Category Archives: writing

WriterTeacherSingerSpy

Salzburg

I have been laboring over this piece now for days. It’s the first time I’ve ever sung alto in a choir, and my reading skills are finally being honed after years of skirting by on melody. My music is all marked up in a vain attempt to make sense of the accidentals and crazy key changes and seemingly senseless alto line.

I take a deep breath.

I plunk out the notes again.

Jen tells me to listen to the recording, to try to pick out my part.

“Copland thinks chordally, so it’s really helpful,” she says.

The first moment we began singing it in choir, I thought: Have I sung this before? How do I know this?

Ah, years ago. In Boston — Jen was the soloist and my mom and I had travelled down to see her. It’s a big piece. An overwhelming piece. And I could feel right away that I had heard it before.

It’s kicking my butt.

~     ~     ~

Miss Hawkins, is English your life?

[Just one of them.]

In reference to Edmond Dantés and Mercédès:

Well, obviously they didn’t love each other enough, or they would have waited. They would have gotten married.

[Hold on: What about circumstances? What about life? Is it possible that you can love someone deeply but have it not work out?]

In reference to Aylmer and Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark:”

I think he really loved her. He was trying to help her.

[Woah, woah, woah! Careful. What is love? Aylmer obsesses over a tiny blemish on his wife’s cheek, to the point where it is all he sees of her. All her beauty and charm and kindness means nothing. Is that love? Trying to change someone? Trying to make them perfect?]

In reference to a grammar grade:

Wait – so you took a whole point off because I missed a verb tense?

[Yes, it’s called grammar.]

Why aren’t you married yet?

[Because I haven’t met anyone I wanted to see every day for the rest of my life.]

Really?!

[Here is where I wonder at their ideas of love and marriage. How I find it more amazing that anyone has found someone they like enough to see every day than it is that I haven’t.]

Why do you like writing so much? It’s boring.

[No! My heart!]

Why would you want to become a teacher?

[Here, I pause. Why? Do I tell them the truth? That it crept up on me and surprised me? That really, these twelve faces are the reason I became a teacher? And all their manifestations? They think I am not cool because I’m a teacher. This bums me out.]

Miss Hawkins, can I have some of your buffalo chicken calzone?

[No. Way.]

~     ~     ~

As difficult as the Copland has proven to be, it isn’t the piece that excites me. It’s the Whitacre that puts bubbles in my blood, makes my heart swirl. I listen to it over and over. I imagine da Vinci, consumed, obsessed, like Aylmer in Hawthorne’s short story.

the sirens’ song

I wonder what it must be like to feel compelled to create. To destroy the boundaries that the known world has imposed.

I sink into the low notes with silky enjoyment of their depth.

I paint pictures with my voice.

[7th graders: This is one of my other lives.]

In Search of a Good Title

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So I wrote a poem for my writing class this summer. I sat down and wrote it without thinking. I didn’t let myself overanalyze, criticize, or edit. I didn’t stress over line breaks or punctuation or even the order of the stanzas. I blocked out the part of me that hates everything I write and forced myself to tell the story that had been brewing.

I wrote it and I passed it in. It came back in a yellow envelope with the rest of my writing for the term, and my professor had written comments. Nix this whole stanza, she wrote, and I agreed because the ducks didn’t fit with the rest of the poem. Her biggest critique? Where’s the title?

That was August, and I’ve been laboring over this poem for months now. My writers’ group critiqued it and Jon solved a huge problem in the last stanza: What if you used a colon to introduce what the narrator is imagining?

Oh my gosh, yes.

We went back and forth over whether a word should be singular or plural, how to say the sun was bright without sounding trite, but the hardest part was the title. I told them I’d keep working on it, that titles are historically hard for me, that it’s nearly impossible for me to find one that isn’t heavy-handed. And every other week or so, I shoot Kate a text: What about this one? Or this? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I feel like I slink away with my head hanging because I should have trusted my gut on that one.

