"I can't think without a pen in my hand!" - Me

"I can't think without a pen in my hand!" - Me

A Friendly Guide to Navigating this BLOG

If you have visited this blog before, you will notice I've made some changes. A Pen in My Hand is going to be dedicated to lighthearted anecdotes and whatever else I feel like writing. I have started another blog for topics that are more serious/spiritual in nature. See the link in the sidebar to visit that blog.

I sincerely hope you find something here worth reading; but if not, take heart. There are about six billion other blogs out there to choose from.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Slammed by Poetry

I pay my three dollars, and the man behind the table stamps my hand with a red skull and crossbones.
The red ink matches the gauges in the man’s ears,
Gauges the size of silver dollars
Dollars like the ones I just gave him.

I claim one of the few empty chairs in the room and sit with my back to the bar.
Facing the microphone,
Facing the crowd,
Eager to listen.

I want not just to listen, but to hear.
To hear the hearts behind the voices,
The souls behind the symbols,
The minds behind each metaphor.
I want not just to look but to see.
To see beyond shaved heads and shredded t-shirts,
Beyond and beneath sweaters and sport coats, leather and lace,
And hair in a rainbow of colors.
I want to take in both the lies and the truth,
To see and hear it all.

Poets take turns standing for three minutes in the spotlight behind the microphone,
Baring their souls to the crowd,
Naked and not ashamed.
Poets are not ashamed to shout out to a room full of strangers their fatal flaws and private pain.
They spread bare arms wide and show us their scars –
Marks left behind by needle or blade.
And we clap for them.
We clap for their battles with anorexia, bulimia, heroine, and cocaine.
We clap for the nooses that did not tighten enough and the EMT’s that arrived in time.
We clap for the soul-flames that flickered so perilously but now stand before us, weaving their words.
Souls hanging on by a thread.
We are all just here for the words.

The best poems bypass the mind altogether,
Evaporating into emotion the moment they strike the ear.
Syntax dissolves into meaning
Like a snowflake touching the tongue.
Nothing is left to analyze or study,
Just the tingling sensation of cold on the skin.
Or the reverberation of a fist to the gut.

The best poems stun us silent for a moment.
The poet steps back, uncertain, from the microphone.
Then we remember to clap.
We clap loud and hard
Not for the pain, but the alchemy.
The poet has bled out words, shimmering and glorious, and we are amazed.

For two or three days afterwards, I feel raw,
Haunted by what I have heard.
But too soon the word-painted images blur and fade
Like the ink of the stamp on my hand.
My own words that could have been poems
Get turned into lists instead.
My heart stops throbbing with the pain of others,
And life gets ordinary again.
I can look without seeing.
Listen without hearing.
And that is no way to live.

When the bodies I pass on the street become soulless to me,
It’s time to go back
To pay my three dollars
And have my hand stamped anew with the blood-red symbol of death.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Loyal to a Fault

I held the Lenscrafters coupon in my hand. "Half off any new frames," I read. It would be fun to get some new glasses, I thought. Then I sighed wistfully and tossed the coupon into the trash.

I can't go to Lenscrafters, you see, because I have been seeing the same glasses guy since I was a teenager. He's a nice guy, and he has a private shop in my home town. Not a chain store or a franchise. Just his own business, making glasses and selling them to loyal customers like me. It wouldn't be right to go somewhere else.

I am still ashamed about last summer when I cheated on my glasses guy. I was walking through the mall when I saw the giant sign in the window of Lenscrafters. "Buy any regular glasses and get a pair of prescription sunglasses for free." What? Free sunglasses? I imagined myself reading crystal clear words off a page in the bright sunlight, reading sharp clear street signs as I drove down the highway, seeing and not squinting at the same time. It was too much to resist. I went into Lenscrafters and got the glasses.

A few weeks later, I needed them adjusted. They kept sliding down my nose. The Lenscrafters guy had tried to make them fit me right, but he didn't know my ears and my nose like my own glasses guy does. So, I brought my sunglasses into my guy's shop. I hung my head and handed them over.

"Can you adjust these for me?" I mumbled.

His eyes widened and then turned misty as he slowly reached out and took the glasses from my hand. "You didn't buy these here," he said.

"I know," I whispered. "There was a sale and..."

"How much did you pay for these?" he asked, his voice just a little accusatory.

"Nothing," I said. "They were free with the other pair I bought."

"The OTHER pair?"

I nodded.

He looked at me then looked away.

"I'm sorry," I said.

He busied himself with heating the frames and bending them to fit my ears and my tiny bridgeless nose. When he placed them on my face, they were perfect.

"I won't go back there," I said. "Not ever."


The glasses guy isn't the only one who has me in his pocket. I am also a helpless captive of my dentist.

I went to the same dentist all of my life. Year after year he would rave about my perfect teeth. No braces needed. Never a cavity. Straight, healthy and strong. I liked my dentist, but the pressure to be perfect placed a terrific strain on me. If I ever did get a cavity, I would be overcome with shame. Plus, as I grew from child to adult, I started to dislike the perky little office and its too-cute decorations. I didn't want to look at rows of ceramic frogs or stuffed animals. I wanted to go to a grown up dentist office -- perhaps one closer to my home.

One day, I got a letter in the mail. My dentist was retiring. Here was my chance, I thought. I'll keep my final appointment because it's already scheduled. Then, afterwards, I'll bolt. I'll choose my own dentist for the first time in my life.

I was lying flat on my back in the vinyl chair, scanning the room, saying a mental "goodbye forever" to the bullfrogs in bonnets that lined the shelves of the office, when I heard my dentist's voice in the hall. A wave of nostalgia rushed over me, but I thought, "No, it's been a good run; but it's time to move on."

Suddenly I looked up and saw a very young face bending over me. He couldn't have been much more than twenty. And my dentist's voice was saying to me, "Krista, this is Dr. Lindquist. He's taking over all my patients. He'll be your dentist now." Then he added to his colleague, "You won't have any trouble with Krista. Her teeth are always perfect!"

"Wonderful," I said to the smiling boy hovering above me.

By the time he retires, I thought to myself, I'll be beyond the need for dentists.

I settled in for my cleaning and tried to avoid looking at the mob of grinning, gloating frogs.


Loyalty, I have decided, is a kind of slavery for people who are just a little bit neurotic -- like me.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Potato that Opened my Eyes

I run my fingers under cold water and sigh. My potato peeler has rubbed my forefinger raw. I rummage through the drawer and find a sharper peeler. This should help.

I sit back down at the kitchen table and notice the half-peeled potato lying there in a mound of its own skin is blinking at me with all its remaining eyes. And then, it speaks.

"Why on earth are you smiling?" it asks me.

"I'm smiling because I am happy. It is Thanksgiving. I'm going to have a fun afternoon with my family. And not only that, I've been awarded the sacred trust of the mashed potato for the fifteenth year in a row."

The potato rolls its eyes at me -- all eight of them. "Are you kidding? You're still telling yourself that?"

"What do you mean?" I lower my brows at the cynical spud and wait for its answer.

"I mean, you don't think it's a little suspicious that the somber closed-door ritual during which your mother and sisters get together and decide who wins the 'sacred trust of the mashed potato' always ends up pointing to you? And you don't think that has anything to do with the fact that the rest of them don't relish the thought of peeling ten pounds of potatoes on Thanksgiving morning?"

"But--" I stammer. "But they said it's a secret ballot voting ceremony rich in tradition and symbolism and mystical influences -- like something right out of a Dan Brown novel."

My voice trails off at the end. I am less sure of myself than I was a moment ago. I suppose it's possible the potato has a point.

Its eyes soften with sympathy. "It's really all about the pies."

"What?" I say. "I've never even made a pie."

"Exactly," it tells me. "Potato duty is pie penance. You refused to let your mother teach you to make a pie when you were ten years old. Everything that has happened since has stemmed from that one stubborn moment."

My eyes mist with tears. I quickly brush them away. "I tried to make that darn pie," I say. The crust stuck fast to the wax paper. I couldn't get it off. I tried and I tried but it just came to pieces. While Gretchen's crust -- " I choke on the memory. "Perfect," I whisper. "Always perfect."

"Sshhh. There there," comforts the potato. "The truth is painful, but you have to face it if you are ever going to move past it."

"Is this an intervention?" I ask.

The potato ignores my question and presses on. "Let's be realistic," it says. "What exactly do you put in your mashed potatoes?"

"Butter, salt, pepper, and milk."

"Do you really truly believe -- deep down in your rational soul -- that your combination of these ingredients is so spectacular that it can't be reproduced by anyone but you?"

A feeling of desperation builds within me. "But-- They said my potatoes were magical," I whine.

"I know. I know."

I pick up the potato in one hand and my peeler in the other. "Thank you," I say. "Thank you for opening my eyes."

"It's what we do best." It closes four of its eight eyes --  a potato's attempt at a wink.

"You do realize I'm still going peel you the rest of the way and put you in that pot?" I say.

"Yes," said the potato. "It is my destiny." It closes its remaining eyes then adds, "And YOURS."

