Tag Archives: writing

Calling 2008

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The Kindle version of my memoir, Pieces of Someday, is free on Amazon through Nov. 5, 2014. Please download it by clicking the link to the right and tell your friends about it!  I’d love to give away as many copies as I can, and I hope you enjoy it.  If you do, please write an Amazon review.   

The following is the opening section:

What am I doing here this morning, sitting in a church when it’s not Christmas? Sunlit clouds, breeze tinged warm, pink clematis scent—I should be out in my garden. For twenty years I’ve driven by this place, felt the pull of its wine brick walls and copper steeple. Cornerstoned when my grandparents boarded steamships from Palermo, this Seattle landmark never called me in until this moment. Possibly its name has been the dissuasion—Blessed Sacrament— saccharine as raindrops on roses. Or maybe I still don’t understand what a blessed sacrament is.

I survey the strangers gathered in the pews—the quartet of moonfaced girls sitting to my right, their University of Washington sweatshirts nubby, needing bleach. They whisper, nod, and smile— smooth skin, glossy hair, teeth straight and white. To my left is a gray- haired woman in a hand-me-down cap. It’s crocheted, studded with buttons—S’ mores Not Wars, Hope Obama ’08. Crinkly eyes, liver- spotted cheeks, whisker-stubbled chin, she’s transfixed by something on the altar. Jesus crucified? Must be. For here, except for the icons, there’s a howling scarcity of men. Only Saints Dominic, Jude, Thomas, and Francis stand niched and polished around us. They watch in mahogany silence, this nave of waiting women, this raftered ark with its faint incense smell.

The walk from my house to this church took less time than I’d imagined, past Cowan Park, the student rentals reeking weed, Pierced Hearts Tattoo, the Wayward’s coffee cloud. Past the bungalow with the big magnolia and the homeless teen crouched in the doorway of the bar who reached his palm out to me, cut my core with steel-gray eyes. If I’d had the courage of a year ago, I would have stopped before him. I would have taken him by the hand. I would have pulled him to his feet and urged him to come along, for it’s the church’s Called and Gifted Workshop that’s drawn me. My kids are grown, away at college, last June I lost my job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, three decades of résumé be damned. Is this what middle age means? Superfluous, obsolete? Which is why I left the boy behind. The blind leading the blind.

The last time I heard about callings, I was probably twelve years old. Every Wednesday afternoon, Teresa Giordano and I left public school early to go to Catechism on a church bus. I was embarrassed by the attention this practice garnered at our mostly Jewish junior high, but also grateful that at least at Saint Christopher’s, I was counted among the flock. I remember the day Sister Agnes chalked vocation on the blackboard, her sprawling, spidery script, her rosary-crucifix-swinging habit hip. She explained that vocation was a calling, the work God created us to do. Each of us would have one, each would be unique, and God would give us the necessary talents—gifts—to do it well. Some of us would be doctors or nurses, others firemen or teachers, many husbands or wives. If we followed our callings, we’d please God by serving man. Every day of our lives, we needed to listen carefully for God’s voice so when He revealed our callings we would hear.

 ***

Gifts. A special calling. Through the years I’ve often thought about those teachings, sometimes with anger, others with longing, always with sadness. I’m old now, Sister Agnes, when will my revelation come? And how will I recognize God’s voice? Are my dreams signs of my calling? Or are they just sinister specters rising from the refuse of my childhood? After all, both the Crusaders and Al Qaeda thought they were heeding the call of God.

 ***

The light shifts in the church. Rainbowed sunbeams moving through stained glass draw my eyes to the panes above the altar. Jesus in white robes, golden crown upon his head, raises an amber chalice emitting a nimbus of flames. The Virgin Mary prays in turquoise; Saint John clasps a scarlet book. Then a host of swirling symbols— an emerald scale, a stringed harp, a silver sword. A pair of candles, a yellow star, a nodding lily. A russet heart, a rising sun, a purple fish. A pelican pierces her breast, splay-beaked fledglings at her knee.

 ***

When I was a little girl, my cousin Angela told me life’s a circle, and looking across the generations, I suppose she was right. We are born, have children—at least those who can and want to. Then we die and, theoretically, our children carry on.