Why is this title so particularly hard?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it. I think it has something to do with the simplicity of the poem. It’s not frilly. There’s no fanfare. It’s straightforward and real. Every title I come up with is not straightforward or real. They drip with sentimentality.

If I didn’t care so much about this poem, I’d probably just slap on some sappy sounding empty phrase and call it a day.

But I do care. It’s one of the few poems that left my head and did the work I wanted it to do. It did that work, but then it did more. It became its own creature. It got up and walked on its own two feet. I refuse to do it the disservice of saddling it with a cheesy label.

So, whatever you’re doing right now, imagine me, sitting cross-legged in a green velour chair, wracking my brain for a title that is honest and clean and simple.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Two Homes

The wooden holy family rests on a stack of old grammar school primers. I remember wandering the cobbled streets of Salzburg, how I picked it out as a gift but then couldn’t part with it once I reached Stateside. Next to it is the delicate hand painted teacup from my old Sunday School teacher. It’s almost too fragile for me to own, so I am trying to enjoy its beauty for as long as I can.

IMG_0301I pounded some nails into the wail to hang my sign and “Alice in Wonderland” caricature from my days of directing. I taped up postcards and photos above my bed, and I’m hoping to buy Christmas lights to string between the windows.

I’m trying to make this home.

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My routines transferred easily to this new place. I still get up and grind coffee beans, boil water, fill the French press. I still pack (or forget to pack) a make-shift lunch my coworkers have deemed “college-student-worthy.” I wipe down the bathroom every once in awhile, put the dishes away, and I’ve even swept the floor twice. My domestic side is not exactly thriving, but she is growing.

When my apartment mate plays James Taylor and Paul Simon.

I cut my bangs leaning over the bathroom sink. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. Some routines have transferred easily, others are newly acquired.

When we sit in the living room, some with a book, some with a computer, others chatting, and all of us with wine.

I bought bright blue glasses, and my students said I looked like a hipster. And then my family said I looked like a hipster. I’m wondering how many times it takes before it’s true.

When I walk down the street to a friend’s apartment, and she shows me the best place for falafel.

For the first month, I tossed in my sleep, afraid I would get a parking ticket in this ticket-happy town.  I still haven’t parked in the wrong spot and it’s been six weeks. I only believe in spending $50 on worthwhile things.

When my sister or friend comes down to the city, and we make tea and sit in the shady park.

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A book club friend and I went into the thrift shop, and I came out with a sequined top. Not just sequined but fully sequined, with swishes and bright colors. “Oh my gosh, I love this top!” the cashier said. “I’ve been eyeing it since we got it.” I’m waiting for a good dancing night to christen this vintage beauty.

When writers’ group is about to start up for the year and I’m itching and waiting to read and write.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel so much like home. Like when I hit more potholes than my little car can handle and the wheels get all misaligned. Or when I open the fridge and realize, Shoot, I didn’t go grocery shopping, and it’s hardboiled eggs and crackers and hummus for dinner. Again. Or when I climb the steps to my front door, feel eyes on my back, turn around to see a rough man leaning out of a large white van, staring, watching me enter my house. Or when I google search for a new church to visit, and I slip in quietly, worship alone surrounded by strangers, and slip out.

When I spend a Sunday afternoon making applesauce from Dad’s bruised apples, listening to a sermon on what it means to be sanctified, and starting the next baby sweater on my knitting list.

I am moved by poetry in the fall. My soul is played out in Chopin and Debussy in October.

I am in love with this poem by John Holmes right now, even though it’s not the first time I’ve read it. Maybe it’s being so close to him, to where he taught, where he wrote. Maybe it’s experiencing these two towns.

Read it slowly. The end is worth it, and the beginning makes the end matter.

