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Guest Posts, Binders, Compassion

Evangelist of Joy

December 12, 2016

By Devra Lee Fishman

“Whatever you do, try to keep Mabel off of the furniture at the hospice.  We are struggling with that at home so we need to be consistent everywhere she goes,” my brother says on a rainy, matte gray Friday when he stops by my house to hand off the puppy he is raising for the Guide Dog Foundation.  Mabel bounces toward me all paws and wagging tail, an evangelist of joy wrapped up in fur, spreading her own sunshine on this gloomy morning.

Mabel is a 3-month old Golden Retriever/Labrador mix with a coat the color and feel of corn silk. During the next year or so that she will live with my brother’s family, Mabel will go everywhere they go – supermarkets, restaurants, theatre, sporting events, even airplanes.  Their goal is to make sure that she has good house manners and is comfortable in any social situation before she returns to the Guide Dog Foundation for intensive job-specific training.

I need to reinforce the behaviors that my brother’s family instills in Mabel and I take the responsibility seriously.  I do not want to be the reason she struggles with, or falls behind in, her training, so I thank my brother for the tip and lift Mabel into my car. Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts, Hearing Loss

Owning—And Rocking—An Invisible Disability

September 10, 2016

By Caroline Leavitt
Shortly after I have my son, I am mysteriously ill with a rare blood disease for almost a year. The meds they give me are toxic, some of the treatments are experimental, (a surgeon uses a robotic arm to glue my veins shut, letting me watch it all on a big screen), and when I finally begin to get better, the doctors tell me there might be lasting side effects. I might bloat out and look obese. (I beach-ball out so my comfort fashion is mumuus, but after a year, I can slide on my skinny jeans again.) I might lose my hair. (Chunks roll off my head and onto my baby, but it sprouts back curlier and stronger than before.) My skin might turn gray. (It does so that people on the subway bluntly stare, but it, too, comes back to normal). And I might lose some hearing and that wouldn’t come back. Sigh. That happens.

At first, because I’m so busy getting well, and taking care of a brand new baby, I don’t notice I lost anything. Not until another six months later, when I’m a giving a reading with two other novelists in front of a packed audience, and one of the other writers nudges me. “They asked you a question,” he says, nodding towards the seats. Panicked, I search for a person standing up, head tilted, waiting. I haven’t heard a question at all, and lucky for me, the person repeats it loudly. Still, I feel my cheeks fire with shame. I can’t look at the other writers, and even though they ask me to lunch afterwards, I make up some excuse.

I tell no one about that day. Instead, I begin to be hyperaware of my hearing and I sink into despair. I’m deeply ashamed. I don’t know anyone who has a hearing issue except for my mother-in-law, who is in her 80s. Comics make fun of hearing loss. People think you are being deliberately stupid. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Binders, Chronic Illness

The Fine Lines of Twitching

July 11, 2016

*photo credit: Tiffany Lucero

By Rebecca Swanson

A grimace here. A grimace there. No one has to know. Lock yourself in a bathroom stall and twitch, take a deep breath and head back to class. I could hide it. Except when I couldn’t.

“What’s wrong with your face?” People asked, in real life, years before the anonymous cloak of internet avatars. Classmates. Friends. I knew these people.

“Nothing,” I said. “What’s wrong with yours?” (I didn’t say, as I held my cheeks steady and retreated again to the ladies’ room, second stall from the left).

They rushed out when I got home, a frenzy of tics, a wild, flapping flock of pigeons startled from a perch. But quieter. They lasted through bedtime and woke me in the night. Gasping, sometimes, when I held my breath over and over. Is that even a tic? My abdomen muscles shredded, despite being an athlete. Do people know that it often hurts? Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Binders, Yoga

The Gift of Breathing

April 4, 2016

By Kirsten Palladino

Rainy Sunday mornings are right for praising life with yoga. My first session of the season is going resplendently well. My body isn’t arguing with me as I thought it might—a dedicated yoga class hasn’t been on the calendar in 10 years. A twin pregnancy and decadent, indulgent food in a metropolitan city as a restaurant editor have enabled me to eat recklessly.

Through death and abandonment, my original family of four shrank to one in the course of just a few years. I have grief-gobbled myself into a puffy caterpillar form, minus the legs. Finally, I’ve earned the mockery of the high school girls calling me an elephant, a quarter-century too late.

But my body is strong and limber today, giving me what I need. Hips opened wide after delivering two darling boys in one night—finally, I birthed a living child; full healing lungs breathe in deeply instead of screaming and gasping after a 15-year childhood stint of sucking on the cancer sticks (family legacy).

As we move through our positions, I hear my therapist’s words in my head: “Inhale deeply through your nose as if you’re trying to smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Then breathe out of your mouth so strongly as if you’re trying to blow out birthday candles across the room.” In. Out. Mindful breathing. Here we go. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Binders, Vulnerability


March 4, 2016

By Sarah Meyer

As a kid I conceived of birth marks literally: bruises on the little body applied in the course of birth that remained forever. To this end for many years I thought the birthmark on my left shin was a bruise that, were others to touch it, would hurt extremely. Others did touch it, because I was always showing it to people. And when they touched it I would recoil in a pain that felt real but technically was not.

Yesterday a mentally ill woman tried to trip me in front of an oncoming train. I did trip, but fell the other way, toward the platform wall instead of toward the tracks. Had I fallen differently I would of course not now be writing these words.

My birthmark, I like to say, is in the shape of a heart. Although anything can be in the shape of a heart if you want it to be. When my sister and I bathed together as children she memorized it. Years later, she mentions knowing my birthmark is on my left shin because it was always on her right side when we were in the bath, sitting across from each other sharing toys.

I’m thinking now of Achilles, of his one point of vulnerability, where his mother pinched him as she held his baby body over the river Styx. I think of us in the bath water, my birthmark between us, and Achilles rises to the surface. I am thinking how my birthmark used to feel like that kind of singular vulnerable space, how now my entire body feels like such a space, how it might be nice to feel like my vulnerability were reduced to a one-inch diameter, how despite how it felt to me then, that was never near true.

After the woman tripped me, I fell toward the wall and held onto it. The tiles are white and smooth. I looked at her, and in my shock the only thing that came out of my mouth was the word what. “What?” I asked her, and held onto tiles on a wall that are wide and flat and difficult to grasp. We made eye contact, and she stuck her tongue out at me and fled. Her tongue was knotty and fat, and it has come to mind in the hours since this happened, the tongue alone. I could feel the spot on my left shin where she’d struck me for hours afterward even though she left no bruise or cut skin. I just knew where she’d struck me, on the left shin on or near my birthmark, and it rang out to remind me of something the rest of the day.

As a child I was often confused about how some babies managed not to become marked during their birth. How did some of us exit the birth canal, touching the sides of it, of our mothers, and leave with a bruise when others could do this same thing and not be marked? Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts, healing

This Is Your Brain on Knitting.

February 6, 2016

By Bernadette Murphy 

The New York Times recently focused on all the ways handcrafts like knitting and crocheting offer health benefits – from reduction in daily stress and to giving knitters a sense of purpose, to weight control, and even staving off a decline in brain function as we age.

Many have speculated that knitting itself constitutes a genuine meditative practice, something I was curious to explore. In the more traditional forms of meditation, those typically associated with Eastern religions, meditation is defined as a state of “bare attention.” As Ron Nairn puts it in What Is Meditation? meditation is “a highly alert and skillful state of mind because it requires one to remain psychologically present and ‘with’ whatever is happening in and around one without adding to or subtracting from it in any way.”

According to Psychology Today, the physical act of meditation can consist of sitting quietly and focusing on your breath, a word, or a phrase; the meditator may also be walking or standing.

The image we all carry of a person tied into lotus-position knots, sitting in a candlelit, incense-choked room, hands held upward, saying “ohm” in a low, sonorous voice may be a limited construct. There are countless ways, it seems, to practice meditation.

Researchers agree that the practice of meditation has untold health benefits–improvements that can be gleaned from as little as ten minutes of meditation (or knitting) on a regular basis. These benefits include increased alpha waves (the relaxed brain waves) and decreased anxiety and depression. Researchers at Harvard Medical School used MRI technology to monitor participants’ brain activity and learned that meditation activates the portion of the brain responsible for the autonomic nervous system (the regulator of bodily functions outside our conscious control) including digestion and blood pressure “These are also the functions that are often compromised by stress,” Cary Barbor reported in Psychology Today. “It makes sense, then, that modulating these functions would help to ward off stress-related conditions such as heart disease, digestive problems, and infertility.” Continue Reading…

Binders, Dear Life., Guest Posts

Dear Life: I Can’t Get Unstuck

February 5, 2016

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Jonna Ivin.

Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.


Dear Life,

I could go into a very long story to preface my question, but it feels more like complaining to me, so I am just going to cut to the chase and be as brief as I can.

I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family and had a childhood where I was required to be on my own emotionally much of the time. I had to grow up very quickly, and questioned my worth and validity and had strong abandonment issues as well.

As an adult, life has been challenging… in my relationships with my dysfunctional family, at times even estranged. For years, and still today, my husband and I struggle with financial hardship, and along with that, difficulties in our marriage.

Every day, for most of my life, has been a struggle to survive in some way. I am all too familiar with the “fight or flight” response and an abundance of cortisol pumping through my system, with a constant reminder around my midsection. I’ve always had my head down working to make ends meet, or been waiting for the next shoe to drop, or the next obstacle to fall in my path; so… I have never really gotten to a point where I can make a plan, or set goals, because I have always been struggling just to survive and take care of the immediate needs of our family and juggle our finances. At one point, someone very near and dear to me told me that some people are just meant to work really hard. It crushed me because I always felt like I did my best, but my best wasn’t good enough.

And sometimes I feel like an ass, because I know there are people with much greater challenges, but I have this strong feeling in my gut of wanting to make this world a better place, for everyone, and I can’t even manage to keep my own family secure.

On top of that, around extended family, friends and acquaintances, I am always acting like everything is ok, compensating with a “go with the flow” attitude, but I feel like a liar and a fake, because what I really feel like is a failure—as a mom, a wife, a friend, a daughter.

In addition, after pretty much losing my shit completely just about a year ago, having the worst time getting out of bed, crying every day, getting to work hours late daily, and being completely withdrawn, I finally went to the doctor and went on meds for depression and anxiety. I know, shocking after reading my history, right?

I really want to be truly happy, and to be able to experience life and be present—for myself AND my husband and children. We all deserve that at the very least. I want to be able to do things that make me feel joy and fulfillment and awareness. I want to have my own hobbies and interests, but I don’t have the time or money, and feel guilty investing those things in myself, even though I know it’s absolutely necessary. I have thoughts and ideas that are whirling around my head, but I feel I don’t have the time or ability to sort them all out and make them materialize.

My biggest concern, worry, fear, is that I am just going through the motions and all the stress has desensitized me over the years and I am numb and lacking emotion and passion (and I am a very passionate person when fully involved). When I do have down-time, I sit, I sleep, I hide, I worry, and I feel guilt and shame—that’s the depression that creeps in. I try: I start eating healthy, going to the gym, opening bills—but I don’t maintain. It’s like I am my own worst enemy, that I don’t deserve happiness or success. These are feelings that go back to my childhood and it’s a constant battle.

I read and watch self-help info all the time, have tried using planners, lists, etc. I give friends advice and support that I know I should follow myself. I know, I know, I know… but what I need to do is act, but I’m stuck, scared—scared to death of fucking things up even worse than they are. And even though my husband and I are a “team,” I feel this incredible amount of pressure on myself. I am in my late 40s and I’m tired after a lifetime of struggling and surviving, but I also know that time is passing quickly for me and my loved ones.

I have made several friends and connections over the last year or so, and I have had brief encounters with joy and my passionate side again. These experiences have made me realize:

Surviving is just not enough for me—this much I do know. I need to stop, reset, and start to set goals and plans for myself first, and then for our family (with my husband) and I just have no idea where or how to start.

Warmest regards,

-Survivor Mom


Dear Survivor Mom,

When I first read your letter, I thought: I know this woman. I’ve been this woman. On certain days I still am this woman. Not only do I hear you, I feel you. I know what it is to be so deep down in your bones tired that it hardly seems worth trying anymore. So as I write to you, know that I am writing to myself as well, and I thank you for the opportunity to work this through. I don’t believe you and I are alone in feeling this way. Actually, I know we are not. So let’s hope that with your letter and my response we can create a space for others to join the conversation and see if maybe we can all make our way down this road together. I’m willing to take that first step if you are.

Let’s go back for a moment and then we’ll move forward.

When I was a child I thought that God was an old man in the sky with a long beard and robe, much like Santa Claus. He watched down on us and doled out rewards to those who were good and punished those who were bad. With this always on my mind, I tried hard to be good and prayed often. I prayed my mother would quit drinking. I prayed we wouldn’t move around so much. I prayed that we wouldn’t always be poor. And as the years passed with all of those prayers going unanswered, I came to the conclusion that God must not like me very much. What other explanation could there be? I was following all the rules and yet I watched as those around me thrived while I stayed stuck in survival mode. Yes, there could be only one conclusion. God played favorites and I wasn’t picked for his team. It was a belief I carried in my heart well into my adult life, and like you I kept my head down, waited for the other shoe to drop, and remained stuck.

Over the years (after lots of therapy, Al-Anon, and spiritual searching), I slowly began to see God in a different light. I started to realize there wasn’t an old man in the sky giving and withholding at random, deciding willy-nilly who was worthy and who wasn’t, and I wondered if maybe God was, in its purest form, simply Life. This opened up a whole new realm of possibilities, because Life doesn’t care if we are good or bad. Life doesn’t care if we are rich or poor. Life doesn’t care what our childhoods were like. It doesn’t care if we are a human, or a tree, or a dog, or even a single microscopic cell. All Life is concerned with is that we live. This is our destiny, our single job. To live. Not merely to exist but to live.

So how do you do that?

You start at the beginning and you plant the seed.

Find something that brings you joy and do it. It’s the joy of doing that ignites the spark of Life within us. It can be anything. Whatever it is you love to do—gardening, painting, solving complex math problems, walking dogs, jogging. Whatever that thing is for you, do it. Do it every day even if it’s only for an hour. You deserve at least one hour a day to focus on yourself. Everyone deserves at least that.

If you don’t know what brings you joy, then take the time to discover it. You don’t need to go out and spend a lot of money or buy a bunch of stuff. Start small. Go slow. Read about the thing that interests you. Talk about it with others who share your interest. Get books from the library or go online. All that matters is that you start to feed your inner life. Do it selfishly for no other purpose than it makes you feel more alive. If you keep doing this thing you love a little every day, something amazing starts to happen. Life begins to recognize itself within you. It becomes drawn to you. And then it expands, bringing with it more Life.

But. But. But…

Ah, the dreaded but. I want to start a business, but I don’t have any money. I love to bake, but I don’t have any time. I want to switch jobs, but I’m scared. I want to join a writing group, but I’m nervous, anxious, depressed. With each but we add another layer of quicksand. We announce our dream and then immediately crush any possibility of bringing it to fruition with but. Nothing we’ve stated before the but holds up. It’s washed away with a single word. I say, get rid of the word and replace it with and. I want to start a business, and I don’t have any money. I love to bake, and I don’t have any time. I want to switch jobs, and I’m scared. I want to join a writing group, and I’m nervous, anxious, depressed.

Now we have something to work with! We humans have a marvelous capacity to do two things at once. We can join a writers group and be nervous. We can take the steps to start a business and work on our finances at the same time. One doesn’t have to preclude the other. By replacing but with and, we separate the two issues, and neither has power over the other. Start noticing every time you use the word but and replace it with and. Wanting to find your passion is no longer tied to the struggles of your life.

When I decided I wanted to write a book (this was my seed), I had no idea where to begin, so of course the ego part of my brain—the part that strings random thoughts into a continuous loop twenty-four hours a day—took over. It told me all the reasons I could never write a book. I wasn’t educated. I barely graduated high school. I didn’t have contacts in the publishing world. If I even finished the book, what would I do with it? Who would even want to read it? Who was I to even think my story was interesting? I was a nobody, and nobodies don’t get to write books.

And just like that I was done before I wrote a single word. No one stopped me. I did that all by myself. Life didn’t stop me. A pile of unpaid bills sitting on a dusty desk didn’t stop me. My friends, my family, they didn’t stop me. I stopped me

Luckily for me, the seed had been planted, and it kept itching at the far corners of my being, so I thought, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if I read a few books like the one I want to write. You know, just to see.” Nothing in my life had changed. I was still poor. I was still keeping my head down and waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I went to the library to check out some books anyway. I read a few and I thought, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if I jotted down a couple of ideas. I won’t show them to anybody.” Again, nothing in my life had changed. I was still poor and I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I jotted down a few ideas anyway. Some of those ideas expanded into a few paragraphs. Some of those paragraphs turned into a few pages… I’m sure you can see where I am going with this.

As those pages turned into chapters, something interesting started to happen. I was spending more time thinking about my book and less time thinking about my crappy life. I was still working two jobs. I still didn’t have a pot to piss in, but that was no longer my first concern. I sought out others who were interested in writing and joined a writing group. I came across a non-profit organization that trained people to facilitate writing groups, and I joined. I went through their training process, and was given my own group to facilitate. Life began to recognize itself within me and it was expanding. Opportunities I didn’t even know existed were showing up—not because I felt compelled to chase them down, but because I had found something I was interested it, something that was bringing me joy. I didn’t have to do anything. I wanted to do things because they held interest for me. This nobody had finally found her voice.

What I’m telling you has nothing to do with setting goals, making plans or, as you said, “making the world a better place.” It’s not your responsibility to make the world a better place. That’s too big! No one person can do that. It’s your job to live. It’s your job to seek out joy and then follow where Life leads you. My book didn’t make the world a better place, but when letters from readers started coming in, I saw that by sharing my story I had made a difference for some. That’s our job. Find what brings you joy, what expands your Life, and then share that Life with others.

It all begins with you. You have to be the one to tell Life what you want to pursue. How else will it know how to support you? Think of that friend who is often upset, but when you ask what’s wrong they shrug and say, “Nothing.” You’d like to help but you can’t because you don’t know what they need. Now imagine Life tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “What do you love to do? What is your passion? How can I help you live a richer, fuller life?” What will your answer be? Will you shrug Life off or will you plant the seed?

One thing. One hour. Each day.

And then watch as your Life expands.


Jonna Ivin is the founder of STIR Journal. She is the author of the memoir Will Love For Crumbs, the humorous coming-of-age novel, Sister Girl and the crime thriller 8th Amendment. A passion for helping others find their unique voice led her to volunteer as a workshop facilitator for Write Around Portland. Jonna is currently working on a new online memoir writing workshop that will be available in the spring. Jonna can be found on Facebook at or followed on twitter as @jonnaivin. She also can be found at



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Binders, Guest Posts


February 4, 2016

By Michele Filgate


To not know sound is to know it, because sound is all I’ve ever known. The not knowingness of it is what I live inside of; where I explore. My fingertips on the insulation that keeps the world from being too loud. The acoustic foam is spongy; my head is like the recording studio below my childhood bedroom, where my father spent countless nights searching for answers inside of the vibrations of percussion and loud guitars.

Listen to me, anyone says. And I can’t remember what they’ve just told me. Their voice brooms through my mind, pushes the dirt and dust from one side of my head to the other.

That’s because I’m seduced by the possibility of silence; something I see as evasive and confrontational, sure, but with the possibility of eroding my uncertain self, until I’m as smooth as a stone. Even when telling myself to focus on the space between the noises around me, I am afraid of those spaces. I hide behind noise.

A screen door opens and slams shut in my mind, over and over and over again.

But there are some sounds I squeeze myself into; I want to be held hostage, I want to be blindfolded so that I’m surrounded by nothingness; opened up by sudden thunder outside of my window, clean rain bouncing off of the peeling deck, hissing, warm, cloud tongue on earth, dirt becoming saliva.

My sneakered feet on the pavement one of those hums I suck on. Because sweat and breath and ground take me away from the void of sameness and stillness. I take air like someone who stayed underwater for too long, greedily, hungrily, as if it’s what will save me. During a run, I kite myself down sidewalks and up sloping hills. I am the wind and the stillness, I am the tug on the string. I am also the tree I get stuck in. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Alcoholism, Binders, Guest Posts, Intimacy, Sex

Facts of Life

October 15, 2015

By Carol Weis

You discover your daughter has learned the facts of life. She is only seven when this profound experience occurs. Your husband has taken over this duty you thought would be yours. One your mother never shared with either you or your sister. You’d find out from your cousin when you were both nine. An image that would repulse you for a very long time. Your anger and grief about losing this right of passage with your daughter, your only child, becomes just another sticker in your already thorny side.

Sex is a thing that is hard to think about. It was your husband’s last straw, and one you have no interest in sharing with anyone but yourself. You occasionally flirt with guys at AA meetings, with no intention of going anywhere with it.

A habit that lingers from your drinking years.

And then the day comes in therapy, when it seems that your therapist might be at her wits end with both of you. She suggests you go on an overnight date, away for a night without your daughter, sleeping in the same bed without having her around.

It’s not that you haven’t tried a version of this before. Since your separation, you’ve slept overnight at his apartment, with ground rules about sleeping in the same bed. If he makes advances when you feel you’re not ready, he has to respect what you say. You’re more like a brother and sister right now, laying next to each other in your parent’s double bed.

His attempts at intimacy are always turned down. Continue Reading…

Awe & Wonder, beauty, Binders, Gratitude, Guest Posts, Inspiration

How To Sleep Alone

October 14, 2015

By Mallory McDuff

First, make your bed every morning, so you can anticipate the ritual of pulling down the quilt and sheets at night, just as you look forward to opening a beer while cooking dinner after work. If possible, sleep under a bright-colored quilt that has sentimental value, surrounding you with memories that tilt your dreams toward love.

To be more precise, sleep under a quilt hand sewn by your mother in the classic pattern “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” with hexagonal patterns repeated in bright pastels and primary colors. The quilt defies you to slump into depression and has graced your bed for the past 10 years.

Before she died at the age of 59 years old, your mother sewed those hexagons  – her first quilt ever – while you were busy having a baby, going to grad school, and sleeping with a man on a futon, under a tapestry from Goodwill.

But now you sleep alone under her quilt, and you cherish every hexagon, even the ones that are frayed around the edges, torn cotton from where your two daughters have jumped onto the bed, revealing white bunting underneath, like rabbit tails poking out where they shouldn’t be.

When you make the bed each morning, you think about finding someone to repair the quilt, maybe Lupe, the talented tailor and photographer who goes to your church. But you never call him. There’s always a more pressing task, like getting kids to school, grading papers, cooking dinner, and then it’s time to go to bed again. Continue Reading…