Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Entries in everyday essays (16)


Super Full, Sturgeon Moon (an everyday essay) 

You sit and watch the moon rise, a crisp circle of light in a cool blue sky. It's a Friday night at the end of August, and though the forecast predicts some 90-degree days next week, this feels like a fall Friday night, ripe for woodsmoke and high school football.

Dark birds swoop by in flightlines, ready for their treetop beds. The three or four bats that patrol this swatch of suburbia flap and flutter about overhead. The moon goes higher and your fingers and toes get colder. It's time to go inside, but who can leave the night air when there's such a super moon to watch? This month it's the Full Sturgeon, a serious sounding fish, to be sure. 

You want to describe the moon as a hole punch in a blue paper sky. You want to think of it as nature's Bat Signal, calling all nocturnal superheros to action. You wish you lived near a large body of water so you could see the tide fill and spill its basin of earth with this extra moon urge. You feel something sloshing inside of you, a micro-tide of one.

You can smell a backyard fire and wish you had thought to rub two sticks together, to put match to paper, or at least put on a pair of long pants. This moon musing: a cold blaze, a reflection of fire. 


What is a "One-Moment Memoir"? 

What is a one-moment memoir?

It's that moment when you're washing dishes, and you see your own hand holding a little metal bouquet of silverware, and for a second you think it's your mother's hand. 

It's that moment when you hear the loud summer buzz of cicadas, and a line of poetry floats into your mind, begging you to capture it for later.

It's that moment when the watermelon you're washing in the kitchen sink whispers "carpe diem" to you.

It's that moment before the kiss, before the phone rings, before the car crash

It's that moment when you fall asleep on the floor with your lover during a rainshower and years later you wonder if you dreamt the whole thing: the rain, the nap, the lover – all of it. 

It's that moment when the sun slants just so, or the clock ticks too loudly, or you hear church bells ringing on the wind.

One-moment memoirs are those moments big and small, those moments that matter, those moments that you want to live inside of, or make sense of, or share with others. 

Our lives are made of moments.

Even the huge, earth-shattering events are composed of individual moments. And sometimes a seemingly small, quiet moment sticks with us for our whole life because it was infused with something deeper, something more.

Sometimes we understand and can articulate that meaning, and sometimes we can only see its importance in our peripheral vision.

Writing deeply into one moment can help us to find the meaning within it – and to convey that meaning to others. 

This is the kind of writing I love to do. This is why I write essays and blog posts and flash nonfiction. This is why I write the stories of my life, one day at a time, one moment at a time, sometimes one breath at a time.

And this is why I created the One-Moment Memoirs Writing Workshop, to help you write the stories of your life, moment by moment. 

Capturing the significance and intricacies of our life in words, and committing that to the page can be a daunting task, I know. It can feel overwhelming to decide what to reveal and what to conceal, which details to include and which to leave out. It can be hard to convey the depth and breadth of our life stories so that our experiences connect with our readers. 

I want my writing to resonate with others. I want people to read my stories and feel a spark, a recognition, a sense of surprise or a sense of "me too." I want to make art from the matter of my life. I want my words to reach into your heart, your mind, the center of your being.

And I want you to do the same with your words, your stories

Is this grandiose? No. Or yes. I don't know, and I don't really care. If you love art and music and books and films.... If you create art or music or books or films... Then you know what I'm talking about. We engage with with art because it reaches us or wakes us up or soothes us or simply makes us feel alive and well. And I think we create art of all kinds for the same reasons: to wake up, to soothe, to feel alive and well. As artists and writers, we want those things for ourselves, and we want them for the people who engage with our work. 

One-Moment Memoirs is for you if...

...you need a new way "in" to your stories.

...you want to write but are afraid/lost/overwhelmed.

...you love to write but want to try something new.

...you want to make sense of your life in words.

...you want to share your life stories with others.

...you want to find a way to write with more ease and more joy.  

So I'm asking you: What stories do you have to tell? About the family that you love. About the places that you've been. About the things that you've lost. About the secrets that you keep. About the experiences that make you laugh, make you cry, make you say "hmm...." What are the stories of your life? You can write them, moment by moment. And it will be fun and messy and enlightening and good. It's going to be so good. Will you join us? 

The next live, virtual class happens on Saturday, January 24 May 2 (2015).
>>We'll set aside three hours together to learn and write and amaze ourselves and ask and answer questions.
>>We'll gather by conference call from anywhere in the world. (I'll have in-country call-in numbers for you, don't worry.)
>>You'll get a recording of the call to keep, so you can listen to it again (or for the first time if you can't make the live call).
>>I'll walk you through a series of fun, accessible, and surprisingly effective writing exercises.
>>You'll have a glorious hour of personal writing time to dive into one of the stories you've uncovered during the class.
>>We'll have a private online community to support each other.
>>You'll get a workbook with worksheets, resources, and inspiration.
>>You'll be able to choose to receive (kind, constructive) feedback on your writing (but only if you want).  
>>We'll play with words, ideas, stories, and possibilities.
>>We'll realize that writing can be fun and exciting.
>>We'll practice being brave.
>>We'll practice being in charge of which stories we tell.
>>We'll practice listening and letting that Something Else (call it The Muse or what you will) guide the way.
>>We'll make art from the stories of our lives.

Registration is open.
I would be thrilled if you joined me.
I think you'll be thrilled, too.

Class Registration:

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{A slightly different version of this essay was originally published in The Collapsar.}

Somewhere west of the Pennsylvania border but east of Columbus, the tree-dense slopes on either side of the highway started to ease themselves down to the ground. It was subtle enough that I didn’t notice it at first, but eventually the mountains shrunk to hills shrunk to fields, the way icebergs of plowed snow in parking lots melt and melt in the spring, until one day there’s nothing but a puddle where once stood a dirty white mound. Out on the highway, maybe an hour from Columbus, the treetop vistas and the cradling valleys gave way to farmland flat as paper.

Last spring I drove to and from Ohio twice in eleven days, and each time that I hit the edge of the heartland, an unexpected unease set in. The same thing happened a few years ago when I drove from my home in southwestern Pennsylvania to Indiana for the first time. Somewhere around Sandusky the landscape changed, and I understood why Ohio is part of the Midwest. In all three cases, when the foothills of the Appalachians melted away into plains carved by ancient glaciers, my internal compass went haywire. I felt twitchy. Overexposed. As though I were suspended in a perpetual state of waiting.


In a grocery store parking lot in Ashland, Ohio, I saw an Amish family: Mother in her bonnet. Father in his beard and suspenders. Young son in his little-man hat. They climbed into their black horse-drawn buggy and drove away. I was eating baby carrots and hummus inside my blue RAV-4, having a quick snack before I started the 190-mile trip home. With one or two rest stops along the way, I’d be back in my living room in three and a half hours. The same trip in an Amish carriage would take nearly 24 hours. That’s without stops and going full-tilt at a buggy’s top average speed of 8 miles an hour. If the horse is slow, you’re looking at a full day and a half on the road.


My second spring trip to Ohio took me six hours west and south to Cincinnati, and then two minutes over the river into Kentucky. At that point, things begin to tilt Southern and the terrain picks up some more hills.

Six hours west and north from my front door puts me near South Bend, Indiana, which is just a short commute to Michigan, a state I’ve never visited.

When I was a kid, six hours in the car invariably meant heading east to our family’s annual New Jersey beach vacation.

Six hours on a plane has taken me west to Seattle and east to London.

Six hours in a carriage with a fast horse would get me almost from my house to Pittsburgh International Airport 50 miles away.


The first telescope was unveiled in the Netherlands in the early 1600s. Scientists finally confirmed the existence of the first planet beyond our solar system in 1992. In the last 20 years, they’ve confirmed hundreds and hundreds more, with a projection that several hundred-billion others pepper the vast tracts of the universe. Hundreds of billions of planets, up from fewer than 10, in just two decades. These are true astronomical numbers, beyond human scale. A million, a billion, a trillion, a google. The words roll out of our mouths with all their implied zeros subsumed in a few syllables. No one can count that high.


Jetlag is more than the effects of crossing timezones. It’s an affliction deeper than knowing when to sleep and when to wake. Travel far enough or often enough by plane, and sooner or later you’ll need to sit yourself down and wait for your soul to catch up with your body. Your internal compass, the one that tells you where you are in the world, and why and how to be there, will need some time to reset.


How fast is too fast? How far is too far? Are human beings meant to travel at 300 miles an hour through the air? Are we meant to travel at 65 miles an hour in a car? Astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis travel at a top speed of 17,500 miles in orbit, a sunrise and sunset to greet them every 45-minutes. The fastest marathon runners reach a speed of about 12 miles an hour, one and a half times faster than that Amish horse-and-buggy. Most of us walk at a pace of about 3 miles per hour. At that rate, it would take me more than two-and-a-half days of nonstop ambulation to reach Ashland, Ohio, from my house in western Pennsylvania. On October 14, 2011, a 23-year-old named Andrew Forsthoefel walked out of his front door in eastern Pennsylvania and set about walking 4,000 miles across the continent. He arrived at the Pacific Ocean 332 days later. That’s an average pace of 12 miles per day.


An old, lone tree stands in the middle of a field. You see it all the time in farmland if you look for it: a giant maple or oak keeping vigil on an island of grass, smack dab in the middle of tilled brown earth. A shady oasis for farmers, some say; a holdover from the old days before motorized equipment could take you quickly from one end of the wide field to the barn. Or shade for livestock, should the field be used for grazing. Or a landmark by which to keep track of your location in all those featureless acres, others say. Or the result of intact land where large boulders made clearing it impossible. Or an invitation of hospitality to birds that eat the fieldmice. Or, as the Irish say, a portal to the fairy world. Or a simple matter of aesthetics and sanity, something beautiful to rest the eyes from the terror of all that open space. A single tree in the perpetual act of waiting.



winter water-sky, good harbor beach, gloucester, mass.

The sky played tricks on me over the weekend. Maybe it was something to do with the long summer light on the days around the Solstice. Or something with the moisture content in the air. I don't know. Whatever it was, I could have sworn that the wild blue sea was just over that ridge of trees. Here in landlocked southwestern Pennsylvania, I spied water-sky.

It reminded me of this passage, from one of my essays in For All We Learned, The Sea (my manuscript in progress):

Stone, water, light. These are the sum parts of a seashore.

Certain curves of land and sky are known (to those who know such things) for their light. I’ve spent hours thinking about how to describe this light with words. It’s like describing true love. What creates this love, this love that infuses everything? Is it the sky? The sky covers everything. At the sea, the love flows down to your toes in the sand.

Light washes air. The air itself is a sheer, rarified color, the palest yellow and the most translucent blue. The air is transparent with light. So much here depends on this light that glazes everything. Every object stands in stark relief to everything else, painting a harmonious whole. Cerulean blue is the sea. Even the greys shine from within. Every scene is scrubbed clean and smoothed, then steeped in patina like an old Polaroid, faded or with sun-flare.

People come to such places to paint, but the very idea makes me despair. Painting this light is as impossible as spelling it out in words. No medium is transparent and shining enough to recreate this air. Light everywhere is peculiar, wave and particle both. Seaside light in particular defies logic; it is both saturated and clear. Light is the invisible conundrum by which we see everything.

I used to think that God is light. Now I think that light is a god.

The sky is a holy spirit. She cannot keep a secret. She always gives away the presence of water. Even in the distance, even when I cannot see what lurks beneath, I can tell if water lies below. Look out into the distance, through a stand of trees or across a stretch of road. When you find an openness in the sky, a light that glows from below, you have found it. I call this water-sky.

I invented this phrase in Massachusetts before reading that the term already exists in Arctic climatology to describe a phenomenon that is the polar opposite of my definition. If you climb north, all the way to the imaginary circle at the top of the world, the underside of a cloud will look darker over open water than it does over land. This makes sense in the Arctic, where the black water absorbs more light than the bright white land. Being able to discern the appearance of Arctic water sky is helpful for navigation, say those who know such things, and I believe them. But I'm sticking with the latitudes I know and the water-sky I love.


Spring: I believe.

haystack rock, cannon beach, oregon (march 2010) If you live in many parts of the northern U.S., you've probably been saying to your friends, "Winter was hard this year, wasn't it?" And your friends have been nodding their heads, squinting their eyes, and pulling their sweaters closer around them. Those of us in the northeastern states still look pale and shellshocked from all the snow, the ice, the darkness, the Polar Vortex, the fear that maybe this time spring really wouldn't come. Starting a few weeks ago, we began to see photos from our friends down south and in more moderate climes -- all those soft, bright blooms! It was too much to bear. Yes, April: that cruellest month, mixing memory and desire, hyacinths, hope, and apprehension. But quick now, here now, always: the daffodils are beginning to peek out. The buds on the pear tree are undeniably about to pop into petals. And despite the snow that dusted us here in Pennsylvania just two days ago (it always snows in April), despite it all: I believe. I believe in spring, in the return of the light, in warmth, in love, in second chances. Some days I'm tempted to sit down and list out exactly what I do believe, side-by-side with all of the beliefs that I've lost along the way, just to see which list is longer. Where, I wonder, is the Life we have lost in living? But to tell you the truth, I'm not sure I want -- or need -- to know, becuase what we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.**

So in honor of endings and beginnings, in honor of spring, here's a little blessing that I wrote a few years ago. (When I read it, I like to imagine that I'm standing at the sea, which is the land's edge.)

A Springtime Blessing

May you be rooted like rock
That reaches down beneath the constant tide
And pushes tall into the air.
May you shimmer like sun-skimmed sand
Along white, white waves.
May a line of footprints lead you
To adventure and home and back again.
May your perspective be one of compassion and beauty.
May you ruffle your wings in the water
And flutter them dry on the breeze,
Plump with the knowledge that you are as permanent
And as temporary
As this land.


**Italicized words, plus references to April as the cruellest month and hyacinths, from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," Four Quartets, and The Rock. (It seems I can't go a spring season without quoting at least one of these.)