But I pictured life as a vector, one leading to a place called There. To arrive, I’d have to work hard—that’s what my father said. I’d also have to be good, which I knew meant do as I was told thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Then one day I’d finally be There, in an Oz of endless sunshine, love, and reward where I could remain for all time.

Now life seems neither circle nor vector. Those shapes are too simple, one-directional. So I’ve tossed away both paradigms, and that’s just fine. I did well enough in math, but only through resolve and application. Numbers, graphs, and figures don’t come naturally to me.

Life, it now seems, is a stained glass window composed of bits of translucence and opacity—fragments of yesterday, chips of today, pieces of someday, soldered with time. Some jewel-like and whole. Some fractured by the weather. Others fallen from their leaden frames. Only fusion and repair complete the image and allow us to make out the picture. Am I a scale, a harp, a star? A candle, anchor, or heart?

And what about tomorrow?

Oasis: An Observation from The Way of Saint James

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I almost passed it by.

When the offer came in January, I was too busy teaching college writing. Too busy mentoring a student group. Too busy reading for three book clubs. Too busy writing for a blog. Too busy marketing my memoir. Too busy caring for my family, cat, and home.

Maybe I could do it in the summer. More realistically, maybe in the fall.

But the director of the Mental Health Ministry persisted. She described the new program she envisioned at Seattle’s Saint James Cathedral and hoped I’d facilitate: a weekly creative writing workshop for people suffering from painful life events—the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the effects of abuse, disability, or disease. A workshop where participants could share their stories, order their thoughts, release repressed emotions, begin to heal their grief. A workshop starting February sixth.

To be honest, the prospect was intriguing. For years I’d longed to teach creative writing, something I’d earned a Masters in, something I’d done when I taught high school. How I’d loved teaching teens to write their stories. Doing so had been more priceless than rubies, more rousing than sunshine, more comfortable than fleece.

The high school students and I became close through our writing endeavors—reading, critiquing, affirming, revising until the stories sang. We became a community of colleagues, one that delighted and fulfilled me, one I’d not found a substitute for in the six years since I’d lost that job.

Maybe the cathedral writing group could fill the chasm in my heart that loss had cleaved. But at the time the opportunity was offered, I was overextended, my days packed with obligations from which I couldn’t extricate myself.

Maybe in the summer. Maybe in the fall. The timing simply wasn’t right to make my way to Saint James.

In fact, I’d just made my way to Saint James, although in a very different manner, one not involving teaching in Seattle, but instead perambulating Spain.

El Camino de Santiago—the Way of Saint James—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk there on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September my husband and I joined them, trekking 200 miles from León.

Walking the Camino is a metaphor for living life. Head sheathed from blazing sun, blisters burning in boots, back bent under heavy pack, to succeed you have to strip possessions to essentials—a single change of clothes, a sleeping sheet and toothbrush, sunscreen and a pair of sturdy shoes—and you have to limit each day’s tasks to a necessary few—walking scores of miles, eating, washing underwear, bathing, sleeping, repacking your bag.

With little to distract you on the way but the crunching of your soles on gravel and the susurration of your breath, you synchronize with an inner rhythm you likely never realized you possessed. That rhythm hypnotizes you. You become so high on endorphins, fresh air, exhaustion, that your mind seems to detachfromyourbody,rise above your head, andhoverinthe ether, enabling you to observe yourself.

You learn that the mistakes you make on the Camino mirror those you make generally in life. And you begin to understand how to avoid them.

Or so it was for me. Take, for example, our first day, when we walked from León to Hospital de Órbigo, a distance of twenty-three miles, a trek of ten hours.

We began early in the morning on Puente Río Bernesga, a Roman bridge that spans a river running through the outskirts of León. After winding through the city suburbs, we came to the open countryside known as the Páramo Leonés. The topography of this region is one of the flattest in Spain, having been generated by alluvial deposits millions of years ago. Hot, dusty, desolate, these dry grasslands bereft of trees and breeze extend as far as you can see.

By the time we’d walked six hours on the trail, my skin was sunburned, my tongue was parched, my legs and back were collapsing. I wanted to quit the Camino. But suddenly we came upon a cornfield traversed by an irrigation channel that brimmed with brightly babbling water. It looked to be everything I needed, a perfect oasis edged by wildflowers, buttressed by a low stone wall, and shaded by a broad Holm oak.

