Creative Essays

Creative nonfiction and personal essays


It is early in the morning when I rise. The light of day has yet to grace this side of the earth with its presence. No longer do I need my alarm; my very instinct, something deep within, tells me when it is time to awake. Gathering my surfboard, a swimsuit, and other necessary equipment, I step outside and pause at the bottom of the stairs. Listening intently, I realize that the shouts from the amusement parks have not started, and the noise of civilization has yet to arrive. Everything is virtually silent save the waves crashing in a location just beyond my view and the summer gulls trying to collect their food for the day.

I smile and begin to walk. Up ahead, the boardwalk comes into view, and memories abound within me from childhood summers spent on that walk: bike rides I’ve shared with my family, trips up to the shop in the evenings for ice cream, chasing seagulls and even learning how to fly a kite. This boardwalk defines my past, each individual board somehow tells a part of my life story. As I make my way up the steps and onto the worn, splintering boards, I look down both lengths. The numerous stores that line the expanse are closed. Their lights, once welcoming and bright are off, as if they need a rest themselves. As I make my way across and finally off of the wooded walkway, the undeniable and easily recognized smell of the beach, a combination of salt and seaweed, overwhelms me. I pass through the dunes, covered with ocean grass and the most beautifully natural sight greets me.

“Tranquil,” I think to myself. If any word could possibly be fitting enough to describe the sight before my very eyes, tranquil would be the word. It might even be something beyond that, to some it could even be considered spiritual. It is a beauty recognized or at least acknowledged by the common person, but only truly appreciated by those like me.

We’re more than surfers. Our love of the single sport that binds us is built less on our own skill than by the secret we share, that the ocean is mystical. It heals inner wounds that nothing else can and is capable of consuming your very soul. Respect for the ocean, the result of the driving force of nature and our communion with it, define who we are.

As I sit on the sand, still cool from the previous night, with my board by my feet, I realize beyond a doubt that I am the luckiest person on the planet. The waves are breaking in perfect sets of four, some splashing into the jetties, while others make their way to greet me on the shore. I take a moment to close my eyes, and everything is free and completely at rest. Like the pieces of even the most intricate puzzle, everything just fits.

Then it starts to happen. This is something I have been a witness to on countless occasions before, yet it still never ceases to amaze me and never will. The sun, the very light of the world, begins to make its appearance over the distant, ever-present yet mysterious horizon. It is almost as though a giant light switch has been flipped on as glorious rays of silken purples, radiant pinks and delicate blues shine bright. The sun’s likeness reflects off of the vast ocean waters in front of me, and, despite its blinding qualities, it is mesmerizing. I do not blink at all, for fear I will miss a single second of the sight that is far too beautiful for words: something beyond mere mortal comprehension.

Now, almost as quickly as it had begun, it fades away before ceasing. The moment in time connecting the opposites night and day is gone. The sky shines clear and blue and the coolness of the night before vanishes. The day has brought its life and night has been chased away under its vanishing horizon to bring darkness and mystery to the rest of the world, before making its return.
As I grab my board and head for the ocean, the wholeness of day and with it, reality returns. I face it with excitement, regardless of the unknowns because this one thing I know with certainty. Tomorrow, that marker in the space of time will return and once again I know I will be awed and captivated by a secret known only to those who fail to take it for granted and remain humbled by it.

An ocean sunrise, tranquility at its best.

Of Wisdom and Beauty

Estella was for milk the taste of lilies sucked while lying upon a heartbeat the tempo of canary wings. She came into Almeta’s world when it was time to nurse before withdrawing like the ever-widening boundaries of a ripple. It was Daddy who had the strong thighs to sit on, arms like tree branches to wrap tightly around her. His smile was one half of her heart, and his voice the other, but a nightmarish day would drag him, bound to a running mule, to his death.

Almeta Brown, my grandmother Mamo, pulled her hands around the mound, then slid two fingers along the surface, leveling the top. The rich black dirt looked like Belgian chocolate, and her imagination deftly turned the cotton fields beyond her into a marble banquet hall. Safe in the land of dreams, she was satisfied with the sweet pungent smell of her well-baked mud pie. Soon, into the silence her guest would come to pick her up in his arms, whirl her around, and never let her go.

As soon as she heard his footsteps a smile erased her look of firm concentration.

“Daddy!” She gripped his ankles tightly and listened to his effervescent laugh.

“Hi, Daddy! Want some cake?” She smiled delightedly as he took a big bite.

“It’s wonderful, Honey,” he said.

Her five older brothers and older sister watched as Mamo talked animatedly with an oak tree draped with moss. Her brother, Sam, quietly walked from the cotton fields to where my grandmother played. He knew there was no time for breaks. The older children and their mom, Estella, had to add to the amount of cotton they already picked the sum their father would have harvested, but the Brown family was close-knit and, to Sam, looking out for his baby sister was more important than money.

Money. Their dad had almost saved enough to have paid the family’s debt before he… Sam pushed the thought away, not wanting to cry about the loss of the man he loved most. The demon who owned the land they worked had refused to give Estella the money her family had earned so far, forcing them to begin their hopelessness anew. And now the two year old sister who had ignored their mother and wanted to spend all her time with their father—to everyone’s amusement—could not grasp that he was dead.

“Come on, Almeta,” he said, raising his sister onto one of his hips, “pretend you’re playing with a baby doll.” He handed her a used can. There was no money for toys. Perhaps all of that pretending was what had made it so easy for her to pretend their father was alive. After checking on Lily, the youngest of the eight, he headed back into the fields wishing night wasn’t so slow in coming.

* * *

“Where are we moving to, Almeta?” Lily asked her sister. Her brothers were too old to play with, and besides, they were boys, so she spent most of her time shadowing my grandmother.

“To Fred Smith’s farm.”

“What’s it going to be like?”

“The same as Helen Peel’s farm.”

“Well, why couldn’t we stay where we were?”

“For the same reason we had to leave the farm where I was born in Mylam. Sometimes sharecroppers have to switch farms.”

“I don’t like being a sharecropper, Almeta.”

She laughed. “Nobody does, Lily. But think on the bright side—Christmas will be coming soon.”

“I know what you won’t be getting.”

“Oh hush, Lily,” said Almeta, but she couldn’t help cracking a smile. Two years ago, when she was much less mature than now at age eight, Estella had given Almeta a doll for Christmas – a real one. But by that time Almeta had seen plenty of dolls and plenty of kids, and aside from the kids in her family, she didn’t like either. She took the doll to the woodpile and chopped off her head, declaring that from then on she wanted no more babies, neither real nor plastic.

“I know I’m not getting a doll, Lily. But I’m not six anymore. I wouldn’t chop her head off.”

“No,” sighed Lily unhappily. “You’re eight. You have to leave me and go to Port Sullivan School.”

“That’s better than going into the fields like our brothers.”


“Come on, girls,” said Estella. “Everything’s packed up.” She squeezed them close, comfortingly. Estella was as thin as a sapling and as musical as a lark. Her children speak of her today in beatific terms, remembering how much she loved them. They were so close to her that they called her by her first name, Estella, instead of Mother, which was how her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have addressed her. She loved all eight of her children, but she gave special care to her two youngest daughters for whom she tried to secure all the advantages that she had been unable to offer their brothers.

Somehow, by the time my grandmother was thirteen, Estella had managed to save enough money to end her days as a sharecropper and buy a house for her children, where she lived until her death. The house was on New Street in Hearne, Texas, and it was here my grandmother developed a new love – a love of silk and velvet, locks and words. Like a craftsman, anything she put her hands on seemed to become more beautiful. She could turn a yard of celadon silk into a dress fit for a marquis and hot comb the hair of her neighbors into the latest styles. More importantly and despite being only a teenager, she began to develop a reputation for the advice she gave to her clients, many of whom were decades older than she. My grandmother says that in a strange way she always felt like an adult, perhaps even before she should have. God seemed to have placed in her the wisdom that most others come by only with years of experience. Almeta knew not to dwell on what you can’t fix and to find a solution to what you can. Clients who wanted only a new skirt or beehive hairdo would return to her weeks later to thank her for solving their problems.

Almeta dreamed of being a seamstress when she grew up and made her own school clothes. She already worked as a hair stylist, thanks to a neighbor who ran an in-home salon and referred excess customers to her. At school, Almeta was a popular cheerleader, at home, a self-proclaimed psychologist, offering as much wisdom as beauty. No longer surrounded by fields of cotton, her world was full of football games and outings to the ice cream shop, and, in her high school years, crushes on handsome soldiers.

She had invited one dashing man to the prom, but, unable to get leave from the Army, he promised to send a friend of his in his place. The man he sent was a few years older than my grandmother, a man with aspirations to be a tailor who wore beautiful, hand-fitted clothes. He was handsome, debonair, and even more alluring than Almeta’s original date. He was my grandfather, Charles Prince – Big Daddy. After high school they married and moved to Houston to start their new lives.

Big Daddy attended Texas State University so he could be a tailor, while Be-Bop, as he called my grandmother after the sock hop jazz music that was popular when they met, eagerly pursued her dream of working as a seamstress. Big Daddy had to work two jobs while he was in school, so Mamo was always there to help him study. From his books she learned how to run a business, a set of skills she continues to use as a self-employed seamstress.

Despite Mamo’s incident with her baby doll, she has told me with tears in her eyes that if she had to live her life over again she would still have all six of her children. She didn’t like kids while she was one herself, but she loves each of her three boys and three girls in a different way because they are individuals, and she wouldn’t want to live without any of them because they are what make her life beautiful. Her parenting years were filled with special moments, whether sewing alongside her youngest daughter, Cheryl, or having one-on-one talks with my father, Charles, at night. She enjoyed raising each unique child. Her nine grandchildren also give her joy, because she is happy to see us being raised with the same values she and Big Daddy imparted to their children. To her, we are like nine more members of her immediate family. Every Friday her children and grandchildren gather at her house to catch up on the week and enjoy each other’s company, perhaps interrupted once or twice by a late bride-to-be, picking up a miracle of intricately beaded ecru silk and thanking my grandmother for relieving her jitters.

The ancient stories are full of enchanters who are weavers and seamstresses. Rumpelstiltskin and Maleficent understood that thread and silk had the power to shape lives and worlds. They knew that life is not about the fabric you weave but the dreams you create, not about the change that occurs when straw is spun into gold but the metamorphosis of the human spirit. Mamo has just turned sixty-nine years old and is full of vitality and light. In the letters I write to her on her birthday and each Mother’s Day, I liken her to splendid objects such as Mexican ceramics or a flock of butterflies. She wields a brilliant magic – one that allowed a heartbroken sharecropper’s daughter to take silk and tresses, joy and love, and form the life she wanted and the family she treasures. And as much as any child she has raised or any dress she has sewn, she herself is truly a masterpiece.

Dear Shannon

Back then, children were only aware of four careers, and they rose black like totems against the distant horizon. Supposing youth ever did wane and, improbably, we did morph into adults someday, the only things we thought of being were policemen, firemen, doctors, or lawyers. I liked the first two options. You know, normal schoolboy fantasies. Most people in Hearne, Texas were farmers, but my family lived in the urban area of the town. My dad worked at a gravel pit until I was nine, when he passed away. What I remember of him is pleasant. My mom stayed at home with my sister and me. It was just the three of us. My older two brothers and sister were grown and on their own, so my mother, sister, and I existed in isosceles-type equilibrium. My mother seemed ideal to me as a boy, like some incarnation of justice always making sure we knew right from wrong. My sister was more someone to play alongside of than with—she was interested in dolls and I preferred trucks, hoops, or hunting, yet the two of us were still close.

I started school at six, and I loved it. Knowledge wasn’t really something I had to keep tilling and poking and prodding around for to obtain. It opened itself up to me like a treasure chest with a rusted lock, dousing me with imaginary numbers, obelisks, kingdoms, codes, runes, poems, obscure words, treaties, promises, and dreams. I loved math, literature, and history. I read on my own when I could spare the hours, but back then we were always trying to get something to expand and grow—a garden, an animal, something that in future seasons colored gilt or jade could be eaten, could give us life. I was valedictorian of my senior class. Don’t ask me what I spoke about. I don’t even remember. There are ten million words, memories, moments I would give you willingly if I could place them in the right order, summon them to the surface of my mind, but age can hide eras and seconds under leaves, lock them in gardens, shut them up in closets, bind them to the shadows.

I was drafted after high school to aid the U.S. in our fight against Korea, although, fortunately, I was able to stay here. I met your grandmother while in the Army. I took her to her high school prom when my buddy, whom she had invited, couldn’t get leave. I thought I’d do him a favor. He promised me the girl was pretty—and wow. She was beautiful, but she was also kind, and she knew exactly what she wanted from life. I felt that the two of us could locate the labyrinths within each other and follow the winding corridors to that wild place which is the heart. Times when I was granted leave from the military to take Almeta, my Be-Bop, out on dates were wonderful. The rest of my days as a soldier weren’t as lovely. I tried to serve my country valiantly, but I hated taking orders. After my compulsory two years I didn’t sign up for more.

With Almeta as my wife, I headed to Houston to go to Texas Southern University. Two years in the army had earned me four years of college tuition. My life seemed to be divided. Unlike my classmates, I was a married homeowner. In a little while I was also a father. I worked two jobs, but I also had homework. On campus, I majored in tailoring, later electronics, enjoying classes and college life. At home, I tried to find time to be with my wife, and my newborn daughter, Diane, whose birth had made me so content. After three and a half years of college with only thirty hours left to go, the government told me my college tuition money had run out. Again, the duplicity of my life struck me. As a young husband and first time father I had a great home life, yet my hopes for a college degree had ended.

You see, I have had a happy life but an extremely hard one nonetheless. I felt blessed to have had six healthy kids, but I always wanted to provide for them and my wife a little more than I have been able to. I didn’t have a favorite out of the six, and I didn’t have many rules to follow. I only insisted that they study hard so that life would not be so difficult. I had to work most of the time, but whenever I had a few moments to play with my kids I treasured them. Even now, I love being with my grandkids—not participating in any particular activity with you or for any special reason, but merely because I like the aura your children’s children give you when you are near them. I admire their accomplishments and delight in their differences, respecting them all as individuals.

One of the most difficult things in my life has been racism. I hated segregation, and sometimes I wouldn’t adhere to it. At work, I drank from the white water fountain, brandishing a knife at anyone who didn’t like the sight of it. It broke my heart when both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. died, because I thought that blacks may never attain civil rights. We have, to a certain extent, but the roots of the civil rights movement have nurtured all types of fruits. As foul a thing as segregation was, when it was around there had to be black business owners because blacks weren’t welcome as clients in so many white businesses. Blacks had no choice about either being entrepreneurs or supporting other black entrepreneurs. Now that blacks can patronize any establishment, black entrepreneurship has decreased, converting racial segregation into economic segregation. While my generation focused on attaining civil rights, younger generations should work on attaining education and encouraging people of all races to support black entrepreneurship.

I have had so many years and seen so many wonders. I have seen a nation morph and a man walk on the moon—although at first I doubted my eyes. I believe in a Supreme Being that we cannot see. I don’t go to church because I do not like the tenets of denominations and the claims of pastors, yet I am loyal to God. Perhaps I cannot give you all of my stories because so many have been bitter. I didn’t consciously suppress them, but the mind is a survivor which out of necessity hides darkness. Yet despite the thorns that have been cruelly placed in so many lives, I assure you, Granddaughter, there is a better world somewhere. Search for its light, listen for its noise, gather it in your arms and help it to hatch. Wherever you see hope or hear rumor of this new world, hasten to it. Tend it. I have spent my life helping it to dawn. Now, Granddaughter, I pass this sacred duty on to you.

A Wild Swan the Color of Autumn

She is like the feeling I get on an autumn day when you are floored by the uninhibited nature of God. I have watched Him cull the green from leaves to reveal bullion marred only by aubergine and been so amazed at His dreams that my heart speedily ripened with love and longing.

Yet I have sat on autumn days and watched trees make refuse of their glory, casting aside jewels as though they were crinkled bitter hearts. I have yearned to stop the morphing of oaks, yet rebelliously they continue with their work, passionately hurling away art, wildly growing.

I love my woman’s wildness as I love her grace, and both loves are known to all who know her. She has the sultriest voice, the softest hands, the most infantile dark eyes—she is the most natural of all creatures to love—yet love has rarely bound her, and she has left tearful schools, towns, and husbands when her heart told her the time had come. She is the feeling of all autumns: untamable beauty. She is my grandmother, Dear, formally Mildred Joyce Guillory, before that…

“Pearly Odessa.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Pearly Odessa.”

“Seal, that’s a pretty unusual name.”

“L.C., did you just give birth to this child? I’ll name her what I want.”

Names change, but they do not change the people behind them. Being called Pearly Odessa for three years wasn’t what endowed my grandmother with her jewel-like good looks. Her aunt renaming her “Mildred” as an act of kindness wasn’t the cause of her sensibility. If we left life up to names, Seal, my great-grandmother, Queen Esther Cecile Roberts, would have been the wife of Ahasuerus, not my great-grandfather, L.C. Roberts, a farmer and small business owner. Thank goodness our histories and futures don’t depend on a range of vowels and diphthongs. Life, fortunately, relies on more silent things like land, rich earth, and cozy houses. If it had not been for my great-grandfather’s farm in Shepard, Texas, who knows what my grandmother’s life would have been.

*           *             *

My grandmother pities children who weren’t born in the country, who did not express their love to each other in toe tickles under rainbow quilts or by admiring fistfuls of baby chicks together before racing through acres of pine. But the true tragedy of an urban existence is the loss of a sense of origin. My grandmother cannot savor ice cream in the center of her tongue without thinking of snow or eat cheese without hearing her mother’s friendly banter to her favorite milking cow. More importantly, a city child doesn’t know that the best eggs do not come from the store but are borrowed from your neighbor, that the finest gift isn’t tied with ribbon but is the slabs of meat you unquestionably and joyfully divide among friends when you kill one of your livestock.

I know she wasn’t a mean child as her siblings have sometimes claimed (tongue halfway in cheek), yet she was certainly the toughest. Born between two boys, she couldn’t bear to think that one might be stronger or braver than she. In her adult years she would become her parents’ favorite child, the one always available to help and care for them, but at that time there were no favorites. Dear was simply the most tomboyish, the kid her father preferred for a sawing partner because she was steadier than her brothers; the fiercest, beating up any one who tormented mentally disabled kids. And because my great-grandmother was often sick due to scarlet fever’s war on her immune system, Dear was the child who took care of the others. Christmas was a bane to her with the other ten Roberts eating up desserts as soon as she baked them, but on other days she was awed by the immensity of time. Despite her maternal role, she never seemed to miss out on any of the fun that came with being one of nine kids or the pleasant solitude one could find living on a forty-acre farm. It was in these moments, when his children were separate from each other, under magnolia trees about to shatter from the weight of blossoms or floating serenely on the man-made lake, that Papa would have quiet talks with his kids about their lives. It didn’t matter what they wanted for themselves as long as they knew how crucial it was to dream. Yet my grandmother’s dream never changed. Ever since she could speak she’d wished for the same two things, and my great-grandfather, with faith in his daughter’s talent and the will of God, was sure she would get them.

Each Roberts loved the other ten with unspeakable depth. Schoolchildren knew that bullying one of the Roberts kids meant challenging all nine, and the security and unity the Roberts kids provided each other stood upon the foundation of their parents’ love. Their dad had decided that leaving home at age twelve was a rosier alternative to locking horns with his step-dad, and although he had only attended the first and second grades, he owned several small businesses, his own land, and had become the most respected man in Shepard. His approval was mandatory for white politicians if they wanted the black vote. He had read the Bible cover to cover several times over and was familiar with the lives and motives of Bathsheba and Sampson, wise to the workings of the spiritual realm. Yet he was boyish and loved to laugh, especially when tickling his kids’ toes with feathers or placing fake cigarettes in their mouths after they’d gone to sleep. His wife of seventy-one years was the sassiest, prettiest woman in town. Papa loved her intelligence and independence. She had a foul-mouth and a sweet heart, and she openly gave her family all of the love she had lacked as a battered orphan. Tight as a plaid-uniformed clan, as full of love as a tree on the isle of Paphos, the Roberts grew big, laughed loudly, and prayed hard with ceaseless devotion to each other.

*           *             *

It was a long walk from the farm to the bus stop. Too long, Mamo Seal felt, for her six year old baby girl. Not until the age of eight could Seal bear to let her second born child walk to school, and there, instead of being placed at the beginner’s level, first grade, the teachers asked her if she would be more comfortable with her big brother in second. Dear and Junior beamed at each other. Of course she would be more comfortable with the boy who pulled her everywhere in a wagon claiming she was “too good to walk.” The two of them skipped to Mrs. Crumbly’s homeroom, the same homeroom their mother had been in.

My grandmother amazed her second grade teacher. She ripped through her books, decoded her equations, and colored between the lines. At the end of the year Mrs. Crumbly suggested they place Dear in the fourth grade, and of course, if it would make Junior more comfortable, he was welcome to come along.

Dear was the pride of the school. Like a rural gladiator, she competed and won wrestling matches—it turns out she wasn’t only tougher that the brothers immediately older and younger than her, but also most boys in the county. When it wasn’t wrestling season, she was a champion basketball player. From the seventh grade on, any time a teacher was absent Dear was pulled from her lessons and called upon to sub, and she couldn’t understand why. She knew that the grammar her teachers had taught her wasn’t like the grammar of characters in books. She had never seen any of the big cities she’d heard of in social studies or visited ballets or museums. Because she felt inexperienced, she concluded that she must not be as smart as everyone thought. Fortunately everyone heartily disagreed.

They disagreed in word and money. Quietly, Dear’s parents saved enough from farming, trucking, and selling lumber to pay her tuition to Texas Southern University. There, the larger world unfurled itself for her. She learned to golf and to bowl. She played varsity basketball until a coach nearly caused her to collapse, so greedy for points he refused to pull her from the game despite her exhaustion. She took art classes with one of the twentieth century’s finest artists, John Biggers. She sharpened her claws and teeth.

In Shepard, Dear had known there was a vague difference between people—a difference that manifested itself in the rules about which churches and schools one was allowed to attend. Yet she also knew that outside of these institutions her parents and she and her siblings had always had friends who were both black and white—friends who crowded into the Roberts’ living room when Joe Louis fought and cheered unanimously when he won, friends equally dismayed that they couldn’t send their kids to learn in the same classrooms. My grandmother knew she was as good as everyone else. She couldn’t believe the big city of Houston did not. She didn’t understand that all over the South, unlike the haven that was Shepard, blacks were seen, and often saw themselves, as second class citizens. Every time there was a Civil Rights march or protest my grandmother would drop her books and run for it.

Although Dear had promised to work to buy her own school clothes and also bought school clothes for her younger siblings, she and other black students decided to quit their jobs at segregated establishments. My grandmother’s employer, a bigoted white woman, was notorious for not paying blacks for their labor if they quit her.

One day Dear went to her former job, demanding that she be paid for her work. The woman told her that she would “pay her when she paid the others,” meaning never. Dear insisted upon getting her money right then, and a second time the woman refused. That third time, the woman had barely gotten “I’ll pay you when” out of her mouth before my grandmother leapt over the desk to attack her. Startled by the sight of my grandma flying through the air, fists clenched, eyes gleaming like forbidden fire, the bigot handed over the money. Waiving her paycheck proudly in the air, my grandmother sashayed out of the office.

My grandmother is the snake you don’t poke, the horse you know better than to try to saddle. She is the beautiful dolphin that can attack sharks. She is the splendor and sublime majesty of the tornado and its terror. There is something I have always known and loved about her: she is crazy. Perhaps crazy is the wrong word, because the fight that erupts from the midst of her beauty only comes at appropriate times. She is neither insane nor cruel. She is wild. I will always love her for that.

*           *             *

It happened quietly like a pink lily unfolding to the dawn. Slowly desire blossomed into reality. She pinched herself to see if it was real, and when she looked around she knew she was not dreaming. The thing she had been wishing for ever since she was a little girl had happened. She was a teacher.

And although West Columbia’s school district had requested a plain, wholesome teacher and been a little intimidated by this young woman in her three inch stilettos, Mrs. Washington welcomed Dear into her homeroom for student teaching.

“Class, this is Miss Roberts. Miss Roberts is going to help me for a little while. Isn’t that nice? Now Miss Roberts, I am going out to make copies for a few minutes. Please watch the class for me. But never mind Josh. He’s stupid. He can’t learn. No one in his family ever could.”

No sooner had Mrs. Washington left her third grade classroom than my grandmother was kneeling by Josh’s side.

“Hello, Josh.”

“Hello, Miss Roberts.”

“Do you know what I thought when I first came in this classroom?”


“I thought about what a handsome little boy you are. Do you know how handsome you are?”


“And do you know what else I know about you Josh?”


“You are not stupid. Don’t ever think you are. You just need some help.”

My grandmother didn’t care about what methods were currently fashionable in education. She was familiar with a number of techniques, and she taught each child using the one he best understood. And when Mrs. Washington came back, Josh was diligently completing his math worksheet, happy that someone had finally taken the time to explain the problems to him in a way he could understand. He turned out to be one of the strongest math students. Mrs. Washington hardly had time to be awe-struck because soon it was time for recess, and Dear couldn’t wait to slip into her sneakers and go play with the kids.

It was Mrs. Washington who learned from my grandmother, and at the end of the year, her coworkers, the principal, and the students cried when she declined a permanent teaching job in West Columbia. Dear cried, too, but she was tired of West Columbian whites expecting her to call them “sir” and “ma’am” and thinking they could inquire about any detail of her private life. Besides, she was homesick for Shepard.

*             *             *

I can look at a picture of my grandmother in an evening gown, in her twenties, looking youthful and flighty as girls come, and to me she looks exactly like a grandmother. And Mrs. Crumbly looked at my grandmother, now a teacher, and still saw her as a little girl. A precocious little girl, but one needing supervision nonetheless. My grandmother didn’t feel like hearing Mrs. Crumbly’s opinion on what she would have done differently after every class. She wouldn’t submit lesson plans to her for approval or acquiesce to her methods. After declaring in every possible combination of words that she was no longer a child, to no avail, Dear left Shepard. It was time for her to be a woman.

*             *             *

Dear and her first husband, Thello Davis, had divorced. That was okay with her. A husband wasn’t what Dear used to whisper to her Papa, anyways, when he asked her what she dreamed of. The marriage had given her the second thing she had told Papa she wanted: two daughters. My mom, Laquetta, and my aunt, Carmeleta, the only children my grandmother would ever have. Though Dear was a single mom, she expected her kids to have the best of everything. When the top dollar day care she left them in served them the same food day after day, she realized nothing would do for her kids than the love of the gentle golden man and spunky seal-colored woman who had made her own childhood blissful. So in exchange for a house, Dear’s parents agreed to take care of her kids until they were school age, and, to Laquetta’s relief, right before first grade when she would have been placed in Mrs. Crumbly’s1 strict class. Dear missed the children she had longed for since she was their age, but spent every weekend with them. During the week, she found herself back in her college town of Houston, teaching and raising eyebrows at Settegast.

*             *             *

When my grandmother first began teaching at Settegast, a weak boy named Anthony who let girls hit him had still managed to beat up every teacher he had had from kindergarten until fourth grade, confident in the knowledge they wouldn’t hit him back. And now he was in the fifth grade—with my grandmother. My grandmother was standing by the door pleasantly greeting her students as they came into her class, when Anthony drew back to hit her. Before Dear knew what she was doing, she had Anthony on the ground and was pounding him as hard as she could. Finally, another teacher heard Anthony’s screams and tried to draw my grandmother back from the volatile place her soul had leapt to the moment she had seen the young boy’s clenched fist.

“Come to your senses!” cried the older woman over and over until finally my grandmother quit beating Anthony. Then she got up off the ground and walked quietly to the principal’s office to make a phone call to the superintendent.

There was no repentance in her voice just as there was no worry. Calmly, she voiced her resignation, explaining her act, yet she was surprised when the superintendent begged her to stay.

“You are the best teacher at Settegast. You can’t leave! Besides, that Anthony deserved it.”

“But you don’t understand. I tried as hard as I could to kill him.”

“Yes, and he deserved it. I want you to continue teaching at Settegast.”

With that over Dear had one more call to make. She picked up the phone, slightly more cheered, and explained to Anthony’s mom that she had tried to kill her kid.

“He deserved it,” agreed Anthony’s mom. And while I can only imagine the lawsuit my grandma would face today, Anthony never harmed another teacher. In fact, when he gave my grandmother a death threat, the male students in her room stood guard over her at lunch until things calmed down. Although she was delighted with the rest of her class’s show of support, she insisted that they relax because she was capable of defending herself—clearly. Yet the boys guarded her for the next few days until Anthony shaped up. That wasn’t the last hair raising episode my grandmother experienced at Settegast.

Perhaps I should explain that Dear is not a respect-your-elders kind of person. The people she feels deserve respect are children, and even as a kid and young woman she never minded telling off adults in authority, usually because she was wiser than them and because she is wild. Dear would blatantly deny all of this, but her behavior speaks for itself. You’ll see.

Since Dear was a young teacher both the parents and the faculty thought they could push her around. One mother whose twins had already been held back in the fifth grade once placed her children in Dear’s class thinking that a young teacher would be too intimidated to hold them back a second time. But my grandmother, knowing the twins still weren’t ready for the sixth grade, refused to promote them. Their mother began calling Dear and then the school, threatening to “beat her ass.”

The older faculty members at Settegast felt that Dear was in a situation she couldn’t handle and should have asked for advice. At a faculty meeting, the principal hinted that young teachers, not naming names, when they found they had problems should ask older faculty members for help. My grandmother, knowing he meant her, told the principal that the worse fool was an old fool, and she didn’t intend to ask for help from any of the old fools on the faculty, which was when the older faculty members decided to nickname my grandmother “Young Fool.” Dear had earned a reputation as a disrespectful radical and still had the twins’ mother to deal with. On the last day of school, the kids’ mom marched to the fifth grade hallway to make good on her word, scaring the principal so badly he hid in the bayou behind the school. The woman stormed down the maze of halls with the ferocity of the Minotaur, shaking the first fifth grade teacher, hitting the second, trying to knock out the third, and then heading for my grandma. But Dear, who thought she might be coming, already had a baseball bat with her, and when she raised it up with a glare in her eyes the woman simply walked past her classroom. With one gesture Dear had shown both the faculty and the parents that she would not be pushed around.

That summer, Dear was invited along with two white teachers to begin a Head Start program at a white school called Tidwell. She was married to a new man, Chester Harris, and working on a new campus, yet racism, the poisoned interplay of darkness and light that had lurked about to hurt her so many times before, was waiting for her again. The first step to starting a Head Start program was to recruit students, and since Tidwell was in a neighborhood of ivory, the two white teachers were sure that nobody would let my grandmother into their suburban ranch house if she were to knock on doors. But after two days, neither of the white teachers had recruited a single student.

“But you can’t go, Mildred. Nobody’s going to let you in.”

“Of course they will. I’m human.”

Dear knew that there is always either a beautiful plant in someone’s yard, or a nice chandelier in their entryway, or even a beautiful smile on their face to compliment them on. She knew to place banter before business, trust before propositions, and soon several white parents were willing to entrust their kids to my grandmother.

Yet one house she approached was more ragged than the others. Inside lived a woman more haggard that her peers.

“I’d like for my son to go to Head Start, really. It’s just—he doesn’t have any clothes.”

“If I buy him clothes will you let him come?”

The woman looked away, “I have no way to get him there.”

“If I drive him there everyday, will you let him come?”


For my grandmother, there is no reason not to reach out to a child—not disability, not poverty, not even a criminal record. After helping to raise eight siblings, having two kids, and teaching for forty years, she still can’t get enough of children. She never thinks of all of the kids she has already helped and feels satisfied. There is always one more to nurture.

That summer, Dear reached out to a number of kids with a radically different background and color from her own, yet she did it so splendidly she was offered a permanent teaching job at Tidwell—by a white principal so racist he couldn’t even look her in the eye.

“I can’t teach here. They need me at Settegast.”

“Yes, but we want the best for our students.”

“Of course. I want the best for students, too. That’s why I’m a teacher.”

“Yes, but we want the best for our students.”

“I don’t understand. I said I wanted the best for students, too.”

“No. We want the best for our white students.”

My grandmother was disgusted. Just because Settegast was an all black school didn’t mean they were undeserving of qualified teachers.

“If you don’t take the job teaching here I’m going to be very unhappy.”

“Well I’d rather you be unhappy than me,” retorted my grandmother, slamming the door as she left his office.

But that evening, a long talk with a friend made her see things in a new light.

“White people think black people are stupid. Can’t you see that Mildred? You have to teach at this white school so you can show them that we are human like everyone else.”

