An Ode to the Frustrations of Writing: a freeform prose poem

I have been working on a piece for a year and a half.

It is a flash nonfiction piece, only about 400 words.

It’s all dialogue, an experiment I decided to do

Because people tell me I’m good at dialogue.

So I thought, What the hey, I’ll do this short piece!

A year and a half later, I’m almost certain this

Experiment has failed.

 

Last year, I started writing an essay about

A guy who panhandled in the subway in NYC.

I finally finished a draft after a whole

9 months.

9 months

It took me to write 1,500 words about

This guy and how he made me never want to give him any money

Because he wasn’t actually poor.

Or maybe he was.

Who am I to judge?

(That’s the theme of the essay, if you were wondering.)

 

So, I’ve submitted the second essay to three outlets,

Christian ones, because I decided to take that bent.

All three said it will take between 4 weeks and

Eternity

To find out if they like my idea.

 

And I’m still working on that short piece

The 400 word one I’ve been toiling at for

A year and a half

The experiment that has obviously failed.

But I can’t put it aside

Can’t throw it away.

That year and a half is sunk cost

But I refuse to let it be refuse.

I will submit it again

And again

And again

And again

And again

Until it gets published.

 

That’s the writer’s way.

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Anna

If you’re in the literary community even tangentially, you’ve probably heard about all the drama with Anna March. Here’s my story:

Anna frequently advertised her services—manuscript consultations, book midwifery, etc.—on a couple of Facebook group for women writers I’m in. She posted in the one for memoirists, as well as the DC women writers’ pages. She posted at least once a month, but probably more. Because of that, I figured everyone in DC had worked with Anna at some point. Writers responded to her posts positively, in the vain of, “Anna was great to work with!” “She was really helpful!” “You’ll love working with Anna!” So, when Anna posted to the group in mid-May saying she had a last-minute cancellation for a manuscript consultation slot in late June, with a corresponding discount ($375 instead of $750), I decided to give her a try with my memoir, which I’d like to be done with and ready to send to agents by the end of the year.

I emailed her to see if the slot was still available, and she said yes. She said she wanted the payment up front. I didn’t see it as anything odd—freelancers have really hard jobs in getting people to pay them on time after they’ve completed the work; I’ve experienced this more than once, so I understood. I paid her. I asked her when she’d like me to send her my manuscript, and she said, Let’s reconnect in June.

On June 15, I emailed her again to see when she’d like to get started. I got a bounceback saying that she was on vacation and spending time with family for her 50th birthday, and would be back online around June 20. By then, I’d gone on vacation abroad, so I figured I’d catch up with her when I got back.

On July 2, I sent another email saying the same thing and got another bounceback, this time saying she was sick, but she was planning to start working again on July 3.

Not wanting to send an email on a holiday, I waited until July 5 to follow up. She didn’t respond.

On July 17, I sent yet another follow up email, asking if she was still available and if she wasn’t, if she could give me a refund. She didn’t respond.

On Monday, July 23, I went on the FB groups and asked if anyone had heard from her or if they had another way of getting in touch with her. Someone suggested calling her, so I tried that. Meanwhile, responses to my post started pouring in: women saying that she’d scammed them out of thousands because she didn’t do the work, women saying she’d been really hard to get in touch with but wound up doing a great job for them, women who’d never had any trouble with her and for whom she’d done a wonderful job.

Which one was I going to be?

When she didn’t respond to my call, I assumed I was in the first bucket. I filed a claim with PayPal requesting a refund.

On Thursday, July 26, the Los Angeles Times ran a massive story titled, “Who is Anna March?” The story graphics allowed the title to change to, “Who is Nancy Lott?” “Who is Nancy Kruse?” “Who is Delaney Anderson?”

It turned out that “Anna” had a number of aliases. Under another name as a “fundraising consultant,” she’d scammed multiple public radio stations out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then she started preying on writers. She started a magazine and failed to pay the columnists. She started a foundation and failed to pay out the award money. She started writing retreats, some of which she cancelled and didn’t give refunds. She started the freelancing business I signed up for and kept her performance hit or miss.

