Narrating my Life: Six Vignettes

The following short narratives were a project assigned in WRA 455, Portfolio Seminar, one of my final classes at MSU. They are meant to tell the story of my personal and professional life as it appears as a college senior.

I. Place-making

We were all issued bikes as part of our residential package at the dorm. I picked mine for its cherry-red paint (to match my helmet, which was red according to the size of my head), tried to switch when I saw how dented it was, and then resigned myself to the dents for the sake of the color.

Our first trip was on a hot September afternoon through a city I knew nothing about. I found a route to the 100 yen store after much trial and error, and although it was by far the least convenient, stuck to it for the better part of eight months. I bought storage units and craft supplies and bread. On the way back, it poured rain horizontally on us (me, the bike, and my purchases) and I trial-and-errored my way home in the dark.

The landmarks of that maiden voyage—the corner with the roadside shrine, the red-and-white Big Boy banner, the world’s ugliest apartment complex—became landmarks that told me home was near. I existed somehow out of the loop of the other students, who learned names like Solar Road and Castle Town, and called them instead by the ramen shops and karaoke clubs along them. They were my first claim to a foreign land, the starting point from which I made Japan my temporary home.

Once I rode by a tree ripe with cicadas, droning their life’s song into the humid sky, and looked sideways into their beady blue eyes. I straightened my legs and leaned forward as I raced down the hill, insects and sunning lizards fleeing before my cherry-red bicycle and me.

II. I Write Better than I Run

I was running back to my dorm, for at least the third time that semester. By this point I’d figured out exactly how much time a round trip between Bessey Hall and my room on the far side of Snyder took (15 minutes), and knew that I would make it back just in time to be fashionably late. I feel, however, that showing up sweaty and pink faced automatically takes away the fashionable part.

For only the third time, I wished I lived in Phillips, which I was just passing. Everyone knew that it was the worse dorm, for all that it was connected to Snyder and had been renovated at the same time. At least I didn’t live in Mason-Abbot—they were slightly further away and observably grosser. I live there now and I can vouch for it. But at the time, shaking off that unpleasant possibility, I reached the door of my hall with a great sense of relief.

I threw myself up the two flights of stairs, rushed into my room, and informed my roommate that I was stupid. There it was, again right where I’d left it—my yellow binder with my editing memo inside. I checked to make sure I hadn’t been extra stupid that morning and left the memo somewhere else, and ran out the door again.

Seven and half minutes later, I snuck back into class only a little late. I turned in my memo with everyone else’s and did my best to slow my breathing enough to pay attention. Because I have asthma as well as a tendency to leave things behind, I actually had to use my inhaler to recover from my brief (very brief) run (which was actually half walking). But all my self-inflicted suffering was vindicated the next week, when my memo was returned with the highest grade in the class.

III. The Ritual

I like working with bread dough because it is as smooth, pillowy, and warm as the skin on my stomach. I feel that I am connecting with something purer and closer to the wellspring of life when I cover my hands in the beginnings of food. I know that my ancestors, the ones in Michigan and the ones in Czechoslovakia and the ones in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, stood in their version of a kitchen and folded their version of bread over and over again upon itself until it was good enough to eat. Then they left it in a warm place, where rising bread belongs and I feel certain that all the pre-Bridget women knew they belonged, too. Afterwards they punched it down, right in the middle, maybe calling their children to do the punching to leave a print of themselves in the meal, just like I was called to do by my mother. And when they laid it in the oven, or rolled it into little kolache balls and sprinkled on the poppyseed or cinnamon sugar, they knew they had a half-hour of rest before the wheel of life began to turn again. They baked until golden brown and let the crusty, buttery smell waft throughout their homes, whether their home was a suburb outside of Portland or a second-story apartment in Japan. While they waited, they set their husbands to wash the mixing bowl the beaters the kitchen counter and let the oil and flour form a crust on their hands. And when the bread of life was transfigured from pale, sun-shy skin to something with heels at both ends, they broke it, and ate, and it was good.

IV. The Last Day

In my tenth year of riding horses I looked across the arena at Halle and was sick to my stomach. I could not breath deeply enough or possess my legs to move so that I could get up on her back. Instead, I ran her in circles until she was tired, brushed her more thoroughly than usual, and put her way in the barn.

Somewhere along the line I’d started using two ties in the aisle instead of just one; warming up for twice as long as I rode; using a crop in addition to reins. Every day I added one of these habits to my routine, it was yet another day that should have been the last. But the more should-have-been-last-days I counted, the harder it was to explain.

I dreamed of the warm, chocolatey smell of horseflesh. She had been steady and true until she wasn’t anymore, and left me before I had the chance to leave her. I told Sooky that all the good horses go to heaven (and she was a very good horse, even if she left me) and asked her to visit my grandmother who fed doughnut holes to dogs.

I dreamed of wind and hoof-flight. The movement of a creature’s back beneath me, the knowledge that it could smell my fear and my bravery. Being tucked away in a warm arena when the storm doors are rattling. A cup of cocoa waiting in the car after a long evening’s work.

I had one great love, and when she left me, I continued like the undead for three years. I dragged my carcass up to Washington and said I still blamed myself, instead of saying that I had anxiety, instead of saying that I didn’t have enough love left to keep going.

V. That Thing I Wrote on a Notecard

I am not my brother, whose dream was written in magnets on the kitchen fridge before I knew how to read (make/games/like/never/before), but that thing I wrote on a notecard and folded away in my pocket in September of 2015 is still true.

When I was still in the phase of my life where I read pirated comics online illegally, voraciously, I happened upon one written in a language not my own but brought to me through some lucky quirk of shared interest. Someone had found it and someone else had translated it and someone else had prepared it and posted it online. There was a field of flowers next to a long, straight road and the option to leave the road for the wider, slower, sweeter field. It moved me.

And I knew, because I had been moved, that there were other people in the world who might need to be moved, as well. So what I wrote down on my notecard was that belief/goal/calling, to connect stories around the world with the people who need them.

I studied editing and grammar and Japanese, and I saw translations needing an editor badly, and I read about the localization of foreign texts. Each time I’m asked, I have a clearer answer to what I want to do with my life (what I hope to be able to do with my life). There will be words making a long journey over time and space and landing, improbably, in the lap of someone who just then realizes they were waiting. If I have a hand in it somewhere along the line, somewhere between its translation and its publication, I think I will count that a dream achieved.

VI. Always Oregonian

I grew up in the embrace of mountains
In a desert river ocean state
An arts-and-culture city
A compost-and-recycling house.

Wherever I looked was a blue ridge
And a snow capped peak,
Rising cheekily above the highway
(55 miles per hour)
Into the damp grey sky.

I learned that the valley was fertile
Enough to grow me wide and tall
But not enough to make me bold
Until I went away from it

So I crossed the country
To this smooth, divided lake-land
And again to an island
And another nest of hills

I have a pair of seven-league boots
And they carry me home,
Now and then
And all the furniture is too small
But the mountains remain

They grew me too short
To see over their watercolor peaks
But tall enough to wonder
And cross to the other side

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