Yellow against blue.

3 Jul

I ran through the neighborhood’s brick-paved streets last night, dodging unlit fireflies in the pre-dusk light. I had to pay attention to my body — my injured back and ribs, my inflamed hip and neck, my sensitive left temporal lobe. I had to be so careful. I had to go so slow. The old rhythm I used to know was gone. And I realized, perhaps I’ll never find it again.

I sought my running shoes out of a need for comfort. This broken body is still strong, I needed the world around me to respond somehow. And it did, in a way. I couldn’t find my old pace, my past staccato of breath in and breath out, the thumping footfall keeping time. But I did find the same body, with the same will to push forward. And that was some comfort.

Illness brings change, of course, but it can also bring to the foreground the underlying strength of the body’s will. Which is a separate thing from the mind’s will. I often find myself in bed, in pain, and wanting to just sleep and shut out existence as a whole. But eventually my body begins a separate ache, an ache for movement. Sometimes, when I struggle out of bed and into my shoes, I’m always rewarded with the reminder that the body — the physical self — is a complex system. Pain may sometimes draw my attention and shut me down outwardly, but the system is still functioning, still investing, still creating, still exchanging cells for cells and slowly building a new body. When I remember that, I remember that I am more than an immune system that attacks itself, more than aching and weak joints, more than mistimed electrical-chemical surges in my brain, more than clenched teeth during sleepless nights, more than the fears of the future, more than the loss of the past. I am a runner. And when I’m too broken to lace up my running shoes, I’m still here, moving forward at whatever rhythm my body can find.

As I walked the last mile back to my home, dusk emerged in the shadows of the trees. I felt relaxed and tried not to remember the nine miles I had run last year. I inventoried my back and ribs, my hip, my neck, my brain. I smiled and loosely swung my arms. “We did well,” I said out loud to my body and to the fireflies beginning to flicker their yellow against the blue night.

Where I am, now.

13 Jun

I’ve been working on a long-term project lately. Mostly thinking, some writing, about the idea of home.

This is the 30th home I’ve lived in during my 34 years, give or take a few addresses I penned more than once, homes with wheels, and perhaps an error of math. Once, it was a humorous and slightly awkward response at social gatherings where acquaintances would inevitably ask, “So, where are you from?” Now, it’s a timeline across the country and back, with past addresses just pushpins on Mapquest like freckles across the face of my childhood. Now, it’s the biggest writing project I’ve tackled, which I started a couple of years ago and currently includes multiple documents, a spreadsheet, and long moments staring off into my mind’s eye with my fingers resting motionless across the computer keyboard on my lap.

Writing entirely from memory has its challenges.

Lately, I find myself walking through my neighborhood in my little college town in Southeast Ohio, where we boast the down-home-ness, the salt-of-the-earth goodness, of the foothills of Appalachia; where we talk about poverty and the farmer’s market; where we smile in understanding over stories of driving through the hills for the sake of driving through the hills. I wander the dozen or so blocks between the river and bike path, the library, the Village Bakery, and the top of the hill where the brick-paved streets end and black top marks the main road.

I notice the flowers and trees. I notice the children and their toys and their loud before-it-gets-dark games. I notice the older couples who walk along the sidewalk after dinner holding hands, the younger couples still childless but with their dog, the single neighbors with earbuds and nice athletic shoes. I notice all these things and I feel like, in a sense, I am home.

I notice all these things and it makes me remember.

I remember the light in Central California. I remember my cousins teasing my “Valley Girl” accent when I moved to Connecticut at age 8. I remember my first puppy when I was a toddler in Virginia — both of us spunky and chirping. I remember discovering the alien-like world of the praying mantis, and I remember the betrayal when I was finally bitten by one. I remember dozens of pet turtles and lizards. I remember a bird-cage, built by my father, that was bigger than our white refrigerator in the kitchen. I remember our dog, Teddy, a pet we had from weaning until old age when he was hit by a car and my father buried him behind the house we lived in then. I remember moving out with my brother when I was 16. I remember moving back in with my parents, back to the square 1920s farmhouse out in the country on the coast when my first marriage failed. I remember moving in with my current husband on the day we got married after being chauffeured along the oceanfront in a red Mustang convertible, my husband lifting and carrying me over the threshold of our 600-square-foot apartment. I remember moving to the town I live in now, the farthest I’ve been from my parents and brother, for my husband and I to return to college and make a new life.

I remember loss and disconnection. I remember discovery and adventure. I remember slowly growing aware of what such an unrooted, transient life was teaching me about myself.

I am a writer.

15 Apr

I’m slowly floating down from cloud nine.