Map of My Country

I

A map of my native country is all edges, 
The shore touching sea, the easy impartial rivers
Splitting the local boundary lines, round hills in two townships,
Blue ponds interrupting the careful county shapes.
The Mississippi runs down the middle. Cape Cod. The Gulf.
Nebraska is on latitude forty. Kansas is west of Missouri.

When I was a child, I drew it, from memory,
A game in the schoolroom, naming the big cities right.

Cloud shadows were not shown, nor where winter whitens,
Nor the wide road the day’s wind takes.
None of the tall letters told my grandfather’s name.
Nothing said, Here they see in clear air a hundred miles.
Here they go to bed early. They fear snow here.
Oak trees and maple boughs I had seen on the long hillsides
Changing color, and laurel, and bayberry, were never mapped.
Geography told only capitals and state lines.

I have come a long way using other men’s maps for the turnings.
I have a long way to go.

It is time I drew the map again, 
Spread with the broad colors of life, and words of my own
Saying, Here the people worked hard, and died for the wrong reasons. 
Here wild strawberries tell the time of year.
I could not sleep, here, while bell-buoys beyond the surf rang.
Here trains passed in the night, crying of distance,
Calling to cities far away, listening for an answer.

On my own map of my own country
I shall show where there were never wars,
And plot the changed way I hear men speak in the west,
Words in the south slower, and food different.
Not the court houses seen floodlighted at night from trains,
But the local stone built into house walls,
And barns telling the traveler where he is
By the slant of the roof, the color of the paint.
Not monuments. Not the battlefields famous in school.
But Thoreau’s pond, and Huckleberry Finn’s island.
I shall name an unhistorical hill three boys climbed one morning.
Lines indicate my few journeys,
And the long way letters come from absent friends.

Forest is where green ferns cooled me under the big trees. 
Ocean is where I ran in the white drag of waves on white sand.
Music is what I heard in a country house while hearts broke. 
Not knowing they were breaking, and Brahms wrote it.

All that I remember happened to me here. 
This is the known world.
I shall make a star here for a man who died too young.
Here, and here, in gold, I shall mark two towns
Famous for nothing, except that I have been happy in them.

Sunday Haiku

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Mist falls from the sky
all day covering the grass
in tiny droplets.

 

When the dog gets out
we lure him back with butter
and a soft cooing.

 

She poses for a
picture, holding her baby
in front like a shield.

 

“How are the bees?” he
asks. She tells him spring was too
cold for much honey.

 

Driving home from a
party she stops short; a thin
red fox ‘s eyes glow.

Lost Letter

photo 1I found it a few days ago, tucked into a book as an impromptu marker. I’d used one of my favorite notecards and I remember writing the letter in February, sitting in the little white chair in my bedroom.

I’d meant to send it, like any letter, but somehow it’s been hidden for the past five months.

I toyed with sending it now, but my curiosity got the better of me. I tore it open, read the words I’d meant for a friend. A time capsule, this letter that was never meant for my June-self, contained not only comfort, but truth.

I had no idea the difficult conversations I’d be having over the next few weeks, nor the “change” (really, changes) I felt coming. All I knew was what I read, what I felt, and how beautifully scripture pairs with Mary Oliver in a handwritten letter.

“For I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar –
The Lord of hosts is his name.
I have put my words in your mouth,
and hidden you in the shadow of my hand.”
-Isaiah 51:16

Dear K,

This was part of my Lenten devotional – good ol’ Henri Nouwen! – and it struck me for a few reasons. The biggest one, though, is that God’s words fill our mouths – God fills our mouths with his words. There is so much power in that but the number of times I do not feel God’s words coming out of my mouth would seem to disprove this fact. So in those moments when we are most afraid, most vulnerable, most ready to throw our hands up and despair, that is when the power of God’s Word (God’s words) can lift us out of ourselves.

But hand-in-hand with this power is God’s protection. I think it was this combination of truths that brought this verse so deeply into my heart. Because as little as I feel God’s strength and power within me, I would say I feel his protection even less. Sometimes I feel I march through the gates of whatever “righteous” battle I’m waging at the time, but despite God’s power, I am left unprotected, easily hurt, and most often very confused.

