Excerpt for Twirl: My Life With Stories, Writing & Clothes by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


In the pause between spring rain
a woman pirouettes in a field.

Her skin is a thousand mirrors.

Sholeh Wolpé


my life with stories, writing & clothes

c a l l i e f e y e n

T. S. Poetry Press • New York

T. S. Poetry Press

Ossining, New York

© 2019, Callie Feyen.

All rights reserved. Please do not reprint more than several

paragraphs without permission.

Some names in this text have been changed to preserve privacy.

Cover photo by Kelly Sauer

to mrs. lewandowski,
who showed me the wild things
and the changing leaves.

thank you for making me look.

—callie feyen


In the Beginning - an introductory note from the author

1 – Trying to Hold Fire

2 – Orange Heels

3 – Eel in the Library

4 – Look at the Leaves

5 – Twirling

6 – Into the Woods

7 – Leftover Astonishments

8 – Accessories

9 – Kind of Blue

10 – Crew Girls

11 – Something to Be Afraid Of

12 – Sunshine

13 – The Duster

14 – Lessons in Folly

15 – Threshold

16 – How to Dress Like a Reading Diva

17 – Bloom

18 – How to Avoid the Tragedy of Becoming Only One Thing

19 – A Tiger and a Chameleon

20 – Where the Wild Things Are

21 – Heroes Journeying

In the Beginning

It was Adam and Eve who got me interested in clothes and stories. I was around 5 or 6, and in Sunday School, listening about their exile from Eden.

Frankly, Eden terrified me. I didn’t understand what was so great about a place where animals were just walking around and the only other person to talk to was a boy. And he had no clothes on! Where were the toys? Where was the candy? Why was a snake talking to people?

So when Eve bit that apple, I was relieved. Finally! Something’s about to happen! And even though I knew she wasn’t supposed to do what she did, I liked that it was the girl who did the bad thing. It was the girl who moved the story forward. My story repertoire so far consisted of Cinderella and Snow White—princesses I adored (Those dresses! Those tiaras! Those satin gloves!), but they hadn’t done anything wrong. They hadn’t really done anything. Boys were always the ones causing mischief; it was always the boys who learned the lesson. Eve knew she wasn’t supposed to eat that apple, and she did it anyway. Now what? I thought eagerly.

“And then they knew they were naked,” one of the Sunday School teachers would say, and she would say it with sorrow, while I wanted to stand up and shout, “Hooray! Bring on the clothes!” Why would being aware that you’re naked be a bad thing? Why was wearing clothes a bad thing? I loved clothes.

My outfits have always been a compass; they pointed to who I could be on any given day. A red Longfellow Center T-shirt I wore on floor hockey game days made me feel strong and aggressive. A bouncy black skirt dress I wore on band concert days had me feeling classy and musical. I clipped my sunshine yellow overalls on, and I was whimsical. I zipped up a royal blue sequin spaghetti strap dress and I was sassy. Clothes meant opportunity. They meant experience. Putting together an outfit complete with accessories gave me control. I got to decide who I wanted to be; I got to decide what story I wanted to walk around in.

I worried it was wrong to point out this curious rumination I had about Eve, so I decided to keep it to myself.

One afternoon, years later, when I was flipping through an InStyle® magazine, I stopped on a perfume advertisement. There were a man and a woman on the page, but my eyes went to the woman, who was holding a green apple. I can’t remember whether the apple had been bitten or if she was about to take a bite. It didn’t matter. From the look on her face, she knew exactly what she was doing. She looked beautiful and powerful, and it was the man who looked utterly powerless. He also knew what she was doing and, right or wrong, he wanted a part of it.

This was not the Eve I grew up with, but she was the Eve I remembered, and it was uncomfortable—like hearing a secret told publicly—to see her. Still, I wanted to step into that story. I wanted to try that power on. I wanted to bite the apple. Like Eve, I wanted to be the one who moved the story forward.


Trying to Hold Fire

I am standing on Interstate 94, because my car is on fire.

I was driving home from my teaching job in Detroit when symbols I didn’t recognize lit up the dashboard. Then, the steering wheel started shaking, and the lights in the car blinked on and off like a last call at a bar. Finally, smoke billowed out from the hood and also into the car. Still driving, I called my husband, Jesse, and told him what was going on. The dialogue went something like this:

Jesse: Hello?


Jesse: What?


Jesse, who is a scientist and quite a rational fellow, basing all decisions on sturdy facts and well-researched theories, attempted to ask me a series of questions to determine whether the car was, in fact, on fire. He could’ve been in the car with me, seeing for himself, and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I was living the car fire narrative.

“Pull over and call 911,” Jesse said, because I wouldn’t or couldn’t give him answers to any other questions (although the fact that I was in the car and still driving probably tipped him off that I might have been exaggerating).

Now, as semi trucks and cars zoom past me creating a wind so strong I can barely stand, I’m surprised how long it’s taking for anyone to get here. Did the cops not hear my tone of voice when I called?

I’m a safe enough distance from the car in case it blows up, but the smoke has ceased and the orange flames I was sure I felt at my feet while driving are not there. Except for the traffic creating a breeze, so that the wildflowers I’m standing next to endlessly cower and right themselves, nothing is happening.

The petals on the wildflowers barely move; it’s the stem that does all the work, and I think that these flowers must have tremendous roots to withstand this relentless whipping wind.

I think about pulling a flower from the dirt to study its roots, but I don’t. For one thing, lifting it means I kill it. For another, I don’t want to step into the dirt with high heels.

The shoes are a neutral faux suede from a brand called Chinese Laundry. I bought them with a royal blue pair of heels on my birthday a couple of years ago. Both pairs boast a heel that I like to call, “stand up and pay attention” height. Which is one reason I bought them. My posture is better when I’m wearing heels, my strut more assured.

The neutral pair, I knew, would go with everything, and I figured the royal blue pair would provide a nice pop to an otherwise dull outfit. Those blue shoes were electric and, putting them on, I’d feel like I was lightning.

I hadn’t worn the royal blue heels in a while. As a matter of fact, since I started teaching in Detroit, the shoes were still in a cardboard box waiting to be unpacked. We’d recently made a move from Maryland to Michigan and I hadn’t taken them out, because for some reason I felt like I’d reveal something I wasn’t ready to reveal. Or maybe I didn’t want to. Maybe I thought imagining myself as lightning was foolish and childish.

I don’t know, but I took what I thought was essential out of the box, and that’s why I’m wearing the neutral shoes. Standing on the side of the road, I have them on with a pair of maroon slouch pants, a white T-shirt, a necklace that matches the heels, and a retro turquoise leather jacket.

I look at the car that, by now, appears just fine and not at all like it was about to burst into flames as I’d convinced myself it would. I survey the traffic, looking hopefully for emergency lights, but I see nothing except slowing, gathering cars telling me rush hour is beginning. Soon, the wildflowers will get a reprieve from the vehicles’ wind. I turn my attention to the weeds again and try to imagine I’m in a garden or backyard and not standing on the side of the interstate.

My heels are killing me. I want to take them off, but not only would that look ridiculous, I won’t be able to put them back on. I don’t understand what’s happening. These are my comfy heels.

It didn’t used to be this way. I could wear heels and teach like it was nothing, but since I’ve taken this job in Detroit, I can barely make it to 2:30. I don’t know what’s changed, or what’s changing, but I feel like I’ve lost something. I no longer carry lightning.

In Detroit, I teach 6th grade English and since school began we’ve been reading The Lightning Thief. I don’t love the story. I think there’s too much action that simply overtakes the characters, fast. However, any student I’ve taught recently, including my 6th graders, loves Percy Jackson, so I do my best to make the story come alive for them. We’re about six chapters in, so I thought it’d be fun to do a little review game. Percy Jackson, the main character in the story, learns he is the son of Poseidon. Poseidon and Zeus are in a fight over a lightning bolt and Percy is supposed to get it back. So the object of the English hour when my kids come to see me is to obtain lightning bolts by completing a certain amount of tasks. I have a vocabulary station, a theme station, a Greek mythology station, but my favorite is the summary station. We’ve been practicing articulating the gist of a sentence, then a paragraph, then a page, and now I want them to tell me the gist of each chapter. I have the students complete a worksheet, taking note of what each chapter is about, and then they have to write a poem, rap, or song about the first six chapters.

