A few things I love

pink clouds

I love sunsets,
I love words,
I love paying attention to the movements of birds,
I love the warmth of a fire
and hearty conversation,
I love taking long vacations,

I love my husband’s strong embrace
and our son’s melodious laugh,
I love piping hot coffee with half-and-half,
I love fresh-cut hydrangeas
and a candle on my desk,
I love having really good sex,
I love minestrone and Aperol Spritz and fresh-baked baguette,
I love a Bad Day ice cream sundae to help me forget,

I love it when the clouds are painted cotton candy pink,
I love reading writers whose work makes me think,
I love practicing yoga
and walks in the woods,
I love seeing people collaborate for the common good,

I love the mountains,
I love to sing,
I love pushing my son on a tire swing,
I love MagnaTiles and Hot Wheels cars strewn across our carpet,
I love using drive-up order service at our local Target,
I love the smell of fabric softener wafting in the breeze,
I love how my dog’s presence puts me at ease,

I love being with friends who feel like home,
I love and crave more time alone,
I love baby announcements and heartfelt letters,
I love chunky and soft oversized sweaters,
I love rainbows, the first snow, calming waters, blazing leaves,
I love watching Hallmark Christmas movies,
I love feeling the wind tickling my hair,
I love how protests and petitions can be a form of prayer,

I love faith that makes space for questions,
the grace that sets me free,
a church that affirms each person’s dignity,
I love hearing my preschooler’s silly jokes,
I love listening to the stories of ordinary folks
I love art that’s beautiful and bold,
I love how writing invites me
to behold.


artist inspiration: Courtney Martin, Lemn Sissay, Ashlee Gadd + the Exhale Creativity writing community

Diary of another day

as part of the #onedayhh challenge led by Laura Tremaine, I captured a handful of moments from November 9, 2021:

begin

7 a.m. // When I get back from a long, hot shower, I find my boys waiting for me in bed. I’d hoped to sneak in some writing, but our schedule’s off due to daylight saving time. Wrapped in my bathrobe, I climb into bed and snuggle my son and our dog. “You know what day it is, Jack?” I ask. My son shakes his head side to side. “It’s Gus’ sixth birthday!” I reply. We sing happy birthday and give Gus some extra pets before starting our day.

8 a.m. // I finally sit down to breakfast after feeding both boys, taking the dog out and getting dressed. It’s day two of what will be a 10-day solo-parenting stint while my husband travels for work. I’m already tired. Jack, still in his Star Wars pajamas, peruses a catalogue filled with holiday gifts for kids. “Mommy, look at all the toys!” he squeals. “Which is your favorite?” “Which is yours?” I counter. “All of them!” he replies. I chuckle and take a sip of my coffee. “Remember to pick your very favorite things as ideas for Santa. You won’t get everything you want.”

9 a.m. // I’m home after dropping Jack at preschool with a kiss and the words, “I love you, buddy. Be kind today.” As he entered his classroom, I sheepishly handed his teacher an extra sock. (He’d refused to wear both socks this morning and I didn’t feel like arguing.) Leaves confetti the streets of my neighborhood with color. The sight causes me to release an exhale I didn’t know I was holding. Before entering my home to begin my workday, I pause and give thanks for the beauty of this day.

10:30 a.m. // Pen in hand, I line edit a story about a Midwestern ministry. Two things are top of mind for me as I work: How does the writing reflect the dignity of each person in this story? What needs to change, if anything, to engage the reader in this narrative? Mid-way through the piece, I realize I have more questions for its writers related to structure, so I shoot off an email requesting a call.

work + play

12:30 p.m. // Gus paws at my leg, letting me know it’s time for his mid-day walk. I finish my lunch and root around for my walking shoes and his harness. Once we’re ready, I burst out the door, inhale the fresh fall air and jog down our stoop. Steps into our walk, I greet a friend and neighbor who’s just brought her little one back from music class. Later, I pop in ear buds and listen to the newest episode of the Coffee + Crumbs podcast featuring one of my favorite writers, Shauna Niequist. During the episode, she says something I know I’ll need to copy in my journal: “The more we invest in our health and healing, the more we have to offer the people in our homes. Most of us get that math backward.”

