A Sojourner’s Staff

When I stumbled upon Communal Table, a publication about recipes and sharing meals together, it was in start-up phase, being launched on kick-starter. I knew I wanted in.

I submitted an inquiry about contributing to the online journal one of the upcoming issues. I got my chance. And so, I wrote this.

It got published and I was over the moon.

Becoming a writer does not happen just because a piece of work is posted somewhere officially.

No, becoming a writer is more nuanced, hidden between the pages of coffee-stained journals and late nights of contemplation. It’s frustrating as hell and also, one of my deep, great loves.

Capturing life, it turns out, through word is no easy task. But my, I do think it’s noble.

When my words appeared back to me for the first time, I realized that someone else had found meaning and power in them. And that was invigorating. It was as though being a writer was no longer an isolating experience – at least for a moment.

Communal Table  is all about the conversation. On their website, they map out their purpose by answering the question below:

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-8-50-10-am

Their editorial team issued a call for submissions on a recent issue with the theme of “staff.” It was described as:

The staff of life keeps us going, and so does the staff that makes it. We appreciate all those who work in the background to make our daily lives happen. Consider this our ode to them. This issue is all about the hidden inner workings of the seemingly ordinary day and the people who make it all occur.

I submitted a piece about my grandmother. It’s called “A Sojourner’s Staff.”

To my delight, their team agreed to work with me to edit, refine, and perfect it. Five drafts and two months later, it’s finished. And, it’s here.

It’s about aging, love, and the tension of embracing the seasons we enter. Enjoy. And, keep writing.

The Truth About Reading Your Writing.

I recently listened to an inspiring NPR session about StoryCorps, an initiative started to compel social change through the power of storytelling. The idea is simple yet powerful: honor, create, and preserve the stories of humans for understanding and change. 

I promptly downloaded the app on my phone – useful for recording interviews – but then decided to move in a different direction. Oration is an important part of the storytelling process, absolutely – but so is the tangible documentation of those stories. In turn, documentation creates ownership of those stories, which allows a personal efficacy that as humans, we should all have access to.

Yet, try telling your story. It can be hard. It’s challenging. Capturing small, intimate, yet formative moments often requires a listening ear, and sometimes even, the right questions. And so, in the spirit of communal story-telling, I had the opportunity to sit down with my grandmother, Mary Lou, to hear her story. That’s right, her life story.

We sat with warm tea, sunshine, and my laptop on a Saturday afternoon on my patio. At first grandma wasn’t sure she would have much to share – three hours later, it was clear there was far more complexity and insight in her nearly 75 years than she may have originally thought.

She said wonderfully insightful things like,

“I’m just trying to make my world the best it can be.”

and also,

“…children are a joy…but grandchildren are like strawberries and cream.”

Currently, she’s looking through the initial notes (nearly 28 pages!) and adding any additional happenings, people, or anecdotes she wants to include. After, I’m going to help her draft a prose-form story of her life. It’s intimidating – how do you fully write someone’s story..? – but I’m absolutely excited and awed by this challenge. Grandma has lived a full life – with roots in Uppsala, Sweden, and a story filled with different kinds of work, relationship upheaval, children, life in a small town, and a commitment to friendship. I’m honored to be a part of that process.

The following week, I celebrated Peace Corps Week (celebrating 55 years since inception) by attending International Storytelling Night in Denver at the Deer Pile.

The concept was simple: bring your stories of Peace Corps adventures, travel, and cross-culture interactions and share them on stage. As I entered the red-painted room with odd hipster wall decorations, I put my name in the hat. I thought to myself, if my name is drawn, great, I’ll do it. If not, oh well. I tried.

“Heather” was the first name drawn. Of course. I grabbed a luke-warm PBR and hopped on the wooden-black stage. I read a story I wrote recently called “bird songs” based on the African proverb: Birds sing not because they have answers but because they have songs

I was nervous. Sweaty. Unsure if this was the right story to share. But it was. It was not only the right story, but the right time to share it as well. The story delves into the tensions of relationship – that much of what we experience in life is actually quite undefinable, which in turn, makes it beautiful. It was a story that extended well beyond the confines of the “Peace Corps Experience” and I believe that resonated with the audience listening.

Reading your writing is an act of vulnerability. Though I have been blogging for years, reading a story aloud (with others!) brings a presence and authenticity with a story that you couldn’t find otherwise. It reminded me what I had already been learning with my grandmother: storytelling is a creative process because it involves both the act of writing and the commitment of sharing what happened in the first place.

