IMG_2859This is a confession. I struggle with envy. Its grip took hold in late grade school, about the point where I really started to wonder who I was. This is not the kind of envy for material things (although I am currently coveting really admiring my neighbor’s walls full of real artwork at the moment) but more an envy of identity. That other girl over there seems to be more of a serious writer, or this one is so unselfconscious, or that particular one is always so together. Yes, this oftentimes masquerades as a desire for material things, but the envy I feel is more about what a particular dress or clever story, or, in the last few years, a particular style of house represents. My imagination often sketches in the perceived actualization happening in another person.

Two years ago, God arranged a meeting with me and my envy. I thought at first that this meeting was about Angela, about how I could help lift this precious lady’s burden by listening, but in that listening, God was also lifting mine. The struggle to be constantly looking outside yourself and who you are with God for your identity is tiring. It’s living in the future. It’s missing what’s right before you. I imagine it like looking out of the window at the dinner party across the street, missing the beautiful people invited around your own table. It’s also unreal. Reality is not imagined perfection, it’s struggle, it’s journey, it’s joy that comes in seeing each person around you not as someone you-are-not, but someone you-are-with.

Envy at Children’s Theatre

Two hours in the theatre dark we sat,
Our daughters rehearsing roles together.
She was one of those moms, hip and earthy,
Blonde with early gray, swept in a pony,
yoga pants and white teeth.
The kind of mother
that makes me wish I was the kind of mother
that knitted woolen stockings for my girls.
My oldest daughter died four years ago. She was four.
The little voices saying lines dimmed.

And then the weight loss and the worry and the vomiting
and the nystagmus and hours searching google
and the ct scans and the diagnosis and the needle pokes
and the bags and bags of chemicals
and the hospitals and the bruising and the shunts

And the brief interval of peace

and then the headaches and the e.r.
and the steroids and the tachycardia and the fevers
and the blindness and the tumor resection
and the lethargy and the nine different medications
and the hospital stay and the dad who slept by the bed
and the coma and the labored breathing

And then another kind of peace.

Happy, dancing bodies interrupted us
and we dried our faces.
I’m Angela, by the way, and your name is?
Jill, so nice to meet you.

She gathered her bags and her little girl.
I gathered my thoughts and my girls and followed her,
wishing to be the kind of mother
who remembers every detail from four years ago
because it matters
more than white teeth and yoga pants and urban chic,
and knitted woolen stockings.


lilypoemI’ve taken a long break from writing publicly, and I won’t bother to go into the details other than to say that I’ve felt compelled to break from presenting a persona online. I need more of the real me.

All artists are observers. This summer I had the privilege to go to the National Gallery in D.C. It was a glorious. I was amazed at the never-ending ways we observe life–some are realists, others gather impressions, some focus on the big picture, others on minutiae. Despite the grand diversity of art, each artist was recognizable by their particular way of observing. They may experiment, but within the range of their experimentation, there is a mark that says Rembrandt or Cassatt or Dali. I think that I am finally seeing and accepting my way of observing life. The real Jill. And one of my marks is tension.

I see tension everywhere…mostly in my own life and the roles that I have as wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, child of God, and I seem to write about that tension quite a bit.

I ended this summer by taking a new friend and our children out to Brazos Bend State Park one morning, where we could paint from the dock. I found myself scribbling observations and just painting a few lilies. The kids were full of life, and the tensions between humans and animals, mothers and children, the outwardly-exuberant and the solitude-seeker were ripe. So the following poem ensued. If I am shedding my persona, reducing the tension between my outward and inward face, I can’t think of a better way to start than by sharing my poems. Naked is the word that comes to mind. :)

Observation Deck

The deep today
Everything seems to be happening below

Yet here on the deck we are almost
Obnoxiously present–
feet trampling the wooden planks
Paint strokes missing the canvas
Voices raised in play, jest, protest

Three feet below us the sonorous, deep growls of the alligator
Tease us. He stubbornly refuses to appear, rolling under
The tangle of lilies like a child crawling under a blanket.

My mind is divided.

An ibis appears with a swoop but even he prefers
The cover of the cypress, so that we can only see
His feet dancing the steps of his morning hunt.

I want to dive below the dark water where the light
Is filtered green and sounds of voices are muted,
To lie still amongst roots and darting minnows and

Wonder what is above.

A violent splash startles me and I jump. The alligator has
Satisfied his hungry stomach and l look around and count my
Babies and breathe. One paints, another runs, all are seen.

All are seen.

Fighting Darkness with Light: 12 Things I Want to Remember from the Newtown Tragedy

light in darkYesterday, a 20-year-old man walked into a Connecticut kindergarten classroom and killed 20 children. My heart can hardly fathom this.

My mind was full of the events of the day: From parents dropping their kids off in the morning, fully expecting to see them again that afternoon, to the terror of the moments in the classroom, to the unimaginable grief experienced by the victims’ loved ones.  I don’t really want to think about these things…it feels as though my heart is being ripped in two. Yet, still, the thoughts keep coming…

There are all kinds of band-aids being applied to society’s ills right now…gun control, better social structures, more mental health care, better school security, etc.  None of these supply the answer though. We are broken, and we need a Savior.  Max Lucado reminded us today that our Lord was born in the dark; in a dark world that murdered hundreds of babies by the hand of Herod, a ruler, not some deeply troubled 21st c. man. Times change, but people’s hearts have not. And He knows this, yet still He suffered on our behalf. Our gentle Prince of Peace.

So today, while still reeling from the darkest blow—blows aimed at our youngest and sweetest—I have been collecting some truths I want to remember from this:

  1. Always part on loving terms.  No lost shoes are worth a grumpy send off in the morning. No argument is worth withholding a hug and a kiss and an “I love you.”
  2. Forgive others. Children, especially, are forgiving, and as a parent, I need this forgiveness and need to forgive as easily as well.
  3. Don’t ignore hurting people. Seek to understand. Don’t put on such a perfect face that hurting people can’t confide in you.
  4. Fight the desire to isolate. My first thought was to take my kids out of school and never let them go. Yet even my Father let his Son go into the world.
  5. Hug my kids more.
  6. Hug everyone more.
  7. Make every effort to bring beauty to the world – from comforting words, a kind touch, and including the misfit to painting a picture, writing a poem, and planting flowers.
  8. Listen without self-interest.
  9. Don’t be surprised by tragedy, but pray actively against it.
  10. Fight against violent video games. As the research in this book shows, killing gets easier with practice, even if the practice is virtual.
  11. Let your face light up with joy when you reunite with your children. Each day is a gift.
  12. Never forget that every person needs a new, forgiven life in Jesus Christ, and no person is beyond redemption. Even killers.

Yesterday, I wanted to curl up into a ball and just cry and hope that it really didn’t just happen. Today, I need to remember to fight the darkness with light.


Harper’s Index for Jill

Cover for Harper’s in May, 1971.

Continuing with Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of a Story, I have just finished the “Details, Details” chapter.  This next exercise was not really my favorite and I don’t think I did a particularly good job but I can see some minds coming up with some stellar responses, so I wanted to include it here.  The goal of this exercise is “to show how very specific, even quantifiable, details can add up to a ‘big picture,” in this case, a self-portrait. The exercise is modelled after the Harper’s Index, a monthly compilation of seemingly random statistics.

 Harper’s Index for Jill

Rank of the name Jill for girl babies in 1971: 59

Average number of months a driver gets their license after their 16th birthday: 0

Actual number of months after my 16th birthday that I got my license:  15

Number of diseases I’ve thought I had:  82

Number of diseases I’ve actually had: 2

Number of hours I’ve spent googling obscure facts: 7,581

Average number of hours per day cleaning house: 0.5

Number of times I’ve left my phone on my car bumper: 3

Number of times my phone made it home riding on my bumper: 2

Number of times I’ve told my husband I left my phone on my bumper: 0

Percent chance that my husband will say, “Sure, we can have sandwiches.”: 0%

Average American family size in 2012: 2.47

My family size 2012: 7

Percentage of friends who ask, “Are you done yet?”: 100%

Average number of days per month that a child will shout, “I can’t find my shoes!”: 30

Ratio of pairs of shoes to child: 7:1

Number of living things in my house that are not people, pets, or plants,  and that are grown for food: 5

I Don’t Know Why I Remember: Part 2

If you’ve been reading my last few posts, you’ll know that I’ve been working through writing exercises from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story.  Go back to Part 1 for a more thorough explanation of the exercise.  In keeping with my attempt to not procrastinate, I wrote about two memories.  Ms. LaPlante suggests several.

