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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

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

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

 

death, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Bernoulli’s Heart

April 9, 2021
By Marco Etheridge

The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.

Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.

The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.

A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.

The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.

— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.

— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.

— What’s more redundant than a wake?

— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.

— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.

John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.

— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.

— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.

Staffen snorts, shakes his head.

— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.

— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.

He waves a dismissive hand.

— Are you living here in the old alma mater?

— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.

— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.

— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.

She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.

— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.

— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.

Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.

— Piss on them. A murder of crows.

He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.

— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.

— I hope so. Were you two still close?

— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?

— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.

— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.

— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.

Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.

— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.

Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.

— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.

— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.

— I know.

— Do you mind if I change the subject?

— Please do.

Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.

— How many funerals have you been to this year?

— That’s a morbid question.

— Humor me, you used to be good at it.

— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?

He nods, as if having something confirmed.

— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.

— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?

— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.

— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.

— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.

Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.

— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?

— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.

— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.

— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.

— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.

— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.

Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.

— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?

— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?

Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.

— Sorry, science and grief colliding.

— Which one of them is funny?

— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?

— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?

— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?

— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?

— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.

— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.

— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.

— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?

— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?

— No widows, no orphans. Why?

— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.

— Is this from first-hand experience?

— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.

Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.

— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?

— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.

Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.

— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?

He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.

— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.

— Something I’ll always be sorry about.

She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.

— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.

— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.

Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.

She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.

— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?

— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.

Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.

C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.

— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.

Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.

— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.

— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.

— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.

— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.

— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.

There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.

— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?

— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.

He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.

— What does happen next?

— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.

Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.

Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.

He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.

Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.

He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.

Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available now. Learn more about Marco at https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/.

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

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.

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

Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello, A Review

April 8, 2021
gina

When I finish a book, I do one of three things with it: donate it to a local book drive, pass it along to a friend, or keep it on my bookshelf to reference and read again. This space is filled with the books I keep. I hope you like this feature, and I hope you like Gina’s book. -Angela

by Angela M Giles

The first time I met Gina Frangello in person, she was on the book tour for A Life in Men. The setting was the Brookline Booksmith, and I was captivated. How could I not be, the book is fantastic. I had known of Gina for some time, she was always popping up on one “writer to watch” list or another, and I followed her online work as well as her Sunday editor work at The Rumpus. But that evening in Coolidge Corner, hearing her talk about her process and actually meeting her (ack!) and then taking a photo with her (ack! ack!) was beyond magical.

I have been waiting for her most recent book for a long time, even before she knew she would write it. Gina is a fiction writer, a very good fiction writer and I have read her books, but I secretly hoped she would write a memoir because I wanted to see what a “Gina Frangello non-fiction book” would be like. I suspect I wasn’t alone in that that secret hope. This week that very book was published.

The title of Gina’s latest book is Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, and every time I see it, I am surprised by the impact of the word “treason.” Likewise, when I see the teeth-baring wolf on the pink cover, I feel a little shiver. This visual of the book makes no secret of the fact that what is tucked between the covers is likely unsettling, uncomfortable, painful even. And it is. But it ends well, as we know. Her pandemic zoom wedding, featured in Psychology Today, was a welcome respite mid-quarantine.

What Gina offers the reader is an unsanitized and unfiltered, look at a woman’s life in middle age. There are parts that are glorious and parts that are devastating. Parts that are messy and parts worth doing over and over again. There are the parts that are painful, that are the result of questionable choices. In this book everything is fair game, and no one receives harsher examination than the author herself.

Gina doesn’t flinch when she tells us of the affair that reawakened her sexually while sounding the death knell for two marriages, the regrets she has as a parent, as a daughter. She can describe physical abuse or fucking with the same intensity and she doesn’t give us much room to flinch either. The writing is lyrical and charged. The book opens with a list of words starting with the letter “a,” then proceeds through each section looping time back on itself, interjecting misunderstood words, switching points of view, and ending with fifty meditations. If nothing else the book is a masterclass on form.

But of course, it is something else. It is a book about female desire and female rage. It is a book about making choices and taking responsibility for those choices. It is a book about resilience and reckoning. It is a book about being in the midst of your life when your marriage, body, and parents fall apart. But most importantly, it is a book about what a life looks like when a woman tells her story.

The final sentences of the book are these:

“This much I know: that eventually, we all have to start screaming well before we hit the ground, so the women below us will understand when to scatter, when to take cover, when it is safe to come back outside and try again to change the world. So that future generations will know, from the echo of our voices, never to stop watching the sky.”

This conclusion to her memoir, this feminist directive, is why Gina’s book will continue to stay with me. In telling one story of a woman’s messy midlife, she paves the way and encourages the voices of others to do the same. She has cleared a path, now it’s our turn.

Gina Frangello is the author of Every Kind of WantingA Life in MenSlut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in PloughsharesThe Boston GlobeChicago TribuneHuffPostFenceFive ChaptersPrairie SchoonerChicago Reader, and many other publications. She lives with her family in the Chicago area.

Angela M Giles has been published at The Coachella ReviewThe Nervous BreakdownMedium: Human Parts, as well as other journals. She has been featured in print at The Healing Muse and is a contributor to Shades of Blue, An Anthology On Depression And Suicide from Seal Press. She is a curator and editor at The Manifest-Station. Angela lives in Massachusetts where she conquers the world, one day at a time.

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

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, poetry

Morning

April 5, 2021
morning

By Eric LaFountain

Slower mornings are so much better than those

track race mornings, when the gun went off and the

sprinting began in a frantic a.m. rush.

I can’t sprint anymore,

I don’t know where that sprinter went,

I prefer if he never returns.

I’ll take my coffee in bed on a Wednesday.

Please don’t rush me or expect a prompt response.

I’m busy smelling the fresh brew now (it has notes of pecan and milk chocolate).

I like resting the warm mug on my naked

stomach and the phrase “mocha java,” the way it sounds

said aloud, how it makes my mouth water.

Are you seriously still trying to reach me?

The deadline has passed and everything is okay.

Our world is closed, our world opened, our world closed again.

I barely noticed.

