A Subtle Grace

“Can you tell me something really funny right now?” I am texting my friend Jill with this request while I sit in the parking lot at Washington Christian Academy, the school where I am an 8th-grade teacher.

I am crying, and the problem is this: I’m in the thick of a transition and I have no tolerance for it. I’m sifting through my youngest daughter’s first steps into kindergarten and my first steps into the classroom after a long hiatus. I’m not writing, and after recently earning an MFA in creative writing, I’m supposed to be writing. I want to be writing, but my thoughts are jumbled, and my concentration is low when I sit down at my desk in the mornings. I cross out more words then I keep on the page, and those that stay make me cringe when I re-read them. I try to tell myself that soon I’ll get into a groove, but in the depths of my stubborn soul I believe transitions are a waste of time. Most days I walk around feeling as though the wind has been knocked out of me.

This afternoon, when I pulled into the school parking lot, I noticed a line of trees whose tips had started to change. I threw the car in park and reached for my notebook to jot down a few words to describe what I saw, but when I opened my bag I saw my notebook in between a stack of student papers. I stared at my bag and forgot what I was going to write about the trees. 

I’m lost right now. I am sad and I feel like I’m failing: at motherhood, at writing, at teaching. I can’t seem to get a handle on any of it. So I text Jill to see if she can make me laugh.

I met Jill in the Albuquerque airport two years ago. We were both waiting for a shuttle to take us to Santa Fe where we’d spend the next ten days at a residency for our MFA coursework. We became friends instantly, and every morning before the sun rose and the quiet howls of coyotes still lingered in the air, Jill and I would meet to walk through the lavender-scented air. We hopped over lizards as we talked about writing, our daughters, and everything else that comes to mind when you’re with a good friend. 

Jill is a poet, and her keen way with words feels like a gift every time she uses them. I know she’ll have the perfect words for me now.

“My treadmill broke this morning when I was trying to walk off the stress eating from the night before,” she texts back. “I flew off it and at the wall, but at least my ass is so padded that the wall felt like foam.”

I laugh, and the tears that have been welling slip down my cheeks.

“Is everything okay?” Jill adds. “How’s teaching?”

I tell her everything’s fine, but I’m overwhelmed. I tell her I love teaching but am having a hard time managing all of it. I tell her I miss writing. I look again at the trees in front of me and try to remember what it was I thought to write about them. 

I blink back more tears. “What would Jeanne Murray Walker do?” It’s the question Jill and I ask when we are overwhelmed with all that we are trying to do.

“She’d peel the potatoes and then write an awesome essay about it.”

Jill’s referring to Jeanne’s essay on Alice Munroe’s writing, called, “A Quiet Grace.” We talked about that essay for days after we read it, basking in Jeanne’s ability to describe the yearning to write and the yearning to be a mother, and the difficulty in tending to both. “I don’t even have time to buy potatoes, let alone peel them,” I respond. 

But Jill is right. What I love about Jeanne’s writing is her ability to create something beautiful or haunting or hilarious from a detail that most of us would not notice. She seems to look at everything in her days as a gift to be molded or welded or polished until it illuminates her story however it is supposed to. 

I wish I could do that too, I think, as I look at the trees one last time. But no words come, and it is time to teach. I say goodbye to Jill, grab my bag, and scoot out of the car.

* * *

“Aw, man,” Harper says. “My cucumbers are warm.” Hadley, Harper, and I are driving home from school, and Harper has her lunch box open across her lap in the backseat. I don’t know what they’re doing during lunch, but it’s clearly not eating because both of them devour their lunches on the way home. Of course Harper’s cucumbers are warm. They’ve been sitting in her lunchbox for eight hours.

“Hadley? Are your cucumbers warm?”

“I ate my cucumbers at lunch,” Hadley says as she chews on Goldfish crackers. We are about 90 seconds from home when Harper starts to pretend cry. It will be a real cry soon. Before our garage door glides up, Harper will be weeping over her warm cucumbers because more than she is hungry, Harper loves a story with drama and flare, and she sees potential in this one. Harper’s belief in her made-up story is so strong she makes it hard to resist the lie. If she believes she is a fairy, for example, then everywhere she goes is a magical kingdom. Harper once spent an hour and a half jumping off our stairs, waiting for the fairy wings that were attached and quivering with each jump, to take flight.

We get into the house, and Harper lays down on the floor with a sigh. “I’m so hungry,” she says, flinging an arm over her face.

“I’ll make you a snack in a second,” I say as I step over her and walk upstairs to where my desk is.

