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The Converse-Station: Emma Hudelson interviews Erin Khar

February 20, 2020
recovery, drugs

A note from Angela: Jen and I have been fans of Erin Khar for years, and we were thrilled when we were asked if we could share this interview. Erin’s book, Strung Out, is being published on February 25th and Emma Hedelson provides us with a window into Erin’s remarkable story. Enjoy this introduction to both Erin and Emma and after you finish reading, you can order the book here

Introduction by Emma Hudelson: 

At thirteen, I took my first gulp of liquor, kept gulping, and woke up in the hospital. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you it was just a little fun that had gotten out of control. But really, the escape of booze had seduced me completely. It promised disappearance, and eventually, it made me turn my back on a strong education and a promising career as a junior exhibitor equestrienne with a high-performing horse. By the end of high school, my list of disappearing acts included running away from home, getting blackout drunk every weekend, smoking pot daily, developing a cocaine addiction, and attempting suicide.

Therapists and psychiatrists couldn’t reach me. My mom, a single mom, tried her best, but she couldn’t contain me. She read guides like Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which is a great book, but with only one chapter devoted to substance abuse. What my mom needed—what I needed—was a book like Erin Khar’s Strung Out, a memoir of addiction and recovery, written by a woman who had once been a girl like me—a girl who wanted to disappear.

I survived my adolescence, entered recovery, and went on to find a career as a writer and teacher. Eventually, even horses found me again. Today, I’m ten years sober and in graduate school. Most young women whose teen years look like mine aren’t so fortunate, and most don’t have a good model of successful recovery. Strung Out could be that missing model. None of the existing addiction memoirs address the intersection of girlhood, trauma, mental health, and substance abuse the way it does.

Like most of her fans, I found Erin Khar online. She runs “Ask Erin,” the popular advice column at Ravishly.com with the tagline “She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to.” Erin is compassionate with her advice, whether the issue is as serious as “I think the guy I’m dating raped me” or as less-serious as “An update on a one-night stand with my coworker.” She always provides suggestions to seek professional help when needed and links readers to available resources. She’s the cool big sister most women never had: smart and savvy, with a strong lipstick game. In the midst of writing about my own addiction and recovery, I found out Erin had written an addiction memoir. To my delight, I also discovered she had a history with horses, too. Naturally, I decided she was my long-lost, much-cooler, way-better-with-lipstick big sister, and requested an advanced copy of her forthcoming book.

In its pages, I saw myself. I’d discovered a role model, one generous enough to share her story with the world. Luckily, Erin was also generous enough to spend an hour chatting with me about recovery, community, and of course, horses.

Emma Hudelson: Why did you decide to tell your story in memoir form?

Erin Khar: I wanted to write the book that I had needed when I was younger, to give people who were struggling a voice, and to open up conversations about addiction that will contribute to reducing stigma and shame.

EH: I definitely could have used this book when I was younger! It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about your readers. How do you view your relationship with them?

EK: My goal is to make anyone, whether they’re experienced with addiction or not, more comfortable with talking about it. Shame and letting go of it is another big theme of the book, which is something that someone who hasn’t struggled with addiction can relate to. We all have ghosts that we’re afraid to face, and the trick is facing them so we can move on. I hope I connect with readers in a personal way, so that it feels like an intimate conversation. Hopefully, something productive comes out of that writer-reader relationship.

EH: I love how you don’t shy away from talking about things like shame, trauma, and mental illness. That’s something the recovery community doesn’t always handle well. So many of us in recovery, myself included, have a dual diagnosis of substance abuse disorder and a mental health disorder. To stay sober and stable, I have to work on both my mental health and my recovery. Were you conscious of that as you were writing?

EK: Yes. My foundation for recovery was in twelve-step programs. At that time, there was a lot of stigma about psychiatric medications. I thought there was only one path of recovery and I thought that if I couldn’t fit into that path, I wasn’t going to make it. I hope people walk away from this book understanding that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to addiction, because in my experience, particularly with opiate addiction, there’s often another component. It could be an actual mental health diagnosis or have a trauma-related origin. You can do all the recovery work in the world, but if you’re not addressing those deeper psychiatric issues, I think it’s difficult to maintain any sort of recovery.

EH: I’ve been sober ten years, and I’m still involved with twelve-step programs. When I first came in, I heard a lot of, “if you take a mood- or mind-altering drug, you’re not sober.” That included antidepressants. That’s bullshit. There are multiple roads to recovery. Twelve-step programs work for some people. Others need something else. I know twelve-step wound up not working for you, but it seems like you don’t have any bitterness towards it.

EK: No, not at all. I think I would have died trying to get sober if I didn’t have twelve-step programs. The work that I did there gave me enough of a foundation to get the help that I needed. I don’t know that they’re for everyone, but I’ve seen them help a whole lot of people. The sense of community there is super important. I don’t ever want anyone to feel that there’s only one way to achieve recovery. I achieved long term recovery after I realized that I could have recovery without being restricted to a twelve-step model. It’s been almost seventeen years since my last drug.

EH: That’s so cool!

EK: Yeah, it’s a big deal! I’m also a proponent of harm reduction. I would much rather have someone be on suboxone for ten years than constantly relapsing and detoxing. That wouldn’t necessarily be the answer for me, but if suboxone is improving someone’s quality of life, then I’m 100% for it. I look at addiction as a public health issue. We have a responsibility as a society to ensure that people who are suffering have the opportunity to get help. That help might not come all at once. Often, harm reduction is a path to recovery. I think people are starting to see that model works better than this all-or-nothing from the beginning model.

EH: There are multiple pathways. It’s not just the twelve-step model, SMART recovery, or moderation management.

EK: Whatever works, works. It shouldn’t matter how somebody gets there. You’d tackle any other medical problem the same way. There are several approaches to treating cancer, so if one doesn’t work, then try another. The same should be true for recovery.

EH: With cancer, you would try multiple treatments. You wouldn’t just try radiation. I think that really makes sense. You said the sense of community that can be found in twelve-step programs is something you see as a foundation of recovery. What can women in recovery do better to stay connected and form that community?

EK: As much as everyone has criticisms of social media and the internet in general, it does connect us in ways that were never possible before. So even if you’re in a physically isolated place, you can find online recovery groups. There’s a whole world of help of there. I have formed some of my closest relationships with people I’ve met online. When it comes to supporting each other in recovery, the best way people can support each other is to avoid judgment of how recovery unfolds. That includes relapsing. When you’re in recovery, it’s scary to see someone close to you relapse because that can feel threatening to your own recovery. It’s very easy to jump into a judgmental place. Remembering the old adage that’s used a lot in twelve-step—“there but for the grace of god go I”—I always remind myself that the person in relapse could so easily me be. Even if we’re outwardly in a very different place, we’re both humans. That’s a human being having a human experience. Obviously, in early recovery, you might have to distance yourself to protect your own sobriety. But as the years go by, it becomes a lot easier to be there for people in jeopardy.

EH: In the book, we see you relapse, but we see people who are close to you relapse. It’s a struggle for all memoirists to write about other people. You write about your parents and ex-husband, too. Did you have any self-checks that you used to make sure that you were staying in your story and not moving to into someone else’s story?

EK: I would look at myself as a character in the book. As in, “Erin is the protagonist. Is this told from Erin’s perspective?” I can’t fill in the blanks for anyone else. I’m the camera, so I can only see it from my point of view. I can say, “she told me she felt this way,” but I can’t assume anything. It’s challenging! Even now, I’m sure I could go back into the book and realize I didn’t always do it perfectly.

EH: Speaking of turning yourself into a character—I love how you portrayed all the horrible, heartbreaking negative self-talk throughout the book. While you were writing, how did you navigate these moments where you were in conversation with this really dark part of yourself?

EK: It helped that I have so much distance from the events. I probably couldn’t have written this book ten years ago. When reconstructing moments, I tried to focus first on things I knew were concrete. Yet still—facts that I recorded in my journal are only facts according to what I observed in that moment. As I moved through the different parts of my life in the book, I tried to write each chapter with the voice of me at that age but with the added commentary of me at this age, right now, looking back. By working chronologically and trying to focus on concrete details, I was able to separate myself enough to keep the narrative arc without being swallowed by it.

Especially in edits, I had to make sure that I was doing things to take care of myself. I went back to therapy and made sure that I have everything in place for this whole journey. Not just the writing, but the publishing, and talking about the book once it’s out in the world. As comfortable as I am talking about it, it’s certainly emotional, even in my body.

EH: Speaking as a writer, it’s a gift to be able to recreate memories and write about them, but it’s definitely not comfortable. People will ask me if writing about addiction, trauma, and recovery is cathartic or healing. Sometimes, maybe, but it’s also—no. Not at all. What’s your experience?

EK: You have to do the healing before you sit down to write the memoir. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but for me, I had to do the work beforehand. Without it, I couldn’t have written as honest a memoir. I couldn’t have confronted the things that I confront in the book. Putting all my ugly truth out there is very freeing, because I don’t feel like I have anything left to hide. For victims of trauma, that can be very satisfying. It’s like getting the last word on your own story.

EH: Your pub date is coming up soon.

EK: February 25.

EH: Do you feel like you’re prepared for the barrage of emails and messages that you’re probably going to get?

EK: Because of the advice column, I already get 50-75 emails a week from people—and obviously, I can’t answer them all. I’m sure that will increase, but I’m trying to remember that the book is only one part of my life. Obviously, it’s a very big part of my life, but even though my story is out there I’m still allowed to have personal boundaries.

EH: In the book, you address that. You explain isn’t all of you on those pages. I think that’s really important to understand. It’s easy for someone to pick up a memoir and think they know the author intimately.

EK: In some ways, they do! They will know parts of me—more than what I showed people in the past, back when I was hiding from everybody. But they’re only seeing me through one lens.

EH: I have to ask you about one more thing. When I was younger, I was really into horses, like, going-to-the-world-championships into horses. When I got away from riding, my addiction took hold of me and didn’t let go. In your pre-addict days and days of early addiction, you were a very serious rider, too. When it comes to addiction and young women, is there something about the horse that’s special?

EK: There is a special relationship that happens between a human and a horse. It’s difficult to put it into words that make sense to people who haven’t experienced it. When a horse and rider are really connected, it’s symbiosis. The best riders in the world don’t have to utilize a lot of aids. They have really light hands and legs because everything is done through this symbiotic connection. It’s not just a shift in physical weight, but energy, too. I could hop on one of my horse’s back—maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea—bareback, without a bridle, just a halter on, and ride. There was so much trust between us. For young women growing up in this world, it’s difficult to trust people. We’re given conflicting messages. Our bodies become both super sexualized, but then we’re shamed for that. That makes us not trust people. I’m speaking generally here, not just about my own experience. With a horse, there’s this love story because of the trust. The horse doesn’t want anything but to be in the moment with you. The horse becomes a place where we can put our trust.

Emma Faesi Hudelson is a teaching fellow and PhD candidate studying literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She writes on addiction, recovery, and mental health. Horses, too. Her work appears or is forthcoming in BUST, the Chattahoochee Review, the Fix, the Manifest-Station, the Rumpus, and other publications. Her essays have been selected as finalists in the 2017 International Literary Awards and Creative Nonfiction’s Spring 2018 Contest.

 

Erin Khar is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared in SELF, Marie ClaireEsquireCosmopolitanGood Housekeeping, Redbook, and others. She’s the recipient of the Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize and lives in New York City with her husband and two kids. Order Strung Out here

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Guest Posts, Yoga, Young Voices

My Practice

February 18, 2020
practice

By Shelby Palmeri

I can’t physically hold onto it, but it has made a profound impact. I don’t think about it often in the day-to-day, but looking back over the years, it has always been there, my constant.

How did all these years pass by?

Did I ever really choose this or did it choose me?

I lay my dingy outdoor yoga mat down in my big backyard. I’m reminded of my first few months of practicing. Limited by space in the deplorable frat boy style living arrangements of the boyfriend I stayed with nearly every night, I had to seek the solace of their big (dirty) backyard.

Avoiding broken glass, and scattered folding chairs, not bothered by a roommate’s skittish purebred beast of a dog I wanted desperately to befriend, I’d set up in the tall grass.

Yes now I have an outdoor mat, two extra mats just in case, and of course my expensive and on brand everyday mat, the one that lives in my passenger seat or on the floor of my sunroom. Back then, I just had one mat- my first mat, a bright pink thin thing I rescued from a closet in my parent’s house, bought then quickly forgotten.

I’d take it to the flattest spots I could find, hiding myself from the view of any of the rambunctious tenants of that rented residence. I’d practice the little bit I had picked up from YouTube and Google. Child’s pose was nice and easy, throw in a cat, cow or two. It was in these sessions when I realized how far I had to go, realized how much effort it took just to sit in a cross legged position for minutes at a time.

When looking back on what drew me to yoga, it is kind of funny to admit. At that time in my life, somewhere around 19, I was discovering how much I liked getting high, and I was exploring a variety of ways to do so. I remember thinking that maybe yoga would provide me some sort of transcendental experience. Maybe, it’d get me some sort of high.

The more spirituality books I read, the more I became a little obsessed with this idea of enlightenment. It was a totally new concept and one I wanted to conquer. I thought downdog and the Bhagavad Gita would give me the tools I needed to transcend my reality. I would have an edge. I’d go somewhere I couldn’t come back from. I’d be a yogi master, a guru, all-knowing and always Zen.

As the months went by, I kept practicing. My motivations fluctuated. This new connection to my body turned me onto fitness. My obsession became core work and planking. I discovered avocado toast and calorie trackers. I thought little about my spiritual journey and more about my six-pack. I took lots of bad-form yoga selfies, admired how my butt looked in tight leggings.

I kept practicing.

Nearly two years into this relationship with yoga, I had a pretty solid routine. That same boyfriend and I were now living in a spacious apartment, with floor to ceiling windows in the living room that I fell in love with the moment I walked in the door. It was in front of those windows, that I’d lay my mat down every morning, trading plush carpet for the rocky un-mowed lawn of my previous practice space.

By this time, I had all the classic yoga texts, expensive mala beads I never used, and a couple of props and Aztec blankets. I kept them all stacked together near the windowsill along with my succulents and occasionally my slinky cat. I loved my little yoga space.

One morning, I woke up to practice. I spent about twenty minutes moving by body then rested it on the floor. I lay in corpse pose as the sun filtered through the blinds, casting shadows and warming my face.

A few hours later, as I sat on the couch in that same living space, the sun casting shadows on the wall, my boyfriend killed himself in our bedroom.

I, traumatized and grieving, kept practicing.

I forgot about enlightenment. I forgot yoga body. My motivation became healing. My mat caught all my tears; my journal caught my frustrations. I spent hours and hours on the floor in meditation, hoping that maybe I’d be able to feel him. I read more books. I looked for signs. I explored the metaphysical. I survived the unthinkable.

And, I kept practicing.

Years have passed since that day, as have many milestones. I graduated college, moved away from home, fell in love again, went through teacher training. Through it all, my mat has been underneath me. I unroll it in happiness and in times of struggle. I’ve unrolled it on sandy beaches, rock ledges, and countless studio floors. I’ve unrolled it by trickling rivers, near bubbling hot springs, and in airport terminals.

Over the years, I’ve had to wonder if it is the exercise, the healing or the distant and mysterious possibility of enlightenment that brings me back? Maybe it’s all three, and maybe it’s a whole lot more.

As I lay my outdoor mat down on this warm and sunny summer day, the dirt smells the same as it did so many summers ago in that distant backyard that was much less mine than this one. The wind ruffling the trees sounds the same, and extended child’s pose is just as soothing.

I think about all the things that have changed in my life in such a short time. And I think about all that’s stayed the same.

I keep practicing.

practice

Shelby Palmeri is a registered yoga teacher living in Colorado, trying to chase the dream of teaching yoga and writing. She enjoy mountains, music, and craft beer.

 

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Books, Guest Posts

Strung Out: Prologue

February 13, 2020
recovery, drugs

A note from Angela And Jen: Erin Khar has a spectacular book coming out next week and has graciously shared the prologue with us so we can share it with you. Enjoy this excerpt and preorder the book. Trust us, this is one everyone will be talking about.

By Erin Khar

Prologue
October 2015

 “Mom, did you ever do drugs?”

The words of my twelve-year-old son, Atticus, lingered in the space between us. A car horn from the busy street outside could be heard from our fourth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village, punctuating the moment. Parts of myself, other selves, past selves, collided headlong into who I’d become—a mother, a wife, a writer, an advice columnist.

At that moment, I wanted time to stop. I wanted Atticus to remain too young to understand the perils of drug addiction. I know how drug use can obliterate a life; I didn’t want any part of it to touch him. I wanted to protect him from the harsh realities of the opioid crisis that is ravaging our country. But this impulse to look away, to avoid confronting the opioid crisis and pretend it’s not happening, is the very thing that keeps us in danger. How can we recover as families, as a nation, and create a healthier space for our children if we don’t talk about it? We must be willing to share our experiences and be willing to examine the opioid crisis from all angles, even the angles that hit close to home.

The fact is every eleven minutes an American dies of drug overdose. Overdoses are the leading cause of death in this country for people under fifty-five[1].

A lot has been reported about the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the opioid crisis. And undoubtedly, the proliferation of drugs like oxycodone flooding the market via doctors has created a whole new generation of opiate users who may not have found their way to addiction otherwise. That’s not the whole story. Not everyone who gets a prescription for opioid pain killers becomes addicted, and not everyone starts with pills.

But over two million Americans are currently struggling with opiate addiction and nearly 20 percent of them are young adults. Even more staggering, use among young women is up, and the incidence of young pregnant women using opioids has increased by as much as 600 percent in some areas over a ten-year period[2].

To say we have an opioid crisis is an understatement. You can’t go a day, let alone a week, without the opioid epidemic infiltrating the news cycle.

And yet, so many people ask why anyone would do drugs in the first place.

The simplest answer is emotional pain. We live in a time in this country when everything moves so fast, when we are confronted by an altered view of other people’s realities through social media, the social and political climate is divisive, and the guarantee of creating a better life for ourselves than our parent’s generation has all but disappeared.

Our approach to mental health care is broken. Free and subsidized services are limited at best. The people who are most at risk—those in poor and marginalized communities—have financial and social barriers to accessing help.

The American ethos of putting your nose to the grindstone and persevering does a great disservice to our mental and emotional health. When you can’t get out of bed in the morning, when you have no self-worth left, when you’ve had childhood trauma, when you suffer from any form of PTSD, the option of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and overcoming addiction or other mental health issues is not possible. And that’s not a moral failing.

The stigma associated with opioids, with heroin, with “being a junkie,” prevents people from reaching out. And that stigma is killing us. Americans are stuck in a spiral of shame, and that shame drives the vicious cycle of relapse that many drug users get caught in.

The only way to break through that shame is by talking about it. It is terrifying to admit that you need help, to admit that you are addicted. This is especially true when it comes to heroin. Heroin use conjures up the gruesome images we see reported. Even among people who experiment with drugs, who drink and smoke pot and try cocaine, heroin represents some moral boundary—one that is reinforced by media. Those who cross that boundary, who “choose” to use heroin, are marked with shame.

Shame is a gatekeeper that prevents people from seeking help. Stigma is bred from that shame.

That stigma has killed so many. That stigma almost killed me.

*

I turned toward the television. Atticus had been half watching the news. A successful female dermatologist from Long Island had been found dead here in New York City, presumably from a drug overdose. She was married, had kids, seemed to have it all. The reporter speculated on the double life she led.

From my chair across the living room, I didn’t look up from my book, ignoring the question that hung in the air like a balloon that was quickly deflating.

“Mom?”

“What was that, honey?”

“Did you ever do drugs?”

I paused again, suspended in the moment, making a quick mental inventory of how to answer. The truth is I did do drugs, a lot of drugs. I used heroin off and on from the age of thirteen until I got pregnant with Atticus at age twenty-eight. I never got into pot or alcohol. I’d needed something to take me further away. I took Valium and Vicodin, I dropped acid and  took X and mushrooms, I smoked crack, shot the animal tranquilizer Ketamine, and snorted the occasional line of crystal meth, but I always came back to heroin. I wasn’t fucking around; I craved unconsciousness, but I wasn’t about to tell my twelve-year-old son that. Not yet.

“That’s a complicated question. You know, alcohol’s a drug.”

I tried not to visibly cringe at my own deflection at my son’s question. Confusion spread across his face, between his freckles. He looks so much like me, except for the freckles, but we’re so very different.

“Why do people take drugs?” he asked.

The first time I used, I took a pill. It was a Darvocet, an opiate. I stole it from my mother’s medicine cabinet. The bottle was expired, with my grandmother’s name on the label. I was eight.

“Well, people take drugs for different reasons. Sometimes, they try drugs because a friend talks them into it, or they are trying to escape something in their life. But drugs never help anything. They usually make things a lot worse.”

I did not tell him that, in some ways, the drugs were once what kept me alive.

He squinted, scrunched his nose, clearly thinking about what I’d just said, licking his lips the way he does when he’s concentrating. “I don’t understand why someone would take drugs,” he said definitively and walked out of the room.

A wave of nausea started at the top of my head, rippled down, anchoring itself in my stomach. Nausea was nothing new. Vaguely nauseous was homeostasis for me when I struggled with addiction. I put down my book and followed him. I saw my reflection in the hallway mirror. I was a healthy, happily remarried mother and writer. I was not the desperate and broken twenty-something, frighteningly thin and green all the time, the one who was married to his father for all the wrong reasons, the one who was constantly chasing an exit, any exit.

I stood at Atticus’s open bedroom door. He was lying down on his bed with his iPhone in his hands, watching a video on YouTube. His bangs were getting too long, and he kept pushing the straight brown strands of hair aside. He looked just like he did when he was a baby, just like he did in the 3-D ultrasound photo I have, head to the side, one arm up, his hand in a fist against the cheek of his round face. But he was not a baby. He was in those awkward years between childhood and early adulthood, the years that demanded the conversations that I, as a mother, wanted to have with him, wish someone had had with me, but I was petrified. I didn’t want to shatter his image of me. If he knew what I’d done, who I’d been, would he still respect me, still love me? Could I still be the mother I’d always been? Aren’t you supposed to protect your children? Atticus was only a year younger than I was when I first started using heroin.

I knew I must have been doing something right because he didn’t understand the impulse to use drugs. He thought they were stupid. He wasn’t searching for a way out the way I had. We’d talked about it when we watched reruns of my all-time favorite show—Beverly Hills, 90210—together. He’d asked me questions—when David stayed up for days on end doing crystal meth, when Dylan smoked heroin and crashed his car, and when Kelly went on a cocaine binge with her boyfriend and landed in rehab. He had a concept of the consequences, but he didn’t grasp the reasons. Until now, he’d never considered the possibility that I may have done drugs. And now this question.

How could I explain it to him? Would he understand? I thought about what I could impart by telling him—or telling someone who may be struggling with opioid addiction—my story. I wanted him to know that drug use doesn’t look the same across race, class, and other privileges, but that it stems from a primal place of want and loneliness. I hoped that when the time came I would be successful in communicating a story of experience, strength, and hope, one that might make a difference.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/29/upshot/fentanyl-drug-overdose-deaths.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/magazine/children-of-the-opioid-epidemic.html

 

Erin Khar is the author of STRUNG OUT: One Last Hit and Other Lies that Nearly Killed Me, forthcoming February 25, 2020 from HarperCollins |Park Row Books. She is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared many places including, SELF, Marie Claire, Salon, Huffpost, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, HuffPost, and Redbook. She’s the recipient of the Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize and lives in New York City with her husband and two kids.

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Guest Posts, Inspiration

The Coach Who Breaks All The Records – Ronda Shirley

February 11, 2020

By Viktoria Velika

Ronda Shirley is 48 years old head volleyball coach. Shirley comes from small county town Earling, Iowa, where she grew up living at her family’s farm. She is currently located at University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg where she moved last spring. Looking at her one would never guess how important this woman is for many people. She is short with light brown hair, beautiful blue eyes which reflect her personality of caring and loving human being who loves to spend her free time reading and playing board games on the family nights. However, once she comes to her well-organized office, full of her awards, pictures with quotes and a diet soda on her table, she changes into focused, hardworking woman who brightens up every place with her confidence. Shirley is not just a successful coach, she is also mentor, and role model who motivates her players and children to become the best versions of themselves.

Besides having a busy life as a coach, always preparing for matches, spending hours in the gym or in the office watching film and recruiting new players, Shirley also has six beautiful children. They often come to her games to watch and support their mom, screaming and cheering for her and her team. Despite the fact of having a team of about fifteen players, who also become her kids as they join her team, being a mother and a coach is not hard for Ronda Shirley. When I ask her how does she handle everything her answer is simple: “I have great husband, Jeff is always supporting me, I know I couldn’t be as successful as a coach as I am without him, he takes a lot of pressure of me during season, he takes the bigger responsibility, so I can be more focused on coaching. I have to give a lot of credit to Jeff.”

Shirley was also a successful athlete herself. However, the sport she dedicated her career to as a student-athlete was not volleyball but softball. “I have always liked volleyball but softball was just natural to me,” explains Shirley when I ask her why she picked softball over volleyball. She was a Varsity Starter catcher all four years of High School and her team made it to the State Tournament three out of four times. When she was named All-Conference, All-Southwest Iowa, and All-State player it was clear which path she will choose. During her college career she won many awards but the one that she enjoyed the most was being named an All-American and winning NCAA DII National Championship for Kentucky Wesleyan. As we are speaking about her achievements as an athlete she looks at me with serious face: “I dedicated all of my time to softball and studying, I was working hard every minute of the practice, bringing hundred percent every day. I would always find time to do some extra work, because I knew how good I can be and how much I could help my team.”

After graduating from Kentucky Wesleyan with a degree in English, she began her career at Brown Mackie in 1995. “I never planned to be a coach, I wanted to be an editor, or teach English at college level, reading and writing was always my biggest passion, but my coach from junior college would always tell me that I should be a coach, he saw something in me that I didn’t at that time,” says Shirley with smile on her face. When she graduated, she took her first job as an assistant coach at her alma mater in Kansas where she spent four seasons on the sidelines and won Coach of the Year in 1998. Shirley coached for 13 seasons at Hutchinson, Kansas, where she achieved 378 wins and .708 winning percentage. She led the team to winning five Regional Championships and five NJCAA National tournament appearances. In 2017 she was inducted into the Hutchinson Community College Hall of Fame. After that she became a head coach at Tyler Junior College in Texas. She led Tyler to three Region XIV conference championships, while she was also named three times the Coach of the Year, and went to the National Tournament in 2012, 2013, and 2014. In 2017, she took over Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas.

Last season, Ronda Shirley was standing on the side of the Lee College volleyball court, leading her Navarro team towards breaking every school record. And they did. Navarro finished with a 37-8 overall record, winning the conference for the first time since 1999. At Regionals, they won a nail-biting fight against TVCC, scoring a ticket to the NJCAA Nationals for the first time in the school history.  “Nothing from what we achieved would be possible without coach Shirley, she is the reason why Navarro became winning team, why we now have a name in the volleyball world, she would push us every day making us work hard towards reaching our goals, and she was successful,” says Bailey Foy, one of Ronda Shirley’s All-American players.

Shirley changed history in every school she went to and the key to her success is quite simple: “I just work hard, I think people can see that I have passion for it and I really love it.” Over her 19 seasons as Head Coach, she has coached many successful players. Five Players of the Year, seven Freshmen of the Year, 53 All-Conference, 36 All-Region and 15 All-American players are just a few of the player nominations obtained under her belt. “What I enjoy the most about coaching is seeing my players reach a level that they never thought they could reach, but I knew they could do it, that is more important to me than any win,” said Shirley. She also has players who excel in their classrooms and 12 Academic All-Americans: “I always want to make sure my players are well educated, and I also feel like the skills they learn on the court like working hard, and pushing themselves to use their skills and all their tools, being a good teammate and leader, that’s going to help them to get a job in the future and be successful off the court.”

After spending almost twenty years as a head coach at junior college Ronda Shirley is now a head coach at a DI NCAA volleyball program at USC Upstate. “I loved coaching at junior colleges and I miss it a lot, it has more ‘family’ feeling. I loved knowing that I can help my players to go to the next best thing in their lives,” smiles Shirley. During her career at JUCO Shirley has achieved many awards including almost 600 wins in her 19 seasons as a coach. In 2015 she was inducted into the NJCAA Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The reason why she has decided to leave JUCO and coach at four-year University is simple. She needed to take the challenge, to experience new things, and change the way of how USC Upstate is think of. “All of the schools I went to coach to have never won conference title before, so one of my goals is that I can get them to win a conference championship, but before that my goals are to change how people think about this program,” says Shirley with confidence.

