Love in the Age of Online Dating

We live in a dating world where the playing field has definitely changed. Gone are the days when someone would actually walk up to you, strike up a conversation, ask for your number, call you, engage in light banter, ask you out, plan a date, show up for the date, and things would progress after you and your date had actually spent time in each other’s presence.

In fact, dear reader, if you are currently dating, when was the last time you got to know someone in that manner?

The last time for me was over two years ago. The guy was Southern and new to Los Angeles. We met online, but he asked for my number after a few messages. He called me, we spoke a few times, and he asked me out. He initiated all of the calls and all of our contact. Our first date was not the requisite coffee meet and greet. Instead, we met at a restaurant and shared a lovely meal. He followed up with more dates, all of which he planned based on my responses to questions about the things I liked to do.

I enjoyed every one of those dates. I enjoyed being courted and treated well. In the end, we both determined we weren’t compatible for the long run, but I walked away from that experience believing that behind the screen, there were honest and genuine people really searching for the real thing. He restored my faith.

I walked away from that experience believing that behind the screen, there were honest and genuine people really searching for the real thing.

The more I speak to people on the subject, however, the more I hear that people are not really dating these days. Even scarier is the idea that most people don’t know how to date. We think that going out with someone, taking walks, showing up with flowers, calling just to “check in,” and being available to another person is too much like a commitment before the commitment.

Correct me if I am wrong, but dating is a commitment. You are committing to getting to know someone before making a decision about being in partnership or trying again with someone entirely new. My question is simply, how does one do that when so many people are scared to even show up as their true, authentic selves?

The more I speak to people on the subject, however, the more I hear that people are not really dating these days. Even scarier is the idea that most people don’t know how to date.

In today’s digital age, dating has a new script: You see a picture of someone, you swipe to the right / send a wink / send a “Hi there, you look fun. We should talk” or some version thereof, exchange some short-verse messages, maybe you exchange phone numbers (but even if you do, you’re still texting), agree to meet, meet and act shy and awkward because it’s a blind date, sort of, and then you decide pretty quickly if you want to see them again—mostly because you know how easy it would be to start all over with somebody new.

Correct me if I am wrong, but dating is a commitment.

The upside is that yes, there are plenty of fish in the sea. The downside is that you’ll never find your fish if you’re always throwing them back.

I’ll just say it: the digital age has messed up how we find and keep love flowing. We replace actual feelings with heart emojis. We break up via text. We get back together with each other via text. We stalk each other’s social media pages; we know the names of “friends” before we even meet them. Our dating lives are constructed online, and we dress the part by taking selfies and pictures of our food to show anyone following us on Instagram that we are, indeed, having a good time. We create personas, and I’m starting to believe that we care more about those personas than actually showing up, with all of our flaws and beauty, to present ourselves as worthy of love.

I’ll just say it: the digital age has messed up how we find and keep love flowing.

Maybe that’s the real issue. We don’t think we are worthy of love.

Or maybe some of us are ready—I like to think I am—but when we put ourselves out there, who is actually ready to meet us?

My last relationship lasted two years and ended when a woman sent me pictures of herself and the man I was dating frolicking in the city. He’d found her on eHarmony a few months earlier. According to the woman, he invited her to come see him over a weekend that he and I were “fighting.” She spent time in his apartment and felt like there was a female presence, so she went looking on his Facebook page, which led to his Pinterest page, which led to me. When she confronted him, he told her that I was his ex-girlfriend and she shouldn’t contact me, but she did.

When I confronted him, he made up an elaborate lie about why she only thought they were together. He told me I should trust him. But the pictures she sent me were taken inside his apartment, and I found his profile on eHarmony and Match, so he couldn’t deny what happened.

Maybe that’s the real issue. We don’t think we are worthy of love.

No matter how hard we try to create perfect online personas, who we are always shows up. The last relationship and the many others I have explored in this digital age have taught me that we all want the same thing: to be accepted. I believed at the end of my last relationship, and I still believe now, that love is a choice. We come into relationships as individuals. We partner with people based on shared goals, morals, and the vision to build something together that can be really special.

