Fluidity

I was camping last week in the glorious San Juan Islands and realized I wouldn’t be able to finish my regular Free Write Friday post since I was, blessedly, without any WiFi connection or phone reception for several days. Our family returned late Sunday night and, after four days of swimming, kayaking, exploring and sitting around the campfire, I also realized that mountains of laundry and back-to-school prep would take precedence over my usual Narrative Medicine Monday post. So I’m letting these goals lapse, like my hope to read any of my book club book (The Glass Castle, in case you were wondering) this past weekend. 

I’m approaching a year of blogging and initially chose a biweekly schedule of narrative medicine and free write posts somewhat arbitrarily, knowing that it would keep me accountable to have a set schedule. It’s been good for my writing and my overall well-being to write regularly and press publish even when my work isn’t completely polished. At this juncture, I’m giving myself a pass to forego a post here and there when on vacation or at a conference or finishing another piece of work. 

This fall I’ve signed up to take a poetry course and I’m actively pursuing a home for my nonfiction book. Blogging has been a salve, a selfish pursuit of craft and vulnerability. I’m not looking to give it up, but I am ready to give it more fluidity. 

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Free Write Friday: Candy


Her favorites were just candy canes, really, root beer and cherry, ribbon of contrasting color twirled around the candy stick. She liked how they were organized by flavor into sturdy glass jars, fanned out, as if leaning, calling to a child’s eager hand. She’d struggle with the wrapper, ask a parent for help. She was the type of child to keep the wrapper on, roll it down slowly, avoid sticky fingers and prolong the treat by keeping it intact. She never bit into a Tootsie Pop until the last minute, resisting the final satisfaction of the chocolatey core. 

She liked Smarties, similar to Sweet Tarts. Smooth discs of sugar cradled on her tongue, easy to savor incognito. She could keep a roll in her pocket, swing across the monkey bars and pop another in her mouth. Portable and practical. Anything gummy was appealing too: severing bear’s heads with her tiny teeth, the novelty of a cola flavor in chewy candy form. 

On Halloween she’d sort her sweet lot, save the best for last. Some years she waited too long, and the prized candy bar would be lost or forgotten. She was good at self-discipline, sometimes to a painful fault. Her best friend’s mother rationed their Halloween candy, doling out one treat a week. It lasted her well into the other holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas peppered with the distant memory of a costumed past. 

She never liked Snickers, any nutty interruption to the palate seemed intrusive, unwelcome when enjoying a sweet. Instead, she preferred caramel, coconut. Almond Joy and Mounds, 100 Grand and Three Musketeers. She knew this wasn’t a popular opinion, that she should prefer Snickers like all the rest. 

She watched Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory in awe, wanted to float via Fizzy Lifting Drinks with Grandpa Joe, savor an Everlasting Gobstopper, dance with the Oompa Loompas, search for a golden ticket with the rest of the world. Years later, she’d visit Harrods’ shiny Candy Store in downtown London, stroll through the sleek abundance of Disneyland’s Main Street Candy Palace. Even as an adult, she’d savor the innocence in indulgence of pure sweetness, find comfort in an overwhelm of treats in a world that often runs sour. 

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Free Write Friday: Camping


We move by the light of the skies. Time untethered to seconds, minutes, hours. 

Shadows cast onto nylon tents, faded grays and greens meant to blend into earthy surroundings. Toothpicks of trees stretch heavenward, branches and bark punctuating a pale sky. Bikes laid flat on their sides, like fallen dominoes, line the campsite. Brightly colored helmets are scattered asunder. 

They grab their bikes and pump legs up the hill to the playground nestled in the trees. They twirl and slide, climb and spin, dust rising underfoot. Teeth bared, faces upturned with glee, taut with playful exertion.

They return to home base, tumble in the dust, twist in the hammock, balance on the yellow slack line situated between two sturdy tree trunks. Footprints of sneakers and toddler Crocs pepper the campsite. Dirty feet, caked with dust, the reminder of an earth long forgotten by more bourgeois days spent indoors: at school, at work, at homes walled off from such grime. Here, we can’t get our feet clean, no matter a 3 minute token shower, no matter a towel wiping down, no matter a dip in the cold ringing canal, uneven stones and oyster shells underfoot. Still the dark mark of filth between toes marks us. 

Down at the water they zig-zag across the rocky beach, search for colorful stones, treasures of abandoned sea creature skeletons, slimy seaweed. Our backs align straight in the kayak as we glide through the seafoam green toward the hazy hills beyond. A little one dips an appendage or two in the water, leaning from the front unexpectedly as I struggle to stay balanced and centered on the stand up paddle board. 

A burn ban has a dampening effect; we gather around the citronella candle as the skylight fades, skin graying to ashen. Headlamps alight, artificial and glaring. Canvas camp chairs unfold around the would-be campfire. It’s too dark and we succumb to the arc of the heavenly bodies, one seceding as the other takes reign in the sky. 