On the FB group, what seemed like hundreds of women then shared their stories of how she scammed them. I felt terrible for them, especially those who lost way more than the $375 I lost. But I was infuriated because NO ONE HAD SAID ANYTHING NEGATIVE ABOUT HER. No one had warned us against her. Our FB group is a fairly tight community; many of us know each other in real life, too. I could not figure out why no one had said anything, even the smallest response to one of her ads, “You know, Anna didn’t do great for me, so definitely ask for references.”

I’m not blaming the people in the group for me falling for Anna’s scam. But I am calling for people to be more transparent—when you see something, say something, as they say in the Metro.

After all that, I called American Express and explained to them to the best of my ability everything that went on. They opened an investigation and credited me my money back, so that’s a positive.

I also reached out on another FB group to ask for recommendations for another manuscript consultant, and a couple of people from the writing community offered to read my work pro bono. I could not be more grateful.

This community means a lot to me as an emerging writer. I run to them for advice about submitting to literary journals, pitching to magazines, and writing a book proposal. I couldn’t help but feel they failed me in some way by not warning me about Anna, though. But you know, people aren’t perfect. Communities are made up of individual people and each one can let you down somehow. I’ve learned from this to do a lot of research—to trust, but also to do research. I pray it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

Happy 2-year Resigniversary to me!

Sunday, July 15, 2018 marked my two-year quittiversary, or two years since I left my job in NYC. Last year, on July 15, I was leaving the VQR Writers’ Conference, feeling more assured of my writing and the amount of progress I’d made in my mental and emotional recovery. This year, on July 15, I was cheering for France to win the Men’s World Cup Final at an Irish pub the middle of a ski resort in California on the last day of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. I started to reflect on the year at the pub, but then got distracted by the win. (Allez le diaspora!)

This year went by much more quickly than the previous. I wonder how much of that is due to my lack of focusing on one specific project this year. By July 2017, I’d finished the first draft of my memoir and had sat in a pool of my own wretched memories for a full year. I took several weeks off to clean my apartment, then we moved into our condo, which I spent a while unpacking and getting settled.

By the fall, I was focusing on revising my memoir and publishing essays, mostly about my terrible work experience. I also interviewed for a job that wound up not working out for me. And then an agent reached out to me; I rammed out another revision of my memoir, sent it to readers, then managed to pull that together over the course of a few months. All the while, I was writing fiction again, getting my feet wet in the genre that made me fall in love with writing from the start.

I’ll admit—I don’t feel as confident as I did a year ago. Despite getting accepted to some really prestigious writing workshops and getting positive feedback on my writing (even getting my first fiction acceptance!), this year, I feel lost. I know where I want to go, or at least I think I do. I toss around in my head options about how I can work full-time and make time for writing, or how I can make money writing. But I haven’t been definitive about any of these things.

This time last year, I was more comfortable with saying, “I want to work full-time, but if I continue writing full-time, that’s okay, too.” I can’t say that anymore, but I don’t have anything to replace it with. And that bothers the rubbish out of me. My therapist recommended that I take some time to think about this—which I interpreted as “use a spreadsheet and a whiteboard to come to some sort of conclusion”—but I haven’t had the mental stamina to do it since Squaw Valley wiped me the eff out and I spent the past week sleeping.

So, I wanted this two-year resignerversary post to be a bit more triumphant, but I thought I should be honest with myself and you. I have no idea with the eff I’m doing. I’m praying for direction, but haven’t gotten it yet. This morning, my devotional included the second half of Romans 8, which I call the “Biblical Pep Rally Chapter.” After reading it, I felt a lot better, assured that God’s got something good for me coming soon. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know what my part is in getting there. So I’ll keep listening, waiting for the answer.

Community of Writers at Squaw Valley Recap

I’m a day late, but hopefully not a dollar short! I got back from the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley on Monday night and spent Tuesday trying to get my life/body together because jetlag is a son of a gun.

The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley is a summer writing workshop located relatively close to Lake Tahoe, on the California side of Nevada, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. To get there, you have to fly into Reno, then drive an hour west. Getting from DC to Reno is a little complicated, so I had to get there the night before; I stayed at the Atlantis Resort Casino and it was *amazing*! Think about everything that made Atlantic City great in the 80s, and it is all housed in this casino in Reno. It’s rated #1 casino, buffet, hotel, and spa in Reno (on TripAdvisor, at least), and it lived up my expectations of chintz.

Anyway, we hit the ground running as soon as we got to Olympic Valley (which is the name of the town; Squaw Valley is the name of the ski resort, and is not to be confused with the Squaw Valley on the other side of California, which is, like, 8,000 degrees hotter).

We started the workshops on Monday morning at 8:30, and had them every day, through Saturday—6 days of workshopping! I saw that I was scheduled to go on Saturday, and was immediately petrified. I was hoping that by the last day, everyone would still be engaged and give me feedback and not just want to go home. Well, it went amazingly well! Someone even called my work “deft,” which I’d Tweeted about wanting someone to call my work! 😀 (At Yale and Squaw Valley, I workshopped chapters of my novel-in-progress, of which I have only two chapters, so it all worked out. I even feel more encouraged to actually finish it!) Dana Johnson led my workshop, and I could not have been more thrilled to get her feedback, which was both positive and helpful.

In the afternoons, there were a series of craft talks that covered a range of topics. My favorites were on writing emotion (the difference between genuine emotion and sentimentality) and point-of-view (how the details of a scene change based on who is telling the story).

There were also great panels in which we got to hear from the renowned faculty. My favorite was “Writing What You (Don’t) Know: The Boundaries of Empathy.” It was essentially about, how do you—or should you—write from the perspective of someone whose life you have never and will never experience? For example, can a man effectively write from the perspective of a man? And more stickily, can a white person effectively write from the perspective of a person of color? The latter question tends to get people a little more riled up, as it should. But ultimately, I agreed with Dana and Oscar Villalon—I can’t tell someone that they can’t write something, especially if it’s fiction, but they should do it well, and treat the characters with the amount of empathy they’d treat any other person: focus on that person’s humanity, which is what we all have in common, and don’t make them caricatures or use them as a doll on which you can enact examples of things.

The faculty readings left me breathless so many times. I mean, all I could say when they finished reading was, “Wow.” I can’t even say which ones were my favorites because everyone was so good. The faculty included lots of people with whom I wasn’t familiar—Tom Barbash, Elizabeth Tallent, Leslie Daniels, Julia Flynn Siler, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Elizabeth Rosner, Sands Hall, Charmaine Craig, Michelle Latiolais, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Edan Lepucki, Edie Meidav, Peter Orner (and I am forgetting some), as well as some names I’ve read or heard a lot about, like Amy Tan, Dana Johnson, and Gabriel Tallent.

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Dana Johnson reading from a new story published in ZZYZVA.

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Margaret Wilkerson Sexton reading from her novel, A New Kind of Freedom.

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Tom Barbash reading from his new novel, The Dakota Winters.

I made so many new friends in my workshop and the other workshops. I liked that we all had dinner together just about every night; it really got me to socialize with those who weren’t in my workshop. The World Cup going on definitely helped this, too—quite a few of us went to the pub together to watch matches, including the final at 8am on Sunday. These are the folks I’m going to put in my acknowledgements when I actually do finish that novel-in-progress, so I’m so honored to have met them and look forward to keep in touch with them all.

They definitely take seriously the word “community” in the Community of Writers. It did feel a little hippie-dippy at times (but I think that’s because the family that founded it are artists/free spirits, which I loved), but it felt authentic. I genuinely feel a part of this community, where my writing was embraced and where I met so many amazing folks.