“Mark,” I said to my husband. “I need to sit and rest.”

He looked at his watch. “It’s not time yet. Half-an-hour more. You can do it. It’s only two thirty.”

He was right. We’d scheduled our break for three o’clock. So I heaved my pack higher on my shoulders, grunted, and trudged on.

A mistake I often made in life.

Thirty minutes later, we took our break, the oasis far behind us. Squatting on a dusty roadside in the scathing sun, lizards darting over my boot-tips, flies buzzing round my head, I sipped some water from a plastic bottle and pictured the verdant spot we’d bypassed. I began to cry.

Which is why I decided to teach writing at Saint James beginning in the dead of winter. No, the timing wasn’t perfect. But if I’d waited I’d have missed the chance to do work that’s proved delightful. If I’d delayed I’d have missed becoming part of a group that’s growing close. If I’d passed it by I’d have missed an oasis that’s refreshed me for my other tasks.

Once a man met Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus said to him, “Come with me,” but the man said, “Let me first go bury my father.”

I hope the man avoided that mistake.

When you encounter an oasis on the way, stop and set down your pack.

 

 

Risen Words

redchasmA book was sleeping inside me. It was somewhere deep and warm, somewhere just beneath my heart. At first, the words free-floated lightly, whispering so I could barely hear them. Next they somersaulted nimbly, mesmerizing me. Then they dropkicked, demanding their release.

Days, weeks, and months went by. Still, I did not begin to write the book. A book takes years from your life. Each day you have to stand upon a cliff, take a breath, plunge into the chasm. You have to hit rock to make the words rise. You have to push friends and family to the margins, shirk the world to live in the mind.

What’s more, I’d just finished a memoir, peddled it to more than fifty agents, received rejections from all. And though I’d found a small, independent press willing to take a risk on me, I’d been warned, given our lack of celebrity, the memoir likely wouldn’t sell. How could I justify another book, waste the future after the past? Better cook dinner for my family or for the homeless downtown.

No, the book was a stupid idea.

But the words kept kicking inside.

I talked to a friend about it. She said sometimes when a project is obsessing us, it’s a sign that God is calling us to task, a signal of our vocation.

Vocation. It’s an early Christian concept that’s been secularized by many. The essence is this: God calls every one of us to love and serve our neighbors in a special way. The work involved is our calling. While a few of us may hear God call audibly, most must learn to perceive his voice in the convergence of four signs: We desire to do certain work. The effort brings us joy. The work serves a beneficent end. Unbiased sources say we’re gifted at the tasks.

To perceive signs of a calling, we must look deep within ourselves, discern how the spirit moves within us, scrutinize the world around us, analyze the effects our actions cause. When in doubt, we should pray for clearer signs.

So, one night, I climbed into bed, burrowed next to my husband, who’d already turned out the lights. Pulling blankets to chin, I closed my eyes, fixed them on my inner world. I knew I longed to keep writing, knew I delighted in the process, even when it wasn’t going smoothly, even when the words didn’t seem to come. But I wasn’t sure that I was gifted or that my work served anyone but me. To find out, I would have to turn to prayer.

In truth, I’ve never found prayer easy. Through much of my adulthood, God has been a rainbow trout to me; I grasp him for a moment, then he slips, glistening pink and silver, from my hands. How could pray when I wasn’t sure that God was real?

What’s more, my petition seemed crazy: There are seven billion people on the planet, but hey, Creator of the Universe, let’s have a chat, you and me. No, it’s not about war, disease, or famine; instead, I’d like to pitch a book.

As for the notion God was calling me to write: God could jingle Anne Lamott. Why would he bother with me?

Still, I prayed. “God, should I write this book?” Then I listened. But, all I heard was my husband breathing sleep-deep, so I curled into fetal position, felt the flush of my foolishness.

Foolish: How I felt that night, having imagined even for a moment that God would speak to me.

Foolish: How I felt three days later, when my memoir was released at 1,745,362, and falling, on Amazon’s book rank list.

Foolish: How I felt two weeks after that, when the book received a scathing one-star review.

Foolish:  How I felt, having fancied for an instant that God was calling me to write when the world was screaming, STOP!