2:30 p.m. // Time to face the blank page. I’ve just hopped off a call with the freelance writers whose work I edited this morning. Now I need to finish my assignment. I’m covering the work of an agency that’s helping resettle Afghan neighbors in the U.S. As I run through my interview notes, this quote unsettles me: “the trauma these families and children are facing is massive.” I close my laptop. With folded hands, I offer silent prayer for peace and wholeness.

4:30 p.m. // “Welcome to my castle!” my son cries, surveying the playground next to his preschool. We’re catching the last drops of daylight before nighttime descends on our city. My little prince beckons me inside to show me around, then abandons his throne at first sight of the tire swing. A sliver of crescent moon brightens the quickly darkening sky. Cool air wraps around my body. I push Jack’s swing, and watch him spin. He smiles back at me, eyes shining. Dinner beckons, but we linger, drinking in this sacred, mundane moment on a cool night in November.

rest

6:15 p.m. // Jack turned up his nose at my original dinner plan — bean tacos — so we’re eating leftovers. I’ve heated up a bowl of African Peanut Soup for me and a hot dog in a whole wheat bun plus carrots and peas for him. We both munch crisp red grapes on the side. Between bites, Jack asks *me* about my day. I share that I especially enjoyed our visit to the playground, then volley the question to him. “I’m so excited to make a treat for Gussy’s birthday!” he exclaims. After dinner, we’ll make a “pupcake” for Gus’ birthday using a recipe I Googled.

7:15 p.m. // Gus gobbles up his pupcake. Jack tries a few bites of the extra one we baked, declaring it “dis-GUST-ing!” I giggle, rubbing our dog’s coat. “I think Gussy loved it.”

8:15 p.m. // While I read Dream Animals by Emily Winfield Martin, Jack leans back against my already-too-big pregnant belly. His brother jabs my rib cage, asserting his presence. I close the book and Jack crawls into bed without much protest. I sing him “Goodnight My Someone,” a favorite lullaby. Before prayers and a final hug, Jack’s already snoring.

9:15 p.m. // I let Gus out for the last time, make a cup of Nutty Almond Cream tea and cozy up in bed for some me-time. First things first: finish writing this post. Then I hope to dive into my latest read, Regina Porter’s The Travelers, which explores racism, aging and the search for meaning. A yawn overtakes me, then another. I don’t have long before I’ll fall asleep myself.

I must confess, I almost didn’t participate in this challenge because I was afraid. This morning a voice from within asked gently, Self, who told you to be afraid of taking up space? I’m still pondering this question, however, asking it emboldened me to act.

Something miraculous and mysterious happens when we voice our stories — we give others permission to claim theirs too. I hope we keep telling the truth about our lives. I hope we make extra room for those whose stories have been traditionally ignored. I hope we hear and amplify the voices of others, especially those unlike us. May we practice the holy work of showing, telling and listening again and again.

Who I’ve been

Inside words and worlds,

I’ve been Ross, 
digging my cocoa-colored hands 
into the dirt of a community garden, where
“everything makes me mildly or more
hungry”
pruning poetry from “pear blooms
howling forth their pungence,” 
celebrating Black joy and lamenting Black sorrow.

I’ve been Tara, 
traumatized by the white survivalists who raised me,
singing sweetly in choir,  
sweating in the junkyard,
choked by my brother,
fighting to get Educated,
mining the context of my life, the lies I was fed, 
for the truth
that defined me — 
and sets me free.

I’ve been Isra, 
missing Palestine,
abused by the husband I never wanted,
raising my four daughters and,
“reading [my] books . . . 
beginning to find 
a different kind of love.” 

