"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.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Hello, friends!

I abandoned this blog quite some time ago, for a number of reasons. I went through a bit of a dark period, followed by a great deal of soul searching, and felt that my "voice" and perhaps my purpose in writing had changed so much that this blog no longer fit who I was or what I needed to say.

After floundering to define the "big 3" (subject matter, audience, and purpose) as a writer, I finally decided to simply reboot and begin writing again -- not over thinking, just writing.

Here is the link to my new blog:

If you previously followed me, I hope you will consider joining me there!!
Thanks for reading!!


Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Who Knew?" (or, "The Value of Asking the Question")

“What is the song ‘Hotel California’ about?” a younger-generation friend asked me.

“Devil worship,” I answered without hesitating. “At least that’s what I was taught as a teenager,” I added. “But now that I think about it, it might not be true.”

Memories flooded back to me of Christian school chapel services, during which speakers projected images onto a large screen, pointing out the Satanic symbols on album covers, or played segments of songs backwards to reveal the hidden messages, all in an attempt to frighten us away from listening to “the devil’s music.” It didn’t work. We still listened to the music – not because we didn’t believe the propaganda. We assumed everything the grown-ups were telling us was true. We just didn’t care all that much.
But now I started to wonder.

I turned to Google curiously, ready to question what I had always thought I’d known. Ten minutes and two articles later, I texted my friend back. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s about materialism and the ‘dark underbelly of the American dream’.”

The articles I had found were transcribed interviews with Don Henley and the other members of the Eagles. They were first-hand accounts, direct quotes from the original sources. It was a little embarrassing to read in these same articles Henley's bemused reaction to the “urban legend” interpretations of his song, one of which I had been taught – and had believed without question, until this very minute.


Most of the dogma I was raised with clung to me throughout my twenties. My kids were little, and I wanted to raise them “right”, so I didn’t dare deviate far from how I myself had been raised. But as my kids entered their teens, and I my thirties, I began to give myself a little room to explore. I started systematically examining not just what I believed but the rules by which I lived. I pulled doctrines and philosophies and assumptions out of my metaphorical “box” and examined them one by one. Most of them I put back into the box for safe keeping because I was still fully persuaded of their truth and importance. But others I discarded – some with a touch of bitterness, others with an amused smile.

Today was a good reminder for me. As I discard my previous understanding of “Hotel California”, I am confronted with the fact that clearly I have not finished sorting through the box of my assumptions. I have not consulted primary sources for every view that I hold.

In my college classroom, I warn my students that it is tempting to “read into” a fictional text what you want it to say when analyzing literature, just as it is tempting to take statistics out of context when supporting a thesis. Both are dishonest. But even worse, both are the sign of a person who is more interested in defending their preconceptions than discovering the truth.

Today I learned something new. I set aside an erroneous belief for a correct one. Sure, it’s not life-changing to finally understand the bizarre imagery in a confusing old song. But I think the real lesson for me was how easy it was to find my answer, once it occurred to me to ask the question.

Friday, February 27, 2015


“I can’t face him,” I say.

              “You have to. Just go in and tell him,” my friend urges me. “It’ll be okay.”

              I walk into the glass-walled lobby and scan the crowd, palms sweaty, heart pounding, and then I spot Joe. He walks toward me, his smile warm, his face eager.

              “Hi there,” I say, then stammer out the rest. My voice is higher than usual, my tone pleading. It’s not you, I tell him; it’s me. And I’m sorry.

              Joe’s smile fades a little, and the light dims in his eyes. I waver.

              “I am really sorry,” I tell him. “I would almost buy the Camry just so I don’t make you feel bad. You’ve been so nice.”

              “I would never want you to do that,” he tells me. “You need to buy the car that’s right for you. Even if it is from another dealer.”

              Joe refunds the money I put down on the Camry. We shake hands and part as friends.

              I drive the three miles to the other dealership where Alex is waiting for me. I hurry because I don’t want him to worry that I have changed my mind. He had been reluctant to let me leave. Even the $500 I gave him did not seem to set him at ease about me having another encounter with Joe.

              I walk through the glass doors, and Alex appears in a flash.

              “I told you I’d be right back,” I say. “I fixed things up with Joe. I’m ready to sign the papers.”

              Alex is clearly relieved, and I am glad. I pay the full price for the car because it doesn’t seem right to dicker. Money is really just numbers. Alex is a human being, and I don’t want to make it harder for him to do his job.

              I slide behind the wheel of my new car and take a moment to check my phone. I find two texts and a frantic voicemail from my nephew, who works for a car dealership. He is positive Alex has robbed me, and he is concerned. I text back assurances that all is well, but later, when I am home and in bed, I begin to have flickers of doubt.

I wonder if maybe I have a problem.

I wonder if perhaps there should be something like a medical alert bracelet for people like me. Chronic people pleasers. People who can’t bear to hurt other people’s feelings. People who can’t say no.

I wonder if there should be laws to protect people like me.

What if I could have marched into that dealership with a stainless steel warning badge dangling from my wrist? A badge that let Alex know it would be immoral to take advantage of me because I am a pathologically easy mark. Then he would have said, “The price on the window is for the benefit of normal people, but the real price is $3000 less.”

That would have been nice.

But I won’t think about that. I love my new car, and I am glad that I made Alex’s day. I am glad that I did something to help him send his daughter to Keene State so she can become a nurse.

I am still a little sorry for Joe, but his kids are young. They won’t be going to college for many years yet. Probably right around the time that I’ll be in the market for my next new car. When this car dies, I think I will go find Joe and make it up to him.

Yes, that will be nice…

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.