I think perhaps there is a little bit of your New York in that: full of strength in the beginning, a sense of extreme vulnerability, and a feeling of no protection afterwards.

I feel on the cusp of some “great change,” and I don’t necessarily mean factual, physical, geographical. I think this Lenten season holds a mystery for my discovery, and when I woke up and read my devotional, writing to you became the first step in that pursuit of quiet, of rest, of opening up to hear God speak.

Morning Poem
by Mary Oliver

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches –
and the ponds appear

like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead – 
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging  – 

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted – 

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
wether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Love,
Catherine

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Egrets

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“Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going.”

I don’t really like nature poetry. I’ve tried for years, taking recommendations, trying to more than just acknowledge its worth and actually revel in it. But there are few nature poems (or poets) that get me.

Or should I say: there are few nature poems (or poets) that I get.

And it isn’t for lack of love for nature, either. I’d take a day in the woods over shopping and call it blessed. Still, there’s something.

A friend once told me, “Egrets are auspicious birds.” We were standing by the ocean watching two egrets meander along the marsh. This friend is a reader of signs – a believer in “reasons for things” – and as I watched the egret bend its elegant neck to the marsh grasses, I almost believed her.

Battling through thorns, swatting at mosquitos, the narrator searches for something she doesn’t even know is there. At first, it’s just a clump of reeds shimmering across the shore. Then, suddenly, it bursts into life and white fire, egrets emerging from the reeds.

“Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that made them –
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.”

“By the laws of their faith” – as though even birds have a sense of belonging. I imagined their long un-clumsy legs shifting with grace.

They opened their wings softly and stepped over every dark thing.

I sit on my bed, that last line resonating through the room as though I’d read it aloud.

I read it again, quickly, afraid almost that the words are not true. That I didn’t just read a poem about egrets and water and darkness and light.

But I did, and there it is on page 148. A real-live nature poem that stopped me in my mindless reading and gave words to transcendence.

She’s done it again, Mary Oliver, with her observations and daily life and the shaping of thought into poetry.

Maybe I don’t think I care for nature poetry.

If this is me not caring, then why has the image of egrets rising up out of the reeds, the image of “stepping over every dark thing”, settled so permanently in my mind?

[Photo: Texas Eagle]

The Story of Hands

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I’ve always been fascinated by hands.

Sitting on Grampa’s lap in the big recliner, I remember the feel of the bump along the edge of his thumb. He’d been in a boating accident years before, and the bones never smoothed after the surgery to reattach his thumb.

Watching Great-Grammie Shaw knit in the sunny den, her veined hands flashing the metal needles. You’d never have guessed she didn’t have full-use of her right hand – that a car accident in 1927 left her to relearn how to write, how to knit, and how to sew. The only thing she couldn’t re-learn was how to type. It scared me a little, the shape of that hand, but when I grew older, I marveled at how she held her coffee mug every morning, the tilt of it towards her mouth right up to a month ago.

My Dad’s hands in church as he held the Bible, the fine blond hairs of his fingers, the shortness of his nails. How those square hands held me and gardened and played card games. How the freckles came out in the summertime.

And Mama’s hands, small and brown from the sun. Her wedding ring stopped fitting me when I was a teenager and I thought my hands must be huge. But it wasn’t that, really, it was the smallness of Mama’s, like her thin wrists.

That time I was driving along 1-A and realized my hands would die. That I looked at them and finally saw how deeply fear ran in me.

[“You know what I remember, Catherine? Having a sleepover when we were like fourteen, and we were all talking about boys. And you said he had to have good hands, that you always looked at his hands. I’ll never forget it.”]

Sitting across from a man and thinking No, no, because his hands looked like a woman’s and he was eating salad. Because his nails were too long and his laugh was too high and all I could think was no.

Hands tell stories without words. Like a timeline, they trace the beginnings of life all the way to the grind of your day. The scar on my right hand from that broken mug my senior year of college, how it bled and bled and seemed to stand for more than just my clumsiness. The freckle on my thumb that’s only recently appeared – proof of sun and age. The writer’s bump I got in second grade writing an essay on keeping chickens (in cursive). The way the veins in my left wrist protrude just a little bit more than my right – a reminder of blockage and breaking free.

Even now, as I think of different people in my life, I see their hands. The half-moons of my aunt’s nails, the wedding ring my Gramma has never taken off, the slope of his trimmed nails and the way my hand feels small inside his.

Who knows why hands are what I see? I wonder what it is other people see: ears? noses? eyes? There’s so much character in a hand, though, the kind of character that makes you feel like you know a person long before you do. I try not to read bodies, but it’s hard, ignoring the reality of truth right in front of you.

Too Personal

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“Why haven’t you been writing as much?”

“Oh, you know, don’t have much to say these days.”

Which is true. Lots of thoughts, not a lot of formation.

But the real truth?

“I read your blog – not all the time. Sometimes I feel like it’s too personal.”

So, there you go.

That’s what’s been keeping me away – this quick sentence from a friend that has made me reevaluate and second-guess almost every post I’ve thought of.

I don’t think of this blog as too personal.

“Really? You do?” I asked. “Because I was thinking how I leave so much out, how there are always these glaring holes of what’s really going on.”

~     ~     ~

This weekend, I posted pictures on Facebook of my trip to Brooklyn to visit my recently-relocated friend. We were smiling in the sun and looked absolutely ridiculous with ring pops.

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What I left out was that we both tired of those ring pops before they were gone. That
I got lost on the subway a grand total of three times. That I had blisters like you read about. That I wandered the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone with a backpack weighing thirty pounds slung across my belly “to protect the art.”

That I couldn’t sleep on the train ride there or home because my mind was racing to the blur of the landscape.

Even today, I posted a picture of the girl I babysit. The caption?

A woman after my own heart – how do you not love kids who beg you to take them fishing?

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The sun was beautiful on the water, it was still and quiet. The lily pads were in bloom and blue and red dragonflies swooped together among the flowers.

What I didn’t write?

That five minutes later, I had two whiney kids who couldn’t cast for the life of them (and apparently aren’t able to put a worm on a hook). There was pushing and accusations when a brother knotted the line, whining because it was so hot and the water bottles I’d painstakingly packed were “warm.”

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It was only about half an hour later that I decided:

You know what? Let’s just sit with our feet in the water, ’cause this is exhausting and I can’t take it.

~     ~     ~

So what am I trying to say? Something about social media? How it’s a manicured version of ourselves? How we present only the good and beautiful and leave the ugly at home?

A little.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are somethings that need to be ugly. It’s the unique parts that make someone worth reading, that make writing resonate with you.

Sometimes armpits are hilarious. Sometimes they’re just gross.

More than that, though, it’s an echo of what I’ve written about earlier.

There’s always more going on under the surface. Perhaps I do get too personal here, but it’s usually because it feels comfortable. It feels like the space to write things I care about. It feels like the space to figure out what it means to be me – both as a writer and as a human.

I’m sorry if that’s too personal.

Beach Week [in images]

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Back at the beach for our yearly tradition (year nine, for those of us counting).

Last summer, I wrote about Mary Oliver and living while I sat in the sun.

This time, I’ve written a letter and a terrible poem that might not always be terrible.

I’ve also consumed a lot of ice cream.

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I’ve talked about missions (still on the brain), and I’ve helped grill twelve cheeseburgers, two bratwursts, and roughly six hotdogs.

I’ve made a rockin’ potato salad.

I’ve been grateful that Dunks is a mile away and I’m shocked they don’t know my order by now.

I’ve wandered down to the water in the dark, making Gramma nervous but coming back in due time.

