Shaniqua 1


Not her real name, but let’s say it was.

Shaniqua was what we teachers called a hard head—a stubborn, angry child. Her hands curled into fists without thought of consequences. She was tough and short, with chubby cheeks and an occasional toothy grin–an odd mix of Mack truck and teddy bear.

A little unkempt, she always stood out in a sea of school uniforms. Her white blouse was dingy, untucked on one side, and her navy pants were short enough to be last year’s pair. Her hair was not in meticulous cornrows like the other girls’. Brushed tightly against her scalp, it had been scraped into a tiny paintbrush of a ponytail.

Everyday I had my third graders write for fifteen minutes in their journals, but Shaniqua would not write. She despised writing. This frustrated me to no end. I provided prompts. And story starters. And incentives. I encouraged. I waited.

One day, I peeped over her shoulder and was surprised to see half a page of her strange, unformed scrawl. Thrilled, I bent closer to read:

“Today I am really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really bored.”

I was not getting through.

I tried to talk with her about the importance of her stories. She must have some truly amazing ones. And given the signals she was sending, she likely had some troubling ones as well.

“You have important things to say,” I told her. “We all want to hear.”

Still, she stubbornly resisted.

But one morning late in the school year, Shaniqua came into the room before the bell, flushed and breathless. Though this was strictly forbidden, I happily waived the consequences when she handed me a fistful of letters she had written to her classmates—one for each. I was overwhelmed. I was so proud and excited for her. SHANIQUA HAD WRITTEN TWENTY-SEVEN LETTERS.

I hugged her, and wrote “Shaniqua’s letters” on the daily schedule, just after recess.

“We will pass them out,” I told her, “and we will spend class time celebrating your beautiful writing.” She beamed and ran back outside as the bell rang for line up while I stowed her priceless bounty in my desk drawer for safekeeping.

During recess, ny curiosity peaked; I pulled them out, gingerly opening the first one.

“Andrea, why you think you all that?” she had written. “You NOT.”

I opened another. And another. Turns out, she did have something to say. She had something to say to everyone, but we couldn’t pass out her letters. I wonder if I still have them somewhere, in a box in the garage.


A few weeks later, there was a school assembly.

Imagine trying to keep 28 third graders silent and respectful for 90 minutes. Then, when they hear the recess bell ringing, still they must sit attentively–despite being unable to hear or see properly. Most kids try their best, many struggle, and some give up. I wouldn’t mind throwing in the towel myself, sometimes, but I’m pretty sure that’s not acceptable.

Not surprisingly, Shaniqua was having a tough time. She fussed, made annoying peeping sounds, and poked the students in the row in front of her. She leaned back and forth, purposely moving her head into everyone else’s way. She kicked chairs and booed one of the acts. I complimented the students on either side of her. I laid my hand on her shoulder and whispered in her ear. I gave fierce looks. I administered check marks on the behavior chart on my clipboard. Teachers and administrators were looking sternly in our direction. What to do? If I took her out of the auditorium, who would watch the other 27? What to do?

“Shaniqua!” I whispered fiercely. “Pull it together!”

She glowered and continued to poke and annoy.

“Shall I send you to the office?” We both knew this was an empty threat since no one was there to keep an eye on her. “What can we do with you?”

Then, for some reason, I said something I’d never, ever imagined myself saying. “You are acting like a little kid! Do you need to sit in my lap?” My tone was awful, patronizing, and I was ashamed the moment I let the words leave my lips. But there was no way to retract them.

Shaniqua stared at me for a long moment, then crept over and heaved onto my lap.

I had to turn away so the others would not see my eyes fill with tears. She was a little kid–of course she was–and her hard head had not yet frozen her heart.

She rested her little hair paintbrush on my shoulder.



A Thanksgiving Lament: How can anyone possibly focus when the house smells this good?

I’m sure I’d be writing something witty or poignant except that I can’t stop thinking about those artery-clogging potatoes in the oven.

I’m thankful for so much. Friends, family, readers, good books, music, walks up my small mountain, cranberry sage stuffing.

My cup truly runneth over, except for writing ideas, which I still have to claw from a big box of nothing I keep next to my blank screen.

Thought I might drag something out between stuffing the bird and stuffing myself, but I’d rather hang out with my loved ones.

And rescue the wine from the freezer.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Things I’m Not Writing About

Just like on the previous fourteen days, I have been flailing around for a writing idea again today. As an added incentive, I told myself I couldn’t eat lunch until I post, which means I am getting ridiculously hungry and increasingly desperate.

So I have turned to a list of suggested writing prompts for assistance. Here’s sampling:

“Do you enjoy growing old or do you fight against it?”

No. I do not want to write about that. Does anyone? Perhaps yogis or saints.

Next up, “If you could permanently get rid of one worry, which one would it be?” You know what? Cataloguing and weighing each worry–starting with growing old, of course–has set off a mild anxiety attack. Thanks a lot, people.

Though it didn’t spawn ideas, this one did cheer me out of my funk: “You’re a Nigerian prince with millions in the bank but you can’t access it without an American co-signer. To your surprise and disappointment, nobody will help you transfer the money.”

Most promising at first read: “What is the one appliance that you can’t live without?” Easy: the toaster. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to add to that besides the fact that toast is the most fabulous, most perfect food in the universe, unless you have run out of butter, and then…why bother?

Sadly, in the midst of my search, guess what appeared on the right side of my screen?

Dang. This felt personal.

Hm. Must be time to put this post out of its misery. Kudos to you for slogging through it. Any suggestions for getting unstuck are indeed welcome.


Black Hole

From NASA's
From NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

I am staring at the page wondering: where are all of my ideas?

Over the weekend, I spent an embarrassing number of hours dragging a short story out of my “creative well.”

I had to beat it into a recognizable shape, and stretch it to meet guidelines and parameters. It was neither a graceful process, nor a painless one.

The story is not horrible; with a little fine-tuning I might like it.

What’s horrible is the black hole left behind–the fear that it was the very last idea I will hatch.

Fortunately, I can always write about writer’s block.



Had to write and submit an entire short story today, which nearly put me under.

Since I can’t squeeze out even one more coherent thought, I will instead share my favorite flow chart of all time.

From: Toothpaste for Dinner.


Photo by AZ.
Photo by AZ.

Today I have written a 100-word story in solidarity with a friend who has pledged to write a 100-word piece every day of November. Best of luck, Mr. Maher!


They stand in uncomfortable silence, staring at the door.

Arlen gestures vaguely with his laptop bag and considers his words.

“That was nice,” he says thinly.

Why is she still here?

She mustn’t come into his office building. He could be tainted associating with such weakness.

Cindy senses his acute disdain.

If only she were the Marlboro Man, she could fill her timid silence with a plume of smoke and a blatant disregard for consequences. Oh, to wield a tiny white stick of power and death, burning so brightly and briefly.

Instead, she folds herself into the space around him.


Bird by Bird

A different bird.
A different bird.                                                                                            ©2012 Beret Olsen

I was up half the night for reasons unbeknownst to me, then startled early from my sliver of sleep by the odd thumps of an imaginary intruder. Heart pounding, I dismissed my fears, forcing myself to lie still as a board for another forty-five minutes.

Today, bleary-eyed and unproductive, I parceled 15 minutes to close my eyes and breathe. My plan? To reboot and arise again, convincing myself I felt refreshed and clearheaded. But the second my head touched the pillow, the strangest sound curdled in my cat’s throat. Next thing I knew, a flailing blob of black fur hurled itself across the room and a small bird began dive-bombing my eyes. Swell.

Clearly a moment of zen was out of the question. Instead, I heaved myself back into a vertical position and set about finding the bird. I had to get that creature out of the house before the cat disemboweled it on the bed.

The weird thing was, I couldn’t find it. The cat was no help, either. She was just as perplexed as I was.

How long are you supposed to look for a trapped bird?

Eventually I gave up and settled back in front of the computer to knock out some work.

After five minutes of relative peace, there was a little scrambling sound, followed by something hopping on my foot.

You might imagine that the problem was now solved–bird located!–except it can be quite a production to convince a bird to try the open door rather than flying into shelving units and closed windows. It’s like trying to shepherd a drunk friend out of a party, and they keep curling up on a pile of shoes or wandering off into a closet.

Later, I found myself ruminating on the frequent appearance of birds. They are everywhere for me these days. I hear them mentioned in a turn of phrase, a discussion of Halloween costumes, or see one staring at me while I eat breakfast. Two surfed on the hood of my car for a block or two after I stopped for coffee recently. I suppose I shouldn’t mention that the bird pictured above was killed in a brutal showdown in my bedroom and then hidden by my triumphant feline friend. I didn’t find that poor soul for a few weeks. And that’s not all. Almost every book I have read in the past few months has featured birds…including:

  • Little Bird of Heaven–Joyce Carol Oates
  • The Goldfinch–Donna Tartt (Not finished. No spoilers!)
  • Ocean at the End of the Lane–Neil Gaiman
  • Bird by Bird–Anne Lamott
  • Imperfect Birds–Anne Lamott

Even Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh, had a chapter about a parrot that I read and reread repeatedly throughout the summer. And on my book list to read next? When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. I swear. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I also read Gone Girl, which has no significant bird that I recall).

If they were all crows, I would assume something terrible were about to befall me. I’m hoping I attract birds for a more benign reason. Perhaps I smell like a flower, or a heap of birdseed.

In any event, it’s time to get a feeder and a bell for the cat.