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Guest Posts, Self Image

Me and My Body – A Tumultuous Love Affair

October 22, 2020
body

By Skye Nicholson

I have always struggled with body image – weight was the major area of concern for me. I have fluctuated up and down in a 50-pound range for most of my life, going through phases of diet and exercise then gradually gaining again as I slipped into complacency or depression.  Determining at which precise angle to lift and tilt my head to avoid multiple chin folds in pictures has been a constant priority.  Sucking in my soft tummy and pushing out my average-sized boobs as I entered a bar made me feel more desirable. I was always frustrated at the last 10-20 pounds that swarmed about me like annoying gnats.

I won’t say I “hated” my body, but I have found it to be an irritating nuisance for most of my life since puberty.

I remember feeling FAT at 14 because a small roll (of skin, probably) would squish out over my tight stonewashed jeans, preventing me from wearing sexy crop-top sweaters like all the cool girls.  Looking at pictures from back then, I see a self-conscious child with a sweet round face. She was not overweight at all, but was weighed down by a look of fearful yearning in her eyes. Like most young girls, she wanted so much to look like the waif-ish overdone models on TV and believed her perfectly-unique self did not measure up.

In junior high we had to wear shorts for gym class – you know, the mandatory Poly-blend uniform shorts that shimmered and chafed. My legs were so white, not like pink-white or beige-white or even cream-white… I’m talking see-through, clear, transparent white. So white that my purple and blue veins shined through like neon ribbons across my shins.  And my leg hair that I begged and begged my mom to let me shave in 7th grade was black as coal.  So even after I won the tearful battle of the disposable razor, that spotty black stubble would inevitably be growing back in by 6th period gym class. My legs under those blue polyester shorts looked like 2 flabby plucked chickens.  (Maybe no one would notice, I would hope every single day in the locker room. But, unfortunately, junior high kids are not known for their kindness and discretion)

It wasn’t until my 30s that I began voluntarily wearing shorts again.

My reflection in the mirror has always been picked over by my critical eye: Is that a pimple? Why are my chin hairs so dark? I wish my freckles would go away. I wish my freckles would come back. Why don’t I have cheekbones? My face is fat. My neck is droopy. My skin is too pale. My skin is too red. Are my eyelashes thinning? I wish I had a thinner waist. My butt isn’t the right shape.

My body was always a thing I had to deal with because, well, it was where I lived every day.

There were times when I would join Weight Watchers and start working out, and I would feel good for a while. But again, it was all tied to my size and shape: numbers on a scale or not having to stretch my neck quite as far to reduce the amount of chins, etc.

I don’t know if I ever looked at my body and felt LOVE for it.

By the time I decided to quit drinking for good I had been on Weight Watchers for about 5 months and lost 20 pounds or so. I had been tracking my points pretty regularly, but I didn’t ever count the points from the 8 vodka tonics at the bar or 4 bottles of wine at home.  I couldn’t face the shame, and so those calories didn’t exist to me.

I started being very honest with my point counting once I decided to get sober. It was a good motivator and a necessary distraction from drinking. If I could get through this ONE DAY without adding any alcohol points to my tracker, then I was winning. And try to do the same thing the next day.

I went and got my old gym membership back. My sober friend Ed said that when he first quit drinking he would go for a run anytime he felt a craving sneak up. Then he would be too tired and too legitimately thirsty to want alcohol. And of course, when you start exercising you release endorphins, and you tend feel a little better about yourself when you are done. Therefore, less likely to hide from life and seek out poison.

I have done much damage to my physical self over 25+ years of heavy drinking. I could feel the aches and pains, the difficulty breathing, the red skin, the digestive problems, sleep problems, etc. I hobbled and wheezed through my first few weeks at the gym. Getting myself there was worth a fucking medal in itself.  I was sweating my ass off and watching my heartrate go through the roof as I flailed around on the elliptical, trying to get my arms and legs to sync up.

But soon I began to be in touch with my body in a different way than ever before.  I started meditating by listening to short guided clips on YouTube, and for the first time in my life I could actually connect with the energy inside my body.

When I was about 3 weeks into sobriety, I went to a Breathwork session. I had never heard of it before and I had no idea what I was getting into, but something was pulling me there. I knew this was something I had to do.

In the Breathwork session, we used our own deep breathing to shift our minds into a state of open clarity. I had the sensation that I was observing my body from outside. As the practitioner moved her hands across trigger points, I began to feel pent-up rage and pain and sadness release through me. As she reached my liver I started sobbing, deep convulsing wails of grief and guilt. I cried for what seemed like hours. In my head I kept repeating “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry” on a loop as I connected with my body in unconditional love.

That experience opened up a relationship with my body that had been silent for decades. I began to fall back in love with my being. I felt a glimpse of the way little kids must feel when they find comfort and awe in their own skin.

I practice yoga regularly now, and many times I am moved to tears as I stretch through the poses. It is my body sharing with me emotions that have surfaced, some good and some difficult. I always feel waves of love for myself when this happens; like my body and I are no longer on opposing teams, but partners in this life.

It is this relatively new loving relationship with my body that gets me back on track when I inevitably stuff myself with Chinese food and feel bloated and weak the next day, or skip 2 weeks of exercise because of sick kids, or get frustrated that my favorite jeans are tight, or feel that familiar tug to go out to the bars for (just one) night.

There are times when I get fed up with my body and still catch myself throwing shade at my reflection. But I can’t get mad at my gray hairs or my turkey neck or my wrinkled brow or my tummy roll. My body is not aging to spite me. It’s just biology and entropy.

I am not defined by the imperfect details of my appearance. I depend on the health of my organs to keep me going so that I can pack lunches and remember where everyone left their shoes and buy cat food and listen to my daughter sing the shark song for the nine-hundredth time and be a loving spouse. I can’t do those things without my organs being on board for all this responsibility; and they can’t function without me giving them healthy stuff most of the time, like yoga and kombucha and cucumbers.

Skye Nicholson rediscovered her love of writing after she had been sober for 2 years. She is currently a Stay-At-Home mom living in Indiana with her husband and 2 kids. Skye posts on her blog www.wakinguprazzledazzle.com under the pseudonym Vixen Lea.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Activism, Guest Posts, Racism

Thoughts From A Concerned US History Major

October 20, 2020
white

By Rita Serra

Imagine it’s October 17, 1989

The decade marked by Rubik’s Cubes, Ronald Reagan, Pac Man, and shoulder pads is rounding to a close. This was the year that brought Lean on Me, Field of Dreams and Spike Lee’s, Do the Right Thing to the silver screen. Perms rule the hair waves, while rock and pop still rule the airways.

You are cruising down the highway in your Honda Accord when the DJ’s deep, satin voice says, “Hot off the presses here is Billy Joel’s, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

The song is a snapshot series of headlines that chronicles 1949 to 1989. Before Joel lunches into the first chorus he stamps out the syllables, “Santayana Goodbye.” George Santayana was a poet, novelist, and philosopher who left the world with a slew of notable words including,

“those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Reason, 1905

I was raised in a small, coastal town in North Carolina. Before I’d grown tall enough to see over the kitchen counter, I was spellbound by the music of the 1960’s and 70’s, despite the fact that I was born in 1994. Seriously, in fourth grade I was baffled when the rest of my girl scout troop wanted to listen to The Scooby Doo soundtrack instead of The Who’s legendary rock-opera, Tommy, on our way to the aquarium.

I developed a strong interest in the collection of stories that comprise our nation’s history. Each fact, figure, and historical antidote I was taught felt like a puzzle piece. Together these treasured pieces, with their smoothed edges, inflated bubbles, and concave voids, formed the present-day picture. They explained why America is the way it is and helped me better understand my place in the world.

In my adolescent years, I believed the 1960’s were a magical time, only abound with love and guitar circles, capped off by Woodstock as the ultimate emblem of unity. But as I came of age, I sensed that something was off and ran to the books like a moth who caught sight of flickering candle through a cracked door.

I directed my core university studies to the social and political movements of 20th century America. I was riveted by the sheer volume of audacious political activism that marked the 1960’s with its mixed overtones of social commentary, call to action, and peaceful ethos.

By 1969 the American Indian, Anti-war, Civil Rights, Gay Liberation and Women’s Liberation Movements were all in full force. These marginalized groups of citizens showed they had, had enough through; boycotts, burned flags, flower power, marches, legislative changes, long hair, occupied federal land, overtly-politicized music, protests, rallies, speeches, strikes, strategic violence, sit-in’s, and walkouts. They were met by vehement opposition and faced arrests, bombings, beatings, death threats, hate mobs, police brutality, fire hoses, tear gas, and K-9 units.

It was not until I studied history on the university level that I came to the stunning realization; the curriculum taught during our most formative years in primary schools is a whitewashed version of history that omits critical pieces of the US history puzzle, especially regarding black citizen’s plight to obtain equal rights.

As I peeled back the layers, I uncovered that Woodstock’s idyllic legacy of, “three days of peace, love, and music” overshadowed the reality that this was the most divisive, violent, and socially-volatile decade in our nation’s history.

My quest for knowledge culminated to a twenty-five-page history thesis entitled, “Shattering the Myth of Woodstock” in which I discussed all of the ways this event was the antithesis of the decade it came to symbolize and discovered the path to revolution has many lanes.

The first time I sat in front of my Victrola and listened to a vinyl record after I submitted my thesis I nearly cried. I took this event, this hopeful idea, this guiding principle that I had shaped part of my belief system around, and marred it. I took something I regarded as a beautiful and holy and made it ugly by ripping off the mask and uncovering the truth.

However, I have never regretted my decision to shatter Woodstock because I gained solace and an emboldened sense of security knowing that I possessed the truth. I came to the realization that knowing and seeing the truth is more beautiful than the vision we create.

The era I once loved for the music was now the era I deeply respected for the courage it took to change the world on societal, cultural, and legislative levels. Most people believe that after a law is passed, the problem is solved. The unfortunate truth is that changing the law does not change society’s views or instantly alter cultural biases. Generations of black citizens learned first-hand that legal “victories” were often followed by languid change, staunch backlash and a slew of new hurdles to overcome.

America’s current state of domestic affairs is rapidly becoming an ominous echo of the late 1960’s. Race relations have reached a critical boiling point. Every day people are spilling onto the streets with ardent resilience, refusing to be silenced. In order to understand how America has gotten to the point it has today, it is helpful to unpack history like a recipe for homemade soup, and go back to the point that the pot was set down and the stove-top was turned on.

“My skin is black, My arms are long, My hair is woolly, My back is strong,
Strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again”
-Nina Simone, Four Women, 1966

Let’s take a page out of Santayana’s notebook and follow the stories that have led us to today.

Voting: In 1870 the 15th amendment was ratified, stating, “a [male] citizen’s right to vote would not be denied on the basis of race, color, or servitude.” In response, the former Confederate States immediately coded discriminatory voting requirements into law, such as poll taxes, property ownership, and literacy tests, designed to prevent black men from voting. They would have stopped many poor white men from voting had it not been for a set of loopholes. “Grandfather Clauses” stated that if someone’s ancestors had been registered to vote before the Civil War, then that person was exempt from certain voting requirements.

It took well over a century for the majority of citizens from the southern states to accept the fact that people of color were their fellow citizens who had the right to vote. In 1965 the Voting Rights Acts was passed, doing away with discriminatory voting requirements, and the 24th amendment was ratified, eliminating the poll tax. Concurrently, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) resurged when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1950’s and 60’s. The KKK employed violence and sever intimidation tactics, including murder, to repress black votes and white sympathizers. The group’s fearsome reputation combined with generations of prejudiced views, made it unnerving for white America to collectively wrap their minds around sharing power.

“Southern man, better keep your head, don’t forget, what your good book said
Southern change, gonna come at last, now your crosses, are burning fast”
-Neil Young, Southern Man, 1970

Housing: In 1934 the National Housing Act was passed in an effort to stimulate the housing market during the Great Depression. Agents from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) took maps and drew red lines through neighborhoods they claimed to be, “high risk” in a practice known as Redlining.

 In every major city, the only redlined neighborhoods were the ones populated by blacks and other minority groups. FHA agents felt that the people in these areas could not be trusted to pay back a loan, thus they denied their applications for the government-sponsored, low-interest mortgage rates.

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act banned housing discrimination on the basis of race. However, by this time the government was no longer offering these low-interest mortgages and there was the issue of cultural bias. The inability to buy homes for decades, a top way of accumulating equity and generational wealth, has put the black man another century behind the white man.

It is estimated that three out of four neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930’s are still struggling economically today. These neighborhoods often lack adequate resources such as banking, healthcare, public transportation services, affordable produce, job opportunities, and have underserved education systems due to local funding stemming from property taxes.

“Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people, they’ve been abusing
The Mafia’s getting bugger, like pollution in the river, And you tell me this is where it’s at?”
-Sixto Rodriguez, This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues 1970

Education: In 1954 the Supreme Court decided in Brown vs Board of Education that segregation was unequal which made this a landmark case. A year later the court ruled in Brown vs Board of Education II that the lower courts and local school boards would be in charge of implementation desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” This last clause gave white supremacists all they needed to continue the unlawful practice of segregation.

One of the most disturbing and flagrant acts of defiance took place in Prince County, Virginia. Here county officials, with the aid of state officials, closed public schools for five years after Brown vs Board’s original ruling and opened “private academies” for only white students that were funded by the state’s tax revenue.

It is estimated that a decade after Brown vs Board of Education ninety-eight percent of black students still attended segregated schools. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act finally gave the federal government the power to enforce integration. The North Carolina high school I attended opened in 1972 with the specific purpose of integration. Eighteen years after the highest court in the land said segregation was illegal, county officials finally got around to upholding the law.

“Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway,
Don’t block up the hall, For he that gets hurt, Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’, Will soon shake your windows, And rattle your wall”
– Bob Dylan, The Time’s They Are A-Changin’  1964

Systematic Inequality: In 1967 President Johnson formed “The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” to determine why America had experienced over 150 race riots from 1964 to 1967. The eleven-member committee headed by Otto Kerner submitted their findings in March of 1968 in a report entitled, “A Time to Listen a Time to Act.”

More commonly known as the Kerner Report, it concluded that the extreme economic and social disadvantages of black Americans, coupled by the racial attitudes of whites caused the riots. The report was highly critical of the federal government and their outdated, failed policies.

“What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” -Kerner Report, 1968

The commission recommended that the federal government create legislation to improve housing conditions, education systems, job opportunities, and social services in black neighborhoods. They felt it was imperative to remove the discriminatory practices that inundated employment practices, police forces and the criminal justice system.

The commission deserves a round of applause for their candid conclusion and detailed solution strategy. However, Johnson never publicly endorsed the committee’s report and congressional action ranged from abysmal to meager when it came to implementing the committee’s recommendations.

“Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation, And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’, This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”
-Barry McGuire, Eve of Destruction, 1965

This was the moment for America’s governing power to make a significant change, to right the wrongs of the past era, and to admit that America had a serious problem with racism.

The following month, on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, over 100 cities erupted in protest, yet the Kerner Report was ignored. Six months later, on November 5th, Nixon won the Presidency on a platform of more heavily armed police forces and cracking down on inner city crime. Rather than taking steps towards peace, America entered the war on drugs.

Today a statement from the Kerner Report reads like an eerie premonition come true: “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

I realize it does not matter how many books I’ve read, history lectures I’ve attended, or the number of times I found myself in the minority while traveling aboard. I will never know the experience of being black in America. However, I believe we can learn from the past. Knowledge leads to new perspectives and understanding which creates empathy. Greater empathy is the key to creating a positive, fundamental change in our fractured society.

To those who are white, if you were never told the full story of America’s institutionalized racism and systematic oppression, that is not your fault, but it is also not an excuse. We must do better than those who came before us.

The human mind is wired to see a full picture even when some pieces are not present. Instead of realizing there are gaps, the mind will stretch the pieces of the picture it has been given to fill in the blanks, or simply invent new pieces that match their pre-existing opinion. Now that some blind spots have been replaced by missing puzzle pieces, it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge these uncomfortable truths, and work to ensure the same mistakes are not made again.

Let’s come together and tirelessly work to ensure if, ten years from now, someone wrote, We Didn’t Start the Fire Part II, it will not be marked by Santayana’s ill-fabled irony. We must listen to our fellow brothers, sisters, neighbors, and citizens that have been marginalized for centuries, and stand by their side in order to forbid history from repeating itself.

“When the power of love, overcomes the love of power the world will know peace”
– Jimi Hendrix

Rita Serra backpacked around the world for two and a half years, world, often solo, on a quest for human connection, cultural enlightenment, historical intrigue and nature’s wonderment. After her period of Rolling Stone embodiment, Rita found herself in Northern California where she currently spends her days writing prose, crafting poetry, photographing nature and farming. Some of Rita’s other work has been featured in anthologies by Flying Ketchup Press, Train River Publishing, and Wingless Dreamer.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Eating Disorders/Healing, Eating/Food, Guest Posts

My Food Obsession

October 18, 2020
food

By Sarah Losner

On a Saturday morning the local Whole Foods is stocked with shipments of fresh produce. A myriad of canned and boxed foods line the shelves. Delightful smelling breads from the bakery section, and the aromas Indian cuisine from the open buffet make their way to the noses of shoppers, ready to stock their panties and refrigerators. The store is bursting with color and life.

Without a shopping cart or basket, I scan the aisles meticulously. I’m not looking for anything in particular, rather, you could say that I’m looking at everything. I run my hand on the outside of an avocado, feeling the grooves along the peel with my fingertips. I put a lime beneath my nose, smelling the rind and imagining what scents the insides will yield. A bag of chips makes a crinkling sound as I hold it in my hands. The bag is light and airy. In the candy aisle, I pick up bars of chocolate and turn them to the back, examining the label in the same way that a researcher analyzes a science experiment. Taking notes, paying attention to detail, absorbing the information. I decide to buy a chocolate bar.

Upon leaving the store and returning to my car in the parking lot, I remove the chocolate bar from the paper grocery bag. I turn to the nutrition label on the back of the packaging. There are 370 calories in a serving, and two servings per bar. Since there are twenty squares of chocolate in one bar, a single square must contain 37 calories. I pride myself on being good at math.

I carefully open the package and separate one chocolate square from the remaining 19. The chocolate sits in the palm of my hand for many minutes. The more I stare at it, the more it looks like God – something that exists beyond my comprehension. Metaphysical. I bring the chocolate square to my mouth and stop. I’m not ready for this. I put it in a ziplock bag that I brought with me from home. I write the number 37 in a note on my phone so that I don’t forget, and throw the ziplock bag into the back seat of my car. Then, I return my attention back to the remaining chocolate bar.

With the wrapper on, I put the bar in my mouth and chew, trying to imagine how my tastebuds would perceive the sweet taste, and how my tongue would embrace the smooth texture. I chew a few times before the packaging rips and an inkling of chocolate goes into my mouth. One calorie. Probably. I throw the chewed up chocolate bar out of the car window and begin to cry. It’s almost noon. I have spent my entire morning immersing my senses in food, and yet I am starving.

People with Anorexia love food. We love food so much that we consume it all day. We watch Tasty cooking videos and the Food Network for hours in a single sitting. We look through pictures in cookbooks. We bake and stir and fry and steam and make others eat the food we concoct. We put food in our mouths to absorb the flavors, then spit out the chewed up remains into a nearby garbage can. Food occupies our minds all day long. We can’t get enough of it; we just can’t eat it either.

I suffered from Anorexia during my college years. It stared out with small restrictions. Instead of eating desert every night, I limited myself to once a day. Coke and other sodas were replaced with the zero calorie versions. I stopped using oil when cooking and swore on Pam spray instead. Soon, I stopped going out to dinners with friends and family. I refused to eat while anyone was looking at me. Somewhere along the way I stopped eating meals altogether.

I was in denial about my eating disorder for a long time because of my weight. It’s a common misconception that people who suffer from Anorexia have to be thin. In reality, anyone, of any size could be suffering from the illness. Anorexia is a mindset coupled with restrictive food behaviors. Not everyone’s body will become thin from restriction. Some bodies even gain mass in a restrictive state because hen a person is starving, the body has a tendency to hold onto calories and fat, not knowing when it will next receive nutrients.

Starving people are often obsessed with food. These obsessions don’t take form overnight. They are brought on by a void. Something that is missing in a person’s life that he or she is longing to fill. In some cases, the void is filled in a healthy manner. In others, it’s done dangerously. I think that for me, that void was uncertainty. Back in college, I didn’t now what grades I would get on exams, the kind of firm that I would end up working for, or if I would have enough money to move out on my own. I was insecure in my friendships and didn’t know if I would get invited to parties or events. I realized that one of the only things that I could control and was certain about was what went into my mouth.

When I first started to restrict my food intake, I felt powerful. I made lists of the foods that I would eat on a specific day well in advance. I calculated the calories and fat grams in each food I ate to ensure that I knew the exact nutrients that were going into my body. I knew exactly what my mornings, afternoons, and evenings would look like concerning food and other eating disorder related-behaviors. The uncertainty that I had once felt was removed from my life completely. I couldn’t focus on anything other than food.

When I was sick I also had an extreme fear of losing control. Food seemed to be everywhere. It was always following me. I know now that I was hyperaware of food in the world around me because I was starving. Every aroma smelled more potent. Colors were more vibrant. When people around me were eating food, I could hear every bite. The sound of teeth crunching potato chips sounded like the waves of the ocean. It brought me peace and calmness to see others eating knowing that I had the will power to resist.

The more I controlled my food intake, the more I was sucked into the grasp of my eating disorder. I felt a sense of gratification from using food to fill a void in my life, and that gratification was addictive. I restricted more and more until I was in a state of starvation. My starving brain went to extreme lengths to obtain food. One of the ways I tried to fill my need for food was by visiting markets and grocery stores. Walking the aisles of the grocery store on my leisure time was one of my many ways of consuming food without having to eat it. Food was the number one priority in my life.

One day a friend called and told me that he was “breaking up” with me as a friend. I was never there for him anymore. I seemed distant and distracted. I missed his birthday party a few weeks earlier and didn’t send a card. I was devastated. Later that day I typed the question “Do I have an eating disorder?” into Google. One of the top results was an advertisement for a clinic near where lived. I booked an appointment for later in the week. During that appointment I was diagnosed with Anorexia.

While some are obsess over Instagram, or sex, or material things, others are fixated on basic necessities that are needed to live. Obsessions aren’t inherently bad, but they should be checked when they start interfering with health or relationships. In recovery I have been working hard on creating healthier obsessions for myself. I obsess over the spring with all its vibrant flowers. I obsess over my friend’s birthdays, the color purple, or a great book. I obsess over a really good milkshake. I just don’t let that milkshake obsession permeate into other parts of my life.

Sarah Losner is from Long Island, NY. She loves reading and writing essays and poetry. Her poetry has been published by Indolent Books.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Black Lives Matter, Guest Posts

Pride to the Side

October 17, 2020
matter

By Richard Gonzalez

You people who support the All Lives Matter movement really don’t get it, do you? Do you really believe that all lives matter? Sorry to burst your bubble, but they don’t. Minority lives, specifically black lives, don’t matter in today’s society.  All Lives Matters supporters, you are the lucky ones; you don’t have to learn to keep both hands on the wheel if you’re pulled over by the police. You aren’t misrepresented in the media. Your parents don’t have to teach you to keep your hands in your pockets while shopping in order to not be seen as a thief or to always ask for a receipt, just in case. You can walk around your neighborhood with your hoods on without the risk of having the cops called on you for being “suspicious.” More importantly you don’t have to worry about being killed simply because you are a shade of brown.

That’s not to say that other ethnic groups don’t get discriminated against. I’m a proud Puerto Rican and Dominican; an Afro-Latino and a light-skinned black man.  I know what it’s like to speak Spanish around people who do not understand the language and have someone tell me to “speak English” and “go back to your country.”  I also know what it is like to be called the “n” word and to be asked if I belong in the building where I’ve lived since I was born. Contrary to popular belief, Puerto Ricans are Americans, too, and English is not the official language of the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement is supportive of all black people from any cultural background. What you seem to fail to realize is that the All Lives Matter movement is talking about equality that does not exist yet. The Black Lives Matter movement is fighting for the end of systematic oppression and racism in this country.

When you say “all lives matter,” of course people are going to get upset. Minorities have to fight, beg, and plead for equal treatment while you simply get it and then some. Take a look at the Parkland shooter who did not appear to have a scratch on him when he was apprehended, or, in a more recent case in Lawrence County, Tennessee, when a white male was apprehended for a double homicide and the police proceeded to prop him up and give him water after being handcuffed.  A person of color does not have that luxury.  We have been killed for something as miniscule as walking in a neighborhood, eating Skittles, with their hood on or for allegedly selling loose cigarettes or allegedly passing a counterfeit bill. Do you know what it is like to be stopped, frisked and asked for identification just because “you fit the description” and the description is nothing more than “black male with jeans.”  Do you know someone who has been falsely arrested based on the premise that they “look like a criminal” without any knowledge of who they are?  What does a criminal look like to you; is it a person of color?  Can you say that you have been followed in a store because people automatically assume your black hands are only good for stealing, that they’ll never wipe the tears of the children who have to learn to protect themselves in a world designed for their failure?

Don’t say “all lives matter” until you have walked in our shoes.

All lives matter is the end goal, but what’s the point of a goal if you’re not going to work towards it? The Black Lives Matter movement was started in the hopes that all lives could matter someday. So, if you support All Lives Matter, then why not put your pride to the side and use your privilege to help the people who don’t have any? Don’t be so quick to say “all lives matter.” Don’t make it about money. It’s about systemic racism and oppression that’s lasted for hundreds of years. Support us, so that when this is over, all lives actually matter.

Richard Gonzalez is am a rising sophmore who has been moved to action by the tragic and unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. As a proud Puerto Rican/Dominican with African- American DNA, Richard knows how important it is to make racism a thing of the past. When he has time for myself, Richard collects Funko Pops and plays video games.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Relationships

Dear You Who Now Hates Me

October 15, 2020
daughter

By Caroline Leavitt

Today, after two years of silence, an email arrives from you and my hands are shaking when I read it. I despise you. You are dead to me. I want nothing to do with you. I hope you have a miserable life and you know the same brutal suffering you have caused me because you are evil. You are pathetic and unlovable.

As always, you put your words in all angry bold caps, each one carrying an embedded sting, meant to hurt. You think I have done something unforgivable, something horrific to you. But I’m not certain what it is and why I am the target of your ire. All I know is that your personality has totally changed and I don’t know how to be with you any longer.

It wasn’t always this way, was it? You and I grew up together  as sisters, you three and a half years older than me, but we were more than that, more than friends. We both were big readers and we both wanted to be writers, and we walked all the way to the Star Market and back to buy big block pads that we would write in together and illustrate, novels, we called them, always about a girl who had adventures at camp, or at boarding school or on a schooner. We worked on our stories all the time because hey, we planned to be famous, cool authors. As we grew, so did all the adventures we had together, going to movies and sneaking into double features, walking to Belmont to go to Filene’s and shop. You were the one who taught me how to iron my curly hair, and dress cool in lace-up the leg sandals of yours I got to borrow.  And you were the one who protected me from my father’s brutal moods, his screaming, who kept me from my mother’s endless rages about how I was too fresh, too independent, too messy and ugly and of course I didn’t get in the school play because who would put someone who looked like me on a stage? I never knew why, but our parents left you alone, so I stayed closer to you, so maybe they would leave me alone, too. And they did.

***

As teenagers, we were so joined at the hip, that you invited me on your dates with your boyfriends, introducing me to clubs and fancy restaurants, letting me wear all of your clothes, which were much hipper and cooler than anything I had in my closet. You made me feel special and a part of your world. When men stopped you on the street because you were so beautiful, you ignored them, focusing on me.

But then things changed dramatically, and I couldn’t figure out how or why. They say a personality change can start at adulthood and maybe that’s true, maybe that’s what happened to you. You, who could have had any guy you wanted, dropped out of college one credit shy of a degree, and married at 19, a dull, critical boy who was so wrong for you that I wept,  “Don’t do this,” at your wedding right before you stepped onto the alter and bonded your heart to his. And then boom, boom, boom, you moved to a stomach cramp of a town away from Boston and boom, boom, boom, you got pregnant, with a son and then a daughter. And when I came to visit, beaming, happy to see you, the air felt charged. You were different, overwhelmed by motherhood. The spark was gone and worse, you wouldn’t speak to me. You snapped and asked me when I was going home. You yelled when I picked things up in your apartment to look at them. “Put that the fuck down,” you said. Later, you said, “I’m just unhappy.” You told me you never should have married, that the kids overwhelmed you. “You can leave,” I told you. “You can live with me or live with our mom.” You shook your head. “No,” you said. “I can’t.

Okay, let’s be honest here. I didn’t really realize the depth of your unhappiness back then. No, I was busying being young and selfish and wild at college, sleeping my way through the alphabet at Brandeis because I was so astonished that here were men who not only liked me, but wanted to share my body. You didn’t approve and said I should be more stable, but you didn’t approve when I moved to New York City, either, which you said was dirty and dangerous. You didn’t like it when I experimented with drugs and you and your husband both yelled at me. “I’m disappointed in you,” you said. “You never used to be like that.” Your disapproval stung.

I stayed away from you after that, still young and selfish, I admit, until your daughter went into third grade and suddenly there was a story she had written in my mail box, about a lonely little girl who goes to see her “crazy aunt in New York City,” and who is rescued by a mouse. “Is this me?” I asked you, wondering what you had told her about me, why you used the words crazy. “Of course not,” you said, “the mouse is the hero, not you,” but still I wondered. I called your daughter to tell her how I loved the story. Her voice was soft and shy, and I heard you yelling at her not to tie up the phone. Poor little sweetie, I thought. Maybe I should get to know her.

But I was still busy being wild, and I didn’t want to come to your small boring town. I wanted you to all come visit me in Manhattan, but suddenly, you who had been so brave, so adventurous, were afraid of everything. You wouldn’t fly or drive or travel. You wouldn’t even pick up the phone for food to be delivered. You who had once been a stellar teacher now couldn’t hold down jobs and were fired for what you said were mysterious reasons, but you wouldn’t say what those reasons were. One by one by one, your friends fell away. “They betrayed me,” you said, but you couldn’t tell me how. You began to snipe harder at me, your casual cruelty about my looks, my writing.

I tried to help, to make you happy, to try and fix things, but none of it went over well. When I sent you books I loved, imagining you pouring over them, lost in their worlds, you told me they all stunk. When I sent you clothing, you tore up silk shirts and linen pants with scissors and then mailed them back to me with notes that said: you like this, I don’t. I had a necklace designed and made for you, and you tied it into knots and threw it in an envelope to me. One day on FB, you attacked all my friends over a discussion about how much we all loved thrift stores. You called them stupid middle-aged bitches who should get jobs. When people protested or tried to explain, you used all caps to tell them to all go fuck themselves because you would not be silenced. But you were, because I blocked you then, and that made you furious, too. “Why are you so angry at me?” I cried.

We didn’t speak for months after that time. Not until my fiancé died, and I fell apart and called the one person who had always been my anchor when I was so young: you.  I begged you to come and be with me, you said you couldn’t, that your daughter had a slight cold. It wasn’t until our mother, still alive then, got on the phone, her voice sharpening, that you did come, but you stayed for just half an hour, and then, while I was crying for you to stay, please stay, because I needed you, you got your coat and took a plane back home. You didn’t come to the funeral or call me or even talk to me for a whole year while I drowned in grief, and in the end, because I missed you, I still loved you, I still wanted a relationship with you, I called you. You listened on the phone, but you never apologized. Instead you blamed me because you said I  hadn’t been appreciative enough that you had come at all. You said only, “I’ll try to do better.” I loved you, so of course I believed you.

You didn’t do better for me. But surprisingly, inadvertently, your daughter did. When she was fifteen, she called asking if she could visit me and my new husband Jeff. “My mom says it’s okay,” she said, which surprised me. When she arrived, her face tense and miserable, her hands thrust into an old army jacket that I recognized as mine. Of course we took her in! She was your daughter, wasn’t she? Of course we fed her and let her stay all that long weekend, checking in with you to make sure it was okay, and after a day or two, she got relaxed enough to tell us the part of your story we didn’t know. She told us how unhappy she was, how she was supposed to act as a conduit to you, even when she was little, calling people you were unhappy with. She took the blame for the things you did wrong. You shouted at her constantly and berated her. She couldn’t go anywhere, have any friends, make any decisions.

Why had you let her come here? Did you feel better about me? Did you actually love me? Your daughter shook her head. It was because you wanted time alone. That was when Hillary told me how you talked about me. I was no good, you told her. You actually used that word: evil. I was selfish and cruel to you and Hillary should have nothing to do with me because I was a terrible influence. She told us she wanted to be a writer, but you wouldn’t let her touch your computer because you said it was your thing, and she should find something of her own, but then again, you weren’t writing anymore. You didn’t like the way she looked and you called her loser, idiot, worthless piece of slime. You told her not to be a slut  because she was dating. You told her she was just like me. “But maybe that’s a good thing,” your daughter said quietly, and I hugged her and stroked her hair.

Your daughter went home. I spoke to you on the phone, aghast, but you denied saying any of the things that Hillary had said. You denied that she was unhappy. “She lies,” you insisted. But that sorrow of hers was palpable.

Suddenly, your daughter and I were like two lonely planets thrown out of your orbit, adrift in space, and we began to feel each other’s gravitational pull, to use it as a safety harness. Sometimes it felt like we were the only two who knew what it was like to grow up in your company, where everything was our fault, a world of screaming and sniping and gaslighting—and that was the thing we clung to, the thing that seemed to save us and keep us steady. You’re not crazy, we told each other. It’s going to be okay. Things don’t have to be like this. We began writing each other, getting closer, as if at we recognized something in each other. The way we were both afraid all the time, the way we were desperate to be liked, to know this wasn’t our fault. The way we were always terrified around anger, especially when it was uncontrolled. The more I helped your daughter, the more I was really helping me.

And that was when you screamed, “you need to step away from my daughter.” When you called me and slammed down the phone repeatedly. When you told me you had a heart attack and it was my fault, even though our mother later told me it was a panic attack, that was all. You called with dire medical reports that turned out to be nothing, with reports of a head on car crash that had never happened. When you hacked into your daughter’s email and read the messages we sent each other, you demanded they stop because they were all lies, because nothing I said had ever happened. But how could I stop connecting to the person who was saving me who made me feel valuable because I was, in my own way, saving her?

But it wasn’t just your daughter you didn’t want me to see. When your daughter married and then had babies, you wanted me kept away from them as well. Your daughter and I refused to listen and we met up at Ocean City where you called me, furious, screaming into the phone. You acted as if we had committed a crime. Did I think you were a fool that you didn’t know what I was scheming to take your daughter away from you, you screamed? I invited you to come with us, I tried to explain, but you hung up the phone.

