My little siblings might be my new muses

Over vacation, I read my kid siblings the beginning of my chapter book for kids.

My 9-year-old sis said to tell her when I was done so she could order it from the library. I told her I’d have her read it before it was published.

A day later, I explained the concept of publishing to my 7-year-old brother.

In the meantime, my 11-year-old sister read me the first chapter of her superhero book and (unquestionably) out-wrote me all week — she was finishing chapter five when I left. I only added a 69-word paragraph to my story.

It was cool. Not just their interest, but seeing my baby sister embrace the writing process. She had two notebooks: one for her book, the other for doodles with a single page where she wrote down “the plot” (her words). It felt familiar — seeing her curled silently over her spiral bound notebook, pencil in hand, scribbling away the blank rows. It was almost like I was watching my younger self at work. And now, I’m home and that’s what I want to do. Put words together. Map out stories and then quit sitting on them, actually write, from beginning to middle to end.

Stories from my grandfather’s life

Last week, I was privileged to spend two and a half days with my grandparents. A lot of that time was spent in my grandfather’s office, where he opened a leather case containing the files of his life and unpacked stories.

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I now have a pad full of notes, a sampling of his past thoughts to read, and more than five hours of recordings. Something will be written.

Good Reads: Investigating cults, drug mules, and Martin Luther King

This is the fifth in a new series of weekly posts recommending well-written narrative nonfiction/longform articles.

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself: Going undercover with a cult infiltrator by Nathaniel Rich, Harper’s

David Sullivan, a private investigator in LA who specialized in cults, passed away last October, shortly before this article was published. The piece tells the story of his investigative work, beginning with his initial fascination with cults and the following realization:

The spiritual groups, he soon realized, shared a simple tactic: they demanded that their followers suspend critical thought. “They’d say, ‘You have to break out of your Western mentality. You’re too judgmental. You have to abandon your whole psychological-intellectual framework. Your obsessive materialism is blocking you from seeing the truth.'”

A quick-moving piece broken up by somewhat disturbing scenes of a cult leader brainwashing a young women.

[NOTE: This piece is NOT appropriate for all ages.]

The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-year-old Drug Mule by Sam Dolnick, New York Times Magazine

At first glance, you would never guess it: this elderly, seemingly innocent grandpa of a man primarily interested in horticulture, ferried some of the Sinaloa drug cartel’s largest shipments of cocaine. Looks are deceiving.

How the FBI Tried to Block Martin Luther King’s Commencement Speech by Martin Dobrow, The Atlantic

More historical than artistic, this piece tells the unheard story of the government’s attempts to keep MLK from sharing his “controversial” ideas in a college commencement speech. Spoiler alert: The FBI lost.

What do you suggest?

NYC Week Fifteen: How New York City Beat Arson

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

This week, after a long, drawn-out research process that often had me missing the forest for the trees, I finally finished my internship piece to my editor’s satisfaction and he published it on City Limits’ web site.

It is by no means the best thing I’ve ever written, but I wrote it. I did the work (with direction), mapped out the piece, and wrote the 2,000-ish words.

It begins:

On June 14, 1974, an apartment building at 180 Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, went up in flames and took the lives of Carmen Molina and two children who, with the rest of their family—the children’s father and another daughter—were preparing to move out of the building.

The Molinas lived on the building’s third and top floor. The fire escape was gated and locked. The father, Miguel, jumped from the third floor to get help, but on impact, broke multiple bones.

Sonia, 9, the middle daughter, was spending the night in her grandmother’s home not far away. At dawn, she and her grandmother woke to pounding on the door. It was Sonia’s aunt, come with news of the fire.

Read more.

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Mother’s Day. I talked to my mom for almost three hours.

Monday: Finished revising my piece for my internship. Worked out.

Tuesday: Work. Worked out.

Wednesday: Internship over, so I stayed home and worked my creative muscles.

Collage

Thursday: Work. Worked out.

Friday: Work. Wrote and read before bed.

Saturday: Read longform articles in preparation for Monday’s post in my new series of blog posts. Choir practice. Ran and then took a walk, because the indoors are confining and, guess what? It was beautiful outside!

Next week, I’m traveling to Indiana for my college commencement, so most of my week won’t be spent in the City. But no worries — I’ll still post for Week Sixteen, the final weekly NYC post. After that, my Good Reads posts will continue and, hopefully, I’ll have some freelance work to link to.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share related thoughts below.

NYC Week Fourteen: 10 things I miss about home and school (aka rural America)

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

I’d just settled on the bench, purse and my bag of leftover food from work on my lap, one per leg. Done with work, time to wait for the F train and go home.

“Meredith?”

I looked up to see a familiar face, soft round features I recognized but couldn’t place. Danny’s, I knew that’s where I knew her from but . . . I felt my brain sputtering to find a name. None came.

“It’s Kyle,” she said.

Kyle. Yes. That’s right. The name I was trying to remember was wrong — I was thinking of her doppelganger who’d worked nextdoor.

“Is this for real?” she asked, half smiling.

“Yeah.” My only word. Still in shock.

“Do you live in the city?”

The M train screeched to a stop. The doors opened.

“Yeah.” Again, all I could manage.

“All right — me, too. I have to get on this train, but it’s good to see you.”

“Yeah.”

She climbed aboard. I stayed where I was, smelling tbsp on me, thinking of Danny’s, and trying to soak in what just happened.

In a city of 8 million strangers, I’d run into someone I knew from home.

Growing up in small town America — “small town” meaning a town with two main intersecting roads and no traffic light — running into someone I knew required only that I step out the front door. Or the back door. Neighbors, even if I didn’t know them well, I always greeted with a “how’s it going” when I passed them in their driveways on my way to the library, bank, post office, or park. I only didn’t vocally greet neighbors if I was running or if they were the creepy ones. But I took for granted that I’d see people I knew — even if I traveled 45 minutes to the nearest Walmart, I expected to run into a familiar face.

It’s not like that here. There’s one older short, black man I end up on the same bus and train with every once in a while. We nod our acknowledgements and occasionally shrug our shoulders at each other in response to weirdos on the F. But that’s it. And my not seeing people I know isn’t just because I don’t know anyone — even New York natives are surprised when they run into a friend on the street.

There are a lot of things I miss about home and school, living in the City. Most of them have to do with fundamental differences between rural America and urban life, and most of them I rarely thought about before living here. Running into familiar faces is one. Below are nine more.

1. Going “the back way” on quiet dirt roads canopied by trees.

There’s nothing like following a long day of work with a quiet drive through the hills. The roads are narrow — I typically pray the whole time that no one will come the other way — but the silence, the scenery, and the dirt and stones your tires kick up as you ride over hole after hole is well worth it.

2. Air that smells like water, dirt, and trees — not exhaust fumes, smoke, and dust.

Because even the exhaust coming out the back of your little 2001 Corolla doesn’t ruin what the trees and creeks are giving back. And let’s face it — people, even when they try to smell good, still smell bad.

3. Local food that’s actually local, as in you picked it yourself in your backyard or your neighbor’s field.

If it’s not in season, it’s not fresh and it’s not local. Strawberries are one of the first crops to ripen. Then raspberries, then tomatoes, then blueberries, apples, corn, potatoes. Picking, processing, and freezing things yourself is the best (though labor-intensive).

4. Backyards with enough room to play volleyball, soccer, and run through a sprinkler — all with their own space.

This would be my backyard at home. And a lot of my neighbors’. Plus, there’s a park two blocks away with basketball court, playground, baseball diamond, and enough grass for casual soccer and football games to take place simultaneously. When I’m home for less than 24 hours in a week and a half, I’m going to find some grass and roll in it.

5. Fresh roadkill venison you don’t think twice about eating because you know who hit it and when.

I grew up eating more deer meat than beef, and I miss it like crazy. It’s a meat you eat and still feel healthy afterward. At least, I do. And yes, a lot of what I ate was hit by someone’s car. These things happen on dark, curvy roads at night. No reason to let the animal go to waste.

6. Open fields, open roads, and open roads next to open fields.

One of my favorite views is driving home south on 205, where the road runs along the hillside and the valley lies spread out beside it, trees, fields, a barn here and there. You realize how big this one corner of the world is, and then how big the world must be in comparison, and how small you are. And you quiet.

7. Quiet.

No trains rumbling past. No airplanes or helicopters flying low overhead. Cars, but few buses, little honking, screeching brakes typically belonging to teenagers or a tractor-trailer or that guy nobody likes. Sirens, but not constantly and always making way for a crew of emergency personnel you trust, because you know them. They live down the street.

8. Trees. Good for climbing or just sitting under.

Maybe an evergreen or a maple. And if it’s maple, best if someone taps it in the spring for sap — thus, real maple syrup. Trees are everywhere: the front, back, and side yards; the edges of the park, all over the hills that border you on every side. In the fall, they’re the best: orange, yellow, red, evergreen. In the winter: snow-tipped, the pines looking like frosted shredded wheat or something equally sugary and delicious. In the spring: new leaves, like a new page of a new life, budding from thickening branches. In the summer: green, green, green. All shades.

9. A clear, cool creek you can wade in barefoot and follow under the road and into town in one direction, or up the hill and into the woods the other way.

Toward what we like to call “civilization” or away from it, into what actually looks more orderly and less chaotic than anything people put together. No honking bus drivers or swearing cabbies, no swerving around or weaving through slow-but-not-really lanes of traffic, no derailing trains or flooding subway stations — because there aren’t any. Just you and creation. And the reality that, yes, this is good.

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Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church. Worked out (my route in 10:38 plus sprints and various other things).

Monday: Internship. Worked out (included 51 push-ups).

Tuesday: Work. Worked out (sprints with my housemate, plus core).

Wednesday: Internship. Worked a catering event for Spoon.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Work. Made a specific goal of applying to writing jobs this weekend. Ran into Kyle while waiting for the train to come home.

Saturday: Mother’s Day brunch at church (always a weird thing to be part of as a woman who’s nowhere near motherhood). Choir. Worked out (highlight: box jumps on the front step). Did laundry. Read narrative nonfiction/longform articles (reading recommendations coming tomorrow). Wrote this blog post.

NYC Week Thirteen: The fight to stay fit

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

It’s a battle I’ve been losing.

Sure, I ran 1.4 miles today in 10:38. Sure, I followed it up with sprints and crunches and pushups. Sure, I got my heart rate up and didn’t feel awful. But I am not where I was three months ago, when I was working on getting to a pull-up, doing weighted squats, deadlifts, going hard for an hour at least three, if not four or five, times a week.

I felt my muscles begin to atrophy months ago, when I was here in the dead of winter with snow piled on the ground and no gym membership or free weights to get me moving indoors. Transition periods are always tough for me; the things I love — music, creative work (i.e. arts and crafts), Bible time, physical activity — typically fall to the wayside, even though doing those things keeps me healthy and functional.

Yesterday, I decided, with the arrival of May and nice weather (even when it’s raining), excuses for not working out are no longer an option. So in the evening (after a pre-afternoon workout with my housemate, choir practice, and grocery shopping), I sat down on my bed with the one permanent marker I brought to the City and a paper bag I’d brought home from work (the only blank paper I currently have). After unfolding the bag and flattening it out, I cut off a piece, brought a desk drawer over to use as a platform, and drew lines across the paper, dividing the space into a graph of the days of the week and the hours of the day, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Then, I filled in my known schedule — internship, work, church, choir — and started eyeing empty space for working out.

I realized, in this process, that working out isn’t the only thing I’ve neglected over the past three months: I haven’t made a single thing since I came here. Cutting up that paper bag and writing on it is the closest I’ve gotten to a craft. I’ve saved things — brochures, clippings from newspapers, programs — but I haven’t even attempted a collage, because . . . I don’t have glue.

Arts and crafts are a natural pasttime for me. My family sees potential where others see trash. It’s part of living cheaply, and it’s also just part of who we are. My mom collects postage stamps and uses them for decoupage on homemade boxes. My little brother makes stuffed animals and dolls out of random pieces of fabric. I used to make bags out of hole-y jeans and, just last summer, made an apron out of two pieces of discarded clothing. Scissors, glue, needle, thread — that’s really all that’s necessary for any of this and, yet, I haven’t made a single thing. I haven’t even touched the knitting I brought with me.

And that’s not all: Yesterday, after choir practice, I sat down at the piano to try and play a song I’m singing with another girl for special music. My fingers were stiff and clumsy — nowhere near where they were in January, after finishing a semester of piano lessons that had me playing Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven. I realized: I haven’t played piano since I was at Taylor, and now I feel like a true novice.

Weaker, weaker, weaker . . . that’s how I feel in all of these areas — even writing, unfortunately. The only place I feel stronger is my faith, and that’s because I’ve actually been reading my Bible on a regular basis. But all of these other areas, they’re important, too. They’re part of me as a multi-interest individual who thrives on new experiences, learning, growing. They keep me in tune to the possibilities around me and aware of the potential in random inanimate objects, as well as people. They improve my brain function, rhythm, coordination. And they keep me healthy, confident, and strong.

Looking at my paper bag schedule for this week, I’m realizing it’s not just working out I need to work on. It’s also creativity, piano, and wordsmith-ing.

The battle I’ve been losing isn’t over, yet. There’s still a chance I can turn things around, regain some core strength, pick up the pace, have something to show for these four months other than bitten nails, worn-out jeans, and poor posture. This week — and the rest leading up to May 24 (my college commencement) — that’s the goal. Improvement.

 

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church.

Monday: Internship. Work. Worked out again with TMIRCE. This time, it was their track workout, which I was hoping would be more up my alley. Turned out, they still run the track for distance: we did long intervals adding up to three miles. It killed me.

Squats TMIRCE

(Note: My squat stance is a bit wide, but it was literally the only way my exhausted legs could pull off the motion. That’s how out of shape I am.)

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Internship. Work. Choir. Church.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Work.

Saturday: Worked out with my housemate. Choir practice. Grocery shopping. Paper bag scheduling.

NYC Week Twelve: A conglomeration of thoughts

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

Time is currency. And this week, mine was spent — in research and at work. With it went my energy, so rather than sitting at my desk for three-plus hours, badgering myself to write something worth reading, I present the following: a conglomeration of thoughts, quoted and original, that I’ve written down over the past three months. Enjoy.

“There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity. . . . Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.” ~ Roger Angell, “This Old Man“, The New Yorker

“Your art is a gift to people.” ~ Will Smith

“Like a muscle, creativity is a ‘use it or lose it’ capability.” ~ Barbara Diane Barry, “How Painting Helped Me Overcome Life’s Roadblocks“, Greatist.com

“You can’t make any sense of any fact without putting it into any sort of narrative structure.” ~ Tim Keller

“Is there any meaning for me in life that the inevitable death does not destroy?” ~ Tolstoy

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” ~ Jesus, Luke 21:33

“Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.” ~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

Start a story in the middle of action, but not with the heart of the action. Let that come later.

“Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” James 4:17

“God gives us scary stuff sometimes, but He doesn’t make us do it by ourselves.” The world is full of people who don’t know God and, thus, in the face of eternity, panic. “We should not look like that.” ~ Dr. Aaron Housholder, Taylor University chapel message

“Stay with me; do not be afraid, for he who seeks my life seeks your life. With me you shall be in safekeeping.” 1 Samuel 22:23

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21

“God has not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord . . . but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the Gospel according to the power of God.” 2 Timothy 1:7&8

“If I don’t have jack, my eye still be on the sparrow.” ~ KB, “Be All Right

“Pride always has shame and ruin at its heels.” ~ Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

If New York was London and chimney sweeps were still a thing, the sweeps would have turf battles on the rooftops with graffiti artists. (Ride the 7 train to Queens and look out the windows — you’ll understand.)

“We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4

“If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Galatians 1:10c

“The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” Galatians 3:24

A person in a library containing all the world’s books would never sit down and try to write his own.

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

“If your salvation is by grace alone, it is kept by grace alone.” ~ Vincent Sawyer

 

Best thing I read this week (outside of the Bible): “In Deep: The dark and dangerous world of extreme cavers” by Burkhard Bilger. This, folks, is what I want to write.

 

Bringing you up-to-date:

This week sapped me of energy and kept me occupied.

Sunday: Easter. Church, lunch with the landlords. This precious moment.

Monday: Internship. Interviewed a Harvard professor, as well as a founder of one of Brooklyn’s community development organizations.

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Internship. More research at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library.

Thursday: Work. This:

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(If you’re thinking, “What’s Parkour?” here’s an example.)

Friday: Work.

Saturday: Work.