However, all this success is not easy to reach and being a player on Ronda Shirley’s team is not an easy task. Luana Rezende, one of her former players, who won All-American Second Team award last year says about Shirley this: “I would say that she definitely had huge impact on my life. Of course I didn’t agree with everything she did, but she made me a stronger person and she made me look at life differently. She is a really, ‘really’ nice human being, however sometimes it was hard to play for her.”

One of the quotes on the board in her office says: “Winners never quit,” and it is exactly what Shirley requires from her players. She wants them to give everything they have, to work hard, to be determined, confident, courageous and give their hundred percent every day. Despite all the wins and success, creating relationship with her players is the most important thing for Shirley. She wants them to be ready for the world, but also she makes sure that they know she believes in them, which makes them work harder not for her, but themselves.

During the season but also offseason she creates different types of team bondings. She takes her team to games, makes movie nights, when it comes to fall and Halloween time, her and her team paint pumpkins, and sometimes she invites the players to her house and cooks a good dinner for them. She becomes the second mother for her players while they are away from home. “Even though I know that sometimes it is hard to play for me, I know that at the end of the day my players know that I care about them as a person, that I am tough on them because I want the best of them, that I will always be there for them,” says Shirley. As we are finishing the interview Shirley tells me one last important thing: “It’s the moment when I see the look on the faces of my players. The look that shows amazement and shock when they realize how good they have become. They don’t believe it at first, how great they can be, but I do. And when they reach their potential, it is very heartwarming moment. It’s the moment when I know that coaching is what I am supposed to be doing.”

Viktoria Velika is a writer and sports enthusiast. 

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Converse-Station, Guest Posts

The Converse-Station: Alma Luz Villaneuva Interviews Gayle Brandeis

February 3, 2020
gayle

A note from Angela: Gayle Brandeis is a person I cherish, not only because she is an amazing and brilliant and generous human, but also because she and I share a bond I would not wish on anyone. I had the opportunity to talk with Gayle about The Art of Misdiagnosis, surviving my mother’s suicide at the Coachella Review and that important book remains on my list of books I would read again. Gayle has just released a book of poetry and Manifest-Station alum Alma Luz Villaneuva took time to speak to her about it. This is their conversation. Enjoy.

Introduction:

Alma Luz Villanueva and Gayle Brandeis first met in 1999 when Gayle entered the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Alma became her mentor, and later, when Gayle returned to Antioch as faculty, they became colleagues; through all of it, they have formed a deep, nourishing, forever friendship. When Alma’s novel  Song of The Golden Scorpion, came out in 2014, the two of them discussed it here; now they have come together here again to discuss Gayle’s new novel-in-poems, Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony), in which Gayle gives voice to the hundreds of girls and women killed by Countess Erzsébet Báthory of Hungary between 1585 and 1609. The ghosts of these girls and women speak in chorus, compelling us to bear witness to the violence enacted against them, and to share their quest for justice—not only for themselves, but for all girls and women to come. A lyrical, polyphonic protest against silence, Many Restless Concerns speaks to today’s upswell of voices claiming their own worth.

Alma Luz Villaneuva: I was very moved by your testimonies, these so alive voices, these murdered/tortured girls women, centuries later, within your book, Gayle. First of all, what inspired you to hear these voices? How did they come to you? I often receive a dream from a character, announcing their arrival. And these voices arrive four centuries later, so alive, each one. Also, how did Countess Bathory come to your attention?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much! When I was pregnant with my youngest son, my daughter, who was almost 16 at the time, was fascinated by notorious women of history, and asked me to buy several books about women pirates and other outlaws. I was idly thumbing through one of these when I found a chapter about Countess Bathory, who I somehow had never heard of before. I was chilled by the fact that she had killed hundreds of girls and women–stories say up to 650–and I found myself haunted by this. Who were all these silenced girls and women? I started to dig deeper, and found there was much written about Bathory, herself, but I couldn’t find anything that put her victims at the center of the narrative. Eventually I started to be haunted by their voices, a ghostly chorus of them–they visited me in a sort of waking dream–and knew I’d have to try to capture them on the page, maybe even bring them some much belated justice in the process.

What voices have you been dreaming lately?

ALV: My current novel in progress which has become a ‘magical realism’ journey, which includes Quetzalcoatl, a Mexican deity that’s both God/Goddess, female/male- I love that. I love her/his voice, I’m listening. In our email exchange you mentioned that writing these voices, these women and girls, came to you when you were pregnant, but the violence you would have to undertake and enter was too much while pregnant. I understand completely, as a once pregnant poet/writer. Our body, mind, spirit, is tuned to creation, not torture and murder. And so, when you finally were able to write these voices what was your experience of being inside their bodies, listening to their voices. As my Yaqui Mamacita used to say to me, “Tienes coraje, niña…You have courage, child.” Tienes coraje, Gayle- these voices coming through you, their spirit bodies.

GB: I am so excited to read your book in progress! *You* have so much courage, dear Alma–you inspire me unendingly.  Thank you for all of your kind words.

And yes, I realized this was definitely not a healthy book for me to be writing while pregnant–I didn’t want the baby to absorb the agony of all the torture and murder I was reading and writing about, although sometimes I do wonder if my early foray into this book helped prepare me emotionally for my mom’s suicide one week after I gave birth. My creative energies shifted after her death–I needed to write about her, about our relationship; I needed to try to make sense of our past together and the brutal way she ended her life. The memoir that came out of this, The Art of Misdiagnosis, was the most necessary and difficult book I’d ever written, and when I was done with it, I felt so lost as a writer. I didn’t think it was possible to write anything that could ever feel as meaningful as the memoir had. Then these ghosts started to whisper to me again, so I decided to look at the early pages I had written, and got sucked right back into the project. It ultimately felt like the right book to throw myself into after my memoir–I was ready to step out of my own story into a grief bigger than my own (for somehow it felt right to continue to write about grief. And to continue to break silences. I had broken so many within me for my memoir, and this project was a chance to break historical silences).

Entering the experience of these girls and women was excruciating–it broke my heart and took my breath away again and again to not only learn what they endured, but to try to enter into their pain on the page (knowing what they endured is beyond anything I can comprehend with my own body, something I acknowledge within the book, when the ghosts tell the reader they won’t be able to comprehend the pain these girls and women experienced). These ghosts no longer have bodies, of course, but I imagined them still being able to access echoes of their physical trauma, as I write here:

“Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body
(some tender part of you still flinches)
(some immaterial nerves still flare)”

I should mention that Bathory’s story has been written about in a titillating way, and I didn’t want to do that, not in the least; I wanted to show the true human cost of the suffering she inflicted. I wanted to force us to confront the horror these girls and women faced, because I believe it’s important to look at inhumanity head on; If we don’t face it, it’s harder to stop it, to prevent it. And I want to use the book as a way to raise awareness of current horror–the devastating number of missing and murdered indigenous women–and to raise funds for organizations working to stop this present-day genocide.

ALV: I love the above quote, “Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body”…I think of the science based fact that our DNA memory/trauma is passed onto the family line, future human beings. These voices had that kind of alive echo for me; that their memories, traumas were being passed onto me, the reader, via their channel, you. Silenced no more; their spirits can now rest, move on to current lives, as in reincarnation, with joy (I hope). Writing these voices, their horrific experiences in the body, must have been a passing through the fire ritual for you as the channel, the writer. And after your mother’s suicide, the birth of your baby, the ritual of fire, that cleansing, so wise, and so hard. Yes, The Art of Misdiagnosis, your memoir, the relationship with your mother, an immense fire ritual, that cleansing.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, there’s a yearly fire ritual, Zozobra, where a huge man figure is burned, wailing all the while. People bring divorce papers, painful letters, their own letters to pain and grief, and who knows what, to add to this fire. I imagined this man figure as The Patriarchy burning to dark ashes, all the pain from that centuries old false power structure. And in the Southwest the pain of native genocide is still felt strongly, and as you write the ongoing missing, murders, rapes of indigenous women. Those thousands of silent voices, their in the body experiences. The genocidal Femicide that continues globally; the millions of girls, women, boys trafficked globally. For those who are receptive, they come to us in dreams. I just included some in my novel in progress, and have a feeling they’re not done with me. As I also believe they aren’t done with you, amiga, gracias a la Diosa…the Goddess in all her guises.

And so, with the ritual of fire, that cleansing, in mind- what gifts did you receive in return as channel, writer and woman? *Again, I love your coraje, courage…

GB: Oh, thank you so much for sharing all of this–I loved hearing about the Zozobra ritual; your imagining of burning the Patriarchy to ash really hits home. May it be so! I’ve used fire to burn things that no longer serve me (and water to do the same, the Tashlich ritual of casting bread during the Jewish High Holy Days) and it’s always such a freeing ritual. This book definitely felt like a trial by fire, and did have a cleansing effect. It showed me I am stronger than I know, that I can face the world’s pain, give voice to the world’s pain, and still find joy on this beautiful, broken Earth. It helped me expand my creative envelope, which makes me want to keep stretching it, to keep finding new ways to approach my work. I agree–these silenced voices aren’t done with me yet, and I’m eager to see where they’ll take me. I envision this book being adapted into a theater piece–I love the idea of a real chorus giving voice to these ghosts–and have a few irons in the fire toward that end. We’ll see what happens! I would love to know more about the silenced voices entering your novel (and to reading them some day!)

ALV: A theatre piece of a chorus giving voice to these Spirits, wonderful. This makes me imagine them all in red (fire) costumes, speaking, witnessing their very brief lives- mostly girls from ten to fourteen, from what I’ve read. Which makes me wonder what Countess Bathory’s voice would sound like, say. Supposedly she had epilepsy as a young girl, with blood swiped on her lips, a cure. And she witnessed cruel punishments as a girl, the royal household. It makes me wonder what her girl voice would sound like, say. However, given the acutely alive voices of her victims, their horrific experiences flesh out the Countess vividly. And so, even briefly, to see/hear her voice as a girl here, for a moment. Briefly. I love that these voices expanded your creative envelope, to find new ways to approach your writing- exciting!

As I journey with my characters, this novel in progress, we keep listening to the silenced voices, as well as to the joyful, singing voices. That balance keeps me going- this is my first all out ‘magical realism’ journey, novel, so I’m constantly surprised.

GB: Surprise is one of my very favorite parts of the writing journey–I love that your novel in progress is offering up so much surprise for you!

Your question about Countess Bathory’s girl voice is such a profound one, and one I’m not sure how to answer. I knew I had to include her in this narrative to some extent, since her actions led to the current state of these ghosts, but of course I wanted to center the narrative on the lives she impacted, the lives she ended, not her (just as some journalists are trying to do in this era of mass shootings, focusing on stories of the victims of gun violence instead of their killers, to avoid giving notoriety to perpetrators of these horrific acts.) That said, she is certainly a compelling and complicated figure, and her childhood does fascinate me. I’m not sure I can access her voice at this point, though. It reminds me of when I started writing my memoir–I was so angry at my mom, it was hard to see her with compassion (and a large part of the journey of my memoir was coming to that place of compassion.) I think I’m still too angry at Countess Bathory to be able to see her clearly, and I think that comes through when the ghosts say “The Lady knew what it was like to leave home at a young age, sent to live with the Nádasdys at twelve so she could learn the ways of the estate before her wedding two years hence.//Does that give you sympathy for her? Have it if you must, have sympathy for poor, poor, Erzsébet Báthory (who had sympathy for none but herself).” I do have some glimmerings of compassion for her, though, and when I think of her girl voice, I really only hear two words: “Help me.” No one did.

ALV: “Help me.” Bathory’s girl voice. “No one did.” Your response says it all, Gayle- punched me in the gut, where truth often lands. And I can hear her small girl voice whisper, “Help me.” As so many girls whisper, shout if they have the chance- the millions of trafficked girls, and boys- who hears them. The voice, your answer, chillingly true. The hundreds of girls she passed her pain onto- the chorus of voices in your book. At last they are heard, and of course I love the idea of a real chorus of voices speaking for them. I imagine their spirits joining those throats, voices. What that space will feel like as they speak their truths. Powerful stuff.

You speak of being angry with your mother; her suicide, your loss, your sorrow. As you felt anger with Countess Bathory; I felt waves of anger, and sorrow, reading the spirit’s alive voices. I’m wondering- do you imagine your mother taking part in the chorus of voices if she was still with us, now. I loved that photo of her in that stand in opera dress/costume, so magnificent. I can almost hear her- her body, her stance. I sense her intelligence, courage, strength in that stance. I also sense how proud of you she is, perhaps cheering you on page by page. I feel my Mamacita’s presence as I write- my joy, sorrow, rage, how it all transforms on the page. My body, every cell. Transformation. Your book, the voices, leads to this, transformation. Healing.

GB: So deeply grateful for your insight, your vision, dear Alma. I’ve had to sit with this question for a while, as you know. After my sister in law mentioned that the book cover reminded her of one of my mom’s opera photos, and I found the photo in question, I was blindsided by how similar the two are, how the red (a skirt in the cover, a cape in the photo of my mom) drapes in the exact same way to the lower right corner of each image. My breath stopped for a moment. I am still puzzling out the connection–both are powerful women who caused harm, although my mom did so on a much, much smaller scale; it’s likely I’ve made other subconscious connections between them, our stories, that I’ll need some time to excavate. But even so, yes, I do feel my mom’s pride in me–she was always so proud of me, even though I could feel her frustration with the fact that I was never as “successful” as she had wanted me to be–and I’m realizing in some ways, I’m carrying on the work she started. She wanted to give women voice, too. She started her organization, The National Organization for Financially Abused Women, to create a chorus of women’s voices to change divorce legislation (and even though the founding of it was based on the delusional belief that my father was hiding millions of dollars from her, the organization did real and important work in the world.) I think she would love to be part of the chorus of this book. I can hear and see her, too, dressed in red, lifting her voice with all her heart.

ALV: I simply love the final sentence of your response, “…lifting her voice with all her heart.” If you’ve made subconscious choices between your mother and Countess Bathory- the pain in your relationship, the pain of the voices you heard, brought to life on the page, what a strange gift of healing. And it seems all healing comes to us as a strange gift- nothing planned, nothing tidy. Healing comes to us with its own life force if/when we’re ready for transformation, to be healed, again. I imagine your mother’s presence in your imagination, body, memories, will always bring you strange gifts; as Mamacita’s presence has for me for sixty-three years.

I am so honored to have this exchange with you, amiga- our first exchange as student-teacher twenty years ago. I immediately saw your brilliance as I read your first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, which has since, of course, been published with so many deserved awards. Then we became friends, and then colleagues as you began teaching in the same MFA in creative writing program. How I loved seeing your shining face of light at our opening faculty meeting- how I loved our deep talks at our traditional Thursday night dinners, with piña coladas. And our humor together- graduation day, so many amazing writers, poets graduating. As we stood in line in our faculty graduation robes, we began to feel a bit wacky, threatening to do The Worm. Right there in our robes. I was crying with laughter, as you were. I love the ecstatic energy you carry and share, from your own being, to your writing. And so, to say it publicly, how grateful I am to know you, and always to read your work, all genres.

Okay, one more question- a brief answer will do. In Bali I walked into a courtyard with an immense eagle perched on steel, tethered by its leg/talon. A woman shaman, healer, walked out to greet me- I asked why the eagle wasn’t free. She asked me, “What is freedom, madam?” Over the years I’ve answered this question in many ways; there’s so many answers, of course. I would love to hear yours, even a sentence.

Mucho amor, amiga, milagros y piña coladas. And The Worm, always.

GB: I’m so honored and grateful to know you, too, my dear Alma, to have this conversation with you. What a gift. Whenever I see an eagle, I think of this question that was posed to you in Bali–in fact, it pops into my head quite often. And yes, there are so many answers, but what speaks to me right now is the very first poem I ever wrote when I was four years old, a poem called “Little Wind” that went “Blow, little wind/blow the trees, little wind/blow the seas, little wind/blow me until I am free, little wind.” I think I somehow knew even then that creativity can be like a wind that blows through us, that makes us free, and to this day, I never feel more free than when I allow that wind to blow through me, when I get out of my own way and allow the poem or story or essay or dance to barrel through, not worrying about how it will be received in the world, just giving it the space to roar.

Thank you again, amazing Alma. You have helped me be more free through your mentorship, your example, and I’m forever grateful for your presence in my life, your presence in the world. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Order Alma Luz Villaneuva’s work here.

Order Gayle Brandeis’ work here, including her latest Many Restless Concerns, The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus.

 

 

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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Guest Posts, Health, motherhood

Promises

January 28, 2020
blood

CW: Stillbirth

By Whitney Lee

Four years ago, the Friday before Mother’s Day, a team of Emergency Department nurses barreled through the double doors of my Labor and Delivery Unit with a term-pregnant woman. It was just before dawn and I had been the physician on call overnight. In anticipation of this woman’s arrival, I’d already shed my white coat and removed my wedding rings––prepared to transport her to the operating room. As the gurney clattered across the linoleum floor, the woman twisted her body and clutched the dome of her abdomen gathering the fabric of a blue hospital gown into her fists.

Throughout the night, bleeding, adhesions, and brand-new babies had stolen my sleep. After twelve hours of standing, gravity pulled blood into the veins of my feet, my ankles, my calves. I felt as if there were weights in my shoes­­––I was tired.

The windows on Labor and Delivery glowed gold. It was a typical Southern California morning––a city with gorgeous yet monotonous weather. Soon, the sun would warm the air, the asphalt, and the enormous seals lethargic on the La Jolla shore. Light would illuminate brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea and the wings of hummingbirds, osprey, and lanky blue heron. All night, I had anticipated the sunrise that would signal the end of my shift and my escape from the hospital.

As the Labor and Delivery nurses rolled the woman into a triage room, the emergency department team explained that her name was Lisa. She was thirty-eight weeks pregnant with two prior cesarean deliveries. Severe pain started at home along with vaginal bleeding.

***

The week before I met Lisa, I’d promised my five-year-old son, Zachary, and my three-year-old daughter, Esmae, I would attend their school’s “Muffins with Mom” breakfast in celebration of Mother’s Day. I am an obstetrician and Obstetrics is a conspicuous thief. It has stolen weekends, my husband’s birthdays, Sundays at church, family dinners, at least two Christmas mornings, Zachary’s first day of kindergarten, and my grandfather’s funeral.

In truth, missing those events and navigating the interruptions was a nuisance but not a burden. I found meaning in my job and possessed a physician’s arrogance: I served a unique role. I felt necessary in a hospital, which provided instant gratification. A baby delivered, a family consoled, a diagnosis made, all justified my absence from home and validated the story I worked to build around my value as a physician and a person.

But the December before my life intersected with Lisa’s, when I came home from work, Zachary asked, “Where were you? All the mommies and daddies were at the Christmas Party but you. Esmae and I had to sit with Jonathon’s mommy.” I imagined my children in a neat, sparse, yet beautiful Montessori classroom filled with tiny versions of common adult items––china tea cups, a blue metal pitcher, glass bowls, a short countertop with a sink. I pictured them still and sad as they both waited for me to stroll through the classroom door. I imagined Zachary and Esmae sitting beside Jonathon’s mother––a woman I’d never met. But I pictured her lovely like calla lilies, ballerina skirts, ivory cashmere, soufflé, ribbons, and monarch butterflies. She wasn’t a woman who wore a pair of bloody scrubs and missed Christmas parties.

I’d sent a plastic container of store-bought oatmeal cookies with Zachary and Esmae that morning––my children’s contribution to the potluck lunch––price tag stuck to the side. The package of cookies was reflection of my approach toward many traditional maternal tasks. I found little value in baking cookies, cakes, or brownies.

***

Lisa twisted her body like a fish on a line. She pulled her knees to her abdomen, and shifted her legs right and left. I leaned over the metal rails of her bed and asked if she had any medical problems. Was her pregnancy complicated? Did she have a surgical history? When was her due date? She provided fractured breathless answers. She asked me to save her baby. She called him Jonah.

Nurses held down Lisa’s arms so they could thread needles into her veins, draw labs, and start intravenous lines. An obstetrics resident quickly rolled an ultrasound machine next to Lisa’s bed. I positioned the probe on her abdomen then gazed at the black and white image on the screen.

A baby’s heart pumps twice as fast as an adult’s. In a healthy baby, on ultrasound, the mitral and tricuspid valves, the flaps of tissue that separate the chambers of the heart, open and close in rapid succession like the wings of a starling. Rapidity offers reassurance. But the myocytes, the cells that coordinated the muscle of Jonah’s heart, were starving for oxygen. They had lost the energy and strength to beat, thus they failed to pump blood through his body. His heart contracted then fell open in a slow and labored motion. Jonah was dying.

With the tone and intensity of a drill sergeant, I instructed the charge nurse to call a Code Purple. In our hospital, like a Code Blue, Code Purple meant a life was at risk––that someone, in this case Jonah, may die without immediate intervention. The code alerts anesthesiologists, pediatricians, nurses, and scrub techs, to hustle, run, dash through corridors and up the stairs, toward the operating room.

I maneuvered the foot of Lisa’s gurney out of the triage room toward the operating room. The resident ran next to me and a nurse sprinted ahead of us opening three sets of double doors at various points along the path to our destination. As we rushed through the corridors, I directed the nurse to call the blood bank, call the NICU, explain to them that Lisa was abrupting­­.

An abruption meant that inside Lisa’s body, the arteries that connected her uterus and her placenta, the source of oxygen, to her baby, were shearing apart. Blood surged from both maternal and fetal vessels and spilled into her uterus, which clamped down like a vice in protest. This contraction was the source in Lisa’s unrelenting pain. Like all pregnant women, a half a liter of blood flowed through Lisa’s uterine vessels per minute. The bleeding was torrential. She and Jonah were hemorrhaging to death.

***

I had planned to leave the hospital at 8 o’clock that Friday morning. I would get to Esmae and Zachary’s school by 8:30 a.m., when the Mother’s Day celebration would begin. At that time, Zachary and Esmae would be choosing chocolate chip or blueberry muffins, opening their cartons of milk, and taking their seats at short square tables.

Every day that week, my children reminded me of the event and every day I promised them I had not forgotten. They excitedly described the details of all the presents they made for me: popsicle stick picture frames, ceramic necklaces, cards, and painted boxes.

***

Outside the operating room, the obstetrics resident handed me a surgical cap and mask. As I tugged the gauzy blue bouffant over my hair and tied the mask behind my head and the nape of the neck, I pushed through doors and passed the scrub sinks. Those sinks would remain silent––no hum of the plumbing, no water spraying on steel. We would not wash our hands. In emergent cases, sterility transforms from a necessity to a luxury.

Inside the operating room, a team of anesthesiologists and nurses moved Lisa onto the operating table. The pediatrics team set up equipment needed to resuscitate Jonah. A scrub tech opened a rectangular metal box, removed instruments and laid them on a sterile blue table––a scalpel handle, Kelly and Alice clamps, hemostats, Richardson retractors, bladder blade, Debakey forceps, Ferris-Smith forceps, Russian forceps, Adson forceps, Bovie tip, needle drivers, Metzenbaum and Mayo scissors.

I ignored Lisa’s cries and questions. There was no time to address them and I had no answers. I ran through a surgical checklist in my mind. I asked if we had antibiotics in the room. I positioned huge circular lights over Lisa. Then I picked my surgical gown off the back table, stretched my arms through the sleeves, and pulled gloves over my hands. There was no time to count instruments and no time to scrub Lisa’s abdomen. Lisa and Jonah’s condition forced us to start the case without performing the rehearsed rituals associated with almost every surgery.

A nurse tied the back of my gown. Another nurse opened two bottles of betadine and squeezed them onto Lisa’s abdomen––a crude, rapid, and likely ineffective way of sterilizing her skin before I cut through it. The brown liquid pooled in her umbilicus, spilled over her belly, then dripped down her pale flanks like a massive ink blot. The scrub tech passed me the blue surgical drape. In a synchronous motion the resident and I unfolded it over Lisa’s abdomen.

Then I paused. I could not start the surgery––I could not slice into Lisa’s skin––until medications rendered her unconscious. It took energy to alter the inertia I had set into motion. I shivered because a cold sensation grew and spread across my body––the sort of cold that comes when wind pulls sweat from your skin. I shivered because adrenaline zipped through my blood vessels teasing the muscles I worked to keep still. The commotion in the operating room had ceased. I heard Lisa’s cardiac monitor chirp. I folded my arms across my chest and bent my right leg then my left to the rhythm of her heartbeat––a subtle sway.

The anesthesiologist pushed Propofol, a thick white anesthetic, into intravenous tubing that snaked into Lisa’s arm. When her body relaxed, I peered over the blue surgical drape. He slipped a tube into her throat. “Go,” he said.

The resident pulled a scalpel over Lisa’s skin, cutting down to her fascia with one clean swipe, then handed the instrument back to the scrub tech. We hooked our fingers through two small nicks in the silver and white fibrous tissue that held Lisa’s abdomen together. We leaned back with all of our weight bending at the knees like water skiers. The force ripped open her abdomen. I split Lisa’s rectus muscles then felt the warmth of her abdominal cavity as I pushed my index finger through her peritoneum––a thin glistening membrane that draped over her organs.

The swirling muscle of Lisa’s uterus should have been pink. Instead, like India ink, shades of purple and black spread and diffused across its surface. Blood had seeped from her placenta into the centimeter of muscle that separated Jonah from me. The scrub tech placed a scalpel back into the resident’s open hand. Then he incised the lower portion of Lisa’s uterus entering the space where Jonah had thrived and grown for thirty-eight weeks. A tide of blood tinged amniotic fluid spilled from the incision, over Lisa’s abdomen, splashed onto the floor, soaked the bottom of my scrubs, shoes, and socks. The resident grasped each side of the uterine incision then pulled it open.

A blood clot, the size of a cantaloupe, erupted from Lisa’s uterus. I reached down into her pelvis, wrapped my hand around the top of Jonah’s head and pulled it up to the incision. The remainder of his slippery body followed with ease. Sixty seconds had passed from the time of Lisa’s skin incision to Jonah’s delivery.

Jonah’s dusky arms and chubby legs hung from his body motionless. He did not cry or gasp. His face did not grimace, his mouth remained still, gaping, and blue. I held his flaccid body in my hands. “Oh God,” I thought. “He’s dead.”

The resident clamped Jonah’s thick rubbery umbilical cord with two Kelly clamps and cut it with a pair of heavy scissors. Then I placed Jonah into the arms of the pediatrician. She carried him to the neonatal warmer, rested a stethoscope on his chest, and announced, “No heart beat.” Meanwhile Lisa’s uterus was failing to contract and the thousands of the spiral arterials that supplied her uterine muscle gaped open spilling blood into her pelvis, turning the surgical field into an opaque red lake. The resident sewed and stitched with a swift mechanical motion while I soaked up and swept away blood with white laparotomy sponges. Lisa had already bled enough to consume most of her clotting factors––proteins that achieve hemostasis. The more she bled, the more her body consumed the factors, and the less her blood clotted. In this situation, the only treatment is transfusion. Unless we replaced Lisa blood faster than she lost it, she would never stop hemorrhaging.

In the corner of the room, the pediatricians worked to save Jonah. They pushed epinephrine, performed chest compressions, and announced time, “One minute, no heart rate. Five minutes, no heart rate. Ten minutes, no heart rate. Fifteen minutes, no heart rate. Twenty-five minutes, no heart rate. Time of death, 7:10.”

Lisa continued to hemorrhage. I compressed her uterus in my hands slowing the bleeding while we repleted her blood and clotting factors. With my hands in Lisa’s pelvis, I asked one of the nurses to contact my husband, “Tell him my kids cannot go to school today.” I would not leave the operating room in time to make it to their school. I could not bear the thought of Zachary and Esmae waiting for me.

The morning Jonah died, no one reached my husband. Zachary and Esmae waited in their classroom. They waited with ceramic necklaces, popsicle stick picture frames, handmade cards, and homemade boxes. They each picked a muffin for themselves and they picked one for me. My kids did not know I saved a woman’s life. They did not know that Jonah died. And to them, those truths did not matter.

When I finally finished the case and stabilized Lisa, she woke, then asked about Jonah. I said nothing. Though I knew the inside of her body, though I had worked to keep her alive, though I held her son as he died, I did not know Lisa and she did not know me. We were strangers. She deserved to have someone else, someone closer to her, unveil the devastation.

As the anesthesiologist transferred Lisa to the Intensive Care Unit, I lumbered out of the operating room. My back hurt. My jaws were tired from clenching my teeth. My eyes had grown heavy.

Outside, the morning was ablaze and dust sparkled in the sunlight as it stretched through windows and across the hospital floor. The day-shift obstetrician, a colleague, had taken over the unit. He met me at the nurses’ station. As I approached, he opened his arms to hug me. I rested my forehead on his shoulder, then cried. We were not close friends. We did not confide in each other. We did not eat lunch together. But the pain we experience as obstetricians in the midst of losing a baby is universal.

After I settled, I collapsed in a chair. The rest of the world moved as it would any other Friday morning. Residents managed the laboring patients––flitting in out of rooms. Nurses wove through the unit. Pregnant women waited at the front desk to check into triage. Someone had abandoned a travel mug on the counter next to me. My white coat draped over the back of the chair where I sat. Monitors tweeted as they recorded fetal heart rates. Like a culture shock, I reeled from the contrast of the mundane world outside the operating room with what I had just experienced inside of it.

A social worker called from the Intensive Care Unit and informed me that Lisa knew Jonah had died. I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to Lisa. Through the glass doors of her room, she saw my pink scrubs, and panicked. I heard her say, “Don’t let her in here. She killed my baby.”

I bent over, put my hands on my knees and worked to catch my breath. I neglected my children who waited at an oak table with a muffin at an empty seat intended for me. I failed to keep my promise to them. For what? A dead baby? A critically ill mother? Painful accusations? This was an excruciating trinity. I found no solace or explanation for that morning. I dissolved into despair while Lisa suffered and grieved.

***

Four years after I delivered Jonah, on Mother’s Day, I wore a bracelet Esmae constructed out of clunky foam geometric beads and a pipe cleaner. She had asked me to promise I’d wear it all day, even to work. With great joy, I wore the bracelet. But after Jonah died, I quit making promises to my children because I break them. They forgive me. But I fail to offer that grace to myself. So, I don’t make promises.

But on that Mother’s Day, with Esmae’s awkward bracelet dangling from my wrist, I opened my laptop. Lisa’s name was in my email inbox. She had found me and sent a message. With reluctance, I opened it.

What waited for me was a great deal of peace. Lisa explained that she now had solace on Mother’s Day. The memories of Jonah were more of a celebration than a source of pain. I have always loved Lisa and Jonah in my own way. I bore witness to Jonah’s life and then death. I knew Lisa in the midst of excruciating pain. But I believed she would never understand how her story affected me as a mother and a physician. Yet, in her message, she acknowledged my pain and thanked me for enduring it so I could continue to take care of women like her. She shared that she only had to face the death of a baby once but knew as long as I practiced obstetrics, the tragedy would not end for me. Then, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day.

Names have been changed. This essay first appeared in The Rumpus.

Whitney Lee is Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a memoir about a physician’s experience with death.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Nevertheless She…

January 15, 2020

By Shirley O’Shea

In 2016, my nervous system fell apart, like a blue supernova of gases collapsing in on itself. After a hot, sleepless night in July I knew it was time to go to the hospital. At the age of 49, I knew when the hospital was the only place I could be sick and not have to keep trying to be healthy for the sake of my family or employer or anyone else, and at this point, anyway, such efforts would have been impossible. On the morning of July 2, I sat at the kitchen table trying to calmly sip tea and hold my husband’s hand while I waited for my psychiatrist’s call to let me know if a bed was available. I smiled at my husband; I told him I would be in the hospital for only a few days. More than three years later, I am still working on my recovery.

I work hard at recovery. I exercise whenever I can muster the mental energy to leave the apartment and elevate my heart rate at the gym, go on a hike or roll out my yoga mat. I have a strong spiritual practice. I remind myself to be grateful for the good and precious things in my life – my husband and son, the natural beauty of the upstate New York region in which I live, my faith. But sadness dogs me. I never feel that I am anywhere near good enough for….what? What?

Recovery for me means being at peace with myself, being able to abandon my inner critic as I would a toxic “friend.” Why is this so monumentally difficult for me to do? Why is peace so elusive for me? Naturally, the roots of my lack of self-acceptance run deep. It is a hell of a journey to claw one’s way out of hell.

July is my month to break. The first time I experienced a major depressive episode with severe anxiety was in 1984. I was 17 years old. I had worked harder at my studies than I ever had, because I wanted to be accepted into a prestigious university. But I woke up one morning and, instead of thinking about what I could do that day to get into Harvard or some such institution, I felt lost, oppressed by guilty ruminations and sad about everything. For a few days I was sleepless and unable to eat. I told my mother about my feelings of guilt and shame and she listened, but did nothing. Her own father had just died from liver cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of self-medicating with beer, and my father’s sister was in the late stages of alcoholism, having survived a suicide attempt in the spring; she would not survive the attempt she would make in October of that year. Therefore, my parents were completely unavailable to help me as I struggled to survive my own illness.

There were one or two moments when I opened the hall closet where my father kept bottles of whiskey for when his father came to visit. While my parents slept, I contemplated drinking as much from those bottles as necessary to send me to heaven. But I was too afraid to try.

The one thing my parents did to try to help me was to request a visit from our family’s fundamentalist pastor and his wife. They brought a carton of ice cream and as I sat next to Pastor John’s wife, I told her about taboo thoughts I was in agony about having and about which I cringe now. The woman smiled bravely – this was clearly unknown territory to her – and told me there was a Christian psychologist I should see. My parents didn’t take me. They didn’t have health insurance, and most likely a conservative Christian psychologist would have done more harm than good.

I am convinced that religious fundamentalism is not just a social evil – it destroys the psyches of emotional individuals who are predisposed to self-examination and who care about being good people. As a teenager I had beseeched my parents to attend a mainline Protestant church, but for reasons never made clear to me, they resisted. The black and white theology they imbibed at our church suited them in many ways, and it did not occur to them that it was harming me.

Two things helped me to recover from that severe episode – time and literature, specifically, Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” convinced me I was not the only person who was mad around here, and even made me think that, possibly, the madness was around me, not in me. Also, during my first year in college, I discovered the religious poetry of George Herbert, whose gentle verses on the love of God showed me there was a different way of being Christian – something I had already intuited. George Herbert was a priest in the Church of England, and at the promptings of a seminarian I met while in college, I became an Episcopalian – a much more humane expression of the Christian faith, and a major step in my journey to becoming a Christian humanist.

But even sound theology cannot completely rearrange bad neurochemistry, the legacy of fundamentalism, a stern upbringing and a family history of mental illness. During my junior year of college, I became absolutely driven to earn straight A’s. I pulled it off, but that summer I became seriously ill again, plagued by the obsessive guilty thoughts and frightening thoughts that I might harm others. I had an exceptionally needy boyfriend who was devastated to discover that I was weak and flawed. He drove me past a state psychiatric hospital and said to me, “That’s where they put the crazies.” In the middle of the night, I took a pair of cuticle scissors and lightly drew them across my wrists, thinking what a feeling of relief I would have if all the hot and tormented blood in my veins drained out of me. But an internal voice told me, “It’s not worth it.”

A few days later I admitted myself to the psychiatric unit at my local hospital. I was diagnosed with OCD and secondary depression. Again, even with medication and psychotherapy, it took a year for me to recover, which was really just a return to baseline. I hadn’t really learned anything from my experience.

When I was 28, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm that was infamous for the mistreatment of its employees. I gave the job all my energy and dedication – I wanted to be the perfect paralegal. My second summer there I broke down again, went into the hospital and came out with a new diagnosis: major depression with obsessive and psychotic features. This time, I had a boyfriend who accepted my illness in stride, as part and parcel of someone who had ambitions of writing – the divine madness of the artist, that sort of thing. This sweet, accepting and gentle man became my husband.

Although I recovered from the worst of my symptoms – guilty ruminations, distressing OCD thoughts, sleep disruption and lack of appetite – I did not change the substrate of my mind, which was perfectionism. Perfectionism is a demon that condemns those who live with it to self-loathing and fear. Whether my illness causes my perfectionism or vice versa, I do not know and may never know. But I believe if I do overcome perfectionism, I will have achieved something greater than writing “Hamlet” or “Paradise Lost.”

I believe the genesis of my 2016 breakdown was my belief that I must be a perfect mother. Although I grew up wanting to have a career and motherhood, my illness made having a career very difficult. But I believed I could handle motherhood. It’s all about instinct, isn’t it? How hard can it be to love?

A strange and wonderful thing happened early in my pregnancy. I remember the moment distinctly. I was driving home from my part-time job at a small-town newspaper, and I realized that I could reject all the negative messages I had received from fundamentalist Christianity, or any faith, from my family – I felt profound liberation and joy. As I scanned the countryside all around me while I drove and thought these wonderful thoughts, I felt two new lives within me. Pregnancy hormones were the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. The problem was, the moment I pushed my son out of me, the hormones immediately returned to pre-pregnancy levels and I returned to my baseline depressive thinking.

Loving a child, for me, is not a problem. But motherhood, the daily striving to meet the needs of a child, is more stressful than any tyrannical boss. And when it became apparent that my beautiful, exquisitely sensitive son suffered from anxiety and began to struggle in school, I became consumed with fear and guilt. I had failed at my most important calling yet. None of my husband’s or mother’s reassurances that I was doing my best, and all that was possible, put my fears to rest. This time, I was not failing my ego, or an employer, or a church. I was failing my flesh and blood. Psychically, I began to die.

Despite numerous drug trials and electro-convulsive therapy, my depression worsened. But I noticed that my depressions were sometimes, briefly, interrupted by times of elation and euphoria. I suspected I had bipolar type II disorder. I was diagnosed as such in 2012, but none of the medications prescribed for me worked. And then, in 2016, my mind disintegrated. I was practically unable to walk or speak. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks. I was gripped by fear that I would not be able to raise my son. Each time I walked past the cupboard where my battalion of medication bottles was kept, I thought surely now was the time to swallow them all and be done with it. But then, who would love my son? I believe the grace of God helped me to believe my life was worth sparing.

It is taking me longer to heal this time around. But now I have realized that the perfectionism I internalized and to which I am genetically predisposed, most likely due to an anxiety disorder, is my greatest enemy. Maintaining my spiritual practice, spending time in natural places and on my yoga mat are, for me, coming home. Yoga places great importance of awareness of the breath, and as a Christian, I believe I am made of stardust and the breath of God. And now, God’s oxygen is the substrate of my brain, rather than perfectionism – at least, some of the time. So I need to remind myself of this every day. It is okay to love myself as I am, just as I love my son as he is. The important thing for me is to keep going. For the sake of all the beings I love, I will.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and literacy volunteer who lives with her husband, Geoff, a psychology professor, and her tween son, Jeremy, in Oneonta, NY. Shirley grew up in the hinterlands northern New Jersey and graduated from Upsala College. She has worked as a paralegal and a first-grade teacher and newspaper reporter. She has had essays on mental health and experiencing the sacred in nature published

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Child Birth, Choice, Guest Posts

No Kids, No Regrets

December 27, 2019
zoe

By Lisa Mae DeMasi

“Children are not a zoo of entertainingly exotic creatures, but an array of mirrors in which the human predicament leaps out at us.” John Updike

Until a little princess, right out of a storybook, toddles into the seating area of our gate. She is unhurried, functions in her own dimension, immune to the chaos, the germfest, the push to get to point A to B.

Her presence casts a tiny spell on me. My book collapses into my lap. I’m drinking her sweetness in: a beautiful, clean-faced, bright-eyed little girl—a gene pool homerun.

What would my path have looked like with children in it?

Rarely do I question my decision to forgo becoming a vessel of reproduction. My goal in life was to become CEO of a wildly growing company, not wiping little beasties’ noses. I even left my husband when he wanted them. But as sometimes happens, this delightful girl seems to be showcasing my poor decision. She looks like what I imagine my little girl would have looked like had I not married my dark-haired husband of 5’7” with a 27-inch waistline, but Bob Redford.

Not to mention that I never did become the CEO of wildly growing company, and the jobs I have had have been sort of wildly unsatisfying.

I watch her, feeling that regret wash over me. She stands on sea legs between her mother’s thighs, crunching Cape Cod potato chips with less than perfect execution, savoring what makes it into her mouth. She babbles, a form of self-engagement, and randomly feeds “Kit-Tee,” a wide-eyed cat peering out from a crate on the floor.

Women of all ages watch her, heads cocked, wearing expressions of maternal yearning, remembrances, maybe regret, like my own.

I bet she still has that baby smell thing going on. You know, like puppies.

I surmise, too, that Zoe’s recently graduated from applesauce and whipped franks to adult food. And now, I think, and a disgruntled flatline my mother used to wear when I was in high school settles on my lips, her parents are giving her junk food, creating an unhealthy palate and a rhythmic type of oral indulgence.

I elbow Dennis. “If that sweetness were mine, I’d give her a hard cooked egg and fruit to eat, not crap food.”

He eyeballs Zoe for a nanosecond, nods and returns his gaze to his handheld.

I think of the other things I’d feed Zoe: Greek yogurt, kale crisps (much softer than potato chips), hummus, non-GMO whole grain crackers, organically grown vegetarian stuff.

And then, Zoe begins to choke.

When adults get something caught in their throat, we place a napkin to our mouth, cough, grumble it away. If that doesn’t work? We set into panic. We choke like hell to obtain clear passage. We don’t care how much attention we draw doing it. We want to live and we fight like hell to continue doing so.

Zoe, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the threat of death. Maternal instincts, ingrained in women’s DNA, alert three to their feet. Those not wearing headphones or enthralled with an electronic device, register a disturbance.

Zoe has one hand on her mother’s knee, stabilizing her squat before Kit-Tee’s crate. She brings herself upright and faces me. Her blue eyes have teared up, no sound comes from her windpipe. The fragments of crap food are lodged in her throat. She is the little girl I never had and wish was mine and she can’t breathe.

Someone, do something.

The book slides off my lap and crashes to the floor as Zoe’s mother scoops her up and lays her across her knees.

The little girl lies there flat as an ironing board.

Zoe?

Three deft pats on her back and Cape Cods chips in a variety of shapes project from Zoe’s mouth. Saliva spills over her lips. Oxygen returns to her lungs. She cries.

The maternal patrons lean in, ask if Zoe is okay. Her mother waves them off. “Yes, thank you,” she says.

My dream child is back on her feet; the waterworks have subsided. Her father strokes her cheeks dry. Her mood changes back to the state of pre-choking as if by a flick of a switch. I pick up my book from the floor.

She’s perfect again.

She asks for another chip.

This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.

I listen with the book covering my face, curious to learn if good ole mom is going to give her toddler just off Gerber Stage Four another chip.

“You can have some Goldfish,” she says.

Goldfish?!

In a Mickey Mouse voice, I say onto the open pages, “How ‘bout some yogurt?”

Dennis elbows me, a prompt to behave.

Over the P.A., a flight attendant announces the initial stages of boarding.

We gather our things. I impart a secret smile to Zoe, which she catches. Means nothing to her.

When we’re settling into our seats, an emaciated brown-haired woman with a Tom Petty overbite slides in. Her thighs are the same width as my forearms, and Zoe appears in the aisle. She’s screaming like a banshee. Ear piercing stuff. I barely get a glimpse of her because she passes by so swiftly—her father carries her like a surfboard. This must be a common position for her—flat and rigid.

Zoe’s mother follows behind, toting a handbag crammed with baby survival equipment and the crate containing Kit-Tee. She wears an expression indicative of the relief she’s feeling that her husband has finally stepped up to the plate, but also of deep embarrassment about her imperfect daughter.

Emaciated Woman and I snap together our respective seatbelts. By the sounds of it, Zoe has been strapped into a seat four or so rows behind us. Amid the chaos of the 737’s boarding, she has stopped crying and is sweetly introducing Kit-Tee to neighbors.

And now again, I wish she were mine, mine, mine.

The cabin is packed. There’s little clearance, cramming of luggage in overhead bins. Last minute phone calls are made. The air is stale. Actually there is no air. Tim is giving emergency landing instruction, his props old and yellowed. The teenager across the way is licking the remnants of a BK cheeseburger from his thumbs. Zoe’s voice pierces through all this clear as a bell. She has dismissed her affections for Kit-Tee and is dead set against keeping her seatbelt fastened.

“No, no, no, Mama!”

My dazzling opinion of this little girl, wanting to drown in the pools of her aquamarine eyes, having envisioned birthing her through my own womb and canal, flickers like a film noir played on an old projector. I don’t want it to. I want her to remain fresh, magical, novel, her presence filling me with regret about what I could have had.

The flight gets underway. The minutes slip into hours, it’s horrendous. Not because of turbulence, the crew, Emaciated Woman, or lack of turkey, sprouts and avocado sandwiches. It’s because Zoe’s steady stream of “no!” is now followed by parental correction with an edge and curmudgeon-type shushing. My iPod is packed away in cargo below; I have no way of tuning out the racket, which would have kept Zoe magical to me. Instead, I watch the display that shows the plane’s elevation, speed, and the long ass Midwest state we’re hovering over.

We’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.

Dennis types away on his laptop, the time flies by for him. I listen to little Zoe carry on; tearing apart her magicalness. She was so perfect before.

When descent at last begins from 40,000 feet, cabin air pressure intensifies. Zoe begins wailing with a set of lungs worthy of crossing the English Channel.

I know this: if I stayed married, I couldn’t have had all the daring affairs with executives my father’s age. I wouldn’t have experienced the freedom of telling off Gloria Steinem and discovering the rugged beauty of the West, proving myself and doing “boys’ chores” where my leg “got broke.”

So what’s the seduction of remorse, regret?

Even if we are self-actualized, accomplished people who have had good lives, why do we actually like that deep longing for what we could have had? And that’s when I discover something really genius about not doing things.

It makes us heroes in our own minds. It buoys us up. We can’t do everything, there will always be paths we could have taken. And the brilliance of that is we get to imagine doing it all and being perfect at it. I know I know we’re supposed to stay in the moment, but most of us don’t because the moment can be as boring as a…well, a long-ass plane ride.

So, thinking of all those unlived lives can be a way to boost self-confidence for one happy soaring moment.

If we’d written the novel, we would have written a bestseller. Not going to Hollywood to audition for all those bit parts and staying back east, we get to imagine our lives as movies stars. Not going to law school means we can tell ourselves we would have been kick-ass prosecutors, killing it in the courtroom. People tell us not to regret what could have been, but actually it’s sort of fun. Not becoming a mother is so much better than actually becoming a mother because I can imagine I would have had the perfect child. Never mind the choking, the quick-switch moods, the screaming like a banshee. I would have nourished my daughter perfectly, and she would have been absolutely flawless.

Zoe snaps me out of my reverie. She’s back to her ear-piercing screaming. Somewhere around 15,000 feet the display shows the aircraft has overshot SFO. The plane’s nose is sticking into the Pacific.

I see around me that people are glimpsing in Zoe’s direction—even Emaciated Woman—and shrugging their shoulders in a way that suggests they wish they could envelope their ears with them.

Land is drawing ever closer out Emaciated Woman’s window, but we’re back on track, the pilot tells us the 737’s nose is destined for the runway. We drop elevation in big chunks until at last the wheels skid. Only minutes remain before we get off this tin bus and little Zoe will disappear from my life forever.

When she and her parents file out before us, I catch those beautiful aquamarines, her body is horizontal and at waist-height again. In my mind I make peace with her, thank her for giving me the chance to be a perfect mother to a perfect child.

She has returned to lightheartedness and answering the saint-of-a-lady behind her about what color Kit-Tee is.

“He’s pink and purple,” she says.

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on two sequels. You can contact her at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, parenting

THE FIELD

December 24, 2019
bat

By Maureen Mancini Amaturo

Just ahead is the familiar field, a triangle with rounded corners. I walk up with head down, anticipating that time will drag its feet while I sit and wish I could be attending to other things. But I sit on the aluminum bleachers, surrounded by mosquitoes, gymnastic squirrels, trees full of bugs, and everyone’s dogs. I’m here for my son. My son, who is at his designated spot on the field, crouching behind home plate, wiggling fingers, giving signs to the pitcher, his very handsome face protected by a caged mask. My son, the only baby boy ever born. He is why s-u-n and s-o-n are homonyms.

On arrival, I greet other parents, other fans, address the social niceties, then I dissolve into the book I’ve brought. Some comment that they don’t usually see someone bring a book to a game. But I always do, so the regulars are not surprised. I remember bringing a copy of WIDOW FOR A YEAR by John Irving to Madison Square Garden. The Rangers were playing. While hockey fans bounced in their seats and waved team towels, I focused on my pages until my husband tapped me on the shoulder to stand for the national anthem.

I arrive at the field after the national anthem this evening. I sit between the third corner and home, turning pages, moving through chapters, absorbed in Dan Brown’s words at this game. Being honest here, I’m not interested in the sport, not interested in the team. Don’t even care who is playing. Cannot pretend to root for someone else’s son. I’ll look up when my son is at bat, and I might glance a time or two to see him walk to his position when the innings change. I have no idea what the score is. I don’t know what team my son’s team is playing. I don’t know the inning is over until my husband says, “Michael is up.”

I hold my page with my finger and look at my son, his familiar batting stance. The intensity on his face. I say the “Our Father.” I imagine that Jesus Christ Himself is standing beside my son, and I say, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” The image of Jesus in flowing robes and billowing sleeves standing beside the batter’s box at Disbrow Park at dinnertime does not seem at all strange to me. I imagine that every time my son is up. I have complete faith that Jesus’ robes won’t get in the way of his swing. I say again, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” I know there are cancers to cure, crime and carnage to correct, and at this moment, I don’t care. I don’t care that people in countries with names I can’t spell don’t have clean drinking water. My son is up. This moment is important to my son, so it is important to me. My heart pounds. My teeth clench. I grip my book more tightly.  I am praying in a loop. Jesus is used to hearing from me. I’ve asked Him for many things, big things. I assume many people have. A hit is such a small request. I imagine Jesus shrugs and is amused. I’m still asking, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” As a mother, I can’t bear to see either of my children have anything less than a perfect experience. “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.”

I pray. I pray. I pray.

I hear the ching of the aluminum bat. It’s a double. I watch my son leave home and round the corners, stopping at second. I wish it were a triple, so he’d be standing on the third corner, closer to where I’m sitting, where I could see him better. I tell Jesus, “Thank you.” And I can breathe again. I go back to my book.

And in each inning my son is at bat, my interest will go from flatline to spike. I’ll close my book and focus on my son, praying, use meditation tactics to manifest an outcome, envision him surrounded in white light, picture Jesus with arms outstretched toward my son as if He is sending divine power straight to him like a laser. I conjure images of my son’s bat connecting with the ball. In my mind’s eye, I see my son getting a hit. The emotional effort is almost painful. The intense concentration gives me a headache, even my sinuses hurt. I feel his hits and misses to my very core; my soul vibrates with worry. No, unmeasurable love.

After the game, my son asks, “Did you see how hard I hit that? It was a bomb, right in the gap.”

I say, “No, I was watching you, not the ball.”

“Why would you watch me run? You’re supposed to watch the ball.” He tries to explain why I was watching the wrong thing, but I know I saw exactly what I wanted to see.

Maureen Mancini Amaturo is a New York based fashion and beauty writer and a contributing columnist for The Rye Record. She teaches Creative Writing, produces literary events for Manhattanville College, and leads the Sound Shore Writers Group, which she founded in 2007. Her publications include: two beauty how-to guides for Avon Products, personal essays, creative non-fiction, short stories, and humor pieces published by Ovunque Siamo, Boned, Bordighera Press, Months To Years, Bluntly Magazine, Mothers Always Write, Baseballbard.com, Flash Non-Fiction Food Anthology published by Woodhall Press, a poetic tribute to John Lennon published by Beatlefest, articles and celebrity interviews published in local newspapers and on line. She was diagnosed with an overdeveloped imagination by a handwriting analyst, and has been doing her best to live up to that diagnosis ever since.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts

Woman Reading Newspapear

December 22, 2019
gallery

By Judyth Sinclair

A middle-aged woman stood just inside the entrance door, tired and seemingly waiting for someone. I often looked over at her and wondered why she kept patiently standing there and why she was watching me each time I looked at her. She wore wrinkled khaki slacks and a colorful tee-shirt, had a burlap tote bag on the floor by her feet, and one hand rested on a bright beach type of umbrella. It makes me uncomfortable to say that it took me most of a day, passing her several times, to realize that she was a sculpture.

I discovered Duane Hanson that day at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. It turns out he was a Minnesota-born artist who became a sculptor. He invented some materials and combined others so that his full-size “people” would look as real as possible. His technique used fiberglass and paint to show veins, freckles, wrinkles, sallow skin and all the other visible things that make real people less doll-smooth than we might like ourselves to be.

Hanson’s proprietary materials and skill succeed in avoiding the waxysmooth look that celebrity museum inhabitants often display, perhaps helped in part by his subjects. Unlike wax museums displaying actors and royalty, Hanson’s are slightly plain and “ordinary” people we see paused in their days. For example, he has a court reporter waiting on a bench, a lying-down couch potato, a head-phonelistening teenager, a cheerleader in full regalia, a surfer, a repairmen in a one-piece uniform, an exhausted political protester, and an old man relaxing and maybe napping, among others. And you expect them to start talking with you.

In the late 1990s, I took a group to see a Whitney Museum exhibition of Hanson’s work and they were delighted. The teenagers loved that the table and food in front of “Woman Eating at a Diner Table” looked like their own favorites. And they liked “The Sunbather” reclining in a black almost-too-small bikini on a white plastic chair with a huge colorful beach towel under her seemingly sweaty back.

Their enjoyment was overshadowed, however, by my mother’s. She murmured something along the lines of how well she’d fit into Hanson’s crowd. Indeed, true to her often dowdy appearance, that day she wore a baggy long wool black coat over polyester pull-on lime green slacks and she’d shoved a newspaper into her brown fake leather handbag along with her reading glasses and a small loose-leaf notebook. Her too-large shoes flopped as she walked. Her hair was mousy brown and straight, unstyled. Her red fingernail polish was chipped on several fingers. She did fit right in, the main difference being that she was covered in epidermis instead of fiberglass.

I had been wandering through other gallery rooms and went to join my mother only to see that she had claimed a spot on the floor near a corner. She’d seated herself, let her coat fall off her shoulders, plopped her handbag on the floor beside her, and arranged the newspaper in front of her as if she were reading. Within minutes, people walking by exclaimed things like, “this one is quite realistic, too!!”

The rest of our group came to find us, saw my mother on the floor, and started to squeal but I gestured to them to be quiet and join me on the gallery bench. We sat for nearly an hour, enjoying passers-by appreciating our very own performance artist. The gallery guard was apparently in on the illusion, directing people toward that corner and smiling at their reactions.

I wasn’t sure how long I would wait or what I was waiting for until a woman stopped in front of “Woman Reading Newspaper” and paced back and forth in front of her, frowning. Her friend asked what she was thinking. She said, “I’m not sure what it is but so many of the pieces are amazing. This one just doesn’t seem as realistically well done.”

My mother raised her head. People in the room gasped and one or two put their hands to their mouths. My mother stood up, gathered her handbag and newspaper, shrugged on her coat, nodded to the guard, and glanced at the spectator who thought her unrealistic. She walked over and greeted me and the kids on the bench.  “I fit right in,” she said.  “What are they all yammering about?”

 

Judyth Sinclair wrote her first book when she was a preteen at camp in New Hampshire. It was about a girl who loves horseback riding (at least partly to spend time with the handsome riding teacher), sleeping outdoors and watching the moon and stars, playing croquet, and swimming, while dealing with being both African-American and an orphan. Had to have a zinger and a twist, y’know? In the years since, she’s studied and written poetry and fiction, presented a paper at a Danforth Foundation seminar, had a story published about a girl and a giraffe, and tried to hold onto imagination and insanity while (sometimes) keeping one foot in practical life.

Judyth grew up in Greenwich Village, that hotbed of creativity and eccentricity, majored in philosophy t college, got married, moved to the exurbs, set up a library in a small grammar school, worked for a non-profit, and now at a great law firm. She loves to write, knit, sew, read (especially while eating out), go to the theater, watch movies, and – most of all – have long long long conversations. And, as they say in Playbill bios, she is very thankful for her family and friends.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Current Events, Guest Posts

Mueller Time

December 19, 2019
mueller

By Pam Anderson

It’s a hot day. The sun beats relentlessly and the sweat rolls freely and excessively down my back and legs as I cut the grass, and because I’m angry, I appreciate the feeling of punishment that the heat doles out.  We’ve recently had a significant storm in our small town, and so I’ve had much debris to cut, carry, rake, and stack along the edge of the driveway for the city clean-up crew.

I’m mowing on the diagonal, and as I get as close to the skirt of the driveway, my feet tangle in the uneven edges of the stacked fallen branches and I trip and thud heavily to my knees. The left kneecap throbs, but I manage a mostly graceful one-hand-on-the-mower-one-hand-pushing-off-the-ground return to an upright position. I, with equal grace, scream out “Mother Fucker!”, but my words are drowned out by both my mower—which has not stopping running—and the chipper down the block, busy grinding up a neighbor’s 60-foot pine tree downed by the storm.

My knee hurts, and my bad back has been aching from the physical labor, but I am dedicated to finishing the job.  I’ve got to do something, keep busy. The television drones on in the house as Robert Mueller, III, truncated and repetitive in his testimony, disappoints me.  Outside, wearing a gray “It’s Mueller Time” tee shirt purchased years ago, when the outlook of everything felt more promising, I mow ferociously and try to make peace with him.

I spend time in my head re-hashing what I’ve heard of Muller’s lackluster responses and I rationalize that he is just a man.  My mind instantly skips to the lines from the Jesus Christ Superstar musical number sung by Mary Magdalene, “He’s a man…he’s just a man”. The irony is not lost on me:  so many hoped Mueller would be our savior.  Sadly, he really is just a man, and he cannot fix the bigger thing that is broken in us, in our country. More importantly, it’s not his responsibility to.

I make a return pass of the lawn walking directly into the sunlight, and without warning, the weight of the day—the real weight of the day—hits. It’s Mueller and the self-satisfied Republicans who grilled him and treated him like an incompetent child, yes, but this moment, the one that forces me to physically double over, is so much more personal than that.  This moment’s pain is the culmination of ugliness and hatred all around me—big and small—the kind that sprays and ricochets like bullets, landing mostly on the vulnerable. And to those who are recently emboldened to behave aggressively and angrily simply because they can, my daughter, one of the vulnerable ones, wears a bullseye on her chest.

***

My daughter has a communication disability, a processing and word retrieval disability.  Her disability is invisible, and she presents in a completely average way, which tends to work against her.  People assume she’s a certain something, but then she’s not; they feel deceived..  And people get mad about it.  They get mean about it.

When Rachel lived with us in Las Vegas after high school, she stumbled through a series of part time jobs. She was fired from each one: Tropical Treat Frozen Yogurt, Port of Subs, Atria Elderly Care Facility, JC Penny’s, Energy Options Call Center.  Because of her disability, Rachel has trouble remembering a series of verbal directions—she loses track after 2 or 3 steps—and because of this she’s been accused of being lazy for not completing a task fully.  Rachel has a hard time thinking on the spot—she needs time to process—and so she’s been called dumb by customers when there is a problem at the cash register.  Rachel isn’t savvy—she was fired from the call center because she forgot her headset was “live” even if she wasn’t on a call, and so she was taped discussing with co-workers the partying she had done over the weekend.

My daughter’s vulnerabilities don’t end at work.  Peers misunderstand her.  Rachel studies people hard when she’s in a conversation, because she’s trying to focus.  In high school, girls accused her of staring at them or of giving them creepy looks.  Rachel doesn’t understand double entendre, so classmates made jokes and then called her “retarded” if she didn’t get them.  As she got older, young men found her attractive—she’s a beautiful young woman—but they also found her confusing. Rachel wasn’t practiced at the nuance of being flirty or coy, and so dates felt rejected and responded in kind, triggering Rachel’s insecurities.  A few early relationships did some considerable emotional damage to her; in one case my ex-husband and my son sunk to physical confrontation of a boyfriend, wanting to do considerable damage right back.  They came to their senses when the boyfriend ran, scared.

Rachel received educational support in school since first grade, and as is common, after years of being pulled out of class, she hated feeling different.  She started to reject support in high school, resulting in failed classes. I worked with her and found outside-of-school support and paid to send her to private speech and language therapy, but I could only do as much as Rachel would allow me to do: she had been led to water, but she was the one who had to decide to drink.

When our family moved to Wisconsin, Rachel moved in with us for a few months as she figured out what was next. I thought our small town would be perfect for her; maybe people would be more accepting, less unkind. She lasted here three months.  Turns out small towns practice a different kind of mean, but it’s mean all the same.

Because of the experiences I’ve seen Rachel go through, I have a heightened sensitivity to watching people treat others with blatant disrespect. And I’ve seen so much of it lately: from people offering my daughter opinions meant to sear and scar, all the way up to the president insulting others with his words and actions, separating us from our humanity, walling us off from one another.

The day of the Mueller Congressional Hearing, I seethed at committee members who spat rude remarks as Mueller sat taking it, seemingly either confused or incapable of biting response. But I was also mad at Mueller for not being who I wanted him to be, for not behaving as I’d hoped: strong, defiant, righteous.  The feeling of anger on behalf of a person while also feeling anger with that person for not fending off the ugliness—for themselves, but maybe also for me—hit too close to home. I couldn’t watch anymore.  The best I could do was tend to my lawn, trying to create  some sense of order.

Pam Anderson is a former high school English teacher, recently retired. After 30 years of helping young people with their writing, she to enroll in a graduate Creative Writing program and finally dedicate energy to her own. Pam is presently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Sierra Nevada College.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Walk This Way

December 17, 2019
walk

By Sarah Boon

If you’d told me last summer that I’d be training for a half-marathon this summer, I would have laughed hard and loud. Not because it was funny, per se, but because of my mental illness and the crippling grip it has on me.

In 2014, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. The former is when your mood swings from euphoric highs during which you feel invincible, to deep lows during which you feel the world is going to end – something I realized I’d definitely been experiencing over the past five years. The latter is an underlying condition that I recognized as soon as he diagnosed it: I have been anxious since I was a child, always worried that something bad is going to happen or that I’ve done something wrong, and it’s coloured my whole life. He explained that this combination of illnesses is one of the most difficult to treat, adding that cognitive decline, or changes in your ability to think, is common among people with bipolar disorder.

I tried over a dozen different drugs to manage my illness. One required that I stay close to the bathroom, another sent me to the ER with a migraine so terrible I thought my head would explode. Some medications knocked me out to sleep in minutes, while others led to nausea and vomiting. I got used to experiencing a range of unpleasant side effects, until we finally found a mix of medications that made life a little bit more manageable.

All this is to say that I’ve spent the past seven years being held hostage by my illness. It tells me when I need extra sleep, when I need to avoid groups of people, when I should adjust my medications and, if there’s anything left, when I’m able to be sort of normal. It’s not clear on which days I’ll feel okay versus days when I feel terrible, and there’s no easy way to correlate certain activities or events with a specific emotional or mental response. I still have highs and lows, despite my medication being delicately balanced in an attempt to avoid these swings.

My illness dictates how my days and weeks go, and I often resent it for that. If, as Annie Dillard said, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” then my life is a combination of excess sleeping and trying to maintain a stable mood, like sitting on a children’s seesaw and trying to hold steady in the middle. This is definitely not the life I wanted or expected to live.

My illness has also made me less than active, and that – combined with the unfortunate but common side effect of the medications – has led to significant weight gain and reduced fitness. I haven’t been able to commit to regular exercise or joining a fitness club because my life is so unpredictable. Physical deterioration is not discussed much in mental health circles or stories. As Virginia Woolf writes in On Being Ill, we tend to focus only on the mind, “the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how it has civilised the universe. [We ignore] the body in the philosopher’s turret…Those great wars which it wages by itself…against the oncome of melancholia, are neglected.” But having a body you don’t like is just one more thing that feeds depression.

Then last January, something changed. I experienced one of the highest high moods of my life: so high that I had to increase my regular medications and take copious amounts of a new medication to manage it. I felt like I could do anything. I wasn’t sleeping. I was writing essays in my head at all hours of the day. I was purchasing all sorts of things online. I was pitching freelance pieces left, right, and centre. I was back to my former state of juggling more balls than I should have been able to manage. And I loved it.

When you’re used to being depressed, submerged under an immovable weight that just can’t be lifted, a bipolar high feels like a gift, even though you know it’s going to end badly and have serious impacts on your brain function and mood. Indeed, I did a series of cognitive competency tests shortly after one of my earlier high episodes to see if I could go back to work, and I failed several of them – likely due to a combination of cognitive decline and mental fuzziness caused by the medication.

One good thing came from this high, however – I decided that I needed to be more in charge of my life. I wanted a sense of personal agency, something I’d been missing as I was tossed around by the vagaries of my illness and the side effects of the medication. I wanted goals, and a series of steps to reach those goals – steps I’d chosen myself to track my progress. I wanted to be more fit, to be active like I used to be, when I hiked and skied in the Rockies, swam 3,000-4,000 metres every other day, and lifted weights every second day.

What did “taking charge of my life” mean in practice? It meant walking the trails around my house again, something I’d done when we first moved in but dropped during a depressive phase. It meant committing to writing a book about my field experiences as a research scientist. It meant deciding to do the Lake-to-Lake Marathon.

I first heard about the Lake-to-Lake Marathon last year and was intrigued. It follows a gravel railbed trail for 42 kilometres from Shawnigan Lake to Lake Cowichan on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, crossing several old train trestles along the way. I liked the idea of walking on gravel rather than asphalt, and checking out the view from each of the different trestles. I didn’t think about the training so much as I envisioned a lovely walk in the woods and crossing the finish line.

People with bipolar disorder are notorious for promising the world during a high phase. We have a tendency to take on more than we can manage, and that impulse collides with the inability to do it, leaving us holding the pieces and wondering what went wrong. During that high earlier this year, I promised several writing assignments and ended up having to cancel one and not do as good a job as I’d planned for another, which made me feel like a terrible writer. But I never lost that idea of wanting to walk the marathon.

Some people would have happily chosen a 10-kilometre race, but I wanted to challenge myself with something longer and more difficult, something that would allow me to enhance my fitness levels. I wanted to force my body to listen to me and do as I asked, to push me strongly over the finish line. As my high mood declined, however, I realized that there was no way I could do a full marathon. So I switched my sights to the half-marathon.

In June I got serious about training and started walking longer distances than my usual 3-4 kilometres. My plan was to just walk farther each day until I hit close to marathon length. My longest walk as of the middle of July was 14 km. But walking is time-consuming, and it’s difficult to fit a 2.5 hr walk into an already limited day. I’m up at 8.30 am and back in bed at 10 pm, with a 2.5 hr nap in the afternoon. Within those hours I not only have to walk, but I also have to eat, wrangle dogs, do house and garden chores, run errands, and keep up my writing – especially now that I’m working on a book.

What happens if I have a bad day (or week) and have to stay in bed? Like the day after that 14 km walk, when reality came back to bite me and I had to sleep all day? It’s made me realize that my training has to take into account how my body and mind feel, that I have to consider not what other people do, but what I’m able to do. I can’t afford to re-injure my knee, or to draw too deeply on my limited energy stores while training. I have to walk at my own pace, not the pace set by the faster walkers on the course.

Thank goodness I’ve found a half-marathon training program that allows for two days off a week, and includes only one long walk a week (like my 14 kilometre walk), with shorter walks at faster speeds or a session of repeated hill climbs during the rest of the week. Suddenly things seem much more manageable – I can fit most of my daily walks into an hour or two, and I can recharge on the days off. This also allows me to manage bad days – I can just shift my days off. I can also use the extra time for writing.

I’m proud of myself for sticking with the training so far, and am starting to see some benefits like reduced resting heart rate and some weight loss. The half-marathon itself will be tough, but it’s almost tougher to make sure I get out at least five times a week to train. I enjoy my training sessions, though. Walking gives me a way of thinking through life issues, plus writing and book ideas. It’s also a way to zone out and let my feet do the work. As Antonia Malchik explains in her book, A Walking Life, walking helps re-centre ourselves in our body and in society, heal hurts and organize thoughts, and remember the past and aim for the future. That’s exactly what I need to help me balance both my mental and physical health, and is similar to advice I’ve read from other prolific walkers.

I’ll never get rid of my illness, but I can do my best to take charge of it and work within its physical and mental limitations, and to focus on the positives as much as possible. As Anne Giardini writes, “The days cannot be stretched, but they can be shaped.” I can shape my days around my walking goals, with the understanding that they may need to be modified at times, depending on how I’m feeling. I can walk that Lake-to-Lake Half-Marathon. Crossing the finish line after having committed to all that training will be the best gift I could give myself.

Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations. Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations. Find her on Twitter at @SnowHydro

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

I Made Peace With My Body And Found My Soul

December 15, 2019
body

 By Lisa Poulson

The house, above the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, is set on a hill overlooking the whole Luberon valley. Climbing roses cling to its traditional Provençal stone exterior. In California, a plant with just one or two flowers seems in ill health, but here a single blush rose on a vine by the front door feels like beautiful simplicity.

The chic and spare interior is layered with thick coats of pale plaster that curve around me as I walk up two flights of stairs to my room. It’s my first time in Provence, with six girlfriends in this wild, raw and beautiful part of France.

There are wide, cool terracotta tiles, a velvety duvet and no curtains in my bedroom, which is on the third floor of the house, facing the valley. After I settle in and unpack, my friends and I have our evening meal at a long, rough hewn dining table under a tree on the patio. It’s the first week of May. A hint of the Mistral rolls through the hills. I haven’t felt this peaceful in a long, long time.

The next morning, the barest hint of dawn through my uncovered windows wakes me. I smell the remnants of my Diptyque Pomander candle before I open my eyes. I turn my head toward the window and, drowsy and semi-conscious, am immersed in exquisite beauty.