I have four English classes, and all of them wanted to do this station first. My classroom turned into a room of beats—hands and fists smacking out rhythms, bodies swaying side to side to catch the beat and match words to it. It gave me shivers to watch. Many of my students are struggling readers. Every day, we read The Lightning Thief out loud and so many raise their hands enthusiastically because they want to read and of course I let them, but we all hear how physically exhausting it is to put together letters. Today, though, in my classroom-turned-rap-studio, the students became artists: fluid and striking, dropping rhymes about Percy and his mom, Percy and Grover, Percy and Poseidon, Percy and Medusa.

One set of boys stole the show. They were a group of three: one who has trouble writing a sentence, another who is bright but spends his energy doing everything he can to hide that fact, and the third has never stopped talking long enough to write his name on his assignments. Throughout the hour, they were huddled up in a corner mumbling and writing and pounding out a rhythm so intricate I knew poetry was happening.

When it was their turn to perform, they rapped a set of about six couplets that summarized the book, and then bounced out the refrain: I’m a half-blood, I’m a half-blood.

It was brilliant because Percy Jackson learning he is half-god, half-mortal is the crux of the story. What will he do now that he understands who he is? What do we do once we know who we are?

It only took one refrain for the rest of the class to join in. I felt like a VIP in a private concert. We got louder (obviously) and rowdier, and kids in the hallway even stopped by, nodding their heads to the beat or raising a hand in the air.

I’d been with these kids for over a month and today was my favorite day. Today, it felt like we not only held lightning but threw it and set the room on fire. Today was the first time since I started this job that my heels didn’t hurt.

Now I’m standing on the side of the road with the wildflowers and my car that’s clearly not on fire, and my feet hurt. Not only that, this jacket is too hot, and I hate these pants. The white T-shirt, the oldest thing I have on, is the only part of my outfit I like. I’ve had this shirt since my youngest, Harper, was born. It is almost a decade old, and I would wear it every day if I could. When I get home, I’m ripping off all these clothes except this shirt, and I’m putting on jeans and Converse.

I think about the refrain my students came up with. It’s catchy and bouncy, and impossible not to bop your head along with. The boys could’ve made this rap angry or sad. After all, up until this point, Percy had no idea who his father was and why he left in the first place. Not only does Percy have to go on this ridiculous journey, but his mother, in an attempt to push Percy to safety, was attacked by a minotaur and turned into gold dust. Plus, Percy is only half-god—he doesn’t really fit in with humans, and he doesn’t really fit in with gods.

Many of my students know about fathers leaving. They know about mothers’ desperate attempts to push their children into the world while at the same time trying to keep them safe. They know about the impossible quest to hunt for what shines, without a complete understanding of what it is they are doing. This rap could’ve been beyond depressing, but my students made it powerful. They celebrated Percy. He is a conqueror. He is a hero. They identify with Percy, and so this means they are conquerors and heroes, too.

Despite the bad taste that The Lightning Thief leaves in my mouth, what I love about the story is that it is Percy Jackson’s weaknesses that make him a hero. He’s been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. He’s been told he has a temper. However, when he finds out who he is, he begins to understand that these can be used as strengths. This is what I want my students to relate to—that their weaknesses can be used for good once they have a better understanding of themselves.

I wrap my arms around my belly as if I’m cold. I take a deep breath and hold it. Someone told me once this was a good way to calm down. It never works. I take a deep breath anyway. I smell the wildflowers.

Jesse shows up in our red Jeep. I watch as he slows, headed for where I’m standing. I take a few steps backward to give him room and watch his face to determine whether he’s mad at me. He looks serious, studious.

When Jesse steps out of my car, his work shirtsleeves are unbuttoned and rolled up, and his tie is loose.

“What happened?” he asks, looking back and forth from me to the car.

“I don’t know,” I mumble. “There was all this smoke, and the steering wheel froze, and the interior lights were blinking on and off.”

“Sounds like the engine died,” he says.

“Not a fire, then?” I say.

“Not a fire,” he confirms, and takes out his phone.

I climb into the Jeep and wait.

Why did I overreact? I think, as I watch Jesse scroll through his phone, probably to call a tow truck. Why was this story so easy for me to step into?

I think back on the last two hours. Symbols on the dashboard lit up in the parking lot of school when I turned the key in the ignition. I ignored them. I could’ve called Jesse then. I could’ve taken a picture and showed him. I didn’t, though, because I can’t stand to be at this school any longer than necessary. I wanted to come home.

Normally, after teaching, I’m happy to stay in the classroom and straighten up, and get ready for the next day’s lesson. I like the empty quiet and the evidence that so much was going on here earlier: broken pencils, crumpled-up notebook paper. Even reading silly cartoons or phrases on desks makes me happy.

Not here, though. All I feel here is the necessity to rush. I understand now that if I am going to make it in this school, I have to do things quickly: think, plan lessons, grade, and, most importantly, all of it has to be successful. There is no opportunity to linger. There is no margin for mistake, or failure.

I watch Jesse on the phone, and I realize now that the car fire story was easy for me to believe because it’s how I feel. I am the fire, or I’m trying to hold fire, or I am on fire.

Jesse gets into the car and puts a hand on my leg.

“You okay?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say, looking out the window at the wildflowers. “I’m sorry,” I offer.

The tow truck arrives, as does an emergency vehicle, and I grimace at the frantic 911 call I made earlier. While one guy hooks up our dead car to the truck, another talks to Jesse and me through the window of the Jeep. “No fire,” Jesse tells the emergency responder. “The engine died.”

Jesse follows the tow truck into traffic. I kick my heels off onto the car floor and throw my jacket into the back seat. I cross my legs and play with a loose thread on my pants. I look out the window again at the wildflowers. I don’t have roots like them. My spine doesn’t feel stable enough to be whipped around like that all day. Tears well as I think about Jesse’s words to the responder: No fire. The engine died.


Orange Heels

It’s the day after the car fire, and I’ve slipped on a pair of flaming orange high heels that are equally fabulous and ridiculous. I found them in the clearance section of Target about two days after we moved to Ann Arbor and realized we’d packed up all of my shoes in a pod that wouldn’t get to us for three or four weeks. That left me with one pair of turquoise flip-flops.

When I passionately shared this piece of information with Jesse, waving my flips-flops in the air and saying, “I need shoes!” he said, “Just get something basic.” He said it slowly, like he was explaining algebra. “Get something that’ll get you through the next few weeks.”

“Oh, totally,” I said, grabbing my wallet and heading for the door. “Basic. Absolutely.”

I came home with the orange heels.

The only explanation I have is that I head towards how I want to feel. Those shoes were spunky and bright. They looked like power. I wanted to walk in them and see if their personality would rub off on me.

The shoes also reeked of defiance. Holding them, I could hear the chiding voices: “You can’t possibly walk and teach all day in these,” they said.

Watch me.

Normally, I alternate days I wear high heels. It helps with stamina. On this day, though, I need some spunk in my life. Every other Wednesday, our classes are shortened to accommodate a two-hour faculty meeting. This Wednesday is faculty-meeting day.

Here are a few things I’d rather do than sit in on a faculty meeting:

  1. Go into labor.

  2. Learn trigonometry.

  3. À la Billy Crystal: give myself a paper cut, then soak the wound in lemon juice.

The only time I’ve sat in a faculty meeting at this school when I didn’t want to pull my eyelashes out one by one was the time we read one paragraph from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

I wish faculty meetings could always begin with a story, and move us forward, but they don’t. We talk of daily learning targets, standardized test scores, and so many protocols I feel like I’m drowning. Why do I think spending thirty minutes reading and responding to words beautifully strung together does more for my teaching abilities than plotting each of my students’ test scores on a grid and using different color highlighters to show low, medium, and high ranges? I don’t know, but one makes me feel alive and bursting to share with my students what words can do if they’d let them sink into their souls. The other makes me feel like I’m turning into a robot; my mind—and soon my soul—vacant.

So I put the orange heels on, and, since classes are shortened, I decide to step away from the pre-written lesson plans I’m supposed to follow and do something else. We will read that paragraph from The House on Mango Street.

As I drive to school, I come up with a plan. I will have my students draw pictures. I will have them write a reaction to Cisneros’ words. I’ll have them compare this paragraph with what they know about Percy Jackson.

I think about my plans with growing excitement as I drive the 45-minute commute in the still dark morning. I won’t write any goals on the board as I’m supposed to. Instead, I’ll write a greeting and a small task for the beginning of class, as I used to in other teaching jobs. That’s always what I did because that’s the message I wanted to send: I’m glad you’re here. Get ready to work. That’s what I can promise in my classroom, I think, as I press my foot to the accelerator. Every single day, I promise to welcome my students, and I promise we will work.

I make a worksheet at my desk as soon as I get to school. I do it by hand because I love the physical act of writing, and I hate staring at a computer screen. I draw a border and a few doodles in the margins. I use a ruler to draw straight lines. I read over my work, happy, and, rotating my ankle around slowly, give a nod to my orange heels and the spunk they are giving me.

“Ooo, girl! Look at those shoes! You lookin’ for a fight?” my friend Monique asks, as she saunters into the room. She teaches math next door, and she has a quiet strength that is magnetizing. She is also one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. I think Monique is the human equivalent to my orange heels.

I grab my coffee thermos and walk over to where she is. “No,” I laugh and give her thermos, a glittery one with a cursive M on the front, a clink for cheers. She drinks tea, and this morning it fills the room with cinnamon. We sit on student desks, drinking our hot beverages and chatting for a minute.

I love the moments when it’s just Monique and me. Everything about this school is loud; even the air I breathe feels loud. Not Monique though. Though she is quiet, she is commanding. She might speak softly, but she is articulate. The moments we get to talk one-on-one are small, but they energize and strengthen me like ripples that are created in the water after a crack in the ocean floor.

“I only wear shoes like that if I’m going to fight students,” Monique says, matter-of-factly.

“Students?” I say, raising my eyebrows and laughing, again.

“Girl, you have no idea. This school?” she says, brushing her arm across the classroom in reference, “is cake compared to where I’ve been.”

Monique proceeds to tell me a story about a time when a student was beyond belligerent. “She got in my face,” Monique says, “so the next day, I wore my heels to the classroom.” She leans back and takes a sip of tea. I drink my coffee, rapt with attention— not just with Monique’s story, but how calm she is. I’ve never known someone so utterly sure of herself. Everything, from her posture, to her facial expressions, to the way she speaks, defines confidence.

“So this baby girl does her thing in my classroom, and you know me, I don’t say a word.”

“Because you don’t need to,” I say, like the sidekick that I am.

“Well, that makes her more upset.” Monique takes another sip and then cocks her head to the side. “Ain’t that how it always is? People go crazy if they see their words have no effect whatsoever.”

I nod and think about the power there is in quiet: the sound of Number 2 pencils on single sheets of loose-leaf paper, the turn of a page in a well-read book, the soft crack my knees make when I kneel next to a student to help her with her words.

“Li’l Miss Thang can insult me, my mama, my daddy, I don’t care, but she’s getting in the way of my teaching, so I tell her she can stop, or she can leave.”

I know Monique wants her to stop and stay. Of the 85 students we share, probably 70 of them have her cell phone number. She is their math teacher first, but she’s also become their older sister, their Auntie, their cousin, their mama. I’ve seen her walk a student through something he doesn’t understand. She never gets angry. She never loses her patience. She will go step by step with him for as long as it takes, and it is through this exchange of numbers and how they work that trust begins to form. Trust in Monique, and trust in themselves. This is the kind of teaching Monique offers, and it is an offering. It’s there for the taking. This poor child Monique’s telling me about doesn’t see that.

“‘I ain’t goin’ to no principal’s office,’ she tells me. ‘I will fight you first.’” Monique looks at me and then at my orange heels. “That’s when I take off my shoe.”

I laugh. “What’d she do?”

“She sat down, and I taught her some math,” Monique says, picking off a piece of lint from her pants.

Our team leader comes into the room and gives us a good morning. “Time to meet the kids,” she says.

Monique and I rise. I bow my head and cup both hands around my coffee. I’m bracing myself for the loudness.

Monique nudges me in the side, then directs her eyes to the whiteboard. It’s not just the “Daily Learning Targets” I didn’t fill out. Half of our whiteboard is taped off into eight sections that need to be specifically filled out every day. Today, every inch of it is blank.

She looks at me and lifts her eyebrows.

I look at my heels and give a small, but defiant, stomp.

“I’m not filling it out today,” I tell her.

She nods and clicks her thermos to mine and, together, we go get our kids.


Eel in the Library

After the faculty meeting, I visit the snowflake eel in the downtown public library in Ann Arbor. My daughters, Hadley and Harper, and I found her one afternoon when it was still summer. We’d first moved here, and I figured a good way to learn our way around this town would be to find the libraries. We found the snowflake eel in the children’s section. She lives in an aquarium that’s built into a table, and she’s about the length and width of my index finger.

The day the girls and I met her she was standing up, wedged between the aquarium wall and a rock. Her eyes were open wide and at first I thought she was stuck, and I worried she was distressed. It turned out she was just looking around. Harper found a little information card about snowflake eels and read it to us: “These eels are called snowflake eels because they are covered with small marks that look like little snowflakes.”

“What a great name,” I said, putting my finger on the glass. The eel looked at me and I gave her a little wave. I leaned closer and, sure enough, each freckle was a little jagged and star-shaped like the snowflakes I hoped would fall come November.

Harper continued to read: “Snowflake eels are usually peaceful, sticking their heads out of a cave and checking out their surroundings.”

I loved that description—a peaceful creature that was rapt with her surroundings, a creature that paid attention to where she was before she began.

Now, I am in pain as I walk to the library to see the eel. My orange heels have failed me. Or, I have failed them. I don’t know anymore, but every step takes Herculean effort. I want to see the eel, though. I want to see if she’s still standing behind that rock, or if she decided to try swimming, because, eventually, she has to start swimming. Eventually, she needs to begin. She can’t just stand behind that rock and stare. How boring. Plus, she’ll probably get eaten.

I need to see her swimming and I need to see her find reprieve behind that rock. I need to know both are possible. I want to watch her flick herself around in the water not just because she must get somewhere, not just because she must survive, but because she loves to explore. Because, even though this aquarium is small, there is always more to see. Because she loves the feel of her body pushing through the water, and she loves the satisfying pain of becoming stronger by plunging deeper and swimming faster.

I collapse on a chair where the aquarium is, and the librarian looks up when the chair squeaks. I attempt to smile and whisper, “Sorry,” but she turns away before I get the apology out. That’s fine. I have a hard time smiling these days, and I say sorry too much anyway.

I can’t find the snowflake eel. She’s not behind any rocks, and I don’t see her swimming around the tank. It’s ridiculous that I’m starting to cry, but I can’t stop the tears. I wanted to see that eel. I wanted to know she began exploring, and that she’s okay.

I shift in the chair so my back is to the tank and quickly brush at my face to try to wipe tears away. I need to look at something else. I need to change out of these shoes. I need a new story. I look towards the books but don’t walk towards them. My skin is prickling with fear.


Look at the Leaves

There was an orange carpet in my elementary school library. The room, on the second floor of Longfellow Elementary School, was long and narrow and was filled with short shelves brimming with books for growing children to reach easily. It felt like a maze to me: too many directions to turn, too many stories to pick up, too many books to open with words I didn’t understand.

I visited my school library with my classmates every week, starting at age 5, and continuing until I was 12. I had to go—there was no choice in the matter—and I had to pick out books, usually two, to take with me. I was a compliant child, so I pulled books from shelves and handed them to the librarian for checkout. But those were not the stories I took with me. The stories I took with me came from Mrs. Lewandowski, the head librarian, though I think a better title for her would’ve been Master Storyteller.

Mrs. Lewandowski wore long, grey skirts and crisp white blouses under cardigans. Her hair was short, and she wore glasses that she would gently remove from her face if she didn’t need them. The glasses hung on a silver chain against her starched white shirt. She stood straight; her movements were slow but precise, and the moment I set foot on that orange carpet, I looked for Mrs. Lewandowski. She was like the Chicago Sears Tower that stood a few miles east of us—mysterious and offering a point of navigation. I could see the tower just about anywhere in my neighborhood, and if I couldn’t, I knew where I could go to find it. Seeing it, I knew I was home. I knew I could play and run, explore and wonder, even if I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going. I looked for Mrs. Lewandowski because she held stories that allowed me to explore and wonder too, and I wanted those stories.

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