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Motherhood (or Lack Thereof)

May 9, 2021
one

by  Maegan Gwaltney

My two small nephews and tiny niece climbed out of the couch cushion fortress on the bedroom floor. As the first sliver of sunlight whispered through the blinds, they jumped around me on the bed, shouting the details of their dreams. I was in my early twenties and loved my older sister’s kids- the weasels as I affectionately called them- with a fierceness I was unprepared for. It’s a testament to that love that I let them turn my bed into a bounce-house at the ass-crack of dawn, gladly trading sleep for the music of their laughter.

“I wish we lived here,” four-year-old Katie said as we sat eating breakfast.

“It wouldn’t be as fun if you lived here all the time,” I answered. “Because I’m your aunt, I don’t get to see you every day. So, when I do, we stay up late, have treasure hunts in the woods, and eat dessert pizza. If I was responsible for you all the time, you’d have homework, bedtimes, and healthy foods.”

“Like a mom,” she said, full mouth dripping milk. “When will you have kids so we can play with them?”

“Chew! You’re gonna choke,” I said.

“Cooousins!” her older brother Lee shouted.

“I don’t think that’s gonna be any time soon,” I said, thinking that no child should be born into the shitstorm that was my relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend.

“Mom says you’ll be forty before you have kids,” Lee smiled.

“What?” I laughed, nearly spraying the table with Cinnamon Life. “I’m going to ask your mom about that.”

Jake sandwiched between Lee and Katie in age, and always one step ahead, was quiet, pondering. As he took a bite of his cereal, I watched the thought arrive.

“Guys! If she has kids, she won’t have time for us!”

Their eyes grew wide.

“That’s not totally true,” I said. “I’ll always make time for you guys. But when I have my own kids, there will be fewer slumber parties.”

Not if. When. A word spent with unquestioning confidence. A safe and far away assumption, believing I’d have my own tribe to follow the paths worn in the woods by those around the table that morning, my first lessons in a love larger than I thought my heart could hold. My only lessons. Forty has come and gone, my empty arms proving my sister’s prediction wrong.

***

When I was 13, 14, 15 as my body began to curve and spread, I’d stand in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom with a wadded-up shirt under the one I was wearing. T-shirt for the first, and second trimester. Sweatshirt for the third. I took the business of making it look realistic very seriously. Sculpting it into a perfect mound. When I was sure it was right, I’d step back from the mirror, discovering who I had become, a calm smile spreading across my face, butterflies releasing in my true tummy. I’d turn sideways and stare at the roundness, the size of it. I’d rub my hands over it, cupping them underneath as if the weight demanded more support. I’d stand there for the longest time, enchanted by my reflection, by how beautiful I felt. Unable to take my eyes off the woman waiting for me.

I had things I wanted to do first, acting, writing. It took me years to stabilize the overwhelming anxiety that limited me for most of my life, later diagnosed as OCD. I just assumed, despite my late start, I’d find the right person, the right time for children. Neither ever happened.

***

I lived in Los Angeles for eight years. I’d moved there to pursue acting, which mostly amounted to selling vitamins to the Rich and Angry in Beverly Hills. The winter before moving home, I had my thyroid removed due to cancer. Both of my sisters flew out to be with me. Two days after surgery, weak and emotional, a bandage over my open wound, I took them sightseeing.

We stood on the stairway of The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, home of the Oscars. I’d watched countless times as actresses climbed those steps, believing the view would one day be mine. That morning, hormones raging in the key of clear-eyed reality, I collapsed into my oldest sister’s arms on those stairs sobbing. This isn’t going to happen for me. I always thought it was. But it isn’t. This same truth finds me now.

My body’s turning the page. Nature, that unrelenting bitch, does not bargain for time.

***

Motherhood, or lack thereof, was never a choice I made. I suppose, in some way, it was a series of micro-decisions, so imperceptibly small that I barely noticed I was choosing one path by not choosing another. Still, there’s no moment in the road behind me that I look to and say I should’ve done it here or that man should’ve been the one. Perhaps it would be different if I were a woman who mapped her life instead of trusting the compass in her gut. But I’m a woman who wakes in the night, panicked by some tiny mistake, my mind punishing me for something that will be meaningless next month. So, I’m grateful not having children can’t be distilled down to one moment or choice because that’s a one-way ticket down a rabbit hole I can’t afford. I cling to the hope that there was a knowing in me, greater than the sum of my regret looking back, a wisdom in trusting the compass that led me here.

***

I always believed I’d have a son. His image was born with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. I could see this little boy clearly in my mind’s eye, dark hair and deep hazel eyes, a gentle, curious soul with a tiny smile that lit up his face, sitting on the kitchen counter as he asked me a question, reaching for my hand as we walk or melting his weight into my chest, the constant thrum of my heart his lullaby, as I carried him in my arms.  Everything about him felt familiar, this little loved one I hadn’t met waiting in the future, certain though far away.

The name came almost as sudden as the image, unique and beautiful, like music running through my mind. Though I sang it inside my head, practicing for Some Day, for a long time I wouldn’t say it out loud. I felt some strange superstition as if it were a magic spell I’d cast on my future, whose certainty lived in silence, a wish that if spoken wouldn’t come true. Over the years, the mythical fathers changed like a revolving cast of characters, but two things remained, belonging only to me, this sweet boy and his beautiful name. I’d search for it in baby books, excited to find it, annoyed when it was listed for girls and not boys. I’d judge the different spellings and never remember the meaning until I’d see it in print, discovering it again every time. Mighty warrior.

***

I meet my friend at a bar for wine and writing, which we both know will only ever turn into wine. She has notes for this essay.

“No writing advice, but you should definitely get knocked up,” she says refilling my glass.

I laugh at her certainty, knowing how simple it seems from the outside. With my obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, the chaos in my head seems louder with each passing year. I’ve used every tool I have to fight my way to solid ground: therapy, medication, yoga, meditation. I need a certain amount of rest and peace to keep myself on an even keel. How fair would it be to add a child to that?

“You’re making excuses,” she says. “This sounds like something you really want, have always wanted. Life is short.”

In the week after that conversation, I sing the notes of his name in my mind. I lay down words in my laptop and discover the truth of what she’s said, somehow surprised by the depth and length of this want that’s been with me for so long. I visit the feeling of him, the weight and rhythm of his deep sleep breathing against my chest. I ask myself questions.

What is the difference between an excuse and a reason? Would a child give me incentive beyond myself, beyond my family to keep fighting the darkness in my mind? Or would it make it harder, swallowing, not only me but my innocent child? Is that just my OCD demanding the certainty of some perfect outcome before committing? Or is it logic, raising her voice above want?

***

I rush onto the train grabbing a seat, swinging my backpack onto my lap. A small voice floats over rows of winter hats to find me.

“What kind is this one, with the pointies?”

A father is reading a book about dinosaurs to his daughter, who is maybe five years old. I turn my head and watch them. I do this a lot lately, studying parents and children as if I’ve just landed on this planet, which in a way I have. I find myself staring at the way they interact, fascinated by this intimate verbal shorthand I will never speak. A language I knew once, years ago, but whose fluency has faded with lack of use.

***

“They are as much yours as mine,” my sister, Shannon, says of her children. She calls them Ours. A beautiful gift and powerful salve housed in this tiny word.

She keeps reminding me that it’s not too late for me to be a mother. Shannon had two kids by the time she was 20, her whole life built around these beautiful, needy creatures, shaped to fit their care before she’d run grooves of habit and preference into the surface of her life. I stand at the other end of this spectrum, a lifetime on my own, wondering when the grooves got so deep.

***

My dreams are haunted by the ghosts of Potential Father’s past, like some surreal Lifetime movie starring all the guys I’ve dated. My Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. The Good Guy, whose heart I dragged through the shitstorm relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend, like a selfish child clutching at both. The Republican, who I loved but wasn’t in love with, The Wine Guy, who followed me across the country to chase a dream that wasn’t his. In the dark chaos of these dreams, they are always leaving. I am on the outside, alone, soaked in sadness for what is no longer mine, unsure if my decision was the right one. One by one, night after night, they knock on the door of my subconscious, as if to ask, “Are you positive I wasn’t the one?” I wake disoriented and filled with the grief of being left behind. Still, the answer to their question is always yes.

***

I am a teacher’s assistant in a classroom of children with special needs. Before Covid remote learning, my heart would swell as I walked down the hallway, tiny bodies rushing past, loud, untamed, and excited. Everything about me vibrated to the frequency of their laughter.

I possess a strange confidence in working with kids, one I rarely allow myself elsewhere. I’m good at connecting with them, all the Auntie mojo in me finally being used again. I thought that this job was a beautiful solution, outsmarting the loss, filling the place in me that felt empty. But I slowly began realizing how wrong I was.

There was no distance to protect me. Jealousy tightened in my chest when my coworkers coddled my favorites. I’d push it down, but guilt flooded in to replace it. I interrogated my reactions. What’s wrong with me? In the halls where small bodies stampede, I felt joy lined with sadness. None of these little beings would ever be mine to build forts with or have treasure hunts. This was my job. I loved it, and I wanted that to be enough. But the place I hoped to fill only echoed louder with emptiness.

***

I spent eight years in Los Angeles torn between the future I imagined acting and the family I adored in Illinois. I always thought the decision to walk away would come to me suddenly, an undeniable mandate spoken in the deep voice of the gods. I never suspected it would bubble up from inside me, slowly melting my beliefs like ice, one quiet idea at a time.

When I think of motherhood, settling into the silence beneath thought, I feel a quiet certainty, rising up from a bone-tired body that has survived so much: autoimmune disease, thyroid cancer, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It whispers a truth that weighs more than words: I cannot do it alone.

Maybe the compass in my gut has been broken all along. But I’m choosing to listen to my body.

***

My nephew Jake, the little boy who sat in the kitchen so many years ago, took his own life at 22. In the months following, I’d look at babies, feeling a pull in the deepest part of my belly, some never-was umbilical cord tugging me towards a tiny soul I hoped to meet. Maybe it was the life force raging in me, or the echo of my best memories, longing to start again.

In sharing the devastating loss, I discovered something in the eyes of strangers, a sort of silent calculation of the amount of grief I was allowed, some strange hierarchy of mourning.

Who were you to him again?

I was his aunt. I am his aunt.

As I silently debate the correct tense for dead loved ones, the softness in their faces fades a fraction, relieved to not have to comfort his mother, sister, or wife. At least that’s how I interpret it, perhaps filtered through my own insecurity. Just the aunt. I wanted to download a lifetime of memories shared, to prove I’d earned the intensity of what I was feeling.

People forget that mother is not only a noun but a powerful verb, lifting trucks off babies, laying down lives to save them. I’m not a mother. I will never claim that noun. But I’ve mothered. A verb woven in my bones, called to life the first time I met my nephew’s eyes. If you say it’s not the same, you’re right. But my version of this verb, the only action I’ve ever been certain of, is no less real or fierce, or natural.

Ask the children. Search their eyes. Scan the molecules of their brightest moments. You’ll find me there, slowly arriving at a place where I understand how this verb shaped my life. Learning to let go of the noun that will never be mine, by recognizing the children who somehow still are.  

Ours.

***

It’s not a perfect process. I inch closer to acceptance by focusing on all I’ve been given. But the truth is, I’m still floating in an ocean of ambivalence, the waves changing every day.

When I ache for the little voices that will never wake me for breakfast, I’m comforted by the ones that did so long ago, when I believed being an aunt was meant to prepare me for motherhood. It turns out, this was the journey I was built for, the privilege of watching these amazing beings change, their lives expanding, the root of our love reaching deeper than I thought possible. No longer the children who ran into my arms, they are still the core of everything I am, saving me from myself with every call, visit, text or memory.

Being an aunt changed me. It’s a love that hums in my blood, sewn into my soul, unchanged by time, space, and even death.  But there is an emptiness in me that sometimes aches for more, a loss no one else can see.

I’ve learned to mourn the past, the lives and seasons that altered and defined mine. But how do you grieve for something that never was? How much space is this invisible loss allowed? It’s a familiar hymn on the lips of so many people reaching this season of their lives, the sun setting on Someday, the Far Away Future suddenly tomorrow, then yesterday, then out of reach.

  We can make space for that. Or we can run from it. With alcohol, sex, drama, or drugs, tangling ourselves in regret, missing chances to change the moment we’re living. I’ve done a lot of running in my life. Now I’m searching for the courage to be still and level my face at the reflection of the life I’ve created.

***

Lately, I stand in front of the mirror, staring at the naked length of myself, changed by time, gravity, cellulite, and weight. I rub my hands over my belly, a place never occupied, smooth and unstretched. My eyes follow the gentle curve of my hips, unwidened by birth. I don’t know one mother who’d trade her child for the stretch marks they caused. Still, I cling to this bikini season consolation prize, my shallow insurance against regret.

As I take in the naked truth of who I’ve become, this body home to the choices I’ve made, I search for her, beyond the shape I thought she’d carry. Meeting her eyes, I offer a soft smile, opening my empty arms to this woman waiting for me.

***

Digging through closets on a recent visit to my mom’s, I discovered a baby name book I bought years ago. The blue eyes of the plump diapered boy on the cover tucked safely away through all my moves. I turned the pages, landing quickly on the one with the corner bent, marked by my younger self as if I might need a map to find my way back. In the middle of the page, the spelling I chose for him glows bright highlighter yellow. It’s meaning below, new again. Mighty warrior.

I hear the music of his name in my head, then softly say it out loud.

Kaelan.

I would’ve named him Kaelan.

 Maegan Gwaltney is a Chicago writer, storyteller, and reigning World’s Greatest Aunt (with the t-shirt to back that up). She’s working on a memoir about family, grief, and coming to terms with her own mental health after losing two beloved nephews to suicide. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @MaeG765.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped for from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

Nobody Lives Here Anymore

May 7, 2021
rose

by Margaret MacDonald

When Rose dreams, she’s in the middle of a long street. It’s one of the streets that her and Cathy would make jokes about, would make up stories about the lives inside, would look at the house stiff and erect and lifeless and instantly know the type of person who owned it.

Surely nobody can live in there, Cathy would say. You would be scared to take your shoes off.

Rose’s sister goes missing on a Tuesday. On a Tuesday Rose’s sister leaves. Whichever one is true, either way she’s gone. Rose tells the police everything she knows.

She was at work late that night and her name is Cathy

She was wearing a grey raincoat and her name is Cathy

Her name is Cathy and her name is Cathy

After a week, the police come to the conclusion that Cathy left of her own volition. The evidence is stacked against Rose: Cathy took some cash out of their shared safe, some of her clothes are missing along with her rucksack, and she quit her job the night that she left.

Nothing survives her or loves her except for Rose. There’s nobody to argue with.

Rose leaves voicemails, texts, Facebook messages, Snapchat messages, emails. She calls and calls and calls until her voice is hoarse from repeating the same lines, always a variation of please just answer or please let me know you’re alright or please.

She worries so much that she gives herself a stomach ache. The worst of all is that she doesn’t know what she did wrong.

Rose finds a dead spider in the bath. She baulks to move it but manages to scoop it up with a cup. The noise that it makes as it flops against the side, solid and real, reminds her that it was alive once. She looks down at it, small inside the cup. What a terrible way to die, she thinks. Scrambling uselessly against the side of the bathtub, desperately trying to stay afloat inside the puddle left behind. The longer she looks, the longer she thinks that might not be true. Maybe its last moments were peaceful, and clean. She read somewhere that you shouldn’t kill spiders; that they’re signs of a clean home. An empty home.

In her dreams, Rose looks down the long row of houses that her and Cathy joked about. She starts to walk. There’s no lights on in any of the houses. They’re all identical, white-bricked and front-facing, all hollow dark windows and shadowed edges. There’s one at the end, though, that feels different. It feels alive.

Rose slows as she nears it. She watches for a moment.

Branches press their arms against the glass, pushing and curling and bending to fit inside the house until they sprout out the window to shoot tall and long and free. The roof is moving too, straining, hurting, before more branches push and shove themselves out. They bloom with leaves and flowers and create a canopy, like a silly little hat.

Rose smiles. It truly does look silly. Like a tree wearing a house, or maybe a house swallowed a tree.

She walks around the side to inspect it, comes to the back garden and feels her feet stop. It’s their back garden, the one they grew up in.

Rose takes a couple steps until she’s in the middle. She stands there for a moment until she feels something. She frowns.

It’s a voice, it’s underneath her feet somewhere below the ground, not a sound exactly but the sensation that a voice makes in the base of the throat. It’s in the soles of her feet, a vibration, a feeling.

Rose goes down on her hands and knees. She touches the mud with tentative fingertips and feels along the surface; it’s trying to escape. Rose doesn’t know why, doesn’t know how she knows, but then

She starts to dig, her fingers tearing at the soft earth like teeth into cake. The more she digs the more it unearths of the voice, the murmur. It’s shapeless and formless but it’s familiar, it’s her sister, she’s buried, she’s trapped.

A frantic sense of surety wells up in Rose, she’s down there, she knows Cathy is down there. Her hands are deep deep deep inside, elbow-high in the stomach of it, fingernails rooted and filled with mud. Rose puts her ear close to the ground and strains to hear, listens for help or I’m stuck or Rose, is that you? Get me out! but the murmuring is taking shape, is turning into words, a strange automated quality to them, robotic and unreal as,

Hye, you there? I’ve been back to the apartment

Rose spreads her palms across the ripped-up earth, the roots and the muck, presses the side of her face flat and listens to the whirring click of the voicemail,

Where are you? They said you quit your job two days ago. Seriously, Cathy? What the hell are –

The voice is small, it smells like moss and dirt, like piles and piles and piles of earth are on top of it.

Okay, I really don’t give a shit about the money, just call –

Rose closes her eyes, she could speak the words alongside herself, she could say,

Where exactly do you think you’re going to stay, Cathy? Do you not realise we’ve scraped by –

She lies down properly, on her side with her cheek in the mud, and mouths,

Are you ever going to answer? I know these are going through, so what? You won’t block me, won’t change your number, you’ll just keep ignoring me?

Are you there?

Hey, I’m home! You’d never guess what happened on my way over!

Anyone home! It’s me!

Just me!

Margaret McDonald (she/her) is a Scottish writer. She has a B.A (Hons) in Creative Writing with English Literature from The University of Strathclyde, and is currently studying for an MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition July 2020. She’s @margaret_pens on Twitter and @margaretmcdonald_ on Instagram

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Book Excerpts, Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles, an excerpt

May 2, 2021
trees

A couple of weeks ago we told you about an incredible writing opportunity available if you preorder Sarah Sentilles Stranger Care. Read more about how to join us in a generative writing workshop here. Sarah was kind enough to give us an excerpt, so if you are like me and can’t wait for the release of the book on Tuesday, here is a taste of what the buzz is about.

Excerpt from Stranger Care, by Sarah Sentilles

trailing spouse

I always imagined myself a mother. I kept a list of possible names for my future children, pictured myself pregnant and listening to fast fetal heartbeats, looking in wonder at the image on the screen. But I had reservations. I’d absorbed the messages in the cultural ether that framed motherhood as both holy work and trap. My ambivalence grew.

When Eric and I married in 2004 we agreed we’d eventually have a child, but we were busy doing other things—­writing dissertations, writing books, chasing academic jobs around the country—­and by the time we started talking in earnest about becoming parents, I was in my midthirties, and Eric was close to forty.

We moved to Southern California in 2007 and lived in a townhouse subsidized by the university where we both taught. Eric had been hired for his first tenure-­track faculty position in a graduate school of education, preparing teachers for public school classrooms. I was the “trailing spouse,” language that reminded me of the signs along some California highways that show an adult holding the hand of a small child who appears to float in the wind, feet not touching the ground.

Eric liked our life as it was. He liked our freedom, the ease of escaping to the Sierras to backpack and to the Alabama Hills to climb, the unfettered time for activism, for work that might make a difference. We could turn our attention and our resources toward all children, he reasoned, not just our own.

“You’re enough for me,” he said. “I’m okay if it’s just the two of us.”

My friends had desperately wanted to be pregnant, and many had been willing to do anything to make pregnancy possible—­take hormones, give themselves shots, find egg donors, buy sperm, endure IVF procedure after IVF procedure, go into debt, hire surrogates. Their certainty threw my uncertainty into relief.

“I don’t know what I want,” I said.

“Figure out what you want,” he said, “and we’ll do whatever you decide.”

I’d struggled for most of my life to name my desire, separate it from other people’s expectations. To know my answers to even the smallest questions—­pizza or burrito, hike or bike ride, comedy or documentary—­I had to meditate, write in my journal. And when I did manage to figure out what I wanted, it was hard for me to say it. I didn’t trust my knowing. Especially when someone else wanted something different.

Eric does not suffer from indecision. He knows what he wants, and he isn’t afraid to say it. For him, this isn’t about control. It’s about integrity and honesty. It’s about not making other people read your mind. He says what he needs, and he trusts I will do the same.

But I didn’t do the same. When it was time for us to figure out if we wanted to have a baby, I hadn’t been saying what I wanted for years. And Eric was always so sure. If I didn’t know what I wanted for dinner, then why not eat what he wanted to eat? Why not watch what he wanted to watch? Why not hike where he wanted to hike?

These little deferrals accumulate.

I imagine it feels good to be married to someone who accommodates, especially if you don’t know that’s what’s happening. It makes it easier to say “We’ll do whatever you decide” because past experience indicates we always agree.

Until we didn’t.

Until I wanted a baby, and he did not.

the biggest gift

I wanted a baby, but I’d also swallowed whole the story that being a mother would ruin my writing, ruin my life. If I have to play with trains for one more second, a friend texted me, I’m going to shoot myself. Everyone I knew who had kids complained about it. There wasn’t enough money. There wasn’t enough sleep or sex or play. There wasn’t enough time to paint or write or read. There wasn’t enough time alone or time off or time, period.

“Work, kids, marriage, health,” Eric said on repeat after he read some article in some magazine about parenthood and its demands. “Choose three.”

I didn’t believe that scarcity narrative, but I couldn’t point to anyone’s life where it wasn’t true.

Sometimes when we shopped at Target, we’d see tired parents wheeling carts filled with plastic through the aisles, kids running behind them. “Why do you want to be a mother?” Eric would ask me while a toddler screamed and threw himself on the floor next to shelves and shelves of detergent.

“Because I want to” was all I could muster.

Eric didn’t want to have a baby because of the stress parenthood would bring, but there was a deeper resistance, too. Eric loves the earth and hates what people do to it. He follows me around the house turning down heat, turning off lights. “When did you two become vampires?” a friend asked when she came over for cocktails and walked into our dark kitchen. The environmental argument against making another human was a logical one for him to make, an ethical extension of his worldview. “We’re a cancer,” he said and emailed me article after article about overpopulation and melting ice and the great Pacific garbage patch and how much an American child consumes compared to a child born somewhere else. “The biggest gift I can give to a planet under stress is not creating another human,” he said.

Knowing that Eric thought having a baby would cause the earth harm made it harder for me to admit my longing for one. How do you pit personal desire against planetary destruction?

the wisdom of mother trees

In the forest, underground, there is another world. In a single footstep, hundreds of miles of fungal networks are buried in the soil. The ecologist Suzanne Simard studies how trees use those networks to talk to each other, to communicate their needs and help their neighbors. These pathways connect trees, allowing the forest to behave as if it were a single organism. Through the fungal threads, trees share carbon. They send warnings and distress signals to one another. And they look for kin.

Scientists have mapped those underground grids, which look like our brain’s neural networks. The trees are the nodes and the fungal highways are the links. The busiest nodes are called hub trees or mother trees. A mother tree might be connected to hundreds of other trees. She nurtures her young, the new growth of the understory.

Simard wanted to know if mother trees could tell the difference between their seedlings and seedlings from other trees. And if they could, did they favor their offspring? She did an experiment. She grew mother trees alongside both kin and stranger seedlings. And it turned out mother trees knew their offspring. They colonized their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks than they did the stranger seedlings. They sent them more carbon. They even reduced their own root competition to make room for their young. And when the mother trees were injured or dying, they sent carbon and defense signals to their seedlings, messages of wisdom that increased the resistance of their young to future stresses.

But trees also help strangers. They cooperate and share. As the climate changes, as the earth heats up, ponderosa pine, a lower elevation species, will replace Douglas fir. In a greenhouse, Simard and her team grew Douglas fir and ponderosa pine seedlings. They then injured the Doug fir that was acting as the mother tree. When the mother fir was injured, she gifted her carbon to the ponderosas. She also sent them a warning, information that gave the ponderosas an advantage as they took on a more dominant role in the ecosystem. She shared what she knew about the warming world with the trees that would take her place.

brave enough to have your heart broken

Eric and I met in divinity school in 1999. I was studying to become an Episcopal priest; he was studying to confirm that if people think they know God it is not God they know. Radical agnostic read the bumper sticker on his car. I don’t know and you don’t either. In school, instead of Does God exist? we were taught to ask What do our ideas about God do? Whom do they harm? Whom do they help? We learned to engage not whether someone’s belief about God is true—­because how could you prove it?—­but rather the ways faith affects people’s lives. That can be measured, observed, evaluated, changed.

Humans play a crucial role in creating the world in which we find ourselves, its beauty and its terror—­about this, Eric and I agree. We understand that the world is made and believe it can be unmade and remade to be more just and life-­giving for the most vulnerable among us.

But Eric thinks humans, as a species, will never choose to do that.

And I think we might.

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, will be published by Random House in May 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe New YorkerOprah Magazine, Ms., Religion Dispatches, Oregon ArtsWatch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She’s had residencies at Hedgebrook and Yaddo. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. She is the co-founder of the Alliance of Idaho, which works to protect the human rights of immigrants by engaging in education, outreach, and advocacy at local, state, and national levels

*Excerpted from Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Sentilles. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

aging, empty nest, Fiction, Guest Posts

Overexposed

April 30, 2021
new car overexposed

By Karen Mandell

Before she left us for North Carolina, Marie told us that the wife moving in was recovering from a stroke. Great, Dalia said after Marie went back inside to her packing, she’ll die here. We gasped, shocked, but I knew it was inevitable, especially when I met Cath some weeks later.

George, the husband, said they’d come from California. Then why come to Massachusetts, I asked him, the early November day already dreary. I have three sons, he said, one in California, one in Missouri, and one here. I waited for him to go on. And my only grandkid is in Reading. A ten-year-old girl. Of course, I said. One town over. We were mostly like that in this complex—downsized middle-agers with young family nearby. They were a few single women here, five of them. One couple got divorced soon after they moved in, right before my time. The others had never married.

I met Cath once, though the signs of her presence were evident—a ramp from the garage to the back door, guys taking measurements for a ramp to the front door. When I met her, they’d just driven into the garage. No packages, so I supposed they’d come from a doctor’s appointment or a drive around the neighborhood. We were still at that stage—exploring the almost rural North Shore with its country roads and small ponds. Practically a different state from Boston and its suburban environs, its diverse restaurants and neighborhoods, its strip malls on Route 9 and Bloomindales-esque shopping centers.

I figured that since their garage door was still open, I’d run over and introduce myself. Cath, still unsteady after her illness, was arm and arm with her husband. Her hair was rough and her coat was half buttoned and studded with leaf bits. I felt sorry for her, a surging liquidy feeling, and more generally sorry for George. This hapless woman needed more care than her husband was able to give her. I walked to the back of the garage with them, almost to the ramp. “I need the ramp because of my eyes,” she said, and I looked at her gray eyes behind the smudged glasses.

“You need the ramp for more than that,” George said. I knew he wanted me to go, and I did. I did feel like voyeur.

It was a quiet complex, and it was a couple of weeks before I talked to his next-door neighbor, Gloria. I prodded her a little about the new neighbors. “She fell down a couple of times,” Gloria said. “She’s at a nursing home now.” She didn’t know when she’d be coming home. In the following days, I saw his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter pull into the driveway and go inside. After the next couple visits, they brought their new puppy, a French bulldog that looked stuffed into its fur. I liked the fact that they had a small periwinkle blue car, a little Datsun, which belied the image of suburban family so prevalent in Newton, our old town.

When our daughter Willow drove over (from Wakefield, the town next-door—the reason we’d moved thirty miles north) I told her about Cath and the nursing home. Seven-year-old Hailey was making snow angels on our little strip of lawn, and I didn’t think she was listening. Well, I hoped she wasn’t listening because I wanted to talk to Willow about our neighbors. But of course she was. “What’s a stroke,” she said. “Like a stroke of luck?” Hailey had a good vocabulary and was very nosy. I liked to think I was exactly like her as a child.

“It’s a sickness,” I said. She’s resting and getting better.” Hailey looked at me. I could tell she was assessing her own health. “Could I get it?” she said, fear scrunching up her nose.

 “Of course not,” Willow said. “It’s for old people.”       

“But then will Bubbie get it or Papi?”       

“No, no. They’re not that old and it’s not that common.”

 “Let’s go across the bridge to the wetlands,” I said. What a grandma I was. My mother would never talk about others’ illnesses in front of the kids. And cancer was never cancer but C. And then my own grandma said kaynahora, meaning keep the evil eye away. “Maybe we’ll see a coyote.” I said.

“Will they bite,” Hailey said, excited.    

“Only if they’re worried about their children,” I said. At least they were good mothers.

A few days later Gloria sat outside on her front step, enjoying the early winter sun. A good chance to ask her about Cath. “She died,” Gloria said, whispering though no one else was outside.

“I had no idea,” I said. “I haven’t seen George.” Not that I knew him well enough to ask him anything. A few of his activities were obvious just from looking out the dining room window: golf, food shopping of course, a walk through the complex, bringing back the mail from the mailboxes stacked at the front of the complex. He liked to wash his new car, having trading in his small Lexus for a larger NX. Insurance money, I decided. In fact, I’d said a few words to him the other day, you’ve got a new car. Yes, he answered, smiling.

 And then the workmen started coming, dragging large boxes out of their trucks. New appliances, fridge, stove, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer. Naturally all the condos had come with appliances, moderately priced, acceptable brands. But these new ones were high end, European, six burner stovetops, Viking and Bosch. I could tell by the cardboard containers, broken down and tied up on trash day. I talked to one of the workers. “He’s doing some work,” I said. Casual. A whole new kitchen, he told me. I was glad to get that much out of him. I would have loved to see inside, but that was impossible. I almost never saw him. It was cold, people were inside, socializing was practically nil.

Next to his driveway there was a patch of grass, then a two-car parking area meant for guests. A fairly new Subaru Forester began parking there, nicely washed, clean and spiffy inside. Sometimes the car was gone, but it always came back, though I never saw its driver. Someone’s guest. Not that that black car was the only outlier—adult children of the condo owners came and went with their children. No one under fifty-five was entitled to live here, but with jobs lost, rental prices high, parents took in their children and grandkids and dogs. Like the other condos, our dining room windows looked out onto the street, if you could call it that, more like a paved pathway. The developers hadn’t bothered to name the roads, so only our houses had names—or more accurately, numbers. No Mount Isabel or Clotworthy House here—just 43 (us) or 31 (George the widower across the street).

Sitting at the dining room table, reading The Globe, I figured out who owned what cars here. Because the mailboxes were at the front entrance of the development, I watched the residents walk down and back and take strolls with their visiting friends. Once when we were sitting down to Morty’s veal stew, he said, “You don’t have to get up every time someone walks by.” I hadn’t realized my behavior was so obvious, but there I was peering out between the slats of the closed blinds.

     “I was just checking the weather,” I lied. It wasn’t an outright lie because I do check the weather every time I look outside. When I was a teacher, one of my students told me I was a weather person. I thought that was a wonderful compliment, though I’d been mad at him earlier for playing with a koosh pencil topper in class. I’d taken it from him and put it in my desk. When he asked for it a few days later I said no. I liked it myself and wanted it. Some years later I heard he’d gotten engaged but committed suicide. I put the stringy ball on a top shelf and left it. I found it recently and briefly considered giving it to my granddaughter, but it had too many bad connotations. Did I prod him to committing suicide, like the last tiny breeze that makes the piggy’s straw house fall down? Like chaos theory, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Don’t act like I have nothing else to do,” I said. I opened my mouth to list them, all my activities, but Morty counted them off for me.

“Your reading, your newspapers, your piano playing.” He held up his hand so I wouldn’t stop him, “Poetry writing, your houseplants.”

“And I’m thinking of taking up painting.” Morty is a painter plus he does his leadership training from home. He nodded showing his potential interest.

“Actually,” I said, “it’s paint by numbers but it’s for adults. I saw it on Etsy. Lots of colors and tiny spaces to work on. Copies of the great masters.” As soon as I said this, I knew I couldn’t possibly do it. Thank goodness I hadn’t ordered anything yet. I need something to suck me in, a novel by Elisabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, where nothing really happens and you don’t have to follow a plot. Although I do love mysteries where the bodies pile up but the gore quotient is low.

Morty cut a couple of pieces of the good sourdough you can only get in Brookline, thirty miles away. I know that because that’s how far we moved to get closer to the grandkids. After twenty years in the old house. “I wonder how George across the street is doing. Do you ever see him to talk to?”

“When he’s been out washing his car now and then. Not since it’s got cold.”

“Maybe he’s joined a church and has friends there,” I suggested.

“Churches aren’t open yet. Are they? He gets the paper. That must take some time. You have noticed that the paper’s getting skimpier and skimpier.”

“I don’t like being aware of that,” I said.

“Anyway, I’m sure he’ll be fine. As much as the rest of us. His granddaughter and the puppy must lift his spirits.”

When Willow called, I asked her if I was having a delayed reaction to Sapphie. She’d died at sixteen last summer. I didn’t cry—I’m not a crier unless there’s a strand of tenderness in a book or some heart-tugging in a movie—but I missed her and her constant padding after me.

“You’ll take care of our dog,” Willow reminded me. Their Tibetan terrier puppy would hopefully be born in the summer—if the mother got pregnant. The breeder had tried once. They didn’t know yet if it took. Nothing was easy.

I started using the computer in the dining room. The light was better than the loft upstairs, in my nook near the laundry room. It still got dark early, so I could watch the sunset up close—the windows down here faced southwest. Upstairs, they faced north, so the light didn’t change much all day. In the interludes between lines

We buck each other up, the morning and I.

I throw open the window and admire her fog twist…

And the next one:

Loading the dryer, I think chocolate,

Chocolate waiting in the heart shaped red box

 Luck winds around me like a static filled sheet, an electric kiss…

I realized that it was one o’clock, lunchtime. The Subaru was parked in the guest space across the street, and I put on my coat, hat, and scarf to go pick up the mail, a constitutional before lunch. A bunch of circulars, it turned out, and the Lynnfield weekly paper, read mostly for the prices of recent house sales. I glanced into the Forester on the way back, surreptitiously because it did make me feel like I was snooping around. Someone could be looking at me from their window, George being the first to come to mind. I had enough time to take in the lack of magazines and books and reusable bags on the back seat, the spotless floor mats, the unstained and empty cup holders. The owner was someone neat and tidy with a new car like George. Or maybe George had helped her do a through cleaning. Some people found cleaning cars relaxing—smaller than a house, smaller than a kitchen, manageable. Maybe George had a girlfriend, I thought wildly, who had a car as well cared for as his. This car.

A romance on our street. Why not? A middle-aged man, trim, energetic. How much time could golf take. A lot, obviously, when I considered the people my uncle played with when I visited the New Jersey branch of the family as a child. My father wouldn’t touch the sport, having determined it was the refuge of the overweight, tightly belted white pants wearing bourgeoise. Plus, he’d never seen golf growing up in Poland, where soccer was the only activity that mattered. Though Morty’s parents had both played, and neither one was overweight nor particularly bourgeoise.

By the time I walked up the five steps to my front door, the questions had piled up like vehicles in a traffic jam on 128. Where would George have met her? Not only was he new in town, but he’d been a widower for just a few months. Actually, when you’re new in town is when you do make friends, making the effort to replace the network left back home. And the company of his late wife. They’d come to Boston to watch their granddaughter grow, and her being the only grandchild among his three sons made it likely that he’d go to a bunch of her activities. Dance recitals, basketball games, maybe even puppy training classes. Endless opportunities.

Inside, I shoved aside the computer, my pad of paper, various pens and pencils to the other end of the dining room table. I assembled my usual lunch: sharp cheddar cubes, cut up apple and carrot (plus one for Morty, vegetable intake a priority now that our eyesight was sputtering somewhat). Leftover seafood salad from Big Y, fragments (many of them) of super dark chocolate from the bar that I whacked on the counter. From my place at the table, my back and right shoulder each facing a separate window, I was steeped in a sunshine bath. I felt like a dozing tabby, my usual mid-lunch mood of purring satisfaction. But the satisfaction did not hold—I was still puzzling out how George across the street met a companion so fast. There was the grieving, the hunt for a new car, new appliances, fresh furniture too, from the vans marked Boston Interiors and Room and Board recently parked in front of his house. An electrician’s truck (More Power to You!), the plumber’s van (Pipe Dreams). From sleek and purring I’d descended alarmingly to frumpy and lethargic. I was beholding the youthfulness and energy of a person in love and awash in shiny new things.

The old song from my childhood shimmied through my mind—baby, baby where did our love go? Not that I didn’t love Morty—absolutely, timelessly. But recreating that spark of new love; now that was something else. I saw in my mind’s eye how it happened. George and his son and daughter-in law were attending Skye’s school open house. It was going to be a low-key affair this year with only half the parents attending that night and the other half waiting until next week. George and family were in the first group. He wouldn’t have missed it for the world. When his son called him in the morning, he said that he and his wife were toggling back and forth on who had the worse stomach—that left over take-out deli most likely the culprit. In the end, neither of them felt up to going and George went by himself. He was nervous and apprehensive, not having been in an elementary school for years. He could barely remember his three sons’ open houses. But certainly Carol had been there jotting down notes.

He struggled a bit to ease himself into a student’s seat. But not struggling too hard because he was slight and fit. He didn’t need more than walks and golf and the sustenance of foods prepared in his newly applianced and furnished kitchen/dining room to stay in shape. That’s what he told himself, although Carol would have a different point of view. She usually did. You’ve got a dream kitchen, he could hear her saying, you’d better use it to cook up plenty of vegetables and not just heat up high-end take-out.

Ms. Reid leaned back against her desk in updated yoga pants and long belted cashmere sweater and described what she expected from her students. (George felt a little bad that she’d have to go through this again for next week’s parents.) Well-crafted three paragraph essays to begin with, moving on to decoding poetry and close reading of fiction. She moved closer to the window, the high intensity lights in the parking lot plus the fluorescent classroom lights burnishing her hair. After her presentation, she chatted with the parents for a few minutes before she commiserated briefly with George about the death of Skye’s grandmother (and his wife) before she had to move on to others practically jostling for their turn.

George told his daughter-in-law that he’d pick Skye up from school a few days a week. Sometimes Ms. Reid came out to the playground to help out with pickup, but not always. Other teachers would take their turns. He told Skye to look for him on Tuesdays and Fridays, which were Ms. Reid’s days. It hadn’t taken long for him to figure that out. They chatted and one day when there was no school (the second day of winter break) they went to an afternoon movie at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It was having a week of art house movies. Plus it made a nice drive—fifty miles round trip from Lynnfield Elementary School, where Toni parked her car and got into George’s.

The relationship, I figured, was well-launched by now. When I picked up the papers in the morning (his almost always already taken in), her car was outside, sometimes dusted with snow, sometimes layered with it. I wondered why he didn’t put hers in the garage with his. He had some shelves and a couple pieces of furniture along the right-hand wall, but he could move them around. He must have read my mind, because the next few days, which were stormy, her car wasn’t there. So the garage it was! Still, I hadn’t seen her yet, no matter how many times I looked outside. Everyone glances out now and then, and maybe my looking was a bit excessive, but barely. It just got me that I never laid eyes on her. It was like a cat and mouse game that she didn’t even know she was playing. On days when the weather was better, the Subaru would spend the day sunning itself in the parking spot.

I needed to do more walking. It would be spring soon (eventually) and I wanted to get in shape for the halcyon days of summer, riding my bike, strolling along Crane Beach. I didn’t want to feel fragile and rusty. I was at that age where you could tip either way, into the pre-elderly or a robust middle age. I crept through the hedges near the mailboxes, across a backyard, and landed in a posh neighborhood of brick mansions, with stone lions at the front doors or giant urns which held mostly dead foliage, even in the summer. But the avenues were broad, with almost nobody outdoors except a very few children and dog walkers. After I’d had my fill of too-large houses, I decided to walk in our development, where at least I could nod at the people I knew or introduce myself to those I didn’t. In none of the apartments could you see inside, windows swathed in curtains or blinds (like mine, though I kept them open all day to bring in the natural light). I switched to walking in the backyards, though I felt a little self-conscious, a holdover from my days in Newton/Needham, where a backyard was part of a homeowner’s property. Here in the development, you didn’t own the land—the complex did jointly. Even so, I seemed the only one who walked through backyards. Old habits die hard for some of us.

I expected that some would sit out on their patios during the afternoons when the late winter sun let loose its rays, sharp as swords. But no—people obviously had other things to do than expand their lungs and take in the beneficial microorganisms the earth began releasing this time of year. I know I could have called old friends and the new ones here and taken a more congenial walk. But this had been a winter of lethargy unless you summoned your forces to break out of it. For some time I hadn’t been a caller. But I was never sorry to have had a conversation. It lifted my spirts, reinforcing the fact that I had friends. Like everyone.

After lunch not long afterwards, I was about to bring my dish to the sink when I saw a couple moving from the block around the corner in the direction of the parked Subaru. Had George and his girlfriend taken a stroll and were now going for a drive? Did he usually wear a long loden coat? The woman had her hair tucked into the back of her coat, and now she pulled it out and loosened it around her shoulders. Like shaken silk, her light brown hair draped across her back. Even in a shampoo commercial, I’d never seen hair as shiny and all in a piece, no recalcitrant locks or gaps in its magnificent flow. That was my first thought. My second, as her companion thumbed his key and opened the door, was this man wasn’t George but neither was she George’s girlfriend. A young couple with a rental car visiting relatives in the complex, staying over. It had never occurred to me that there was a different angle to my story. Me, who always counted on both sets of fingers all the potentialities, mostly bad, in any situation, had been bushwhacked this time. I was sad the girlfriend for George hadn’t panned out. And for one twisted wretched moment I was also glad. Shouldn’t we all be suffering now? I want to say that that moment was truly just a moment.

I sat on the front stoop, letting the oblique sun warm my earlobes when George’s garage door opened and he came out. He placed his golf clubs in his trunk and walked around to the driver’s side. “Snow’s gone,” I said, standing up and moving toward the street. He smiled, a bright transforming smile like some people have. “You didn’t have a guest,” I added.

“A guest? You mean my son and his family.”

“Oh. Yeah,” I said. “They have a cute dog and what a sparky little girl.” I didn’t ask how the open house at school went. “I see the family coming up the steps sometimes, laden with shopping bags. Ten-year-old girls are a perfect age.”

“Nine, but she’s tall.”

“I’m sure she’s doing well in school.”

“She’s been home-schooled this year, but she’ll be going back after spring break.”

“Sure,” I said. “Things change.”

“Let’s hope so,” he said.

“I wanted to say how sorry I am about your wife.”

“Thank you.” He pursed his lips and nodded. His gray hair was thick and shaggy. Not in an unkempt way. Monty didn’t tell me when he was getting a haircut, just came back shorn and sheared. Maybe George had waited for his wife to tell him to go to the barber. “At least Carol got to be with Amy before she passed,” he said.

Amy? Of course. Not Skye. While we talked, I felt I was looking at a double-exposed photo from my parents’ time. Or hearing an echo coming back distorted.

My story about George superimposed upon his story made me dizzy. I felt the loss of Skye and Ms. Toni Reid. You’ve got an overactive imagination my parents would admonish me when I was worried about germs or friends that might abandon me or strep throat decades ago. But this moment I wasn’t dreading the obvious, just overlaying a scrim onto our harsh anodyne landscape.    

“I’d better go in,” I said. “I may try a recipe for Thai Stir-Fried Glass Noodles from The Globe. If it turns out, I’d be happy to bring some over. Can’t promise any miracles.”

At home I plucked the recipe from the dog-eared and tea-stained pile on a dining room chair. I had the cellophane noodles, but I hadn’t read farther down the ingredient list. Two tablespoons fish sauce… The recipe lost me right there, before the small head green cabbage, fresh cilantro, oyster sauce. I’d had a cabbage but left it in the garage (my “root cellar”) too long. Scratch glass noodle soup for any of us tonight. No, I couldn’t promise any miracles. Tomorrow I’d get what we needed.

Karen Mandell has taught writing at the high school and college levels and literature at community senior centers. She’s written Clicking, interconnected short stories, and Rose Has a New Walker, a book of poetry, both available on Amazon. She’s working on The Lulu Stories, speculative fiction that takes place in the near future.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, How To, Surviving

Becoming Wonder Woman

April 28, 2021
wonder

by Kayla Delk

Step 1: Backstory

My parents got divorced. I was five. I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember Sunday nights at my dad’s house.

I sat in a mustard yellow recliner in the corner of our living room; my little brother was on the green couch across from me, and my dad would be in the kitchen mixing some popcorn and Cheetos for us. The walls were empty except for the TV and bookshelf encasing my dad’s collection of figurines—samurai holding different fighting stances—from when he lived in Japan.

My brother would excitedly rub his feet back and forth across the corduroy fabric, punch a fist to the sky, and shout “Woman Woman!” Dad entered just in time to keep me from losing my cool. “It’s Wonder Woman.” I told him every time.

On Sunday nights, my dad would rent movies from Netflix, back when they would actually send DVDs to your door, and we would all sit in the living room to have a movie night. For a year straight, I picked out the original Wonder Woman series with Lynda Carter. Every Sunday night, I was criss-cross apple sauce, eyes glued to the TV, imagining what it would be like to be her.

Step 2: Play Pretend

My brother and I spent our afternoons playing superheroes in the backyard. I, of course, picked Wonder Woman; she was a princess and a warrior and the strongest one at that. It only made sense. Zander chose The Flash, and together we saved the world.

Battles consisted of climbing the concrete divider by the garage and jumping off with some haphazard flying kick. My brother running down the hill to fight the villain with his super speed, while I’m at the top swinging my Lasso of Truth. If the timing was right, there was wind in my hair while we flew my invisible jet across the ocean. Nothing could stop our dynamic duo.

Step 3: Doubt Yourself and Become Insecure

My dad got remarried, and my older stepbrother didn’t think I looked enough like Wonder Woman to play her in the backyard. Instead, we switched to the Marvel Universe. I could be Jubilee from X-men, or we could play Harry Potter, and I would be Cho Chang.

“It’s the blue eyes,” he said shrugging his shoulders, “you don’t have blue eyes.”

No, my almond eyes were a little too brown to play Wonder Woman, my skin a little too tan, and I, as a whole, a little too Asian.

“Well, can I still have the Lasso of Truth, that’s kind of magic?”

“No, but you can have a wand.” He picked up a stick and threw it at me.

Step 4: Have a Keepsake as a Gentle Reminder of Who You Want to Be

Ten years may not seem too old for Chuck E. Cheese, but it felt like it. Zander was turning eight, and he wanted his party there. While he played on the obstacle course with his friends, my dad and I used the majority of our time on the kiddie version of a slot machine (you put a token in it at the top and watch as it’s pushed onto a mound of extra tokens, hopefully knocking some off in the process. The more tokens knocked off, the more tickets you get). I never did very well, but it was fun.

As the party was coming to an end, we huddled around the ticket counter. It was the most exciting part by far. Dad always got the most tickets, from ski ball probably, but in the end, we would put everyone’s together in a big pool and split them up evenly. To be honest, we never had enough tickets to get any of the big prizes, so there we stood. Eyes wide, faces pressed against the glass counter trying to figure out which plastic toy we would pick this time. Zander, a bouncy ball. Me, a slap bracelet. Back to Zander, farting putty. Me, a ring-pop. Zander, a sticky hand. Me, a Wonder Woman keychain.

Step 5: Have a Secret Identity

We were assigned a partner project in my eighth grade English class: create a radio show based in the 50’s. My partner Savannah and I spent a week putting together playlists of Elvis and B.B. King. As the radio show hosts, we also had to have names from the time. Mine was Diana Prince.

Savannah didn’t ask where I got the idea for my stage name. She wasn’t really into superheroes, but I thought myself very clever.

Step 6: Make a Comeback

I worked at our local theater throughout high school. It was my junior year when the new Wonder Woman movie came out. I stood at the table in the middle of the lobby tearing tickets and directing customers to the right room. Behind me was a ten-foot cardboard cut-out of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.

I was flattered when the old men I ripped tickets for told me I looked like her.

Step 7: Understand Why an Island Full of Women Thrived Without Men

I was in the driver’s seat of my 2004 gold Ford Focus. The boy with curly brown hair and glasses that I kinda-sorta dated sat in my passenger seat. We’re parked in a lot by the lake, looking at the moon. He showed me music I wasn’t cool enough for and told me about his dreams of one day disappearing. I said I hoped he didn’t. For a while, we sat in silence. He made a note of my keychain, the colors faded from spending six years in one of my dresser drawers, and I told him I got it in elementary school.

He gave me a surprised “Hmph.”

“I figured you were just a bandwagon fan.”

Step 8: A Villain Emerges

Senior year of high school I found myself waking up in panic attacks from nightmares. Sometimes I was being held down and taken by an intruder. Sometimes I had to protect my sisters from being raped, but the dreams always ended the same way.

I wasn’t strong enough.

I spent the rest of the year learning how to fight. I started kickboxing four times a week. Feeling my knuckles hit the bag awakened an anger in me I didn’t know I had. Watching my sparring partner stumble back from my foot against their chest left me wanting more.

The class was doing drill rounds. Each person straddles a punching bag on the floor and goes at it for one-minute intervals. It was meant to burn you out, and it did. Haunted by my dreams, I poured my built-up rage into the bag until all that was left was fear—the fear of not being enough, enough to protect myself, enough to protect my family. I found myself exhausted and crying.

Step 9: Self Realization

My freshman year of college I lived alone in an apartment. My mom tried to leave me with a machete, but I told her it was against the rules to have any weapons on campus. Instead, I found a new gym with a new combat class to help me keep training. An extra seven pounds of muscle made the dreams stop, but the newfound empowerment told me to keep going. I decided to become an instructor.

For the next two months, I spent three hours a day in the gym perfecting my form. I punched faster, kicked higher; my body ached with every movement, tearing the muscles only to build them back stronger. I wielded more power than I had ever known.

It was time. I was nervous. For the last portion of the certification, I had to teach a class by myself to prove I was good enough. My coach asked who I wanted to be when I was leading the group on stage.

“Wonder Woman.”

