Thursday, December 31, 2015


     Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! I hope you are settling in this evening with friends and loved ones to ring in the new year. If your year has been anything like mine, I’m sure you’re looking forward to the change.
     Fundamentally, we all know that the turning of the calendar page is not an actual turning point. The earth continues to orbit the sun, the stars come out and disappear, the air is warm or cold depending on our position in relation to our daystar, but so many of us place stock in the turning of the seasons and the hanging of a new recordkeeper on the wall.
     The change of the year is purely mental—all of us understanding that with the new image and the new numerical track record on the calendar comes the opportunity to believe in change—both personal and global. All of us have watched events unfold in our country and around the world that have caused us to bite our nails to the quick, and whether we agree or disagree with the president and the government, all of us have closely watched the movements of congressional committees, the veto stamp, and the White House pen.  Secretly or not-so-secretly, most of us are holding our collective breaths until November, when We The People will hopefully parade to the election booths and select the folks we hope will work on our behalf for the betterment of our nation and even our personal interactions. I pray we choose well.
     For most of us, 2015 has been a bag of mixed blessings and difficulties. Five special blessings entered my life this year, five little men who I hope with all my heart will make a powerful mark on this world: Jaron, Collin, Ganton, Shaymus, and Killian. Five sweet little nephews who have each, in their own ways, stolen my heart.
     One of these blessings was not ours to keep. Jaron Isaiah Fulford was born March 27th after months of speculation; doctor’s visits; relocation of his mom, Jessica, and older brother, Caleb, to California for months; a strong wave of prayer from around the world, literally; and many, many nights of tears and hope. That he was born at all was an incredible miracle. Jaron was born with Cornelia De Lange syndrome, a chromosomal disorder most of us had never heard of. The disorder caused a congenital diaphragmatic hernia—a hole in the diaphragm which allowed many of his organs to develop in his chest, causing his lungs to be unable to develop properly or expand. The disorder also caused a lack of higher brain function and deafness.
     Despite all of this, and against every single prognosis given by his doctors, Jaron was born, and he snuggled his mom and dad for two full days. I had the blessing of getting to visit Jessica and Caleb where they were staying in California and feel him kick, lay funny, and goof around in his mom’s tummy. He was a fighter despite all the odds, and even though I never got to hold him, I was honored to attend one of his ultrasounds, and to “meet” him when I talked to him and felt him moving around.
     Jaron went home to be with the Lord on March 29th, but his impact on the world continues to be far-reaching, as folks who followed Jaron’s journey still reach out to Jessica and Ben and tell them how much Jaron’s little life meant to them. Jaron made a profound difference for me in other ways, as well. In all honesty, I used to be nervous around children who had developmental disabilities—children in wheelchairs, babies with down’s syndrome, youngsters with cerebral palsy or other disorders who didn’t look or behave like other children. Before Jaron was born, though, I started thinking about the reality that my little nephew might be deaf and that he might not look like “other” babies do. I came to realize then that I didn’t mind. That, in fact, I wanted to see how unique and beautiful he would be. I decided that if he was born deaf, I would learn sign language. I would teach him how to read. I would find what toys and games he liked best and play them with him. I would help others see just how beautiful he was.
     Even though I won’t have that opportunity, the idea has blossomed in my heart. The idea of learning sign language is more appealing to me now even than it was before, and the thought that I can honor Jaron’s memory by learning a way to talk to other children with developmental disorders warms my heart. This next year, I hope to take the first steps.
     My second major blessing was the opportunity to watch the birth of another nephew. Collin Tank Wade was born July 6 after a couple of false alarms and late-night drives to the hospital. This little man always has a smile and a hug for me when I see him, and he’s very patient with the antics of his older sister. Every once in a while, I get to hold all four of my little nieces and nephews—Lexi, Caleb, Jaron’s teddy bear, and Collin. There’s very little I enjoy more than playing with those little goofballs! Lexi and Caleb are developing very rich imaginations and playing with them is always an adventure in itself. Lexi is the very definition of a girly girl, and when we play, we’re usually princesses who dance, sing, and cook in the kitchen. Caleb, however, has always been a bit more on the serious side, and I call him my little poet. Whether or not he becomes a poet, he is poetic in his attentiveness to the world and to the things outside it: His current love is for outer space. When we play, we’re being attacked by martians and firing ray guns.
      I’ve also been blessed by getting to help more with some of the littles. Ganton, my best friend’s little boy, joined the fray of goofballs in September, and I’ve had the opportunity to be close by and “help out” by playing with his older brothers, Spencer and Bexton. I love kids; I always have, and getting to spend nearly every day running around, playing, and reading stories has meant the world to me.
     That’s not to say I had as much time as I might have liked to play. This year I was also blessed with the fulfillment of another goal: a full-time position at the college. Though the full-time position is temporary, I have been assigned to create an academic journal for our school, which I have nearly completed. The first issue anyway. Because of that and other commitments—teaching, working in the Writing Lab, teaching a veteran’s class, helping run the book club, and house sitting—I was away from home more than I might have liked, but I still got to spend much more time than usual with little ones
     My year was full of unexpected wonderful things. In addition to those listed above, I was able to purchase a vehicle I both needed and have been wanting for years: a Ford Escape *cue happy dance,* which I have named Harris. (Take your time; it’ll come to you.) I was allocated an office for the year, which has been crucial to helping me complete a number of tasks. I spent the entire summer house sitting and didn’t have to pay rent or utilities, yet I got to have dogs by my side for months (I love dogs). I strengthened my relationships with family and friends. I was afforded the opportunity to return to Pacific University for a writer’s conference, and with it came the joy of seeing my friends from the program, whom I miss dearly.
     My favorite blessing this year has been…wait for it…my man! (I heard that collective squeal of glee from my grandmothers, mother, aunts, surrogate mothers, and all manner of female relatives and friends.) Cameron and I started dating in October, and he’s one of the most wonderful guys I’ve ever known. The best part is that he puts up with my ridiculous antics which, as most of you know, can get a little out of hand at times.

     While I have been blessed beyond measure this year, others close to me have seen difficulty after difficulty. Two close family friends have been battling with cancer. Two of my family members have been dealing with significant physical illnesses. Others close to me have been fighting other battles—discouragement, frustration, loneliness, worry, anxiety—and the list goes on. At times, I feel guilty for the blessings I have received. I see friends and family caught in a storm none of us can seem to pass through, and it makes me wonder why so many wonderful things have been given to me this year while those I love so much are stuck in a holding pattern of sadness, frustration, and difficulty, and even I struggle daily to understand how to be the best aunt to a nephew no one else will ever know, whose accomplishments I won’t get to hang on my wall, whose hobbies I won’t get to participate in.
     I don’t have an answer. All I can do is continue to trust and hope that someday soon, either the reason for these difficulties will be made clear, or they will fade away, and those I love will be given a measure of joy. And I will continue to be grateful for these challenges, even when I don’t understand them, because I know there is purpose that, someday, we will understand. And because I have been given joy, despite everything, I will continue to try to shine the light of that joy into the lives of others when it seems too dark to find it on their own.
     It has been a beautiful, heartbreaking year, and there’s no way I can leave much of it behind. Every day, I think of Jaron and pray for our family, especially his mom, dad, and brother. Every day, I think of my friends and family who are struggling with physical, mental, and financial troubles that will continue into the coming year. Every day, I wonder why I have been so blessed while others I love have not been blessed as visibly. So, by the grace of God, I will move into this coming year, not with any giant revelation to give the world, not with any piece of advice that I feel might change the course of history. Instead, I will turn the calendar page quietly and pray that I will be, in some way, a blessing in every life I touch, whether from a distance or close by. That I will carry love, compassion, joy, hope, and wonder into each day, no matter the struggles, and shine the light of Christ into the darknesses I encounter.
     I wish you all a blessed, hopeful New Year, filled with good things, and filled with support to get through the hard things. Happy New Year.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Where the Little Bitty Living Things Are

If you know me at all, you likely know that my blog is a once-in-a-while-when-I-really-feel-like-cranking-out-some-prose-about-me-but-I-hate-writing-about-myself-so-I-avoid-it-a-little sort of affair (sick of hyphens yet?). The inspiration this time is that I have been tagged in a writer’s relay of sorts, and I have been asked four questions by the lovely and talented Heidi Willis: What am I writing, how does my work differ from others in its genre, what is my process, and why do I write what I write? (I will be answering these out of order).

