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Guest Posts, courage, Fiction

The Arboretum

May 13, 2022
kids

If you saw it, you’d agree: It’s the gem of our town. Not as big as the one in Vellum Heights, but clean, well-designed, with paved walking paths, a pond full of vibrant, speckled koi, and a climbing apparatus built just for the kids. Its half-mile circumference holds five hundred trees – towering oaks and regal sycamores, luscious magnolias that flower in spring, beeches with smooth grey elephant skin, papery birches and prickly ash.

Some of us are old enough to remember those trees – not those trees of course, but ones like them, that grew in our yards and in the neighborhood park, a mute green watercolor backdrop to our lives. We remember the smells of fresh-cut grass, and rain, and mud, and the breeze on our face. Indescribable now, like the sky when it was blue.

Now we all wear the mask. For the sake of our kids, we pretend not to hate it as much as we do, but it makes no difference; our kids refuse to put it on. From the moment they exit their sleeping pods, after every meal and every bath, we are reduced to chasing them around the house like ogres out of some macabre fairy tale. We hold them down as they kick and scream, force the nozzle over their nose and mouth, tighten the straps at their temples and jaw. It’s not pretty. It’s not what we imagined for them. They claw at their heads and call us terrible names. They say they can’t breathe, which of course isn’t true.

We pine for what the big cities have: renovated, airtight, oxygenated schools and offices and condos, amenities we can’t afford. The arboretum, though – we lobbied for a year, went door to door, convinced the mayor to sign on. We spoke at town hall meetings to unanimous applause, though some high schoolers gave us a run for our money. Julia Meyers, sixteen at the time, stormed up to the podium, flanked by four of her friends. “People are dying and you want to build a park?” As if we’d asked those people to come to our town, with their makeshift tents and sprawling filth. Yes, we knew their children had died. Of course it was sad. And we’d let them stay. Occasionally we saw them roaming our streets, dirty rags tied around their noses and mouths. Some rattled cans, and we gave them change.

We told the youth, some problems are too big to fix.

From afar, the arboretum’s domed-glass roof resembles a snow-globe embedded in the ground, an alluring green planet in the center of our town. The earth’s bounty shrunk to a fraction of its size. We love it. Without it, we’d lose our minds.

Today we have come for the Live Butterflies, and the line extends around the block. Our kids fidget, shift from foot to foot, bounce on their toes as we wait to get in. Connor Watson pokes his little sister in the back, tugs the end of her sash, undoing the bow. “Stop it!” she wails, her hands grasping at the crimped, dangling ribbons of her dress. Her eyes narrow through the porthole lenses of her mask. She kicks him hard in the shin. He slaps her arm. “Cut it out,” their father says, “or we’re going straight home.” In our masks, we all look like giant anthropods with oversized black heads and elongated snouts. Bug-eyed creatures, an alien race. The line inches forward, in shuffling steps. We move as a herd, bovine with exhaustion, the kids like puppies straining their leashes.

From behind the entrance window, the security guard – Jeremy Knowles, the mayor’s son, slumped, unshaven, bored out of his mind, as if his mask-free job were not coveted by all – waves us through the first checkpoint. We pass into a wide vestibule, a large steel box with hydraulic doors. The floor vibrates through the soles of our shoes as the air is sucked out, hermetically sealing us in. Then through a smaller set of glass doors, into the crystal-cool chamber of the dome.

It’s like stepping into the great outdoors, a green so lush it hums in our teeth. The kids are now beside themselves. We fumble with the child-kidssafety locks on their masks, an impossible array of buckles and clasps. So close to freedom, they wriggle and whine. We try not to curse. “Would you just hold still?”

Their masks come off. We let them run – bare-faced and wild, ferocious with glee, torpedoing towards the center of the dome where the jungle gym looms like a skeleton god. Beams and bars and tunnels and slides, they lose themselves in its vertiginous maze. They move in a charged and zealous blur, and something inside us moves with them.

The relief, as we loosen the straps of our mask, breaking suction, peeling the rubber from our face. Our pores exhale, our sweat evaporates. We gulp the cool air. It’s a thirst, and we drink. The humid, heavenly scent of leaves and loamy earth and linden blooms. Sawdust and pine and soft damp moss. Each breath we take returns us to ourselves.

Here we are: sallow and prematurely grey, defying extinction for better or worse. We sit on the benches and watch our kids play. At least our kids still know how to play. They are making do, like the bonsai in its pot – stunted, pruned, inhabiting tiny truncated lives. We water them, we clip their leaves. We don’t tell them how many of us there once were.

Their screams and laughter echo through the dome. More families stream in – our neighbors, our friends – our din pulsating like the chambers of a heart. There are strollers everywhere. Our masks are scattered like empty chrysalides. Lina Hernandez, a mother of two, is squinting worriedly into the crowd.

The crowd, as if by magnetic force, is moving, rippling, parting to make way for a scarecrow of a man who is lurching down the path.

He reeks of sour, festering rot. His face is raw and stippled with a rash. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair a greasy pelt. He could be thirty or sixty-five. He weaves tipsily among the trees, approaching the teeming mob of our kids. They don’t see him, not until they hear our shouts.

“Izzy!”

“Jackson!”

“Get over here, Taij!”

They scatter in confusion, into our arms. Because we are frightened, so are they. We pull them close and give the man a wide berth. He lies down on a bench and closes his eyes. Our children stare, at the labored rise and fall of his thin chest, the dirty sweat on his brow. Two park staff approach – Ravi Price and Jeff Sanchez, young men, acned, visibly sheepish. “Sir?” The stranger opens one eye and mumbles, annoyed, like they’ve come to him in his private backyard, woken him up from his afternoon nap. When they try to help him up, he turns over on his side, his back to us, and wraps his arms around himself. Like Liza, our beloved childhood dog, when she crawled under a porch and wouldn’t come out. Refusing food, growling at whoever came near. We didn’t understand that she’d gone there to die.

Two security guards appear, masked, wearing protective gloves. We flinch as they pull the man to his feet. He splutters in protest, then begins to cough, a croupy bark that wracks his frame. They hold him up by the armpits as he spasms, retches, his vomit splashing at their feet. We hold our kids tighter, try to cover their eyes. Spellbound, they push our hands away. Pink spittle dangles like a worm from his mouth. His head lolls, feet dragging as they take him away.

Already, the kids are wriggling out of our grip. Jeff and Ravi start to clean up the mess, and the kids gather around to watch the spectacle. “Stand back,” we warn. They are like dogs, drawn to the most revolting things. We are glad when the job is finally done, our eyes watering from the sting of disinfectant in the air. Gladder still when Elsie Cho’s four-year-old daughter points down the path and shouts, “the butterflies are here!”

Another staffer – Julia Meyers, all grown up now, having abandoned her needling adolescent righteousness – has appeared with a small mesh cage full of them. They are Holly Blues, lab-hatched upstate. The kids surge around her like a bubbling tide. She releases the swarm, an azure whirlwind. The children shriek. The butterflies rise, a cloud of glitter dispersing in the air, the kids leaping, spinning, chasing after them.

At least we have managed to give them this. Pig-tailed Jenny Ames beatific on her father’s shoulders, the butterflies grazing her outstretched fingertips. Little Elroy Carter toddling about, flapping his arms and squealing with joy.

Within an hour, the butterflies carpet the ground like fallen leaves, having lived their entire lifespan before our eyes. The kids pick them up, study them in dismay – the paper-thin wings and half-crushed legs, the powdery dust coming off on their hands. “Next week,” we say, ushering them back to the benches, where our masks – and the inevitable tantrums – await.  “There’ll be more next week.” It is closing time. When we leave, wings stick to the bottom of our shoes.

This essay originally appeared in Call Me [Brackets].

Talia Weisz lives in Brooklyn, NY and is the author of two chapbooks: Sisters in Another Life (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and When Flying Over Water (Plan B Press, 2009). Her short fiction appears in Entropy and Call Me [Brackets]

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

Guest Posts, courage, healing

Finding Ahimsa

May 11, 2018
fault

By Erin Walton

I had just finished a twelve-hour shift waiting tables and had plans to meet a girlfriend for drinks, in celebration of St. Patty’s Day. In my car, I splashed a layer of green sparkles on my eyelids and spread some more across my cheeks and then met Teera at a bar downtown. From our corner booth in the bar, I sipped a single cosmopolitan made with cheap vodka while undressing handsome men with my eyes. We stayed until closing time, and at the end of the night, Teera offered to let me crash on her couch but I refused. I had a 7 a.m. breakfast shift at the restaurant and I couldn’t risk being late. I worked in the small mountain town of Estes Park, Colorado, an hour’s drive up the canyon from my home in Boulder. That night, I insisted on driving up the canyon.

Sometime between 2:30 and 3 a.m. I fell asleep while listening to Beck’s soulful, whiney, “There’s a place where you are going/You ain’t never been before/No one left to watch your back now/ No one standing at your door.” In the moments before drifting off, the song hummed from my CD player while I drank lukewarm gas station coffee. This I remember vividly – the exact song that was playing, “Lost Cause” – although I cannot remember what was next, only that I felt my car hit a rock. My eyes jolted open and my car catapulted into the air and down a steep ravine where I would remain for the next twelve hours. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, courage, Letting Go

Ferris Wheels On The Nile

August 18, 2017
wheel

By Deonna Kelli Sayed

In  2012, I traveled to a country that had recently split into two. It was the last trip abroad I would take as a married woman, the last time I would spend with Zalmay as my husband.

I didn’t know this yet.

I arrived in Sudan with my eight-year-old son, Ibrahim; a year after South Sudan had become the world’s newest country.  Zalmay was the United Nations Resident Representative, an equivalent to an ambassador post. We were to join him in Sudan as soon as the youngest stepson graduated from high school in the spring.

The trip occurred a week after I had received the advance reading copies of my first book, a book about America’s fascination with ghosts.  The trip occurred as I was collapsing into pieces, struggling to solve my personal hauntings.

I had recently started to ache; a phantom pain, something between an itch and thick of type of heat. In efforts to ignore it, I organized closets, wrote long and insecure journal entries, and cleaned my 2500 hundred square foot home. No matter what I did, this ache was always present: like a soft spark that ignited when air made contact with my body.  The feeling was somewhat ethereal, and yet, it sat in my throat. The ache tasted like the wrong life, like I had somehow swallowed an accidental story. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, courage, Regret

Finding a Voice

December 15, 2016
fight

By Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh

I was 19 years old the first time I cried in school.

Okay, actually, that was the third time.

The first time was because I spilled grape juice on my white corduroys. Nobody was home to bring me new pants, so I had to go back to class and the other kids laughed.

The second time was when I lost the Arbor Day poster contest to my classmate, Tracy. I was jealous. I thought my poem about a tree was better than her picture of a tree. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. When I did not win, I told my friends at recess to play 3-square instead of 4-square, so Tracy could not play. Which was a total dick move. (Tracy, I’m so sorry. Seriously. I don’t know where you are right now, but if you are ever up for a legit game of 4-square, please give me a call.) Tracy told the teacher, who pulled me aside, told me I was being a dick, and sent me back to the classroom to put my head down. I cried until the bell rang to go home. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, courage, Fear

If No One Would See

November 15, 2016
fat

By Christine Brown

The idea of writing about what I would write about if I knew no one would see it is interesting to me. I always think about things that I might like to write about but am too afraid to because of who might see or read it.

If I knew that no one would read it, I would write about depression and what it feels like to live in a constant state of depression when nearly all of your family is telling you that you can’t be depressed. Because God. That you just have to look at things differently and stop being sad. That it’s a choice and all you have to do is choose to be happy and that will make everything better. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, courage

Change is supposed to be good, right? 2016

November 3, 2016
change is supposed to be good

 

Change is supposed to be good

By Lisbeth Welsh

If you want something to change, then you have to make a change.  And that’s what I did.  I made a massive change, uprooting my life from Las Vegas and returning to LA.  After almost 2 years in the neon desert, I (thought) I was ready to return to my beloved Southern California.  To be back near the ocean and the beach and away from the blistering heat and soul-less sin city.  And so I moved.

I am fortunate that I currently have a job that I can do anywhere so there was no big new job to pin it on, no date of any relevance just a lull in my schedule that gave me an opportunity to pack up me and my dog and reposition us back ‘home’.  But coming home has not been so easy.  My friends and sense of community are here but my family, are not.  They’re still thousands of miles away in the UK.  My prior home, is managed by a rental company who have out priced me in my rental budget since I left.  So, not for the first time in my life I’ve had to pick myself up like a random little pin and drop myself in the middle of a map and begin to rebuild and reboot my life. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Alcoholism, courage

I Have To Leave You Now

August 22, 2016
alcohol

By Natha Perkins

The truth about my relationship with alcohol is something I’ve managed to avoid for years, I’ve basically refused to look at it. I don’t even really want to examine it right now, but it’s been up. It’s been calling me to hold it in my hands, turn it over and really look at it. It wants me to examine the texture and the flavor and the way it feels settled in my body. It wants to be seen.

Like everything else in my life wants to be seen. Like I want to be seen. And so, rather than pretend that I don’t hear the call, or avoid the request and just have a glass of wine instead, I will delve in.

I’m ready to face some uncomfortable truths. I’ve self medicated with recreational drugs and alcohol for years. The drugs lost their appeal to me in my late twenties though, and for that I’m grateful. Once I had children, the drugs were no longer logical to me and the truth is that they never made me feel as good as they seemed to make other people feel. But alcohol, that was sustainable. Socially acceptable. Everyone was doing it.

I was never a heavy drinker. Just a few glasses of wine at night. I wasn’t the girl at the party who was passed out, or even slurring for that matter. Thanks to a few dismaying experiences in high school that triggered a lifetime of shame and embarrassment (stories for another time), I learned  that binge drinking was not my thing; being completely out of control was unacceptable. But a little buzz, yes. Something to take the edge of an exhausting day off, yes. Something to help me numb the pain and help express the incinerator I had burning inside of me, yes. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, courage

To Be Beautiful You Have to Suffer

August 21, 2016
dance

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

I was dragged to Ruth Skaller’s Ballet Studio for Girls the year I was seven. I had never expressed any interest in dancing. But earlier that year, I’d had surgery on my eyes, and someone suggested that dancing might help my coordination.

Ruth Skaller was a tall, olive-skinned woman of indeterminate age, whose classes were filled with giggling girls she whipped into line with the snap of her voice. Through a series of barre exercises, we would sweep our Capezio slippers over the polished pale wood floors, plié, rond de jambe, relèvé, to the strains of haunting, melancholy piano music on the Victrola that only years later would I recognize as Chopin. Mrs. Skaller would stand before the mirror, lower face cupped thoughtfully in her hand, humming as she turned out muscled legs beneath her skirt drapery until she had choreographed our next steps. We would line up, and then, like drifting dandelion fluff — or lumbering elephants — cross the room on the diagonal, spinning and spotting, pirouetting our way dizzily across the studio.

Often the next class would arrive while we were in progress. Taller, lankier girls would perch on the painted radiators, or sweep into the dressing room behind the studio, a gray affair of cubbies and wrought iron bars over narrow dusty windows that faced an unpaved alley. Swinging rectangular black plastic ballet boxes with pink Barbie-faced ballerinas painted on the front, they would click open the vinyl snaps to remove leotard and tights, then open cunning spaces at the bottom which concealed the soft shoes, or, for the lucky ones, pale pink satin toe shoes with wooden toe blocks. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, courage, depression

I Fought For You

July 3, 2016
love

By Robin Rivera

I’m lucky lately when I don’t go immediately back to bed after giving a morning stroll through the kitchen wondering aimlessly.  My hormones are raging, I’m exhausted, and my bed is the safest place for me. I’m a month and a half pregnant, scared, insecure, and experiencing chronic depression, which I previously thought would never happen to me. I thought my darkest days had been left long ago in the beautifully deceptive streets of Beverly Hills. Oh, my glamorous alcoholic porn star days were hellish tainted with sex trafficking, corruption, and spirit crushers. I thought those were my darkest days.

I was wrong. That darkness, that gut wrenching pain, that out of control lost feeling is back, and I am fighting everything and everyone like a cat clawing its way up and out of danger. One day, I literally felt like I was drowning in hell with no one to turn to. While screaming in my car after being turned away from some self-help meeting for being late, I crazily broke my phone hoping the rage would somehow exit my body this way.  I was in overwhelming emotional pain. I was so desperate for relief from the trauma I was reliving somatically. My partner couldn’t support me for whatever reason, and I felt so alone and abandoned. Like what it might feel like to watch your child be murdered in broad day light & your screaming for help and everyone sees you, but no one lifts a finger. Yes, that’s how I felt a couple weeks ago, but about my own self. I’m still recovering from that day with embarrassing scars to prove what I am going through is deep enough to penetrate all layers of my happiness and hope. I’ve been searching for the lesson in this all… feeling paralyzed with fear and exhausted by anxiety. There are people screaming they love me, but it sounds like the faintest pen drop only muffled by my debilitating resentment for this experience.

I have everything good in my life I thought I’d never have. A really handsome, brave man trying to love me, my chance at stopping the cycle of abuse in my family, a prestigious college degree, a magical relationship with my six-year-old daughter…yet my self-destructive patterns have shown their ugly face again. This time with vengeance. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, courage

Going Away, Again

June 24, 2016
leaving

Part 1 of this essay was published at: https://www.themanifeststation.net/tag/melissa-ballard/

By Melissa Ballard

 One Month Before Going Away

  1. Think about going away. Do this without your stomach churning, your heart pinching, and your limbs tingling because you have found a daily medication that helps your brain function the way it’s supposed to, without sedating you or making you feel light-headed. And now, finally, all the other things you’ve done to manage anxiety including, but not limited to: therapy, meditation, yoga stretches, and positive-self talk are really working.
  1. Look forward to going away. Remind yourself it’s something you want to do, will most certainly enjoy and, anyway, worrying in advance serves no purpose, as you know. While it’s true you still prefer being at home, it’s nice to have a change of pace, and who knows what you’ll discover.  Remind yourself that for much of your life, and especially the last six years, you’ve known these things in your head, but you haven’t been able to feel them in your body.

Continue Reading…