Gregory Martin Interview

When pursuing an art, sometimes the most intimidating parts can be the simplest: how does one start, how does one keep at it, what can one do to optimize what one has created. As in any pursuit, when looking for answers we look to those that are currently doing it, and even excelling at it. Gregory Martin is the author of Stories for Boys and Mountain City, both highly acclaimed memoirs, as well as many different essays appearing in magazines and publications like The Kenyon Review and Creative Nonfiction. Mr. Martin teaches Creative Writing at University of New Mexico, and even taught our very own Jeremy Collins. Our conversation with Martin covered questions of writing, the process, and what we can learn to become writers. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions:

C: What was your writing schedule like in high school, when and how long would you write?    

GM: I didn't have any kind of writing schedule in high school.  But I did write a lot for school—mostly the standard kind of analysis of literature / history papers — but when I was given a creative assignment (like a play or a short story) I went after it with a lot of energy and effort.

C: How did that schedule change transitioning and advancing through college?  

GM: In college, I didn't have any writing schedule, either.  But I did take a creative writing class as a sophomore, and that really gave me a sense of the different genres, especially a better sense of poetry, which I started writing a lot of after that—mostly melodramatic bad poetry.  At that time, I didn't write much unless I felt melancholic, sorry for myself, or deeply moved by what I took to be the absurdity of the world around me.  It had to be past midnight and cold and raining out the window.  I didn't value then writing about a wide range of emotions, like gratitude or bemusement.  I wasn't nearly as interested in making fun of myself as I am now.  I took myself very seriously and was somewhat difficult to be around, I suspect, in the way that young writers sometimes can be—full of their own sense of high purpose.  

But back to the subject of a schedule:  I didn't get serious about any kind of schedule until I got to graduate school.  It was my peers who motivated me to do that.  The good writers—the ones I admired—were always writing every day, reading every day. They had goals for the weeks and months ahead that they had set for themselves, that weren't set for them by a teacher or semester.  They had their own vision of what being productive meant for them, and so in a very gradual way I made a whole series of decisions over the course of a couple of years to up my game, to take myself and my writing more seriously in a very different way than I had before.  

C: When did you create your Treadmill Journal schedule? What were the influences?   

GM: I created the Treadmill Journal for Jeremy Collins and for his peers and friends when they were my graduate students.  I thought it would be a good idea to give them a model of what I thought a serious amount of writing per week looked like.  18 hours a week.  And I wanted them to know themselves better—to have a better sense of how their passion and commitment were translating into hours of their week, into how much they were giving to writing compared to how much they were giving to other things.  This is important in the long run, because you can be very passionate about writing—you can have it as your life goal—but not actually put all that much time into it every day.  The whole goal of the Treadmill Journal is to take inspiration out of the equation.  You write because you're a writer and it takes a long time to get something good done—not because you happen to feel inspired or motivated on a particular day.  

C: How well have you in the past and do you currently follow your treadmill journal? Were there times you let it go?  

GM: The truth is that when I'm really going well, I'm much better than the Treadmill Journal.  When I'm motivated and committed, I can easily write 5-8 hours per day, 100 days in a row.  When my life allows for it, I can write for 12 hours in a day, no problem.  I don't ever think, now, "Well, I've put my three hours in.  I better stop now."  I just keep going.  But it's also true that I take longer breaks than I did when I was a younger writer.  I took at least a year off after I published both my books.  For me, this is pretty necessary—to recharge the batteries and to figure out what it is that I might want to say, to write about.  After the first book was published, and I wasn't writing, I felt guilty, disappointed with myself, like I was letting down “the muse.”

After the second book, I didn't feel bad at all.  I savored my time away from writing.  I binge-watched Mad Men.  I watched a lot of ESPN.  I got into professional soccer and learned a lot about the different rules and structure of the English Premier League, so that now, when Chelsea or Everton comes on cable, I know a handful of players on the team and have a rooting interest.  I think it has everything to do with relaxing somewhat into my craft and my vocation.  

I have less to prove now to myself, or to anyone else, so I don't have to constantly be giving myself a pep talk.  I know how to dive back in and flip the switch and get things done.  My goal is to have a book manuscript about every 5 years or so, and that gives me some time to goof around, to keep things fun, to have a sense of play about the work, to not always be trying to achieve, but rather to be trying to have something interesting to contribute to the culture.  

C: What have been your biggest sources of inspiration, either for topics or for style?  

GM: When I was in high school, I loved everything that John Steinbeck wrote.  I loved his combination of moral seriousness and justice and his sense of humor and wit.  I also loved the landscape he was describing, his affecting and affinity for the underdogs of the world.  I can't tell you how many times I read Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row.  Now that I think of it his journal that he kept during his writing of The Grapes of Wrath was a real inspiration for me about how any writer really gets the work done, day after day.  It taught me intellectually the value of momentum, which in my own writing life, experience has taught me as well.  

C: Who are your favorite authors, and what have you learned about writing habits or styles from them?   

GM: I'm reading and teaching Alice Munro in my graduate class that meets tomorrow.  She's definitely one of my favorite writers, one that I return to again and again.  I love the inventiveness of her plots and narrative structures.  Her subjects—ordinary family life, domestic life, how time shapes a life and perspective—resonate with me and my own aesthetic more than any other writer I've read.   I think the best American writer going today is Dexter Filkins, who writes now for The New Yorker, but who was an embedded journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq with The New York Times.  His book The Forever War is excellent, and his essay Atonement is the best thing I've read, in any genre, in the past ten years.  I could go on and on because I admire so many writers and reading is one the great joys of my life.  

C: Have you ever changed your writing to more closely match other authors, and is that good or bad?  

GM: I've changed my writing to emulate other writers so many times on so many occasions that it's impossible to quantify in any way.  Basically, that is something that I'm always doing.  I'm always being influenced, making conscious and unconscious choices to imitate and emulate and steal from other writers. That's what all writers and all artists do.  We're constantly borrowing and sampling one other, constantly making a collage of our own vision and other artists' visions.  That's what art is, that's what art does, that's what originality is—knowing the tradition, emulating it, contributing to it.

Breakfast in Bed

The smell of frying sausage fills the small red and orange kitchen, as the hot grease pops. I step back as to not get burned by the hot grease splatter. Yet, to my surprise, a stray swiftly makes its way to my vulnerable skin. In a second, just one small second, pain shoots through my arm, engulfing it in fire.

Just as fast as it came, it left. A small price to pay to see my parent’s smiling faces. My mom has gone through worse.

My mother sits in front of me and says,“The smell of soiled mud and sweaty pigs filled my nostrils. But it had to be done. I couldn’t leave my poor widowed mother with the pay of one job. That is not nearly enough for nine kids and herself. With my dad gone, my older sibling and I had to start chipping in to help. I was nine years old when I started working on the farm to help earn the money to help pay the bills.”

I had to puff out my chest. If my mom could handle bloody fingers and bruises from working hard at such a young age, I could handle a tiny grease burn. Today is Sunday, the only day my dad gets off from work. My mom and dad are sleeping in: my father due to exhaustion, my mother due to allergies and sickness. She could not get  up to make my family breakfast, so I decided to step in. I am going to cook them a feast. For a thirteen year old, this is a lot; to feed 5 people I would have to work hard and fast.

The sausages turn an appetizing brown - a long way off the unattractive grey color it started off as. I remove them from the pan and place them on a napkin covered okate. the napkin soaks up all the grease left from the sausages. As I place the bacon on the pan, I stop and wonder how my mom makes them. At the age of seven my mother lost her father after he fell off a horse, leaving the wife and nine children to fend for themselves. I wouldn’t have been able to make it.

Snapping out of my thoughts I tend to the bacon. Once that is finished, I call my trusty assistant: my eight year old brother. I whisper to him so as to not wake my parents, whose snores can be heard through the thin walls. I tell him to get me two eggs and a gallon of milk.

When I hear my dad get out of bed, quick as a fox my brother runs into the room and lays him back down. I don’t hear what is said to convince him to go back to sleep, but it seems to work. I grab a white egg and tap it against the counter until it begins to crack. Quickly, not letting the opaque liquid whites escape and make a mess, I raise the egg over the bowl and separate the halves. I repeat the process with the other egg, watching it splash into the bowl, as my brother returns giving me a thumbs-up. I smile and continue.

I unscrew the milk and pour some into the bowl, not too much, to make the batter liquidy, but not too little to make it stiff and thick. I begin to open the pancake flour when I am stopped by a little voice.

“Can I please pour the pancake stuff?” my little brother asks.

