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My Husband is Getting a Vasectomy for Father’s Day

June 20, 2021
day

by Marni Berger

Our sense of humor isn’t so dark. We didn’t morbidly plan Leo’s vasectomy for the Friday before Father’s Day weekend, so that it can hover over the day like a cloud, preventing him from not only becoming a father again, but also from doing much of anything that weekend besides rest.

The decision itself is made closer to Mother’s Day, which is also fitting: I will never again have a baby growing inside me. But despite the resolution, my uncertainty rears its head as an identity crisis. What’s certain to me is that eliminating the possibility of pregnancy and motherhood, after nearly five years of both, will mean I won’t know who I am.

***

We talk in circles here and there over the span of a few nights before Leo makes the appointment. My head spins for days, as though we only just decided, even though we really made this decision while I was most recently pregnant, almost a year ago—after my second round of hyperemesis when I was unable to move for five months without vomiting, when I lost my job, as I did with the first pregnancy; when I nearly lost my mind; when, on Halloween night, Leo stood in the dark beside the bed, as I curled into a ball on top of the covers and asked him to call an ambulance and his shadow said slowly to me, “We don’t have to do this, you know.”

But we did do it, the pregnancy. And the result—which is our second child, Frances—has bloomed out a tormenting equation in my mind whose solution I’ve yet to explain: if you add isolation to indefinite suffering, you get the kind of blinding beauty that incites amnesia. Frank, as we call her, just like her older sister Mona, is the sun that has blighted the night. It’s difficult for me to close the door to any more of that kind of light. And the ability to create it feels like the stuff of God.

(Isn’t it?)

But with each child, it’s been more difficult to forget the pain that created her. And so here we are—

The night we finally decide, Frances is ten months old. I look up at Leo in the pixilation of dusk when I say, almost apologetically, “When I was a little kid, I always thought I would have three kids when I grew up.” When he looks at me pained, I look down and mumble like a child, “Not only two.”

He sighs. Leo is standing in his t-shirt and shorts beside the banister. The lights are dim; it’s after bedtime for both the children—and adults. We are about to ascend the staircase to bed, bleary-eyed. We’re too tired to talk tonight, but this is our only time not to be heard (as far as we know) by the little ears of our oldest, a four-year-old with the memory of a muse.

“But I know that’s crazy, and I never want to be that sick again,” I hurry. The words rush out like a train whose cars are colliding into each other. The fantasy of no hyperemesis is dashed by the look on his face, and how it mirrors reality: Leo’s expression bears no trace of amnesia.

“We can adopt?” he says.

“True,” I say, instantly trying to shrug off the tens of thousands of dollars and miles of improbability that I know adoption entails by categorizing it on the shelf in my mind labeled “possibility.”

But then there’s my other question: “What if I die, or we divorce, and you want to have more children?”

He’s clear about that. He doesn’t want children with anyone else.

Then my final question: “Do you really want to do that to your body?”

This, he may sense, is a sort of test of his feminism—after all that has happened to my body, which I occasionally, in tears, refer to as “mutilated” despite my immense fortune of having had “easy” and “textbook” births (textbook births are still akin to being ripped in two). If it is a test of his feminism, it’s only semi-conscious on my part.

The window is cracked. The neighbor’s lilac tree breathes through. The adolescent leaves on the oaks and maples rush into the wind as a soft brush of wings. The goldfinches have been shedding dark feathers and reflecting their names in shimmering new light, and they chirp now happily.

“It just seems,” Leo says, “like the evolved thing to do.”

***

That night, I can’t sleep. Our baby is in the crib beside me. My brain, my heart, my lungs—all in flux. I sweat, but it’s cold. Ducts pulse and release, milk for her, hormones for me, energy in my body that rushes in and out of balance. I would never in a million years get pregnant now anyway, so soon after a baby, not even a year, I tell myself; so soon for me, someone, I think, so easily thrown off by change.

I begin to cry into my pillow, as though someone is dying, and Leo hears me and asks if I want to keep talking. “It just doesn’t seem fair,” I say, “that we can’t do this one thing, because I’d get so sick, but—”

“I know,” he whispers, and I cry as quietly as I can so I don’t wake the baby, and we sleep, and Frank grumbles beside us, and I feel very sad even in my dreams, but tomorrow, when the light shines into the window, I will know that there’s more to this decision than the hyperemesis; that there’s an impossible line I am trying to straddle, a question I can’t answer: What does it mean to love motherhood with your whole heart, while not wanting to be consumed by it?

***

The next day I get my period, a timing that seems too absurdly obvious to be true. It brings with it its usual relief and clarity. Revelations are most likely in the bathroom these days anyway, with kids playing loudly outside it (or in it), so it’s fitting that today is no different.

I know now that the past five years of two kids, of two debilitating pregnancies, and their recoveries have tumbled together and on top of me, making it hard not only to see ahead but behind.

Should it be a surprise that the very thing in me that could carry a baby—as though agreeing with me—is shedding its skin like a snake? As though to ask: Could you grow into a new kind of motherhood, and alongside it, into someone besides a mother, even someone you’ve known once before?

Marni Berger holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University and a BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. Marni’s short story “Hurricane” appeared in The Carolina Quarterly 2020 summer issue and her short story “Edge of the Road with Lydia Jones” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (Matador Review). Her short story “Waterside” appeared in Issue 96 of Glimmer Train. She has been a finalist or received honorable mention in nine Glimmer Train contests and one New Millennium Writings contest. Marni’s novel-in-progress, Love Will Make You Invincible, is a dark comedy about a mother and her precocious tween. Marni lives in Portland, Maine. She has taught writing at Columbia University and Manhattanville College. She currently teaches writing at University of Southern Maine.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) each day when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fatherhood, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Father’s Day

June 18, 2021
poppa

By Shirley Dees

We’re going to visit James’ dad again. Before we leave I manage to squeeze a few moments alone in the bathroom of the duplex James and I rent and hang my head over the cheap, cushioned toilet seat, the kind that keeps your ass from hurting while you’re doing your business, and try not to puke while James stands outside the door. The timing of this year’s trip is a real bitch. He’s been dead for ten years, and every Father’s Day, James and I drive out to the cemetery to stand next to his headstone with James’ Poppa and talk about nothing. I never met him, but since I started dating James six years ago, I tag along.

“Leah, you about ready?” James is in a hurry. That’s what all of this is, really. A dreadful hurry.

“Can you give me a skinny minute?” I am surprised to find I can open my mouth without vomiting. Things are looking up.

“A small one. I hate to make Poppa wait.”

I stand up and move over to the sink. I study my face for obvious hints of morning sickness and add a touch of makeup. I don’t want his grandfather to be put out, either, so I try to hurry. “Is your Poppa feeling good enough to drive today?”

“Larry is taking him,” James says. His voice comes through the bathroom door like it’s worn down by hammers. I give myself one last scan, one last breath to steady this awkward and hurried day, and open the door.

“Okay, let’s go.” I walk by quickly without giving James the chance to get a real look at me. I am running out of time to tell him about the baby. I love him, which only makes all of this more complicated. He pulls the car keys off the hook hanging by the backdoor as I throw my purse over my shoulder. I feel him behind me, staring at the door, doing his yearly hesitation.

“James,” I begin, “we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” He grabs the door handle to pull it open.

“It’s Father’s Day, Leah. You know I have to go.” Before I can ask again, he’s outside, feet crunching the gravel as he walks to his Ford Ranger. “Come on,” he says.

Every year, I try to cruise through this day with a level of indifference to make it all sort of just disappear, but every time I see the scars on the back of James’ head, that indifference melts into protective anger. I want him to know he is the one in control now. But I’ve learned not to push the issue. I offer to stay home in his seconds of hesitation by the backdoor, just to remind him the option is always on the table, but he always declines, stating it’s his duty to go. After all this time, I don’t really expect anything different anymore.

I climb into the steamy, black truck we share to get to and from work, each of us alternating with co-workers and carpooling when we can. We never drive it more than fifteen miles in a day so this is the truck’s longest journey every year at 60 miles, and I wonder how much longer it will last. James always says we’ll drive it until the wheels fall off, but I don’t think we can make it until then. This truck is twenty years old and suddenly too small. I crank the window and let the air hit my face, praying to God I don’t have to throw up on the way there.

Pretty soon we’re pulling out of town and the annual tour of my boyfriend’s childhood horrors begins. When he first told me about the abuse, it rolled off him the same way it does now. Ritualized. The Dairy Queen they met at for his dad’s public visits. The house where his dad used to live with Larry, an old friend and now Poppa’s neighbor, and the place James went when his dad was finally allowed overnight custody. This house was the one with the stairs whose pointy edges lead down to a wooden floor. The stairs and floor that birthed the scars on the back of my boyfriend’s head. He points them all out, every time. I’ve come to see them as his demons, evilness that must be excised regularly to keep them away, the reason for all this hurried dreadfulness. There must be a better way to heal, for everyone.

The heat-scorched Texas earth zips by as we cruise down the highway at the fastest speed the Ranger allows: sixty-three miles per hour, which means it will takes us an hour to make the trip. This is easy math that I keep in my mind to help make this day seem simpler, but one look out my window at the speeding ground and my head spins.

“We’ll stop in McKinney and get a bite to eat, that okay?” he asks like this isn’t what we always do. Normally, the stop in McKinney is the highlight of the day. They have this burger joint where the burgers are so juicy, they soak through the paper that lines those red, plastic baskets. The French fries are cooked in oil and bubbled until they’re perfectly golden and crispy, the ketchup salty and tangy on the lips. Food so good it makes you want to slap your granny. But today, just the thought of those greasy burgers makes me want to dry-heave, so I push it away and curl my legs underneath my hind-end.

James glances at me from the side. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know, maybe we can try some place else this time.”  I look straight ahead, keeping my sour face out of view. A car screams by us on the left, a red convertible of some type. I’ve never bothered much with learning car brands and models, but sometimes I’ll take a guess at what it is to impress James. He whistles as the car switches back into the right lane, ahead of us.

“Damn, must be nice,” he sighs. I give a little silent shout of praise to the owner of the sport car for pulling James’s attention off my lack of an appetite. I know we’ll probably stop there and eat anyway, because there is nothing else in McKinney. Maybe I can get away with scarfing a small quarter-pounder and puking in the restaurant’s commode before we get back on the road.

“Your Poppa still going out to the cemetery every day?” I ask.

“He doesn’t like driving much anymore so he only gets out there when Larry can take him.”

“I didn’t realize he wasn’t driving anymore,” I say, pausing a moment to let a passing thought linger. “What’s he going to do with that truck of his?”

“The man’s got to get to the grocery store and what not. He’s just not driving anywhere long distance.”

“I wouldn’t call fifteen miles to the cemetery long distance.” Immediately I recoil, guilt pinching at my insides.

“Yeah, but to get there he’s got to get on the highway.”   

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.” I realize I’m coming off like I’ve been waiting for Poppa to slide his big toe inside the old folks’ home to transfer the title to his vehicle into James’ name.

“You want to take his truck?”

“Well, no I just . . . I don’t know.”

“That’s Poppa’s vehicle, Leah.” James’ voice takes on that condescending tone that sends tethers of defensive coils up the back of my neck.

“I know.”

“Man ain’t quit driving more than a month and you’re already thinking him some kind of invalid.”

“No, James.”

“Claiming his property.” James shakes his head and disappointment spreads over him along with the crinkles that set into the corners of his eyes when his temper has run out of fuse.

“That’s not it at all.” I keep my voice calm in hopes to steer him back towards sanity.

“We have a truck, Leah.”

“I know.”

“We ain’t ever had a problem with it. But my Poppa gets old and you start seeing money bags.”

“I wasn’t thinking about taking your Poppa’s truck, James.” His knuckles tighten on the steering wheel and I know I need to get control. “You know me better than that. I just don’t want him giving it away without talking to you about it first. You know how some people will take advantage of Poppa.”

“Hmm,” he keeps his eyes on the road but I both hear and see his suspicion. He is trying to keep his temper in check and keep his demons tightly roped inside. “Okay, just sounded like you had other intentions.”

“Please don’t put words in my mouth.” Another car zooms past and there goes his focus, just like that. A little flame of frustration still flickers away in my mind but I swallow again to try and put it out. My temper is on a shortened leash today, too. I can’t handle the accusing tone he gives me all the time when stuff like this comes up. We fight about the most stupid things like any normal couple, but mostly we argue about the future. He believes he’s doomed to repeat the mistakes of his father. James ain’t ever hurt me. Not physically, anyway. We’ve had our bickering, and he’s gotten in my face a time or two, but it never goes any farther than that. It’s like a spark, something goes wrong and he snaps into anger, a few harsh words come flying out of his mouth without thinking and then his face fills with remorse. It’s what I point out to him all the time the minute I know he recognizes it.

“You see,” I say, never backing away. “That’s why you ain’t like your daddy, James. You have awareness.”

