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THIS CROSS I BEAR

Guest Posts, Mental Health, No Bullshit Motherhood

This Cross I Bear

March 10, 2017
sunshine

By Leslie Wibberley

I should have seen the signs, long before she fell so far and so hard. Instead, I just kept pushing. “You can do this, sweetie, just focus and try harder.” Seemingly innocuous words, I thought. Encouraging words, right?

Wrong.

I should have known better. After all, I’d grown up with a mother who suffered from clinical depression and had attempted suicide on more than one occasion. With that kind of family history, you would have thought I’d have seen this coming.

Well, I didn’t.

I grew up with a mother who lived in perpetual darkness, but also with a father who epitomized sunshine. For every storm cloud that gathered and dumped its torrents of rain across my mother’s sorrow filled shoulders, there came a gentle breeze filled with warmth, sunshine, and the music of song birds; my dad.

I like to think I take after him. Continue Reading…

death, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

New York Times Crossword Puzzle Book #50.

January 18, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

By Sonia Greenfield.

Three summers ago I found myself socked into my grandmother’s bed with my infant son sleeping next to me in his Pack-n-Play. The old, dusty air conditioner churned and wept down the slumped front porch, but the room was cool. The groan of this window unit was the only sound, this and the click and scratch of my mechanical pencil as I filled in the book of New York Times crossword puzzles I picked up at the airport in Seattle. All around me I saw the sad accumulation of old age—pill bottles, ointments, stained sweatshirts, and a thick layer of grime—but underneath these mounds, if I dug deep enough, I could find the gold piping and flounce of my grandmother’s stylish years. This is why I felt socked in. Nothing was ever thrown away; it was just buried. The new on top of the old, which was really like the old on top of the less old. And this made my grandmother’s room, her whole house, a bit of a burial ground with nothing more than narrow paths to travel between the heaps of purses, VHS and eight track tapes, old make-up, shoes, costume jewelry, books, newspapers, diabetic snack bars, and so on. There was something about retreating from the emotional to the cerebral, something about shrugging off the weight of lost years, of lost youth, that made me fill each puzzle, turn the page, and start the next one. What’s a seven-letter word for “tremendous” beginning with m? The answer was massive.

I received the call— well, calls— a few days before. My stepfather who lived in the upstairs apartment with my mother found my grandmother unresponsive in her bed, which was the same bed I was, by necessity, sleeping in just a few days later. Even though I spent the last half of my childhood in the second story apartment with my immediate family, there was no room for me, for us, now. I got the call in Seattle from my brother’s cell phone while everyone was gathered in my grandmother’s room at Hudson Valley Hospital, and I was put on the phone with my grandmother, who could not talk or move most of her body, who could not swallow or smile, who could not respond when I began to cry in her ear. I was told, though, that tears ran down her face, and that she bit her lip on one side as I said how sorry I was that I could not help her. Even when you know that the cruel discomforts of old age will be alleviated, when you know that death is inevitable—especially for an eighty-three year old woman who has been in decline for years— it does not mean that when the time comes, a cool stoicism will settle on you. It does not mean you will feel relieved. What’s a six-letter word for “smooth” ending with e? The answer was stroke. My Nana had a massive one in her bed, and my baby and I flew out for what I came to understand was a vigil as we waited out the two long weeks it took her to die. My grandmother’s name was Rose. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing

I Diagnose Other People for a Living, but No One Can Diagnose Me

July 15, 2019
surgery

By Melissa Neff

My psychology career has been devoted to helping other people learn about themselves. But when chronic back pain usurped my life, no one could tell me what was wrong with my back, or how to fix it.

As a psychologist in private practice, I divide hours into 15-minute segments, punctuated by the beep of a timer and my client’s choice of Batman or emoji stickers. A few weeks ago, I handed Jaden, an energetic and wiggly 6-year-old, a pile of putty to fidget with as we waded through an IQ test. Through a projective storytelling task, I learned what monsters were hiding under his bed, and what type of laser proton field he plans to construct to keep them out.

When Jaden’s parents return for the results, I explain, “Assessment is like pieces of a puzzle. Each test tells me something about your child.” Test by test, I plot out Jaden’s abilities relative to other kids his age on a giant white board, dotting his exceptionalities and weaknesses in purple marker. “He can solve 8th grade math equations, and he is smart enough to grasp that one day he will die; however, this thought, which most 6-year-olds can’t yet contemplate, terrifies him. So, he has constructed a laser field as a way of coping with demons that he does not yet understand.”

I inundate Jaden’s parents with labels – Gifted, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder – labels which do not define him, but which describe him so we can strategize how to best help him. When Jaden’s parents leave my office, I want them to understand their child better. I want them to feel supported and validated about what they’ve always known to be true about their child, which often, no one else saw or believed. I want my clients to have answers.

Like many psychologists, I have, too, have spent some time on the other side of the couch. Like Jaden, I, too, have been plagued by anxiety. When I was still healthy, I spent nearly every day running and dancing and hiking those thoughts away until they melted into a pool of sweat at the back of my tank top.

But all of that changed six years ago, when I twisted my left foot the wrong way while shaking my booty to Rihanna during a high-intensity dance class. When my foot didn’t heal, the podiatrist shoved it in a boot for two months, which slanted my pelvis and led to a gradual stabbing in my low back that didn’t remit when the boot came off. I began to curse the Devil Spot, the dwelling inside my low back where it felt as if tiny trolls were stabbing me from the inside, punishing me for a transgression they had yet to reveal.

No matter how much stretching and resting and icing I did, the Devil Spot nagged at me, pleading to be heard like a tantruming child. Its screams grew louder and louder until they were all I could hear. Pain eclipsed my every waking moment, and suddenly, I became one of 25 million people in America with chronic pain. At work, I couldn’t stand up and talk to my clients for longer than 3 minutes. At home, it was all I could do to not toss a spatula across the kitchen, infuriated that I couldn’t stand for long enough to sauté a goddamn pan of broccoli.

I threw all of my free time and savings into rehab. I just wanted to dance again, to run again, to feel my body sherpa up and down mountainous hiking trails the way it was made to. My osteopath glided and jerked my left leg until my pelvis straightened, explaining in carpenter-speak how a normal pelvis should connect to the spine without jamming. My chiropractor jerked me back into place, asked me for my copay, and rushed me out the door. After each adjustment, I slid back into crookedness, but I kept going back for more because I didn’t know what else to do. My physical therapist urged me to try water aerobics. After about fifteen minutes doing low kicks with the 80-year-old women in my class, the Devil Spot detonated, forcing me to hobble out of the pool in tears.

Pain became the only thing I could think about. Nothing I did to stop it helped. In fact, every intervention seemed to generate more pain. The only thing everyone agreed on was that I should avoid back surgery. Failed back surgery is so common that it has its own diagnostic code.

Months passed. Years passed. For a while, I sought relief instead of fixes. I tried every type of massage –Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, deep tissue, and Rolfing. I begged Chinese doctors to poke my feet with long acupuncture needles. I asked a woman who saw angels to clear up energy from my past lives. The stabbing would relent for a day or two, but never more. So, I stopped. I stopped getting adjustments. I stopped trying to hike. I stopped at my third physical therapist. I stopped having dinner parties. I stopped getting invited to dinner parties. I stopped having sex or only had it in the dark, where I could covertly wince.

More months passed. Each day, I averaged about a 7 on the pain scale. My stomach ached from popping Ibuprofen like Tic Tacs, but I needed them to get me through the day. I hated my life. I hated my job. I hated myself. I was becoming a person I didn’t recognize, a person whose fat clothes didn’t fit, a person who got her only endorphins from Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzards. I needed answers. I needed to find someone like me, someone who would sit with my images, get out their white board, and contemplate my symptoms until they morphed into the correct diagnosis and paved a road towards treatment. I didn’t care anymore that this might mean someone drilling my spine apart, filleting me like a fish, and rebuilding me piece by piece. I was out of money and patience, controlled by something I couldn’t get under control no matter how hard I tried.

Dr. Keller, my pain doctor, agreed that it was time to consult with surgeons, who are known for their diagnostic precision.

Surgeon Number One suggested there might be a tear in my disc.

Surgeon Number Two diagnosed sacroiliac dysfunction. If he just literally could nail together my pelvis to my spine, it would become less mobile and less painful, he said.

Surgeon Number Three, the arrogant one who I was sure would break the tie, turned around slowly in his leather chair and said, “I’m not sure why you’re here. There’s nothing wrong with your back.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“There’s no surgery I would do on your back, because it’s totally fine.”

The tears I’d been holding back busted through, my face opening into a floodplain. “It’s fine? Then why am I in so much pain? Why does my back stab so badly that I can I barely stand, or concentrate? Why can’t I ride in a car for longer than an hour? Why can’t I get through Costco without an automated cart?”

“You just need physical therapy.”

“I’ve tried that. Three times, with three different therapists. It hasn’t worked.”

“Acupuncture can also help.”

“I’ve tried that. Twice. Didn’t work.” I breathed back the snot dripping from my nose. When he didn’t offer me a Kleenex, I wiped it away with my sleeve.

“Do you think there’s a tear in my disc?” I asked. “That I need a fusion?”

“No.” But he leaned in closer as he noticed my tears.

“You know, I’ve had some patients with similar pain. You know what helped them? Therapy. They go see a therapist, talk a little bit about their family, and in three, four months – their pain goes away.”

Clearly, this asshole had omitted reading the check-box where I’d listed my profession as “psychologist,” implying that I know something about this stuff. Had he read any of my check-boxes? Was he saying that I was crazy? That I had conjured this problem within my body as a way of dealing with my issues? Had he read the referral from Dr. Keller, who’d shot me with cortisone in my SI joint three times that year, issued me a handicapped parking pass, and sent me to this man for an actual answer?

In my car, my head fell on the steering wheel, dousing it with sobs. I wanted to call my partner to debrief, but what was the point? I was still at the same place, with no answers.

For weeks, I contemplated my choices. I insisted that my doctor perform the dangerous discogram that did, indeed, reveal a tear in my disc. I had a minor surgery to cauterize the disc. But when I started to move again, the Devil Spot ignited and raged on. I blew up balloons with my new physical therapist to pull more air into my left lung in an attempt to align both sides of my body. I let a different physical therapist put her finger in my vagina, inspecting my pelvic floor for tightness. I tried new medications. I cut down my hours at work. I forced myself to meditate. None of it helped.

Left without a clear direction, I made a radical choice: to have a surgery that wouldn’t fix the problem, but which would mask the pain. An implanted spinal cord stimulator would send soothing signals to my brain to divert it from the perception of pain. I scheduled the surgery, but my insurance required me to have a psychological evaluation first. After laughing my ass off at the irony, I drove three hours south and sat all day in a fake leather chair like the one I had for clients in my office, checking off answers on personality inventories I’d spent years administering to other people. The psychologist gave the green-light, but on the eve of my surgery, my gut rumbled with uncertainty. Scanning my brain for a last-minute fix, I recalled a conversation I’d had with a friend’s father years ago, who told me that a physiatrist, a doctor of the muscles, had saved him from back surgery. I Googled physiatrists, found Dr. Landon, who was new in town, and told Dr. Keller that I wanted one more consult before moving forward.

In his office a week later, Dr. Landon thanked me for sending him a three-page synopsis with all my provisional diagnoses and every treatment I’d tried. He’d reviewed that and my imaging the night before. He spent two hours asking me a series of rapid-fire questions to rule out all kinds of different disorders. He looked me in the eye and listened to my story. He offered me more Kleenex as I cried. He spent two hours examining my hips, pelvis, legs, and back. He told me that he had a few ideas about what might be wrong, and he labeled them all: Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction. Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. Hip-Back Syndrome. Myofascial Pain Syndrome. He assured me that we would go down each rabbit hole, investigating symptom by symptom until I had my answers. He didn’t have a white board, but he did make a drawing on his iPad explaining how my hips might be causing back pain, which made me consider my symptoms in a new way.

Dr. Landon asked me to postpone surgery until I tried the rehab program he created for me. “I will do my very best to help you,” he said as I left, “But I can’t promise anything.”

In the safety of my car, I simultaneously grinned and sobbed, allowing child-like bawls to crawl up my chest and quake out my lips, loosening my grief like leaves on a tree that had needed a good shake to break free. Finally, I had found someone who would diagnose me with the same level of precision, empathy, and care as I did for my own clients. I always tried so hard not to cry, not to complain, not to ruin conversations by talking about my pain, but hopelessness had become a rock in my chest, hardening around my broken heart.

For the first time since the Devil Spot had made my life a living hell, I felt less alone.

Dr. Landon’s program is working. I can stand for 30 minutes instead of 3. I can do half of an old lady water aerobics class without tears. Last week, I walked into a gentle dance class and grapevined and kicked behind Dolores for ten whole minutes without stopping, and shouted with her along to Huey Lewis. The more I squat and lunge, the stronger the tissue around my disc becomes. I am forcing myself to meditate, and when I sit in silence, I learn things – about the way I sit, the way I stand, the way I don’t take in full breaths, how I hold in stress until it becomes a stabbing pain in my ass. Surgeon Number Three was right, even if he was a jerk about it; I needed to go back to therapy, because how I manage my emotions is a piece of my puzzle.

Twice a week in neurofeedback, my therapist attaches electrodes to the calming center of my brain. Twice a week, I leave feeling less anxious, and in less pain. I am noticing that when I have a bad day at work, the Devil Spot cramps and pulses much earlier than usual. As I lean forward to bear witness to other people’s stories of abuse and abandonment, my muscles clench more with the weight of their stories. When I am a receptacle for other people’s pain, my pain worsens.

In therapy, it is my turn to speak. I tell my therapist the truth: I am no different than my clients. I was born with big feelings, big reactions, big thoughts. I never felt safe expressing them until I met my current partner, who holds me when I cry and does not ask me to stop, who listens to my ideas and loves every part of me that’s big.

It has taken me forty-one years to realize that I’ve spent my entire life putting other people first. As a six-year-old, I became a mother to my mother. After my dad left, she secured two or three jobs at a time to make sure we had Gap jeans and could afford to play after-school sports, but there was no time for cooking, cleaning, or feelings. When I tried to tell my dad how much I missed him on visits, when tears welled up in my eyes and my words grew gummy, he insisted we change the subject because it was obviously upsetting me. For him, I joined clubs and earned scholarships, learned to courageously mute all my big feelings, and championed his marriage to a woman who smiled at me through gritted teeth to ensure that I wouldn’t take up any more of his time. It was the right thing to do – choosing attachment over acceptance meant that I would be supported, loved. When I headed off to a big city college, I felt brave, strong, and independent. By graduate school, I was on my way to becoming a logical, impenetrable adult. I had a life plan: I would help people with their big feelings, and run far up mountains away from my own.

But I didn’t respect myself. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t helping people. I didn’t know that my voice needed to be heard too, until the right people listened. Now, I’ve begun to stop and notice when the pain flares, and ask myself what I am feeling, not feeling, or not saying. I let myself feel it, although I am still learning how to say it.

The more I creep back into my body, which froze with pain until I felt safe enough to learn why, the more I release the trapped emotion from my back and baby the Devil Spot back to life, the less I want labels and procedures. I insist to Jaden’s mother, who cries when I label him with autism, that a diagnosis does not define a person, but is a valuable guidepost – a roadmap – to greater self-understanding. What I don’t say is: I understand. We are all jagged and broken in some places, but if we don’t let our edges come up for air, if we don’t let others see them, hold them, and heal them, they will fester and become unnecessary wounds.

Melissa Neff is a writer and psychologist living in Montana. Her fiction has been featured in WitLit and Wild Quarterly. She is currently writing a memoir about chronic pain and how it has unexpectedly healed her body, mind, and spirit. She is fortunate to spend most of her days supporting her differently wired clients to become their very best selves. You can follow her on twitter at @MelissaNeff17.

 

Guest Posts, Sexual Assault/Rape

Didn’t it Feel Good?

April 18, 2019
good

By Rachel Cline

In the autumn of 1970, I was thirteen years old. Like seemingly everyone else in America, male and female—I had long, straight hair, parted down the middle. I sometimes wore a cowboy hat, but had trouble finding  blue jeans small enough to fit my child-sized frame. I lived in Brooklyn Heights with my brother (then nine and beneath my notice) and our divorced mother. My interests included Star Trek, The Monkees, Mad Magazine, and books that were deemed “too old” for me–that summer I read The Dharma Bums, The Godfather, and The Sensuous Woman by J.

We lived in a City-subsidized building and did not own a car or a color TV, but we were not poor—my brother and I both went to private school in Fort Greene. We also went to summer camp every summer for two whole months so that my mother could have some fun. That summer at camp, when not reading, I had been mildly and chastely in love with my brother’s counselor–a college sophomore with quotes from Tolkien markered all over his Jack Purcells. I remember him telling me that Henry and I must have great parents because my we were both so “cool.” At the time, I thought he meant “interesting and creative,” but in retrospect I suspect he was leaning more toward “bizarrely adept at acting like an adult.” Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Trauma

MY GHOST BODY’S THOUGHTS

November 29, 2018
ghost

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault and eating disorders

By Cyndie Randall

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”
– Fred Rogers

“Survivors feel unsafe in their bodies. Their emotions and their thinking feel out of control.”
– Judith Lewis Herman

The carpet was bitter this morning. It jammed itself between my toes – the first resistance – and burned the skin on my knees like tiny pin pricks.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I never say “Amen” without remembering the empty, sweaty hands I’ve held in countless circles of healing.

Several complex galaxies were pushing on my back by the time I stood up, each so heavy that I went looking for my daughter and apologized to her immediately.

“Why are you sorry, mama?”

My body told me I’d be crawling back into bed after tea, so I answered her by giving an advance on the second apology.

The third one came a few hours later – “Oh my! Sorry!” The clock read 1:30 p.m. and I was still wearing a tattered nightgown when her friend bounced up the driveway and to our door. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, motherhood

The Hardest Choice

October 27, 2018
mothers

By Moira Sennett

Tethys, they say, is the mother of multitudes: rivers, lakes, streams, all the fresh waters. But look closely, and she tells a different story. As she passes by you, her arms are empty. The only child she was ever given to hold was not her own. She protects her dear ones with a fierce mother love. She will lie and rage and move entire seas to protect them. But when you really look at her, you will see that the goddess of childbirth trails her like a shadow, a whispering voice: “Mother of none.”

***

The ultrasound pictures set side by side are proof of a dream realized. In the first, he is tiny. His head and body seem squished together, bearing a striking resemblance to a gummy bear. In the second, his baby shape is more clearly identifiable. In the third, his perfectly defined little features—nose, mouth, and reaching hands—belie the fact that anything is wrong.

My fear for him is a tangible pain in my chest, as real as the joy I felt from the first moment I knew of his existence. I would lie and rage and move entire seas to protect him. I love him with a love that is fierce and true and bittersweet. Bittersweet because he is not mine. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Pregnancy, Relationships

Someday, Baby

September 26, 2018
fire

By Alayna Becker

It’s wildfire season in Spokane, so I’m stuck inside Crosswalk, the teen homeless shelter where I work. I’m the summer employment specialist, hired to help the homeless kids in my group learn to get a job and hopefully keep it. 12 kids are supposed to show up, but only two, Jessica and Reya are here and a third, Makayla is on her way.  Usually we go outside to do the job the city gave us a grant to do – measure the slopes and accessibility of streets all over the downtown area, but today the whole city is obscured by the haze from fires on the edge of town. Walking feels like wading through a swamp.

My title, employment specialist seems ironic because for the past couple of years I’ve been pretty much unemployed. Mainly I participated in medical studies while co-conspirator roommate sold her plasma. I had a job working for a place that did digital investigations on people that were accused of looking at child porn, but when I accidentally saw a picture of a little girl in her pink underwear over the shoulder of one of the other employees, I left and never went back. Continue Reading…

beauty, cancer, Guest Posts

Accessorizing

July 11, 2018
chemo

By Annarose F. Steinke

At first the jewelry takes me by surprise: chandelier earrings, layered necklaces, sequined infinity scarves that have no business in a room where store-brand cans of pineapple and orange juice are the only drinks served. A big show is made of giving these things ample space on tiny end tables alongside Dixie cups of Tylenol. Companions are ordered to remember these silver hooks and spirals once the session ends, and in the meantime, to keep an eye on the table should the items’ owners need to use the toilet. Simply standing up while making sure to lift the arm so that the wrist retains the IV and the IV stays attached to the machine that must be wheeled into the bathroom while managing the door lock with the free hand, all while the first dizzy spell begins (no, thank you, I can manage) is such an all-consuming task that asking after your Alex and Ani bangles set in that moment is out of the question.

I used to wonder why they won’t leave these things at home, but now I know why all of it must be worn, even if only in the lobby. I recognize the sigh from the woman two seats down as she uncoils ropes of translucent orange beads from her neck: it matches my tone when telling the scheduling coordinator to hold as I shake out receipts and crumbs and broken pens from three different purses when I could just as easily store the Medical Record Number card in my wallet with my driver’s license and the other items anchoring my everyday. Now I understand that “fighting cancer” does not mean doing certain tasks with gusto but refusing to grant others the time and care they’re supposed to deserve.

As for me, I wear my great-grandmother’s rose gold chain, its sharp rectangles falling just below my collarbone and exactly where a chest port would be if I needed one. My grandmother’s accompanying note reads “I want you to wear her things. NOW!” and I honor her demand. Wearing this chain, I grasp the concept of a “statement” necklace: this piece states that I’m not here long enough for a chest port, this searing jab to my wrist is truly a perk of this good-kind lymphoma, and the nurse is visibly annoyed at the extra work so my demeanor had better be accomodating since my small veins are not. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting

Leaning Into The Pain

June 27, 2018
nest

By Claudia Hinz

“Ooh, look at the babies!” my daughter exclaimed at dinner. I hurried around to her side of the table from which she had a clear view of the park outside. Over the years, we have all held to our assigned spots at the dinner table, although my husband has moved into my 19 year-old daughter’s chair since she left for college. The other seat, my son’s seat, has been vacant for a while, but I leave a fresh cloth napkin and a placemat for him.

The baby goslings tottered around after their mother who nosed them in the right direction of the water. The sun was low in the sky and my eyes are not what they once were, so the goslings appeared as electrified yellow balls. Cute, as my daughter pronounced, but also dangerous in their vulnerability. I knew that in mere days they would be transformed into gawky, unsteady juveniles, the cute baby stage left behind.

This morning, there is the smell of perfume in the kitchen. She has left but I still smell my daughter in here with me. It is her voice on our answering machine. A message recorded when she was probably in middle school, the voice of a young girl, my baby. She is now 18. She just voted in her first election and will be headed off to college in less than four months. Still, I can’t change the message. We never use the home phone, but I am reluctant to cancel the service because I cannot bear to lose my daughter’s voice on the machine. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories

Good TImes

June 21, 2018

By Sara Lippmann

It was the night Paul Pfeiffer came into the bar in Hancock. We’d been going to Good Times all summer, a corner dive in a ramshackle clapboard, baby blue, pulp exposed instead of siding, where the dirt met the road, where the railroad ran alongside the lumber mill whose raw planks stood out like Lincoln Logs in all weather desperate to be put to use, emitting that downed forest smell. Segments of the sign’s neon coil had blown so above the Genesee logo in the window it read GOD TIES, which felt right. Apparently you could rent a room upstairs, but the steps were barreled off with galvanized kegs, we were summer people, we poked tongues through pink sheaths of bubble gum, we weren’t about to cross.

Someone had a car, had legality, the rest of us had youth, a partial paycheck, and thirst. We had to be quick, quick about everything, the potholed parking lot, puddled dark roads, careening around the bends swerving for deer, over the rusted one lane bridge across state lines to the sour rot of mahogany worn soft and sticky from other people’s nights, then sling back for curfew, which meant we were in the car for as long as we were inside polishing off pints and embarrassing ourselves at pool. We were terrible. It didn’t matter. We were camp counselors. Let strangers stare.

Paul Pfeiffer wore a slicker on account of the rain, the yellow hood cinched like a periscope. It wasn’t raining that hard but he taught drama at a nearby camp, he told us, and what do you expect from the dramatic. I forgot his real name. It was Italian not Jewish. Same diff, he said, unzipping, twitching his damp nose. I played one on TV! and proceeded to recount Paul’s bar mitzvah in a halting nasal pitch, real generic like Baruch Ata Adonai. We were not impressed.

No way, we said. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, sisters

Rebuilding

June 6, 2018
sister

By Bernadette Martonik

From the couch in her office, I can hear my younger sister, Michelle, talking to my mother, their voices muffled by one wall and the earplugs I am wearing.

“Berny was on drugs today,” Michelle says.

I scowl into the darkness. Nearly eleven pm and I have only slept a handful of hours in the last few nights, and for the record, I ingested no drugs or alcohol that day.

But there was plenty of drinking before today, plenty of group crying and my own overflowing emotions, simultaneously sharp as a pin prick and nebulous as a dream, the way I’ve learned life becomes when you are smacked in the face with unexpected death.

My sister has lived in California for nearly six years and despite the fact that I’ve been invited, I’ve never visited before. The rest of my family has left Los Angeles for their respective homes in the Pacific Northwest, and my mother and I are the last two left. We aren’t ready to leave Michelle alone after losing her partner just two weeks earlier. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, sisters

M45

June 4, 2018
sky

By Katie Duane

The first time I saw them was last winter,  just before dawn, outside of a yellow house with green shutters, not too far from Lake Ontario. It was cold, too early to be up, the sky a deep indigo when they registered at the edge of my vision. They floated perhaps thirty degrees above the horizon, a small cocoon of glittering lights, trapezoidal, a collapsed version of the Big Dipper.

Pleiades, I said aloud, not having realized that I already knew their name.

I drove to school that morning craning my neck skyward, trying to find them overhead while navigating the slippery darkness. I spent my free periods learning about the Pleiades instead of preparing for classes. I learned that the visible members of this cluster are called B-type main sequence stars. I learned that they are young stars, and that they won’t live very long because of their mass, because of how much hydrogen they must burn in order to sustain themselves. They are extremely luminous and hot and blue—it had not been the sky that gave them their color. In some ancient cultures, the ability to see more than six made one a good candidate to be a hunter.

But truthfully I didn’t really think much about the Pleiades after that first day I saw them. I took note of their place in the sky each morning when I got into my car, until they disappeared into the light of spring. I had no use for stars—my life seemed permanently stalled out. Nothing worked, despite repeated attempts to fix various parts, to restart, or reignite. I’d never had a harder time finding people I could connect with. I had not painted or written a poem in years. I spent every evening alone, watching reruns of my favorite TV shows. I had memorized all the lines—they were people I could predict, people I liked, people who would always be there. I spent most of my evenings with them. I spent every Tuesday from four to five with my therapist, weekends trying to make friends in real life, and once a month I’d drive an hour-and-a-half west to see the people I loved most in this world: my family. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts

Closet Shots

April 20, 2018
closet

By Adele Zane

Your father just shoved you into his bedroom closet and slammed the door, entombing you. You tell yourself to get a grip, but your ears still pound and your hands still clench. You pant through your nose, purse your lips, squeeze your eyes shut, and grit your teeth. You do all of this so your head won’t explode like a watermelon rifled against a wall. So what, you tell yourself, this is nothing. Why not view it as a refreshing alternative to his usual forms of discipline? This one beats a harried chase through the house till he corners you in the dining room where you drop to the floor and curl up like a pill bug.

His fancy eel skin belt, the buckle flying, raining down on your back and thighs. In fact, when you think back through the fifteen long years of your life, as far as his punishments go, this shut-in-the-closet one is easy. It hasn’t involved belts, wooden spoons, or yanking of hair. So get ahold of yourself, calm down, and above all, do not cry. He hates that. He says it’s manipulative and that he’s way too smart to fall for what he calls crocodile tears. Whatever that means.

It’s Saturday afternoon and time for his nap. No one in your family will want to wake him once he falls asleep. Even as a toddler you knew not to go near him when he slept, but if you had to, to wake him for a phone call or because it was dinnertime, it was safest to stand at the foot of his bed, and say, Daddy, Daddy, several times with increasing loudness. If that didn’t work, then you would touch his big toe lightly, recoiling fast so he couldn’t clobber you when he came up from his dreams, arms swinging at imaginary assailants.

You realize you could be in here for hours. The door doesn’t have a lock; you could open it if you wanted to, but you won’t and neither will anyone else. Now that you’ve calmed down, you better find some way to entertain yourself. You slowly turn around and move your arms like you’re doing the wave at a football game until you find the pull chain to the overhead light. You wonder if turning it on is against the rules of his new made-up-on-the-spot punishment. You decide to chance it and pull the chain, real slow so it doesn’t make a clicking sound. The bare 40-watt bulb illuminates two identically tailored pinstripe suits, one brown and one navy, from Roos/Atkins, his favorite store, and lots of work pants and shirts from Penney’s and Sears.

On the floor are his polished black dress boots and his dusty work boots—the ones he whistles for you to come and remove from his feet when he gets home from work. You quell the urge to kick his stupid shoes and yank his dumb clothes from their hangers because you know your father can go from charming to ballistic in less than a second without discernible provocation. This would be too discernable an act of provocation. You could go through his pockets—maybe there’s something interesting in them—but he’d know you looked, for he’s all-knowing or so he tells you and you can’t take that risk even though you doubt he would really know. You dare yourself to look in his jacket pockets anyway. Nothing much—a silver lighter, a toothpick, and a couple of pennies.

What is interesting is what’s lined up against the wall to your left, almost as tall as you are. Careful not to touch, you use your index finger to count them. There are a total of nine zippered cases of soft beige suede, each holding either a rifle or a shotgun. You don’t know what makes a rifle a rifle or a shotgun a shotgun. Is there a difference? You’d never realized he had this many, but then again, you’ve never hung out in his closet either. To your right are shelves he built. On the shelves are boxes and boxes of bullets and a pair of sheathed hunting knives. He’s got enough firepower to kill every deer, duck, and quail in the state of California, and maybe Nevada too. At least that’s what it looks like. He’s even got handguns nestled in boxes. You read their labels: .44 Mag, .357 Mag, and something called a 1911. Why the heck does he need all these? To sneak up on an unsuspecting pheasant? You think it’s extreme overkill to own so many guns and smile to yourself at your wittiness.

You hear the thwack, thwack of a tennis ball being hit back and forth. Your father, now lounging on his bed atop a faux fur bedspread the unnatural color of a teddy bear, smug in the knowledge that his oldest daughter is confined ten feet away, has resumed watching the Wimbledon finals, a match between Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. You hear him fire up a Camel no-filter. His chain smoking makes your family and your house smell like you all roll around in dirty ashtrays.

But back to the guns. He didn’t put you in here so you could peruse his gun collection, choose your favorite one.

For a moment you flirt with the fantasy of hurting yourself, but it seems too obvious a move given the situation. Too bad you didn’t pay more attention when he first showed you how to load his BB gun, then how to aim and shoot at the paper target he’d taped to a stepladder in the basement. A good starter gun he’d called it. You’d bawled and made it clear that unlike him, you weren’t interested in weapons or hunting or killing animals. Besides, your eyesight is so bad you didn’t even come close to hitting the target itself let alone the bullseye.

To kill time, you imagine the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, if you successfully loaded a gun, and managed to fatally shoot yourself in the closet’s three-by-six-foot space. Poor Misunderstood Girl Shoots Self Dead in Father’s Closet. Now you’re feeling sorry for yourself. How about Trapped Teenage Girl Shoots Self Because of Idiot Dad and Stupid Family. Your attempts at amusing yourself wear thin, and you collapse down to sit cross-legged on the cherry red shag carpet to wait him out. You cover your face with your hands.

You’re lulled into sleepiness by the sound of the television audience’s polite applause and the announcer’s soothing voice as he loudly whispers Love, Fifteen. Your dad’s rooting for Connors. You think Connors is a hotheaded jerk and hope he loses to the black guy Ashe. If your father knew you were dozing during your punishment, it would anger him even more. You don’t want to do that because he can be inventive. Besides his trusty belt, he has a dog whip for special-occasion infractions. It stings like hell and leaves the nastiest welts, worse than the belt buckle. He’s careful to hit you above your knees so the marks aren’t visible below your skirts, but his thoughtfulness doesn’t keep you safe at school. It’s against the rules to take your gym clothes into a bathroom stall to change, but you do it anyway. You don’t have a choice, you have to; you know instinctively that if anyone were to see your body, it would be too difficult and embarrassing to explain.

You imagine standing in front of your dresser and contorting your body in the mirror so you can count the multicolored welts that adorn your butt and thighs, fingering them gently, monitoring them day to day as they change from angry red to mellow yellowish purple. Proof of his unfairness or your uselessness. You’ve dozed off but wake up fast when you hear your mother’s voice. Maybe she’s come to remind your father you’re still in the closet.

“Manuel. Wake up. Ashe won, but Wide World of Sports is about to start or maybe there’s some soccer on. Want me to get you some Sanka?”

You’re happy Connors lost. Then you hear the jingle of the keys that hang from your father’s belt. A sound that elicits fear in your family because it tells you he’s coming but doesn’t telegraph what mood he’ll be in when he gets to you. The closet door opens before you can jump up to pull the chain and turn off the light. You pray he doesn’t notice.

“Had enough?”

He looks down at you on the floor. You look up, squinting against the daytime brightness. You pull yourself to a standing position using the ammo shelves as leverage. Your legs don’t quite cooperate. You remember to drop your eyes to the carpet because looking directly at him is considered a challenge to his authority. Yes, I’ve had enough, you tell him, because that’s what he wants to hear.

“Good, I hope you learned your lesson,” he says.

“Can I get back to my algebra homework, Daddy, please?” you remembered to say please.

He flicks at a speck of cigarette ash on the ratty terrycloth robe he wears over his work pants.

“Say sorry to your brother then go make me some Sanka. Not too hot, and don’t fill it too full either.”

“Yeah, say you’re sorry.”

You raise your eyes at the sound of your seven-year-old brother’s voice. Across the bedroom, he stands next to your mother and little sister, his arms folded across his chest like an angry genie-child denying wishes. You grit your teeth and take a deep breath through your nose, careful to keep your face blank. He is the worst brother anyone could ever have in your opinion, but you don’t want to sit in a gun-filled closet for the rest of your life so you apologize to him.

“I don’t believe you,” he says, tapping his foot for emphasis.

“That’s enough Mark,” your mother says, “she’s been in the closet for hours.”

You blink your eyes slowly and force your mouth into what you hope passes as an apologetic smile and try again.

“Really Mark, I’m sorry,” you say, “sorry I yelled at you. I just got to study.”

Your brother looks at your father, then back at you and states, “I can come in your room anytime I want.”

You admonish yourself to stay calm. Yes, your father shut you in the closet because you yelled at your do-no-wrong brother, interrupting an important tennis match, as well as your homework; however, this closet punishment trip wasn’t so bad, you handled it.

“Sure, anytime you want, Mark.”

He smirks with triumph.

You remind yourself that in three years you’ll graduate high school, you smile for real at the thought and head to the kitchen to try to make your father the perfect cup of Sanka.

Singer and songwriter Adele Zane was born in Brazil, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York with the fine artist Richard Rosenblatt and their rescued terrier, Wally. She has taken memoir writing classes at both FreeBird Writing Workshop and Gotham Writers Workshop.

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Awe & Wonder, Guest Posts

On Brothers and Other Solar Systems

April 13, 2018
brothers

By Jen Fitzgerald

Flagstaff, AZ feels like a place where it is safe to be in between. Maybe not between any two things as tangible as a wall and a bear, but in between way points, between jobs, between mountains, or in between a question and the possibility of its answer. The geographic placement of the city mirrors the position of Megrez, the star that marks the end of the Big Dipper’s handle; Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff then pouring into the deep bowl of the Hopi Nation and branching out into the entirety of Ursa Major.

Those from Flagstaff don’t stay in Flagstaff for very long without feeling some sort of way about it. The reasons are varied, but all seem to loop back into, “Flagstaff has got a lot of problems but it’s better than where I was.” I could like it there until it became too familiar. I could like it until the novelty wore off and I was the only stationary creature. I could enjoy the train coming through until the first fatality, the first near-miss I witnessed— until it solidified as a place where things happen.

There is much to love about this Dark Sky City, one of our rare 13 in the United States. The come as you may and are vibe is a holdover from the golden days of Route 66 and the Santa Fe Rail Line. Almost everyone there is from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is mostly Phoenix, with Tucson at a close second. This is a city that prizes movement—and I know what it means to move. Continue Reading…

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