Search results for

CHOICES

Guest Posts, loss, Pregnancy

Choices

December 4, 2016
survive

TW: This piece discusses medically necessary termination of pregnancy

By Leslie Wibberly

A while ago, a friend and colleague received some devastating news. She and her husband were expecting their second daughter, and at over three months into the pregnancy they had assumed everything was fine. A routine ultrasound unexpectedly revealed multiple birth defects and a tumor, called a terratoma, attached to the base of the baby’s spine.

They were told they could choose to terminate this pregnancy, as the effects of those birth defects were not clear. Or, they could try to carry the baby to term and hope that surgery might be able to correct the problems.

As she shared her news with me, her despair carefully but not completely masked, I was brought back to the moment many years earlier, when I had received similar news. A tiny tsunami of nausea intermingled with terror and regret, flooded my body.

My first pregnancy was planned, but happened sooner than expected. Exhausted from full time work and a year of studying for a post-grad certification, my body was not in peak condition. My husband and I had fully intended to start trying for a baby once my exams were over, but the universe was impatient and so conception was precipitous.

We were overjoyed none-the-less, and I did what assume every mother-to-be did. I bought parenting books, baby-name books, maternal vitamins, I started to worry about never sleeping again, and I prepared to say goodbye to my thirty-something pre-baby body. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, healing

Neverland

June 29, 2022
art

I am wandering around inside The Quadracci Pavilion building of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the building that’s shaped like a giant cruise ship run aground. Or maybe it’s supposed to be shaped like a bird with its wings outstretched or, possibly, a beached whale, its bones bleached by the sun. I am far from home in a lakeside city loved by tourists but I am not on vacation. Instead, I have driven from southern Minnesota to Milwaukee, a drive that normally takes 5 hours but yesterday took me eleven in sleet and snow, so that I can visit my daughter. So I can bring her home.

Yesterday, as I drove the ice-covered roads, I saw car after car after semi after truck in the ditch, and was witness to an accident. I called my daughter along the way with updates, letting her know I was still coming. Letting her know I’d be there soon. But travel was slow. Too slow, it turned out. The last time I called, telling my daughter that I’d be just a little longer, she sobbed that they wouldn’t let me in late. They didn’t have adequate staffing. I missed visiting hours by 15 minutes. They would not let me see her, they would not let me in.

Had she looked out the window of her hospital-like room, she would have seen me looking up for her as I drove my Jeep to my hotel just one block away. So close yet so far. I parked my Jeep in a nearby ramp, wiped away my tears, pasted on a smile so I could present myself at the front desk. Checked in to my hotel. Found my way to the elevator. Made my way up to my room. After eleven hours on the road, bumping and sliding along, with my daughter just out of my reach every mile of the way, my body was sick from motion and emotion. Quaking in my legs. Queasy in my gut. Grieving in my heart. I set down my suitcase and the bag of things I’d packed to bring for my daughter – the soft purple quilt I made for her high school graduation, a book, her favorite lipsticks, some art supplies, a warm sweater – and then, too exhausted to get to a chair or the bed, I laid my body down on the floor.

The next morning, the treatment center staff made an exception to the “no guests at mealtime” rule because I had traveled so far, and they allowed me to join my daughter for breakfast. Arms full with my coffee and to-go breakfast and my daughter’s quilt and things, I was buzzed in and rode the elevator to reception. I signed in, was met by a staff member and told they would not let me bring in my daughter’s quilt because it’s not store bought – regulations of some sort – so I leave it in the locker with my coat, my purse, my phone. Another elevator ride. And there she was. My daughter not looking like herself. Hair buzzed short. Eyes with dark circles. Her olive skin sallow. More like a lost little girl than a woman of nearly 20 years who two months previous was traveling the world, who one week ago was attending college and living on her own.

I pulled her into my arms and kissed the top of her head. She smiled some, but cried, too. She was hesitant. Quiet when she talked. Unsure of her responses. She is not doing well. Sick. Mentally ill. Eating disorder. All sorts of words are used to describe what is going on with her but I don’t see diagnoses, I see my daughter and I can see that she is not herself. Unless this shell of herself is a new normal for her. I don’t know. I will love her no matter what state she is in – physical or mental – but now she is in a mental state that is not a good one and a physical state that is hours away and all I want to do is bring her home.

We had breakfast together. Me food from Starbucks. She a dietician-planned meal on a compartmentalized tray. She was eating fine until I brought something up that made her sad, caused her to stop. Somehow I said something else, trying my best to make it all better, and she started eating again. She finished almost all of her meal. I did, too. Then I was allowed to sit in on a meeting with her dietician and therapist. They are kind and I can tell that my daughter likes them. I wanted to talk about a plan to get her treatment closer to home so my husband and I can see her, support her, help her. But as we talked, it was made clear that this is where my daughter needs to be, that I would not be taking her home.

Meeting done, it was time for my daughter to go to programming. And time for me to leave but I did not know where to go. I took the elevator down to the mail floor. Walked out the glass doors then down the block, into the hotel. I took the elevator up to my room, dropped off Rose’s quilt, rode the elevator back down, stepped out into the cold, cold, air and started walking because I did not know what else to do. I did not know where to go.

I tried to open the door of a historic church so I could sit inside, rest and get warm –  visiting churches during our travels is something my daughter and I like to do – but the door was locked. So I started walking again. I did not know what else to do. Soon I could see the lake not far away. How far had I gone? A mile? More? I saw the art museum, its great ship or bird or whale body beached there. I decided to go there.

I walk into the labyrinthian galleries of art hoping for respite but immediately I want leave. To get out of there and go see my daughter and take her home. But visiting hours aren’t until 4:30. Hours from now. And I can’t take her home. I am wandering in the neverland of parenting a young adult who makes choices of her own. Why can’t I still be the mom who can make the decisions for my daughter who is struggling?

But I’m not. So I am here, here in the belly of the whale or the bowels of the ship or stuck in the gullet of a giant bird. There is beauty all around me but I cannot enjoy it. There are sculptures by Degas, Russell, Rodin. There are paintings by O’Keeffe, Renoir, Monet. Photographs. Pottery. Furniture. Art from long, long ago and art from recent years. My daughter would love this place. If things were different and she was here, she would wander the galleries with me, comment on the pieces of art that she adores.

I wander amongst the sculptures and paintings, wending my way through another of the art-filled rooms when I hear a low thrumming. The noise fills my ears, ebbs and flows like water lapping on a shore. Puzzled, I look around, wondering about the source. Is it the heating system thrumming in the background? That doesn’t seem right. Museums are always so quiet.

I think about what a great semester my daughter was having; she had just switched her major from Chemistry to Studio Art. She has always been an artist at heart. Just yesterday she was a little girl smiling, laughing, pointing at artwork alongside her little brother as we walked through the galleries of the museum near our home.

I continue to wander around the museum, that low and constant sound buzzing in my ears all the while I am thinking thinking of how my daughter has withdrawn from college so she can get better. Thinking of her bravery in knowing she needed help and finding it. Thinking of the struggles she’s had these past three years. Thinking of how I do not get to drive her home.

I stop in a room, the art swirling around me. The humming continues and it is only now that I have stopped that I feel the vibrations in my throat, radiating down to my heart. I am the source of the noise. I, who so often sing and hum to bring myself joy and comfort, have been moaning deep and low, a keening hum.

I begin to walk again, still humming deep and low, and notice paintings of children with their innocent smiles and portraits of mothers and daughters together. These strong young women with bright eyes and steady gazes seem to look out of their gilded frames, right at me, as though to say, “She will get through this. You will get through this.” What do they know of my daughter and her struggles? What do they know of the ache in my heart?

I’m not sure I believe them, these women captured in paint on canvas, but, as I head back outside into the cold and start the walk back to see my daughter, I decide that I must believe them, that I must cling to the hope that, yes, some day my daughter will get better. That some day she will make it back home.

Myrna CG Mibus is a writer and bookseller living in Northfield, Minnesota. She writes articles on topics ranging from aviation to afternoon tea and essays on family, motherhood, and life. Her work has been published in a variety of publications including Feminine Collective, Grown & Flown, Minneapolis StarTribune and Wanderlust Journal. When she’s not writing, Myrna enjoys baking, bicycling, gardening, reading and being mom to her two young adult children.

***

Have you ordered Thrust yet? 


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Abuse, Guest Posts

The Adults We Couldn’t Trust

June 5, 2022
sex

I spent the spring of 2020 sewing masks when I was supposed to be teaching teenagers to resist sexual coercion.

Feeling immobile and useless, I would have done anything that seemed like helping.  I learned to make masks from an online video. In it, the smiling CFO of a hospital chain in the Midwest shows us how to stitch two six-by-nine pieces of cotton together and make pleats so the mask follows the shape of a face. There’s a man in the video whose only job, it seems, is to ask what she’s doing at each step of the process and express his approval. The CFO sounds happier than a person who works in a hospital should be. I imagine people on ventilators just down the hall. Her perfect pleats and bright patterned fabric are ridiculous. And comforting.

***

I teach self-defense. I missed the groups of teenage girls who came in expecting to fight off a creepy stranger with kicks and punches out of an action movie. Instead we’d teach them to resist coercion and assault from a guy they know and like. My co-instructor, a man dressed in 50 pounds of protective gear, would portray that guy—the one at the party who invited her to go somewhere quiet. To listen to music, he said. All night he made her feel special, getting her drinks, ignoring other girls’ flirtations.

But when they get to the upstairs bedroom, all he wants is sex. He’s charming the first time she refuses. Telling her she’s beautiful, and it’s not a big deal. When she refuses again, he yells. He could have any girl at the party, and why did she make him waste his time? We teach her to get up to leave. He blocks the door and grabs her wrist. We teach her to break the grip; to yell, “Let me leave!”; to strike the head or groin.

My co-instructor’s protective gear makes it possible for students to practice defending themselves by striking him with as much power as their bodies have. He is trained to portray that guy, every coercive word and gesture, every abusive rant. That way she our students feel scared or angry or immobile in all the ways they would if this party were real, and they learn to access their power in the midst of all those feelings.

***

Instead of telling hard truths I spent most of 2020 piercing my fingers with straight pins, taking seventeen tries to thread a needle. Every part of the process is tedious. Lining up the fabric, stitching around the edges. Still, making something out of thread and fabric reminds me of home. My grandmother sewed. My mother made needlepoint pillows. Every stitch was as tight as the clench of her jaw when my father made an inappropriate joke.

I haven’t sewn since I was in high school and on costume crew for the fall musical. I joined because I didn’t get cast, and that’s what all my friends who didn’t get cast were doing. We met in the basement below the auditorium. We sat in a tight circle and talked about how not to get caught sneaking out of your bedroom, or the tragedy of having small breasts. About how pretty I would be if I let one of them do my hair and makeup. But mostly the girls on costume crew talked about sex. About what they would and wouldn’t let their boyfriends do. About giving hand jobs to theater guys who took forever to get excited, guys I now realize were probably gay. The intimacy almost made up for not being upstairs with the kids who did get cast.

One day, in an isolated corner of the basement, a girl who was blonde and pretty told me and she’d been raped by a family friend. She didn’t tell her parents. They were already disappointed in her. There was no adult at school that any of us thought we could tell. All the adults ever wanted to talk to us about was drugs. And they loved to talk to us about drugs. They showed us film strips about teenagers who thought they were just experimenting but wound up ruining their lives. They held all-school assemblies where recovering addicts spoke to us, as if living embodiments of ruined lives would hit us harder than the films. There was a counselor whose job it was to pull kids out of class and tell them not to be influenced by their peer groups. Though the football team was using as many drugs as anyone else, she only came for the kids who wore all black and listened to punk bands.

It wasn’t true that they never talked to us about violence, but violence was for poor people—and the poor people in our imaginations were almost always Black. We read The Color Purple, and no white teacher helped us untangle Blackness and poverty from rape. From their silences we learned that violations like rape lived in the parts of the city our parents wouldn’t let us visit.

***

Some of the scenarios we teach begin with girls lying on the gym floor, as if they’re sleeping. My co-instructor pins their arms. With some, he plays an ex-boyfriend who insists she owes him sex. With others it’s an acquaintance, drunk, not stopping when she tells him she wants to sleep. I kneel at each girl’s head, talking over the verbal abuse. I remind each girl to breathe, to focus on finding a way out. In order for this assault to proceed, he has to move bed sheets or clothes. In each of those moments, she could get a hand or foot free, and use it to strike a vulnerable part of his body.

They can do it in a classroom. Pretending to sleep on a wrestling mat, other girls cheering for them the minute they start fighting back. But using your body to stop another person from harming you is a complicated calculation, especially for a teenage girl. When the difference between intimacy and violence is not as stark as it’s supposed to be, most people are left with painful choices. “If it was a boyfriend or a family member, I would feel bad about hurting them,” one girl wrote in response to an anonymous survey of students who had taken our class. “The idea of hurting someone you love is difficult. It’s kind of sad if you think about it because someone I love is hurting me,” wrote another. In that same survey, one young woman responded that she slapped her now-ex-boyfriend in the groin after he didn’t stop when she said no.

 ***

In high school I was the confidant of girls who were having sex, living vicariously through the blow jobs they gave or hated. I loved getting to be part of someone’s erotic life without the pressure of having one of my own. It was disappointing not to be desired, but also a relief. I didn’t have to balance my own wants with those of a boy who’d been taught all his life to be entitled. I didn’t have to listen for the sound of a garage door, and then rush to throw on enough clothes to fool a parent into thinking we’d been watching TV.

I worked hard to avoid the reality of my body. I wore mismatched socks and loud patterned clothes that were always a few sizes too big. One day I wore a Kleenex box on my head. Another day, a toy sailboat. The fact that I’d declared war on my body went unnoticed, because my rage was expressed with mismatched floral patterns. My clothes were my protest. Or they were my strategy for how to feel special without getting the kind of attention that could lead to sex.

My mother, who followed most rules, always told me she was proud of me when I left the house. Some mornings, at the kitchen table, I saw tears she could not completely stifle, as she told me how glad she was that I had the courage to be myself. I didn’t know who that self was any better than any other teenager, but because I was voluntarily different, most adults assumed I did.

Every bright green tutu I wore took me further away from having to become a sexual being. When I did fall in love, it was always the same drama. The boy never loved me back. He was distant and unkind, but only because he was so tortured. Sometimes I was his confidant, the only person he could trust with his suburban teenage demons. Eventually he’d start dating another girl, someone thinner than me, with shinier hair and better makeup. He’d ignore me until they had a fight. Then, he’d call me at a too-late hour to tell me that I was the only one who understood him.

***

There were too many things we called sex when I was a teenager. One of my friends cried hard the Monday after her first time. Her hip-length hair was oily, her whole body smelled like bad breath. She wore a sweater a couple sizes too big, though it was almost summer. She pulled me into a stairwell. Her whole body shook as she told me that her boyfriend wanted it but she didn’t. He was thick and tall, and he heaved and sweated on top of her as she lay pinned to a couch. Her mother had found out, and told her she was selfish. A pregnant teenager would ruin her father’s career, and how could she be so careless?

I couldn’t believe how white and weak my friend looked. She, the most outspoken girl I knew. She played  the lead in the spring play and didn’t care that she intimidated her co-star. She was my protector too. In the hallways, when kids mocked me for my outfits, she yelled at them to shut up.

***

I had only one boyfriend in high school, and our relationship lasted three weeks. He called every night and asked me questions about myself. At a cast party in someone’s parents’ basement, he tongue kissed me. I opened and closed my mouth, trying to follow the rhythm of his lips. I felt like I had no choice but to kiss, though nobody forced me. And maybe he could tell that everything but the shell of my body was gone. And maybe that’s why he didn’t try to touch me anywhere else.

***

I have a special kind of anger toward men who give women safety advice that has no basis in evidence. I have a special kind of disappointment, too, in women who fill up the seats at lectures given by these men. Who nod solemnly as the man, who is usually a police officer, tells a packed classroom that if we get attacked it’s because we weren’t being smart.

Here are some examples of the advice these men give: If you live alone, put a pair of men’s boots outside your back door. Do not change clothes in front of an open window. Don’t wear a pony tail; it’s easy for an attacker to grab. If you live in an apartment building, don’t do laundry alone. (That one comes from the NRA’s Refuse to Be a Victim Course, which also advises us not to use a public bathroom alone.) If a creepy man is walking behind you, get on your phone. Pretend you are calling your boyfriend (say a man’s name loud enough for the creepy man behind you to hear). Pretend you live in one of the apartments you are walking past and that you can see your boyfriend through the window. Say loudly into your fake phone call that you’ll be home soon. Pull the fire alarm. (Every rapist is afraid of firefighters and apparently will wait until they show up.) Don’t go out alone after dark. (That one came from the police in stereotypically liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts. A woman had just defended herself against a man who grabbed her from behind, a detail not mentioned in the press release the police issued. Also, it was winter in the northeast so five o’clock is after dark.)

Too often when men tell women how to be safe, it’s about limiting our lives and depending on them. The good guys will keep the bad ones away.

***

Here’s what the research actually shows. Criminologist Sarah Ullman analyzed the National Crime Victimization Survey as well as several other studies. She separated the ways women resist rape into four categories: forceful physical resistance (kicking, punching, hitting), non-forceful physical resistance (pulling away, fleeing), forceful verbal resistance (yelling), and non-forceful verbal resistance (crying, pleading, reasoning). Of these, the strategy least likely to stop a sexual assault is non-forceful verbal resistance. Everything you learn when you’re taught to be a woman—to plead, concede, do nothing and pray he won’t hurt you worse—is the exact opposite of what works.

The self-defense programs that have been shown by research to decrease sexual violence have some things in common. They are explicitly feminist and invite young women to challenge gender socialization. They give women the chance to practice recognizing and resisting coercion, and they have young women define what they want out of sex.

The reality that rape can be stopped by ordinary strength is not common knowledge. Maybe because women resisting rape unsettles so many. What would men who inhabit traditional ideas of gender do if the women they love didn’t need their protection? How would feminists ensure that the responsibility for rape stays with the perpetrators and the culture that creates them? Being capable of stopping rape doesn’t make you responsible for it, but that nuance is too often lost.

***

A girl in my English class wrote a short story about rape. The teacher responded by talking about grammar and sentence structure. Reading it made me feel hollow and alive at the same time. I wanted to crawl inside the typed pages and live there until I understood something about my own life.

I spent my adolescence in a state of numbness, walking into walls and rows of lockers. I couldn’t concentrate. I drew flowers on my math homework and looked at the ceiling instead of the teacher. So they sent me to reading specialists and speech pathologists but never asked if anything was wrong at home. And what would I have said if someone did ask? My experience, like smoke, was not solid or substantial enough that I could touch it. And, like smoke, it was suffocating me.

Sometimes when I teach, I look around the room and try to guess which girl is me. The one whose father’s violations are so subtle that she’s not sure they count. The one who feels desired in a way that shreds her, who lives on the receiving end of intimate attention that feels thick and heavy, like hairy hands covering her mouth, making her gag. Does she—like I do—gag at almost anything? Does she struggle to trust intimacy or attention?

Trauma fragments memory. For some, it overwhelms the nervous system to the point where the cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that forms linear memories—shuts down. When this happens, people are left with shreds of images, nothing that can be narrated as a series of events. Instead, the abuse lives in the parts of the brain that don’t have language. Implicit memories, they’re called. Physical sensations and strong emotions that hit people at unpredictable times. Offering clues about what happened, but usually not enough.

I have taught hundreds of teenagers, and I still can’t imagine what it would have been like to be seventeen and learning I could protect myself from a person I love. I know I wouldn’t have picked up the physical skills as quickly as most of my students do. I might not have been strong enough to hit or kick as hard as they do. I probably couldn’t have projected confidence by standing with my head up and my shoulders back. Or maybe I could have. And maybe if I’d been taught I could interrupt rape with my body, I wouldn’t have spent so many years in a state of numbness.

I interrupt hundreds of rapes a year. Rapes that are simulated and choreographed enough to be safe but also real enough that the lower parts of my brain experience a true threat. Every day I inhabit this newly constituted body. Fierce, physical resistance has become as instinctive as breathing. I can’t remember what it felt like when I didn’t think I was powerful.

***

In high school, most of the girls who told me they’d been raped had reputations for being sluts. I’ve gone to enough conferences where experts in the room talk about “risky behaviors” and ways people put themselves in harm’s way because sexual abuse broke them and they’re not yet fixed. I have no doubt that trauma breaks people, but it troubles me how quick we are to understand sex as a form of self-harm. I can’t help wondering if there’s another reason the girls I knew in high school chose to have as much sex as it takes to be called a slut. If they did it again and again until they made it their own. If that was the way they made their bodies to feel powerful.

Maybe that’s why I still think about the girls I used to know. Because there is something still unfinished about my own relationship to sex. I want to be the kind of person who believes that sex and pleasure are as important as power and resistance. I want to stop pretending the erotic is frivolous, easily cast aside to make room for the next social justice struggle. I want to be as free, ecstatic, sexy, and bold as a teenage girl who has given up on trying to win other people’s approval.

Meg Stone is the Executive Director of IMPACT Boston, a nationally recognized abuse prevention program. Her writing has been published in HuffPost Personal, Newsweek, Boston Globe, Dame, and Ms.

***

Have you pre-ordered Thrust? 


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts, Regret

Duty To Cooperate

May 27, 2022
phone

“How can I help you today?”, she asked, her hands on her hips, as she looked at the guy in front of the counter. He was still looking at the menu, trying to decide what to get.

A minute later, she scratched her chin a couple of times. “It’s probably best if you let the person behind you come up, while you figure out what you want.”

He looked at her, his brows furrowed. “I’d like the grilled tilapia with mashed potatoes and buttered corn.”

“For here or to-go?”

“For here,” he said, putting the menu down.

“Fourteen dollars and seventy-three cents.”

It was a routine: Towards the end of her shift, almost every day, she hated her job, passionately. There was always some reason; yesterday, it was her manager Roy, who had refused her request for a pay raise. “I’ve been serving waffles and French toasts and mozzarella sticks to drunk customers for two years now. Don’t you think I deserve a bit of a raise?”

“Not yet,” he had replied.

Today, it was Rita, who had bumped her elbow into her stomach, as they were frying poblano peppers and didn’t apologize loud enough for everyone to hear it. “I want you to say it out loud, ok? I want everyone to know how clumsy you are,” she had shouted at Rita.

“Alright, I’m sorry,” Rita said, as she walked away from the kitchen.

“I don’t know how idiots like that get hired. This place needs a new manager, you know?”, she said to the rest of the cooks, who weren’t paying much attention anyway. Speaking of managers, she thought, who the hell are they to tell me not to put my hands on my hips when I’m at the counter? What’s next? They’ll want me to cut my hair shorter?

~

It was around five pm when she walked out of Ihop Express. Her car was parked a couple of blocks away. She was carrying her box of free dinner in one hand while texting her boyfriend Tony, with the other. He was supposed to buy her a 14k gold bracelet for her birthday, which was coming up in three days. “I’m so freaking excited about it! Is it beaded? Will you be coming to my place? Do you…”. Her texting was interrupted by a guy peeking out of a tent on the sidewalk.

“Got a couple of bucks?” he asked, his graying old beard covering almost the entirety of his face.

She put her phone in her pocket and just stood there, shocked that she had never seen this tent before.

“I don’t have any cash on me, but I got some roasted turkey with rice and potatoes. Would you like that?”

“I’ll take anything. Thanks.”

She handed him the box and moved on, phone in her hand again. “Do you know what time you’ll be there?”

She got in her car and started driving home. The seat belt alarm was beeping, but she didn’t care. She had Beyonce and Jay Z singing ‘Crazy in Love’ on her Pandora station and was tapping her right hand on the dashboard to the music. Her phone beeped. It was a text from Tony. “I don’t think I can buy you a gift. Just got laid off today.”

She picked up the phone with her right hand, the other hand trying to keep the wheel straight as she drove on cruise control on the highway. “WTF? You got laid off from your sixteen-dollar-an-hour FedEx job? That’s got nothing to do with my gift! You promised you’d buy me that bracelet a month ago.” A car next to her honked. Apparently, she had been swerving into their lane. She honked back at them, while continuing to type. “You had better show up at my home with my gift. Or else…”

She put the phone down. The speed limit was sixty-five; she was going around eighty. She pressed hard on the gas pedal and sped up. “That son of a bitch. How dare he think he could just take back his promise? I’d never do that to him!” She turned the music up. “Crazy in hate!”

The car in front seemed to be going too slow for her. She honked at them before cutting through two lanes and winding her way ahead. It was her phone beeping again. “So, you don’t care at all that I got laid off? All you care about is your fricking bracelet, Lena?”

She threw the phone away and floored the gas pedal. She almost hit the car in front, so she veered to the right. Later, when she’d think about it, she couldn’t remember the exact sequence of events. But she knew she was going ninety when she hit the car to her right, trying to pass the car in front of her. Her chest jolted forward and hit the wheel. She looked at her right-side mirror: it was gone. She looked in the rearview mirror: the car she had hit was pulled over, its driver’s side door and the front bumper bearing deep dents. Her breathing was rushed and sweat was pouring down her face. She slowed down, trying to find her phone so she could call Tony.

The phone was on the floor, on the passenger side. She pulled over and took a sip of water, laying her head back, her chest heaving wildly. She looked in the rearview mirror and the car she had hit was catching up to her.

The water bottle hit the floor as she sped up, cutting through lanes. She could see the other car following her. She was hoping to get far enough away from it so they couldn’t get her license plate number.

~

By the time she got home, it was dark and the whole thing seemed like a blur.

She was taking her shoes off near the door, when her mom rushed up to her and started talking about Sue, Lena’s aunt. “You won’t believe what Sue told me today about her boyfriend. He’s been cheating on her for years. And the crazy thing is…”

“Mom, leave me alone, would you? Where’s Danny?”

“He’s in his room, doing what he always does – playing that stupid video game. But listen, aunt Sue’s really in a tough spot right now.”

She went into Danny’s room and locked the door shut, as her mom stood outside, still talking about Sue.

“Hey sweetie, how was your day?”, she said, as she sat next to him on the bed.

He looked up briefly, before continuing with the Minecraft game on his phone.

“Talk to me, honey.” She picked him up and sat him down in her lap, running her fingers through his hair, her chin resting on his head. “Do you love mommy? She almost died today. And she almost killed…never mind.”

“Mom, I’m so close to winning this game. Just let me play.”

“Alright, just move over, so I can lie down next to you.”

He grunted and moved his eight-year-old-self to the other side of the bed, still riveted by his phone.

She tried replaying the accident in her mind, but it seemed unreal. Surely, it didn’t happen; it was just a nightmare. Of course, her car was fine. Well, maybe it did happen? But what was certain was that there was no way the other driver got her license plate.

She turned around, snuggled up to Danny and pulled a blanket over them. After he had been begging for months, she had finally relented and bought him a new phone almost a year ago, so he could enjoy his games more. She was still making monthly payments on it. Screw that fricking Roy, she silently cursed. Can’t even give me a two-dollar-an-hour-raise? Who the hell does he think he is…Ihop CEO?

She didn’t know what time it was when she got up in the middle of the night and texted Tony: “Sorry that you got laid off.”

~

She was at work a couple of days later, at the counter taking an order, when her phone vibrated in her pocket. Unlike other employees, she had always refused to silence it. “I’m putting it on vibrate; that’s good enough”, she’d told Roy.

Later, while taking a break in her car, she checked her voicemail. It was what she was dreading: a call from an insurance company asking to speak to her about the accident. Damn…how the hell did that dude get my license plate, was the first thought that came to her mind.

She ran into the kitchen. Rita was making buttermilk pancakes.

“Hey Rita, ever been in a car accident?”

“Nope”, she answered, without looking up from her skillet.

“You know anything about insurance claims?”

“Nope.”

“Well, that’s mighty nice of you,” Lena said, as she walked out to her car.

She lit up a cigarette and started googling ‘at-fault-driver in car accident’. Every article she read made her more anxious: ‘at-fault-driver liable for injuries and payments’; ‘accident will go on driver’s record’; ‘other driver may file a lawsuit if you don’t cooperate with their insurance company’.

She threw the phone down and turned up the music. It was Beyonce again. She rolled down the windows and spat in the direction of the Ihop.

~

The calls came in every couple of days, the same woman, saying the same thing: “We need you to contact us. Based on the claim filed by our insured client, you’re legally required to share information about the accident and have a duty to cooperate.”

She was having lunch with her mom and Danny one Saturday, when her phone rang. She could tell from the number that it was the insurance folks.

“Why’s your phone been ringing so much these days?” her mom asked.

“Damned spam callers.”

“I hate those people. I wish the same for them that I do for Sue’s husband’s killer: they ought to rot in hell.”

“Mom, I’ve heard that story a billion times. Please, just stop.”

“Hey Danny, you want to hear a crazy story?”

Danny was busy with his phone, as usual. He looked up at grandma. “No nannie, I’m busy.”

“Ok, one night, a long long time ago, your grandma’s sister’s husband was driving home from work, when a drunk driver hit his car and killed him. Not only that, he drove away from the scene and the cops never found out who it was. If you ask my sister what bothers her more today – losing her husband or not finding and jailing the guy who killed her husband – she’ll say it’s the latter. I tell you, there are some real crazy psychopaths in this world. Don’t you think so, Lena?”

Lena got up and went to the kitchen sink with her plate. “I don’t need to listen to this crap anymore.”

~

She was driving to work on the highway, when she looked out the window. She was around the same spot where she had hit the other car. Her hands started trembling and for some reason, the memory of her aunt Sue screaming in her bedroom, yelling “I’m going to find you, you bastard! I’m going to find you and you’re going straight to hell!” and pounding her fists on the walls of her room, came back again in her mind. Even as a fourteen-year-old, it was something she knew she wouldn’t forget – watching her aunt cry and yell at the same time – but it had been a while since she’d thought about it.

As she was walking up to the restaurant, her phone rang. It was the insurance company. She put it back in her pocket, before taking it out and answering it. “Hello.”

“Can I speak with Lena Carter?”

She hung up, squeezing the phone with her fist and put it on silent mode for the rest of her workday.

~

It was one of those mid-autumn days that were gradually becoming rare: it was warm, sunny and dry. They were sitting in her car, next to a park, watching the maple leaves drift down onto the ground.

“What happened to your door and mirror?”, Tony asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she replied, smoking her cigarette. She passed it to him.

“No thanks,” he said, looking out the window, his hand resting on the dented door. The passenger-side mirror was gone. Over the past decade, sitting in the passenger seat, he was used to seeing his face in the mirror and it felt strange now to not see himself.

“You ever worry about how you’re going to pay your rent?”, she asked. “Got enough savings from your former job to get you through a few months?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fair enough, you funny guy.”

She took a last puff before tossing the cigarette out the window. “Tell you what: I’ll share what happened to my car and then you’ve got to answer my question, ok?”

He nodded, smiling.

“I was drunk and drove into a tree by the side of the road. Simple as that.”

“Really?! When did this happen and why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“Well…there was that tiny little thing about you not keeping up your promises and pissing me off…remember that?”

“And there was that tiny little unexpected thing about me losing my job and not having any income…remember that?”

“It doesn’t fricking matter, Tony! You made a promise. A promise is something you stand by, regardless of what life throws at you.”

He clenched his fist and punched it into the car door. “Oh really? Well, what about the promise you made to let me move in with you…when was that…when Danny was like three?”

“Screw it. This isn’t going anywhere.”

She got out and shut the door hard enough to make Tony jump up in his seat.

“You can’t just walk away from this, you know!”, he shouted.

“Oh yes, I can. I can do whatever the hell I want. I can choose to pick up the phone or not,” she yelled as she pointed her phone at him. “I can choose to not have an alcoholic boyfriend move in with his son and raise him to be a jobless drunk like his dad. Those are all choices I can make. You get that?”

He started walking away from her, punching his fists in the warm autumn breeze. He was gone too far to hear her screaming “Stop, come back! I need you!”

~

She kissed Danny goodnight and turned off the lights. She closed the door and walked out, before returning and blowing a kiss in his direction.

Her mom was at the dining table reading the newspaper. Lena filled up a glass of water and sat down next to her.

“What’s up in the news, Mom?”

“Same old stuff I’ve been reading for decades. Nasty people doing mean things to nice folks like us. Over and over again. It never changes.”

“Mom, how does aunt Sue really feel about uncle Bill’s accident?”

Her mom put the paper down and took off her glasses. “I thought you didn’t want to talk about that?”

“Just answer my question mom, for once…would you?”

“It’s what I told your kiddo. She’s never going to let go of that sense of injustice. I’ve told her that it’s harmful to keep all that anger and resentment inside her, but she just can’t get it out of her mind. Poor thing.”

“Do you think she’d feel better if the other person owned up to their fault?”

“Hell yeah. She’s been wanting that for decades. Both she and I know that the other person’s going to pay a price for their actions, at some point in their life. You don’t just get away with that kind of stuff.”

Lena ran her fingers around the glass, moving them up and down and in circles. It was late – eleven pm – and she had an early morning shift the next day. Her mom had put on her glasses and resumed reading the paper.

Lena got up and headed to her bedroom.

“Goodnight, dear,” her mom said, as she closed the door shut.

Danny was sound asleep. She put an extra blanket over him and closed the blinds, before lying down next to him. It had been a tiring day and it didn’t take long for her to fall asleep.

It started sometime in the night: the pounding on the walls and the yelling: ‘You bastard, I’m going to find you!’. She sat up and ran to the wall, putting her ears next to it. ‘You’re going to hell!’. She fled from the wall and reached for her phone. She dialed the insurance company and got to their automated message. ‘Press 1 to leave a voicemail for your claims representative’. She hung up, clutching the phone tightly in her quivering hands.

No, she couldn’t do it. There was no way she could handle her premiums going up and have an at-fault accident on her driving record.

Plus, it wasn’t really my fault, she reminded herself. If only Tony had kept up his promise, none of this would’ve happened.

‘You have a duty to cooperate and are legally required to share information about the accident’. ‘The other person’s going to pay a price for their actions’. ‘Nice folks like us.’

Her arms and legs were shaking as sweat dribbled down her face. She had a sip of water before turning around to face Danny. “I love you, Danny. You’re the best,” she whispered silently, as she rubbed her hands over his blanket.

The pounding and yelling continued through the night.

~

Her eyes were droopy from not sleeping well the night before, and the loud rock music they were playing was only making her fuzzier. She hated her eight-am Tuesday shifts.

“What do you want?”, she asked the guy in front of her.

“Umm…I’d like a turkey sandwich, but on gluten-free bread. Also, can you make it with mozzarella cheese instead of cheddar? And oh, no fries, extra salad. That’s it,” he said, as he put the menu down.

She started typing the order into the computer. Somewhere in the middle, she stopped. Aunt Sue was screaming and pounding her fists on the wall. Tony was not keeping up his promise. Her car’s mirror was shattered as she rammed into the car next to her. Her body was full of anxiety about her insurance premiums going up and a lawsuit being filed by the other driver. There weren’t enough nasty folks like her in this world…oops…she meant, there weren’t enough nice folks like her in this world…her heart was pounding as her mind reeled through it all.

“What the hell are you asking for? Can’t you just keep it simple? No fries, extra salad? Who the hell do you think you are?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I know exactly what I mean,” she said, pounding her fists on the table. “You’re being a royal prick!”

The guy moved closer to her, his hands pushing on hers. “Say that again?”

Roy, the manager, came running in. “Hold on, this has got to stop. Lena, I think you need a break.” He took her by her hands and walked her to the kitchen.

~

The rain wouldn’t let up. It was hard to see beyond the wet windshield. They were parked at the same spot, next to the same park they were at a month ago.

Faith Hill was playing ‘This Kiss’ on Pandora, as they passed along a can of Michelob’s back and forth.

“I fricking love this song…don’t you? It reminds me of that night we went dancing at that Olympian pub…remember how drunk you were? You mistook this other woman for me – just because she was also a brunette – and started dancing with her, holding her hands. I had to come pull you away! Oh my god…”

“Oh yeah, baby…I remember that. Those were the days. I even had a job then!”

“Hey, did I tell you that we both have a lot more in common now?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, as he took another sip of the beer.

“I also got laid off. Well, I got fired. But I like to think of it as a layoff. You know what I mean?”

“You did?! When?”

“Doesn’t matter. Screw jobs…who needs them? Losers who don’t know what to do with their lives. Screw insurance, screw lawsuits, screw…everything!”

“I don’t know about the last three, but amen! Here’s to screwing,” he laughed, as he opened another can of beer.

She was tapping her feet and swinging her body back and forth. ‘This Kiss, this kiss…it’s the way you love me! It’s a…’

Her phone rang. It was the insurance company.

She stopped abruptly and sank into the seat, closing her eyes and bringing her legs up to her chest. It kept ringing. She picked it up and stared at the screen, her finger hovering near the green ‘accept’ button.

Kunal Mehra is a multimedia artist who likes photography, filmmaking, writing and hiking. He grew up in India and has been living in Portland, OR, since 2002. His writing has been published by the Press Pause Press, The Mindful Word and ‘Academy of heart and mind’ magazines, amongst others.

***

If you liked today’s piece, check this out:

“Exquisite storytelling. . . . Written in the spirit of Elizabeth Gilbert or Anne Lamott, Neshama’s stories (and a few miracles) are uplifting, witty, and wise.”—Publishers Weekly

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Politics

On Being Political, An Immigrant Perspective

February 28, 2022
political

Surviving communism meant surviving Ceaușescu, the president of Romania. He was Romanian-born, came up the Communist Party ranks, and, in 1965, became the supreme leader who imposed his whim on every decision made on behalf of the country and its people. I knew this from the fear I sensed around me, the hushed conversations among adults I caught by eavesdropping. By the time I was old enough to ask questions, the broken spirit and indifference, and the impotence of adults around me, was crushing me.

“Ceaușescu’s reasoning for this scarcity is that it will let Romania remain a sovereign nation even though it’s inside the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence,” my father explained, from his chair wedged between the kitchen table and radiator, as he  adjusted the radio’s antenna to minimize the static.

“Before the Second World War, some international leaders had the power to split our area into spheres of influence.”

It felt impossible to understand how a few countries could have so much power back then.

“After the allies–Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union–won the Second World War, they agreed that the Soviet Union, established in 1922 as a set of four republics, would have influence over the countries around it. The Soviets imposed communism and Romania followed.”

They made us live in fear, without heat, hot water, gas for cooking, or, sometimes, even food. As teenagers, my sister and I warmed up water overnight on the stove so we could take sponge baths when either mom or dad or grandma wanted a turn to bathe on Wednesday, the only evening with hot water. What made it worse was that I heard no hope for change from my father or anyone else. No one even mentioned the possibility of change. This reinforced what I felt: fear, and doubt in the government’s commitment to its citizens. I felt powerless. If ‘political’ means relating to the government and public affairs, I lived involuntarily deprived of political agency.

In high school, I discovered Alexandru Andrieș, an architect and folk musician who played the acoustic guitar. His lyrics were full of innuendos, implications, irony, and plays on words as he questioned everything from the benefits of having two umbrellas to how one might guess that their boss was an informant for the Securitate, the secret police, the force that distributed fear:

“No one is perfect like him –

the boss!

Both friendly and smart –

what a human!” (my translation)

Andrieș’s art felt like resistance, and, through verses that had nuanced meaning, he became my first teacher of political thought. Following his puns and snarky acoustic music, I felt I could subversively question the political structure imposed by Ceaușescu and the Soviet influence. When I aligned myself with Andries’ talent and wisdom, I engaged in politics. I had political agency.

Then, in December 1989, my last year in high school, communism ended abruptly, through the Revolution. I imagine some adults saw this coming, especially those who had access to Radio Free Europe, a shortwave radio channel transmitted from Munich:   all around us in the Soviet sphere of influence the people were out in the streets. But I didn’t. When the army executed Ceaușescu and his wife and transmitted the shooting live on TV, I believed it wasn’t real, that it was rigged so the government could gather data on who celebrated their death in the streets. I thought he would reappear to throw us all in prison.

This deep mistrust is still lodged inside. Not as powerful as decades ago, but enough for me to know that my personal lived experience then and now is the result of the social and political structures around me. And so, I must acknowledge the impact that society and governmental politics have on my life and I must remember to carefully consider how these structures inform and shape my decisions. If I don’t, I surrender my newly-earned privilege of political agency.

Years of journaling, and I am still unpacking the impact of growing up under Ceaușescu’s communist-born dictatorship. This is how I discovered that I felt powerless and unsafe unless I could act of my own accord. Once in America, to feel powerful, I threw myself at every opportunity; my only goal was to claim the experience. I jumped from one career to another in search of one that met my interests, my desire for quality of life, and my financial needs. One where I didn’t have to sacrifice one critical aspect for another.

To feel safe, I chose to be a single parent despite the stigma that almost silenced me. My limited means meant I didn’t contribute to the lunchtime banter about the destination for spring break, the latest vehicle model, or the newest restaurant. At children’s birthday parties, I found myself pegged as the wild one, in the questions that my friends asked, and indirectly in their husbands’ gaze. I didn’t confront them.

During the isolation imposed by COVID-19, I had time to count my blessings:

  • My current job as a teacher’s assistant is the only one I’ve had where I don’t need to sacrifice any aspect of myself.
  • Sixteen years of stay-cations have prepared me to have fun at home.
  • Friends are those who choose not to peg me but to be mutually empowering.

To me, the meaning of ‘political’ involves one’s awareness of the omnipresent interpersonal power dynamics, not just those related to the government. Under communism, searching for a job I enjoyed would not have been possible, and seeking friendships based on trust could have led me to prison. My definition of ‘political’ includes the freedom to make choices and decisions informed by this awareness.

When I acknowledge power imbalances, I am political. I heal because I am not blindly trapped in an unhealthy pattern. This awareness empowered me to leave a safe and decently paid job because of a misogynistic boss, though I knew society might frown upon me for shifting to one that paid less. But it was my decision.

When I question the cultural standards and expectations for being a good citizen that led me to leave an unhealthy marriage and become a single parent, I am political because I choose what is safe for my child and me. I heal from the fear of not being good.

When I write and publish, despite my imperfect immigrant’s language, so that my experience becomes public and is included, I am political because I add my immigrant and single-parent experience to the narrative of what it means to be American. I heal from the fear of not belonging.

Born under Romania’s communist dictatorship, Corina Oana arrived in America alone, against all odds, a couple of years after the 1989 revolution. Her passion for sewing turned into a successful slipcover and draperies manufacturing business. A BA in mathematics from Wellesley College led her to Wall Street. Single parenting catapulted her towards healing and social justice activism. She now works with children on the Autism Spectrum in Cambridge MA. She is a contributor to the online publications Illumination and Be Yourself on Medium.

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Lena’s Lessons

February 25, 2022
violin

Lena’s early years were dominated by minimal parental supervision and her weekly violin lessons. Because of that, her performance on the temperamental and difficult instrument far surpassed her performance on the stage of daily human interaction with teachers and classmates or casual encounters as she walked between her high-rise apartment and the world at large. She had always been willful, stubborn, if she was being honest, believing from a very early age that the world was on standby, if not created solely, to provide her with everything she wanted and felt she deserved. Her parents, both successful professionals, had wanted children and had chosen her name to reflect what they hoped their child would become: generous and kind. They’d had a name for a potential second child picked out but once Lena had arrived and they came to fully understand what parenthood meant, experiencing the demands on their time that raising a child required, they decided that an only child was all they could manage. Even then, their busy schedules left Lena to her own devices more often than not. They rationalized this to themselves and their friends by saying their parenting style fostered Lena’s independence. Lena accepted the lack of structure because she knew no other reality. As a younger child, she’d see her parents in the morning before school and at dinner, occasionally, if their work schedules permitted, and a half hour or more after her homework had been completed right before her bedtime. Weekends were filled with day trips and educational as well as “just for fun” activities, leaving her parents satisfied that they were doing a good job in raising her.

Her violin lessons had been a part of her life from the time she was six years old until now, as a sixteen year old, when she was beginning to feel the music in a different way. She felt it more vividly, more intensely and more emotionally than she had in prior years, as if blossoming into the early stages of adulthood had opened an unsuspected portal of endless musical possibilities.

As her musical accomplishments grew and made her parents beam in pride at her skill, her behavior in social situations brought knitted brows and frowns, frustrated shaking heads and, on more than one occasion, bewildered tears from her mother. Lena had developed a sharp, hurtful tongue and a nose for vulnerabilities. She never hesitated to unleash her venom on anyone unlucky enough to stand in the way of what she wanted. Her strikes were lightning swift and left the victim deeply wounded and reluctant to confront the innocent looking young woman again.

Lena took pride in this less than admirable quality, enjoying the power her reputation as the queen of biting sarcasm and insults, marking her as a person to be feared rather than liked or respected. Nevertheless, fear was such a strong motivator that she usually got what she wanted and ruled unchallenged over her classmates and acquaintances, not really able to consider any of them friends.

That was the pattern until “New Girl” arrived during the summer after Lena had turned sixteen. Lena always referred to her as “New Girl,” never deigning to call her by her name,  disparaging her by asking her loyal coterie “Did you get a look at what New Girl was wearing yesterday? Good Lord! You’d think her mother would at least buy her a copy of Elle or Cosmo so she’d stop looking like the before picture of a makeover.” Of course,  they all laughed and agreed, nervously wondering if their wardrobe choices measured up or if they, too, could be mocked, grateful they were safe, for the moment,  from Lena’s scorn.

“New Girl’s” name was Eileen, a fact that Lena hated because she felt, irrationally, that it infringed on her own name in some way and therefore cast an unwelcome shadow on her identity. Eileen was quietly attractive, polite, studious and introverted, spending her after school hours in a corner of the library, content in her solitude. During lunch hour, she sat alone, her books open as she ate an apple or a pear or an occasional orange, napkin in hand, not to mar the page she was reading or the assignment she was working on.

Lena wasn’t sure what bothered her more about Eileen, whether it was her serene complacency or the fact that she made no effort to seek inclusion in Lena’s circle, thereby depriving Lena of the pleasure of rejecting her and crushing her hopes of acceptance into the social hierarchy over which Lena reigned supreme. That Eileen seemed not to care a whit about Lena and her entourage was puzzling. Why wouldn’t a new girl be interested in making friends, even if Lena would insure that friendships would never form and Eileen would be forced to seek friends among the other girls Lena had already banished to the purgatory of the rejected.

Because Eileen was the new girl and such a solitary figure, no one knew very much about her. Where did she come from? Where did she live? Who were her parents? Was she an only child? No one had any answers to those questions, so, inevitably, speculation gave rise to outrageous stories, chronicling Eileen’s history, tales lacking only a fairy godmother and a wicked witch. She was the daughter of a Mafia informant and was in the witness protection program. She was the sole heiress to a massive family fortune and was being educated in their small town to escape fortune hunters and kidnappers. She was the sole survivor of a horrible fire in which she lost everything and was heroically struggling to make it on her own.  None of it was true but if Eileen had heard any of these theories,  she chose not to address or correct them. Instead, she continued to go quietly about the business of getting an education.

Lena’s frustration grew with every day that Eileen remained aloof, not reacting to Lena’s taunting label of “New Girl” that she couldn’t help overhearing. The final straw seemed to come when Lena walked into the orchestra room and discovered Eileen, violin tucked under her chin, drawing her bow across the strings to create a hauntingly beautiful sound. The notes were so true and effortless that they stopped Lena in her tracks, finding the place in her heart that recognized beauty and, against her will, she found herself closing her eyes and letting the music carry her to a place of joyful surrender. She recognized the piece immediately as one of her favorites. It was the aching beauty of “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs, a piece that never failed to move her. It was a demanding piece, written for a demanding instrument that had been the bane of many who tried to tame it, whose frustration grew when they were unable to coax the notes from the vibrating strings. Some few, however, like Lena herself and Eileen, could elicit the most beautiful clarity. Lena watched as Eileen positioned her fingers across the frets and angled the bow against the strings, moving her upper body in an elegant, intimate duet with the instrument nestled under her chin. When Eileen had let the last note fade and dropped her bow arm and removed the violin from under her chin, she noticed Lena. She gave Lena a timid smile and said, “Hi. I was just practicing. Do you play in the orchestra?”

“I do,” said Lena, “Violin, like you.”

Eileen’s smile brightened. “That’s great! Most people are intimidated by it but if you play,  it means you’re fearless.”  Extending her bow d violin toward Lena, she said “I’d love to hear you play. Would you?”

Lena was momentarily caught off balance, flattered by the invitation, but then she reverted to Lena vs New Girl mode. “Not today. I just came by to pick up the music for my solo and then I’m meeting some friends.”

Eileen’s smile dimmed as she nodded her understanding and opened her case to carefully lay the violin inside. “Maybe another time,” she said, without looking up as Lena scooped up the pages of her sheet music and turned to go. “Maybe,” she tossed over her shoulder as she left, although her tone made it clear that finding another time would be as likely as finding Leprechaun gold after the next storm. Still, as she left, she could hear the music that Eileen had created echo in her head and wondered which of the two emotions she was feeling was stronger: envy or admiration.

Normally, Lena would seek to crush any rival in any corner of her world; yet, the simple, pure openness of the girl who produced such a glorious sound from the violin left Lena at war with herself, not a position she had ever encountered before. Because of that, her mood was sour when she met up with her friends and she took little interest in their conversation, the haunting melody of Eileen’s violin swirling in her mind, a musical backdrop at odds with the insipid chattering of high pitched female voices. The result was a cacophonous dissonance that gave her a headache. And it didn’t stop there. As the weeks unfolded, she found herself less and less interested in spending time with the girls as more and more of her time was in the orchestra practice rooms, working on the Sibelius violin concerto. In fact, the only refuge from her emotional crisis was the time she spent with her violin. Her teacher noticed her more serious approach to her lessons.  Whereas before she had demonstrated skill, almost a natural affinity for the violin, now she was more focused and more disciplined, listening to corrections with earnestness instead of eye rolling, eager to replay a section with better phrasing and actually smiled when she knew she’d captured an elusive note perfectly.

“I’m really impressed by Lena’s attitude and progress,” her teacher told her mother after one of their sessions. “She’s taking her lessons much more seriously and she must be practicing more, no?”

“Oh, yes,” agreed Lena’s mother.  “Instead of watching TV or talking on her phone,  she takes out her violin and fills the house with music. I couldn’t be happier.  Not only for the music, which is really beautiful, but because it seems to make her happy and when she’s happy, she’s less, oh, you know.” Her mother gave what was recognizable as an embarrassing admission of Lena’s sharp edges.

“She’s definitely making a place in her life for her violin. It’s becoming part of her and I hear it in the notes and see it in the way she moves her body as she plays. She’s making her violin an extension of herself rather than a separate or foreign thing. That’s an encouraging sign.”

Over dinner that evening, Lena’s mother related the conversation to Lena’s father and Lena found herself happy to bask in her teacher’s praise and her parents’ approval as her father winked at her and said, “So we didn’t waste our money after all,” before raising his wine glass in a toast.

“Daddy,” she said “I’ve been thinking…about next year…and I know I said I wanted a gap year before making any life plans but…now…I’ve been thinking that I might want to do something now…with my music.”

Her parents exchanged a look that suggested that they weren’t quite sure what they were hearing since Lena had scowled and rolled her eyes and sighed with boredom every time they tried to bring up the subject of Lena making plans for the future. Her father nodded his head. “Sure. That’s something we can look into. Were you thinking a summer music camp or a music school for next year or”

Lena interrupted,  suddenly afraid that if she didn’t say what was on her mind immediately, she might never say it.

“Juilliard. I’m thinking Juilliard.”

And there it was, suddenly taking on shape as more than a random thought that was a possibility, but now a pathway, devoid of petty adolescent concerns and paved with soaring notes in major and minor keys joining together to lead her to the place she realized she belonged. Her father smiled. “Then let’s make it happen.”

That was the first of a series of surprises Lena’s family and friends experienced. At school,  instead of the Sibelius solo, the orchestra director told Lena he had something else planned. He’d decided to have Lena and Eileen, his two most talented students, perform a duet for NYSMA, he told them. He handed them the sheet music for Sonata in G minor, Opus 2, Number 8, First and Second Movements. “You’ve got the talent to pull this off, but you’re going to have to work really hard because,” he said peering at them over his glasses, “a duet is much harder than a solo. You have to be completely in tune with one another and that will mean lots and lots of practice. Are you up to it?” He ll looked from one girl to the other but they were looking only at one another. Eileen’s face held a hopeful question and Lena’s was a firm yes. Lena answered for both of them. “You bet we are. We can do it, right Eileen?”

Smiling in gratitude, Eileen turned to the director. “We sure can. When do we start?”

From that day on, Lena’s entire focus was on the duet. She and Eileen practiced as often as they could and spent whatever free time they had without their violins going over the sheet music or listening to other performers interpreting the piece. The more time they spent together, the more Lena came to appreciate the depth of the person she no longer thought of as New Girl but began to think of her as kindred spirit and friend. Eileen understood, as none of her previous friends had, the world that music opened for her. Eventually, Lena felt comfortable enough to finally share her plans to audition for Juilliard. Eileen clapped her hands excitedly, telling Lena she’d “most definitely” be accepted and asked which pieces she would play for her audition. “Definitely the Sibelius. I’ve been working on that for a while. Then I’m trying to decide between the Mozart Violin Sonata 18 in G Major and the Bach Sonata #2 in A Minor.”

Eileen’s judgment was swift. “You’ve got to play the Bach. It’s sophisticated enough to showcase your talent. Yes. I like the Bach.”

“Then Bach it is.”

The night of the Winter Concert was fast approaching and the pair would perform their NYSMA duet as a dry run for spring. Lena had sent off her audition tape and was waiting for a decision, maybe an invitation to perform in person. She asked Eileen what her plans for the following year were and whether she’d consider applying to Juilliard, too. Eileen managed a weak smile. “Oh, I don’t know about that. It would be wonderful but…I guess I’ll go wherever my family takes me. And wherever that turns out to be, I’m sure they’ll be opportunities but it’s just too soon to know. I’m just going to have to go with the flow, as they say.” Eileen tried to sound nonchalant but Lena could hear the sadness in her voice. As Lena began to speak,  wanting to ask questions, Eileen said “Please don’t ask. Let’s just live in the moment, enjoy performing and our chance to make the audience experience the beauty the music  creates, okay?”

Realizing that Eileen was trusting her to act like a real friend would, respecting her desire for privacy, Lena nodded. “Sure. We can do that.”  Years later, Lena would remember this conversation as a turning point in her life. She had put someone else’s wishes above her own.

The night of the Winter Concert was crisp and cold with the small town gilded with a layer of snow. Backstage was abuzz with excitement and then it was time for the orchestra to file on and take their seats. After each piece, the audience rewarded them with applause. Then it was time. Eileen and Lena stood and walked to the front of the stage as the orchestra director described the piece they would play. The director raised his baton, the friends looked at one another and drew their bows across the strings, unleashing the notes that soared in perfect unity.

When the last note left their instruments, climbing and lingering in the auditorium, Eileen and Lena smiled at one another, while the audience rewarded them with thunderous applause. The conductor beamed. They took their bows, then briefly hugged before resuming their seats to perform the final piece. Lena had never before felt so elated. Her world had shifted. She’d embraced the power of the music and the new girl with whom she had found friendship.

Kathleen Chamberlin is a retired educator living in Albany, New York with my husband and two rescue dogs. Her poetry has appeared in Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Open Door Magazine and The World of Myth magazine.

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Guest Posts, parenting

Playing by the Rules

January 30, 2022
game

Old Maid

Players: One single mom
One daughter, ages 3-8, prone to illness

Directions: Shuffle and deal. Players take turns drawing cards from each other. If you draw a card that matches one in your hand, place the matches face up. If not, add the card to your hand.

Play continues until all pairs have been matched. The player left holding the old maid card loses the game and becomes the “old maid” unless, alarmed by the message this sends, you abruptly alter the rules. Unless you impulsively tell your daughter, “The player left holding the old maid wins! She gets to hang out with this fabulous independent woman who has the pioneering courage to violate tradition and forge her own path!”

Stick to this improvised rule until, at eight, your daughter hoards the old maid card at a sleepover, relishing the moment that she’ll throw it down and win the game. The next morning when you pick her up she will confront you, tone fraught with betrayal and disillusionment and humiliation. She wanted to win, but because of you, she lost miserably.

You used to love games, even the dumb ones of your childhood like Mystery Date. The object of that one was to win one of the cute dates inside the secret door—the guy dressed for a formal dance, a bowling alley, or the beach—and avoid the dud. He looked just like the other dates, except, you thought, cuter, a little scruffier, with messy hair and a five o’clock shadow.

But the ulterior motives of Old Maid and Mystery Date were pretty much the same: to teach players to avoid undesireable people, guys who don’t wash, women who don’t marry. Never mind the messages of other thankfully now-vintage games, like say, Mother’s Helper, described by the copy on the box as “A Real Fun Game that Takes you Upstairs. . . Downstairs. . . All Through the House!”

And so what you once thought of as easy forms of entertainment during endless winter weekends and long days when your daughter is home from school sick all seem like minefields, full of explosive subtexts you must head off about women and girls, about roles and choices, about the very nature of competition itself.

 Candyland

Players: One desperate mom seeking diversion for her

4-year-old daughter home sick from daycare again

Directions:  Draw a card and move your piece to the space matching the color on the card. Continue in this manner along the game’s colorful winding paths, past the peppermint forest and lollipop woods and peanut brittle house, past the blond twins and gumdrop-shaped monsters, until you reach the candy castle.

Experience relief that you can offer this simple, colorful world to your daughter who is prone to asthma attacks that land her in emergency rooms, to fevers that flare suddenly in crowds, to mysterious swellings of knees and lips, to throbbing headaches and upset stomachs. This game might encourage the rotting of her teeth but otherwise carries no negative implications, as far as you can see.

Should this seemingly pleasant innocuous game get tedious—and it will, in no time—try reverse cheating, stacking the deck so that every card your daughter draws will be purple. She’s too young to be suspicious of easy wins, and this method will speed her right along to victory. Wonder: are you doing her any favors? But your pride takes over. Look how fully you’ve embraced motherhood and self-sacrifice! Look at how little you care about winning!

Monopoly Junior

Players: One daughter, ages 5-8, becoming a competitive gymnast and making fewer trips to the ER

One mom

  • who suddenly finds herself having childhood flashbacks, reliving those moments when she sat poised to pounce and crow and gloat as soon as her big brother landed on Park Place. Reliving the moment that her brother, whose jokes about BO Railroad had lost their edge, flicked his Scottie dog game piece across the room and turned on the TV, saying, “I’m not playing with you anymore. You’re too competitive,” and then her cousins all deserted too, enragingly unconcerned that she’d been deprived of her moment of glory. Leaving her feeling caught out, a girl who’d harbored a fierce desire not to soothe other’s feelings but to smash their egos
  • who as a child eventually learned to space out during games like Monopoly, her detachment more acceptable to her peers than her previous bloodthirsty focus on amassing cash and celebrating others’ destitution
  • whose altered approach, while perhaps suggesting a more harmonious worldview, meant that she’d never win another Monopoly game
  • who when young was pleased to take second place in a beauty contest, winning $10 and an imaginary sash and bouquet
  • who was happy to take a trip on Reading Railroad, since she loved to read and pictured herself on a train with a pile of books
  • who joined her friends in cooing over the cute game pieces, the top hat, the shoe, the thimble, the dog
  • who learned to be relieved at cooperative games, like the Ouijia board, which told her when she was thirteen that she would grow up to be a dill pickle
  • who now is happy that Title 9 has fully kicked in. That girls aren’t pressured to be ashamed of their competitive instincts anymore. That girls get to enjoy winning too.

Directions: Get past the sense of dread that overcomes you when Monopoly Junior appears in your mailbox on your daughter’s fifth birthday, the memories of your complicated relationship with competition. Tell yourself that you should instead be relieved to be yanked from a vibrant candy landscape into the seemingly more interesting cutthroat world of shady real estate deals and rent gouging. Be shocked to discover that it’s just as boring. Invent new rules to hurry it along.

Feel burdened by an enormous weight of responsibility: to model the balance between striving for achievement but not basing your whole sense of worth on it. To encourage her to push herself but never feel that you approval is out of her reach.

But when she wins at Monopoly Junior, wonder: are you cheering for her or just cheering that the game is over?

The Game of Life

Players: A Mom, increasingly perturbed at the sneaky cultural conditioning of games

A Daughter, 10, who sleeps a lot but is mostly healthy

Followed by

A Daughter, 10

A Babysitter

The babysitter’s children, 11, 9, and 5

Directions: Travel the Path of LIFE making decisions, building a family, earning money, buying homes, and collecting LIFE tiles. Win by accumulating the most wealth by the end of the game.

First, spin the spinner and move your car forward in the direction of the arrows. If you choose the computer version of this game, it works exactly the same way, except that it won’t move forward until you enter a heterosexual union. If you object, purchase the board game version so that you can exercise choice and acknowledge gender fluidity, the continuum of sexuality, and the range of possibilities regarding social conformity and parenthood.

With the board game, you can resist the official rules and decide whether to be a pink peg or a blue peg or no peg at all should you not be in the mood to adhere to cultural constructions of gender, or should you be feeling that day like a square peg unlikely to fit into a round hole. Decide whether to choose a life partner, and if so, one of the same sex, or one of the opposite? Decide whether to have children, with or without a partner.

But be forewarned that at her babysitter’s house, your daughter, after choosing a pink peg for herself, might land on the marriage square and reach for another pink peg, musing, “I think I’ll be a lesbian.”

And that her babysitter might rear back as if a bullet had just zinged past her head, throwing out her hands as if to cover the ears of her own children, and bellow, “No!”

And that later you will have to come to terms with the fact that not only do the babysitter’s values not remotely align with yours, but you also find rearing up around that babysitter all of those competitive instincts you thought you’d conquered. You’re convinced that she sees parenting as a contest she’s determined to win, requiring everyone else to lose.

Wonder how to respond when this woman makes disparaging remarks about your daughter’s handwriting and spelling; when she corrects (incorrectly) your daughter’s pronunciation of a novel character’s name; when she brags that her kids walked much earlier than your daughter, who had developmental delays but is now a gymnast; or when she criticizes your daughter’s future marriage prospects after your daughter announces that Disney princesses are too dependent on men. You know that heteronormativity is par for the course in your conservative small town. Still, discover that the babysitter’s reaction to your daughter’s choices during the Game of Life adds another layer to your concerns about the childcare arrangement.

Clue

Players:

A mom who can’t play this game without remembering the time when she was nine that Natasha Landers insisted that she was cheating by making out the reflections of Natasha’s cards in her glasses

A ten-year-old daughter, doing pretty well, if a bit confused by her babysitter’s criticisms

followed by

That same ten-year-old daughter, still mostly healthy

That same babysitter

Those same babysitter’s children

Directions: Mr. Boddy is found dead inside of his mansion. The object of the game is to use deductive strategies to determine the killer, the murder weapons, and the room in which the crime occurred.

Expect that your daughter will be entranced by the colorful, cozy rooms and the adorable little weapons—the coil of rope, the cast iron lead pipe. Allow her to remain oblivious to the inherent sexism that the female game characters, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. White, and Mrs. Peacock,  are all titled according to their marital status while the male characters, Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum their professions. It’s best that you not point this out to your daughter, who might bring it up and be subjected to more of the babysitter’s ridicule.

Then make the vast mistake of teaching your daughter how to use the process of elimination to trounce her opponents. Be surprised that as a result, the babysitter’s family will accuse her of cheating. To win, it seems, is regarded as antisocial, though not so much when the babysitter’s children win.

Find yourself troubled by ambiguous messages about female achievement in opposition to the actual rules of the game, the bizarre idea that there is something not nice about logical thinking, that, in order to avoid disapproving opponents, players should confine themselves to random guessing.

Mancala

Players: A daughter, 10,

  • who learned to play Mancala at a museum, where a volunteer challenged her to a game, then, kindly, the mom thinks, allowed her to win ten times in a row.
  • Who then proceeded to beat not just her mom, but her mom’s friend with a genius IQ and her rocket scientist husband

and a mom

  • who gets beat every single time and feels secretly proud of her daughter every single time
  • who is totally okay with losing this one, unlike when she was young and couldn’t ever seem to win games with her cousins, who were sadistically pleased to disqualify her. Like during Scattergories, when the category was “Things that are cold” and the answers all had to start with the letter S, and the cousins jotted down sherbet, Siberia, snow, spritzers, salad, Saturn, then ruled out the future mom’s answers, like Socks in the freezer and then banned her answers again over what they saw as her misinterpretation of Category C, “Things to trim a tree” because they’d filled in words like candy canes, creches, and ceramic angels, while hers made her sound like the family psychopath, someone who’d once again failed the good girl test, a purple peg in the Game of Life, without any place where she fit, and she was convinced that they were just punishing her for her overzealous childhood competitive streak. Her own answers had nothing to do with holiday decorating: cutting tools, chainsaws, the cuticles of Edward’s scissorhands.

followed by

A Daughter, 10

The babysitter’s children, 11, 9, and 5

Directions: Players take turns removing stones from pits along the edges of a wooden board and depositing one stone at a time into neighboring pits, each time adding a stone to a larger pit, or bank, on the end of the board. The object is to collect the most.

“Why are you letting her win?” the babysitter will scold her children. “You’re the smart ones!”

“I’m not smart?” your daughter will ask you that night.