Camping is a children’s glory: timetable discarded, dirt embraced, leisure activities and food prevail unencumbered. They chase each other through the brambles, swing gleeful in the hammock, unearth large stones to discover tiny crabs frittering sideways, eager to find a new hiding place. Grime accumulates under their fingernails like dust clinging to the mantle at home. It marks them unconcerned, free from the shackles of the modern urban childhood of after school activities and rationed screen time. 

We wake to birds rustling, charcoal light reversing gray to green to sky. I arise despite myself, soak in the soreness of my bones. The light, the earthen air call me to get up, get out, move myself into the surroundings I was meant to inhabit.

We move by the light of the skies. Time untethered to seconds, minutes, hours. 

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The Summer Day


I’m camping with family today so taking a hiatus from Narrative Medicine Monday. Instead, enjoy this classic poem by Mary Oliver. May you be “idle and blessed” this summer day.

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Free Write Friday: Jewelry Box


On her tiptoes, she sneaks, carefully slides open the tiny drawers of her mother’s bedroom armoire one by one. A musty wave rushes toward her tiny nostrils, itching at excitement of fanciful objects just within reach. Each item considered carefully, she knows her favorites. 

She likes the amber shine of a pendant necklace, smooth oval jewel in her tiny hand, silver links slipped over her neck. The scarves slide through her fingers, smooth as the silken tofu her father slurps with his morning miso soup. A similar disjointed juxtaposition, her own squat neck against the designer scarves, printed floral, geometric navy and regal red. The clip-on earrings hang heavy on her tiny lobes, faux jewels shine just as bright as the real thing to her undiscerning eye. She is suddenly transformed: bejeweled, an empress, a queen. 

She wonders why her mother never adorns herself, with all these treasures at her disposal. If it were her (it will be her) she’d drape herself in accoutrements, dazzle with accessories daily.

Years later though, despite an endless array of accessory options, she wears minimal makeup, stud earrings, her wedding ring only most days. She inherits her mother’s designer scarves, her grandmother’s antique beaded purses. But, like her own mother, she learns to cultivate other treasures, she finds different priorities in her daily routine. 

She looks at her own young daughter and wonders: why the obsession with adornment, with makeup, with appearance? Her daughter watches in amazement as she puts on mascara, mimics her intently as she applies blush, begs to wear a shiny statement necklace around the house, strutting in her plastic high heels. 

Maybe we all want to appear to be more than we are sometimes, live into our imaginations. Maybe it’s okay, even necessary, to try on different, more glamorous selves. Maybe that’s part of growing into, and revealing, who we really are.

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Free Write Friday: Lockers

You have nightmares about lockers. Narrow gray sheets of metal from ceiling to floor, endless rows line the halls. You circle the maze of corridors. You’re turned around, pressured, panicked, late. You can’t find it at first, the one that belongs to you. You pause at one, then the other: all wrong, all empty. 

Others watch you, they laugh. Or, worse yet, they ignore you. You’re insignificant. If you finally find what you’re looking for, it’s shut, impenetrable. You spin the lock to the right, to the left, to the right again. The white notches of the knob blur and you realize your numbers are wrong, it’s all wrong. 

Something’s off, you can’t remember. You missed whole assignments, entire courses, a full year of your life passed by all wrong; you forgot to pay attention. You rush for help, but it’s no use. You can’t recall time and now it’s too late. You won’t resign yourself to fate, so instead you struggle. You keep spinning the lock back and forth, back and forth until it clicks open. But it doesn’t matter now. Instead of relief you feel grave, an ominous weight when you unlock what you’re looking for. The moment, the urgency, the purpose, it’s passed you by. 

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Free Write Friday: Track


On rainy days they start in the smaller gym behind the high school, line up on the basketball court for drills: high knees, butt kickers. They stretch into a runner’s lunge as sweat beads inside their hooded polyester tracksuits. 

She heads out with the sprinters for a warm-up run, worn sneakers pounding on the asphalt. Up the street, past the 7-Eleven, winding through trails on the office business complex, then back to the track, powder blue with white accents, modeled after school colors. 

They run drills, the sprint coach standing on the football turf, stopwatch in hand. He shouts instructions, encouragement, critique of form. They stretch and socialize in between. She watches the teenage boys, tries to be nonchalant. Their skin is greasy, awkward bodies too short or too thin. The stench of dysregulated pubescent odor is far enough away to still render them somewhat appealing to her adolescent eye.

On meet days, her stomach churns, she hardly eats. She forces bites of bagels and grocery store fried chicken (someone told her chicken was good: protein) and Power Bars. Sips of Gatorade colored unnaturally green, blue, red make her feel athletic and replenished. Unfortunately, her events are always near the end of the meet. She has to wait in gastrointestinal distress, rushing to and from the bathroom, for the 400 meter dash, the 4 x 400 meter relay. 

Finally her turn, she strolls out to the starting blocks, placed with the stands mercifully behind her. She sets them up to her specifications, right foot back, left foot forward. She checks her spiked shoes, slim white with a neon green detailing and magenta Nike swoop. Her wide feet and long toes always feel overly compressed in the racing shoes, like she is trying to squeeze herself into something that doesn’t quite fit.

The gun sounds and she’s off, pumping arms, cycling legs. She’s ahead going into the first straight away. But they’re staggered, it’s deceiving. She never was good at pacing without someone in front to follow. She always goes out too hard, too fast. She sees opponents emerge from behind her: one, two, three. Heading into the second curve she begins to hear the crowd, their voices register in her ears as one dull roar. As if surfacing from underwater, the wave of sound is suddenly upon her, the cheers. 

Sometimes her dad stands small at the chain link fence, right before the final straight away shouting, “C’mon! C’mon!” She hears his words echo in her head as the lactic acid takes over, rounding the final curve. From behind more emerge: one, two. She slows. Out too fast again, there’s just nothing left to give. 

She keeps moving, somehow, to the finish line, crosses over without her legs giving way. She leans forward, hands on knees, lungs burning, legs screaming with fatigue. The release then comes, a dissolution of tension as the stress, now behind her, lifts. She always thinks after: I could have run faster, could have tried harder, could have given more. 

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Free Write Friday: Pool

2017

I hold her squirming, slippery toddler thighs, evasive like slick eels. She clomps her feet down, uneasy steps in the little pool, even with the extra buoyancy of the chlorinated water. She likes to open her mouth, like a great whale, letting the pool seep in, then out through her widely spaced teeth, two on top, two on bottom. She, surprisingly, exults in going under, seems to fall purposely: Oops! Silly me! Throwing her head back, eyes squeezed tight shut as she leads with her upturned chin, mouth open, nostrils flared, beckoning the water toward her until she is fully immersed, sinking, trusting that I’ll catch her, lift her upright to breathe clear air. As she emerges, a look of unadulterated glee followed by just the faintest hint of melancholy. A mermaid she wishes she could be.

1990

She is so thin and graceful, wearing an electric blue bikini, mousy hair. I’m surprised when she approaches me poolside. Overweight and awkward, I wear my pudginess like armor; it keeps me humble, it keeps me introverted. I long to be charming, liked. Don’t we all at this preteen age? (At every age.) I can’t believe it: friends with me? She’s inquisitive, chatty, polished. I feel more elegant just being near her. It is revealed eventually, this is the truth: I am just a means to her end, a conduit for connection to my tall, older brother. He has reached the golden age: past gangliness, past acne, post-braces. I’m in awe of him too. 

1983

I’m learning to swim in the side pool, previously a hot tub but converted to what we call “the baby pool.” A bridge of dark brown tiles, just an inch under the surface, divides the tiny pool from the larger. Like a stumpy appendage, a bleb of an outgrowth, the small pool protrudes. The older kids like to coast back and forth on their tummies, sliding like monk seals. I can barely touch the bottom, on my tippy toes I bounce along, suspended for just a moment, like a moonwalking astronaut. A perimeter ledge for seating, I leap from side to side arms outstretched with orange inflated “muscles,” skinny legs flailing behind me. Sometimes I sink under with the effort, sour liquid up my nostrils, eyes stinging from chlorine. I grab the a handhold of smooth tile, turn, and try again.

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Free Write Friday: Cliff

Note: This week I’m trying something new with the free write – a prose poem incorporating synesthesia. I was inspired by a Till writing workshop I recently attended, presented by poet Jane Wong. As always, feel free to use the photo above as a prompt for your own free write. Consider joining me in experimenting with an unfamiliar format this week. 

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Crackling of palm tree, fronds brushing carmine in the breeze. Squawk and tweet of birdsong, just beyond ear’s reach, punctuating high above. The turquoise wash of crashing waves below, colliding onto ebony rocks stoic as the spray recoils, resorbed by the expanse. Memories of jumping off, sound muffled, then expanding beyond into the greater sea. I climb the cliff, handholds of familiar crevices. I swim into the current, decades of tracing the reef map a mind’s fingerprint of coral phalanges. Thick blades of grass underfoot infuse the yellow taste of papaya. Nenes swoop in, then saunter through air thick with humidity. Specks of snorkelers flap fins, return to lie beached, their skin leathered like dragon fruit. Cloud shadows caress the ridged mountains, marking them like a bruise, feeding them with rain. One drop, then two trickles. The sea turtles gulp the air then dive into dry sweetness. They disappear but I never saw them, only heard shells cracking from a memory decades old. Momentary waft of plumeria, ginger, coconut, lilikoi, banana leaves suspends in the air just long enough for it to roll on my tongue, breathe into my lungs, absorb through my skin leaving an imprint, marking me home. 

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