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notes on not a memoir

Guest Posts, writing

Notes On Not A Memoir

October 2, 2016
memoir

By Janet Clare

The black hearse crossed in front of our car on the way to my first chemo appointment. “Think it’s a bad omen?” I asked my husband, “like a black cat?”

That was nineteen years ago so it wasn’t a portend of things to come. I was, and remain, one of the lucky ones. And, don’t worry this isn’t a cancer-survivor memoir. This isn’t even a memoir. I didn’t have a rotten enough childhood to write a memoir. Not perfect, mind you, but it wasn’t a locked-in-the-closet, raped-by-my-father, thrown-from-the car by a drug-addled-mother kind of upbringing. No alcoholism, no overtly deviant behavior. Misunderstood? Certainly. It was the ‘60’s. Everyone was misunderstood.

It was a time of long hair and dark clothes, of seriousness and hopefulness, unrest and social progress that we innocents thought would never end. The world was expanding and we thought it would go on forever, and ever better. A time when some of our dreams for a more civilized, humane and liberated country actually came true. We never imagined fifty years later it would all go to hell. It seemed impossible. But at some point our country put on the brakes to enlightenment and skid to a frightening stop. Then backed up and went the other way. But this isn’t a treatise on political angst, either. Continue Reading…

eating disorder, Guest Posts

Jumping, But Not For Joy

October 25, 2020

By Rebecca Portela

My senior year of high school started in the midst of my deterioration. I spent a lot of my time reading memoirs of women with eating disorders, while my mother read psychology books on understanding women with eating disorders. Our relationship was fickle, despite the fact that we both just wanted me to be healthy and didn’t know what was causing me to be in such distress all the time.

Thinness was just the side effect of my strict regimen of calorie counting, exercising, and sheer mania. It was simply an ongoing endurance test, and I constantly needed to push my limits. And I always took it too far. My personal record was a whole week without eating or sleeping. Because why stop at starving? Let’s add a side of delirium, too. I spent most of the time at a friend’s house doing jigsaw puzzles. We had taken over the dining room table and the living room floor. We eventually had to dismantle our least favorites to make room for new puzzle stations. I was quite proud of our specific strategy styles. I pulled out the corner pieces and the edges, and he immediately grabbed the two closest pieces and tried to make them fit together. Sometimes he would force them, mashing his thumb down on top of them, convinced that they belonged together. Without speaking, we made piles of same-colored pieces and designated them accordingly. Sometimes we would have to speak and say things like, Be on the lookout for a little hat with some gold in it. During smoke breaks, he sat at the edge of his pool and splashed his feet in the water. He’d take in a big drag and as he exhaled, he’d make definitive claims like I’m gonna move to New Zealand and become a welder. I walked around the edge of the pool, stepping in the exact middle of each tile and saying something like, Can I come with you? We watched the sun come up on the seventh day and, by then, the leaves on the trees were puzzle pieces with little bits of sky. My cigarette smoke made love with his on top of the pieces of puzzle sunrise. I blinked and heard my eyelid unstick from my eye, like fresh Velcro. I knew that he would never move anywhere and he knew I would never go with him. The freckles on his hands lifted off and popped like juicy bubbles, interrupting all the smoke sex. A wild laugh bounced around at the back of my throat and I threw up all of it with the rest of the emotions in my gut. My back was itchy, which was how I knew I was on the grass now, crying or laughing or screaming or puking.    

I fainted at school, and they called my mother to come and pick me up. She warmed up a can of soup that was in my pre-approved cupboard of “safe” foods. It was a soup called “Super Broccoli” and contained exactly sixty calories, and not much else. I waited until she left the room and dumped it down the garbage disposal. It wasn’t long after these periods of rebellion that my body kicked into survival mode and ate, whether I wanted it to or not.

This is where bulimia creeps out of the woodwork. Bulimia terrifies me because she is a slippery garden hose, whipping around in all directions and out of control. She is a gluttonous savage that devours everything in sight and then rejects it. She goes from zero to sixty to zero again in the blink of an eye. I did everything possible to kill that bitch.

I frequently turned to drugs and men when I couldn’t control my eating disorder. It was the only way to curb my obsession and compulsions, which were the actual root of my problem. After my first encounter with drugs, I craved the escape. I craved the insanity. I craved the feeling that nothing is real and so nothing really matters. I liked that my thoughts were turned off and that food wasn’t the focus of my existence. I was too busy being out of my mind. I didn’t have to care about anything.

My utter recklessness should have sent me to an early grave. As I peaked on one of my acid trips, I had a fleeting thought that a police officer, in the distance, suspected something. Or was that a tree? Speaking of which, I needed to get home to plant a tree because I needed to feel connected to the earth. Everything was connected. I was the earth. I was invincible. So I jumped in my car and played a very dangerous game called Driving Home on LSD, listening to “Eleanor Rigby” on repeat. Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for? All the lonely people, where do they all come from? It took me an eternity to drive the twelve miles from Coconut Grove to Cutler Ridge––two hours in real time. I didn’t even have a driver’s license at the time. My hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that they were throbbing and visibly pulsed in front of me. The traffic lights wore majestic tails that stretched out into the swirling neon signs of strip clubs and bars. The fusion of lights, honking cars, and the mysterious symbols on the dashboard was making it impossible to concentrate. A little lightbulb went off in my head every second, rapid fire, you need to push on the pedal, you need to push on the other pedal, now the other pedal again. It was exhausting and a little bit of an existential crisis. I’m still dumbfounded that I didn’t kill anyone that night.

The comedown was always the worst. My entire body was crawling with bugs that weren’t really there. They were digging into my skin and some even made it all the way into my blood, burrowing into my identity, taking over. I wanted to surrender to the creepy crawly bugs of sadness. I could feel myself giving up. I was losing myself.   

2002, eating disorder treatment, take two. The treatment facility tried to incorporate “real life” as much as possible, so that it wouldn’t be as difficult to transition back into the world upon leaving. We were assigned an apartment in a building with regular people. The first floor was the eating disorder floor and the second floor was the substance abuse floor. And the other ten floors were for normal people. Our roommates were also people in the program who vowed to follow an honor system and refrain from “behaviors.” One of my roommates came outside on our porch to join me for a cigarette. She scolded me for doing sit-ups in the middle of the night and told me to cut the shit or leave. The weird part was that I did actually want to get better, but my eating disorder had been with me for so long and had been what kept me company all these years. Little rebellions were all I had left. So I found myself doing sneaky little things just to feel the slightest bit in control. Every night I would slink into the kitchen when everyone was asleep and dump out some of my salad dressing and fill it with vinegar. By the end of the first week, it was 100 percent vinegar. I had never felt more pathetic. I decided to give recovery a real shot.

Each morning both floors boarded a bus that we called the Druggy Buggy, to head to the main building, where we spent most of the day in groups and individual therapy and met with our nutritionist. I was very expressive in group, writing allegories and poems about my eating disorder, comparing it to an abusive lover, a rabid animal, or even a parasite baby inside my womb. At night we would attend various Anonymous meetings around the area. Almost all of the women in the treatment center had issues with drugs and co-dependency, so we attended those meetings as well.

On my eighteenth birthday, I boarded the bus and smushed my face up against the window. I stared out at the traffic and chanted to myself This.is.not.my.life. This.is.not.my.life. Thisisnotmylife. A child in a car seat stared back at me from a car driving below. I forgot where I was for a moment and made silly faces, making the little boy laugh. I glanced over at the mother driving the car. She looked up at me and smiled. She became startled as she noted the words on the side of the bus, checked out the twenty other twig-shaped people inside, and sped off. I peered over the side and read: IN RECOVERY. It might as well have read: THIS BUS IS FULLA CRAZIES. HIDE YOUR CHILDREN.    

I stepped on the scale with the number facing away from me. My nutritionist frowned and scribbled some notes on my chart.

“What’s wrong? What’s happening?” I asked.

“We’ll need to up your fat intake by 50 grams. You’ve lost some weight,” she replied casually. That put me up to 120 grams of fat a day. Being a vegan, this meant I had to chug olive oil.

“This doesn’t make any sense. I thought we were supposed to be learning how to eat normally. Normal people don’t have a nice tall glass of oil with their dinner. Seriously, this is insane. I won’t do it. This is bullshit.”

    This particular treatment center operated very differently than any other facility I had experienced. They banned all sugar and flour from our diets and focused on a more whole foods approach. The idea was that sugar and flour were addictive empty calories. It was also one of the main reasons I agreed to admit myself. Ya know, before I knew I’d be doing shots of oil without a chaser.

The girls that were following their meal plan and maintaining their weight got special privileges. They got to choose between a thirty-minute run, an outing with a trusted pre-approved person, extended phone calls, or being able to come along on group field trips. I was doing really well and got awarded all privileges. As I sat awaiting my turn on our bowling outing, all that oil just didn’t seem worth the payoff.

For my unsupervised outing with my person, I chose my boyfriend, Jason, to take me to dinner. There was a vegetarian restaurant called Here Comes the Sun that I was excited to go to. I had never been to a fully vegetarian place before. He came to pick me up and we hugged for a long time. We hadn’t really spoken since I told him I had a problem, a problem so big that I needed to go to rehab for it. He was as supportive as he could be for someone he’d just started dating, but he didn’t really know how to proceed.

We started driving and the farther we drove from the center, the more antsy I got. What if we just ran away and never went back? What are they gonna do? I needed to rebel in some way. I had to take this opportunity.

“Pull in here,” I said, pointing to a cheap motel off the highway.

“What? Why? We have reservations. What are you saying?”

“C’mon. I miss you. It’ll be hilarious.”

He turned into the parking lot and we giggled wildly as we walked to the front desk knowing we would be checking out a few hours later. I giggled even more. I was skipping dinner. And going to get away with it.

The room greeted us with fragrant, stale must. The one working lightbulb strobed and hummed, leaving little to the imagination of what kind of sketchy meetings this room had seen. The motel bathroom was maybe once lime green, but now had a permanent brown film coating the walls. The shower curtain was decorated with cigarette holes. We looked at the floor and sat on opposite sides of the bed.

“You look well. How are you really doing though?”

The air conditioner dripped arrhythmically. 

“I’m good. Can we talk about something else?”

He started talking about his grandmother, who was sick but still had her spirit. He tried to visit her once a week. They always went to the same restaurant. And he always made the same jokes that she liked to laugh at. He told me stories of stupid things his friends had done over the weekend. I rested my hand on the unusually moist bed and immediately yanked it back to my lap. We were sitting in front of each other, like a jail call with the glass in between us. I was in jail and he was living on the outside and this wasn’t real life. The light flickered, making his face look like he might ask things like, Do you want to die tonight? I started to cry and he awkwardly moved over to me and put his arms around my shoulders. He smelled like fresh mint and cloves.

The week before I was discharged, my therapist had me write a letter to myself that she would send to my house six months later. I stared at the blank piece of paper and honestly couldn’t imagine what six months from then would even look like. Or what I would possibly want to read from my six-months-younger, in-treatment self. What wise words of wisdom could transcend the barriers of a possibly relapsed future me? Or a possibly flourishing me? Or a possibly deceased me, and my poor mother opening this now irrelevant letter from her then-alive daughter?

Bex,

Don’t fuck it up.

Seriously.

I stuffed the letter in an envelope and gave it to my therapist.

“That was a short letter.”

“Yep. Short and sweet.”

Rebecca Portela is a writer and speaker for human rights and animal protection in New York City. She specializes in the genres of psychology and comedy writing. She recently finished writing her memoir, Unearthed, where she uses her unique sense of humor to address difficult subject matters, including PTSD and sexual abuse. Her work can be found in Idle Ink magazine, Beyond Words (Queer Anthology), X-Ray, trampset, io Literary, Stone of Madness Press (inaugural issue), and elsewhere.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Nothing Fancy

August 25, 2016
grandmother

By Sheryl Rivett

I watch, face pressed to glass, as the rolling hills of Miller county Missouri give way to breathtaking glimpses of sandstone river bluffs. A cloying sweetness wafts through my parents’ open windows, and I watch my mother hold her hair back from the wind, her manicured fingers shiny and smooth. I feel as if we, my mother and father and brother and I, are adventurers traveling the world in search of twilight sunsets and golden apricots, not the mere four hundred miles that lie between our home in Northern Illinois and my great-grandmother’s home in Missouri.

Addie greets us, rooted in St. Elizabeth like an ancient tree with hardy, sprawling branches.

We relax into small town life. Days inch by in the way that summer days pass. I play on the lawn in front of Addie’s clapboard house, while my father packs and lights and cleans his pipe and talks to farmers and neighbors passing by. The dolls I assemble on the lawn were once my mother’s, Addie their caretaker. She keeps them tucked away in a cedar chest, only unpacking the dolls for a special occasion. She lifts the top of the chest to reveal their shining faces, excitement lighting her own face. There is a magic in playing with the dolls my mother’s own hands once tended, a magic that opens a portal to her girlhood, and it’s as if I am playing side by side with another little girl, a girl with perfectly curled hair and wide, questioning eyes. The little girl frozen in the black and white photographs in an album that sits on a bookshelf back home.

2008. In the middle of the night, chest pressure and a feeling of suffocation. My diaphragm is locked tight. I leave my four daughters in the middle of the night when I ride by ambulance to the local hospital. The swoosh of the blood pressure cuff, the cool oxygen in my nose, blood snaking through the plastic tube. An xray. Continue Reading…

Compassion, Guest Posts, Inspiration

Grace Notes

April 20, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Melodye Shore

As I rounded the last corner on my morning walk, I stopped to admire a flowering pink azalea. Dainty pink blossoms fluttered on graceful stems, lifted like ballerinas on the morning breeze. Winter was being nudged back into hibernation, and spring was doing one last dress rehearsal before taking center stage.

But my reverie was cut short.

The air was filled with the unmistakable whine of chainsaws, and the frantic chattering of displaced birds.

I raced toward my house, chased after the disembodied sounds until I found their source.

An army of gardeners surrounded the pepper trees in my neighbor’s yard, right behind my own. They stood sentry along our common fence, weapons raised, until my neighbor called out to them in broken Spanish. Chainsaws bit into bark–a steady, grinding noise–as one after another, amputated trees limbs crashed to the ground at the workmen’s feet.

My heart sank. Planted in the wrong spot, Brazilian pepper trees can be a bit unruly. Without pruning, they grow impossibly tall and unruly. They litter the ground with seedpods, and their gnarled trunks shed bark. They’re not indigenous to our area, and it shows. Even so, I love them. They provide shade during the hottest part of summer, and they offer sanctuary to the countless birds that, moments earlier, had taken to the sky, voicing their displeasure.

Hummingbirds patrolled the wooden fence, wings whirring as they dive-bombed the intruders. Mockingbirds hovered above emptied nests, and house finches fought in vain to protect their hatchlings. Homeless now, a pair of orioles took wing, a blur of sunshine that disappeared when they vanished.

I stared at a bald patch of sky, where leafy branches used to be, and I was overcome by a naked sense of vulnerability.  My heart ached for the birds—their sanctuary was being destroyed! But when the hacked-off branches teetered on the fence, and then collapsed into my yard like fallen corpses, my fingers tightened around my phone.

Now what? I asked myself. My neighbor and I were strangers— the fence, the trees that divided our properties also separated us from one another. I wouldn’t recognize his face, were I to bump into him at our local market, and I didn’t have his phone number.

So I called my sister, who lives 1000 miles away. “He’s killing them,” I sobbed.

“Wha–” The panic in her voice was palpable. But as I related the situation, blubbered on and on about dismembered trees and murderous gardeners, the urgency in her voice dissolved into relieved laughter, followed by sighs of relief.

“What can you do?” she said. “His property, his trees…I’m sorry, but I don’t know what I can do to make you feel better.”

So I called my husband. “You should see this!” I wailed. My eyes were blurred by tears, but I tried valiantly to describe for him the massacre as it continued to unfold.

Awkward silence.

“I wish I could help you,” he eventually said, “but by the time I get home from work, the damage will already be done.”

We ended our conversation, and in that hollow space between knowing and not believing the situation in which I found myself, I heard a still, small voice. It called me out of my panic, whispered the answer I needed to hear.

Share your concerns with the right person, it said. Speak up, while you still can. Continue Reading…

Dear Life., Guest Posts, Relationships

Dear Life: I Love, But Am Not IN Love.

January 2, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.

Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. Click here to submit a letter or email dearlife@jenniferpastiloff.com.) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Karen Lynch, who just had an essay on the site that was phenomenal. Read and share and comment and get Karen’s book here. Send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ‘em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy.

Well okay, maybe a little. Aren’t we all? xo, Jen Pastiloff, Crazy Beauty Hunter. ps, I will see you in Vancouver in a couple weeks! My first workshop there!

1798X611

By Karen Lynch.

Dear Life,

Here goes. I am in a relationship right now. I love this guy…but I’m not in love with him. My heart isnt where his is and I feel he wants to marry me (like right now) and I have told him I do not and will not get married again. He has a lot of growing up to do. I dont feel he is happy/loves himself.

There is another person in my life who every time I am around, he lights my entire body on fire. He’s the one who I feel has gotten to my soul! His actions speak so loud and clear, along with the signs I have seen nonstop since we have gotten to know each other better. The hard part is that we are coworkers, and my current boyfriend and I graduated from high school together 23 yrs ago.

I know where my heart lies, with the one who took it without my knowledge (if thats possible). I know he is the one, just not the right time just yet. When I had a vivid dream about a month ago, he came out west to be with me. And these vivid dreams I have ALWAYS come true. Though I dont have many of them, but when I do, they come true. He’s the one who seems to be able to handle my extreme independence. Time and patience are what it takes relating to relationships sometimes, that things happen when they are meant to.

I am not a babysitter for a grown man who can’t handle alcohol on weekends (current boyfriend). One who has an slept beside me for almost three weeks (one excuse or another). Who is afraid to get near me because my dogs get protective of me, and a lot more. I know what I need to do, just got to jump in and do it, even though feelings will be hurt no matter what.

Any advice/opinions will be appreciated.

Sincerely,

C. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Self Love

Hair Is More Than Serious Business: It’s Identity

June 26, 2022
hair

Long ago a friend handed me a book called Five Sisters: memoirs by five 19th-century Russian anarchists whose fierce idealism, at the cost of tremendous personal sacrifice and a certain cold-blooded willingness to commit murder, helped bring about the assassination of Tsar Alexander I in 1881. It was full of photos of these young women, dark-eyed and intense, with masses of dark hair. “They remind me of you,” my friend said. I was young, but no revolutionary—I couldn’t even watch violent movies. Still their single-minded, fearless gaze, conveying pure refusal, struck a chord. Even more: all that hair.

In 1958, my mother had made me cut my hair. I was twelve, about to enter seventh grade and, said my mother, to be grown up. I had gotten my period and begun wearing a bra, and she was following the rules of her time, place, and class, which decreed that becoming a woman meant cutting your little-girl long hair short.

I resisted—I liked my shoulder-length hair, straight but with a slight wave, and very thick—but she was determined that I be properly inducted into womanhood. She dragged me to what was then called the beauty parlor, where a peroxided stylist gave me what was known as a bubble cut, and I joined the ladies of the hair roller brigade under the dryer.

I was so miserable, hating my new bubble head, that behind my back my mother asked my friends to tell me it looked great. (They did in front of her but ratted her out later.) The worst of it was that I couldn’t grow my hair back and have what I had before, since after that cut it stopped being straight and became bushy and unmanageable. I had been inducted not only into womanhood but into a long struggle with pincurls, rollers, and hair spray, and later straighteners and French braids, none of which could tame it. I didn’t know that this change in texture was due to normal hormonal changes of puberty and would have manifested eventually anyway, so it felt doubly unfair.

In college, I learned from Glamour magazine that now, in the liberated sixties, a “girl” no longer had to cut her beautiful long hair when she joined the workforce, as long as she kept it perfectly polished and groomed. My hair was long again but it was too late. Hairdressers didn’t know what to do with it. Over the years I went from long to short to long again, always trying to make it behave against its nature. I fought my hair for decades.

In cutting it off, my mother was obeying the precepts of a faith practiced by women of a striving immigrant middle class. She revered Eugenia Sheppard, an enormously influential fashion columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, and her temple was Loehmann’s, a famous discount store where the labels were ripped out but discerning shoppers recognized quality brands by the linings. Her scripture was the laws dictating how a woman should be and dress and look in the 1950s and early sixties.

My parents, children of Russian Jewish immigrants, had made it out of Brooklyn into a spanking-new Long Island suburb, and like many others at the time, my mother wanted more than anything to be American. “Immigrants emulated what they considered to be upper class,” social historian Carole Turbin told me. My mother’s rules “related to class and assimilation, wanting to be a lady and be respectable.” A lady dressed formally (a dress, nylons, and in the summer, white gloves) when she went into the city; never left the house without makeup on; wore a girdle so her backside didn’t jiggle; and kept her hair cut and controlled. During a family road trip around 1960, we were stuck in Lincoln, Nebraska, for a few hours, wandering around downtown while my father took the car to be fixed. My mother fretted the whole time because she and I were wearing shorts, which according to her creed were inappropriate for a city street. How you dressed was who you were—not that you chose your clothes to express who you were, but that by following the rules you defined yourself as existing within specific boundaries. Parading through a city in shorts put us outside those limits.

She pressured me relentlessly to match her notion of how I should be. We fought over clothes she wanted me to wear: a lemon-yellow spring coat; a silk party dress whose bodice she had altered to be so tight that sitting down was uncomfortable. When I tried to refuse that coat she got really angry, and I think now that she was frightened by what might become of me if I didn’t fit the template. Like the Russian anarchists, I was rejecting rigid social constraints. But unlike them I had no philosophy pointing me toward an alternative vision.

My mother had sewn me beautiful dresses when I was little, and probably to imitate her, as little girls do, I started sewing on her basement machine, beginning with simple gathered skirts and progressing to complicated outfits. Like her too, I knitted. In college I knitted an entire dress while reading Jacobean drama from a textbook large enough to lie open on my lap. After college I got married, as so many girls did, largely because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. Living in Chicago the next winter, I went to Marshall Field every Saturday to join the yarn department knitting circle whose instructor helped me knit a tweed suit with cardigan jacket and pleated miniskirt. I still wear that jacket but every time I put it on I think of those afternoons when I could have been doing something else, and feel a vague discomfort.

But only recently did I seriously ask myself why I did all that sewing and knitting.  For I had no vocation for making clothing. I didn’t even particularly enjoy it. What I did have a vocation for—though nobody noticed, including me—was writing. My very first published work, around age 13, was a letter to American Girl magazine responding to a story they had printed. I had studied the published letters and deliberately imitated their gushy tone and quirky comment at the end. It worked, although now I ask myself why I didn’t just write in my own voice. Probably it never occurred to me that any voice I might have was worth listening to. But I date the origin of my writing career before that, to the moment I “flew up” (as the transition was called) from the Brownies to the Girl Scouts and decided that the writing badge was the only one I wanted. While I was too impatient (and still am) to be really skillful working with my hands, I have no trouble rewriting a sentence fifty times to make it perfect. So why did I spend all those hours at a sewing machine instead of a typewriter?

I want to say, because she cut my hair. Because in my mind hair, clothes, and the Russian anarchists are mixed up together. They’re all about identity.

*****

“If you are a Black woman, hair is serious business. Your hair is considered by many the definitive statement about who you are, who you think you are, and who you want to be,” writes novelist Marita Golden. And in different ways, hair was and is about identity for women of all skin colors. Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837­–98) was renowned for her extraordinary beauty and above all for the thick chestnut hair that fell below her knees. “If I were to have my hair cut short in order to get rid of an unnecessary weight,” she confided to Constantin Christomanos, who tutored her in Greek during the two or three hours required each day for her hairdresser to construct her heavy crown of braids, “the people would fall upon me like wolves”—as though her hair were what made her their empress.

A teenager I know created an Instagram self-portrait that began with a photo of her magnificent Afro puff. “I love my hair,” she explained. “That’s who I am.” Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes, “As a child I already knew that I possessed long hair that was trapped inside a short cut. I also figured out, as I got older, that I was a freethinker trapped within Orthodox Judaism, a feminist trapped in paternalism, a novelist trapped in the rules of my own rigorous academic discipline. My hair’s struggles have been my struggles.” Some women liberate themselves by cutting long hair short. Google “cutting my hair freed me” and you find many testimonials to this effect. But I say, with poet Honor Moore, “My power resides in the length and thickness of my hair, and I will never give it up.”

Many cultures see hair as a conduit of energy with magical and spiritual potency: thus Samson’s oath to God not to cut his hair gave him extrahuman power until Delilah tricked him and had it cut off. Marita Golden notes that for Black women, hair “is an expression of our souls.” Kelissa McDonald, a Rastafarian, told Allure, “For me, locs are almost an extension of my crown chakra energy. They act as antennas, you know? My hair helps me to discern the intentions of people, actually.” Melissa Oakes, a member of the Mohawk tribe, explained that her hair was waist-length because indigenous people “are the roots of this land, so these are our receptors that are connecting us with the land. It’s an old saying: The longer your hair, the closer connection you have to the earth.” No wonder twelve-year-old me didn’t want a haircut.

Empress Elisabeth also complained to Christomanos, “I am afraid that my mind escapes through the hair and onto the fingers of my hairdresser. Hence my headache afterwards.” I know exactly what she meant. I’ve always had the notion that my hair is so thick and unruly because I think so much. But unlike Elisabeth, I got headaches because my thinking energy stayed stuck inside my head. In any case, cutting the hair interrupts that life force, as happened to Samson—and, I would say, to me in that beauty parlor, just as the sexual and psychic energy of womanhood was waking up.

In her pioneering feminist book The Female Eunuch, whose central claim is that women have been effectively castrated, Germaine Greer defines castration as “the suppression and deflection of Energy.” In exactly this way cutting my hair severed my connection with my own identity and deflected the energy that could have been focused on writing into those hours at the sewing machine. My mother tried in myriad ways to force me into the mold of the perfect fifties female, but this one is the wound that left a scar. Unable even to imagine what I might choose to do, I fell back on what the culture and my mother were telling me I ought to be doing. While writing this essay I read and heard numerous stories of traumatic haircuts inflicted by mothers on daughters, motivated largely by wanting the daughter to fit into the cultural constraints required of females—the girdle we all wore.

***

My mother’s girdle mostly lived in a drawer because it was so uncomfortable she rarely wore it. But she never stopped trying to justify flouting the girdle rule, and her rationalizations never quite satisfied her. Probably this was why she never made me wear one. But for years I wore a mental girdle. The Russian anarchists went beyond refusing the limits that bound women in their time; they tried to destroy the stifling social order that oppressed everyone, in order to create a new society. I think I also perceived in them, dimly, a determination to achieve an authentic identity. And today I understand as well that refusal isn’t enough: one must go beyond that. For me it took years. When I saw their photos and felt that kinship, I was still at the beginning of an evolution. I had managed to flout my mother’s expectations, getting divorced, living alone, and working freelance. The moment I left my husband, I started to write. It didn’t end the headaches, but it got some of that stuck energy out of my head. I discovered that writing is when I feel most essentially myself. But it took my hair a while to catch up.

***

Unruly, wild hair disturbs people, especially on a woman’s head; thus Medusa was a monster who had to be slain by a hero. So the only thing most hairdressers I handed my hair over to could find to do with it was cut it off, so short that it couldn’t curl much—until I found Rose, a hairdresser unafraid of curls. I was still in thrall to the idea that my hair could only be managed if kept fairly short, but it now curled as it pleased all over my head.

In spring 2019, I let it get longer than usual because I was too busy to go for a cut. But it looked ok. Time passed and it still looked fine, so I let it slide a few weeks more. Then I asked Rose about keeping it long. “What you want is a curly shag,” she said, and gave me one. It looked fantastic. Just as important, it felt fantastic. I went home and let it grow some more.

Several inches later it dawned on me that I had my original hair back—my heavy, unruly mop—and that I loved it. I loved the feel of it—not just its weight, but the visceral sense that weight gave me that I was completely me again. Representative Ayana Pressley perfectly describes that experience in her video revealing that she has alopecia. About five years before, she says, “I got these Senegalese twists, and I feel like I met myself fully for the first time. I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh, there I am!'” For me it was mystical: I felt solider, stronger, braver, that I had attained a deeper level of being me. And it still looked really good. I saw that my tough curly hair only worked when it could be itself, and I had freed it to do that. It was a revelation to discover how happy I was to have it back, even though it took quarts of shampoo to get clean and half a day to dry. Rose’s cut was so excellent that my hair usually looked good no matter what I did with it. And if it didn’t, I didn’t care.

That, at least, was my theoretical position. Then the coronavirus put it to the test. The lockdown hit just before I was due for a cut. The hair salons closed. So for a while I had more hair than I ever bargained for. I retrieved hairstyles from my past: pony tail! French braids! Twists! What’s now called a “messy bun”—the only kind I could ever make, lucky for me it’s now an actual style. I unearthed my hoard of old barrettes and went to buy more, only to discover that they’ve mostly given way to clips. Ok, I got clips. And I found antique barrettes on eBay.

Then my partner and I needed masks, but masks were still hard to find. I never sew anymore, except for occasional utilitarian repairs, but I still have fabric scraps left over from garments I made long ago—not to mention my mother’s sewing cabinet, a neat little piece of furniture dating back at least to the 1940s that still contains some of her sewing leftovers. So I rifled through everything and came up with enough fabric and old bits of ribbon and ancient packets of seam binding to make two masks. True to form, I was impatient, so they looked rather slapdash, but they did the job. I took a certain satisfaction in retrieving those old skills, plus the whole process resurrected a weird feeling of connection to my mother—the past returning into the present, but on my terms.

When the salons reopened, I returned to Rose with still more hair and told her how much I loved it. So we kept it long, and I went home and watched it grow more, until its weight pulled barrettes out of place and and gave me a headache. Eventually we settled on shoulder length, manageable though not particularly neat. I no longer mind it sticking out wildly, though. The imperative to look “good” has slipped still further away, and I’m left with just the satisfaction of having my hair back—and owning myself.

Stephanie Golden is a book author and collaborator, book doctor, and journalist in Brooklyn, NY. Her books include “The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness” (University of California Press, a finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award) and “Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice” (Harmony Books). She also wrote 7 books in collaboration with experts, mostly on fitness and health. Recently she’s been writing essays.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Wordless Messages: Grief and the Power of Touch

January 23, 2022
massage

I missed how my massage therapist always began with cradling my head in his hands. How, when he placed his palms over my ears, my skull filled with the ocean of my whirring aliveness, smoothing some jagged places in my psyche into round pebbles.

During the year of lockdown, I missed getting massages. I feel a little embarrassed or even entitled saying this since I’m grateful that during quarantine I was with my girlfriend: I had someone to talk to and touch. But I deeply missed the specific kind of touch I received during a massage, and being removed from it for a year underlined something to me: therapeutic touch is unlike any other kind—it holds within it the capacity for deep connection to the self, since we are composed of all the experiences our bodies hold, everything both joyous and jagged, every embrace and every injury, papercut-small and fissure-deep. Our bodies remember everything, including what our conscious mind has let slip away.

There is a specific experience I carry in my body: I went almost ten years with much touch of any kind, except the perfunctory; I hold this story in between my ears, and in my lower back, along my arms, and sometimes in a tight spot in my jaw: when my mother died, I was fourteen, and my father had a breakdown that no one talked about. Up until that point, even though my mother was slowly dying of cancer, I had a fairly nice life: my parents loved each other, we lived in a nice, somewhat affluent suburb, my interests were nurtured, and I always felt safe in my home.

Then, my life snapped off from everything familiar, as if a neat and manicured path unexpectedly diverged into wilderness that I had to navigate alone. Then, my father couldn’t take care of me, of my sister. Then, I had to go to my first year of high school and my home became a place that simply housed the relics of a civilization that had crumbled around me. Everything seemed wrong, even the colors of my bedroom walls. Suddenly, everything felt too yellow.

For many years, I wanted affection so much that my skin ached. I started getting migraines. Every morning, when I was sixteen years old, I dry heaved into the toilet not due to any eating disorder, but because the fact of my physical existence in a world where I knew there was no one to hold or take care of me made me feel literally sick. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Even when I felt “better” later in life, I still carried this time in my body the way a tree holds a year of blight in a dark hollow ring.

I stumbled into getting massages after a bad break up in my mid-thirties. The first massage therapist I saw, Stephen, was part of my queer community, and while other massage therapists had dug elbows into places that felt too tender, Stephen asked for what I needed before I got on the table. When I said I had PTSD and needed him to be gentle, he gave me the first massage that didn’t hurt, that I didn’t grit myself against, crying uncle. He seemed to understand: taking my first layer of protection off, all my clothes, except my bottom underwear, was an act of trust. “I’m going to listen to your breathing,” he said. “I’m going to make sure you’re ok.” As he wrapped the sheets and blankets around me near the end of that first massage, I felt deeply warm, and I let my head fall into his hands. I began going to see him every month for four years, and I found myself transformed: talk therapy had helped me, but massage soothed places words couldn’t touch. My body felt like someone had extracted an invisible burden from my body. I kept looking back into the train car as the subway doors closed, convinced I had left something heavy behind.

When I tell someone that I typically get a massage every month, they often looked confused or even judgmental. I don’t make much money, and massage has been branded a luxury, one doled out in spas only the wealthy can afford, and this is often the case. Even though I’ve been lucky because the massage therapists I’ve seen have worked out of their homes and operated on a sliding scale, a situation that benefits us both, I have paid around $75-100 a session.

But Massage is, as every book on it states, the oldest form of healing, and has gone by many names over the span of recorded history: rubbings, friction and unction, anatripsis, which translates to “intensive rubbing” in Greek. Only the recent century has demoted massage to empty pampering at best and sketchy sex work at worst. American and British Nurses in the late 1800s through the 1930s trained in and practiced massage. During WWI, nurses treated soldiers with massage for injuries and “nervous disorders” caused by the traumas of war. Medical professionals viewed massage as a “basic comfort” practice, and even famed nurse Florence Nightingale massaged patients and trained other nurses in what was deemed a valuable medical practice.

But by the mid-1930s when pharmaceutical solutions such as aspirin and morphine presented themselves, and it was less expensive to give someone a pill than it was to train a nurse in massage. Pushed from traditional medicine, massage parlors proliferated, and “happy endings” cast a lascivious light on the practice. Massage became either a form of sex work or a “complementary” healing modality.

I believe massage could be a more widely used practice, one that could benefit many, especially those who have gone through trauma, and while the pandemic continues to impact disenfranchised groups more than others, every single one of us will be continuing to deal with the stress of a pandemic, and we will likely continue to have periods of isolation, and with it, many will have to cope with a lack of touch.

In the year of no massages, I found myself taking more pills than I have in a long time: I washed countless blue over the counter anti-inflammatory pills down, hoping they wouldn’t eat away at my stomach lining. I diminished my supply of prescription muscle relaxants, the ones I save for when I feel as if I’m about to become immobilized, which happened far more frequently. When I feel a relaxant begin to bloom in my body, my muscles release as they do in massage. But I never feel better the way I do after a massage. I never wake up the next morning feeling like I’ve been rocked to sleep, like the hurt animal part of me has been sung to, like the music of my pulse has shifted.

There is something a pill isn’t offering me that a massage does: a human connection.

After my first massage therapist moved away, I worried I wouldn’t find someone I would connect with in the same way I had with Stephen. After I saw a few practitioners I didn’t quite click with, I found Josh on a queer community listserv. Like Stephen, Josh exuded a deep patience when he worked on me, and he listened carefully with his hands. I began to notice the distinct difference between being worked on by someone I saw just once and someone I bonded with over time. I’ve been seeing Josh for years now, too. Once when we sat together chatting after he had worked on me, I asked him if a client’s breathing and his would sync up during a massage. I’d been reading about circumstances that cause humans to fall into a kind of sync together; if people sing together, their hearts beat together, too. He thought a moment, and said, no, not exactly, but if a massage was going well, usually the person being massaged would breathe in a kind of unconscious call and response with him.

In her book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, science journalist Jo Marchant explores the potency of human connection through examining what we think of as the placebo effect. She cites a study from Dr.Ted J. Kaptchuk, who performed “fake acupuncture”—acupuncture that didn’t follow the traditional meridians used in the treatment—to two groups of patients (one control group was given no treatment at all), the first group were given treatment by a “cold but polite” practitioner, and in the second group, the patients were treated by a warm practitioner who sat with them, and talked with them for 45 minutes before being given placebo acupuncture. Neither group received any other treatment for the primary complaint which was IBS. 44% of the patients treated with the placebo style acupuncture felt better, but Marchant reports that the patient’s experience of wellness shot up to 62% when offered care from a warm practitioner which was “as big an effect as has ever been found for any drug treated for IBS.” She notes that “If an empathic healer makes us feel cared for and secure, rather than under distress, this alone can trigger significant biological changes that ease our symptoms.”

In another study, done at Berkley, where researchers discovered that social messages could be communicated through touch with near lighting-fast speed. This of course makes sense since touch is our oldest form of communication, older than stories passed between us through language, much older than paper, or even marks carved into stones or animal bones, perhaps older than singing. Some anthropologists wonder if touch, specifically the kind of touch that releases oxytocin, the chemical released through bonding like breastfeeding, set our evolution in motion, making us a species capable of doing all the above.

Once Josh pressed a spot on my lower back and I tensed because sometimes when something hurts, I find myself unable to speak—I just freeze. But immediately I felt his hands respond, with a soothing message I can’t quite translate into language. It was this exchange, the feeling of being listened and responded to with such care, that felt so profound, perhaps even more so since it happened without either of us saying a word.

For a while I kept mixing up the word message and massage, constantly misreading the word “message” as “massage” or typo-ing message when I meant massage. I realized that massage has offered me a way to receive a wordless message my body has needed, on repeat, one that echoes in my skin and bones and muscles, in my breath and blood, one that tells me: even if my father couldn’t give me the comfort I needed when my mother died, other people will be there for me, and my community would be there for me.

There’s no doubt that I tend to choose male-presenting therapists since the hurt animal part of me grieved the loss my father as he lived, a ghost of himself; I mourned the father who was a gentle plaid mountain I climbed, who read me all the chronicles of Narnia, who made me and my sister heart-shaped pizzas. The death of my mother was one trauma–the loss of my father while he continued to sit on the couch staring at the wall was another. I struggled to hold the latter, the ambiguous grief of it, even more than the death of my mother; there was only a funeral to acknowledge one of these losses.

Through seeking this particular form of healing, I have gotten better at holding my history in my body. I’ve gotten better at holding the past in one place in my body while I moved forward; changing how I held my body, loosening its tensions and habits, made me a person who could hold the past while keeping my feet in the present. I got better at forgiving my father, even though neither of us ever brought up the past in conversation. My father got better too: he happily re-married, sold his business, and retired to a life of collecting ship replicas in a house a short drive from the beach.

This past July, I was standing alone in my kitchen when my stepmother called to tell me my father had died suddenly that morning. And so I found myself alone again as one of my parents died. I longed for my people—I longed for my girlfriend, who was waiting for me in rural upstate New York as I prepared to move from Brooklyn, I longed for my stepmother and the family I still had left alive; I longed for my friends, but I also longed for the person who had given me a source of comfort in other stressful times: my massage therapist, or put another way, despite the cheesiness the word has gathered over the past decades, my healer.  I longed for my healer to cradle my head in his hands as I learned how to live with my father’s sudden death, as I learned how to hold this new reality in my body.

The longing for my healer, and even calling him this word, felt strange, even embarrassing, but we have no real word in American English to contain this kind of therapeutic relationship: one that technically involves a service, and yet, much like therapy we seek out for our minds, is imbued something more, something deeper and elemental.

Today, we are only beginning to break the taboo of even talking about the essential human need for touch, and it seems we only have these conversations under extreme circumstances. As the pandemic continues, I hope we can talk more about the need for touch. I also hope we can also seek out therapeutic touch if we need it. I hope that, in time, perhaps massage can be seen as what it is: a healing practice with potential far beyond what we have imagined. I hope that if massage can be witnessed in this way, perhaps, it can be covered by all insurances, so it could become more accessible. And no matter what, I hope we can all feel less embarrassed to seek out a therapeutic space for touch when we need it.

Kat Savino holds an M.F.A. from Columbia, and wrote a brief personal essay about how massage helped her heal from trauma for Narratively; She has been researching this practice for many years and is currently working on a long hybrid memoir that fuses art history, psychology, and neuroscience to explore the need for touch, and the trauma of abandonment, and how healing is possible. Kat has also published essays in Ravishly, Apogee, Marie Claire, Belladonna: Matters of Feminist Practice, The Los Angeles Review, and Prism International, where she placed third in their nonfiction contest.

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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.

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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.

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Guest Posts, Marriage, memories

The Summer We All Got Married

July 31, 2021
wedding

by Larkin Warren

Eight of us were wed that summer of 1981. Each of the four engagements had come about during the previous bone-crackingly cold New Hampshire winter, although I’d like to believe that all the troth-pledging was more about love and joy than the need for warmth in icy weather.

We lived then in a university community, where marriage itself was subject to flinty-eyed skepticism—three of us eight to-be-marrieds were divorced, with kids in tow and wedding albums long lost in an attic or cellar. Nevertheless, as mud season passed and the lilacs appeared, we all prepared to take a plunge that seemed to grow ever more traditional as the days went by. Gathering on weekends, we ate pints of strawberries, pounds of brie, drank more Champagne than was customary on a teacher’s salary, agonized over venues and budgets, and complained, of course, about our parents—because what’s a march towards a wedding without that?

Coincidentally, another couple, first-timers both, planned a similar event. Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding would be larger, certainly, than all four of ours combined; her engagement ring big as a Volkswagon headlight, the invitation list and seating chart more complicated than the annual gathering of the UN General Assembly. We guessed that Diana’s and Charles’ whole coping-with-the-parents thing resembled rolling a large power mower over a hornets’ nest. We tried to envision the monogrammed thank-you notes, the writer’s cramp. “Ha!” somebody grumped. “Not likely she’s writing them herself!”

Whether Royalists, Fenians, or flat-out cynics, we refused to begrudge them the royal circus and the related hoopla. We were all determined not to be cynical that summer. They were in love, we were in love—and when you’re sufficiently love-addled, Frank Sinatra is forever crooning in the background, every sunset is peach perfection, and it’s an easy if somewhat wacky leap to emotional kinship with the future King and Queen of England.

By the day of the royal wedding, our own four weddings had been achieved. All our kids were in embarrassment recovery and all the wedding-cake tops (two organic from a local farm store, one eight-layered from a fancy caterer, one Mom-made) were stashed in fridge freezers, to be thawed and eaten at the first anniversaries. And so it was that on July 29, each new married couple, bleary-eyed and feeling more than a little sheepish, rose at dawn, fired up the coffee and joined teams of gushing TV network anchors and the billion other guests at the Spencer/Windsor wedding.

Feminism, pragmatism, and reality checks notwithstanding, it was difficult at first not to think in fairy tale terms as the veiled girl, swathed in an acre of virginal silk, arrived in the golden coach, glanced shyly up at her prince, and Bach rang throughout the cathedral; we were, after all, the first generation of Disney-movie kids, brought up on princes, princesses, and happily ever after, even if Ms magazine and Our Bodies Ourselves sat on the bookshelf next to a Virginia Woolf novel and somebody’s dissertation on the various psychoses in Grimms’ fairy tales.

It did occur to me, however, that if we dropped a nickel into the piggy bank every time a commentator actually used the words “fairy tale,” we might make a sizable dent in my son’s tuition savings account. “Why doesn’t he just grab her and kiss her?” asked said son with a medium measure of disgust, having witnessed many other silly grownups do precisely that for weeks.

A month or so later, my husband’s parents returned from a vacation trip to the UK with gold-trimmed souvenir royal wedding cups, one for my sister-in-law, one for me. I kept mine on the kitchen counter for a while, ceremoniously using it whenever I drank tea, silently begging forgiveness of my paternal grandmother, who’d secretly funneled her pension money to the Irish Republican Army. My sister-in-law used hers briefly as well, then stowed it away for safety after her two kids were born.

By the time little princes Wills and Harry were making shiny appearances in People magazine, our Summer of ‘81 group numbered three babies, two divorces, a few rounds of infertility treatments and a couple of complicated midlife career adjustments. At that point—pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-cell-phone cams in every hand around the world—we didn’t know about the mistress, the affairs, the drama worthy of Bizet’s Carmen. We didn’t know that Diana had flung herself down a flight of stairs in a bid for Charles’ attention, although one or two of us might’ve understood. I surveyed my own castle—eggy dishes in the sink, two dogs who ate shoes as if they were kibble, the husband who worked all hours, and the moody adolescent who painted Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover on his bedroom wall—the entire bedroom wall. “A lady in waiting would be nice,” I muttered.

Time kept passing. Parents aged and died. Kids grew up, friends moved away. Somebody’s son flunked out of college, another joined the Navy, a daughter eloped. Soon, we were all linked only by Christmas cards with ever-changing zip codes. Somewhere in there, the UK fairytale went all to hell.

On the last day of August 1997, the Princess of Wales and two others in her car died in an automobile crash whose grisliness was surpassed only by its agonizing stupidity: the drunk limo driver, the frenzied pack of paparazzi, the dying woman pinned like a butterfly in a shadow box.

A week later, I once again rose at dawn, heading for the television and feeling grim. For breakfast, I ate an entire box of Peek Frean lemon biscuits (with the “by Royal appointment” seal on the box), and drank Earl Grey in the gold-trimmed wedding cup. I don’t even like Earl Grey, and I had no doubt my IRA Granny spun in her grave. There again was the cathedral and the soaring music. Some of the faces were recognizable, all of them were older. “I thought I’d feel like an idiot watching this,” said my husband, who joined my vigil late and under protest. “But I don’t. I’m actually sad.” We both agreed that Sir Elton John could’ve used a couple of second thoughts.

That afternoon, my sister-in-law called, tired and teary. “I stumbled all over the place in the cellar this morning,” she said, “hunting for that damn teacup. Scraped my shins on every toy my kids have ever owned.”

I told her about her brother’s unexpected sadness, about my lemon-biscuit breakfast. We tried to figure out what it was that we were feeling, why someone and something that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with us seemed, suddenly, to have everything to do with us. For her, a mother of very young children, it was the unimaginable sorrow of two boys walking behind their mother’s coffin. For me, it seemed somehow about the sun-burnished wedding summer, the strawberries and champagne, the blind hope and optimism, and the friends whose lives and loves we had shared. We’d made promises. Mostly, we’d kept them “The odd thing is, I think I feel grateful,” I said.

“Me, too,” she said. “For the junk in the cellar. The dirty laundry. Even the old Barney videos.”

How often, in the frayed ribbon of a lifetime, do lovers and friends, husbands and wives, parents and kids, do wrong, disappoint, betray, yet somehow manage to start over? What’s the score now, as we pass another anniversary and roll however clumsily towards the next? My son, when he was little, had a term for the number of stars in the sky: “infinity many.”

“Most of all,” said my sister-in-law that long ago morning, in a very soft voice, “I’m just thankful for my completely ordinary life.”

Larkin Warren lives in northern NH. She has collaborated on six-and-a-half memoirs, is writing one of her own, and her poetry’s been published in Mississpipi Review, Ohio Review, Yankee magazine, Slow Motion Review (NYU), Quarterly West and others, She is currently owned by a mini Aussie shepherd rescued from a NYC kill shelter. Her poetry chapbook, Old Sheets, was published by Alice James books (Farmington, Maine) in the previous century. Her essays have appeared in New York Times magazine, NYTimes op-ed page, AARP magazine, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Salon,  and others.

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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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Books, Guest Posts

Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of Second Chances by Diana Kupershmit

June 27, 2021
emma

We first met Diana Kupershmit in 2016 when she published an amazing essay on our site. This is also when we first met Emma. Emma is Diana’s first child, and she was born with a rare genetic disorder that left her profoundly physically and intellectually disabled.  Diana’s description of life with Emma was moving and her essay, Motherhood, Art in Motion, gave us a sense of what it meant to care for a special needs child. This week, the bigger story of Diana and Emma was published by She Writes Press and we are thrilled to be a part of it her journey!

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 essay here, order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org. And enjoy the excerpt below.

From Emma’s Laugh, the Gift of Second Chances, By Diana Kupershmit

EVERY CHILD CHANGES YOU IN different ways,” wrote Lauren Slater in her memoir, Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother. Hanna was my artistic muse. She manifested my dreams of performing to an audience whose approval and praise I inherently sought, ever since my grandmother Manya took me around to sing and  collect sweets that would be responsible for my teeth-decayed smile. I lived vicariously through my youngest child, collecting accolades as if they were my own, because they were a product of my relentless encouragement to nurture her natural talents.

Joshua was my sweet boy, tender of temperament, generous of his love and   unconditional acceptance of me even as I struggled to reign in my perfectionist tendencies. He was smart, witty, funny, and perpetually happy, with confidence that I could only recall nostalgically before it shattered in adolescence.

Emma was the fulcrum upon which I teetered. She was my perfectly imperfect child, my teacher, my sage, and I loved her more for it. She elevated to the surface my worst fears and perceived flaws and shed light on them so that they no longer had the power to possess me, to threaten my existence. By casting the focus on her care and well-being, Emma relieved me of the burden of self-obsession, to be perfect and lead a perfect life. I was less a prisoner to others’ judgment and no longer succumbed to the anxieties that so mercilessly plagued my psyche in years past. It was as if by taking on my pain, she freed me of my existential wounds, just as I had wanted to do for her all those times she hurt.

From Emma, I learned there is beauty in the unspoken words, in the actions of implied determination. In all the ways that she had communicated her wants and needs, the unconditional love her uncooperative body housed, which I had first seen as not whole and now saw for what it was, a concerto of desires, a lightness of being I could only dream of, an existence dictated by a  connection that surpassed body and spoken language, that surpassed all that limited her. She was freer than I would ever be: free from judgment, free from psychic pain, free from all the suffering I imposed on myself in a world of rules, conditions, and expectations.

Emma helped me navigate the tangled pathways of my heart and rearranged it. From her I learned that sometimes you find beauty where you least expect it. In her, I found beauty and wisdom and grace. This little girl, who in my youthful ignorance I believed was broken, had healed me.

Because it was me that was broken all along. She was always the whole matryoshka, at the center of the nesting dolls. My mission, once I chose to accept it, was to move through the extra layers of myself, through the other matryoshkas nested in different versions of myself, to get to the heart, the soul, the epicenter of everything that was perfect and forgiving and whole about me. And that was Emma. She lingered patiently until I found her, found myself.

Diana Kupershmit is a social worker for the Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene, in the Early Intervention program, a Federal entitlement program servicing children birth to three, with developmental delays and disabilities. She has published on-line in The Manifest Station, Power of Moms and Motherwell Magazine. On the weekends, she indulges her creative passion working as a portrait photographer, specializing in newborn photography, but also family, maternity and event photography. 

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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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.

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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!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

aging, empty nest, Fiction, Guest Posts

Overexposed

April 30, 2021
new car overexposed

By Karen Mandell

Before she left us for North Carolina, Marie told us that the wife moving in was recovering from a stroke. Great, Dalia said after Marie went back inside to her packing, she’ll die here. We gasped, shocked, but I knew it was inevitable, especially when I met Cath some weeks later.

George, the husband, said they’d come from California. Then why come to Massachusetts, I asked him, the early November day already dreary. I have three sons, he said, one in California, one in Missouri, and one here. I waited for him to go on. And my only grandkid is in Reading. A ten-year-old girl. Of course, I said. One town over. We were mostly like that in this complex—downsized middle-agers with young family nearby. They were a few single women here, five of them. One couple got divorced soon after they moved in, right before my time. The others had never married.

I met Cath once, though the signs of her presence were evident—a ramp from the garage to the back door, guys taking measurements for a ramp to the front door. When I met her, they’d just driven into the garage. No packages, so I supposed they’d come from a doctor’s appointment or a drive around the neighborhood. We were still at that stage—exploring the almost rural North Shore with its country roads and small ponds. Practically a different state from Boston and its suburban environs, its diverse restaurants and neighborhoods, its strip malls on Route 9 and Bloomindales-esque shopping centers.

I figured that since their garage door was still open, I’d run over and introduce myself. Cath, still unsteady after her illness, was arm and arm with her husband. Her hair was rough and her coat was half buttoned and studded with leaf bits. I felt sorry for her, a surging liquidy feeling, and more generally sorry for George. This hapless woman needed more care than her husband was able to give her. I walked to the back of the garage with them, almost to the ramp. “I need the ramp because of my eyes,” she said, and I looked at her gray eyes behind the smudged glasses.

“You need the ramp for more than that,” George said. I knew he wanted me to go, and I did. I did feel like voyeur.

It was a quiet complex, and it was a couple of weeks before I talked to his next-door neighbor, Gloria. I prodded her a little about the new neighbors. “She fell down a couple of times,” Gloria said. “She’s at a nursing home now.” She didn’t know when she’d be coming home. In the following days, I saw his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter pull into the driveway and go inside. After the next couple visits, they brought their new puppy, a French bulldog that looked stuffed into its fur. I liked the fact that they had a small periwinkle blue car, a little Datsun, which belied the image of suburban family so prevalent in Newton, our old town.

When our daughter Willow drove over (from Wakefield, the town next-door—the reason we’d moved thirty miles north) I told her about Cath and the nursing home. Seven-year-old Hailey was making snow angels on our little strip of lawn, and I didn’t think she was listening. Well, I hoped she wasn’t listening because I wanted to talk to Willow about our neighbors. But of course she was. “What’s a stroke,” she said. “Like a stroke of luck?” Hailey had a good vocabulary and was very nosy. I liked to think I was exactly like her as a child.

“It’s a sickness,” I said. She’s resting and getting better.” Hailey looked at me. I could tell she was assessing her own health. “Could I get it?” she said, fear scrunching up her nose.

 “Of course not,” Willow said. “It’s for old people.”       

“But then will Bubbie get it or Papi?”       

“No, no. They’re not that old and it’s not that common.”

 “Let’s go across the bridge to the wetlands,” I said. What a grandma I was. My mother would never talk about others’ illnesses in front of the kids. And cancer was never cancer but C. And then my own grandma said kaynahora, meaning keep the evil eye away. “Maybe we’ll see a coyote.” I said.

“Will they bite,” Hailey said, excited.    

“Only if they’re worried about their children,” I said. At least they were good mothers.

A few days later Gloria sat outside on her front step, enjoying the early winter sun. A good chance to ask her about Cath. “She died,” Gloria said, whispering though no one else was outside.

“I had no idea,” I said. “I haven’t seen George.” Not that I knew him well enough to ask him anything. A few of his activities were obvious just from looking out the dining room window: golf, food shopping of course, a walk through the complex, bringing back the mail from the mailboxes stacked at the front of the complex. He liked to wash his new car, having trading in his small Lexus for a larger NX. Insurance money, I decided. In fact, I’d said a few words to him the other day, you’ve got a new car. Yes, he answered, smiling.

 And then the workmen started coming, dragging large boxes out of their trucks. New appliances, fridge, stove, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer. Naturally all the condos had come with appliances, moderately priced, acceptable brands. But these new ones were high end, European, six burner stovetops, Viking and Bosch. I could tell by the cardboard containers, broken down and tied up on trash day. I talked to one of the workers. “He’s doing some work,” I said. Casual. A whole new kitchen, he told me. I was glad to get that much out of him. I would have loved to see inside, but that was impossible. I almost never saw him. It was cold, people were inside, socializing was practically nil.

Next to his driveway there was a patch of grass, then a two-car parking area meant for guests. A fairly new Subaru Forester began parking there, nicely washed, clean and spiffy inside. Sometimes the car was gone, but it always came back, though I never saw its driver. Someone’s guest. Not that that black car was the only outlier—adult children of the condo owners came and went with their children. No one under fifty-five was entitled to live here, but with jobs lost, rental prices high, parents took in their children and grandkids and dogs. Like the other condos, our dining room windows looked out onto the street, if you could call it that, more like a paved pathway. The developers hadn’t bothered to name the roads, so only our houses had names—or more accurately, numbers. No Mount Isabel or Clotworthy House here—just 43 (us) or 31 (George the widower across the street).

Sitting at the dining room table, reading The Globe, I figured out who owned what cars here. Because the mailboxes were at the front entrance of the development, I watched the residents walk down and back and take strolls with their visiting friends. Once when we were sitting down to Morty’s veal stew, he said, “You don’t have to get up every time someone walks by.” I hadn’t realized my behavior was so obvious, but there I was peering out between the slats of the closed blinds.

     “I was just checking the weather,” I lied. It wasn’t an outright lie because I do check the weather every time I look outside. When I was a teacher, one of my students told me I was a weather person. I thought that was a wonderful compliment, though I’d been mad at him earlier for playing with a koosh pencil topper in class. I’d taken it from him and put it in my desk. When he asked for it a few days later I said no. I liked it myself and wanted it. Some years later I heard he’d gotten engaged but committed suicide. I put the stringy ball on a top shelf and left it. I found it recently and briefly considered giving it to my granddaughter, but it had too many bad connotations. Did I prod him to committing suicide, like the last tiny breeze that makes the piggy’s straw house fall down? Like chaos theory, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Don’t act like I have nothing else to do,” I said. I opened my mouth to list them, all my activities, but Morty counted them off for me.

“Your reading, your newspapers, your piano playing.” He held up his hand so I wouldn’t stop him, “Poetry writing, your houseplants.”

“And I’m thinking of taking up painting.” Morty is a painter plus he does his leadership training from home. He nodded showing his potential interest.

“Actually,” I said, “it’s paint by numbers but it’s for adults. I saw it on Etsy. Lots of colors and tiny spaces to work on. Copies of the great masters.” As soon as I said this, I knew I couldn’t possibly do it. Thank goodness I hadn’t ordered anything yet. I need something to suck me in, a novel by Elisabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, where nothing really happens and you don’t have to follow a plot. Although I do love mysteries where the bodies pile up but the gore quotient is low.

Morty cut a couple of pieces of the good sourdough you can only get in Brookline, thirty miles away. I know that because that’s how far we moved to get closer to the grandkids. After twenty years in the old house. “I wonder how George across the street is doing. Do you ever see him to talk to?”

“When he’s been out washing his car now and then. Not since it’s got cold.”

“Maybe he’s joined a church and has friends there,” I suggested.

“Churches aren’t open yet. Are they? He gets the paper. That must take some time. You have noticed that the paper’s getting skimpier and skimpier.”

“I don’t like being aware of that,” I said.

“Anyway, I’m sure he’ll be fine. As much as the rest of us. His granddaughter and the puppy must lift his spirits.”

When Willow called, I asked her if I was having a delayed reaction to Sapphie. She’d died at sixteen last summer. I didn’t cry—I’m not a crier unless there’s a strand of tenderness in a book or some heart-tugging in a movie—but I missed her and her constant padding after me.

“You’ll take care of our dog,” Willow reminded me. Their Tibetan terrier puppy would hopefully be born in the summer—if the mother got pregnant. The breeder had tried once. They didn’t know yet if it took. Nothing was easy.

I started using the computer in the dining room. The light was better than the loft upstairs, in my nook near the laundry room. It still got dark early, so I could watch the sunset up close—the windows down here faced southwest. Upstairs, they faced north, so the light didn’t change much all day. In the interludes between lines

We buck each other up, the morning and I.

I throw open the window and admire her fog twist…

And the next one:

Loading the dryer, I think chocolate,

Chocolate waiting in the heart shaped red box

 Luck winds around me like a static filled sheet, an electric kiss…

I realized that it was one o’clock, lunchtime. The Subaru was parked in the guest space across the street, and I put on my coat, hat, and scarf to go pick up the mail, a constitutional before lunch. A bunch of circulars, it turned out, and the Lynnfield weekly paper, read mostly for the prices of recent house sales. I glanced into the Forester on the way back, surreptitiously because it did make me feel like I was snooping around. Someone could be looking at me from their window, George being the first to come to mind. I had enough time to take in the lack of magazines and books and reusable bags on the back seat, the spotless floor mats, the unstained and empty cup holders. The owner was someone neat and tidy with a new car like George. Or maybe George had helped her do a through cleaning. Some people found cleaning cars relaxing—smaller than a house, smaller than a kitchen, manageable. Maybe George had a girlfriend, I thought wildly, who had a car as well cared for as his. This car.

A romance on our street. Why not? A middle-aged man, trim, energetic. How much time could golf take. A lot, obviously, when I considered the people my uncle played with when I visited the New Jersey branch of the family as a child. My father wouldn’t touch the sport, having determined it was the refuge of the overweight, tightly belted white pants wearing bourgeoise. Plus, he’d never seen golf growing up in Poland, where soccer was the only activity that mattered. Though Morty’s parents had both played, and neither one was overweight nor particularly bourgeoise.

By the time I walked up the five steps to my front door, the questions had piled up like vehicles in a traffic jam on 128. Where would George have met her? Not only was he new in town, but he’d been a widower for just a few months. Actually, when you’re new in town is when you do make friends, making the effort to replace the network left back home. And the company of his late wife. They’d come to Boston to watch their granddaughter grow, and her being the only grandchild among his three sons made it likely that he’d go to a bunch of her activities. Dance recitals, basketball games, maybe even puppy training classes. Endless opportunities.

Inside, I shoved aside the computer, my pad of paper, various pens and pencils to the other end of the dining room table. I assembled my usual lunch: sharp cheddar cubes, cut up apple and carrot (plus one for Morty, vegetable intake a priority now that our eyesight was sputtering somewhat). Leftover seafood salad from Big Y, fragments (many of them) of super dark chocolate from the bar that I whacked on the counter. From my place at the table, my back and right shoulder each facing a separate window, I was steeped in a sunshine bath. I felt like a dozing tabby, my usual mid-lunch mood of purring satisfaction. But the satisfaction did not hold—I was still puzzling out how George across the street met a companion so fast. There was the grieving, the hunt for a new car, new appliances, fresh furniture too, from the vans marked Boston Interiors and Room and Board recently parked in front of his house. An electrician’s truck (More Power to You!), the plumber’s van (Pipe Dreams). From sleek and purring I’d descended alarmingly to frumpy and lethargic. I was beholding the youthfulness and energy of a person in love and awash in shiny new things.

The old song from my childhood shimmied through my mind—baby, baby where did our love go? Not that I didn’t love Morty—absolutely, timelessly. But recreating that spark of new love; now that was something else. I saw in my mind’s eye how it happened. George and his son and daughter-in law were attending Skye’s school open house. It was going to be a low-key affair this year with only half the parents attending that night and the other half waiting until next week. George and family were in the first group. He wouldn’t have missed it for the world. When his son called him in the morning, he said that he and his wife were toggling back and forth on who had the worse stomach—that left over take-out deli most likely the culprit. In the end, neither of them felt up to going and George went by himself. He was nervous and apprehensive, not having been in an elementary school for years. He could barely remember his three sons’ open houses. But certainly Carol had been there jotting down notes.

He struggled a bit to ease himself into a student’s seat. But not struggling too hard because he was slight and fit. He didn’t need more than walks and golf and the sustenance of foods prepared in his newly applianced and furnished kitchen/dining room to stay in shape. That’s what he told himself, although Carol would have a different point of view. She usually did. You’ve got a dream kitchen, he could hear her saying, you’d better use it to cook up plenty of vegetables and not just heat up high-end take-out.

Ms. Reid leaned back against her desk in updated yoga pants and long belted cashmere sweater and described what she expected from her students. (George felt a little bad that she’d have to go through this again for next week’s parents.) Well-crafted three paragraph essays to begin with, moving on to decoding poetry and close reading of fiction. She moved closer to the window, the high intensity lights in the parking lot plus the fluorescent classroom lights burnishing her hair. After her presentation, she chatted with the parents for a few minutes before she commiserated briefly with George about the death of Skye’s grandmother (and his wife) before she had to move on to others practically jostling for their turn.

George told his daughter-in-law that he’d pick Skye up from school a few days a week. Sometimes Ms. Reid came out to the playground to help out with pickup, but not always. Other teachers would take their turns. He told Skye to look for him on Tuesdays and Fridays, which were Ms. Reid’s days. It hadn’t taken long for him to figure that out. They chatted and one day when there was no school (the second day of winter break) they went to an afternoon movie at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It was having a week of art house movies. Plus it made a nice drive—fifty miles round trip from Lynnfield Elementary School, where Toni parked her car and got into George’s.

The relationship, I figured, was well-launched by now. When I picked up the papers in the morning (his almost always already taken in), her car was outside, sometimes dusted with snow, sometimes layered with it. I wondered why he didn’t put hers in the garage with his. He had some shelves and a couple pieces of furniture along the right-hand wall, but he could move them around. He must have read my mind, because the next few days, which were stormy, her car wasn’t there. So the garage it was! Still, I hadn’t seen her yet, no matter how many times I looked outside. Everyone glances out now and then, and maybe my looking was a bit excessive, but barely. It just got me that I never laid eyes on her. It was like a cat and mouse game that she didn’t even know she was playing. On days when the weather was better, the Subaru would spend the day sunning itself in the parking spot.

I needed to do more walking. It would be spring soon (eventually) and I wanted to get in shape for the halcyon days of summer, riding my bike, strolling along Crane Beach. I didn’t want to feel fragile and rusty. I was at that age where you could tip either way, into the pre-elderly or a robust middle age. I crept through the hedges near the mailboxes, across a backyard, and landed in a posh neighborhood of brick mansions, with stone lions at the front doors or giant urns which held mostly dead foliage, even in the summer. But the avenues were broad, with almost nobody outdoors except a very few children and dog walkers. After I’d had my fill of too-large houses, I decided to walk in our development, where at least I could nod at the people I knew or introduce myself to those I didn’t. In none of the apartments could you see inside, windows swathed in curtains or blinds (like mine, though I kept them open all day to bring in the natural light). I switched to walking in the backyards, though I felt a little self-conscious, a holdover from my days in Newton/Needham, where a backyard was part of a homeowner’s property. Here in the development, you didn’t own the land—the complex did jointly. Even so, I seemed the only one who walked through backyards. Old habits die hard for some of us.

I expected that some would sit out on their patios during the afternoons when the late winter sun let loose its rays, sharp as swords. But no—people obviously had other things to do than expand their lungs and take in the beneficial microorganisms the earth began releasing this time of year. I know I could have called old friends and the new ones here and taken a more congenial walk. But this had been a winter of lethargy unless you summoned your forces to break out of it. For some time I hadn’t been a caller. But I was never sorry to have had a conversation. It lifted my spirts, reinforcing the fact that I had friends. Like everyone.

After lunch not long afterwards, I was about to bring my dish to the sink when I saw a couple moving from the block around the corner in the direction of the parked Subaru. Had George and his girlfriend taken a stroll and were now going for a drive? Did he usually wear a long loden coat? The woman had her hair tucked into the back of her coat, and now she pulled it out and loosened it around her shoulders. Like shaken silk, her light brown hair draped across her back. Even in a shampoo commercial, I’d never seen hair as shiny and all in a piece, no recalcitrant locks or gaps in its magnificent flow. That was my first thought. My second, as her companion thumbed his key and opened the door, was this man wasn’t George but neither was she George’s girlfriend. A young couple with a rental car visiting relatives in the complex, staying over. It had never occurred to me that there was a different angle to my story. Me, who always counted on both sets of fingers all the potentialities, mostly bad, in any situation, had been bushwhacked this time. I was sad the girlfriend for George hadn’t panned out. And for one twisted wretched moment I was also glad. Shouldn’t we all be suffering now? I want to say that that moment was truly just a moment.

I sat on the front stoop, letting the oblique sun warm my earlobes when George’s garage door opened and he came out. He placed his golf clubs in his trunk and walked around to the driver’s side. “Snow’s gone,” I said, standing up and moving toward the street. He smiled, a bright transforming smile like some people have. “You didn’t have a guest,” I added.

“A guest? You mean my son and his family.”

“Oh. Yeah,” I said. “They have a cute dog and what a sparky little girl.” I didn’t ask how the open house at school went. “I see the family coming up the steps sometimes, laden with shopping bags. Ten-year-old girls are a perfect age.”

“Nine, but she’s tall.”

“I’m sure she’s doing well in school.”

“She’s been home-schooled this year, but she’ll be going back after spring break.”

“Sure,” I said. “Things change.”

“Let’s hope so,” he said.

“I wanted to say how sorry I am about your wife.”

“Thank you.” He pursed his lips and nodded. His gray hair was thick and shaggy. Not in an unkempt way. Monty didn’t tell me when he was getting a haircut, just came back shorn and sheared. Maybe George had waited for his wife to tell him to go to the barber. “At least Carol got to be with Amy before she passed,” he said.

Amy? Of course. Not Skye. While we talked, I felt I was looking at a double-exposed photo from my parents’ time. Or hearing an echo coming back distorted.

My story about George superimposed upon his story made me dizzy. I felt the loss of Skye and Ms. Toni Reid. You’ve got an overactive imagination my parents would admonish me when I was worried about germs or friends that might abandon me or strep throat decades ago. But this moment I wasn’t dreading the obvious, just overlaying a scrim onto our harsh anodyne landscape.    

“I’d better go in,” I said. “I may try a recipe for Thai Stir-Fried Glass Noodles from The Globe. If it turns out, I’d be happy to bring some over. Can’t promise any miracles.”

At home I plucked the recipe from the dog-eared and tea-stained pile on a dining room chair. I had the cellophane noodles, but I hadn’t read farther down the ingredient list. Two tablespoons fish sauce… The recipe lost me right there, before the small head green cabbage, fresh cilantro, oyster sauce. I’d had a cabbage but left it in the garage (my “root cellar”) too long. Scratch glass noodle soup for any of us tonight. No, I couldn’t promise any miracles. Tomorrow I’d get what we needed.

Karen Mandell has taught writing at the high school and college levels and literature at community senior centers. She’s written Clicking, interconnected short stories, and Rose Has a New Walker, a book of poetry, both available on Amazon. She’s working on The Lulu Stories, speculative fiction that takes place in the near future.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Permission to Speak

February 28, 2021
writing

By Abby Schwartz

I’m scrolling through Instagram while eating my oatmeal. It’s August 2019 and writer Cheryl Strayed has posted this announcement: I’ll be teaching a workshop at the @kripalucenter in April called The Story You Have To Tell. It’s for writers at all levels of experience—really it’s for anyone who wants to crack it open to get at the good stuff inside…All you need to bring is a notebook and pen. I hope to see you there!

I’m frozen mid-spoonful, her words an electric jolt to my heart. I recognize this as a moment to seize without overthinking.

I respond to the post: @cherylstrayed your words always inspire me to be brave and authentic so I am going to push aside my fear of going this alone and sign up. Thank you!

I am thrilled when, moments later, Cheryl likes my comment and responds: @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

I’ve been a professional copywriter for 20 years, though I started in advertising as an art director. Back then, we worked in teams—an art director paired with a writer—or with the entire creative department in one room, scribbling ideas with black Sharpies and tacking them to the wall. Brainstorming was energizing; we fed off one another. When our sessions got long we grew punchy, our ideas verging on the absurd. You could hear our roars of laughter down the hall.

What I miss about those days is the camaraderie. Though our group was competitive—each determined to be first with the winning idea—we supported one another, celebrated our wins and created a safe space where no idea was off limits.

Even as an art director, I approached each concept through words, crafting a headline before giving thought to the visuals. My creative director Tom was one of the original Mad Men, a copywriter who worked at some of the biggest Madison Avenue firms in the sixties before starting his own Philadelphia agency. He pulled me aside one day and told me I was a good writer, that he could see me writing a book one day. His validation lit something in me. I tucked his words inside—a glowing coal that kept me warm.

At my therapist’s I tell Dr. G. about registering for Cheryl Strayed’s writing workshop. She can see how excited I am and thinks this is a wonderful idea. She tells me, “You are someone who is open to trying new things and is enthusiastic about them.”

I like viewing myself through this lens. I’ve only recently begun the work of unpacking the fear and anxiety I’ve stuffed deep down to avoid facing those feelings head-on. I sought therapy because trauma will find its way to the surface; in my case I was spiraling emotionally, grasping at any semblance of control over my daughter’s life now that she was a young adult, her health no longer mine to manage.

Since being blindsided by her diagnosis of cystic fibrosis 20 years earlier, I’ve lived in a state of hypervigilance—on high alert for the next lung infection, medical complication, hospital admission and worse.

In my early days of therapy, we talked about my childhood. The third youngest, I watched my older brother and sister fight with our mother, whose short fuse could detonate at any moment. I navigated those years with my ears finely tuned to detect a tone of voice, a slammed door, a heavier footstep—clues that my mom’s mood had taken a turn. I learned to keep a low profile and stay off her radar. I remember hovering silently outside my parents’ bedroom late one night, having just thrown up in my bed. I needed help but was scared to wake my mom. I stood in their doorway, willing my dad to notice me first. Afraid to use my voice.

In therapy, I discovered that the hypervigilance I had assumed was born of my daughter’s illness had roots that ran deeper. My state of high alert was my mode of self-protection growing up. But here’s the thing about being on high alert: when your guard is constantly up, it’s like living behind a wall. It’s hard to connect to others from behind a wall.

I rely on written words to create order in my life. On paper, my thoughts line up obediently, no longer tumbling inside my head like clothes in a dryer.

In my early thirties, when my daughter was diagnosed, writing was how I grabbed the reins to keep us from hurtling off a cliff. I wrote heartfelt letters to raise money for CF research and crafted emails that explained the disease to her teachers. I began documenting each doctor’s appointment, lab result and breathing test in a notebook. I created lists and charted her therapies. My child needed more than a dozen prescription drugs a day to keep her alive. Writing kept me vigilant and prevented details from slipping through the cracks.

Soon after, I left my corporate advertising job to start a freelance healthcare marketing business, and I added copywriting to my creative services. My crash course in managing a chronic illness had given me an insider’s perspective on the patient experience and I recognized that there was value in what I had to say.

There is power in naming things and using words to define yourself. I had been secretly keeping that warm coal of encouragement from my creative director glowing for years, but it was only after I spoke the words out loud, I am a writer, that I stepped more fully into that identity. Still, I remained one step removed from telling my own story.

Though I write professionally, I’m not writing as myself. I am a surgeon explaining breast reconstructive techniques after mastectomy. I am a patient describing his recovery from stroke. I am a hospital president congratulating her staff for earning national recognition.

Many years ago, I was contacted by Roland M, a bestselling writer who was working on an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer about cystic fibrosis. Mine was one of several families he profiled. Roland’s daughter had also been recently diagnosed, and we became long-distance friends, keeping in touch by email.

A few years later, he wrote a novel about a young woman with cystic fibrosis. As part of his research, he stayed with my family overnight—our first in-person meeting—and came along to a pulmonology checkup. He asked if I’d be willing to share notes about my experience and I remember the thrill of the invitation—permission to tell my story.

I wrote pages and pages, the words flowing like water. When I lived it I couldn’t write about it, but now it was all pouring out. After all, this was only for research—I was simply providing background for the real writer. What I secretly wished was this: that Roland would share my writing with his agent, who would call and offer me a book deal. You have a story to tell, he would say. The world needs to hear it.

In my early forties, I responded to a call for writers and became a regular guest blogger for a website about hooping. The hula kind. Blogging for Hooping.org was a way to scratch my creative writing itch. I had been bitten by the hooping bug and in a fog of euphoria, I enrolled in Hoop Camp, a three-day gathering of hula hoopers held annually in the redwoods of Northern California. A Hoop Camp virgin, I would document my experience for the blog. I brought my sister Sue along for company and a shot of courage.

On our first day, I looked around and regretted my decision. I didn’t fit in with these younger women and men with their toned and tattooed bodies, multiple piercings and outlandish costumes. Yes, I could keep a hoop spinning, but these people were Cirque du Soleil-good—light years more advanced in their hoop-dance skills. I felt myself shrinking self-consciously.

That evening, I introduced myself to a group of women and something shifted. They recognized my name and told me they were fans of my writing—that my posts were relatable and authentic. I beamed. For the rest of Hoop Camp, I felt like I belonged. I participated in workshops by day and uploaded a new column each night. Sharing my experiences through the eyes of a journalist lent legitimacy to my presence. Writing granted me permission to try, fail, and look foolish. Nora Ephron famously stated, “Everything is copy.” Today’s embarrassing gaffe would be recast as tomorrow’s humorous story.

I am hoping to find similar inspiration from Cheryl Strayed’s workshop at Kripalu. Perhaps my experience navigating the trauma of a child’s life-threating illness could be transformed through writing into a story of hope. In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes about the power of art. In this excerpt she is speaking about music, but it applies equally to writing:

“Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope…Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time…The transformative power of art is in this sharing…It’s the sharing of art that whispers, ‘You’re not alone.’”

Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, is what first put her on my radar, but it’s Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of advice columns, that I turn to repeatedly for solace. Her voice is a whisper in my ear letting me know that even when life is brutal, I am not alone.

I’ve been obsessed with reading my entire life. Books have been my doorway to escape, enlightenment and connection to the human experience. As a little girl I read under my covers, a flashlight clutched in one hand, on high alert for footsteps on the stairs, terrified of being caught by my mother awake past my bedtime.

Reading transported me to distant places, parallel universes containing other lives I might have lived. In sixth grade, when I discovered Judy Blume, the telescope flipped and I was the one who felt seen. I’d never before read an author who spoke to me in such a real and personal way. Judy had a way of validating the awkwardness of adolescence and normalizing the things we’ve all felt and done but didn’t dare speak of out loud.

As a teenager, books allowed me to connect with my mother. An avid reader, she’d take me to our local library where we’d collect our haul for the week. She’d hand me books that she loved, further expanding my world. When I toyed with the idea of being a veterinarian, she introduced me to James Herriot’s series about his life as a country vet in England. She put a copy of The Thorn Birds in my hand during my freshman year of high school and I swooned over the epic, forbidden love story. We passed Sydney Sheldon thrillers back and forth and shared trashy novels by Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz.

Even at my lowest, when my daughter was hospitalized, books provided a lifeline. I’d lie awake in the dark on the stiff vinyl daybed, reading by flip-light as the night nurse drifted in and out of our room to check vitals and reset the beeping IV pump. I seized on memoirs, looking for proof that humans were resilient. If that writer could survive her own trauma to reflect on it today, maybe I could get through the uncertainty of these days and tell my own story in the future.

Cheryl’s workshop, The Story You Have To Tell, will be my way in—the tool I use to drill past the protective barriers I erected in my mind; the walls preventing me from writing about the most defining moments of my life. Through memoir, I want to process my experiences in order to transform them. To reframe the narrative in a way that allows me to see myself not only as the timid child and the anxious mother, but as the strong and resilient woman who found beauty amidst the pain. And just like the writers who made me feel seen, I want to be that person beaming out signals in the night. Reaching the person who lies awake in the dark, seeking solace by flashlight.

My weekend at Kripalu is six weeks away. I wonder how many people will be there? I call the venue and ask. Over 200. This is a disappointing development.

In my fantasy, our group is small, maybe 30 max. I read my work out loud and Cheryl praises it. She pulls me aside after class to tell me I have real talent. We hit it off over dinner, bonding over conversations about her late mom and my late dad. We talk about books and dogs and kids. We stay in touch. She becomes my writing mentor and recommends my new memoir to her followers, catapulting it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. She introduces me to her writer friends—modern-day Judy Blumes whose words are a balm to my soul: Liz Gilbert, Pam Houston, Glennon Doyle. They welcome me to their circle. Reese Witherspoon chooses my memoir for her book club, as does Oprah (as long as I’m fantasizing).

Cheryl’s workshop will be page one of a new chapter in my life. The spark of permission granted by my former creative director has fanned into a roaring flame. Now that the workshop is 200 people, my writing had better be damn good to stand out.

It’s now late March 2020. Cystic fibrosis is primarily a lung condition and this novel coronavirus poses a direct threat to my daughter’s life. Cheryl Strayed’s workshop has been a beacon calling to me for the better part of a year, but that no longer matters. Kripalu is a yoga center built on communal gatherings. To expose myself to large numbers of people from all over the world is to put my child at risk. According to the cancellation policy, I have a two-week window in which to cancel and get a refund. I make the decision to pull the plug. Two days later, Kripalu cancels the retreat and shuts its doors for the foreseeable future.

To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. I had psyched myself up to push beyond my fears, befriend a group of strangers, and—inspired by Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly—embrace vulnerability by exposing my insides through writing. It’s now up to me to keep that flame alive.

Today is the day I would have driven to Kripalu. These weeks of quarantine have been stressful, pushing my brain into fight-or-flight response. Still, I recognize that we are in the middle of something historic and I decide to start journaling again as a way of processing my emotions and capturing these extraordinary moments in real-time.

I pull a Moleskine notebook off my shelf but before I write, I reach for my phone and scroll to Facebook. I’m not sure what compels me to check my newsfeed at this moment. I see a post about a project called The Isolation Journals. I click to the page and read the description: A global movement cultivating community and creativity during hard times.

TIJ is a 30-day project conceived by Suleika Jaouad, a writer and memoirist who wrote her way through cancer in her twenties. For the month of April Suleika is offering a daily writing prompt, with help from a talented pool of writers, artists and musicians. The prompts can be used for journaling on our own or we may share our writing on the private Facebook page.

I begin reading people’s posts. I write an essay and upload it. Within minutes it receives a handful of likes and positive comments. Fueled, I start writing daily and interacting with others, offering feedback and support.

We begin to know each other. We remark on the safety we feel sharing intimate thoughts in this private space. Day by day, more people join. This space feels sacred. There are no trolls, political rants or snarky memes. There are raw, painful posts about grief and shame and loss. There are beautiful essays about love and life and what it feels like to blindly feel our way through the long days of quarantine. There are hilarious parodies, song lyrics and experimental poems—the talent on these pages shines brightly. We are tender with one another. We encourage and celebrate each revelation and, word by word, we build a community. I imagine Cheryl Strayed whispering encouragement in my ear. @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

By popular demand Suleika expands The Isolation Journals from 30 days to 100. My writing muscles are not only warmed up, they grow stronger each day of this project. I write about growing up with a tough mom. I post tributes to my loving dad and share what it was like to lose him to cancer. I open up about my daughter’s illness and my fear of her dying young.

As a little girl, my mother would say to me, “Will you just be quiet? Stop talking so much.” She taught me that to speak is to invite criticism and conflict.

I am no longer that child who needs permission to speak. I have learned the power of words as a tool for transformation and connection. With every prompt I am strengthening my voice and taking a sledgehammer to those interior walls. I am, in Cheryl’s words, Telling The Story I Have To Tell to a global community more than 7,000 strong.

Abby Alten Schwartz is a self-employed copywriter, designer and healthcare marketing consultant who lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she loves memoirs and nonfiction essays and has always dreamed of writing her own. It only took a global pandemic to get her started. She is currently at work on a memoir and can be found on Instagram at @abbys480

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Pay Attention

December 30, 2020

By Tuni Deignan

pay attenton
be astonished.
tell about it.
-mary oliver

I have a delicate, black on black on black, layered, lace and lace-y, tulle and silk and satin cocktail dress. There is an overlay of trimmed triangular lacing. It flares just a bit, from my lower rib cage to the middle of my thigh where it rests. The torso is a blocked bodice, feminine, sensual, quiet. Above the bodice is sheer black fabric hinting at a strapless effect and its exquisitely frayed neckline is demure, sweet and scooping at the nape, a proper width from shoulder to shoulder ends just at the outsides of either end of my collar bone; seductive silent shoulders.

Usually, I wear this dress with a four-inch dark brown stiletto slip into, with a satin pine green and burgundy tapestry slipper, open-toed, it ties up ultimately with a phat fat burgundy bow at its arch. Gorgeous. Fun. Unexpected.

(pay attention, be astonished, tell about it)

Items of nostalgia stay hung in my closet and folded away in my drawers. The shelf life of my belongings has much more to do with my soul than fashion. In the bottom of my dresser’s fourth drawer, hides a full-length silk night gown, skinny shoulder straps, cut on the bias (like my third wedding dress) an ivory colored nightie with water-colored pink pansies large and splashed also on the bias at random; it’s stained. I wore this night slip to the hospital before delivering my last-born son, Lucky. I’d had plenty of opportunities laboring and delivering in a paper and cotton snap-up-the-back sack and shrugged off the nurse’s suggestion to change into one as wouldn’t I be blood staining my beautiful nightie? That’s my baby’s blood, that’s my blood, we’re doing a miraculous thing here, I thought, I’m good. The nightgown stayed.

Sometimes, I’ll give someone the shirt off my back. I love your shirt, she’ll say, my friend. And before she has taken her next breath I’ve taken it off and handed it to her (I’m wearing a leotard or something underneath), and she looks at me like I’m silly, and sweet and but of course you’re joking but no I’m really not joking because if you can feel the soul I attach to my t-shirt, and that feels special for you, then please, I am, sweet friend, all in. I send attention. She smiles astonished. Let’s.

The last time I wore the delicate, bodice hugging, demure yet inviting black dress was four years ago, almost to the day: August 29, 2016; the day my brother eulogized his youngest daughter, in his backyard. We all stood around his small pool, in South Florida, numb, cracked, broken. We listened to my sister play a movement of Bach on her flute, drifting and breathy and hollow and full, on breezes, the palm fronds receiving her; nodding alongside the notes and sorrows. The sun was hot. My cousins flew in. I bought floral arrangements: tropical jewels potted and dotted the ledges surrounding the circle of mourners. Tropicals, like my brother’s daughter, Gabrielle Esther:  wild, intense, whimsical, dream catching. Grandparents had been assisted to their chairs in the front. Sisters of the deceased, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends bowed their heads, struggled for words, wept.

I wore my black dress. I wore it to feel loved.

My brother spoke and invited our embrace. We paid attention. The day before, the tattooist carved Gabi’s tattoos into my arm and torso, into my brother’s, and his daughters and my daughters, all of us together, at the parlor she favored. We stung, our arms and torsos. By the pool, as the winds curled and held my brother’s grief, it began to lightly rain. In the back I stood eyes wet, watching slow drops plop onto my black-fairy dress. The timing was good, the service was closing, the family began to stand up from their chairs. The rain kept coming, just slowly, and sweetly, no one paid attention. The family started moving inside toward the food.

In that moment, my dress billows upward gaily next to my hips. In that moment, because I have kicked off the burgundy London heels, my arms are wings bent at my elbows, my elbows pitch northward toward the sky, my chin lifts and I am suspended, airborne, cartoon-like, briefly hovering over my brother’s saltwater pool. The raindrops slot my nostrils as I inhale, mixing with the salty tears releasing from my eyelashes. I search for the sun and greet the rain hoping.

Silent.

Quiet.

Peace.

My dress weighted by water, it suctioned up like a jelly and pressed me up to the surface, a mikvah cleanse, a soak.

It’s raining, Rainbow.

What else but this, Angel?

You will always take my breath away, please, please, tell me more.

My nieces and nephews, wide eyed and joyful, one by one cannonball and fly, dressed in funeral nines, plunge swiftly and willfully, joining me in my perfect black dress, the salty wet.

Antonia Deignan is a lifelong storyteller. She danced professionally in Chicago and New York, owned her own dance studio, and was artistic director of a pre-professional youth dance company – T Move. She is writing a memoir about surviving childhood trauma and rising above. She hopes her experience will help and inspire others. Her work has been published in Manifest-Station and Storied Stuff. She is a mother of five grown children and two great danes.

Recommended Reading:

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen