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Two Dads and a Lump of Clay

February 25, 2024
clay

In the beginning, I couldn’t make anything. I sat at the wheel watching the spinning lump of clay, unsure of my next move. The creation of a thing requires two essential inputs: the raw material and the shaping of that material. When I first started to pot, both perplexed me. I know more now. Today, I want to challenge myself and make something special, something that will evoke the goodness of life.

I open the bag of clay and an odor redolent of summer rain on black soil envelops and comforts me. This ancient mixture of earth and water has been around since (at least) the third day of the world. The smell disperses into the air as I cut off a clammy chunk and knead it into a soft, three-pound ball with the objective of “throwing off the hump,” a technique of making two or more pots from a single lump of clay. This method of throwing reminds me of cell division and the miracle of creation. Of course, I am just a potter; I’m not creating life, but it gets me thinking: how do I—how am I formed?

#

I’ve had two fathers. I was three months old when I lost Eliahu, the father whose DNA I carry. My parents were separated by the time I was born, but I know Eliahu saw me a few times before deciding to open a bottle of Orange Crush, swallow several-hundred pills and break free from the turbulent orbit that had become his world.

My older sister Ruth and I could not ask our mother about Eliahu—neither his life nor his death. I told myself that I didn’t care to know, but Ruth did, and it was me that she turned to for solace when her questions went unanswered. Our mother’s reluctance to talk drove her to snooping. One day, when Ruth was fourteen, she found his suicide letter.

I was nine when my sister showed me that letter suffused with emotions I didn’t understand. Emptiness, despair, and self-loathing—his cup overflowed with pain, and he wanted only to empty it, to finish his suffering. It was titillating to be privy to such a secret, but the feeling dissipated, and I filed the information into deep storage, believing I had no right to pine after someone I couldn’t remember. Wanting to be an agreeable daughter, I accepted my mother’s silence and looked toward the future. When I was seventeen, I visited Israel for the first time and met Eliahu’s family. They poured their love and acceptance onto me, and I was stunned. As I was taken from house to house, each new relative stared at my dark thick hair, deep-set eyes, and shy smile, their hands covering gaping mouths. Hee kol kach doma lo! She looks so much like him, they all said.

#

I drop the ball of clay onto the pottery wheel, aiming for the middle. Getting and keeping the clay centered—still, smooth, free of tremors—is still my biggest challenge. The wheel turns at 250 revolutions per minute, humming and grinding. I brace my knees against the splash pan and anchor my arms, pressing at the base of the clay mound and pushing the bumpy surface inward until it submits to the resistance of my hands. Then, I cone the clay up into a torpedo and compress it down again. When I finish, the lump has transformed into a low dome. It looks centered, but I know from experience that this might be an illusion. Who knows what’s buried below the surface.

#

Around the time she became pregnant with me, my mother met the six-foot tall, outgoing poetry student who would become my stepfather. David was a fellow grad student at the university, and he and my mother hung out between classes, trying to out-wit each other with their literary puns and authorial affectations. Everyone, including Eliahu, assumed their friendship was platonic, but my mother and David were developing a stronger connection than anyone could have guessed. Two and a half years after Eliahu’s death, they married.

Whenever I think about David in those early years—a twenty-six-year-old Catholic choosing to leave behind his carefree artist’s life to marry a three-years-older traumatized Jewish widow with two children—I am astounded. No wonder my mother sometimes called him, “David the Saint.” But she was equally irresistible to him. Dazzling with her intelligence, humor, and sultry Elizabeth Taylor-like beauty, she drew him in. After their marriage, he adopted my sister and me, legally erasing our birth names and with them, Eliahu. My history-the story of my origins-was supplanted with a new narrative. The gregarious, partying poet with the stylish beard and classic Greek nose became my new father. My tall, elegant, and (mostly) stable stepfather.

My first memory of David is of a bedtime routine. I had a red frog made of Naugahyde. “Kiss Nauga!” I’d demand each night as he tucked me in. My perfect, handsome Daddy was my hero. But when I grew older and understood that we weren’t related, I pushed him aside, seeking instead the approval and love of my mother. If he made me mad, I comforted myself with the reminder that he wasn’t my real Daddy anyway.

#

I rest my palm on top of the spinning dome, thinking about the stories I’ve always had and the stories I’ve uncovered more recently. They are all I have to work with in the reconstruction of my beginning. I need to figure out how everything fits together.

The smooth, silky movement beneath my hand transports an image to my mind of a grand vessel constructed of two pieces, and I know what I will make: a chalice or kiddush cup. The dual-purpose goblet will consist of a bowl-like cup supported by a decorative stem.

I construct the cup first, pressing my fingers laterally into the dome just below the halfway point. Forming an hourglass shape, I begin throwing the top half. I push the thumb of one hand and middle finger of the other down through the center, opening the clay into a hollow form, then pull the walls toward me to enlarge the base. The promise of future sustenance compels me to pull wider; I want this part of the goblet big to contain all manner of goodness.

#

For decades, I knew little about Eliahu. My mother dispensed occasional morsels of information when I was growing up, hoping they would suffice: he was thirteen years older and a talented, though depressed opera singer; her modern attitudes on gender equality in marriage clashed with his traditional upbringing; and his family criticized him for moving from Israel to Canada. From his relatives I learned my hearing impairment was hereditary, which did not endear me to him. They might have told me more, but I wasn’t interested; I saw no point. I had no memory of him, and he didn’t fit into my life.

All this changed when, at age fifty-three, I heard his voice for the first time on a tape recording given to me by his niece. Hearing my father speak made him feel more real to me than he ever had before. It was then that I awoke, as if from a long sleep, to the realization that I did want to know more about him. But when I went to ask my mother, I was too late. Wandering bewildered in her barren desert of Alzheimer’s, my mother couldn’t conjure up Eliahu at all.

And so, I stole my parents’ letters from the cardboard box in my mother’s seniors’ residence. There were hundreds of them. Eliahu’s letters revealed a romantic man who was rational and pragmatic, and I realized these were also traits of mine. I looked up the names on those letters, hoping to find friends still living.

I found Miriam. She told me that Eliahu was full of surprises, and she described an evening following his return from a summer music school in Italy. “He asked me to go with him to our special singing spot in the mountain. I was leading the way up the path and as we sat down, I looked up. Hanging in the tree was a bottle of Chianti he had brought me from Siena!” Her face shone with the memory of his playfulness and generosity, still fresh after sixty years. Then, she turned and pointed to a wine bottle holding flowers in her hallway. She’d kept it as a vessel for her love.

Eliahu appeared fun-loving and untroubled to Miriam and his other friends, but inside he struggled with despair. The letters revealed that after moving to Canada, one catastrophe after another rained down on him—disappointment, death, betrayal—each blow adding to the last until he could no longer hide the damage.

#

As I open and shape the cup, I feel a disturbance within that is causing the walls to wobble. It’s an air bubble—an empty space trapped in the clay body. I wonder if it had always been there or if I’d done something wrong. This pocket of air has a big impact on the whole, knocking it completely off center. I stop the wheel, poke the bubble with a needle, then smooth and fill in the indentation. When I start the wheel back up, I pray the clay molecules will realign and repair the damage.

Two more pulls of the cup’s wall and the piece is back on center. I am relieved, as if I had recentered Eliahu, giving him the strength to persevere. Maybe I’m chasing a fantasy, trying to create something lasting from loss, but I believe in the restorative power of stories and art.

I press against the inside with a kidney-shaped tool to bowl out the cup and ease off as I near the top. I sit back to look. It is good. The delicate taper of the cup’s wall beckons the eye to the gentle curve of the inside. I smooth the lip before slicing off the cup from the hump of clay below.

#

It turned out David wasn’t such a saint. My mother knew he had a drinking problem, but in their early days together it only added to his appeal as a tortured poet. She probably hoped her love and a family routine would turn him sober. But it didn’t, not for a long time.

One day when I was twelve, he picked me up late from aikido class. During the silent drive home, he suddenly turned off our route, saying he had to make a quick stop.

“Wait here, I’ll be right back,” he said, parking behind some brick buildings. After a long time, I started to worry. I left the car to look for him. Just beyond the alleyway between the buildings was a pub and I looked inside the window. He was sitting at the bar, a big glass of beer in front of him, talking and laughing with another patron as if he had nothing else in the world to do. I returned to the car to sulk and cry. My daddy was flawed. The sudden realization rattled my sense of security.

When he returned, he slid into the driver’s seat and looked at me in the rear-view mirror. Seeing my scowl and crossed arms, he turned around. “What’s the matter, sweetie?” he said in the syrupy, slurred voice I hated.

“I know where you were.”

“Oh, dear,” he said.

I glared at him.

“Don’t tell your mother.”

“Of course, I won’t,” I said. I did not want to be the cause of an argument between them.

Sometime after, David quit drinking. But his alcoholism had already shaped me, and from then on, I viewed the drinking habits of the people I loved with an anxious wariness.

#

A bit less than half of the original ball of clay is left on the wheel. As I shape it into the goblet’s stem, I reflect on stories of my adoptive dad, hoping the details of these memories never fade. My musings guide my hands as they work to define the stem. It should be as graceful as the cup and its base should be wide enough to keep the cup steady, especially if I want a tall stem—tall like David was.

While the dome spins, I press in on the sides, giving the clay nowhere to go but up. It becomes a pillar with a clay skirt at the bottom, which serves as the stem’s base. I form a shallow cavity at the top that looks like a miniature rice bowl. This cavity will enclose the bottom of the cup when I’m ready to join the two pieces together. I pinch the stem at different heights to create three knops, mimicking the classic profiles of goblets I’ve seen online. When I’m finished, I assess the outcome. The stem will be stable, mostly. The knops, while handsome, are potential weak points and will require vigilance. I stand up and crouch down to look at the stem straight on. Overall, I’m satisfied. It too is good.

#

Reading the letters between and to my mother and Eliahu allowed me to learn more about him than I ever thought possible, each small detail darkening the hazy outline I’d carried all my life. Amongst those letters was an obscure document from 1963.

In the fall of that year, Eliahu was attending a community college to complete the high school coursework he needed to get into university. He was unemployed during the winter break and finances were tight, so he applied for unemployment insurance benefits. He was denied on the grounds that his unemployment would last for only one month. The 1963 letter was an appeal that he wrote, arguing that he shouldn’t be disqualified because he was both available and willing to work as required by the law, from which he quoted.

I recognized in his arguments my own dogged trust in reason and logic. I possess the same zeal for justice and directed this passion into a career as a worker advocate. My father used the government’s rules as his evidence and rationale, a strategy I also employed in my work. I always assumed the attributes that made me good at my job came from my mother, who was a professional writer and editor—but maybe they came from Eliahu?

Two years later, my father gave up fighting for himself and the things he cherished—a choice I vowed never to follow.

#

Despite being Catholic, David participated fully in our Jewish upbringing and even attended synagogue with us. “It’s the same God,” he always said. Once, as a teenager, I set out to challenge his religion, just for the fun of it. My mother always hoped he would convert and I, still focused on pleasing her, decided to be helpful by undermining one of the central tenets of Catholicism.

“Don’t you think that story about Jesus dying and coming back to life is pretty dumb? You know, the whole resurrection thing?” I waited for defensiveness and was startled by his comeback.

“No dumber than some guy talking to a burning bush,” he said, breaking into a big smile that opened the space between his mustache and beard, revealing all his not-so-white, but perfectly formed teeth.

“Ha, you got me!” I said, laughing. It took years for me to appreciate how his wisdom and respect for my intelligence nurtured my own open-minded, critical thinking. Once a parent myself, I stopped brushing him aside in favor of my mother. I could depend on him for non-judgmental advice and comfort. On visits and calls home, my former monosyllabic answers to his questions turned into genuine engagement. I came to love his kind, molten voice, which still had that slurred, dreamy quality.

I was forty-three when he received the lung cancer diagnosis. From that point on, each time I called, he reported the latest symptoms of the disease attacking his body, such as night sweats and falling out of bed. I begged him to let me come take care of him, knowing my mother wasn’t coping.

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

“I can sleep on the floor next to the bed and break your falls.”

“Oh, sweetie—thank you, but no.”

When he went into palliative care, I did go to him, and we were both glad. He asked me to read his favorite Psalm—#23. Then, he left me too.

#

The two pieces are leather-hard dry, and it is time to join them together. I return the cup upside down to the wheel for the final shaping of the surface. The protrusion of clay where the cup was cut from the host mound is facing up, ready to receive the stem. I add some goopy slip to its rough surface, then turn the stem upside down and fit the rice bowl-shaped cavity on to the protrusion, pressing until wet clay oozes out and the curve of the cavity hugs the cup. I check to make sure the stem is centered and plumb, then turn on the wheel, blending the wet into the harder clay to bind and smooth the area of attachment, creating a single structure.

It is me; it is them. The creators and the created.

When it is dry enough to handle, I wrap my hands around the cup and lift it to my lips, the taste and smell of the clay a reminder of its elemental origins. I breathe into the hollow of the cup, sanctifying the space with my gratitude. Setting it down, I marvel at the stability and beauty of the tall, elegant stem. From one lump to two forms, and back to one again. I’ve never made anything this good.

Michèle Dawson Haber is a Canadian writer, potter, and union advocate. She lives in Toronto and is working on a memoir about family secrets, identity, and step-adoption. Her essays have been published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Salon.com, Oldster Magazine, and The Brevity Blog. She also interviews memoirists for Hippocampus Magazine. Find her at @micheledhaber on most social media platforms.

 

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Grief, Guest Posts, parents

Death and Jeggings

February 21, 2024
sweaters dad

I stared at the rack of enamel buttoned cardigans, hands numb, relaxed chinos everywhere. Nothing made sense. I looked around confused. Where was I? Was this…? Yes.  Right. I was so lost, I walked into a Talbot’s.

I had just left my father at a Memory Care Center and I felt pretty crummy. Not crummier than the place I’d had to leave him at two months prior, but crummy none the less. We’d sat in the common room, people in wheelchairs were being spoon fed in rotation by a caregiver. A woman named Kathy sat at our table. She had big fish eyes and a yellow sweater and a flapsack over her walker in a homemade fabric that had Elvis all over it. Another attendant, a woman in her twenties with a faded tattoo over her eyebrow sat with us.  Whatever was over the eyebrow was in the process of removal.  Around her wrist, a delicate black rosary dripped on to her hand that my eyes kept returning to. Any illustration of faith was comforting in this liminal rec room off the 405.   My dad didn’t say much. I tried not to micro manage but really got into it with Kathy about Elvis hoping the vibe could feel fun.  I rambled about “King Creole,” my favorite Elvis movie.  Going as far as to belt out “crawwwwwwwwfish.” Kathy frowned. I stopped.  I overtry in these situations. Memory Care Center cheerleader. It’s awful. But it is better than the silence.

My dad ate slowly, elongating the time I had to stress out about leaving him there. The truth is, I don’t want to leave him anywhere. Ever. But a lot of him has left us at this point and we don’t have a choice. He gets angry, red faced, violent words he never used in my childhood spew. Last week on the front porch he told my brother and I that he’d cut our fingers off and feed em to us like in Viet Nam. We looked at each other and stifled a laugh; that is where we are. Lewy Body Dementia with a lifelong PTSD chaser. Memory Care people call it LBD. Which used to mean Little Black Dress to me. Halter, strapless, now extra protein in the brain that results in hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia.

He’d been my favorite person to talk to on any given Sunday. The man who made me laugh with wordplay and feel safe with his emotional IQ. But now, he needed full-time attention, twenty four hour tenderness from a professional equipped to not think about the finger eating comment for the next week/lifetime. He got kicked out of the first memory care home we’d placed him in after he lobbed a punch at his 94 year old roommate which I could only imagine looked like slow motion fighting.  We were now here. Praying he wouldn’t have “behaviors.” Praying he was drugged properly. That is the objective now: drug him into a hazy soup of non aggressive jibber jabber. Soup in a fleece lined corduroy coat. No wonder I was looking for spirit in the hands of strangers.

Half of his plate eaten, he shook his head no as I spooned another bit of rice. We got up, took another walk around the empty grounds. When I left I told him I’d see him next week.  He looked at me confused.  On the way out I grabbed Lisa, the activities director and tried not to cry and told her he likes coloring and crafts. Can he have coloring and crafts?  A few people were sitting at a table where she had unpacked some yarn. No one knows what to do with this yarn and I’m sure Lisa has a plan but I feel like a criminal leaving him there.

I promised myself I would move him in and go home. But away from the dribbly food, I had an appetite and remembered there was at Wahoo’s in Crystal Court. In high school, we would pile into a Toyota Forerunner and go to the original one on Placentia in Costa Mesa for lunch. Surf stickers and ahi rice felt like home. These were things I knew.  This is mahi mahi, this is a guy grinding in Vans.  Here is my father, buttoning a flannel as he leaves to run the scoreboard at the high school football game. Waving at me from the box while I grit my teeth through a cheer dance. Never sure why I was doing it, probably because of his wave. Here, here is a Volcom poster from the Pink Is Punk Party you went to senior year. Here. Here is salsa. Here is a fountain soda. Here, hear is a Prussian march cranked up in Dad’s Volvo. He got the collection at the car wash. “Best music and best birthday cards are from the car wash,” he said with whimsical authority.  An attorney in child protective services, I’d imagined the brassy insanity strengthened him to go prosecute bad guys. Years later he told me a story about threatening a father on the phone and knowing it was time to change departments. That it was the saddest he had ever been to me.  I eat my salad, but I don’t want to go home.

I, in fact, want to wander around Crystal Court. So I do. Every person I look at I want to touch. I want to tell them we are all going to disappear one day, as if they don’t know. That our honeycomb brains are going to crumble into fractured poorly edited movies playing in a loop while we sit at tables with strangers, lash out at invisible enemies, and shit in our pants. So buy something pretty while the show still makes sense and the undercarriage is rosy.  I want to tell them I love them and their dumb sunglasses on their heads, and their self important conversations, I want to tell them I love all of it. I look at them lost. Sensitive as a sunburn, searching for something familiar, like my father. I could go home.  Instead, I walked into Talbot’s. No LBDs of either variety here.

I had never stepped inside this store but there was a fair aisle sweater in the window that evoked pumpkin patches and PTA meetings and I liked it. I wandered around and felt shoppers and salespeople look at me, in a backless pencil skirted dress. Everyone in here might be pro-life but I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know why. I just didn’t want to stop being in an in between place between my dad and my own life. I picked up a striped sweater that looked preserved from Annette Funicello’s Mickey Mouse Club wardrobe rack. A woman escorted me into a dressing room. I was tired from the night before but there’s something so soothing to me about a dressing room transformation. Different woman, different pain. Start with different top. Who am I now? Does me dress like the Mickey Mouse Club? Does me have no dad anymore?

The mirror said no sweater. As for dad, you had a feral thug who would be horrified that he was no longer splashed in Aramis cologne making the whole room laugh. At the first home, the ratio of women to men was extreme and he referred to it as “beaver island.” I appreciated the edgier material,  but it wasn’t really him. The way the sweater wasn’t really me. What was I doing in this store?

I left and walked around, but for some reason, I made a freaking second trip into Talbot’s because the fall fantasy in the window called to me, again.  This time I went for it, plus a weird MLFY cowl neck situation and why not, jeggings. A different woman intercepted me. Grayish shoulder length hair, not much make up, understated Talbot-y outfit. She put me in the dressing room and when I came out she stood there and gasped, “no one has ever made that sweater look sexy!” Looks like you just sold yourself a sweater, lady. Oh nooooo…I demured. She shook her head. I asked if she’d give her opinion on the other color. Absolutely, she nodded. I didn’t know this, but what I needed in that moment after leaving my dad, was laser sharp loving attention. Even if it was for mom knits. I showed her the other color, something in her face was so earnest, so heartfelt, I didn’t even care about figuring out the accuracy, her love had me by the shorthairs. It didn’t feel like selling love. It felt like kindness. Like pleasure. I tried on the fair aisle from the window. She shook her head, “it is also absolutely adorable!” We grinned, two basic lunatics in a Talbots. I was getting FREAKING SWEATERS. She looked around, made sure the coast was clear, and said, “I have a forty percent off coupon at the front. You were supposed to get it mailed, but I have one you can use.” I gasped. GET THE F OUT. Okay. We were getting jeggings and sweaters and looking towards a cozy future that hasn’t happened where I will be in knits and cuddled or meeting for a spicey cider thing not being up at 4 am making lists of VA hospitals with psych wards! I had crossed the rubicon into Talbot’s! Transformation complete!

She said, “wait, I have a Christmas one too!”

“What is your name?”

“Karen!” For real. Wow.

“Oh god, Karen,” I screamed at my new best friend, Karen from Talbots-“Bring me the Christmas one!!!!!!” This time last year I was wasting energy on cashmere to go out with a  producer in Venice. But what my soul needed now, was the realest. What I needed was forty percent off coupons with Karen.

By the time I got up to the register (I passed on the Christmas one,  only in petite it read real Susie Chapstick), I felt so easy with her that I had to say it:

“Karen, I was having a really rough day and this was just so lovely.  Thank you.” She told me if I needed to return anything she’s always here. I think I could be here next week. This could be my thing. Dad. Then Talbots. In a month I’ll look like Nancy Reagan and the Orange County metamorphosis will be complete.

“Today was hard,” I continued, embarrassed but unable to stop. Recently someone (yes, a therapist) had told me my ‘work’ was to feel more and love myself for all those feelings (ugh). So here I was, tenderness and gratitude flying. I was on the autobahn of feelings, going a million miles an hour. It felt out of control, like I could crash, but I was going to do what I was told. Feel them, love myself for it, strangers in a mall be damned.  “I dropped my dad off at a new memory care center so, thank you for this.” Just saying it choked me up. And before I uttered another word, Karen stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eye and said, “It is the hardest. I had to drop my mother off two years ago. She was so violent she threw a chair through a plate glass window at the other home and then she got kicked out.”

“My dad got kicked out!”

“We had to put her in a psych ward until we could a find a place in Cerritos. It was terrible. She had dementia. Brought on by alcoholism.” She said it with the same authenticity that had me buying a cowl neck. I felt compelled to share my personal theory.  “I think agent orange!” I practically shouted.

We both nodded together.

“It is so hard,” she said. “I am so so so sorry.”

There was a force field between us as she looked at me from across the counter. She had packed my items, but the moment was easy. It was honest and painful, but easy.

“My mom died last year,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. There was relief. I understood. This grieving, a water torture of sorts. Each shift in cognition, a drop on the forehead. The anxiety of anticipating which part will go next. Eroding my bearings, which led me to this mall. She told me about her hairdresser’s father who had LBD and wanted assisted suicide. I had been listening to my dad say he wanted to die for the past month.  But as long as he could blink there’d be no assisting, my selfishness a surprise.

I almost walked away without the bag. I forgot that I was shopping. The woman at the other register next gave me an ‘are you okay?’ look. I recalibrated. Karen handed it to me. Yes. No. I didn’t know. But I was less lost than when I walked in.

Amy Turner has written for NBC, CBS, Freeform and the CW. It was this or ayahuasca.
Activism, Guest Posts

Eating Animals: Confessions of a French Hypocrite

February 8, 2024
animals

“The animals served here have been born, raised and butchered in France,” reads the hand-scrawled chalkboard on the wall opposite my cozy café table. I am reclining  on the sofa of my favorite neighborhood bistro with my afternoon coffee.

What jarred me about this sign was the language, especially the last phrase that the animals are abbatus en France.” “Abbatus” means “slaughtered” but it stems from the word “battre”–to batter–in this case, to batter to death.

The owners of this establishment obviously do not expect their patrons to be discomfited by the reminder that the elegant meal on their plate had a painful death. And perhaps this is no wonder. On the street I live near Les Halles butcher shops exhibit entire rabbits sliced down the middle. They exhibit wracks of cow ribs the size of accordions. They exhibit chickens with their necks, heads, claws and feathers still attached. After all before becoming a shopping mall Les Halles was the food market of Paris—with rows of live animals displayed for human consumption.

If French people are often not squeamish about the sources of their food, I suspect many Americans are. I suspect that most of us set before a long-lashed, large-eyed, unblinking cow and asked if they wanted it killed and stuck between two patties, would decline. It is largely by disguising and distancing the process of killing that this process can continue.

200 million animals are slaughtered for food every day worldwide and yet normal persons living normal lives will never set foot on a factory farm. They will never witness so much as a family farm. They will never make an emotional connection between the ketchup-covered quarter pounder on their dinner plate and the ambling, meditative, peculiarly human animal on the field.

And even should they make the connection, they will persuade themselves—as I regularly persuade myself—that they are powerless to change the order of things. The cow, the sheep, the deer, the chicken, the rabbit is already dead; there is no bringing it back to life by depriving oneself of the pleasure of consuming it with a tasty condiment.

There was a single time in my life that I was consistently vegetarian. That was when I made my home, for some months, in a remote and rural village in Greece. I knew, there, that when I ordered a piece of mutton, the chef would repair to the back of his taverna, slit a lamb’s throat, skin it and stick it on the spit to grill. Perhaps he did not do it on the very same night but he certainly did it the day before and the day after. The chain of supply and demand was impossible to overlook. So for the time I lived in Greece the only thing I ate off a spit was grilled eggplant, grilled tomatoes and grilled peppers. And I might say they were delicious.

When I returned to “civilization” in Paris my behavior (by my own standards) deteriorated instantaneously; I returned to buying pre-packaged meats from the supermarket and ordering “steak tartare”, (raw ground beef with some spices and an egg on it.)  After all, the deed was done; the creature was dead and I might as well eat it. What was the use of grandstanding, of proclaiming virtuous abstinence when there was nothing to be salvaged, nothing to be gained, basically, but an ego boost?

The paradoxical relationship between humans and animals is a subject that demands far more reflection than it has received. Almost everybody proclaims to love animals. In first-world countries certain animals are emperors. People pamper their pooches and groom their kittens often more than they pamper or groom themselves. Pet spas and suites are a booming business in the United States and elsewhere.

And yet the moment you are not the right species, all bets are off. No matter that most mammals share comparable sensitivities and intelligences, if you’re the wrong kind of mammal chances are you spend your short life imprisoned in cells hardly bigger than your body, that you are experimented upon, factory farmed, hunted, killed and eaten, as opposed to coddled and cuddled.

As a child it was always explained to me that animals were inferior to human beings and that therefore we had the right to kill them. Never mind that the opposite argument was made to me as well: animals killed each other so we—being animals too—had the right to do unto them what they did unto each other. On one hand we were equal to animals and so we could kill them with impunity; on the other hand we were superior to animals and so we could also kill them with impunity. Talking about self-serving logic.

Now that I am no longer a child but rather have a child of my own, a child who has been raised on stories of pigs and elephants (Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web and Dumbo of Disney), deer (as in Bambi) and monkeys (as in Curious George), rabbits (as in Thumper), bears (as in Winnie the Pooh), ducks (as in the Ugly Duckling) , mice as in Mickey Mouse and chickens (as in Chicken Little), I am paralyzed with fear of having to explain to her one day that all these animals she loves we routinely kill. Some of these animals she has already eaten. How many chicken wings has she happily gnawed on already, not knowing where they came from.

Nor does the tale end with storybooks; there are also stuffed animals, the fuzzy beasts my daughter goes to sleep with, around whom she throws her chubby arms and in whose soft embraces she drifts off into dreamland.

Why is it that human beings seem—for many practical and pedagogic purposes—to prefer animals of different species to animals of their own species—and simultaneously to butcher them?  Why is it that for every Little Red Riding Hood there are a hundred Porky Pigs, for every Raggedy Ann there are a dozen furry cartoon rabbits–if not because we adore these animals—often better than we do our own kind?

But what message do we send children when we teach them to adore them as well—and simultaneously to accept their murder?

Is it really so incomprehensible that a certain number of children turn violent as they grow older, that many young adults become desensitized to the pain of the creatures they once considered their best friends? It is testimony to our ability to compartmentalize that we do not become even more cynical about loving relationships as we grow older. After all, many of us learned to love by learning to love our animals—be they in our cribs or on our doormats, in our storybooks or in our I-pad movies.

I wish I had the answers to all of these problems but the fact is I don’t. I myself have a carnivorous palate. If I consulted my taste buds alone I would live off of foie gras and steak tartare.

I would like to think, however that taste buds do not prevail over morals and that—as someone once memorably said— “I will not kill any animal that is afraid to die”—nor, either, will I accept to be complicitous in its killing.

I suspect that history will one day judge us for the destruction we have wreaked upon the animal world in a comparable way that history has judged slaveholders for holding slaves and Nazis for gassing Jews.

Indeed, the late Nobel-prize-winning Jewish author, Isaac Bashevis Singer has had the protagonist of his story, The Letter Writer, declare that “all people are Nazis” in relation to animals.  “For the animals, every day is Treblinka,” Herman Gombiner asserts—he who (like Singer himself) has lost several family members in concentration camps.

France is not going to become a vegetarian oasis for some time. After all, it was only in 1976—considerably less than 50 years ago!–that animals were declared to be “sentient beings”—as opposed to machines or merchandise–by Article L214 -1 of the French rural code. (There is now an animal rights’ organization in France called “L214: Ethique et Animaux.” dedicated to eliminating the “worst” forms of treatment, transport and slaughter of animals and to move toward a vegetable-based diet. And yet if there are vegetarian restaurants in Paris they remain (as in most of the world) anomalies. And if there’s a meatless sausage in a natural foods store it’s still cause for remark—generally disdainful.

The last time I went to that local bistro of mine, however, the blackboard proclaiming the local “battery” of animals had been taken down. It may be an accident but I’m going to be optimistic. Perhaps it is progress. Perhaps Parisians are starting, slowly, to become sensitive to the quotidian cruelty of their culinary practices. Perhaps not only the French but the rest of us, too, will one day put principles before palates. I can’t help hoping.

Cristina Nehring has written both books and articles for the NYT, the WSJ, tha Atlantic, Harper’s, Oprah, Elle and NY Magazine. Her first of three books, A Vindication of Love, made it onto the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Find Cristina online at www.cristinanehring.com.

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Guest Posts, storytelling, Travels

Ode to the Motel

February 5, 2024
Motel

If, as John Cheever once noted, America’s train stations and air terminals are its true cathedrals, motels may be it’s shrines. And if not part of America’s soul, they are certainly part of its circulatory system. Or they were—but I’ll get to that later. The motel was one consequence of the mass-produced automobile, beginning with Henry Ford’s Model T, which gave average citizens the means to chuck—however temporarily—a mundane, shackled life and, as expressed by one of the most resonant phrases in American English, “hit the road.” By the nineteen-teens, many could use their vacations to motor into America’s tradition of nomadic independence, traveling well off the crowded and beaten tracks of mass transportation. Theoretically at least, they could go anywhere in their vast country, at any hour they pleased, for a week or so. Pile the family into the flivver, and it was Goodbye Grundy Center, hello St. Louie. They were pioneers, voyageurs, desperadoes. Escape from the humdrum—the true American Dream.

At first, people needed outdoor gear, for what came to be called “auto camping,” which involved simply pitching a tent by the roadside at night or, later , stopping at a public camp ground. The romantic term for this kind of travel was “gypsying” or “hoboing” (putting aside the fact that real hoboes preferred to take the train). But then, one fine day, at the end of 200 or so sweltering, noise polluted, kidney-tilting miles, behold: backlighted by a Horse Cave, Kentucky, sunset, there it was—Wigwam Village, a set of nine identical cabin-sized cones made of steel, wood, and canvas, arranged to look like a Native American campground, including rest rooms for “squaws” and “braves.” It was one of the earlier motels, built in 1933, when they were often known by such terms as “tourist cabins,” “auto courts,” or “motor hotels.” Scholars disagree on when the first motel appeared, but by 1935 America boasted nearly 10,000, and that was just for starters.

But what distinguished a motel from a hotel, besides the device known as “Magic Fingers,” which, as I recall from my childhood, would make the bed vibrate noisily for about 10 minutes, when it worked? So what if nothing even close to magic or even fingers was involved: it smacked of Scheherazade, and it only cost a quarter. In their heyday, over 250,000 Magic Fingers pulsated bedsprings along America’s highways. But motels involved more than a vibrating bed. Originally, a motel was a place where you could drive right off the highway and up to your room, without having to deal with snooty bellhops and valets. Add to those features the regular sound of trucks blasting by, headlight beams sweeping back and forth behind oilcloth drapes that would never quite close, and, after someone got the bright idea of joining all the cabins into one unit, walls that seemed thin enough to function as giant speaker diaphragms. If your lodging included all or most the above, you knew you were in a motel. The writer Denis Johnson has pinpointed the essence of motel room décor as that which makes the room still seem vacant when you’re inside. But if the décor was often stark and the architecture an afterthought (with some exceptions like those motels built in a style called “Streamline Modern”), most motels had their own identities, thanks to some little touches here and there—if only a weird paint job or a stuffed bird collection. And though many were named after their owners or fancy hotels—the Ritz, the Plaza—there evolved the uniquely motel name. Ever run across a hotel called The No-Tell? The Covert? The Air-O-Tel ? the Bo-Peep? The Lame Duck? Or, my favorite, The Purple Heart, with its dual suggestion of romantic passion and combat wounds? Not a chance. There was also the distinctive bouquet de motel of stale cigarette smoke, carpet mold, toilet sanitizer—and beneath that, a soupcon of diesel fumes and feet.

One other important distinction: The motel was usually near or outside the city limits and was constructed and operated to offer greater freedom and privacy than the busier, more supervised hotel. Consequently, it wasn’t long till the family-oriented ambience of the motel became mixed with something darker. “What better place to take my girl for some heavy petting?” some horny 1920’s college kid must have realized. “What better place to have an affair?” someone else thought. Then those others must have joined the brainstorming, the ones who asked, “What better place to take a break while fleeing an interstate police dragnet?” or to go where no one else has ever gone with rubber, leather, and handcuffs? Or to saw that cumbersome dead body into something suitcase-size?” And so, motels became, at least in the words of a young J. Edgar Hoover, “camps of crime,” or, more popularly and colorfully “hot pillow joints.” Add to the pot the traveling salesman’s discovery of this cheaper, more convenient place to stay and the motel’s distinctive profile is complete.

And wouldn’t you know the arts would stick their noses into the motel’s shadier aspects. Where did Gable and Colbert go in the film It Happened One Night to pull down what they called the “Walls of Jericho”? Where was Norman Bates inspired to make Mom proud and easy to store? Don’t forget that scene in Bonnie and Clyde, where Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway reenact the real Barrow family’s tourist cabin shootout with the cops. And what do you recall goes on in the famous motel scene in Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil or in the cult classic Motel Hell? But it wasn’t just the movies. Humbert took Lolita to a motel (there were also two movies of that book). As for musical influences, just punch up “motel” on the All Music Guide web site, and you’ll find songs like “Motel Sex,” “Motel Party Baby,” “Motel Street Meltdown.” There’ve been enough similarly-titled poems about motels written in this country to make a genre. And don’t you get the feeling there’s something creepy going on just out side the frame in Edward Hopper’s painting of that woman sitting in a motel room with a Buick Road master staring in the window?

But despite, or perhaps partly because of the real and imagined dark sides, motels remained popular outposts for middle-class America’s escape onto the open road. If the people in the next room looked a little feral, so much heartier the adventure.

In 1954, my family and I experienced what turned into a total-motel vacation. We were going to drive to the Grand Canyon from our home in Omaha. However, being shut up 10 hours a day in a small compartment with his whole family became too much for my father. A mere one hundred miles from our destination, following through on a threat he’d uttered earlier, he turned back, completing the first half of a connect-the-dots, motel to motel foray, from The Big Chief to The Rio Siesta and on and on, including one my father described as being “as close to hell as I ever want to be.” And he’d been in the War. What vacation could be more American?

But for children, motel stops were often the highlight of vacation traveling. Grim as it might have been, the Cactus Motel-Camp could seem like an oasis after spending the day in the back seat rereading comic books and being told, alternately, to stop shoving little sister and stop kicking the back of Daddy’s seat. What former kid can’t recall the amusingly empty threat that “If you keep that up, I’m going to turn this car around right here, and we’ll go home!” Well, empty most of the time. But lets face it : to most kids, a dip in a brackish swimming pool after two bottles of orange Neha from a rusty, top-opening soda machine bested any number of so-called natural wonders. Add to that a snowy, flickering Lucy rerun on a rabbit-eared TV in a room rich in what was termed “refrigerated air,” then top it all off with a bedtime ride on the Magic Fingers magic carpet, and could Munchkins be far behind?

Of course if you’ve stayed in a motel lately, all of this must sound a little unfamiliar. That’s because of two developments, both of which began escalating in the early 1960’s: the interstate highway system and the Holiday Inn corporation. Remember the problem Norman Bates had at the beginning of Psycho? The Bates Motel was usually vacant.

Because almost all the traffic took the “new highway,” no doubt an interstate. Norman and the other independent moteliers were not only bypassed by the interstates but, due to limited-access regulations and, later, Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign against highway clutter, they were often prohibited from putting up signs to tell motorists where to find them. No problem, of course, for the wealthy and influential Holiday Inn and copy-cat mega-franchises, who have tamed the motel into something safe, clean, efficient, and, of course, standardized. Signs aplenty for them. Motels have been made part of what’s called “the hospitality industry,” and most of the ones common folk can afford to stay in are as boring and interchangeable as industrially carpeted cinder blocks, the last places you would associate with “gypsying.” And the line between hotels and motels has gone wobbly at best. You can now find a 10-or-more-story Holiday Inn in the middle of practically any American city. Most of the incorporated motels, which now cater mainly to corporate customers, don’t even use the m-word, preferring that substitute which offers an absolutely false implication of comfy intimacy among traveling strangers. Would Chaucer’s pilgrims have been so relaxed and chatty starting out from the Airport Comfort Inn?

So, though you can still find authentic motels in any of the 50 states, they’re disappearing into pop culture history, along with America’s most motel-friendly highway, our beloved Route 66. But don’t blame Lady Bird or Holiday Inn. We’re the ones who, even in the days of tourist cabins, kept choosing comfort, cleanliness, and reliability over a little roughness, grunge, and adventure. Now, on the interstate, it’s often hard to tell what state you’re in without looking at the small print on the standardized red-and-blue signs. Even the signs that tell you what gas stations restaurants, and motels, are ahead are standardized, as are most of the gas stations, restaurants, and motels. The day may come when you can pull your lozenge-shaped auto up to an interstate McDonalds anywhere in the country and be served by a red-haired, affable kid named, let’s say, Tim, who’ll give you the same polite howdy in Poukeepsie that he did in Minot. When he greets you by name and asks what it’ll be, all you’ll have to say is, “The usual, Tim.” He’ll be electric, of course. Maybe you’ll be, too. So farewell, Purple Heart. Adios, Wigwam Village. We wish we could have been better gypsies.

John Kucera was educated at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in New Reader Magazine, The Sandy River Review, Utopia Science Fiction, Slant, Connections Magazine and Friends Journal. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he writes and teaches.

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Guest Posts, Relationships

This is where it ends

January 21, 2024
mother, hands

In February 2019, two days after my son’s bar mitzvah, my mother was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. A year later, in March 2020, she left her house for the last time on her own two feet to attend my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Four months later, she died.

The progression seems straightforward: diagnosis, illness, death. But that doesn’t factor in seventeen months of treatment, surgery, emergency room visits, and the emotional impact of dealing with the disease. There is nothing simple about watching the person you love most in the world endure chemotherapy and their slow withdrawal from society. There is nothing simple about watching the person who gave you life die.

Eva Evelyn Ellis married Philip Sonny Matlin at the age of eighteen, had her first child at nineteen and two more by the time she was twenty-five. I came along six years later. Despite marrying into my father’s upper-class family, she remained down-to-earth and kept the frugal mindset of someone raised among modest means during the post-war years, even though her own father later found success as a tailor.

Eva, who went by Evelyn, or Evy, her entire adult life, was an excellent mother, filled with a kind of patience that as a teen I assumed was magically bestowed upon you when you had children. She was even-tempered, warm, and intelligent, with a wicked sense of humour and an armory of solid advice. It didn’t matter what kind of trouble my siblings got into, I rarely saw her lose her cool. She dealt with things calmly, never raising her voice. She was nurturing and loved to laugh. She appreciated a good joke and would sometimes surprise me with one of her own. During one of her many ER visits, a doctor told an offensive riddle (“What’s the difference between a bull and woman with PMS? Lipstick.”) and my mother, half-conscious and fevered, snapped back, “What’s similar about men and tile floors? Lay them right the first time and you can walk all over them for the rest of your life.”

But mostly, when I try to conjure up an image of my mother, I see her lying on the left side of the double bed she shared with my father for sixty-two years, a box of drugstore chocolates on her lap, beckoning me to join her so we could either watch TV together or she could  listen to my latest drama.

On top of being a mother to four, she obtained a university degree in her thirties, returned to school to get certified as a forensic document examiner, then ran her own business while helping my father run his. And she did it all with seeming ease and a quiet grace.

It seems incredible, and it was, but unbeknownst to me at the time, she sacrificed large parts of herself to do it. She strove to be the ideal wife and mother then harboured some serious regrets about it. An unintentional result of her actions was setting an extraordinarily high bar for her children. It was implicitly understood that we, her children, were meant to behave in a certain way.

As warm and patient as she was, my mother could also be judgmental. She had a strict no smoking or drug policy, was never shy to remark on someone’s weight, and had zero tolerance when people did things she disagreed with–even when it had nothing to do with her. She once came close to ending a lifelong friendship because she disapproved of her friend’s choice of partner. For a teenager growing up in her home, all of this felt restrictive, an impediment to getting into the kind of trouble I was supposed to get into at that age.

As a result,  I developed a dual personality early in life. There was the person I was, and then the person I was with my mother.  I hid the parts of me I thought might disappoint her, like my much older friends, my mild promiscuity, and my experimentation with drugs and alcohol. Once, in eighth grade, my best friend’s mother found half a joint in the toilet and called a meeting for all our parents. We were a gang of five girls and my mother sat with the other mothers and listened in disbelief to what we’d been up to. She could not fathom that I would have had any part in it, to the point she stood up and said, “Julie doesn’t do any of those things.”

The joint wasn’t even ours–it belonged to my friend’s brother. But it gathered all those parents in one room to exchange stories, which succeeded in shattering the illusion of the perfect daughter for my mother. When she got home that night, the look on her face and the quiet disapproval was enough for me to quit smoking cigarettes on the spot. I told my friends I did it on a bet, but the truth was, I couldn’t bear having that mark against me in my mother’s book. (Although there was a bet, and I won ten bucks.) The irony isn’t lost on me that in her attempt to model a certain behaviour, I ended up emulating the wrong one. Instead of becoming the person she tried to present, I developed her habit of splitting myself in two.

Years ago, one of my siblings tried explaining to me that my mother wasn’t the perfect being I thought she was. The theory was that our mother lived in a state of conflict, torn between who she was and who she thought she should be. I couldn’t see it at the time. I saw my mother through a lens coloured with love and tinged with worship. It was only after her death that the pieces fell into place, and by that time, it was too late.

Seventeen months passed in the blink of an eye, despite spending several eternities in hospital waiting rooms. Knowing our time would be short, I assumed the role of primary caregiver. I wanted to spend every second possible with her. I lived and breathed doctors appointments, chemo sessions, blood tests, and runs to Walmart to ensure a steady supply of Ensure. My own well-being fell by the wayside as I abandoned home-cooked meals for the McDonalds drive-thru, developing a cheeseburger habit I still can’t kick to this day.

Life at home suffered. My daughter’s grades fell and I wasn’t there for my son, who was taking his bubby’s illness almost as hard as I was. So many times he reached out to me, coming down past midnight seeking comfort, and all I could do was cry along with him.

My mother landed in palliative care in June 2020, at the height of the first pandemic lockdown. Only four of us were allowed to visit her, and only two at a time. We were required to get into full gear–gowns, masks, face shields, latex gloves–and not allowed to touch her. I was there every day, save one, and over the course of less than two weeks, her decline was fast, stark, and cruel.

The last day I saw her, I knew she wasn’t going to see morning. She had stopped eating and was on oxygen, but clearly she’d had a stroke in the night. She could no longer speak or move, and when the nurse came in to try to adjust her pillow, she winced in pain.

I stayed longer that day, from early morning until past dinnertime. I held her hand and played her favourite music. I read her notes that people had sent for her. I recited a few of her favourite Sedaris essays, read from the book I was adapting into a screenplay, and rued that I hadn’t brought along any Chaucer, her favourite (“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”).

Before I left, I stopped at the side of her bed. All my life, there was always a place for me in my mother’s bed. Even in my forties, when she was home between chemo sessions, we’d lie there and watch Judge Judy. There was nothing I wanted in that moment more than to be able to climb in with her one last time, to seek comfort from the woman who always provided it so freely and with such skill. I wanted to cradle myself in the curve of her body, feel her arm come down around me and pull me in close, her chin resting on the top of my head. Be safe in that place where nothing else could touch me.

But it was just a fantasy. There was no way I could get in there without causing her enormous pain. The tables had irrevocably turned. It was no longer her job to comfort me, but mine to comfort her.

We never had an end of life conversation, but at that moment, I looked down at her and said, “Don’t worry, Mummy. We’re going to be fine. I’m going to be fine. And I am going to do great things. I promise you will be so proud of me.”

Two years later, I cringe to think that in my last moments with her I was still desperate for her approval. That instead of my being there being enough, I qualified myself and told her that I would make her proud. While it’s normal for a child to seek their parent’s approval, this was something I never outgrew. I used to ask, “Are you proud of me?” so often it became a family joke. Every accomplishment punctuated by a “We’re so proud,” every birthday card signed the same way.

Today, diagnosed and medicated, I can recognize that desperation as early manifestations of my anxiety, but what did we know from anxiety in the seventies and eighties? And by the time the nineties rolled around, the whole routine was already inscribed in our family DNA.

I never understood how deeply this affected the relationship I had with my mother; that because I never felt I was enough, I was chasing after her love and approval. Now, it’s so clear to me that I didn’t have to do anything to earn it. I simply had to be. I, as her daughter, was enough. It haunts me that I failed to grasp this during her lifetime, but at the same time, I’m angry that she was unable to show me that she was fallible, too. That she had made mistakes and had regrets and was human just like all of us. Just like I was.

Now I find myself in the painful position of having to tease apart the love I felt for her from the extraordinary weight of it. I have to own the perverse sense of relief I felt when she died, the knowledge that I was free to just be me, without fear of disappointing anyone.

Julie Matlin is writer based in Montreal, Canada with pieces appearing in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, and other publications. She is working on an essay collection entitled Such a Nice Jewish Girl, which is being supported by a Canada Council for the Arts grant, as well as two screenplays which are currently in development. You can see my entire portfolio here: www.juliematlin.com.

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Twenty-Three Loads of Laundry

January 13, 2024
room

A mid-afternoon text message from my son flashes on my screen.

“Are you free to talk for a second?”

He’s a sophomore at a small liberal arts college half an hour away from the Connecticut suburb where he was raised, and where his dad and I live separately but on the same street, as we have done since our divorce five years ago.

At the sight of the brief text my heart skips a beat. I have come to learn that usually, when my son reaches out it’s because he needs me, emotionally. He’s a super sensitive soul and an empath, so I worry easily he’s sad in some way, although generally I take it in stride since it seems the waxing and waning of existential blues experienced by a young adult is par for the course.

“Hey mamma, what do you do whenever you’re feeling depressed?”

There’s a slow rush to my head, hopeful by his seemingly upbeat “hey” but jarred by the word “depressed.” I know depressed. I remember suffering as a young adult walking around in a kind of grey daze from poor nights’ sleep, alternating between rapid heartbeats accompanied by cold sweats and waves of grating anxieties, obsessing about, well, most tings. But it usually passed after a week or two, and these occasional bouts diminished in my mid-twenties, after I got dogs (first), then children (later).

I swipe the screen on my phone and my fingers start their familiar tap dance across the miniscule keyboard.

“That depends how depressed,” I begin. “Let me call you this evening and we’ll talk about it, ok?”

Then I continue in rapid succession,

“Hang in there.”

“It will pass.”

“In the meantime, be good to yourself and trust that it will get better.”

But I know deep down that only if he’s lucky will it get better by itself, and that if not, it may be a much longer journey. I had watched my closest friend’s husband spiral down the path of mental illness, and it taught me not think lightly of calls for help.

“<3333,” my son answers.

I switch to the emoji keyboard and send him back three read hearts.

Before the back and forth ends, his string of short texts forms the narrative of a young man asking for help:

“Between you and me I’m in a bit of a rut right now.”

“Can you talk?”

“Can I call you around 4pm before I start my work shift?”

We touch base later that day and the conversation is just vaguely about his state of mind and more about daily stuff. We agree to meet for lunch the next day, a proposition my son rarely turns down since it means a free, non-cafeteria meal at one of the many delicious restaurants in his college town, with a side of helpful mamma-conversation.

Luckily, he is open and likes to share, if I can just pin him down. We both enjoy these moments of mother-son tête-à-têtes; one of the perks of having your child go to college close to home.

Zooming down the highway a sunny fall afternoon the next day, I call to let him know that I’m there in five minutes.

“Should I pick you up from work?” I offer, knowing he’s just ending his lunch shift at a campus restaurant.

“Nah, that’s ok,” he answers, and I hear him breathing heavy and figure he is walking.

“I’m already almost back at my place.”

I wonder if he is hurrying home to pick up any telling paraphernalia in his room (cigarette packs, bong, condoms…).

“I’m just gonna take a quick shower,” he adds.

“You can wait outside in the car, and I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

I resign myself to a longish wait; I know his sense of time isn’t mine. Parked in front of his house, I wait for a while, but then get antsy and decide to go in. The door is unlocked, and I first take a seat in the kitchen he and his roommates share, noticing the door leading to his room is slightly ajar. He’s in the shower upstairs, most likely taking his time to get rid of the cigarette smell he knows I don’t like.

Against my better judgment, I get up and slowly push open the door to his room. From the scene that reveals itself it’s clear that something’s off. This isn’t a regular college kid’s messy room. There’s garbage scattered on the floor, cigarette butts in paper cups, dirty cereal bowls piled under his low coffee table, many with soured, crusty and milky cereal remnants; partially empty cans, cups, and bottles lined up along the edge of the bottom of the couch, and dirty laundry dropped on the floor and furniture, pell-mell. The hangers that used to hold his clothes are tossed to the side haphazardly, his closet ravaged, and the dust on his coffee table has accumulated over so long it now looks more like a grey furry carpet littered with coins, lighters, strands of tobacco and empty soda cans. I take a deep breath and notice myself mutter “Oh sweetie…”

When I hear him come down the stairs, I quickly slip back to the kitchen and pretend that I haven’t seen a thing, because I don’t know how to start the conversation right then and there. I need to think about how to tread lightly, not to put him on the defensive.

“Hi mamma! How are ya?”

A bath towel draped around his waist, he tries to sound cheerful and gives me a peck on the cheek before disappearing into his room. His hair is overgrown, and he has let his scraggly facial hair sprout in all directions.

“Just gimme a sec!” he calls out from behind the door.

I hear him scramble, probably to find something, anything, that is clean enough to wear.

On the way to the restaurant, we catch up on this and that, but no mention of his state of mind or what I had witnessed in his room.

Once seated across from each other in a cozy booth with green leather seats, we order our drinks and food, and the midday sun shines through the window warming our spot like a caring and encouraging embrace. We fall silent for a minute, and when I look up, I notice his eyes tearing up.

“Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling, honey?”

He doesn’t answer and I can tell he is fighting back tears. He lets out a big breath, more like a resigned, quivery sigh, and leans forward reaching his arm across the table, his hand looking for mine. My boy is not in a good place.

I grab the big, warm, strong hand of my former heavyweight-wrestling-champion-and- football-team-son, the English-and-sociology-major-uber-empath-sensitive-musician-son, the son who prefers to get lost in books and music, much more than huddling in testosteroney powwows with fellow athletes.

His size made him a coveted athlete and joining in sports made the transitions easier from a small Jewish elementary and middle school to public high school and then college. It also gave him an immediate sense of belonging – which reduced his social unease.

Now, he had quit football and wrestling in what I saw as a brave act of being true to himself, but he had not yet started new extracurricular activities, like the music or writing he wanted to develop, things that would help build a new network of peers, of poetry, of inspiration.

To make things worse, his fraternity, where he had been the house manager and where he had lived and worked over the summer, was unexpectedly closed by campus administration after a troubled year for campus fraternities. This meant that just as the fall semester was staring, he and about twenty-five other students were scrambling for places to live, and he was placed in a senior house with four Asian foreign students who were all business majors. Great kids, but not necessarily a good fit, socially.

Add to this the fact his first significant romantic relationship had ended in a dramatic way the prior semester. While he and his girlfriend were in NYC for a weekend, his girlfriend had a panic attack and was evacuated by her dad, leaving my son alone and confused in the AirBnB apartment they had rented.

Difficult experiences had accumulated during the year, and the emotional fallout was significant.

In the restaurant, he finally begins to speak through his tears. But when he tells me that everything feels hopeless, I realize it isn’t just a mild case of the blues. Holding on tight but tenderly to his hand with both of mine, I look at him and tell him how I too, had struggled with those kids of emotions when I was his age. I recall the feeling of not being myself, watching helplessly from the outside while the shell of me would suffer quietly, a feeling he could identify with. I tell him I am happy he is asking for help, how much I love that he is open and shares with me, and that we’ll find a way through this together.

When I add that I kind of knew the lay of the land because I had peeked into his room, he quietly groans.

“Let’s face it honey,” I add, trying my best to sound positive, “I’ve seen it all!” I smile.

“Now let’s take some small steps to pick up the pieces and make you whole and happy again.”

He tries to smile and thanks me for being me and for being there with him; words that make a mamma’s heart swell with tenderness. I try not to show how helpless I feel. How in that moment, I wish I could lift his sadness and hopelessness from him and carry that heavy burden for him, stuff it into my body, at any cost.

“I know this may seem superficial,” I begin, “but taking care of a few obvious external things can be one small step toward dealing with the situation. Let’s stop in at the barber next door and just clean this mess up,” I say, motioning to his head and face. We both chuckle at the obvious double meaning of “this mess.”

He groans again and mutters “fine,” knowing that he is in my hands now. Soon he is draped in a black smock at the young, hip, Latino barber’s shop next door, and the two of them are discussing music while the buzzer runs its course. I take the opportunity to step outside and search the student health website of the college for resources. My fingers are jittery from the heightened emotions, but I feel unstoppable now; a hyper-alert lioness pushed into assertive protective mode for her wounded cub.

Before he emerges clean-shaven and already looking less weighed down, I’ve booked him an appointment with the school nurse who can refer him to the school psychologist. I have also written an email to the dean in charge of mentoring his class, sharing with her that right now is a time my son could use an on-campus supporter, asking her to reach out and follow up with him.

In the car on the way back to campus I say I want to come back to his room to help him clear the disaster zone. He doesn’t try to stop me since at this point, he has realized I will not relent, and he has no energy to resist.

In his room, I discover that he has been stuffing dirty laundry into huge garbage bags and shoved them under his bed for what must have been months. We pull so much stuff out from there that even he is amazed at what we find, and laughs. It warms my heart to see him smile. In the cleanup process, we hug and chitchat while I try my best to sound upbeat and positive.

But on the inside, I feel scared for my son, and humbled by how easy it has been to lose sight of how he really was doing, when our only way of staying in touch had been reduced to texting or Facebook messaging, since he had never been that good about returning actual phone calls, and especially not lately.

Leaving campus, my car is stuffed to the gills with humongous black, plastic trash bags filled with dirty laundry, in addition to his towering plastic hamper, bedding, and other miscellaneous items that clearly need to be washed.

We agree that I will come back the next day with his clean laundry, and with the cleaning equipment we will need to tackle the grime in his room. We talk a little about how once he’ll feel better, he’ll have to get used to his dirty laundry not being miraculously airlifted for mommy-service; that a regular, weekly run to the laundromat will be an added value for keeping up a stable sense of well-being.

Schlepping the masses of dirty laundry up to my apartment from the garage is an experience in itself. The bulky bags are so heavy that in my physical exertion – and probably because I’m finally alone and can let my emotions do their thing – I burst into tears. I feel sad, upset, and even guilty, that my boy has been hurting without me knowing. As I empty the bags on the floor in my living room, a colorful mountain forms and soon spills over and becomes more of a mountainous range. Picking through the laundry I almost gag from the emanating fetid smell of sour, old stains, spills, and dirty socks. I remind myself how lucky I am that after all my son is alive, although depressed, remembering the people I know who have lost children to mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse. He is alive and he will get better. He had still gone to class and kept his work schedule. These are good signs, I tell myself.

Twenty-three loads of laundry later, stacks of neatly folded clothes, sheets, and towels form colorful towers around my apartment. T-shirts, pants, and sweaters, underwear, socks, and athletic wear all sorted on the family couch, on his old bed, on the dining room table and kitchen bar.

Aside from his clothes, I have also pulled out from the dryer a little black dress probably left behind by a female friend or perhaps his ex-girlfriend, several cheap plastic lighters, the kind they give out for free at the convenience store (he has told me), and a few condom wrappers. I don’t flinch but am just relieved to find the traces of a normal college experience.

The next day we carry all the clean laundry from my car back to his room, but not until after we give his room a top to bottom cleaning, using the arsenal of cleaning equipment and spray bottles I have brought from home. When his room is finally transformed to an uncluttered space where we can find a clear spot to sit and even see the coffee table surface, sans fur, a mild fresh scent of cleaning products lingers in the air, and it feels as though the darkest part of a cloud has lifted.

We light a scented candle and sit down next to each other on the black leather hand-me-down loveseat, and as I lean back and sigh, my back aching from all the hard work, he wraps his arm around my shoulder, kisses the side of my head. A string of red chili pepper lights shimmers from the window with a warm glow, and a few family photos on the ledge of his bookshelf show familiar faces, smiling down at us. He repeats how nice it looks and seems genuinely relieved to at least get out from under the material weight of the signs from his difficult period.

Finally, we pop the lids off the small round clear plastic containers of chocolate chip cookie dough we picked up from a café on campus. Our plan was to have them as rewards once our herculean efforts were completed, and now we enjoy our well-deserved sweet sticky treats, licking our fingers clean, and gaze around a cozy room.

*

In the days and weeks that follow, we stay in touch more frequently than usual, and I sometimes have to nudge him to remember his appointments and ask him about how they have been. I try to suggest that taking walks, joining a yoga group, or making efforts to eat a healthier diet might be things that would help him feel better and stay better, but in the end, I think he’ll do things the way it works for him. I doubt eating more veggies and chanting “OM” are among them.

Slowly but surely, he begins to talk about “normal” things again, like volunteering for inner-city kids as a music teacher or social events that he looks forward to.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has emerged from the tunnel and that he is on a brighter path and in better spirits. He begins to enjoy his classes, his professors, and his work. He is back to his old self; I can hear it in the energy of his voice, and I am immensely relieved.

He’s a junior now, and it’s almost a year and many conversations later when another text from him lights up the home screen on my phone. It’s been maybe a week, or perhaps two, of little to no contact:

“Hey, can I call you a little later today?”

“Sure. U ok?”

“Yeah I’m good, just had something I wanted to consult with you about.”

I feel a fleeting rush of relief as my heart swells the kind of unconditional and primordial love mothers have for their kids, and I text back:

“Sure honey. Let’s talk tonight, ok? Miss you and love you! <3”

Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway who lives in Maine. She holds an MFA from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program (2020) and a PhD in French from UCONN (2007). Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Lilith, Full Grown People, Tablet Magazine, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Brevity, among other places, as well as in two anthologies, INK by Hippocampus Books (Spring 2022) and STAINED: an anthology of writing about menstruation, (Querencia Press, 2023).

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Guest Posts, language

Bad Bitch

January 7, 2024
bitch graffiti art

On Friday afternoons I work at Bluestocking, a used bookstore in Hillcrest, a popular San Diego neighborhood and the center of the LGBT community. Next door is Breakfast Bitch, a relatively new and trendy brunch/lunch destination, people always massed around the entrance waiting for tables. Their schtick, which people seem to love, is that waitstaff call guests bitches, as in “Can I get you bitches something to drink?” Every birthday celebration, and there are many every day, is broadcast with a raucous rendering of the hip hop song “Birthday Bitch.” I hear it, again and again, blasting out their door and into ours—“One time for the birthday bitch, Two times for the birthday bitch, Three times for the birthday bitch…”—and two things happen. One, I start wondering about the reappropriation of the word “bitch.” Two, I bristle. I wince. I should be inured to it by now, but the reverse is true; it makes me increasingly uncomfortable.

From the Old English bicce, female dog, “bitch” is a term of contempt applied to women since the 15th century. Originally to suggest rampant sexuality, dogs in heat, it morphed into women behaving badly—according to men and more recently to other women as well. Synonyms include floozy, harlot, hussy, slut, tart, tramp, vamp, wench, whore, and more, including witch, hellion, and shrew. A bitch was aggressive and belligerent, controlling and out of control. Threatening. Off the leash.

When the second wave of the women’s movement came hurtling into the sixties, feminists began to reclaim the word, to make the designation a point of pride: a bitch was strong, independent, confident, assertive. Finally speaking up, sticking up for herself. Attorney and activist Jo Freeman published the Bitch Manifesto in 1968, saying that “A Bitch takes shit from no one. You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her.” Bitch magazine launched in 1996, calling itself a “feminist response to pop culture.” A Ms. magazine contributor in 2011 called on women to celebrate their bitchiness, and Gloria Steinem suggested in 2015 that “when somebody calls you a bitch, say thank you.” In a 2008 Saturday Night Live skit, Tina Fey observed that people were calling Hillary Clinton a bitch. “She is,” she said. “And so am I. Bitches get stuff done!”

I bought into the concept that women could be mean and merciless; we could be ruthless leaders like Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher; we could stand our ground in any situation—we could be bitches. This was equality too. One of the few movie lines I ever memorized is from the adaptation of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to” was uttered three times, by three different characters, all fending off the patriarchy, grasping at empowerment.

Over the course of the 20th century, the word’s usage has expanded, flipped sideways and upside down. It’s no surprise that a slur against women would be adopted by men—prisoners, gay men, macho hipsters—as an attack against weak or dependent men, sissies and softies. But in this context, the term ricochets. Rather than unmanageable women, bitches are women (and men) who do others’ bidding. In an episode of House of Cards, Remy, a Black lobbyist, and Jackie, a Congresswoman, are on opposing sides, but he reminds her that they’re both beholden to higher-ups, both someone’s bitch.

Atlantic magazine examined the trend in a 2015 article, “Meet the New Bitch: The curious evolution of a slur.” It noted that Ernest Hemingway applied the word to women, notably Gertrude Stein, who held her own against him, but also to bad editors and Spanish dictators, instances in which a badly behaving man has traditionally been called a son of a bitch. In the TV series Breaking Bad, the character Jesse Pinkman says “bitch” 54 times, sometimes as an insult or in anger, sometimes in camaraderie or as an expression of triumph. Sometimes he pronounces it in two syllables (“bi-atch”), and sometimes it serves as a meaningless filler, the way people use and abuse the word “like.” In hip-hop culture and music it’s been used to denigrate women who step out of line, while Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and others have rebounded with “bad bitch” songs and memes to champion strong, independent woman, echoes of the 1968 Bitch Manifesto.

And yet. We’re told on many fronts that “bitch” is cool. That women can take pride in owning their inner bitch. But the meaning hasn’t really changed. The word is still used primarily to attack women who threaten the status quo, women in positions of power, as when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was called a “fucking bitch” by a white male colleague on the floor of the House of Representatives. It reeks of sexism, its hatred and misogyny undisguised. Women use it among themselves as an expression of support and sisterhood, but they still use it against each other too. Remember when Barbara Bush referred to Geraldine Ferraro as something that “rhymes with rich,” later insisting that she meant “witch.” I’ve been guilty of it myself. My daughter and I refer to a woman who wronged us, deeply and intentionally, as “the bitch.” Nothing else seems to adequately express our bitterness, but I cringe when I hear myself say it. I’d love to believe we can reappropriate language and wash it clean of its taint, but the rotten-egg stench clings to it.

I count the word “bitch” 35 times in this essay. An early-draft reader suggested substituting “the B word” or “the 5-letter noun,” but sometimes repetitiveness is necessary to hammer home a point. It was the frequent and irritating reprise of the birthday song at the restaurant next to the bookstore and my gut-level response to it that finally exposed my ambivalence, cemented my antipathy.

A former boyfriend once, decades ago, called me a bitch during an argument. It was the first time anyone had ever done that, and there was nothing ambiguous about his meaning. I was outraged. “How dare you?” I said, or “Don’t you ever call me that.” Or I may have called him a bastard, equally inappropriate and, when taken literally, also an insult to women, like “son of a bitch.” But wait—I was finally standing up to him, which was why we were arguing in the first place. There was a long period when I rehashed the incident and our subsequent breakup, wished I’d countered with a smartass response: “You say that like it’s a bad thing!” But I was offended then, and I’d be just as offended today.

Alice Lowe writes about life, language, food and family. Her essays have been widely published, including this past year in Big City Lit, Borrowed Solace, FEED, Drunk Monkeys, Midway, Eat Darling Eat, Eclectica, Fauxmoir, Idle Ink, Superpresent, and Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice has authored essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work and is a regular contributor at Blogging Woolf. She lives in San Diego, California, and posts at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

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Fiction, Guest Posts

Hot Days Are For Listening

December 30, 2023
broken TV television

There is nothing but talk in the village now.  Buzzing talk like hornets.  Who did it?  How dare they?  Who could betray us like this?  There will be a trial at the kgotla tomorrow, even though there are still no suspects.  No one has confessed and no one will.  They are afraid to be outcasts in their own home, avoided and shunned.  All anyone knows is that the new 55” high definition TV screen in the community hall is shattered.  Mma Bogwasi found the stone that did it lying on the cement slab floor of the building.  “Someone has hatred in their heart,” she cries loudly, shuffling past each of our doorways in turn.  “Oh Lord, forgive us!”  I want to swat her words away from my ears.  It is too hot today for loud talk.

I go to sit at the edge of the yard where I can hear the wind in the motshaba trees.  When I feel the sand turning cooler beneath my feet, I perch myself on the large tire that encloses Mama’s herb garden, daring the dusty rubber to scald the backs of my legs.  Insects chirr their secret language in the nearby brush.  I smile, thinking how there will be no more screaming football or slick politicians babbling from the TV with promises of more jobs and schools, like their mere words are diamonds spilling through the screen.  Mama tells me I shouldn’t sit so far from the house because up in the trees is where the leopards like to hide.  I imagine they are sitting among the chattering leaves, looking down at me while I boldly raise my face to them, both of us enjoying the shade.  Leopards don’t watch TV.  They prefer to watch children like me and think about eating them.  I don’t think they will eat me though.  They like relaxing in the shade better.

The TV was a present from the Americans.  They came to our village three times.  That is two more times than all the other foreign visitors, so we knew they would eventually bring what we wanted.  The elders ask for a TV every time foreigners visit our corner of the Okavango for safari… which is many more times than three.  They said it would keep the young people from trouble like drinking and having sex.  But I don’t see how having sex is any real trouble.  My oldest sister is pregnant and she lets me touch her belly which sometimes jumps.  I can see how a jumping belly could cause some trouble, but it keeps her from drinking, so I think it is better for her belly to jump than to be sick.

“Foufetse!” she calls me now, “Get some more water!  Hurry!”

She never asks nicely, even though she is only four years my elder.  But I am happy to hear her voice.  Sometimes, if I sit too still in Mama’s garden, I become invisible, and all day people cannot see me.  Even when they walk past on their way to the community hall, so close I can touch them, they do not see me.  I worry that one day I will disappear for good.  But my sister reappears me now with her barking demands: “Foufetse!  Now!  The baby is coming!”

It is the middle of the day, so the sand in the road burns my feet, encouraging me to shuffle faster with the full water bucket to the house.  I stop in the cool outside the open doorway where the reeds from the roof overhang to form a moat of shadow.  From inside, I can smell the gas that runs our small appliances and the mustiness of old clothes, waiting for washing day.  “Sister?” I call into the darkness.

Mama steps outside and takes the water from me.  “What took you so long?” she scolds before slipping back inside, not waiting for an answer.  I hear my sister groan.  I stand there for a moment, wishing I could watch.  I wonder what it looks like for life to enter a newborn body and give it its first breath.  I wonder, standing so close, if the curse I was born with might pass on to the new baby like lice.

I wander into the deserted kgotla—an assembly of empty plastic chairs, gritty with dirt and disuse, gathered beneath the acacia trees.  Meetings have been few since the arrival of the TV.  The elders congregate in the western-style community hall instead.  It is hot inside because the roof is made of tin instead of thatch and there is no breeze.  I do not know why they prefer it there.  The TV talks over everyone, even the village chief.  Chief Tshepo is often long-winded, but the TV is even longer and windier.  It talks loud and fast, like it doesn’t need air to breathe.  Sometimes it shouts “Goooooal!” and everybody in the hall shouts.  Usually, though, everybody is silent while the TV chatters on and on.

Since I am invisible again, I sit in one of the prohibited chairs and pretend that I am an elder.  “A community is not a community without honor, and honor means we speak only what is truth!” I parrot Chief Tshepo.  “So if you are truthful, speak!  If not, hold your peace!”  I wait, letting my words ring across the kgotla.  “Who broke the TV?” I demand.

Someone laughs.  It is a surprising sound.  Usually I am alone here while the whole village is in the community hall.  But now the TV is broken and there is laughter outside again.  I smile at Mma Bogwasi.  “I did not hear you arrive, Mma.  Hurry, come join us.  The meeting has already started.”

“You going to become the village chief one day, little Foufetse?” she asks, creaking heavily into the chair next to me.  Normally, she would stand with the other women and the children during a meeting, but since it’s just the two of us, she makes herself comfortable.

“Yes,” I say, sitting up straight, “and when I am chief, I will ban TVs forever from the village.”

Mma Bogwasi’s voice turns serious.  “Why would you say that, child?  That TV has made people here very happy.  A terrible shame someone went and broke it.”

“When everyone is watching in there,” I complain quietly, “the village stops breathing.”  I don’t expect her to understand.

“You’re a strange one, Foufetse.  God help your mother, raising a child like you.  But I suppose you’re the only one here who isn’t all that upset about what happened, seeing as you never got to watch the TV in the first place.”

“The village dies,” I continue in a whisper, “and then I disappear.  I am here, but no one sees me.”

“No one sees you?” Mma Bogwasi laughs again.  “More like you can’t see nobody.  The kudu doesn’t graze in peace just because it doesn’t see the lion hunting it.”

She’s tickled, like she thinks she’s taught me something I don’t already know.  But I am eleven and I’ve learned many secrets that nobody thinks I can know, like how people turn their faces when speaking: the dominant elder facing the listener, the dutiful listener facing the ground.  I turn my face to Mma Bogwasi now, showing that it is my turn to be listened to.  “I know all about my curse,” I say.  “My sister is having her baby and Mama doesn’t want me to hold him because she says I might trip over something and drop him.  She doesn’t see what I can do.  I carry the water every day without spilling a drop, but Mama still doesn’t see me.”

Mma Bogwasi sighs.  “Well, that sister of yours isn’t having a baby just yet.  I came up here from your Mama’s house.  That girl just wants some attention is all, imagining contractions.  I tell you, everyone in the village is restless today.  It’s this heat.”

Not the heat, I think.  The broken TV.

When Mma Bogwasi leaves, I stay seated in the kgotla, the heart of the village, and listen to its rhythm.  I’ve learned that hot days are best for sitting still and listening.  Our neighbor rides by on his donkey and the smell of grass and manure tickles my nose.  Young children shout in play.  Dogs quarrel.  I hear my mother scolding my younger brother.  Someone crushes aluminum cans.  Dried reeds whisper in deft, weather-worn hands.  Skirts sigh against bare legs.  A distant hippo bellows.

The village is restless, yes.  But alive.

***

The next morning, everyone gathers in the kgotla.  I sit in the sand with the other children, but it is difficult to sit still.  I am anxious to know what will happen in the trial.  Chief Tshepo opens the meeting with ceremony and gravity.  No one is laughing in the kgotla today.  A fly lands on my neck again and again and I swat at it.  Mama toes me in the back to be still.  This makes me happy.  I am not entirely invisible today.  Not yet.  But when the village chief demands a confession, I feel myself start to disappear again.  I know that Chief Tshepo’s eyes are searching the crowd for the culprit.  But he will never find me.  He will not see me because he does not think that a blind child can hit their mark with a throwing stone.  No one here knows how I practiced for days, out in the yard by the motshaba trees.  I collected rocks and hung the water bucket as high as I could from a branch, then counted my paces back from the tree—the same width of the community hall.  No one heard the ringing of the pail when I began to score.  They were all huddled inside, listening to far off strangers gossip.  I raised my arms to the cheering sun and quietly shouted, “Goooooal…”

“Do you think God will favor you if you keep quiet?” Chief Tshepo bellows.  “You think your stomach will not sour when you next taste water, from holding your guilt inside?”

My sister groans suddenly.  The women around her murmur.

I hear Chief Tshepo stand suddenly, and I know his muscles must be taught like a predator’s, his dangerous energy rippling through the kgotla.  “Do you think you will be safe in childbirth?  That your son or daughter will not be made helpless with blindness when it is born, like Foufetse?”

“Enough of this,” Mma Bogwasi cries, the only woman bold enough to interrupt.  “Her contractions are real enough this time.  She needs to be brought back inside the house.”

There is a shuffle of hands and feet.  My sister cries out again.  She has stolen the show and now the trial must be put on hold.  Around me, the village is stirring, murmuring, my sister’s name on their lips.  I sense fear in their movements.  I hear their heads turning every which way, looking, looking.  But they are all blind.  They are now the nervous kudu antelope who do not see the lion in their very midst.  None of them can see what is so obvious… my sweating palms and my shaking knees as I stand and step into the center of the circle.  How bad can it be, I wonder, to be shunned if you’re already unseen?

I speak in a loud, high voice that stills the kgotla.  “It was I, Foufetse.  The so-called helpless child.  I threw the stone, and it was I who broke the TV.”

Now there is nothing to hear.  Only the shiver of the acacia leaves.  But I can feel it.  The entire village… everyone is looking at me.

And I smile.  I am no longer invisible.

Bethany Nuckolls is an educator, world traveler, and writer based in Charlotte, NC where she lives with her bestie and two huggable plush sharks.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts

Firefly

December 26, 2023
Firefly

Missy caught the firefly in mid-air, cupping her hands around it to form a tiny, dark cave. She could feel the insect’s delicate footsteps tickling her skin as it wandered across her palm, searching for a way out.

“Got you!” she whispered, victorious.

It was almost dark. The sunset was nothing but a burnt orange smear on the horizon. Usually, her backyard would be a brilliant starscape of twinkling golden lights at this hour. But tonight, there was just one lonely firefly hovering around the garden.

Missy lifted her hands to her face and opened them just enough to peek inside. A soft yellow glow spilled out, reflecting in her pupil like an ember.

“Hey, there,” she said. “How come you’re all by yourself? Are you lost?”

The light brightened, then dimmed.

Missy looked around her yard for something she could use to hold the firefly. A jar, maybe, or a glass that she could turn upside down on the table. Something she could keep her newfound friend in so that it wouldn’t fly away. She wanted to show it to her sister, Helena. She had to.

Helena was sick. She wore a silk scarf with an elaborate pattern of colorful swirls wound around her head and had a special plastic band on her wrist that told the doctors what medicine she could take. She had been in the hospital for a long time, but the doctors finally sent her home to rest. Once a day, a nurse came in to check on her. No more doctors, though. She didn’t need them anymore.

Missy wasn’t allowed in Helena’s room. It was too full of tubes and wires, and machines that hissed and beeped all night. Missy snuck in anyway. She would bring in flowers, or pretty speckled rocks, or whatever objects she could find that might brighten her sister’s day. She would leave them on the nightstand for her to find when she woke. If she woke. Sometimes, she slept all day.

Missy glanced over her shoulder at her house. The whole place was dark except for her sister’s room. Missy could see her mother inside, framed in the bright light of the window. Her face was in her hands. Her shoulders rose and fell in sorrowful waves.

Missy heard the back screen door squeak open. Her father’s face appeared in the dim circle of illumination cast by the porch light. His cheeks glistened.

“Missy? We need you to come in now, okay? We –” His voice hitched in his throat. “We need to talk.”

“Okay, Dad!” Missy called. “One second!”

The screen door squealed shut.

Missy opened her hand and looked at the firefly.

“You can go,” she said quietly. “I won’t keep you.”

The firefly walked to the tip of her finger and perched there for a moment as if considering whether to fly away. Its glow pulsed once in silent farewell.

Then it took flight, rising skyward until its light became one with the moon.

*This piece was originally published in 2020 on Furious Fiction.

Warren Benedetto writes dark fiction about horrible people, horrible places, and horrible things. He is an award-winning author and a full member of the SFWA. His stories have appeared in publications such as Dark Matter Magazine, The Dread Machine, and Haven Spec; on podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, and The Creepy Podcast; and in anthologies from Apex Magazine, Scare Street, Eerie River Publishing, and more. He also works in the video game industry, where he holds 35+ game technology patents. For more information, visit warrenbenedetto.com and follow @warrenbenedetto on Twitter and Instagram.

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Guest Posts, writing

Fake It ’Til You Make It

December 16, 2023
cliche

For most of my twenties, I was a magical thinker. During this period of my life, I was reading a lot of self-help books, including the best-selling The Secret, and though I was in a Ph.D. program to study physiology for five years, The Secret had me believing I could do anything, have anything, be anything; all I had to do was ask the universe.

If becoming financially free was only a matter of making requests of the cosmos’ abundant piggy bank and holding my desires in my mind, why wouldn’t I ask to become a millionaire by thirty? Why stop there? Why couldn’t I write a commercial novel that would shoot to the top of bestsellers lists with the velocity of a Dan Brown thriller?

The spell began to break when my thirtieth birthday came and went and my wishes hadn’t been fulfilled: I wasn’t rich. My novel hadn’t attracted an agent; instead, I self-published. And like most of my friends, my talents were being exploited for profit in Corporate America. What had happened? How had I been so easily duped by The Secret’s tantalizing messages?

I later realized I was predisposed to the state of mind self-help books exploit.

When I was younger, my parents—especially my father—had a cliché for everything. For struggle, he claimed, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way;” for pain, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger;” for trauma, “Let the past be the past.” On birthdays, he’d announce half-kiddingly, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” His adages helped inform him, instruct him, and inspire him.

They did the same for me in adolescence and into early adulthood. Like my parents, I had a motto or cliché ready for most situations. For work: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” For hardship: “Don’t worry; be happy.” For imposter syndrome: “Fake it ’til you make it.” To pay homage to my father, I collected his favorite axioms into a book, Life According to Dad, and gave it to him for Father’s Day.

Using clichés to guide my life worked until my late twenties, when they began to lose their potency. After graduating with a master’s degree, I became a marketing writer for businesses and nonprofits in Boston. I lived in the city, working on complex problems with smart people from diverse backgrounds, most of whom didn’t view the world through rose-colored glasses.

I’ve been an idea person throughout my career. Many of my ideas, which can often be categorized as “big picture,” have been implemented in anything from advertising campaigns and event themes to product names and product messaging. But whenever I used clichés to propose a solid idea in the workplace, others took me less seriously. Without acknowledging potential unintended consequences, I might come off as unrealistic, impractical, or too rosy.

I once helped build and drive the vision for a company’s blog, but I underestimated the time and technical resources needed to develop and maintain it. At lunch, I reflected on the process and dropped a quote from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich: “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” My coworkers thought I was naïve, perhaps even delusional.

Clichés had helped structure my way of thinking, but they had become inadequate. They didn’t reflect the complex environments and circumstances of my adulthood. After a period of disillusionment, I knew I had to change. I started questioning the clichés and the way I dealt with reality.

Clichés, I realized, were too biased toward the positive at the expense of potential dark possibilities. When “times get tough,” it’s not always easy for the “tough” to “get going.” Sometimes, we’re just flat-out beat, and it’s wise to retreat, regroup, and reflect so we can “fight another day.” I was always told to “keep my head up,” but sometimes it’s tough not to lower it in defeat. While “smooth seas never made for skillful sailors,” storms hurt and can even break us.

Clichés no longer rang true for me because life wasn’t always easy or sunny. Reality didn’t always bend to my will. I pursued my goals, but they were tougher to achieve than I expected. I took wrong turns. Systems were unfair; folks were unkind. People let me down, insulted me, betrayed me.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I started accepting that life is as much disaster as triumph. We don’t always get into the school or program we seek. The job or career we want might not want us. Love can go unrequited. Financial setbacks happen. Accidents occur. Illness can strike. People lie. People die. By encouraging us to always stay positive, the clichés deny the reality we must face.

I eventually found a way to deliver my first death blow to the clichés that ran my life: therapy. My therapist was a social worker and a psychoanalytically-informed therapist not much older than me, so we were dealing with similar life-stage problems. His approach didn’t involve dispensing advice as a life coach might. Rather, he encouraged his patients to evaluate their reality objectively. To see themselves clearly. When people thought critically about themselves and their circumstances, they didn’t need advice, he reasoned, because they would know what to do.

Following his guidance, I realized my parents had raised me in a rather uncritical environment. Their philosophy was to “let sleeping dogs lie.” We avoided reflecting on pesky matters like what made us sad or mad lest we make things worse and cause new problems. For instance, if I had asked my parents about their divorce, they wouldn’t understand why I couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Such an uncritical environment ensures that nobody ever thinks about anything. And if someone doesn’t know what they think about something, they don’t know how they feel about it either. Using clichés is a way to avoid thinking. “Leave the past in the past” was the perfect countermeasure to talking about the trauma of my parents’ divorce. Clichés robbed us of the chance to acknowledge it. They robbed us of the chance to heal so the pain wouldn’t resurface in inexplicable ways, like overwork or substance abuse.

Despite the importance of thinking, therapy taught me that thinking is difficult, another reason some might want to avoid it. It takes time and energy to think through complicated matters, and people are always having to expand their vocabulary for puzzling issues.

Thinking is also messy. A person seldom comes to a complete understanding of the issues they face. Before therapy, whenever I might have reached the edge of my understanding, I’d employ a cliché that approximated my thoughts or feelings on the matter. But in therapy, I checked my clichés at the door. I was pushed to find words for how I thought or felt about events or people that troubled me. I rambled and talked nonsense, but insights came. Sometimes, we would unlock something that had been a mystery.

Living and working in rural New Hampshire, where my parents have spent their entire adult lives, is simpler. One can often get away with using clichés to navigate and interpret life in such rural settings. In the city, however, where I’ve worked in modern offices, life isn’t black and white but shades of gray. Negotiating city and corporate life requires more complex systems of thought. While rural life might lead to simplistic thinking, city life can lead folks to become critical and cynical.

I wanted to evolve past my uncritical origins, but I didn’t want to go too far in the other direction and become a coldhearted cynic or nihilist. I still wanted to believe I had some control over my life. I just needed to find values, systems, and worldviews that accepted that life was sometimes unfair, often indifferent to our wishes, and actively resistant to our desires.

Enter the second death blow to living a clichéd life: philosophy or the love of wisdom. In my thirties, I replaced new-age and self-help guides with philosophy. I read books on Eastern philosophy, like Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Confucius’s Analects, and on Western philosophy, like Plato’s Republic and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I joined philosophy groups, watched documentaries, and read biographies on Friedrich Nietzsche, Viktor Frankl, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.

Stoic philosophy was undergoing a resurgence at the time, and the tradition helped me cope with day-to-day challenges. For example, stoics believe that events don’t harm people as much as their judgments of the events do. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, encourages readers not to worry about things outside their control; instead, they should act on things within their control. Stoics also recommend living in accordance with one’s nature. If someone is athletic, they should do athletic things. If they’re brainy, they should do intellectual things. Such philosophy equipped me for life while also allowing me to accept its complexities.

Philosophy also helped me manage the dread that started to creep in as I approached midlife: knowing I was going to die one day. Enter existentialism.

The philosophical tradition of existentialism has been described as less a school of thought and more a mood or attitude toward life. It deals with matters such as anxiety, death, authenticity, isolation, and the search for meaning in one’s existence. More than any other philosophical tradition, existentialism has helped me address the realization that life lacks intrinsic meaning.

“No why. Just here,” as the composer and philosopher, John Cage, put it when Life magazine asked him about the meaning of life.

Faced with this understanding, I had to invent meaning for my life to avoid despair. But how? Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea that humans are radically free was both terrifying and exhilarating. According to him, “existence precedes essence.” In other words, no one is born with innate character traits. Rather, we construct who we are with every choice we make.

Albert Camus also agreed that life has no intrinsic meaning and reasoned it was absurd to seek meaning from a universe indifferent to our desires. He urges us to rebel against life’s absurdity by finding meaning in our relationships, our families, and our projects. In his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus compares life’s absurdity to the punishment of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology who was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down whenever he neared the summit. While Sisyphus was punished to forever perform a meaningless activity, Camus suggests that perhaps Sisyphus could find some joy in the absurdity of rolling the boulder. Maybe Sisyphus could even learn to be happy in his fate.

Once I accepted that the only meaning my life would have was the meaning I gave it, I began to engage in meaningful activities I found enjoyable, like writing: the final death blow to living a clichéd life.

Back when I started writing in my late twenties, I fell into every possible cliché trap. Let’s say I was writing a fictional action sequence where the hero confronts the villain, his former mentor, in a dramatic climax. In their final duel, the hero might get off a perfect shot, fatally wounding the villain.

“Great shot,” the villain might say, holding a hand over his bleeding stomach.

In that moment, the hero would likely say something like, “I learned from the best.”

Alas, I couldn’t keep that. It’s a cliché! And they are off-limits for writers. Why? A cliché might once have conveyed a truth, but readers have encountered it so often in movies and books, it no longer has the impact it used to. Through study and practice, I’ve learned that all good writing is a never-ending war on clichés. A writer must always search for fresh language. If I accidentally employ a cliché—which happens often—I strike it out in revision. This practice of avoiding clichés on the page has found its way into my life.

When I reflect on my evolution from a magical to a critical thinker, I realize that using clichés for so long allowed me to rely on the wisdom of others while I figured out who I was and what I thought. They gave me something to hold on to during the painstaking process of updating how I viewed and thought about myself and the world.

Now, in my late thirties, I realize the cost of not relying on clichés. They allowed me to avoid the difficult task of thinking. They allowed me to deny reality, which can be difficult to see clearly. Ignorance was bliss. Without clichés, life is messier, more nuanced, and sometimes incomprehensible. But “the truth hurts,” right?

Dustin Grinnell is a writer based in Boston. He’s the author of the short story collection, The Healing Book (Finishing Line Press), and host of the podcast, Curiously. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Vice, Salon, Hektoen International, and Writer’s Digest, among others. This story appears in his collection of essays, Lost & Found, which forthcoming with The Peter Lang Group. See more of his work at his website.

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***

Our friends at Circe have launched an anti-advice column, and it is fire!

Circe

Click above to get details on how to ask Gina and Emily for advice and let us know what you think!

***

Looking to jumpstart your writing? Need to reignite your creativity? 

Paulina Pinsky has reopened enrollment for her year-long The Artist’s Way course.

Designed to transform your creativity from stuck and frustrated to unblocked and an endless source of inspiration, for any creative journey you can dream of.

Click below for more information and let Paulina know we sent you!

 

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change