So I stopped. I turned off my computer, smothered every word that rose. I’ll never write anther book. In fact, I’ll never write another word.

That’s when I lost myself.

Mornings when my daughter called me, I no longer blew her kisses through the phone. Instead my mind hissed at her: Pest! Don’t you know I need to work?

Afternoons when I was with my college students, I no longer assured them they could write. Instead, my brain chastised them: Dunces! You should have learned where commas go in second grade!

Over supper when my husband spoke of cycling, I no longer tracked riders or the routes. Instead I thought: No, not crankshafts and gears! What a flipping bore!

Then came the night I asked my son to wash a pan he’d just used to make an omelet. When he said, “Just a minute, Mom, relax!” I shrieked, “You can go to hell!”

At those words, I winced and caught my breath: What was happening to me?

Then I realized, I’d just received a sign.

If God calls each of us to love and serve, we must do what enables us to do so. No one questions that we must eat, get fresh air, and exercise. But we also have to do what brings us joy, makes us feel alive, opens up our hearts, whether it’s singing, painting, gardening, skiing, or any of a million things. If we don’t, we become testy and embittered, spreading hostility rather than love.

Maybe I’m not a great writer. Maybe my words will never lighten someone’s load. But I know that if I don’t write them, I’m no good to anyone at all.

So here I sit at my computer, called to let these words rise.

Sleeping Beauty

ImageThe following is an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School

The classroom door blew open as I packed my briefcase to go home. A cold gust of air rushed in, blowing the papers from my desk, chasing red and gold leaves across the threshold so they swirled and settled at my feet.

Kalindah whirled in with the weather. With black-sweatshirted arms, she gave me my daily hug—nubby, slightly dank and fusty—then plopped on the top of a desk, pulling legs akimbo beneath her skirt. “Ms. Vallone, life’s so unfair. All my friends have boyfriends but me.”

Braces, Janis Joplin hair, Kalindah was a freshman when I first began teaching high school English. Another teacher had warned me about her: “Make sure you watch out for that one—she’s a time bomb waiting to explode, bipolar without her medication. You’ll see, one day she’ll draw a knife.”

During my first few weeks, Kalindah sat huddled at the back of the classroom, silent, impassive, gray-eyed. Was she sedated? Not till I scheduled a quiz did I see any sign of life. After class she came up to my desk: “I stink at tests.” Then she walked out.

Sure enough, her score was 47. When I lay the quiz on her desk, she glanced at the grade, hands stuffed in sweatshirt pouch. “Told you.” I studied the dandruff in her part. “Take it home and do it over. You can use your book and raise your grade.”

Metal smile trapping sandwich morsels. “Really? That’s awesome!”

Tests weren’t Kalindah’s only problem. For weeks I pumped and prodded: “I’m still waiting for your narrative. Are you planning to turn one in?”

Her response: a shoulder shrug. But one day she came to class early, dropped some rumpled sheets on my desk. “Ms. Vallone, I know it’s really late, but I wrote the story.”

In the story, the penguin Galápaga wants to cross a river, but she’s an orphan, so no one’s shown her how. She tries to use her wings as eagles do, but finds them too stubby for flying. She tries to hop across on river rocks, but her legs are too clumsy for leaping.

Galápaga uses a fallen tree trunk as bridge between the two banks. But the trunk is very narrow, mossy, and high above the water. Though penguins have good gripping toenails, midway across she slips.

Plummeting from her perch, Galápaga is desperate. She impromptu somersault tucks, plunges in the frigid water. Sinking to the bottom, she begins to pray: O God / Fear and trembling come upon me / Oh, that I had wings like a dove! /I would fly away and be at rest.

Then a strange thing happens. Panic-beating her wings, Galápaga rises through the water, discovering she can swim. So she breaststrokes across the river, climbs out, and waddles toward the woods.

I laughed reading Kalindah’s story, wrote A at the top, Great job! In Italian calinda means lark. So I hope you understand you can fly even though penguins can’t! Next day when she read my comments, Kalindah smiled and leaped at me, gave me the very first hug.

But what could I say about boys to a girl only sixteen? I gathered the papers from the floor, slipped them into my briefcase, sat on a desk facing Kalindah. “I know it stinks not to have a boyfriend, but someday you’ll have one, really. Remember when you thought you couldn’t write?”

“Yeah, but I’m not pretty. I wish I could be someone else!”

When I was an adolescent, I wished to be my cousin Angela, three years older than me. Angela, the Italian word for angel. Angela, who as a child wore the prettiest pinafores, dark hair thickly braided with ribbons. Angela, favored as beautiful, while I was anything but. Aunt Lina said my eyes were beady. Gramma told me I needed a perm. My father hinted I was chubby.

In high school, it was Debbie Schein I envied, a twin for Zeffirelli’s Juliet—chestnut hair tumbling to her waist, blue eyes, and dancer’s legs. If I were Debbie, every evening Michael Goldfarb would scale the lamppost on the corner. He’d peek inside my window as I braided my hair for bed, maybe even whisper to himself: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Jan is the sun.

But as long as Debbie was alive, Mike would never look at me. Nor would Gary, nor Mitchell, nor Jeff.

It’s not that I came from bad stock. My mother had curly hair, twinkling eyes, a heart-shaped face. And oh what a figure in the photo, bathing-suited at age eighteen, a Sophia Loren on a rock, sunning at Kaaterskill Falls. So it was for my Aunt Marie and my cousins Marianne and Celeste. Of all the females in my family, only I lacked the magic genes.

I remember when I was sixteen. Angela sat me on the pink counter of our grandmother’s tiny bathroom, my back towards the mirror, legs dangling. She pushed my hair behind my ears, perused my face with her kohled golden eyes. Bubbling in her Brooklyn brogue, she broke into a glossy smile, “I’ve got it!”

She unzipped her floral makeup bag with a flick of her bracelet-trimmed wrist. Out came a bottle of foundation muddying up my face. Out came a tin of eye-shadow blizzarding blue my lids. Out came a mascara spiral coating my lashes black. Out came a sparkling swivel-stick staining my lips cherry red.

When she was finished, Angela stepped back. She lifted my face with a finger, turned it right and left, called, “Gramma, come see!”

Pots clanging in the kitchen, pitter-patters up the hall. Gramma squeezed into the bathroom, squinted at my face. She nodded, “Much bedda.”

My heart bloomed a rose.

Then Angela stirred her fingers in her makeup bag, pulled out a rhinestone-trimmed mirror. “Okay—now you can see.”

She held the mirror before me. But Juliet wasn’t reflected there.

Instead, I saw a clown.

In my twenties, it was Holly Brown I longed to be. We two were medical lab techs then working at UNC. Every morning she’d sashay to her bench, flicking her Farrah Fawcett mane: “Good mornin’ y’all.”

As jasmine-gardenia perfume gusted from Holly’s curly halo, the male techs would look up from their microscopes, dropping jaws to gawk. In my corner, I’d reach for the radio, turn up the volume of Bruce Springsteen: Show a little faith there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright.

But I wasn’t all right. So I spent a few days’ salary to reinvent myself as Holly. As I sat before a salon mirror, Jean Paul pumped the swivel chair, raising the object of his art. He shampooed my hair in awapuhi—wafting ginger scent—parted it into sections, paper-wrapped each around a rod. He squeezed on glycerol monothioglycolate, plastic- capped my head. He helmeted me with a dryer and toggled on the heat.

My scalp prickled and crawled. My ears sizzled like bacon. But the dryer drone fired my fantasies as I flipped through an issue of Vogue: Maybe the lab crew will realize I’m a dove and Holly’s a crow.

Jean Paul rinsed my head to stop the process. He cut and blew dry my hair. Then he swiveled my chair towards the mirror—voilà: Christ, I have a fro.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in my thirties, my desire was to look like Princess Di—the ultra-toned body, bright smile.  The lash-brushing bangs and royal rose-petal skin. So I went to aerobics, tried Pearl Drops, scrubbed my face, cut my hair Diana-style.

But somehow I contracted the chickenpox, pox upon pox upon pox. They healed leaving scars on my chin, causing me to turn from every mirror. The marks seemed to shout from my jaw, “See how repulsive she is!”

What would Princess Di do about such horrid imperfections?