Not everything about the experience was perfect. Having a new workshop leader every day was kind of disorienting, and there were aspects of the week that felt disorganized, like not getting the pieces to be workshopped in advance (which meant staying up late or waking up early to read them, which made me feel like I couldn’t give my best feedback). But, overall, I had a wonderful time, and I would definitely go back again.

Writing Life Update: Summer 2018

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It’s really sunny and really dry here!

Hello from Squaw Valley, California! I’m incredibly honored to have been selected to attend a fiction workshop at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. I got here on Sunday, after spending the night at a casino resort in Reno (which was 80s Casino Chintz Fabulous, but I lost $20 between one hand of Blackjack and one slot machine, so am kinda salty), and am excited to keep the week moving! I’ll give you a full report about this week once it’s over, but I wanted to briefly update you on some developments in my writing life.

While I was on vacation in Belgium, I received two pieces of great news: first, a well-respected DC-area literary magazine editor is strongly considering one of my short stories for inclusion in an upcoming issue! We’ll see what the final result is, but I’m just honored to have been so thoughtfully considered.

Second, also while I was on vacation, my first piece of fiction was accepted to a literary magazine!!! I was inspired to write this story after watching an episode of House Hunters International in which a girl moves to Germany to live with her “boyfriend,” some kid she obviously didn’t know all that well. So I asked myself, in what ways is this going to go terribly wrong after this episode ends? And, what if she were Black? I can’t say it was as simple as, “Then a story popped out.” It took months to draft, revise, edit, have friends read, workshop in a class, and all. But now it’s going to be published toward the end of the year, and I am ecstatic!!!!

Another development is, I finally, officially made up my mind not to pursue an MFA (at least for now). I realized that all I want is instruction and community, which I’ve been so blessed to receive from great women writers in DC as well as from all of the amazing conferences I’ve been to. I’ve built a team that keeps me accountable and keeps honing my skills, which is really what I would have been interested in a degree program for. So, I shall keep trying to go to these great workshops and keep in touch with the awesome writers I meet there, so iron can continue to sharpen iron.

Otherwise, I’ve got Bread Loaf next month, about which I am thrilled. It’ll be my only nonfiction workshop this summer, and I need that—I haven’t neglected my memoir (I completed a draft of my proposal and all) and I’ve enjoyed the time away from telling so much truth, but I realize that nonfiction is the area in which I feel less confident in my writing. I’ve been writing fiction for 20 years and nonfiction for two. That explains, mostly, but additional instruction will help trim down the learning curve, hopefully.

I should get back to my workshops, but keep me in your thoughts/prayers! I’ve got a lot going on and I want to maintain good vibes during all of it. 🙂

Recap: My trip to Belgium and France

My spouse’s friend was getting married in France on a Wednesday, so he wanted to have his bachelor party the weekend before with all the guys in Amsterdam. I love my spouse’s friends and think they’re great guys, but there was no way in hell I was going to go anywhere near Amsterdam during a bachelor party. So, I arranged to go to Brussels, Belgium.

I had all of one week between Yale Writers Workshop and my trip to Europe, which meant I didn’t really have time to research what all I wanted to do before I got there, so I kinda had to wing it. Which, if you know me well, you know is not my thing. But everything turned out great!

I arrived on a Thursday evening, and since the sun doesn’t really ever set in Europe in the summer (not until at least 11pm), I took a walk through Leopold Park, which right behind my hotel. It reminded me a little of parts of Central Park, especially with the tall apartment building peeking out behind some trees. Brussels is the capital of the European Union, so it didn’t surprise me that it was so stately and cosmopolitan while also being pretty tranquil.

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Leopold Park

The next day, I walked to the Grand Palais and hit up the Old Masters in the Royal Museums of Fine Art. Since I took an art history class my sophomore year of college, where I first learned about art, I’ve made it a goal to seek out the paintings, especially, of wherever I go. Belgium/Flanders happened to be the home of quite a few huge artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens, who—much to my surprise—even painted a Black man (which was not included in my art history slides, of course).

