on writing (vol. christen, no. 1)


Kindergarten was one of the best years of my life for the following reasons:

  1. Anthony, my first crush, tied my shoes for me after I tripped and landed on my elbow in the playground (oh and the way he looked at me after double-knotting my laces – as if he was staring at a chocolate cake a la mode!),
  2. Every time I’d tell my teacher I wasn’t feeling too well, I’d get sent straight to the nurse’s office without questions, and my dad would be in front of the school in ten minutes to take me out of class and buy me a vanilla Frosty from Wendy’s, and
  3. At the end of the school year, my kindergarten teacher handed me the Harry Potter books 1-4 boxed set before I left her classroom and said, “Christen, I’m only giving this to you because you are one of the best readers I’ve had in my career. Put that to good use.”

I remember walking into my dad’s arms at the pick-up section and him going, “What are you holding? Where’d you get that?” and replying, “Big books, from my teacher!”

At the time, I was upset because I thought she had given them to me for summer reading, that she would test me on them the day I got back. Little did I know that I wasn’t returning to that school at all – I was bumped up to elementary school, the school a block away, the bigger kids school, and there was no such thing as post-summer reading tests.

I sat down one night, opened up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and read the first few sentences. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of Number Four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much…” I noticed that a lot of the words used in the book were hard for me to understand, so I resorted to asking my mom to read the rest of the first chapter to me before I went to bed. Then the next chapter, then the next chapter, then the next chapter – until we had reached chapter seven. Now, I remember this chapter being the very first chapter I read on my own because it covered Harry’s Sorting, which was a huge step for him in the book. After finishing this chapter, I realized that I could finish the rest of the book on my own, and so I did.

It wasn’t long until I had reached Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I was completely immersed in the Harry Potter world. I loved how the books brought me to a different dimension – and I loved how I felt like I was living in it, and all I had to do was turn the pages.

When school started, I was placed in a fifth grade reading class with my friend and soon-to-be rival, Seanne (who played a significant role in my reading drive, even to this day!), because of how well we did on our reading placements (thank you, Harry Potter). The first day of reading class went a little like this: the teacher placed the two of us in the back of the classroom, dropped us each a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows on our desks, stood at the front and said, “I can’t believe we have two second graders in our class. Be nice to them. They’re on your level.”

I developed a lot of friends in that class, and together we rode through The Cay, The Clay Marble, Old Yeller, A Wrinkle in Time, and a bunch of other small books that I can’t remember the titles of. Every single book was an adventure – I learned that from Harry Potter (and I finished Goblet of Fire halfway through my second grade year). I learned to appreciate every story because of the magic Harry Potter brought me – I longed to see this same magic in everything else I read.

At the time I didn’t think anything of my reading level or what I was capable of. All I wanted to do was beat Seanne by completing our readings faster than he could.

Until one day, at the end of my second grade year, Seanne turned to me and said, “What will happen to us in fifth grade when we’ve already beat the reading system? I think we should write books of our own!”

Being my competitive self, I replied: “I’ll write one better than you ever could.”

Seanne never wrote a book. Instead, he resorted to drawing comics. The genius that he is – he blew my mind with the kinds of comics he came up with. But he never told me that he never got to writing. Only when I came up to him with my first-ever short story entitled “The Journey to Outer Space” did he say, “You took me seriously? Maybe you should keep writing stories and I’ll illustrate them. That way we can have lots of things to read when we beat the education system.”

And so it began.

letters to my daughter, a series: pt. 1, “on loss”

My dearest Valerie,

You know my favorite books like the backs of your hands. Don’t you, baby? I’ve read them to you, we’ve finished some together. All the nights we’ve spent sharing words and taking turns before you asked me to leave the nightlight on so you could close your eyes without having to face your fear of the dark? And all the nights you spent telling Momma about them when I was downstairs grading papers and meeting deadlines, losing sleep with my tired eyes? You would talk about them with Momma all the time when I was away: And then Mommy read to me, she told me about Liesel and Rudy, how they raced down Himmel Street and Rudy asked her to give him a kiss, and then Mommy read to me, she told me about the Little Prince and his rose, how he traveled from planet to planet because he loved her, and then Mommy read to me, she told me about Harry and Ron and Her-my-knee, how they beat What’s-His-Name, oh, Momma, Mommy never says his name…

You’re only four, but you carry stories in your fists and words slip through your fingers when you open your hands. You were born with a word in each palm, and as you grow and your Momma and I read you our love and our blessings and our favorite books you find it harder to close your fists. When you reach the age of reason and understanding you’ll find that the stories in your palms weigh like they did when you were four but a thousandfold, because then you’ll have started to really feel, then you’ll have started to really understand, then you’ll have started to see how each of these words work together to create something worth giving to a beautiful little dove like your Momma and I to you.

You see, the stories seem light now, but when you read this, they’ll be heavy. The Book Thief, you’ll see, is not just about Liesel and Rudy and Himmel Street but about the deaths they’ll meet when they come knocking at their doors, and The Little Prince, you’ll see, is not just about a little prince and his rose and how he loves her but about him trying to prevent her from dying alone, and Harry Potter, you’ll see, is not just about three friends trying to beat Lord Voldemort but about Harry losing his parents and seeing that what comes about from this is something bigger than he’ll ever understand.

I laid awake in bed with Momma once while she slept away, probably dreaming about breakfast the next morning (baby, you know how Momma looks forward to breakfast every single day!), and I cried silently to myself because I feared losing her. We were twenty years old, and we were living separately across a few oceans, and she was right next to me but I still felt so afraid, the kind of afraid you feel when I forget to turn on your nightlight and you wake up in the middle of the night and have to face your fear of the dark until I come running in – like that, but a hundredfold.

But it’s been years and years and I haven’t lost her, not in any sense of the word, and there are many senses of the word, so tonight, as you are four, allow me to drop loss into your little palm for you to carry with you wherever you go until it becomes too heavy for you to bear because of what you’ll come to experience.

But until then, let me tell you about this word: loss is something that is light to me but something that is heavy to your Momma.

So many have experienced loss in much heavier ways than I have.

I’ve not experienced loss the way that Momma has. Not in the way that a little girl, no older than you, baby girl, and her mother have when they’ve just seen their father shot seven times in the name of injustice by a police officer who doesn’t deserve to see the light of day the way he still does. Not in the way that siblings have when their father is taken away from them for the rest of their lives because of a misunderstanding. Not in the way that two parents grieve when they’ve nothing left of their daughter except a tombstone and a note. Not in those ways.

And when you think about it, Liesel and Rudy and the little prince and Harry and Ron and Hermione and all of the other characters I’ll give to you when I place new stories into your palms experienced loss in ways similar to those of the real world. You’ll see, baby, you have these stories in your fists and your eyes are bright and your Momma and I love you more than anything in this world and we’re going to be there when you come to us with your hands heavier because of the word loss. We’re not going anywhere.

And as much as I wish I could erase that word, speak it out of existence, I can’t. I can only give it to you when you are four through these stories until you are ready to really understand.

Now, baby, tonight we start The Kite Runner.

If you listen closely, you’ll see where this word will start to come in.



A dear friend of mine, Leilani, told me a few weeks ago about a dream she had when she was a child. She said it left such an impact on her that it remains the most vivid dream she remembers 15 years later today. In it she held a dandelion that she closed her eyes to and asked to take her home. But when she opened her eyes she realized that it hadn’t taken her anywhere.

My lover and I have slept together every night for the past 14 nights. And by sleeping together I mean it in the most innocent yet most intimate way possible: alternating between big spoon and little spoon, tangling legs together, reaching over in the middle of the night with eyes still closed to link hands, scooting backward when we’ve reached opposite ends of the bed to feel each other’s warmth again, tracing patterns on skin while half-awake, whispering I love you‘s only to have them get lost in our blanket. We didn’t even need to take our clothes off.

She left this morning at the break of dawn, my favorite hour. For the past 14 dawns I’ve slept next to her, and on special mornings I’ve been awake with her, talking softly, watching the room light up with the sun. But on this dawn I watched her walk through the airport security gates and out of sight for the third time. Saying goodbye doesn’t get any easier, but getting through it does, because we are one goodbye closer to never saying goodbye again.

I pressed my hands to my cheeks because I wanted to wipe them free of tears and I felt the pain in my right hand from all the handwriting I did hours before when working on her third plane ride away from me letter. I titled it Home because of the conversation we had hours before my pen hit paper.

We were in my car and no words were being said. The good news hadn’t hit us yet (because it had hit at midnight, and alas, it was only 11), so I was overly emotional over her leaving. I was driving. She had her hand on my lap and her fingers intertwined with mine. One of our favorite Young the Giant songs was playing on the aux. My heart was heavy and I was thinking I wonder how many other 20-year-old hearts have to go through this. I looked at her and I said, “If I had a dandelion, and I closed my eyes and asked it to take me home right now, I would open my eyes and find that I hadn’t moved. But if I had a dandelion, and I closed my eyes two days from now and you were back in Virginia and I asked it to take me home, I would open my eyes and find myself in your barracks.”

That night, when we slept together for the last time (until a year has passed), I imagined myself holding a dandelion and asking it to take me home. I blew on it and it disappeared and I opened my eyes to my lover being little spoon and my arm around her waist and my face in her hair. And I whispered an I love you and it got lost in her skin before it could reach our blanket. And I knew that I was home.

So I got up and I wrote my Home letter to her until my bones ached and I got back into bed next to her with the lights off and our clothes on until I kissed her good morning to fly back to Virginia.

Leilani told me shortly after she revealed her dream to me that she was too young to realize what her dream meant, and if she were to have that dream again, the dandelion would take her right to where her boyfriend was. I listened to her and I asked her to write a piece on it. Then I closed my eyes and thought of my lover and thought I’ll write one of my own too.

the art of being intimate

In the almost two years I’ve spent with my lover, we’ve spent about three weeks together in person.

How we come to share the greatest number of intimate moments out of all the people in my life when we spend 98% of our relationship 7,939 miles away is beyond me.

I used to believe that the word intimacy denoted and connoted only sex. That the only way you can be fully intimate with someone is if you have sexual relations with them.

The first intimate moment my lover and I had was not a hand hold, or a kiss, or anything beyond that, but a conversation.

It was the summer before we got together, and I asked her to tell me her backbone story. She remembered this. Two years later and she still brings it up as one of the best things I’ve done: actually, genuinely, wanted to get to know her and what shaped her into the person she is today.

The second came shortly after that, when she opened up to me about how she felt being away from home. Now, at the time, we barely even knew each other; the most I knew about her was that she moved away for her career and she thought her penmanship was shitty. We’ve never held hands, or kissed, or anything beyond that; but we had a conversation, and it was enough to tie that first string of intimacy around our fingers.

She is sleeping on FaceTime while I type this post away in my school’s library. I look at her from time to time, during line breaks, and I am almost moved to tears because of how much I know I love her. Today marks ten months since we’ve held each other in person last, but our last intimate moment was just ten minutes before she fell asleep today, when I confessed to her that I am now a sucker for physical affection when before I used to hate it with all of my passions.

I look at people walking in this library and I am sure that they’ve shared intimate moments with people they love and even people they don’t love (maybe not yet, maybe not at all). And I am happy that we’ve all experienced our forms of intimacy.

But I wonder whether people realize that there are deep intimate moments found in things other than physicality.

In a whispered “I love you,” or a parked car conversation about God, or an intense silence after watching a heavily loaded movie scene.

I have found ways to wind my intimacy through the open air and over the open seas to reach my lover who is 7,939 miles away. This post being written while she is asleep and all I can feel is my love for her is one.

Find another.

on leaving the oceans and the love we’ve made because of them

I’m leaving tomorrow.

I know you are, baby. I’m drawing out every second left ’til you fly.

Are you scared?

I am a little right now, baby. But I promise you I’ll be okay.

Have you decided? Will you still love the oceans when they are without me?

I’ve thought about this for countless nights, baby.
So listen. How does this sound?
If the most amazing love I’ve made was the love I made to you, and the most amazing love we’ve found was the love we found in the oceans, of course I will still love the oceans, but I won’t love them the way I do when they are with you.
So baby, listen. How does this sound?
I’ll make my way down into the deep blue the way that you and I always do. Remember those shipwrecks we used to explore together? The ones where we’d make our way through and imagine the ways they looked when they were full of life? I’ll make my way down to one while you’re miles and miles away and you may be out in the fields learning how to shoot or up on your rack trying to get some sleep and I’ll imagine the ways we were when we were together and full of life.

So you will love them without me still? Is that what you’re saying?

That’s the thing, baby. You’re not getting the point.
Of course I will still love them without you.
But I’ll spend my days in them remembering the love we made before you left.
It won’t be the same.

I’ll be back soon. Take care of them for me.

Of course I will. It’s all I will pour my love into until you return.

And then you can love them the way you do when I am in them again.

And then I can love them the way I do when you are in them again.

7,939 to 0

My lover and I sleep together on most nights.

We are 7,939 miles apart.

In the first few months of our relationship, I would talk to her until she fell asleep. Sometimes I would tell her my prayers. Other times I would tell her my favorite stories. And sometimes I would tell her stories of my own.

And she loved all of this.

Because our schedules didn’t align perfectly, she would call me with every chance she got; a lot of times that was in the early mornings my time, so she would stay with me while I slept away. Sometimes she would talk to me until I fell asleep. Other times she would do her own thing while I closed my eyes. And sometimes she would sleep with me.

And I loved all of this.

As time went on, life got in the way. A lot of times I would find myself waking up in the late hours of the morning without any calls from her because she was held back at work. Other times I would find her fast asleep because I had gotten out of class late. Sometimes our schedules were just completely out of alignment, so much so that we’d go days without sleeping together.

For the past few weeks my lover has been extremely stressed out. And because I am 7,939 miles away, there is only so much I can do to help her. It kills me when I can’t fall asleep with her on these days where she needs my comfort the most.

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading this book of magic. It is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. In it the story of a young girl and her love for her father intertwines with the story of a young boy and his love for the radio. A lot of times I read it until I fall asleep, only to wake up to the sound of my lover’s soft voice with the book pressed against my body. There are mornings where I look for its words on my skin, and I come up with disappointment when I can’t find any – because I love them all that much.

Today I wanted to sleep with my lover because I thought time was on my side. I wanted to talk to her about All The Light We Cannot See and its words of magic until she fell asleep, how its stories make me feel like I am, as true it is to its title, seeing light for the first time. But I called her and I was an hour too late. She had fallen asleep a little too early because she was a little too exhausted, and I had missed her an hour too late because I was a little too busy.

So I let her sleep. But as I did I said my prayers for her and for us. I whispered All The Light We Cannot See to her while she dreamed. And I took this moment and created a story of my own and am posting it right here.

My lover works for herself, for me, and our future together.

We are 7,939 miles apart.

In the first few months of our relationship, we had all the time in the world. Sometimes. Other times. Sometimes again.

And we both loved all of this.

But as time went on it went on away from us. She has not slept with me in a while because she is so busy working for it all. I find myself missing her more than ever, wishing that there was more I could do for her and her stresses. On days like these, though, I know that loving her is enough.

One day, when time has surpassed its days of running away from us and has finally settled down on our sides, I can read All The Light We Cannot See to our children and tell them, Sweethearts, I wrote a little story many years ago about how I wanted to read this to your mother until she fell asleep, but time was not on our side.

But look at where we are today. We are 0 miles apart and we have you and we all say our prayers together and we all tell each other our favorite stories and we all create little stories of our own. She worked so hard to get us here.

Let’s go upstairs and take a nap, but before we do, she and I can tell you all about the story of a young girl and her love for her father and how it intertwines with the story of a young boy and his love for the radio.

We have all the time in the world.

on loving quietly

I hate math.

I’m sorry, but I do. With all my heart. (Sometimes I lie in bed during the early hours wondering why I have signed my life away to a degree in Biology. Do I really think I can handle a semester more of Calculus without going insane?)

The other day, while I was struggling not to pull my hair out of frustration concerning a certain polynomial, one of my closest friends said to me, “Don’t stress, Christen. Math isn’t your forte. Love is.”

Since I’m not a jack of all trades, I like to think that I’m a master at some. Love is, or was, definitely one of them.

I classified myself as a master at loving because I thought I understood the many different ways of loving. I love strongly, I love gently, I love faithfully, I love hopelessly. I love loudly.

But I’ve only recently learned that I can love strongly but quietly at the same time.

As a poet, my love style is through words. I love words of reassurance, words of compassion, words of adoration. It’s my preferred way of receiving love and my preferred way of giving love.

A few weeks ago, I asked my lover a question. We have different love styles, and though we always manage to make it work, the difference sometimes causes conflict, which it did that day.

I’m not going to go into details because they aren’t of the utmost importance, but she replied to my question with another question: “Do I have to tell you I love you all the time for you to know that I do?”

I showered her with kisses in the form of words of appreciation for allowing me to grow that day. She kissed me back before heading into dreamland, leaving me with time to myself to put together what she had taught me.

There is loud love, the kind I’m used to: the one where I feel like proclaiming love to the world, shouting it out into the universe, asking the galaxies outside of our own if they’ve ever felt something like it.

But there is quiet love too, the kind that I need to practice more and get better at: the one where we know the love is there without having to proclaim it to the world, whispering it like we’re in a library through the smallest of actions, being so quiet that we don’t disrupt even stardust from their slumber.

And through this love I can write my lover a story of fiction, open up to her about a boy wandering through the desert looking for a locket of his mother’s he lost years ago, create a world of my own by stringing together words I think would fit best in lines, without including the word “love” as if it is taboo. And I can give this story to her and she will know that I love her, not because I wrote her a piece on me loving her or because I wrote her a piece with the words “I love you and you alone,” but because I wrote it for her and her alone, and that act alone is enough for her to know.

On some days now I choose to love loudly, but on some days I choose to love quietly.

And because it seems like there are a million different ways of loving that I have yet to discover, I’d like to classify myself not as a master of loving, but one in progress.

So I don’t think I have the authority to tell you how to love based on my not having mastered loving, but I can tell you this:

Do you have to hear “I love you” all the time to know that you are loved?

No. You don’t. And neither do you have to say it either to love.

Save your voice.

Sometimes it’s good to.