A New Way to Blog

I created Sarah Lea Stories in October 2013, and 1200+ posts later, I’ve decided not to publish any more long-form posts on it. Since homeschooling (where I create A LOT of the curriculum to accommodate my daughter’s special needs), having a baby, and deciding to return to university this fall, I no longer have the time to write lengthy posts for free. That time is better spent on writing short stories for paying publications. I now consider my Instagram account (where posts can be much shorter) my new blog. I like that Instagram is free and beautifully formatted, and I can spend far less time creating content for it. Blogging all this time has helped with that—not just with “canned” posts but with writing practice.

I’m also tired of being in front of a screen. Now that I have an editing career that requires me to always be in front of a screen, I need more time away from the glow of the computer monitor.

However, I’ll still be posting my groups of “Post-It poems” on Mondays, my Fiction Friday pieces (which I will eventually format into a novel in verse), and my “Positively Marvelous” things on Saturday.

If you wish to follow me on Instagram (I don’t promise to follow back, but if you’re truly interested in my content), here is the link: https://www.instagram.com/sarahleastories/

Letter to my daughter

My epistolary poem, “Miss Amelia Skye” (“Dear Amelia”) was just published in Bella Grace magazine. Amy Krause Rosenthal’s book, Dear Girl, was the inspiration behind the format. I have since created a Mixbook of this poem for my daughter (who will be turning 5 months in a few days); this book will go into a time capsule for her to open at the stroke of midnight in the year 2042 (which will make her 21, if my math is correct). 🙂

Follow me on Instagram! https://www.instagram.com/sarahleastories/

Below a Hole in the Universe

Mom: Rota, Spain, 1984

For my biggest fan since the day I was born

Who will be there to read the latest story I wrote, however unaccredited?
Who will be there to share my newest find from the bookstore?
Who will be there to listen to me at a poetry reading when Dad cannot?

Who will be there to call, worrying when I haven’t phoned in a couple of days?

Who will be there to binge-watch Big Love with me when I finally have the time?
Who will be there to say, “If I hear that one more time . . .” when I claim I am the Energizer bunny?
Who will be there to keep me company on the deck while Hannah is being a leaf-gathering and nest-making mama bird?

Who will be there to make lame-o “mom jokes” that were only funny in the way that Alice from The Brady Bunch is funny?
Who will be there to give me a reason to pray the car doesn’t break down somewhere because she’s wearing her zebra housecoat?
Who will be there to shake her head at me when I brag about not having tan lines?

Who will be there to yell at Dad about his driving when no one else is in the car?
Who will be there to yell “Be sure to tell them ‘hot fries!’” at Dad while he’s in the drive-through?
Who will be there to yell at Dad when he tries to pull the bait-and-switcheroo with off-brands from the grocery store?
Who will be there to yell at Dad?

Who will be there to eat Dad’s overcooked and underseasoned food?
Who will be there to ask me to get her a cup of ice because she doesn’t know her way around the refrigerator?
Who will be there to try my Grandmother Bernadean’s chocolate roll recipe, when I’ve finally perfected it?

Who will be there to outnumber Dad when he insists he’s right about some obscure fact?
Who will be there to remind Dad on how he’s hardly ever right about anything because he’s as stubborn as a Missouri mule? (We come from the “Show-Him” State, you know.)
Who will be there to ask, “Is there an echo in here?” when my dad and I say the same thing simultaneously, being on the same wavelength and all?

Who will be there to go with me to the World of Coke and the Campbell Peach Festival?
Who will be there to stay with me in the hospital when I am sick while my husband takes care of our daughter?

Who will be there to tell me I am beautiful, just because I am theirs?
Who will be there to tell me about myself, before I remembered myself?
Who will be there to tell me about Dad, before I was a gleam in his eye?

Who will be the proud mama when I finally graduate from college?
Who will be there for the Hannah Boo birthdays yet to be celebrated?
Who will be Grandma to my Hannah Banana?

Who will be the other mother to see me bring my Ryan or Madeleine into the world?
Who will be there to see them not only be good but do good in it?

Who will be you?

There were so many roles you filled
that no one will be able to play
the way you did;
some, no one will be able to play
at all.

There will just be your empty chair,
for you are neither here nor there,
but elsewhere.

Yet the distance between us,
between hello and good-bye,
is simply a wrinkle in time—
a wrinkle that will be ironed out
someday,
after I have lived my life—
the one you taught me to live.

*I read this poem—originally titled “Who Will Be You?”—at a student poetry reading at Pensacola State College in March 2018, one day after my mother, Betty Ann, was buried.

2020: My Year in Review (and what I have learned)

Porch life

Reading my Kindle on our front porch while my husband reheated food on the grill during Hurricane Sally.

Small is almost always better than big . . . the circle of people in your life who care enough about you to help you when things go wrong is really small. They’re a lot of peopleyour friends on Instagram or Facebook or whatever, in the fake digital world . . . but the actual number of people who will take affirmative steps to help you is very very small . . . it’s like eightso your loyalty always has to be to themyour family and your closest friends, above anything else. Period. And anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that your real loyalty has got to be to some larger group of peoplesome political group or some group of people who look like yougive them the middle finger. Those are your enemies. They are trying to destroy the fortifications that will protect you through life, which are the people you love and love you back. — Tucker Carlson

For me, this year was the eye in a storm that included a pandemic, civic unrest, and a hurricane. My university abruptly shifted to online classes in the middle of the spring semester, my daughter’s school closed, and my husband and I found out we were having another child. Being stuck at home for months helped me learn a lot about myself as I reflected on what was going on in the world beyond my little world at home.

I learned that our country is reenacting a civil war, divided not into blue and gray but red and blue (and mask-wearers and anti-maskers). Regarding the masks, I am somewhere in between. I liken wearing a mask in a store to wearing a shirt and shoes, but I don’t wear masks when I’m outside, in my car, or my home. I never realized until this year just how little people respect other people’s space and property.

I learned that public schools are essential, and their purpose shouldn’t be so that both parents can work (school is not a daycare); school should be about educating the population. A quality grade school education shouldn’t be limited to the wealthy; I want to grow up in an educated society. When we lived in a more agrarian society, not everyone had to be as book-smart educated as they are now.

Because schools are essential, teachers are essential workers. We live in a society where both parents often have to work (when people are poor, survival always trumps education, just as paying rent trumps dentistry or eating what’s cheap trumps eating healthy). Homeschooling takes time (which many parents don’t have) and an incredible amount of dedication. Teaching is also a skill. You can be well-educated., but you are not a teacher if you don’t know how to explain something in a way someone else can understand. I’ve learned that it is so much easier to do than teach (though teaching is doing) because teaching depends on our patience and ability to help students overcome obstacles such as a short attention span, learning disabilities, et cetera. If your child has special needs, homeschooling is even more challenging.

I realized that it was a pretty great system when one parent (husband or wife) could work while their spouse could take care of the house and kids. I work from home, my husband pretty much takes care of everything else (though I pitch in on the laundry and dishes whenever I can), and we both homeschool. Our house stays clean and neat, and our meals are wholesome and delicious.

It’s a scary thought, but I realized just how dependent our society is on public school and how much lower-income children need it for education, food, health screenings, counseling, socialization, and so forth. It is deeply disturbing that due to the lockdowns, there are children who are shut up in an abusive house and cut off from the world, with no one to advocate for them. These children may be protected from bullying by other children but not from the adults who are the worst kind of bullies.

As for higher ed, virtual and remote school works for many courses (college students should have the proper scaffolding and be self-motivated enough by that time to distance learn), but most young children need face-to-face instruction. I remember there used to be a rule about no more than two hours of screen time, but I guess that doesn’t apply anymore (though it still does in our house; our TV is rarely on during the day, and I’m not motivated to teach with a tablet).

I keep homeschooling simple: I instruct verbally, using a whiteboard to illustrate my points. We read paper books, do art projects with tactile materials, and use physical objects for math. However, what I teach her is not limited to academics. I teach her the house rules and why they exist. She learns about fitness, nutrition, and proper self-care, as well as having manners, morals, and knowing her intrinsic value. I teach her about having faith in God, the importance of family, and being a good friend.

I realized you can’t be too much of a minimalist if you are homeschooling. I have a whole library of books for bedtime stories, Homeschool Book Club, and ones specifically used to teach children how to read. We also have stacks of games and puzzles and a closet full of art supplies. Everything gets enjoyed.

I realized that my time is more limited than ever. I used to blog thrice a week; now, it’s mostly once a week and only because I have back-up posts, and that’s okay. 

I realized Shirley Jackson is overrated. Many of her stories just end.

I realized how sleazy child beauty pageants are. I used to think they were harmless fun of little girls playing dress up, but with all the child trafficking going on, I realize these pageants sexualize little girls, and it’s abhorrent.

I realized that a Facebook friendship (unlike the Supreme Court) is not a lifetime appointment. And that goes both ways. When a woman I’d thought would be a lifelong friend unfriended me because I disagreed with her on a political issue, I realized that we live in a world where people with different beliefs, if they dare express them to one another, even in the nicest way possible, probably can’t be friends but in the most superficial way. 

I realized that if the holidays are stressing you out, you are doing them wrong. Even though I design all my Christmas cards, not everyone has to get one every year. We use the same Christmas decorations year after year, many of which we got from after-Christmas sales. We plan our holiday menus a month in advance to stock up on items when they are on sale. Also, don’t be afraid to regift (provided what you are regifting is in mint condition and is something you truly believe the other person may like. It’s always lovely to sweeten it up with a little gift card to a lunch out somewhere to support a local business).

I’ve realized that as much as I’ve enjoyed being a student, I’m ready to move on (especially since I have a few lit classes I dread taking). My priorities have changed, and I look forward to having more time for my writing and family. However, I will finish uni because I want to be an example to my daughters that you finish what you start—that children are not a barrier to accomplishing other things besides their raising.

So achieving my other goals may take me a little longer, but I will be doing other great (and fun) things in the meantime. However, it’s okay to admit that being a mother requires sacrifice. If you try to have it all, you’ll end up having to do it all, rather than enjoying all you have.

Cheers to 2021!

Practical Minimalism: Things Can Lead to Experiences

Shelfie

Experiences are better than things, but a thing can lead to experiences.

The minimalistic creed that experiences are always better than things is untrue, for I say it depends on the experience (and the thing).  

The experience of going to the library was okay, but the experience of a book I buy and read multiple times is better. Since Covid, I have subscribed to Amazon Kindle Unlimited for me and have added many more books to my daughter’s physical library.

The experience of shopping for a new phone was a hassle, but using that phone to group text my friends for a girls’ night out, promote my Instagram poetry, or play Scrabble is better; buying a new TV was forgettable, but having a 42″ screen where my husband and I watch Wheel of Fortune is better. We bond over skewering Pat for some of the !@#$ he says and the contestants for the bad calls they make. 

The experience of going to the Pensacola Interstate Fair was all right (I make better, and cleaner, fair food at home), but I’ve had just as much fun playing with my daughter in the big blow-up pool (a “thing”) in our backyard.

Some experiences have sucked (like revisiting the Italian restaurant where my husband and I used to go when we met ten years ago), where my time would’ve been better spent watching the current Holiday Baking Championship.

However, some experiences have been wonderful. Sometimes, the simplest experiences are best, such as having a meal at Chick-Fil-A with my family (before Covid), meeting friends for drinks and tacos (or one-on-one for coffee), reading a new bedtime story, playing board games, singing Christmas carols, trying a new baking recipe (will be making my first savory cheesecake next week), making Christmas placemats (a laminator is a must for any homeschooling classroom), creating unique Christmas cards via TouchNotes for some of my friends, and so forth. 

Experiences like these are what life is made of, and most of them aren’t Facebook or Instagram picture-worthy.  

There’s a great quote in the movie Tully, in which Tully tells Marlo (a married mother of three young children who seems to be struggling with the baby blues) that she hasn’t failed but has made her biggest dream come true: “That sameness that you despise, that’s your gift to them [Marlo’s children]. Waking up every day and doing the same things for them over and over. You are boring. Your marriage is boring. Your house is boring, but that’s … incredible! That’s a big dream, to grow up and be dull and constant, and then raise your kids in that circle of safety.”

You don’t have to experience something new every day because every day in and of itself is an experience. My best experiences haven’t always included pictures but are in the stories I tell and the memories I share.

When my job situation often changed (the nature of being a student worker), with my husband and I moving every two or three years (you have to go where you can afford to live), I found myself in a constant state of anxiety. However, we are finally reaching a level of homeostasis that feels an awful lot like contentment (not to be confused with complacency). 

I love my life as it is, which doesn’t mean that I don’t want more; I am just working towards being more. I tell my daughter in homeschool: The more you know, the more you can do, and the richer your life will be, for the more you will be able to do for yourself and others.

I remember a motivational speaker once saying that the two things that make us happiest are helping others and creating something. This Christmas season, I have been fortunate enough to do both. I would also say that staying connected to friends and family (in-person, if possible, or via telephone, not text) is the third part of that, for being giving of your time is the greatest gift.

” … remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

What I Learned from a Memoir Writing Independent Study

2003 (2)

Dad, me, my brother, and Mom (circa 2003)

Memoirs are autobiographies for those who have a story to tell, not for those whose story has been told.

Last year, a friend and coworker from the Writing Lab mentioned that she had taken a memoir writing class. Though I’ve written a few novels, several short stories, and numerous poems, as well as a handful of personal essays, I had never, to my knowledge, written a nonfiction piece that read like a fiction piece, in which I was the protagonist.

My teacher, whom I’d had for Fiction Writing and Careers in Writing, agreed to do an independent study to meet the two-class requirement I needed for financial aid. Despite the pandemic, online options were still limited. 

Though I didn’t get feedback from other students on my pieces (which can be a hit or miss kind of thing), I got feedback from someone who has been doing this awhile—who doesn’t just teach about writing but is a writer herself. 

I’ve always struggled with coming up with essay-like stories about my life: I’d written about my summers in Poplar Bluff, when I was a live-in nanny in Montana, and when I left the Mormon Church, among a smattering of others, but these were all significant events, not everyday ones. Through this class, I learned how to take something small and write about it in a way that highlighted its significance.

I learned how to write a literary piece of nonfiction and improve my essay writing skills (and the differences between them). For literary nonfiction, I learned how to dig deep and remember things that were said, maybe not precisely (like you’d have to for a journalism piece), but close enough. This class inspired me to pay more attention and jot down things people say.

We discussed publishing for our last meeting, and there are many markets (not blogs or platforms, but paying markets) seeking personal nonfiction. I decided to avoid markets that prioritized authors who fit a certain demographic over stellar content. I am an average person writing for ordinary people, and I write about my life as an individual, not as a member of any special interest group. 

I learned more about myself through this process and felt more comfortable writing about myself in a way that made me human rather than the ever-sympathetic character. I was just thinking tonight that even though I don’t want people to think I’m not a nice person, I’d rather them think that than be a virtue signaler (and an obvious one at that). It is much more intrinsically rewarding to do something good in private. Before I post anything on social media, I question my motivations. Usually, it’s nothing more than just to entertain, show off my wit, or engage in a fun conversation. Once in a while, I share something that shares my values because I think it’s important not to be ashamed of what you believe. (Just don’t let yourself get into a long Facebook conversation about it. Ain’t nobody got time for that.) 

Though I came up with a dozen ideas for stories, I wrote about what it was like living in a shelter and being an expectant mother during this pandemic. I also wrote a humorous piece on growing up with avid genealogists for parents—a suburban Hillbilly Elegy but in a stable family environment. 

The last I consider one of my finest pieces of work. 

Though I love blog writing, most blog posts don’t have the timeless quality that memoirs do, for memoirs tell a story; they don’t try to convince you of anything (and they’re certainly not a rant). You get information from a memoir, but it isn’t informational, and it is something I will do more often—now that I know how to do it well.

Sweet Little Nothings

Today is your day chocolate

She’d graduated without laude
but with writing awards,
with friendships, experiences,
& a confidence she’d lacked before.
She learned that it was okay to be an introvert,
even as she tried to perform exemplary work
to make up for it;
she learned that it was okay to be a team player
rather than a leader—
to follow what worked & fix what didn’t.
And, in her new, post-graduate life,
she stayed on where she had learned so much,
but when her last article
for the college newspaper
came into print,
she experienced
a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment.
She learned that no one could hold the presses,
no matter how much they had or
chose to give away,
& she was reminded
of a wise little girl named Pollyanna
who had said that “Nobody could own a church,”
for there was no place for censorship
at a school where critical thinking
was a prerequisite
to finishing.

Sweet Little Nothings

Inhale the future chocolate

When she’d been LDS—
a Molly Mormon on the outside
& some kind of nondenominational,
free-spirited Christian on the inside—
she’d had friends, good & plenty,
but when she’d lost her testimony
of Joseph Smith
& returned to her Protestant roots,
she reclaimed her creativity.
When she went back to school
at a liberal arts college,
where she was often
the red elephant in a room
full of donkeys
in varying shades of blue,
she realized that the life she was living
wasn’t a remake
but rather,
a sequel.

The Comely Bones

She didn’t yet have a name,
but she had a job—
to someday watch over the sister,
whom she would never outpace in age,
after their parents had returned to Heaven;
to watch over the sister
who some saw as a cute little dot
on a wide spectrum—
this blitheful child who wrote in smileys
& spoke in echoes
& laughed at movement,
not jokes,
& whose dreamlike gaze
noticed the page numbers
but not the words.
But as the mother looked at her rapidly expanding belly
that contained an entire universe of being,
she wondered if this unknown quantity
would outpace the one outside her body;
for every parent’s worry about their child
whose needs were different than most was
Who will love them when I am gone?