I don’t know why I remember my grandmother Irene’s house so well, almost more than my childhood home.  Grandma lived in rusty red fourplex of government subsidized housing in Poteet.   The porch was concrete, grey and slick, and the screen door spring was tight, so tight that it squeaked upon opening and shut with a huge BANG, followed by two more bounces.  Most of the time Grandma kept the screen door open, but she was sure to keep the hook-and-eye latched.  She liked hearing the comings and goings of her neighbor, an older woman like herself that she didn’t care for that much.  “That old woman, across the way, she knows er’erbody’s business.” The front door opened straight into a small living room that had one couch, still covered in plastic “to protect it,” a braided polyester rug with small navy and orange stitching, a radio (“turn it up, that’s Freddy Fender!”), a black and white t.v., and a bookshelf with school pictures of every grandchild in every stage of development.  On the wall, she had a picture of herself when she was in her late twenties or early thirties.  Aside from her nose, I would have hardly recognized her.  She was young, with a fashionable 40’s hairstyle.  Though black and white, I could tell she was wearing red lipstick on her thin lips.  She smiled with her lips closed, to conceal her teeth, or lack thereof.

Whenever I spent the night, I would awaken to a wedge of light from my favorite room, the kitchen.  Grandma woke up when it was still dark.  I’d lie in bed listening the sounds of the morning.  The click of the gas stove, the drip of the coffeemaker, the fridge opening and shut.  The stove was a burnt brown enamel and a cast iron skillet always sat ready on the back burner.  The fridge had a small, manual defrost freezer.  I would often open the freezer and eat the ice crystals that formed along the sides.   A set of ceramic fruit decorated the wall, and bowl of plastic fruit and eggs sat on the gold-flecked formica kitchen table.  She’d sit me down at that table and serve me eggs fried in bacon grease and sometimes Special K with reconstituted milk. The milk smelled like vitamins.  The washer also sat in the kitchen, and there was a screen back door to the clothesline just a few steps away.  I’d often play in the rich dirt in the garden right outside that door.  I remember one time thinking the black dirt looked just like Folger’s crystals, so I got a spoon from the kitchen drawer, squatted down in the dirt, and eagerly scooped a full spoonful in my mouth.  It was just as hearty and earthy and delicious as I imagined it to be.  I was confused when she ripped the spoon away and rammed a garden hose in my mouth, yelling at me to spit it all out.

Her bedroom smelled like the Dove soap that spilled from the bathroom attached.  Her shower was dark with blue tile and had a corner seat built into it.  I would sit on it just because there was a seat in the shower.  I didn’t have a seat in my shower at home.  There was no door between the bathroom and the bedroom, but Grandma had hung a curtain up in the doorway.  The bedroom was really only big enough to hold the bed, one small chest of drawers, and an old, foot-powered black sewing machine with a big wheel.  She would let me sit at the machine and pump it with my foot, pretending to sew. Grandma kept her necklaces on a miniature Greek statue whose arms were missing.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that the arms hadn’t broken off.  The bedroom’s window was really a sliding glass door that opened onto a back porch that was only a few steps away from the kitchen door.  All the ways out of the house made it seem a lot larger than it really was.  Grandma told me that an old man named Mr. Ed would sometimes come and sit on her back porch at night and sing “Goodnight Irene.” When Grandma died years later, we included that song in her funeral program.

I Don’t Know Why I Remember: Part 1

As I mentioned in my last post, I am working through Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of a Story. The first exercise she has you do is to finish the sentence ‘I don’t know why I remember…”  You are not supposed to pick obvious events, like births and deaths, but truly let your right brain take over a seemingly insignificant event.  Again, don’t plan, just write.  And if you’re like me, limit yourself to 10-15 minutes to prevent procrastination.

If you decide to do this exercise yourself, feel free to share in the comments section.

I don’t know why I remember the little girl from one aisle over on a bus trip from Houston to Alpine.  I was traveling on a Greyhound line, going to summer camp in the Davis Mountains.  The bus had shiny velvet-like seats that were bouncy and made my stomach feel upside down over big bumps.  I noticed the girl when she had her head in her mother’s lap.  She sat up and looked across the aisle at me.  She was about my age, six or seven, yet she wore bright red lipstick.  Her black hair was short and curly, with a headband tucked in it and she had black, round eyes with long, curling eyelashes.  She was wearing a black dress with large red roses imprinted on it; cheap, thin material dressed up by a small edging of lace and tiny red buttons.   Her socks were white with cuffed ruffles – polyester socks, the kind that get sucked down into your shoes and make you irritable – and her black patent leather shoes were too big. She would flop one shoe off and catch it on the same foot.

Somehow in the nine hour bus ride, we ended up sitting next to each other.  I asked her where she was going.  She said she and her mom were moving to California.  I asked her where she had been living.  Florida.  That’s a long trip, I said.  Yeah, she said, mom said it will take 3 days.  I pictured their entire belongings packed up under the bus.  I wondered how the bus could hold so much, then I realized they couldn’t possibly have had much more than I did.  I had a huge trunk full of clothes for just two weeks.   Why was she wearing dressy clothes for such a dreadfully long trip? Would she change or wear the same thing for 3 days?  I hated polyester socks.  Maybe they were her only clothes, I wondered.

She had a hard time sitting still when she talked.  She twisted in her seat.  Her mom would occasionally look over at us, but mostly she slept.  She, too, had black hair, but hers was dull, frizzy and full.  She wore it long and unrestrained.  Her eyes were black and on her lips was the same red lipstick.  She looked tired and there were circles under her eyes.  I remember thinking that I was glad that she was not my mother.

My mother had packed me a bag for the bus.  I had juice and books, a few toys and snacks. I pulled out a coloring books and crayons, which I shared with the girl.  She also ate a package of peanut butter crackers.  I can’t remember if she told me she was a gypsy, but I distinctly remember thinking, as I stepped off of the bus, that gypsies were real.

Writing Exercise: The Barn

I have been reading Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story; A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. I don’t usually love to read books on writing. I’d much rather just read good literature and creative non-fiction writers. But I LOVE this book.  Love it. Every sentence a gem. I’ve been working my way slowly through it, which means I am actually stopping to do the exercises. I usually just blow through books like these because I just want to get it over with. Reading about writing has always felt like taking vitamins to me. I know I should take them, but I’m not really sure they are making me healthier.

In the chapter “Details, Details” she dives into “imagery that works on two levels.” Here is an excerpt that, frankly, scared me.

     Imagery is your way in to material.  It’s your way of reaching down into your subconscious and finding out what you really think about a person, place, thing, event. By describing it honestly and completely, and not leaving out anything, no matter how seemingly incongruous, you are finally writing.

Finally writing. Ouch. Have I been doing this?  Have I ever done this?  What have I been doing?

She includes an exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I felt compelled to try it. I’ll start with my quick piece, then afterwards I’ll explain the directions.  I only allowed myself about 10-15 minutes to do this.  Not because the directions said to, but because I will never do these exercises if I think they will take too much time.  I also did not edit afterwards, as much as I wanted to, especially as I drifted off to sleep later.

The Barn

The barn stood out alone on a hill.  Its wood was weathered, grey, brittle, riddled with holes along the bottom from termites.  Each plank looked in danger of crumbling by even a child’s weak kick.  The doors hung loosely and uneven, and wailed a high pitch groan each time the wind nudged one side open.  The door sighed as it swung back into its disjointed, but familiar, position.

Inside was a mixture of sweet hay, mouse feces, sweaty leather, and dander from no less than a hundred animals who had sheltered here since the last nail was placed.  In a corner stall, a bright blue baseball hat still hung tossed on a high hook.  SIMONE BLUE DEVI reflected the light each time the door swung open from a gust.  The LS was missing, having been picked off by nervous fingers years prior.

A rippled, shining stallion snorted in another stall.  An old metal highway sign was propped up behind him, and every now and then a loud DING would sound out as the horse kicked at the wall.  The sign was riddled with dents.  The stallion, in his impatient stamping, seemed to rebel against the stillness and age of the barn, his strength and life defying the walls to come down. DING, DING…DING.

Ok, here were the directions:  Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, the war, death, or the man.

I don’t know if I really stepped beyond what John Gardner ungenerously calls “the hack mind,” the mind that instantly leaps to sentimental images of death.  I like Alice LaPlante’s kinder assessment that falling upon the standard images of death is due to the “inexperienced” mind.  I figure if you are needing a book like hers, it’s okay to be inexperienced.

If you try this yourself, it would be fun to post your piece in the comments section.  I’d love to read them.