Not Much of a Writer

I spend one evening a month with my friend Carrie Schuetz writing brief letters to college students. College Connections, as the group is called, was started several years ago as a way to remind the kids of our church that we still care about them when they’re away at school. It has expanded throughout the years to include students who are loosely affiliated with the church, their names submitted by a loving aunt or friend in the congregation.

As far as ministries go, it is not glamorous. Carrie and I sit at a table in silence, after a few minutes of chatting, filling card after card with messages of encouragement and love. Last night, we wrote a little more than twenty letters to college students in Kentucky, Ohio, California, and even the exotic locale of Fairview Heights, Illinois.

I like to do this because I had a hard time away at college. When I went to college, only an hour away from home, I was not prepared for being away from my family. I was academically on top of things but emotionally very much unprepared.

This threw me into a mental health storm of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. I dropped out in the middle of the year and moved back home. Mom called it a nervous breakdown; the doctor shrugged and called it “just situational,” as if the mundane situation made it somehow less real.

I was relieved to be home, and I spent the spring semester at the community college, often going for days without speaking. When I did have to speak, my voice was little more than a whisper.

My mom had tried everything in her power to keep me at school, often sending me letters covered in stickers, enclosing a five-dollar bill or a cute article torn from a magazine. Once she sent me a Grand Marnier ad from a magazine with vibrant colors, orange branches, playing cards, phases of the moon, and a bottle in the corner labeled “love potion.” It delighted me, so I hung it up on the wall behind my desk. I had to take it down because it promoted alcohol, which was verboten at the college. I went ahead and took everything down.

After dropping out, I remember attending a family gathering. One relative greeted me with, “Hey, I heard you couldn’t hack it.” A female relative approached me more tenderly and said while searching for something deep in the refrigerator, “Your mom asked me to write you at college, but I’m not much of a writer, Em.” I said, “Oh, it’s okay, not a big deal.”

But it was a big deal, apparently, because I’ve replayed that scene so many times, her rummaging in the fridge, me standing stupidly in the light of the Kenmore. Writing comes easily to me, and I couldn’t understand the reasoning of not being much of a writer. But she didn’t know I was drowning.

I haven’t been a college student for many years, but I assume that pressures on young people persist – not to mention all the complexity that comes with social media and pandemic times. I’m guessing it’s hard.  

Anyway, God has given me words, and if I can use those words to encourage a student with a letter in the mail, that’s what I’ll do. I invite you to join us. We’ll meet at 6:30 p.m., Monday, September 20 in the Christ Church café.

-Em

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Dreamed of a warm beach but instead dangled my feet in a cold river. Kept an eye on the snake snoozing ten feet away. Lost track of the snake and had to kick the water violently from then on to show all the snakes who’s boss. Not relaxing; would not recommend.

Got a mosquito bite, which became infected. At first, it looked like a red, angry eyeball then spread into a three-inch pink circle, hot to the touch. Took four weeks to fade away. Good times.

Discovered my natural hair color. It’s the exact shade of ground beef after you brown it and drain off the grease but before you add the taco seasoning packet.

Got away with brushing my teeth just once a day on one or two occasions. With the mask wearing and staying at home, it’s surprisingly easy. I apologize in advance to my hygienist Katrina.

Didn’t notice it was “summer vacation” until well into June. The days had faded into each other like ketchup and mustard.

Ate a lot.

Had a Bud Light with every meal for one week in early July. Well, not every meal. It simply doesn’t pair well with Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Watched every episode of Community, from the funny first seasons to the dismal last seasons. Re-watching ER, now in Season 9. Rest in peace, Dr. Mark Greene.

Cleaned up the same mess over and over.

Laughed maniacally for two minutes when I found Caroline’s wet towel on the floor for the billionth time. Thought my demented performance made quite an impression, which would come to mind the next time she’s tempted to leave her wet towel on the floor.

Was wrong. Many times. Not just about the wet towel.

Kept a journal of my pandemic experience. Wearied of journaling. Last entry: July 26.

Shopped online for things I don’t need. A cold-press juicer (for all my juicing needs?) A pair of rhinestone crab earrings (for all my crustaceous jewelry needs?) A pretty shower curtain. A thing that catches hair before it clogs up the drain. A miniature steel drum. School supplies.

Started therapy.

Wondered what took me so long to go to therapy.

Waited at a stop light, pondering whether the past five months have been one of those disturbing, hyper-real dreams. Glanced down at the face masks in the cup holder and asked, “If it’s all just a dream, then why are there masks in my car?” Dun dun dun.

Hit the gas when the light turned green. Of course it’s real.

***

Switched on the lamp on my nightstand. Again. Felt a rush a relief and gratefulness for our bed, for a book to read, for another day lived. Again. Sank into the hollow on my side of the bed. Exhaled a prayer of thanks for the respite of sleep. Again.

God willing, I’ll do the same tomorrow night. Again.

Turn the lamp on. Turn the lamp off. Close eyes. Open eyes. Put one foot in front of the other. Learn patience.

Summer vacation may be over, but every day I’m learning, remotely.

Pigeon Forge river rocks

Time is White, Mosquitoes Bite

Sometimes I wake up around 3 a.m., and for a moment, it feels like I’m swimming to the surface. In that second before reaching the surface, I’m struck by terror, and the waking words in my head are, “I’m so scared.”

This fear feels automatic and unconscious, and I can’t pinpoint the reason for it. I’m not scared of one particular thing. I’m just scared.

I’m so scared.

In those few seconds after waking, I move on, the sudden twinge of terror eclipsed by more pressing things, like heading to the bathroom or rolling over and falling back asleep. But that three-word sentence returns often, always at night: “I’m so scared.”

When I was a child, I sometimes woke up in fear. I feared the ghost in the attic and demons in my toys. I was scared of hell but maybe more afraid of heaven. The usual stuff would also scare me from sleep: imagining my parents dying, or grandparents dying, or my sister or dog dying.

Or snakes.

I never feared my own death back then—and maybe that’s the difference now, in my forties, a fear of dying at a low simmer.

A woman from Wisconsin writes about midnight fears. Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) wrote a poem that starts with this little gem: “What horror to awake at night / and in the dimness see the light. / Time is white / mosquitoes bite / I’ve spent my life on nothing.”

Lorine might have had reason to worry. She spent her life writing compact lines of verse, the kind that tend to get lost amid today’s clutter of garbage-words. Misleading headlines about people doing unconscionable things threaten to crowd out the beauty. You gotta seek it out.

As a child afraid of the dark corners of her bedroom, I’d answer my fears with words — Bible verses. I’d either fall back asleep or ignite a whole new bonfire of fears.

Today my fears are different from back then, more along the lines of Niedecker’s horror: “I’ve spent my life on nothing.” In waking hours, I know that my life’s hodgepodge of mothering and teaching and writing and learning don’t add up to “nothing.” But I’m clear-eyed enough to know that my writing may never see many readers. The book I’ve written, the book I’m working on now, may not find a publisher. This, I realize, is ground zero of “I’m so scared.”

But the Holy Spirit turns my mind to Jacob, that old trickster who conned his father into blessing him. With his father’s blessing, Jacob set out alone and encountered some intriguing night fears of his own. One night he had a terrifying dream of a stairway to heaven; another night was spent wrestling with God.

This wrestling story captures my imagination so that I can almost picture it, his face shiny with sweat. And through gritted teeth he says to his opponent: “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” He got his blessing but walked away with a limp.

In writing this, maybe I’m saying: I’m not letting go until my work is blessed. And I may find myself, late at night, limping to the bathroom. Even in those moments of limpid fear, I’m not giving up just yet.

Time is white.

Mosquitoes do bite.

I’m spending my life on something.

view from bed

Fish-eye view from my bed. (The dresser is a mess, but that’s how we roll.)