I made an appointment with Dr. Fleisch, a well-known dermatologist. He suggested dermabrasion. If I elected the surgery, he’d give me medication to relax. Then he’d cleanse my face with antiseptic, apply a spray to insta-freeze my skin. That done, he’d use a rotary tool to sand off several epidermal layers.

Post-op, the site would be raw, requiring pain relievers. My face would take three months to heal, need sun-shields for six to eight. Luckily, side effects were few—infections, fever blisters, scars, thickened skin, splotchy pigmentation.

I squirmed as Dr. Fleisch disclosed the details, asked if many patients chose the surgery.

“It’s a commoner procedure.”

So I knew that Di would never do it; I’d have to research something else.

Why should physical beauty be the object of lifelong yearning? Trigger decades of envy and grief? Prompt cosmetics, surgery, false hope? And why, even into my forties, did I still pine to be a dove among the crows?

How I fussed on a trip to Palermo, Sicily, before visiting my step-grandmother. The last time I’d seen Mimma, I was barely into my twenties. Now she was eighty-six and I a wife, the mother of two teens. Still, I slathered my wrinkles with creams, bleached my teeth, tinted my hair. I wore capris to mask my thighs, long sleeves to hide my arms.

And what did Mimma do when we showed her a Polaroid we’d taken after she’d scaled two flights like a jilly-goat to fetch her brother for lunch? After she served us a four-course meal she’d cooked and served herself? After she toured us around the apartment she still dusted, swept, and mopped? She shook her head at the photo and covered her image with her hand. “O Dio, I old.”

A short walk from Mimma’s apartment is the Convento dei Cappuccini. In 1599 the monks noticed something strange: their catacombs released mysterious vapors that mummified the dead. When the monks announced the discovery, they set off a public frenzy. People clamored to be buried there to preserve their beauty after death.

In the catacombs’ long dank corridors rest eight thousand corpses. Each is suspended by the neck like a lamb hanging at the butcher’s, each wearing Sunday’s best clothes. A monk hovers in a cassock, penance rope around his neck. A woman wafts hoop-skirted, wielding a parasol. A soldier sentries in uniform and a wide three-cornered hat.

There’s a special section for children. The last catacombed corpse was a girl who died of croup in 1920. Frocked flouncily in pink, ringlets gathered in a bow, she rests in a transparent casket.

The monks call the girl Sleeping Beauty, but there’s little beauty in the crypt. Sleeping Beauty’s skin is doll-waxy, her hair faded, dull, limp. And the flesh of the corpses around her is either mummified or gone. Many faces grimace, some mouthing Edvard Munch screams, the husks of their decaying bodies coated with decades of dust.

But I couldn’t tell Kalindah about the catacombs.

Or that Debbie went skating with her boyfriend on a lake near her college dorm and drowned falling through the ice.

Or that Angela discovered stage three cancer and lost her breasts and hair.

Or that my mother developed a neuroma that twisted and paralyzed her face.

Or that Prince Charles divorced Diana, who died in a car crash shortly after.

Or that when I thought about the women whose beauty I envied all my life, I closed my eyes and thanked God for my wrinkles.

Instead, I pulled a snapshot from my wallet—my family in the Sicilian sun. “Kalindah, you’re fine just as you are. Look, let me show you something. These are the people I love most in the world: My husband—we’ve been married twenty-three years. My daughter—she’s your age. My son, who’s two years younger. And Kalindah, when I was sixteen, I didn’t know a single one of them.”

Kalindah took the photo from my hands, studied it a moment, looked up. “Your daughter’s really pretty. She looks a lot like you.”

 

 

A Single Share

 

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Eleven years teaching writing. The best years of my working life.

The writing teacher is confidant. The writing teacher is mentor. The writing teacher is cheerleader. The writing teacher is the center of a community composed of people striving to reach others, the facilitator of human connection.

My students figure out rather quickly that their teacher is an idealistic and sentimental person. I tell them their goal as writers is to enable readers to live vicariously and gather insights about life. I explain that writers can’t reach this goal unless they block imposter voices—the voices of teachers, parents, friends and others that whisper in their minds and tell them how and what to write, smothering the unique perspectives they alone can share with readers.

I urge my students to write from their hearts. They must let their writing be inspired by what moves them, both intellectually and emotionally. If they do, their work will impact other people.

I assure my students that if their work stirs, enlightens or comforts just a single other individual or prompts the tiniest positive change, it’s a success.

I’ve meant what I say to my students, and most seem to believe me. Take, for example, Zach. For a high school class I taught, he wrote a memoir about his brother’s death and then submitted it to a contest. After winning, he reflected:

Winning is fun but not exactly a soccer game; the thrill of winning is not the same.

But my story will be published. If just one person reads my story and is consoled or gains an insight from it, then I will have done what I thought could not be done: bring hope and optimism out of something I thought could only be sad and depressing.

Knowing that, the excitement of winning becomes secondary to the idea that I might be able to help someone who otherwise may not have been reached.

Lately though, I’ve lost track of my own words, lost tract of Zach’s echo of them. I’ve entered the blogosphere.

When I first wrote a blog post, I practiced what I preached: I wrote from the heart, trusting that someone would read my essay and be moved. That single imagined person would make the work I’d done worthwhile, rendering it successful.

The day my piece was posted, though, I noticed something curious. At the end of the piece appeared a row of icons: F Share, Tweet, Email, Share, F Like, Google+. And above every icon was a number: 23, 1, 20, 71, 15, 0.

Since I’m a baby boomer, this took a moment to process. Where these statistics counting people who’d found merit in my essay? Inwardly, I smiled. Success: 130 shares.

Then I made a mistake: I checked the number of shares other contributing bloggers had earned for their posts that week:

Post 1: 249.

Post 2: 179.

Post 3: 1573.

1573?

I was a terrible failure, the uncontested loser of the pack.

A few weeks later, I tried to write a second post, but I couldn’t focus my thoughts. Imposter voices were rampant, relentlessly babbling in my brain:

Write about something in the news; that should prompt prolific sharing. A music post might lead to even more.

Chuck the idea about prayer; it might turn off secular readers. Ditch the yoga concept; it might hinder Christian shares.

Compose a sophisticated essay to capture erudite readers. Better yet, write a witty, chatty memoir to trigger millennial Tweets.

Passing gargantuan gallstones would have been less painful than writing that post.

On the publication date, I checked my post as soon as it went live: 7:00 am: 3 shares. Not a propitious beginning, so I checked each quarter hour of the day:

10:00 am: 21.

Noon: 83.

5:00 pm: 149.

I frowned at the computer screen. Come on, can’t you make it 150?

All throughout the day, I tried to ignore the blog site, but it was a mammoth horseshoe magnet and I a tiny metal flake. I berated myself at bedtime because in the race with that week’s bloggers, I was in only third place.

Recently, I vacationed in Austria. High on a hill overlooking Salzburg sits Hohensalzburg Fortress. From 1871 to 1918 it housed Archduke Rainer’s 59th Infantry Regiment, branded the “bravest of the brave” for its exploits in World War I. Visitors to the fortress can see mementoes of the regiment’s life and work: uniforms, helmets, boots, buckles, military musical instruments, regalia and flags.

While exploring the fortress, I was captured by an exhibit of the brigade’s medals of honor: badges with red and white ribbons and dangling metal coins, crosses, wreaths or birds. Above the display cases were photographs of the regiment, each man with a row of medals pinned upon his puffed-out chest. Among the photos were scattered paintings of the regiment in battle, men bleeding and dying in the snow, their badges still appended to their breasts.

Had these soldiers squandered their lives seeking a row of ribboned medals?

Was I misspending mine pursuing a row of blog post shares?

In one of my favorite parables, a man going on a journey calls his servants and entrusts his possessions to them. To one he gives five talents, to another, two.

Then the master leaves. The servant who received five talents trades them, making another five, and the one who received two makes another two.

When the master returns, his servants bring him what they’ve earned, and he says to each of them: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.”

The master didn’t distinguish between the servant who presented ten talents and the servant who presented only four. Each talent had yielded one more. Each talent had earned just a single share.

Yet the master was satisfied.

The next time I post a blog piece, I hope to remember what Zach did: a single share is enough. A single share should suffice to occasion gratitude and joy and render work a success.

Peripheral Vision

3443136727_e5ae4b0e93_zNot long ago, I had surgery. I suppose that in the vastness of creation, the precipitating problem wasn’t much; with age I’d lost peripheral vision due to drooping eyelids. For several years I’d lived in shadow, sight obscured by canopies of flesh.

My ophthalmologist prescribed blepharoplasty coupled with an endoscopic brow lift. If I chose to have the surgery, he’d put me under general anesthesia, incise along my eyelids’ natural creases and in several places in my scalp. He’d remove excess skin, muscle, and fat and close the gashes with myriad stitches. The procedure would take about two hours, healing, four to five weeks, after which—he hoped—my field of vision would appreciably improve.

When I woke up in recovery, my body tensed with terror, my eyes and head pulsed with pain. I could scarcely press open my eyelids—was anybody there? I felt my husband’s hand in mine, heard a nurse calling my name, but saw only an under-ocean swirl—searing light, floating glow-spots, miasmatic silhouettes. Had my surgeon blinded me?

The first few days at home, I lay supine on the couch—inert—ointment in my closed and crusted eyes, pads on my livid lids, bandages round my throbbing head, heavy icepacks on my face. And for some reason I still don’t understand—anesthesia, pain medication?—I lost control of my thoughts, which tumbled into pondering my past, spiraled into panic for the future, pummeled me so relentlessly that my physical black and blueness paled before the bruising of my heart.

For the previous several years, I’d been teaching writing as an adjunct professor at a college. There, I’d given my all to my students: I’d worked fifty hours per week, developed multiple curriculums, written numerous student recommendation letters, counseled students outside of class, led a Bible study cadre, been a reader for senior projects.

Still, I’d been fired by mass email every June, rehired last minute each quarter, paid less than baristas earned at Starbucks, offered no office, meeting invitations, health insurance, or other benefits. And just before my surgery the college had informed me that a brand new PhD would take over my favorite writing class.

So I brooded: How could the college discard me? Had I done something wrong? Was I a terrible teacher? Was the problem my age? I was twice as old as my replacement, who wouldn’t need blepharoplasty till I was in my grave.

Curled up on the couch, I wept through my ointments and dressings, tears coursing into my ears. In my blinded and mummified state, I couldn’t shake my melancholic thoughts. So desperate was I to divert them, I flouted my surgeon’s orders; I picked up a book from the coffee table though he’d forbidden me to read for at least a week.

Straining to open my eyes wide enough to see, I turned to a meditation by the poet Scott Cairns, who wrote of hiking through Utah’s Arches National Park. Having gone only a little way along the trail, he was awed by the endless blue sky, enormous canyon spaces and tremendous arches and towers of incredibly red rock. He stopped to look down. A flash of vivid color caught his eye, held it, and he was startled to see a brilliant, deep magenta cactus flower on a prickly plant whose scarred, paddle-shaped appendages seemed more dead than alive. He wrote:

And then, having noticed that one flower…my eye was thereby led to another just beyond the first, and then just beyond the second, another…brilliant flowers dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. They had been there all along, but until I had seen the first I’d been oblivious to their presence, blind to their broadcast beauty.

I lay the book aside, realized my eyes no longer ached that much and neither did my heart. For the first time in several days, I got up from the couch and began to look around. Out the window, in the park, was a boy flinging a Frisbee, his dog springing like a pogo to catch it in its teeth. On the front porch up against the door was a fragrant crate of oranges with a get-well note from a friend. And in my computer inbox were some emails that had come in during the week:

From a student who’d just finished my writing course:

I have loved taking the writing class with you this quarter. I loved seeing your smile every Tuesday and Thursday : ). I feel like I have grown a lot as a writer because of your class.

From a student I’d taught in high school:

I just completed my first script and turned it in! What a rush! Thank you for inspiring me all the way to graduate school!

From the head of the English department at the college where I teach:

I just wanted to let you know that, if you’d like to teach writing next quarter, there’s an afternoon slot that’s opened up. And I want to let you know right now that I will have 1-2 writing sections per quarter next year available, if you’d be interested in signing up for teaching then too.

A leaping dog, sweet oranges, encouraging emails. This trio of brilliant cactus blossoms had been within my field of peripheral vision, but I’d let my umbrage at life’s prickles completely blind me to them. Now my eyes were open. And I knew that if I kept on looking, I’d find still more flowers on the trail.