Kayla Delk is a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her poetry has been published in The Sequoya Review. We are honored to be the first to publish Kayla’s work as an essayist.   

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health, pandemic

Confessions of a Failed Introvert

April 26, 2021
introvert

by Kristine Lloyd

In spite of knowing I was happiest in the company of others, I moved from a three-story apartment building to a cabin in the urban woods a few years ago, across town from most of my friends. The small A-frame, tucked behind my landlord’s house, charmed me with its tiny backyard bridge to nowhere, serene Japanese maples, and ancient wind chimes whispering outside the kitchen window. Socializing became a chore that required triangulating various routes to avoid traffic, then I had surgery and was laid up for months, so I holed up more and more: eating, shopping online and watching movies on my laptop. This was a choice, and I could make a different one whenever I felt like it, like moving to Uruguay, or joining a flash mob – until Covid hit.

I am not someone who enjoys a lot of “me” time, long baths, or elaborate self-care rituals, and yet, by virtue of living alone in an introvert’s haven like Seattle, I came to convince myself that I was, in fact, this kind of person. I even purchased an expensive evergreen-scented candle I almost never lit. I bought it at the sad, little holiday fair at work. Milling around the four or five cafeteria tables, trying not to make eye contact with co-workers whose hand-crafted goods I would never buy. I aspired to be a candle person, and though I didn’t even know the woman selling them, who must have worked floors apart from mine, I spent $30, because holiday cheer and a co-worker had made it, so practically a friend, which was cooler than buying it from Pier 1. I didn’t light it until three months later when quarantine started, and I searched frantically for something to lift my spirits.

I cried when I saw videos of Italians rigging up champagne glasses on long poles and clinking a cheers from their separate balconies, singing in unison. It made me long for my old apartment, sandwiched between the first and third floors, where at least I could hear yelling, moaning, singing, terrible techno-pop that synced with the throb of that vein in my temple, the scraping of chairs, the dropping of things, and the walking around in heels on hardwoods that sounded like dragging cast iron pans across the floor. Now quiet hours ticked by without so much as the sound of a plane, which before had signaled the continuous movement of people going places and doing things.

My alone-ness stung. I had willingly retreated to the woods, when I am a people person, someone who needs interaction like air. Each day lived entirely alone wore on me, drained me of finite stores of energy. I was a 47-year-old extrovert living like a hermit. It did not suit me. The constancy of quiet gnawed at my mind. I had allowed my circumstances, long before Covid, to shape me into something I wasn’t, rather than changing them – it had seemed far more exhausting to change course than to blend into the environment.

Every day was the same. The alarm sounded. I hit snooze. At 8:55 a.m., I staggered out of bed, turned on my computer, answered emails and attended virtual meetings, never fully awake, living in a radius of about five feet. I started to feel far from okay, staring out the window into the indistinguishable mass of leaves blocking out everything beyond the yard. I waited for a creature – a bird, a cat, anything – to come by and alter the landscape. Twice I saw a little brown bunny hopping by, but by the time I got up from my desk to get a closer look, it had vanished. I stared at the trees until I saw nothing: just a great, green mass. The stillness settled into me until I felt immovable. Each day I looked out, and the trees appeared closer than the day before. I longed to take a weedwhacker and slash through branches, open up a window to life, but there was a fence behind the trees. Another barrier to the world. I lit the candle, hoping to at least imbue the indoor space with coziness, but it was like trying to warm myself with a matchstick. It didn’t even make the house smell like evergreens.

I cried three times on the phone with my boss.

“How are you?” he asked. But that was all it took to unleash the tears.

“Kristine . . . you there?”

“Yeah . . . I . . . I’m ok.” This was not a sophisticated, tissue-dabbing cry. This was the kind of unintelligible, guttural sobbing that makes other people uncomfortable and fidgety. To his credit, he waited patiently while I collected myself, instead of hanging up and pretending we got disconnected.

The crying wasn’t limited to phone calls with my boss. I cried when I knocked over a bottle of cooking sherry precariously situated on the kitchen counter with all the other newly purchased groceries, and had to clean up the sprawling, sticky mess when all I wanted to do was lie down and flatten my body against the cold linoleum. I cried every time I heard my father’s voice on the phone. It had begun to develop the timbre of my grandmother’s and his older siblings in the last years of life, a weak, croaking sound that trailed off into a mumble. What if he died of Covid and I never saw him again?

I started buying Oreos, Nutty Buddy’s, things I had not eaten since childhood – the Nutty Buddy being the saddest kind of substitute for a Buddy, save for a brief moment of soothing nostalgia for summers spent dissecting the layered wafer into its disparate parts to make it seem like you were getting more. I made brownies. Perfecting their under-baked, gooeyness. I ate brownies for breakfast and brownies for dinner, until they became cloying and tired, as familiar and unappealing as isolation itself. Brownies do not make a meal, and isolation isn’t a way to live. By the end of April I knew I had to get out.

One of my closest friends, Scott, who still lived in my hometown in Alabama, called me one day to catch up. After hearing my voice and the cracking sadness in it, that same weakness in my father’s voice, like someone falling into a well, he suggested I come back home. “I think you’d be happier in Birmingham, near your friends and family.” I knew he was right and asked him if he would be willing to fly out to Seattle and drive home with me. If he said yes, that would be the deciding factor. He did not hesitate.

Scott walked into my cabin and hugged me, let me lean against him. He had risked his life, breathing in the stale, germy air of a packed airplane and a chatty flight attendant whose mask dangled from her ear, to rescue me. He’d visited before and seen my cabin and understood, that even though it was in a prime location, I was not meant to live alone in the woods. He helped me finish packing, and we headed out by late afternoon. A quiet cabin hemmed in by trees was not going to lead me to my truest self, any more than that bridge would lead to a pot of gold.

We drove 2700 miles in four and a half days. Through the lush green hills of Oregon and Northern Idaho, into the endless hypnotic flat of Southern Idaho, on to Utah’s cracked earth and towering red rocks, through the dry, bleak landscape of Navajo country. Flying past long stretches of strip mall in Albuquerque and into the indistinguishable flatlands of North Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, before the final leg home.

When I pulled into my parents’ driveway in the giant yellow moving truck, they came rushing out. My mother gave me the tightest, longest hug, and we just held on and swayed like that for a while. I breathed in her life, and the warmth revived me. I was home and with a little care and feeding would come back to myself. I felt such relief, relaxing into my mother, knowing she could hold me up. Like I had survived more than Seattle, more than Covid. I had survived a starvation of connection, of feeling like I was in the world, because I had been so isolated from it, walled off in a fortress of trees.

The next morning I tried out several nooks for my new, temporary home office. I finally settled into a creaky, old desk that’s more display than functional. Within days, a tiny mess of papers and mail sprouted by my computer. It didn’t take long to make it my own. I looked out the bay window and actually saw people walking by. Young and old. Some with dogs. Others on bikes. One young man walked by barefoot four or five times that morning. I wondered if the pavement hurt his feet, and that small thing felt like connection, an imagining of someone else’s experience of the world. Beautiful, glorious people. I didn’t know who they were, and it didn’t matter. I felt a lightness. This was life. All around me. I thought to myself, the world exists, people exist, and we are all here, in this together.

Kristine Lloyd is a part-time writer, full-time librarian, and has previously been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Salon.com, as well as other online outlets.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Race/Racism

Granny Sylvia’s Flag

April 25, 2021
flag

by Shannon Kenny 

“Mummy, could you put this flag on my karate pole, please?” asked my then four-year-old-daughter one Monday morning.

I gathered up the old orange, white and blue South African Apartheid flag that she had neatly laid out on the gleaming parquet floor.

“No, my darling, I can’t. I won’t,” I clarified, and continued folding the fabric till I had a neat square with the Union Jack, the Orange Free State flag and the flag of the South African Republic in the center.

“But why?” she naturally asked.

And thus, began a typical morning before school in our household. She’d wake up – or more precisely, we’d coax her out of bed. Then she’d run down the passage and return to our company with a myriad of complex ideas and questions; or, if she was feeling particularly charitable, just one simple question about a complex subject.

My answer to her question went something like this: The flag was the symbol of the old South African government which, as we had previously explained, was mean, nasty, brutal and whose founders were Nazi sympathizers. That government made unreasonable laws about who could befriend, love and marry whom; who could live and go to school where; and what jobs they would be allowed to do – or not. It was a reminder of the pain and hardship experienced by millions in our country who were subject to those laws. Many good people stood up to the government in various ways. The baddies made every effort – even killing people – to remind us that they were in charge and had the power. Some of the goodies never lived to see the baddies’ downfall. So no, we were not going to tether it to the karate pole so it could be waved about, because it is not a symbol that we celebrate.

Naturally, her next question was: “So why do we have it in our house?”

My husband and I had preempted this question four years earlier – when I was heavily pregnant with this very inquisitor – and endeavored to answer it as accurately and age-appropriately as possible when our daughter would one day ask.

The flag belonged to my late mother-in-law, my daughter’s Granny Sylvia, a well-loved and long-serving Akela in the 10th Durban Cub Scout troop. It had been presented to her – as national flags are presented to well-loved and long-serving Akelas in Scout troops around the world – in recognition of her service to 10th Durban. She had been an Akela during the apartheid era, so that was the flag of the country and that was the flag she received.

“Did Granny Sylvia like the flag?” was the next question that came my way.

I paused while weighing up how best to answer without being presumptive.

While Granny Sylvia was politically naïve and ignorant – as were many white South Africans – of the extent of the evil of the apartheid regime, she despised the lawmakers and enforcers for how, at a very basic level, they exhibited no real sense of decency: they bullied people they considered beneath them and displayed a hatefulness and mean-spiritedness that to her was unconscionable. Her own experience at an Afrikaans boarding school as a six-year-old, blonde and blue-eyed, English-speaking girl who could only count in isiXhosa (one of South Africa’s indigenous Bantu languages), was just the traumatic start she needed for her lifelong disdain for the Afrikaner-led Apartheid regime – and a difficult to hide negative bias towards Afrikaans, Afrikaners and Afrikanerdom.

“I know that Granny Sylvia didn’t like that the flag represented the Apartheid government,” I replied. “But this particular flag had been special to her not because it was the national flag but because it was an acknowledgement by her peers in the Scouting organization of her dedication and love for the boys in her care. Scouting was only for boys in those days. There was a separate organization, the Girl Guides, for girls. That flag would always remind her of some of her happiest times on camps, jamborees and the many meetings in the local church hall where she was able to provide a loving, nurturing, fun space especially for those who came from difficult home environments. She loved the boys in her care and they loved her in return. Granny Sylvia had once dreamt of becoming a schoolteacher but a series of tragedies and sacrifices resulted in the dream never being fulfilled. Her time as Akela made up for this in some small way.”

After a long breakfast, we said goodbye and my husband walked our daughter to school. They continued to discuss ‘the olden days’ (which to her mind is pretty much from the dawn of time to the time of her birth) and how much better ‘the recent days’ are for us. Later that afternoon we spoke about how, though life is much better now for some of us, there are many in our country for whom life is a daily struggle because of the effects of the olden days and the selfishness of some in the recent days.

We keep the flag on an easily accessible shelf, amongst photographs and other decades-old paraphernalia from our olden days, before marriage and parenthood. It helps, I think, that we are theatre practitioners and writers. On a few occasions we’ve had to explain its presence in our home to a shocked guest or housekeeper. We’ve used it several times as a prop in some of our productions.

My husband and I grew up during apartheid, in different cities, on opposite sides of a racial divide that grouped South Africans into WHITES and NON-WHITES.  We met and started dating on 29 April, 2 days after we had cast our votes in South Africa’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994.

In 1986 my husband, along with thousands of WHITE boys like him, had been conscripted into the South African Defense Force – straight out of high school – as a naïve teenager who didn’t even know what the acronym ANC (African National Congress) even stood for. He left his ‘national service’ two years later with a great deal more cynicism, trauma and information than anyone, let alone he, had bargained for. At the height of the State of Emergency and martial law declared by State President PW Botha, he had spent a few weeks in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, where the brutality of the South African Police they’d been charged with protecting shocked and appalled him so much that he later volunteered to be posted as a signaler/communications operator to Namibia during South Africa’s (illegal) occupation of what was then called South-West Africa-Namibia and its (illegal) forays into Angola. The young man that emerged from the SADF was no political maven but knew enough, thanks to the uncensored, unadulterated information he received and processed daily through his ears and eyes and hands, just how pernicious the Apartheid state really was. And he knew enough to stridently and successfully dissuade his parents from allowing his younger brother, David, to be conscripted. The trick was to enroll at university (in David’s case to study towards a degree in mechanical engineering), study for as long as possible and hope that the political climate would change or that the authorities would forget about you. Fortunately for my brother-in-law, the political climate had changed by the time he had graduated, fully qualified.

I had grown up politically aware. It was nigh on impossible for me not to be: there was the fact of my birth – that I and my family were classified COLOURED (which is apartheid-speak for ‘mixed-race,’ another term that gives me the shivers, but that’s another essay for another day). I could not help but notice the race-based inequalities in our country, evident in everything from city-planning; public amenities that had signs declaring their use for WHITES ONLY or NON-WHITES; and how people of color were portrayed on our government-controlled tv programs. My parents, teachers and other adults in my life openly discussed politics. And my parents made every effort to dispel the falsehood of race-science in a climate that promoted that particular brand of lies all the time. My parents impressed upon us that our self-worth did not depend on whether it was acknowledged by a political system of white supremacy and racial hierarchy that propagated the belief that we were lesser human beings than our WHITE counterparts. We were taught to resist being co-opted into thinking that because we were classified COLOURED that we were somehow better – as a result of our mixed African, Asian and European heritage –than people who were classified BLACK and who were consequently subjected to certain indignities that we were not. That those racial classifications were just that; classifications; and they offered neither dignity nor any insight into anyone’s character. And it was hard to ignore impassioned prayers in church for the safety of those detained without trial for their political beliefs and anti-government activities; or the apartheid Security Branch bomb that exploded at the office of the NGO where my mother volunteered; or that one of my father’s friends had died at the hands of the police.  In 1986 I was 12, and on our way to and from our BLACK friends’ homes in New Brighton township, we’d have our car searched at checkpoints by conscripts (like my husband’s then 19-year-old self) for whom I’d developed a strange mix of pity and contempt. In 1986, on a family holiday in a WHITE town, my parents received calls from the local police to make sure we were the legal occupants of our holiday home (We were there legally. South Africa was very complicated).

In getting to know one another my husband and I have been able to get to understand our country – past and present – a little better. Our individual and collective experiences of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa continue to influence how we view and shape our world in an effort to leave it in a better state than what we found it – for our daughter and those who will live on well after her.

Our hope is that our daughter would continue to ask many more questions and that we would be challenged to answer them truthfully and sensitively – all the attendant discomfort that may accompany some of those discussions and answers notwithstanding. We do not want to burden her unnecessarily with the troubles of this world but rather encourage the deep sense of compassion and justice she seems to possess so she too can help to change the world for the better in whatever sphere she feels called.

The old adage that “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it” is rather naïve in its assumption that if people were informed of their ancestors’ past wrongs and wrongdoings that they would automatically make strides to navigate the path of righteousness, rather than repeat their ancestors’ misdeeds. Many know their history. They just don’t believe that they were wrong and that they should have lost the war.

The Apartheid flag in South Africa, like the Confederate Flag in the USA, is more than an uncomfortable reminder of an evil that has not been fully acknowledged by some and of a not very distant past that still has a long reach into the present. That flag cannot be divorced from the philosophy and people that devised mechanisms to enact a cruelty that resulted in millions of lives forever altered, taken, wasted, scarred, disregarded, cheapened, destroyed; of land taken, divided, wasted; of a nation that never was and one that is still in the throes of infancy and so very desperately in need of healing.

At some point, we may have a flag-burning ceremony with our daughter in honor of Granny Sylvia and what she stood for – decency and kindness – and as an intentional act of recognizing the ugliness of the past, with a commitment from all of us to continue to be part of the building of a more equal world. Because some of us do know our history and we will choose to not be doomed to repeat it.

For my husband and I, Granny Sylvia’s flag is in part a reminder of the complexity of the human condition – a humanity that revealed itself in all its beauty and grotesqueness in the shadow of that orange, white and blue. Sometimes we’re not the heroes we’d like to think we would be. One can abhor an unjust system and what it does to people and yet feel utterly helpless to do anything about it, paralyzed by fear or insurmountable obstacles. There are times that we act beyond the bravery that we think we’re capable of. Sometimes we’re able to muster courage in the face of adversity. A stranger’s predicament can evoke an empathy that enables us to be kind beyond what is expected of us. Sometimes the weight of our own personal problems is so burdensome that we’re nigh on incapable of recognizing anybody else’s pain and desperation. At times we’re capable of forgiving grave political injustices yet choose to harbor personal vendettas. Sometimes we come to realize that just because someone has been oppressed, doesn’t mean that they are a nice person. Sometimes we act purely for our own gain, regardless of ‘the system’ we operate in. We are reminded that two wrongs do not make a right.  And that two opposite ‘rights’ cannot be simultaneously true; that some opinions are just plain wrong and do not deserve equality with the truth. When verifiable facts are revealed, sometimes the truth is that “I had no idea.” Sometimes “I had no idea” is a lie. And that always – always – kindness and cruelty are acts of human will.

This old flag is also a bit of war-booty; a reminder that we, because of the many who had gone before us, had triumphed over a system that in its ludicrousness – and amongst a host of other dastardly schemes – was designed to ensure that a family such as ours – that looked like us, that believed like us – would not and could not exist. We’re so glad that the good people won. And while we will not allow our daughter to fly the flag, she is welcome to stomp all over it. Anytime.

Shannon Kenny’s resume states she is an actor, voice artist, singer and writer. Some seven years ago she was dragged kicking and screaming into parenthood. She and her family believe in the transformative power of Love – and good chocolate.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts

The Haw Eaters

April 23, 2021
greg

by Bruce Meyer

My college roommate, Greg, kept a box of papers in the bottom drawer of his desk. He opened the box one night and told me his entire life was made of paper. There was an adoption record – no former names, Christian or surnames, stated – and a newspaper clipping from the Toronto Star where a sad-looking child, his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him was featured as ‘Today’s Child.” That was Greg.

He stared at the neatly snipped rectangle, yellowing and growing brittle with age, and said simply, “That’s the only picture I have of my childhood. You see? My white family took the trouble to scratch out my real name. They wanted me to be their Gregory. They wanted me to be someone else. And so, I obliged them. It was better than going back to the residential school.”

I wondered how he could go through life, at least to this point, a high achiever on both athletic and academic scholarships, someone with a big ‘He’s-going-to-be really- someone’ sign hanging around his neck, yet remain humble, fun to hang out with, considerate. He’d become the sort of guy who brings you chicken soup when you have the flu.

Yet for everything he is, he had no idea who he was.

I wanted to feel his pain, but I couldn’t fathom what that pain could be like. My grandparents and parents had gone to the same college at the university. I was simply falling in step, as was expected of me. I was not merely part of a lineage: I was white privilege.

“How did you…”

“Cope? Stay sane? I had to live with it. Hard as it is, I figured what is just is. I didn’t know a different life. I knew mine was mine no matter what they called me.

“Imagine,” he said, “if someone came into your house when you were four or five and ripped you from the arms of your mother or grandmother. How would you have felt? At night in St. Bartholomew’s School I’d lie awake in the dark and listen to the other children in the rows of white iron cots as they sobbed into their pillows. Sobbing was a good sign. It meant you still had something to miss, something to live for. Those who stopped sobbing would be found hanging in the basement of the school or frozen in the forests beyond the school’s grounds.”

“Do you have any idea where you’re from?” I asked him as he folded the clipping, set the papers in order, and put the lid on the box.

“Not a clue. I have memories, though. An old woman. I can’t even see her face clearly. She is standing beside a lake and she’s staring at an island across the waters. It isn’t a large lake, and the island in the middle of it isn’t all that big either. It could be anywhere. This whole frickin’ country is made of lakes and islands. I keep going back there in my dreams. I keep trying to talk to her, to ask her questions, but because we only meet in dreams, the sounds won’t come out of my mouth. She does speak to me sometimes, but it’s in a language I don’t understand, and that makes her seem farther away than she really is. I’d love to know who and where she is. She is old in the dream and has probably passed on by now.”

Everything in Greg’s dreams, he told me, happened by moonlight. He couldn’t see where the light was coming from. Then he’d get playful and ask, “Who the hell lights our dreams? I mean, is there a gaffer pulling cables and setting the blue flood just right so we can see where we’re going and not bump into the more solid illusions?” He’d laugh, but I could tell that the laugh was masking a very deep pain. It wasn’t a happy laugh.

Greg was my closest friend at university, my spirit double, if there is such a thing, someone for whom I’d be honored to be a shadow. We’d talk about anything, but mainly about how we know or don’t know who we are. Greg knew what he wanted to become. He was fascinated by the law. He’d ask me why it was legal to kidnap a child, and I’d tell him I had no idea, and that I thought all kidnapping was illegal. He’d agree. What was wrong was wrong, he’d insist, and he’d say that someday that wrong would have to be undone.

He got accepted into law school.

“I’m not as happy as my folks.”

He never called them his family, only his “folks.” He said he never felt completely a part of their lives but was more of a good deed they felt they were doing, a project that was coming to fruition like pulling the last thread and watching a ship pop up in an empty bottle, the way he described it.

“I’m going on to law school because it is another step on the road back to where I need to be.”

After graduation, we lost track of each other until I ran into him as I was going into one of our old lunch haunts near the campus and he was coming out. We talked for a few moments. When he said, “family law,” there was something emphatic about the word ‘family,’ as if he felt that the law was a means of turning back the clock to find what he had lost. In the chapters of parliamentary acts and statutes, there was a blood connection he was seeking.

He asked me if I had a week off this summer. I did. “We can do the buddy thing and drive north and look for the island.”

“Good luck in that,” I said.

“No, I mean it, man. Besides, I don’t have a license and you do. The Griffiths told me I had to earn a car, and I can either have wheels or I can pay my fees. There’s more future in my fees. Besides, I need you to be Tonto to my Lone Ranger. You can sense your way to the lake with the island. I trust your instincts.”

When I picked him up at his apartment in the stillness of the pre-dawn damp I told him we were going to start with the biggest island and then work down to the smallest. It seemed logical.

The biggest island on a lake is Manitoulin, a belt of limestone that rises out of the waters of Georgian Bay and defines the meeting point between the three Great Lakes of Superior, Huron, and Michigan. It is the Niagara Escarpment after it has drowned off Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula and risen to life again to the north.

I’d read a travel magazine in a dentist’s office where the writer said the island had been destroyed by an enormous forest fire around the time Shakespeare lived, and that after the War of 1812 it had been resettled by indigenous peoples who remained loyal to the British and got the raw end of a treaty. The writer described Manitoulin as a Chinese puzzle box of islands.

“Imagine,” said the traveler, “the largest island in the world on a freshwater lake, and one that island is the largest freshwater lake on an island, and in the middle of the lake is the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest lake in the world.” Once I sorted out the knot of that sentence I felt that the best place to search for an island in someone’s mind is to begin with an island of dream-like anomalies.

As we drove north following the shoreline of Georgian Bay where we stopped every twenty miles to look at islands only to have Greg shake his head and say, “Not that one,” we arrived in Rainbow Country. We didn’t see any rainbows. Greg shrugged and looked out the window. “Just a lot more rocks and trees,” he said. “I feel as if we’re trapped in a Group of Seven painting.”

But as we turned along the North Shore and headed west toward the Algoma Region, the hard, rugged terrain of marshes and mountains, the landscape became the dream-like terra incognito described by the magazine writer. Granite outcrops rose up from drowned pockets. Bulrushes and beaver lodges emerged from glistening rivers that snaked between sharp granite clefts. We passed through the White Fish Nation and Greg said he was feeling strange, as if something in the pit of his stomach was trying to make him ill. We pulled over and he threw up into a ditch or marsh marigolds that are commonly known as Urineworts because they bloom like lotuses in stagnant water.

“So what hit you?” I asked.

“I feel a lot better. I don’t think it was anything I ate because you ate the same coffee and doughnuts back in Parry Sound. I think it was something I feel I had to get rid of, something in my gut that wanted to come out. I’ve never had a feeling like that before.

“Up ahead,” Greg said, “just on the edge of the res, there are rocks. They are stranded on flats where the granite becomes a road of limestone.”

“That’s a good start,” I said. “More where they came from, I’ll bet. How do you know there are rocks?”

“I don’t know. In one of my dreams the rocks were singing. Weird, eh?”

“Yeah, weird. I’m driving you around to look for an island that could be any island in a country that boasts several million islands and you remember singing rocks. Remind me again that you never dropped acid.”

“Man, I know it’s crazy, but they’ll be there.”

Within a few miles the topography changed again to low, flat limestone, and on the exposed bedrock surface sat enormous blue stone boulders and nothing grew around them. They looked as if they had just dropped from outer space.

“That’s them!” He shouted. “Those are the rocks!”

And electric sign by the side of the road announced that the iron swing bridge to Little Current on Manitoulin Island would only remain open for another ten minutes. If the single-lane span swung open, it might remain open for an hour or more to let the sailboats of wealthy Americans pass from Manitouwaning Bay to the North Channel above the island. I explained this to Greg.

“Good you’ve done your homework.”

“Just read a map and a guidebook,” I said. “Do you want to stop at the rocks?”

He looked at me as if I was daft. “I don’t feel up for a sing-along.”

“You really are sure they sing, eh?”

“It was just a dream. You can’t get blood or a good tune out of a rock.”

It was ten a.m. when we arrived in Little Current, the biggest town on Manitoulin. A policeman waved us off the main road to a detour and as we turned he halted us and leaned in the car window.

“Parking’s over there for the festival.”

I pulled into the first empty space.

“Wanna go to a festival?” I asked.

Greg shrugged. He didn’t care one way or another and because we were driving nowhere in particular he got out and we walked back to the highway into town. A parade of floats pulled by red an orange tractors was inching its way toward a field at the end of their procession. Girls on the floats were waving and shouting to the crowd. A high school marching band, off-key, with a very noticeable glockenspiel, tramped by. On another float the local Junior B Hockey team was pointing to the crests on their jerseys and raising index fingers to tell everyone they were number one. The end of the parade was a cortege of Provincial Police cars, an ambulance, a firetruck, and the Mayor holding up a fluttering town flag as he sat on the back shelf of a red convertible.

“Canadiana at its finest,” I said.

An old man in a red and black bush shirt walked up to us and handed us each a palmful of red berries.

“Be a haw-eater!” he shouted.

There was a woman standing next to me. Her white hair was pulled back behind her head and fastened by a leather barrette with a stick through it. Her shirt was embroidered with a dreamcatcher – a stick bent into a circle and woven with gutting and beads on the threads to catch the sad and insane imaginings of a sleeper as they pass from the conscious world to the inside of a dreamer’s head. I’d seen dreamcatchers for sale in one of the occult shops near the campus and had thought of getting one for Greg but didn’t when I thought he might think I was joshing him about his nocturnal habits or his indigenous roots. I asked the woman what the berries were.

“Hawberries. They only grow on the island, and appear only during a July full moon, a time when the face of the old woman shines down on Turtle Island. Food of the Great Spirit,” she said and smiled.

The hawberries were about the size of Saskatoons which I’d tasted out west in a golf course parking lot in a coulee near Regina. But the hawberries were softer like blueberries and blood red. They were as sweet as blueberries but with the aftertaste of pomegranates. I was about to tell Greg we should buy some to eat in the car, but when I turned away from the woman to speak to him, he was staring into the berries in his hand.  His eyes were wide as if he had discovered a wound in his palm.

He picked up the first one, rolled it in his fingers, and set it in his mouth. He didn’t hear me when I said his name, but just stared at them as if looking into a clear lake and trying to see the rocks on the bottom through the ripples of the surface. Then he ate another, and another, before he sank to his knees, and began to weep and beat the ground with his other fist.

“I need more,” he said.

I found another lady who had been selling small baskets of them on a table by the road, and I bought her last pint. Greg was now bent over, grabbing at handfuls of dirt on the shoulder of the road and tossing them in the air. He was freaking me. People were standing around him, kneeling, asking him if he was all right. Someone wondered if he was having a seizure. He couldn’t reply. His shoulders were heaving as he sobbed.

“I need to find my grandmother,” he said, looking up, his eyes full of tears. “I need to find the old woman. These berries are the taste of her spirit.”

The woman who sold me the berries bent down and laid a hand gently on Greg’s shoulder.

“I think I know why you are here. You are one of the searchers, aren’t you. You are one of the lost who has come home. I know it. I see it in your face and in your eyes. I can see through your tears. The Truth and Reconciliation Report called to you. It awoke old dreams in you, dreams that you thought you had buried or had lost on your journey. You are coming home, though you are not all the way there yet.”

Greg looked up at her. I could see in his eyes the suffering pouring out, a terrible pain he had kept bottled up inside. This was not the Greg I knew, the Greg who always had a quick quip, a good story, or a ‘you gotta see this’ experience he found on the web. He was a dream caught in an invisible dream catcher, the prey of a tormenting spider into whose web he had stumbled. This Greg was someone else – the person I had heard talking in his sleep, the person who woke, weeping, and asking for his grandmother and trying to describe the island he had seen in the distance of those dreams.

The berry woman put her arms around Greg and began to rock him as if he was a child. Then she spoke. And what she said startled me. The words were those I had heard Greg speaking in his restless dreams, the words I wished I had recorded and played back to him the next morning.

She looked up at me and said, “Can you take him to Wiiki? I mean, Wiikwemkoong?”

She explained that part of Manitoulin had never been ceded in a treaty and remained an independent nation within Canada. I had no idea such a place existed, a place within the nation that was not part of the country.

“Go down the highway. When you get to Manitouwaning, turn off but don’t go all the way into the town. There’s a road that will take to you Wiikwemkoong.”

“What will we be a looking for there?” I asked.

“Someone who might be able to help him. I’ve been whispering Anishinabek to him and he understands what I am saying though he can’t reply in the language.”

The woman and I helped Greg down the road to the car.

“Are you sure you’re up for this, bud?” I questioned. Greg nodded though he fought in his throat for every word.

“Yes. I want to go there now. It isn’t far.”

I thanked the woman for her kindness. She said it was not kindness but what family does for its own. I asked if she was related to Greg, perhaps a cousin or an aunt, and she shook her head.

“We are all brothers and sisters,” she replied and turned back up the side street to the main road where she vanished..

As we drove past the outskirts of Little Current I asked Greg what the hawberries had done to him.

“It’s not what they did but what they said. When I was a little boy, before the scoop, the old woman fed them to me. I ate them from her hands and when her hands were empty I walked up to a bush and ate them fresh off the branch.”

Down the highway, we saw the sign and the turn off for the Unceded Independent Nation. The sign told us we were leaving Canada and that the nation had its own police force. It advised us to drive carefully.

“I know this place,” Greg said as we approached a small building with a shaded porch out front. In one corner, a woman listening to a radio was seated in front of a sign offering bannock for $2.00. An old woman sat at another table. When I approached the bannock seller, she pushed a pamphlet toward me that listed all the things we could do in Wiikwemkoong – the theatre, the ruins of an old residential school, selected places to fish if a license was obtained from the band office, and a map showing where the road became a dotted line and vanished into the bush. “Drive slowly,” she said.

Then she looked at Greg and put her hand over her mouth.

“You, you look like my grandfather. You stand like him. You have his eyes. My sister had a grandson who was taken. We all have known those who were taken. My sister and I were taken but we returned. She was old enough to remember who she was and where she was from and the first chance we had, we came back. Oh, if you are who I hope you are, you have come a great distance and learned great strength to be here. I can see it in your face. But do you know who are you or are you among those who only remain here in their dreams?”

Greg began to sob. I put my arm around him. The woman came around to the front of the table and opened her arms and embraced him as I stepped back.

“I don’t know who I am,” he said, fighting back the tears. “I only know that in a dream I am standing by a lake with an old woman. The moon is full. The light is breaking on the water, and she feeds me hawberries. I had forgotten how they tasted until an hour ago when a woman, her grey hair pulled back and a dreamcatcher on her shirt gave me some to taste, and the taste brought back the pain, the pain of leaving, of being torn away from my grandmother’s arms.”

“Are there any records?” she asked.

Greg said no. All he had was a clipping, and the name in the clipping from the newspaper had been scratched away because his new family wanted him to forget who he had been.

“I want you to be my guests for the night,” the bannock seller said. “I have a place just down the road. Not much of a place. If you have bedrolls you can spread your gear on my floor. I’ll have some friends over and you can talk about what you’re going through because they’ve been through it, too.”

We ate a huge dinner. I was hungry. After eating I thought I’d never have to eat again. Everyone brought something. Greg and I fell in love with cedar tea and we emptied several jugs of it. Fresh salmon from South Bay. Venison. Fiddlehead greens someone had frozen two months before when the ferns were tight. They’d been cooked in butter and wild sage.

I didn’t want to say much. I wanted the evening to be about Greg. He had so many questions, yet they had so few answers. I could feel their empathy for him. Empathy was something I’d never know in those proportions from my own family. I envied him. I marveled at the love they expressed for him. It had nothing to do with duty or traditions or keeping up the family name. They spoke of the spirit.

An old man turned to me and asked what I knew about ‘Indians.’ The gathering laughed and slapped their knees when he said the word ‘Indians.’

“You know, he said, the people. What do you know about the people? We’re not from India. We’re from these parts.”

“I’m just the driver,” I said. “I’m driving my friend to look for an island in a landscape of islands as he searches for his past. It’s the least I can do for him.” Greg grabbed my knee and shook it and smiled.

“But you must have had some experience with the people,” the old man said. “We’re here. We’re not invisible. We don’t just live in movies.”

“Well, this isn’t much of a story,” I said, “but when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a hockey player. I found out there are two types of hockey players: good ones and bad ones, and I was one of the awful ones. I got invited to a hockey college out west, just south of Regina in a little town called Wilcox. The college is Notre Dame. They produce guys who go to the NHL. The college gives them a solid education, but when I got on the ice with players who really were hockey players, who you could point to and name the team that would likely draft them, I was out of my depth. I didn’t get accepted and it was probably a good thing because my family kept telling me they weren’t going to buy me new teeth. Part of the experience, though, was when the coaches took a van load of us up to a bison ranch in the Blue Hills about ten kilometers south of the school. I looked at the hairy, fly-infested bison and they looked back at me, and I thought, ‘so what.’ Then I wandered off.”

“At the edge of the ranch, on a promontory of the hillside, the ground was covered in wild sage and fell away steeply on three sides. I could see, spread out before me, Estevan, Weyburn, Moose Jaw, and Regina way off in the north, and the small towns of Avonlea and Wilcox at the foot of the Blue Hills. It was breath-taking. I was amazed how far I could see, how the whole world, perhaps even the universe spread before me, and when I looked down, I realized I was standing in a medicine wheel.”

“The wheel had a center stone of domed white marble, a polestar, and round it was a ring of other white stones set in constellations – the Big Dipper, the Great Bear, Orion’s Belt – the whole the sky was laid out in stones. I was standing in the center of the universe, maybe in the heart of eternity, and I felt as if I existed yet didn’t exist because I was part of everything around me as far and maybe farther than I could see. The wheel was a map of forever. Then I thought, I’d better get out of this. I felt as if I was violating something sacred without realizing what I was doing.”

Everyone at the gathering nodded, especially the elders. The old man spoke up, “You ought to take your friend Greg here to Dreamer’s Rock tomorrow. If you came in by the Swing Bridge you probably drove right by it without realizing it. If you saw the Bell Rocks you went too far toward the island.”

“The Bell Rocks?” Greg asked. “Are those the singing rocks? I have recollections of them from my childhood.”

“If you tap one with a piece of hard stone all the others will ring. They are made of the same stone as that Stonehenge thing over in England. I saw that when I was stationed in England during the war. I wanted to tap the Stonehenge but a man there said I couldn’t.”

“I said, ‘why not,’ and the man said, ‘because you will break it.’”

“What is Dreamer’s Rock?” Greg asked eagerly. “I’ve come this far to find the old woman who lives in my dreams. Will I see her if I go there? Is it a place to dream?”

The old man was silent for a moment and folded his hands.

“Maybe you are just looking for the lake of the old woman, Mindemoya. Good haws grow there. But Dreamer’s Rock? To go there,” he said, “means a person has been called to find who they really are. It is a place of the spirit quest. You must climb as high as you can go, and then go higher, ascending the bleached white skull of the world, and then lie down in a hollow made in the shape of the people. Only you can go there,” he said, looking at me. “I mean, you can go along to make sure he doesn’t fall off the slope on his way up and land on his death, but the final height is something only he can attain.”

So the next day, I drove Greg to Dreamer’s Rock and made the long climb up with him. I went with Greg as far as a natural vestibule near the top where white rock formed natural benches. He took off his shoes and socks, removed his belt, and set his wallet and pocket belongings on the stone shelf. I saw him scramble up the side of the dome and for a moment stand at the top, teetering and looking as if he was dizzy. He called down to me that there was no perspective up there, nothing but clear blue sky above him while below he could see Lake Superior to the west, Lake Huron to the south, Georgian Bay to the east and the tip of Lake Michigan to the southwest. Then he lay down in the niche the old man had told him about and I could not see him.

When he came down, sliding on the rock face as if he had just been born out of the sky, he said everything had changed for him. He said he lay down in a hollow. The natural dip in the white stone was the length of a person’s body, a cradle. As he lay there, all he could see was the blue, cloudless sky – no treetops, no horizons – only the emptiness of eternity, the place a mind goes when it holds nothing. It was like being catapulted into forever. He told me he left this world as the sky embraced him and drew him up.

“I’d always known there had to be a better world somewhere, and the old woman from my dream was waiting there with her arms extended. The old woman had to ask a question, but the only one who could answer it was a spirit on the island in the lake. The Great Spirit lived there. She shouted and I couldn’t hear. So she whispered, and the Spirit answered her.

I was there. I was there with my grandmother. And I understood what she said.  She called me by the name I thought I had forgotten and I know who I am now and where I come from. I could see the faces of people I knew long ago, the elders, the loved ones, returning to me as if out of the moonlight breaking on the lake. And when I asked the old woman who she was she answered and took my hand and led me into the fire circle with the others who were waiting for me to join them. We watched the embers rise up and fill the night sky with stars. She took my hand and I felt her life flow into mine, and told me we’d always be one blood.”

Bruce Meyer is author of more than sixty books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international prizes. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Marriage, pandemic

Husband Fatigue — Oh, It’s Real

April 21, 2021
husband

by Debra Ryll 

I get it: if you’re white and you are not living under a bridge, you’re not allowed to complain about anything. But as I look at my spouse of thirty plus years, my sole dinner companion for lo, the last two hundred nights, I wonder: can I bring a paperback to the table, like those people you see on vacation?

I take a bite of the mushy broccoli he prepared. “Oh, bummer, it’s overcooked.”

“I don’t want to start a fight with you over this!” he says.

“I’m not starting a fight! I just made a comment!” And then we start fighting about the fact that we aren’t fighting.

Husband Fatigue. It’s real, people.

I know, I’m lucky to have a companion. How dare I complain when so many single people are plumbing the depths of loneliness? My issues are irrelevant, as trivial as the BAND-AID wrappers he leaves on the counter, just inches from the trash can.

This far into confinement-while-married, every irritant is magnified, and all the old adages are suddenly relevant. Like, “familiarity breeds contempt,” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Or would.

I remember laughing hysterically at a video I saw at the beginning of the pandemic, where a woman hides in the closet so her husband can’t find her. That was back in March. In April, when the daffodils were blooming defiantly, we were all, “We’ve got this!” And in May—though we joked that our theme song was “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”—Fred and I were still playing ping pong and drinking margaritas on Friday nights.

And then came the horror of George Floyd’s televised murder. The riots, the fires, the smoke, the unbreathable air. Vladimir Putin being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, after his chief critic was poisoned with a toxic nerve agent. The passing of RBG, along with a peek into the Grifter-in-Chief’s tax returns, which included a $70,000 expense for hair care. Can I get a deduction, for overworked adrenals?

Mama said there’d be days like this. But weeks, months? Years?

In the middle of it all, we sold our house and moved into a rental with only one TV hookup. “That’s okay,” I said, “we mostly watch the same shows.” I must have been brain dead, because I completely forgot about the return of Monday Night Football. And Sunday Night Football. And Thursday Night Football.

As happy as I am that my husband has sports back in his life, when he asks, “Who’s winning?” on his way back from the kitchen I can’t resist saying, “The Denver Foresters” or “the L.A. Fire Chiefs.” He rarely laughs at my jokes, and I don’t really care. I just want him to fix that loose towel rack in the bathroom. And quit leaving his shoes in the middle of the floor. And stop taking the unused dog waste baggies out of his pockets and leaving them… everywhere.

Does Michelle Obama have to deal with this after Barack walks Sunny and Bo?

I want my husband to quit stealing my handicap placard. To please stop throwing away the newspaper before I read it. And why, dear God, can’t he put his pocket change in one place instead of making little currency deposits on every surface in the house? No wonder there’s a coin shortage.

I’m rinsing out the unwashed jar of spaghetti sauce he “mistakenly” slipped into the recycle bin (The Artic isn’t going to save itself, Buddy) when Fred interrupts. It must be halftime. What an odd nomenclature for a sport with a half-life similar to uranium.

“Can you teach me how to Zoom?” he asks. “I have an appointment with my doctor on Thursday.”

I can’t punt this to Siri, so I wash my hands for the hundredth time, set up a meeting for the next morning, and send him an email invite. He takes it in the bedroom, and I connect on the other side of the wall, in the living room.

Funny, he looks different on screen. I’m livestreaming my husband! He could be a thousand miles away… instead of ten feet. And we always get along better when we’re apart.

I tell him to “unmute” himself, the opposite of what I normally try to do. He smiles and says, “You look so pretty today,” and I blush. Because he’s the only one who sees me without a mask, and let’s face it, masks hide a multitude of sins. Once you forgo lipstick, it’s a very small step to skip concealer… foundation… eye shadow… mascara. Ponytails have long since replaced blow drying, and I’ve been somewhat remiss in plucking my chin hairs of late.

I complement him on his haircut in return. We’d been arguing over his quest for “the Jeff Bridges look” for years. “Jeff Bridges has a stylist,” I’d repeated, ad infinitum. “Jeff Bridges doesn’t go to Supercuts.” When the salons re-opened he finally agreed to make an appointment at mine, and at last, the blowzy grey “wings” that usually frame his ears like Bozo the Clown are gone.

Slipping into pretend Doctor mode, I ask how he’s doing and he responds with the same litany of complaints I’ve heard a thousand times. But this time I actually listen. Whoever said “variety is the spice of life” wasn’t kidding. It’s like we’re on TV doing Improv or starring in our own reality show. Who knew that the separation provided by 2×4 studs and a few sheets of drywall could have such a profound effect?

Because on the other side of the wall, this is the same guy who bitches about the San Diego Chargers moving to L.A. and how the Raiders got their own four billion dollar stadium in Las Vegas that that big shot Sheldon put up and you can see the Mandalay Bay Resort from every seat and why do the Chargers have to share a stadium with the Rams just because that cheap shit guy Spanos who owns the Chargers wants the people of San Diego to pay for it?

It’s the same guy who over-steams veggies, but barbecues like Guy Fieri. The one who feeds the hummingbirds and pumps up the air in my bike tires and puts windshield wiper fluid in some mysterious tank under the hood of my Honda so I can see clearly. The one I fell in love with when he bought me a chocolate malt for breakfast after our first all night “date.” The same man who accidentally taped the Marvin Hagler fight over our wedding vows 36 years ago. But we got over that, and if I can just ignore that pile of pocket change glinting in the background, we’ll get over this. Because he’s the one I pledged to stick with—through better or… wait a minute, I just realized: our anniversary is right around the corner.

I should send him a Zoom invite. And find those tweezers. debra

Debra Ryll is freelance writer, a TEDx Monterey speaker, a children’s book author… and a reformed smuggler, working on a memoir.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Exclusive Virtual Writing Workshop with Sarah Sentilles!

April 18, 2021
sentilles book stranger care

Readers, writers, Angela here to let you know that one of our favorite humans, Sarah Sentilles, has an amazing opportunity available! Pre-order a copy of her book, Stranger Care to get exclusive access to a one-hour generative writing workshop via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available.

Wait, so who is Sarah Sentilles?

Sarah Sentilles one of a handful of writers I am always eager to work with. She is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, will be published by Random House in May 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, Ms., Religion Dispatches, Oregon ArtsWatch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She’s had residencies at Hedgebrook and Yaddo. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. She is the co-founder of the Alliance of Idaho, which works to protect the human rights of immigrants by engaging in education, outreach, and advocacy at local, state, and national levels.

How do I sign up?

  1. Preorder book
  2. Go to this website.
  3. Scroll down just a little bit and provide your name, email, and order # and hit submit.

Please note, the offer is only valid until May 3, so preorder asap so you don’t miss it!

What do I need to bring?

The workshop will be held via Zoom and Sarah is a big fan of writing by hand if you are able. So bring a pen, pencil, notebook, laptop, whatever works for you and be ready to have your writing world rocked in the best way for an hour.

Jen and I will both be there, leave a comment if you are going as well!

 

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Autism, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Ordinary Lives

April 16, 2021
risa

by Marlene Olin

Margaret hears the sound of cabinet doors slamming. When she walks into the kitchen, her heart lurches. The walls are splattered, the floors crunchy.  But her daughter’s happy. Tomato sauce spackles Risa’s hair and her glasses. On top of a pot, steam billows.

“Dinner’s almost done,” says Risa.  A tornado of arms and legs, she whirls from the sink to the stove. “By my calculations, nine minutes tops.”

Once again Margaret glances at her kitchen. Risa has created a workspace like she’s been taught. The counter is covered with newspaper. The ingredients lined just so. Bay leaves. Garlic. Onion. Oregano. The measuring spoons and cups. The mixing bowls and slotted spoons. Not one dish will be cleaned until after dessert.  Order is everything.

“Looks great, sweetie. It’s such a help when you cook dinner.” Then Margaret mentally makes a note of the post-cleaning required long after her daughter has cleaned and gone to bed.

But there’s no denying that Risa’s happy. There’s a lift in her step and she hums while she works. When she’s finished, she walks up to Margaret. Most people would leave an ample amount of space between them. But space is subjective. Space is a loose and wobbly entity that one intuits. Instead Risa lines up toe to toe with her mother and waves a finger in Margaret’s face.

“One more step on the road to independence, Mom.”  Then she remembers her smile cards and creases the corners of her mouth.

***

Three hours later, they are lying down. Risa’s bedroom has looked the same for decades. The sheets are soft and flannel, the shelves lined with her collections. Stones. Crystals. Shells.

As always, Margaret picks a book of poems and reads. Dickinson tonight. Perhaps Browning tomorrow. Outside the window the moon waxes and wanes. Inside the words fall like waves. It’s the sound that matters, the lilt, the lull, the up and down. Meanwhile Margaret stifles yawn after yawn. Her day can’t end soon enough.

“Do you know that a giraffe just needs 1.9 hours of sleep?” says Risa.

While she turns the page, Margaret listens to the quiet of her house. A TV drones. A dryer rumbles. Somewhere her husband is lurching. Hunched, his hands clenched, his eyes darting.  A lost soul, her husband. A Victorian ghost. A daguerreotype, grayed and grim, save for the waistcoat and watch.

“Do you know that sharks have to keep moving?”  says Risa. “Do you know that sharks never sleep?”

“Never sleep?” says Margaret.

Despite herself, Margaret savors the moment. For she knows that moments like these will soon be come and gone.  This is the year that Risa’s turning forty. With the proper supervision and support, Risa will be getting her own apartment. Her bags will be packed. The house will be emptied. The shrinks, the social workers, the experts all say it’s time.

On the ceiling are Day-Glo constellations. As soon as the lamp’s turned off, they grab the light. Margaret closes her eyes. In seconds she’s transported to 1980’s. They had just moved to Miami for her husband’s new job.

  “Spring has sprung!” said the banner. Bunnies and egg-lined baskets.  A chain of pastel construction paper crisscrossed the room.

The teacher kept her voice to a whisper. “I have twenty children in my kindergarten. Twenty children and two aides. But Risa’s the one we watch. She runs with scissors. Walks into the seesaw. The other day she followed a stray dog out the school and down the block.”

What was her name?  Miss Susan or Miss Sarah. It was mythical the way she saw into the future. Like some sort of blind seer. Back then there were no catchphrases. No spectrums. No labels. Nothing to hang your hat on but despair.

“Her IQ is sky high. That’s obvious. And her knowledge of trivia endless. But she flinches at the slightest touch. She’s terrified of hugs.”

Instead of friends, Risa had pets. No dogs or cats. Margaret’s husband was allergic. To the hair. To the dander. To the pollen on their fur. Instead they adopted an ever-changing zoo. A guinea pig that kept them up all night. A savage hamster. A gerbil that found its way into the dryer duct. Saltwater fish. Freshwater fish. One morning they’d be fine. Then the next they’d be floating, a lifeless eye staring toward the light.

A fitful sleeper, Risa tosses and turns while Margaret inches closer to the edge. Of course, her daughter has no idea what awaits her. Noisy neighbors. Nosy landlords.  Butt crack plumbers. Pervs. But what Margaret fears most is the loneliness. She can see it now.  The hours of bone-crushing silence, the kind of quiet that screams.

Margaret’s dealt with pitfalls and potholes. And now an old familiar panic starts to grow.  Margaret’s learned to trust her instincts. Her instincts rarely fail her. But all she envisions are red lights and stop signs.  Risa’s own apartment? All she can hear is her voice shouting no!

Meanwhile Margaret’s bullied right and left.

From her son, the lawyer in Washington, the one who will one day bear the burden. Each rebuke is spewed with fear: “You’re not getting younger, you know.”

From the shrink. Good or bad, inspired or idiotic, the meter keeps running:  “What’s the worst that can happen?”

From the professionals in their air-conditioned offices, sweatered in smiles, gripping their coffee cups, glued to their screens: “It’s time to cut the cord, Mom.” Like Margaret’s a fucking stereotype. Like there’s an instruction manual she somehow missed.

Only her friends can she count on. In darkened rooms, she sobs while they sip Chablis. “She’s going where?” They say. “You’re doing what?”

But her daughter is insistent. She’s like a dog with a bone. Pulling. Tugging. The whole world has narrowed to this one theme, this one topic, this one road.

Margaret lowers her voice, taps into some patience, and slips a mask of calmness on her face. It won’t be as easy as you think, Margaret reminds her. The words coil like an undercurrent, slipping into every conversation. You’re too kind-hearted. Not everyone is as trusting and as kind-hearted as you.

But no argument chips the concrete. Instead Risa rolls her eyes. Then she reminds her mother of her accomplishments. The 3.3 average in college. Her job at the library. Plus she’s cooked dinner for three nights straight!

***

They make apartment hunting more of a pastime than a project. Marilyn, their realtor, is a friend. Blonde, bronzed, roped with jewelry, she carves out time in her busy busy schedule. She has known Margaret and Risa since forever.

Every Sunday, it is now part of their routine.

Marilyn points out the window. Beyond the pool is Biscayne Bay. “The condo is vacated,” says Marilyn. “Its owners just fled. Tax problems. Immigration problems. Who knows?  A bedroom and two baths plus lots of light.”

Margaret struggles to find fault but finds herself tongue-tied, stumped.

“I like this place,” says Marilyn. “There’s a nice view. Incredible amenities. A party room plus a gym!”

While Margaret follows the swoop of her hand, Risa has disappeared.  They find her checking out a spider down the hall.  When she joins them, her face is vacant, her eyes glazed. Security deposits. Down payments. It’s all too much too absorb.

“Do you know that living rooms were once called parlors?” says Risa. “When you died, they laid out your body on a table. Then all your friends and relatives dropped by.”

“Really?” says Marilyn. She is listening and not listening. Punching her phone.

“Really,” says Risa. “Then one day death became a business. Morticians took the bodies, cleaned them up, and moved them to funeral parlors. Then people started calling their parlors living rooms. Get it? Living rooms.”

“Is that a fact?” says Marilyn.

“Do you know that after mating,” says Risa, “the male arachnid dies?”

It was eighth grade. All the kids in Risa’s private school were supposed to perform community service. The voices in Margaret’s head said no. The voices yelled and screamed, are you insane? But Risa pleaded, all the kids were doing it, here’s the list of places we can go.

The plan was to drop her off at the animal shelter every Saturday. Margaret insisted on her version of a hazmat suit. Long sleeves, long pants. Covered shoes. They gave Risa all the jobs no one else would do. Clean bird shit from cages. Clean dog shit from crates. Every afternoon Margaret would pick Risa up, drive her home, and direct her straight into the shower.

Still the first month went smoothly. No chore was too vile. Risa would rake her fingers through a dog’s fur and instantly decompress. She’d stroke a cat and shudder as it purred. It was the second month that proved a disaster.

A staff member named Timmy started hanging around. A scruffy beard to cover up the acne. Torn jeans and checkerboard teeth. He’d wash a dog and spray Risa with the hose until her clothes clung. Then he’d warble, look who’s got titties. He talked her into wearing white tee shirts, the more to gawk at when they clung.

Then one day he asked her along to pick up a litter. They took off in his truck, his hand slipping on and off the gear stick, digging in the space between her thighs.  You working out, Risa?  She sat up straighter, startled. You seem tense, he said. I can feel your muscles clench.

She took a shower for two hours that night. Then she plucked out all her eyelashes. Clean couldn’t get clean enough.

But Marilyn’s not on the program. While Margaret wants to press the pause button, Marilyn’s programmed to make a deal. It’s almost Thanksgiving when she finds the perfect apartment. Fully refurbished. Fort Knox Security. The place is only two miles from their house.

“I’m sending you a lease,” says Marilyn. “We’ve got to jump on this one fast.”

The three of them had just finished eating a quick dinner in the kitchen.  Margaret. Her husband. Risa. The family response is all too easy to predict.

The husband retreats to his den.

Margaret gulps an antacid followed by an Ativan chaser.

Risa puts her hands on her hips. Then she lectures her mother theatrically like she’s seen people do on TV. “Everyone has their own apartment. I’m the only person in the world without her own apartment. This is your problem, Mother. Not mine.”

“But Risa,” says Margaret scrambling for words.

Next her daughter lifts her chin toward the ceiling and starts bugling like an overgrown toad.  When she’s finished with her performance, she turns once more to Margaret.

“Do you know,” says Risa, “that a Panamanian gold frog has no outside ears? It can even ignore its own voice.”

The days slog by. Marilyn texts every hour on the hour while the three of them gnash their teeth. But the more Margaret vacillates, the more anxious Risa becomes. She gives up sleep altogether. She bites on her lips and chews on her hands, gnawing her nails to the quick.

If only there were a guidebook, thinks Margaret. A primer for extraordinary people who crave ordinary lives. The problem is so much more than geography. There’s a hole in Risa’s heart that she can’t identify let alone fill. Though Risa’s life is consumed with routine, it’s shockingly empty.  Sure she has contacts on social media. But they aren’t true connections. They aren’t real friends.

And while Risa stays stuck, the rest of the world has moved on. Her brother has married and has two children. Even her younger cousins have families, too.

Is this something you can imagine? Margaret once asked her. Is this something that you want? When you look into the future, is this something that you see?

No, says Risa. I really can’t.

It’s a reality that Margaret has difficulty accepting. At night, she dreams of happy endings.  She pictures satin wedding gowns. A handsome groom and a multi-tiered cake.

But there’s no cooing infant in this picture. There’s no strolling down an aisle festooned with baby’s breath and ferns. Instead, Risa envisions a menagerie, a home for the lost and the neglected. There are no playpens and Pampers. Instead there’s meowing and barking. Chirping and cheeping. Room after room of flying feathers.

Her husband hides. Her son yells. Her realtor nags. And like mercury in a thermometer, her daughter’s stress shoots up. Meanwhile Margaret walks on tiptoes and speaks in whispers. It’s like living with a volcano that’s bound to explode.

“I hate you, Mother,” says Risa.

“They want signatures,” says Marilyn.

But Margaret shakes them off. There are and will be other apartments. This is another roadblock they can overcome.

She spends hours on the computer. Then she locates a special organization in Wisconsin that sells trained dogs. They aren’t service dogs. Risa would have to wait years for a service dog. But they know forty commands right off the bat.

The family response is all too easy to predict.

Risa’s eyebrows nearly jump off her head. Then she bounces up and down like she’s on a trampoline, waving her hands and wiggling her fingers. “I’m getting a dog! I’m getting a dog!”

The husband starts sneezing.

The son whines. “I always wanted a dog. We never got a dog before. Now Risa gets a dog?”

By January, the two of them are in Madison. The temperature is below zero and everything’s white. The rental car passes frozen lake after lake, the air’s still, the sky crisp. A few crazies are ice-fishing. Convenient stores sell cheese balls, cheese curds, cheese soup. Churches scream, Save Your Soul! Their laps are littered with road maps while their phones prove useless. Heading into the woods, they drive clean off the grid.

After two hours, they locate the kennel. Ten acres, a barn, and a house. A lumberjack kind of guy opens the door. Six feet tall, he’s a Paul Bunyan look-alike.  Flannel shirt. Workman boots.  Jeans.

Soon their efforts are rewarded when twenty Labrador Retriever puppies greet them. Black. Yellow. Brown. Licking. Yapping. Pawing. Deciding is impossible. Ridiculous!  With tears in her eyes, Risa becomes enamored with each and every one.

Finally, as the sun sets, a gold-colored dog picks Risa. She is sitting on the floor when a two-month-old ball of fluff waddles over, lies in her lap, and falls asleep. Smiling, Risa gives her a name. She looks like a Milly, don’t you think? Then they say their goodbyes and leave the puppy in Wisconsin to be trained. After a five-month gestation period, they’ll fly back. Then they’ll pick up the newest member of the family.

In the meantime, they get ready. They sign a lease. Purchase furniture. And every few weeks they’re emailed photos of the dog. Risa forwards them to everyone she knows. Like any proud parent, she diligently records milestones. She carries a brag book. To strangers on the bus she says, Have you seen anything cuter? To her mother she says, You’re the best.

There are commands to learn and supplies to buy. Leashes. Crates. Rawhide toys. Could Risa register for gifts at a pet store, Margaret wonders? Can I send out an announcement when our latest addition arrives? Sure, she tells her friends. Getting a new dog doesn’t have to be this hard. But when is learning to love ever easy?

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Divorce, Guest Posts, pandemic

Covid-19 and My Ultra-Orthodox Children

April 14, 2021
children

by Beatrice Weber

I am a mother of ten Hasidic children, and I couldn’t protect many of them from the virus. The community they live in has flouted restrictions—and while I know my children are at risk, my hands are tied.

In mid-March 2020, my 7-year-old son, my youngest child, and one of three who lives with me told me he knows why this virus happened. “Oh?” I asked. I was in bed, sleep teasing me, hoping he’d get tired, too, and go to his room. “My teacher told me it is because we don’t say enough blessings. He said that if we say 100 blessings a day it will go away.”

My son is innocent. Like kids his age, he is impressionable. He was one and half years old when I left my abusive marriage, six years ago with four of my ten children. He attends a yeshiva and visits his father, a rabbi in Monsey, New York, every second weekend for Shabbos. I am fiercely protective of him, but when he is not with me, I cannot control what he is taught or what happens to him.

Sleep now a distant memory, I caressed his face and assured him that the virus is not his fault and cannot be undone with blessings. “We need to be careful, and we will be okay.”

But the next day, I was not so sure we would be okay. On my way to work, I see a message that had been making its rounds on WhatsApp groups. In pink letters, adorned with lilac flowers and green leaves, the virtual flyer, titled “Unique Protection,” stated that rabbis encourage women to upgrade their head covering from wigs to kerchiefs (more pious), and in this merit, we will be saved.

I closed my phone and continued walking. I spotted a Yiddish notice on a lamppost stating that the contagion is a punishment for schmoozing during prayers. We must be quiet, and this disease will go away. Quiet, I thought—the one thing I fail miserably at.

For many years, I had prayed daily, fervently. “God, please help me to become a ‘Kosher woman who does the will of her husband,’” I would plead, quoting the words of the Talmud. Please help me to do this. I want to be a good wife to my husband. I prayed and trusted that things would get better in my marriage. But it did not.

I was expected to be a meek, obedient wife. When I would try to voice an opinion, my husband would shut me down and get the children to mock me, until, finally, I broke.

It was seven years ago on Passover eve, before the first Seder when I left. My parents, older children, and the rabbis vehemently opposed me leaving. When my parents found out, they worked with the rabbis to try and take away my younger children. The six I left behind were lost and confused. They were angry at me for abandoning them. They couldn’t fathom the idea that I would leave. I was their mother who had always been there for them. And I left with a heavy heart, the most excruciating decisions I ever made.

I eventually received a Jewish Get from the rabbis and custody and a divorce in family court, but the feelings of betrayal never left me. Betrayal by my own family and my own God.

I felt lost and bereft, and I searched for another way to live.

Before Passover last year, a month into quarantine, my son pled with me to let him go to his father for the Seders. “I want to be there with my nephews,” he said. I assured my son that his nephews won’t be at his father’s Seder, since it is not safe to travel now. But I was not convinced of my own words. I had heard the rumors and seen the flouting of coronavirus restrictions. I knew that his father would risk infection—for himself and his children—to host a proper Seder with our grandchildren from New Jersey, against all guidelines. And I was not wrong – he did indeed invite our  children and grandchildren and

Quarantined in my house, I lead a Seder with three of my children, joyfully singing the traditional songs and searching for the hidden matzoh, the afikomen. The sirens outside wailed, reminding me of the predicament we were in. The deaths in my former community mounted, peaking over Passover.

My friend who runs a nonprofit supporting young orphans in the community told me of the huge increase in requests for services. Families lost grandparents and parents, and communities lost rabbis, leaders, and congregants.

This became very real to me. The virus had infiltrated the community. And while I was hopeful that my children’s father and their community would take it seriously because the sheer numbers of infected and the dead pointed to a danger that required action, I was also skeptical because I knew what I would have done a decade ago. Instead of following the guidelines, I would have encouraged my sons to gather and study and covered for the men’s prayer gatherings. My belief that God would save us was so strong, I may have been compelled to trade my wig for a kerchief.

My skepticism was well-founded. By September, the second wave had reached the Haredi Jewish community in Brooklyn. My son’s yeshiva opened its doors while ostensibly following the rules that had been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. One day I found myself in front of the dark grey building. My son’s teacher had called to ask me to pick him up. He had come down with a strep throat the week before, and he was still not feeling well.

I hesitated before entering the building. Though I am a mother of six boys, I have rarely ventured into the all-boys’ yeshiva building. It was considered immodest and unacceptable for a woman to walk the hallways—and besides, I never had a reason to.

There is another reason I hesitated: I no longer follow the strict dress code of my former community. On that day, I wore my curly bob and black slacks instead of the black mid-thigh skirt and beige tights expected of me. I had never gone near the yeshiva without my hair covered and a skirt over my knees, but I had no time to go home and change. My son wasn’t feeling well, and I was going to pick him up. He needed me.

I peered into the classroom over the teacher’s head and saw the children gathered, with no sign of any social distancing or facial covering.

I suspected that the guidelines were not being followed but seeing this blatant violation of the rules horrified me. What was I supposed to do now with my son? He was required to attend yeshiva, whether it felt safe to me or not. If I chose to keep him home, my ex-husband would use it as leverage and surely come after me for custody. I was torn between doing what was expected of me by my ex-husband and the community my son still belonged to or following my maternal instincts.

I chose the latter, filing complaints with the city and state health departments. I pulled my son from yeshiva, knowing I risked a potential battle with my ex who might take me to family court, a serendipitous reason why he should be granted custody of my son.

Weeks later, a judge in family court ordered my son to return to school, disregarding the flagrant violations.  I comply, worried for my son’s health but also fearful of losing custody.

But for now, for then, I am still in charge. I do what I can protect my younger children, but what about my older ones. Who will protect them?

I don’t hear much from them. Since I left the marriage six years ago, there has been limited communication and it has tragically stripped me of any real relationship with them. They are angry that I left. I ruined their lives, they say. They went from being the children of highly respected parents to the children of divorce, shamed in the community. No one will want to marry them. They are damaged goods.

I don’t blame them; my heart bleeds but I could no longer sacrifice myself and my sanity.

Should I have stayed?

I have seven grandchildren whom I haven’t seen in years. I yearn to see and hold them. My children, too. I ache to be part of their lives and know how they are faring in these challenging times. But I am scared to call.

Will my daughter hang up on me like she did when I last called?

Will my son yell at me? I am too fearful, too vulnerable— so I sit at home and worry.

I worry that my children and grandchildren may not be okay. I am angry at a system that encourages them to ignore public health guidelines and rules meant to protect them. But I also envy them. I envy their faith and the unshakable belief that God will protect them.

But who will protect the rest of us?

Beatrice Weber is an Interspirtual Minister, writer, speaker, and coach. She empowers people who have experienced religious, familial, or community trauma connect with their own inner voice and create empowered and joyful lives. She was born and raised in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community and was married off to a Rabbi when she was 18, never having graduated High School. After 22 years of marriage and 10 children, she left the marriage with her four youngest children, despite severe opposition from her family and the community.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Health, travel

My Japanese Handkerchief Masks

April 12, 2021
Japanese

by Wendy Dodek

During this pandemic my thoughts turn to Japan, a country where masks are part of daily life. Yet not so many years ago I ignored a mask offered to me. I knew Japanese etiquette yet scoffed at wearing a mask.  I then proceeded to infect my Japanese friends, not with a deadly disease but a generic cold.

Perhaps, that is why, early in the pandemic, I took an elegant Japanese handkerchief, and with a few simple folds and two rubber bands made a functional mask as a shield against the coronavirus. My self-made mask has soft green floral patterns, made from a handkerchief I acquired when I lived in Tokyo over 30 years ago. It was part of a gift box I received from a group of nurses.

Every Friday night I’d leave my tiny apartment, walk 15 minutes and board the orange train. After 30 minutes, I transferred to a bus for another 20-minute ride to reach the Kyorin University Hospital where I taught English to 12 young nurses and one older nurse-supervisor. At the end of every session, with a deep bow and two extended arms, supervisor Miss Kikutake would hand me my fee, the yen placed in a small envelope. In addition to the money, this tiny woman with gray speckled hair would raise her arms and hand me a beautifully wrapped gift.

It’s customary for patients, about to be discharged, to give farewell presents to their nurses. I believe most of my presents came from this never-ending supply of gifts. What to do with the surplus of Japanese sweet bean treats, cookies and handkerchiefs? Give them to the English teacher. When I first received handkerchiefs, I was baffled. I never used handkerchiefs in the US. I thought of them as old-fashioned and unsanitary. I’d rather blow my nose in a tissue and then quickly discard it. Yet no Japanese person would leave home without carrying at least one handkerchief. And never would those handkerchiefs be used for nasal secretions. What a horrifying thought to Japanese.

Over time, I learned handkerchief culture and I too, carried them in my purse. I carefully would choose based on the seasons: cherry blossom pinks for spring, crimson maples for fall, purple irises in summer and some forgotten winter pattern. Like everyone else, I would take my handkerchief, dab my forehead during the sweltering Tokyo summers and dry my hands after visiting restrooms that offered no towels.

When I returned to the US in 1988, I brought home about 50 new handkerchiefs of exquisite colors and designs. I offered them up to my American friends although many seemed puzzled by these beautiful cloth squares. I then began to use them to wrap small gifts, instead of traditional wrapping paper. My closet now has just six handkerchiefs left. Just enough to repurpose them when the US medical community reversed course and urged the public to wear masks.

I doubt if any Japanese person would think of my handkerchief creation as a proper mask. The blue surgical variety are a common sight in Japan, long before this virus appeared. Have the sniffles? Wear a mask. Allergy season? Don a mask. Shortly after I moved to Tokyo in 1985, I saw a subway engineer in his prim blue uniform, matching tie and cap, and face draped in a mask. My newsletter home was entitled, “Riding on a Train Driven by a Masked Man.”

I lived for three years in Tokyo with occasional head colds but never considered wearing a mask. It would just get in the way when I needed to sneeze and blow my nose, I reasoned. Wrong attitude. Japanese do not blow their noses in public, instead they sniffle. That snorting sound may be unpleasant to Westerners, especially on crowded rush-hour trains, but preferable to Japanese.

The first time I was given a mask to wear was just eight years ago on a return visit to Japan. Within a few days of my arrival in October 2012 I developed a scratchy throat and tickly nose. Unfortunately, my husband and I had already embarked on a four-day excursion out to the countryside, accompanied by two Japanese friends. Together we stayed in an 18th-century farmhouse and all four of us shared one large guest room, family style. Each person was given futon bedding, which was spread out on the earthy tatami straw mats. Limited heat came from the smoky hearth in the center of the house. By the time we arrived at our next destination, a hot spring town, I could no longer hide my cold. My Japanese friend took me to a drugstore where the pharmacist prepared medicine and tossed two masks into the bag. I was standing by my friend and I imagine she noticed the masks but didn’t say anything. Perhaps, she wanted to see if I would wear one.

I put on a mask just long enough to pose for the camera with sad eyes and slumped body. My expression screamed, poor me, I am sick! But I was just posing. After my husband snapped the photo, I ripped off that mask with no intention of wearing it again. How could I blow my nose, which was running like a faucet, while wearing a mask? And how would I cough wearing a mask? I did not think about how Japanese manage or if my friends would contract my cold.

Over the next few days both of my Japanese friends (and my husband) got sick. I felt like a selfish foreigner, willing to contaminate my friends with my germs. All those years I had prided myself on being a good “gaijin”(foreigner) in Japan. Good foreigners do not lick ice cream while walking down on the street. They did not chew gum in public. They do not speak with a loud voice in the subways. And yet here was proof, I was a self-centered foreigner.

When my friends got sick, I expressed remorse for contaminating them but wondered if I should apologize for not wearing a mask. I had known these women for 25 years yet I didn’t know how to respond. My Japanese friends did not say anything, no overt recriminations. They acted like nothing was wrong. They said their colds were mild. Yet they immediately covered their faces with masks when their symptoms arose. I sensed they were disappointed in me, the person they viewed as better than the stereotyped selfish Americans.

In the US, the public is being urged to wear masks. So why not use my Japanese handkerchiefs? I reached into the back of my closet and examined my unused stock. Not my favorite handkerchiefs, those were all given away. Still, I can be draped in fashionable Japanese cloth and hope for protection – for me and for all those around me. I can picture Ms. Kikutake’s smile as she handed me box after box of treats, some to be consumed quickly and others to last a lifetime.

Wendy Dodek was the Lead Educator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until the pandemic. See also teaches art and history related ESL courses for recent arrivals to the US. Her interests include arts, travel and writing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts, parenting, Racism

Confessions of a Brown, White-Girl

April 11, 2021
school

by Georgena Michelizza

It’s 1993. Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” plays on 97.3 Kiss FM constantly. It’s my favorite song so I don’t mind. I’ve started growing awkward pointy breasts that are too easily noticed under my oversized t-shirts. Bill Clinton is president; I know this is important, but I’m not entirely sure why. I like the way he plays the saxophone because I also play Alto. I know that Dan Quayle can’t spell potatoes and that there’s a war in Gaza. I’m only 10 years old.

This is the year my dad starts carrying a walnut-stock shotgun around. It must be almost the end of the school year in Taos, or the start, because I know it’s hot. Heat emanates off thick adobe walls as I walk to the plaza after school and floats in illusory ripples above the black asphalt when we drive home. Everywhere my father goes the shotgun goes. It drives to school with us, laid across the two flip-down seats in the rear of our red and gold Chevy. It sleeps on the floor beside his mattress and sits, propped in its beige canvas case, in the far corner of his shop all day. She’s our silent companion.

 ~ ~ ~

“You’re gonna die Nigger. You’re gonna die, boy. Watch your step.” Click.

My dad looks at me with those pleading honey-brown eyes and pushes the blinking green triangle on the answering machine again.

“You’re gonna die Nigger. You’re gonna die, boy. Watch your step.”

“I don’t know Dad. Maybe it was the same voice from the prank call this morning. I’m not sure,” I say, avoiding his needy eyes. Tension ties my jaw in bumpy knots and pulls my lips back in an awkward Cheshire smile; one hell of a coping mechanism freaky smiling is.

“This is serious, Georgea. You need to try and remember.” His voice is deep and resonant, the way he usually sounds after meditating, but the fine lines between his eyes and on his forehead show me he is not at ease. His sense of urgency is palpable, and I want to have the right answer. I want to know what’s going on.

“I couldn’t really understand the guy on the phone this morning, dad. I’m sorry.” I take my yellow Jansport backpack off and lay it behind the long desk that served as a bar for previous tenants. “He just sort of mumbled. I couldn’t make out any words. I thought it was just a prank call, so I hung up,” I keep talking, nervously trying to fill the space between us with words. My dad pushes the blinking green triangle again and sits down with his forehead in his palms, shaking his head “no,” gently, back and forth. A wriggly blue vein bulges beside his temple. I know this vein, it’s his angry vein, but he doesn’t look angry now. He looks sad. Sad and scared. “Do you think it was the same person?” I ask, wanting to show that I appreciate the gravity of the situation.

“I don’t know, Georgea. But, somethin’s not right. Not right at all.” I’ve never seen my dad appear weak or penetrable, and that is distressing alone. I’ve seen him worried when he says he is balancing his checkbook, or “figuring out what to do next.” Money, I know can cause those lines on his brow, “the business” can narrow his eyes like this, but never before has he appeared fragile.

~~~

I’m no longer allowed to walk the short 10-minute distance from school to our rug gallery in the plaza. Instead, he parks on the street directly outside my final class of the day, watching me make my way down the school steps and to his truck. We circle the plaza numerous times, bumper-to-bumper, trying to find parking. Shotgun in the backseat all the while. I don’t ask why she travels with us everywhere; I know the answer, “You’re gonna die nigger, you’re gonna die — boy.” I’m scared of her, both of the irrevocable damage it could cause and of why it suddenly has become present in our lives.

Gone are my 25 cent giant Jawbreakers from the huge glass jar at the candy shop on my way home. Gone is my blossoming sense of independence. I understand I need to be kept safe, but I don’t entirely understand why. My father’s attentiveness is warming, but unusual. “Sometimes you gotta learn the hard way,” was his mantra and that’s exactly how most of his tutelage was passed down; the hard way.

Beyond  the “N-word,” I knew what the caller meant by calling my father “boy.” My six-foot-five-inch father was no boy. He was big and he could be pretty scary. People in town called him, “Big A.” He was the guy you called to haul your 200-pound Mastiff Shepherd down the stairs when he’s too scared to walk down on his own. He’s the guy you call when you need help moving the heaviest couch on earth, or to build a deep-set fence to keep the neighbor’s cows out of your clover field. He’s not a man that many would cross. Yet, someone was not scared of him. Some drawled, barbed voice on the other end of the answering machine knew they had power over him, and they exerted that power with the word “boy.”

~~~

The death threat was not the first time I had experienced racism. Upon reflection, it was the first time I became aware of it…

~~~

“Don’t be offended, Georgea, I’m just not attracted to black girls,” says my 10-year-old best friend, Jessie, in the school-yard when he is supposed to run up and kiss me in some variant of tag we were playing. I’m not offended, but I do wonder if all the other boys I know feel the same.

“My mom told me you can’t wash dreadlocks.” School kids would say. “Gross. Do you wash your hair? I bet it stinks. Georgea’s got dog hair.” All too familiar schoolyard exchanges. I did wash my dreads, and my father also washed his. Oddly, I never registered the vitriol that underscored these comments. I was happy to explain to my peers.

“No, of course we wash them. We just don’t brush them. We pull them apart so that they don’t mat up into one big gnarly Bob Marley dread.” Perhaps they went back and told their parents what they had learned. Perhaps that is why they came back and told me they were no longer allowed to play with me because I’m “black.” Perhaps that’s why I decided to cut off my dreads that year.

Sprawled out in a giant tractor tire in a dirt schoolyard, Nicole looks at me and questions, “Maybe your skin is brown because God pooped on you?”

“Maybe yours is white ‘cause God peed on you and bleached you pale.” I get out of the tire as the recess whistle blows. Feeling self-righteous about my quick-witted comeback, I walk towards the haphazardly forming line to reenter the school building.

I truly did not believe she was trying to be mean. I would go on to have many sleepovers at her house. We’d drown out Rush Limbaugh’s agitated voice coming from the living room big screen with THE Dave Mathew’s Band cranked full blast on her Sanyo boombox until we were told to “turn that racket down.”

Joining some other classmates towards the front of the line, I’m told by a popular girl wearing an athletic-style headband, “Nuggers in the back.” I don’t know what that means. I know nigger is a hate-filled word, but I don’t know what “nugger” means. Does she mean nigger? The dusty schoolyard is chaotic and loud. I just want to get inside.

A big sixth-grade girl appears. She drapes her arm around my shoulder and pulls me in close. She feels like a sister. I wish she were my sister. Her hair is big and curly and she smells like coconut and Dr. Pepper Lip smackers. “Come in the 6th grade entrance with me,” she says, flipping her chin, neck, and hair around in the most confident display I’ve ever seen. Once inside the back part of the school in which I’d never been, she points down the hall and says, “Your classroom is that way. You’ll be OK.” She starts up the green-tiled stairs beside the water fountain when she turns and shouts down the hall, “Just ignore them.” I plant those words in my heart and live them as creed.

The halls are clean and almost empty as the lower grades have not yet been let in. I drink in the peace and try to step in each tile squarely, avoiding the cracks until I reach my door. The poster on my classroom door is a black and white picture of Dr. Martin Luther King with an excerpt from his, “I have a dream” speech.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I memorized those words that year and carried them as truth, my own illusion of colorblindness blinding me to the reality around me.

Heartbreaking as this all sounds now, it didn’t break my heart then. That came later. That came after the message. The message changed the tone the light cast on everything that came before.

~~~

During any one of my father’s empowerment lessons, he smiles that warming, charming smile that turns all the women around him into globby goo. “You can be and do whatever you want. You may have to work harder than some other people, but whatever you want to be in life, you can be. You just gotta play the game.” He looks like a superhero beaming down on me. Anything is possible, you just gotta be strong. Strong and proud; the burden of a black woman.

He tightens his turquoise bolo tie in the mirror and puffs up his chest as he swats the lint off his torso. I love to look at him when he’s dressed up for work. He’s taught me about the black cowboys in Oklahoma where his father is from, and I think secretly he wants to be a cowboy.

“Perception is reality, Georgea.” He always says my name after laying down some hardcore truths. “It matters how you speak, how you’re dressed, how you walk. People are gonna try and judge you, make decisions about you without axing you.” I register the mispronunciation of “ask,” and look up at him. “Asking,” he corrects himself smiling, his gold lateral incisor glistening in the sun. “You can’t change their minds, but you can control how you show up.” He adjusts the denim collar of his shirt, grabs his black wide-brimmed hat, and walks out of the room planting a sweaty kiss in the center of my forehead.

~~~

Raised to believe I had nothing to be ashamed of, I was happy to educate people about melanin in skin, the history of the slave trade, the ancient kingdoms of Africa and the Orient, and how my slightly wider nostrils helped my equatorial ancestor’s intake more air in hot climates. I truly believed that I could educate people out of ignorance, and I felt no shame in doing so.

“They’re just ignorant,” my dad would say. And so, for some time, this was my belief. People are not filled with hate, they are just ignorant. If their lack of knowledge was not elective, that meant I could simply provide them with knowledge and they would be healed, liberated. If they chose not to accept my knowledge, that was their loss. This stance carried me through much of my childhood and provided a cottony bubble of empowerment that burst when I learned that ignorance can be a choice.

~~~

“I’m Georgena. Georgena Tann. My name wasn’t called,” I say to the 5th grade ski club administrator in the auditorium. The words are hard to get out behind my suppressed tears. My voice trembles more than I want it to. She looks up from her scribbling with only her eyes.

“Right.” Eyes back on her clipboard. “I see your name here, Miss Tann. You were absent yesterday. Rule is, you don’t show up to school, you don’t ski the next day. You know that.”

“But it was a holiday. It was Martin Luther King’s day. It’s a holiday. I didn’t miss school. We celebrated.” I plead, genuinely surprised and confused.

“Not here it’s not. Everyone else was in school. Now, go back to your class. I’ll give you a late pass.” She hands me a yellow slip of paper without meeting my eyes.

I forget about my backpack and all my gear sitting in the 5th row. I run out of the auditorium, down the white-tiled halls, past a bumbling teacher, and out through those big green double doors. I run down those massive steps and all the way to my dad’s shop.

~~~

My father and I return to school that afternoon to speak with the principal. We’d been there only a few weeks back when I was sent home for the day for listening to “explicit content” on my Walkman. The song was a “Let’s Get It On” Marvin Gay single I’d stolen from my mom’s cassette library.

This was not the first or the last time my father spoke to a school principal on my behalf; not the only time I would register apprehension in her eyes as she closed her office door looking nervously at the aides on the other side of the glass.

“Big A” was intimidating. He couldn’t help it. He was born this way, brown and tall. The risen, rippling burn marks covering much of his right arm, hand, and body didn’t help diminish people’s concern.

So… my dad, big and intimidating, sat in front of that little principal woman, me beside him, and told her that Martin Luther King Day is now a federally observed holiday statewide and if the school was refusing to observe the holiday he would pull me from school, and — “take it up the line.”

We signed some papers and huffed out of there after collecting my things from the auditorium. The following day I returned to the private, “hippie school” I had attended in previous years. I had begged to go to public school to “feel normal.” My old, new school was directly across the street from Enos Garcis, the public elementary I had just busted out of, and at lunch recess the kids across the street would throw oranges and other fruit over the chain-link fence and chant, “Hippie Kids, Hippie Kids.” Maybe they hurled more intimidating insults, but my memory has kindly kept only, “Hippie Kids.” We had no ski-club, and our 30-person school was housed in an old church, but I was grateful to be back where things made sense. I still might not be kissable, but at least I could listen to Marvin Gaye.

~ ~ ~

I wonder if my father anticipated me not being able to ski and pulling me from that school. I wonder if he had planned the whole thing, or if it really was an innocent mistake. I wonder if he thought about how sad and left out I would feel sitting in that auditorium, while everyone’s name was called but mine. I wonder how I’ll teach my young, white-passing, daughter’s about the privilege they wear on their skin.

The following year Enos Garcia  observed Martin Luther King Day.

~ ~ ~

So what happened with my dad and his 12-gauge? I remember the look of concern and fear in my dad’s squinting eyes. I remember the words on the answering machine verbatim. I vaguely recall tall men in sleek suits standing out against the south-western décor of the hotel lobby, which led to our family business. I don’t why it happened, or if the matter was ever resolved. I don’t know when my father finally stopped toting the gun around, or why.

What I do remember is my father explaining to me what a hate crime is. I don’t recall the exact words, but what I took from that explanation was that people might want to hurt you just for being who you are. Raised to believe I could be and do anything I wanted, safely, this was a potent deviation from all my father had instilled in me. So why does it matter? If I can’t remember any of the details beyond a dreamy blur, why has this memory become embossed into my psyche? Why, as Black Lives Matters protests swelled across the US last summer, did this memory move me to tears and often panic?

This experience subconsciously added a new filter to a little ten-year-old girl’s perceptual reality. The new awareness; we are not always safe in our skin.

Despite being college-educated, having two-passports, and speaking three languages (in sum, being blessed by privilege) the yoke of this awareness chokes me now as  I, like my father 28 years prior, keep pushing play.  I keep watching a black man die below the knee of a police officer. Over and over I watch. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” I can’t either. Am I safe? My supercomputer intelligence pulls up all the instances in which I have felt unsafe in my skin and begs me to explode into fight for flight. I’m flooded with cortisol and trembling despite sitting safely on my couch, phone in hand.

This is how trauma works, it creeps back up and takes hold of your most primal instincts when you least expect it.

Georgena Michelizza is a mixed-race, German/American dual citizen. She writes about growing up between cultures and skin tones. From the lens of a first-generation American she reflects on race, and wonders how to teach her very fair children about the African blood that discretely runs through their veins. Follow Georgena here

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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