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November 20, 2020

By Cameron L. Mitchell

She didn’t know he was such a troubled sleeper until after they moved in together.  He’d had a problem with sleepwalking for as long as he could remember, he said.  Even on the best of nights, he tossed and turned.  She slept like a rock, on the other hand, drifting off almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.  They had other differences, of course, like any other couple, but they felt hopeful, like they could overcome anything.  Before long, she couldn’t imagine her life without him, though she worried about the sleepwalking issue when he brought it up.  He made light of it, but there was an edge to his voice she didn’t trust.

At first, the incidents seemed minor, occurring only occasionally.  She’d wake alone in the early morning, figuring he was in the bathroom.  Instead, she found him asleep on the couch, and he looked surprised when she finally woke him – and unable to recall how he got there.  Another night, the blaring sound of the television woke her, hours before dawn.  She walked into the living room to find him kneeling before the screen like a child mesmerized by his favorite cartoon.  But his eyes were closed and his face was blank; she found it unsettling, the way he was clearly asleep, sitting up like that, his face set aglow by the light of the screen.  She switched the TV off but didn’t try waking him, having heard it was dangerous to disturb someone in the midst of a sleepwalking episode.  Carefully, she nudged him down to the floor, taking a pillow from the couch for his head.  The next morning, he’d returned to his place beside her in bed.  When she told him about the night before, he laughed, saying it was ok to wake him.  She would remember next time.

And there would be a next time.

There were also long periods when everything seemed fine.  He wasn’t much for spooning since he rarely stayed in the same position for long; yet, when their bodies intertwined as one, it was a treat – even if he later pushed her away, hard enough to wake her.  Sorry, he would say the next morning with that guilty look upon his face that made her think of him as a child caught doing something wrong.  It was that look of unyielding innocence that made her love him.  She loved so many things about him.  The way he quickly averted his gaze and blushed when she caught him staring at her from across the room.  The way he made her feel like more than the sum of her parts, never less.  The way he leaned on her, the way he needed her.  The way she saw herself reflected in his wide, blue eyes, dotted with specks of green and brown – she could get lost inside his ocean of delicate colors.

But were there things she missed?  In bed one night, while gazing up at the ceiling, he said a funny thing.  Do you ever wish you could be someone else?

What do you mean?

I see people on the street, on the trains, and I imagine their lives, he continued.  Their past, the way I can’t see it on their faces, whether it’s good or bad.  They aren’t dragging it around like this big, heavy piece of luggage, you know? 

She thought about it for a moment.  Maybe falling in love is like being another person.

How?

Being able to love someone, to make room for them when you weren’t sure you could, she tried to explain.

He turned to her, smiling.  How’d I get so lucky?  He kissed her on the forehead.  Soon, they fell asleep – she fell asleep, anyway.  He struggled the way he always struggled.  She now wonders why she didn’t ask more questions to see if she could pry loose those secrets he held so close.  Things might have turned out differently if she’d tried harder.

The sleepwalking episodes came to feel like games of hide-and-seek.  He’d quietly disappear from bed, and then she’d search the apartment until she found him.  They laughed about it.  But as the incidents occurred more frequently, they also got stranger.  Despite sleeping so peacefully herself, she woke one night with a gasp, turning to find him gone.  It’s like her body sensed his absence and responded before her mind was able to catch up.  She found him in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor with his toothbrush.  He pulled away from her touch, mumbling in protest.  She gripped his face with both hands, urging him to stop.  No, he insisted.  Not until it’s done.  With more determination than she’d ever seen in him while awake, he continued scrubbing, getting down between each tile to clean the dirt away.  She eventually gave up, returning to bed without him.  The next morning, there he was by her side, smiling.  She told him about the scrubbing, and he laughed at the absurdity of it all.  They laughed together until it almost felt ok.    

Another time, she couldn’t find him anywhere.  Again, she woke with a start, keenly aware that the weight of his body beside her was gone.  Throughout their apartment she walked, calling his name.  He wasn’t standing in the dark living room corner like last time, nor was he sitting on the cold bathroom floor, scrubbing away.  When she pulled the shower curtain back, he wasn’t there either.  Back to the bedroom, she checked the closet, she checked under the bed – nothing, nowhere.  Roaming back and forth through the apartment, she started panicking.

And then a small sound came from the kitchen, a rustling that might have been a mouse beneath the sink.  She raced in and pulled the cabinet doors open.  There he was, crammed inside.  She yelled for him to wake up and started tugging at him when he wouldn’t.  She gripped his shoulders, yanking until she finally pulled him out.  He hit the floor with a heavy thud, waking immediately.  Again? he asked, startled.   

Again, she answered.

Huddled together on the floor, they soon broke into laughter, marveling over the fact that he’d somehow managed to fit himself inside such a small, cramped space.  She carefully checked him over, running her hands across his chest, his back, his arms – it didn’t seem like he’d gotten anything hazardous on him from all the cleaning products and insect sprays.  She found a few scratches on his back, but nothing else.  Still, he went off to shower, just in case.  She went back to bed.  She didn’t fall asleep again until he returned to his place beside her, his hair damp, his skin warm.  Even then, it took her much longer than usual.  She was beginning to understand what it felt like to be a troubled sleeper.

Not as troubled as him, of course.  With the sleepwalking episodes escalating, so were the nightmares that often accompanied them, though he claimed he couldn’t remember the dreams at all.  He said he’d never been able to remember his dreams, which struck her as odd.  She recalled her dreams in such vivid detail she sometimes wasn’t sure if something had really happened or if it had just been a dream.  This was made worse by the fact that her dreams were so dull.  If they were more outlandish, it’d be easier to distinguish them from reality.  But most of her dreams involved everyday events, like maneuvering through passengers while riding the train to work – or just being at work in general, warming her lunch up in the staff break room.  His dreams were different.  Dark and terrifying, they left him sweaty and shaking, but he could never recount anything beyond the vaguest of details.  Someone after me, he might say.  Or something from his childhood, a period of time he never spoke of, though she gathered clues here and there – something about a father who hit, something about a mother who hid.  She had her theories, but he never offered any confirmations or denials.    

The two of them laughed together less and less.  More sleepwalking, more nightmares, all occurring more frequently.  With each incident, it became clearer that something was happening.  Something big, she felt sure.  He seemed lost and only half-present most of the time, desperate to find something – solace, perhaps, or maybe just a good night of sleep.

You know me better than anyone, he said in bed one night, staring up at the ceiling like he could see something she couldn’t.  But what does that mean?  Does anyone ever really know someone else?  Can they see through all the bullshit, deep inside another person’s heart?   

He sounded angry.  His questions were big, and she didn’t have answers.  She didn’t think anyone would.

I wish you could know some things, he continued.  Things about me.

What things? she said, her voice cracking.

Nothing, he moaned, covering his face with both hands.  It’s no use.   

He was so frantic and upset.  She tried soothing him, but she feared this not knowing that he spoke of – she feared he was right.  There might be things they couldn’t overcome no matter how well they worked together.

As he got worse, so did her dreams.  They became nightmares, haunting her long after they ended, ruining her once peaceful slumber.  He appeared regularly, always at a distance.  In one dream, she was lost in some dark, cavernous place, dusty and devoid of life, the air thick and stifling.  All was deadly quiet.  When he appeared, she called out to him, but he turned away, fleeing.  She followed, stumbling over rocky, uneven trails that looped around, leading nowhere – leading back to where she started, again and again.  Until she rounded one corner and almost crashed into him.  He stood before her, staring at her with dark eyes she didn’t recognize.  He held his arm out, insisting she take a look – all across his forearm, there were cuts that opened up like little mouths crying out in pain.  He clenched his fist, pushing his arm closer, like he blamed her for the wounds.  But he would never do that in real life, when he assured her she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

In the dream he shook with anger, opening his mouth and screaming in silence – sweat dripped across his brow, the veins at his temples throbbed with each beat of his racing heart.  She woke so startled it took a few moments to catch her breath.  This time he was there beside her, twitching around in his sleep.  She pushed back a thick strand of hair that was stuck to his sweaty forehead.  She checked his arms for new cuts but found none.  Only faded scars from the self-inflicted wounds from another time, long before they met.  He’d admitted that he cut himself during a particularly rough period right after college.  He said it was something he’d never do again, explaining it was never about wanting to end his life.  It was just a release – or did he say relief?

Just then, his hand reached out in the dark and grabbed her arm, gripping it hard enough to frighten her.  The next day she’d discover a ring of bruises.  She tried pulling away, she tried to wake him, but he held tight.  For a moment, she wondered if she was still lost in her nightmare.  With one more heave, she managed to escape his grasp, stumbling back.  He remained in place, eyes closed, arm out, his hand waiting to clutch her again.  She watched his fingers slowly open and close around nothing.    

Eventually she turned away, deciding it’d be better to sleep on the couch.  The next morning, that’s where he found her.  I think I owe you an apology, he said, bending down before her.

For what?

I don’t know.  He looked confused.  He averted his gaze, catching sight of her arm.  What happened?  Where’d you get those bruises?

I don’t know, she answered.  Did he know he was the one responsible for leaving her marked?  Was he apologizing for that?  Or was he apologizing for something else, like the way he’d behaved in her dream, blaming her for all his pain?

That was ridiculous, she told herself.  He probably felt guilty for driving her out of bed in the middle of the night.  Her dreams and nightmares weren’t some shared experience.  They belonged only to her.

Always waking to find him gone left her exhausted.  One night, she chased after him in yet another dream, though the setting was different this time.  He was on the other side of a green meadow surrounded by trees.  Between them, the tall grass gently swayed in the breeze.  Birds chirped in the distance, and a pleasant, sweet scent filled the air.  The greenery surrounding them was almost too green; it gave off a faint luminescent glow, subtle but mesmerizing.  The colors of this particular dreamscape had a depth unlike anything she could find in the real world.  Lush and alive, this place was so unlike the dusty landscape of her previous dreams that she thought it symbolized a breakthrough.  It felt like the answer to a question neither one of them knew how to ask.  He casually waved at her, just like he would in real life, happy to have spotted her.  Before turning around, he waved again, beckoning her forward.    

She followed but couldn’t quite catch up.  No matter how quickly she moved, a steady, even distance stretched between them.  Out of the meadow and into the woods, he led her up a hill towards a dark hole in the ground – a cave, its opening obstructed by large rocks.  He didn’t turn back but walked on, determined to discover whatever waited inside that deep black void.  He tried pushing one of the rocks out of the way, but it wouldn’t budge.  He shoved his arm and leg inside, trying to enter, but he couldn’t quite make his body fit.  Hanging there, half of him was no longer visible.  She wanted to scream for him to stop but found herself paralyzed, unable to move or utter a single word.  Darkness filled the sky as heavy drops of rain started to fall, pelting her face and arms.  The sudden downpour washed away the vibrant colors.  She lost sight of him as the world turned black.    

She snapped awake, convinced she still had work to do.  She had to stop him.  It came as no surprise when she looked over and saw he was missing yet again.  She pushed the sheet away and jumped out of bed, ready to turn the apartment upside down to find him.  But she tripped over something before making it out of the bedroom.  Turning around, she found him lying in the floor at the bottom of the bed, half his body burrowed beneath it.  She backed up to the wall near the door, slowly dropping down until she was sitting on the floor.  Unable to stop herself, she started laughing.  The wild, maniacal sound was loud enough to wake the dead, but he remained in place, sound asleep.  Her laughter quickly gave way to a bout of uncontrollable sobbing.  The hot, wet tears falling down her face released the immense pressure that had been building inside her head.  She calmed down, pulling herself off the floor to sit on the bed.  She stared down at his leg still sticking out and felt a sudden urge to kick him, hard.  That small flicker of rage disappeared before it could grow into something dangerous.  I love you, she whispered, no matter what you decide.        

The next morning, she woke to his smiling face, hovering over her.  I had the best dream last night.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.  What was it about?

His gaze shifted up towards the ceiling.  I don’t know, but it was good, he said in a light, airy voice.  Like I finally figured things out.

He offered no further explanation, and she didn’t feel the need to ask for more.  A few peaceful weeks drifted by without a single sleepwalking incident.  They traded places – he slept easily, she didn’t.  The dark circles left his eyes and reappeared beneath hers.  Each night, she found it harder to sleep.  She couldn’t relax, she couldn’t let her guard down for a second.  She wouldn’t allow herself to be lulled into a false sense of hope that their troubles were over.  She felt it coming, their day of reckoning; it lingered around every corner, poisoning the air she breathed with an unmistakable sense of doom.  She imagined toxic fumes rising from the depths of that cave in her dream.  That dark place was still calling out to him, even if he seemed happier than he’d ever been.  She knew better, so she kept watch over him, waiting.

And then it happened.  He disappeared.

She knew it as soon as she woke to the emptiness beside her.  When she’d fallen asleep, he’d been there, his presence a palpable thing – all she had to do was reach out and touch him.  She could rest her hand across his chest, feeling the way it moved up and down.  With the weight of his body against the mattress, she knew he was there without having to touch him.  It was an undeniable fact.  But his sudden absence was just as absolute.  This time, she knew he was gone.  She could feel it deep down, on a cellular level – she was alone in the apartment they shared.

Still, she searched for him, just to be sure, flipping every light on along the way.  First she looked under the bed and in the closet, then she started her walk through the apartment.  He wasn’t in any of the corners he’d been in before.  She didn’t find him sitting on the bathroom floor, nor did she find him hiding in the tub.  Nothing in the kitchen either, not even in the cramped space of the cupboard.  In the hallway closet, again, nothing.  She dragged out the small step ladder to check the storage space above the closet – it was large enough to fit a body, but she didn’t find him there either.  She’d done all this before, searching for him, except this time, there was no tremor in her heart, no secret rush that came with the anticipation of finding him at last.  This time, she knew she wouldn’t find him.  The search was largely perfunctory, yet she repeated it, checking every possible space, over and over again.  It was like doing load after load of laundry and expecting something other than clean clothes at the end of each cycle.  Actually, it was worse than that since her efforts yielded nothing at all.

She collapsed across the couch, wondering what to do.  Nothing came to mind.  Her mind, in fact, was totally blank.  After a few moments, she looked over at the hallway leading to the front door.  She leapt up, rushing over.  It was locked – even the chain lock had been latched into place.  She’d been in the habit of using it ever since his sleepwalking started getting worse.  She opened the door and peeked out, but the eerie silence of the hallway felt like a warning; at this late hour, the air was different.  She didn’t belong to the world out there, yet she took a few hesitant steps forward anyway.  The floor felt icy cold against her feet.  Where are you? she whispered, calling out his name.  She knew he wouldn’t answer, just as she knew he hadn’t left this way.  With a shudder, she backed up and shut the door, locking it.  Glancing over at the kitchen, a new thought struck her, one that had never occurred to her before: the fire escape.

She ran to the kitchen, stopping at the window.  It was covered by a retractable gate that couldn’t be opened without first removing the padlock.  She pulled open the drawer where they kept an assortment of odds and ends, looking for the key.  Frantically, she yanked the drawer out, spilling its contents across the floor – the sound of everything falling and clanging together was harsh and loud, destroying the uneasy silence.  The noise made her want to run through the apartment, shattering each light fixture with a hammer and screaming until someone answered.  Instead, she searched through the mess, finally finding the key.  She unlocked the padlock, removed it, and opened the gate.  As expected, the window was still locked.  Even if it hadn’t been, the fact that she found the key proved that he hadn’t left by way of the fire escape.  Though improbable, he could have climbed out the window, reaching through the gate to put the padlock back in place, but then he wouldn’t have also been able to lock the window from the outside.  And as far as she knew, there was only one key to the padlock, which she held in her hand.

She went through the apartment checking all the windows, just to be sure.  The one in the bathroom was too small to fit through.  One of the windows in the living room had bars over the outside, and it was locked anyway; the other one held the air conditioner.  In their bedroom was the last window – the last possible means of escape.  She found it unlocked, but the screen was still in place.  She pushed the window open, seeing if she could slide the screen up.  It wouldn’t budge.  They lived on the fifth floor of a walkup, so he couldn’t have leapt from the window and survived.  Besides, she would have heard him if he had gone out the bedroom window.   

Now she knew for sure.  Somehow, he’d found a way out that couldn’t be explained.    

She spent the rest of the night in a fugue-like state.  By morning, she saw that the mess in the kitchen had been cleaned up, though she didn’t remember doing it.  She called the police – eventually, she filed a missing person’s report, but no one seemed to take her seriously, especially when she insisted that he disappeared by unnatural means.  They told her people up and left all the time, that she must have been mistaken about the chain lock being in place when she woke that night.  Despite everything that had happened, she didn’t feel sad, exactly – she felt drained.  It would take a while to muster the energy for sad.

In a follow-up, the police asked if he was suicidal.  No, she answered in a quiet, dispassionate voice, remembering the scars along his arms, how they opened up and screamed at her in a dream from what felt like so long ago.  As far as she knew, he wasn’t suicidal, but, over the sleepless nights since his disappearance, she started doubting herself more and more.  Could the chain lock have been unlatched that night?  She held the image of it locked in place like a snapshot in her mind, but with the lack of sleep and growing anxiety, the picture became distorted.  Dreams seeped into reality, days were hardly discernable from night.  When she managed a few hours of sleep here and there, the one thing she couldn’t bear was the fact that he had gone missing from her dreams as well, which quickly became as empty as her reality.  After disappearing, he never made a single appearance in any of them.  She waited for him there on the other side, hoping he would give her a sign.

During the day, she carried on, though she couldn’t manage to leave the apartment.  They’d stopped calling from work.  Friends had stopped calling too.  There was no one left – no one but the delivery boys who brought her what she needed to survive.  One can order anything, she discovered.  She ordered cases of wine, guzzling entire bottles down at night as she stumbled though the apartment, talking to him.  Talking to no one.  She took pills to fall asleep at night and drank entire pots of coffee to wake up each morning, laughing at her new routine.  She didn’t have to leave the apartment at all, though she knew things couldn’t go on like this forever.  The only thing that kept her going was the need to find him.  There was a hunger in her belly, urging her on – like a deep, bottomless hole, it swallowed everything else.  She couldn’t resist, even if she wanted to.

She studied lucid dreaming online but couldn’t make it work.  She thought of sleepwalking and how that might lead her to him, but it wasn’t something you could just force yourself to do.  She thought of him all the time, longing for the way things once were, when she slept so easily and they laughed about the things they couldn’t control.  She spread out across the living room floor, letting her mind wander.  She pictured herself walking down a long, dark tunnel, musty and damp, going on for miles and miles, twisting this way and that; long after losing track of time – walking so far that time ceased to matter – she imagined that tunnel opening up at last, revealing a light so bright it was blinding, though its warmth was strong enough to set her free.

Alone in their apartment, she imagined all sorts of things.

Out of boredom, she took the step ladder and climbed into the storage space above the hallway closet, finding that it really was big enough to fit a body.  Her body.  She crammed herself inside, pulling the doors shut to welcome the darkness.  She waited in silence and isolation, hoping to slip away to that secret place where she could find him.  In minutes or hours, she fell asleep, floating along in the darkness that held her.  Sometime later, she woke with a mind so clear it seemed like a miracle.  She had her answer at last, so she kicked the doors open, letting in the faint light.  She crawled out of that space, ready to find him.  She’d go looking for that tunnel, and that tunnel would lead her to where she needed to be.  Never had she been more certain of anything.        

A night had passed in that dark space, so she had to wait for the day to fade again to get started.  Once evening arrived, she lined up the bottles of pills he’d collected.  There were natural remedies, prescribed medication, and over-the-counter sleeping aides.  He’d tried everything.  And so would she.    

It would take the deepest, longest sleep to find him.  She needed help getting there, so she took a handful of the pills and washed them down with a glass of wine.  She had to go further this time.  She had to go further than she’d ever gone before, because he was worth it.  Being together again was worth it.    

As she started nodding off, a shadow of movement flickered across the room.  Its shape looked familiar.  Though it disappeared in an instant, she smiled anyway, feeling perfectly content.  She knew he was nearby, waiting for her to follow.   

Cameron L. Mitchell is a queer writer who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Literary Orphans, Gravel Literary Magazine, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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aging, Guest Posts, motherhood

Well Played

April 23, 2020
run

By Natalie Serianni

The buzzer sounds as I pull up my white soccer socks. It’s freezing; I can see my breath.

I’m inside.

Inside but outside. An old airport hangar converted into a three-field soccer complex.

The scoreboard reads 10:52 pm.

The game is a few minutes late to start, people like ants piling on to the pitch.

It’s familiar territory, this kind of a field; my home for at least 20 years of my life.

The highlight reel:

Suburbia 80’s soccer: Members Only jackets on the sidelines; my mother, her frosted hair and Reeboks cheering and clapping as we whizzed by. Kids running around orange cones or picking flowers in the corner. Learning to kick. To run.

Elementary soccer:  Billy Ocean blaring as we drill, drill, drill. Stations: moving us along down, down, down the field.

Teen games: Sweltering summer games. Cold washcloths, straight from the Coleman cooler, strategically placed on wrists and necks. On the face, the faint smell of Tide during an inhale. Calves aching, but young bodies craving movement. Able to rest, play. Repeat.

High School: Hot sun and short shorts. Boys. Are the boys looking? Here comes the boys team. Learning how to play dirty. Sitting on busses. The spaghetti dinners and “We will Rock You” piped through the PA. Warm up tapes, mixing the power of Public Enemy and Led Zeppelin. It was theatrical: the show, the spectacle instead of the game. There were parents in the bleachers; my father at every game. Home or Away, home or away. On the cusp of a bigger game.

College Soccer: Always away; so far from home. Different state, different soil. So many sprints. Practices that were competitions. Late nights lit by black lights and Rage Against the Machine in cement block dorms rooms. Hung over mornings that began with pushups, noses tickled by fresh mowed grass, trickling temple-sweat. It was four years too long.

The muscle, the memory. That competitive monster. It does not fade.

And now, present day: Indoor and on the team. 43. I’ve returned. I’ve paid my dues. I paid my registration fee and there won’t be a trophy. Or an end of season banquet where we don something other than sweats and eat Chicken Marsala in a Holiday Inn conference room. 40 year old soccer is having carpet burned knees and burning lungs. After-game pitchers of cold Coors Light and forty year olds circled around a table, talking about “sweet shots” and back slaps with Nice move out there! Sweaty socks, tiny turf bits falling out as we munch stale, hours old popcorn under buzzing fluorescent lights. It’s the joy of knowing I’ll be sore for two days; my husband tucking my babies into bed. Returning home to a quiet house. A lone, dim light above the oven, my midnight invitation to solitutude. A late, silent shower.

There is freedom on that field.

An ability to fly. Away from preparation, or list-making, or lunch-packing for others. The anchor of motherhood and other demons temporily lifted.

It’s a game and I’m playing.

It’s just play.

And I’m just a mother running and running.

Finally, running.

***

Running was my extra-curricular activity as a women’s college soccer player.

I was running to stay in shape; training for the next match. Preparing. And also, strangely,  whittling myself down to a muscle; stripping away to the leanest version of myself. Past the woman I hated; past the woman who had to be playing a sport. I ran away from myself, from my disdain, running at 5:30 in the morning to think, and think and think and think and think

…about how much I hated playing soccer.

How much I hated my body for playing this game that was no longer a game.

I remember being a college sophomore in a dank, sweaty basement gym, floor fans blasting at 11pm.

Alone.

My old monster: Working out. Losing all traces of myself.

Fanatically exercising. An hour plus on the Stairmaster was normal. Push down, push down, hold on, hold on. Whoosh, Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Incremental Red lights on the machine dashboard, dots, Screaming: go faster! Push harder! Pulsing: Don’t slow down! 275 Calories to go! Dripping with sweat, my hands slipped off the black handrails. Add a scratchy white hand towel and the sliding became more comical: the towel and I slipping further down the machine. I prop myself back up, my sweaty body hunched over the machine in agony, pushing myself.

And this was after two hour practices on the college soccer field.

Self-sabotage. I had to work it off because bigger, stronger, meant fat.

I wasn’t. I was a muscular 20 year old woman playing a collegiate sport, feeling betrayed by her body’s strength. Where it showed; the armor I created. I needed the heaviness gone.

Why did I confuse strength with size?

More Cardio. More stairs. Only eating small sections of apples. Maybe a few raisins.

The cycle continued for a year, my legs becoming chicken bones.

Can a competitive sport turn you into the opponent?

Trying to disappear, shaming myself away from my muscular thighs and too-strong arms.

To combat this, I:

ran at odd hours and ate salads with no dressing and drank hard liquor since my college friends told me there were no calories and wore too baggy jeans and woke up starving in the middle of the night and dreamed of delicious cheese-y lasagna all while I could not brush the stench of hunger from my breath. 

There was a warped, seductive power in wearing a white v neck t-shirt with your clavicle peaking out. It screamed small. In control. Look at me, dammit. See me. I’m more than the game.

My body wanted nothing to do with this warfare. It didn’t fight back. It collapsed. A non-female body; period loss for a year and a half. Complete disconnection.

There was running. Morning miles and marathons. Hip flexors tight from repetitive repetition.

There was pulling: a row machine. Picking up: Black dumbells from their home on the rack.

There was pushing: leg lifts. A heavy bar away from my chest.

And later, babies.

Mothering is its own kind of sport, birth the ultimate sporting event. There are not many spectators, but the world has a wager on you.

Growing big and small, and big and small. The weigh ins. Once, both of our growths recorded on charts, listening for two heartbeats and placing hands with measuring tape on bellies. There was a pre-game type of excitement, energy and even anxiety: delighted worry mixed with sweet longing.

Two different babies, two different births: a 15 hour overnight labor; a quick two hour event. No medications. Contractions that split my body from its core; hunched over on all fours. Reaching through legs to pull out my bloody heart.

I pushed, plumbing my body for a strength I didn’t possess. Searching inside, trying to get out of my own way.

And then, the after. Lightness. Relief. Like the athlete, there’s recovery. Loss of fluids, blood and energy. To be replenished.

There is a sweet decline. Loss. The gestational heft that buoyed you both, your plump – the admirable warrior who carried and grew another.

Then, moving on to figuring where you fit: new mom groups, old jeans. A new life.

The focus is on the baby. But it’s also about you. Where are you?

Nine months at the mercy of a growing body: cells restoring, blood volume doubling, hearts beating simultaneously. Placenta placement? Fine. Baby measurement? Small, but healthy. You after birth?

Just you wait.

I made an intentional choice to be big, not small in mothering –  done listening to me tell me I wasn’t up for the job. I could no longer be steam rolled by my inadeqauices. Or my core-shaking anxiety: that my baby might slip through my fingers and fall on the hard wood. That I couldn’t drive with a baby in my backseat. The imagined terror that she would tumble off the overpass while strapped in the stroller. Or stop breathing without my hands lightly on her chest, feeling for movement at 3am.

I’m left to wonder about mothers, the wounds we have. The weight we carry.

Are we ever in control?

It’s what we all know: it’s work to keep the motherhood monster in the cave. The one that consistently tells us we’re not winning, but failing; we’re doing it all wrong and one step away from messing up our children. When I can’t control, I manipulate: my mind. My body.

No more.

I question my ability to protect my child. It haunts me at night. But I name my faults and know my weaknesses. I know the enormity of living a life. There, I find myself.

***

Motherless at 25, my body was betrayed. Again.

My stomach felt it first; a sucker punch to the solar plexus.

Aching: on and on and on, through the fibers of my interior.

Her body was betrayed, too: a stroke. So fast. Was there a chance for her?

For recovery, for a life?

After eighteen years of grief, I’m finally, nearly, out.

The body does, indeed, keep score.

There is emergence: the catalyst was my baby born on September 2nd. Also, My mother’s birthday. And, also, the day my mother died. Eighteen years before.

September 2nd.

At the dawn of my daughter’s life, I’m taking my mother’s lifeless, leftover years and converting them into a kind of currency.

I’m ready to play again.

I’ll slide quarters into the machine

Put me in coach I think to myself.

I gather my curls and rake them into a ponytail.

I’m warmed up, I’m primed. Loose.

I’ve loosened around my mother’s absence.

In returning to the void, I’ve found connection. Connecting me to her, me to my body. There’s power when you inhabit what you fear. Loneliness. Longing. My body used to be a container to evacuate, curse, question and crush. Today, I can embrace. Even when grief’s tentacles have taken over the ship, how we become our bodies dictates our course forward.

***

“SUB!!!!” I hear my teammate scream from the field.

I scan the field for her voice. I look to the clock: 2 minutes and 37 seconds left in the game.

I tuck my shirt in.

I’m looking forward to that field.

I wait for her to run over. She looks me in the eye, and our sweaty hands slap each other.

At the same time: “Good work out there” I said, starting my jog.

“You got this,” she says, breathless, winding her run down to a walk.

Let me out there, I think.

Watch out, I think.

I run towards the game.

I run towards the things I know.

Natalie Serianni is a Seattle-based writer, teacher and mother of two. Her work has appeared in Seattle’s ParentMap Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Sammiches and Psych Meds, and various blogs and literary journals. Her writing centers on grief, gratitude and motherhood.

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Books, Guest Posts, healing, Young Voices

Inside Out

April 5, 2020
head

By Allison L. Palmer

I threw up in the bushes outside the hospital the day my sister was born. I didn’t stomp my feet and demand that my mom shove her back up there or refuse to go hold her. I didn’t hop up and down and beg my dad to bring me inside so I could kiss my brand-new best friend. No tantrums, no joy. Just vomit. I stopped right next to the E.R. entrance, put my hands on my dimpled kindergartener knees, and barfed. My dad looked down at me with a crease between his eyebrows as I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my sweater. He knelt next to me and patted my back, checking my forehead for fever. Yes, I feel better now. He shrugged and took my hand as we walked through the doors. Even then, my body knew the things my head didn’t. This is gateway love. My sister was my first. She will probably be my last. Maybe we have to empty out parts ourselves to make room for everything new.

My dad made space for us. Now that I’m older, I see that he was always up ahead of me. Carving away splinters, repainting colors, clearing cobwebs. He could blow clouds from the sky as easily as I could make a birthday wish. My childhood had soft edges. When I was ten and my sister was five, he took us on a trip to a small island off the coast of Canada. He drove us around in a red rental car with the windows down. July air rolled in off the St. Lawrence River, warm and light blue. He pulled the car off the road at the point of a finger. Anything we wanted. Waterfalls, homemade jam, sheep in a field. For me, we stopped at four used bookstores in a day. He popped sour cherries in my sisters’ mouth whenever she started to pipe up and spun her around in circles so I could empty the stacks into baskets with no limit. I wasn’t picky, not even a little bit. While I glossed over titles and artwork, I willed the piles to grow until they reached the ceiling and enclose me, unreachable, in a fortress that smelled of ink, where every wall and window would be made of paper and I would never run out words.

Growing up, I read the same books over and over until their covers fell off. I stole from libraries. I learned from The Lovely Bones that it’s easy to keep things that aren’t yours and make them yours, in more ways than one. I stuck V.C. Andrew’s Flowers In the Attic under my sweatshirt because at the time, it looked huge and menacing and exactly like something I shouldn’t be reading. I didn’t let that thing go until all 400 pages of arsenic and incest and locked doors and mothers who shouldn’t be mothers were branded on my brain. As Cathy and Chris descended their knotted sheet rope to the lawn of Foxworth Hall, I chewed gum and thought about evil. Then ordered the rest of the series on the internet along with the audiobook of Lolita because the jacket art, a girl in sunglasses sucking on a lollipop, seemed undeniably and captivatingly wrong. For days, I laid crumpled on my bed and cried to Jeremy Irons unidentifiable accent. I cried for Humbert Humbert and for the way people can’t fix their hearts, cried because I thought Dolores was undeserving. Cried because nymphets probably do exist. I filed away that word away under “L” for lust, love, lies and loneliness. All of the above. I took to organizing everything I read in books into neat boxes in my head.

After I’d finished gutting the bookstores and the sour cherries had dwindled to just pits and stems, we took a drive up the coast of Bas-Saint-Laurent to see the whales. We wrapped ourselves up in neon orange wind jackets with matching pants and climbed into an aluminum airboat, barely scraping 25 feet long. My dad sat in the middle and tucked my sister under one arm and me under the other. The guide alternated excitedly between English and French in the same breath. My dad kept his eyes on the horizon as the land behind us became nothing more than a thin green strip. I was watching the sun glint off his glasses when the guide began exclaiming things in Frenglish and making big gestures and everyone on the boat stood up. I gripped back of my seat and craned my head around their legs. My dad sat unmoving, but he had pushed his glasses up on his head. He took my face in his palms and turned it out to sea. The blue whale is the biggest living thing on the planet. 200 tons. Its body looked more silver than blue and it stretched an incomprehensible distance, rising in and out of the waves. I held my hands up to the sides of my eyes like blinders and worked my way down the length, head to tail, trying and failing to put boundaries on its existence. Its mouth was the size of the boat. If it opened its jaws, we might drift inside and float for an eternity along an endless shoreline of bones and blubber. I leaned closer into my dad’s side. There might be someone in there right now. We probably couldn’t hear the shouting.

I saw a dead whale about a year later. I could put limits on this one, easily. The three of us had just moved to a beach cottage in the wrong season, the middle of the winter. The ocean was our backyard and we talked there on weekends, down eleven flights of stairs worn splinterless by the saltwater and wind. Even in the frost, the rot smell was still strong enough to make my eyes water. I breathed exclusively through my mouth. Only a hulking skeleton was left, taller than me, with grey flesh still clinging on in some places. My sister was hardly a quarter of its pelvis, toddling around the perimeter like a lost duckling who has mistaken its mother for a corpse. I had never been that close to something so dead. I felt something next to sadness. In the backyard of reverence, but not quite. No one makes coffins that big. I stood in its ribcage and next its open eye sockets. Bizarrely inside and outside all at once. While we explored, we must have talked about how it ended up there, beached, alone, and now three quarters decayed. The likely death. I tried to chase away the gulls that hovered around the body, but more came. Before we left, I took off my gloves and bent at the edge of the waves to rinse my hands. The water was so cold it burned. I thought of the man sailing along the gut of the blue whale, calling out to empty, unforgiving waters and I felt small.

On the way back from the coast, we stopped at an antique-ish gallery surrounded by gardens. My dad admired its history. I’d been promised a stop at the bakery next door. The building was a refurbished barn made of smooth wood painted yellow with big windows. Windchimes tinkled and swayed around all the doors, betraying the way it had settled quietly into the background. I wondered if ghosts could make noise. Inside, the walls were cluttered with paintings of distorted faces and oversized clocks and sculptures made of things like obsidian and repurposed wire netting. I wandered absent-minded up and down the aisles, brushing my fingers along the eclectic treasures. My favorite bauble was a carving of a ballet dancer with movable parts. Her joints were set on loose hinges and splayed out in all directions around a fringe of white tool. I held her by her tiny wooden waist and rolled her head around between my fingers. The little dancer’s face was blank, expressionless. I imagined a soft smile should have been painted there, along with sleepy half-closed eyes. Something fuzzy, out of focus, and full of grace. I imagined she had a lot of secrets.

The thing about a body made of wood and set on hinges is that begins to stiffen. Arms that once stretched seamlessly through space now barely extend. Legs that once leapt and faltered without abandon start to creak. The thing about being afraid of your own body is that it becomes a stranger. I think this is what we think grace is, partly. Ethereal fear floating under your heart. We mistake it a lot of the time for beauty. As I learned to dance, my body lengthened and hollowed out right before my eyes. My teacher’s name was Ms. Mary. She sat always in the front, always in black, doling out critiques like sunshine and lightning. I remember we were practicing pirouettes for the fourth time that week. We practiced and practiced, with red cheeks and quick breaths until all of us turned together but we couldn’t stop because one girl in the back kept falling. Her name was Maggie. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, pulling herself off the floor, madly blinking back tears. Ms. Mary shook her head in slow motion, then called out my name. She instructed me to stand in front of Maggie, so she couldn’t see herself. She was getting in her own way. Stand there and don’t move. The other girls silently parted as I crossed the studio and aligned myself carefully in the mirror. The top of Maggie’s auburn bun was just visible above my head. She was taller than me. Keep going, Ms. Mary said. Until she gets it right. As she turned, I could sense every hot cheek in the room blistering until the heat fried away every nerve that said to scream, to run, to throw yourself on the floor along with her until we were all unmovable, peaceless, quiet. Lovely in our paralysis. I heard Maggie hiccup as she stumbled and hit the floor again and I retreated completely inside myself. I felt the grains of wood overtaking and splintering along my skin and straightening my spine, felt my face rounding out to nothing. Get up. My ribs began shrinking down onto my lungs and grasping hold of my throat. Her breath came faster and began breaking into sobs and the thing about being afraid of your own body is that you can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else to go.

There was a sharp smack on the window over my head. The figurine fell out of my hands and clattered onto the floor. I hadn’t even noticed that the sky had opened up and was now heaving down rain. I ran towards the noise and found my dad and sister kneeling just outside the door. I peeked around their shoulders and saw a bird half-limp in my dad’s hand, maybe six inches long, with black and white tipped wings. It was laying on its side, little legs outstretched and stiff. Poor thing got confused in this weather and flew straight into the window. Wispy noises came out its beak. It reminded me of my sister when she was a baby and how she cooed while she slept. I used to sneak into her room to run the tip of my pinky along her jaw until she would bat my hand away in her sleep. I dropped to the floor in front of her crib before she could wake up. Must be in shock. My dad shook his head and set the bird down gingerly under the edge of a bush. He took my sisters hand and reached for mine. Come on, let’s go. I was still looking down. Its black eyes were lolling around wildly in its skull and its body had started twitching. The muscles had nothing to hold on to, like a little girl who can’t stop falling long enough to stand.

In second grade, a boy I knew died. He stabbed me with pencils and tripped me on the basketball court at recess and I hated him. He gave me a scar, on my right knee. Shaped like a T. Then an ATV flipped over on top of him in the woods and he was brain-dead before my scab hadn’t even fallen off. My mom brought me to the funeral, and we sat in the last pew of the church waiting for a eulogy that no one managed to deliver. She handed me green and blue Sweetarts from her purse and I sucked on them until my tongue was numb. The casket was open, filled with stuffed animals and sports trophies and an entire embalmed life. I looked at my feet and fidgeted and tried to pray even though I had absolutely no idea how to. I am still uneasy in long lines and in silence. My knee itched and I could see the fresh pink skin peeking out from underneath the scab. I wondered what happened to cuts and scabs when you were dead. When I picked mine off eventually, it didn’t bleed. The skin was permanently puckered. I dug my nail into it, to no avail. A tiny spot of nothing. I remember I laid on the hillside outside the church with my mom after it was over and held her while she cried. Both of her parents died when she was 16. She likes to say that I saved her life. I wonder if now she loves less because I’m branded by a dead kid. The thought is fleeting. On the outside, my body is only 99% alive.

Before I could stop myself, I had reached out and taken the bird in my own two hands, cupping it against my t-shirt like a newborn. I laid down on the grass, tucking my knees up to my chin. The wet blades glued themselves to my limbs and cradled my head and left trails of goosebumps like comets on my exposed skin. I didn’t hear the hectic symphony of the windchimes clanging to a fever pitch. I think a small coffin must be much easier to build than a big one. If I could, I’d build one myself, from the softening wood of my body. This is close enough. Didn’t feel the icy rain drops that slid down my spine and under the rain coat my dad must have laid over me. For once, the cold was freeing, limitless. I could swim through it for an eternity. Didn’t notice when the storm had gone, and the sun lit the backs of my eyelids pink. My thoughts were replaced with all the words I’d ever read in books. It’s like when you drop something heavy on a floor covered in dust and the world goes away, just for a second, in the disarray. When it clears, I see my small sister’s face pressed into the grass in front of me. Her eyes are open, and calm. In them, are the parts of myself I thought had gone. When she places her hands over mine, I think about how hearts sound like they are gulping. Like they want to break out of your chest and drink in the air, how they crave leftover life, the 1%, and how there is nothing else like the impossibly tiny body underneath both sets of our fingers.

 

Allison Palmer is an undergraduate student and new writer. She studies Biology and English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her other work can be read online in Pithead Chapel and Eunoia Review. We are THRILLED to be featuring her work.

 

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Guest Posts

Working in Circles

February 29, 2020
richard

By Elizabeth Earley

The first time I met Richard Yaski, I was 32 years old and freshly heartbroken. I’d been living in Phoenix, which proved to be a metaphysical as well as physical desert. I had moved there from Chicago to be with a woman I loved, but she cheated on me and left me, leaving me to turn to bad and destructive habits like cigarette smoking and affairs with married women. Women who were married to men. In the end, there were only two such affairs, but, as a wise friend told me then, it only takes two to make a pattern.

My move to Phoenix was significant in a different way as well—it marked the first time I was offered a job as a writer. I’d applied to the job with writing samples from my half-finished graduate program, and they not only hired me, but also paid for my moving expenses.

From the outset, I felt a fraud in the role of paid writer—the work was too easy and was, fundamentally, unearned. I hadn’t published much of anything. I’d written maybe three novels by then, all of them withering in a drawer collecting rejections faster than dust. It was in this state that I travelled to Northern California with my older friend and mentor who had dated Richard. And although it didn’t work out romantically between them, he remained a significant part of her life, and she wanted me to meet him—a celebrated artist with enormous metal sculptures decorating a pictorial property nestled in a redwood forest.

Back then, Richard was on fire. Brimming to excess with energy, he was filled with an insatiable and relentless, highly creative and spiritual drive. It came out of his mouth in rapid, run-on speech; through his eyes with long, thoughtful and interested gazes. He had asked me to write about him back then and I agreed, swept up as I was with him and his sculptures and his home fashioned from trees. But I never did. A combination of my sense of inadequacy at the time combined with a single rejection I received in response to a pitch to a much too famous magazine conspired to have me quit before I even really started. Then I fell out of touch with Richard.

A decade elapsed during which I finished my graduate degree and experienced some accomplishments as a writer. Then I survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident and wrote a new kind of book in its aftermath—a hybrid memoir, which I titled, The Eternal Round. While writing this, I learned that my second novel had won an award and would be published by a well-known and coveted publisher. As my publication date approached, I knew I needed to finish a draft of the new manuscript before my second novel came out because I would need to focus on its launch. As I searched for a place to go where I could separate from my daily responsibilities and write, nothing short of a self-abduction from my life would do. I thought of Richard and his property.

Now, ten years later, Richard is calmer and more settled. He’s been through a lot—illness and injury and a financial crisis in which he was the victim of a ponzi scheme and lost most of his life’s savings. He was involved in a drawn-out court battle over it. There was a time when he thought he might lose the home and land. But thankfully, he kept it, and I was able to visit yet again. I came to finish my manuscript. And I stayed to fulfill my 10-year-old promise to write about him.

He is nobody and nothing. That is what Richard Yaski asserts is the most important lesson of his life. During a 5-day meditation retreat he attended, he realized that art has to be authentic. And to be authentic, it has to be let through the conduit, the artist, honestly.

“I am not Richard, my name is Richard. I am not a sculptor, I make sculptures.”

I listened to him with skepticism. Aren’t all artists and writers desperately attached to the positive yet wholly subjective reception of their work? I see my regrettable though undeniable writer’s ego as a big, glass sphere: as immense as it is delicate. Holding it in my hands, seeing my own warped face reflected in its gloss, I am it and it is me. Until I trip on the casual criticism of anyone and the whole thing is smashed. What saves me are the other dimensions of my life, the parts that round it out like being a mother and a partner, a friend, a human.

Richard is also human. He makes more than sculptures. The home he created from the trees is perhaps the most stunning. Never mind the world-class art that sits half a mile down a dirt road in Mendocino County, California. The kind you would expect to see inside the clean walls and high ceilings of a distinguished gallery in New York. But it’s so not New York that I have an experience of cognitive dissonance just looking around.

Yellow and orange construction vehicles, some parked along the edge of the woods, some in the gravel carport alongside the car. A crane, folded up and sleeping, resting from the weight it’s carried. The forklift beat up from good use. These and other heavy machinery somehow seem a natural part of the landscape, as do the sculptures they helped to create. Large, metal works of art dignify the opening in the woods, the clearing of trees where plant life has been tamed and cultivated in the area around the house and other buildings. There are several buildings: a yurt used as a detached office/art studio/meditation space adorned with prayer flags, a tiny house with a lofted roof and large skylight (this is where guests like me stay when they come), a building that seems to be for storage, a large, cluttered workshop, and, out behind the house on the other side of a wooden fence and wall made of logs, a converted 1953 International School Bus permanently installed and built into a cottage.

This last was the vehicle that Richard Yaski arrived in when he was 24 years old. It was the early 70s and he was working as a leather smith in Topanga Canyon. He and his girlfriend came to see a friend in Albion. The rugged coast of Mendocino County flanked by the Redwood forest beckoned him with its beauty and sense of magic, like anything was possible. When he returned to Topanga, he couldn’t get the feeling about that place or its inspiring power out of his mind. When the owners of the house he and his girlfriend rented decided to sell and gave them notice to move out, he knew where to go. Putting everything they owned in the bus, they drove back up to Mendocino County and looked for their next home.

Home is a word most people associate with at least four walls and a roof, but that’s not what Richard found. The 10-acre plot of forestland he purchased in 1970 was densely wooded, though it did come with a well and septic tank. “I had to crawl on my hands and knees under the brush to see that it had a back yard,” he said.

With deep respect for nature, Richard began the project of building a home by searching for trees that were already on their way out. These sick and dying trees became the raw materials for the house he roughed in but that remained unfinished for years. Years during which he lived in the bus with his first wife and young son.

Seven years earlier, in a metal shop class in high school, Richard made his first sculpture. It was an abstract metallic woman with steel-wool hair, copper coils for eyebrows, a welded together face, can-shaped torso, and gear cogs for breasts. While his older brother was in art school, Richard sold that first sculpture for $3,000 to the president of Interstate Host Corporation and it was installed at Detroit international Airport at the hotel restaurant. He used the money to travel Europe with a friend after finishing high school. When he returned from that months-long trip, he decided it was time to grow up and earn a living, so he enrolled in real estate school where he would get his license and sell houses. But he hated real estate school and left. He went to junior college after that, but walked out after a few weeks. Finally, his father agreed to pay for art school, but he dropped out of there as well. After two years of art school, a teacher convinced him that a better art school would be a garage wired for 220 electricity where he could spend his time just making sculptures. He agreed, so he left the prestigious art school, Chouinard, and did just that. He had his first one-man show at 20 years old on La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles. From there, Richard curated his own education wherein he hired people for $6/hour to work alongside and learn from. He learned to be a carpenter this way, then a general contractor.

Richard reminds me of myself in this way—exploring many trades and wearing various hats to earn a living to support the true passion while remaining anti-establishment at heart. In spite of my prejudice against it, I pursued higher education like any conquest and achieved the paradoxically meaningful and meaningless credential labeling me as a master of fine art. Even so, I pursued that art not as a central but peripheral vocation, placing a series of other, more lucrative professions before it.

All along, Richard made and sold his large sculptures in steel, copper, and aluminum. Now, 56 years later, he sits with me at his home in Little River and we look out at the surrounding forest. His heavy sculptures around the property, each featuring some form of a circle, look as though they’ve grown there straight from the earth, roots and all, as native as the redwoods. This strikes me as a significant coincidence, given the title of the manuscript I came to finish at the desk in the tiny house.

“Why are they all circles?”

“I’ve always worked in circles.”

He explains that he’s been drawn to circles because they create emptiness. And when emptiness gets created, it can get filled.

“Birds make their nests in circles. Life is a circle from birth to death. Each day is a circle from dark to dark. Our bodies are circles from the cells up.” His large hands connect at the fingertips and thumb, forming a circle. From there, he spreads them palms-up toward me, bridging the space between us.

“I’m only responsible for the craftsmanship. These hands merely give birth to whatever wants to come through them.”

This method of transferring the credit for a creation from the creator to the force of creativity itself strikes me as radical. Its humility is only matched by its arrogance, as the assumption is that the artist as conduit is messiah—worthy of both carrying and putting into form an important message from beyond. And yet, the audience’s reception of that message—any assigned merit or liability—will be the sole responsibility of that force. Suddenly I could see what that round decade that delivered me back to this place I started from had to offer: liberation from the obligatory fragile artist’s ego.

I think of this idea of creating emptiness and stillness in the context of an image I have of Richard in my mind, dressed in welding gear, up on a ladder, torch in hand. From such an incredible amount of noise and violence, heat and grinding with sparks flying everywhere, there emerges a source of calm.

Over the years, he’s made sculptures on commission for Apple and Google executives, for corporate collections, for the Kremlin, and in international hotels, including one in Istanbul.

He was offered a one-man show at the California Museum of Art. One of his major sculptures was exhibited for 13 years at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. But many of those ended up also full circle—back on his own property. A property whose centerpiece is the house it took him 35 years to finish. It’s a house with no right angles and overflowing light. There is an outdoor shower on the back deck facing the forest and a catwalk out to a smaller, peninsula deck with a table and chairs.

Inside are cathedral ceilings with generous skylights, bottom to top windows, a wide airy space, and a feeling of being lost in the forest and snug at home somehow simultaneously. Artistry is in all the details. Imported Mexican tiles over hand-thrown sinks. Rough-hewn logs for beams. A lofted bed tucked into the wall under the ceiling in the great room, which looks so cozy and inviting, I have to climb up and try it. In the bedroom, above the bed is the largest skylight, where Richard and his wife sleep blanketed by stars. The other dominant feature of the bedroom is the handcrafted stone fireplace, the second in the house.

The energy in the bedroom feels different somehow, even quieter and more peaceful. Richard speaks and I remember why. “This is the room I built for my late wife to die in,” he says. His current wife, Diane, stands beside him. I look at her, search her face for a reaction. She smiles and says, “It’s an honor for me to sleep here.” She’s radiant and intelligent and warm. She’s 25 years his junior. When I first met Richard a decade earlier, he was with another woman he’d been with for years but hadn’t yet married. When Richard talked about Loama, his second wife who he was with the longest, and who he cared for during an eleven-year losing battle with cancer, that girlfriend had been uncomfortable and angry. She was threatened by the reverence and love in his voice when he spoke of his late wife. But Diane, who’s been with him four years now, has no trace of jealousy or insecurity.

After Richard began building the house, he and his first wife didn’t make it. She moved into a cabin on the neighboring property and their son, Jud, went back and forth between them. He also had a stepson from that relationship who often stayed with him. Then he met Loama, his second wife, and her daughter, Dakota. They were together for 21 years before she died of cancer. The bedroom was the product of her wish—that he build her a beautiful room in which to die.

In the years following Loama’s death, Richard cycled through many lovers, another way in which I relate to him. My instinct even when I first met him was to judge him, to write him off as a typical womanizing, egomaniac white man artist. But he defied my ready and waiting judgments with small surprises—soft eyes, deep respect for nature, politically progressive ideology, true humility, and, perhaps most surprising, an anti-masculine, unapologetic affection toward other men with whom he shared intimate friendships. By intimate I don’t mean sexual. With one brief exception in the free-loving 60’s, Richard had been decidedly hetero in his affinity for lovers. The platonic intimacy he shared with men was a closeness and a tenderness that men like him culturally reserved only for women.

One such friendship was with a man who ended up engaging him in the ponzi scheme that almost was his financial undoing. He lost most of his life’s savings in that ordeal, but the real injury was that the perpetrator was a close friend of Richard’s who was present and in the room the night before Loama died. The worst blow was the betrayal.

I ask Richard if Loama’s death followed by his financial loss contained the worst times in his life. He says no. It was the loss of a child to suicide. Richard’s first wife had a son when he met her, Brandon, who Richard helped to raise as his own.

“That was the worst thing I ever had to walk through,” he says.

Another strange parallel. In the manuscript I travelled there to finish, I wrote about my grandfather’s suicide. And perhaps it’s that subject matter combined with the setting that had brought me so close to my own existential angst. Having been there in the forest for four days already, the calm and the quiet are cacophonous. With no cell reception, no internet, no access to the outside world, and with a darkness at night so total there’s nowhere to look but within, it makes sense that someone in a tortured mental state would feel driven to leave the planet. But the hush and the stillness is juxtaposed with a frenzy of activity: leaves rustling in the wind, water trickling in a deep ravine, insects and critters busy doing their part in a robust ecosystem teeming with diverse life. And the quietest yet most profound enterprise there among the trees—the oxygen pumping and flowing like lifeblood out into the world.

Now, it’s been eight years and Diane and Richard have been through a lot together. Diane cared for Richard through his bout with prostate cancer and supported him through his long, painful court battle. I asked her what she thought when she got together and he then lost everything, including, almost, his home. “I love him and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I knew I’d live with him in a tent if we had to. It would be hard, but we would face it together,” she said.

Through rental income and the small amount of work Richard was able to do during those years, he didn’t have to lose his home. And he emerged on the other side of the court battle and the health crisis with enough money to live and with his health restored. And as we sit on the back deck talking, I can sense the peace in his heart. I can see how the events of the past decade since I first met him, although they may have been difficult, have softened and reorganized him, oriented him toward stillness. The effect is to dispel my skepticism about his egolessness. And with that, a yearning so strong it makes a physical ache to also have no ego.

“How do I separate myself from the work I produce when it makes me feel so vulnerable?”

Richard smiles and looks me dead in the eyes. Something in the look makes me understand: he does still have the fragile ego, he just doesn’t relate to it as who he is.

“If you aren’t scared shitless, you’re not being honest with yourself. It’s part of what creativity requires of you. But creativity is its own thing, its own intelligence.”

Because of his financial drama and illness, Richard hasn’t made a large sculpture in years. But it’s clear that at age 73, he has more to come. He’s spent time clearing out and organizing his workshop. “I’m ready to get back to work,” he said with a smile.

Richard’s greatest work of art may not be any of his sculptures. It may not even be the beautiful home he built for himself and the loves he’s adopted into it over the years. It’s instead the person he is inside of each empty, still moment. “Just being is my art,” he said, “the art of living is the finest.”

And perhaps he’s correct. Perhaps the finest art I can never hope to master is just that.

Having come to his forest home and accomplished my goal of finishing a draft of The Eternal Round, I’m struck as Richard talks by the range of metaphysical meanings in the forest surrounding us. The forest as a harbor. As a refuge. As a trap. As a witness.

Listening to him, I watch the trees, which seem to watch Richard. They gaze down at him from their impossible heights, professing their own ancient love. They’ve witnessed the past half-century of this man’s life. They offered up some flesh to make him a home. They held him and those he’s loved close and safe among them. They’ve mirrored the drama, the joys and the heartbreaks, with the breathtaking filtered light of sunsets and with the total darkness of the night inside them.

Elizabeth Earley is the author of two novels: A Map of Everything, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and Like Wings, Your Hands, which won the Women’s Prose Prize at Red Hen Press and the American Fiction Award for best LGBTQ novel. Earley is also an editor at Jaded Ibis Press. Purchase her latest audio book, Like Wings, Your Hands, here.

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