Normally, I would reject him and tell him to leave, but today is different. Moving to the side, I motion for him to come. As he pours in the flour I think of how I love him, like my mom loves her three brothers. One of which almost killed her at a young age.

“We were making tortillas alone in a room. I don’t remember what I said, but oh, did it get him angry. He grabbed the first thing he saw, which happened to be a really large stick, and was about to hit me on the side of the head. That hit would surely have ended my eight year old life. My older brother walked in and stopped him. It might have been terrifying then, but we laugh about it now.” my mother remembered one day in the car.

Coming back to the work at hand, finishing the pancakes. I motion for my brother to get my mom and dad as I set and place their plates. Three pancakes, a side of bacon, sausage, sunny-side-up eggs, and refried beans. On the table, between where they will sit, I place a plate of warm tortillas. Lastly, I pour them both strawberry smoothies, and step back to admire my work. The pancakes are almost over-cooked, but everything looks good.

“What’s this?” I hear a warm, woman’s voice say.

Turning around, I smile at my mother and lead her to her seat. Giving her a kiss on the cheek, I take my place as the others join all around us, smiling and eating.


Cold Air

Alfred wasn’t very old, a newborn of two weeks. His mother, Alicia, was exhausted and staying in the twelfth room on the fifth floor at Denver Memorial Hospital. As she fell asleep that night with her son, she smiled staring out the distant window. She dreamt of the future, a modern house with a husband and a good school for her kid, a happy life.

Her husband and Alfred’s father, Tobias, entered the room trying not to wake either. She needed the rest and so did Alfred. Tobias was less calm of being a new parent. He was an English teacher at a local high school, East High. His mind raced with possibilities, of worries one might have with a low paying job that shows you the worst of what can happen to once-adorable children.

Tobias had seen children grow up, he’d seen them get into wrong crowds. Children have actually used their potential and gone to college under him, as well as some of his students he’s known for six years at a four year high school. Tobias knows just how easily a teenager can set a great trajectory for life, as well as make sure there isn’t one.

“What a life, too,” Tobias thinks. The world around him is increasingly desperate. Climates warm and people bicker on whether it’s real. Salt water levels increase and yet drinkable water is wasted. With over seven billion people, the world is going to have too many in not too long.

Tobias whispers just too loudly, “Oh, God.”

Alfred is awake. He can’t see well, just some black and a source of light in the corner with a figure blocking it, his father, but he doesn’t know that. All Alfred knows is that it’s cold, that this isn’t comfortable, and that there might be something in his pants. Alfred juts his arms upward, though he didn’t mean to. If it weren’t so uncomfortable he might have questioned it. The strange figure starts to hobble over towards Alfred. The figure was small, only five feet five inches, but it was giant to Alfred, only thirteen inches head to toe.

This scared Alfred just enough to make him try something slightly new to him. He tried to shout, to cry, he was scared. Some mucous blocked it, so it started as a quieter warble until he was picked up by the figure.

His arms were like a bed, but they created their own heat and they had a rhythm that Alfred could hear. Though it smelled strange, it was more comfortable so Alfred was content, but hungry. The figure pulled out a white thing with a colored top, just visible under the lamp, and brought it to Alfred’s mouth. As Alfred began to drink, he felt better, happier, and started to turn the corners of his lips as best he could. But, as he got tired again, he stopped drinking and his eyelids drooped. The new father was sitting in the corner armchair with his sleeping son in his arms.

Tobias looked down at Alfred and put the bottle under the lamp again. He looked up at his wife, seeing her smile in her sleep. Tobias only frowned. A cynical man, he looked down and thought, “This might be the happiest you’ll ever be.”

For weeks now, this voice in Tobias’ head scared him. It told him of the futility of his son’s life, the darkness of the future for his son. While he struggled to see a bright future with Alicia and Alfred, his brain told him of other choices, trying to scare him out of a difficult step in his life.

“It’s easy,” the voice said slowly, with Tobias watching his son sleep, “He won’t have to suffer. It will be quick. Almost like flying. He would be happy.”

Tobias rose from his seat. With his son sleeping in his arm, he opened the window.

Trembling, Tobias raised and pushed his arms out. A war struggles in his mind. Tobias is too smart to think his child will be happy. He’s seen too much, but he’s also a father now, meant to protect. The voice asks, “How can you protect him from the future?”

Tobias looks at his wife’s smile. How many times have they talked about what they want for Alfred? How many times have they discussed schools to send him to and who to watch him while the other works? They’ve been so excited together, the whole time Tobias hiding this fear.

What if Tobias isn’t good enough to be a father? Tobias wants to be respected, loved, trusted. Tobias wants to set good examples for his son and make good decisions. For Alfred to be supported. He wants Alfred protected from the pain that the world can bring.

Since the couple learned they were going to be pregnant, Tobias had wished for a better example of a father to go off of. His own was working when he was young. The man would get home at seven in the evening, eat his dinner with his wife and two children, and then go to sleep to wake up at five and do it again. During dinner he would ask each child two essential questions: do they have homework, and how was school. This always disheveled Tobias in his youth, having a father so distant. There wasn’t time for stories or to get close, just the essentials.

With shallow breaths Tobias questions what to do with his son.

Tobias closes his eyes.

Alfred is falling. He’s coming towards the ground at almost nine point eight meters per second. A second later he’s heading downward at almost ninety six meters per second. With each passing moment his fate comes closer faster, but Alfred doesn’t know that’s happening.

Alfred didn’t see anything, he didn’t hear anything, he was unable to wake in time.

Tobias’ son just left his once strong grasp. He watched. The voice says in his head it was the only way but his body rejects it. He wails. The pain in his chest turns to a fire as with each beat his heart explodes. It spreads up his throat to his mouth, silencing him. He can’t breathe. It then goes to his eyes, the tears like acid against his skin.

As he watches his vision goes black. He sees Alfred on a swing with him behind to push. His eyes flash white and he sees the life Alfred could have had.

His first birthday party would have made him laugh. Alfred put his face into the cake. Alicia laughs and they take pictures.

His second birthday party would have gotten him his first musical instrument, a baby sized ukulele. Alicia’s idea because she knows the importance of music, something Tobias hadn’t ever much pursued.

On Alfred’s third birthday party he would get his first best friend, a puppy that would grow up with him. A dog was already decided by Tobias and Alicia, both having them as they grew up.

Alfred’s tenth birthday would get him a bike. Three months later would be his first big fall and the pain of a broken bone.

Tobias opens his eyes.

Tobias whimpers and his arms twitch as they hold Alfred out of the window, tears burning down his cheeks. The voice lingers a single question,

“Who will you be?”

Edge of Tomorrow

If a heart breaks
And there's nobody there
To feel it,
Does it matter?

I've come to realize
That distance is the only thing
That will make you miss me

I would travel a hundred times over
If it meant that I knew
I might bridge the gap between synapses.

I want you to miss me,
I want you to care.
Because this was important
And it was real.

But if my heart breaks
And you're not here

To feel it,
Does it even really matter?


What was childhood like?
A home?
A memory?
A structure to hold you together?
Youth makes flowers grow in your lungs
(And I can no longer breathe.)

youth stills find you beautiful and says that you smell like a garden.
I was always told that nothing could smell better than the person youth loved.
Youth reminds you that you smell like home.
And something about youth made my heart flutter.

Butterflies landed inside of me.
I know that it's what's on the inside that matters.

And we are all a piece of nature's creation.
At home I stood around too long-

Admiring all the colors around me.
Watching the sprouting of new life.
Not paying much attention to how youth took care of me.


Like every kid I wanted to touch the clouds,
To hold them.
Soft, as cottoncandy,
lighter than air.

To sleep
on them,
to run across them.
To explore their mountains
and caves.

But you find out soon enough
you can't touch clouds.
They're nothing.
Cold, wet.

Not fluffy.

Not fluffy at all.

The Little Doll

Some time ago in a small village, a crying bundle was left upon the doorstep of an orphanage.  Wraith like fingers that had held the child for who knows how long slowly let her go, the unknown person who had placed the girl there knew nothing of the future that awaited her. Instead of waiting to see what became of her, to watch her grow into the person she was meant to be, they left her.

I suppose that life was a hard thing in the orphanage. All I know about my life there was deduced by my parents. They call me their spider monkey. I was tiny. Tiny is a relative term. Of course a baby is supposed to be small, I was only about one year old after all. I mean that I was sickly skinny. When my parents received me in the Judge’s chambers, I was sick and dehydrated. It took three days in their hotel room in Changsha to even get me to a place where I could go and get my shots. My parents gave up their tourist experience, their time, and nursed me back to a relatively stable state of health. They stayed in the hotel room for those three days, simply ordered room service and made me drink 21 ounces of water before I could even be considered hydrated. They had to feed me Cheerios, one at a time to calm me down.  I was smaller than I was supposed to be, so when I was given food, I would eat it until I threw up because I never thought I would have the chance to eat again.

The other children in the large waiting room of the Chinese Embassy sat around with faces of any confused infant who was being passed off to a new, strange looking adult. Yet it was those moments in our lives which would forever be the most important. It was the beginning of a new life. It meant our salvation, and our joy.

My mother has told me about when they took me to get my inoculations. It had been after those painstaking three days of inauguration into the family. My older sister Kate was there too, just a teenager. When they took me to get the shots, the Chinese nurses had taken me into their arms, thinking it would comfort me to be with familiar looking and sounding people as I had grown accustomed too. However, when I was passed off, I began crying and throwing such a fit they were surprised, and they seemed a bit miffed. Do not take me away from my family!  

The term, “real mother” had not yet been introduced to the inner sanctum of that complex system dubbed the mind. There was nothing for the prowling shadow of doubt to enclose in its miserable and cold grasp. For it would not be until later that we would wonder why we did not look like our families. The girls in that room with me… We were daughters of China.

As any young infant does, all senses were based off of that special baby sense. Hungry? Cry. Bathroomed-ed? Cryyyyy maybe giggle a bit. That should get their attention. Love me? Pick me up human- I mean mother!

Mothers are strange creatures aren’t they? They ask you where you’ll be, when you will be back, who you will be with, they call your friends’ parents to make sure they’re safe. My mom is the kind of person who can’t watch the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” from Mama Mia without starting to tear up because I mentioned that she should/will sing it at my wedding. She is overprotective and paranoid, but that’s a mother’s job isn’t it?  

She can’t bear to watch any animal shows or cartoons because something almost always happens to the animal. I used to walk ahead of her because I didn’t want to be near her. I would treat her with immediate and harsh anger. She did not deserve it. God made parents so that they could learn from mistakes and then pass it onto their children, along with their knowledge of the world so the child can grow up healthy and happy.  My mom is one of the nicest people that is out there. She’s sweet, talented, supportive and so much more.

My male parental unit calls my sister and I Klingons sometimes. We use to (and still sometimes do) hang ourselves onto his legs and have him shuffle us around the house until he was panting and couldn’t do it anymore. Now he can’t even lift one leg very easily. My dad is the kind of person who says that his daughters are, “beautiful, they should be smart, kind, and tough as a Marine.” He has had us taking Kung Fu for 6 years, taught us to shoot, proper fighting techniques, introduced us to British humor, sci fi, culture.

He also introduced us at the early ages to the novelty of paperback books. My favorite story was and still is InkSpell and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, because Mo, the father with the magical voice to bring characters out of the books he read, reminded me of my dad when every single night he would read to me about dragons or Earth men on Mars.  He’s smart, and (in my opinion) the funnier one. You can talk to him about the latest news and get into heated debates (because he loves debating). He will make jokes and funny little rhymes in a high falsetto British voice and it’s hilarious. My parents are perfect because they complement each other so well and help make my sister and me into the best we can be.

Those times when I didn’t see them as such are not moments I’m proud of, and they’re something that I still sometimes struggle with. Lashing out was predominantly  my worst characteristic. When I was playing with what my parents called, “a friend,” I apparently punched her in the face. When we got my little sister, and I was still working out those little kinks, I would always hit her. She always hit me back harder but this is what started the phrase, “no fighting no biting,” becoming an important saying. It came from one of the books I had to read when I was being homeschooled about two little alligator children who always fight and bite, leading to their mother saying the now infamous line.

As an infant, I was not capable of explaining what I felt at the time. I don’t remember it. I was a bawling heap of tiny, flailing limbs in the arms of my new family. That is the extent of my knowledge there. When I was old enough to put words to feelings, that was probably when I was most capable of putting some kind of voice to the things in my heart which lay unresolved in the boxes in which they had been kept. Those boxes had cracked and slowly let those unknown pain creep into my conscience awareness.   Perhaps it had been the separation from the naivety to which I had been so accustomed to as to why I was not like my parents in looks. Maybe I had a feeling that something was missing.

“You wouldn’t sit with the other children in the picture in front of the hotel steps. You punched Kylie Feather when you two first met and she was trying to play with you when you were both little.”

Yeah, I did those things. The most impressive part is that I was only one or two during that time. That thing called “bonding” was not something which I was comfortable with nor wanted. I could not rely on it for what I wanted. I have to do things that I do by myself to get it. When Mother would try to bottle feed me, I would cry and attempt to take it over myself, preferring to have the bottle balanced on the crook of my arm than for the female parental unit to give it to me.  Could it have been that someone was telling me something? Something profound in those few little moments of transitioning into a new world? I know that when I was growing up, in the “land of the free,” that I was hurting inside.

There was no reason for this. What was I missing from my life picture, the portrait and feelings of the most beautiful ballet? There were many other children out there who did not have what I had. I was blessed with a mother and a father who loved each other very much, who loved the Lord, and an older sister. We did not have a  big house back then, but the yard was massive, the places to hide in suitable for all kinds of fun exploring, up until the day I became aware of the presence of bugs. The house was quaint and clean. We had all the provisions that a child of about four could ever want. Back then, though, I could not verbalize what I was missing. I could not tell you, if you had asked me back then, why I felt angry at the parents who loved me so. There was no purpose for the aching hurt I felt inside my tiny chest. There was no reason for me to be so unhappy and quiet.

Another occurrence that apparently happened when I was younger (something my parents will often refer to) was when I first was introduced to the little preschool dubbed, Campbell Cottages.

“She doesn’t want to go up.”

Boom boom boom. The constant throbbing in my chest increased to a rate so fast that it was traumatic. That empty, open space between me and the front of the classroom:.  I couldn’t do it. I WOULDN’T do it, no one could make me and I would grip Mother’s hand until it was purple. I would not go.

“It’s just to get a crayon … ”

Just a crayon, eh? Why don’t you go get it then? You want me to have it, so you should go get it. Myself, I choose to stay right here until you come back. The other small faces are slowly filtering back into my vision from under the dark fringe of my bangs as they come back from their trek across dead man's land. Even now, I will sit there with my arms crossed and pout, not wanting to go into the big scary building in which I have someone to meet. My dad just rolls his eyes and says, “You’re a high schooler, almost ready to go to college, and you can’t go in there by yourself?” Time to fly to the second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning I suppose.

In church groups on Sunday night when I was small, it resulted in the same timid, insecure manner when they held the strange stuffed animal next to me in an attempt to get me to smile for a picture.

“Look at Cubby! He wants you to smile and give him a biiiiiiiiiig hug.”

The picture’s never changing face of a 5-6 year old girl looking absolutely bitter and terrified still hangs on the crowded bulletin board next to my mother’s computer.  I can still picture the striped creature’s futile attempts to convert me to one of the mewling children who fell for its antics so well.

Just a few steps … Just … eep! They’re looking at me! Just grab it and run, maybe they won’t notice - drat! I tripped as my foot hit the side of someone’s desk, sending some papers flying and permitting the tissue which I had grasped so tightly in my fist to also go floating away like a cloud. I could feel the eyes on me as I quickly attempted to collect all of the papers which  had fallen with me, stacking them back up as best as I could in the few spare moments I had before I struggled to crawl under my desk and huddle away from the stares.

The tissue lay a few inches ahead of me and I immediately reached for it before rushing back to my chair and sinking into it, feeling my muscles loosen ever so slightly from the tension which had worked itself into my shoulders. Later that day as my parents had driven up to the glass doors which lay encompassed by a beautiful archway, the principle smiling at everyone and their parents as we passed by. The backpack on my shoulders felt like it weighed me down and that each step I took was an eternity. Waaaaaaaaaarp speeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed - there. Go go go! Freedom!

I remember another moment of my younger self, letting the summer heat wash over the wooden deck outside our back door, as I watched a robin perch at its nest at the corner of the house above the drain pipe. I can’t describe my feelings or thoughts then either, other than the fact that I wanted to see for myself what was in there, and why the robin always returned there. After having dragged the chair over to the shaky wooden fence which stood next to the house, separating the large deck from the massive, green, sloping yard, I had nimbly climbed up the fence and was not too carefully making my way across the pointed tips of the wooden fence when the robin saw me and fluttered away to a nearby tree to watch as I approached whatever precious thing lay inside the makeshift bed. I grasped the drain pipe and was standing upon my tip toes to look inside, my shoes preventing the sharp tops of the wooden spears from immediately piercing my tiny foot, when my mother came out of the creaky screen door. An immediate gasp of horror ensued, and I found myself rushing for one quick look into the nest, only to be thwarted as I was lifted down and brought face to face with the angry, terrified look of my mother. Nevertheless, even at our new house I still clamor over the sharp, black wrought iron fences which surround us, much to her chagrin (if she finds out).

Through all my adventures in those early years to about 3rd grade, there was always a sense that something was missing, or that something needed to be with me. I was homeschooled due to my shyness, but it was not worth fretting over. It was, in fact, quite enjoyable. Reading and writing were always the pastimes that I enjoyed most, even as a young girl. Cursive practice and spelling were runners up. My parents are great teachers, and even better parents. That’s something that makes my parents my parents. They are like superheroes. They can tell when I’m down, when I’m happy, and what I need. They knew even before even I did that having just one sister wasn’t going to work out, especially since that sister was moving out and going to college. I needed a little sister and they had already started by the time I told them.

“I want a little sister.”

It was such a short, simple statement as I sat in the massive pool of bubbles in the bathtub and floated my dolls and random assortment of bottles in the water, somewhere amidst the white foaming stuff. A Santa beard dripped from my chin as I spoke. Can things be as simple as that? I want a sister, poof! Done.! Well, apparently my parents had the same thought. I was 5 and a half and I was going to have a younger sister.

A few months later we were in an airplane. I was sitting watching “Arthur” on the tiny screen in front of me, heading back to the country of my birth, the beginning ofto my life. It was while stepping off the plane, going through airport security, watching my dad get lost and my mother immediately panicking, that I started to see things around me differently. It was that dramatic shift, stepping onto the busy, bustling streets of China, crammed with bicyclists, taxis, vendors, and the smell of duck, which felt like something shifted into and out of position inside me. I was home, yet I wasn’t.  

Years would pass by for me. Not a lot, I’m not an old cripple, nay, I’ve never even been crippled. I live my life by the rules that my Savior gives me. Treating others as I wish to be treated, loving others and forgiving them just as the Lord forgave me. After that second time in China with Pei Lin, my baby sister, my world got a new perspective. My parents gave me a lovely life. They introduced me to the Lord, and therefore I was able to become saved. The Lord had already saved me when He gave me to my family and sent me to America in a big silver bird. I got to grow up alongside the little girl who had happily reached out to my parents, not crying at all, unlike the other children being passed out all around us. I remember introducing her to the plush toy which I had grown up with, Pluto, my constant companion and playmate.  Today, I still have a hard time getting rid of my toys that I have collected over the years. Maybe this means I have a problem with letting go. Maybe I just don’t want to see the memories fade away.

People grow up faster than it seems. I remember things like they were just yesterday: playing in the crib with her, laying beside her in our matching “Clifford, the Big Red Dog” nightgowns and drinking bottles together. I remember making lemonade stands and selling popcorn and lemonade to our parents (read: forcing them to take it), tying a string to the staircase rails and the wall and playing balloon volleyball in the great hall.… When did it evolve into being able to have actual conversations with her versus the raccoon talk garble that used to come out? Though, it may still be able to be considered rather animal like since she bombards you with words about the latest Disney star over and over again.

Growing up creates special moments, or pockets of space that are made just for a certain thing to happen that will mean something when you’re older and grown. Things like the times we would go to the Crackle Barrel restaurant whenever I finished testing for my homeschool each year, buying a stuffed animal, like growing up alongside the little girl who used to be so happy and carefree, only to have been bullied, hurt, and hardened to the crueler world. I recognize the hurt that lays in her as she tells my mom, “I have four parents. My real mom and dad, and you guys.” There had been a time when I had done something along those same lines, when I had not seen the gift I had been given, that my parents had been given. Back when I was blind to the love that was bestowed upon me day after day no matter what. They will not abandon me, and I will never abandon them. My sisters, my dogs, my bird, and my parents, they are the only real family I will ever want to know.

The little girl who would happily wear matching clothes with me as we attended those family events and various parties, my sister whose smile was so full of joy and whose raccoon talk gibberish she spoke as we played volleyball with a balloon and a string inside the house changed. When we had been in China and walked into the different street vendors’ shops, buying little red squeaky shoes and matching jade string bracelets; it changed. She doesn’t want to do anything but talk about her newest Disney celebrity crush, talk about my relationships, living through me and refusing to live her own life. She won’t let go of that term “real family.” I pray each and every night that she will learn what I learned that second time to our home country. If I ever try to talk about what I myself was capable of understanding, she changes the subject and speaks in her normal, abnormally loud voice of the boy crush I shouldn’t know about but whose name she spills out a second later.

Isn’t that the truth about most things that we care about? If we see something that could potentially cause us trouble, we quickly back away from it, and leave before we can even see the result of what it grew into. Then again, maybe that’s the way that life is. We are always giving and taking. We are always learning and doing. That’s the issue though. Perhaps it is that we take too much and overfill our rice bowl, resulting in the only thing we believe we can do, which is to find some other way to cope, especially in the world of a middle schooler who has had a rough time in schools that just hurt her.

That little girl which was left on the doorstep in the far away year of 1996 was left to an uncertain future whether in or out,  an unknown variable to the world, became a part of an orphanage. Orphanage life is something which leaves many things to be desired. Cribs are shared among countless numbers of girls, beds serve as places for respite or restraint night after night. Many ages are represented in the assortment there. Girls who were also left alone in the cruel, harsh world the great nation of China had created in their pursuit of a better one. So many hearts felt hurt, felt empty, angry even. Within the children who were still at ages where they could hardly give names to those kind of feelings, there was a sense of something lost.

Every living creature upon this earth has emotion. Without emotion we are nothing but empty robotic shells. It is with the ability to have empathy, sadness, love, anger, and regret that we truly can understand ourselves and others around. The children who reside in the orphanages to this day know those feelings. I was once one of them. Sometimes I find myself wondering what it would have been like should it not have been my fate to be chosen from hundreds of others to be placed into the arms of an American couple. Maybe I would have grown up as a farm child, helping with the rice paddy fields, or I would have lived in that orphanage, growing to help with the younger children. It could have been possible that I grew up to be successful, a full blooded Chinese citizen.

The Lord chose a different plan. His plan was far better than any other alternatives because of the people I have been able to meet, and the family I have had the blessing to grow up in and with.

The first memory I have of my life as an infant is not even one of my own. It was given to me by the old VHS tape my father had burned from his dinosaur-old computer. Later in time, it would be transferred to a CD, one which was immediately scratched and ruined due to the unfamiliarity I had with breakable technology. “Do you eat them?” My father often wonders, as he incredulously looks at the empty spindle which had been stocked with blank CD’s. Yes, to this day I still go through them at a fast pace. I just cannot get enough music, and then I end up making CD’s because I fear that one day iTunes will say “Well, we’ve been great together, really, but it’s time for me to randomly die and forget everything we’ve ever had together. BYE!” My dad will simply give an exasperated sigh and hand over the last one. I will jump up, say “thank you” and run away. He says the same thing about my socks.  Perhaps I really do eat those, too.

It’s funny. When I look at those shiny backs to the DVD’s, I can only think of age. I can remember back to when a VCR was the way to go. Now movies are all on CD’s and Netflix. I’m not really opinionated on which is better or worse, I just know that I’m old if I can remember good, classic shows like “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” instead of this… A.N.T Farm and other stuff my sister watches constantly.  

How old am I? It is a good question to ask for sure. Having been adopted I do not truly know.  The orphanages give their “children” names and dates of birth, estimated mainly by simple looks. This is not the only reason age bothers me. Age gives me a sense that time is passing at a far too rapid rate. I am moving in a quick succession of years. Each one blinks by faster than one can bat an eye, then poof, you’re older.

Does my age make me wise? No. That’s why parents were given to children. They have experienced so much of the world, full of its sin and corruption. They have seen the good, and the bad of it. They know what God’s will tells us to do. Parents know how to comfort, and how to read their child like a book. They are capable of reading their child to sleep with Cornelia Funke’s “Inkheart” and letting the fragile, sleeping child fall asleep in the safety of their loving embrace, knowing that when they wake up, their parents smiling faces will greet them in the new day.

As my parents like to say, “Before I was a twinkle in their eyes” the Lord planned my life. He planned who I was supposed to be and who I am going to become. There is nothing plainer to me than why I was placed in this family. They were God’s choice for me because they offered a modest, loving, and faith filled couple. Life was not handed down to them with a dirty smear staining it, nor was it given to them on a shiny platter, each little piece of food inside cooked and made to perfection, ready for the eating. Good people are made through hard work. It is good people that reap the benefits of this earth. I am so lucky to be a part of a family like them.