Keep sharing, y’all. It’s important.


 

‘turning madness into flowers’

We have moments that become memories that become stories that sometimes play over again in our minds like a blobby-ish piles of silly puddy. You search for the words to develop the right form and structure of a recollection, but sometimes even the best storytellers lose the rhythm that real good stories often have (and need).

I kind of think that’s the magic ingredient of poetry. Poetry pulls the perfect words together, telling enough of a story, but still leaving so much to the imagination.

I was recently telling a legendary tale of one of my summer adventures to a friend. Each holding a copper mug of a cold, icy moscow mule, I explained that one of the things I learned this summer was how to skin a snake.

No, really, it happened. Look here:

150601_CR_THE_EXPERIENCE_3894

Kevin & I, in Nebraska, just skinning a snake to cook over fire. No big deal.

Rewind my life a couple years prior, when I found a 2-foot long snake in my room in my Rwandan village, and you would have thought you had met an entirely different person. I screamed like a baby when I had a snake near my bed in Rwanda. But, while doing The Experience last summer, I kind of was tired of being afraid of everything. Of snakes, certainly, but of all the muck and crap we carry around. Afraid of failure, afraid of what people think, afraid of being alone, afraid of my feelings, afraid of who I was.

You see, I just kind of got over it. I was also totally over being afraid of snakes. So, I thought, maybe I’ll just help Kevin skin it up and I’ll feel less afraid. I’m still not sure how effective this method was. Except for the fact that I did eat the snake’s heart afterwards. So, there’s that. Fear is only fear. We can let it be in the room, but it has no right to dictate, rule, or ruin our lives.

So, you see, I wanted to tell this friend of mine about this stupid snake, but really it was kind of a bigger story. I really could have used a poem in that moment.

I don’t write a lot of poetry really, but I think I would like to. I like the witty, deep, with a dash of sass-kind-of poetry. The kind that is contemplative but rooted in real-life experiences, with words and ideas that make you think, but in the same swoop will make you smile.

That’s why I like Alice Walker. She’s a bad-ass poet, writer, and activist.

I went to the library a couple of weeks ago, motivated to read some poetry. I told myself two things: 1) Being a fan of African-American literature, it’s necessary to stay on top of classic author’s works. 2) I could get ideas for my own attempts at poetry.

Those are both really cute justifications for my poetry binge, but I also believe I may have been lying to myself. Really, I think I was jones-ing for some poetry because powerful poetry has a way of maneuvering and leveraging human experiences – the bold, the painful, the real, the gritty – into tangible descriptions. You can read sentiment from paper and feel like, yes. This person knows what I am talking about. i’m not alone.

Who better than Alice Walker? She nails it in one of her recent publications, The World Wiill Follow Joy: Turning Madness Into Flowers, published in 2014. With a collection of over 60 poems, Walker brilliantly and intimately sheds particular light on relationships, memories, human oddities, and universal truths. For many of the pieces in this work, she dedicates the writing or includes the person in the work itself. So, the context is a bit more present than you might find in her other works.

I included a handful of my favorites below. They really spoke to me, moved me, and encouraged me to put pen back on paper and capture the strange, beautiful experience of being human.


When You See Water

When you see water in a stream

you say; oh, this is stream

Water;

when you see water in the river

you say: oh, this is water

of the river;

when you see ocean

Water

you say: this is the ocean’s

Water!

But actually water is always

only itself

and does not belong

to any of these containers

though it creates them.

And so it is with you.

IMG_9548

May It Be Said of Me

May it be said of me

that when I saw

your mud hut

I remembered

my shack.

That when I tasted your

pebble filled beans

I recalled

my salt pork.

That when I saw

your twisted Limbs

I embraced

my wounded Sight.

That when you

rose from your knees

and stood like women

and men

of this Earth –

as promised to us

as to anyone;

without regrets of any kind

I joined you – Singing.

IMG_6253

Desire

My desire

is always the same; wherever Life deposits me:

I want to stick to my toe & soon my whole body

into the water.

I want to shake out a fat broom

& sweep dried leaves

bruised blossoms

dead insects & dust.

I want to grow

Something.

It seems impossible that desire

can sometimes transform into devotion;

But this has happened.

and that is how I’ve survived;

how the hole

I carefully tended

in the garden of my heart

grew a heart

to fill it.

flowas

From Paradise to Paradise

From Paradise To paradise I go

Sweeping;

Collecting Rocks & Views;

Owning Nothing

But what I feel.

Who taught Me this?

This thankfulness?

You did.

Maker of all

Paradises.

Without borders

Or cessation.

Bowing

As I kneel.

IMG_9388

express yourself.

Most days, give me a pen (I am a big fan of the thin, sharpie color pens), paper, and a cup of coffee and I’m good to go.

I sit. I think. I ponder. I pray. Suddenly, like smooth rocky rivers, innumerable words rush onto pages; a collaborative, collision of ideas fall upon my mind and yes! The real sweet spot of a writer flows steadily and effortlessly. It’s not about posting blogs, planning book content ideas, or even creating a masterpiece of art. Simply, and truthfully, it’s liberating to access the depth of expression that writing brings. You have access to language and words and phrases in a way that no other process allows. It’s intimate, real, and authentic.

Yet, for whatever reason, like a barren, dusty, over-cultivated field, writing has been strenuous, empty, and blank for nearly three weeks straight.

Ugh. It kind of sucks, frankly.

I have hardly been able to muster a short paragraph in the morning for journaling on daily life; much less work on anything I would like to publish, blog about, or invest creative energy into.

Confession: I stared at this very blank white word document in Microsoft Word for a good 15 minutes, trying to muster a good writing topic. Should I write about Paris? Burundi? Should I talk about The Women’s Bakery training happening right now? Or, maybe, as usual, I should just talk about what God is teaching me lately…?

Nothing felt right. So I sat. Fiddled a bit. Fidgeted more. And then, I figured, oh whatever. Whatever comes, comes.

In thinking through this a bit more, I’ve also been immensely busy, exhausted, with my mind twirling in about 20 different directions. We all struggle with this, don’t we? No matter our circumstances – rural, urban, employed, unemployed, man, or woman – our minds are pulled and prodded in all kinds of ways on a daily basis.

So overwhelmed by this, I had to take a time-out from work last week and find an escape in the city. I went to Caiman, a lovely restaurant-bar on one of many Kigali hills and just stared at the sunset over hills (and more hills). I asked myself, when was the last time I had done this – watching the sunset I mean – when was the last time I just sat here, for the sake of sitting?

IMG_0731

Needless to say, it had been too long. I had hoped my time away from work and our home in Kigali would be a way for me to get back on track with writing. I was wrong. It was about just sitting and enjoying the moment. Being still; giving God thanks for the very small, little things that make life worth living. I finished my ginger tea that evening at Caiman, feeling full and rested. I amusingly laughed on the motorcycle ride home; I’m often racing to finish just one more task and I end up working far harder (and eating up way more time) to reach a point where I think I’m ready to rest as opposed to just resting moment by moment and approaching my obligations with a full (not half-hearted) heart and mind. Just some food for thought.

Still, being unable to write was even more frustrating because life has been happening boldly, quickly, and intensely since my return from Kenya a few weeks ago, and I have been feeling like I can’t capture it. Just in the last two weeks: I’ve been called to immensely challenging conversations that God has prepared me months for; training for the bakery has enabled some fantastic opportunities for new connections, friends, and experiences here; and suddenly, transitioning back to America (NEXT WEEK!) is simultaneously exciting, crazy, and undefinable.

A-ha. Undefinable.

That’s it. My creativity to pen stories not about myself, but about people, about God (the things I always love to write about) has been sequestered because I feel limited in my own capacity to define them (by the way, I’m making this realization right as a quarter-sized cockroach crosses my feet. Gross.)

I’ve been reading Esther in preparation for my final bible study this week in Rwanda, and something very clear to me is that God prepared Esther and her situation for years before and years after so she could fulfill the place he had her. When you sit with the impact of what that really means, your mind will seriously (as we like to say) “be blown”. Wherever you are in this moment, in this time, is meaningful. Whether you can write about it or not.

It means that our lives are in a constant ebb-and-flow of preparation, action, patience, and revelation.

I’m fearing the undefinable – and thus avoiding writing – even though it’s in this time and season of the unknown where creativity looms largest. Think about it: the most resonating pieces of art exist because they capture the universal human experience of confronting that which we cannot define; that which we do not know.

Life is in fact, undefinable much of the time. Even if we can point to words to explain the reasons behind things (like, evil as a supplication for the terrorism that’s enveloping in every corner of the world) we still can’t explain what it might be like to be a friend of someone who has been killed. We can’t capture the precise explanation for the very real presence of panic in witnesses, in citizens, and victims.

We can’t let this keep us from communicating. It’s more than just a little writer’s block – the unknown and undefinable in life leads to fear which keeps us from talking to people in our immediate communities, our connections outside our day-to-day contacts, and the world at large.

It’s uncomfortable – maybe even annoying – but keep expressing yourself. In meal-times with friends, in messages, in journals, in prayer. Whatever it is for you, don’t stop. Especially in times like this.

Feeling “blocked”, as it were, can lead to isolation. Which, let’s be real, is not what this world needs right now. That’s why I’m even writing this at all. It might be frustrating that I feel limited in my creative capacity, but I know, I trust, it will be back. It’s real, it’s life. These things happen and yet it doesn’t change the importance of sharing with one another. Express yourself.

*

 

 

 

that colorado magic

If you want battleship on a Friday night over a craft beer, visit Jake’s. A lemon-ginger light ale will bring joy even to the more heartier beer types. Myself included.

For mythological creatures on a cold afternoon (because it’s Colorado and it can snow in May), try the Denver Museum for Nature & Science. If you need coffee, you can find Pablo’s just a few miles South. Pablo’s is organic, “green” coffee (whatever that means, honestly, other than the fact that it tastes as smooth as a freshly opened bottle of Red wine) that was one of Denver’s first coffee roasters. It’s tasty.

The Alamo in Littleton combines the classic drive-ins with a modern, sleek edges (healthy food, too!); the Tattered Cover satisfies the literary types with comfortable chairs that allow for imaginations to run wild in politics, creative non-fiction, and travel books. Just to name a few.

Our towering rocks with a sandy, burnt dust color were once used by the Ute tribes and now find themselves home to ambitious Denver runners, the Fray, the Eagles, and Tracy Chapman. Anyone, really, who’s “made it,” At Red Rocks, anyone can sound good.

There are other things, things in between county lines, homes, and mountain ranges that are a bit harder to capture. You know, that thing of home. How can you really describe the moments that comprise a vacation that includes a shared meal with family for Mother’s Day? A wine-tasting party that has grandma sitting next to her daughter sitting next to her daughter. Or maybe, it’s the long walk you took, to nowhere in particular, losing track of time (even with the rubbing sole of your boot digging into your heel) because just being together is enough. These are the parts of vacation magic that don’t have a ‘yelp’ rating, a review, or an easy way of promoting. They’re good enough, just as they are. Sharing this life is sweet, like molasses on top of a ginger snap cookie. Sweet, because mostly it doesn’t have to make sense. It’s good enough, even as a standalone.

Colorado – home – always has been.

Lauren and I couldn’t stop saying #butforreal, discussed the metaphorical meanings of the Avengers, looked at old photos, watched Land Before Time, and went hiking. We did a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Colorado makes it easy in this way; with so many hidden gems, there is always something to do, something to see, something to explore. A year ago, I was recently coming home from a journey that I had hardly begun to process.

This time, I’m headed on another journey, having had processed more, finally realizing that processing our past events takes a really, really, uncomfortably long time do so. I’m leaving, but I’ll be back.

I was lucky that in between I could be filled up by someone who knows me well. Someone who knows my rambunctious spirit, someone who hears the details I hang on to, and who has been there for so much of the previous transitions in my life – college, hockey, post-graduate life, etc. Our talks, whether in a duct-taped car, along the treacherous dirt paths (none of which we are sure we are walking correctly on), or in my cozy living room, make for comfort and the sense that hey, I’m right where I need to be.

Colorado is, always will be, and couldn’t not be home. I don’t need to make a hard sell. I think it speaks for itself. And yes, Casa Bonita is involved. Guilty as charged.

*

IMG_8045 IMG_8054 IMG_8057 IMG_8064 IMG_8072 IMG_8079

write.

Fancy permulate brilliant delicious ideas.

Chemo letter to my lover anything and everything.

Columbine shooting Boulder breaking through sizzling.

*

These are the words humming in the room just off of Colfax and Race Streets in the Milheim House (built in 1893) where I’m attending my first workshop, class, session – whatever you want to call it – to pursue writing.

Well, pursue writing at least a little more seriously.

I have all these journals and all these ideas and all these stories and all these people are sitting around the table and I’m thinking,

WHAT…? What am I doing?

Here in our classroom, we have ski instructors from Boulder, noteworthy people known for historical Colorado events, comedians, travelers, and a professor who is a trained writing therapist. Most excellent.

But in all seriousness, I put on a bold face because hey, I’m here to write, and if I really believe we all have stories worth sharing I might as well just hit the ground running.

I realize quickly what it is I want to write. What I deeply yearn to share about, to express, to reveal, and what’s important is that our teacher presses further.

Why don’t you write?

The honest answer, for me, was true on both sides of the equation (why I love writing and why sometimes I refuse to altogether):

ADMITTING TRUTH.

I write because it’s the one place I feel safe to do so, and I refuse to write for the very same reason.

It’s scary to sit in a chair, with your pen and paper, and realize all of the tools sitting in front of you.

Yet, our teacher is attune to this – having experience in creative writing for years and years – and so she doesn’t let us simply escape this tension. We must call it for what it is.

*

After an hour of a couple of writing exercises and setting the format for the 4-week class, we address the battle of the “inner critic”. One woman calls it her, “inner bitch” and what I found interesting is that in a variety of contexts, we have a different name for the very thing that speaks hate into our lives.

It could be evil, negativity, self-loathing, the inner critic, doubt, or Satan himself, but it’s all there.

In writing, you might hear things like, “it’s been written before” or “really, writing? You think that’s a worthy pursuit?”

In my own exercise, I mapped out my conversation with my inner critic like this:

Heather: “It’s time. The story has already begun, and let’s be real, has never really closed – what if I just start to capture what that love meant?” 

Inner Critic: “Oh okay. So, sit down. Flounder around with your tales of fetching water and banana trees. You have a blog full of those damn stories and they are getting old. Where is your new material?” 

Heather: “You and I both know there’s a kind of process and storyline that has been left unwritten. Intentionally. Let’s go! Let’s shatter that fear and just write.” 

Inner Critic: “How can you pretend that you’ll even remember the slightest details – the ones that will actually make the story meaningful? The ones that will help you even remember tell it at all?” 

Heather: “I’ll take the very approach I took when I experienced it myself. I figured it out as I went along. And guess what? I still don’t have it all figured out – but there’s a certain release of that in writing. That’s what I want to choose. That kind of acceptance. In who I am as a writer. Someone who is honest.

Inner Critic: “Good luck with that.”

Heather: “You can sit over there when freedom, clarity, and depth come to service. Those boxes of journals that sit in my room? Those memories? Those ticket stubs of moto rides, international packages, and plane tickets? The letters? They meant something. They still do. They will be a weapon to destroy you. The catalyst to action. The reason I lift my story to a place of confidence, worth being shared. The experience will be enough to move past the brokenness you so deeply want to maintain.”

*

We don’t write for a lot of reasons. A lot of it has to do with fear, self-doubt, and a number of excuses that seem good enough. Tori Morrison herself said that she was often afraid to write her first sentence in any of her works because she was so concerned that the novel wouldn’t become the novel that she had dreamed it to be.

Towards the end of today’s session we had to share two things with the class:

  1. One thing that you learned about yourself as a writer, &
  2. A small writing goal that you are committing yourself to.

For the first point, I realized that I have hung on this “balance beam” of wanting to commit to writing – or not. I no longer want to be there, I want to be all in. I want to do this.

For the second, I am going to be reading through a couple of my journals a week and begin to pull ideas for what it is that I want to write. 2 journals per week will take me some time to work through, but I’m confident that much of the material is already there. Thank goodness for being an obsessive journaler.

The challenge is evolving from that – applying it.

*

I walked out of class with a girl who was quick to ask a few questions about some of the things I had said. I didn’t know why until she talked about being involved with ministry, dealing with a struggle that I mentioned during the session, and also living and serving in Romania for well over 2 years. I hastily said, “ah! Are you a Christian?” And she was, and I am, and as it turns out, so is our workshop teacher. Our teacher came from behind with open arms and simply gushed, “I knew you both were believers.”

Really?

Um, hello, parallels.

I want to know more, but I’ll have to wait until next week.

Until then, I’ll be practicing, doing these exercises, reading my journals, and maybe finally starting to take the leap into a different kind of approach to my writing.

Let’s see what happens.

*

Peace Corps Passport: Featured Blog

Follow the link below to read a story I published for Peace Corps Passport, the national blog for the US Peace Corps.

Corps to Career: how this RPCV found her way back to her host country

IMG_3142