If you’re a writer, you’ll know that the first question is a pretty common one. It can also be the one most guiltily answered, depending on the day. Often, I’ll mumble something about “oh, you know, a poem” because I don’t have anything freshly scratched into my notebook. Today, I think I can be a little more successful.

My primary writing genre is poetry, and I usually have one or two poems marinating in some way at any given time. Although people tend to think of poetry as a quick and easy art, often I’ll have a piece that gets “stuck.” I’ve been working on one such piece since January. After pages and pages of rewrites, time spent walking the labyrinth on the Pacific University campus, three outside readers (many thanks to Lencho, Cynthia, and Unkyl), a new notebook, and walks in and around the orchard and river, it’s still stuck.

The concept of the poem is fairly simple: There are a lot of difficult things happening right now, whether they be smaller personal events or larger world events. So many times, we tend to focus on all the difficulties of these situations instead of taking some time to look at the hope that still exists in our lives. I’m an optimist by nature, and I know that if a person is trying to light a fire, it only takes a spark and the right kind of tinder. So the poem explores various negative circumstances and turns to smaller things to accentuate the fact that hope and joy still remain. I don’t really know if it will work out, but if it does, it will be (to me) one of the most important pieces I have ever done.

My second main project, in addition to other poems, is a novel. I have not quite settled on a title yet, but I’m wavering between A Diamond Ring and Don’t Say a Word. I have had the idea for the book for six or seven years, and I knew that if I ever wanted the space in my head back, I had to write it down.

The story is told from varying points of view, but mainly focuses on Shari, a young woman from a troubled background who is quickly approaching her wedding day. As the day of her wedding draws closer, someone begins leaving unusual “gifts” on her porch. She knows that the person leaving the gifts is the same man who killed her parents and kidnapped her sister twelve years before. Trapped by the hope that her sister will be returned to her, she is forbidden from saying anything about her childhood to her fiancé or anyone else.  
Davin, who met Shari briefly when she was vacationing in England some years earlier, is the only one who knows anything about her childhood. He meets up with her in her new hometown by accident, and is caught in the game between Shari and the kidnapper.
As the wedding draws closer, the two have to work together to search for the kidnapper and find Shari’s sister without tipping their hand.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t major in fiction writing ;) But with some time and work, I think it will be an interesting story.

Question three is a much easier one for me to answer. I am a writer for whom notebooks are vital. When I’m writing fiction, I can type directly on the computer screen because my thoughts move quickly and I know I can come back and clean it up later. But when I’m writing poetry, I absolutely cannot write anything without having a pen in hand (I prefer PaperMate M ball points. Black ink is a must, and there has to be a cap on the butt end of the pen, otherwise it feels too short and I push my hand so far forward I get a cramp). My favorite notebooks are college-ruled single subject Studio C designs (proceeds go to cancer patients) or notebooks with designs on the pages or homemade paper. I keep notebooks everywhere: in the car, by the bed, in my bags, on the desk, on the end table, on the kitchen counter, at my parents’ house, in my purse, etc. I take notes on my phone sometimes, but they must be transferred to a notebook.

My poems start with a thought. It might be a great line: “I am foolish and not so foolish / I’ve been called half a child all my life.” It might be a thought: Why do we build such giant houses? Are we trying to take up all the space we can get our hands on including the air? or If time were a person, how would he act around us as we grew up? How would we see him? and I write into it. Most of the time, I have to write and write and write and write before I get another idea or great line to surface out of what I’m thinking. Other times, I can write something down and realize that there’s a decent poem there.

I have a lot of trouble getting started sometimes, so my favorite thing to do is go down to the river or the lake, sit on the rocks, and listen. People have a tendency to think that poets are a bit strange. I once had someone tell me “Oh! You’re a poet! Does that mean I’ll see you dancing in the park singing to all the flowers?” And the answer to that is, well, maybe yes. When I’m sitting by the water, I’m looking at the insects; watching grass and trees sway in the wind; seeing the birds fly over; listening to the various sounds of the water, wind, songs, buzzing bugs; and feeling just as diminutive as they—dwarfed by the mountains, the height of the sky, the size of stars and planets. (This is beginning to transition into question three). I can’t help being amazed by how small I am, and yet that I am not insignificant.

In one of my writing workshops, a fellow poet told me that he looked forward to reading my poems because I would reliably have bugs and “belly plants” in them. He looked forward to mentally getting on his hands and knees and taking a close look. I tend to focus on little bitty things because I think the little bitty things matter, whether it be an empty-handed ant, a starling in the woodstove, a splitting cherry on a branch, a cheerful moment in a grey day. So when I have writer’s block, I go where the little bitty living things are. (Which, if I don’t clean house soon, I won’t have to go far to find…)

I send some of my poems to someone to read right away. Others I keep close for a while. Still others I put in a folder on my computer and forget about until I am perusing them ages and ages hence. Sometimes I print those for a rewrite, others I consider a closed chapter (though on another poem tour I’ll probably pull them out again and excavate the heart of them).

I do my best rewriting when it is dark outside and I have a mug of tea in hand. That’s one reason I like winter so much – it gets dark early and stays dark later into the day, prime writing hours for me. I start best with grey days, as those are the ones that get me thinking the most.

I am an insecure writer (what else is new…), so I don’t like to inflict my poems on other people. Thankfully, people such as my mentor, Leigh, Heidi, and others are trying to shove me out of that. Therefore, my process is very slowly expanding to accommodate more submissions, and soon *gulp* simultaneous submissions.

One last thing and I’ll pass the baton…not really sure to whom because I was asked first and I didn’t ask anyone (whoops) so I’ll beg one of my brilliant, lovely, writerly friends to take up the challenge.

I will answer the questions regarding writing process, why I write, and how my work might differ with one more thought—recently, I read the opening essay and a few poems from Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting. The book is a compilation of “poetry of witness,” poems that are written during and about times of atrocity. Reading that book, I not only got some ideas for my own poems but also got to thinking about the difference between American poetry and International poetry. Our poems tend to be confessional, inwardly focused, and desperate to give a little grain of unusual truth. International poetry (such as in The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris) is often focused on telling the stories of others, holding tragedy up to the light and letting a little hope shine through it, and revealing universal truths built on smaller truths that the poet writes into them. I’m not picking on American poetry, and I’m not saying that no American writes like that. I know quite a few who do. But reading these two books changed my attitude toward some of my own inspirations, and I am experimenting with writing poetry from a slightly more selfless perspective. I guess we’ll see where it goes.

All the best, and write on!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Turning the Quarter

I’ll admit, I didn’t start this last year off in the best of spirits. Sure, I was enjoying my job, my schooling, having my own apartment, attending a poetry work shop, and so on, but I was a bit disappointed in myself. My biggest goal for my life thus far was to complete my Master’s degree by the time I turned twenty-five. I had a plan all through college, even before I had decided, for certain, to earn a Master’s, that I would have that degree before I turned twenty-five. So there I was on my twenty-fifth birthday glad that I had followed through with part of the goal yet feeling like my whole life was behind schedule. It had ruined everything. Everything. Not that I really had many other plans. I wanted to publish a novel, to publish a poetry collection, to get a job at the local college, and accomplish a few other things, none of which had time constraints, but that was the main thing.

So when I walked across the stage of Pacific University’s auditorium and received my degree certificate, a Master of Fine Arts, a “certified poet” as a friend has since referred to me, I received it with much excitement, pleasure, and just a hint of sadness. “What is the big deal?” you may be asking. “You got your degree. You’re only twenty-five!” And you’re right. I think that somewhere deep down, that goal was so important to me because of the quarter-century birthday regrets I had heard so often in the years leading up to mine. “I’m already twenty-five!” my friends and relatives said to me. “I haven’t accomplished anything. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with my life!” But me, I’d known since before I was six, carting a five-subject notebook everywhere and answering the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” with “a children’s author!” without even missing a beat.