I pull the peeler gently, reverently along the potato-turned-analyst until it lies skinless in my palm. Then I lift the starchy white orb close to my lips and whisper, "Yes, my little friend. This may be my destiny. But you know something else?" I take the tip of my peeler and let it hover above the last of its eyes. "I will never -- ever -- have to bake a pie!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Battling Mother-Nature


I am currently teaching the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin to a group of high school students.  One of the themes that emerges in the story is the natural affection a mother has for her children and how often this natural affection is associated with pain. This has gotten me thinking about the fact that as mothers, we live in a constant state of paradoxical tension. We are regularly called upon to suppress our natural instincts to shelter, comfort, and protect and instead subject our children to varying degrees of discomfort and even pain.

 My own experience with this has run the gamut from the tragic to the absurd.

When my oldest son was little, he was frequently hospitalized. Again and again, I had to sit and watch nurses poke him with needles to draw blood and thread him with tubes to administer anesthesia or nourishment. My maternal instincts longed to slap the nurse's hand and snatch my baby out of harm's way. I had to force myself to conjure up the deeper instinct to allow him to suffer temporarily in order to serve a greater good.

When my youngest daughter started kindergarten, getting her to leave my side each morning was her own personal trauma. She would gladly have snuggled me day and night for the first ten years of her life if I had let her, but I knew that wasn't what she needed. I'd pull up in front of the school, give her a squeeze and assure her that she'd be fine. Then I'd open the door and literally shove her out. Her older sister would hold onto her while I drove away to keep her from chasing the van.  I'd avoid looking in the rear view mirror because I knew what I would see: her tiny arms straining toward me and a look of sheer misery on her face. I'd remind myself that when she got home at the end of her half-day, she'd be all laughs and smiles – the pain of this parting forgotten until tomorrow when it happened all over again.

But perhaps the most unnatural of these maternal moments happened last Sunday when I brought my son to the airport so he could head back to Camp Lejeune. In a few weeks he will be on a transport to Afghanistan. I wrapped my arms around his broad shoulders and pressed my hands against his back. I froze that moment in my memory – the feel of his leather jacket under my hands, the warmth of his neck against my cheek, the pressure of his arms as they squeezed me tightly – and I stored it away in my heart. Then I did what so many other mothers have done throughout the ages. I let go. I drew back, eyes dry, smile confident, and said goodbye.

It would have been natural to cling to him and sob, but for his sake I had to do what was against nature. We tend to vilify the Spartan mothers for their stoic benediction to their husbands and sons, Come back with your shield or on it. But having bid farewell to both a husband and now a son, I think they had the right idea. They understood what their men needed from them. To do less would have been something like selfishness.

Mothering is full of such moments, and it never gets any easier.

As Christmas approaches, I find myself thinking less of mangers and shepherds and more of Mary, the young mother of Christ. The words of the Christmas story that echo in my mind are not, "Peace on earth, good will to men," but rather the words of Simeon as he stood before Mary and her baby in the temple. After prophesying a life of pain and conflict for her infant Son he added, "… and a sword will pierce your own soul, too."

Surely in Mary's case, the suffering her Son endured during His lifetime served an immeasurably great purpose. I am thankful she didn't hide Him away in a cave and smother His life in peace and safety.  

So, from dentist appointments to deployments, we defy our maternal instincts and let our children out from under our sheltering wings to do what is good and necessary for them to do. And though it may be but a small comfort to us mothers, at least we know when we act thus, we are in the very best of company.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Little Boxes


I'm not sure where the boxes came from. Honestly, I think they've always been there. My earliest memories of them are not so much the story of their creation as their discovery.

I remember getting a demerit in kindergarten in the strict private school I attended. The teacher had blamed me for something I hadn't done. She was scowling sternly at me, looking at me with furrowed brows and glaring eyes, trying to convince me I was a bad little girl. I knew if I continued to defend myself, she'd add lying to my crimes. I also knew, at the tender age of four and one-half, that I was right and she was wrong. My instincts, being scarcely beyond babyhood, nudged me to cry. But something else in me, something too complicated to name, whispered No, don't cry. If you cry, she wins. Look here! Put her in the box! So I put her in a box labeled, "People who aren't worth trying to impress." From her place inside that box, she could not hurt my feelings. I made my face impassive. I took my demerit, knowing that I had shown her I no longer cared.

One day, still in kindergarten, a photographer came to take school pictures. I sat on the little stool in my yellow flowered dress and looked at the camera.

"Smile!" said the photographer.

There was something in his tone that I didn't like. He was a stranger, telling me what to do. I felt my stubborn-self prickling inside.

"Come on, Honey. You have to smile."

Now he'd done it. I have to smile? Oh, really? I settled my face into the most serious expression I could muster – eyes blank, mouth relaxed into a delicate frown. 

The photographer proceeded to empty his whole bag of tricks upon me. Funny voices, stuffed animals, puppets -- the works. A few times I felt myself wavering, my mouth twitching towards a smile. 

But then I remembered the boxes. 

I traveled down to the place where I kept them, deep in my mind. I found one labeled, "Bad things that have happened to me." I opened it and conjured up a vivid memory of an accident I'd had with the clown swing at the park. A boy had been pushing the empty swing. I had walked within range. The seat of the swing had slashed my cheek, leaving me with a thin scar still visible to that day. I called up the memory of the fear, the pain, my mother's alarm. I thought of the fact that the scar would show on my face in this picture – and that was nothing to smile about. My face relaxed easily back into the frown. The photographer gave up and snapped the picture in defeat.

Weeks later, when I brought the pictures home, my mother said, "These are pretty, honey, but why didn't you smile?"

"Because I didn't want to," I said.

Throughout elementary school, I added to the boxes. I filed away troublesome teachers and unkind classmates. I filed away confusing feelings and nameless fears. Having a place to put such things, out of sight and out of my conscious mind, allowed me to be a happy, often care-free child. That's the way I liked it.

In junior high, my boxes failed me briefly. There was one teacher that I really liked, and I wanted him to like me. I got good grades in his classes, but that wasn't enough to make me stand out. He scarcely paid any attention to me at all. To make matters worse, he frequently spoke fondly of my older sister, who was in both his science class and his home room. His obvious preference for her stung like lemon juice on paper cuts. I tried to shove him into my "People I don't care to impress" box, but he just didn't fit. He left the school after my eighth grade year. I moved him to my "People who don't matter anymore" box and was able to close the lid. I rarely thought of him again.

In high school, things got out of control. There weren't enough boxes to stuff away all the messes I was making of my life, so I shoved myself in a box. I labeled it "This isn't really me," and hid there for two or three years.

I emerged just in time to get married. I found a big box and labeled it, "Things not to let get on my nerves." That one filled up quickly and probably saved my young marriage.

Then, in the seventh month of my first pregnancy, the doctor expressed concerns that there might be something wrong with the baby I was carrying. Tests were inconclusive. They wouldn't know until he was born. I had a choice: spend the next two months in a state of constant tears and panic, or carry this down deep into the vaults and put it in a box. It was at this moment that I found the box that would serve me best for all of my parenting years. I labeled it, "I'll think about this when I have to – and not a minute before."

As it turned out, there was something wrong with my baby. After a major operation and three weeks in intensive care, we were told that he could go home but would need to return to the hospital in three months for more surgery. With a smile on my face, I brought my baby home. I enjoyed those three months as if nothing were wrong, fears of the pending surgery hidden safely away in Tomorrow's box. For the next fourteen years, there was always something waiting in that box – something unseen and unspoken looming in my firstborn's future. Something else to face – but not until I had to. In the meantime I would be happy.

More recently, there was the news of my husband's deployment: one year in the deserts of Kuwait. I didn't take that reality out of the box until the first night he was gone, when an earthquake shook our house and no one answered when I cried out, "What was that?"

Now there's something else in the box. My second son is in the Marine Corps. Very soon, his daily text messages and frequent calls will stop. For seven months, he'll be on the other side of the world in a place no one wants to think about – most of all, me. Soon, but not now. When the moment comes, I'll face it. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy celebrating an early Christmas with our family complete -- all seven of us safely under one roof.

People who know about my boxes have mixed opinions of them. Some call them coping mechanisms. Others hint that I have denial issues. I am not sure who's more right. Maybe I'm like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, chanting her mantra, "I'll think about that… tomorrow." Or maybe I'm following the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount where He said, "Do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." I'd prefer to think the latter, but I can't be completely sure. Sometimes the boxes feel like faith, but other times they feel a lot like pretending.

Sometimes I wonder if the boxes are hereditary. When my youngest daughter was three or four, I was trying to get her to apologize for something she had done. I prompted her with the words, "What do you need to say to your sister?" I had in mind something along the lines of, "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?" What came out of her mouth was, "Not my problem. Not my fault." 

In her laughing blue eyes, I saw reflections of my own. Already, she is protecting herself – sometimes in good ways, sometimes not so good. But perhaps, with guidance, her little boxes will serve her as mine did me. Perhaps they will let her keep smiling right up to the brink of her sorrows and then emerge quickly -- ready to smile again.