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“Four Studies of the Head of a Moor” by Peter Paul Rubens, in the Old Masters Museum

I wandered around to some of the touristy things, like the Mannequin Pis, but overall, I walked the city, just to get a feel for it. I window shopped along Rue Antoine Dansaert, where all the boutiques are, and managed to make it through most of Rue Neuve, where the big mall is. I have never seen a street so crowded by shoppers, even in Times Square.

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The Mannequin Pis — as touristy as Brussels gets!

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People spending mad € on Rue Neuve in Brussels.

On my last full day in Belgium, I took the train to Bruges, the most adorable, and maybe oldest, town I’ve ever seen. It’s a little medieval city founded by Vikings around the 9th century.

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A side street in Bruges.

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Entering the town center.

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The canal in Bruges

I met up with Rustin in France, and the day before the wedding, we drove out to Mont Saint Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was speechless when I saw it—a city carved out of a mountain in the middle of a bay. (It was low tide when we went so it was mostly wet sand around it; I thought it was global warming, so I was glad to learn that I was wrong.) We went to the top of the Abbey, maybe one of the highest heights I’ve ever been to. It’s just so, I don’t know, amazing (?) to think about monks creating this breathtaking piece of dirt and turning it into a fortress and house of worship (which was subsequently turned into a prison, then a historical site, but that’s neither here nor there).

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Us with Mont Saint Michel.

The wedding was one of the most fun I’ve been to, but we were definitely pleasantly exhausted by the end of the week. Some of the guys went on to other cities in Europe, but I didn’t see how; I just wanted to go home and go to bed.

I should note to clarify that, yes, I traveled to Belgium alone. I don’t tell my mom about it because it would give her a heart attack, but I love traveling alone. You don’t have to ask anyone else what they’d like for breakfast or lunch or dinner. You don’t have to come to a consensus about any museums you want to visit. You just decide what you want to do, then you go. I’m not saying I’ll only ever travel alone; I married my spouse partly because I enjoy his company, though traveling abroad is usually the only time we ever have disagreements (like, one of us wants to get directions while the other wants to just wing it down dark alleys while walking at a snail’s pace—guess which one I am. Not the one who wants to wing it.)

But traveling alone reminds me that I am capable of solving problems on my own. I am smart about it—I’m not going to be the one who goes trekking through the Himalayas or in a third world country by herself. But seeing new things on my own makes me feel bold, competent, and confident. It’s good for my soul. It gives me something to talk to my spouse about. I highly recommend it to everyone. Don’t be scared! You’re no safer at home than you are anywhere else, so might as well go see this beautiful world God’s created.

Yale Writers’ Workshop Recap

After two weeks away, I’m back in DC and back to blogging! I spent ~12 wonderful days in New Haven, CT at the Yale Writers’ Workshop, where I had an amazing time.

YWW splits its workshop into two sessions. For Session 1, my instructor was Lisa Page, a splendid English professor at George Washington University (yes, I went all the way to Connecticut to work with someone who works down the street from my house. Life just be’s that way sometimes). To be honest, I wasn’t super-familiar with Lisa’s work, but I just had a good feeling about her, that she would be a good teacher and a strong workshop facilitator. I was totally right on both fronts. I got great feedback on a short story I wrote for fiction class last year that I decided to dust off. I’ll start doing revisions on it soon, then it’ll be ready to submit.

Session 1 also included a panel with a few literary magazine editors. Reps from PANK, The Common, and Bodega told us about what they look for in submissions and if they pay or not (most journals don’t, unfortunately. I guess that’s the plight of the artist? Either way, explains why I’m looking for a job now.) We also got to do sort of a speed-dating session with them to ask them additional questions after the panel.

One topic I broached is that experimental (which is apparently a bad word these days) fiction seems to be all the rage—weird sh*t is the easiest to find in lit mags. Unfortunately for me, I write super normal sh*t—stuff about family and relationships and friendships, mostly all enacted by super-ordinary Black people. My work isn’t boring, it just isn’t weird, and I’m finding that it’s been difficult to place my work. One of the editors agreed with me—there’s so many markets for weird stuff that they wind up having to publish normal stuff, because there’s just not enough weird to go around. Which made me feel better, I guess. I’ll feel even better if they actually publish some of my work…

For Session 2, I had Julie Buntin as a workshop leader, and she was also amazing. I was surprised to learn that she’s younger than me, mostly because she is super-mature and wise beyond her years. Her novel, Marlena, was a total hit last year and won all kinds of awards. I read it before I went to CT, and I adored the writing, though the plot was kind of a downer.

Session 2’s workshops were more focused, on genre or something else; Julie’s class focused on the first 10 pages of a novel, so I workshopped, well, the first 10 pages of my novel. (Have I mentioned that I’m writing a novel? Maybe I have… I can’t remember. But, yeah, I’ve started a novel! It’s essentially about a family that reunites after a funeral, and it explores the discomfort that sits at the intersection of race and class. [Much of my fiction is about this of late.] While I was in CT, I got a Zipcar and went to Madison, where the fictionalized setting of the action takes place.)

It was incredibly helpful for me to think about being so intentional as a writer. Sure, in the first draft, you just get it all down on paper, but it’s the revision and shaping up that really matters. I knew that before YWW, but it hadn’t really solidified for me until then: workshopping the first 10 pages of a novel I haven’t finished writing (I just finished chapter 2) really made me wonder why I’m writing it and what I want to say, which is elementary but monumental for a writer to establish so early on.

I also got a big confidence booster—for Session 1, some of the other participants in my class hadn’t written fiction before, so I sort of automatically took the seat of expert, which felt great. I still learned a lot, but also felt better about what I already knew.

There were, of course, readings out the wazoo! Each faculty member, plus Porochista Khakpour (pictured above), who was going to be on staff, but was ill and starting her book tour, read and they were all incredible:

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My session 1 instructor Lisa Page reading from the anthology she edited, “We Wear the Mask.”

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My session 2 instructor Julie Buntin reading from her novel, Marlena.

There were a couple of blunders—a young white woman telling me my hometown, Camden, NJ, was terrifying; an older white man reading his first-person account of a slave woman being separated from her baby, with superfluous dialect, racial slurs, and all, then asking me the next day how I felt about it as “the only Black person in the room”; me telling Hallie Ephron that I loved her essay, then her saying she didn’t write essays, then me getting embarrassed, then me realizing a week later that she was the correct sister and I got embarrassed for no reason—but overall, I had a great time.

I don’t know if I’d go to YWW again since the demographic wasn’t all that diverse in terms of ethnicity or age (this conference inclined older and whiter), but I really enjoyed myself and was honored to have been selected to go.

A year ago today, I was at VONA, in the throes of a life-changing, soul-nourishing experience. I know I can’t expect all summer writing workshops to be like that, so I’m tempering my expectations. I’m just blessed that I’ve gotten to go to so many of these, to have gotten to know so many great people, and to have become a better writer, step by step, day by day.

Summer Writing Workshops: Sleepaway Camp for Adults

In all my years, I have never been to camp. I always wanted to go so badly, though! Who wouldn’t, after watching Salute Your Shorts or The Parent Trap (1998) or Bug Juice???

As an adult, I’ve chosen to make up for those camp-less years by going to summer writing workshops and residencies because they’re just like camp! Sorta… I mean, you wear t-shirts and shorts, and there’s usually some weird songs and dances, and you make lifelong friends doing the thing you all love to do—writing.

If there’s one thing I learned from all these camp shows, it’s that community (and true love) is found in these solitary places where you’re separated from your family and “real” friends. For me, the goals of summer writing workshops are (a) to become a better writer through the lectures and exercises given by great instructors and (b) meet writers with whom I can continue to exchange work. As I said in one of my applications, writing is a solitary activity that requires a village, both editors and readers. Summer workshops allow you to do all of those things while removing you from your comfort zone and letting you get a bit silly. (I missed the boat on the true love thing at camp, though, but I’m good to go in that area, anyhow.)

Last year, I went to VONA/Voices in Philadelphia and had an AMAZING time, and then I went to the VQR Writers Conference (picture of some of us above!) in Charlottesville and also had a life-changing experience. I chose those conferences for their prestige, but mostly for their locations—it’s pretty easy to get to Philly and Charlottesville from DC.

This year, I approached my conference applications a little differently. Essentially, I thought, I will go big or go home, even if it meant traveling pretty far.

Sooooo [DRUMROLL, PLEASE], this year, I’m pleased to announce that I will be going to three conferences: the Yale Writers’ Workshop, the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference!

I thought I had a good chance of getting into Yale, but Squaw Valley and Bread Loaf were total “let’s get the first rejection out of the way, just like Tin House.” (And yes, I was rejected from Tin House. But that’s okay!) If I had to rank summer writing workshops, I’d put Sewanee at the top, then Bread Loaf, then Tin House, then Squaw Valley—and I’m going to number 2 and 4! I was and am so honored that I was selected, I hardly know what to do with myself!

Yale starts next week, so I’m excited to head up to New Haven to work with Lisa Page and Julie Buntin on fiction and novel writing. I’ll also be focusing on fiction at Squaw Valley (hopefully with Dana Johnson), then switching up to nonfiction (hopefully with Emily Raboteau) for Bread Loaf.

I’m so thrilled to get this summer started! It will be a lot of travel and time spent away from my spouse, but camp is an investment in your social skills, leadership skills, and talents, so the world is better off for it. Can’t wait!

 

 

3 Days After My Wedding, or The Worst Day of My Life

In addition to my wedding anniversary, this time of year is special to me because, on this day six years ago, I lost someone incredibly special to me, my dear friend Jessica Caroe.

Jessica and I were BFFs in college, and spent the summer of 2005 living in group house together out in Maryland while we were interning in DC. She’d transferred to Georgetown from a small Southern school, and we met in Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship.

We realized we were kindred spirits for what’s probably a terrible reason—we were *those* Christian girls, the ones who could party hard on Saturday night, into the wee hours of Sunday morning, but still get up to be on time (or close to it) for church and not fall asleep during the sermon. Sure, we likely should have made some better choices, but I don’t regret a single thing we did because it taught me that self-righteousness—like that of some of our classmates who literally frowned upon people who went to parties, as if making someone feel bad about dancing and underaged drinking made Jesus smile—saves no one. It actually pushes people away from Christ. So, we were Christ Ambassadors (which is what Chi Alpha stood for) on the dancefloor of college parties throughout Georgetown. Amen!

I jest, but what I’m saying is, Jessica taught me about authenticity—what it meant to be unashamed and unafraid to be yourself, even when others are telling you that you should be something else, something they want you to be.

I always said with us being so much ourselves, it’d take strong men to handle us. God blessed us both with those strong men, Rustin for me and Robert for her.

At my wedding reception, where I’d made a joke about letting Robert come to the wedding as an investment in their future and Jessica called me her best friend, Robert pulled me aside and said that he was going to propose to her on Monday. I was thrilled! He showed me the ring on his phone, and I knew she would love it.

He did propose on Monday, and she said yes. They died the next day. I didn’t find out about it until Thursday, when I went on Facebook to see why on earth she hadn’t told me she was engaged; Robert didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would chicken out.

To say I was devastated is the smallest use of that word, ever. To say I could hardly get out of bed for days also doesn’t quite capture how I felt. To say I didn’t genuinely smile for a year still doesn’t do it justice.

Jessica dying was literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, worse than being abandoned by my father even, because it is the only thing that has ever made me question the existence and goodness of God. Crying out to a deity you think has dropped a very important ball is extremely difficult. Of course, I still went to church, still prayed, still went through the motions, faking it until I made it. God had nothing to prove to me; it just took a while for my brain to catch up to the re-revelation of His character.

My first year of marriage turned out to be quite a doozy since I wasn’t all there mentally and emotionally. I had to go back for my second year of business school and remember why I was there. By the time I moved to New York a year later, I felt some better, well though to start writing down some of our memories. That’s what got me started writing nonfiction, actually.

Losing Jessica is still the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it’s turned out for good in a lot of different ways. It made me take my marriage much more seriously since “for worse” came only three days after we made our vows. It made me take on leadership roles in school and work because I knew it’s what she would have done. It made me write memoir, so I wouldn’t have written my story about my dad if she hadn’t passed and I hadn’t started writing our stories. I wouldn’t have left my job and started writing seriously while still wanting to make in-roads for minorities and women in finance. And that’s just me; it doesn’t include the scholarships that have been founded in her name, the tree that was planted on the grounds of Duke University (where she was going to business school) in her memorial, and other ways I don’t even know about.

I sometimes contemplate finishing writing our stories, but six years later, it’s still a bit too painful. (I say this as her friend, not even her family member, so I can’t imagine their pain.) I haven’t actually cried while writing this blogpost, but I’ve come soooo close, and I’ve kept a distance between my head and my fingers to keep from coming unglued in a public place. She meant that much, that even after all this, it’s still raw to go there.

I miss my friend more than anything, but I’m thinking of their families today. I pray for her family and Robert’s, that God will continue to show His goodness and grace to them, and that they not forget that He’s never forgotten them. As hard as it is to believe.

Why I Don’t Call Him My Husband

This time of year is special for me for a couple of reasons, one of them being the celebration of mothers (and calm down, I have birthed nothing but stories) and another being my wedding anniversary this Saturday! (And cheers to Meghan and Harry the same day!)

It’s been six strange and happy years I’ve spent with this dude named Rustin, who’ve probably read about many times on this blog. You’ve probably also noticed that I generally refer to him as my “spouse,” and rarely ever my “husband.” I’ve addressed him this way in just enough essays that just enough editors have corrected it, so I thought I would tell you why I call him my “spouse.”

Growing up, I knew lots of women who were single for longer than they wanted to be and were, therefore, overjoyed when they finally got married. These women called the men their “huuuuusbands.” They always, ALWAYS dragged out the “u.” It was as if the title “husband” somehow venerated both them and the men they’d chosen and they needed to stress its importance.

The problem was, they had always, ALWAYS chosen horrible men. The men almost always—and we’re talking a good 99.8%—turned out to be controlling, manipulative, unfaithful liars, or some combination of the such.

I felt bad for these women not just because their relationships went to piss, but because they’d set themselves up for failure. By calling them their “huuuuuusbands,” they’d heralded these men and their marriages as if they were the greatest things since sliced bread, as if they were impenetrable, as if their love could never fail.

But they weren’t and it did.

I wasn’t turned off of marriage because of these women (I was turned off of it because of the men, but that’s a separate blog post; actually, that’s the topic of my second memoir), I just learned that I wanted to do things differently.

I decided that I would look at and treat the man I married as the person he was—a completely fallible human who is completely capable of letting me down at some point. I would speak highly of him, but I would also mention his flaws. I would let people know that my marriage was realistic, not some blissful train ride through the Swiss Alps.

I would call him my “spouse.”

“Spouse” is legally correct (so is “husband,” I know, but stay with me) and sounds completely objective. It gives me and those listening to me the space to judge him for who he is, not who I want him to be. It helps me to not jinx things.

“Spouse” reminds me that he is a human—a good human, without a doubt—but a human. A human who has made me and my life better, but still a human. A human I look forward to spending the rest of my days with, this attractive human I enjoy looking at.

You could say I give myself this distance out of fear, and there may be some truth to that. But I know that he and I are happier when I have my feet on the ground, managing my emotions and expectations, even if I call him something that’s kinda weird.

So, happy anniversary to us this weekend! May many more years of weird be to come!