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I’ve got an essay up at the literary blog BLEED today: “Honest Food Tastes Better.”  It’s a reflection on the balance between honesty and editing, an issue that comes up, in various incarnations, in each of my “classrooms.”  Have a read and shoot me your thoughts on the subject!


Okay, so a year-and-a-half-long hiatus is plenty long, but it was necessary in what turned out to be a full, exhausting 18 months: multiple deaths and many births, adoptions, teaching, travel, job transitions, a couple of publications, and general chaos.  I’ve kept up–Ben and I both have–but just barely.  To be honest, I sort of forgot this blog existed until recently, when I received several unrelated comments from folks who’d read a few posts or used a lesson plan.  I forgot that people are interested in this topic, and that conversation in and around the subjects of teaching, art, and community is–now maybe more than ever–so vital.  It’s a relief to folks like me who spend so much time doing that we forget to spend time reflecting on what we do and drawing encouragement from others who love what we love.  And that leads to loneliness and burnout.

I’d love to get that conversation going again, so I’ll try my best to get back to blogging here regularly and to update my formatting and resources.

In the meantime, since it’s 1 a.m. and I’m wiped, I’ll do a little shameless self-promotion in lieu of a teaching-related post.  Here’s a teaching-related essay I recently published over at The Rumpus.: “The Only Woman in the Room.”   You can read the text or listen to the audio (just click on the “Play” button at the bottom of the essay).

Fun tidbit: this essay which is about one of my first classes at the jail, began here as a rough blog post more than three years ago.  Neat, huh?  Enjoy!


I’m teaching a class this summer at the YWCA in Pekin.  If you live in our area and are up for some literary exercise, you should join us!

Live by Your Word”: Women’s Writing, Women’s Lives

Thursdays, 5:30-8:30pm

YWCA, Pekin

“It is easy to take for granted now what it meant even one generation ago to be a woman writer,” says poet Suheir Hammad, “Or what it means to be one today and…what it will take to be one tomorrow.” Women have been writing their lives, and the lives of other women, for many years now, but until (arguably) recently, they’ve been writing from the margins of society, often at great cost. How do their stories reflect what it means, then and now, to be a woman in the world? How do those stories resonate with our own? And how, ultimately, do we tell our stories? This course will combine reading, discussion, and writing to explore the particularities and nuances—aesthic, political, moral, etc—of women’s literature and women’s experiences. We’ll read and write in a variety of genres and styles, from memoir and novels to flash nonfiction, short stories, and slam poetry. We’ll exchange and workshop our own writing each week. And we’ll discuss our diverse interpretations—in writing and in life—about what it means to be a woman.

The course will include three sessions, each lasting 4-5 weeks, each focusing on a different genre. Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write by Gayle Brandeis will be a core text throughout.

  • Session 1 (May): Nonfiction. Texts will include Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, among others.

  • Session 2 (June): Fiction. We’ll read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and other selections.

  • Session 3 (July): Poetry: We’ll read, listen to, and watch selections from Word Warriors, edited by Eve Ensler, and poems from a variety of other authors.

Please join us for any or all of these sessions!

Message me for more information,

or call the Pekin YWCA Adult Literacy Office: 309-347-2104, ex. 23


My students steal pencils sometimes.

Or, they forget to give them back.

I think they think I don’t realize, but I do. The trouble is that I typically realize too late, after they’ve left the classroom or while I’m walking back through security. And then it seems pointless and petty and self-righteous to go back and ask the CO to ask them to gimme back the damn pencils.

Here’s how it works: every week I bring with me a box of freshly-sharpened #2s that they’re free to use in class. I hand out paper, a couple of sheets each, for them to complete the writing exercises, and copies of that night’s lesson, which they can take with them. But they’re supposed to return the pencils, partly because it’s against jail policy for me to give them pencils (occasionally a stern CO reminds me while I blush and nod and promise to do better), and partly because it seems like replacing and replacing and replacing pencils is just a waste of money, mine and/or the YWCA’s. I’ve been doing this for nearly two years now, and given the number of students that pass through the class (a little over seventy in 2011, if I recall), that actually adds up.

Each week I try to remember to mention the Pencil Thing at the beginning of class, as I’m passing out materials. Each week I try to remind everyone as they’re leaving: turn in your pencils. My students are all grown women, most older than me. Somehow that makes this whole situation slightly more obnoxious—the fact that stuff disappears at all, and the fact that I have to point it out like I’m talking to a roomful of children.

“Please give ’em back,” I said last night, sliding materials to each participant, “because you’ll get in trouble if you’re caught with them, I’ll get in trouble if you’re caught with them, and because, frankly, it makes me look like an idiot if you’re constantly walking off with them. I’ll try to remember to ask if you’ll try to remember to return them.”

Four students left class early for visits, while the rest of us were in the middle of discussing a poem by Mary Wallach. When we were finished, as the remaining women were pushing back their chairs, I reminded them to pass back their #2s. They did, and only then did it occur to me to check my pencil box. It was forlornly empty. I glanced up at S. and K., two students with whom I’d been chatting.

“They took the pencils, didn’t they?”

“Yeah.” K. grimaced. “Walked right out with ’em. Maybe they…forgot?” S. slipped away from the table and gathered my markers from the ledge of the whiteboard. She handed them to me quietly, an oddly touching gesture.

“Maybe they did,” I sighed. “But probably not.” I was tired, cranky for no really good reason, and in that moment I had to bite my lip against the urge to say something snarky, self-righteous, a complete and utter generalization: you guys realize, don’t you, that it’s in small, stupid moments like this that you either reinforce or complicate the stereotypes that “people like you” can’t be trusted, ever?

I didn’t say that. I was ashamed for thinking it, and I’m ashamed to type it out here. Seriously, Sarah? I thought, what the hell is your problem? At TCJC, my students are literally inhabiting punishment; they don’t need a lecture from me. All of us, myself included, have much bigger things to worry about than pencils, and there I was grinding my teeth about it.

It bugs me that it bugs me.

Yet what is the point of the stealing (or the forgetting to give back, whichever it may be)? And what does it say about me that it’s spark enough to set my insecurities—not just as a teacher— smoldering?

*

People want me to tell them success stories. I understand this. They are the stories you want to tell, after all. So why does my scalp tighten whenever I am asked this? Surely, part of it comes from my being utterly convinced I’m a fraud.

– Father Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Awhile back, I found out that the director of our literacy program, a sweet woman I deeply admire, nominated me for a state service award for the class at the jail. As part of the nomination, I had to write a short essay about why I volunteer as a tutor and about “any specific instances or students that have been particularly rewarding or challenging to me as a tutor.” I blinked at that a couple of times, then I set the nomination form aside for several days, and then I spent a large chunk of Thursday staring glaze-eyed at a blank screen, wondering what to say. I ended up writing generally about what we do in class; I wrote about what happens when it’s going well. Eventually I wrote this:

It’s difficult, then, to single out any specific students or experiences that have been particularly rewarding or challenging. Given the nature of the learning environment and the students, the rewards and challenges have always gone hand in hand; the class has been a steady parade of both. But there was a time one student came in to class waving a letter she’d written as an assignment the week before—a letter to herself, from the perspective of her husband, with whom she’d had an incredibly rocky marriage. She told me she had read it to him, prompting the first “healthy” conversation they’d had in months. Another time, after a writing exercise about plot, a student brought her work in and explained how the exercise had helped her better understand the series of events that once led her to attempt suicide and subsequently, what happened later to make her want to live. Then another time, a student came in weeping after a visit with her grandmother, who’d recently received hate mail on account of her granddaughter, her “trouble-making ‘mixed’ girl.” Coincidentally, the lesson that night was on slam poetry, including one poem dealing with the struggles and significance of being a mixed-race woman. The student read the poem with her head in her hands, eyes wide, shaking her head, interrupting her reading over and over to yelp, “She gets it! This lady GETS it!” I’ve watched students who claimed to hate school argue heatedly—supporting their opinions with critical thinking—about works of literature, issues of social justice, questions of human rights or aspects of women’s experiences; I have seen them weep while reading their own poetry and brief essays. They have told me how a writing assignment helped change their perspective about themselves, or turned into a letter to a spouse or family member that helped address an unhealthy relationship.

That definitely doesn’t happen all the time—not even most of the time…

Because jails and prisons, I wrote, aren’t really designed to foster growth and change and learning and engagement. They’re designed to sedate the spirit. Which is why it’s deeply encouraging when ideas are flying across the table, or women do have some revelation while writing, or they simply express pleasure at a bit of beauty in a work of literature…

Etcera feely-feel good etcetera.

I ended the essay on what I thought was a hopeful note, turned it in to my director, then drove to the jail for class. A few hours later, after the Pencil Thing, I just wanted the dumb essay back. I would scribble a postscript: Oh yes and by the way…

*

I can think of several reasons I’d steal a pencil or two or three, including but not limited to: if I were watched all day, every day, it would probably feel mighty good to get away with something. At least as my students have described it, when your world is reduced to a few small concrete rooms, all the little stuff matters way, way more than it ever would on the outside. You take whatever small victories you can get, however you can get them. And if that means not having to buy a stubby, high-priced pencil from commissary the way you’re supposed to because a flaky English teacher is handing out shiny, full-sized sharpened ones for free, why wouldn’t you? I would. It’s a little like giving The Man—wherever He may be—the middle finger.

But whether they know it or not, it feels like a sign of disrespect—a big middle finger—to me.

And that is perhaps the point that should concern me most.

*

It’s embarrasing to tell this story, but one of the things I aimed to do with this blog was swap stories of all shades and share small but hopefully useful revelations about teaching and making art and engaging both in a community setting. So. A few thoughts about those insecurities:

I’ve been mulling over Father Greg’s word fraud a lot these past couple of weeks, turning that passage over and over in my head. Last weekend during a quick visit to my old college town, I confessed to a dear friend, who’s also a teacher, “I spend most of my time winging it. I do not know what I’m doing.”

In fact I sort of wish someone had told me earlier that if I wanted to teach, then I’d probably spend a lot of my time feeling as Father G. said—like a fraud, like I don’t really know much about anything. Is that normal? (I might have heard the answer if I hadn’t dumped the Education half of my English Education degree in favor of a straight-up English degree and another minor because I thought my time would be better spent completely immersing myself in “my subject” instead of blowing it on education classes. I kid you not; I remember that high-falutin’ conversation with my mom.) I also wish they’d mentioned that a good lesson plan is more like a prayer than a plan: you fashion it as intelligently as you can with the information you have available to you, and then you hope it lands in the head or heart of someone who’ll do something good with it. And it certainly isn’t a suit of armor because teachers make themselves vulnerable each time they try to engage a group of students, regardless of the group demographics or learning environment or lesson content.

I’m thinking of the tedious, grinding class-after-classes when students sit and do little more than chew their fingernails and stare at me, or the whiteboard, or the cement walls, when I might as well be talking to lumps of tapioca pudding. And then there are the nights when I can’t seem to collect my own thoughts enough to guide a group of women into any kind of meaningful discussion. Also the nights when I’m just plain tired of teaching at TCJC, when I suspect neither they nor I have learned a thing, when leading that class feels more like an interruption than an opportunity.  And what about the Effing Pencil Thing?

No one really mentioned either, by the way, how quickly I’d become so self-absorbed.

My friend is a PhD student in Literature and holds a Master of Divinity. She’s compassionate and critical. She teaches middle-school English. I suspect she knows more about Grace than I ever will. But she has little patience for fools or whiners. She cocked an eyebrow and said, “Seriously? Yes you do. Anything you’ve ever told me about class says you know what you’re doing, Sarah.” I shook my head. No, really, I thought, you don’t understand. (It’s true. Because clearly, teaching middle-schoolers isn’t a daily exercise in humility and vulnerability and winging it. Of course.) She wasn’t exactly saying, Get over it, but she might have been saying, Get on with it.

*

I’m not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only as a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.

– Father G.


Rainy Season

Rainy season’s finally in full swing here, which means we fall asleep to rain, wake up to rain, and dodge thunderstorms throughout the day, and we walk around feeling damp much of the time. For those of you suffering winter in the Midwest, this probably sounds okay, and it’s true that Ben and I enjoy it. However, we don’t have to live with it all the time for several months the way our friends here do; we have a roof over our heads and a dry place to sleep while many, many others don’t. We aren’t trying to do business or build things or get places on crummy, washed-out roads, so rainy season doesn’t particularly interfere with our lives or work. Storms knock out the power for hours on end, but lucky us, we have a fridge protector. For most people, rainy season is just a pain in the butt. It’s difficult to get stuff accomplished. It’s also the season when malaria infections skyrocket–mosquitos thrive in warm, wet weather and breed in standing water–so everything from worker productivity to school attendance suffers because people get really sick, often. (Just since we’ve been here one of my dear friends, Patricia, was wiped out for a few days with malaria. Luckily, after a trip to the doctor and some drugs, she’s pretty much recovered.) On the plus side, flowers are in bloom, people’s gardens and farms are producing (though too much rain can ruin that too), and our rural neighborhood looks like a lush green paradise. You can understand why rainy season is one of those things my father would call a “blessed burden.”

Lifesong

Ben and I spent last Thursday through Saturday at Lifesong School in Kitwe. Lifesong’s a school for orphaned and vulnerable children; it’s run by acquaintances of ours, members of the Gridley AC church. The last time I was at Lifesong, three years ago, my friend Dru was the administrative assistant, and the school had about 175 kids from preschool through grade 5, I believe. It was a wonderful little school even then, but since 2009, it has expanded to serve about 250 children in seven grades, added new classrooms, brought on new administrative staff (the kids miss you, Dru!), and acquired more land on which they’ve started a strawberry farm. Ben’s friend from college, Luke Gudeman, is currently in charge of the farm and has done an amazing job developing the land, learning the business, experimenting with crops, and trying to produce an income that will help Lifesong School become self-sustaining. Turns out strawberries could be highly profitable as more people in Zambia have increased disposable income to buy “luxury” foods like that.

That said, each day Ben worked with Luke and his cousins Garrison and Justin (two other college buddies) at the farm, laying block and helping with trusses for a new strawberry-processing building, and generally getting his hands dirty. I picked up where I left off three years ago and did some more simple painting projects: four 8-ft-tall pillars (for the four Pillars of Character the kids are learning) in the foyer, music notes and drama masks in the music room, and ABCs/123s/shapes in the preschool classroom. When we weren’t working, we were hanging out with the Lifesong kids, most of them middle-school boys that Luke mentors. They sat and watched me work for hours, which was entertaining (they have some mad dance moves) and exhausting (so many questions and so much energy!) at once. All things considered, we had a blast with the guys and with the Lifesong boys. We’re hoping to visit at least one more time before we go home.

Cedric School

On Monday Ben went over to Rivendale (where Kafakumba’s 20-plus fish ponds are located and run by our friend Nate Enright and his fiancee Robin) to watch/help with“fry collection”: workers open the mouths of mama fish to check for eggs, then collect the eggs and put them in the hatchery. By all his accounts, it was a highly entertaining event.

I, on the other hand, went with my friends Matthew and Allison (who are coincidentally from New Zealand) to Limapela Cedric School, which they help facilitate. There I started painting another small mural in the preschool class: bright little stick kids riding cartoon animals, building with basic shapes, and interacting with numbers. While I worked, I listened to about 25 children between the ages of 3 and 5 do their “lessons,” which mostly consist of singing along with their teacher and memorizing basic concepts in English by hollering at the top of their lungs: “Thees ees my ARM! Thees ess MY NOOOOOSE! NUMBAH ONE!” It was kind of a hoot, kind of overwhelming.

Ben came to help me paint today—he did a good job!—and after working amidst the shouting again, we both had ripping headaches, but the mural is well on its way. Quite frankly, I think it’s looking delightful, I’m having a great time with it, and the students seem to love it. After class on Monday, about ten little kids lined up chairs and sat quietly behind me, just watching. I felt a bit like Bob Ross, without the white fro…

Victoria Falls

On Friday morning Ben, Luke, Garrison, and Justin are roadtripping the 12ish hours to Livingstone, Zambia to visit Victoria Falls for a few days. They’re taking their beat-up van, which only has one seat beside the driver’s; they’re throwing a mattress down in the back for the other riders. I’m staying behind so they can have some quality guy-time. They’ll be back on Monday night. Now, I don’t consider myself an overprotective person, and these are four highly-capable, sturdy midwestern farm boys. I trust them to get there safely…at least I’m trying to. : ) Still, if you’re a praying person I’d sure appreciate some prayer for the guys, for traveling mercies—and for fun.

Murder

The past several days have been full of wonderful stuff but also, I’m sad to report, full of tragedy: the grandmother of one of Rivendale’s employees was brutally murdered last week—allegedly for witchcraft—in Fisenge, a nearby village. She was beaten and then burned, and her husband was severely injured in the attack. Reports indicate that about 3,000 villagers were involved.

All my facts are second and third-hand because I wasn’t there. I do know that my friends have known and worked with folks in Fisenge for many years; most of the people in that village would call themselves Christians. There’s a decent chance I’m even acquainted with some in the mob, given that I spent a couple of afternoons a week in Fisenge during my last visit. So everyone here has been kind of reeling from the murder. Its implications are deeply troubling and confusing. I’m not sure I could sort it out if I tried. But here are two things I was reminded of this week:

First, that it wasn’t so long ago Americans were burning “witches,” mostly women, largely on hearsay and hunches and iffy accusations. Second, that all of us, whether we like to admit or not, walk around bearing ancient instincts. A friend put it this way: he said a village mob pounds an old woman with rocks for the same reasons he himself would pull the trigger on anyone who broke into his home and threatened his fiance. It’s the same old complicated, deep-seated fears and mistrust, playing out in different scenarios. However old and instinctive, those fears ultimately keep us from kinship and community. When we fear each other, we can’t live together.

We pray, then, that someday we learn to live together.


Me and and a few of my fellow Tangerines: MFA class of Dec. 2011

…My father was a Methodist pastor and a social worker, but he was also an artist. When I was old enough to pick up a crayon, he taught me to draw. I learned by copying: my father’s handwriting, his bubble-lettering, his cartoon sketches; later I ripped pictures from books and magazines and copied those. I mimicked the styles of other artists. Eventually I sat on the floor of my bedroom for hours with one hand or foot stretched out in front of me, flexing my fingers and curling my toes, sketching my own changing shape.

Some of us are born this way.

The passage above come from “The Local Price,” an essay included in my Final Manuscript, the thesis I turned in a couple of weeks ago just before Antioch University awarded me a Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction writing.  It was a last-minute addition to the piece, which for a year I had thought was about buying a painting from an artist in a marketplace in Kitwe, Zambia, about the cost and value of things.  Turns out, as the essay developed I realized it was as much about how and why I value art, about the privilege and responsibility of creating beauty.

For that reason alone, it was a grueling essay to write.  Because even now, if you asked me why I value art, why I think art is valuable–necessary, really–I couldn’t give you a straight answer.  It would take me a long time to explain.  And I would likely doubt myself the entire time.  How exactly does beauty work in (and on) the world?  Does it make things not just prettier, but better?  Does it bring out the best in us?

I might get fried for this among fellow artists, but I don’t think the answers to those question are simple; I think they’re a conditional, nuanced yes.

*

So.  This is my fourth time visiting Zambia; three out of the four visits, I’ve been volunteering in some artistic capacity, mostly painting Stuff on walls for kids: first an orphanage in downtown Ndola (I was seventeen).  Then a wall in a children’s classroom here at Kafakumba, a few classrooms at Lifesong School, and a portrait of a nursing mother for a nurse I know (I was twenty-three).  This time, a wall at Cedric Basic School and a few small things at Lifesong School again (now twenty-six).

And every time I struggle with the question of what exactly those efforts are worth.  When I’m here, everyone I spend time with seems to be busy building businesses, employing people, making sure dorms and houses get built, taking kids to the clinic–in short, doing useful things–and so I find, occasionally, that I want nothing more than to be someone else.  Somebody with different talents and passions.

The other afternoon, Matthew–the man who requested I do the mural at Cedric School–asked my friend Ken whether Kafakumba had ever had another visiting artist.

“We did,” Ken laughed, “waaay back.  She painted at an orphanage.  She’s…oh, well she’s sitting right there.  And before that…ah yes, that was Sarah too.”

I shrugged and smiled sheepishly.  “I’m kind of a one-trick pony.”

Why did I say that?  First, it isn’t true; I’m kind of an artistic and literary multi-tasker, both as an educator and a practitioner.  Second, it was practically an apology: I’m sorry I can’t do something else–something useful.  Third, Matthew was asking me to paint, was telling me that the wall of the preschool room he had in mind was terribly dreary, was explaining that he’d really come to appreciate recently how much environment affects learning.  He asked if I wanted to start the next day (I hadn’t even begun sketching yet).  In short I think if he had his way, he’d keep me here for a year and let me paint the whole time.  (It would take me a year to brighten that whole school with murals, but I sure wouldn’t mind spending a year that way.)  While he was showing me around the school, Matthew pointed out the new playground, which a group of New Zealander volunteers designed and built.  Like decorating the classrooms, he explained, a playground hadn’t been “a priority” for the last couple of years.

“Then I saw how much the kids used it and love it,” he said.  What he meant was, paint anything; the kids will love it, he said.

I’ve heard this same sort of thing time and again, especially here in Zambia: that aesthetics and play constantly have to take a backseat to function and to everyday urgencies; that there’s a hunger for beauty but not always the time and energy to create it.  And folks are grateful for those who can and do.

Why the ever-present instinct to apologize, then?  I’m still not sure.

*

…Some of us are born this way:  we have to make things, things we feel are extensions of our selves, our souls. I did, but I don’t recall asking why I made them. My relationship with art developed within a bubble of pure pleasure: at sixteen I still drew and painted primarily because I loved to draw and paint and because—like my father before me—I could. I believed I was an artist, but I didn’t yet know art as a privilege or an obligation and never questioned its function, its social consequences or cost. I didn’t yet know that art which expresses the self, an individual or cultural identity, could cost lives.

When my mentor, Hope Edelman, gave me my final feedback on that Manuscript, she wrote that it had been a pleasure to watch my writing grow and develop over the last couple of years.  She wrote, to my astonishment, “You are truly the Real Thing.”

I wake up with words banging around in my head.  I peer closely at colors: what colors make up the tone of a person’s skin, colors in a shadow, colors as they bleed together.  For as long as I can remember, my deepest instincts–like finding food when I’m hungry or thirsty or laying down to sleep when I’m exhausted, and so forth–have included trying to put language and color to image and feeling and experience.  I can’t really help it.  But for the past two years I’ve also worked really, really hard to learn how to do what I can’t really help much better: to string words together so that they shimmer; to make stories as irresistible for others as they are for me.

I don’t feel like The Real Thing; I’m not sure I know what that means.  But I would really LIKE to be The Real Thing, and I’ll venture a guess that it’s a combination of the some of us were born this way  and the worked really, really hard and–at the end of a long, exhausting, doubtful day–straight-up conviction: that beauty is, ultimately, necessary in this world, and that making beauty is a responsibility and a privilege and should be treated as such.

*

So anyway.  Tomorrow I head to Lifesong again, this time with Ben, to paint Stuff on walls for little kids: numbers, letters, musical notes and drama masks, and pillars of character.  The last time I was at Lifesong, that Stuff made sick kids feel a little better, helped sad kids grin, and stunned ornery, noisy kids into silent delight.  Every time I think it’s such a simple, small thing.  Then again, I have to remind myself, it isn’t.

*

Nothing is more powerful than beauty in a wicked world.  Play it, girl.

– Amos Lee, “Soul Suckers”


Ahem…one month later… (I considered calling this “The Little Blog That Could (Do Better).”) But at least this little blog sure gets around:

for those readers who only half-jokingly keep a “Where in the World are Sarah and Ben Now?” map, you can whip out your pushpins and poke ’em in at Ndola, Zambia, where Ben and I will be visiting friends for the month of January. In fact we’ve been here since New Year’s Day, and we’ve spent most of our first week here doing exactly what we intended to do: visiting friends, going slow, and just enjoying being here. More on that later.

Many of you know that for me this trip is a return to something like a second home; I’ve been here a few times over the last decade, most recently in 2009, when I stayed for close to three months, visiting and doing various volunteer art project. But this is Ben’s first time, and so far, he seems to be thoroughly enjoying it, especially the unique (somewhat goofy and very precious) cast of characters in and around Kafakumba, where we’re staying.

It’s interesting to observe Ben observing this place and these people; at times I envy him because everything’s new. Other times I think I’m incredibly lucky to have—in a sense—grown up coming to this place. I was sixteen the first time, seventeen the second, twenty-three the third, and now I’m twenty-six. Still there’s something to be said for encountering a new culture, with new ideas, when you’re a young adult and have a good deal more emotional, intellectual, and spiritual capacity to sort it all out!

There’s a research layer to this trip, too: for the past couple of years I’ve written a lot about previous experiences here; in fact about half of my Final Manuscript (the thesis I turned in for my Master of Fine Arts in December—yes, I’m officially graduated!) deals in some way with Zambia. In those essays, I’ve had the chance to wrestle with old questions, and most of the time the writing process has only dredged up more questions. Luckily, that’s usually a hallmark of a good essay (the word essay itself means to try, to work ideas out on the page), but needless to say I’m looking forward to doing some follow-up and new exploring.

For that and so many other reasons, this trip is a great gift—both to be here, and to be here with Ben. I appreciate his fresh perspective, the things he notices that I don’t, how he articulates what he’s learning or enjoying in ways that I wouldn’t, and the things he questions that I take for granted. I’m a writer, I can’t help it: I’m taking notes on all of it.

I have a classmate who says that we write to taste life twice, and I’m sure that in one sense she’s right. For me, though, I write to think, and to find out what I think. It’s difficult to switch off that part of my brain that’s constantly taking notes, trying to put words to experiences and ideas, trying to find and shape a story—difficult, but necessary, because it’s possible to forget that you live in a touchable world, in a real body (real lungs, real air, sweating like other real people in the rainy season humidity), in a moment that’s inherently precious not because it’s part of some bigger whole but because it’s there, happening, now. Every time I come here I have to relearn that, but I’m happy to. I’m happy just to be here for a little while.

There will be time for stories later, so check back as the month progresses.