Short Story Club Selections for January 2022

Our stories for January 2022 are…

“The Killers,” by Ernest Hemingway (1927)


“New York Day Women,” by Edwidge Danticat (1996)


“Jubilee,” by Kirsten Valdez Quade (2013)

We will gather online in January 2022 to discuss.

Want in? Comment on this post and I will send you more information.

Vocal Improvisation and Functional Empathy

I hear the two-year-old growling in the other room and I hope the eight-year-old will entertain him long enough that I can squish together some words here. I think about how he just turned two, and that maybe in a year we can introduce to him the trajectory onto which I was delivered as an almost-two-year-old: Violin lessons. And then I think about the fact that he is growling right now, in the other room, hopefully at his brother and not at some (other) scary thing hunched the corner, waiting to tackle him, and I wonder, “When will the growling turn into words?” Because, frankly, inserting into Suzuki Method violin lessons a toddler who still naps and maybe even still nurses (leave your judgment at the door, please) is borderline impossible, but to do so with one who isn’t using words yet has crossed said line and is firmly planted in the realm of absolutely batshit.

I started violin lessons before my first memory. I learned how to hold a crackerjacks box between my chin and shoulder before I knew how to tie my shoes or to sleep through the night without waking my sister, who unluckily slept in the same room. (“She’s crying!” she’d yell at the baby monitor. Whether or not anything was done about this, no one recalls.) I stood for hours on a cardboard circle with little feet traced in different colors to represent where rest position and ready position were. Practicing played out in about the same way each attempt. It always began with the prelude:

Mom: “Erin, it’s time to practice.”
Me: Either ignoring her or responding by leaving the room
Mom: “Erin, it’s time to practice.”
Me: Planting myself in the rocking recliner situated in the corner of the sunroom, a long way from anywhere Mom was, and putting on my headphones
Mom: “Erin, where are you?”
Me: Rocking in my chair
Mom: Coming to find me rocking in a chair in the dark corner, headphones essentially strapped to my ears
Me: Straight up refusing, which looked different depending on the phase of childhood
Mom: Enlisting outside help (ie, Dad)
Me: Pissed. But giving in.

Am I ready to do this with a toddler of my own? One whose only modes of communication is foot-stomping, screaming and, apparently, growling?

Whether or not I submit to such suffering is beyond my ability to predict right now, especially given the fact that I have, up until very recently, a confusing relationship with music.

Clearly, I grew up playing (rather, trying to play, or at least learning to play) classical violin. In fifth grade, I started percussion in school. A little after that, I took off singing. I went on to study classical vocal performance in college. Now, I work as a music therapist. Before the pandemic, I’d been working with adults with developmental disability, most of whom do not use speech to communicate. I aimed to use the music, and the clients’ vocalizations, to serve as a means of communication. I improvised with my voice and guitar and worked to match with the music how I perceived the clients to be feeling or interacting. It was hard. It is hard.

A few weeks ago, I attended a Songtaneous session, born of and facilitated by Sarah M. Greer. Four or five strangers Zoomed into a room wherein we improvised with our voices. The whole session was vocal improvisation, which is (for some) intimidating in person and (for many) terrifying online. (Greer is a professional; she took us through the audio set-up beforehand.)

There is something about this facilitated discomfort that teaches me how to listen and when to lead. To seek the struggle of vulnerability in this way is maybe the closest I might come to experiencing the frustration of silence when I want to speak (perhaps in my clients’ cases) and inability to express in a way that is seemingly so easy and common (in my toddler’s case). To practice this discomfort is to come closer to empathizing in a useful way. I can learn to sit in something difficult, to endure the anxiety, and know that the time inside it will pass, just as everything passes.

I often grumble that I don’t remember how to learn new skills. Because I was so little when I learned to play violin, I can’t recall the difficulty of acquiring all of the skills that need to be broken apart into bite-sized segments to be chewed on for months before they can be combined to make any kind of sense. I do remember my mother working diligently to get me to practice (see above), and I know I didn’t like that. But the actual act of skill building, and the sometimes painful pieces that that involves, is not really part of my repertoire. So now, as an adult, I am immediately pissed that I can’t do a new thing well. I am easily frustrated and annoyed. Don’t ever try to coach me on anything, especially if you’re my husband.

Vocal improvisation affords the opportunity to practice all of this; singing, with strangers, songs that aren’t songs that haven’t been composed yet. In this, I’m learning how to be uncomfortable. I’m learning to engage my discomfort in order to imagine how other people might live in the world. Not everyone has words at the ready. Not everyone gets to be heard, or to have others’ attention. Maybe I can best serve others by learning better how to step out of my comfort.

Here’s hoping my two-year-old continues making his voice heard, however that may be.

By the way, Sarah M. Greer is facilitating a Songtaneous session this coming Saturday, December 11, at 2:00 PM CST. I’ll be there. I challenge you to attend.

Also: I offer a bi-weekly newsletter I call Stories About Telling Stories. In it, I list podcast recommendations, journals and newsletters to follow, stories I’ve found out in the wild that you might love, and a general round-up of all the things I’m doing lately. Here is the last one I published, so you know what you’d get. I’d be thrilled if you’d subscribe. 🙂

Jerry Is a Stray That I Want to Sleep on My Pillow

A twitchy orange tomcat named Jerry doesn’t belong to me, but damn it if I want to bring him inside, give him milk, check him for bugs, groom him however cats tolerate such an ordeal, and just generally domesticate him so that he will turn into a mama cat and have kittens in my room.

This is to say Jerry is not a cat. Jerry doesn’t roam around a farm somewhere in Iowa and feast on field mice and fight with badgers. This is to say Jerry doesn’t come around the house every so many weeks to see what cats are hanging around on the porch. This is to say Jerry doesn’t exist, exactly.

But he does. It does. Jerry is this thing I’m doing. Jerry wanders around, just like my interests. He is old and ratty, much like this writing I do. Inconsistent and underfed, but scrappy. It’s out there, roaming about.

I set it loose when I was in third grade, I’m guessing. This past weekend when we were at my parents’ for Thanksgiving, my mom brought out my contribution to my elementary school’s Invention Convention. My recollection is that this convention was like a science fair, but for elementary school kids’ inventions.

“Hey Erin, what would you like to invent?”

Third grade Erin: “Hm. Let’s see. Oh, I got it. How about a big board that I could wear like a bag? Like, a really big board, but maybe Dad could do all the work and build two boards together, and we could call it a ‘box.’ So it will be a big board-box thing that I could wear with some elastic as a strap or something, and that could carry around all my third grade writing supplies — like this pen I’m using that says PROPERTY OF ERIN on it — and then I could always have a desk with me whenever I want to sit down and write a story.”

“Are you frequently in need of a hard surface? Are you often at a place where there are no tables or desks? Or floors? Do you live on a prairie? In the woods, maybe?”

“No. I don’t see your point.”

The Story Box exists and takes up (a lot of) space, but Jerry doesn’t, really.

But Jerry meanders about. I fed him a lot when I was in elementary school, on through middle school, but then when high school came, Jerry was more often neglected than nurtured. I didn’t know what diseases Jerry carried in his gaunt little frame; maybe he would stay home on the farm when I left for college. Who knows what other things I could do in college? College, where instead of creative writing or journalism, I majored in a much more high-paying field: music.

I left him home to fend for himself or go out in the cold and die. I didn’t know whether he’d make it, and I wasn’t sure if I should care.

And now here I am, deeply embedded in adulthood. I’ve seen glimpses of Jerry in the past few years. He yowls, and his fur is patchy. He hasn’t eaten for long stretches of time. He’s been ignored, but he perseveres. So I’ve been throwing him some scraps and putting out some tepid water when I think of it. He comes around more often now. I even see him sit and attempt to groom himself; he’s trying to get better.

I’m thinking of him again, in a new light. I’m no longer wielding a 10-pound box on my person to use as an oversized cradle for him should I be too far from any hard surface. I am prepared, now, for him to come around more often as I have, well, a real adult desk (or a table, in a pinch) and a few pockets of time in my week. Yes, I have little kids who need constant care. But I kinda wanna take care of Jerry, too. I kinda want him to get healthy and come by every day. Or if he is determined to go on walkabout, at least when he comes back I could collect whatever pieces of the outdoors from his back to meld into some kind of writing. Maybe he could even come indoors with me, lie down on the bed. Snuggle up. And whoops, maybe Jerry isn’t a tomcat, but a lady, pregnant with a bunch of ideas for me to take care of, too.

I think my real, human kids would like a cat hanging around.

Unintentional Bookshelf Decolonization

I was in middle school, maybe, when my mom and I helped re-seed a trail over a small number of indigenous burial mounds that had been worn down by hikers in our nearby state park. I remember distinctly that we and a dozen or so other volunteers formed something of an assembly line that snaked around the burial mounds. We moved dirt and grass seed and water down the line. We dug out an appropriate path that lead around the mounds. The whole process took maybe an hour.

I remember very vaguely there was someone from a local tribe who blessed the new grass seed. I was intrigued by the process. Probably the hikers who trod the trails over the mounds were ignorant about what was underfoot. Likely, no one had any clue.

I went to a pow wow once when I was in high school. I was entranced by the dancing, of course, and the importance of detail. But even though I was curious, I never did learn much about the indigenous people. I didn’t even know our local tribes.

I have heard the phrase “decolonize your bookshelf” quite a lot over these past few years, but I didn’t realize that I was in the process of doing it, somewhat unintentionally. I have not read — as in read in print — any books lately by indigenous authors (though I did read the novel “There There” by Tommy Orange semi-recently), but I have been listening to a number of podcasts by and about indigenous peoples for a while.

I have to share this tweet about the whole listening-to-is-not-reading debate bullshit:

Randi Jo
As a Mohawk librarian, when I defend audiobooks, it’s personal. My people were telling stories orally long before stories came packaged in book form. There are many ways to “read” something. There are a thousand ways to tell a story.

Find the whole thread here.

In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, check out these podcasts:

I have a lot to learn and re-learn.
Stay curious. I’m trying.