I am a Pollyanna. It’s true. I have always been the fixer of the family, the one to make things right when there’s been discord, to try to help. I tried with you. I begged you to see a therapist because I wondered if it was some sort of illness that could be helped with medication, and you said you would.  I offered you writing classes. I would help the people I loved.

That included your daughter, especially when she shyly asked if she could show me some writing. Of course I said okay. Or course I didn’t think much would happen. She had told me only that you hadn’t wanted her to write, that you had insisted she had no talent, that it would be a waste of time and money. “My mother says I’m totally untalented,” she told me. “She says I’ll never amount to anything.”

“You know that’s not true,” I said.

“No, I don’t.”

I read the novel in one swoop, gobsmacked. I could have written it. It was as if we shared the same DNA. When I told her how good it was, she shook her head. “No, No, I’m really awful,” she insisted. So I showed her that she was not, pointing out gorgeous passages, showing her the pages that had made me cry out loud. I took the novel to my agent, who never looked at any one’s work that she didn’t cherry pick herself, who had only once before taken on someone I had suggested. My agent called me within a day. “I want this,” she said. And it’s now out on submission.

“Tell your mom,” I urged her. I imagined how happy you would be, and how happy that would make me. I imagined we’d all get close again, but instead, you shouted. You accused me of writing it, not your daughter. You hung up the phone, your voice curt.

“She doesn’t see you anymore,” my husband told me. “And the person you loved growing up isn’t here anymore. Let go. You cannot make someone love you who doesn’t.”

“Why can’t you?” I said.

***

It’s been two years now, and you have not seen or spoke to me or your daughter or your grandkids. You refuse to answer my calls, my emails. Yes, it’s terrible and tragic and painful every day. When the occasional angry email messages come, less and less these days but always like little electric shocks, I don’t have to explain the pain, the longing to your daughter because she knows and has experienced it all herself, and when your daughter calls me upset from a snipe you made to her, or a nasty blaming email, I get to help her, to empathize, to tell her she’s been conditioned to think it’s true, but it’s not.

So this is it, the end of our story, maybe.

I lost you.

But I found your daughter.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

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Guest Posts, Women

Dancing in the Waves: My Reflection, Water, and Aphrodite

October 13, 2020
aphrodite

By Callie S. Blackstone

The bathroom was dark except for the light emitted by a pink votive candle. The air was heavy with rose incense and the warmth emanated from the bathtub. It was my second or third year practicing paganism, yet I was still struggling with accepting the existence of any deity —  spiritual doubt created by an abusive childhood. I squinted in the dimness and read the words of the ritual calling upon the goddess.

I don’t remember why I chose to call on Aphrodite that day. I believe I wanted to connect with the element of water and knew she was a goddess associated with it. So I whispered the words welcoming her into my bathroom. I stepped out of my clothes and into the water. I tried to relax and let it embrace me, but as always it was difficult to focus and my mind was racing. Am I doing this right? I felt silly calling into the darkness. My body was tense.

Admittedly, I was also hesitant to call on Aphrodite. My education included several courses on Greek literature. Older, male teachers had explained that Aphrodite was a shallow deity, absorbed with her own looks and driven mad with lust. What connection could possibly be made with such a deity?

Aphrodite spoke loudly and clearly to me that day and told me what she expected of me.

The first thing I learned was that Aphrodite is a goddess of surprises. She did not speak with the ditzy, flirtatious tone I feared. Her voice was strong, her words loud and clear. I did not understand everything she told me on that first day. But, she told me it was time to do deep shadow work regarding my father and his legacy of abuse. She guided me, and I told my father that he no longer had control over my mind or body.

I felt my energy building and crescendoing and I visualized myself creating a psychic boundary  my father could not penetrate. He could not keep me captive anymore.

I had worked with other deities before I made an offering to Aphrodite. After the bathtub meditation I continued with my regular routine. The meditation had been powerful, but power is often frightening for those of us who have lived without it for so long. Other deities demanded things I was capable of giving. Could I do what Aphrodite was asking me?

I continued to make offerings to other deities. I spent the summer trying (and failing) to learn basic beading so I could craft sacred jewelry for them. As I toiled away, my stomach started to churn and fill with guilt. Something was not right.

Colorful beads flickered in the fluorescent store lights. I eyed bright red sale stickers and slowly walked waiting for the right purple beads to show themselves to me. My eyes rested on a seasonal display of golden summer beads shaped like conch shells and sand dollars. I fingered some small pearls and my mind drifted to that night, the night of the bathtub meditation.

I began to list the traditional associations with Aphrodite: pearls, scallop shells, roses, doves. The churning in my stomach slowed to a stop.

While I understood that Aphrodite was making a request of me, I ignored the implications. I assumed Aphrodite wanted to receive the honors other gods I worked with did: daily offerings of candles, incense, and prayers. Badly made ritual jewelry that took painstaking hours to create.

Yet, I still refused to acknowledge what Aphrodite was trying to reveal to me — that I was a woman capable of knowing herself, accepting herself, and of loving herself. A woman who would manifest her desires and accept no less from herself, let alone others around her.

I was attracted to deities associated with darkness that many others feared. But it was Aphrodite, a goddess strongly associated with all things feminine and that scholars framed as weak that terrified me the most.

My father controlled everything about my life during my childhood and teenage years. On weekend visits to his home he would sift through the clothes I brang and determine what was or was not inappropriate. His eyes lingered over my body and what I wore. The clothing that made him stare the longest enraged him and was deemed unacceptable.

Teenage independence was a double-edged sword for me: the ability to leave my father’s home for a few hours was a respite. I barely knew how to function outside of his control but I groped through these early social interactions blindly, joyous to be away from him. But when I returned the lectures and the punishments for my excursions were unbearable. Once, he told me that I should be careful during these rendezvous — “ugly girls can get kidnapped and raped, too.”

I made it through these years by dissociating. I did not inhabit my body because it was no longer my own, it was an object that attracted disgust from all of those around me. I could not stand looking in the mirror and often left the house without doing so, donning frizzy hair, toothpaste stains around my mouth, and wrinkled, baggy clothing that hid my body. I did everything it took to hide from myself, from my own body.

As I navigated graduate school I gained weight and my thighs expanded, stretch marks rippling across them. The idea of looking at my own body naked was becoming more and more nauseating.

Men had taught me that Aphrodite was a goddess of beauty, preoccupied with her own face and cosmetics. Men had taught me that Aphrodite was a goddess who betrayed Hephaestus, a god who was a skilled provider and caretaker. No one seemed to acknowledge or care that he was forced upon her.

In reality, some myths stated that the marriage between Aphrodite and Hephaestus was forced upon her to stop male deities from fighting over her. Other myths stated Hephaestus tricked Hera and forced her to give him Aphrodite’s hand in marriage. Yet, male academics still found a way to twist these facts and blame Aphrodite for men’s uncontrollable, violent sexual desires.

Shame is inconceivable to Aphrodite. She is a goddess who knows her own body and what it desires. She owns her grounded reality. Because of this, Aphrodite easily rebels against the expectations forced upon her by others. She seeks sexual gratification elsewhere when she is not satisfied by the husband forced upon her. She has sex with gods or mortals. Aphrodite laughs in the faces of men– divine or mortal– who think they can tame her. She is wild and dances in the foam of the waves that lap the beach. She opens her eyes and sees herself clearly in the water. She runs her hands  through her long hair and over her body and smells and tastes her own saltiness. She grins as she thinks of the next man she will consume for her pleasure– the next man deemed holy enough to worship at her altar.

Darkness enveloped the beach. The full moon hung pregnant and heavy, the only light source on the empty beach. The only sound was the faint, steady lapping of the waves. I brought awareness to my body, brought my focus to my breath. I let myself relax, I let myself feel my belly and my thighs, skin and flesh I had feared for so long. I whispered prayers to my own body that transcended men’s values of attraction — I thanked my body for carrying me through this life. I let myself relax into it, and could not remember ever doing so before.

Aphrodite. Goddess of self-control. Goddess of our bodies and our sexualities. Goddess of confidence. A fierce warrior of self-love. A wild woman who defies stereotypes without even acknowledging them. A woman whose language does not include words for self-doubt or permission. Goddess hungry for vengeance against oppression. Goddess who demands that we create our own revolutions by finding ourselves and looking deeply into our reflections.

I stood at the edge of the waves and peeled off my socks. My body was electric and alive, grounded in the hard packing sand beneath my feet. The waves lapped over my ankles, soaking my jeans. The water was bitingly cold and the wind ripped through me. I stepped into the water and saw my pale face reflected back at me. No fear. Nothing except for my reflection, the water, and Aphrodite. Power.

Callie S. Blackstone is a lifelong New Englander. She is lucky enough to wake up to the smell of saltwater and the call of seagulls. Her creative nonfiction has been published in special interest magazine ‘SageWoman.’ Her poetry has been published in The Elephant Ladder. It is also forthcoming in an anthology titled ‘Tell Me More’ that is being published by East Jasmine Review.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Drawers

October 11, 2020
drawers

By Hillary Richard

When I was a kid, my brothers and I routinely rifled through our single mom’s drawers. We didn’t really know what we were looking for. Clues, maybe? Mom was something of an enigma then, alternately mystifying and terrifying.

While we three roamed the Upper West Side barefoot, bedraggled, and unsupervised, Mom worked as a registered nurse, mostly at night because it paid more. Because she worked nights, she slept during the day. When we feral kids woke her (which was often) she raged. Screaming, hitting, and punishments galore followed. Sometimes, if we really, really misbehaved, she would take away holidays like Halloween or Christmas.

But Mom could also be really fun. A musician at heart, a lifelong pianist, she loved to cook up a big pot of spaghetti, invite tons of people over, and make music. More often than not, though, we sat alone at the kitchen table, eating chicken potpies and TV dinners. Sometimes a live-in student swapped rent for nighttime babysitting. Men came and went. Some were nice and taught us things we loved, like how to burp on command (I can still do this). Some, not so much.

Who was this mother we loved, but whose actions confused and frightened us? The answer, we figured, was in her drawers. My brothers and I were usually disappointed to find only scarves, pantyhose, and underwear. Sometimes, we found matchbooks and notes. We pondered their meaning.

In time, I would find much more.

I now have three kids of my own. I have the luxury of a husband, a well paying job. When the kids were younger, I was able to employ an excellent nanny who not only cared for them, but who cleaned and cooked.

I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my mom to never enjoy the gift of time when I was a child. Just time to play with me or read to me; time free from worrying about how to pay the rent or clean the apartment. I, on the other hand, have clocked countless hours playing with Barbies, endless games of Candyland (which I never let the kids win without a real fight), and hours and hours of reading to them in bed or just laying there, feeling their hearts beat while they fell asleep. These quotidian minutiae shaped my relationships with my three girls. As did my desire to be an open book, unlike my mother.

When I was in third grade, I found some pot in one of my mother’s drawers. I had been fully indoctrinated into the belief that marijuana was a gateway drug that led directly to heroin. Naturally, I was hysterical. I told my older brother Chris, a sixth grader, that our mother was a drug addict, likely to die any day now of a fatal overdose. I thought we could confront her directly, you know: scare her straight. Chris calmly explained that he too smoked pot. Perhaps, he reasoned, if I tried it, I would understand it wasn’t dangerous like heroin. While I appreciated his soothing tone and calming efforts, I demurred. And rather than confront her, I just kept on spying.

Naturally, I grew to learn that weed doesn’t kill you, although alcohol might. And raising three girls firmly convinced me that of the two, weed was definitely the safer option. Alcohol would inspire me to make stupid and risky choices. Pot just made me hungry. My mom struggled with both. I joked that she could get addicted to anything – Coca Cola, aspirin, you name it. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so funny.

When my middle daughter started smoking pot in high school, I was relieved she wasn’t coming home drunk. I didn’t want her to be vulnerable. Unfortunately, just being female and a teenager makes you vulnerable. But I didn’t want her to be more vulnerable.

Eventually, I found some papers in my mother’s underwear drawer. They appeared to reference a medical procedure. I didn’t understand them. But I remembered the word abortion. Or a word close to abortion. They might have been in Spanish; I don’t really remember. But they scared me.

Sometimes we spent weekends with our dad (dads really, as my little brother had a different one). We never wondered what my mom was doing because we were kids and mostly just thought about ourselves. To the extent we ever thought about it, we just assumed she was at work or at home, like always. I was frightened to think that when we were away, my mom was having medical procedures, or doing who knows what else. But I couldn’t ask without admitting I went through her stuff. Was this taking away a holiday kind of bad? I wasn’t sure of the grade of the offense, and I didn’t want to risk it. Still, I thought about those papers for years.

We left New York for California soon thereafter. My mom married her third husband. We stopped going through her drawers. He had a bad temper and it wasn’t worth the risk. Also, she was home more. She stopped nursing. Actually, she stopped working altogether.

I understand now that she was desperately searching for herself. All of a sudden, she had the luxury of time. She wrote music, poetry, plays. She was finding herself as an artist. We kids remained feral, complicated, and unruly. I’m sure this contributed to the demise of that marriage. We moved on. My brothers left to live with their respective fathers. I stayed behind.

As a full-fledged teenager, I acted out, fell in love, got arrested, cut classes. My mom played in rock bands, had tumultuous relationships, and went on welfare. She was no longer an enigma to me. I learned she’d had a particularly rough childhood, was orphaned young, then separated from her three siblings in foster care, only to later learn that between her mother’s death and her father’s a year later, he’d remarried and sired another child. I knew that she was overwhelmed by sadness. That she had complicated relationships with men. That she loved us as best as she could, but often felt we were just too much for her.

I was no longer in danger of getting punished for going through her drawers years ago, so at 14, I asked her about the papers I had found.

As it turned out, she’d had an abortion. Not in New York, where it was illegal. She’d been having a fling, maybe an affair, with a doctor at the hospital where she worked. He didn’t want a child, at least not that one, and my mother couldn’t afford another one. So, he flew her to Puerto Rico, where abortion was legal. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, it was fairly common for women to fly from mainland US to Puerto Rico to obtain a safe, legal abortion. My mom could never have afforded that on her own.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if she had gotten pregnant instead by the violin player she dated for ages, or the Con Ed worker who for a while was a fixture in our house. Would she have gotten a back alley abortion and possibly died? I can’t imagine her having another child when life was already so hard, money so strained, and my mother so tired. Our lives, already in motion, already difficult, would have been so much worse. Not only am I grateful, I’m astonished she could do such a thing. It must have been frightening to leave home, have an abortion, and return to three loud, needy kids, and pretend like nothing happened.

In that moment, I realized that there was so much of her I hadn’t realized. All along, she’d been a nuanced, complex woman with experiences and feelings unknown to me.

I soon left home and set out to live my own complex, nuanced life. About two weeks  before graduating from college and heading to law school, to begin what I saw as my real life, my adult life, I found out I was pregnant. I wasn’t in a committed relationship, although that wouldn’t have mattered. I was going to law school and there was no possibility that I was going there pregnant. Is it awful to admit that I don’t remember exactly who got me pregnant? It was a long time ago. What I do remember – vividly – was that I had a graduation party at Danceteria. I had the abortion money in my clutch (worn with my vintage cocktail dress and combat boots – thanks, Madonna). I guess he had given me his half at the party. I put my bag down to dance and when I looked over, it was gone. I ran off the dance floor and headed for the exit. (I had no money. This was a big deal.) There was the cuprit, fleeing down those steep Danceteria stairs. I screamed at her to stop and was about to jump when she tossed the bag up to me and ran.

My mother, sick with cancer, wasn’t able to attend my graduation. It was the first time I realized just how sick she was because she wouldn’t have otherwise missed it for the world. I didn’t tell her about the abortion; it didn’t seem necessary. And, given her pragmatism about hers, I was confident that she would appreciate my pragmatism about mine.

My mom died during my first year of law school. What can unmoor you more than that? (Spoiler alert: losing both parents.) I went to El Salvador and lived under martial law during a civil war. At least you can’t feel sorry for yourself under those circumstances. I blew up a relationship that probably deserved detonation. I graduated law school with honors. I had another abortion. These things were unrelated. I marched forward towards my real life. After graduation I met the man I’ve now been married to for almost thirty years. We’ve had three kids together. When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I longed for my mom. How did she feel when she was pregnant with me? Was she excited? Was I a surprise? I had so many questions that I’d never thought to ask. I longed for the time when I could rummage through her closets, scrutinize her expressions, pepper her with questions, if only I had known the right questions. Indeed, raising three girls, I long for her daily.

I firmly believe that we all keep secrets, even from those we have long, intimate, loving relationships with. Even those of us who consider ourselves an open book as I do. But am I an enigma to my kids? I think not. They know that I’ve had abortions. And they know not to eat any candy they find in my drawers because maybe it’s not just candy. But more than that, we spend endless amounts of time together; deeply together. We talk about things that were verboten when I was a kid: mental health issues, alcoholism, why every girl should own a vibrator, and just what it means to be alive and engaged in the world. Unlike my mom, I have the luxury of time. And I hope to have it long enough that they can ask me (once they are interested) what it felt like to be pregnant with them. How I coped working full time and raising kids. What to do when you find yourself pregnant and you don’t want to, or can’t afford to be. Let the rest of their lives be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Not me. Just stay out of my drawers.

 

Hillary Richard is a former lawyer and now helps run a social media platform for women over 40 called The Woolfer. She is editor of the weekly newsletter and occasionally writes short pieces for the site. Hillary also writes, is the executive producer, and co-host of a podcast called Raging Gracefully

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts

I’m Missing The Ritual of Funerals

October 8, 2020

By Dana Schneider

This essay is dedicated to my stunning, jewelry obsessed warrior of a woman cousin Ally.

I’ve always secretly thought that you could catch death.  I mean, not catch death, as in if it’s an actual thing you can physically grab and catch, more like, if death was a virus, if I was in the same room, I would catch it. Then mysteriously I’d be the next person that people would be coming to mourn.  I know how that must sound.  Childlike silliness. But when you have a true fear of something, it manifests itself in your brain in weird ways.  Funerals as we know them from when things were normal, popped up whenever and wherever.  No mental prep time.  When I had to go to a funeral, I would layer myself with my own protective shields of superstitious accessories, like wearing a red something to ward off evil, then pairing that with a good luck charm given to me by a friend, along with not looking directly at the casket, and sitting all the way in the back back back of the service room.  Somehow, this kept me feeling safer.  It was a layer of protection to cover my raw naked fears.

The morning of getting dressed for said funeral and making my way to the car and eventually walking into the funeral parlor, for me, is beyond draining, energy sucking and confrontational as hell. The day always ended by throwing my clothes directly into the laundry machine so as to wash off any death virus particles.  Fact. And if you really want to know the truth, I had a funeral outfit.  This was not to be worn at any other time, because, then while wearing it, I’d think of death.  I know.  Insert eye roll.

So, coming from this place of fear, I never thought I’d say this, at least say it out loud, but I’ve never wanted to go to a funeral more in my life than I do right now.

Turns out, this fear of death is real.  Can’t deny that.  I’m working on it, especially in the face of COVID-19.  But the act of attending a funeral to say goodbye to a loved one, is in fact, a ritual, that I never was able to understand, before this pandemic, as cathartic and necessary.

Dana and Ally

I lost my cousin a few weeks ago to COVID-19.  My exact age (late 40’s) with a husband, 2 children and 2 dogs.  She was a NYC school teacher for 20+ years, dedicated to the core daughter and daughter in law, collection of dear friends since elementary school, an avid community member, law abiding citizen and adored family member.   She was one of us.  There is nothing in her story that will make any sense as to why she was taken from us.  In the past, when someone died young and unexpectedly, that “out of nowhere” story, sometimes I would wonder, for my sanities sake, secretly look for a reason as to why the universe decided to take that person.  Thoughts like “I wonder if they did something to deserve this death” would cross my mind.  I used to believe that good things happened to good people and bad things happened to bad people.  It just made such clean good sense. I believe I thought this way to ward off the truth that we are all vulnerable at any given time.  Another false sense of security.  I’m working on that one too.

With this pandemic has come some of the most deeply disturbing and thought provoking times.  I find myself in deep thought about so many aspects of life from parenting, marriage, family relations, health, money and death.  What I can say for sure, through all these thoughts, is that I’m craving rituals.

I’m craving togetherness.  I’m craving hugs, tears, laughter through tears, funny stories, touching someone’s hands, heartbreaking memories, history of our family. I’m craving it all.  I’m desperately craving her funeral.

No news flash here, funerals have been cancelled.  Or at least no more than 10 people are allowed to attend the service and or burial.  In our almost 2 mos. home, we “attended” one funeral via Facetime and one was just a message sent out to let us know that the departed was comfortably laid to rest.  If you’ve been unlucky enough to lose someone during this pandemic, than you might understand what I’m feeling.

I have no proof that my cousin passed.  In my mature adult brain, I’m thinking that maybe they misidentified her body, it wasn’t her that died and she’s walking around the city with amnesia. Which means she will turn up on someone’s door step soon enough and this whole nightmare will be just that….a nightmare.   I’m sure this is one of the stages of grief?  Just not sure which one.  How many stages are there anyway?  But at the end of the day, there really is no closure without a funeral or service or something to recognize her beauty-full life.  This was taken from us.  Dying with dignity was taken from us.

The funeral allows us to say goodbye, to have that closure. To neatly wrap up death. Death hurts so damn badly, so at least let us wrap it up in a pretty bow and send the departed off with a beautiful good-bye.   She’s already gone.  We all know that.  But whether it’s religious or just ritual, saying goodbye allows us to move forward.  Not necessarily move on, just move forward.  One baby step at a time, one minute, hour, day at a time.

I want to be in a room of other people who adored her the way I did.  I want to hug them and cry on their shoulders.  They understand my ache.  They ache too.  I want to be able to share some funny stories about her that maybe she would have wanted to share with the world one day.  I want to say her name out loud.  She deserved to be loved out loud and talked about.  I want to be able to say good bye for goodness sake.  I miss her.

From my home base, in quarantine, I’m doing what I can to memorialize her.  Tears have been shed, pictures have been dug out of really loved brown-edged photo albums, jokes have been made of our teased and permed hair,  stories have been told. But I still need ritual of a funeral to say goodbye.  To know for sure she won’t be coming to knock on my door someday soon.  Until then, I can dream.

My name is Dana (rhymes with Banana)I’m a mama of three beautiful souls trying to figure out their way in this world.  As they wander and explore about, I find myself drawn to the computer to share our stories.  Turns out, walls can talk!  My hope is that you find comfort, relatability, tears and maybe some humor in my words.  I rely heavily on my friend squad to get me through the days.  If you need someone to get you through yours, I’d be happy to be that gal.  Lets connect.  Connection is everything.  When I’m not writing, parenting, wifing, daughtering and friending, you can find me decorating peoples homes.  danaschneiderdecor@gmail.com   or insta: @danaschneiderdecor. 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

chronic pain, Guest Posts

Dear Pain

October 6, 2020
pain

By Diana M. Hernández
That’s you, looming over my thoughts

My movements

My day

My life

I hate you

I really do

People say, “think positive.”

Have they known this pain?

Would they still shit rainbows

If they woke up to this every day?

For years and counting

I’ve hit rock bottom

Times where I thought it would be best

To end it all.

I’m no longer in that dark place

But DAMN I get really frustrated

I have really good weeks

I get a taste of what my life was

Then I’m hit

Days of never-ending

Pulsating

Throbbing

Stabbing

Torture

Radiating from my back

Up to the top of my head

Bleeding into my mood

Blurring it all

I don’t think I’ve hated anyone

As much as I do you

But wait

My son hates you the most

He’s growing up

Knowing pain

Seeing pain

Daily

On the face of his mother

On the body of his mother

He stopped asking me to play

A long time ago

“Momma…

When you die…”

He’ll frequently wonder

Out loud

He is six years old

He should not worry about death

His family drawings

Depict me in bed

“Will you be healthy one day?”

“So that we can play?”

I want with all my heart

To tell him that I will

But I would be lying

So, I nod my head and smile

“You look so beautiful…”

“When you smile…”

I realize then

My child

Isn’t used to seeing me smile

He grew up

Seeing pain every day

On his mother

Dear Pain

Fuck you to eternity

Diana M. Hernández is a mother and graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin where she is specializing in Historic Preservation. She is from Missouri City, Texas and currently holds an M.A. in Spanish Language, Literature and Culture from the University of Houston. 

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, pandemic, parenting

Tough As A Mother

October 4, 2020
tough

By Talya Jankovits

Four months ago, my children came home from school, and they never went back. Backpacks hung hopeful on hooks, until weeks passed, and it was clear that it was time to reach deep into the crevices of a dozen purposeless pockets and empty them of little bits of folded pieces of paper, a solitary cookie, a dried-out stick of gum. Even further still to the tiny colorful erasers hidden in the folds of the lining, these small prizes hoarded from teachers. Treasures of days traveling to and from school, all splayed out on the kitchen counter as I sorted through them like an excavator. What I could sneak into the trash before they catch me, what must get stored for next year. The backpacks went into the wash, then hung up to try before being put in the basement storage with no clear idea of when they might get pulled out next.

When I first faced the realization that we would be bunkered down, myself and my four daughters together as my husband, an essential worker,  continued to work outside of the home, anxiety filled my mornings, my nights and every hour sandwiched in between. I lost myself in the heaps of laundry, the ever-growing pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I sank heavy under the demands of varying ages of children from a baby up to a fourth grader who needed to learn how to write a state paper and all the tiresome math problems in between. Winter was still hovering in the slow birth of spring, and we watched the seasons change as the weight of our outerwear hanging on the coatrack thinned ever slowly into straw hats and baseball caps. Finally, summer had arrived and with that a redemption from remote learning and a rebirth that I had not anticipated.

As a mother, I now have never felt stronger as a result from having never felt weaker. I hadn’t understood the immense value in self forgiveness until I was one of the very few people in my new reality who could offer it. I had never embraced my flaws as a parent until I was face to face daily with the reflection of myself in the eyes of my daughters – all of whom needed me more than ever.  By the time the first tulips poked their heads out of the thawing ground I was slowly gaining awareness of my own metamorphosis. My body was softer than it ever was, fuller than its ever been. But I found that so was my heart. Parenting during a pandemic was, is, the fiercest thing I have ever done in my entire adult life.

Raising small humans was never a small task, but with the onset of a worldwide pandemic which held inside of itself historic happenings towards social justice, there was a surge in my responsibility towards fostering children that are human conscientious, anti-hate and anti-self-serving. I was terrified at all that was being hurled at us as human beings. All my obligations to absorb happenings and seize the opportunity to step up my parenting instead of retreating inside. And something remarkable happened, after months of all of us struggling with the changes, the challenges, the isolation, and the uncertainty, I noticed personal growth inside of our home.

Summer brought heat, sprinklers, frozen treats, and endless hours together to fill in any way we could think up. It also brought dialogue about why we wear masks and who we are protecting. Why we have given up certain opportunities to practice human awareness – the concept of tikkun olam, our part in caring and protecting the world. It brought on conversation about skin color, about systemic hate, about privilege, about standing up, about accountability and kindness and goodness in both large and small scales.

Summer days are hot and our heads hurt with weary happy heat by the time the sky glows pink. The kids fall asleep happy. They thank me. They tell me today was such a great day. And yet there are still times I am feeling totally gutted. As if I have hollowed all of myself out for them to grab and take with greedy fingers. I think of how far we likely are from our old normal. How long it may be until I can see my parents in California. How school may not arrive in the fall the way we want it to. How masked faces are the new face of human interaction. I think these things and I want to crawl into my bed, lay my head down and hibernate until a miracle solution is found.  But then I put on my T-shirt.

The words printed on the tshirt: Tough as a mother. My grey t-shirt, unassuming, unremarkable – feels like a superhero’s cape. I pull it over my head, slip my arms through the holes, and holler for my girls: I am ready to start our day. I feel invincible. It seems inconsequential, almost absurd, that this shirt would have any influence over me. In no time it will be sweat stained, snot marked, sticky from melted popsicles. It will get thrown into a laundry shoot with little consideration after late summer dark finally blankets the sky and the last daughter has crawled into bed. Yet, it validates me. This shirt from the internet, it fuels me.

I am one tough mother. I did it. I am still doing it. Did I get through every day with grace and dignity? At first, no, definitely no. There was yelling. There was crying on cold kitchen floors as a baby gently poked me. There was hiding in bathrooms and there was anxiety ridden nights where I never fell asleep because the dread of the mundanity that morning would bring kept me awake until the first mommy! of the day clawed open my heavy eyelids. But four months have passed and I’m not rough around the edges anymore. I’m undoubtedly tougher. There is still so much summer ahead without any of our usual summer luxuries and indulgences. There is still a fast-approaching school year with so many unknowns. I have given up so much of myself for these four girls, and I likely will be giving up so much more. But I am at peace with that. I am braver and stronger than I’ve ever been and as this virus continues to rage on, as our country sets out to do so much work that needs to be done, I want my kids to reflect back one day on this time of their lives and think, we made it through ok, because we had one tough mother

Talya Jankovits’s work has appeared in Tablet, Kveller, Bartleby Snopes, Hevria, Lilith, Literary Mama, The Jewish Literary Journal, and The Citron Review among others. Her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart prize. Her poem, A Woman of Valor, is featured in the 2019/2020 Eshet Hayil exhibit at Hebrew Union College Los Angeles. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and resides in Chicago with her husband and four daughters..

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Relationships

THE CHILL GIRL’S GUIDE TO NOT GIVING A F*CK

October 2, 2020
feel

By Charlotte McDougald

Welcome! I’m so glad that you’re embarking on this journey. With this foolproof plan, you are guaranteed to be rid of all of the pesky emotions that get in the way of that exhilarating life you’ve been yearning for. A life with no cares, no worries, and definitely no attachments. What more could we all ask for? By following my personal journey and steps, you’ll be able to come out of this giving less of a fuck than you ever have before. Let’s get started.

Step One:

Make sure you start out with no real attachments. Begin with two parents who work full time in New York City. You’ll spend the afternoons bored reading your mother’s self help books about love and sex and alcohol before you fully understand what any of that means. The pit in your stomach of missing will start to feel familiar, a passing cloud that you can swat away. You’ll learn how to do things yourself, and how to shut up when something is bothering you, because chances are, you can sort it out alone.

Step Two:

Get a boyfriend during the summer after eighth grade, during the summer before his senior year of highschool. You’ll feel uncomfortably cool most of the time, and a lot smaller than most of his friends. He’ll teach you about things like sex and weed and drinking and driving around at 2am on heavy heat-wave summer nights in a black Saab. He’ll whisper things that you weren’t ready to hear, he’ll try things that you weren’t ready to feel.

He’ll teach you what it’s like to be disposable, and you’ll understand that everything is a little bit disposable. Used once, and then one day, thrown away.

You should read Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot after the break up, and take it a bit too literally. This line especially:

 “our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

There’s nothing like remembering that we live on a lonely speck in the darkness to remind us that nothing really matters. After this, you shouldn’t cry over something as meaningless as a boy again.

Step Three:

Develop a distorted dependence on all things that make life feel softer.

Like humor, because you should learn how to make everything a joke. It’s all pretty funny when you look at it from far away. You can learn that from your father.

And alcohol, to make the hard feelings go away for a night. Nothing can be that bad, or feel that deep, when you’re drunk. You can learn that from your mother.

Step Four:

Turn everything into a game, especially with boys and men. You’ll get the hang of this in highschool. Be the only girl who drinks herself into a blackout on a Wednesday night, so that way you don’t have to remember the horribly boring, sometimes painful sex with the random, gangly boys you hang around. Always leave their beds in the middle of the night, even if the feeling of their embrace makes you feel human, makes you feel whole for a second, makes you feel safe.

Untangle, unattach, get out.

Step Five:

Let go of fear. You’ll be afraid of a lot, you’ll be unsure of even more. Never show it. Soon, you’ll forget you even felt fear in the first place. Another cloud you can swat away.

Get to college, and do coke off of a washing machine your freshman year with the boy with the accent. He’ll fall in love with the way you don’t care, he’ll fall in love with the way you don’t text him back, he’ll fall in love with the way you move so effortlessly through life. And you’ll lie to him, and take Molly in a bathroom stall with a different boy that has his sister’s name tattooed on his wrist.

A few months later this one will slap you across the face in your kitchen at 3a.m. because he wants you to “FEEL SOMETHING!” (direct quote)

And you’ll laugh after when you’re alone in your bed, because everything is funny if you look at it from far away. Remember?

Step Six:

Move away for six months to a country on the other side of the world. Find yourself in the mountains and in the reflections of your face in the lakes. Lose yourself in the feeling of being a lonely speck, a tiny speck, a 21 year old speck in the million, trillion year old oblivion.

Take surf lessons, jump off cliffs, jump out of planes, meet new friends and fall in love.

I mean really, really fall in love this time. He’ll love you because you write postcard essays and poetry. He’ll love you because he likes the way you make him laugh in serious situations. He’ll love you because you smoke cigarettes and do drugs and that’s not like most girls he knows. You’ll fall in love with his sweet eyes, and his quiet calmness to your tangled up mind, and his gentle way of making you feel understood. You’ll love his innocent way of looking at you, his innocent way of looking at the world.

You’ll love the way he makes life feel softer without any distorted dependence on anything other than him.

You’ll be the bright shock of light that wakes him up in the middle of the night. But after a while, he’ll go back to sleep. And he’ll be exhausted.

And you’ll be alone at the first light of dawn. You won’t laugh this time, but you’ll swat it all away. Keep swatting it away.

You’ll want to stay in bed for days, you’ll want to bury yourself in a bath of tears. But that’s not what chill girl does. Get up, put on some concealer and mascara, a little dress, and take a shot of vodka. Sink back into the comfortable feeling of missing.

You’ve been here before, and you’ll be here again.

When your roommate sees you out at the pregame in between your second line and your fourth drink, she’ll say:

“I’ve never met someone who gives less of a fuck.” And she’ll laugh, and you’ll laugh back.

And voilà! Chill girl who doesn’t give a fuck.

Warnings and Cautions:

Readers should remember that there will be many bleak mornings with headaches that feel like they cut into the core. Readers should also consider that swatting away doesn’t always work. You’ll often find yourself waking up on a pillowcase stained in tears and stale mascara and you’ll bury yourself in the darkness of your bedroom, and in the aloneness of it all. You’ll feel drained and raspy from the secret tears you let go behind bedroom doors.  You’ll lose your appetite, you’ll lose some friends, you’ll lose love. You’ll miss your mother and you’ll only crave to crawl into bed with her at the end of it all.

You’ll want to scream out, into the middle of a crowded night,

OF COURSE I GIVE A FUCK.

OF COURSE I FEEL SOMETHING.

OF COURSE I FEEL EVERYTHING.

Charlotte McDougald is a recent Chapman University graduate with a BFA in Creative Writing. She enjoys writing poetry, the personal essay, and fiction. The power of language has always inspired her, and she plans to continue her writing career in Los Angeles!

Other upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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Guest Posts, writing

Becoming A Brave Artist

September 29, 2020
book

By Chelsey Drysdale

I read his memoir in two sittings, watched his prerecorded online class, took a cozy afternoon workshop he led, and savored a rainy-day lunch across from him, surrounded by mutual writer buddies. To close friends, he was my “literary crush.” Single for eight years, loneliness my unflinching shadow, at 43 I believed the swift jolt of infatuation was resigned to memories. I basked in this fresh fascination because it reminded me someone new could still light me up.

When I handed him his book to inscribe for my mom on his book tour, he buried his face in the title page with a sharpie.

What the hell is he writing to my mom? I thought.

“When are we going to do this again?” he asked.

Any time you want.

He said he and his wife had a guest room in their house if my friend and I ever wanted to visit.

That’s a wonderful and terrible idea, I thought.

At home, I opened the book and saw these words: “Donna: I have a secret literary crush on your daughter. Don’t tell her!

***

I’d experienced chromosome-altering heartbreak, a sham six-month marriage, a gut-wrenching broken engagement, ill-timed encounters, and problematic flings. Scared of more loss, my subconscious demographic of choice is a man like him: a smart, creative father with a stellar sense of humor, tall, with dark hair, muscular but lean—and taken. Inaccessible men are the tantalizing cheese wedge poised on a trap. I wanted to know him, even if I couldn’t have him.

***

When I read the author’s inscription, my inner, dormant teenager emerged, ready to flourish on false potential. I danced around my studio, swinging my hips, snapping my fingers, singing a wordless, made-up tune.

I still got it, I thought.

I broke the words into meaningful segments, scavenging for crumbs on a trail to nowhere, nibbling tiny bites, wishing they’d provide nourishment. The word “secret” gave me chills; the word “literary” suggested he was a fan of my work; the word “crush” implied he felt a stirring in his belly when he saw me too; “don’t tell her” was wily because the message was for me.

I showed the dedication to a handful of girlfriends.

“Oh no he didn’t! Oh boy! Buckle up!” a fellow career single woman texted back.

“Oh, that’s adorable,” another friend said, having been a mistress.

“Dangerous,” my sister said, having been a wife.

His note propelled bawdy, unfulfilled fantasies for weeks—the perfect sidetrack to block any real chance for intimacy elsewhere.

***

While his memoir was a mesmerizing concerto, the author’s latest novel was wildly inventive. I read it inside three days, then devoured his other four with the same intensity. I starred words about the inevitability of isolation and relinquishing expectations about what life should be. I sat slumped on the hardwood floor sobbing for a boy ignored by his mother. I underlined phrases about truth and love at all costs. I shared my desolate bed with his tomes in an intimate act with no adverse consequences.

This is the kind of writer I want to be, I thought.

In recent years I’d been plowing through unending trepidation in a flurry, writing like a madwoman, angst cresting on publication days alongside rare pleasure. Before, I’d been consumed with an innate lack of conviction and debilitating fear of failure—the same lifelong anxiety that had led to unsolicited singledom and childlessness too.

After whittling an essay collection for three years, I was mystified by the ending. How was I supposed to finish a book about romantic love when I’d never retained it?

***

Motivated in part by increasing amorous reveries, the tug of creative kismet propelled me to email him.

“I’d be stoked to help you finish your essay collection,” he wrote. “Plus, I really dig that piece you published in WaPo. Double-plus, you have cool hair.”

“You had me at ‘you have cool hair,’” I replied.

We moved a racy tale from page 76 to page one, and we were off on a fruitful journey. Bonus: His editorial notes were delivered via video chat. On days we connected online, I awoke with childhood Christmas morning enthusiasm, ready to unwrap hidden treasures. I took extra time fixing my hair and makeup and made sure I didn’t wear the same shirt twice. I treated our cyber encounters like scholarly dates in an otherwise solitary existence.

During our meetings, I gazed at him on my laptop screen, admiring his handsome face and calming voice, relishing in his golden counsel. He read his favorite words of mine back to me in a measured tone that suggested they mean something. He said I wasn’t afraid to be “brazen.” He told me to “play up moral ambiguities” and be “fucking serrated.” My jaw dropped with recognition when he called three important men in my life a “triptych of superimposed happiness.” When I turned in a revision of chapter six, he said, “This is what Chelsey’s capable of. Every scene is dialed in.”

I floated two inches off the ground.

In eight weeks, we covered eight chapters. In the process, he became privy to private details and facilitated my emotional voyage on the page. All the while, my feelings for him grew stronger.

Is this like falling for your therapist? I wondered.

I addressed emails to the Book Whisperer, Fairy Godmentor, and Unicorn. Despite my fawning, he remained a professional, nonjudgmental friend. His book inscription proved to be an innocuous gesture. As a result, I adored him more.

Before our time was up, we mapped the rest of my manuscript, now a memoir.

I got choked up during our last online exchange.

“You don’t know how much this means to me,” I said.

“Are you going to make me cry on a Monday morning?”

“You’re a really special person.”

“We’re kindred spirits,” he said.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” I replied.

The absurdity is not lost on me the unattainable editor I chose to guide the unpacking of my love life is someone I wished, in an imaginary world of impeccable timing, played a starring role in it.

***

In the coming months, our contact was relegated to Instagram likes, retweets, and the occasional email. I felt special when he wrote, “Wanna hear a secret?” and told me about a book deal he wouldn’t announce for another four months.

When I was in San Francisco, he commented on an Instagram photo, “Maybe we can see each other this weekend!”

When we realized I was flying out as he was flying in, he emailed, “We’re like ships in the night.”

Months later, I finally hit him up for the coffee get-together he’d promised more than once. He suggested walking around the lake by his house. We hadn’t seen each other in person since the Festival of Books before our video chats. There we’d walked side-by-side to his signing booth, our arms draped across each other’s lower backs. I felt unanticipated electricity shoot through my hands.

Even so, I sensed a demarcation that protected the commitment he had for his precious family unit. I respected it. Yet, driven by curiosity and what I considered an extraordinary connection, I tested it anyway.

At the lake, alone for the first time, he gave me a stiff side-hug. Then we strolled the circular three miles slowly, discussing his recent career feats and the material I added to my manuscript post-mentorship. I told him an acquaintance’s recent seedy encounter I thought might work in his fiction. We laughed and locked eyes when he cracked a dirty joke.

At an opportune moment, I broached the topic I’d been stewing about for months: this essay. He hadn’t read it yet, but knew it existed. He’d emailed, “I utterly trust your talent and conscience. We are pals, and don’t worry…”

I didn’t think it was possible to feel this way about someone again, I told him at the lake.

“Then I met you,” I said.

He was quiet, staring at the ground as we walked.

“Meeting you gave me hope it’s still possible to meet someone else,” I said. “I realized I’m not dead inside after all.”

He laughed. “I’m glad I make you feel not dead inside!”

He asked if he could read the essay.

“Of course!” I said. “I want your approval. I’m terrified.”

He stopped to use a nearby restroom. Then I changed the subject.

After we finished circumnavigating the lake, I asked, “Do you have time for lunch?”

A knot formed in my throat, a familiar feeling of short-lived excitement giving way to unrelenting seclusion.

He declined and hugged me goodbye. When he pulled away, my hands slid down the arms of his black leather jacket, a natural motion meant to lead to the intertwining of fingers. He tensed. I froze and awkwardly gripped his forearms instead. Then he left.

When I think about men from my past, I envision a man-shaped cartoon-cutout in a brick wall where they’ve each leapt to a hasty escape, as if my gift is making men disappear, when really my brand of magic is orchestrating ludicrous, unworkable scenarios to set myself up to be snubbed as a way to reinforce the false notion I’ve long suspected: I’m not lovable.

This felt like that.

Back at my computer, I sent the author an earlier version of this piece. He’d made me feel safe. After I hit send, I no longer did. Now I risked feeling rejected as a person and a writer. I lost sleep.

***

After our last video chat, I stared at a blinking cursor, with six more chapters to rewrite. I panicked.

I can’t finish this book without him, I thought.

But I forced myself to trudge forward. I wrote as if he would still read what came out of me, his closing remarks echoing in my head: “I’ll be in the front row when you publish this book. Keep going keep going keep going…”

I began to trust my instincts as I tried to make sense of my past. Glimpsing my empty studio apartment, absent of all the men I’ve worshipped, I finally understood what it meant to be my own advocate. Succinct sentences were tiny miracles. Exploring secret scenes was freeing. The author no longer needed to commend my creation for me to see it was working. For the next two months, I wrote with an uncharacteristic determination and finished my manuscript.

But intrepid writers stumble eventually. A year later, when all publishing progress had stalled, and the author had read this essay without comment, whatever creative energy I’d tapped into ceased. I couldn’t write, and I began to question whether publishing my memoir was worth the agony of upsetting its unsuspecting participants.

I’ve dedicated much of my adult life to seeking validation through the sultry eyes of lovers gazing back at me. When I write, I substantiate myself instead. While the soft glow from my computer screen is no substitute for eye-to-eye moments shared with another human being, a self-directed liaison with words incites a confidence I’d only expected to have as a result of being one half of a duo. Conversely, when I don’t write, my self-esteem plummets, and my monkey brain goes into overdrive: You’re not good enough. You’re alone because no one loves you. Give up.

After months of immobility, I heeded the author’s earlier advice to finish this essay: “Get out of your own way. There’s no reason not to write more.”

***

I rebroke my heart to have an unforeseen love affair, not with a man, but with my manuscript. Publishing my memoir has to be worth it. Self-sabotage is a death knell, and writing is the road to contentment over which I have control. I can’t send a shout-out to my nonexistent husband for his undying support. I am unable to thank my unborn children for showing me the true nature of devotion. I can, however, render self-awareness my superhero trait. I will never be a mother, and I may never be a wife again, but I have become a brave artist.

If I ever fall in love again with an unattached man, I’m sure it will be a direct result of living an authentic authorial life, building my self-worth without another person’s adoration. Even on the bleakest days, as I work toward publication, I return to the same thought: Someday I will create the life I’ve always wanted, and I will deserve it.

Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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Chronic Illness, chronic pain, Guest Posts

Hysteria & Me: An Ancient, Misogynistic Disorder is Killing Women

September 27, 2020
SYMPTOM

By Elizabeth Land Quant

On a December morning in 2017, I woke up face down next to my treadmill. The week before, a rheumatologist at Cleveland Clinic had diagnosed me with fibromyalgia, which she described as an “exercise depravation syndrome,” and told me that aerobic exercise would help my symptoms. “As long as your heart races a little and you sweat,” the doctor’s handout advised.

Now, as I lay on the floor, my heart raced like a trapped bird banging against my chest. I couldn’t take a deep breath. My pants were wet, from urine and sweat, and the nerves in my hands and feet were burning. I needed to throw up. Between the gray-tinged double vision and shaking in my legs, I couldn’t stand up, so I crawled across the floor and slowly pulled myself up the stairs.

After cleaning up my vomit, I vowed to follow my doctor’s advice and try even harder. Her handout said: “First, it is very important to know that even if the pain is worse after exercise, no injury to the body occurs.” But the next day when I tried to exercise things got worse. As the days wore on, I was unable to chew food. My neck muscles would not support my head, and I had to drink my dinner though a straw with my husband’s help. My chest hurt with every breath. I was incontinent, and my intestines became immobile. The burning in my hands and feet got so severe I couldn’t wear socks or gloves. My anxiety and depression were no longer controlled by my meds. I developed double vision and my left eye sagged. I couldn’t take care of my family anymore, or myself.

My husband worked a fulltime job, and we had three teenagers with medical and school needs. With my mother’s and sister’s help, we cobbled together a way to keep everyone fed, up on schoolwork, and attending most doctor’s appointments. Our daughter ran errands for the family after she got off work. My father-in-law picked up our boys from school as much as he could, with Uber as our back up. Dinner was made by anyone who had time that night, or we ordered. I missed countless school events like my son’s football games and my daughter’s high school homecoming coronation, memories we should have made together. I was so thankful that we could get by, but I constantly felt like a burden and a failure.

To get help, I traveled from my home in Minnesota to the Cleveland Clinic with the hope of finding answers for these symptoms. I chose this clinic because its website advertised  a clinic that works “collaboratively with multiple consultants and departments.” But instead of finding answers, after I told her that some of these symptoms had started in childhood, my rheumatologist focused her questions on whether I was traumatized as a child. I didn’t know it at the time, but the rheumatologist that I was seeing is a renowned expert in fibromyalgia, and was head of the Fibromyalgia Clinic at Cleveland Clinic.

“You’ve got severe fibromyalgia. I’m recommending intense psychiatric rehabilitation,” she said.

I found out years later that this rheumatologist conducted a study on how past abuse can indicate the severity of fibromyalgia. Her conclusion was to “recommend that abuse should be inquired about in all patients evaluated for FMS as this may give more clarity to the nature and severity of the FMS presentation and prompt the need for psychological interventions.” This doctor also recommended that severe fibromyalgia patients should not be evaluated for other diseases.

Soon after, back in Minnesota, I was erroneously diagnosed with somatic symptom and related disorders (SSRD), a psychiatric condition that is “characterized by an intense focus on physical (somatic) symptoms that causes significant distress and/or interferes with daily functioning.” They claimed my symptoms were caused by a mental illness and not a physical disease.

For decades, my anxiety, depression and physical symptoms had been attributed by doctors to my own actions. For instance, I was told by a gastroenterologist that my inability to swallow food and my intestinal motility issues were most likely brought on by limiting certain foods from my diet, like gluten and dairy (but if I ate those foods, I got hives and threw up). Other doctors said that my symptoms were present because I “worked and exercised too much and didn’t rest,” or that I was “resting too much” and became deconditioned. I was scolded for being underweight. I was scolded for being overweight. I focused too much attention on my kids and not enough on myself, causing unneeded anxiety. Another doctor said that I focused too much on myself by meditating and googling which vitamins to take, causing an unhealthy obsession with my health. I was told that I just “didn’t like getting older” and was depressed about it. So, all my physical problems – double vision, throwing up, falling down, urinating all over myself – were my fault, and all my therapy sessions, meditation, medicine, exercise, and healthy diet weren’t helping nearly enough, and somehow were making me worse. I had wondered if my kids and husband would be better off without me.

***

I started researching my new diagnoses, and found out that the diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia and SSRD placed a red flag on patients, primarily women, who have multiple symptoms. Because I fit the criteria for these two diagnoses, I was no longer a candidate for further testing or referral to other specialists. An article in the American Academy of Family Physicians’ magazine states that SSRD “should be considered early in the evaluation of patients with unexplained symptoms to prevent unnecessary interventions and testing.” With approximately 12 million US adults misdiagnosed every year, and women and minorities 20 to 30 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed, how many women are having their “unexplained symptoms” dismissed as part of a somatic illness?

How did we get to this point in the twenty-first century where women are still repeatedly dismissed and misdiagnosed? Women are less likely to be administered pain medicine than men in emergency room settings. Women have a 50% higher chance than men of getting an incorrect diagnosis after a heart attack, and they are 30 % more likely to have a stroke misdiagnosed. Black women and other women of color face even larger disparities in the health care system compared to white women because of racial bias and discrimination. Stigma and discrimination against Transgender people limit their access to healthcare, negatively affecting their mental and physical health. A study “Women With Pain” found that “women with chronic pain conditions are more likely to be wrongly diagnosed with mental health conditions than men and prescribed psychotropic drugs, as doctors dismissed their symptoms as hysterics.”

This brought me right back to college, where a professor asked the question “what is the Greek word for uterus?” When no one answered, he paused for a dramatic beat, and then said, “Hystera. Where we get the word hysteria.” As the women in the class shifted lower into their seats, the men laughed, loudly. There even was a celebratory high five. I will never forget the absolute mortification I felt, and how instinctively I hurried to cover my scars under my shirt from multiple endometriosis and ovarian cyst surgeries. I felt betrayed by my own body.

***

In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, hysteria was considered a women’s condition whose physical symptoms were thought to be attributed to a wandering uterus. Over time, the blame of these various hysteria symptoms shifted from a physical cause to a mental one. In the late 1800’s, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud posited that a woman’s psychological stress “converted” into physical symptoms that caused a hysterical state. Also during the Victorian Era, new diagnostic terms like “Briquet’s Syndrome,” named after French physician Paul Briquet, were given to women experiencing hysteria symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, fast heartbeat, pain all over, blurry vision, and weakness. Briquet’s Syndrome was renamed somatization disorder, which eventually became somatic symptom and related disorders. Hysteria was officially removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, but the stigma of a woman’s illness with a name meaning “melodramatic or attention seeking behavior” still remains.

***

At numerous doctor’s appointments, I was given the Patient Health Questionnaire – 15 (PHQ-15), a tool frequently used to diagnose fibromyalgia, SSRD and multiple mental illnesses, which has symptoms that are also associated with diseases that primarily affect women. The tool listed 15 symptoms and a rating scale of how severely these symptoms affected your life. Each time I checked off most if not all of the symptoms listed, including chest pain, fatigue, heart pounding, nausea, pain, shortness of breath, and stomach pain (refer to chart for complete list). In filling out the PHQ-15, I thought I was helping the doctor get closer to a diagnosis and treatment. Instead, I was checking off a list of “somatic symptoms” that pointed them away from a physical illness and toward a psychiatric disorder like SSRD. Small fiber neuropathy, autoimmune disease, ovarian cancer, autonomic dysfunction, heart disease, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, and now long-term Covid 19, conditions that affect millions of women, all have symptoms listed on the PHQ-15, and on screening questions for fibromyalgia. Another devastating problem with this set up is that more and more women are afraid of speaking up about their mental health symptoms, like I was, for fear of their physical symptoms being overlooked, or labelled as psychosomatic.

Women with mental illness, and I include myself in this group, are at risk of their mental health diagnoses being used as a red flag, halting the diagnostic process of their physical symptoms being looked into as part of a physical disease. More than 1 in 5 women in the US have experienced a mental health condition in the past year.  In our modern understanding of mental health, we believe that physical symptoms often manifest as a result of a mental health disorder. The problem is not that doctors identify mental health disorders as one potential cause of physical symptoms. The problem is that those same physical symptoms could also be caused by a number of physical diseases. This is the point where the effective process of a proper diagnosis breaks down. Instead of testing and ruling out physical disease, many doctors jump to the assumption of the absence of physical disease. Having a mental illness does not make us immune to having a physical disease.

Seventy-five percent of Americans with autoimmune disease are women, according to the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association and it takes on average three years and four doctors to get a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease. The study “Frequency of Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer in Women Presenting to Primary Care Clinics” shows that even though 89% of women with early stages of ovarian cancer have a distinct set of symptoms (bloating, abdominal pain, urinary symptoms, fatigue, back pain, constipation) that they report to a doctor, “only 20% percent of cases are caught in an early stage.” How many of these women were dismissed by their doctors because their symptoms fit a somatic illness or were written off as general reproductive issues that halted further testing?

***

About a month after the Cleveland Clinic appointment, my family and I went on vacation in Florida. I almost didn’t go, but this was the only time we could coordinate a trip with all five of us. I spent most of my time in the bathroom, throwing up sips of water I kept trying to swallow. I took anti-nausea meds, Tylenol, Ativan and Imodium to sit with my family by the pool, until I would have to lie down on the bathroom tiles again.

By the time we flew home, I was severely dehydrated and doubled over in pain, but refused to go to the ER for fear I would be accused of faking my symptoms for attention or told that this was my fault and I needed to exercise more. My husband begged me to go in, and it was there that a doctor first mentioned “autonomic disorders,” and autoimmune nerve diseases that could be causing my various symptoms. When I got home from the hospital after getting IV fluids, I looked up my medical records from Cleveland Clinic. The doctor who diagnosed me with fibromyalgia wrote in my appointment notes, “has not been diagnosed with small fiber neuropathy,” a disease that could explain most of my symptoms. It would have been so easy for this rheumatologist to refer me to one of the few nerve labs in the country for a biopsy, right in her same clinic.

***

The diagnosis of fibromyalgia has helped many women get symptom relief and disability services, but has also prevented countless women from receiving a correct diagnosis. Studies show that half of fibromyalgia patients are thought to have small fiber neuropathy, a disease that Johns Hopkins describes as damage to the peripheral nervous system, the nerves that send information from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. This damage can cause symptoms ranging from pain, to gastrointestinal issues, to difficulty breathing and an irregular heartbeat.

Fibromyalgia shares many of the same symptoms of small fiber neuropathy (SFN), but the main difference is that SFN can be definitively tested for and treated, whereas the underlying causes of fibromyalgia are unknown and treatments only address symptoms. A quick and painless skin biopsy can confirm the SFN diagnosis, and if positive, further diagnostics can find a medical cause of the neuropathy in the majority of patients. Prompt treatment can prevent further damage to the nerves, and in some cases, the medical cause of small fiber neuropathy can even be cured.

After researching my symptoms, I convinced an open-minded neurologist in Minneapolis to conduct testing including a skin biopsy and a tilt table test. The biopsy revealed severe small fiber neuropathy, and further testing found Post Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (an autonomic disorder that affects heart rate, blood pressure, and causes many other symptoms). I was also diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis, a progressive, potentially life-threatening neuromuscular disease which can be fatal with too much exertion (so much for “even if the pain is worse after exercise, no injury to the body occurs”). A year later I was diagnosed with a hypothyroid disorder and asthma, both of which I was told I have had for years. I could not have fought for and received the right tests if I didn’t have a good health care plan, time to research, and money to pay for thousands of dollars of out of pocket costs.

I had missed out on so many of my kids’ events, as well as countless birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. If I had been given a tilt table test or a nerve biopsy instead of being continually misdiagnosed, maybe I could have started the right medications and been more present in my children’s lives while they were still growing up.

***

Being disabled itself doesn’t upset or scare me. I learned that I can live a full and happy disabled life by watching my father work and travel the world with his portable oxygen tank in his backpack. I’m angry about all the time I wasted blaming myself for a disease that was not my fault and all the years fighting for tests and medicine that could have slowed down or stopped the progression of these diseases. However, I am privileged to have the resources I need to live a comfortable life that allows me time to take care of myself.  It is unacceptable that in this country only well-to-do people with disabilities are able to live comfortably, while so many people are forced to fight to obtain correct diagnoses, assistance, adequate health care and safe housing.

When doctors are taught to hold back diagnostic testing based on the number of symptoms a patient has, and considering that so many illnesses that affect women have multiple symptoms, including potentially deadly ones like ovarian cancer, it’s not hard to understand why so many women have been misdiagnosed.

Elizabeth Land Quant is an autistic, queer, disabled writer, wife, and mom to three grown kids, two cats and a very spoiled dog. She studied Latin, Greek and political science at St. Olaf College, and splits her time between Minneapolis and Hot Springs, Arkansas. She researches and writes about her experiences with disability, autism, family, and her undying love for TV. Elizabeth writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and is currently writing her first novel.  She has been published in Disability Acts.

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Family, Guest Posts

Unstuck

September 24, 2020
tub

By Sherry Shahan

I am ten. Sitting on the edge of the porcelain tub while my mother paints on cat-eyes.

It is not enough to watch her in the refection of the tri-fold mirror. I want her to turn around.

Sherry Shahan is known for her adventure-based novels for teen girls. Her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Oxford University Press, Exposition Review, Backpacker and others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA Extension for 10 years.

 

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