I think that’s why I haven’t left yet, because I can see past those crinkles of anger and deeper than the illness that’s cursed his genetic line. Awareness. It’s been like this since we first got together and I’ve just put up with it because I love him deeply. I’ve never asked for a ring, but I’m pregnant now and it ain’t just our future anymore.

The miles speed by in silence. Pretty soon, we’re pulling into McKinney and I see the burger joint up the road. My stomach is feeling okay, so this may not be so bad after all. In fact, as we walk in, I’m ravenous. I scarf my burger and inhale the fries. I want all the Coke that’s in the soda machine and then I order a chocolate milkshake to go. James wants to share, and I oblige, even though I don’t see why he can’t just order his own damn ice cream.

“You know, Dad used to buy us ice cream from here,” James says as we walk back to the truck.

I perk up. “Oh really?” James has never mentioned this before.

“It tastes the same now as it did then.” He reaches over and grabs the cup from my hands and pulls a mouthful of shake from the straw. “Then I got sick one time and threw up in his car and he beat me so bad I couldn’t sit down for a week.” He semi-slams the paper cup in the holder on the dash and angrily turns the key. Gravel shoots off from the Ranger’s tires as we pull out of the parking lot and are back on the highway again, heading towards complications. Maybe it’s my shortened temper, but for the first time in the six years of this annual trip, I get upset with James for this outburst and let out an irritated sigh.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, James.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he says, turning his entire head towards me.

“Nothing,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Don’t pull that.”

“I’m tired of this damn stuff every year,” I spit out. “We drive these terrible sixty miles and the entire time you talk about all the bullshit he pulled when you were growing up, and then by the time we get there, you’re all angry and pissy with me and Poppa and the whole thing just sucks.”

“Well, Christ, what do you want me to do about it? Not go? Poppa’d kill me if I didn’t come out here every year,” he keeps his eyes on the road and I can tell he’s trying to control his temper again.

“No, all I’m saying is, well, don’t you think you can at least try and think of something good? I know it couldn’t have been rainbows and peaches with the man, but there had to be something. Maybe if you think of something good instead of all the awful, you won’t be in such a foul mood by the time we get out to the cemetery, and then Poppa won’t get on you about being a grump, and I don’t know, we can finally spend Father’s Day in some peace.”

James doesn’t say anything for a hot minute. He passes a car on the left and then switches back over to the right lane.

“You’re not being fair,” he says.

“Ain’t I?”

“There ain’t nothing good I can talk about.”

“Bullshit.” I try to dig for a specific moment, but nothing is coming to mind under pressure, and I start to panic.

“I said there’s nothing,” his grip tightens on the wheel again. I cross my arms and start to run through holidays and moments that could spark a memory, any memory that was positive, but it was pointless. James hates Christmas for reasons I know stem from his dad. His family was poorer than mine so trips anywhere as a kid were a pipe dream, but I’m desperate. I have to keep the stack from wobbling too far off course into a dangerous area.

“James,” I start to say, my voice soft and flat. “Come on, tell me something good.” He says nothing, his eyes with that tempered glaze. I ignore the feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Come on.”

“No!” His wrist hits the steering wheel and the truck swerves, the car next to us honks, but I don’t think James hears him, or cares. “There isn’t any good stuff. There never was!” His voice bounces off the windshield and the passenger window. I pushed too far, but it was too late to try and reverse course. I might as well keep steering this messed-up ride on my own course.

“I don’t believe that,” I say.

James groans. “You’re being damn difficult.”

“You can’t blame me for wanting my boyfriend to remember decent things about his father.”

“I just don’t see why it’s so important to you.”

“I think it’s important for you, James.”

“I don’t.”

“So we disagree, but I still want you to try.”

“I have tried.” James says this with a touch less anger, and it saddens me because I know it’s true. But I push on.

“Try harder,” I say.

“You don’t understand.” He shakes his head.

“James, I can’t believe your father didn’t love you.”

He doesn’t say anything for a while, but I keep my eyes on him, studying the muscles in his face. I take his silence as him going to those depths, to find something he’d kept shoved at the bottom of his soul, buried in the darkness.

“He didn’t love me,” he says.

“How are you so sure?”

“Because. . . I didn’t love him.”

“James. . . .”

“You wanted the truth, Leah, so there it is. Though, I don’t know why you haven’t figured out any of this before. My dad broke something in me long ago. Love like that, it ain’t possible, alright? Not for me. There ain’t no good left.”

“But how can you say that when I’m sitting here right next to you? I mean, you love me, don’t’ you?”

“That’s different.”

“No it ain’t. Love is love, James.”

“Like shit it is.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, well…” he breaks off into a silence.

“What’re you trying to say?” My stomach rumbles. A wave of nausea hits me and the road swerves, but James’ hands are tight on the wheel. I grab the dashboard to keep the earth from flipping upside down. “You can’t love anyone else?”

No answer. His silence is like a scythe. Heat pulses across my body, a salty sickness creeping its way into my mouth. The Ranger jumps a slab of buckled asphalt and suddenly I have to vomit. No time to ask him to pull over, I slam my hand on the window crank and lower the glass just enough to poke my head through and unleash the juicy burger and fries on the side of the highway at 58 miles per hour.

“Leah!”

I pull my head back inside and roll the window up. I pop open the glove box and pull out one of the hundreds of restaurant napkins we keep stashed in there. “Sorry, must have gotten car sick.”

“Car sick? You ain’t ever gotten car sick before.”

I wipe my mouth and lean my head back against the seat, closing my eyes. My stomach feels lighter, calmer, but my heart is beating too hard, sadness spilling from its chambers and spreading through the inside of the Ranger. “Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

I consider a couple of options. I could cry and tell him I’m pregnant and everything else that is on my mind. Or I could ask him to pull over and let me out, find a way back home and pack up my stuff and leave. Problem is, neither of those options really solve the problem. There’s still a life growing inside me.

Fatigue falls on me like rain so I close my eyes, the sun on my face and shoulders failing to comfort me the way a blanket would a tired baby. I want to sleep and figure I can because James clearly isn’t in the mood to talk anymore, and to be honest, neither am I.

***

I didn’t notice when the truck stopped. I didn’t even realize I had fallen into such a deep sleep. James shakes me and I see his face as I open my eyes, close to mine, holding a cup of Sprite to my lips.

“You feeling alright?” He actually looks concerned, all of the glaze and crinkles gone from his eyes. Fatigue melts into affection as I stare into those honey irises and feel their devotion. I don’t know why he thinks he isn’t capable of love.

“I’m okay. We here already?”

“Yeah, but Poppa ain’t yet. Come on, take a sip of the soda.”

I grab the cup from him and place the straw between my teeth. I sit up and look out. The cemetery is empty, the grass a light brown, thin and withering into dust. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky and I feel the heat radiating off the marble and concrete headstones from inside the Ranger. I pull a sip of soda from the straw.

“You want to wait here for Poppa?” I ask.

“No, let’s just go on over. He should be here in a minute.” James pops open his door and steps out, so I follow. Caliche rocks poke the thin bottoms of my flip flops and I regret the decision to wear them. The sticker burrs in this dead grass are going to tear my feet to hell. We start walking to the gravesite, one of my hands firmly on the soda as I suck in more of the cold liquid. A pathetic excuse for a breeze tries to blow over the cemetery but it really only feels like God just opened a giant oven door. My brain is beating on the sides of my skull and I try to swallow the rest of the Sprite to get it to quit. I wonder if it’s disrespectful to puke on hallowed ground.

“I didn’t bring anything,” I say, realizing we don’t even have a single flower to place on the headstone. James just shrugs. I guess it doesn’t bother him that we’re the first ones to arrive and are walking up to his dad’s grave empty handed. Doesn’t seem right. Poppa’s usually the one who gets here first and typically has something to lay on the grave. Typically, we all stand around, James shuffling his feet in the dirt while Poppa talks, saying nothing more than “yeah,” and “uh huh,” which usually pisses Poppa off. Then we all get quiet for a while. Poppa takes out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and stares at it for a few minutes, then folds it back up and stuffs it into his wallet, never reading it aloud, never leaving it by the headstone. James has never asked what that was all about, and because he hasn’t, neither have I.

We pass a few more rows of grave markers before we arrive at his dad’s. It is so hot I consider hiding out in one of the freshly opened plots, just so I can run my hands through the cold soil that’s been shielded from the heat by layers of earth. We stop a few feet from the stone, and both of us stare at the ground. I start picturing the memories James brought up in the truck and a feeling of anger ripples across my chest. I know it’s not the time or place but I can’t help it. Love spurns a protective desire, but what could I do? The son of a bitch was already in the dirt.

“Well. . .” the rest of my words die away. They all seem so pointless, even more so now. I want all of this to be over and I feel the hurried dreadfulness creep between the graves and lie at our feet. James puts his hands in his pockets and lets out a breath, but he doesn’t say anything, either.

Tires moving through the caliche make us turn our heads. “That’s Larry and Poppa,” James says as the truck parks a few rows back, but only Larry gets out of the vehicle. He’s wearing starched jeans and snakeskin boots with a collared shirt. He is dressed for another occasion separate from this disaster of a day.

“Poppa driving himself?” James asks.

Larry shook his head, his white hair bouncing. “Sorry, James. Your Grandfather wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t make it out, but he does want you to come by before you head back home.”

“Well, he could have called.”

“He figured if he called you this morning and said he wasn’t coming you wouldn’t show,” Larry says.

“Well, that’s not a lie.” James wiped the sweat from his brow.

“But he wanted you to have this and he asked if I could bring it to you.” Larry reaches in his pocket and pulls out the familiar, aging folded piece of paper and hands it to James.

“You serious?”

“Well, your grandfather sure was.”

“What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Keep it, I think.”

“Poppa don’t want it back?” I ask.

Larry looks back and forth between us, then opens only the corners of his mouth to answer like he’s trying to protect us from something. “I don’t think your Poppa’s going to come back out here much anymore.”

This isn’t a hard truth. Poppa is getting mighty old, and Larry is only in his late fifties and has a business to run and new grandkids of his own to visit on Sundays. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time to bring Poppa out here, though I’m sure he would keep doing it if Poppa didn’t step in and say something. I suspect it was all Poppa’s decision, seeing the stuff Larry had piling up on his plate. He didn’t want him missing out and knew he would keep coming unless he told him to get lost, so that’s what he must have done this morning. Very quickly I saw the Father’s Days in the years ahead and tried to imagine what it looked like at this graveside, and who was all standing here if one of them wasn’t Poppa.

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll leave you two to your affairs. I’ve got a barbecue to get to. Just, go see your grandfather. I think he’d like to see you, James,” Larry says.

“Sure, thanks.” James sticks out his hand and shakes Larry’s before he turns and walks away.

“Have a happy Father’s Day!” I shout after him. He waves a backwards hand and gets in his vehicle and drives off. I turn back to James and eye the paper in his hand. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“The paper! Aren’t you wondering what it says?”

“It can’t be the same one, can it?”

“I’d recognize that folded paper anywhere. Your Poppa always brings it every year.”

James looks down at it, then at his dad’s grave, then shakes his head. “No, let’s just go.”

“James.” I try to let him know this decision is more ridiculous than this whole affair combined. “You stubborn asshole. Just read the thing.”

“Fine, but then we’re going straight home. We ain’t going to Poppa’s. I can’t stand this heat no more.” He unfolds the paper and takes a step closer to the grave and starts to read, rotating his back towards me.

I wait, reading his body language as I imagine his eyes running across the lines of writing and try to think what the paper has to say. Another boiling breeze moves across the air and a sickness stirs in my stomach again. That would be something, to throw up on this man’s grave. I look over at where we parked the Ranger and wonder if I’d even make it back, giving the cup in my hand a shake and almost weeping at its empty silence. After about another minute, James picks his head up and turns around, staring straight through me like hail cutting through trees. A hot redness creeps onto his cheeks, and I expect the glazed, crinkling look of his eyes to follow, but instead he allows the muscles in his face to fall flat. His shoulders droop and his lips curl south. His knees shake and bend, and then all at once, he falls to the ground.

“James!” I drop the cup and kneel down next to him, sticker burrs poking through the soft layers of the skin on my legs. I put my hands on his arms, his neck, and then his face, and pull it into mine, a river of tears streaming down and off his chin. The tremble of something buried deep in him rises to the surface. It is complicated. It is confusion. It is truth. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. I pull him into my shoulder and let him cry, the paper in the dirt half folded, only a few lines visible on the bottoms of the page. I hold James in my arms, and everything unspoken pours out of him and into the ground below us. Suddenly, the heat doesn’t seem to be such a bother anymore and if he needs me to, I’ll sit here for the rest of my life with him.

The cicadas pick up and that stirs James enough to lift his head. “Okay,” he says.

“Okay,” I reply. He stands up and shakes the dirt from his legs and then helps me to my feet.

“Let’s go see Poppa,” he says.

“Okay.” I fold the paper and place it in my pocket. I’ll ask James what he wants to do with it later.

He grabs my hand and stares at the grave. I don’t pull him along.

“I wanted to love him,” he says.

“I know.” I give his hand a little squeeze, and then we move back to the Ranger, opposite of how we arrived, hand-in-hand, neither of us wanting to let go.

We keep our hands together for the fifteen-mile drive to Poppa’s, and I turn the radio on, music filling the cab for the first time on this trip. As we pull into Poppa’s driveway, James turns off the engine and turns to me, still holding my hand.

“I know about the baby,” he says.

My heart leaps into my throat and tightens every muscle around my voice box. Something like a roar fills my ears. “James—”

He shakes his head. “It’s okay.” His voice is like cotton. The burn of tears builds in the corner of my eyes and in my heart.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” and a smile so big lands on him with such assurance, I let everything inside of me go and weep like a child.

Shirley Dees received an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional writing in Spring 2021. When not writing, Shirley is busy parenting, seeking sunshine rays, and sampling local craft brews. She lives in Southeast Alabama with her husband, daughter, and geriatric pet turtle.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Books, Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black

June 17, 2021
kahlo

By Angela M Giles

It’s not often that an author you admire has two new books published within months of each other. Yet, with the release of  Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg this week, Emily Rapp Black has done just that.

Sanctuary was released in January of this year, and came nearly seven years after Still Point of the Turning World. Both books deal with the what it means to face the unfathomable, the loss of a child, and together these two books present a look at grief and love and loss in a way that is both moving and humbling. Her most recent book deals with loss of a different type, the loss of an “able” body, and while not as heart crushing as the story of losing her son, it is just as remarkable.

For avid readers, the time between books by a favored author can be lonely. At least for me. When I read, I am all in. I don’t have a problem not finishing a book that isn’t working for me, and when I find a book or an author that resonates I want more. Emily is in the latter group.

I first met Emily at a writing retreat in Vermont in 2013. Still Point was on the horizon and while I understood the strength of her writing, I hadn’t read enough of her work to understand the depth. Emily is a prolific, often fevered, writer who is unafraid to talk about messy things. While her books are far between (at least until this year) her essays abound and deal with similar themes. I love her essays. I may love Emily as an essayist more than I love her as a memorist, but I suspect that is due to my  own delight when I see she has published something, anything, new.

***

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is not a linear narrative, it circles back to loss–both Rapp Black and Kahlo are amputees–but the the loss here is not that simple. The loss of an “able” body, the objectification of bodies that aren’t “normal”, the ways grief over loss changes people are all addressed. The book presents as a collection of essays on these themes, and while this may feel disjointed to some, the form and format are well suited to the subject. The near cult-like following of Frida Kahlo continues to grow, with the details of her personal life at times overshadowing her art. This alone makes her a valid subject for Rapp Black, whose own experience has often been defined by her experience as an amputee and/or grieving mother. But as Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg demonstrates, there is so much more to the sum of an existence.

The book opens with a discussion of  The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas) and closes with the retelling of a conversation with Rapp Black’s then five-year-old daughter about her own prosthesis. In the 140 or so pages between the opening and the close of the book, we experience Kahlo as the author does and ultimately we are left with understanding the painter as well as the writer in terms of what shouldn’t define them. This book is a tribute to Kahlo, perhaps even a love letter of sorts, but it is also a well rendered examination of a subject Rapp Black knows well, living with loss.

The final lines of the book are among the most inspiring, and leave us with the reminder that “Love and bodies come apart…Art remains.” This book stands as Rapp Black’s most artistic book to date and will be one that I read and reference and gift over and over.

***

Emily is participating in a series of conversations about the book, information can be found on her website. Listen in to the livestreams if you can, I hope to see you there.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, Writing & The Body

Stuck

June 13, 2021
throat

by Billie Hinton

There is something stuck in my throat. It happens two weeks after a holiday on which two of the people I love most in the world argue bitterly and stop speaking.

It’s a cold day; I buy cream of broccoli soup at the co-op, drive through the winter landscape back home, bare branches of oak and poplar, maple and hickory inked black against the pale pink overcast sky.

I drink the soup from its white paper container while standing in our living room, the soft white Christmas tree lights reflecting in the panes of every window, comfort and heart ache.

I’m in a rush to get to the barn, do the chores, push my thoughts out past this to where there’s nothing, just me mucking manure, listening for the quiet, healing snorts of horses eating hay.

Something fibrous touches my throat when I tip the container for the last swallow; it feels big, not something I should swallow, but the impulse is to choke it down, so I do, only in that moment realizing I am making a mistake.

My mother always said to eat soft white bread for something stuck and we don’t have that, but we do have sourdough, so I chew and swallow, trusting the bread to take the fibrous thing down with it. It doesn’t.

Drinks of water don’t help, nor do salt water gargles. Sometimes it takes awhile for the sensation of scraped throat tissue to fade, so I walk to the barn and do chores. Waiting, everything seems to irritate: cold air, the hay, the dust in the barn as I muck stalls. I try to forget the throat part of my body, aim my focus hard at the horses, the little donkeys, my daughter’s pony. I take a walk around our farm, finally go inside at dusk, prepare dinner, which I cannot eat.

Later, in bed for the night, eager for sleep and escape, it remains, something sharp and worrisome pushing against soft pink tissue that I imagine but cannot see.

Morning light, the thing. Still pushing.

The ENT who sees me as an emergency walk-in puts a scope through my nose, down my esophagus, and says she doesn’t see anything.

But.

Her equipment is old, she confides, and there’s a dark area she can’t really illuminate.

I seize on that darkness. It isn’t hard to do; with my two beloveds still not talking, my own grim view of what happened between them, I am already thinking the worst. They might never repair this jagged rift, the edge of which seems to reside inside my chest.

The doctor, a thirty-something quiet woman who seems perfectly competent but has old equipment, suggests I wait a month and have another scope if I still have trouble. A month seems like a very long time.

For 30 days I feel the stuck thing, ticking the calendar in my head, sometimes out loud as I walk the farm, using the month as a prescriptive number. It will be gone in 30 days. The doctor implied this. The stuck thing is also a rogue thing: it goes vertical, other times horizontal, sometimes it is rough and fibrous, other times a sharper object, painful, a reminder of everything in my life that is hard to swallow.

***

I stop eating solid foods, liquefy everything into soup, smoothies, still hoping to wash the stuck thing down, reducing the possibility of food piling up behind it, a logjam. How big is the space of a throat? My brain runs with this image of tight dark spongy tissue, narrowness crisscrossed with a piece of something that shifts but cannot go any further than it is.

I lose 10 pounds but the stuck thing remains.

Visualizations, eucalyptus oil in the steamy shower, opening things up, pulling white light through my name written in the sky above our house, into my forehead, down through my throat with a rush of energy in an effort to push the thing through and out.

Meditation, release, relaxation, acceptance, forgiveness, all the things I have taught to clients in psychotherapy sessions, reminding them that these are not miracle cures, but if they do them, the techniques will help. Little, methodical ways to manage grief, anxiety, fear, sadness, the unnameable feeling that accompanies a broken heart.

The thing is still there. Beloveds still not talking.

Almost unbelievably, I learn to tolerate both.

***

More than a month later, because it takes a long time to get an appointment, I walk into a huge university hospital’s ENT clinic. Their equipment is state of the art, the doctor a young woman from India who puts a scope in expertly and shows me live video of my throat.

My laryngeal tissue is pink and healthy, she is impressed.

She asks me to eat a big spoonful of blue jello; her assistant peels the foil lid off a container and offers it and a plastic spoon to me. I swallow tentatively, watch the gelatinous blue bolus slide down and disappear with ease.

You see how that went down, the doctor says. I nod. This is powerful knowledge, she adds, and I nod again, wanting this knowing to be more than just a swallow, I want it to grow larger, expand into my life and the lives of those I love. Powerful knowledge, letting things go. Swallowing pride.

She offers whole graham cracker squares and tells me to eat them quickly, an entire cracker in one bite, the way you would if you were having a snack, she says.

I balk, tell her I don’t eat entire crackers in one bite, the image in my head is that of a stubborn, frightened horse.

She urges, like a mom might, assures me she’s a doctor, can save me if I choke, though she knows I won’t.

I try to explain that it’s not choking I’m afraid of, not that I might die, but that I might have to live with this thing forever, the feeling of it, the sharpness, the lack of control.

It will be okay. She is lovely even in the harsh light of a medical clinic exam room, her brown skin rich and deep, dark eyes full of care and confidence. I wonder where her family is, if she’s married, are there children. Whether they talk to one another.

I cram the cracker in and chew, swallow quickly and watch as the tan lumpy blob slides down without a hitch.

This is important, she repeats, pointing to the screen. You see there’s nothing there, right? She moves the scope, illuminating every shadow. This is state of the art equipment. There is no darkness here.

I nod, because I see the clear passage that is mine, but even so, I feel the stuck thing lodged like an invisible lump, hard to swallow, heart in my throat, stuck in my craw.

***

She turns off the machine and removes the scope. I know you feel something, but trust me, she says. Eat regular meals, no more liquid shakes. How much weight have you lost, she asks. 20 pounds. You need to move past this. The longer you go the worse it will be.

Walking in and again when I leave, I pass a huge wall-sized display in the ENT clinic hallway, crammed with actual objects that have been removed from people’s throats. A toothpick with a green cellophane decoration, a car wash token, large baby diaper pins, the pop top from a sardine can, a belt buckle. Things no one would imagine putting in one’s mouth, much less try to swallow. How satisfying it must be to have such things removed and held out to you, pinched between forceps, no question the ordeal is done.

A week later, still stuck, I call my homeopathic doctor and share the saga. She prescribes a remedy for grief. A month passes. I cancel the return appointment with the ENT because I already know what she’ll say. Powerful knowledge.

My weight is down 30 pounds.

I read online about people who have lived years with things stuck in their throats, every test done that can be done, procedures far beyond my own two ENT scopes. They believe doctors missed the stuck things, know without doubt something is there. Some schedule procedures in which their esophaguses are stretched.

***

Another month passes. I feel better, less sad, but the thing in my throat remains. I’ve lost 40 pounds, still eat soup, scrambled eggs and sandwiches with soft fillings. Nothing fibrous. I leave the celery out of tuna salad, refuse anything toasted, broccoli is verboten. Sometimes at night, when I’m trying to fall asleep and my mind races with remnants of conversations I’ve had with the two who won’t speak but communicate through me, the mysterious object seems to grow larger. I sit up, read, drink water, gargle salt water. I take another dose of the homeopathic remedy, as if it might spark an instant and miraculous cure.

Nearly every day I stop in the barnyard while horses and donkeys and pony watch, raise my arms to the sky, imagine yet again writing my name in white light across the blue or gray day, or the dark velvet of a starry night, envisioning the light streaming through the center of my forehead, down my throat, my body, my legs into the earth beneath. Grounding. Safety. Clearing all stuck things.

When I feel something in my throat, I invoke the live video of the blue jello going down, the graham cracker blob, the perfectly functional, visibly clear passageway.

***

Late one night, when I can’t sleep because the thing is overpowering my ability to ignore, I read about a man who also had a stuck thing. He too had every test, saw in live video that nothing was there. He’d had a rough time with his boss, big stress, and eventually determined that his vagus nerve had been activated. He had his vagus nerve stimulated, says it was only when he resolved the original problem with his boss that his throat cleared, that anxiety and depression medications often prove useful in cases like his. Like ours.

I’m a psychotherapist, I talk out loud while walking the farm, administering soothing words and self-hugs, research to affirm the facts. Maybe I should get Zoloft, or Prozac. Can medication do what I cannot? I read neuroscience, excitable nerve cells.

Mine are excitable for sure, but I’m starting to have multi-hour spans of time when I don’t feel the thing in my throat. I let my mind go there, slowly, almost sneaking to think the thought: it’s gone. Later it returns, sharp, fibrous, vertical, horizontal. I feel it when I swallow, feel it when I don’t. How can something that is not truly there feel so real? What triggers the sensation that it’s there, then not? Maybe this will be the rest of my life, monitoring the position and pressure of something inside my body that is not actually present.

I start to think about living with this thing. With my throat. Being in between two people, holidays and celebrations incomplete because they won’t be in the same place anymore. I imagine a life that includes two of every holiday.

Maybe neither are as bad as I think they will be.

***

In the spring it’s decided; I’ll travel with one of the beloveds to California, 9 days down the Pacific coast. There is still no direct communication between the two, but feelings have shifted and mellowed; I have hope that the silence between them might not last forever.

We revisit old haunts, the place I lived as a graduate student during my final clinical internship, the gorgeous vistas down Highway 1, Santa Cruz to Los Angeles, where I lived as a young woman for a year, a long evening with my best friend, meeting her husband and sons, she meeting mine.

So much joy.

I’m still careful about what I eat, but no more liquid-only meals. I chew my food with precision, try to forget everything when I swallow, trust that the healthy throat tissue and muscles will manage their tasks.

The powerful knowledge of the graham cracker video remains with me, but I’ve also learned something even more powerful. When I feel the sensation, I can make it disappear with my mind.

I don’t know how it works. I feel the thing in my throat, then I relax something. It’s not an actual muscle that I relax, more like a mental muscle, a silent gesture. I bestow a sort of forgiveness, time traveling back to the moment before anything was wrong at all. When I do this, the sensation disappears.

Do we have the power to heal ourselves but don’t even know it?

***

It’s been years since the thing in my throat hijacked a winter and all of a spring. I can’t name the day it left for good. I don’t know if there was ever anything truly stuck, if something in the cream of broccoli soup nicked my throat tissue and started the ordeal, or if the entire thing was related to what in hindsight feels like two seasons of pure heartbreak.

I know the phrase, she carries her heart on her sleeve, and the other one, her heart was in her throat. I know the feeling of actual tight searing pain that seizes my throat when I’m upset, tearful, emotionally unwound. It makes sense that the vagus nerve could be activated and take months to resolve.

What I also know is that the mind and the body are powerfully connected. Our bodies can take upsets and hang onto them, creating symptoms that mimic disease and disorder, defying laboratory testing, procedures with state of the art machines, resulting in mistaken diagnoses, no diagnoses, puzzlement on the faces of doctors.

And beyond this, our minds can learn, in what seems a miracle unto itself, to let these things go.

The vagus nerve registers heartbreak and gut-wrenching feelings.
-Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
-The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Billie Hinton is an award-winning writer and psychotherapist who lives on a small horse farm in North Carolina. She keeps horses and bees, studies native plants, and wrangles cats and Corgis. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Not One Of Us, Manifest-Station, Riverfeet Press Anthology, Streetlight Mag, Longridge Review, and Minerva Rising, among others.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing spaces are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

funny, Guest Posts, parenting

Drive Home, Leave Home, Wake Up

June 11, 2021
Johanna

By Dawn Urbont

My breast pump talks to me. Its mechanical sucking noise morphs into language inside my sleep-deprived brain. Vy-vo, vy-vo, vy-vo, drive home, drive home, drive home, it commands in two-four time. Drive home from where? I wonder. I’m already home.

“Did you say something?” Alex shuffles into our dining room turned pump station, where I sit hooked up and strapped in, eyes shut, head lolling to the side. He calls it the unamusement park ride.

“Did I?” the words barely make it past my too-tired-to-talk lips. I right my head and open my eyes halfway. He’s holding a bowl of grown-up cereal and a rolled-up New York Times tucked under his arm. He sports a thick layer of stubble, striped pajamas, a robe and slippers. He’s really going for the whole fatherhood thing. “What did I say?” I ask, unable to remember moments ago.

Alex shrugs and sets the cereal bowl and newspaper on our crummy thrift shop dining table. “Fuck,” he manages as he slumps into a chair and bows forward with exhaustion. The table tilts. Milk threatens to leave the bowl. “I’m tired.”

“You’re tired? Really?” I fix my gaze on him, and he glances at me. I am attached to plastic and valves and tubing and two collection bottles that grow heavy with every painful squeeze of my darkened areolas. Alex knows not to take my bait.

“No?” he replies. We sit at the table, quiet as a still-life. Porcelain Pitcher with Wilting Flowers. Somewhere in the house, our new baby lets out a tea-kettle cry.

Drive home, drive home, drive home…

“Good morning, Mommy,” Johanna, the live-in baby-nurse we hired for three weeks enters holding Mathilda in her thick, sturdy arms. The sight of M makes us smile. She looks fresh and alert with a clean diaper and a onesie that says Girl Boss. “I’m hungry, Mommy. Did you save any milk for me?” Johanna, in her breezy Trinidadian accent speaks for Mathilda as though she were a hand puppet, which I find utterly cloying. I cast a furtive glance at Alex, who remains expressionless. He inhales a spoonful of cereal, and I watch milk dribble down his chin, navigating his stubble like a plinko ball.

Hiring a baby nurse was my mother’s idea. In fifth grade I was cast as a flying monkey instead of Dorothy and reacted by drinking a bottle of rubbing alcohol. After the doctors pumped my stomach, I woke up and said, “Who cares? I’m fine.” And Mom said, “You know what fine means? Fucking In Need of Everything.” The seed of incompetence planted long ago, I ran the baby nurse idea by Alex.

“Hell no. You really want a stranger living with us? I won’t be able to fart in my own house.”

“That’s a pro, not a con.”

“Look,” Alex had said, “live-in’s are expensive. We can figure out our baby on our own like the fucking cavemen. Cavepeople. Whatever.”

“But what if we can’t? What if I can’t? What if you roll on top of M in your sleep? What if I drop her?”

Johanna turns off the pump. Its voice dies out like a short-circuiting robot. Time to feed my girl, but first I unequip. The collection bottles are attached to plastic shields held over my nipples by a garment that’s at once ludicrous and essential: the hands-free pump bra, a zip-up bandeau with two circular holes like cruise ship windows for nipples to—I want to say—look through. Picture the Madonna cone bra circa 1990, avant-garde, fashion forward, sexy. This is not like that. It’s the opposite and quite possibly the beginning of the end of my marriage, I’m thinking. How Alex can sit there and eat food while I pump is beyond me. Is he looking for a way out? Were the delivery room proceedings too much for him to handle? The blood, the excrement, the unshavenness of it all… If this is it, I won’t blame him.

I detach the bottles and fasten buttery yellow lids onto them. I unzip my pump bra and peel away the plastic shields from my damp skin. My breasts hang down like aged-out foster children, worse for wear but free. Three weeks ago, Johanna was a stranger in my house. Now she watches me in my most intimate of moments, all honest and raw. Some people find this act of motherhood beautiful, but I’m telling you, it’s disgusting. I should be embarrassed milking myself in front of a rando and the one person who’s supposed to find me attractive. But guess what? I’m not, and that’s what’s so crazy about motherhood! You just roll with humiliation, because you have to. Because if you don’t, either you won’t survive or your baby won’t survive and neither is okay. I mean, if you had told me I would be so constipated after giving birth that I’d be begging for a colostomy bag, because it hurt too much to crap with stitches in my taint, I very likely wouldn’t have gone through with the whole “having a baby” thing. There is no dignity in child-bearing and the weeks that follow.

“So. How did Bessie do this morning?” Johanna asks holding up a bottle of my “liquid gold” as she calls it. Bessie is not my name. It’s her idea of a joke. A lame one. Alex shoots me a side-ways glance. He knows I hate when she calls me a cow’s name. In my mind, I ask her how she would like it if I called her a genetically-modified-cud-chewing-ozone-destroying behemoth. In my mind, she laughs like I’m joking, and still in my mind, I ask her if it looks like I’m joking.

Then, somehow and without warning, the word cunt falls out of my mouth like a bite of rotten apple. My eyes go wide. Alex nearly chokes on his ancient grains.

“Excuse me?” Johanna says. My stomach tightens.

“My cunt—it still hurts from, you know, third-degree tears and everything.”

“I don’t like that word, Mommy,” Johanna/Mathilda says.

“Sorry,” I say as she transfers Mathilda into my arms.

My little TillyDillyChickenBug latches onto my right breast like a pro. Her sucking reflex is strong, but Johanna tells me that sucking doesn’t equal swallowing, and I worry that I’ve pumped out her entire breakfast.

“What if my funbags are empty?” I ask, my forehead creases deepening with anxiety. Alex explodes into laughter, and my head whips around in time to see bits of cereal splattering all over the newsprint. “What’s so funny?”

“Funbags.” He chuckles shaking his head side to side. My face hardens.

“You think they’re not fun anymore? You think I’m being ironic?”

“No, babe. If anything, they’re more fun now.”

“Then why were you laughing?”

“I don’t know. It’s a funny word.”

“It’s two words,” I snap. When I look it up later, I find out it’s one.

I’m about to cry. Anger, sadness, exhaustion, a body I don’t recognize, a helpless life that’s dependent on a mildly depressed person with a sleep deficit. This is nature’s plan? Is that smart?

“Don’t worry, Mommy. Those funbags are definitely not empty. Look,” Johanna motions toward Mathilda. I look down and see a tiny mammal suckling at my teat. I watch for signs of a swallow– the subtle up-down movement of her throat. Creamy straw-colored milk pools at the corners of her mouth, and my furrowed brow relaxes. “Ten minutes on each side,” Johanna picks up the bottles of milk along with my pump parts and carries them out of the room. In the mirror on the wall opposite me, I watch as she disappears into the kitchen. Alex and I turn to each other and break into huge grins, wide-mouthed and weighted with disbelief. We hear the opening and closing of the refrigerator followed by the rush of sink water.

“You called her a cunt,” he whispers.

“I know!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know!”

The sink shuts off, and we quickly dummy up. Is this how parents behave?  I kiss my baby’s petal soft forehead and think to myself, We’re the absolute worst.

After the morning feed, I transfer Mathilda into her daddy’s arms so he can burp her; so he can be part of the process. “Don’t pat her back like you see on TV,” Johanna had instructed us during her first week. “Rub her back, soothe her, be gentle,” she had said. I watch Alex bounce around the dining room table, cradling Tils over his shoulder. He raps on her back like she’s a storefront window. Are you still open? Can I come in? I leap out of the chair ready to take her.

“That’s not—” I catch my reflection in the mirror. Who is that? My bottom lip droops, and I gaze at Her with the crazy bed head and squinting, tired eyes. Her with the deflated double D’s, the wrinkled belly fat and that hideous umbilical hernia. I want to burn my bikinis.

“What’s wrong?” Alex asks.

“I’m taking a shower,” I say and walk out.

I don’t make it to the shower. I can’t make it to the shower. My pits reek and my pussy smells like the monkey house at the zoo, but my need for sleep supersedes my need to wash away bacteria proliferating in the warm, damp nether regions of my flesh. Alex might see things differently, but Mathilda’s the one I’m trying to impress, and Mathilda could give two shits what I smell like. I am her warm body, and she loves me in my natural state. Half naked, wearing only pajama bottoms, I sink into my unmade bed and yank the comforter up over this hard to look at mother-thing I have become. As my head falls to the side, I suddenly remember what I couldn’t remember saying this morning: we have to pay Johanna. Tomorrow is her last day. Too tired to yell, I consider texting Alex a reminder, but the fog of sleep is rolling in, and I can hear those words. Drive home, drive home… My pump’s voice lingers in my head, lulls me to sleep. Machine and I, we are one.

At exactly 10AM, Johanna, her flip-flops slapping against the hardwood floor, enters my sunlit bedroom and hands me my baby. I arrange her in a football hold as I shimmy up wormlike against the upholstered headboard, shaking off my dream-drenched sliver of sleep. It doesn’t matter that I was in a sleep so deep I could have drowned peacefully and that my nipples are raw and fissured. This baby is on a schedule, and Johanna, for one thousand dollars a week, sees to it that she will eat, play and nap every three hours until her 7PM bedtime. While Johanna’s daily duties end there, I don’t get to clock out. Ten PM is my daughter’s dream feed, when I will prowl into her black-out shaded room, tip-toe my fingers around her swaddled little body and lift her to my chest ever-so-gently so as not to wake her. Then seated and slow-rocking in a toile-covered glider, I will insert my breast into her mouth as she sleeps. Once, during my freshman year of college, this frat guy, Brad McCarthy, tried to insert his dick into my mouth while I lay passed out in the basement of Psi U. Not exactly the same thing, but similar. After the dream feed, my brain will want to sleep until morning, but my breasts won’t let me. Should I test them, they will punish me with engorgement, hot, lumpy and hardened with milk. Instead, I will wake at 4AM and pump when the house is pin-drop quiet. In those pre-dawn hours when it’s just the two of us, my pump and me at the dining table, cast in the LED glow of my iPhone, and I’m holding my head in my hands, because my hands are free thanks to my hands-free pump bra, my pump speaks in window-wiper rhythm.

Leave home, leave home, leave home

There’s this optical illusion on the internet of a dancer spinning. Most people see her spinning counter-clockwise, something having to do with whether or not you’re left-brained or right-brained. For the life of me, I can only see her spin clockwise, and for the life of me, I can’t unhear my pump speak English. I try to listen from the other side of my brain, to hear machine noise, nonsense, onomatopoeia, but all I can make out is an electronic voice spitting out words. Drive home. Leave home. Last week it said Wake up.

Alex’s heavy footfalls grow louder until he’s hovering in the bedroom doorway. His wavy brown hair is wet from a shower, and he’s dressed in street clothes and sneakers.

“I’m going to the bank. Payday, babe. Johanna’s leaving tomorrow.” He pumps his fist triumphantly until he notices Johanna standing in the corner, where she waits while I nurse. He offers a closed-mouth smile, his hand falling loosely by his side. Johanna shakes her head and mutters a curse under her breath– not a curse word, but I’m pretty sure a curse she’s placing on Alex.

“Want anything from outside?” he asks.

“No,” I lie. I want everything from outside.

“Get a frying chicken for tonight. I’m cooking dinner,” says Johanna.

“A frying chicken?” Alex looks perplexed.

“It’s just a chicken,” I say.

“Make sure it’s organic,” Johanna instructs then turns to me. “Everything you eat, the baby eats.”

“Organic,” I tell Alex as if he didn’t hear. “Go to Whole Foods.”

Alex clasps his hands together tensely. Too many instructions. He can’t handle it. “Anything else?” He exhales audibly.

“Carrot and celery,” says Johanna.

“I should write this down,” Alex grabs a pen from his pocket. Clicking the end of it repeatedly, he scans for paper. The dresser is littered with old receipts, pieces of mail, ValPak coupons, and news clippings from my father-in-law, who thinks we won’t know what’s happening in the world unless he mails us a manila envelope stuffed with articles curated from a variety of print media he swipes from doctor office waiting rooms. Alex starts pawing at papers, sending articles, mail and receipts to the floor. Johanna and I watch as he begins to unravel, his breathing heavy and erratic.

“Babe, chill.”

“I’m very chill.”

“Here.” I find a wrinkled napkin on my night stand. He grabs it and tries to scrawl the shopping list on it, but the tip of his pen tears through it.

“Fuck!”

“Keep cool, Daddy,” JoTilda says.

“Forget it. I don’t need to write it down.” He walks out leaving me tethered to our baby, her caregiver sentinelling by my bedside.

I should be high now. Above-the-clouds high, legs outstretched behind me, airplane arms, head crooning crane-like and strung out on oxytocin, the feel-good hormone released naturally through breastfeeding to make mommies fall in love with their babies. Oxytocin, nature’s secret party favor, that love drug, that bonding glue, that country’s gone crazy glue. Instead, I feel pangs of something akin to road-rage. I’m not big on social media. I don’t put on blast that I ate a muffin, and I particularly loathe those “That moment” memes, but currently I’m having a “that moment” moment. I mentally update my status: That moment you realize you’re being held hostage by a baby.

“Alex!” I yell seconds before the front door bangs shut. I grab my cell phone, touch the facechat icon, and jab at Alex’s name. His oval head appears, moving against a blue sky backdrop.

“Alex—”

“What’s up?”

“You always get to do the errands,” I complain in a voice reserved more for a brother than a spouse. Alex looks at me with a blank stare and stops moving. “I haven’t left the house in weeks. I wear pajamas every day.”

“What are you saying, you don’t want me to go?”

“Go if you want to go.”

He starts to move again, and I erupt, “Why can’t I go to the bank and get a frying chicken?!”

“I’m coming back.”

We both hang up. Within minutes he’s in the bedroom doorway. “You’re in the middle of nursing!”

“I’ll be done in ten minutes!”

“Mommy, Daddy, calm down!” Johanna hollers without bothering to sound like a sing-songy puppet child. “Negative emotions poison my milk!”

“Shit!” I hurriedly slip my pinky between my breast and M’s little mouth. Unlatched, she starts to cry. “This is turning into a bloodbath,” I whimper, my eyeballs tightening as if being screwed deep into their sockets, saltwater tears rising.

“It’s not a bloodbath,” Alex assures me. “Take breathe deep ujjayi breaths.”

“I can’t breathe. There’s no air.” I grip my neck, panicked.

“There’s air all around us,” he says with a forced calm, then he turns to Johanna. “I think she’s having breakdown.”

“Let me take the baby.” Johanna plucks Matilda from my arms. She starts singing a strange little island song, cradling my daughter into a sea of serenity.

“Look at me,” Alex puts his hands on my shoulders.

“No. I’m gross,” I cry into my sweaty palms.

“You’re beautiful. You’re hot. Just, come on, babe, look at me.” I peek at him, certain my ugly-cry will to haunt him for years. “I’m sorry. I thought I was being helpful, but I was wrong. You do the errands.”

“I can’t.”

“It’ll be good for you to get out of the house.”

“You don’t understand, I’m on a schedule,” I sob. “There’s reading time and tummy time and music appreciation– we’re listening to Aaron Copeland today, then the one o’clock feed, and I need to drink thistle tea so my tits make milk, and what about my shower? I still haven’t had a shower, you took my shower!” I catch Alex and Johanna exchanging a look of grave concern. A pit forms in my stomach. What is wrong with me?

“Okay,” I sniffle. “I’ll go.”

As it turns out, anything you do alone by yourself after having a baby feels like a vacation. Taking a dump, sitting in traffic, waiting on line at the bank… these moments of solitude bring with them a sense of escapism for which I feel rescue-dog grateful. Who ever thought a trip to the bank could be exhilarating? I stroll back to my car with a thousand dollars cash for Johanna and a smile that feels involuntary. As I open the door and get into my Prius, I glimpse the words Lick Me etched in dust on the rear window. I look around. A sun-tanned, bleach-blonde homeless woman across the parking lot smiles at me. From a distance, her teeth look like rocks. Perhaps Lick Me was her little idea of a joke. I’ll never know, but as I drive past, I roll down my window and hand her a buck.

“That’s it?” she asks gruffly.

“Yup,” I roll up my window and drive away, delirious with freedom. Sky blue skies peek through the open moonroof, and sunlight warms the crown of my head. Thirty minutes later, there’s a four-pound organic chicken, a bushel of carrots and a bag of celery riding shotgun, and instead of driving home, I’m heading straight for the mall. Tilly’s next feed is in an hour, and I’m not ready to relinquish this intoxicating Me Time.

When we got pregnant, Alex became obsessed with the cost of college tuition in 2038 and started balking whenever I came home with items like re-usable ice cream cones or Gremlins on BluRay. He banned me from Target, where I could lose myself for hours and come home after dark toting bags of future Goodwill donations and a massive shopping hangover. When he found out how much Johanna would cost, a corkscrew-like vein in his forehead stuck out for days. He refused to fuck me for fear it would burst. If Alex knew I was mall-bound, he would have a coronary.

I step into the parking garage elevator cast in its moony glow, my excitement rising with every floor, and step off into a high-end department store, a perfume scented bistro of style and luxury. Drifting through a gallery of oddly-shaped statement shoes, floating up the spiral staircase, running my hands over iconic and classic and iconoclastic fashion stories, I feel electrified. I’ve come back to life. Old me is back, I can feel her, she’s here. I pluck a colorblocked asymmetric plissé dress off a rack, hold it up to my body, twist left then right, the ochre and berry skirt swishing side to side. Suddenly, my phone buzzes, a text from Alex. He wants to know when I’m coming home. Before I can text back, I hear a thin, buzzsaw-like voice behind me, “So, where are you going? What do you need it for?” I turn to find a waif-like salesperson, a genderless “they/them” dressed all cool in black and navy.

“Oh, I don’t need it,” I say.

“That’s the best time to buy, when there’s no occasion. Shopping under pressure gives me a silent migraine.”

“I’m just looking.”

“Oh,” they rub their lips together and part them with a popping noise. “Okay.”

“I just had a baby,” I add, suddenly feeling the need to offer an excuse. “I’ve been going stir crazy. I had to get out of the house.”

“I used to hate babies…”

I smile and wait for them to continue. “But now?”

“Now what?”

We look at each other, decades between us, only to be interrupted by another text from Alex, this time a picture of M with a pouty bottom lip followed by a picture of Alex, eyes closed, hand to forehead as if to indicate some kind of spiritual distress. Drive home. My pump’s voice echoes in my head. Drive home, a portent impressing upon me that wherever I go, I cannot be. Drive home.

“Can I get a dressing room?”

This was dumb. A post-partum body under dressing room lighting in a three-way mirror is the rudest awakening. Cellulite and skin tags and melasma, oh my fucking God. I don’t belong here. All I wanted was to look around, feel like my old self again, but here I stand, staring at stretch marks and the bulge of a sanitary napkin in my panties, while a sumptuous dress on a shiny hanger taunts me. Put me on, bitchDon’t keep me hanging on. Pun intended. A dress with an attitude, I like it. I slide it off the hanger and hold it against my body. The silk feels soft against my skin, and for a moment I feel gratitude for little white worms spinning threads as fine as a baby hair. “I’ll be home soon,” I whisper to no one as I slip the dress over my head, the material parachuting down around me. In the time it takes for a camera to flash, I glimpse who I was before I split in two.

My cell phone rings. Alex’s name comes up.

“What?” I answer abruptly.

“Did you get my texts? M is losing her shit. I think she’s hungry. I don’t know what to do.”

“Where’s Johanna?”

“She’s packing. Should I give her a bottle?”

“Are you crazy? It’s not time yet. I’ll be home soon.”

There’s a knock on my dressing room door. “How’s it going?  Do you need a different size? Bigger?”

“Who’s that?” Alex asks. “Where are you?”

“I gotta go.” I hang up, but not before a glass-shattering wail pierces my phone and hooks me like a trout. My stomach lurches and fills with molten lava. Every cell in my body begins to weep. My baby needs me, and I’m at the mall trying on a criminally expensive dress I have no intention of buying.

“Is everything okay in there?”

Is anything okay in here? I want to fake nibble baby toes and breathe in corn starch air. I want to sing about twinkly little stars and blow raspberries on a teeny tiny tummy. Another knock. Reluctantly, I slide the door latch and show myself. My salesperson looks me up and down with a quizzical expression, mouth twisted to one side, perhaps slightly amused. What does this face mean?

“Someone’s buying a dress today,” they announce before I have a chance to look in the mirror. I shake my head no.

“I’m just trying it on for fun.”

“Well, now you kind of have to buy this dress.”

Have to? I look that good? Suddenly thoughts of my infant daughter turn into a fine mist and get sucked into the ceiling vent. That a piece of clothing without an elastic waistband could look good on me three weeks post-partum makes me think perhaps my stealth detour wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I feel lighter, taller. I turn this way and that, allowing the corners of my mouth to curve into an I-feel-pretty smile. I actually say, “Weee,” as I spin around. “This is such a…” and as I step toward the mirror, my smile fades, “…let down.” My breastmilk has let down. My breasts have let me down. Two wet circles of mother’s milk expand in the silk over my nipples.

The salesperson is sucking in their lips, which I take as their way of preventing their thoughts from reaching my ears. “I’ll be over by the register when you’re ready,” they say and walk off.

I speed change in the dressing room and pay for the dress with cash, the cash meant for Johanna. Alex can never know about this. I can just picture him, eyes bugging, the corkscrew vein popping. You went where? And spent how much? Is that even legal? He gets so crazy, he makes me crazy! With a pounding headache and a dress I now despise, I race down to the garage, jump in my Prius and floor it back to the bank, breasts engorged, nipples leaking and twenty minutes past my baby’s one o’clock feed. As I park, I spot Rock Teeth loitering in a new, more strategic location by the bank entrance.

“What happened to you?” she studies me as I brush past. “You look like horseshit.” I pause and glimpse my reflection in the bank’s tinted glass doors: it’s Her. Her, now an adrenalin-fueled, wide-eyed, wet-chested train wreck looks back at me with an unrecognizable grimace and a plastic hair-clip hanging limply from stringy tresses. When did I even put that in? I turn back to the homeless woman and feel slightly jealous. She can rock this look and get away with it.   

“Wait here.” I hasten back to my car.

“Like I have somewhere to be,” she calls after me.

Moments later I return with a sleek black shopping bag and hand it to her. She takes it without so much as a thank you and begins digging away at the white tissue paper to see what treasure lies beneath. I have no time to wait for a reaction. I don’t need the thanks. To give is thanks enough. I run inside the bank and withdraw five hundred dollars to make up for the cost of the dress, and as I’m rushing back outside, stuffing bills into my purse, I see the sidewalk littered with white tissue paper, the silk dress lying in a puddle of itself, Rock Teeth nowhere in sight. What the hell? Where did she go? Why would she leave this stuff in the street? The questions fly at me like a cauldron of bats, which is what a group of bats is called, and I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Something must have happened. Something awful, and I don’t have time for a mystery. I scan the lot, whipping my head left then right. I hear a car peel out and look toward the far end of the lot. That’s when I see her perched in her encampment transferring indecipherable belongings out of a tattered plastic grocery bag into the sleek department store shopping bag. That’s all she wants? Just the bag? I really don’t have time for this. I snatch the dress up off the ground.

“Hey!” I yell across the lot to get her attention. “Do you have any idea how much this dress cost me?!” I march toward her, my heart hammering inside my chest, my baby’s lunch seeping through my tank top. She doesn’t hear me or chooses not to, her eyes focused on inspecting each item as she transfers it. “Hey!” I call louder. “Woman!” She finally looks up, and I find myself waving the dress in the air like a lost hiker trying to flag down a rescue helicopter. “Not my style!” she yells back then resumes her affairs. This triggers me. I don’t know why. I toss the dress at her, but it’s so light, the mild September breeze carries it down to my feet. I try again, this time twisting it into a rope and lassoing it into the air. It unfurls in the wind. Stretched out like a sail, flapping, dancing, it collides with a moving Subaru, spreading across the windshield in shapeless abandon. The Subaru swerves and hits a parked SUV. A horn blares, a car alarm goes off.

Beep, beep, beep, beep, flee, flee, flee, flee…

People within earshot start to gather, and I can feel something like soapy bubbles rising up inside me, filling my mouth, oozing through my parted lips. Only it’s not soapy bubbles. It’s laughter, and it keeps coming and coming and coming.

Originally from New York City, Dawn Urbont has worked as a television writer of both sit-coms and dramas for over fifteen years. She holds a B.A. in English and Film Studies from Dartmouth College. When she’s not writing, she is an incredibly underpaid chef, chauffeur, teacher, doctor, personal shopper, and event planner for her kids. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two boys, and an Airedale Terrier named Acorn.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Activism, Friendship, Guest Posts

Bad A** Feminists

June 9, 2021
catherine

by Tammi Markowitz Inscho

I took my most feminist action on a cold, grey day in January 2017.  I strapped  on my fanny pack with my id., my i-phone and three granola bars. A friend had knitted me a hot pink hat that was supposed to look like a uterus.  She was new to knitting. The hat was too small and looked like rhinoceros’ head.  Still, I stretched it over my head and made my way to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  I was ready to protest the inauguration of our pussy-grabbing 45th President of the United States.

I met Catherine at Logan Square—Philadelphia’s version of the National Mall.  Tens of thousands of other women stood shoulder to shoulder with us.  The crowd began to inch its way down the Parkway.  “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Donald Trump Go Away,” we chanted in unison.

Catherine and I stopped to take selfies.  We huddled together around Catherine’s i-phone. We admired our photography.  We edited the pictures we liked best.  There was one of me with my rhinoceros horn standing at attention, I held up a peace sign with one hand, my LOVE TRUMPS HATE sign in the other. My lips were glossy and just pouty enough-the picture was Instagram ready.

A half hour passed. We crept along with the crowd.  We hadn’t gotten very far.  Catherine looked over at me “I’m cold,” she said.

“Me too,” I admitted.

Catherine nodded her head toward the old Four Seasons Hotel.

“What?” I said

“Want to duck in–warm up for just a minute?”

I wanted to.

We laid our signs against a telephone pole.

We fought our way through the crowded.

The bell boys swung the hotel doors open for us.  The lobby was warm and smelled like gardenias.

“Heaven.” Catherine sighed.

I took off my hat, ran my finger through my hair. Catherine tore off her gloves rubbed her numb fingers together. She looked at me.  There was a glimmer in her eyes and an almost imperceptible smile across her lips. I recognized the look from tenth grade when Amy McGowen would routinely convince me to cut school and hang out in her basement all day drinking clear liquid from her parents liquor cabinet.

Catherine held up her reddened index finger. “One glass of red wine.” she said.

Red wine sounded perfect.  I could hear the crowd through the Four Season’s windows. “Show me what democracy looks like.” The crowd chanted.

I held up my index finger. “One.” I said.  I tried to sound stern.  I think I just sounded thirsty.

We sank into two leather seats at a round candle lit table. It was 11:15 a.m. We were the only ones in the bar. We ordered Cabernet. While we waited we grabbed fistfuls of mixed nuts.

The bartender set down our wine glasses. Grabbed the empty bowl of nuts and came back with a fresh bowl.  We sipped our wine and feasted on the nuts.

“First person to talk about their kids—takes a shot.”  Catherine said grinning.

I agreed.

Catherine and I met in 2011 at a Mommy and Me class.  She had twin boys and a Cadillac  of a double stroller.  We bonded over things like the pros and cons of phasing out the second nap and whether feeding the boys vegetables in squeeze pouches would lead to bad eating habits.  Now that our kids were five we consulted each other about whether to do soccer shots and where to have the kids’ birthday parties.  Our husbands coached tee ball together.

When we finished our first glass of wine Catherine cocked her head to one side. I knew what she was thinking. My body felt warm.

The bartender came by, “can I get you ladies another round?”

We answered in unison. I said, “no.” Catherine said, “yes.”  The bartender grinned and brought two more glasses of cabernet.

“He is cute.” Catherine said about the bartender.  Then she told me that she hadn’t had sex with her husband in a year and half.  I was shocked but, tried not to show it.  She told me how rough their marriage was.  How unhappy she was. How she fantasized all the time about being with men who truly desired her.

I told her about how rough my marriage had been. I told her how we almost didn’t make it –how we worked so hard to get to where we are today but that things still felt so fragile.  I gave her the number of our couples counselor.  She typed the number into her phone.  She told me about the trauma she endured in her childhood.  She cried and so did I.  We kept shoveling in the nuts as we sniffled into our cocktail napkins. No one suggested bringing tissues to the March.

Catherine twirled her index finger in the direction of the bartender. He brought us two more glasses of Cabernet. I told Catherine about Pema Chardron, Eckard Tolle and Marianne Williamson.  She had never heard of any of them.  She typed their names into the notes in her phone. My body felt weightless and my head heavy.  I couldn’t hear the protestors any longer.

We ordered French onion soup.  It was the best I’d ever had.

I admitted to Catherine that even though Dylan was five years old I still checked to see if he was breathing multiple times a night. I told her I knew that was crazy.  I told her I loved him so much sometimes I thought my heart would explode. I said I wasn’t sure it was healthy.

She told me I had to take I shot.  I refused.

It was 4:00 p.m. when I said, “maybe we should get back out there.”

Catherine threw her back and laughed.  I laughed too.

“We are a couple of bad ass feminists aren’t we.”  I said.

We high fived.

I went home.

I described the day to my husband as “empowering and invigorating.”

I didn’t feel guilty.  I wasn’t lying.

Tammi Markowitz Inscho is a reformed trial lawyer turned writer. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her nine year old son, Dylan and husband David. She has written pieces that have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and is currently working on her first novel. Additionally, Tammi leads writing workshops for kids and teen girls.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, memories

Why a Kosher Butcher’s Daughter Made Ham Sandwiches

June 7, 2021
ham

by Barbara Krasner

An elderly man in a plaid shirt and dark-rimmed glasses walked up to me after the meeting of the Museum Committee. He said, “I knew your grandparents. I went to their store all the time for ham sandwiches.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He had to be wrong. Max and Eva Krasner would never touch ham, let alone serve it. Maybe a helper in the store did it for them, although the helpers would have been my father and his brothers.

The man broadened his smile, likely recalling the taste of the sandwich. “Your grandmother was Eva, right?”

“Yes, I never knew her though. She died years before I was born.”

Maybe it was the ham that did it. Eva Zuckerkandel Krasner was the daughter of a kosher butcher. This man’s memory was playing tricks. Maybe he got his sandwiches somewhere else in the neighborhood. But as our conversation continued, he said he crossed Ridge Road from Queen of Peace Roman Catholic Church to my grandparents’ general store in North Arlington. Publicly, I had to accept the compliment that my grandmother made a great piggy sandwich, but privately, I was plagued by the question: Why would a kosher butcher’s daughter comply with such a treyf (non-kosher) request?

To answer the question, I started with what I already knew. In 1920, my grandparents moved northeast across the Passaic River from their flat on Van Buren Street in bustling Newark to a lot at the intersection of Ridge Road and Sunset Avenue in North Arlington, where a sewerage system had not yet been introduced. Perhaps Max and Eva thought this dorf resembled a shtetl. For Max that meant a village near Minsk and for Eva that meant her hamlet in the southeast corner of Austria-Hungary known as Galicia. Max immigrated to Newark in 1899 and eventually set himself up as a grocer. It was as a grocer he chose to present his best self (while he still had hair) on a matchmaker’s post card. Eva immigrated to New York City in 1913 and somehow was introduced to Max. She had other suitors, but Max had a business, a store. This she found attractive, and why not? She was a kosher butcher’s daughter, the eldest child.

In 1920, Max and Eva, along with their one-year old (my father), settled into their corner lot. They had an apartment behind the store front. They numbered among the very few Jewish families here at the confluence of Bergen and Hudson counties and midway between Newark and Jersey City. My grandmother, who had a head for business, must have figured their general store could make a buck in this burgeoning burg, what with the store on the main street and rentable apartments above the store.

In 1920, the cornerstone to Queen of Peace was laid on Ridge Road at the intersection with Sunset Avenue. Max and Eva would have looked out their store front windows to see stacks of lumber and bricks piled up on mounds of dirt just waiting for cranes to put these materials and the spire in place. In 1925 the church’s grammar school opened. The high school saw its first graduates in 1934.

My grandmother laid out a pot of something to simmer on the stove for my father—and later my two uncles and aunt. Eva would only cook kosher food—hot dogs, stews, soups—on the private family residence side of the door that separated it from the store. But as the Krasner kids ate their kosher meats bought from Prince Street in Newark’s Third District, the Queen of Peace kids popped across the street to get sandwiches. Ham sandwiches.

A kosher butcher’s daughter making ham sandwiches. I imagine she washed her hands constantly to make sure she minimized contact with treyf. I also imagine she thought it was a necessary sacrifice she had to make for the business. Catholic customers want ham, and kids’ money came from the parents, and if the kids were satisfied, the parents might patronize the store more. Generally, my grandfather ran the grocery and my grandmother ran dry goods. Making ham sandwiches had to be a shrewd business decision. I am guessing the sandwiches were made with white bread, certainly not on Jewish rye. I’m also guessing my grandmother would have a “ham” knife and “ham” slicer. There would be milchadik (dairy) utensils, fleyshadik (meat) utensils, and treyf utensils. She would never intentionally violate the traditions. No, ham was business and it’s not like she herself was eating it. What one does at home was sacred. What one does in a public space was something else.

There could be no question that the proximity of this large church and the volume of parishioners had to be taken into consideration in my grandparents’ business. My father had always intimated that the church ran the town, especially when it turned down his request for a parking lot and he was forced out of a twenty-year supermarket business because he could no longer compete.

Ham sandwiches began to make sense, practical dollars and cents. By making ham sandwiches, Eva Krasner showed she could be counted on in the community. She was one of them—a North Arlingtonian, not a Jewish immigrant outcast. She spoke English as did Max with barely a trace of an accent, I’d been told.

A Jew who would make ham sandwiches protected herself against antisemitism and stuck to her vision of buying land throughout the area.

A Jew who would make ham sandwiches eased the way for her kids to make friends outside the tribe.

A kosher butcher’s daughter who made ham sandwiches knew how diplomacy worked. She knew the way of the world.

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Manifest-Station, Gravel, South 85, Jewish Literary Journal, Poor Yorick, and other journals.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, pandemic

Longing For Lysol and a Burger

June 6, 2021
lysol

by Fredricka R. Maister

Disinfecting wipes, a thermometer, bottles of hand sanitizer, masks, mega rolls of TP and paper towels, boxes of Kleenex, and cool purple latex gloves. The only item missing from my overstocked arsenal of anti-COVID household products: a can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray.

I used to always have a can of Lysol on hand. My luck, I ran out of it just as the novel coronavirus and the hoarders struck, snatching up every last can on the planet.

For almost a year, I’ve been trying to score a can—one can!– in stores or online, but the product is perennially out-of-stock which has made me want it even more.

The clerk at my local CVS told me the store sometimes receives a limited supply of Lysol spray, which the staff puts out in the wee hours of the morning.  Since the store is open 24/7, people line up to get first dibs on the new inventory. The Lysol, along with other items endangered in the Age of COVID, are gone within hours.

I have a friend, a night owl, who happened to be in the store a few months ago at midnight when she spotted a box labeled “Lysol” in a stack of boxes waiting to be unpacked. Without hesitation, she pried open the box with her fingernails and pulled out a can.  If only I had been with her, I could’ve checked Lysol spray off my wish list.

I’ve repeatedly complained in person at CVS. The staff’s only solution to my plight is for me to wait in line in the middle of the night with the desperadoes ready for a scrimmage in Aisle 6, Cleaners.  Even for Lysol, I have my limits.

So, I’ve had to accept the inconvenient reality that Lysol Disinfectant Spray may continue to elude me until this pandemic is over.

I’ve also experienced a relentless longing for a hamburger due to COVID-19. I almost never indulge in red meat, but there is something familiar and comforting about a burger slapped with lettuce, tomato, onion and a slice of melted cheese, served with crispy fries drenched in ketchup, that can satisfy my burger craving for months on end. A take-out, reheated-at-home burger doesn’t taste the same. I like my burgers hot off the grill.

With the reopening of restaurants, especially the pub across the street, the aroma of grilled hamburger wafting through the air has constantly reminded me of my last burger eaten only a few days before self-quarantining. My fear of eating out in a pandemic, inside or even outside, has trumped the instant gratification I know a hamburger could deliver.

I’ve been surveilling the pub for the last few months to check out the outdoor dining situation.  Tables are properly spaced.  Staff and customers, when not eating, are masked. Weeknights are quieter and street traffic is minimal. “Maybe it’s time to take the plunge while the weather is still cooperative,” I thought.

With my heart and mind set on finally having a hamburger, I called up my friend Phyllis, a like-minded COVID-phobe also in need of a burger fix.

“Look, we have a window of opportunity before it gets really cold. Let’s go to the pub tomorrow night,” I said.

Phyllis was game so we, with some trepidation, ventured out to the pub.  Our dining experience did not disappoint. We savored every last bite of our burgers and fries. “I’m good to go for another six months,” I told Phyllis.

Sharing a meal with a friend and chatting about things unrelated to COVID felt like old times, a much-needed reprieve from our new reality.

After eating, Phyllis asked if I wanted to walk with her to CVS.  “Sure, not that they have anything I need or want,” I said.

As I browsed the aisles with little or no inventory, Phyllis suddenly called out, “Look!”  She pointed to four cans of Lysol Spray in the center of an otherwise empty shelf. I stared in disbelief.

“Do you think it’s the real thing?” I asked.   I picked up a can. Sure enough, “Lysol Disinfectant Spray…Kills 99.9% of Viruses & Bacteria.”

No one can accuse me of being a hoarder. The happiest of campers, I left CVS with my one can.

For me, just the mundane acts of being able to hold a can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray and eat a hamburger in a restaurant assumed monumental significance that night, restoring a sense of normalcy to my life turned topsy-turvy by COVID-19.  For a few hours, for the first time in many months, I forgot I was living in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York City, now based in Philadelphia. Her personal essays have appeared in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY, and Broad Street Review. Her essay, “Forgiving Mom…Finally” recently appeared on The Manifest-Station.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level? Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Remembrances Of The Sun, Of Shadows

June 4, 2021
Havana

by Bruce Crown

Everything had been hollowed out, especially the people, when I checked in. All sunny resorts are inherently the same. A consortium of young and old people sleeping in vomit, talking through cigar smoke, and swimming in low-range rum. I noticed it as soon as I entered. The Cuban peso was as strong as the American dollar. This amused me greatly. Not because Cuban money is worth more or less; I have no opinion on that. What amused me was that every time I needed money changed, the mob of tourists both in front and behind me would complain about this fact. They knew that their money was worth more, and they wanted to spend it here, to help Cuba by buying things to bring back home.

On the first day, the sun blazed as if to burn the darkness out of me, the abyss that had become a threading existence of booze and despair. The smoke trail of my Cohiba rose and misted towards that yellow star in the middle of the clear blue sky. I sipped what was left of my pineapple juice unable to quench the chasing shadows of my thirst. Just another drunk whose money can buy more booze here than back home.

“It’s too hot,” I puffed smoke to no one in particular.

“Yeah… the weather’s nicer in Havana. I’m from Trinidad myself but this sun feels… different. Hey! Where you goin’?”

“Thanks,” I turned back towards the bald and austere man who had a body that glistened with muscles under the infinitely clear sky.

Why, I thought later, did I immediately get up and accept the idea that the weather would be nicer in Havana than in Varadero? The place where I’d spent the last fortnight drinking and watching the waves wash more and more of the sand away hoping that one day it would wash it all away.

“Motorcycle,” I pointed around where the bikes sat around the lobby. “Havana. To rent.” I needed the cool breeze in my hair.

“Sir, have you been drinking?” it was a different concierge than usual. This one had green eyes and spoke perfect English.

I couldn’t help but wonder, whether from her perceptive, the transitive beings that come from ‘mainland nations’ are simply objects that move between shaded patches of sand while the background rattling of empty bottles ensures that they are all the same despite their faces and the flags on their backpacks changing every few days.

“It’s 10 A.M. amigo. Who drinks this early?” I slid my American Express card across the counter. “Give me something fast. 600CCs or more,” smiling like a sucker because I hadn’t been sober since I left Toronto and even then it was a toss-up.

“We don’t rent motorcycles here. You can rent a scooter if you like. But you can’t go to Havana with it.”

“A car then?” my disappointed grimace was hard to contain.

“That could work. We have a Volkswagen Passat available.”

“How’d you manage that? … A Passat? … You’re joking. I saw some classics on the way in. How about a 1951 Plymouth Convertible?” I watched her type faster than I could think; she picked up the phone and dialled some number and chattered something in Spanish.

“Si. Si…” she was saying as I watched another man approach hang up his cell phone.

They talked in Spanish while I leaned on the counter until she pointed to me.

“You want car?” The man asked.

“Yes but I don’t want a Renault or a Volkswagen. I want one of those nice old school convertibles.”

“You know we keep running ourselves. … We … fix ourselves,” he motioned to himself, “They are not original. I have a Mercedes engine in mine. Chevy rear axle. Plymouth gearbox.”

“What kind of car is it?”

“1950 Chevrolet Deluxe.”

“How much?” I asked.

“You’ve been here two weeks right? The writer from Canada? Very cool. We get many like you here. Always sitting by yourself. Smoking and drinking alone all along the beach. That is what Cooba is to you? … No matter. My friend Simon told me sometimes you take the boat too far and he has to come to you? The guy?” he smiled and nodded to the concierge.

“I need your license,” she said.

I spoke close to no Spanish but I could venture a guess what they were talking about. A moral quid-pro-quo. For you see, dear reader, despite the lavish luxury of five-star resorts, the workers themselves cannot partake of any food or drink. They cannot eat, sleep, or relax on resort property. And we, the wealthy, are hard-pressed not to gorge ourselves on the fine rum and cigars and pineapples and steaks and pasta and chicken. One of the maids told me this on the second day. I couldn’t eat for two days. At some point, coughing in cigar smoke, I decided I would take food out of the cafeteria or restaurant under the guise of eating it in my room and then split it amongst the workers. I’m not trying to make myself seem like some paragon of virtue or compassion; it was more for my own comfort than for theirs. You can’t really enjoy your food if the man serving you is himself hungry. By the fourth day most of the crew knew me. In fact, one gentleman named Joseph, which I later learned was pronounced Hoseph, had even gone so far as to bow his head slightly every time he saw me, and after repeatedly begging him not to, he just grinned whenever he saw me.

I slid my license across. “Which guy?”

“The compassionate man. The man with a soul.”

Clichés all over the place. “I don’t believe in the soul.”

“Oh but you should hermano. The soul believes in you! You take my car. I trust you bring it back in one piece.”

“You have my word.” A lie, of course; there was no way I could guarantee jackshit.

He tapped me on the shoulder and walked away, lighting a cigarette.

The concierge handed my cards back and smiled.

“Gracias,” I knocked on the counter.

De nada,” she handed me the keys. “It’s the last car. It is red. Staff parking. You have to go all the way around. Do you know how to get to Havana?”

“I’ll manage.”

She laughed and shook her head, “Drive down this main road…” she motioned with her hands, “And follow it until you merge onto Circuito and Puente Bascular. Then after a while you’ll get to a sharp left at the bus station and parking area. It’s almost like a U-turn. Then Central de Cuba. You got it? CEN-TRAAAL DEE CUUEEBBAA,” she stretched the last part out.

“I got it.”

“You’ll get to Matanzas. Stay on the coastline. The street is called La Habana. That will be 80 kilometres. Should be an hour perhaps. It’s a nice drive. There are small nice cafés. It’s safe to stop. Then you just… follow signs.”

“My specialty,” I helicoptered the keys in my hand and walked out. But not before buying another box of Cohiba Panetelas from the hotel boutique.

“You driving?” The cigar salesman asked.

“What gave me away?”

“Nothing.  You’re The Guy right?”

I was already tired of hearing that.

“… You’ll love Havana. I’m from Mexico myself. Moved here many years ago. My wife is Cuban.”

“Sounds good. We’ll talk later.” I left.

Walking around the side of the building, the sun reflected off the hoods of what could’ve been a history of the automobile arranged from classic American to the newest 2011 Peugeot hatchback. How’d they get those here, I wondered.

I’ll give it to Hector. He had a wonderfully restored red Chevy convertible with a white line going straight from the headlight to the bump of the back wheel. I polished the rims where the chrome met the duo-coloured wheels. The red leather interior still smelled fresh as if it hadn’t been eroded by the passage of time. With a turn of the key, I travelled straight into the 50s.

The concierge hadn’t lied; it was a wonderful landscape, especially when I turned off the highway and drove along the coast. Middle-aged Cubans worked while their strapping young people danced for the busloads of tourists who saw it fit to stop along the water. The only thing that diminished the surreality of continued existence was the constant shuttering sound of camera phones pining to immortalize moments they probably share with thousands of others. My panetela burned smoothly and I was driving against the sun so the darkness burned away with every kilometre I put behind me.

Some people don’t leave the resort the entire time. What’s the point of that?

I pulled over at a café and had something they called an American Destroyer, and when I told them I was Canadian they just laughed and said it would destroy me anyway. It was Havana Club mixed with a pineapple smoothie. I rested while smoking another panetela. Squinting as I watched the sun rays bounce off the red hood of the Chevy.

When it was time to hit the road again I pulled into a gas station to ask for directions because I was afraid I missed that U-turn at the bus station or wherever. I had a coffee. They only drink it black. There are no frappuccinos or foamy flavoured drinks. Things are simpler. The contempt with which the café owner looked at a young German man who asked for milk because the coffee was too strong kept me entertained for hours. I still had ways to go.

Approaching Havana I heard, whether real or hallucinating, the sounds of drums and street parties. I parked before I actually entered the city and rolled the top back up. In the city there was no need for the natives to frolic from store to store and buy things for the benefit of making the tourist feel safe and comfortable. They had, despite their globally morose situation, a deep elation, and though sometimes it was buried in their hearts, you could sense its presence. Most of them didn’t care which two celebrities were dating and at what bars they could be spotted. Seeing random people dance, sometimes couples, wasn’t something I saw every day in Toronto; I berated myself for appropriating their culture; it was unknown to me. New, rich, and full of wonder. I am pampered for even being in this situation and have this thought. They dance; we shop. It’s all the same feedback loop. Was I permitted to elevate their culture, romanticize it? I was sure that there were places here where conditions would be squalid; but then we had those in Toronto too….

It was majestic. There was a street market; tables full of items ranging from family photographs to war medals to car parts being sold for prices that to the capitalist feels like robbery. Little did I know, that despite Havana’s reputation in the west for being a sex-fuelled, boozed, and debauched city, in the corner of my eye hid one of the most profound interactions of my life.

Walking past a table full of handmade trinkets and then another filled with classic baseball cards I caught a glimpse in the corner of my eye. A flashing blur of aqua blue and yellow. When I looked it was only the tame prosaic colours of Cuban tapestry; the dark green army uniforms of the police and the generic grey or black of the merchants. It was too hot and I felt faint. The thirst returned and while I was enjoying a banana smoothie with dark rum I saw it again: the blue and yellow weaving between a few dark green uniforms checking a man’s ID because he was eyeing a collection of used family photos too attentively. I threw too much money on the table venturing to catch the sky but it was she that caught me when she marched up and sat across me. She did not disappoint.

Bonsoir,” I blurted out, following the sun-ray shining upon the golden waves that formed her hair and down her blue summer dress that rested on her snowy shoulders.

“I saw you drive in and then just now looking at the medals. I love it here.”

“There’s a lot of stuff here.” I saw a plane in front of the clear blue sky and followed it until it approached the sun.

“Not really. That’s why I like it. No stuff. It’s…” she inhaled, “Air. Just air. It’s nice to see you again.” her eyes flickered at my brogue boots. She and I had been more than classmates at the University of Toronto.

“You too. Did you ever go back home?” It was more than nice to see her again.

“Yep. To Oslo,” her smile made the sun blink, cooling the weather when clouds covered it.

“That’s a long way.”

She talked about Cuba as if she was a native and it was beguiling to hear her voice. Those hazel irises contracting and dilating talking about Che and Sartre’s visit and Fidelito—that was what she called him. She hated him but spoke of jingoism and illegal embargoes and unjust sanctions in subdued tones  lest we be overheard by a nosy soldier. Every time she pushed a strand of her golden hair out of the way the sun shined on her face for a second and lit her up even more. I was lost. She talked about the fact that the Hotel Nacional had opened on New Years Eve in 1930. I’d never had patience for people talking but she was…. That’s it, she simply was. Another cliché. I left the rest of my drink when she told me that’s where she was staying and invited me back to see the view.

She had a suite all to herself. It felt magical to see the graffitied walls of that Matanzas village, but then the view of the Havana Harbour, steps away from where Sartre, Sinatra, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had stayed, relegated that graffiti to historical shame. In fact, looking out the window, I could see the rich tourists across Cubans trying to sell them fake Cohibas with no discernible difference between them. They all looked so small, like ants trying desperately to understand what it was that kept them moving and circling themselves. A breeze caught my hair and I felt the cool air on my face.