I’ve been Paul, 
diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer,
clinging to hope,
loving my wife,
my work as a neurosurgeon
and words, always words,
I keep writing even in the face of death,
marking the moment 
When Breath Becomes Air.

I’ve been Alice, 
cradling close the lifelong pain 
of a childhood accident,
startling
when my baby daughter saw
a “whole world in [my] eye,”
which taught me 
I am “beautiful, whole, and free.”

Each story a ticket
to a place
where I         

               l       o       s        e

                                             and 

                                                     find 

                                                            myself.


Storytellers and stories referenced in order of appearance: Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Tara Westover’s Educated, Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Alice Walker’s essay, “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is Self.”

I wrote this ekphrastic poem as part of Exhale Creativity‘s Reading Well, Writing Well 2 Workshop.

Small graces on a fall morning

Sunlight slices through the night,
washing the world in color.
I rise, grateful
for earl grey tea in my cup
lavender swirled in
each inhale,
another chance to get it right
or rather, live gently —
to soften my heart where it’s been hardened
toward others (and myself).

Cold nips the air,
dew drops deck blades of grass,
yellow and purple mums brighten porches,
leaves shift their outfits for the season,
a reminder that change often seems slow
until one day you arrive,
bursting with beauty.

The promise that those same leaves will fall,
carpet the yard in red and brown,
become fuel for a backyard bonfire,
smoke curling in the sky
while we sip hot cider
and embrace its warmth.

The last dandelion puff,
placed in my hands by
a child who knows how his mama trusts
dreams and prayers…
in every ending and beginning
shining on the horizon,
bathing us in hope.

This list of “small graces” was inspired by this reflection.

My body, a wonder

She used to race, Nikes flashing across worn asphalt, Lakefront wind slicing against her, heart pounding, flying free.

She swam, limbs threading Lake Michigan’s rough, cool waters, gulping air, rocketing herself forward, weightless. Back then, she measured her worth with numbers: pounds, pace, calories. Afraid of everything and nothing.

She once saved two men from drowning.

Nearly drowned herself in tears when she labored for hours, failing to deliver, landing in the OR, waiting with bated breath for her baby’s first whimper. For 20 months, she nourished his small body with her breasts.

Sometimes, I am astonished by her power.

Other times I’ve felt trapped by her, my body: too flat-too heavy-too blotchy-too lumpy. Wished I could shed her like a second skin, my body. The times she’s attracted honks, heckles, stares, touch without permission? Wished she wasn’t so dangerous, my body.

But there was also this: her standing in the dusty infield, mit held high, mit finding the ball again and again and whipping it through the air to the tune of cheers. “You’re out!”

She traded her cleats for tap shoes, dancing across the stage, singing and smiling. Oh how she danced — once at a swanky, smoky club in Madrid with seven levels, dressed in blue jeans, black top, very American, eyes laughing. She was thirsty for pleasure, and drank of it joyfully.

Shape-shifter, she’s spun and curved and stretched her limbs on the mat into a dog, a crow, a cobra.

She’s softer than she was last spring. New creases and curves grace her form, stubborn weight sits at her once taut middle.

Yesterday morning I took her for a walk in the neighborhood. The sun was out, and whirligigs sprinkled down from the Maple trees, twirling lazily in the sunshine, scattering across the pavement like confetti. She can twirl too, this soft, strong, aging body of mine. She still runs on occasion — mostly after her son. She is still afraid of everything and nothing.

She isn’t done changing. Not even close.

I wonder, what will she do next?

God only knows (a sonnet)

Where can we get a baby?
my son asks, his blue eyes piercing
in the morning’s heel.
It’s far too early to navigate this task.
Oh Jesus, where are you? Please take the wheel!

He wants a brother — he’s an only child.
Stalling, I tell the tale he loves to hear,
You once lived in my tummy —
isn’t that wild?
He nods and smiles at me, his joy sincere.

A baby is a miracle divine:
from clay the Artist sculpts a newborn soul
with aptitude to love, create, refine.
How wonderful the sight is to behold!
My thoughts don’t make it to my child today;
instead I say, It’s a mystery. Go play!

Advice to myself at the close of a pandemic

tulips

Be gentle
with yourself.
Listen closely
to your heart
to the robins’ chirping
to neighbors, far and near.
Speak slowly,
and with intention.

Breathe in the aching beauty
of this strange world — open
restaurants, churches, playgrounds,
children’s laughter sailing in the breeze,
your son hugging his grandparents,
exhaling without fear of harming them.

(You can cry — it’s healthy to cry.)

Unmask your trauma:
name each wound, each loss,
and cradle it close
apply the salve of time
and progress. Remember healing
is rarely linear, rather, it unfolds
mysteriously.

Make plans but hold them loosely.
Let time stretch out before you like
a rolling wave. Savor it.

Stay humble,
and cultivate kindness.
Keep disrupting hate
in all its ugly manifestations
search your heart
call it out
call your reps
send a call up to your Creator.

Keep tending to simple pleasures —
yellow tulips on your table,
mint chip in a sugar cone
from the corner creamery,
a lazy morning snuggling in bed with them,
new library books to devour —
relish their sweetness.

Move at your pace;
don’t let the rush
of hustle lure you
into the race again.

The truth? There is no race.
But there is one sun
around which we all orbit
searching for meaning
and love, and
aren’t you glad you made it this far?
Can you feel the thrill of spring rising?

Dare to dream again
make it bold
make it juicy
make it lavish with hope.
This is your
“one wild and precious life”
said the poet.
Now what will you do with it?


// inspired by Louise Erdrich’s “Advice to myself”; final quotation from Mary Oliver.

At home together (a tiny love story)

photo: Rachel Liv Photography

I.

The first notable thing about Jay was his hair: shockingly blonde and spiky.

The second: He was late to class on day one, strolling in during introductions. The only open seat was next to me, so he took it. His very presence shifted the air from stale to charged.

On our first date, we talked for hours about school, Greek life and growing up. He was my foil: analytical, relaxed, naturally gifted. Yet we worked. Being together felt like home.

II.

I spent the following semester in Cambridge, England. When a classmate’s boyfriend booked a flight to visit over Thanksgiving, Jay did too. 

Under the glow of fluorescent lights, I scanned the crowd at Heathrow Airport. Jay’s hair caught my eye first: blonde spikes gliding across arrivals. When he saw me, his gait quickened. He dropped his backpack and wrapped me in an embrace. A stream of travelers flowed around us, rushing to their destinations, but us? We’d arrived. 

We saw several sights that week. Yet the memory that stays is Heathrow — his hands around my waist, my head against his chest. Being held. 

III.

We are eight years married, with a home in Chicago. Over this pandemic, we’ve spent most of our time here with our son Jack, a preschooler. 

Recently, Jay left for his first work trip in nearly a year. Without him, these walls feel hollow.

One night over video chat, Jay reads Jack I’ll Love You Forever. After Jay closes the book, Jack circles his arms around the phone. Jay “hugs” him back, blowing kisses.

What is home? Not a place, but a feeling inside. It’s the joy that he brings when we’re wrapped in his love.

image: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

I wrote this post as part of a Blog Hop with Exhale — an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in the “280 words” series.

He is four

at four

He is brightness and joy,
the glow of the warm sun
rupturing cloud cover.

He is the boom-boom-pop of fireworks,
the roar of the mighty lion,
laughter rising from my belly.

He is crisp apple slices
and ooey gooey cheese pizza,
chocolate chip cookies fresh outta the oven.

He is “Follow me!”
“Come to me, Mommy!”
and “Just one more story?”

He is Hot Wheels races,
Magna-Tiles with Daddy,
our brave superhero.