Terminate the babysitting arrangement. Thereafter, keep tabs on every mediocre performance and instance of unoriginal thought on the part of the babysitter’s children.

Apples to Apples

Players: A single mom

  • who basks in compliments about her daughter’s sharp wit or fast tumbling speed, but who runs the other way rather than cross paths with braggy moms in the grocery store
  • who knows that her aversion to boasting parents isn’t just about them, but about the person she becomes around them, reaching back to an insecure younger self, struggling, sometimes unsuccessfully, to resist the pressure to match their boasting
  • who tries just replying to their bragging, “That’s great!” or instead relates anecdotes that emphasize her delight in her daughter as a whole person, not just as a list of activities and accomplishments, or, alternately, asks questions designed to elicit the same sorts of stories about their children, though in response other parents eye her suspiciously, like she’s employing some sneaky technique for finding fault with them
  • who cringes at the fact that the high school honor roll is published in the local newspaper, and upon spotting her daughter’s name, feels less proud than relieved, then tense, knowing full well that her daughter’s increasingly frequent illnesses might knock her out of the running next time
  • who knows it’s unhealthy to see your child as an extension of yourself, your child’s wins as yours, even when she’s beating you, yet lives with a sense of vague dread, wondering how she’ll weather it when, not if, her daughter fails. When, not if, she loses. Because, after all, failure and loss are inevitable. Necessary even.

A daughter, 11-16

  • who has never shown much interest in going the extra mile for an A or seeking promotions to higher gymnastics levels
  • who used to be healthy more than she was sick, but then at fifteen flips that ratio, developing debilitating headaches and severe fatigue
  • who can’t get out of bed some mornings, who suffers from nausea and throws up constantly
  • who is at first sick for a week at a time, then two, then a month, then, in the spring of her junior year, misses five months. Gives up altogether during her senior year. Lies in bed.

and the mom

  • listening to other parents sort their children neatly into categories—valedictorian, prom royalty, champion athlete—fights to get homebound tutors just to keep her daughter from dropping out of school
  • worries her way through those quiet days when her child sleeps in her room, doesn’t pass Go, doesn’t collect $200, doesn’t even go upstairs, downstairs, all through the house
  • drops, or is kicked, out of the world of parental one-up-manship as doctors keep concluding, frowning and staring at their charts, avoiding eye contact, that the daughter’s problems are emotional. Psychosomatic. Stress. What doctors always say when they can’t make a diagnosis
  • is sent into a tailspin, wondering why the daughter would be so stressed that she can’t function
  • lives with a nagging belief that her daughter’s illness must be her fault. That she transformed from unacceptably competitive girl to harmfully competitive mom, that she was only fooling herself when she thought that she was taming and channeling that drive. Why else had she allowed the babysitter’s comments to throw her into such turmoil? Why else had she harbored so many barely-suppressed savage impulses toward this woman? How much had her reactions inadvertently pressured her daughter, allowing twinges of disappointment to show, deep fears of failure to surface?
  • is stricken with guilt that she caused this as her daughter squints at her through pained eyes
  • is convinced that she’d managed to head off the troubling messages of so many games only to send her child the worst one: that winning mattered too much
  • wonders why the braggy moms have managed not to damage their functional children, exceptional children, robustly healthy and energetic children who calmly get out of bed each morning and rake in awards and accolades while she just keeps thinking about more S things that are cold, like the Sorrow of believing that somehow, by enjoying winning, you have ultimately lost.

And then the daughter

  • finishes high school through homebound instruction, and when she walks across the stage, her mom will think about all of the kids not wearing honor cords, not raking in multiple scholarships, who maybe aren’t going to college at all, kids for whom this graduation, despite family crises, illnesses or disabilities, or the need to work to survive,  is a bigger achievement than anyone in the audience can ever imagine
  • eventually also will finish college, and over time her symptoms will be traced one by one to food allergies and other sources, all of them physiological, none of them, after all, related to her mom’s shameful lifelong competitive impulses, her deeply internalized belief that being competitive can hurt people, can cause lasting harm, but will always know that illness may not be a game you ever really win. Even if symptoms dissipate, recovery may not be quick. And then at any moment, despite all efforts at control, they may flare up again.

Directions: Apples to Apples is a game of comparisons. Its title suggests that it’s about comparing things that can be reasonably compared, unlike different children, which is like comparing apples to oranges. In the game, power rotates, each player serving as the judge and making capricious decisions, blatantly favoring their children or best friends, faking out opponents, or leveraging knowledge of others’ psychology.

If, for instance, you’re the judge and the word is boring, and to illustrate it, everyone else throws out cards that say The Shopping Channel, Shakespeare, and Sleepy Cats, your daughter knows it’s an easy point if she plays the Candyland card. Or say the word is sickening and your daughter is the judge: you know that she will choose, over Getting a Shot, Teenagers, and Gorillas, the card that says A Princess.

So often you have no perfect answer in your hand and you just have to select from limited options. You might get Intelligence but have no Honor Roll, National Merit Scholar, or Child Prodigy cards in your hand, but no cards, either, for Quick Comebacks to Any Insult, Ability to Assemble a Bookshelf in No Time, or Skill in Writing a Parody in Response to a School Acrostic Assignment.

For Courage, there is not, but should be, Girl Who Just Keeps Going despite Impossible Odds. For Love, or Pride, or Joy, no cards for the things you’re left with when life won’t let you play by anyone else’s rules. Mom who Learns to be Thrilled Whether Daughter Becomes a Doctor or a Dill Pickle. No cards for the things that are, after all, perfect, despite, or maybe because, of the fact that they’re so improbably miniature, so exquisitely tiny: cast iron top hats, thimbles, candlesticks, wrenches. Or because of the simple pleasure of their smooth, cool feel in your hands, like stones gently lining up in their little slots.

Nancy McCabe’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Newsweek, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. She’s the recipient of the Pushcart Prize and eight recognitions in the notable sections of Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She’s the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir (Missouri 2020). 

*********

We are looking for wordpress editors — Find out more here.

*********

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Letting Go of the Why

January 2, 2022
infusion ketamine

by Tammy Richards

As I leaned back into the soft, adjustable recliner I realized that this was it. The potential of the next 45 minutes would either lead to triumph or defeat and if the result was defeat, I was certain I would die. The last 25 years were a compilation of all my successes and failures, and the results of a lifetime of self-doubt and struggle masked by a wicked sense of humor and relentless drive to be the best. But today the stakes were higher — I was exhausted, hopeless, and the pain was unbearable. I had to decide whether I was ready to give up the control I had so desperately clung to and embrace the willingness to let go of the why. I had to decide I wanted to live more than I wanted to be in control.

“This is just the initial dose, and then we’ll increase it from here throughout the first six infusions. Let us know if you are experiencing any nausea, and we can give you something for that. We can’t predict what you will see or experience, but if it becomes distressing, please let us know, and we can help with that as well. Are you ready to start?” the anesthesiologist looked at my masked face hesitantly, and I wondered to myself what the bottom half of his face looked like.

“Yes,” I replied nervously, “I never thought I’d be getting a “Special K” infusion at the age of 48 to try to manage my chronic, soul-sucking depression, but at this point, I’m willing to try anything because I’ve tried everything else. Let’s do it.” The doctor nodded and pushed the initial injection of ketamine into my arm and then started the IV drip.

“Do you feel anything?” he said.

“My hands and feet and lips feel weird,” I think I said, and then everything changed. My body felt warm, but disconnected and as I closed my eyes, the acoustic guitar music in the room became a touchpoint for my consciousness as what I started to see around me took on different shapes and colors, and my perception of time and space began to shift into a place I had never visited in my mind before. Maybe this was the answer I had been searching for — maybe things could change? Dare I hold out hope one more time?

Major depressive disorder has been an uninvited guest in my life since my late teens. While I wasn’t officially diagnosed until my late 20s, the eventual diagnosis explained so many things about the way I have always perceived the world. An entertainer at heart, my greatest hope was that people would like me. In my mind that meant I had to be exceptional, special, better.

In my childhood mind I remember every failure as a stain upon me until I was covered in darkness, disappointment and sadness. Throughout my quest to measure up, I had always fallen short, was never enough, but was somehow too much.

How I envied my younger sisters. They were prettier than I was, and they didn’t seem to care what other people thought of them. I watched them grow up and become confident, beautiful women with amazing children. They seemed so happy with who they were, and lived their lives authentically, while the shadows of impostor and fraud chased me like so many specters.

My first stay in the hospital was after my psychiatrist found out I had stockpiled enough medication to kill myself.

“You have two choices,” my psychiatrist said as I stared at the worn carpet in her office. Do psychiatrists ever change the decor in their offices, I wondered? I wished the plush pillows behind me would somehow suck me into the couch and port me to a place where I didn’t want to die every day, but I remained in the office.

“You can go into the hospital voluntarily, or I will commit you for your own safety,” she looked at me expecting an answer. I didn’t know what to say. All I could think of was the cost. The financial cost, the emotional cost, and the humiliation.

“I guess I will go voluntarily,” I said grudgingly, knowing that the worst was yet to come. Later that day, my husband of eight years dropped me off at the front entrance to the hospital ER

“See you later. I hope you feel better. I love you. I will visit later,” he signed to me before driving away and leaving me to either flee or go into the hospital on my own. My husband was Deaf, and he knew as well as I did that the hospital wouldn’t make communication with him accessible, and I was in no state to interpret for him, despite interpreting being my chosen profession. Just another kick in the teeth watching him struggle to understand what the actual fuck was going on with his wife.

After entering the ER, I was screened, searched for implements I might use to kill myself, and taken to the fifth floor psychiatric ward — a locked ward with patients whose diagnoses ranged from schizophrenia to mild depression and everything in between.

All around me patients in hospital robes and pajamas wandered talking to themselves, to people the rest of us couldn’t see, or sat looking vacantly at something they wished they could reach. I wondered what alternate realities they inhabited and if any of them were better than actual reality. I entered my room and climbed up on the windowsill looking out the window at the parking lot below. If only I could break the window, forever escape would be mine. Like a deep, pounding heartbeat I began to bang my head against the window, willing it to break and for me to plunge downward to freedom.

The next thing I remember is waking up rather groggy and feeling hungry. What had they given me? Images of nurses pulling me from the windowsill and a sharp prick of pain flashed through my mind as I pieced together that they must have tranquilized me like some kind of psychotic racehorse when I wouldn’t/couldn’t stop banging my head against the window.

What now?

It has been 22 years since that hospitalization. Since that time, I have divorced, re-married and now have two teen sons. Through all the medication changes, additional hospitalizations and ever so many treatments of electroshock therapy the depression has been lurking, ready to pounce at the sign of the tiniest crack or the most minor divot in my mental armor.

In 2017, that crack began to appear. Something visceral shifted and I could feel the descent into despair. How could this be happening to me again? What had I done wrong that had sent me back into the place where every day I woke up wishing I hadn’t?

By January 2020 I was back in the hospital. A week there and I felt that all I had done was reaffirmed that I couldn’t live this way anymore. I couldn’t stop thinking about my poor children. The day I checked myself into the hospital my 13-year-old-son was crying and hugging me,

“Honey, it’s ok. I will come back soon. I just need some help right now,” I tried to reassure him and hold back my own tears.

“Mom, I’m not crying about you leaving, I just don’t want to end up like you,” he replied, sobbing.

My heart cracked and broke into sharp shards of glass, too small to piece back together.

“You won’t, honey. You will be fine,” I replied, the guilt and shame overpowering now.

By June 2020, after months of the pandemic and barely being able to crawl out of bed each day, I knew it was only a matter of time before depression would kill me and reduce my family by one.

“I have done everything I can, Ryan. I don’t know what else to do at this point. I’ve been on too many medications to count, shocked my ever-aging brain dozens of times, and done so much therapy I’m surprised you haven’t sent me packing yet!” I complained to my long-time therapist and staunch supporter.

“Tammy, there is one thing that is somewhat new, but you could consider trying. It will take an extraordinary amount of willingness and bravery to try it, but I think you should consider it. There have been a number of very successful trials and studies, and they have shown this treatment can be effective in up to 70% of patients struggling with depression,” Ryan explained.

“What is this magical unicorn treatment that I haven’t yet tried?” I said, sarcastically.

“It’s called ketamine infusion therapy,” he explained.

“Wait, you want me to take Special K — like the party drug??” I was skeptical. Was my therapist seriously telling me I should consider taking a psychedelic drug to alleviate my depression? I was absolutely terrified by this prospect. I have serious control issues. I cannot stand to feel like I am out of control. The idea of taking a party drug, via IV infusion no less, sounded instinctively like a bad idea to me. Here I was at 48 years old, and I had never even been drunk or smoked a joint before! I hadn’t even partaken in THC-laced edibles, though all these things had been legal for years in Oregon.

What if I became so altered that I started doing or saying things I couldn’t remember? Visions of crazy, naked, trippin’ hippies running down the street came to mind. And dare I even have the slightest bit of hope that this treatment would help when so many others had failed in the past?

“What do you think?” Ryan asked as he stared at me through the video monitor as we continued our online session. It seemed like it had been an eternity since I had seen him in person. I secretly wondered if he still existed or if I was just talking to a therapist avatar of some sort that happened to look like Ryan.

“I am terrified. I don’t know if I can take the disappointment and feelings of failure if it doesn’t work for me. My capacity for hope is gone. I just can’t be disappointed again,” I explained.

“You don’t have to hope for anything,” Ryan reassured me, “I’ll hold that hope for you, but I need you to be on your own team, ok?”

Somehow having Ryan be my “hope proxy” was comforting. If this didn’t work, I wouldn’t have to have my own hope crushed, he could just hold it for me. I had to make a critical decision at this point: would my need for control outweigh my desire to live? Would I be able to choose willingness?

I decided that I would try the ketamine therapy. I had nothing left to lose by trying it, and everything to lose if I didn’t.

Ketamine infusion therapy is done in a six-infusion series over the course of two to three weeks. The dose is titrated up over the course of that time until the patient starts to experience clear dissociation which is the effect that the doctor is trying to achieve. All treatments are overseen by a nurse monitoring vital signs and a board-certified anesthesiologist who administers the infusion.

By the second infusion, I could feel a small shift in mood. I felt the boulder on my chest had decreased in size just a bit, and while I could still hear her, that horrible internal voice that railed against me, telling me that I was worthless, stupid, and vile, was more of a whisper instead of a shriek. And then, during the fourth infusion, things broke wide open.

A tiny crack appeared. It was slight but real, and with each failure, it grew until I poured out of it leaving myself empty and hollow.

I knew this feeling well. The innumerable fissures that I had carefully patched and spackled so as not to reveal the damage and breakage to anyone because I couldn’t let them see the imperfections and so much damage.

Sometimes the voices were so loud they overtook me in waves as rough and surly as any hurricane; screaming to me of my worthlessness and failure until all I heard was death and wished so hard it would take me. I cried as I believed the mind that tricked me, telling me lies so convincing that I couldn’t hear anything else because I KNEW it was right.

For years, I awoke, bitterly disappointed that I woke up at all. Wanting so desperately to end the screaming and hate and loathing that consumed me. But even when I tried to help it along, death wouldn’t come and teased me by saying I couldn’t even get that right.

But one day, I was so deep in the ocean that I couldn’t hear the screaming anymore and I floated upward seeing the light at the surface. I didn’t dare hope because hope was for suckers, and I had been fooled so many times before, but I pushed toward the surface as hard as I could until I broke through and was engulfed by the sun. I smiled, with genuine joy because the voices stayed quiet, and my mind didn’t tell me how stupid and worthless I was, and I could finally breathe, at least for now because something inside had popped.

The fissures and cracks had been made watertight again, and I felt myself inside myself again, not leaking out onto the floor and into the despair I usually occupied. There was finally space again.

It was after this fourth infusion that I began to allow in hope, and I made the choice to be willing to accept that I may never know why I experience such profound depression. I just do, and that explanation must be enough.

As Ryan has said to me many times, everyone struggles sometimes, it is learning how to struggle without suffering that is what we all need.

Tammy Richards lives in Portland, Oregon (a proud, life-long Oregonian) with her husband of 18 years and her two sons. She has served as a certified American Sign Language Interpreter for the past 31 years. When she is not writing or interpreting, she enjoys volunteering for access-related social justice causes (such as interpreting for inaccessible YouTube or Livestream content) and participating in endurance cycling events with her AIDS/LifeCycle team: Team Portland. She is an avid reader and is also a thriving child-taxi, driving her kids around to their various sporting activities (when we are not in lockdown). She has three mini-pigs: Zena, Zorro, and Zoey, who she adores. Tammy has trained Zena as a therapy pig, so she makes appearances in special needs classrooms and nursing homes where she visits, does tricks, teaches people about pet pigs, and gets lots of treats and belly rubs. Tammy’s memoir, “Toward Not Away: A Journey Through Depression to a Values-Driven Life” is currently in the works. You can follow her on Instagram @towardnotaway and on Facebook at @towardnotaway. 

*********

We are looking for readers and/or wordpress editors.

Find out more here.

*********

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

The Converse-Station: Sari Fordham Interviews Gina Troisi

August 1, 2021
book

Introduction by Sari Fordham

I got to know Gina Troisi because we both had debut memoirs coming out this year of all years. How does one launch one’s book during a pandemic? A group of us had the same question and we decided to join forces and ask it together. Over Zoom we chatted about our jobs, the falling snow (or the orange blossoms), the stories around our books, and how to connect with readers during a pandemic. I was particularly drawn to Troisi and her steady enthusiasm for writing and creative nonfiction. She is originally from New Hampshire and has written a book seeped in place, even as it uncovers the relationships in her lives.

Troisi’s debut memoir The Angle of Flickering Light is an insightful examination of how a childhood of abandonment and abuse spoke into her adulthood and how she learned to navigate the past through narrative. Trosi’s prose is sharp, her structure is unconventional, and her story is one that has stayed with me.

Sari Fordham: What inspired you to write your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light?book

Gina Troisi: I actually didn’t intentionally set out to write a memoir—at least not at first. When I began working on my MFA in 2007, I had one goal in mind: to improve my craft, and to ultimately become a better writer. Writing has always been the way I’ve processed, the way I’ve made meaning of what has happened, so I began writing personal essays—examining situations, events, and circumstances that had been instrumental in shaping the person I had become.

As I completed these essays, many of my mentors and peers continued to point out that I was returning to the same themes and subjects, as well as the same characters and settings. Even though I was working on disparate pieces, it became undeniable that the essays made up a larger body of work, with an overarching narrative.

Through writing, I was asking personal questions, but they were naturally becoming universal. Some of these questions were about despair and loneliness, but I was also weaving ideas about hope and perseverance throughout.

SF: Your memoir begins with this striking scene where you’re five years old and playing with your father’s novelty pens. The pens have women on them and when you turn them upside down, their clothes come down. Did the book always begin there for you?

GT: No. I experimented with multiple beginnings. In fact, at one point that first scene came way later, in the last third of the book.

While thinking about structure, I spent much time contemplating what I wanted to illuminate as the core of the memoir—the narrative through-line that the reader could follow, but which would also allow me the freedom to veer off into the past or future with ease, in order to illustrate the heart of the story.

But when I was revising, , I realized that it would make the most sense to begin the book with my father having just moved out on his own, which was not only one of my earliest childhood memories, but also where the conflict began.

SF: I’m really interested in how imposing a structure onto a story can open up a narrative. Your memoir is divided into three parts. How did using defined sections, which feels like a compartmentalizing tool, allow you to create that through-line?

GT: It absolutely was a compartmentalizing tool. That’s a great way to describe it. It allowed me to see the larger shifts of the narrator’s story, and to summarize her transitions in a neat way, by including titles for each of the three parts. In reality, the transitions were not neat; they were chaotic and erratic, but the division and labeling of the sections allowed me to gain even more distance—to really step back and assess what each part of the story was about.

SF: I admire how your book moves with such ease through time. By considering two different memories together, you added in layers of depth. How did you discover the shape of your chapters?

GT: At first, this felt tricky, since the memoir covers such a wide span of time; there are scenes when the narrator is five years old, and there are scenes when she is thirty-five. But once I had defined the heart of the story, the shape of the chapters became pretty instinctual and organic.

As you mentioned, I divided the book into three sections, which helped my focus. I decided to begin with prominent childhood years and scenes that would show the way the narrator had been molded, followed by a second part detailing young adult years that would exemplify the different ways in which she becomes lost and stuck, and I ended the book with a third, more reflective section, where I was able to integrate more of the present-day adult narrative voice—questioning, contemplating, and dealing with the aftermath of events and choices. This three-part division helped to clarify the shape of the chapters—where they needed to begin and end, and how they needed to be framed in order to highlight the core of the narrative.

SF: There is a really memorable scene in your book where you’re on a research trip for your memoir and you discover that a story you were told as a teen might have been completely fabricated. Were there other surprises as you were researching or writing?

GT: There were many surprises, yes, but not as dramatic as the one you mention, where the research almost completely changed the reality of what I had believed.

Most of the surprises had to do more with self-revelation rather than discovering a false truth. I have found that, in order to write memoir, we need to first have a heightened sense of self-awareness. But even when we have done a tremendous amount of work on ourselves, and when we think we understand circumstances fully, there is always more to learn. We have so many different versions of ourselves. And of course, as we work on a project, we are also aging and changing, and our perspectives tend to revise themselves. Through the act of researching and writing, I often realized I needed to do more digging in the way of self-discovery.

SF: How did being open to self-discovery influence the book you were writing?

GT: Being open allowed me to let the book and the material take its own shape, in a sense. It provoked me to question my understanding of the way things happened—how and why—and to challenge my own perceptions and beliefs. It prompted me to be as honest as possible on the page, even when I was still actively trying to figure things out, and to dig deeper, even if I already believed I’d excavated all that I needed to. And it prompted me to explore the fallibility of memory.

SF: As a reader, I was drawn to the authenticity of your voice and your vulnerability. As a writer, that’s a hard place to stay for an extended period of time. Did you feel protective of your younger self? How did you remain open?

 

GT: I don’t know if I felt protective exactly. In order to write this memoir, I had to become pretty removed and detached, and to really see myself as a character rather than a version of myself. Which of course, took a lot of self-work over a period of years.

When I received feedback on earlier drafts of the book, a few people pointed out that the narrator wasn’t self-aware enough—that the reader couldn’t make sense of her choices, of her self-destructive decisions, and in turn couldn’t always empathize with her. So I realized that it was going to be important to show the way she’d been shaped from a young age, even if it felt vulnerable at times. I knew that I needed to show her raw interiority, and that I owed that to the reader.

SF: In the chapter Cleaning House, you write: “California was a place where I stepped out of time. I attempted to transform myself into someone who I was not, at least not yet—someone who rested and reflected, someone who paused to make sense of her choices.” I love these lines because they speak to the journey you were on and gesture to who you were becoming. They also reflect the importance place plays in your memoir. Whether the place is an apartment, a playground, a city, or a state, you’re attentive to where you are and how you are shaped by it. How did you reinhabit those places while you were writing? Did you look at pictures? Visit them? Take notes? Listen to music?

GT: I actually did all of the above. I revisited old journals and letters and photos, listened to music that was etched into my brain from various moments and timeframes in the book. I did visit places, especially when I could drive to them—houses and apartments and restaurants where I worked.

When I wrote about Santa Cruz, California where I lived for a short time in 2002, but which was a pivotal time both in life and in the book, I flew out there from Boston and stayed in a cheap motel for four days. I revisited the places where I spent time when I lived there so long ago; I ran the same roads alongside the ocean, went to bookstores and coffeeshops and bars—even the grocery store where I’d bought my food. And it helped to uncover the memories in a crucial way. I love thinking about place in all aspects of writing, no matter which genre I’m writing in. I’m fascinated by the way a place can become as essential as any other character.

SF: What books inspired you while you were writing this one?

GT: Oh gosh, so many. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Sue William Silverman’s Love Sick, Fleda Brown’s Driving With Dvorak, Tim Hillegonds’s The Distance Between, Randal O’Wain’s The Meander Belt, Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water was a particularly strong influence. Before I knew of Yuknavitch or her work, I saw her speak at an AWP conference in Seattle, where she was part of a panel of authors who’d written non-chronological memoirs. I’d been wrestling with the structure of my book–with how to shape what was then an essay collection into a memoir, and I was resisting telling the story from beginning to end; I just knew it wasn’t the right direction for my material, but I couldn’t fathom how to do it any other way. Lidia, in the most passionate, lovely voice, said, “I believe in art the way other people believe in God.” She had me right there. And then she went on to describe the process of shaping her memoir. After the seminar, I immediately bought The Chronology of Water. I read and reread it, and thought about deeply about the structure of my own book. It not only inspired me, but it gave me the liberty to think about how I might break the rules when it came to structure–it opened me up to the possibilities available, and assured me that I did not have to be boxed in by narrative convention. It was a true gift.

Sari Fordham’s work has appeared in Brevity, Green Mountains Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Passages North, among others. Her memoir Wait for God to Notice is available from Etruscan Press. She lives in California with her husband and daughter.

Gina Troisi received an MFA in creative nonfiction from The University of Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program in 2009. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Fourth Genre, The Gettysburg Review, Fugue, Under the Sun, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, and elsewhere. Her debut memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light is available from Vine Leaves Press. She is currently working on a novel-in-stories.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

eating disorder, Guest Posts, pandemic

Mother Daughter Stew

July 25, 2021
ingredients

by Nancy Crisafulli 

Ingredients

From Mother’s Expansive Garden 

1 cup low-cal self-esteem

For correct blend mix equal parts shame, blame and overripe guilt.

2 cups shredded body image

Tear fresh images into bite-sized pieces, rinse under cold water and drain completely.

8 oz. night-blooming tobacco

Steep tobacco in 7-14 oz of any red wine (see directions below).

1 lb. depressed family history

This ingredient may also be found in Father’s garden and is often mistaken for a bothersome, invasive weed.

From Daughter’s Secret Pantry

1 cup high-concentrate anxiety – Use full strength – do not dilute.

2 cups well-seasoned perfectionism – Straight A+ seasoning is preferred, but type A will also work.

4 oz. flowering fear of failure (FFF)

Note: FFF is a bitter herb that will significantly impact the flavor of your stew -remember, a little goes a very long way.

2 lbs. genetic predisposition – This underrated ingredient can be found at many organic stores including Roots and MoMs Organic Market).

Optional Non-Organic Ingredients

7 Tbsp. expectation to excel in all endeavors (EEE)

EEE grows like a wildflower in suburbia so check your backyard before purchasing.

Multiple shots of reprocessed Insta-Selfies – Adjust lighting, filters, angles and number of shots for maximum impact.

Directions

Step 1: 

In medium-sized bowl, carefully combine mother’s low-cal self-esteem and shredded body image with daughter’s undiluted anxiety. Mix thoroughly.

*Mother: To be sure ingredients are thoroughly blended, pinch and knead the fatty area behind your knee (or any other unattractive body part) repeatedly while chatting heart-to-heart with your adolescent daughter. Adding this personal touch is guaranteed to work better than the most efficient KitchenAid.

Step 2: 

Macerate night-blooming tobacco in red wine and let soak in a tub until all liquid is absorbed.

*Daughter: While Mother macerates, use a paring knife or other sharp object to make shallow cuts in your flowering fear of failure. Cover carefully with a dry cloth and store in a cool, dark place.

Step 3

In a separate bowl, sift together mother’s depressed family history with daughter’s genetic predisposition. Do this slowly, alternating just a bit of depressed history with a little predisposition until you have the perfect mix of these secret family ingredients.

Step 4: 

Place all prepared items from mother’s garden and daughter’s pantry into the domestic cooking device of your choice (see side bar for choices). Sprinkle freely with non-organic optional ingredients to taste and cook as directed.

Step 5: 

Serve piping hot with a side of solitude and regret.

Sans appétit!

Tip

For a less robust stew, slowly introduce one or more tempering agents (Wellbutrin, Ativan, Lexipro) before the stew is fully cooked. See individual packaging for suggested amounts.

Yield

This recipe serves 1-2 but, properly stored, its prolonged shelf life can often under-nourish an entire family for generations! Studies have shown that a sustained diet of this popular stew is almost guaranteed to yield the following:

Daughter

  • Drastic reduction in calories and fat
  • Grinding, obsessive exercise
  • A feast of secrecy and self-loathing
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or actions

Mother

  • Growing dread of family meals
  • Searing, wild remorse
  • Frantic weeding of personal garden
  • Ravenous craving for a shared bowl of daughter’s favorite childhood ice cream

Chef’s Note:

Organic vs Non-Organic? Conventional wisdom suggests that our genes and the environment around us play important parts in the development of eating disorders and other chronic diseases. For people recovering from anorexia, bulimia or other EDs during this pandemic, the combined ingredients of Corona-related stress, grief, lack of structure, and social isolation may be the perfect recipe for relapse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out:

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support

Academy for Eating Disorders
https://www.aedweb.org/expert-directory

 National Alliance on Mental Health Illness (NAMI)
https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders/Discuss

stew

Nancy Crisafulli received her BA in English Literature from the University of Maryland and spent the next forty years in the field of instructional design in and around Washington, DC. She did most of that writing in a corporate office. Her other writing has been languishing in her spare bedroom and recently asked to move out. A few of those pieces have been published in Under the Gum Tree and The Sun. When she isn’t writing, Nancy is probably out walking, doing yoga, playing with the grands, or on the co-ed softball field with her husband and best friend, Frank.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

Improvise, Stabilize, Stagnate, Repeat

July 3, 2021
all

By Abby Braithwaite

“Mom, let’s go up there!”

“You don’t want to go just a little farther on the flat part, see if we can find the stream, and maybe see some of those frogs making all that racket?”

“No, up there! Hmph.”

My daughter stomps her foot, crosses her arms, and juts her chin at the near-vertical bank to our right. An expanse of loose rock, dead grasses and newly-awakened poison oak leads up to the abandoned mine above us, and beyond to the top of the rim-rock where her dad, brother and beloved babysitter are hiking. But really, it wouldn’t matter if no one was up there. Every time we have hiked this trail over the past couple years, off-roading has been this 4-foot, 9-inch teenager’s path of choice. She huffs again, tossing her pink bangs off her mostly-shaved head and standing firm.

“That way. Now.” It’s amazing how clearly she enunciates when she is mimicking my get-serious-and-listen voice. If only her speech therapist could hear her now.

“Alright, let’s go.”

***

If you want proof that evolution is dangerous, all you have to do is parent a teenager. Or teach one. Or just choose one out of the crowd and watch her move through the world. The fact that an entire species has banked our survival on the teenage brain is a mind-bender, and the ultimate proof that in order to get anywhere in life, you have to be willing to risk it all on a twist of DNA.

That first amoeba family could have just trucked along blob-like for an eternity, comfortable in its amorphousness, and populated this planet with slime. But no, some type-A couple of perfectly good cells had to go and mix it up and complicate the next generation with extra material, and things just went from there.

Improvise, stabilize, stagnate, repeat. Evolution in a nutshell. Sure there’s some loss along the way, but how else is a fish supposed to crawl out of an ocean and walk across the sand, if it’s not willing to take a chance?

***

As I follow Adara up the side of the hill, I keep one hand on the small of her back to remind her to keep her weight forward so she’ll tumble up if she trips, and not topple all the way back to the nice sandy path below us. As I feel her push herself up, muscles tensing under my hand, I notice again that her right glute is about half the size of her left, the result of a long-ago surgical repair on a bad hip, and I wonder if she likes this kind of climb better because it’s a break from the relentless, crooked pound-stumble that is walking when one leg is an inch shorter than the other. Maybe, like the short-sided mountain goats in that old comic, she knows she’s built for side-hilling.

Or, maybe she just likes to do it the hard way.

Either way, I’m glad to be walking behind her in the April sun, grateful I was able to get her off the couch and out the door after the rest of the group headed out on a hike I would have been on if there was someone else to hang out with my kid. And truth be told, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up with them anyway. I’m probably better off down here where I can collect rocks, listen to the frogs, and watch the clouds roll by while Adara picks her way up this impossible slope.

***

And so, some number of millennia and branches of the tree of life later, we arrive at the human species. Like many living things before us, plant and animal alike, we had figured out that for the healthiest populations, we had to spread out to mate. Trees send their seeds on the wind. Thistles catch onto the coats of the wandering beta wolf, and so propagate new thistle fields on the other side of the mountain range. The scent of ripe berries on the breeze brings a feeding frenzy, and berry seeds are shat out in myriad piles across the watershed.

Travel to make babies. It’s a pretty foundational principle of procreation.

But humans had to complicate things. We birthed impossibly dependent babies that stayed helpless far longer than any other animals’ offspring, and we became programmed to nurture, to tend, to need each other. We created intricate social structures, interdependency, emotional attachment. How were we supposed to get far apart enough to mate safely, to ensure the mutations that would lead to increased variability and strength, rather than the dangerous effects of an insular community?

