Small moments.

28 Nov

It’s amazing to me how quickly things come crashing down. Those precious elements of your life that you so carefully arranged, so carefully placed just so. But then the earthquake comes and everything falls inward and on top of you. The survival of these moments often looks like the shape you occupied in the womb–a tight-woven fetal position, tucked in somehow beneath the rubble of what once was. And that’s okay. That’s instinct, protection.

But it feels weak.

This is not the first time life has shaken beneath me. It’s not the first time I’ve curled into a protective ball. But it is the first time that–once the noise and chaos and shattering began to subside–I have stood up and assessed the damage. There is a lot. So much work to do, so much to sweep into a pile and see it for what it is: brokenness. And I will; I will do that work. But right now I’m still standing here in the middle of my life, looking around me at the destruction and wondering what really happened.

This is not the first time I’ve wondered that either. But this is the first time that I have leaned into the safety of a community that sees me for who I am, that tells me the truth, that lets me make my own decisions without pressured judgements. This is the first community that hasn’t used me.

So, tonight, though I cannot think of tolerating standing any longer in this mess, and as I curl back into that tight ball of arms and legs and neck, trying to be as close to my self as possible, I don’t feel weak. I feel sad. I feel scared. I feel angry. But I don’t feel weak. I’ve learned what it means to be connected to a community, where strength is shared. And that connection is keenly felt in these small, dark moments of aloneness.

A word on self-doubt.

7 Oct

It’s three in the morning and all I can do to fight this insomnia is to write. Lately, with the beginning of grad school and a new job, with the two-step-forward-one-step-back dance of chronic illness, with the destination of my future in extreme flux, my own internal judge is gripping the gavel. She’s ready to make some noise.

Here, in the unseen hours between sleep and waking, I’m trying to sneak in a few hundred words before they’re sentenced unfit.

Many wise writers have talked about the internal critic, offering up ‘isms worthy of a plaque above my desk. I’ve tried the tricks (hello, sneaky-writing at 3 a.m.). I muttered the mantras (I have something to say, is my current go-to). But I can’t seem to confront the doubt directly. I can’t speak back to the voice that says, “You can’t do this,” because of what it often says next: “You’re not worth this.”

Even now, as I try to face it, I am distracted by this beautifully black night with a lullaby of crickets and the shushing wind just outside my window. The morning moves closer and I reason, trying to understand my own resistance to this idea of value. I add more words to this paragraph, more black symbols to the white expanse. I hear the sound of my breath moving inside me and back out, a deep cello for the violin song of a still night. Where do I fit? What is my role? How can it be that my chosen arrangement of words–right here, right now–could mean anything?

I really don’t know. (It’s good to admit at least one truth in the middle of the night.) And suddenly I’m sleepy.

So–to that judge staring down at me from somewhere deep within, gavel raised, saying, “You’re not worth this”–tonight I say: I don’t know, maybe I am.

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.


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