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I’ve people-watched like a champ, playing “inner monologue” and creating bizarre plot lines to strangers’ lives (I hope they don’t mind…they’re quite entertaining).

I’ve walked the beach three times a day, and seen how the light changes against the sand.

photo 1 photo 2And now, I sit.

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After the Burning [Guest Post]

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I’m honored to share Hannah’s story. I met Hannah when she started dating my childhood friend, David, and I even got to be part of their wedding last summer. I resonate with a lot of what Hannah has to say about expectations. You can read more of her writing at her blog, hannahlynnmell.com.

 

When David and I moved to Kansas last summer, I envisioned countless bright scenarios: making our first home together, establishing ourselves in a new arts community, gathering a circle of warm-hearted midwestern friends. We drove the moving truck cross country just three weeks after our July wedding, headed toward David’s first full-time teaching position and a shockingly inexpensive high rise apartment in downtown Wichita.

The low cost of living meant that I could piece together part-time work instead of looking for a full-time teaching job myself. The set-up offered precisely what I’d hoped for: ample time to write. I’d unleash volleys of cunning, heartfelt essays, utilize the glittering Interweb to network with likeminded creative-types, and watch my freelance career begin to unfold.

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You can smell the punch line, can’t you? We make our plans, and the good Lord chuckles. I love writing and revising essays; I don’t love submitting and resubmitting them. After ten minutes on Facebook or Twitter, I’ve had my fill of social networking for the week. It wasn’t that I spent the year in ardent pursuit of my dream but met with disappointment; my ardor dried up by the end of autumn.

Turns out I thrived on the bustle of teaching full-time. Waking early, putting on pretty clothes, riding my bike to school: my old routine suited me far more than staying in my pajamas and plunking away at a computer keyboard. When I found myself brooding at school, singing joyful songs with children snapped me out of it. In my new life I depended on afternoon voice lessons to buoy my spirit – and teaching students via Skype fell far short of teaching them in person.

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As autumn ended and winter set in, I grieved the loss of my Writing Career as though it had actually existed. I knew that I’d continue to write, but I unhanded the illusion that it would make me famous or even pay the bills. Okay, “unhanded” is a graceful but inaccurate verb. God had to pry the illusion from my sweaty, clutching fingers the way I’ve seen parents wrest dangerous objects from their toddlers.

Meanwhile, David’s teaching job dragged him through a disillusionment of his own. I don’t know which made me weep more: watching my husband struggle or letting go of the person I planned to become.

Fast forward to spring. Autumn and winter make a lot more sense when the world begins to blossom. Letting go of the person I planned to become? I’ve begun to recognize the loss as a gain.

Lines of burning grass create pattern on landscape at dusk

In the tall grass prairies of Kansas, spring is a time of burning. Native Americans started the tradition of setting fire to the old grass in order to instigate the rapid growth of new grass. Viktor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” In prairie terms, we could slightly revise that: What is to give life must endure burning. As I survey the charred landscape of our time here in Kansas, I see fertile soil and green shoots. New dreams arise from the ashes of my surrender. David and I make plans to return to Massachusetts. I begin to outline a novel.

Catherine asked me to write about living the in-between. As she astutely observes, “We’re all there in one way or another.” David and I have experienced the in-between in full force this year, but I can’t remember a season of my life that didn’t feel like a transition. Like a baffled student, I return to the same lesson again and again. I’ll say it confidently now, with the windows open and the lilacs in blossom: the new life quickening within me will feed next year’s flames. When the grasses fade to yellow and the cold sets in, I’ll weep and question and eventually let go. I can’t tell you next year’s particulars, but I’m learning to love the pattern.

Hannah writes, Skypes voice lessons, and teaches yoga in Wichita, Kansas. She met Catherine through her husband David, one of Catherine’s childhood friends. Her blog lives at hannahlynnmell.com.

[Photo: James Nedresky at Flint Hills Images]