Three days since the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference in Minneapolis, and I sit in my local coffee shop distracted by the long thoughts that still linger forefront in my mind, thoughts prompted by the many panels, readings, overheard conversations, and hotel-room discussions I had during the three-day event.

It’s taken some time for me to accept, and then proclaim, this tagline to my name: Ellee, writer. The threat of discovery that I didn’t qualify would somehow be too much to bear, too much to mourn. I’ve carried this word around with me, secretly, since I was a child, thinking about what it means and wanting so badly to find my own place in it. But I never considered what it meant to fit in, to “qualify,” to be allowed membership in a professional group of word artists. For a few years now, I’ve tentatively put on the elevated label — adding it to my resume, my LinkedIn profile — without considering why I’m so scared to claim it.

But, last weekend at AWP, while I nervously zig-zagged through the huge book fair tables with their magazines, paperbacks, journals, bookmarks, magnets, and t-shirts, I had an epiphany: Writers are not special. They don’t occupy some strange intellectual space that requires years of tutelage in their lingo and set of rules. They are simply word lovers, word givers. They connect through the effort they put into finding just the right collection of letters that makes sense of their particular view. It takes hard work, not specialness.

I had to introduce myself to so many strangers, who were gracious and generous with my nerves and my apologetic explanations of what I do. People were interested in what I had to say. They wanted to know more about my ideas. They connected with they way I see the world. And I quickly found myself rooted in this varied community of political views, religious associations, artistic aesthetics, modes of communication, that are all connected through words.

I realized, I am also a word lover, a word giver. I, too, connect through the effort of finding just the right word. I, too, work hard. I, too, am a writer.

Read me.


6 Dec

Words are tricky things, aren’t they? They can be meaningless, flippant, and vapid. They can be life-affirming and challenging. They can be confused, misunderstood. They can be wrong.

I’ve lived with some labels, some wordy explanations about life and who I am, that I’m starting to understand were a little off-mark. How can something like language introduce me to a world filled with color, light, darkness, emotion, and sleep? How can language explain dreams — awake or unawake?

Don’t misunderstand me, I love words, I love language. I’m actually pretty obsessed with it. I mean, I am a writer. But I see its limitations.

I also see the possibilities.

We’ve all tried to describe snow to someone from southern Florida, or the color red to a blind person, or our Gramma’s to-die-for chocolate chip cookies that would stick to our fingers when we’d eat them fresh out of the oven. But it’s not the words we choose that are creating something — it’s the act of choosing them.

We are all sculptors in a way. Words are our mud. Or stone. Somethings are more pliable to describe, while others — other moments, memories, pains — are slowly chiseled through with a sharp mind.

Lately, I’ve been trying to find my words. They’ve wandered a bit. I’ve been trying to “say what I mean” and instead there’s a lot of, “um.” What I want to say is this: Life is hard. Especially when it passes you and you didn’t have enough time to label it correctly, so you try to look back and relabel, reorganize, and even then you feel rushed and your words are not quite right. But the attempt chips away to carve out some kind of meaning from a twisting, breathless memory.

Trauma is the hardest to explain. The words lie flat on the pain — neither a balm nor a way out. You apply them like bandages that don’t help fully heal. You soak up the pooling damage with them, but the words are never enough. Until, maybe someone else tries to heal their own pain with the same words, and in that expression you find hope. Their attempt at meaning holds the same shape as yours, though both may be lacking, and there’s another layer of meaning in the sameness.

Words remind me that I’m not alone. Even when I might talk to myself, the words are not mine. Other broken hearts have sculpted their lives with the same subject-verb disagreements, the same ill-fitting adjectives, the same industry lingo.

Words have helped us discover the details in an abstract world. We lean in and focus more, pointing and saying “this happened.” And then we lean in a little more and say, “it hurt me.” And a little more: “it was wrong.”

And from that leaning in, holding onto language as we peer over the edge of ourselves, we discover more meaning in single words. Love. Pain. Self. Others.


And if we are really paying attention, we discover more than that. We discovered that, just as our pain is often bigger than words, so are we.

Hello, Autumn.

11 Oct

The weather transitioned suddenly, here in Southeast Ohio. A couple of weeks ago, in less than 24 hours, the humid heat hung onto the last few minutes of twilight one evening and the next morning smacked cold and red on my cheek. I don’t mind. I love the fall. And apparently, loving the fall is a “thing.”

Sweater weather. Boots weather. Scarf weather. Pumpkin versions of anything (and everything) edible. Cold hands wrapped around cardboard cups that emanate heat in a six-inch radius. The scarf, piled and wrapped around our faces, hide the four-month long shoulder hunch against the elements.

But, again, I don’t mind.

The cold brings its own comfort. It brings permission to layer up, to be less exposed. Unlike the summer when you remove clothing when it gets too hot (baring your tender skin to the world, or worse, your neighbors), if you are too chilly in the cold months, you add some fabric. You cover. You tuck yourself in the midst of the most comforting items you own. I, personally, love it.

The cold allows you to drift through your day — like the thin, aged leaves floating down from their shivering branches. Sounds are less dulled, more crisp; less heavy, more lean. They float, like you and the leaves, in and out of the landscape on delicate winds.

So, though today is painted in fragile white light from a glittering sun, it’s chilly and beautiful. I am zipped up and layered, wandering through soft surroundings with crunching edges. A cup of hot something warming my hands, while yellow and brown leaves brush against my sweatered shoulders on their way to the ground.

And I don’t mind at all.

Grieving for strangers.

20 Aug

Depression has been the topic of the week. And how can it not be? With the world falling apart around each and every one of us — in Africa, in Missouri, in Hollywood. Yet, it’s not new. Just read Edgar Allan Poe. Or the Psalms by Israel’s Ancient King David. So I won’t pretend to add anything to the centuries-long discussion.

I’ll just say I feel it too — the sadness that laps in on the shore of life, sometimes threatening to wash away my tiny island of self. I think we all feel it to some extent. We all grieve and mourn. We all suffer. We all ache. But some of us find our way through it, while others very literally drown.

I have no wisdom to offer, or even any kind of adequate comfort. But I will say I am sorry to hear the Robin Williams — Mr. Comedy himself — found life unbearable. I am sorry to hear about the chaos and heartbreak of so many in Ferguson; the fear and torment in the Middle East; the loss faced by the family of the murdered journalist who could, if they wanted to, view is his execution.

Depression is not something that is easily understood, even by others who have felt the crush of sadness. But life in all its emotional variety is not easily understood through any lens, even the rose-colored ones. So, maybe we should all just pull a little closer to each other, forgive a little more, judge a little less, and maybe wave to a stranger now and then. Acknowledge each other. Remind each other that we’re really not all alone. I know it’s not any kind of answer, but I think it helps.




Pain management.

10 Aug

I woke up late today. A slow Sunday morning, dawning with hot yellow light through the blinds above me around 10:30 a.m. There wasn’t even a small moment in that transition into wakefulness when I forgot that I was in pain. I fell asleep with it, tossed and turned through it, brought it into my dreams, and awoke with it. But this morning I also woke up with something new: A rheumatoid arthritis nodule. A small one jutting out from one side of my middle knuckle on my right hand. I’ve known that I have RA, but seeing that slight deformity made it more real, more shocking.

Living with pain is difficult in ways that I can’t put into words. It’s a battle you aren’t armed for. It makes you feel weak physically, of course, but also emotionally. I am nervous to face a busy day when I am in the midst of a flare-up. What will people think if I suddenly start limping, or drop something from my weak hands? Will I have to cancel my lunch date, or will my friend understand the grimace I can’t seem to hide?

Pain makes you selfish. It makes you horde your minutes to yourself. It causes an obsession with finding your own balance, which often means inconvenience for others around you.

Pain makes you block out the moments that make life layered and tangible — the mundane occurrences like slicing tomatoes for dinner while you dream about traveling. Instead, you have to focus on the strength in your hands, the position of your body against the counter, how far you have to reach, the heaviness of the knife. In those moments, I don’t hear the sound of the juices released from the plump red tomato skin at the touch of the thin grey blade. I don’t hear the wind traveling from the open window in front of me and out the screen door at my back. I don’t smell the sharp and salty scents of the hot pan sautéing onions at my hip. All I can think is, just get through cooking dinner and you can sit down.

Today I struggle to step away from pain; to avoid its stifling definition of my extraordinary life. I want to find a way to weave it in, to allow it a place, but not give it everything I love. 

This nodule represents something. Medically, it shows progression of a condition that is worsening from the inside out. But, to me, it represents a future without writing. Without lifting children onto my lap or swinging them through the air. A life of holding my Love’s hand without lacing our fingers, or having him open doors, no longer out of his own desire for chivalry, but because I need him to. 

The only way I can think to fight the overwhelming fear and frustration at this future contained in that small nodule protruding from my aching hands, is to write. To write a path through the pain. To write a path through the certainties, finding and exploiting the uncertainties, cherishing the hand that I can hold in spite of pain. To write and make sense of something that confines me like a single, black-barred cell. To write and realize that I am not alone; others feel pain, others deal moment-by-moment with the same invisible illness. Others sit through lunch with a half-hidden grimace.

I write to remember that my life — that living — is not about my hands or how am I going to open jars, or even about waking up in pain. Life is about what you do with the pain.

And since pain is now a part of me, embedded deep in my body, I choose to live with it and get on with life.  


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