My study is a nook on our second floor. My desk faces a window that boasts a view of baby oak trees that were planted about ten years ago. Brick townhomes just like ours line the street. I love to look out the window when I’m sitting here. I love our street. It’s the only one like it in our neighborhood, and when I’m up here, I pretend we are in the city, maybe Chicago, just like Jeanne Murray Walker was in the beginning of “A Quiet Grace.” In it, she’s beginning her dissertation when her infant daughter wakes in the morning. 

I study that essay like I do a Bible story: See? Esther did a scary thing. See? Mary was totally confused. They knew fear. They knew confusion. Look at these ladies and see what they do. I follow Jeanne through her essay because I know the pull of words and the pull of motherhood and I want to see what another woman does in this situation.

I set my writing space up with that scene in mind. Jeanne felt that desperation and wrote about it. She left her yellow legal pads and picked up her baby, probably feeling both the letdown of having to leave a story and at the same time the joy in the chubby baby legs wrapped around her waist. Jeanne changed the diapers. She peeled the potatoes. And she wrote and wrote and wrote. “So will I,” I told myself as I placed my journals and writing textbooks between cups of pens and pencils on my desk.

Today, I walk into this space and dump my school bag on the floor. To my left are three bookshelves filled with creased copies of All the Pretty Horses, Still, The Common Reader, and essays by E.B. White. I shake my head at them. I can’t write anymore. I want to lay myself on the floor like Harper, but I sit at my desk and look out the window. These are not real townhomes. The brick is just on the front and all these shutters are fake. This is not a city. This is all just make-believe.

* * *

I’m gonna get the mail,” Hadley tells me. Hadley loves getting the mail. It’s a short walk up the street, plus, she gets to use a key to unlock the mailbox. It always takes three times longer then when I get it because Hadley says hi to the neighborhood kids. “Just gettin’ the mail,” I can hear her say from where I sit. “Nice bike! You gonna be out here for a while? I’ll get mine, too!”

I kick my heels off, put on jeans and a T-shirt, and head downstairs to check on Harper. She’s still lying on the floor, but she has her feet in the air, rotating her ankles and singing, “Someday, I’ll be livin’ in a big ole’ city!” I lay down next to her and tickle her tummy while she finishes her favorite Taylor Swift song.

“Harper, you have a letter from Ellie!” Hadley says waving a package in the air. 

“Ellie wrote me?” Harper exclaims. Ellie is Harper’s pen pal. She is also Jill’s daughter. The two girls have been writing to each other since the summer. 

Today, Ellie laments over the fact that she must wear a school uniform and she can’t wear twirly dresses. I read this to Harper, who is currently wearing a skirt with about three layers of tulle, polka dot leggings, and a zebra print hoodie. 

“Oh, that is so sad,” Harper says and puts her hands to her face. “Ellie can’t twirl.” A moment of silence, then, “What else does the letter say, Mama?” 

I continue to read: “Since I know you wrote a picture for me, I want to write a picture for you.” I show the picture to Harper: two little girls with braids and twirly dresses with hearts around their faces. “I love you. From, Ellie.”

Attached to the picture is a nickel. “This is a luckee ckoin.” Ellie writes. 

“A lucky coin!” Harper says, holding the letter to her chest.

Hadley nudges me and points to the coin. “Isn’t that just a nickel?” she asks with one eyebrow raised.

“It’s a lucky nickel,” I say, begging with my eyes for Hadley to play along.

Ellie’s letter comes with something from Jill, too. A red Fabiano notebook, and a copy of Coming into History, a collection of poetry by Jeanne Murray Walker. “Of all her books,” Jill writes on a yellow and grey notecard, “this one is my favorite. Start with the last section.”

Standing at the kitchen sink, I open Jeanne’s book and flip to the back. “Invocation to a baby already twelve days overdue” is the first poem I read:

Come with your hands open or shut.
Come with them slippery from blood.
Don’t be afraid. Only slide down a cascade of water.
Come with your eyes azure as pieces of sky.
Or come with eyes a dark complication of gray.

“Can I have a snack?” Hadley asks. I’m leaning over the sink, holding the book under the faucet as though I’m going to wash my hands with it. I look to Hadley. Her eyes are azure pieces of sky, and they are a dark complication of gray.  And she was so late. So, so overdue.

I put the book down on the cutting board and open the cupboard to look for a snack for Hadley. I pull out a box of graham crackers and take out four. “Give two to your sister,” I say, turning back to the poem: 

Come with hair black as a grand piano
Shouting in fifteen keys together or
come with a throat as calm
as the throat of a beautiful vase.
The world will fill you with sound.

Did Hadley cry? I think as I begin to rinse off tomatoes and basil in preparation for dinner. The basil makes my mouth water. Yes. Yes, she did, I remember now. I grab a bowl for the tomatoes to fall into after I split them in two. But it was her eyes that I remember.

The girls want to play outside, and I open the back door so I can hear them through the screen while I continue fixing dinner. 

I whisk balsamic vinegar, garlic, and olive oil in the bowl before I begin to slice the tomatoes. We’re having pasta tonight and this is the sauce. The tomatoes sop up the mixture’s flavors while the pasta cooks.

It is the time of day when the sun breathes its rays into the house, illuminating all of what it holds before she sets. A grand finale, and it is in her final bow that her orange hues land on dust and Cheerios on the floor. I don’t even know when those Cheerios are from, I think, as I turn a tomato around in my hand. Hadley and Harper have been eating waffles for breakfast all week.

A breeze comes through the screen door making waves in the sun’s show. The dust picks up and looks like glitter. When it dies down, I notice that the shadows are still shifting. Hadley and Harper are throwing a ball back and forth in the backyard, and the sun is low enough so that it is covered for a second by their throws. The girls are making the sun flicker.

Jeanne’s book is held open by a corner of the cutting board, so I can read while I work. Her poem, “Making Peace,” says this:

Back and forth we roll the sun, from you to me,
back and forth, extinguishing tomorrow’s wars with light.

I begin to slice tomatoes. I don’t know when I’ll write another essay or pick those Cheerios up off the floor. Nothing’s changed. Except I’ve read Jeanne’s poetry and the tomatoes make a nice plunk as they fall into the vinegar and the garlic. 

* * * 

I fill a pot with water and set it on the stove to boil, then take Jeanne’s book to the table that my husband Jesse built as a graduation present for me: a long, thick wood table. The chairs are the same ones we’ve had for almost sixteen years. Last summer I painted them turquoise because I was having trouble studying Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly and I needed something to take my mind off of it. 

I read Jill’s card again before I get to the poems. “No more annotations,” she writes. 

I wish Jill were sitting across the table from me. If she were, I’d brew a pot of coffee — strong — and I’d tell her I kind of miss writing annotations. She would nod and chuckle and I bet she’d say, “Me too.” We’d sip our coffee, clutch our mugs close, and hash this motherhood-writing-peeling-potatoes conundrum out. We wouldn’t figure out a thing, but we’d have a good time trying.

I hold Jeanne’s book in one hand and Jill’s note in the other. It’d be nice to have them both here, but holding their words is nice, too. And I have the words that fill my bookshelves. Maybe someday my words will slowly settle again onto the page. Maybe I’ll unpack my life and see what makes it work like I did with the books I studied in school. Maybe this is my next annotation.

* * * 

The next morning, Harper wants to write Ellie. She is holding paper and a pencil. “First I’ll write, then I’ll draw,” she says. “And I’m going to tape some candy to the letter. And it will be magic candy. Mama, do we have magic candy?”

I step into Harper and Ellie’s story and tell her that I think we do. I cut an apple for the girls’ breakfast while I help Harper sound out words.

Dear Ellie,
I do not have to wear a uniform to school.

I pull out my Grandma’s dishes, the light blue ones with a sailboat in the center. Today it will be a fancy breakfast. I sprinkle cinnamon on the apple.

My favorite subject is PE.

I pour orange juice into teacups, turn on the oven, then line a cookie sheet with parchment paper for biscuits. 

I want to be a princess bat for Halloween. What is your favorite Halloween candy?
Love, Harper

Hadley comes downstairs with a book and a stack of Pokemon cards. 

“Good morning,” I say.  She greets me with a smile and her blue eyes shine. I thought for sure they’d be brown. I am not disappointed they aren’t, but surprised. Somewhere in my brown-haired, brown-eyed roots, I hold a gene for blue eyes. Hadley has Jesse’s eyes, whose blue hue deepens on crisp fall days when the sky sparkles, and matches the grey sky when hurricanes are on their way. But in biology, brown trumps blue, and each morning Hadley looks at me and shows me something I didn’t know I had.

Come out from where you are hiding.
The count is up now, the game is over.
Come home to this small room.
You’ll be as free and as bound
as the star that’s framed tonight

in the window above your empty crib.

The three of us walk out our door later, the girls running to the car, their backpacks flopping side to side, making a swish-swish sound against their backs, and my heels clicking loudly as I walk down the sidewalk trying to catch up.

Callie Feyen lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with her husband, Jesse, and their two daughters Hadley and Harper. She recently earned an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University and is trying to put it to good use writing in the mornings and teaching 8th grade English in the afternoons. Callie writes for Relief Journal and Coffee and Crumbs. Her work has also been featured on Altarwork.

Her Medicine was Kindness

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