It takes a lot of patience to explore this dating field when you are faced with so many apparently empty people, but it’s worth it when you find yourself involved in something special and come to the heavy and deep love that happens when the masks are torn off and the flaws are exposed and beautiful. We all crave this type of love, yet it seems impossible to achieve when we forget that love is ALL faith, trust, hope, compassion, forgiveness and showing up for each other.

We all crave this type of love, yet it seems impossible to achieve when we forget that love is ALL faith, trust, hope, compassion, forgiveness and showing up for each other.

So many of us are afraid to explore the deep emotions—we show up in shallow forms just to attract something. But deep love can’t be nurtured in shallow pools. In order for us to truly find and savor such heavy love, we have to come into our relationships loving ourselves enough to risk being authentic.

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top photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

Thousandth Time

“For the Thousandth Time, I want to Know” is a poem by Mark Nepo from his out-of-print book Inhabiting Wonder.

I first imagined this piece nearly four years ago, and contacted Mark, who generously gave me permission to reprint the poem. It was an ambitious project at the time, and I got about three-quarters of the way through before I abandoned ship. Over the course of a year I designed it, printed it, built all the frames, and scored each sheet by hand eight times and each hinge three times. Then I assembled the first full prototype, and my morale plummeted. It just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. A classic example of what Ira Glass is talking about in this genius little video on beginners, and making things. I let my perfectionist get the better of me and put the whole darn project up high on a shelf, leaving it there to lurk in the corner through three studio moves and countless other projects.

For three years now, I’ve alternated between forgetting about this project and feeling bad about it: guilty, dismissive, or just plain impossible. It’s been entered on to several hundred to-do lists without ever being crossed off. Until about a month ago. Something shifted and “Thousandth Time” moved from the “unfinished old crap” list in my mind to the “new work to be editioned” list. There were a few external motivating factors, but in reality I don’t know what made the the project click over from one side of my mental divide to the other. The good news is it did, which made it feel possible to work on, and voila! Now its many pieces are covering my work table and the edition is more than half completed!

It also feels current, which is perhaps the most interesting thing of the whole matter. Because the fact is that when I began the project it was beyond my ability to execute from a technical standpoint. I could see it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but I simply did not have the experience and hand skills to improve it. Now, coming back to the binding process a good three years later, with a handful of large book editions under my belt plus a lot of one-off blank books, my hands are much more capable! And my eyes can see a lot more. It’s been an unexpected gift to pick up the pieces of this ‘old’ project and experience just how far I’ve come since I started it. Somehow my old self must’ve known it would be important work for my future self to complete.

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“Thousandth Time” is a three-dimensional poetry broadside, printed on Japanese paper and bound on balsa wood frames with two-way hinge so it can open and close in both directions. I’m making it in an edition of 26. The design was inspired by traditional shoji screens, and a few smaller pieces built by Jules Faye for window displays. This broadside folds closed like a book and slips into a protective black soft-sided slipcase – which is a whole ‘nother pile of work. But hey that’s okay! I like work. Doesn’t everyone like work? One more prototype and the slipcases should be ready to edition. The binding process for these screens is challenging and time-consuming. The materials are delicate and finicky and I designed it without considering the grain of the paper. The truth is I derived the overall dimensions from the paper itself, which I found in a dusty old box labeled “Antique Japanese Paper from Ralph” which must’ve been sitting for a couple decades itself. As it happens the grain is running short-wise which means the longer turn-ins are the more difficult ones. Here’s the process in a nutshell: first, I trim the corners of each sheet so that they’ll fold properly. Then I glue the frame to the sheet and place it under boards to dry flat. Now the turn-ins, the most difficult part. Head and tail are turned in first and the corners are wrapped with the tabs (cut in the first step). Then the sides are turned in, with generous amounts of PVA, some swearing, and a few deep breaths. Back under boards to dry flat. Then the hinges are attached to two frames at the same time so they line up, first to the front, then folded and scored against the frame. The last step is joining the two screens together by gluing the hinges on the back. Then back under boards, and they are left to dry closed under weight. This helps the finished pieces stay flat and also lets the hinges relax into their closed position. On a personal note, my mother asked me to print this poem the year after my older brother died. So the project has a lot of grief tied up in it as well, which I am sure has played its own mysterious part in the stymied stop-and-go nature of working on it. I can’t help but note the time of year: there’s something about fall and the days getting darker, a general trend toward introspection that feels appropriate for coming back around to finishing this edition. I spent Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, prototyping the slipcases, which are all black. Who knows why we let certain things go, and when if ever we’re able to pick them back up? Some things can’t be rushed, and sometimes we’re not meant to know. Good craft has a way of being slow, as does healing when there’s a rift in your soul. I’ve thought of my brother Nathan a lot while working on this project, and I will continue to through the many slow hours left to finish it. “Thousandth Time” is dedicated not just to him, but to all of those we love, and see no more.