Considering the alternatives, I wouldn't have it any other way.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Zobelgrahams: The REAL Zombie Apocalypse (by Graham)

Zobelgrahams: The REAL Zombie Apocalypse (by Graham): Somewhere deep in the UNDERWORLD: President :      Are we on schedule? Everything going according to plan? Field Marshall:         Yes,...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Becoming Nancy Drew



Between the ages of seven and ten, I read at least fifty Nancy Drew mysteries. By my fifth or sixth book, I had decided that I wanted to be just like Nancy Drew.

It wasn't her titian colored hair (or even the fact that she used words like titian).  I had never been partial to red hair of any shade. It certainly wasn't her wardrobe. I wouldn't have been caught dead in a smart beige suit or a green lawn dress. Her blue convertible was pretty cool, but I wasn't all that into cars. I admired the fact that she was dating an older boy (even if he did have a silly name like Ned Nickerson), and I liked that she kept stringing him along book after book and never let him tie her down. These things were interesting and made Nancy who she was -- but they didn't make me want to be her.

The thing that enthralled me about Nancy was one line that was repeated, book after book:

"Nancy stood there, lost in thought."

I used to read that sentence as a kid and think, "What would it be like to be 'lost in thought'?"

I pictured Nancy's mind as a labyrinth of filing cabinets, filled with knowledge, observations, and information. I pictured Nancy wandering the halls of her own mind leafing through those files, remembering, organizing, devising, and theorizing, literally lost in the sheer massiveness of her own brain.

Other times, I pictured Nancy, sitting in a plush armchair in a vast library, the walls of her mind lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves. She sat there quietly, her hand stroking her chin, thinking deep thoughts about  --  I didn't know what. And this is what inspired me.

I was desperate to understand how one could think at such a depth and to such a degree that one could become oblivious to the outside world. I just had to learn this secret and, if at all possible, become "lost in thought" myself.

I made some attempts at becoming lost in thought by simply assuming the pose. I'd stand with a finger on my lips, stare off into space, and ignore people on purpose when they called my name. Then I'd say, "I'm sorry. Were you talking to me? I didn't hear you." But I wasn't fooling anyone -- least of all myself. I knew my mind was a shameful blank. One could not get lost in a forest with only one tree.

Years went by. Nancy Drew slipped into my subconscious and camped there. As a teenager, I no longer idolized Nancy Drew per se; but the idea of her never left me entirely. Always I was propelled to read more, write more, think more, in hope that one day I might find myself lost in thought.

After high school, I kept reading and writing, but I also got married and had five babies in rapid succession. ("Rapid succession" is another phrase I learned from Nancy Drew books.) My days were full of highchairs and carseats, diaper bags and strollers, bottles and teething rings. I had little sleep and less recreation.

The one thing I did for myself in those early years of motherhood was take a non-fiction writing class. It was just a snail-mail correspondence class, not even for college credit. But it gave my mind something to do during countless hours of washing dishes, folding laundry, nursing babies, and driving carpool. I'd plan and outline essays in my head while my hands were busy with these "mindless" tasks. Then, during nap times or Sesame Street, I'd put pen to paper and write the essays down.

One day, as I was stirring something on the stove, I was suddenly aware of a little voice at my knee.

"Mummy, can I?"
"What?"
"Mummy, can I?"
"Can you what?"
"Have some juice. I just asked you and you weren't listening to me."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Sweetie. Mummy was just..."

A feeling of profound satisfaction washed over me in that instant. I was wearing sweatpants instead of a smart beige suit, and I drove a grey station wagon instead of a blue convertible. But in the only way that mattered, I was Nancy Drew. I had been really and truly lost in thought over a pot of simmering chili.

During the years that have followed that moment, I'm afraid I've taken my inner Nancy Drew to the brink of dementia. My thoughts are so talkative, that I can sit in a room or a car full of people for hours and be unaware of the fact that I haven't spoken a single word out loud. My mind frequently abandons conversations with other people, leaving my mouth to cover for it, while it wanders off to do more interesting things. When I arrive home from a long drive, I often make a bee line for a notebook so I can record strings of sentences invisibly composed during the trip before I forget them. I get lost in thought so easily these days that I have to make a conscious effort to re-engage with the physical world around me.

I'm not sure that being like Nancy Drew is all I imagined it would be when I was seven. I am beginning to understand why Nancy only had two friends, never bought new clothes, and was unable to make a lasting commitment to poor Ned. Still, as my own children read volumes 35, 40, and 45 of Nancy Drew's mysteries, I find myself watching them eagerly for signs of absent-mindedness. I wouldn't mind if a few of them grew up to have minds that have a mind of their own.

At the very least, maybe one of them will own a blue convertible someday. I think I would be OK with that too.