It’s a little chilly as I sit up in bed to watch tender pink light emerge from a piercing bluish fuschia, to see the tall trees shift from shadowy black to darkest teal, to see the rows of lavender on the hill opposite our house emerge from the darkness. The mountains beyond the hills are a Pantone palette of dark to lighter slate blues. Birds are singing. The wind is soft. This dawn is as delicate and rich as Venetian velvet.

After several minutes of watching the colors change and the light bathe the whole scene, a voice, insistent and gentle at the same time, says, ‘If you didn’t have a body, you wouldn’t be able to experience any of this beauty. Not one bit.’

Sitting in my sleep-warm bed, bathed in this exquisite sunrise, I feel peaceful enough to simply accept this truth about my body without argument. As the sun’s light turns the trees green I roll this idea around in my head, thinking about what beauty means to me. Everything. Beauty means everything to me. I’m almost breathless as I absorb the blindingly simple truth that I can only experience beauty through and because of my body.

I am 56 years old. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my body since I was a tween. And yet, in this moment, seduced by the serene Provençal beauty all around me, I reorder what I feel and believe about my body, what it is for, what it has given me, why it’s a miracle.

 ***

It’s been a long and grinding road. I was 10 when I first doubled over with burning pain on both sides of my gut. It wasn’t until my twenties that I got a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me a name but not a solution for the boiling distress that turned my body into an incomprehensible ‘other’, a caustic alien that delighted in causing havoc on dates, before job interviews, at baseball games.

At 30, the man I loved was killed after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. Grief came in molten waves that would growl and stretch, enveloping every part of me. I never knew when my body would start sweating and shaking, drowning me in unbearable sorrow. When grief descend my only choice was to submit to being ravaged.

About a year after my fiancé died I went on a date, thinking it was time to “move on.” But at the end of the evening when he leaned in to kiss me I panicked. Another man having access to my delicate mouth was more than I could bear. I ran up to my apartment and burst into tears.

In the midst of this emotional disarray I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley. Just 15 months after my love died, I left New York City and all of my friends behind. In a strange place, with few friends, tons of work pressure, and carrying a mountain of grief, I turned to food, the most reliable and consistent comfort I knew, and buried myself. I gained 75 pounds in six months.

My gut tormented me, I came down with mononucleosis, my head raged with migraines. I felt trapped inside a body that hurt and humiliated me daily. With bitter self-hatred, I told myself that this body, this alien saboteur, was a billboard for my weaknesses as a person. I didn’t deserve amity with my body, I wasn’t strong enough or good enough to be free.

By the time I was 35 I was emotionally numb, physically miserable and nearly 100 lbs overweight. I was in New York on an exhausting business trip. I stumbled into my hotel room and collapsed against the side of the bed in my underwear, my short legs splayed out in front of me. I stared at my undressed body in the wall of mirrors that were the closet doors. I watched my piles of flesh undulate as I breathed in and out. I forced myself to face everything in the mirror. My legs, my belly, my double chin. My lip curled in revulsion as I stared into deadened eyes. I hated everything about my life. My job. My body. Myself.

Eventually I lost the weight, but I couldn’t love and happily inhabit my complicated and demanding body, where the alien still reigned. In my 40s my career grew and grew, but inside my body was one long repressed scream of rage and frustration. I wanted to swear, to smash things, to scream and shake, to quiver and whimper with passion, to drown in and be intoxicated by love and lust. None of those things happened. Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a proper Mormon girl does not do these things.

I could have gone to the gym every day to expel that pent up desire, anxiety and anger. But a completely numb body is easier to manage than a body that is partially awake. A body that is awake and vibrant and beautiful wants things. Things a Mormon girl can’t have. So instead my weight yo-yoed. My gut burned. And then I got eczema – the skin on my palms became raw and started to peel off. My spirit was choked in a body I refused to love. I was a broken soul.

***

During the next decade I patronized several spas, worked with a cornucopia of health practitioners and healers, tried so many elimination diets. Sometimes I looked better, sometimes I felt better, sometimes I had beautiful moments of connection with my body, usually at an expensive spa after a luxurious treatment. But back in my real life, every time there was a new injury, every time my IBS flared up, every time I gained weight, I blamed the alien, the mute and malevolent force inside me who seemed determined to hurt and undermine my every effort to heal. I saw no way out.

But in late 2016 the movie Arrival hypnotized me. The heroine, a creative, accomplished linguist, was asked to interpret the language of aliens called heptapods. I drank the movie in, read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life on which the movie is based. I thought and thought. What if my body is like a heptapod, a benevolent and complex organism with miraculous gifts to give? Was it possible that within my body I’d find a wisdom that would transform me if I could just learn to speak and listen to its language?

***

That late spring morning in Provence, watching that glorious sunrise, was the first time I heard and understood a sentence in heptapod. ‘It’s your body that gives you the gift of all of this beauty.’

For decades, I had only seen what was wrong and broken – I thought my body was 90% a disaster. I did not see that the things I love – color, art, music, flowers, the scent of perfume, the feel of cashmere on my neck – only come to me because I have a body. My body isn’t a crucible of humiliation and frustration, it is a miracle.

I let the slow and pure beauty of Provence work on my nervous system. Everything there taught me the simple joy of living in a body in the world – fresh goat cheese drizzled with new olive oil and tiny flowers, earthenware vases filled with hardy irises, fields of red poppies shimmering in the breeze, baby green leaves on grape vines that aren’t manicured into antiseptic perfection.

At the end of a week there, after several more ravishing sunrises and sunsets, after living among a people whose lives are bound up in the beauty of the land, I came home to California with a changed heart.

There’s a calmness between my body and me now – the anger and shame have been replaced by a patient, warm affection for the wise heptapod who is teaching me a new way to live. I am learning what it feels like to move through the world with a partner – a wise and remarkable heptapod who has always been with me, every moment of my life. I am whole.

Lisa Poulson is a voice in favor of the complex beauty of female power. She is the descendent of fiercely resilient pioneer women who crossed the American plains with their children – even after their husbands died along the way. She is a successful Silicon Valley PR veteran and a woman who survived her the death of her fiancé four months before their wedding day. Lisa lives in San Francisco, where she spends her free time absorbing and creating as much beauty as possible.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Activism, Guest Posts, Owning It!

A Female Fighter

December 12, 2019
fighter

By Debra Des Vignes

As I drive from Indianapolis to the boxing gym, I feel my anger rising. My son’s farm accident is still fresh in my mind. And friends, I don’t even want to think about friends. At the gym, I’m one of only three female fighters. I’m 45, not old, but old for a fighter. Today, I’m headed to the gym. Working out, boxing, is how I alleviate my anger. While driving, I reminiscence.

Things happen in life, I know, even to the innocent, that we have no control over and that we can’t explain. No one knows why. It’s just life and its unexplainable ways. My son, Simon, was four when the accident happened. That morning, my husband and I were invited to have an early dinner at a friend’s horse farm, but first a tour of their beautiful property was suggested. I recall my son’s big, brown eyes, and his friend’s blonde ponytail. They held hands while the mother of our son’s friend rubbed the horse’s side. Suddenly, the horse spooked, no one knows why, and Simon’s body was flung mid-air. A child’s pained cry has a high, shrill, piercing sound that no mother wants to hear. Blood splattered the grass, the wooden fence and Simon’s ponytailed friend. Thank God that she wasn’t hurt.

My thoughts continue to revisit the accident as I pull over for gas and get back on the highway. It’s early evening and many are sitting down for dinner.

I remember sitting in the ICU – trauma – with my husband. Over the course of seven days and nights, I watch eye, throat and facial surgeons rush in and out to check Simon’s vital signs. I become numb, staring at a blank, white wall, day in and day out. I sit slumped at the edge of a chair, silently screaming inside, afraid to move. I feel empty. My thoughts are non-cohesive. I eat at the hospital cafeteria and shower in the room near where he lies in a medically induced coma. My anger is growing.

I become accustomed to the sounds of the trauma unit as I wait for the next doctor’s report. The sounds of feet pitter-pattering up and down hallways, alarms beeping, bells ringing, wheels of a carts squeak as they roll here and there, the hum and buzz of everyday hospital routines, are forever embedded in my mind. I realize the cold-heartedness of the world outside. Where are my friends?

On the radio, the broadcaster is talking about salmon invading nearby Eagle Creek Park and its 1300 acres of reservoir. I’m not interested, and I turn it off. Today, I’m only interested in getting to the boxing gym. I can feel the anger leave my body with each jab, hook and uppercut. Why do people find it strange when I tell them my idea of a good workout is boxing? Boxing is my passion and it entered my life at a time I needed it most. I was angry and wanted to hit something; anything in my path. The gym is my sanctuary.

As I drive, I think to myself, maybe I expect too much out of friends, but I don’t think so. I expect a friend to have my back in times of tragedy. After all, that’s what friends do. When Simon’s accident happened, his facial plate (maxilla) broke in half. I was devastated. After the accident, sadness gripped my heart. I worried myself sick about my son. I was completely overwhelmed as surgery after surgery had to be scheduled to repair his injuries. I had my husband, but I needed a motherly friend to lean on, to help me, to tell it would be OK. It was one of my darkest hours, and the friends I thought had my back deserted me. When I needed them most, they were off doing their own thing. That’s how it goes, but that is not how it’s supposed to be because I believe a true friend should have my back ‘til the bitter end.

A truck carrying livestock, cattle, passes me. He is going over the speed limit. I have never understood why people blatantly break the law.

I remember that I’m from the “easier” side of the tracks where dogwood trees give off the sweet fragrance of their white and pink flowers; a place where one doesn’t worry about the next meal or whether the power will be cut off, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of hard knocks because I have. Hard knocks have made me who I am. As a child, my mother’s alcoholism ruled the household and my father was strict. As an adult, Simon’s accident has dominated my life. Nevertheless, I’ve still managed to build a creative writing program for the incarcerated. Yes, I sometimes feel I have the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I’m a fighter who doesn’t give up a fight.

I remember my early days as a former reporter covering crime and courts for local TV affiliates NBC, CBS and ABC. I was filled with enthusiasm. I wanted to make a difference. As a reporter, I covered many stories involving prisoners, but often the prisoners’ side of the story was left out. I wanted to know those stories, so I got involved and became a prison volunteer. At first, it was a little intimidating.

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the prison for the first time. The stereotyping of prisons and prisoners left me wondering, “Would I be robbed, raped, or stabbed with a handmade shank?” The clinking and clanking of metal gates sent cold chills up my spine. I moved through several layers of prison guards. Their keys jingled and jangled as they unlocked gates and doors. At every entry, I had to flash my prison volunteer badge. I began questioning my sanity asking myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I could be killed, I thought.

***

When I arrived at the designated location, it was nothing like I expected. The classroom was like any other classroom, and its occupants, although prisoners, like any other group of students. All my fears had been in vain. One of my first classes was a victim-impact class. I wanted to know how prisoners felt about victims. Amazed by the raw talent in the room; I laughed and cried at their answers to questions. I didn’t know any victims of a violent crime but I’d hope he or she would show remorse like the men did in the room that day. I was so moved that I worked to build a creative writing program for prisoners inside the facility. I remind myself that that writing program is now in three Indiana correctional facilities.

Another truck passes me as if I’m standing still. It is carrying frozen foods. I look at my speedometer. I’m going the speed limit.

I remember that I’m an older fighter who constantly needs ice packs for pain and old wounds. Today, I brought frozen, green peas because they were convenient. In a fight, it is imperative that a boxer controls both physical and emotional pain. Physical pain can be controlled by frozen peas, but emotional pain brought on by life (people), well, that is a whole different matter. As a fighter, I know that thoughts can create emotions that impede performance in the ring. Reason has it that if I can’t control my thoughts, I cannot win the fight. Emotions originate in the mind where vital nerves alert spirit and soul to feel one way or another. Consequently, as a boxer, I must be the gatekeeper of my mind’s door, keeping everything negative out, otherwise I’m a dead duck in the ring. It took me years to learn that.

The yellow Shell gas station sign ahead tells me I’m nearing my destination. I have about ten more miles before I reach the turn that leads to the boxing gym.

I remember one day at the gym several male fighters took an interest in me. They asked me where I was from and where I went to school. I’m about 5’5 with curly, short, hair, and I wear little make-up. At first, I thought it was innocent chatter, but then I sensed resentment in their demeanor. I was a female fighter in what was traditionally a male dominated sport and they didn’t like sharing “their” ring with a female. That resentment was later confirmed when a fighter in the ring treated me as if I were wounded, stray dog too injured to be worthy of his time. I got the message and they soon got mine because I’m a fighter, and I don’t back down because resentment rears its ugly head.

As I turn off the main highway onto the dirt road that leads to the boxing gym, I dread this road because it’s filled with deep potholes. I believe that someday this road is going to be the fault of me being stranded out here to fend for myself. Off to my left, I see glowing, red embers from a small trash fire outside a rarely seen house on this road. As I pull into the parking lot, I notice puffy, gray clouds that hang over the gym, a bad omen, but I hope not. The gym building is unmarked and ugly. It’s a dreary looking place on the outside. I park my car and gather my gear.

I approach the gym’s front door and hear yelling from a coach within that alarms even the birds resting in the nearby spruce trees. I enter and look around to observe the pecking order. Amateur fighters can be territorial. They lay claim to everything: punching bags and lockers. One can tell the elite boxers by the way they carry themselves, moving with purpose after years of discipline. They are admired by most in the gym. I hear fans suck out recycled, damp air. Rap blares out of a stereo. The heavy punching bags hang in unison. They are the only signs of order in the gym.

I find my place and prepare to fight as I wait to be paired with a sparring partner. I tuck my hair in and tighten my glove straps. We will fight six rounds. Each round will last five minutes. I’m ready to release some anger. I hear distant war cries of ongoing matches and the sound of ring-side bells.

Today, I’m going to kick somebody’s ass or I’m going to get my ass kicked. Either wayas a female fighter getting a good workoutI win.

Prior to establishing a prison writing program, Debra Des Vignes had a 10-year career as a journalist in Television News getting her start at KABC-TV in Los Angeles, California before traveling across the country working at various TV stations covering crime. Creative writing is her passion, especially flash fiction. She has served in various leadership communications roles for nonprofit organizations across the country and her story pitches have garnered national media attention in U.S. World & News Report, CNN, Miami Herald, The Washington Times, and more. Debra received a degree in political science from California State University Northridge.

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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