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cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

Six months after my ex-husband died, his brother left a message on my voicemail. He was going to blow my fucking head off, Luke said. While Tim was alive, Luke often showed up unannounced at our remote rural property. He was also apt to appear at the local café/bar and seat himself at my table as I visited with friends. Yet despite Luke’s history of violence, felony convictions, and easy access to guns, I was not particularly panicked. As a counselor, educator, and deputy sheriff, I considered myself skilled at soothing agitated men. I choreographed elaborate scenarios for how I’d rescue my students should a gunman appear in my classroom.

Besides, I’d known Luke since his birth; it was difficult to fear someone you’d first seen in diapers.

“Tim’s bothering me,” Luke’s message said. “If he doesn’t stop, I’m going to blow his fucking head off.”

I called Luke back. “I know about Tim bothering you. He bothers me too. But I thought I should point out that Tim is dead.”

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

“Does he have a gun?” the 911 operator asked. After Tim and I separated, and he took to showing up outside my window in the middle of the night, they asked the same question.

“I have no idea,” I said then. “Should I go out and ask?”

Tim often told me, “There are things about me you’ll never know,” and despite our fourteen years together, I had no idea whether he had guns. Prior to our marriage, he’d been a Buddhist monk, so firearms seemed unlikely, at least to someone as much in denial as I was.

I found out the guns were real the day before Tim’s death. His young daughter told me he visited the shooting range daily to perfect his aim. When he tried to force her to hold one of the guns, she called me, sobbing

“I don’t know if Luke’s armed,” I told the dispatcher. She took my name, and an officer called me back.

“Did you record the message?” he said. “If so, we have a crime.”

“I did,” I said. But when I tried to retrieve Luke’s message, it had disappeared. “I must have messed up somehow,” I said. The officer started the recitation: “no crime has been committed, no witnesses, no blood, get a restraining order.”

“I am a deputy sheriff,” I said. “At your office. Look it up.” For eighteen months, I’d coordinated a drug and alcohol program. “I’m quite familiar with the danger of having one’s head blown off, whether I recorded the call or not. I’d like you to do something now.”

Within the hour, Luke was arrested. The following day, someone called from the prosecutor’s office. Would I be willing to drop the charges? “It’s a lot of paperwork for us,” she said. I requested they proceed. From working in law enforcement over the years, I knew that if charges aren’t brought, the crime never happened. You need a paper trail.

I was glad I insisted, because a few days before Luke threatened me, he’d stopped taking his antipsychotics. When his case went to court, he was let off for thirty days served, with instructions to take his meds. I’m presuming Tim stopped bothering him, although my own nightmares continued for years.

Tim was one of the first American males ordained as a Chinese Buddhist Monk. When I met him, though, he was in an alcohol rehab center. As was I. We were married almost a decade before I knew he’d written a book. He probably realized that if I read it, I would have horrified at how he treated his assistant, because it was the same way he treated me.

Though many Buddhist teachings are about preparing for death, when Tim was diagnosed with cancer early in our marriage, he refused to acknowledge he was going to die. Although his oncologist explained that there was no known cure, he insisted he was going to beat this thing. However, she added, it was a “good cancer.”

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

“The average life expectancy is seven years,” she explained.

About six years in, Tim’s symptoms flared, and he volunteered for an experimental protocol, “the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“A walk in the park.” He handed me the document that authorized the treatment. I was chilled to the bone.

“Nobody’s survived this,” I said. “Not even the beagles they tested it on. The longest even a dog lasted was eleven months. If you do nothing, who knows how long you might live?”

One seeks to understand unhappiness or grief in various ways. Tim’s parents found sanctuary in the Mother Church, as Tim called the Catholic faith in which he was raised. For ten years, monk’s robes provided sanctuary for Tim. But his alcoholism lurked just outside the monastery gates. One afternoon, he stopped into a tavern and ended up roaring drunk. Ashamed, he left the monastery and found work as an orderly at a managed care facility. On what was intended to be a one-night stand with the night nurse, he conceived a child.

That’s what he told me, anyway. When I met him, he was still in inpatient rehab and still married to that nurse. After he died, I found passionate love poems he and the child’s mother exchanged early on. Whatever flame they had, though, did not last. As co-dependent partners do, I devoted myself to analyzing my husband. Through the Enneagram, for example: Tim was a One. Per the Enneagram, he could be a great leader. Or he could be a despot. My delusion was such that when his oncologist told us his cancer was incurable, I wrote in my journal that I would find a way to save him.

Tim’s parents lived an hour’s drive down Hood Canal from us, and in the early years, his young daughter and I accompanied him to holiday gatherings there. Each time, halfway there, Tim would go into a rage. “You don’t really want to go,” he might accuse us. Or he might scold his daughter because she didn’t finish her homework. Eventually, in the death throes of our marriage, I refused to go. Tim went alone, and on the way back, just as when he fled the monastery, he stopped in at one tavern, and then the next. When he finally arrived home, he apologized for his relapse and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But of course it did, and eventually I asked him to leave.

Tim’s ex-wife told me that the teaching brother Tim most trusted had molested him, but he never shared that with me. Instead, he repeatedly hinted that the teaching nuns and monks in the Catholic schools he attended from kindergarten until he was kicked out, had “done things.” He described inappropriate contact, but said it happened to a friend. He recounted physical abuse and beatings, but these anecdotes always implied he deserved it. The only part he did say, telling the same story again and again, was that he managed to get himself kicked out by hiding a bomb in the nuns’ car. And then he always laughed hysterically.

I listened to his stories until I stopped listening, and that is my loss. As reports of priestly abuse proliferated in the press, including at the schools he attended, I felt guilty. Surely, if I had pried forth Tim’s secrets, I could have healed him. Placing smoke bombs in the nuns’ car was his only cry for help, and in its way, it worked.

But to me, Tim’s descriptions of his father throwing shoes as his young son as he stood against a wall or dressing in a bear costume to scare him for leaving his bedroom at night seemed worse. I had little doubt that if young Tim had tried to say anything, his parents would have suggested he burn in hell. Even as he lay dying, helpless at last, they had him, a Buddhist, anointed with last rites.

During Tim’s final weeks of life, his daughter seized my hand. “No more blonde,” she said. I glanced at her. That week, her hair was the color of eggplant.

“What are you talking about, no more blonde? This is my natural color.”

“Not anymore it’s not.” She narrowed her eyes. The child I’d met at four, scared and mousy, had transformed into a striking beauty. “Brown, I think. Dark brown.”

After Tim and I separated, I dated a younger man, although we too soon split up. “Our love-making makes me insane,” he texted me. “I can’t do this without a traditional committed relationship. I feel empty and lost.” When I called to tell him Tim was dead, he wept. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Not for him,” the young man said. “For you. For how much he destroyed you.”

“You don’t ever have to be afraid again,” my friend Carla said. Still, I sobbed and screamed.

“You abandoned a dying man,” my father said.

Eleven months after the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants, Tim died. Two weeks later, I landed flat in the New Year, widowed yet not widowed, with dark brown hair. I inhaled the scent of seaweed and salt from the bay outside what had been our dream home. I exhaled in cries like the call of the loons that gathered just offshore. The first day one pair arrived. The next day five pairs paddled in a loose cluster. By the end of the week, dozens of the arched spotted backs trolled up and down, up and down, on their quest for the Pacific herring that spawn here.

And startlingly, Tim’s walk in the park had killed him, and I was free. I walked with my dog in Northwest fog and rain, and to keep from shaking to pieces, I filled the bathtub with as much hot water as I could bear—a lot—and sat for hours. Water embraced me. Water was my solace. I descended into the tunnel of winter, days that rarely saw light, only changed from one kind of darkness to another. What about death, I wondered. What about suicide? Maybe I should just commit suicide slowly, one breath at a time. From the time of Tim’s diagnosis, I felt he wanted me to throw myself upon his funeral pyre. “When people grow ill,” his ex-wife said, “They become more of what they are. Nice people become nicer. Mean people get meaner.” M.F.K. Fisher says as we age, we revert to whatever we were like at birth and as toddlers. The final day of his life, in the ICU, Tim’s body bloated, and his skin stretched as far as skin can stretch, and it seemed he were drowning in his own fluids. Blood oozed from every pore.

My hands and arms went numb. Pens, notebooks, cups and forks dropped from my hands and crashed to the floor. “Definitely MS,” his ex-wife told me. “No doubt about it. You’ll be immobilized by the end of the year.” She seemed pretty excited by the idea. The symptoms worsened. I’d hold a cup of coffee to my lips, and then the cup would fall and shatter, the coffee scalding my chest. At other times, my hands balled up into tight fists, and I had to manually unlock them.

Just as I lacked a handbook for navigating Tim’s cancer, when I became a stepparent at thirty, I was equally clueless. Before Tim’s cancer was diagnosed and he was pronounced infertile, I pored through books on every stage of pregnancy, birth, and the developmental phases of a child’s life. When I became a stepparent, the pickings were sparse. Several books asserted never to allow the child to call me “Mom.” This would confuse everyone. My stepdaughter concocted elaborate stories about how I was actually her real mom. “Are you sure you were never pregnant?” she once asked. “Maybe when you were in rehab?” When I said I was sure, she said, “Maybe your mother had another baby she forgot about?”

As for cancer, the patient fought the courageous battle. And he never died. He passed.

After Tim died, his daughter asked repeatedly, “What are we to each other now?” She told me that everyone asked why she bothered to speak with me at all. As when she was little and asked to call me Mom, I remained obtuse.

“I am here for you no matter what,” I said. But I wasn’t. We were both on our own, stumbling through the forest without light or path, gauging where we were by the space between the trees.

K.C. Pedersen holds an M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Stories and essays appear in numerous journals and have been nominated for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. Pedersen lives above a saltwater fjord in Washington State.

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empty nest, Guest Posts, motherhood

Undone

November 18, 2019
cab

By Peg Conway

The unraveling began after we finished dinner at a Thai place in Lincoln Park. Our young adult son, his girlfriend, and another friend — all Chicago residents — had joined my husband and me for a drink at our hotel’s rooftop bar before riding together to the restaurant. After we feasted on sushi, stir fry, and bottles of wine, I expected more chatting outside during the wait for our separate transportation, a relaxed goodbye that would manage tectonic shifts beneath the surface where molten emotion simmered. Two weeks before, Michael had informed us that he and Kathryn will be moving in together this summer when their current leases expire.

Instead, I had barely exited the restaurant when a random cab appeared at the curb. Kathryn turned to Michael and said, “Should we just take this?” In the next instant, they hugged us in thanks and piled in the back seat. Michael waved and said, “See you tomorrow!” as the cab pulled away. Suddenly void of their youthful vibrance, the neighborhood became sinister.

Just as abruptly, my switch flipped, and I launched a tirade about the cavalier behavior of our son and his friends. “‘Well, dinner’s over, so let’s take this cab.’ Leaving us alone on the street corner!”

“They probably thought our Uber was on the way,” Joe said, his face angled toward his phone as he tapped out a ride request.

Perhaps, a tiny corner of my brain suggested, they treated us as they would their friends, assuming competence to summon our own transport. Pacing the sidewalk, impatient for our ride, I was not yet ready to listen to that rational voice. Finally, our driver did a U turn to pull up in front of us. I ranted softly about the slow Uber response, the traffic, and then the loud crowd in the bar as we crossed the hotel lobby, rode the elevator to the 7th floor, and entered our room. I imagined sending Michael a snarky text: “Safely back at hotel. Not that you cared.”

Then, suddenly deflated, I rejected the idea. I did not want negativity to define the evening or ruin the next day, the final one of the trip before our return home to Cincinnati. Standing rooted in place, I covered my face with my hands as tears leaked from my eyes and my breath came in gulps. The feelings that combusted there on the street corner came from something. What was it?