Artist’s Statement

As a letterpress printer, I work primarily with handset metal type and antique presses. My studio practice is research based and employs strict experimentation alongside no-holds- barred exploration. I collect poetry fragments, expand on them visually, and thread them together to create an experience at once intimate and vast, exposing a sense of wonder and available space. According to Franz Kafka: “a book must be the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.” I aim for my prints to be pages out of that book. Whether an ice-shattering blow or a tiny doorstop, my work holds space at the threshold of imagination and invites the viewer to enter.

About the Press

Expedition Press produces literary-inspired artwork and limited edition poetry books and broadsides. Our mission is to increase access to poetry via multiple beautifully crafted points of entry.

Expedition is also home to a full service letterpress print shop and bindery. Our shop offers a broad range of design and print work rooted in handset type. We’re located in downtown Kingston, WA, just a few blocks from the ferry. The Press is open by appointment.

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top photo by Marco Djallo on Unsplash

Myrna Keliher in her shop.
Myrna Keliher in her shop.

On Making Memoir

Memoir is getting naked in front of a room full of strangers and saying, “Here are my stretch marks, here are my fat rolls, here is my cellulite, and here is the irritating boil on my ass and my reoccurring chin hair.”

One is not allowed to wear Spanx, utilize Instagram filters or self-tanner in memoir. To be authentic, the author has to expose it all — the lovely, the ugly, the funny, and the humiliating. That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.

In revealing one’s experiences – joys, accomplishments, trials, and traumas – the writer is exposed not only to strangers, but to loved ones and friends. It is one thing to stand in front of strangers – unapologetic in one’s nakedness. It is a whole other thing to say, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Mom! Check out this foot-long stretch mark. No, it’s cool. It’s out there. Anyone can just Google my name and see it. Aren’t you proud?”

That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.

This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public. It makes my thumb freeze up over the “Share” button on Facebook when a piece I am proud of is accepted for publication — fearing not only criticism and judgement, but also praise and that confusing-without-the-benefit-of-tone-or-facial-expression response of “Wow!”

However, it is not just my exposure that I need to be concerned with. As a memoirist, I have a moral responsibility to the other people I write about. I can justify showing the world my naked ass without the benefit of Spanx, but I cannot justify lifting my aunt’s skirt over her head, regardless of how important her exposure is to telling my own story authentically.

My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete. That love has taken on many forms over the years — puppy love, obsession and control, unrequited love, abuse, lost love, and motherly love — but the love I always found most easy to access was baited with sex. The psychological, biological, and even astrological reasons for this are some of the subjects I explore in my writing. To write memoir well (to counter that impression of navel-gazing confession by expertly swinging between various theories and confession, so as not to bore the reader), one must ground one’s personal experience with something more solid and research-based.

Unfortunately, this psychologically driven exploration of my life and behaviors leads to the inevitable exposure of others. My father, my step-father, my mother, my friends, my children, my grandfather, my grandmother, my siblings, and my lovers are all placed under a flaw-revealing blacklight. I may be holding that blacklight over my own head (giving myself the most exposure), but they are revealed in the ambient light. They are also reduced to their relationship to me. Their memories and experiences are not fully explored and explained. They are incomplete.