Enter the teenager, a creature designed to cast out on its own to points unknown, with a particular penchant for pushing away the very people it has depended on most for the past decade and a half.

***

We’re spending a few days at our family cabin on the Deschutes River in central Oregon. It’s on the site of an old perlite mine, where several buildings were converted to a fishing camp after the mine closed in the 1940’s. My husband’s grandparents happened across the place when the mine office building was up for sale, so we have access to a ranging two-story box in the desert that can hold more than a dozen people comfortably. It’s just the five of us this weekend, though. My husband, our two kids, and our babysitter, here off the clock to explore this place she has heard so much about in the years she’s been working for us.

On the far side of the river—you have to take a cable ferry to get here, with everything you need for however long you’re staying—with no internet or cell reception, and stone’s throw from the shriekiest mile of curving railroad track in the West, it’s a love it or hate it kind of place. It’s fiercely cold in the winter, and impossibly hot and dry in the summer. In late spring and early fall, it’s mild and lovely. In April and September, it’s all those things in the span of an afternoon.

Adara’s on the hate it end of the spectrum, but we ply her with salt and vinegar potato chips and let her smuggle her phone over the river so she has her music, and she puts up with it. And every couple days, I manage to get her out for an explore. Every teenager who has come of age here—except maybe my introverted fisherman of a husband—has had a period of hating the place, hating the spiders and bugs, hating being away from friends and stuck with family, hating, over the past decade, the prohibition on technology, which doesn’t really work here anyway. But they come, and they are forced outside, and they learn to take care of the place; eventually keys pass from the hands of one generation to the next. Corwin, my 11-year-old, loves the place still. But given her druthers, Adara would take a pass altogether.

***

A quick Google search on “evolution as risk”—looking to see if any researchers have asked whether evolutionary steps can be viewed as a species-level gamble—tells me I need to spend more time on research if I want to follow this trail any farther. I find hits on Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—the threat posed by the mere concept of evolution to the human understanding of our roots, when the theory first arose—and the evolution of risk, with lots of sub-articles on the evolutionary role of adolescence. And that’s part of what I am talking about here, of course, but my bigger question is about the gamble of mutation itself. Why evolve at all? Why not just stay the course?

A species grows from the mire, defines itself, settles into a niche. All is fine, if not terribly exceptional, to be a lizard crawling around on the ground. Everything is working, comfortable enough. But then one day a cold wind blows across your scales and on some cellular level, some strand of lizard DNA buzzes awake and—bam—scales grow into feathers, feathers grow longer, lizards spend more time on the edges of cliffs, lots of them fall off, and the once stable ground-lizard population is suddenly on the brink, life is a lot more dangerous. And then, one day, instead of falling, a lizard flies. And so we have birds, which never would have come to be if there wasn’t space for just the right mutations to build on themselves, improvising, stretching, changing.

***

“I can’t do it, Mom!” she shouts, after her third attempt at a handhold tumbles down the bank behind us. We’ve been climbing for about half an hour now and, despite frequent breaks, we’ve gotten through the hardest section. It’s grassier here, less rocky, and I notice that there’s a trail beaten by deer that traverses the slope off to our right, taking a gentler approach to vertical gain, following the contours of the hillside rather than heading straight up.

“You’re doing great, look how far we’ve come!”

She turns to look down, scares herself with the sheer drop, and turns back, crossing her arms and harrumphing again. “That scared me. I can’t do it.”

“Well, we can’t sleep here, can we?” I ask, attempting the light humor that will sometimes snap her out of recalcitrance. “And look, there’s the tree we’re heading for. We’re almost there. Look, you’re the leader, and you’re doing a great job, so I want to show you two choices. Either one is fine. We can keep going straight, up this way,” and I point to the rocky draw she’s been following, that traces a straight line between us and a budding oak tree. “Or, we can follow this sneaky deer trail that’s an easier path. I know it looks like it’s going the wrong way, but it twists back around, I promise.”

***

And what greater metaphor for this moment of improvisation, of leaving behind the cozy, safe, necessary known for some new dimension, than human adolescence? A risk-taking, precipice-walking, edge-living phase of our development carefully designed to carry us away from our community, out to points unknown, to mix with others and create new family lines. With the skills, knowledge, and strength to set forth for new spaces and places, but without the wisdom to worry so much about what’s coming; the power to plunge straight ahead to the next thing, without the discernment to think maybe there’s an easier way, around the corner, just out of sight. In order to survive babyhood, we needed to create the attached family unit. But in order to thrive as a species, we needed to find a way away from each other, a vehicle to spread the wings and sow the proverbial wild oats further afield.

***

True to form, Adara insists on heading straight up the draw, not interested in my advice about a so-called easier path. She’s tired now, and can’t make it more than a few steps at a time before she needs to stop and catch her breath, rest her shaking legs. She can see the tree, with the picnic rock next to it, and she’s confident in her knowledge of the best way to get there. Straight. Up. The. Hill. Though the pauses between pushing upward grow longer with each break, push herself she does, and we make our way slowly up the slope.

“MOM, I NEED your hand.”

“Kiddo, if I hold your hand, I’m going to pull you down the hill. Here, I’ll just hold your hi-“

“Fine, I CAN’T DO IT!” And she plunks back down, lifts up her butt to toss a sharp rock out from under her. It just misses my kneecap. “And I’m not a kiddo. I’m THIRTEEN!”

I take a deep breath and look out over the river. We’re so close to the top, where we can sit on a flat rock and eat the salt and vinegar chips and sing songs and tell stories and build fairy houses in the dust on the side of the old mine road while we wait for the rest of the crew to come down the mountain.

I just need to keep my mouth shut, and we’ll get there.

As a teenager with a developmental disability, my daughter perhaps inhabits the brink more precariously than others; she toggles in an instant between a deep dependence—still needing help to zip a zipper, tie a shoe, sneak a pee on the side of a mountain—and a fierce desire to do it her way, on her own, without interruption and condescension. But, then, the more I talk to her classmates’ parents, the parents of so-called typical children, the more I realize that it’s only really a difference of degrees. All the kids her age are doing this dance. She just does it a little more transparently. And she needs a little more help to get free of me.

As we push on up her chosen path, my thoughts continue to circle on this idea that as a species, we have banked our survival on this risk-taking phase of human development. And as we stop again, angry at a piece of sharp grass that pokes into the sock, I remember something our midwife said, back when people were still saying things to try to make us feel better about Adara’s Down syndrome diagnosis. Something about how there are people who believe that Down syndrome—a genetic mutation that causes a triplication of the 21st chromosome, rather than the typical duplication, and the most survivable trisomy, as these triplications are collectively known—is the next evolutionary phase of the human species. That the emotional intelligence that is a common trait in Down syndrome is exactly what we need to survive the challenges in front of us right now.

I never looked the theory up back then, to see if she was just blowing smoke to make us feel better. And now I suspect any discussion of the theme will be rife with stereotypes and platitudes about Down syndrome—about how “those people” are happy all the time, and are pure love, and are just perpetual children who have found some stash of joy and contentment that we should all learn from.

But watching my kid choose the hardest path with a force and determination that I could only hope to attain, I have to wonder. No, she’s not happy all the time. She bridles at her little brother just as much as any 13-year-old should. No, she’s not a forever-child. She’s determined to finish school, go to college, and live in an apartment without her boring parents and their annoying rules and chores. But her joys are deeper than just about anyone I know, and she doesn’t carry a grudge. She has a gift for finding lonely people and bringing them into the circle, and for making them laugh with bad puns and absurd knock-knock jokes. She navigates life’s most challenging moments with a resiliency we all should envy. Maybe we could all stand to move that way after all, or at least to weave a little of the ways of that bonus chromosome into our dealings with ourselves and each other. Perhaps we’ve achieved a place as a species where we can choose some of our next adaptations. Choose to weave a new way.

A new thought to ponder. Luckily, there’s plenty of time for thinking on these hikes we take together.

Abby Braithwaite lives in Ridgefield, Washington, where she writes from a converted shipping container in the woods overlooking the family farm. She enjoys the soundscape of sandhill cranes, coyotes and freight trains trundling from Portland to Seattle underneath her bedroom window. Her essays on parenting, escape, and disability have been published in the Barton Chronicle, the Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and the Hip Mama blog, as well as a handful of non-profit newsletters. In 2019 she created “Contained”, a chapbook of her collected musings. She shares her home with her husband and two children, three cats, and two dogs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Self Image, Self Love

Ugly Duckling Goes To The Prom

June 30, 2021
prom

by Emma Margraf

After four or five hits of pot on prom night, the hotel bed felt like the most amazing place I’d ever been. I was still in my discount-find dress with shoes kicked off and my date, James, was smoking his share of pot out of a small ceramic pipe. James was still in his suit shirt but without his jacket and tie. We were sharing a suite in San Francisco with two other couples. We paid for it with our part-time jobs and some contributions from our parents  after giving them a complicated argument for why this was a rite of passage they should support. The pot was James’s contribution – not part of the argument. I laid there wondering what I expected out of this moment – James and I were exes at this point – he was with someone new. He was with me because we had history, even though at the time I didn’t know what history meant.

I was certain my doctors wouldn’t be ok with the pot smoking, but I was young and, even with a number of chronic conditions piling up, it didn’t seem to matter. I would realize the direct consequences decades later.  My doctors were perplexed by my propensity for illness and injury and by my head size. I had to get a graduation cap special ordered.

My friends were in other parts of the suite with their boyfriends, and they all had muddied expectations as well. They wanted to lose their virginity, and also didn’t.  They’d pulled us off the dance floor, because of their anticipation. James and I lit up when the hits came on, goofing on dance moves and swinging each other around during the slow songs. I bristled at the way the photographer moved me around and told me to try and look pretty. I could hear James mutter to himself, come on man. So much of this didn’t feel as fun as it was supposed to be.

Come on man.

As we’d been walking into the hotel that night, James and I both noticed a look from a frenemy of mine. She used to copy my answers in Government class and somehow still get a higher grade. She called me an ugly duckling under her breath one day, thinking she was the smart one. I didn’t know she wasn’t at the time.

I was self-conscious about my dress. The only other formal dance I’d gone to was the year before, and my drunken father spent more money than was appropriate on a dress  I liked because it looked like Marilyn Monroe’s dress in that famous picture where her skirt flies up. This dress was more mainstream, a struggle to find, and one my friends liked. James turned me around toward a large mirror in the lobby and put his arm around me. It was the first time I realized that our outfits matched.

“LOOK at us!” he exclaimed, “I mean LOOK at US. We are FLY”.

He wouldn’t let up until I agreed that yes, we were fly. We were.

Doctors don’t ever tell you that you look fly. My doctors have always been sort of surprised when I even did normal things, like join the basketball team in seventh grade. When I did, I got unsurprisingly injured. The injury led to one of my favorite moments in my short sports career: too many girls on my team fouled out, so my coach put me in and told me to stay on our side of the court. When the other team came back with the ball I would be right there, arms in the air. It would be unexpected.

Doctors don’t talk to you about those moments. Doctors never ask you if you are going to prom. Or at least mine don’t. Sometimes I find myself trying to tell them I am normal. I am here. I am a person who lives a real life.

Come on, man.

My girlfriend Erin jokes that between me and our Great Dane, she loves big heads. She loves us both intensely, and it soaks into all of her daily choices. She came home one day from Costco jubilant, excited by a possible victory: she’d found a helmet, and she thought it might actually fit. I pulled it out of the box and put it on while looking at her hopeful face as she jumped up to push my hair into the sides of the helmet.

I love movement, and a helmet means that I can get on a scooter again, or an electric bike, or get my roller skates out. Wearing short shorts and a Star Wars shirt she’d given me for my birthday, I put on my skates and practiced in the house, smiling the whole time.

She and I have moves like James and I used to, only better. We have danced in the street in New Orleans and Las Vegas, but also in the Christmas aisle at Home Depot, where we bought a singing avocado that we dance to in our living room. We met in a Zumba class, where she was the teacher and I was the student. I fell totally in love with the way she taught us to Samba, the way she expected everyone to constantly improve, and most of all, the way she loved the music. It was thrilling.

After a few months of Zumba, I felt comfortable enough to move up to the front rows of the class, closer to the mirrors, with more of a spotlight on my body, my arms, my legs, my big head. I knew that some of the men who collected outside the door to watch us wondered why I would feel so confident. I knew some of the women in the class would feel that way too. I kept dancing.

“Don’t stop, make it pop, D.J. blow my speakers up

Tonight Imma fight ‘till we see the sunlight

Tik Tok , on the clock, but the party don’t stop no”

Our hands waved above our heads, back and forth as we strutted down towards the mirrors and backed up to our spots, singing along to a song sung by a woman twenty years younger than most of us. A song sung by a woman who would later sue her handlers to get her freedom back.

Leaving class one day to get water I heard a YMCA staff member telling a guy to stop staring at our class.

Come on, man. 

That guy, that look, that feeling —  like the photographer at prom, like a boss who said I was easy to get to know, like the frenemy who told me I was the Ugly Duckling. I didn’t get overtly bullied for my big head, mostly because I grew up in communities that took bullying seriously. But it was baked into our culture. When folks referred to mainstream kids, they didn’t mean me. Everyone knew I was in a wheelchair as a kid and you don’t bully someone who used to be in a wheelchair. And the big head isn’t her fault, you know? She’s sick.

Come on, man.

What the mainstream folks didn’t know was that the wheelchair protected me. I didn’t get conditioned to feel like I had to look a certain way or to be a certain way because the wheelchair made me a nobody to everyone except those that really loved me. I didn’t get invested in rituals like the prom because no one expected me to be a part of them. When I did participate, the narrow view of beauty that came along with the ritual felt like a shocking inability to see the whole world.

We’d spent more money than any of us had to spray our hair high, layer on makeup, and put on pretty dresses. That part had actually been kind of fun, all four of us girls moving in and out of the bathroom, trading makeup and curlers and hair dryers along with gossip. The terribly overpriced terrible dinner was the first of many I would pick at later in life at weddings and fundraising dinners, but I didn’t know it at the time. Then my friends wanted to leave early, cutting our dancing short, racing to their expectations.

And so this is how James and I found ourselves clothes on, laying on a hotel bed smoking enough pot to make up for the fact that we wanted to be dancing. The dancing was like the time on the basketball court, like roller skating, like Zumba. We talked and laughed about the awkward people at prom that were Not Having Fun and whispered about the occasional sniping we heard from the next room, where it didn’t sound like things were going well. I woke up the next morning in my dress, with a blanket pulled over me, James asleep on the couch nearby.

I was listening to Allison Janney on a podcast last year reliving some of her time on the tv show The West Wing twenty years ago, and she said she looks at her younger self and thinks that she had no idea how beautiful she was. Folks have always told me I looked like her. I’ve always thought she was beautiful. Were people making it clear to her that she wasn’t considered beautiful too? Are we the same? I think about her looks vs. her career and her life and I don’t long for her glamour, but I would give anything to spend time in the same room as Martin Sheen, to trade dance moves with Dule Hill. Dule Hill danced with Savion Glover on Broadway.

Erin and I now live in the country, across the street from an inlet that produces some of the most sought-after oysters in the world. She read an article about the science of oysters and champagne and why they’re paired. Soon, we’ll go down the street for the oysters and have some champagne delivered. If we feel so inspired, maybe we’ll put on dresses and have our own prom. We’ll eat at the farm table my dad made me using the discarded wood from a millionaire’s mansion’s floor and dance in the living room or outside on the deck, under the country stars.

Emma Margraf is a Northwest writer whose work can be found in Folks, Entropy, Chronically Lit and more. She lives with her girlfriend and her Great Dane on a small inlet in the forest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

 

 

 

 

Guest Posts, motherhood, Tough Conversations

Motherhood (or Lack Thereof)

May 9, 2021
one

by  Maegan Gwaltney

My two small nephews and tiny niece climbed out of the couch cushion fortress on the bedroom floor. As the first sliver of sunlight whispered through the blinds, they jumped around me on the bed, shouting the details of their dreams. I was in my early twenties and loved my older sister’s kids- the weasels as I affectionately called them- with a fierceness I was unprepared for. It’s a testament to that love that I let them turn my bed into a bounce-house at the ass-crack of dawn, gladly trading sleep for the music of their laughter.

“I wish we lived here,” four-year-old Katie said as we sat eating breakfast.

“It wouldn’t be as fun if you lived here all the time,” I answered. “Because I’m your aunt, I don’t get to see you every day. So, when I do, we stay up late, have treasure hunts in the woods, and eat dessert pizza. If I was responsible for you all the time, you’d have homework, bedtimes, and healthy foods.”

“Like a mom,” she said, full mouth dripping milk. “When will you have kids so we can play with them?”

“Chew! You’re gonna choke,” I said.

“Cooousins!” her older brother Lee shouted.

“I don’t think that’s gonna be any time soon,” I said, thinking that no child should be born into the shitstorm that was my relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend.

“Mom says you’ll be forty before you have kids,” Lee smiled.

“What?” I laughed, nearly spraying the table with Cinnamon Life. “I’m going to ask your mom about that.”

Jake sandwiched between Lee and Katie in age, and always one step ahead, was quiet, pondering. As he took a bite of his cereal, I watched the thought arrive.

“Guys! If she has kids, she won’t have time for us!”

Their eyes grew wide.

“That’s not totally true,” I said. “I’ll always make time for you guys. But when I have my own kids, there will be fewer slumber parties.”

Not if. When. A word spent with unquestioning confidence. A safe and far away assumption, believing I’d have my own tribe to follow the paths worn in the woods by those around the table that morning, my first lessons in a love larger than I thought my heart could hold. My only lessons. Forty has come and gone, my empty arms proving my sister’s prediction wrong.

***

When I was 13, 14, 15 as my body began to curve and spread, I’d stand in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom with a wadded-up shirt under the one I was wearing. T-shirt for the first, and second trimester. Sweatshirt for the third. I took the business of making it look realistic very seriously. Sculpting it into a perfect mound. When I was sure it was right, I’d step back from the mirror, discovering who I had become, a calm smile spreading across my face, butterflies releasing in my true tummy. I’d turn sideways and stare at the roundness, the size of it. I’d rub my hands over it, cupping them underneath as if the weight demanded more support. I’d stand there for the longest time, enchanted by my reflection, by how beautiful I felt. Unable to take my eyes off the woman waiting for me.

I had things I wanted to do first, acting, writing. It took me years to stabilize the overwhelming anxiety that limited me for most of my life, later diagnosed as OCD. I just assumed, despite my late start, I’d find the right person, the right time for children. Neither ever happened.

***

I lived in Los Angeles for eight years. I’d moved there to pursue acting, which mostly amounted to selling vitamins to the Rich and Angry in Beverly Hills. The winter before moving home, I had my thyroid removed due to cancer. Both of my sisters flew out to be with me. Two days after surgery, weak and emotional, a bandage over my open wound, I took them sightseeing.

We stood on the stairway of The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, home of the Oscars. I’d watched countless times as actresses climbed those steps, believing the view would one day be mine. That morning, hormones raging in the key of clear-eyed reality, I collapsed into my oldest sister’s arms on those stairs sobbing. This isn’t going to happen for me. I always thought it was. But it isn’t. This same truth finds me now.

My body’s turning the page. Nature, that unrelenting bitch, does not bargain for time.

***

Motherhood, or lack thereof, was never a choice I made. I suppose, in some way, it was a series of micro-decisions, so imperceptibly small that I barely noticed I was choosing one path by not choosing another. Still, there’s no moment in the road behind me that I look to and say I should’ve done it here or that man should’ve been the one. Perhaps it would be different if I were a woman who mapped her life instead of trusting the compass in her gut. But I’m a woman who wakes in the night, panicked by some tiny mistake, my mind punishing me for something that will be meaningless next month. So, I’m grateful not having children can’t be distilled down to one moment or choice because that’s a one-way ticket down a rabbit hole I can’t afford. I cling to the hope that there was a knowing in me, greater than the sum of my regret looking back, a wisdom in trusting the compass that led me here.

***

I always believed I’d have a son. His image was born with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. I could see this little boy clearly in my mind’s eye, dark hair and deep hazel eyes, a gentle, curious soul with a tiny smile that lit up his face, sitting on the kitchen counter as he asked me a question, reaching for my hand as we walk or melting his weight into my chest, the constant thrum of my heart his lullaby, as I carried him in my arms.  Everything about him felt familiar, this little loved one I hadn’t met waiting in the future, certain though far away.

The name came almost as sudden as the image, unique and beautiful, like music running through my mind. Though I sang it inside my head, practicing for Some Day, for a long time I wouldn’t say it out loud. I felt some strange superstition as if it were a magic spell I’d cast on my future, whose certainty lived in silence, a wish that if spoken wouldn’t come true. Over the years, the mythical fathers changed like a revolving cast of characters, but two things remained, belonging only to me, this sweet boy and his beautiful name. I’d search for it in baby books, excited to find it, annoyed when it was listed for girls and not boys. I’d judge the different spellings and never remember the meaning until I’d see it in print, discovering it again every time. Mighty warrior.

***

I meet my friend at a bar for wine and writing, which we both know will only ever turn into wine. She has notes for this essay.

“No writing advice, but you should definitely get knocked up,” she says refilling my glass.

I laugh at her certainty, knowing how simple it seems from the outside. With my obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, the chaos in my head seems louder with each passing year. I’ve used every tool I have to fight my way to solid ground: therapy, medication, yoga, meditation. I need a certain amount of rest and peace to keep myself on an even keel. How fair would it be to add a child to that?

“You’re making excuses,” she says. “This sounds like something you really want, have always wanted. Life is short.”

In the week after that conversation, I sing the notes of his name in my mind. I lay down words in my laptop and discover the truth of what she’s said, somehow surprised by the depth and length of this want that’s been with me for so long. I visit the feeling of him, the weight and rhythm of his deep sleep breathing against my chest. I ask myself questions.

What is the difference between an excuse and a reason? Would a child give me incentive beyond myself, beyond my family to keep fighting the darkness in my mind? Or would it make it harder, swallowing, not only me but my innocent child? Is that just my OCD demanding the certainty of some perfect outcome before committing? Or is it logic, raising her voice above want?

***

I rush onto the train grabbing a seat, swinging my backpack onto my lap. A small voice floats over rows of winter hats to find me.

“What kind is this one, with the pointies?”

A father is reading a book about dinosaurs to his daughter, who is maybe five years old. I turn my head and watch them. I do this a lot lately, studying parents and children as if I’ve just landed on this planet, which in a way I have. I find myself staring at the way they interact, fascinated by this intimate verbal shorthand I will never speak. A language I knew once, years ago, but whose fluency has faded with lack of use.

***

“They are as much yours as mine,” my sister, Shannon, says of her children. She calls them Ours. A beautiful gift and powerful salve housed in this tiny word.

She keeps reminding me that it’s not too late for me to be a mother. Shannon had two kids by the time she was 20, her whole life built around these beautiful, needy creatures, shaped to fit their care before she’d run grooves of habit and preference into the surface of her life. I stand at the other end of this spectrum, a lifetime on my own, wondering when the grooves got so deep.

***

My dreams are haunted by the ghosts of Potential Father’s past, like some surreal Lifetime movie starring all the guys I’ve dated. My Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. The Good Guy, whose heart I dragged through the shitstorm relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend, like a selfish child clutching at both. The Republican, who I loved but wasn’t in love with, The Wine Guy, who followed me across the country to chase a dream that wasn’t his. In the dark chaos of these dreams, they are always leaving. I am on the outside, alone, soaked in sadness for what is no longer mine, unsure if my decision was the right one. One by one, night after night, they knock on the door of my subconscious, as if to ask, “Are you positive I wasn’t the one?” I wake disoriented and filled with the grief of being left behind. Still, the answer to their question is always yes.

***

I am a teacher’s assistant in a classroom of children with special needs. Before Covid remote learning, my heart would swell as I walked down the hallway, tiny bodies rushing past, loud, untamed, and excited. Everything about me vibrated to the frequency of their laughter.

I possess a strange confidence in working with kids, one I rarely allow myself elsewhere. I’m good at connecting with them, all the Auntie mojo in me finally being used again. I thought that this job was a beautiful solution, outsmarting the loss, filling the place in me that felt empty. But I slowly began realizing how wrong I was.

There was no distance to protect me. Jealousy tightened in my chest when my coworkers coddled my favorites. I’d push it down, but guilt flooded in to replace it. I interrogated my reactions. What’s wrong with me? In the halls where small bodies stampede, I felt joy lined with sadness. None of these little beings would ever be mine to build forts with or have treasure hunts. This was my job. I loved it, and I wanted that to be enough. But the place I hoped to fill only echoed louder with emptiness.

***

I spent eight years in Los Angeles torn between the future I imagined acting and the family I adored in Illinois. I always thought the decision to walk away would come to me suddenly, an undeniable mandate spoken in the deep voice of the gods. I never suspected it would bubble up from inside me, slowly melting my beliefs like ice, one quiet idea at a time.

When I think of motherhood, settling into the silence beneath thought, I feel a quiet certainty, rising up from a bone-tired body that has survived so much: autoimmune disease, thyroid cancer, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It whispers a truth that weighs more than words: I cannot do it alone.

Maybe the compass in my gut has been broken all along. But I’m choosing to listen to my body.

***

My nephew Jake, the little boy who sat in the kitchen so many years ago, took his own life at 22. In the months following, I’d look at babies, feeling a pull in the deepest part of my belly, some never-was umbilical cord tugging me towards a tiny soul I hoped to meet. Maybe it was the life force raging in me, or the echo of my best memories, longing to start again.

In sharing the devastating loss, I discovered something in the eyes of strangers, a sort of silent calculation of the amount of grief I was allowed, some strange hierarchy of mourning.

Who were you to him again?

I was his aunt. I am his aunt.

As I silently debate the correct tense for dead loved ones, the softness in their faces fades a fraction, relieved to not have to comfort his mother, sister, or wife. At least that’s how I interpret it, perhaps filtered through my own insecurity. Just the aunt. I wanted to download a lifetime of memories shared, to prove I’d earned the intensity of what I was feeling.

People forget that mother is not only a noun but a powerful verb, lifting trucks off babies, laying down lives to save them. I’m not a mother. I will never claim that noun. But I’ve mothered. A verb woven in my bones, called to life the first time I met my nephew’s eyes. If you say it’s not the same, you’re right. But my version of this verb, the only action I’ve ever been certain of, is no less real or fierce, or natural.

Ask the children. Search their eyes. Scan the molecules of their brightest moments. You’ll find me there, slowly arriving at a place where I understand how this verb shaped my life. Learning to let go of the noun that will never be mine, by recognizing the children who somehow still are.  

Ours.

***

It’s not a perfect process. I inch closer to acceptance by focusing on all I’ve been given. But the truth is, I’m still floating in an ocean of ambivalence, the waves changing every day.

When I ache for the little voices that will never wake me for breakfast, I’m comforted by the ones that did so long ago, when I believed being an aunt was meant to prepare me for motherhood. It turns out, this was the journey I was built for, the privilege of watching these amazing beings change, their lives expanding, the root of our love reaching deeper than I thought possible. No longer the children who ran into my arms, they are still the core of everything I am, saving me from myself with every call, visit, text or memory.

Being an aunt changed me. It’s a love that hums in my blood, sewn into my soul, unchanged by time, space, and even death.  But there is an emptiness in me that sometimes aches for more, a loss no one else can see.

I’ve learned to mourn the past, the lives and seasons that altered and defined mine. But how do you grieve for something that never was? How much space is this invisible loss allowed? It’s a familiar hymn on the lips of so many people reaching this season of their lives, the sun setting on Someday, the Far Away Future suddenly tomorrow, then yesterday, then out of reach.

  We can make space for that. Or we can run from it. With alcohol, sex, drama, or drugs, tangling ourselves in regret, missing chances to change the moment we’re living. I’ve done a lot of running in my life. Now I’m searching for the courage to be still and level my face at the reflection of the life I’ve created.

***

Lately, I stand in front of the mirror, staring at the naked length of myself, changed by time, gravity, cellulite, and weight. I rub my hands over my belly, a place never occupied, smooth and unstretched. My eyes follow the gentle curve of my hips, unwidened by birth. I don’t know one mother who’d trade her child for the stretch marks they caused. Still, I cling to this bikini season consolation prize, my shallow insurance against regret.

As I take in the naked truth of who I’ve become, this body home to the choices I’ve made, I search for her, beyond the shape I thought she’d carry. Meeting her eyes, I offer a soft smile, opening my empty arms to this woman waiting for me.

***

Digging through closets on a recent visit to my mom’s, I discovered a baby name book I bought years ago. The blue eyes of the plump diapered boy on the cover tucked safely away through all my moves. I turned the pages, landing quickly on the one with the corner bent, marked by my younger self as if I might need a map to find my way back. In the middle of the page, the spelling I chose for him glows bright highlighter yellow. It’s meaning below, new again. Mighty warrior.

I hear the music of his name in my head, then softly say it out loud.

Kaelan.

I would’ve named him Kaelan.

 Maegan Gwaltney is a Chicago writer, storyteller, and reigning World’s Greatest Aunt (with the t-shirt to back that up). She’s working on a memoir about family, grief, and coming to terms with her own mental health after losing two beloved nephews to suicide. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @MaeG765.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped for from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello, A Review

April 8, 2021
gina

When I finish a book, I do one of three things with it: donate it to a local book drive, pass it along to a friend, or keep it on my bookshelf to reference and read again. This space is filled with the books I keep. I hope you like this feature, and I hope you like Gina’s book. -Angela

by Angela M Giles

The first time I met Gina Frangello in person, she was on the book tour for A Life in Men. The setting was the Brookline Booksmith, and I was captivated. How could I not be, the book is fantastic. I had known of Gina for some time, she was always popping up on one “writer to watch” list or another, and I followed her online work as well as her Sunday editor work at The Rumpus. But that evening in Coolidge Corner, hearing her talk about her process and actually meeting her (ack!) and then taking a photo with her (ack! ack!) was beyond magical.

I have been waiting for her most recent book for a long time, even before she knew she would write it. Gina is a fiction writer, a very good fiction writer and I have read her books, but I secretly hoped she would write a memoir because I wanted to see what a “Gina Frangello non-fiction book” would be like. I suspect I wasn’t alone in that that secret hope. This week that very book was published.

The title of Gina’s latest book is Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, and every time I see it, I am surprised by the impact of the word “treason.” Likewise, when I see the teeth-baring wolf on the pink cover, I feel a little shiver. This visual of the book makes no secret of the fact that what is tucked between the covers is likely unsettling, uncomfortable, painful even. And it is. But it ends well, as we know. Her pandemic zoom wedding, featured in Psychology Today, was a welcome respite mid-quarantine.

What Gina offers the reader is an unsanitized and unfiltered, look at a woman’s life in middle age. There are parts that are glorious and parts that are devastating. Parts that are messy and parts worth doing over and over again. There are the parts that are painful, that are the result of questionable choices. In this book everything is fair game, and no one receives harsher examination than the author herself.

Gina doesn’t flinch when she tells us of the affair that reawakened her sexually while sounding the death knell for two marriages, the regrets she has as a parent, as a daughter. She can describe physical abuse or fucking with the same intensity and she doesn’t give us much room to flinch either. The writing is lyrical and charged. The book opens with a list of words starting with the letter “a,” then proceeds through each section looping time back on itself, interjecting misunderstood words, switching points of view, and ending with fifty meditations. If nothing else the book is a masterclass on form.

But of course, it is something else. It is a book about female desire and female rage. It is a book about making choices and taking responsibility for those choices. It is a book about resilience and reckoning. It is a book about being in the midst of your life when your marriage, body, and parents fall apart. But most importantly, it is a book about what a life looks like when a woman tells her story.

The final sentences of the book are these:

“This much I know: that eventually, we all have to start screaming well before we hit the ground, so the women below us will understand when to scatter, when to take cover, when it is safe to come back outside and try again to change the world. So that future generations will know, from the echo of our voices, never to stop watching the sky.”

This conclusion to her memoir, this feminist directive, is why Gina’s book will continue to stay with me. In telling one story of a woman’s messy midlife, she paves the way and encourages the voices of others to do the same. She has cleared a path, now it’s our turn.

Gina Frangello is the author of Every Kind of WantingA Life in MenSlut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in PloughsharesThe Boston GlobeChicago TribuneHuffPostFenceFive ChaptersPrairie SchoonerChicago Reader, and many other publications. She lives with her family in the Chicago area.

Angela M Giles has been published at The Coachella ReviewThe Nervous BreakdownMedium: Human Parts, as well as other journals. She has been featured in print at The Healing Muse and is a contributor to Shades of Blue, An Anthology On Depression And Suicide from Seal Press. She is a curator and editor at The Manifest-Station. Angela lives in Massachusetts where she conquers the world, one day at a time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen