Listening to a Stranger’s Story

Airplane WindowI am boarding a plane to Detroit, and so is she, her thick coat falling onto my lap from the center aisle, the smell of smoke thick enough to make my head swim. She shoves the coat under her seat, her thick gray hair brushing my arm as she sits.

“I’m Dianne,” she tells me, wiping the hair from her eyes. “Boy, am I not looking forward to this flight.”

I agree with her, my voice surprisingly loud. Maybe it’s the migraine I’m fighting, or the nausea that accompanies me with every flight I take. Maybe something inside me recognizes Dianne’s movements, the way she mumbles and laughs to herself, the instability of motion that somehow demands my response. [Read more...]

Prayer in Five Parts

3002738501_4d38d6121f_m“Prayer…is always available to us.”

–St. Seraphim of Sarov


I sit atop my red metal bunk bed, thumbing through the orange, vinyl-bound pocket Bible that I received at a friend’s Vacation Bible School party. Tomorrow morning, I have an appointment with the doctor, who will examine a cyst on my left breast.

I am ten years old, and my mother cannot tell me what the cyst is. On my bed, the ceiling light spins in a crooked circle above me. I read Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for thee, O Lord. The fan shrieks as it swings, and I say out loud: “God, please don’t let me have cancer. Please don’t let me die.”

The next day, my prayer is answered––the cyst is harmless, and the doctor is kind. The Bible gets tucked into my bed sheets, the vinyl cover cold on my feet as I sleep. [Read more...]

Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird and Me

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings

—Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Sympathy”


I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was thirteen. I discovered the book through an interview with Fiona Apple, one of the many female singer-songwriters whose mournful lyrics poured through my boom box speakers while I slogged my way through the kickboxing routine that, according to Seventeen, would slim my hips.

Thirteen was a difficult year; I was overweight, dorky, sarcastic, and sensitive. I spent my Friday nights eating Tombstone pizza and writing Tolkien fan fiction. And it was the last year my parents, whose marriage darkened our house, would live together under the same roof.

And what Angelou’s work did in my life, in that year, was phenomenal. [Read more...]

Walking Toward Forgiveness

Outside our trailer park, a set of railroad tracks ran from east to west, dividing us from the police station that sat half a mile down the road. When you drove over the tracks, and felt the car pull itself over the split asphalt, it seemed like you were being locked in or released, depending on which way you were driving.

I used to walk along the tracks at dusk, singing and talking to myself, the fields stretching westward behind me as the sun sank behind the Walgreens. I practiced lines for my high school plays; I imagined what it would be like to walk with whichever boy at school I liked at the time. I tried to keep myself occupied as long as I could, tried to fill my mind with anything besides the dull dread that I knew would be waiting for me once I got back home.

What is poignant about this scene is that it is one of the few memories I have where the sensory detail is so vivid—I have bits of images, movements, but it is hard to place whole memories. I know that so much of what happened has been buried deep within me, and when something surfaces, I have to try to catch as much as I can.

What I remember, mostly, is walking: walking to the curb to meet the police officer before my mother’s boyfriend knew I had called; walking my mother to her bed with her lips against my ear, drunk and sorry and heaving sobs so big that I almost lost my grip on her shoulder. Walking in the fiery shafts of light that cut across the tracks, my voice carrying over the cornfields: But it wouldn’t be make believe / if you believed in me.

[Read more...]

Writing My Mother’s Icon

Blessed Santa Barbara, / Your story is written in the sky, / With paper and holy water.

December 4 marked the feast day of St. Barbara. An early martyr, St. Barbara announced her faith to her pagan father by having three windows—a sign of the Trinity—cut into a wall of her private bath. It is said that the torches St. Barbara’s father used to torture her would extinguish themselves before they could be pressed against her skin.

My mother, also named Barbara, spent her summers cleaning the rooms of my grandfather’s motel; memories of the task still make her shudder. My grandfather refused to wash sheets or towels, and was either too drunk or angry for my mother to ask for a clean washrag.

“I cannot stand dirt,” she says, filling her sink with soapy water, reaching for the spoon I used to spoon sugar into her coffee. Her cigarette rests on the sink’s aluminum edge, its ash hovering over the sudsy water, which she will use to wash the spoon and the rest of the day’s dishes. It is a better spot for the cigarette than the counter by the stove, which, she has mentioned, is now miraculously free of grease stains.

“Baby oil! A little bit just rubs the grease away,” she exclaims, somehow forgetting how flammable baby oil is, how easily it could set her small kitchen ablaze, the file cabinet holding her life’s paperwork sidled next to the stove, the first thing to go should the oil spark.

[Read more...]