He is not what they say boys are: hard.
He is sweet and strong,
wild and tender.

He is the leap of faith,
the spark of curiosity,
“Who is God?” and “Where is Jesus?”

He is scaling a sand dune,
chasing the tide,
pointing me to beauty.

He is the bubble bath, the fuzzy robe,
the last kiss before lights out.

He is not the seeker nor the one who hides but
the feeling of being found.

He is a prayer
and its answer.

// Celebrating my son, who turned 4 at the end of January.

Miracles in the year of pandemic

// Spring //

They said we were experiencing a pandemic. They said that we’d be under stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. They said “don’t be afraid” but people were hoarding toilet paper and Lysol and it all seemed very apocalyptic, like a scene from Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven.

My husband tracked rising case numbers in an excel spreadsheet, while I coped by doom-scrolling doing downward dogs in the living room. Sleep came in fits and starts, and my appetite diminished. News of the coronavirus consumed us.

Yet, alongside my looping worry of “Would we be okay?” a peculiar thought arose: this sudden pause made me happy. I even declared to our preschooler that we were on a “staycation.” (Ha! An older, wiser Erin is shaking her head.) Five days a week, since he turned three months old, life was: rush out the door to daycare, rush from work to daycare pick up, rush through dinner to playtime, rush through bath time to bedtime. Rush. Rush. Rush. Rush.

I’d longed to be the kind of mom who was present and unhurried. 

In the year of pandemic, we could linger in bed on a Tuesday morning and discuss our dreams. Stay in our pajamas. Savor juicy blueberry pancakes and the view outside our bay window. Beyond the glass is a tree I never used to notice — red pinpricks fleck its branches in early spring before becoming pale green buds that unfurl into cream-colored blossoms.

My son Jack blossomed, too. He’d begun counting and recognizing letters. Snuggled under his comforter, he told epic bedtime tales of imaginary treasure hunts, races and rescue missions. Jack traded his red balance bike for an orange “big boy bike” with training wheels. He adored dancing. Together we’d twirl around the living room, accompanied by “Into the Unknown” and other songs from the Frozen 2 soundtrack. 

I witnessed it all. Miracle.

// Summer //

People picked up a plethora of pandemic pastimes: baking bread, cross stitch, watching Tiger King. (Remember that?!)

I started walking.

First as a means of self-care, an activity my therapist suggested I try to manage my anxiety. In the beginning, I took short bouts around the block with my dog Gus, usually over lunch or after dinner.

As the days warmed and lengthened, I began leaving Gus behind to explore the trail that edges our neighborhood. (A pug, he can’t handle much heat or distance.) I wanted to know where the path ended, and if I had the stamina to reach it. I wanted to see how far my legs could carry me.

The habit gelled. I came to crave the rhythm of my soles touching ground, my breath rising and falling, an inner stillness earned in the midst of motion. The kaleidoscope of wildflowers skirting the path, Northwest Chicago’s deer gracing me with their presence, other walkers on the trail. Open sky, open path, open heart. Walking became a form of prayer.

One summer night, reeling from the news, I walked and walked until I finally reached the path’s end. An OnBeing episode featuring author Jason Reynolds flooded my earbuds as I stood and surveyed a nearby baseball field. That dusty, empty field looked like it had been deprived of care for ages.

Black Lives Matter protests had erupted across the country and world after a white police officer suffocated George Floyd by pressing his knee on George’s neck for eight minutes and 15 seconds. George, a Black man, cried out for air, cried out for his mother, but was shown no mercy. Even typing this now I want to wretch.

Jason said, “Black folks have a right to have a conscious rage. … If you are a Black person who is conscious in America, then you are basically living in a state of anger.” His words washed over me as I stood outside that crappy baseball field and wept for our broken country. “How long, O Lord?” the psalmist cries. I cry too.

My feet drug as I trudged toward home. I had miles to walk and little drive to keep going. Up ahead, I spied a cloud of insects shimmering in the sunset. I veered off the path to investigate.

Ah, dragonflies! I couldn’t help but smile. I marveled at their circular dance and brilliant shine, even catching the eye of a fellow pilgrim on the path who’d stopped to watch. We shook our heads together in wonder.

In a chapter of Bittersweet, Shauna Niequist offers a meditation on the Celtic concept of “thin places.” A thin place is where the sacred and ordinary intersect, where the line between heaven and earth blurs. She wrote, “When we find a thin place, anytime, anywhere, we should live differently in the face of it, because if we don’t we miss some of the best moments that life with God has to offer us.”

It was a miraculous and biblical thing, those dragonflies soaring in the sun, lifting my heart, reminding me of God’s goodness. A thin place. A salient sign of beauty amid brokenness.

// Winter //

I was having a down day, one of those days when you move through life’s motions as if you’re a zombie. I needed a nap, and maybe some Advil for my throbbing headache. During December, it feels near sacrilegious to admit you’re hurting. But I was hurting. 

Christmas had come and gone, a quiet day mixed with joy and grief. We rejoiced over Jack’s delight as he opened presents. We grieved memories missed with extended family due to the pandemic. I’d just turned 35, a bittersweet day during which I reflected on two unrealized dreams: I longed for another baby. I longed for a book deal. Achieving both was taking much more time than I’d expected, and it felt as if both dreams might slip out of reach. If we ever conceived again, I’d have a “geriatric” pregnancy. And the writing workshop I did earlier that month, the one I hoped would advance my work in progress, had deflated my confidence as a writer. I felt lost. 

On that down day, I bundled up in my heavy coat and returned to the trail I’d grown to love. Clumps of snow and ice had infiltrated the barren forest, and the trail was a bit… slimy. With each mud-caked step, I attempted to untangle my thoughts.

In two of the three essays I’d brought to this workshop, the leader noted that it wasn’t clear to the reader if the narrator was okay. “Readers need to know their narrator is going to be okay,” she said. “I can tell she’s okay in this piece, but not the others.”

Those essays I wrote touch on dark seasons of the soul. Even re-reading them in the workshop made me agitated. I wasn’t sure if I, the author, let alone the narrator, had recovered from the trauma. I asked myself why I was writing this book.

I had reached a dead end. Ice-glazed trees shot up from a massive frozen puddle. There was no way around – too much ice. I needed to retrace my steps. Walking home, I recalled that I had written through these difficult times – a disorder, family illness, a faith crisis – to heal and to uncover hope. I wanted to write the book I needed during those seasons so it might bless someone else who needed it. Goodness grew in the darkness, I knew, I just needed more time to dig for it.

When you exit the trail that edges our neighborhood, there’s a gravely old road that leads you to the place where the sidewalk begins. Nearby you’ll find a lone old-fashioned light post, reminiscent of the world of Narnia, on a meticulous patch of lawn. The sight is a marker that home is near.

Is the narrator okay?

After I took up walking, I called it my escape. Most often I was escaping the house, the crushing exhaustion of working and parenting for months on end without outside assistance. Other times I escaped a deluge of deadlines or news of another tragedy. On the path I felt free, powerful and a little wild, like the fawn I spotted crossing into prairie grass one summer afternoon. She was so sure of herself and peaceful.

A block away from home, I increased my pace. In a couple minutes, I would walk in the door, shed my coat and be greeted by Jack and my husband. Jack would abandon his Magna-Tiles, hug me and invite me to dance. We’d turn on “Into the Unknown” once again and twirl until we were dizzy. Later, I’d return to the page, hunting for hope and beauty. I would not abandon the book, or my dreams of another baby. I would keep trying. I would be okay. The narrator is okay.

Maybe walking wasn’t so much an escape as it was a return. What was I returning to? Creation, of course. A semblance of community. Peace and quiet. Deep questions that niggled me. My faith. Myself.