It made sense. And that’s how Mildred Harris became one of the first black teachers at Tidwell. At first, both the parents and students at Tidwell were leery of a black teacher. One boy even fainted. Yet after the first year, parents began requesting that their children be placed in her homeroom, and after accepting as many kids as she could, finally the principal had to close her class. But the other teachers were jealous. How could these southern white parents want their kids placed in a black person’s class? My grandmother’s talent in teaching meant that they could not feel superior, which meant that they could neither snub nor pity her as planned.

It was the beautiful woman who has stared at me from a picture many times who offended my grandmother. Dear and the lady stand on opposites sides of the rows of their two first grade classes. And above the woman’s brilliant smile, balsa colored hair is piled into a thick, elaborate updo. It was this woman who decided to be kind to grandmother and let her know that she felt sorry for her “being a Negro.”

“You feel sorry for me? I heard you sigh in the faculty meeting and wish that you had fifteen cents. Fifteen cents so that you could tie back your long Pentecostal hair. And I, who do not depend on change, gave it to you. Yet you feel sorry for me?”

“I never thought of it that way,” said the woman, who was more ignorant than mean. And after more years of teaching with my grandmother, Rapunzel would begin to be able to think about black people the same way she thought of white people. Of course, in a few more years she wouldn’t be there because Tidwell would become a school entirely attended and taught by blacks. A few years more, and Dear would have divorced her second husband, married her third, a wonderful man named Murphy Guillory, and switched to teaching in the North Forrest school district. It was one of Houston’s poorest areas—a place my grandmother felt she was needed. So much changed yet my grandmother remained wildfire. Working like an alchemist, she changed juvenile delinquents into good students, and like an angel, she loved neglected children who had never been nurtured. She slapped a police officer once, told off a few more principals. She continued loving and warring until my parents married, and then Dear began to voice a third wish she had: to be a grandmother.

*           *             *

From the time my mother married at age twenty-five and for the next seven years, my grandmother begged for a grandchild. But one Wednesday her first grade class made her so angry that she drove furiously to my parents’ home, breaking every speed limit on the way.

“All these years I’ve begged you for a grandchild, and you wouldn’t give me one. You know what? I don’t even want one anymore. My class gave me fits today. Kids are terrible! So it doesn’t matter to me if you never have a baby.”

That Saturday my parents visited my grandmother to let her know they were pregnant with me. Dear wept with joy. Dear has been such an active grandmother. She retired that year and didn’t return to teaching until Ashley, my younger sister and her only other grand-child, entered school. Two years ago, she retired for good. The two of us have always been best friends. She is my heart. As I wrote to her in one of the letters I give her each Mother’s Day and birthday:

You are so beautiful to me that it is like I am looking at you from the inside of the sun or between the petals of a flower. You are a person both outside of me and inside of me—someone I can touch, but someone who also can reach me intangibly and touch hidden places within. You are like a narwhal, or a sphinx, or any other creature that is truly splendid. You have so little to do with common streets and quotidian desires that it seems improbable that God would place you in the world. Why didn’t he just leave you as a figment for an artist to ponder or a dream lighting an ebony night with unnamable colors? How did you get to be my grandmother, out of all of the people you could have been? God could have woven you into any era, and you would have shone like a newborn moon. You are the kind of grandmother who would have taught Rosa Parks to sit and Maya Angelou to rise. Being given you as a gift for a grandmother is like a parent giving the Northern Lights to a child to cure their boredom—an excess of treasure that one still would not turn down. No one could possibly deserve such a magnificent butterfly as you, but all are pleased to be in its presence.

My grandmother has given me more love than I can express, and she has taught me no less than what it means to be human. I have asked her what made her such a good grandmother, and she has answered me by telling me about her own.

Dear’s only grandmother was her dad’s mother, a beautiful yet cruel woman named Missouri. She had a face that could stop you from breathing and long, thick, black hair she wore in a braid that reached her knees, yet she didn’t have a heart big enough for all of her grandkids. She’d bake cakes and invite only two children to eat them: one of my grandmother’s brothers and one of her cousins. Dear and the other children would pretend they didn’t want her “old clammy,” but being rejected hurt all the same. As a little kid Dear began wanting to be a grandmother so that she could do it lovingly. She promised herself that she would be what a grandmother should be—someone willing to “walk through water” for her grandbabies. She has more than achieved her goal.

I asked her once why Missouri was so mean, but my grandmother can only speculate.

“Her mother was full-blooded Cherokee, and her father was white. Perhaps they had different values, and she had a dysfunctional childhood. Or maybe she wasn’t mean and just had a strange way of being in the world.

“Everybody used to give Missouri things—beautiful things that she would never use or look at. She’d just place them in a trunk by her bed. I bet she died with a trunk full of beautiful things…”

There has never been a beautiful thing that my grandmother and I have not shared. We split oranges, share French perfume, divvy up seashell necklaces and jewels. We share the same heart, though it beats differently in us both—hers perhaps feistier, mine more serene. Yet maybe we are sharing a deception, only superficially varying in our mildness and vigor. I only know that when my grandmother shows a picture of herself at my age, everyone thinks it’s me. We lock eyes after someone makes a comment, mentally sharing the same sentiment. Our arms wrapped around each other, one’s head against the other’s chest, we are that Aristophanic being never split. The two of us are connected by autumn, eternally sharing the same deep love and necessary wildness.


1. Mrs. Crumbly is still alive and is extremely healthy physically and mentally. I’ve met her, and she is as much of a character in real life as she is in Dear’s stories.

Guys, Get Up!

“Guys, get up! Breakfast is being served in a half hour. You’ve already missed the morning service!”

I groaned. My whopping three hours of sleep had not served me well. I rolled over and saw Andrew looking up at me. Andrew had dark hair, a yellowish tone of skin and eyes with a slight slant to them—Asian. In fact, everyone in the room was Asian, excluding myself.

It seemed a strange idea initially, but when my friend Alvin invited me to come on a previous retreat of the Cincinnati Chinese Church six months before I figured it was better than gazing at a glowing monitor all weekend. I had been having trouble making friends at my family’s church; they just weren’t the kind of people I fit in with. The youth at my parent’s church seemed to me the perfect stereotype of teenagers—no ambition, only caring about the moment, and doing everything for the sole purpose of fitting in. I dreaded going to church each Sunday; I didn’t want to become one of these people. The Cincinnati Chinese Church offered a fresh start.

I was amazed at how quickly I assimilated into the social world of the Chinese Church. It was the first time I had ever felt “popular,” so naturally I continued to return. It was a wonderful atmosphere—a place where I could worship the God I loved and enjoy the company of the people who seemed like me—not externally, but internally. As I continued to return to the Chinese church, a lot of my “friends” made fun of me. They called me an “inverse Twinkie,” a clever racial slur referring to Caucasian people who are under the impression that they’re Asian. I simply smiled and played along. I found that I cared less and less what they thought—I had discovered a place I loved, a place I belonged, and I was happy. The reason I fit in so well with the youth group was a bit oblique at first, but eventually it became obvious to me. They’re scholarly people, intelligent; they love God and have a knack for computers—which also happens to be a perfect description of myself. I climbed out of bed and got dressed. I was sore from the previous night’s festivities—nothing quite like Frisbee Football, or Ultimate Frisbee as my Oriental friends had dubbed the game. I smiled to myself as I walked down the dimly-lit hallways of the campus. “I am at home,” I thought.

The Memories in a Pair of Socks

I put these socks on tonight, because the only place to work undisturbed on my history homework was my chilly attic bedroom. Moments after I had slipped on the blue and yellow/grayish wool-blends, I felt the cold, hard tile of an empty church hallway beneath my feet. The picture in my mind was of a weekend retreat, the third of five that were part of a youth leadership training program. I, of course, have vivid memories of all five retreats, but for some reason these socks take me back to that January weekend: The snowball fight. The warm, carpeted floor of the room hung with Monets. The girl I lost (not that I ever actually had her). The cold, hard tile of that hallway.

If I looked through my sock drawer, I am sure that I would find many more stories, many more places. I know, for instance, that there are some mottled gray wools with holes that could reminisce about cold-weather camping trips with Boy Scout Troop 10. They might also tell of the times they served to replace the ripped cloth boots from my roller blades. Perhaps, though, they would just complain about being neglected of late, in favor of the two newer pairs of softer, less itchy wool-blends; the ones that talk of churches, and also speak of sandals. Or maybe they would fault the black, thick dress wools with the elastic all stretched out (they have tales to tell about frigid marching band shows with the cuffs of the flannel pants I wore under my uniform tucked in so they wouldn’t show) for being part of what has kept me from camping and skating for the last four years.

I suppose it is possible that there may be, somewhere in this house, some white cotton tubes with colored bands around their tops that remember back nine or ten years to when I thought that it was still in style to wear them stretched all the way up my calves. I’m not sure why I continued to wear them that way even after my classmates informed me that plain whites bunched around the ankles were much more fashionable. I am also not sure if I will ever wear my old, gray wools again. Nor am I sure why this pair I am wearing right now wants so desperately to be roaming the cold hallways of a church late at night. I am, however, sure of one thing: in the hour that it has taken me to write this, I have remembered much that I had forgotten, and even learned a little about myself, and it is all thanks to my socks.

Walking in a Shadow’s Wake

Remnants of My Brother

In the night, my brother stood.

If I have children one day, I will tell them the story of James, and I will begin it this way. I will want them to see what I saw that night, and what I saw most clearly was my brother standing, bare-chested and barefoot, at the foot of my mother’s bed, which almost touched the door frame of that small room. Never did the room seem smaller than the night my brother stood there. The mid-July night was thick and dense. Our mobile home was cooled only by the spinning fans in the windows, turned on low because they were loud and rattled the windows, which in turn rattled the walls, which vengefully rattled the room. Lying asleep, I had been dreaming. The very event that occurred that night, the one that woke me from my dream, would be the one that has continued to shake me awake during the dense night of my lifetime. In order to tell this story correctly, though, perhaps I should start at the very moment I opened my eyes and saw.

In the night, my brother stood. He was so pale that the blue light of the summer’s midnight reflected off his pale chest and pale face and pale arms, giving him an otherworldly appearance, not quite alien but strangely angelic. Most frightening were his eyes, blue as the blue night that splashed about the room, as if it had been thrown from a child’s bucket. The two blues melded, and for a moment, I thought I was looking through his sockets, past his brain to the wall behind him. He glanced in my direction, saw nothing of interest there, and padded to my mother’s sleeping form, leaning towards her face. Staring at her, he took a deep breath and shook her. She awoke with a gasp, the kind one emits when a child is about to pull a pot of boiling water onto its head, and whispered fiercely, “What is it?” She had gone, in that instant, from being concerned about the pot of water, to becoming the pot of water: Her usually loving voice turned dangerous, and I am sure my brother, being astute, saw the imminent explosion in her eyes. Her tone reminded James that his reason for startling her better be good, or he was about to taste some serious pain. She was angry, and why not? James had been fired from his job that day for theft of services: giving away toys at his game stand at the local amusement park to those who had not necessarily earned them, and my mother had been livid. He and she have had many grievances before, over school, issues at home, in life, but always he managed to bring a smile to her scowling lips and the two reconciled for a time. But now, she spoke again, and the sultry room seemed cool, stiff with her words, and I could almost see the “What?” hovering between them. His reply, which was simple and calm, made me feel my soul scratching at my ribcage and pounding the walls of my body, rushing to leave me at its utterance:

“Mom, I took all of my sleeping pills. There were 43. I think I’m going to die.” As an afterthought, a realization: “I tried to kill myself.” And now a justification: “I didn’t want to go to Shaffner.” I almost shuddered at the thought myself. My brother had been to the juvenile detention facility previously, and when he returned, his spirit was violently shaken and ragged. At times, a glance in his face would reveal that some thing, some element of his whole being was lost and somehow tossed away.

My mother rises from her bed with the quickness of a bewildered child and pulls on shoes. Her thick rope-like braid swings in her face and she glances in my direction without seeing me. I must have been invisible that night, because neither my mother nor my brother seemed to acknowledge my presence. I can only imagine what happened after that; the door to the house gave a final dry click and the slam of car doors told me that they were gone. Did she shove a finger down his throat? Did she scream at him and ask him to justify, to explain? Did she cry? Did he? I imagine some country song with sappy lyrics about a boy about to die on his way to the hospital. They would call it “Tears in the Minivan,” I suppose.

Suddenly alone in our small home, I rolled onto my back and looked through the ceiling at a sky all blue and black. The sky was a curtain of bruises, the stars a million shimmering pills, and behind the sky, a godless universe was expanding like the poison in my brother’s bowels. I counted the stars and swallowed each one in turn. “God is dead, dead, dead, says Nietzsche. Dead like my brain, dead like my brother in 99, 98, 97…” Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I let them roll into my ears, where they melted my brain and put me to sleep.

The next morning I awake, and think that it was all a dream, a strange dream that is now just a flickering remnant, a torn ribbon fluttering in the breeze. My mother is in the kitchen, and I imagine that shortly, I will make breakfast, and we will sit around the table sipping orange juice from glasses with swirled bottoms and speak of our dreams. I have a dream to tell them about. Lucid yet forgotten, how upsetting, how absurd. I brush my hair: 97, 98, 99… My mother walks into the bathroom and begins to brush her teeth. Looking at her ragged braid, my mind flashes for an instant back to my brother hovering in the doorframe and I slowly lower my brush. “Was James in our room last night?” I ask, choosing just the right inflections in my voice at just the right spots, my tone inquisitive and not demanding. She turns to me, and I see her eyes are red and shadowed. She spits out some water and wipes her mouth with the towel. “James tried to kill himself last night. (pause) I drove him to the hospital. (long pause) He’s going to live. (short pause) We need eggs.” And she’s gone. I stare at my reflection for a long time and then I sit on the floor for a while. After that I bite my lip until it bleeds, and finally I kick the tub and start to swear between my sobs. Sob-gasp, sob-gasp, sob-gasp. Slowly, I stand and finish brushing: 97, 98, 99, 100, just like Marcia Brady.

What does one say about a loved one’s attempted suicide? You fear that you are nothing. You must be. You must be so inadequate that the very brother who used to lift you up at the orchard to choose that perfect apple does not regard you as a reason to remain upon the earth any longer. Your love is not great enough to bind him to life, and your hope not enough to inspire him to live. You are, quite simply, not a thing in a world. Eventually, that feeling fades. But wisps of it stay with you always, though. He does live! Huzzah! Rejoice and be glad! Eventually, though, the Hallelujah chorus draws to a close, and as the last notes dwindle, something is not right; you take a closer look. He is living, but he lives on in pain, and before long, the cuts that he makes on his arm deepen to his soul, his core, begins to fester. “I reek of weakness, of cruelty, of imperfection,” he says. To this I say nothing: He has pushed at my heart time and time again, pushing it closer to some kind of intangible limit. Finally, he has succeeded in tipping my heart all the way over and when he did, all of the comforting words fell out and disappeared, leaving it empty; all the words of strength on my lips melted away.

Once upon a time, the two of us walked in life’s labyrinth together, connected by a string of shimmering hope, so as not to lose each other. That night, however, he severed it and journeyed alone toward the Minotaur that is Death, so he could learn its cruelty and isolation. Who knows when and if he will return? This is no hero, no brave Theseus. Once my brother had hope, but now he has little more than the frayed ends of a love that was supposed to be unending; he is left with shards of a life that stick in his heart and cut at his dreams.

The memory of my changeling brother is the memory of the dead, though he lives. He has tattooed on his chest, “Nemo Me Impune Lacesset”: No one hurts me unpunished. It is why he punishes himself. When I miss him, it is like a breeze that sweeps my face and moves my hair; it is like a revelation. I reach for that moment, to grab it and bottle it and keep it close, but in the very moments that I realize it is there, it is gone again. My brother James comes and goes in the chambers of my mind, with a smile on his face. “To sleep… perchance to die,” he says. I find it hard to sleep. But when I do, I dream of him. And how, in the night, my brother stood.

Letter from Argentina

The first semester of my senior year of high school was spent as an exchange student in Viedma, Argentina. Living with a host family in a far away land was an experience which has humbled, matured, and enlightened me in many ways I could never have imagined. It was an experience from which I learned not only about a foreign culture and another language, but also equally, if not more, about my own culture and about myself. About once a month I composed an e-mail to send out to friends and relatives to inform everyone how my new life was going down in the Southern hemisphere. This is the first of six letters that I wrote. As a postscript, it should be known that letters I wrote after a couple months experiences conveyed a much more positive, enthusiastic tone and dealt more with insightful observations and epic adventures. Letter number one, however, deals with the confusion, headaches, and homesickness that any successful exchange student experiences and overcomes.



September 15, 2002


Hola a todos—

Every time I tilt my head up toward the sky there is a neatly shaped V of birds tugging in the summer; they’re going South to Patagonia. I am jealous of these birds as they migrate down to the end of the world, to where I very much wanted to stay for my time here as an exchange student. Perhaps they are Arctic Terns, which migrate eleven thousand miles each year from Patagonia to Alaska. Perhaps these same birds have flown over my home back in Wasilla. I wish I knew more about ornithology.

I chose Argentina for my host country because it was a Spanish-speaking country with a wide swath of mountains running up and down its Western edge that I had always dreamed of seeing, but apparently AFS (American Field Service, the exchange oraganization I’m with) has done their best to send me as far as possible from those dramatic horizons, here to Viedma, across the continent from the nearest hill.

So I confess for the first week or so after I arrived I could not have invented a single comment about this place that was remotely positive. In my plans I had envisioned something like a six-month vacation somewhere further South, someplace where everything would be distinct beyond recognition from back home, and ideally I wouldn’t have to go school because it would be my job to stay home and tend the family’s herd of llamas.

However, do not let me give you the impression that I am totally distraught. Although I am not exactly in the exotic picture of South America I imagined, I am learning how to make the best of it, aprovecho (I make best use of it). There is beauty everywhere, in anything. There is art waiting to be realized in the piles of trash and heaps of pruned branches that people dump at the edge of town. There is a romance to the wheat fields freshly ploughed for spring and the ranches that fold forever into the flat and featureless horizon. There is an aura of timelessness that hangs above the river winding lazily through town like fog on a cool morning. Additionally, there are many convenient aspects of living closer to a city that I am learning to make use of. I enjoy riding a bike to school, a badass “Beach Commander 2000” that looks like a 1970s concept of a mountain bike. And if I had hoped for a more spectacular landscape here, perhaps my host family had hoped for a more exciting person than myself. I swear I’m doing my best to be a lot more social than I am normally. It sounds like my friends from school here are even going to make me go to El Boliche, the dance club. Though you know I would rather spend the evening sealed inside a cardboard box with a heap of glass shards and fish entrails than in a dance club, I am going to try it. Another thing I am looking forward to is trying out a kayak. Kayaking is a popular sport here since no one is ever more than a five- or ten-minute walk from the riverside. Apparently Viedma, in all Argentina, has the most kayaks per capita.

Try to imagine this, my first impression of where I shall live for the next half-year. I arrived in a zombie trance after a twelve-hour bus ride in the dark from Buenos Aires to Viedma. I awoke just as the bus was pulling in to the station. Through blurry eyes, I spotted waiting at the platform outside my window two very hopeful looking people whom I had seen before in a picture that my host family had sent to me—they were my new parents. The striking, trim woman with high leather thin-heeled boots and a smart dress was Bella, my host mother, and the tall man with dark hair in khaki slacks and a T-shirt and thick glasses was Tony, my host father. They took me to my new home where I immediately fell asleep.

When I awoke, I didn’t know whether I had slept for an hour or three days. I had no idea where I was, why, how, &c. After lying in bed racking my brain for the next minute or so, I remembered all the traveling I had done during the last few days. With a sickening wrench of my stomach, I for the first time truly wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into and how I had ended up here.

Downstairs my six new family members were all having lunch. My new family members include my parents Bella and Tony, my two younger sisters Pilar and Belen, and two younger brothers Jose and Roberto. Two days later, though, we took the eldest son, Jose, to the airport to leave for the U.S. to be an exchange student as well. I guess I’m his replacement.

After a lot of confused, albeit amicable, conversation with my new family over lunch, what appeared to be an unhappy marriage between an ancient Volkswagen bug and a small truck, full of excited people, pulled up to the house, the horn honking emphatically and the ill-sounding engine gunning. I followed Jose as he shuffled out of the house and we piled into this little creature with five other friends of his to go cruise town. We went to go dar vueltas—literally, to go in circles. Everyone except myself had dark hair, dark skin, and dark eyes and was dressed head to toe in distressed denim. They wore jeans with pre-faded material and pre-ripped holes from years of use they never had; cigarettes hung casually out of their mouths and they spoke rapidly in a tongue that to me was muddled and incomprehensible.

The main road here runs adjacent to the Rio Negro through the middle of town. It’s a half-mile strip of pavement which we drove up and down no fewer than twenty times, accelerating over speed bumps as if they were jumps and slowing down occasionally to whistle and yell at girls. Everyone kept chanting something about Chupe. (The verb chupar means “to suck.” Later I learned that Chupe was Jose’s nickname that had evolved from Jose to Giseuppe to Chupe; that changed my idea about what I had imagined them to be talking about in the car.) The little city sped by over and over as they all asked me if I like to drink, do I have a girlfriend, do I like to party—and if not they told me we’d get busy with all that right this weekend.

We live in a big brick house in the city. Here the houses are constructed so that usually two houses share the a central wall. If I walk outside and look down the street I can see about fifteen neighboring homes. Quite a change from the seven acres of woods surrounding my home back in Alaska. The Rio Negro is maybe four hundred meters from our house. It is an enormous body of water, maybe four hundred meters from shore to shore. I greatly enjoy its presence. Just to have a large body of water near the house is a thrill if you’re not accustomed to it. They tell me in the summer everyone goes to the shoreline to spend the day—to swim, nap in the shade, have a picnic.

If I were to sum up my first three weeks here so far in a word I would choose confusion. It feels as if I’m never completely sure what’s going on or what I’m supposed to do. From what I have seen so far it is pretty much the exact opposite of Alaska, but all the people here have been incredibly kind to me. My family here are all wonderful people, I have a lot less responsibility, and school only goes until noon. As far as the language, it still feels like everyone has collaborated to play a clever trick on me. It is as if every time someone speaks, their words pass through some devious, invisible filter that scrambles them in to a string of incomprehensible gibberish. I had imagined that the four years of Spanish I studied in high school would help out a lot with my efforts in mastering the language, but I have found that I still have miles to go before I sleep and can actually understand what in the world all these people are talking about all the time. I have found that the easiest people to talk with are my youngest siblings, who have smaller vocabularies and usually speak more slowly. It is already hard for me to write this in English so I suppose I am going to learn the language whether I want to or not.

I have been spending a great deal of time running, though it is tough to be so self-motivated. I miss cross-country. Some days it feels like everything sneaks up on me all at once and all I want to do is go home. There are days when I would give anything just to see one pathetic little mountain, to have some thick woods where I could go for a quiet walk, to have all my hammers and saws back in my callused hands and to have some dirt back under my my fingernails, so these are the times when I go for a run. I search for someplace I have not been yet, usually as far away from the city as I can go. Running clears my head; it makes everything seem more tolerable. I’m ready to give anything another chance after I have run far enough. I run down lonesome dirt roads out in the country and the cows look at me funny across the barbed wire as I run by, their gazes follow me as I pass as if I were holding a string attached to each of their snouts. I stir up flocks of prismatic parrots nesting in the scrub brush and they swarm above me by the hundreds, screeching angrily at my presence. The animals are all surprised to see something that passes on foot rather than wheels. Some days when the clouds look just right I can pretend they are mountains, the tall white pillars in the distance something solid and tangible rather than just suspended ice particles. The sky grows pink then red and finally purple like a swelling bruise, like a fistfull of melted Crayola, then ultimately healing into blackness. The stars appear and fill the sky in a completely different pattern from back in Alaska. Everything is better.

I don’t want to hog the computer anymore. I think Pilar (fourteen-year-old sister) has friends to chat with. Hope to hear from



Washington Square

A cigarette butt lies next to my foot, still emitting a trace of smoke. Nearby on the dusty asphalt a pigeon waddles self-consciously, bobbing its head as if pecking the air for some invisible food. A squirrel churrs a threat to his brother, challenging him to romp.

The walkway before me never becomes silent. A buzz of voices blends with the city soundscape of cars driving and trucks backing, swingsets squealing and sparrows chirping. A toddler, holding tightly to his sister’s stroller, yells “Achtung! Achtung! Achtung!” at a squirrel that crosses two inches from his foot. His mother comforts him, in German. A man sits down on the bench across from me, eyelids dropping on his creased red face as he stirs his cup of coffee.

The bench I sit on is green, painted over years of dents and names scratched in wood. My backpack sits to my left with its main zipper opened just wide enough for me to extract my notebook and pen. At my right is my suitcase. Its pockets are crammed full like the subway this morning, barely room left to breathe, creaking and complaining of the overburdening load.

The subway. A couple of hours ago it brought me here, and soon, I will hike the blocks back to the station, shoulder chafing from the suitcase, and it will bring me to the train station. I’m going home today.

At home, the mountain overshadows our farm in the same way that the thirty-story apartment building a block north overshadows this park. They both recede as they rise, shadowed places standing out against sunlit sides, seeming to hold themselves back from too much involvement with their surroundings. This building stands behind a wall of brick rowhouses like the low hill of alfalfa fields blocks a view of the lower reaches of the mountain.

The rowhouses’ potentially beautiful façade is marred by rusty air-conditioner units and a high trim of metalwork, corroded to a bright green, contrasting with the clean brick and the white window frames. Trees obscure my vision slightly, holding onto their last few dirty-brown leaves. A puff of air, cool enough to make you shiver but too warm for a jacket, rustles them.

Strains of harmonica waft from the park bench opposite me. A street musician of sorts has opened for business, a blue-green flowerpot at his feet. His nearly empty bag is next to him on the bench, surrounded by his array of harmonicas. A contented Labrador Retriever disinterestedly glances toward him, not missing of beat of his lazy gait. “Swing low, sweet chariot…” The man plays each line of music, then sings it. “Coming for to carry me home…”

Two benches to his left, a couple of students eat their lunch. One feeds pigeons that strut in a semicircle around his feet. A sudden crash from a nearby construction site sends every pigeon in the park into flight. Their wings create more noise than the blast that scared them.

A lady sits down next to me, lighting up a cigarette. The noxious gray fumes begin to flow from its burning tip. I think it’s time to leave.

The Viola Lesson

I strolled toward the double glass doors, deliberately kicking at a large spiky chestnut pod as I went. It skidded across the concrete and sent three more spike-balls rolling before toppling over the edge of the ramp. Gazing upward through the branches, which were camouflaged by green and brown splotched clumps of large, tear-drop–shaped leaves, I could see bits of crisp blue autumn sky. I repositioned the strap of my viola case on my shoulder. It’s too bad I can’t stay out here to enjoy the weather. At that thought, I slowed my walk. Why am I nervous? I’m more prepared for my lesson this week than I have been in a long time. The set of doors now loomed ahead of me, and I tugged one of them open, making my way up to the second floor of the building. I knew there was no reason for me to be nervous, but the butterflies flitting around in my stomach didn’t seem to care.

As I approached Dr. Sternberg’s office, his door came clearly into view—I always enjoyed looking at it. The dark wood could barely be seen beneath the dozens of cartoons pasted all over it. There was even a picture of Dr. Sternberg himself, with a carrot protruding from his mouth, and a sign below asking, “Do you know this man?” I smiled and could feel my anxiety floating away. Poking my head through the door, I spotted him working at his computer. Dr. Sternberg was in his mid-thirties, with dark hair and a beard he had just started growing over the summer. He looked up and smiled a greeting, motioning for me to come in. “So how are you doing, Miss Marie?”

“I’m fine,” I replied, closing the door and looking for a spot to set my case. The chair where I normally put it was stacked with papers, and there were orchestra parts, folders, CDs, and violin and viola music scores scattered in piles all over the floor. “How are you?”

“Good,” he said, before guiltily apologizing for the mess. We go through this exact conversation at the start of every lesson, I thought, smiling inwardly. I pushed some of the piles out of the way and laid my case down in the cleared spot. If he feels bad about this mess, then he should see my room—at least his stuff is in piles.

I unzipped my case and began getting my viola out. After clamping the shoulder rest in place and tightening and rosining my bow, I put my music stand in the middle of the room. Dr. Sternberg got up from his desk and came over to see what I had brought. Picking up the music and looking through it, he asked, “What’s on the agenda today—should we work on an etude, or did we do one last week?”

“We did work on one last week,” I began, “but after I played it, we got distracted talking about something else…”

“Imagine that…” he grinned.

I returned the grin and continued, “…and you forgot to give me something new to work on.”

“OK,” he said, scratching his beard and leafing through my etude book. “How about if we skip etudes for this lesson. I’ll put today’s date on this…” he scribbled 11/6 at the top of one page, “…and we’ll do it next week. Is that okay?”

“Sure,”I replied, not bothering to hide the note of happiness in my voice. Not etudes! Yes! This means we get to work on the fun stuff.

“Let’s dive right into the Vanhal then,” he suggested, walking over to his desk.

Nodding, I took a deep breath, prepared myself, and began playing the first movement of the concerto. After the first page I looked up to see if he wanted me to go on. He held up his hand, and I stopped.

“I just can’t figure out what’s going on with your bow hold,” he said. “I couldn’t do what you’re doing if someone held a gun to my head.” Oh, that, I thought. Is it still not right? We had been trying to figure out what my bow hand was doing for weeks but hadn’t been able. Somehow I was managing to keep my first, second, and fourth fingers curved on the bow, while the third finger would straighten itself out.

“Let me start by asking you some questions,” Dr. Sternberg continued. “Is your thumb losing its curve underneath the bow?” He illustrated what he meant on his bow. After trying it for myself, I told him I didn’t think so.

“Well then, do you feel like you are trying to push down with your third finger?” I tried that, too, but it didn’t feel like what I had been doing. He kept on asking me questions, and having me try different things until he suddenly had another idea.

“Try thinking of it as holding the bow with the tips of your fingers.” It worked! “Now play the beginning of the piece again.” I did what he asked and could tell he was getting excited. “What do you think?” he questioned.

“I think it’s better.”

“So do I—your hand looks much looser and more elegant.”

A little later in the same lesson, Dr. Sternberg switched the focus from bow to tone. We were working on a section with some relatively high notes when he asked, “Can you get a really big tone way up there? I don’t think you can do it—not the poor little sister of the violin. It’s just not possible, is it?”

“Yes it is,” I retorted. I could see the humor in his eyes and knew he was trying to get me worked up about it.

“Prove me wrong then,” came his playful challenge.

I put my viola on my shoulder and played, pulling my bow even closer to the bridge. I could feel the vibrations of the string in my bow hand, almost as if it was my hand touching the strings, not the bow. The sound spilled from my viola, rich and pure.

“Good! And you intuitively moved your bow closer to the fingerboard as you shifted back down. That was much better. You’ve practiced more this week, haven’t you?”

I nodded. He noticed a difference! The week before, I had gotten very little practice in, and this last week I had been trying to make up for lost time. It’s amazing what a difference three hours of practice can make.

While I was thinking, I took my viola down from my shoulder. It was then, however, that I realized my hair was caught in the shoulder rest. “You’re really getting ‘attached’ to your viola, aren’t you?” Dr. Sternberg teased.

“Yep,” I agreed, laughing as I tried to untangle it.

After my lesson was over, I walked up to the glass doors again and stepped out through them into the sunlight. The sky was still the same vibrant blue, and the chestnut seed pods still littered the concrete ramp. But there was a new lightness to my step, and a bubble of happiness inside me which felt ready to burst. It was wonderful seeing the progress I was making with Dr. Sternberg’s help. For the past few years, I had wanted so badly to play the viola as well as I could, and being able to see that I really was getting better made me feel light enough to float up among the clounds. I wonder if it works this way all the time? Would knowing I did my best at something, even if others could have done it better, make me feel this way in other areas, too?

Suddenly, I remembered something Dr. Sternberg had told me before. He said he had seen lots of students try to excel at too many things. It usually resulted in them being unable to do their best at anything. So, my thoughts continued, I should pick one thing to do my very best at, and then work hard in the other areas with the time and energy I have left. A smile of understanding slowly spread across my face. Through my lessons, Dr. Sternberg had taught me many things about playing the viola, but what I had just begun to understand was, perhaps, of even greater importance. I realized now that this truth, more than any technique, would allow me to reach my goal of playing the viola to the best of my ability. Sighing happily, I tilted my head upward, breathed in the refreshing fall air, and with a well-aimed departing kick sent half a dozen more spike-balls shooting off the ramp.

This essay was honored with the 2003 Frodo’s Notebook Essay Award in the annual Central Pennsylvania Scholastic Writing Awards.