Coffee beans should be oily, fragrant, decadent.

And the morning should be wide open and roomy to enjoy all of those sips.

I already told you I’m not on your timeline.

I already told you I’m not up to task.

You’re too loud, and I don’t like the sound of your voice.

It’s a bus fume voice, there are so many

bus fume voices, bad for the health, bad to be near and breathe in.

Someone told me once about Hunter-Gatherers, how they only

hunted a couple hours a day, at most, then spent the rest

relaxing in rivers and napping and having sex.

So can’t you see I’m a Hunter-Gatherer?

What’s so hard to understand?

Can we maybe try this again, start over?

Do you like the smell of my coffee?

Would you like to have some and lay in my bed?

Just climb in already, get comfortable.

I’m sorry but I forgot what we were talking about.

I forgot if the world is closed or opened or has closed again.

Eric LaFountain lives and teaches in Miami. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Potomac Review, Jabberwock Review, Hobart, and Pleiades. He’s currently working on a YA novel about an abandoned boy and abandoned cat. You can follow him on Instagram @eric.lafountain.

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

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, Pregnancy

Yellow Coat

April 4, 2021
cyrus

By Samina Najmi

This is an essay I don’t want my son to read.

When Cyrus first arrived at the daycare center, a handsome two-year-old with dimpled cheek, he refused to take his coat off. For weeks the battle raged. Even when he could be persuaded to walk into his classroom and sit at the communal table, he would not permit anyone to unzip his puffy yellow coat or slide the hood from his head. His teacher, a no-nonsense young woman concerned about the hazards of overheating, insisted. Cyrus would back away, clutching at his chest as she approached, but stronger hands than his pried his fingers away and retrieved the shrinking arms from the yellow sleeves that cocooned them. He’d crumple in the corner, then, his body hiccuping with sobs.

By the time Cyrus was four years old, he was already a staunch creature of habit. Every morning he climbed down from the top of the bunk-bed, one careful step at a time, with a plush animal or two ensconced under his arm, and at the end of each day he gathered his critters and climbed back up the ladder to bed. No matter how late the night or how tired his legs, Cyrus never left his critters behind.

But then his mother accepted a tenure-track position in the English Department at Fresno State. During the five months in which our family of four had to pack up our lives in Massachusetts and move to California, Cyrus sorrowed for what he was about to lose: the bedroom lined with bookshelves that he shared with his older sister, Maya; the swing-set in the sprawling backyard with grass that his father mowed on a mini tractor, sometimes with Cyrus sitting ensconced between his knees; the above-ground pool he would venture into only with a yellow float that resembled a lifejacket; his preschool friends and teachers who had been part of his world for fully half his life–in a word, everything he knew.

I helped as I knew how: by buying children’s books on the subject. Together we followed the Berenstain Bears’ move from mountain cave to tree-house and Tigger’s move to a new home; we read about a human family’s sudden accumulation of cardboard boxes from the perspective of their dog, Boomer. In fact, I discovered scores of stories about animals whose families were about to relocate. The one Cyrus asked me to read most often featured a little boy mouse and bore the title:  I’m Not Moving, Mama!

Ten years later Cyrus would have to move again, this time within Fresno, following his parents’ divorce. I’ll worry about its effect on him, but though he’ll be more tentative about the condo than his sister, he will be surer of it than I. At fourteen, the relief of not having to water backyard trees or skim a pool, and the coolness factor of having the boutique drinks of Dutch Bros nearby will outweigh any sense of loss. This time it will be our four-year-old cat Winnie who’ll spend the first months after the move huddled in a cardbox box in our new garage.

But back then as we packed for the transcontinental move, Cyrus refused to part with any of his belongings, so we paid to have them all–not just the stuffed animals but every building block, every monster truck, every long-lost board-book, old socks, and worn shoes–we paid by the pound to have all of them driven three thousand miles in a big moving truck that sported the word Atlas on a blue wave across its breadth.

On the six-hour flight from Boston to San Francisco, Cyrus sat somber and resigned, like a kitten in a carry-cage that had stopped meowing but couldn’t be made to purr. An enthusiast about every mode of transportation, he allowed himself to be distracted only briefly by the airplane’s wing or the terrain below it. Often I’d look up to find his eyes holding the tears that would neither quell nor drop.

A single photograph captures the moment of Cyrus’s arrival at Fresno airport: he stands with his older sister at the top of the downward escalator in the terminal, a giant “Welcome to Fresno” sign visible above their small frames. Maya looks around her with bright, inquisitive eyes and a smile forming on her lips. Cyrus, on the other hand, wears a wary expression and a navy blue t-shirt with BOSTON in big red letters across his chest.

That first year, in addition to my new tenure-track job, the family had to adjust to the fact that dad was no longer working from home. This was especially hard for Cyrus. “I wish Daddy didn’t have a job,” he said more than once. (Until, within the year, his wish came true.) I arose at 5:00am to prepare or overprepare for my classes and get myself and my children ready for the day. I’d drop Maya off at Malloch Elementary and Cyrus at Kiddie Kare–the preschool he had picked over the more prestigious Fairmont on account of the quality of its playground (and yes, I gave him the choice because he had so few choices). Then I made my way twenty minutes east to Fresno State. I was teaching new courses and adapting to the rhythms of a large public university where the culture differed significantly from the small private colleges I had taught at until then. I was being tested and I didn’t want to fail.

Cyrus added to the challenges of my first year on the job by dragging his feet every morning. The day would begin pleasantly enough. He’d be the first person to awake after me, and as soon as he did so, he’d climb down from the bunk-bed with the stuffed toys du jour and come looking for Mama in the family room. He’d find her predictably reading on the couch, pen in hand. Our unspoken ritual dictated that I set my tome aside for a few minutes while he rested his head on my lap, and together we listened for the birdies. I didn’t know then how abruptly such rituals end or how often I would return to that morning communion between us when the teen years came. There are days now when my son will emerge from his bedroom and walk at brisk, preoccupied pace right past the living room, unseeing. But back then I would have to say, “Time for us to get up now, love.” And somehow as soon as the moment of idyllic stasis was behind us, as it came time to get dressed and head out of the house, the morning demanded some combination of coaxing, humoring, arguing, and reprimanding to get Cyrus out the door on time. Somehow, we managed.

Until one day, six months into the new school year, it got to me. And it was the morning of Cyrus’s fifth birthday.

He had come looking for me in the living room that cold February morning, his footsteps soft against the Mexican tiles of the hallway. But instead of bounding toward the couch, he paused at the threshold with smiling eyes, clutching Pinkie, the plush poodle, in one hand, his slender body wrapped in the fleece robe his grandmother had made him for Christmas. I went up to hug him before we returned to the couch together. That morning at the breakfast table he laughed at everything, the Birthday Boy, his dimples deep with the giddiness of turning five.

I don’t know when it began or how it escalated, but an hour later, the scene had shifted. Maya was dressed and ready, as was I. Also ready to go was a half-sheet marble cake for Cyrus’s classmates with strawberry filling and a miniature Lightning McQueen parked atop the icing. Then Cyrus was protesting–was it about wearing a sweater? putting his shoes on?–and I was trying to reason with him. Next thing I knew I was shrieking at him in a voice I couldn’t recognize as my own. It wasn’t even the worst of his procrastinations, but I couldn’t scale back. My words, whatever they were, bounced off the dark Mexican tiles and resounded throughout the high-ceilinged house. Maya stared. Six months of practiced patience at home and nervous diligence at work had erupted in unaccustomed volume that terrorized the five-year-old boy before me. His shoulders shook from the force of his sobs.

I like to think I didn’t let him cry for long. That I recovered my sense of proportion, abandoning whatever had seemed important to insist upon a few minutes ago. I held him until the sobs subsided, led him to the bathroom to wash his face and pat it dry, my fingers smoothing his dark hair.

I load the Lightning McQueen cake into the minivan. We drop Maya off at Malloch and within five minutes we have arrived at Kiddie Kare. As I reach for the sheet cake on the backseat, I wonder if Cyrus is a tad too quiet. The teacher takes the cake from my hands and assures me that the children will enjoy it. “Cyrus makes everyone laugh,” she says.

My husband and I had gone all out for our son’s fifth birthday, his first one in Fresno. We even colluded in buying him the big, red motorized All Terrain Vehicle he could only imagine owning. After Kiddie Kare, there was Pump It Up, an extravagant space where brother and sister bounced their hearts out together. The following day we hosted Cyrus’s four close friends from preschool, all of them boys who displayed good-natured envy of his new ATV and took turns driving it around our backyard. Photographs show Cyrus and his playmates with exuberant expressions, intent on their fun. All evidence suggests a happy birthday.

So why has that morning been on my mind these past few weeks of summer? Cyrus and Maya appear to have no memory of it. Does that mean it didn’t happen? That I didn’t ruin the day–didn’t make my son cry on the morning of his fifth birthday?

Moments after that moment, six-year-old Maya had said quietly, “He wasn’t really arguing with you, Mama. I don’t know why you got so upset with him.”

Maya has always been communicative–to a fault, her teachers might say. “Why not try to sit with silence?” I’d ask her at the kitchen table sometimes. “It’s not the same thing as nothingness, you know.” Now, in her last summer at home before leaving for college, she does yoga and we hang out at cafés together, as comfortable with quiet as with our chatter. Our conversations move across varied terrains. She’s my window into contemporary pop culture as shaped by artists of color–Solange Knowles, Childish Gambino (whom I once recalled as “Childish Bambino,” much to my children’s mirth). I can’t get into the macabre crime shows she loves, but Jane the Virgin reels me in with such vehemence that within weeks I’ve caught up on all eighty-one episodes available on Netflix.

Maya was a junior at Edison High when Cyrus entered as a freshman. Many in his class looked up to his sister as part of the cool set, one of those tweeting upper-classmen who have their fingers firmly on the pulse of their times. She made a formidable opponent in debates at Model United Nations conferences and performed in Edison Tiger Theater Company’s productions of The Wiz and The Lion King. She’s also a freelance journalist for The kNOw Youth Media and Fresnans have seen her pictured in The Fresno Bee among a small group of young people speaking up for their right to meaningful sex education in Fresno Unified schools. Maya has an opinion on most things, including high school robotics, which her brother loves.

Robotics. Cyrus’s freshman year, robotics became the wall between us that I couldn’t scale. He’s been loyal to soccer and piano since he was little, but neither of those shut me out like robotics, perhaps because sports and music make room for an audience. By contrast, the robotics club at Edison High gathers in an extension of the lab that is a warehouse–a metallic room cramped with tools that I can barely name, let alone use. This unbeautiful space fires my son’s imagination. During the six weeks of Build Season, he and a few other hardcore robotics students like him spend at least as many hours in the wareheouse after school as they do in class. There they feel the rush of the hands-on, head-on thrill of designing and building a robot that can compete at the prestigious First Robotics regional, national, and even global competitions. A tireless mentor stays with them, including parent-mentors who have both the time and know-how to make themselves useful.

I am not one of them. But sophomore year I spend more money than I should to tag along to Houston when Edison’s team, Mindcraft 3495, is invited to the World Competition, sponsored by major tech companies, including Google. Their robot’s unique four-bar arm design, which Cyrus had worked on with a senior, had won the Engineering Award at the Central Valley Regional and caught the attention of the First Robotics judges. They didn’t win the global tournament, but they were there. And cheering them on, I felt for the first time that I understood something of First Robotics culture, if not of mechanical engineering.

Still, the mother seeks traces of the little boy who loved his stuffed animals and never failed to scoop them up at the end of the day.

Is the boy who held on to his yellow coat there in the sixteen-year-old whose teammates trust him not only to design and build their robot but to drive it in the tense, adrenalin-charged arenas of a tournament?

Maya has her own take on her younger brother. With the vantage point of a graduated senior, she casts a suspicious eye on “STEM kids” as likely robotic themselves. And as an enthusiast of psychology, she has been known, half-seriously, to call her brother a sociopath–as distinct from psychopath, she tells him; more like the profiles of CEOs. I recoil from the noun and admonish her for typecasting. What does she know of Cyrus’s capacity for tenderness, his vulnerabilities, and his loyalties? Mine is the memory.

Perhaps the memories of Cyrus’s early years press on me now because Maya is about to leave home. I have spent the past few years anticipating what her absence will mean for me, for Cyrus, for our home life. We’ve moved twice before, but as a family; now Maya will be moving out. She will be moving on. For the first time in our world, it will be just my son and me. We’ll have only each other to greet first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Until, in two years’ time, Cyrus moves out, too.

As the harsh hand of change reaches toward me, I shrink into my yellow coat. I want to be the critter who won’t be left behind.

Samina Najmi teaches multiethnic U.S. literature at California State University, Fresno. A Hedgebrook alumna, Samina’s essays have appeared in such publications as World Literature Today, The Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, and Entropy. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Daughter of multigenerational migrations, Samina grew up in Pakistan and England and lived in Massachusetts before moving to California with her then-young family.

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

In the Flesh of an Apple

April 2, 2021
apple

By Mercury-Marvin Sunderland

Julius bit into a big red apple. He was groggy, and it was morning. He was lying around in his on-campus apartment at Portland State University, trying to ignore the cramping in his uterus yet again. He got them fairly often, and would try to medicate himself with weed occasionally. He tried not to do it because he didn’t want to be as addicted to it as he was in high school. Provided, he didn’t want to be addicted to weed in the first place, but cutting down on it was the first step.

It had been years since he’d last had his period. When he’d started testosterone it had thankfully stopped the bleeding, but he was still getting the cramps. For a lot of people, starting HRT meant that it took away both the bleeding and the cramps, but for others, it wasn’t so fortunate. However, Julius was doing his best to just be grateful for what he had, and he knew that there were many people who didn’t get the privilege to start testosterone in the first place. He was just starting to get stubble and that was exciting. His voice was just getting deep.

Just think positive, Julius, he reminded himself. Think positive.

When he was a freshman in high school he read online that eating an apple every morning had caffeinated qualities. That was probably bullshit but he’d gotten into a huge habit of eating apples every morning ever since. He liked to eat the entire fruit, core, and stem. It pissed off his friends but seeing their priceless reactions only encouraged him to do it even more. Besides, the cyanide in apple seeds isn’t really enough to kill anyone, anyway. They taste like almonds.

Ignoring the way that his pain was literally making him aware of where his ovaries were, he got to the kitchen and made his morning coffee. He grabbed a Nature Valley bar and some slices of disgusting bootleg Kraft Singles. If you thought Kraft Singles couldn’t get any worse, you’re wrong. You can find bootlegs at the dollar store that try to be Kraft Singles but somehow manage to taste even worse. Julius wasn’t much of a chef, and didn’t have much money to buy his own groceries. He just knew that he needed the starch and protein, and that he was going to take what he could get.

He noticed that these packages of bootleg Kraft Singles claimed to be swiss cheese, but it had absolutely no holes in it. That drove him bonkers but he ate it anyway. He hated to peel off the plastic but he never had the energy to cook.

He got dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a Legend of Zelda t-shirt. He hated morning classes but he had to get to his 9 AM computer programming class before it was too late. He grabbed his powder blue backpack and headed outside.

When he got outside there was melting snow on the ground. Portland doesn’t get much snow but it was well past the point where snow was exciting anymore. People thought it was weird that he didn’t wear a coat too often, but nobody really seemed to think much of it.

When he was a freshman in high school he once ate an apple that tasted exactly like water. He’d never eaten an apple like that again but somehow it managed to be one of the most unpleasant things he’d ever eaten. Which isn’t to say that water doesn’t taste good, or that there aren’t gross mushy apples which would taste worse.

The taste of water just doesn’t feel appropriate in the flesh of an apple. It needs that sweet sugar.

Mercury-Marvin Sunderland (he/him) is a transgender autistic gay man from Seattle with Borderline Personality Disorder. He currently attends the Evergreen State College and works for Headline Poetry & Press. He’s been published by University of Amsterdam’s Writer’s Block, UC Riverside’s Santa Ana River Review, UC Santa Barbara’s Spectrum, and The New School’s The Inquisitive Eater. His lifelong dream is to become the most banned author in human history. He’s @Romangodmercury on Instagram, Facebook, RedBubble, and Twitter.

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

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, memories

The Song of the Cicada

March 31, 2021
horse

By Jennifer Shneiderman

The quarter horse’s coat is shining in the sun like a freshly peeled buckeye seed. It is only 8:30 and already the humidity is up. The riding instructor, Dottie, guides the horse about by the reins, her tan muscular arms and rough hands revealing the physicality of farm life. Dottie wipes her brow with a red bandana. The suffocating Northwest Ohio heat will hover until evening when the fireflies glimmer and the sweet smell of corn washes over land cut into quilt-like agricultural squares. The buzzing of cryptic annual cicadas pulses and heaves in the heavy air.

Dottie watches as I became more confident, going around the ring, relaxing slightly into the saddle and going a little faster with each revolution. The horse trots and my internal organs adjust to the jerking movement. Next, I learn how to navigate a bridge obstacle. Dottie places a wooden platform, made of worn gray boards, on the ground. I practice having the horse step up, cross and descend. The platform is only a few inches tall, so it feels simple enough.

Suddenly, the trainer excuses herself. “I have to make a quick call,” she says abruptly. “Is that okay?” I’m too surprised to object. Sometimes, my Midwestern politeness gets in my way, to the point of endangerment. I watch her retreating figure as she hops over the fence and makes a beeline for a little white house by the weathered barn.

I sit for a while, the horse shifting, the only sound the creak of the leather saddle. I am grateful for the bit of breeze that blows through my hair and cools my reddening cheeks. I consider taking a turn around the ring on my own. I want to make progress quickly. My sister, two years older, is an avid horsewoman who disappears during these short hometown visits to go riding with her high school friends. I desperately want to join them and develop the close relationship with my sister that passed us by in our youth.

My heels dig into the horse’s flanks and I make that clicking sound with my tongue. We reach the small platform and I guide the horse on top of it. The horse’s hoof stamps down on the planks, too close to the edge, and the platform flips high in the air. The horse rears and takes off at a gallop across the field. The world goes violently sideways, blurring and jerking as the horse bucks and convulses. I fly off, hit my head and elbow and land on my back. I become acutely aware that I’m not wearing a helmet.

I lay on the ground, my head and back throbbing, my elbow a mess of dirt, grass and blood. Dottie comes running, sprinting across the field and calling my name. She reaches me, sees that I am conscious and puts her hands on her hips.

She advises sternly, “You really should get back on the horse. Otherwise, you’re gonna be scared to ride again.”

I feel a stiffness come over me, and I tell her I think I should see a doctor first. She shrugs noncommittally and, with perhaps a hint of disdain, watches me get up and limp to my rental car.

I gingerly climb into the drivers seat, my lower back throbbing. I’m not sure where to go for an exam. My family doctor died years ago. I drive to my father’s office. He works for the local newspaper, so he would know of the local businesses and medical treatment facilities. I stumble past the front office staff and they stare at me from behind their computer screens. My father is sitting at his desk engaged in what sounds like a printing press lease negotiation. I point to my bloody, pebble- encrusted elbow and he gestures toward a chair with his chin. I slowly sit down, cupping my left elbow in my right palm. I wait as he continues, his voice low and his eyes averted. I touch my head and feel the blades of grass and dirt matted in my hair. I pull them out with my fingers and drop the debris in a metal waste can. After about 10 minutes, I knock on his desk with my knuckle to get his attention. He holds up his index finger sharply for me to wait.

I get up and go to an empty desk in the front office and take out a phone book. I find an urgent care center on the edge of town and drive the mile and a quarter. The terse receptionist is leery about treating anyone from out of town, even if an insurance card is produced. She wants payment up front. I give her my Visa card and sit uncomfortably in a plastic chair. There are a few other people in the waiting room and we watch the news on a TV mounted on the wall. Madonna is being rescued from her own violent equestrian encounter. She was thrown from a horse on her English country estate, cracking three ribs and breaking her collarbone and a hand. Comparisons are  drawn to Christopher Reeves’ catastrophic accident, disability and eventual death. It dawns on me that I am getting off easy.

Finally, the doctor examines me and sends me for an X-ray. My elbow is fine and I don’t have a concussion. But my pelvis has a hairline fracture, painful but not requiring surgery, that resembles the Ohio Interstate 70 undulating horizontal line.

I cut my trip short. Driving out of town the next afternoon, I pass my  high school, a one story brick building surrounded by green corn stalks and bordered by a creek that overflows in the spring. I pull over and listen to the siren song of the male cicadas. They will return next year, the females forever silent, the deafening vibration of their hollow drum insides washing over the fields.

Jennifer Shneiderman is a writer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indolent Book’s HIV Here and Now, The Rubbertop Review, Writers Resist, the Poetry in the Time of COVID-19, Vol 2, anthology, Variant Literature, Bright Flash Literary Review, Trouvaille Review, Montana Mouthful, the Daily Drunk, Sybil Journal, Unique Poetry, Anti-Heroin Chic, Terror House, Thirteen Myna Birds, Potato Soup Journal, Awakened Voices, GreenPrints, Prospectus, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, and The Perch. She was the recipient of an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Laura Riding Jackson poetry competition.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Beating Fear with a Stick, Child Birth, Guest Posts

The Value of Surrender

March 29, 2021
surgery

By Courtney Kubovcik

I remember the moment when I realized it was inevitable: the cesarean was going to happen, whether I liked it or not. If I could rewind 24 hours from that moment, I’d watch this scenario play out before me:

“Two centimeters,” the nurse said poignantly.

I let out a low, barely audible groan in exhaustion.

“You’re kidding me,” I said, my voice cracking.

I had left the hospital at one centimeter Friday evening after a two-day failed induction. Before my induction failed, I didn’t even realize that was a thing. I figured if you were induced, you went to the hospital and left with a baby. Evidently, I was wrong.

Now, midday on day three of the fresh attempt to evict the human that had taken over my midsection, the contractions were finally regular, for hours and hours on end it seemed.

While the contractions were regular, I—it turned out—was not. Most women will dilate when they are pumped full of obscene amounts of Pitocin, but not me.

I am stubborn, and my assumption is that this stubbornness travels deep into my biology. I imagine each of my uterine molecules laughing at the artificial hormones hissing, “You’re not one of us.”

My obstetrician was a face-talker. He stood two damn inches from my face the entire time he spoke. His breath smelled like peppermints as he peered at me.

He spoke in a way that conveyed that he knew that whatever he was going to say, I was going to fight.

“You don’t have to keep doing this.” He paused. “We can do the surgery, and you can meet your baby.”

The tears flowed, freely and openly. No, I insisted. We would keep going.

Three days and only two centimeters. Defeat hung heavy in the air. My salty tears drowned me in my despair.

From that moment, it would be another 24 hours until I would meet my son.

Even after I dilated a full 10 centimeters nearing the end of the following day, the face-talker said that he doubted my ability to deliver the baby safely.

“You’re too weak,” he said. “The baby isn’t descending properly.”

He was right: I was too weak to fight any longer. Finally, I consented to the surgery.

Instead of having a surgery that likely would have been textbook earlier in my labor, I had a recovery riddled with complications. Afterward, I felt like I had been hit by a god damn train. I hemorrhaged post-cesarean and could have lost my life. Thankfully, a couple of quick-acting nurses and a few blood transfusions saved me.

Beyond the hemorrhaging, I developed an infection that could have killed my son but luckily only got to me. After battling a dangerously high fever (104˚ F), I dealt with immobilizing edema from being pumped full of artificial hormones for four days.

How many times had I done this? Resisted something to the point of self-destruction. I had allowed my fear of the surgery to completely cripple me. Only after four days of labor and absolute exhaustion did I finally consent to the surgery that was likely inevitable from the beginning.

I refused to listen to my body. I fought against every indicator that told me I needed to stop. I forced it to comply, forced it to bend to my will. 10 centimeters, I would accept no less.

Except bodies don’t work like that, and mine had knowledge that my mind did not: my baby was sunny-side up. If born naturally, he would like likely gotten dangerously stuck or tore me irrevocably. I didn’t know this at the time, but my body did.

In a world where we are told to constantly force ourselves and our bodies to do what we feel it should, I am here to remind you of the value of surrendering. Fighting against the natural course of life, with its ups and downs, causes more harm than the actual ups and downs.

Instead of riding the wave through this down moment in my life, I fought it tooth and nail. This behavior did not end with this moment, and it took many more moments for me to see the truth: life can never “go as planned” because life is not promised.

It was in this truth that I found the freedom to roll with the punches, to take life as it comes, and to live each day with purpose and gratitude. With this insight, I now live my life knowing that both times of grit and moments of surrender come together to create a beautiful and fulfilling life.

Neither grit nor surrender is more valuable than the other. Life calls for different purposes at different moments. The real value lies in the discernment of when to utilize each. That comes with time, with practice, and with patience for yourself and others.

It was a hard lesson to learn, and one I’m lucky to have survived. The feeling of something has got to give is one that I have learned to pay attention to because often, it is a feeling that accompanies transformational moments in my life. I hope you too can begin to the see the value in letting go and in surrendering.

Courtney Kubovcik is a licensed social worker, transformational healing coach, activist, writer, wife, and mother. As a practitioner, Courtney uses embodiment techniques and integrative approaches on her mission to help men and women re-connect with their bodies and align with their souls. Courtney has a passion for social justice and has been serving vulnerable populations for nearly a decade. Without exception, Courtney believes that ALL people are worthy of health and abundance, and that we ALL have the potential for healing within ourselves.

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Current Events, Guest Posts, Race/Racism

We Are Massage Therapists Because…

March 28, 2021
massage

by Sara Zolbrod

After the face-down part of this imaginary massage, my young client — let’s call him Robert Aaron Long — turns face-up. He takes my wrist and nudges it downwards before I quickly pull away. He asks, “Can I have a happy ending?”

During my 15 years as a licensed massage therapist, thankfully, I have never actually been asked that, though I’ve gotten the usual amount of comments hinting towards that sort of thing. The usual protocol would be to say, “That’s inappropriate and I will end our massage now.”

But today, after the shootings in Georgia, which especially resonated because I, too, am of Asian descent, the revenge fantasy or “prevention fantasy” arises first.

I imagine saying, “Hold that thought, sweetie, while I get some special lotion.”

In this fantasy, like a silent ninja, I pat down his backpack while his eyes are closed and I confiscate a 9mm handgun I find. I step out and fetch gleaming sharp, two-foot long gardening shears that just happen to be in the clinic’s storage closet. I come very close to Robert and say, “Why don’t you pull the sheet down, and hold that dick up for me, way down at the bottom, so I have good access…”

But then the restorative justice-inspired fantasy arises instead.

After the “happy ending” request, instead of getting a gun and shears, I quickly round up every other staff person. I rap loudly on a few treatment rooms with our special, pre-memorized knock.

My big crew and I — six of us, including two male therapists — file into the treatment room. I grab Robert’s jeans and shirt from the corner and plunk them on his chest. I say, “We’re going to turn our backs for a minute. You’re going to put your clothes on right away, and then we’re going to have a little chat.”

Once dressed, he sits in a chair. I tug two of my fellow therapists to sit on the massage table with me.

I say to Robert, who is a few feet away from me, “I think you are lonely. And I also see that you are a nice young man inside. We all have touch needs, but you can find sexuality without having to pay for it. I wish for all people to find ultimate sexual pleasure, and I encourage you to find your innate capacity for it from loving self-touch when you’re not in a relationship.”

I reach out to grip my fellow therapists’ hands tightly and continue.

“We trust and believe that you will find consensual sex and love with someone who desires you, instead of being under the influence of having to make money from you.”

The therapist beside me says to Robert: “You are a beautiful man and a beautiful soul. Can you imagine how enjoyable it will be to gently invite some young woman you meet at a park or a bar if she would give you her number, and sweetly build a friendship based on mutual respect? You’d learn her favorite music; she’d learn your favorite foods. You’d build rapport, learn to read her signs of reaching out to you, and express your attraction to her in a moment of warmth after laughing together.

“You can have all this. You are loveable. A few of us have given you massages — non-sexual, of course — and we see you. We see your humanity.”

The therapist on the other side of me adds, “Maybe you have had bad experiences with women. You’re Christian, right? So am I. Maybe our Bible or church teachings have made you feel that desire is sinful. But desire is beautiful, and a natural part of being human.”

I speak again. “We are massage therapists because we want people to feel better in their bodies, and in their souls. We don’t want to be objectified. We need you to keep your sexuality in check in this setting.”

My colleague, Mark, pitches in: “But in your social life, cultivate patience, be respectful and caring; be responsive and wait for others’ cues. And sex will feel amazingly fulfilling when it is mutual.

“You don’t need to pretend you’re less shy, or more this, or more that. Just express your genuine interest in people and let someone get to know the real you, as you get to know them at a pace that feels good to both of you.”

Robert puts his face in his hands and we hear strange, muffled crying sounds. I start weeping quietly, too. I say gently to Robert, “I think we all want to move on with our day soon. Do you mind if we hold hands first?”

He nods. He stays seated; I take one of his hands — though I can’t bring myself to hold it firmly — and my colleague’s hand, and we all make a raggedy circle in the small massage room. Robert’s head is hung down. I tell him, “I won’t give you massages anymore, but you are welcome to get non-sexual professional massages from some of us.”

The two male therapists and one female one say, “You can still get massages from me.”

I continue to Robert, who still looks straight down, “We envision you blossoming into a life of friendships and beautiful, mutual sexual relationships. We don’t judge you and we have nothing but love in our hearts for you.”

I say, “Mark, would you mind staying with me, but everybody else, thank you, we got it from here.”

After the others leave, Mark says to Robert, “We would be happy to refer you to good counseling and other community resources. Is there anything else we should talk about or that we can do for you?” Robert moves his head “no.”

I ask, “Could we shake hands?” He offers a limp hand. This time I’m able to connect more firmly, allowing my energy to reach him. I feel warmth in our palms, in our longer- than-normal handshake. He glances into my eyes for a moment, and we see each other.

And we go on with our day. Just trying to live with some love and some peace and shared humanity.

Sara Miura Zolbrod understands that violence and mental health problems and the criminalization of sex work are complex and structural and cannot be solved in an hour or a day. She has no expertise in counseling or restorative justice. Her massage license is through the Oregon State Board of Massage Therapists, and she is a freelance editor and writer.

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

The Sussman Service

March 26, 2021

by Roz Weisberg

At Rachel’s first funeral for her father’s Uncle Milton, her mother leaned over and whispered, “Promise me when I die you won’t put your father on top of me. I’ll come back to haunt you.” Rachel nodded yes. She was ten. Ten years later, Rachel arranged the open casket, lavish spray of roses and lilies, and the details to make her mother look like a version of her alive self for the open casket. A hundred and fifty people moved from the chapel to the graveside where her mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Standing at attention, Rachel waited for her mother to scream from below reminding her of the consequences of breaking her promise.

Ten years and three months later, a closed casket, a modest spray of roses, a condensed twenty-minute graveside service where Rachel’s friends who never met her parents attended the burial of her father. Two groundskeepers wore blue jumpsuits and stood at the head and foot of the casket guiding it into another box as if it were a part of a Russian nesting doll set. The park insisted on the extra concrete box to protect the earth and preserve the casket, but Rachel thought it made it easier to mow the lawn. A third groundskeeper plunged the shovel into the mound of dirt. The rabbi recited the Kaddish, but Rachel could only hear the ringing of her mother’s shrill voice, “I told you not to put your father on top of me, I get claustrophobic.”

The rabbi’s words morphed together as he stepped up to Rachel in his black fedora and tore the pinned black ribbon over her heart. He stepped aside. When Rachel didn’t react, he cleared his throat and spoke her name. She didn’t quite hear him, her ears had been plugged for days, but followed his gesture. Stepping toward the graveside, the crisp air and bright bleached sunlight reminded her that it would soon be daylight savings though she wasn’t sure when the clocks were supposed to be turned back. She peered into the grave at the white concrete slab before taking the shovel and scooping up a blade’s worth of dirt. Steadying the wooden handle, she guided it over the hole, and with a last inhale gave her mother one last beat to air her discontent. Nothing. She flipped the shovel over; the rocks of dirt exploded and scattered against the cement. She plunged the shovel back into the dirt and returned to the white plastic folding chair.

The rabbi squinted, transfixed by something moving through the thin gathering. A hunched over old man in gray slacks shuffled up to the grave. His blazer too big, the arms to long. His small bald head sat on his shoulders as if he had no neck. Without turning around, he grabbed the shovel and scooped up some dirt, but the weight made him unsteady. One of the groundskeepers stepped out from behind the mound as the man coughed up and swallowed phlegm in the back of his throat and hoisted the shovel. It slipped from his grip, toppling into the grave. Before the old man fell forward, the groundskeeper pulled him back. The old man fell backwards on the groundskeeper.

Everyone gasped, their bodies jolted, the flimsy chairs legs gave out, and the first row collapsed like a row of dominos. The rabbi watched, frozen at the lectern. Rachel landed on her side. The other groundskeeper spoke into a walkie-talkie while another moved to help people stand up, dust themselves off and reset their chairs. The rabbi found his voice. “Is everyone alright?”

Rachel looked at the old man as she stood up. “Excuse me? Who are you?”

“Excuse you. Who the hell are you?” The groundskeeper had helped the old man stand.

It sounded as if the old man were speaking underwater. Rachel closed her eyes and took an audible breath, “This is Bernie Sussman’s funeral. My mother was Shirley.” Her own voice sound muted.

At the base of the hill a golf cart pulled up between the mourner’s cars. The driver in his blue suit got out and trekked up the hill.

“This is Stanley Leven’s funeral. Stanley was my wife’s second cousin. She couldn’t come, this hill woulda killed her.”

The man from the golf cart stepped up and introduced himself as the director.

“I’m here for Stanley’s funeral. Where the hell is Stanley?” The old man noticed the groundskeeper for the first time.

“I’m not sure sir. Why don’t I give you a ride and we can let these people continue their service?” The groundskeeper passed the old man’s arm to the director.

“Now, wait a minute. Let me think.” He tilted his head downward “Sussman you say?” He shook his head back and forth as if reading through an imaginary rolodex. “No, I don’t think I knew any Sussmans.” He tried pulling his arm away. “Must be the wrong funeral.” The old man took a last look in the hole, “That doesn’t look good.” He grabbed the director’s arm as if it were the bar on a walker and they waddled down the hill.

Rachel stepped to where the old man had stood and looked down. A groundskeeper grabbed a rake and maneuvered its teeth to pull up the shovel. Somehow, the metal edge of the shovel had chipped and cracked the concrete slab. A groundskeeper mumbled into his radio. Another golf cart arrived, another director climbed the hill.

The rabbi suggested he finish the service and offered final condolences, thanking the attendees. The mourners lingered as the director and groundskeepers conferred in a huddle. Rachel joined, glancing into to pit. The director explained, he’d never seen concrete crack like that, but he’d called for a replacement. Rachel was free to wait, but they weren’t sure how long it might take.

Rachel crossed her arms, the ringing in her ears echoed, “You promised me!”

The director tried to usher Rachel along, but she stood her ground. “I’ll go on my way as if nothing ever happened if you could reverse them. Put him in first and her on top.” She couldn’t gage the volume of her own voice though there some heads turned her way.

Her request was met with blank stares. The director mumbled into his radio and conferred with the groundskeepers before agreeing to the accommodation. Rachel turned to leave. Taking in the view of the paved LA River bed, her ears popped, the shrill ringing in her ear stopped as the groundskeepers lowered the crane and raised her mother’s concrete box.

Roz Weisberg is a recovering movie producer who went back to school and received her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She currently teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension, is a private writing coach/development editor and a writing specialist at Antioch.

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

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, pandemic, writing

When The Smoke Clears

March 24, 2021

By Joanell Serra

Early one morning in February 2020, I found a spot on a bench in downtown Oaxaca and scribbled in my journal. Sunshine, my personal drug of choice, spilled like a pool across the cobblestones. I was meeting nine people in an hour to go on a temple-climbing adventure, followed by a Mezcal tasting. I knew every minute of the day’s schedule because I had created it. I was hosting my first international retreat, women had flown in from both coasts to experience this magical city with me.

I can’t believe it’s really happening, I wrote. It’s almost ridiculous to be so happy in February.

Already a few days into the trip, my seasonal depression had ebbed upon arrival like mist burning off a lake. My asthma also cleared up, my migraines became infrequent and even my degenerating hip complained less.  Winter blues and chronic pain paled in the light of Mexican sunshine.

For years, winters were a long slushy slide into despair, until I came to understand that along with medication, meditation and therapy, winter travel was crucial to my mental health. I shifted my career for more flexibility and for the last five winters I’d travelled to sunny locations whenever possible. It was a much healthier option than increasing my medications or slipping into a dark place. This retreat was a high point, combining work, community, and Southern travel during my most vulnerable time of year.

A month later, the contrast from that blissful week in Oaxaca was stark. I contracted COVID-19 on a plane from NYC back to California. Because of the medical providers’ lack of knowledge, my asthma and poor testing, things spiraled. I was both sicker than I’d ever been and told it “definitely isn’t Covid.” (But it was.)

I landed in the ER one afternoon as my oxygen was low, where I was treated like a leper with a bomb strapped to my back. I sat alone, surrounded by yellow danger tape. I knew if I got better, I needed to do something creative and impactful in response to this experience.

Fortunately steroids, antibiotics and TLC from my family brought me through.

Weeks later, I was given the opportunity to co-edit an anthology titled (Her)oics, about women’s pandemic experiences around the country. Grateful, I jumped in.

As the spring and summer unrolled, things got progressively worse in the world, while we managed a new order in our own house. Both my husband and I were suddenly home full time. Our youngest joined us, after his employer laid off all his employees, and a second son and his partner, having escaped Manhattan, moved into our extra room.

There was much to be thankful for—I had recovered and no one else got sick. And while the house was crowded, it offered enough outdoor space to make it work. We tried to enjoy long dinners together on summer nights, marveling at the concurring blessings and hardships.

But the news of increasing racial violence brought new distress, as we collectively tried to protect our youngest son, a young man of color, from the pain of feeling “othered” both locally and nationally. Our middle child, who lives nearby, was fighting things off with a compromised immune system and the oldest was a public school teacher. Each choice we made as a family seemed fraught with danger.

I felt like I was juggling swords on a seesaw. As long as I stayed centered, nothing dropped. But the summer weather was my ballast, and everything changed when the fires arrived in Northern California.

Supernatural, Mars-like and apocalyptic. It was hard to find words for our sky, a thick orange haze from morning to night, with no real sense of time. Being in Sonoma, every whiff of smoke brought back a barrage of fire memories from 2017 and 2018. My phone beeped incessantly with a “Red Flag” alerts and the the air quality index stayed in one zone, “dangerous.” We boxed up our photos and valuables, and kept a suitcase packed by the door in case we needed to run.

“Have shoes and keys ready,” became my before-bed mantra to the family.

Despondency descended.  My work as a therapist became increasingly challenging, and my writing stalled.  I pictured my words floating off the page like ashes, no substance to pin them to the page. What does a seasonally depressed person do, if their “happy” season goes up in smoke?

Of course my asthma kicked up badly, and when I called my neurologist due to increasing migraines, he wasn’t surprised. “We’ve all been inhaling toxic smoke for weeks.”

Through all this, I worked on the (Her)oics anthology. In a sincere effort to be inclusive to diverse experiences, I offered free online workshops before the submission deadline. I worked closely with emerging writers on their pieces, sometimes through three or four drafts. The first piece to make me cry was about a family with three teens, grieving the loss of their father in quarantine. The first to make me laugh was a woman announcing she planned to survive the pandemic with weed and masturbation.  My heart broke for the woman who could not see her son, who lived in a group home. My anger rose as I read about a writer in Arkansas going to work every day in person, despite her diabetes, in a state that would not mandate masks. My anger turned to pride as she revised the essay, and shaped it into a powerful piece which we included.

Every submission moved and inspired me. I noticed I wasn’t as depressed on the days I met with writers and that my sense of isolation faded as I connected to “strangers” through their stories. I woke with a sense of expectation, eager to see the new submissions.

One writer, Parnaz Fouratain, submitted an essay titled Writing, and other Uncertainties. Her last lines stunned me, because they spoke for me, for this project. “It is a time to be awake, to see the world, perhaps, the way a child sees it, uncertain, bewildered, open. And when this time passes, and the peace and silence returns, the words will come, and we will all tell our stories.”

Eventually the fires abated. We had made it through another fire season, still standing. And to my relief, I’d fought off a surprise attack of depression, not with travel, or sun lamps or increased Prozac. My medication was listening to women’ stories. This was the newest antidote in my arsenal against SAD: the words of other women, the stories of displaced souls, the bold and naked truth of heroines. In my bleakest winters, Prozac and therapy had gotten me through. In this season of raging fires, I drank instead from a fountain of truths.

Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award winning playwright, novelist and short story writer, she has published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review and elsewhere. Her Debut novel, The Vines We Planted (Wido, 2018) was a Los Commadres Latinx Book of the Month Club Pick. She is co-editor of the (Her)oics Anthology, a collection of women’s essays about their pandemic experiences. out March, 2021 with Regal House Publishing. Twitter @Joanell, Facebook and Insta: Joanellserraauthor. 

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen