After a late afternoon swim at the community pool, Bren and I are driving home. I’m feeling languorous, having whiled away the hours reading a romance novel, dipping into the pool when the heat was too much. Bren has been on one of his lap swimming binges, forty laps today, so he’s a bit tuckered as well. We are wrapped in the pleasant aura of a well-shared afternoon, mild fatigue, and the anticipation of a leisurely dinner on our shady deck.
Today’s route home is a short cut. It veers off the more widely traveled streets and onto a side street, At one point, it crosses over the heavily-trafficked street we are now approaching. My stomach clutches as I realize the man he is referring to sits in a rickety wheelchair and, I think, is attempting to cross without a crosswalk.
Is this guy crazy? At this light, drivers turn right on red after touching their brakes with barely a glance at traffic. They would not be expecting a pedestrian in this no-walk zone. Just because he’s in a wheel chair doesn’t mean he should cross improperly. I feel my anxiety spike, worrying about what he is going to do and hoping he doesn’t decide to start across as we draw near.
The light cycles to red so I have ample time to brake as I approach. At this reduced speed, I take a closer look, and I am shamed by my quick judgment. He is of indeterminate age. His grizzled white beard and wrinkled face could be those of a man in his late sixties or perhaps even a younger man treated unkindly by life. His tee shirt is greyed from age and too large for his slight frame. His out-of-date athletic shorts reveal legs covered with dark red areas, one oddly map like, that might be either scars or places where infections have recently healed. The wheel chair is a relic, the stainless steel scuffed and bearing residue from past adhesive tapings. Bren is right; one foot is bare, and the missing grimy, tattered gym shoe is sitting in his lap.
Oh. He is not waiting to cross; he is waiting for cars to stop so he can beg for money. My resentment flares again. If he’d been holding a sign, Hungry, need money for food or Please help, need money, I’d have understood sooner. I wonder if the shoe in his lap is a ruse, something designed to garner sympathy.
Then I hear my mother’s voice. I know many people chastise others for giving money to beggars, saying they are fakers and the money really goes to feed their drug or alcohol habit. Maybe that is so, but I was raised by a mother who always said, “There but for the grace of God, go we.” She stressed that we never know when we are entertaining angels. Seeing beggars as possible angels makes it easier to be charitable. If indeed, the money is misspent, that result belongs to the receiver, not to the giver. Her voice echoes, “Give with a pure heart.”
I scramble to gather a few dollars from my purse. The man realizes he has a chance at some money and wheels toward the car.
To my discomfort, he wheels toward the back door where my son is seated. Bren is already rolling down the window and smiling at him. And he is smiling back at my boy. Perhaps now is the time to tell you that my son is a person with disabilities. Bren is thirty-seven but small in stature and could easily pass for a youth. He is visually impaired and developmentally delayed but truly gifted emotionally, often seeing straight to the heart of matters. I pass the money back to Bren but he doesn’t heed my words, “Give this to him.” The beggar says, “Thank you for stopping, God bless you.” He reaches into the car, locks eyes with Bren, and pats the hands my son extends toward him. There was more said but in a lowered voice, meant just for Bren. I tap Bren’s leg and he pulls one hand loose to take the money and pass it on.
“Ah, God bless, God bless you…” the man continues, not breaking their eye contact and holding Bren with one hand while he takes the proffered money with the other.
“God bless you too sir, but I need to drive on. The light has changed.” Only then does he glance toward me, nodding his head and maneuvering his wheel chair away from the car. It’s a glance that speaks volumes: You are a lucky woman. You have a good boy. Count your blessings.
As I drive away, I’m thinking I need to remind Bren to wash his hands as soon as we get home. I’m fretting that the redness on the beggar’s legs might be an infection. As I am focusing on these fears, Bren’s focus is, “I hope that man is okay mom. He was nice. ” First impressions are supposed to count most, highlight what’s important. My son saw a lost shoe; I saw a dangerous situation.
Turns out we were both wrong. The obvious is not always paramount. It wasn’t about a lost shoe. It wasn’t about danger or even money. We had just met an angel unaware. He connected to us skin-to-skin and heart-to-heart. I gave him a few dollars; he gave me perspective on my life and reminded me what true blessings are. He affirmed Bren’s wholeness, his just-rightness, his perfection. I needed the lesson; perhaps Bren didn’t, but he welcomed it nonetheless. For many, many days after, and occasionally even now, I remember that man in my prayers. I remember him not as a beggar or a person in a wheel chair. I remember him as a teacher, and I am grateful.