That particular dream got derailed shortly before I entered college by a rather disappointing correspondence writing course that did nothing for my storytelling and left me feeling like a writing fraud. But I bought a few new notebooks, trooped off to FVCC, and immersed myself in poetry. It did wonders for me, and it brought back most of my writing ambition. That ambition developed into a love for poetry and a re-routing of my ultimate goals. But the date for that Master’s degree never changed. I envisioned receiving it the summer of my twenty-fourth year and hanging it up at some enormous twenty-fifth birthday gathering. (I don’t know why. I’m not a big crowd person...)

The birthday party didn’t even really happen. Normally, my family comes together for a fairly large party at my grandmother’s house. Four of us have birthdays in March, and we celebrate all of them together (this allows for a variety of desserts). Last year, everyone got sick, and we all had to celebrate on our own. I stayed home panicking about my thesis and chastising myself for the year and a half I took off from school after graduating UM that landed me in my house studying instead of at the movies or somewhere fun.
But I finished the thesis with a few wonderful writing epiphanies. I walked across the stage and received my degree. My mentor contacted me during that residency to tell me he had set up a reading that he and I would give together at the local college. I came home fairly elated and was swept away from writing altogether from July until mid-September by a challenging, stressful, frustrating job. Every evening when I came home from work, I turned on the TV and stared at it mindlessly until bed time or called my dad to vent about some awful thing or another that had happened at work that day that left us even more short staffed or made me seem like a worse supervisor than I already thought I was. 

Toward the beginning of September, I took a ten minute break. Most of the time, my opportunity for a lunch break got eaten by some emergency or another, or I covered for my girls’ lunch breaks so they could get out and have a break. I was being driven by nothing more than stress and adrenaline, but I had wanted a supervisory position, darn it, and I was going to do the job to the best of my ability. But that afternoon, my vault teller and amazing friend, Maria, told me to get off the line for fifteen minutes, and she wouldn’t let me back into the building until that time was up. So, I took my phone and wandered around the parking lot. I had a voice message from a good friend who worked at the local college as a tutorial specialist in the Writing Lab on campus. She couldn’t continue with the job that semester, she explained, and she had already recommended me to her colleague as a replacement. Would I like her to send him my contact information? I told her yes, yes I certainly would. Then I called my mentor and friend at the college and asked him if he would put in a recommendation for me. He did. 

The next day I took a break to check a voice mail. It was from my friend’s colleague, asking me to come for an interview. Maria made sure I got out in time to go, and the interview was fairly short. He didn’t look at my résumé or CV until much later. Instead, he set them aside and asked me a few questions. Then he told me, quite frankly, that it sounded like I’d been trying for this opportunity for a long time, and he thought it should be rewarded. He would check with his boss to see if he needed to interview anyone else and, if not, the job would be mine. He called me a couple of days later with a start date, and I put in my two weeks’ notice.
My mentor and I gave our reading two months after I joined the college, and it was well attended by colleagues, friends, family, and community members. (Well attended in terms of Kalispell, which means we had about 50 people—quite a few more than we expected.) I received a lot of wonderful, encouraging feedback on my poetry, which was the inspiration I needed to get back into my notebooks and create some more. Since my new position was not full time, I certainly had some time left over in the day to write.
At a suggestion from one of my advisors at Pacific, I submitted one of my thesis poems to a journal called Minerva Rising. They not only accepted my submission, they sent me a check for $35 upon publication. My first post-Pacific publication made me a “paid writer”.

Working less during the day gave me the opportunity to apply for an online tutoring position which had been recommended to me by a fellow Pacific Alum. I was hired on to the online tutoring program, which is a nice way to spend a few extra hours during the week. I also had the opportunity to house sit more often. During one of my house sitting stays, my uncle gave me a call to talk about some writing I had sent him. The conversation turned to his guitars, and he told me about a new guitar his friend John Doan had recently purchased. He liked it so much, he had decided to get one for himself. He was planning to take my aunt and fly to England to pick it up. I told him I was jealous; I’d always wanted to go to England, and he’d better send me a lot of pictures!

He did me one better, and sent me. January 9th, he and I met up in Atlanta and boarded a plane headed for London Heathrow, and from there we traveled to Hough-on-the-Hill to stay with a Luthier who was also a Falconer, a carpenter, and a dog lover. I, who had always imagined that England was a bucket-list or imaginary sort of adventure, wandered the fenlands of Lincolnshire, stood awed in a breathtaking cathedral, stood in an 18th century (at least) cottage with a Saker falcon on my hand, and walked across the countryside watching the two Lurchers chase hares across the fields. 

Upon my return, when I stopped by my mentor’s office to tell him a bit about the trip, our conversation turned to a few of the upcoming events on campus. “Did you see we’re teaching a class together?” he asked me. “Noooo,” I said. “Oh. Well, I’ll show you. Hope it’s okay; I probably should have asked you first.” Trust me, no permission was required. He showed me the schedule for the Senior Institute classes beginning February 21st. He and I were listed as the leaders of a poetry workshop. I don’t know that I have felt that particular type of elation before in my life.

Later, talking to one of the professors about a Writing textbook we’re developing, another colleague saw me and said she wanted to ask me something. They needed an instructor for a poetry class in June. Since my mentor doesn’t teach in the summer, and I am the only other “certified poet”, would I like the class? My outer demeanor was quite calm as I told her “Yes”. I turned to the other professor as she left and said “If you weren’t watching me right now, I’d be doing a happy dance.” He gave me a high five and told me to go ahead.

What does all this have to do with my initial disappointment about not meeting my goals? This: I believe in perfect timing. That application to FVCC was my fifth. I had tried and tried to work in the mail room, the financial aid office, customer service, and so on. I was inches away from walking into the president’s office and asking her to put me to work anywhere there. But those other times weren’t time yet. The year and a half I took off school made it so I found a fantastic job that took great care of me, even though it eventually drove me crazy. It gave me the opportunity to be in a leadership position that I needed, so that I would feel comfortable training employees, and, therefore, teaching them one-on-one. That has translated to tutoring, and taught me valuable lessons about when to help, and when to let the student figure things out for him or herself. That job also made me lead meetings, which meant that I had to get up in front of between twelve and twenty-five people to talk or explain something. I am terrified of getting in front of people. But when it came time to give my graduate presentation and read my poetry for a half hour to strangers, I could do it. I never wanted to be a teacher. Ever. That wasn’t my dream, and it is not my highest ambition. But I wouldn’t mind teaching poetry, especially if there is an opportunity to point out good contemporary poetry that is accessible and interesting. I want students to know that there is poetry that can be understood and enjoyed in this day and age. And, now, I can do that. 

 Another major blessing that has come out of this is my colleagues. I left my other job feeling, quite frankly, useless. I was told that I did a good job, that I handled the difficulties well, and that I was irreplaceable. At least, to my face. I found out later that my main supervisor was saying awful things about my performance behind my back to my immediate supervisor. 

Upon my entering the college, my mentor threw an afternoon barbecue at his house, and invited the English department, most of whom I knew, and they remembered me. I’ve never felt so welcome at any job I’ve ever had. Even though I’m still not technically “faculty”, they make it a point to invite me to department meetings, ask for my ideas and my input, and ask for my help with projects and improvements. When I told some of them that I had been offered a class, they instantly stacked my arms with resources and offered their help. They treat me like an equal. I no longer walk into work wondering if someone is going to fire me for making a little mistake or wondering what kind of rumors are going to be spread about me and the work I do. 

So the “delay” I imagined in getting my degree? I understand that now, and I’m glad that those lessons I’ve learned, this job I have now—no matter how long it lasts—have come along when I’m so young. I don’t have time limits on my other goals, but I do have a few resources opening up that might allow me to achieve them sooner than I think. But as long as I work steady, they’ll come along when they need to. And, by the grace of God, I’ll enjoy every blessing and difficulty as they come along.