Honor Thy Mother

It came to me one quiet afternoon, a couple weeks after we were home from the hospital, my newborn son asleep on my chest, the flicker of memory sharp and quick: I see my mother’s mouth wagging, furious, the garbage can full to overflowing, my brother’s task left undone.

“Are you stupid? Is that it?” she screams, stepping toward my brother, who can’t be more than eleven, his mouth torn open by sobs, the light passing through the windows flat, gray, engulfing. “Answer me!”

I step in front of her, hot with fear and rage, and everything goes blank.

When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I was about to begin another series of careful negotiations; the lines I had drawn between myself and my parents would have to be crossed and redrawn, possibly many times over.

What I did not know was how hard parenthood would be on my memory, how the bits and pieces of what I remember would hurl themselves at me with such raw, shocking force.

I did not realize how becoming a mother would turn me into a child, or at least, return me to my childhood, my own mouth torn open in recollection’s rush and grief.

As a writer, my subject is my family and personal history. I spent most of high school writing short stories that were really just veiled nonfiction, the narrators always teenagers who watched their parents self-destruct. When I began writing nonfiction, my essays were dotted with words like “codependent” and “emotional trigger,” phrases that my mother strung around her like a rosary, a self-help litany of protection against what she couldn’t face about herself.

As I wrote more, the focus became clearer, and my parents began becoming more themselves on the page, less psychological study or sensational stereotype, more fragile and demanding and dangerous.

That is how my parents are in real life, too—as they get older, their wounds and trespasses seem to multiply, and it can be a daily fight to interpret their intentions, their capacity for both impotence and causing hurt.

[Read more...]

The Mystery Inside Me

For the past nine months, I feel like I’ve been at a standstill. A place in which I have no words, nothing to describe what is happening to me, and in me.

In six weeks, I am due to give birth to my first child, a son, and although I have had flashes of deep joy and extreme fear (often occurring in the same day), what has marked my life as an expectant mother the most is this sense of complete, undeniable uncertainty. For the first time in my life, I have no idea what to expect; I have no game plan, no hook of events upon which to hang doubts and anticipations.

All I know is that this little boy, whose feet twist into my ribs even as I write, is coming.

Labels have always been a source of comfort for me. As a child, I collected the flimsy certificates that teachers handed out at the end of the school year, the ones that said Top Achiever, Super Star, Best in the Class. When I moved onto my college campus, I introduced myself to classmates with a vigorous wave and the following words: “Hi, my name is Allison, and I want to be a high school teacher.” [Read more...]

Why We Can’t Look Away

The morning I learned about the women in Cleveland, I knew from a single headline that there was more to be said, and horrified by, than I wanted to know: Cleveland Women Rescued From Ten Years’ Imprisonment in Captor’s Home.

As the news poured in, the photos of balloons flapping from Amanda Berry’s porch and family members doubled over in relief, the weight in my stomach got heavier. And despite my attempts, I could not turn myself away from the latest details of their captivity, the grim facts of what took place in the silence of those ten years.

The inability to look away – the paralysis of gruesome, awful news – is something that we all know. We do our best to protect ourselves from stories that draw us in without any relief, accounts of loss or pain that disarm and puncture the illusions we hold about the world being safe, or our days being predictable. [Read more...]

Partaking and Passing On: The Work of Luci Shaw

The world is
not with us—enough.
O taste and see.

–Denise Levertov, “Taste and See”

It may seem incongruous to speak about a poet by introducing the work of another poet—in this case, Luci Shaw via Denise Levertov. But many factors make this epigraph fitting of Luci’s work, vision, and character, the most immediate reason being that Luci is the recipient of the tenth annual Denise Levertov Award, an annual literary award given by Image Journal, Seattle Pacific University, and the SPU MFA program in creative writing.

If it weren’t for Luci’s work and vision, it could be said the MFA program that shaped and spurred me wouldn’t exist. And if it weren’t for Luci’s character—generous and lovingly, stubbornly brilliant—many poets and writers who wrestle with Christian faith would not have the room to explore language and belief on equal terms. [Read more...]

She Will Not Live a Small Life

And all were guests.

—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Arabic Coffee”

The first thing that struck me about Moneerh was how much she terrified me: her face half-cloaked by her hijab, her dark eyes narrowed at me as I shuffled books, rushed through the steps of the lesson.

“Teacher, please slow down,” she said, her voice muffled, yet insistent. “Please.”

At the ESL center I help direct, most of our students are from the Middle East. They come on scholarships, looking to improve their English before they apply to American universities. Sisters are escorted to class by brothers and male cousins. Wives, many of them less than twenty years old, bring their husbands into my office to discuss failing grades, their eyes downcast while the husband shakes a report card at me, demanding that I “do something.” [Read more...]