Jude Walsh Whelley lives and writes in Dayton, Ohio. She writes personal essays, memoir, poetry, and fiction. She shares her life with her son Brendan and three lively dogs.
I can never forget the searing hot pain of contractions as my body moved forward to the moment I’d meet my daughter. There was sweet relief in between them, but as the next wave came, I braced and breathed and sometimes screamed aloud.
How anything can be worth that sensation is beyond my understanding, but the minute she came into the world and I pulled her wrinkled little body to my chest and saw the soul behind those squinting eyes, all was forgiven. Every blazing ache. It didn’t seem to matter anymore.
The process of bringing babies into the world just prepares us for the rest of it. Our lives together with children are always a dance between pain or discomfort and the sweet relief that comes with the next healing moment. Like birth, we ride these waves again and again and watch them soften our hearts and deepen our relationship with these little people who call us Mom.
There have been painful instances when I’ve had to swallow my expectations of parenthood to embrace what it really is. In these times, I’ve had to move past the discomfort and forgive my kids for their growing pains and misunderstandings. Mothering can rip away the veil of your own ego in a way nothing else can: embarrassing tantrums in the grocery store, loud screams in restaurants, defiant sprints away from me at the park as I call their names to leave. I confront challenges everyday when I feel I’ve used a hundred different approaches to guide them and none of them seem to work the way I intended.
Like birth, motherhood is not all gladness and light. There are arduous feelings that come with this job. Those nights you lie in bed and feel so heavy, craving a minute to yourself that is only yours, wondering if you’re doing any of it right.
Outside of my frustration with my children, there are moments I’ve had to forgive myself as well. For disappointed glances in the mirror when I see stretch marks or a round belly or empty breasts exhausted from years of nursing babies. For not having the patience with them that I should. For not being the room mom with crafts at the ready for every holiday and season. For not being the teacher I should be on a given day because the dance between motherhood and profession became too complicated, and I embraced the best I could do and just stopped there.
And as they grow and I climb out of the trenches of those early years, I’m working to forgive myself for not seeing the world with the same fearless eyes I once had a decade ago. Danger and heartbreak are lurking everywhere now. Having a child is like having your heart break open nearly every minute of every day, and it forever clouds the way you see the world around you.
It’s exhausting, but this dance between brokenness and healing is what deepens your heart and gives your life depth in a way it didn’t have it before. I’ve heard it said that of all the virtues to which one can aspire, forgiveness is both the hardest to attain and the most evolved, and as a mother, I have to do it everyday. Forgiving myself and exhaling any judgment I hold as I watch these two little people create their own way and carve a path to the life that stretches before them.
It all brings me back to the very beginning, the ebb and flow of contractions as I became a mother. In these years that have unfolded since those early moments, there is still the same rhythm—pain and heartbreak followed by the sweet sound of your heart breaking wide open in the best way. Becoming bigger and stronger, I move through the brokenness to find a whole new place on the other side.
Katie Mitchell is a composition instructor at a small liberal arts college in Georgia and a single mother to two energetic kids. Her work has been featured at Sweatpants and Coffee, Role Reboot, and Scary Mommy’s Club Mid. She also writes regularly at www.mamathereader.com.
I am reminded by brilliance
and curious chaos
of my smallness and
weak, tarried, flesh-self.
They, tiny forceful talons
in my cowered shoulders
are mirrors into times
of horrors past.
Outside my body, I see my
mother’s crimes slipping out
of my crumbling resolve, like
cards to an over-eager shuffler.
This hand is broken
and trembles with shame.
A voice never soft enough,
and hands too sharp.
Their beauty, clearly seen,
yet hidden until I leave
the room, guts me to
an echo of what I think I am.
One day in my loneliness
I will distract myself
from the memory
of moments wasted.
Hilary Ellis-Manogue is a mother, writer, and full time student living in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia. Her poetry has been published by Rat’s Ass Review and she is the owner of Venus in Retrograde vintage clothing.
For some of us—maybe you’re one—writing is just about as necessary as breathing. We eavesdrop at restaurants and imagine stories about the people we hear. We carry notebooks everywhere and jot down ideas and phrases we might (or might not) be able to use later. We wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect plot twist, the dynamite first line for a poem.
But even if writing comes naturally to you, it makes sense to internalize a few best practices. I’ve been in this game longer than I like to admit, starting as a feature writer and working my way up to editor-in-chief of a monthly magazine. Along the way I’ve dabbled in fiction, essay, and, my true love, poetry. And I’ve taken a few writing courses, though not at the MFA level.
Like me, you’ve probably heard the old rules “show, don’t tell” and “appeal to the five senses.” No argument there, but these rules are pretty simplistic. There’s no shortage of good advice for writers, of course, but let’s start small with a dozen tips that work for me and other writers I know:
Think before you write. Consider the 5 W’s of journalism: who, what, when, where, and why. What do you want to write about? What genre—poem, story, article, book? Who’s your intended audience? Where do you want your writing published? Most important why—why this topic? why you? why now?
Do your research. I’m not talking about academic research—that’s a different ballgame. But other kinds of writing also need to be, well, right. Even a personal essay will fail to ring true if you blow your description of a place, for example, or a fancy restaurant dish. So dig into your subject online or in print. Talk to experts and enthusiasts. Check your facts—even fantasy and sci fi have to get at least a few things right about our universe if they’re aimed at readers here on Earth.
Jump right into your topic. Inexperienced writers often spend paragraphs warming up before they say anything important. As an old boss of mine put it, “It’s like a dog who turns around in the same place three times before he lies down.” So lie down already and get on with it. And bear in mind, your opening sentence has to be strong, intriguing, amusing—whatever it takes to draw the reader in.
Write like you’re talking to a friend. One magazine editor I know tells her writers, “Put your arm around the reader.” She’s talking figuratively, of course, but it makes sense. Imagine someone who embodies all the qualities of your intended audience—40-something professional, young mother, struggling artist, whatever—and direct your words to that person.
Follow the “3 S” rule. Keep it short, straight to the point, and simple enough to understand without resorting to Google. A note on short: Don’t use strings of adjectives. “I smoothed my long, thick, wavy, blonde hair …” Really? Often, you don’t need any adjectives at all. But if you must, use no more than two at a time. One is better.
Break the “3 S” rule. Rules are made to be broken, so don’t be afraid to use a puzzling phrase, a meandering sentence, or a bit of misdirection when it counts. When does it count? Read on.
Vary the pace and tone. Short and straight is one thing, but choppy is another. When Hemingway-esque subject-verb-object sentences start getting monotonous, vary the word order. Start with a clause, throw in a compound sentence, and so on. Forget what your teachers said—go ahead and split that infinitive, end with a preposition, even switch tense and point of view if you’ve got a good reason. (Make that a really good reason.) Pique the reader’s interest with unexpected turns of phrase or plot twists or short, insightful digressions. Think of them like spices: Use just enough to make the dish tasty and no more.
Tantalize, delight. Even prose can stand a little poetry, so don’t shy way from figurative language. As long as you don’t clutter your manuscript with clichés, a few well-placed, inventive similes and metaphors can enliven your writing. Don’t worry if these grace notes don’t come automatically. They’re more likely to occur to you as you rewrite (see No. 11).
Proofread more than once. You know what you meant when you typed “pubic school,” but look again. Those pesky l’s and i’s are so skinny your mind skates right over them. Ask a friend to proofread, too—a new set of eyes often catches errors you missed. And don’t depend on spellcheck, which will catch words when they’re spelled incorrectly but not when there—whoops, they’re—the wrong words altogether.
Read your work aloud. Tune in to the rhythm and sound of your words and listen for their music. You don’t have to write in iambic pentameter, but all words have cadence and sound, both of which should be appropriate for the content. The Gilbert and Sullivan phrase “short, sharp shock” works in comic opera, but you probably wouldn’t want that hissing alliteration and chopping-block stress in a romantic essay.
Cut, cut, and cut again. Start with extra adjectives (you knew I was going to say that), then unnecessary adverbs. But look for bigger cuts, too. Do you really need three paragraphs to describe the décor in the room where the murder takes place? Does the description advance the plot or add depth and character to the story? Maybe one paragraph will do, or one sentence. Or maybe you don’t need a description at all.
Let it rest. Think your work is finished? Think again. Set your manuscript aside for a few days, then come back and take another look. You’ll be amazed how many edits and tweaks and cuts you’ll want to make. You’ll have to stop rewriting eventually, of course, but you’ll be glad you didn’t send your baby out into the cruel world before that last buff and polish.
Do you have a tip that would add to the dozen? We’d love to hear it.—Sally Zakariya
Our columnist: Sally Zakariya’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Tishman Review, Apeiron Review, Broadkill Review, Edge, Emerge, Third Wednesday, and Evening Street Review, and has won prizes from Poetry Virginia and the Virginia Writers Club. She is the author of Insectomania (2013) and Arithmetic and other verses (2011) and the editor of Joys of the Table, an anthology of poems about food and eating. Zakariya lives in Arlington, Virginia, and blogs at www.butdoesitrhyme.com.