*****

Back when I was our son’s age, at another street corner in a different Midwestern downtown, early on a June morning, I prepared to make a right turn in my car, having just dropped off my friend Bitsy at work, when suddenly I heard a terrible, terrible THUMP half a block behind me.

“NO! Please, no!” I said aloud to myself, but I knew someone had hit her.

Without thinking, I stopped my car, jumped out, and there she was, lying in the middle of the street, her purse and tote bag beside her. I watched her attempts to get up, a dazed, almost vacant look on her face, but she was unable to muster all the necessary motions to stand. Bystanders were already gathering. A woman crouched next to her, a hand placed lightly on Bitsy’s shoulder. Stiff with fear, I forced my legs to walk over there. As sirens became audible in the distance, I realized I should notify her parents and ran into the bank to use the phone. Then I went to the fourth floor and recruited a co-worker to accompany her in the ambulance.

The two of us returned to the street in time to see Bitsy being placed on a stretcher. The sight of her in a cervical neck collar made my knees feel weak. “I really have no idea how seriously she’s injured,” I thought. I waited until the ambulance departed before returning to my car – which I’d left unlocked with the keys in the ignition and my purse on the front seat – and drove the few more blocks to my own office, where there were client projects to wrap up in preparation for flying out that afternoon on vacation with my brother.

The anxiety of not knowing the extent of her injuries numbed my limbs and tightened my chest, and I could not concentrate on the tasks I needed to accomplish. Neither could I overcome the fear of actually finding out what had happened. Seeing my distress, my colleague called the emergency room and obtained concrete facts: broken leg, broken nose, bruises and contusions, teeth damage. Bitsy was banged up, but she would heal. My exhale of relief released trembling and a few tears, clearing my mind enough to focus.

Several times during the trip, I called Bitsy’s family to receive updates on her surgery to insert a rod in her leg and her general well-being. Back home afterward, I began to notice how lost and empty I felt inside, as if I were falling through space. Perhaps it was the letdown brought on by the stress-laden vacation, but this inner void persisted. The sensation seemed out of proportion to Bitsy’s condition and in comparison to how others were handling it, but also strangely familiar in a way I couldn’t quite identify. I wept intermittently for no apparent reason, and my clothes grew loose as I dropped weight.

*****

During our afternoon in Chicago with Michael, Joe and I attended a middle school boys’ basketball game at a YMCA where he and his friend coached. The impetus for our weekend trip was to witness something of his life. The pounding of the basketballs on the gym floor, the loud whine of the horn, the piercing tweet of the referee’s whistle and the shouts of players and parents, all of it mirrored Michael’s grade school playing days. The opponents sank a bunch of outside shots early and were up by 15 points at the half, but the momentum shifted in the second and they were tied at the end of regulation. Michael and Fran’s guys went on to win by 4 in overtime, a major accomplishment for them.

Kathryn joined us in the row of metal folding chairs by the sidelines part way through the first half, and we chatted easily for the rest of the game, eventually striking up conversation with the parents on our left.

“Who is your child on the team?” they queried.

Our response — “The coach!” — evoked chuckles all around, but the interaction brought an empty feeling. Being at this game choked me up with happy memories of the past, but also sparked mourning for the present. I enjoyed watching the basketball, because of Michael’s involvement. It was something we had shared during his growing up. Now it wasn’t the same. He was out of college, working, living his own life. We were truly just spectators.

*****

Soon after Bitsy’s accident, I connected the lost and lonely feelings to another traumatic early morning, years before during childhood. It was late autumn during second grade, and my dad entered the pink-walled room I shared with my sister. His distinctive wavy black hair, normally combed smoothly back from his forehead and temples, looked tousled, and his blotchy face, eyes red-rimmed, made my throat constrict. “Well, kids, we have an angel in the family,” he said quietly, his voice cracking as he finished.

“Mom?” I whispered, launching into his arms sobbing even before he nodded yes. Soon after, I left his lap saying, “I need to get ready for school,” but Dad said we wouldn’t be going to school that day. Down in the kitchen I discovered my mom’s parents cooking breakfast. My aunt arrived shortly after. Their presence at our house on a weekday morning when I should be at school heightened my sense of wrongness. My insides felt empty, like I was floating in space, untethered. I had known she was sick and in the hospital, but no one had said the word “cancer” aloud to me. I sat in my older brother’s lap sucking my thumb as the grown-ups conversed in subdued tones.

A few days later, we stood silently at the church entrance watching the smooth unfolding of the metal stand on which the casket was placed after its removal from the hearse. Walking in procession behind the rolling casket down the long church aisle as organ music boomed, I noticed my classmates all seated together in the first few pews of the far left section. I felt glad to see them but funny about it too, the first taste of being motherless as setting me apart from other people, somehow different in a basic way.

*****

Standing there in the Chicago hotel room, the mother of a grown-up son, I confronted the specter of long-ago loss that had surfaced like it always did when life presented a transition. The feelings were the same whether it was moving to a new house or being the last to leave a social gathering or watching as a beloved child flourishes independently. I want so much to be “over it,” but the truth is that childhood loss never ceases to reverberate.

Of course things evolved as Michael became an adult. In theory I hoped that he would find someone to share his life, but this juncture has arrived sooner and in a different manner than expected. It was normal, but I was not. Broken by mother loss, I was inadequate to the task of letting go while also staying connected in meaningful ways. I’d come to understand that such harsh self-criticism pushed me to the periphery, creating the very separation that I fear. Over the nearly three decades since Bitsy’s accident shattered my defenses, this emotional cycle has played out hundreds of times. Circumstances trigger an outburst, followed by self-recrimination and then trembling vulnerability as the acute phase ebbs.

Now I asked Joe to hold me. He hugged me tight, saying little, and the physical contact broke the spell. Tears fell softly. My breathing slowed. My body anchored to the ground again. I returned to the present, knitted back into relationships, to a kinder self-understanding. It’s ok. It’s always part of you. Just let it be there. You’re ok. Breathe.

The storm’s passing washed clean my perspective to reveal the ways that Michael maintains family ties. In reality, he calls home often, and besides welcoming us in Chicago, he visits Cincinnati regularly. Though I miss him being nearby, I am not abandoned. Our relationship is not over; it’s changing. My task is to nurture this new stage gently, like a seedling, allowing it time to strengthen as it emerges and trusting the growth process.

“See you tomorrow,” Michael had said earlier from the cab, words that now resounded with hope and possibility.

Peg Conway’s memoir of early mother loss is out on submission, and an excerpt has been published at The Mighty. Her writing has appeared in America and US Catholic magazines, including an article that received Honorable Mention from the Associated Church Press, and online at Energy magazine and Feminism and Religion. She lives in Cincinnati, OH, and can be found on Twitter @peg_conway. Learn more at pegconway.com.

 

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Guest Posts, Young Voices

Amanda

October 8, 2019
coach

By Mary Clark

When I started texting my coach, I’d had a crush on him for two years. By the time things started with us, he was coaching a younger team. He started lending me things. I would find him after practice to return his copy of Brave New World or his first generation iPod, texting him later, “I like Animal Collective the best.”

I went to his house one warm morning for a date. We stuck our feet in the pool and joked about the legality of kissing each other. We asked, “Is this legal… is this?” as we leaned in closer to each other, or brushed our feet together in the water. We went inside to watch Ponyo and eat scrambled eggs from a bowl.

He often said formal things like “thanks for coming over” and “anime is my favorite genre.” At one point, as we sat close to each other on the couch, I farted and immediately turned to stone. I sat as still as I could, like a kid imagining I could make him believe nothing happened. No one said anything, but later he laughed too hard when a fish in the movie farted and a bubble floated to the surface of the water.

His roommate came home briefly and no one knew what to make of anything, so no one said anything beyond “nice to meet you.” I also gave a low nervous wave with the hand that wasn’t holding his under a pillow in my lap. Obviously, I wasn’t the loser in this situation, but how could I have known?

Later, I broke up with him, because one night a younger boy said to me, “I know I’m not unbiased in this situation, but I think that guy’s pretty much a creep.” I was convinced. Sam was more interesting and had already read Brave New World and was 17, not 27.

The coach and I had a date at the drive-ins that night, and when I showed up, he had two grocery bags worth of a picnic and a huge smile on his face. He brought cups for sparkling lemonade. I almost lost my mind. At that age, when I had to tell someone something horrible, I cried first so there was no getting out of it. He never took his hand off the parking brake while I told him I was done by saying, “You know that guy I went to homecoming with, remember him?”

He cried so hard and for so long I almost missed my curfew. He texted me that he loved me, that he had cried all night. A few weeks later he mailed a DVD of Ponyo to my parents’ house. I saw his tiny neat handwriting on the package in the mailbox. Thank god it was me who found it. Later, after I told my mom my secret, she told me that she wouldn’t tell my dad because he would have fought him. I thought that was ridiculous, but now, when I think about his tiny all- caps handwriting, I kind of want to fight him too.

When the roommate left the house that day of our first date, our knees touched each other’s on the couch. We had already kissed the weekend before at a First Friday downtown. I met him outside of a Spaghetti Warehouse, ostensibly to say hello. I said, “I just came from practice” and he said, “It smells like it.” Then we moved our heads around until we were kissing. It felt like kissing a brick wall. The kiss of a guy trying not to get arrested.

I changed his name in my phone to Amanda, as in, “A man, duh.” I loved that he was a man.

I went to his house after taking the SATs. He cut up an apple for a snack that we ate in his bed, before I gave him head for the first time. I hobbled naked to the bathroom for toilet paper. It was actually his parents’ house. I slipped on my green boots and drove away in the rain feeling proud of myself.

When I think about the way he looks I remember what a folk singer said about her ex-boyfriend. She said he looked like everyone she’d ever known. Walking around, I see a constant stream of similarly medium-sized sandy men with big arms and small noses.

On that first hang, at his own second-story brick apartment, we made out in his room where he had one framed Wes Anderson poster and man-themed bedding. I slept in all of my clothes on my side with a stomach ache.

My back had been tight for a few weeks, no doubt an athletic injury, and after being spooned all night by a man, I woke up feeling like I had been bent in half backwards. My mom was picking me up for church at 10. I told her I was getting breakfast with a friend, I’d meet her on the corner. I got into the car and could barely sit down. It felt like my body was strapped to a board, and I could barely bend my knees. My mom said I must have slept funny. I cried and asked if I could go home, but my mom said people were expecting me in the nursery where I worked.

When I got there, I could barely pick up the smallest baby, a recently adopted Russian orphan who was afraid of everyone except me. I tried to put her down, but she dug the plastic heels of her tiny Mary Jane’s into my back, pinching my skin and my nerves. I finally sat her down, and went to the bathroom to stand still and to cry.

Through my tears, I thought with relief, “Maybe now I can quit soccer.”

Mary Clark is a poet and fiction writer from Tulsa, Oklahoma currently living in Los Angeles. She graduated from UCLA in 2015 with a B.A. in Comparative Literature. Mary currently works as a nanny, and volunteers with the Prison Education Project.

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Divorce, Guest Posts

Answering the Call

August 14, 2019
oprah

By Audra Carmine

My current divorce coping strategy– I walk my dog, I cry and I listen to Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul Conversations on headphones so that no one will talk to me. My husband and I are on our second separation, and we aren’t even actually divorced yet.  There’s still time for a few more break-ups, a few more punches to the heart, and honestly, there’s a chance I’d totally do it again, get back together, be reckless like that. Say the word, almost ex-husband, and I’d jump back in, heart on my sleeve, divorce papers burning in my wake. If anyone ever told you that divorce is clean cut and the best decision they ever made, well, I am not that person. And the world needs to hear from more than just the people whose divorces served as an instant reincarnation machine, a propeller toward success, a doorway to a life they never dreamed they could have lived. I kinda want to punch that person in the face. Because the truth is, I long for my marriage. I long for it in a way that feels like an addiction. I yearn. I crave. I have withdrawls. I sweat it out. I ache. I fantasize, I idealize. I want to recreate that first blissful hit of togetherness over and over again. My abandonment issues have never been louder, and no matter how many pictures I see of happy divorced women with surfboards and small dogs living in LA, I just don’t buy it. I’m not there yet. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing

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

July 15, 2019
surgery

By Melissa Neff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” I asked.

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

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

“You just need physical therapy.”

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

“Acupuncture can also help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Guest Posts, memories

Enlightenment at Cross Town

May 14, 2019
town

By Brian Michael Barbeito

All the orange crates are scattered, at the Safeway Supermarket in the rain.
–Van Morrison, St. Dominic’s Preview, It’s too Late to Stop Now.

I didn’t have a mind then. I should have perhaps had a mind by then. I was in kindergarten. I went to a school called Our Lady of Fatima, which as I think about it, is nice enough, because later I became on my own terms a sort of Marian devotee. There was a church adjacent to or very close to the school. At midnight mass I would look up and there was for some reason I can’t discern, a ceiling painted with noodle designs, like macaroni and cheese before the cheese is added. I just stared at the noodles. For more than an hour. Midnight mass, which means Christmas Mass for the uninitiated, is longer than an hour. Or at least there is it ran longer. A feeling of depth or spirit was around, but it didn’t have so much to do with the church. Or maybe it did. I didn’t call it ‘A feeling of depth or spirit,’ because I didn’t know what those words meant, and I hardly, if ever, really spoke. They thought a bit earlier on than that, that I was deaf, or partly deaf, and that maybe that was why I didn’t speak. But I was tested by the doctor, and came out all right. So it wasn’t a physical thing. Before that, I had an apgar rating of 9, which is not bad. And a slight heart murmur, not unheard of either. So I checked out. Who is to know? Who can see the whole of any of us, cosmically speaking? One time they took me to a daycare or after school place, and I remember someone saying, He doesn’t talk, and the lady that ran it said in a kind but confident response. He will learn to talk here, as he will have to, because there are other kids and he just will.

I never said a word while I was there.

 But the school and the playground and Cross-town. There isn’t much I remember, but there are some things. There was at the playground races to the fence and back, and there was a kid named Johnny who used to run it pretty well. I did okay, but was in the middle of the pack. He was always first or second. I said in my mind, If Johnny can do it, I can. And I kind of trained myself to get better and better. It worked you know. Man. I really got up there through the time. I could lie and say I beat Johnny, and I was a hero or something, but that didn’t happen. I do know I tied him once, and it wasn’t that anyone really noticed, but I showed myself some inner and outer stamina.

I always remembered that.

Somewhere, anyhow.

Years later I changed high schools, from a wealthy area, all the way back to that area, which was not affluent but not poor, but a kind of middle-regular place. That as they say is another story. But when I was there this guy called me over to a table a little time in, and he was with this pretty girl, but the girl was not to become a good friend of mine, but an acquaintance. And the guy a sort of friend, just a bit on past an acquaintance, but not a friend-friend-friend. So I say, What? And the guy comes with this,

I and my friend are having a bet. She seems to think that she remembers you from Kindergarten class, and I say maybe, but aren’t sure. I know this sounds funny but she brought in our class picture and we were discussing it. She says yes, that this person here is you, and I say maybe. Could you tell us if you went to school with us?

So I looked at the picture and saw myself. I said that it was me. And the thing was that he was Johnny, and I told him so, and he remembered that. I had no recollection of the girl, who would be considered gorgeous. It turned out that she spotted me in the picture, but also spotted me for a Big Mac combo at McDonalds one day, and I promised to pay her back. But days went on, though four out of five days I had money in my pocket, it seemed like the days she reminded me to pay her, were weirdly on the exact days I had no money. She became angry, but contained, and thought I was a kind of player or something. Since she didn’t really know me, there was no way to have her know me. So she just began to see me as a liar, which I was technically. But I am not like that. A few years ago I ran a writing group and this poor guy kept coming and so I bought him, (you can’t write this as they say, I know I can’t), a Big Mac Combo each time afterwards, and the other person that ran the group never ever offered to pay. Technically the bill could be split. Gurdjieff has a saying; Nothing shows people up more than money. But yes, the friendship didn’t work out with the girl. She was more mature though the same age, but it also affected her, as in if someone says, She is pretty, and the other person says, Yes, but she knows it.

Going back to kindergarten. I waited after for my grandfather to pick me up. It always seemed a bit overcast, with opaque clouds making up the firmament, and the world seemed grey also. It couldn’t have been like that every single day. But the days I remember were. There was kid with dark hair, and he was singing the lyrics to We Will Rock You, by Queen, and not the chorus, but the beginning lyrics. I remember this. I would much later become a fan of Queen, but at that time I had no idea what the hell he was saying, and he was so intense about it. He was clear and enthralled and intent, sitting on a swing swaying back and forth just a bit while he sang,

Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise
Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day
You got mud on yo’ face
You big disgrace
Kickin’ your can all over the place

I think that song must have just come out and he had an older brother or father that had to have played it over and over. The other kid I remember was blonde, and I can picture him perfectly, but don’t know why. He wore a jean jacket with something yellow on the shoulders, like an intentional patch, and he said it was a disco jacket. He was very proud of this. I for certain didn’t know what disco was. Already the very few people I came into contact with knew much more than I, if even about anything at all.

I just stared into space and waited.

For something.

Then.

I guess for my grandfather.

And in high school.

For what I don’t know.

And even now.

For what I certainly absolutely don’t know.

Because my grandfather is long dead.

But I am still trying to get to Cross Town as it were. At least here. See…sometimes my grandfather when he would arrive (I think he was a little bit late sometimes because he moved slowly), would take me before going home to his house, to a set of little stores at the intersection just down from the school and the church. From what I can remember, I have to bet these were places where they had cheap wares, but good things still. Plates, forks, knives, spoons, cloths, cups, saucers, blankets (not a high thread count but not terribly low either), a set of napkins, a holder for a hardboiled egg, some old pictures of pastoral scenes and a blue sky and a white whimsical cloud and a red barn and maybe a stream and a big boulder there, of course little key chains and maybe there was a guy that cut keys in the back and maybe not.

But I didn’t then see these things like some great or even good observer. I couldn’t register them. I was just there looking at dust motes in the air, or maybe the reflection of light on a counter. And many people are like this, especially in childhood. It is nothing so special. It’s just that that is where we were, in Scarborough, instead of say, Illinois, or St. Petersburg, China, Bahamas, The Yukon Territories, Switzerland, Morocco, South Asia (where the DNA science says I am really from), Key West, Africa, or anywhere else the universe could have placed us.

Quietness inside the door and the store, inside of me, even though the soft sound of winter traffic passes by on Victoria Park, or from St. Clair, the intersecting street.

Windows somehow more on the side of dirty, run-down, but not disgusting or dangerous.

I want to think of cloth, fabrics, and utilitarian items and artifacts.

A worldly person knows what things are for and what they do.

To me, they are then if anything, just worlds of metal, copper, some colors, ceramics, frames, maybe plastics, – yes plastics, there are plastics there somewhere,- red, green, maybe they are parts of cheap umbrellas or rain jackets.

All this under a vague light yellow and a dull light that comes in from the windows.

It’s always like late dusk sad there in a sense, no matter what hour a clock would say.

The world is before night, about to blink off, but it never quite does.

I sense now I think also that something tragic is about to happen,- as if we are on the edge of a car accident, or receiving bad news, witnessing or being in a fire, a flood, a war, even a death of some kind.

But nothing really happens like that and one step is taken then the next and the world goes on.

Nobody ever bought me anything then, like a toy car, a key chain, – something, anything, – but I never wanted anything or thought of it. I was a simpleton, a visitor that didn’t really appreciate the wares one way or the other.

The street soon, – and the signs, and so many cars by the dirty, dirty snow with bits of mud and old leaves. Newspaper boxes, people. The world is so normal to everyone it feels like an alien planet to the young boy.

He doesn’t know lyrics, disco, exactly where he is or what he is.

I looked and looked then back at the stores at Cross-town. I was, not because I was special, but because I was not interfered with or talked to that much, in touch with something. It wasn’t a vision of an angel. I wasn’t a message. It was just Source. There is something when there is no mind yet, and that is what the search for full blown enlightenment is after, that nothingness and everything-ness that is there, always there, that we are, but that is obscured by the mind, even though the mind is by definition part of it because it is all One-Thing never begun and never ending. I smelt it, but not with my nose. Maybe it’s like touching the toe nail of God.

How would I explain that to the pretty girl, who bought me McDonalds and thinks I am simple moocher?

I can’t even remember her name anyways.

I wonder if her Grandfather ever took her to Cross-Town.

Brian Michael Barbeito is a Canadian writer, poet and photographer. His recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University, CV2 The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, and at Catch and Release-The Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature. Nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net Award, Brian is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013, cover art by Virgil Kay). He is currently at work on the written and visual nature narrative titled Pastoral Mosaics, Journeys through Landscapes Rural.

https://www.amazon.com/Being-Human-Memoir-Waking-Listening/dp/1524743569/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1539219809&sr=8-1

Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.

emily retreat

Guest Posts, writing

A Writer Changed My Life

May 4, 2019
writer

By Pam Munter

As a writer, I’ve been asked more than once: What book changed your life? My response is always the same: It wasn’t a book. It was a writer who never wrote a book. I wish I could say she was my hero but I barely knew her. Sometimes the most surprising act of kindness can transform a life.

Her name was Clara McClure and her family lived in a white clapboard house across the street from us on eucalyptus-lined Hartzell Street in then-middle-class Pacific Palisades. It was the late 1950s, long before the dawn of cultural feminism. This was the era of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” the traditional family unit writ large. Nobody was a stranger in our neighborhood, full of stay-at-home housewives, including my mother, who frequently met in each other’s homes in the mornings after the husbands and children were gone for the day. They’d drink coffee, smoke their cigarettes and talk about family members and other neighbors who weren’t there. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Making Shit Happen, Self Love

On A Scale Of One To Ten

February 25, 2019
10

By Lisa Todd

I’m in the kitchen making guacamole when Diana calls to me from the family room. “Hey,” she asks, “How are you doing today?” I sigh as I turn on the faucet and watch the water run over my hands while I thought. How was I doing?

I sighed again. “Well,” I started. “On a scale of 1 to 10, either 10 being the best you could feel and 1 being the worst you could feel, how are you feeling?” Diana said. We’d used that scale of 1 to 10 since her surgery 9 years ago (was it already 9 years ago?) when the nurses at the hospital would ask what Diana’s pain level was like. “How is your pain today?” they’d ask and I would cringe inwardly, thinking of the hardware recently installed in her to stop her vertebrae from twisting and turning into a painful S shape. Over the years, the pain scale took its place in our family vernacular. And now my daughter uses it today to check on me. I smile to myself at her kind heart, thinking not for the first time that I’m a lucky mom to have her in my life.

“I guess I’m at a 5,” I said, thinking about my day. One woman who spent 20 minutes reading instructions and asking me, “Am I missing anything?” after each step of the instructions. Another woman who didn’t like my instructions and so complained to her cohort leader that “the woman in licensure wasn’t giving me a straight answer.” The coworker who graciously spends part of her summer work hours helping me navigate my busy days and comes into my office to cry and rage about the stressful job she’s in. The stacks of licensure requests that stress me every day because I feel I’m not getting through them fast enough. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts

On Permission

January 3, 2019

 By Varsha Tiwary

Permission: the act of allowing, to enable or grant something; the right or ability to do something that is given by someone who has the power to decide if it will be allowed or permitted.

In India, the first thing children learn at school is how to ask for permission.

“May I come in Maa’m?”

“May I go to toilet. Maa’m.”

By age seven, children also understand that going to toilet is a code phrase for all kinds of things for which permission is verboten. So if you want to go out to play, loiter or eat you say you want to go to the toilet. When older, if you want to go out on a date, you seek permission to attend a birthday party of a same sex friend.

Well versed in the lexicon of  seeking permission, my fifteen year old daughter is endlessly fascinated by the relative absence of the concept of permission in American High School life. Initially it befuddled her.

When she asked her classmates, who to ask, to change a class, she was greeted by amused smiles.

‘You don’t have to ask, just go and tell the counselor what you want, she will sit with you and work something out.”

She also learnt within the first ten days, that though rules are to be followed, permissions must be self given. You want to step out of the class, pick up a pass and go. The teachers do not complain to parents if a student is not following the rules. They sit with her and discuss the problem and it’s implications, which she is considered adult enough to handle. There are no permissions required for what and how to wear, how to sit, how to comport, for the way they keep their hair, or the footwear they prefer.

When her friend got an ‘E’ in four subjects, the teacher told her she needed to put in extra work on them and maybe she should meet her after class to chalk out a plan? There is hardly any shaming, naming, ordering; the staples of Indian School life. Yet the responsibility is placed irrevocably and unmistakably in the student’s court.

In India, this whole business of asking for permission seeps into our DNA so much, that even when we are adults, having no dotted line to sign or a chalk marked boundary, not to cross, we are overcome with doubt. We tend to look around, who to ask? What if this is not allowed?

On the River Road crossing, a man stands every evening with a placard, “Trump is an Idiot.” I often give him a thumbs up and he goes wild, waving and blowing kisses. High school students sporting backpacks adorned with “Not my President” badge wait for a bus  and wave back at him.

My mind shifts to Delhi. Angry saffron Gods and cow protection bumper stickers. Ruling party flags fluttering from car hoods of vehicles. Dissent stickers exist only in dreams. Adulating T.V channels. If levels of ordinary, everyday dissent is a barometer of rigidity and authoritarianism of leadership, than Trump lags behind woefully, no matter how hard he is trying. Not for lack of effort on his part, but because he is hamstrung by a culture which is fundamentally allergic to seeking permission. It wouldn’t occur to ordinary Americans to ask for permission to differ, for permission to speak up.

In a feudal culture, even one which wears democratic ribbons, like India, everyone is wired to face read the King before they open their lips. People are so well –versed in the language and subtext of authoritarianism that they weave compliance in their behavior, much before it is sought. The most important ability of the King is the power to withdraw all kinds of permissions. Permissions are not self given, but achieved by proving loyalty. At an individual level, to refrain from dissent is self preservation.

Silence saves skin. Voluble support of rampaging Authority is even better. It insidiously lets you abrogate to your craven self, all kinds of permissions. Instead of counter- opinion, we see loud visible expressions of   support for the King, to maximize approval points. The tooters of the horn can mainline on all practical permissions of day to day life by having the system favour them. They can also open the pandora’s box of darker permissions; of speaking their ugliest most unconscionable thoughts aloud, and revel in the fear on the faces of the powerless. The smug comfort that derives from bowing before a flexing muscular authority. The way selective rights are a balm on picayune self esteem of those who need a reason for their failures. A permanent denial of conscience becomes the ultimate permission of the morally corrupt.

***

The biggest, sweetest thrills of my college years came when I flouted tyrannical authority. At that time, in my town, Chandigarh, the dictat of Punjab militants ran. All women were required to dress decorously, as defined by militants. Those who had to keep rule of law, either looked the other way or were too busy with more important things than to prevent men from shaming women who did not stick to the dress code. Overnight the vibrant campus was over-run by flocks of decorously dupattaed women, heads covered, going around demurely on the campus. Several incidents of erring women being slapped and abused were reported and it put us on an edge. Many women and many professors sided with the militants, saying this was one good thing being done by them.

Me and my friend Ruchi, lived for the adrenalin rush of evenings, when we both rode our bicycles, throwing all the “not alloweds” to winds. The keepers of culture having called it a day, we raced out wearing forbidden jeans and tee-shirt, hair open, heads gloriously uncovered. Only when we had cycled up to the lake and jogged on the Chandigarh lake front in our indecorous regalia, did we feel fit enough to return and breathe again the cloying air of the women’s hostel. Many years later as a professional and a homemaker who took up Krav Maga classes in Delhi, I was still the one to roll my eyes and snigger at a woman who innocently declared on the first day that she was in the class as her husband had allowed her to join it to regain her figure after child birth. Permission seeker, my antennae buzzed, unkindly. Yet, for all the cool defiance, the pretenses of autonomy, I too have always internally sought permissions for doing things that were most important to me.

Like writing. For interminable years, I belittled what I wrote as mere scribbling in journals, a frivolous thing. For the world thought so. It was a hobby, an entertainment. Certainly not as meaningful and valid, as writing an audit report, a project report or a manual of Office procedure. May be, because it was not my day job and there was no one to rate and mark and assess me for that. Even though writing animated me and was meaningful to me, I forever looked for an outside authority, to be able to step outside my closet of secret writer. Everything else, housework, children’s homework, husband’s lunch was more important than what I wanted to do, but for which I could not give myself permission.

I was a woman from the same patriarchal, permission seeking culture and despite my insistence to be otherwise, I had so internalized permission seeking that for a long time I could not summon up courage to do what I needed to. I required company, which I think is just another way of seeking permission; to step out and embrace my singularity. Only a fortuitous friendship, a mental holding of hands with a like- minded woman enabled me to take the first timorous steps in the world of writing. Like those cycle rides to the lake front, the free fall into creativity was its own reward and once in it, I looked askance no more.

In a permission seeking culture, everyone, but most dangerously, women, who are subject to even more rules, become their own censors. The self which becomes either a withdrawer of permissions, or seeker of licenses, cannot create art. What after all is creativity, if not all the freedom, with all the responsibility of granting to yourself the inner permission to explore and experiment, without having any set destination, a defined, profitable outcome? To feel the feelings that you thought were inappropriate? To voice opinions that you know are not approved? To wear wrong ideas as openly as you would a wrong dress?

At the High School Art Show in American High School, four halls are arrayed with rows upon rows of triple hinged screens, the kind that are used as room dividers in hospital wards. They act as display boards for a dazzling variety of art, oil canvasses, water colors, mixed media, sculpture, installations, digital art, photography; the show is one long celebration of freedom to experiment. Some of it is good. Some is awful. In fact it is the bad ones that fill me with most wonder. In the school back in India, one of Delhi’s top schools, anything less than excellent would never be displayed. Artistic excellence was pre-defined and only what met the standards would be deemed fit to display.

How would anyone learn to re- define excellence then? The display boards may look good, but the artistic spirit shrivels up. What all could happen if all children everywhere were permitted to jump off the boat called permission?

Varsha Tiwary, currently on sabbatical from her nine to five job; writes short fiction constantly to make sense of people and events around her. Her works have appeared in DNA-Out of Print, 2017; Kitaab, Muse India, Basil O’ Flaherty; and are forthcoming in Gargoyle press, Jaggery Lit and The Wagon. She lives in Washington DC.

https://www.amazon.com/Being-Human-Memoir-Waking-Listening/dp/1524743569/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1539219809&sr=8-1

Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.

 

Join Lidia Yuknavitch and Jen Pastiloff for their WRITING & THE BODY RETREAT. Portland April 5-7, 2019. Click the photo above.

 

Contests & Giveaways, Guest Posts

How Not To Be An Asshole & “On Being Human” Giveaway

December 22, 2018

By Jen Pastiloff

I literally do not know how to not be an asshole I just own the URL www.DontBeAnAsshole.net. I think the answer is by being kind. Will you do something obscenely kind for someone today? Please let me know. In honor of my bday (it just passed so thanks for the wishes!) I do love you. I tricked you with the how to not be an asshole though. I am not sorry. Getting people to read things is hard. Meh. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Trauma

MY GHOST BODY’S THOUGHTS

November 29, 2018
ghost

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault and eating disorders

By Cyndie Randall

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you sorry, mama?”

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

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

Guest Posts

Deacon & Garrett

November 26, 2018

Hi, everyone. Jen Pastiloff here. I run the site with my beloved Angela Giles. I wanted to share the following post for a few reasons.

One, it’s been a year since Crystal lost her boys and I wanted to honor them on this day. Two, I started a scholarship fund called The Aleksander Fund, for a woman who has lost a child to attend one of my retreats. Last year, right after Crystal’s boys were killed, her friend reached out to me and nominated Crystal.

Crystal attended my Tuscany retreat this past September and we grew close. She shared the following post on Instagram and, with her blessing, I am reposting here. Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday so if you’d like to donate to The Aleksander Fund please click here. It is my great honor to do this work even though it is so, so hard. I will never look away. I got you, Crystal.

 

Please leave a comment below for Crystal as she will read them all.

Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing, Inspiration

Life After Stroke

September 24, 2018

By Arturo The Cuban

It was raining. It was the type of storm that dropped heavy downpours darkening the day. It was a bitter 42°F outside. The date was December 4th, 2014. It was the day I was released from the hospital after suffering a stroke at the age of Forty.

Yeah. 40.

Can you believe that shit?

Forty years old and I felt as if my life had just ended. I would no longer be able to work as a government contractor, a skateboarder, or musician. I would no longer be able to continue on the path I had chosen that was both an exciting and miserable as anyone could imagine.

It was for me anyway. Damn.

Worry filled my soul as I knew not how I would support my family moving forward. How would we survive? How would we eat? Pay bills? Questions I could not answer that would only serve to increase my pre-existing anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Regret enveloped me for not listening to the warnings of my doctors. My body, already damaged from decades of back-breaking work had finally failed me. I no longer would have any control over my future; about to be at the mercy of the government. People whom I do not know.

Years of being a semi-pro skateboarder, a heavy metal musician, a contractor, had steadily destroyed my body. I knew it. My doctors warned me for years. Prior to the stroke, my body had been sending me warnings via heat-strokes, dizziness, and fatigue. Signals that I ignored.

Five herniated discs in my lower back, two unrepairable tendons in my right hand, PTSD from the bodies in both the streets and in the homes of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I was a complete wreck. Yet I pressed on.

My neurologist and close friend would warn me and talk to me about slowing down and taking it easy. That working 12-14 hour days in the blistering hot sun, with temperatures that could climb above 100 degrees in the summers with regularity, would only lead to more health problems and potentially my demise, he would insist.

Again, I ignored his pleas.

What was I to do? This is what I’ve done my whole life. I can’t just stop. So my attitude was along the lines of “psssh, he doesn’t know,” meaning he has no idea about my life and what it takes to survive.

How would I support my family if I did that? How could I continue to provide my wife and kids with the lifestyle I made possible for them? My wife didn’t have to work, my kids were homeschooled, and if the family ever needed anything, I would provide it for them. Slowing down, for me, wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t.

We were doing alright.

Until of course that fateful day. Continue Reading…

#metoo, Guest Posts, motherhood

Learning to Say No: #MeToo and Mothering

September 3, 2018
learning

CW: This post addresses unwanted sexual advances and may contain explicit language.

By Lilly Bright

“Mommy, I love this beautiful person staring back at me from the mirror!” my five-year-old daughter exclaims from the bathroom where she stands facing the sink. Inwardly I rejoice, then wonder how many of us women think that on a daily basis, or ever? An honest exclamation, wild joy for the person staring back at us in the mirror?

For the past year, I’ve been contemplating how to make a meaningful contribution to the #MeToo movement, a personal experience that could illuminate, an allegory, some teachable moment. Then last week, walking the streets of Santa Monica, an uncomfortable memory surfaced. One of those that never actually left but that also wasn’t a regular visitor. But there it was- Proustian in the way it overwhelmed my senses and severe in the way it challenged held notions of categorization. The event isn’t murky yet it’s felt this way whenever I’ve attempted to package it. For years I diminished what happened because I didn’t say “no” and the harassment didn’t strike me as apparent. But the truth is, a line was crossed, a red zone rife with sexual power-play and coercion. And it went like this: Continue Reading…

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