This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public.

This moral responsibility I feel for my characters can be debilitating. I am not afraid to expose my rapists, my abusers, my bullies. As Anne Lamott so wisely stated in her book Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But it is a different matter to expose the sins of my family, their dark secrets, and the roles they may or may not have played in my psychological deformities.

Teachers of memoir writing offer some common techniques to counter this particular struggle. One is to change the names of the characters, and the other is to create a composite character (a character made up of traits from multiple people). These techniques are useful when one is writing about one’s high school bully, best friend, or even a lover (sometimes), but one cannot often disguise one’s parents, family members, or children this way. They will recognize their own cellulite or odd moles, regardless of the fake mustache applied to the lip of their character.

I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share, despite how it affects me, my life, and my relationships. I have changed the names of the characters. I have chopped and edited important scenes. I have attempted to convince myself to submit it as fiction, but I can’t.

My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete.

One might wonder why I bother to write memoir at all. The struggles seem to outweigh the benefits. Why do I put myself or those I love through all of this? Why not just write my story and submit it as fiction? I guess the simple answer is because I truly believe in the power of memoir — specifically, its ability to give others the courage to speak the unspeakable and to allow them to be vulnerable in the face of my vulnerability. Memoir validates my memories and experiences while also validating the memories and experiences of others. All of the anxiety I experience while writing, submitting, reading, and publishing my memoir is temporarily relieved when I receive confirmation of this validation from someone who has read and strongly related to my work. There is an instant intimacy created through our related experiences. And is it not intimacy that I ultimately crave?

I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share.

My first public reading of memoir was in a packed coffee shop filled with my graduate school professors, my fellow students, a few of my friends, and my oldest son. My voice shook through the entire first page; I couldn’t look up from the overly-familiar-from-revision words on the page. The audience laughed, gasped, and “awwww-ed” in all of the right places. And despite my certainty that I would have a heart attack in the middle of this written reenactment of my rape and suicide attempt, I didn’t. After stepping down from the stage to the supportive applause of the familiar crowd, a handsome middle-aged woman in a broom skirt and an oversized knit sweater approached me. She had tears in her kind eyes. “You are incredibly brave,” she said as she embraced me in a surprisingly strong, sandalwood-scented hug. “I experienced something very similar in my teens and I found your story inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with me.” She said all of this as if we were the only two people in the room, and for a moment, it felt like we were.

I have had other moments like this after I have publically read or posted my work. Some express their shared experiences to me in a private message on Facebook, some approach me personally (shy and refreshingly sincere), some confess to me in drunken interactions at the bar. But regardless of how they do it, I feel a powerful sense of validation from this solidarity and shared vulnerability. They see me and I see them, fully and completely — my flawed fellow humans, naked and unapologetic.

top photo by Mohammad Gh on Unsplash

The Theology of Abuse

I read recently about a man who was a faithful member of his church. He was involved with the youth group and hosted summer activities at his farm. And he sexually molested many children and youth.

When the civil authorities finally exposed him as a child predator, the leadership of the church made a plan to discipline and restore him to the community. This man was asked to confess his sins at a members-only meeting of the church. After his confession, the pastor urged everyone to stand “as a sign that you have forgiven him.” And people stood.

Imagine being a teenager, sitting in the pew at your church, looking at the man who has raped you. Then imagine your pastor, your family, your friends, your Sunday School teachers, your choir director . . . imagine everyone who is part of your most important community standing in support of that man.

Imagine being a teenager, sitting in the pew at your church, looking at the man who has raped you. Then imagine … everyone who is part of your most important community standing in support of that man.

This is a particular—and very real—situation, but the presence of sexual abuse in the church is not unique, nor is the church’s poor handling of such abuse. Many churches are taking more precautions in an attempt to prevent sexual abuse in the congregation: requiring windows into children’s classrooms, not allowing adults to be alone with children, running background checks on church volunteers who want to work with children and youth.

All of these actions are important. Practical, commonsense measures should be put in place to minimize the abuse that happens within our faith communities. But in addition to implementing protection policies, Christians have a lot of theological work to do as well.

On Forgiveness

In addition to implementing protection policies, Christians have a lot of theological work to do as well.

I imagine that the pastor who asked the congregation to forgive the sexual predator was considering Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:21–22. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone in the church who has sinned against him. Seven times? Jesus tells him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Still, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words just a few verses earlier: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Yes, the Bible teaches forgiveness. It also proclaims judgment—particularly against those who harm the most vulnerable. When we insist on public forgiveness rituals for sexual predators, we get it wrong on at least two levels.

Yes, the Bible teaches forgiveness. It also proclaims judgment—particularly against those who harm the most vulnerable.

First, people who are not directly victims of the abuse presume to offer forgiveness on behalf of those who were abused. It is not the pastor’s or the congregation’s place to grant forgiveness for the violations done to the most vulnerable in their midst. It is the sole right of victims to grant or withhold forgiveness for themselves; to set the terms by which forgiveness will—or will not—be extended to perpetrators. When pastors and others in the church who were not directly victimized offer forgiveness to abusers, they take even more power away from victims who likely already feel powerless.

We also get forgiveness wrong because it is too often a simplistic substitute for healthy accountability. The church uses “forgiveness” to ensure silence on the subject so that people in the church don’t have to feel bad or uncomfortable. It is a way to allow the abuser to remain part of the congregation because he’s probably a really nice guy—when he’s not raping children—and he possibly gives substantial money to the church as well. This type of forgiveness is significantly easier than true accountability, and it can seem best for the institution in the short run.

In the long run, however, forced forgiveness is deeply damaging for victims and entire communities. Studies show that most people who sexually abuse children are repeat offenders with multiple victims. No matter how sorry an abuser seems, if he is allowed continued access to children and youth, odds are he will abuse again. And again.

On Sexual Shaming

In 2011, according to reporting by 20/20, New Hampshire pastor Chuck Phelps discovered that a member of his congregation had raped and impregnated a teenager. Pastor Phelps’s response to this discovery was to force the teen to stand in front of the congregation and confess her sins.

When pastors and others in the church who were not directly victimized offer forgiveness to abusers, they take even more power away from victims who likely already feel powerless.

Too often in the church world, people are taught that sex is shameful. Sex is only mentioned in terms of sin. The message received, especially by children, is that sex is dirty and yucky (unless you are married and trying to make babies).

Without clear teachings about healthy sexuality, children and youth often view their bodies as potentially dangerous sexual objects. So if they are touched in a sexual way, they can feel confused and deeply ashamed. The people they should be able to turn to in such a situation—their pastor, Sunday School teachers, parents—are likely the people who have taught them this shame.

Too often, when sexual abuse is reported… the victim gets blamed for their sexual sin. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation.

In some cases, if a young person gets up the courage to report, an adult can help them through their confusion and shame. But too often, when sexual abuse is reported, the situation looks like that reported by 20/20: the victim gets blamed for their sexual sin. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation. They fall back on the simple rule: sex between people who are not married to each other is bad; therefore, anyone who engages in sex with someone to whom they are not married is bad—even if the sexual encounter is a result of grooming, coercion, or outright sexual assault.

There are many problems with this simplistic rule for sex. (I commend to you the book Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan.) But in the context of sexual abuse, the primary problem is that the victim is considered just as sinful as the perpetrator. After all, they both “had sex.” And so, in addition to suffering through the abuse itself, victims then face being shamed within their church communities.

On Self-Sacrifice

Several years ago, a student in my Feminist Theology class shared that her mom had stayed in an abusive relationship for years because their pastor told her she should. That it was God’s will for her to suffer, like Jesus suffered on the cross. That such suffering made her holy.

The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering.

Sacrifice is a significant aspect of Christian theology, being linked to Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow him. And the idea that we, at times, must make sacrifices is not a bad—or even an inherently Christian—teaching in its basic content. We sacrifice money for flood victims; time for the local little league team; canned peas for the local food pantry. Maybe we even sacrifice an advancement in our careers for the sake of our family, or the convenience of a car for the sake of the environment. Sacrifice for others can be a good and blessed thing.

But this theological requirement of self-sacrifice is also dangerous, and sometimes lethal, for abuse victims. The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering. Victims are told that if they want to be Christlike they will submit to their abusers—or at least submit to the will of the church leadership by not reporting abuse to outsiders.

People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.

Abuse victims within the church are counseled to sacrifice their pursuit of justice, their own personal comfort and safety, for the sake of the church’s image. The pastors who counsel this may well be concerned with the image of their individual congregation, but the prospect is presented more dramatically to the victim: “If you tell outsiders that someone in the church has abused you, it will make Jesus look bad. You will become a stumbling block that prevents nonbelievers from finding salvation.”

People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.

Toward a Theology of Accountability and Empowerment

The church cannot prevent every instance of sexual abuse—within or outside of religious institutions. But it can do a better job of empowering victims and holding perpetrators accountable. The stories told in church matter. And the way they are told matters. Victims of sexual abuse can be either further victimized or moved toward healing depending on how the church talks about forgiveness and sex and self-sacrifice.

Victims of sexual abuse can be either further victimized or moved toward healing depending on how the church talks about forgiveness and sex and self-sacrifice.

Jesus’ crucifixion—the central story of the Christian faith—is not a simple story of self-sacrifice. It is a story about how political, economic, and religious leaders tried to silence a voice and a movement that threatened their tightly clutched power and precariously balanced systems. If we believe in the resurrection, it becomes a story about how those powers fail—and about how we can be part of bringing them down.

top photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Returning to the Work

I haven’t exactly had writer’s block for the past month, but I haven’t been writing. This is a red flag.

Until a month ago, I maintained a strict writing discipline: I’d wake at 4:30, eat my breakfast and read for an hour, and then sit down at my computer to begin. My goal: write for an hour, at least, before I had to drive to school to teach. For two years, I followed that discipline. Before that, for many years, I wrote every night after I put Mitike to bed; I refused to let myself go to sleep until I had reached at least 1,700 words.

But lately, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a place I know all writers visit at some point, or at many points (because I have read so many memoirs by writers, like Stephen King’s On Writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird). It’s a place that looks like despair, except it also looks like regular life without the requirement to get up at 4:30 a.m. or drink strong coffee at 10 p.m. to reach those 1,700 words. In fact, it’s a more relaxing place. The in-progress novel about the girl whose brother is shot by the police? I no longer have to figure out how to make her reaction both powerful and believable. The other in-progress novel about the high school classroom on lockdown? I don’t have to solve the mystery of why, exactly, they’ve been put on lockdown. The historical fiction about Anna Dickinson? I don’t have to research anymore. The nonfiction work on coffee? I don’t have to walk through my life connecting everything to coffee any longer.

Lately, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a place I know all writers visit at some point, or at many points… It’s a place that looks like despair, except it also looks like regular life without the requirement to get up at 4:30 a.m. or drink strong coffee at 10 p.m. to reach those 1,700 words.

It’s easier to not write. Regular, non-writer people have calmer, far less obsessive lives. I never knew.

I’ve fallen into this place because I’ve been rejected on almost every possible front lately: a PhD program put me coldly on their waiting list; five colleges failed to call me for an interview for their posted composition or creative writing positions; four magazines informed me I have “high-quality work,” but they do not plan to publish the essays I submitted to them; and three writing residencies thanked me for my applications for their summer programs but informed me I am not quite for them. And the two books in the world with my name on them as author make only a few dollars (literally) each month. Only one book waits in the wings: the book of essays on grief, which wonderful Brain Mill Press plans to publish soon.

So, pitying myself, I decided to stop waking up at 4:30. Or, rather, I still get up at 4:30, and then I lie down on the couch and sleep for an additional hour. On the weekends, I choose to read instead of carve out my writing time, as I used to insist to my family I required. I spend my hours outside in our backyard, building a square-foot garden. The kale plants appreciate the water; the cabbage never asks me to turn a beautiful sentence; the eager broccoli never tells me my work is “not for them.”

It’s easier to not write. Regular, non-writer people have calmer, far less obsessive lives. I never knew.

Then, this week, in one of those moments that make my entire teaching career matter, a student came to my classroom to ask for help on a scholarship essay. The student’s name is Nasra Yusuf, or at least that is what I’ll call her here, to protect her identity. Nasra Yusuf has faced nearly every imaginable challenge this year: a Somalian immigrant from a traditional Muslim family, she chose to come out to her family as lesbian this fall and was promptly disowned. Technically homeless now, she lives with a friend’s family and is scrambling to apply for as many scholarships as possible, as her parents refuse to assist her with college unless she renounces her identity as a lesbian. She has endured depression and anxiety, crippling self-doubt, and the grief of standing separated from literally everything and everyone she has known. Secretly, she still prays to Allah for comfort, though she has chosen to take off the hijab, to wear 1980s T-shirts and jeans, to unbraid her long hair and wear it free.

In her scholarship essay, which only needed some editing, Nasra Yusuf describes the way her father called in the Muslim sheikhs to surround her in a prayer intervention when she first came out to her parents, the way she kept herself separate and distant inside even as they chanted, certain in her new awareness of who she is. It is a beautiful and powerful essay—the kind of writing we read because it matters and it’s honest and it reminds us to be honest in our own lives, too.

Technically homeless now, she lives with a friend’s family and is scrambling to apply for as many scholarships as possible, as her parents refuse to assist her with college unless she renounces her identity as a lesbian.

“You’re brave,” I told her, as I often do.

She grinned at me, pushing up her glasses. “Writing about it helps. It really does.” Then she thanked me, gathered her laptop and books, and rushed out to a meeting with another scholarship organization. I sat alone in the sunshine that streamed through the tall classroom windows. Writing about it helps. It does. Of course, I am the one who has taught Nasra Yusuf that this year. Again and again, I have encouraged her to write about her experiences, to discover how she feels by writing herself onto the page. Again and again, I have told her that I have survived the most difficult parts of my life because I have refused to stop writing.

In those times, I didn’t care whether anyone wanted to publish or pay me for my writing. I wrote because I had to. I wrote because I knew that was how I would survive.

And now I’m going to quit because of a handful of rejections?

“You’re brave,” I told her, as I often do. She grinned at me, pushing up her glasses. “Writing about it helps. It really does.”

Last week, I heard the writer Anne Lamott speak about and read from her new book, Hallelujah Anyway. Lamott, who wrote the sage advice in Bird by Bird that a writer should and must create “shitty first drafts” and keep plodding forward, though writing is often tedious and unrewarding misery, reminded us that it’s about the work. She said she remembers that her own father, also a writer, required himself to sit down at his desk every morning by 5:30, no matter what. So you don’t feel successful. So you despair. So you feel like you have nothing left to say. So what? It is the work that matters. In Bird by Bird, Lamott explains, “…this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”

I never used to write because I wanted recognition or fame or money. From age nine, I have written because I felt compelledto write. I wanted to feel more alive. And Nasra Yusuf is right: it helps. It does.

So you don’t feel successful. So you despair. So you feel like you have nothing left to say. So what? It is the work that matters.

Starting right now, I am returning to my green chair in my orange writing room in our house. I am returning to my 5:30 a.m. writing routine. I have reopened the in-progress novels, the half-written essays. I have returned to my old requirement for myself: write, every day, no matter what.

Writing, of course, is not much different from the spinach and onion and collard green seeds I’ve planted in my square-foot garden. The work is what matters. Something might grow, and it might even be good — but for now, I’ll keep watering, I’ll keep scaring away the rabbits, and I’ll wait.

top photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash