left though, and Ms Voskamp gave me a new definition of grace, I thought, “What if I found one gift with these 8th graders from now until they are no longer mine?”

So I think that’s what I’ll try to do. Here’s Day One:

We read, “Taking A Dare,” by Nicholasa Mohr today. A girl takes Communion without confessing, on a dare. She writes that she was sick of her friends’ humble brags regarding how awesome and pure they feel after confessing. She tells them confessing is no big deal – she’s going to take Communion without confessing. They can’t believe she’s going to do it. They say surely she will go to hell for this offense.

The girl follows through on her dare, but she’s afraid and worried she’s done something wrong. Years later, she confesses what she’d done to a priest. He gives her a small penance compared to what she thought she’d get. “Afterward,” Mohr writes, “I admitted to myself that it was a great relief to be able to confess and remove those dreaded sins from my conscience. But I never once admitted my relief to Casilda, Wanda, Mary, and little Ritchie, or even Joey. After all was said and done, I had won the dare. My newfound clean conscience remained my secret.”

I wondered what my students thought of this. Is faith strongest when you don’t show it? What is it that’s growing and hidden in this classroom that I will never see? Will it be strong enough to take with them?

We’re studying poetry as well as Creative Nonfiction because it’s National Poetry Month and also because I’ve learned the busier I keep this class the less problems we have.

Today, we’re reading “Paul Revere’s Ride.” I tell them a little about the background and the poet, Longfellow. I tell them the elementary school I went to was named after Longfellow. I show them pictures of me in grade school. One of me at my 6th birthday party. Another on Halloween dressed like Cyndi Lauper and Geoff is a Chiquita banana. Another of me in 5th grade with a perm. I don’t know why I show them these pictures. To share, I guess. To make them laugh. They’re such a tough group and I love making them laugh.

We go outside to read the poem because it’s beautiful out. Spring is here and I think it’s here to stay. My classroom with all these kids in it is so stuffy and today’s the day when the sun melts the tension I carry between my shoulder blades so that it hurts to breath away. Today’s the day when the breeze is just right – a whisper of cool so as not to disrupt the glory of the sun.

I didn’t plan to take them outside, but one student saw me take the 7th grade class outside and asked if they could do the same. In the history of teaching, I never change my plans at the spur of the moment, except with this class. I don’t know why. I want to make them happy. They make me take risks. Be bold. They make me try so hard and forget about everything else so that when I come home I have nothing left. For anyone.

So we go outside and they work. I can’t believe they work, but they do. What would’ve taken 45 minutes of me “sshing” and trying to lead a discussion takes twenty minutes.

One girl and her friend finish early and they stand. She begins to spin around and around and I think about fifth grade when one of my classmates did the same thing. She spun and she spun and I guess the spinning made her think she could fly because she jumped and I don’t know how she did it but she was parallel to the ground, and about three feet above it. We all gasped in awe and also delight because we knew she would fall smack! to the ground and the room was dead silent but in seconds it would be filled with moronic laughter, the best kind. I could feel it gurgling in my stomach.

Taking flight must be universal because this girl did the same thing and watching her I was eleven all over again, writing complete sentences and then I wasn’t because I was laughing. How does someone think they can fly when they start to spin? I spin and I spot something so I know where I am; where I’m going. How do you get to be so bold to spin and lose track of where you are, feel nauseous, and if that weren’t enough, lift off to see if you can fly? Of course you can’t fly, but do you do it anyway because what if? What if you flew? What if you took Communion without confessing and got away with it and ended up with a stronger, haunted faith you’ll never be able to articulate no matter how hard you try?  What if you did things you were afraid of?

You fall to the ground. You fail. For a moment though, it wasn’t that way. For a moment you had lift off. Maybe that’s enough to try again. I dare you.


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What To Read In April


It seems rather aggressive to tell you I think you should be reading poetry in April, but I think you should be reading poetry in April. It is, after all, the month of poetry, nationally speaking.

What’s that? You say you don’t like poetry? That’s because you’ve not read Jill Reid. Or, Stephanie DiMaria. Or Sarah Wells.

Megan Willome has a new book out called The Joy of Poetry that would be perfect for this month. My copy came in the mail last week and I’ve been doing my best not to crease it as I peek into its pages (I ordered it for a friend). She collects poetry all year and over Thanksgiving weekend, because that is her year’s end, she brews a pot of tea, and sits down to read through it. I think that’s a lovely tradition: the year’s end at Thanksgiving and reading through what it is you’ve collected those 365 days.

Recently I’ve been thinking that instead of my free writes, I ought to try to write a poem. At least, I should read a poem before I attempt to lay my stories down on paper. Poetry makes me see the world differently than fiction or non-fiction. I think it’s because I toil over those words a bit more. Seems like every word counts so I better pay attention to why it was chosen.

About a month ago, when I was preparing to teach the end of Romeo and Juliet, I paused at the first line of the Prince’s last speech: “A glooming peace this morning with it brings.” I stopped because I was sad I hadn’t noticed that phrase, “glooming peace” last year, and I stopped because I was happy to have picked it up this second time around. I’m not telling anything new when I write that Shakespeare was a master with words, but I’ve been particularly impacted by his ability to make me feel antonyms, like gloomy peace. What a perfect way to describe the end to this story, and also, this time of year; when the excruciating reality of what love can do leaves us in its wake. We read the last scene during Holy Week and I think a peace that is full of lament and sorrow is the sort of peace that passes understanding and because of it, is hard to sit with. The peace we have been given comes with gloom.

I’m no poetry expert, but I do think what helps is to come at poems playfully. One thing I do in my classes is have my students find a line or two to illustrate. Of course we can’t understand all of Shakespeare, I tell them. That will take a lifetime (at least, for me). But how about one or two lines? They gave it a shot after we read the scene in Romeo and Juliet the morning after their wedding night, and here is what some of them came up with. I played along, too. Mine is the first one. Don’t be jealous of my artistic ability.IMG_2855 IMG_2856 IMG_2857 IMG_2858 IMG_2859 IMG_2860 IMG_2861 IMG_2862 IMG_2863

I’m not sure if it makes a difference in their understanding of iambic pentameter and William Shakespeare. When I come up with these ideas, I get excited to try them and hope that something magical will happen while they’re looking at a set of 10-20 words. While the idea is being played out in the classroom though, I wonder if I executed it correctly. Too much fooling around, too many, “I don’t get its,” and I think perhaps I should’ve just given them the answer; told them what it means. Then again, maybe this is what it feels like to live in an antonym – to fumble and grasp at something we only sort of understand and attempt to share it with others.  “Do you get it?” I’ll ask, kneeling next to a student who twiddles her foot and pencil while I try to explain. “Yeah, sort of,” she’ll say. “OK,” I’ll say and stand up to walk away. “I don’t understand all of it, either.” She’ll laugh at me, and I’ll feel bad, but ignore it and walk away. She’ll draw something to show a slice of understanding and I’ll be so proud of her for trying.

It’ll feel like gloomy peace; like April.

Happy Poetry Month.

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A Fool in April

IMG_1583It was August of 2013 when I began an essay about Ivan Mestrovic’s sculpture of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Lauren Winner, my mentor at the time, gave us an assignment to write an essay about something that we researched. We could put ourselves in the story, but she was trying to get us to expand our writing repertoire. She told us she was tempted to give us the topic: Write the history of the pencil. She (sort of) laughed after she said it, and we laughed too, but had she been serious we would’ve done it. If you’re a student of Lauren Winner’s, you do what she says.

So I’m in St. John’s cafeteria, at a wooden table next to the windows, and I open up a fresh notebook and begin taking notes on Ivan Mestrovic. I learn about his life, his work, and I jot down as many questions as I can about the conversation between Jesus and this woman.

The story has always bothered me. I feel defensive of the woman whose name we never learn. I wonder what happened to her after she ran from the well named after the man who wrestled with God.

Some summer in the early 2000s, when Jesse was a student at Notre Dame, I would ride my bike from our apartment and sit at this sculpture while I waited for him, and we’d ride back home along the St. Joseph River, towards Corby’s and the East Race. I sat on a bench behind the sculpture, waited, and looked at the quad. It took me a while, probably a few weeks, to notice Jesus and the Samaritan woman and when I did I was shocked. Why in the world would this sculpture be out in the open? Who would want to think about this story while they’re taking a break from classes, or watching the football team march towards Notre Dame stadium?

At the same time I was working on this essay, I was reading Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader. In an annotation on Russian literature, she compares the soul to water: “The soul is not restrained by barriers. It overflows, it floods, it mingles with the souls of others.” I wonder if this mingling is what we are looking at when we sit beneath the trees or circle the well to get a closer look, and the mingling is uneasy, awkward, heated. If this place on campus was meant for restoration and appreciation of Mestrovic’s work, then we must find rest in knowing our souls are weary, that there will be struggle ahead, and the people – the other souls – we run into will shake us up quite a bit. “Out it tumbles upon us,” Woolf writes, “hot, scalding, mixed, marvelous, terrible, oppressive – the human soul.” It’s the encounter, the struggle that marks us as we turn to go home with our empty jugs.

The essay I was writing since 2012 was not working and I gave up on it until one day in December of last year I had an idea to write the story in the third person with a college girl as the main character. I don’t say her name because I’m playing around with parallelism, but the essay is Creative Nonfiction and anyone who knows me knows very well who this girl is. Or, who this girl was. If anything, the girl is getting better at allowing herself to be marked by the struggle.

I’m quite proud of this essay. It’s the closest to trying to write like Flannery O’Connor I believe I’ll ever get. Thank you to the early readers who helped me with it: Howard Schaap, Rachel Woldum (who sent Hadley and Harper all the Betsy-Tacy books one fall afternoon, and we’ve been delighted with those girls ever since), Laura Turner, Chrysta Brown, Lauren F. Winner, Sarah Wells, and Jessica Rapisarda. Also, thank you to Meg Jenista, Diane Westerink, and Leonard VanderZee who helped me with the research.

Read it here.

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Like The Wild Was Waiting For Us

Hadley, Harper, and I are on our way to hike around Seneca Creek State Park when Harper says, “Mommy, did you know Abraham Lincoln was a wrestler?” I’m wondering whether Harper is speaking figuratively, but I tell her that no, I did not know President Lincoln was a wrestler.

“Yup, he was,” she tells me. “I have a picture of him and he’s holding a man above his head and he has his top hat on so you know it’s him. You know it’s Abraham Lincoln.”

“Because of the top hat,” I confirm.


It’s Day Two of Spring Break and I’m thoroughly baffled. Where is this picture? Is it in a book? An encyclopedia? Did Harper find this picture on Google? When was she on Google?

My next thought is, “Well, at least I’m not in the middle of a conversation about butts and poop.” Hadley and Harper cannot go an hour without talking about butts and/or poop. Last night, as I was walking upstairs to read to the girls before bed, I heard Harper say to Hadley, “If you don’t tell on me, I’ll NEVER say that word again.” I braced myself for the worst. Turns out, Harper said butt magic. Like, Big Magic except not.

“Stop saying stuff with butt in it,” I tell the girls.

“OK! HAHAHAHAHAHA! NO MORE BUTTS! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA,” is how they respond. It’s a lost cause. What’s a mom to do? You want some advice? You just keep on keepin’ on. You can’t stop the butts. They are unstoppable, and they are everywhere. May as well hike around nature for a bit.

IMG_2809IMG_2821So that’s what we do, and I’d like to tell you the jokes stop for a while, but then you would pack a backpack and snacks, throw your kids in the car and jubilantly drive to the land where nobody makes butt jokes and everyone contemplates the beauty of God’s creation. My friends, unless you’re referring to the function and/or look of derrières, don’t hold your breath. As we got out of the car, Harper coughed with her mouth closed and that made her toot, which made her laugh so hard I didn’t think we would ever hit the trail.

“Hadley! Hadley! I coughed with my mouth closed and guess what happened? I TOOTED! HAHAHAHAHAHA!  Come here! Come here! Listen to me cough with my mouth closed. Maybe it’ll happen again!”

IMG_2806IMG_2810IMG_2818IMG_2820A few minutes into the woods, though, and there’s more to talk about. Hadley tries to walk on all the fallen tree trunks. She wants to see how close to the water she can get while staying on the trunks. She notices that the higher off the ground the trunk is, the more bouncy it becomes and she gets nervous. “If I stay on some of these,” she says “I’ll fall.”

“You’ll have to learn how to fall on a slant,” I tell her, and we are both silent for a few minutes. I am thinking about what it means to fall on a slant; to slip off a log and land on uneven ground. Would Hadley be afraid? Would she be upset because she got hurt? Would she be exhilarated because she knew there was a possibility she could fall, and she did, but she’s OK and now she can say she knows how it feels to live for a moment on an uneven, unstable surface?

Harper sings and skips and picks up treasure along the way. She examines tree bark, acorns, and looks for bright green buds popping out of the dirt. She tells us she loves the plunk and pop of the water that laps on the edges of where we are, and  when the wind blows through the trees above us she is startled. “What is that?”

“That’s the wind,” I tell her.

“Oh,” she sighs. “I wish you could take a picture of this sound, Mommy.”



IMG_2827Half-way through our hike, Harper begins to look for H’s. She finds them everywhere.


IMG_2830“There are so many H’s out today!” she exclaims, “it’s like the wild was waiting for us.”

IMG_2817I am reading an advanced copy of Paula Huston’s new book, One Ordinary Sunday: A Meditation on the Mystery of Mass (I am reviewing it for The Englewood Review.) In a section called “Mass at Play,” she writes about playing in preparation for the more serious, more sacred story of Mass. “The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity;” Huston tells us that Romano Guardini says. “It must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with saying and thought and gestures, without always asking, ‘Why?’ and ‘Wherefore?'”

Huston shares Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts on play: “Children’s play seems in many ways a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity. On this analogy, the liturgy would be a reminder that we are all children, or should be children, in relation to that true life toward which we yearn to go.”

We are outside, the three of us; not in Mass. I wonder though, what might be sacred about what we are doing? What is divine about the wild waiting for us? What sort of testimony are we living when we find a piece of ourselves in the wild and declare that, of course we have found ourselves here – the wild’s been waiting for us!

We are at the end of our hike, Hadley is yards in front, playing some sort of game with herself: she cannot step on mud, only tree trunks. Harper is yards behind me, her pockets bulging with treasure, her head low to the ground looking for more H’s. I stop to watch her. She hears me stop and looks up, I think, to gauge whether my stance shows that I am annoyed that she’s taking too long. I’m not annoyed; just watching my girl explore.

“I’m not lollygagging,” Harper says, “I just don’t want to miss any treasure.”

“Where in the world did you learn the word, ‘lollygag,’ Harper?” I ask. I’m amazed, and trying to think back to which book she is reading that she picked that word up. Magic Treehouse? Harry Potter?

Potty Animals,” Harper says.

Clearly the wild waits for my girls in the most unexpected places; ready to make them laugh, ready to show them how to fall on a slant, ready to play so they can do and become whatever it is they are yearning towards.


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Off The Page

Last summer, I met Chris Fann, the editor at Off the Page, for coffee at Lyon Street Cafe. We talked about writing. He had a copy of IMAGE journal with him and he said that the type of writing he is looking for ought to explore the Christian faith, but he doesn’t want readers to walk away with a “meh” feeling after reading writers’ posts. I told him I’d like to give it a shot and we set some deadlines, none of which I made. I wrote him in the middle of October and said, “Sorry, but I think I better bow out.” The essay I’d been working on since July was not coming together. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and gave me another deadline (I think this one was my fifth) – sometime in January 2016.

I made that deadline, and that story will come out April 1. Today though, I have another one on Off The Page. It’s for Holy Week and I write about a group of guys at Starbucks, Justin Bieber, and Judas. Interested in how I pull it off? Read it here.

I owe the idea of this essay to Cameron Dezen Hammon. She and I were in graduate school together and I keep up with what she’s up to via social media. A few weeks ago, she posted a picture on Instagram with the caption: Everything I love is broken. I commented, “That would be a great essay.” She said, “Write it!” So I did. Thanks Cameron, for the inspiration!

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Some Writing, A Tip, and A Pep Talk

I was on Art House America recently. I wrote an essay called “A Surge and A Story,” and it’s sort of a Lenten reflection on Jesse’s work and my storytelling. I attempt to make a metaphor out of water and God and run it through the course of the piece. (Hmmm, water and God….nobody has EVER thought to make a metaphor out of that. Where does she come up with her ideas?)

I’m thrilled to be on Art House America again. I found the website a few years ago and after reading a few of the essays, I was thankful to be in graduate school because I thought that after I graduated, I might have a better chance of submitting to Art House. Plus, I have struck up a friendship with Jenni Simmons, who is the editor. If you are on Instagram, I recommend you follow her. I love the way she sees the world and the way she shares it with us.

Last week my story about my 8th graders ran on Relief Journal. Something has shifted with this class and I since I wrote this. (Keep in mind I am referring to the point when I started to write this essay, not when it was published seven days ago. I think I started writing this at the end of January.) I feel at home with them when they walk in the classroom. I’ve been smiling more. I start to think that next year at this time I won’t be able to call them mine, and I get sad.

The day this was published, George, the main character in my essay, walked into class with an oven mitten on his hand. I asked him why he was wearing an oven mitten and he told me that it hurt to open his binder, and that mitten made it easier to open it. Fair enough, I thought. “George,” I asked. “Are you right handed?” His mitten was on his right hand, and yes, he is right handed.

“How will you write in class today?” I asked him.

“I can do it,” he said.

So I have them write about a time when they were really scared; so scared, that they couldn’t control their thoughts. I wanted them to relate to how Juliet must’ve felt when she gave her soliloquy before she took the poison. They wrote and they wrote and it was so quiet I got scared. I said, “Now, look what you wrote about and see if there is anything else besides fear.” Lots of them said things like anger, confusion, sadness, and that all made a lot of sense. It’s what I assumed they’d find.

Well, George, he found something different. He raises his ovenmitted hand and tells us that once he thought there was a stranger in the house.  He tells us he gets out of bed and goes to find the stranger in order to save his parents from him or her. “I was scared, but what got me out of the bed was the love I have for my parents, so I see love in what I wrote.”

Me too, George. Me, too.

In other news, I received a few messages here and there lately circling around two topics: my writing routine and fear in rejection. My responses are to give readers a tip and a little pep talk.

The longest I can write is 90 minutes and here is why: I make three cups of coffee each morning. As soon as I pour one cup, I set my kitchen timer for 30 minutes, and then I walk to my desk and sit down. I stay there until the timer goes off, then I pour myself another cup of coffee, set the timer, and sit down again. It is elementary, I know, but if I don’t set the timer I will get up after 5 minutes, or as soon as writing is hard and it is ALWAYS hard. I will change my clothes. I will work on lesson plans. I will go to Target. I will eat donuts. So if you are thinking about writing or wondering about a writing routine, I suggest using this method. If 30 minutes is too long, set it for 15. I guarantee you can write a sentence you’ll be proud of in 15 minutes.

Here are my thoughts on rejection: It’s not something I’m afraid of, but it is something that makes me sad. I also have a difficult time not comparing myself to what other writers are doing, or more specifically HOW other writers are doing. I’m ashamed that nothing I’ve written has ever gone viral. I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut when I read about someone who’s been blogging for five, six, or even two years and they are at 10,000 subscribers. How does that happen and what is wrong with me that I can’t make that happen? What is wrong with my writing? That is the path I begin to go down after I’ve written something that hasn’t done well (or as well as other writers).

When I am on this path, two things can happen. Mean Callie can come out, and she is a real bitch. She starts saying nasty things; anything from my writing to my faith, to my mothering, to my weight. “Your butt got bigger, and that’s why you can’t write anymore,” is something that she would say. Mean Callie thinks this is a good way to get back to work, and I’m sorry to say sometimes it works. I don’t suggest developing a mean alter ego for yourself because I don’t know when to turn her off and she darkens the way I see the world.

What I do suggest is what I’ve been doing a lot more of lately. I say to myself, “That really stinks that you put weeks and maybe even months into that piece and nobody said a word about it.” I’m usually on a run when this voice comes out, so I run for a few minutes and then I add, “So what do you want to do? Do you want to stop writing? Because you can. You can stop anytime you want.” I’ll run and imagine my life without trying to write it every once in a while, and so far my answer to this question has always been, “No. I don’t want to stop. I’m willing to sit down and try again.”

I realize now that I’m willing to try again not so much for people to say, “HOLY COW CALLIE YOU ARE A FABULOUS WRITER!” That’s nice, I admit. That’s real nice. But what gets me to sit down is what has happened between my 8th graders and I. I see more than my fear and sadness. I see a lot of love. Any post you read here, anything I’ve written on Coffee+Crumbs, Relief, Makes You Mom, Tweetspeak, even the Banner – anything I set out to write I understand now that I’m looking to see more than what I set out to see.

I don’t know one writer (and I know a few) who doesn’t have to deal with fear or anxiety or sadness or jealousy. Not one. My pep talk is this: you are going to have to figure out how to hold hands with those emotions while you write. When you do, you’ll find a better story.

I’m finishing this post up as Hadley reads the first Harry Potter across the table from me. “Remember the grim?” she asks me smiling. I tell her yeah, I remember. “That seems like something that’s not that big a deal,” She tells me and she’s kind of laughing now. I wonder if she’s nostalgic for those pages now that we are in the fifth book and things are much more complicated, or if she’s proud that she got through them and stuck with JK Rowling because sticking with the story helped Hadley trust the narrator, the characters, and the power of fiction.

“Like,” Hadley says, “you kind of forget about that fear,” she says, still grinning.

Yes. You were scared once and you got through it, and hey, wasn’t that a good story?

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Currently March 2016

IMG_2645{Taking} a picture of Harper on this tree stump every time we walk to ballet. It is always her suggestion, and it goes like this: “Mommy, will you take a picture of me on this tree stump and send it to Daddy?” Each time she has a new message for him to go with the picture. Today’s was: “It’s Spring even though it’s technically winter!”

{Reading} Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith. When I first read this book, at 18 (it is nothing short of a miracle that I read this book at 18 because 18 year old Callie did not read books), I thought I loved it because of Carl and Annie. I think that this is still true, but it’s Annie I adore. She might be my favorite literary heroine, probably because I see myself (or I want to see myself) in her.”I guess she’s all right, he thought, or she wouldn’t be writing. Nothing will ever throw her-no matter what happens to her-if she can get it down on paper.” That’s what Carl said about Annie. See? Don’t you think I’m Annie?

Next up, I will be reading Tru and Nelle a novel about the friendship of Truman Capote and Harper Lee. This book was wrapped in tissue paper, sealed with washi tape, and waiting for me in my mailbox when I got to school on Monday – a gift from a parent of one of my 8th graders. “Don’t grow weary doing good work,” she wrote. Good gracious if that didn’t bring tears to my eyes.

{Drinking} Coffee. All the coffee all the time. I’m trying to get it so I can drink coffee all day long. It’s a hefty endeavor but I believe in pursuing lofty goals. Currently, I’m enjoying a batch of beans from Port Townsend called “Dante’s Tornado.” They were sent to me by my friend Jill. She and I had our first cup of Dante’s Tornado at this coffee shop looking over the Puget Sound. Down the block from this place is a bookstore, and in between are a slew of stores holding stationary, good food and pints, a little wine shop. You know I’m a city girl but if Jesse up and got a job near Whidbey Island I can’t say I’d be upset about it.

{Listening to} Over the Rhine on Pandora. I will have my SPU degree taken away from me when I say I don’t love every single Over the Rhine song, but I like this station.

{Watching} Jesse and I just finished Mozart in the Jungle and loved it. Now we are watching House of Cards and cringing. Although, compared to what’s really going on, I feel like this show might be a tad hallmark-y now.

{Texting} my friend Stephanie (do yourself a favor and read her work) and laughing uncontrollably about the antics of middle schoolers. I believe one of my texts to her was, “At least the toilet paper was clean.” I’m telling you, it takes a very special breed to walk into a middle school classroom and try and teach.

{Loving} a brand new (to me, anyway) magazine called Bella Grace. I found it in Barnes and Noble over the weekend and if I had a Top 10 places I want to write for, this would be #1. Beautiful writing, beautiful pictures, and there are writing prompts inside (which is where I got this list from).

{Writing} all sorts of things these days. Sometimes I can’t keep up with myself and I get stressed over all the words I want to put down on paper. I wrote about my 8th graders and Shakespeare for Relief Journal, and I wrote about hurricane storm surges and a guy named Jesse Feyen for Art House America. Both of those are forthcoming. (That’s a great word, don’t you think? It sounds so professional. Like I’m a writer.) You can read a piece I wrote for Tweetspeak about Willie Nelson. (By the way, if you are looking for a fabulous editor/writing coach, I can’t recommend Ann Kroeker enough. She worked with me on this essay for a long, long time and I am a better writer because of it.) My piece about walking into a grocery store and remembering my friendship with one of the best gals in the world is on Ripped Jeans and Bifocals, and if you’re in the mood to see Indiana in the fall, I’ll be leading a workshop at the Indian Faith and Writing Conference in October. I’m talking about how to write about sad and scary stuff. It’ll be a hoot!

As always, thanks for reading my words. I always feel better after I’ve captured a thing or two on paper, or, in this case, on the World Wide Web.

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