“Beautiful isn’t it? I love Cooba,” she never quite pronounced it as we do: Queba. Rather, with that slender and sexy North European accent trying at the same time to pass for Spanish. It was Cooba. Habbana. Ron and Soeda. Falling in love with beauty is the easiest thing in the world. You can fall in love with someone’s beauty in the morning and cease to be in love by dusk. In that hotel, years after we’d parted ways as lovers, I began to love her not for her beauty but for her soul and her manifestation not as a being of beauty but as a being of meaning. No self-help book, entrepreneur keynote, designer boutique or Apple Store or reasonable rate of return could give me the gift that Cuba gave me. It felt so natural and so real and yet so transcendental that the city, so different from home, in which this feeling occurred would have profound meaning for the rest of my life.

She poured us drinks from the minibar and talked about the different kinds of rum cocktails they make there. It is a fallacy that only a native can understand and feel a culture and land. In other words, the claim that an expatriate or wanderer could never attempt but to scratch the surface of the beauty of a particular place in vain is simply not true. Contrary to earlier, I now thought that travellers always have a unique perspective at their disposal. They are free of bias if they take care that nothing first-worldly has happened to them to provoke a bias, such as losing their luggage or being delayed on a first-class ticket. Naturally, if the person is a frequent wanderer; a flâneur, their judgment may be amplified for they have an abundance of comparisons to rely upon. I wouldn’t know Cuban cigars were superior to Dominican ones unless I’d been to both places or tried them both. What a terrible example, but you understand what I mean. Critics will say there are preferences and the wanderer will have to agree. New York is better than Havana. Thus criteria are established to judge a place not by its own merit but by its comparison to other cities that fit those criteria. To curtail the argument that the notion of a beautiful city, like the notion of a beautiful man or woman, rests upon the objective, the wanderer must relinquish all previous moments except the moments that occur in the destination. In other words, to presume nothing but the experience itself. This is a posteriori.

Why was I trying to think so logically? To deduce some philosophical system out of rich people travel and spend money and romanticize the natives’ lives?Every book a white man writes about Africa is the same book with the same clichés. Now I was guilty of this.

“Isn’t it amazing?” she came up behind me and we stood side-by-side staring out into the harbour.

I looked at her up and down breathing the same air as her and for a moment, that insatiate thirst was quenched.

“Oh my god! I forgot you were a writer! I have to take you to Hemingway’s. Grab your shirt.”

“I’ve already been. There’s one in Helsinki.”

“Not like this one,” with that floaty step of hers; the dancer’s step, and that smile that lit up the sun, I had no choice but to follow. The clichés nearly broke me, I thought, but then I shrugged; you have nothing better to do, I told myself.

And in the abyss of Hemingway’s I drowned. She chattered with the owner in broken Spanish and pointed to me. I glanced around at all the pictures of Hemingway with various Cuban political and social figures and narrated the stories behind each picture to myself. She was telling him I was a writer or something and like a ritual, as if he’d done it thousands of times before for those western tourists interested in Jazz Age literature and the surfaces of their country, he began mixing a drink.

“No,” I interrupted, lighting a panetela, “Give me something else. I don’t want what Hemingway drank,” it was only sprite and white rum anyway. “Make me something distinctly Cuban. Distinctly yours.

A frightening smile washed across his face as he began mixing a cocktail like an old master coming out of retirement for one last job. “This,” he pointed to the glass, “La Generación Perdida.”

“What’s it mean?” I took the glass.

He smirked, “The Lost Generation.”

Every generation thinks they have it rough. But one financial meltdown after another, one corporate bailout after another at our expense, and you find yourself expecting the next one rather than hoping or looking for a saviour.

The next thing I remember is waking up in her hotel room and watching the water through the window.

“What was in that drink?” she yawned with the sun-rays reflecting from her hazel irises through the window and into my soul.

“I don’t know. But it lost me all right.”

“Now you know how they feel,” she turned away from the window and covered herself with the blanket.

To this day, whenever I play this conversation over and over again in my head in ardent nostalgia, I don’t know why I asked, “You want to come to Varadero with me? I’m heading to Europe after.”

“Where in Europe?”

“Paris, then catching the plane to Lisbon.”

She just laughed as she got dressed. “Maybe next time, my love.” She left the room to get breakfast and never returned. I waited three days. I wanted to stay indefinitely but my hotel called. They were worried and reality set into me like the darkness of those clear night airs so seldom felt in Canada but so plentiful on that “magical” island.

“Thanks Hector,” I shook his hand and handed him the keys, “I filled her up for you.”

“You look different. Believe in souls now, hermano?”

I didn’t answer as readily as last time, “Thanks Hector,” I repeated in an attempt to ignore him, “She really is wonderful,” I pointed to the car.

He laughed. “She is… I like you hermano. You’re cool.”

I bowed to Joseph and left that day. What was it about that place?

The same uncanny disquiet shook me when I saw her again. It was in Paris and I’d been thinking of her constantly. Like the second act of a bad film, I’d dreamt we’d moved to one of those coastline villas outside of Havana and we would wake and drink black coffee and stare out into the sea. I was writing her a poem about it while having my breakfast at the Plaza Athénée and she just… walked in front of me.

“This place is nice,” was how she greeted me after all that elapsed time, “But it’s no Cooba!” then she bent down, pecked me on the cheek, and walked towards the lobby. By the time I chased her outside she was gone again.

Bruce Crown is from Toronto. He has penned four novels. He has attained an HBA from the University of Toronto, and an M.Phil. from the University of Copenhagen. He splits his time between Copenhagen, and Toronto.

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.

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

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, Self Care

Taking Up Space

June 3, 2021
space

by Heidi Barr

Morning means coffee in my house.  I get up, feed the cats who are meowing incessantly, and turn on the drip.  Sometimes I take a tiny sip of water to swallow a vitamin, but that’s it.  Coffee is the very first part of my routine, and it has been for more than a decade. I don’t remember why I started drinking it. I wonder sometimes if I even like coffee.

Identifying what we really want can be hard. It is for me, anyway. Can you be bad at desire? Sometimes I think I am.  l like to blend in, to be in the background, to help out on support staff.  Expressing how I feel and what I want is not my default. I’m not wired to think about what my body craves. It feels easier to stick with the routine, even if it doesn’t always feel quite right.

In my work over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of people who want to lose weight. I’ve wanted to lose weight, too, sometimes, over those years.  Whether the goal is to lose 5 or 75 pounds, it’s a desire for change manifesting in a yearning for edges to surround a smaller space.  It’s a desire for something different than what is.

I want to feel good in my clothes.
I want more confidence.
I want to feel safe.
I want to be more energetic.
I want to feel like I matter.
I want to keep up with my kids, my job, my life.
I want to feel loved.

We humans are sensual beings, and sensuality is tied to the physical.  The body is our gateway to experiencing life and all the pleasures and pains that come with it.  Sensuality is an agreement we make with ourselves, one that defines how we take up space in the world. We have to take up all of the space that we are meant to take up. No more, no less.  Sometimes it is scary.  Sometimes it is exhilarating. Sometimes it is hard to discern what space is ours.

When I was a high school gymnast, the team didn’t have a dedicated practice area. There was a balance beam set up in the empty space at one end of the gymnasium, along with a shorter practice beam, and a few mats stacked on top of each other. Another full size beam with a crash mat underneath filled the rest of the area. To the right of all of this was the netting we set up right after school ended every day— it was also boys basketball season, and they had practice at the same time. This netting was supposed to keep us safe.

Before starting apparatus practice, we warmed up by jogging around the perimeter of the basketball court, the whole team in various hues of leotards and spandex shorts with the waists rolled down.  No one wore T-shirts, even though some of us wanted to. We stretched, did some more warm up drills, and broke into groups; one group went to bars on the far side of the gym, and the other to beam.  I climbed onto the four inch surface and tried to concentrate on my handstand instead of the sound of basketballs bouncing. Instead of the appraising gaze that came from the court now and then. Part of me wished I had a T-shirt on. Part of me wanted to be seen.

In high school and early college, smallness was good. To excel in gymnastics (and long distance running, which I also did), a small body is an asset. So is strength, which I also wanted, but in those days, I wanted the smallness just as much.  Probably more. The uniforms for both sports are tiny and tight. I didn’t want to take up too much space, and I wanted to feel worthy of the space that I did fill.  There was something unnerving about being seen, even when I wanted it. Most of the time I didn’t really know what I wanted.

***

One summer, well before my morning coffee ritual was established but after graduating from high school and college, I worked at a wilderness camp high in the northern Colorado Rockies. Mid-May at nine thousand feet meant there was still plenty of snow on the trails. That year the snow pack held firm above the tree line for weeks after I arrived. Five of us packed some backpacks, grabbed some trekking poles, and set off, glad to be moving and gaining elevation. Crossing snowfield after snowfield, we picked our way higher and higher until we reached Emmaline lake, an alpine oasis nestled at the base of what’s known as the Mummy to the locals. It took a few falls through high drifts and some scratches to arms and legs as we inched along a rocky ledge, but finally we made it to the water’s edge. The lake was perfectly calm and still iced-over in spots.  We walked along the boulder-strewn perimeter, up to a smaller lake that was just off the trail proper. This one was shimmering open water. We sat down to eat lunch and bask in the sun.

After lunch, one of my hiking companions, Katie, stood up. She nonchalantly stripped off her hiking clothes and dipped a toe into the crystal clear, ice cold water.  “What is she doing?” I urgently whispered to Jenn, looking sideways at the two guys who’d come along as well to see if they were paying attention. Katie gave us a coy look over her shoulder, and dove in.

Ever since I’d quit my job as a personal trainer to come work in the mountains, exercise wasn’t something I felt much like doing. I didn’t feel in shape. After a midwestern winter, I felt pale and doughy.

“AAAHHH!” A shirt flew to my right, and Ahmed went in with a yell.  So did Mark.

Skinny dipping—that wasn’t really something I could do, was it? Other people would see me. I felt safe with this group of people, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to take up that kind of space. There was actual ice and snow within throwing distance. Wouldn’t everyone just be uncomfortable?

I wondered what it would be like to have some of Katie’s confidence.

Jenn and I, still fully clothed at the water’s edge, exchanged wary glances.  I held my breath as we stripped as quickly as possible without making eye contact.

When I ran into that frigid water, I felt my body waking up as the contrast between the water and the powerful Colorado sun made me gasp in exhilarated alarm.  Later, drying off on the rocks in the warm midday sun, I took up all the space I needed.  I thought to myself that the world may well be created by words and stories, but another part of it is created by gasps.

That afternoon at Emmaline lake, my body wanted to be immersed in cold water and then gradually dried off on warm rocks in the sun, even though my mind wasn’t so sure. I’m glad I gave in to what my body wanted even though it felt hard to do. Jumping into that cold alpine water, feeling the tingling, and enjoying the decadent warmth on the rocks afterwards was an act of ingesting beauty, of becoming the mountain, of becoming myself a little bit more.

Ahmed, always with his camera equipment, snapped a black and white photo of our backs as we sat on the rocks after emerging from the water. I still have that photograph, 17 years later, in a frame on the wall next to my desk. It’s a reminder to give in to desire, to take up the space I need to thrive and feel filled up with goodness.

What does my body want? It wants anything that brings refreshment. It wants strength, and confidence. It wants passion, but it also wants to feel relaxed and supple. It wants to be safe, filled up with nourishment. It wants to be standing in front of the wood stove, warmth seeping deep into bones.  It wants my husband’s hands at the small of my back. It wants to slip into ice cold water on a sun-drenched day high in the mountains. It wants the sensation that comes from a brush being run through my hair by my eight year old daughter. My body wants to exist in partnership with other bodies. It wants to be autonomous. It wants what it wants, and those wants shift. It doesn’t want to apologize for any of these things.

My body wants water, not coffee, first thing in the morning. Room temperature, not ice cold. From a glass canning jar, running down my throat while watching the sun rise, feeling my cells rehydrating as a new day begins.

Heidi Barr is the author of 12 Tiny Things and four other non-fiction books. She is the editor of the Mindful Kitchen, a wellness column in the Wayfarer Magazine and works as a wellness coach at Noom. A commitment to cultivating ways of being that are life-giving and sustainable for people, communities and the planet provides the foundation for her work. She lives in Minnesota with her family where they tend a large vegetable garden, explore nature and do their best to live simply. Learn more at heidibarr.com.

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.

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

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Activism, Guest Posts, Terrorism

Like Our Children, Lawmakers Became Prey

June 1, 2021
school teacher

by Meg Poulin

On January 6, 2021, in the middle of an insurrection at the Capitol, I had to peel myself from the T.V and take my youngest daughter to get her ears pierced. The piercing appointment at the Black Diamond was her best Christmas present, and we arrived jittery and flustered. While at the shop, I could not stop myself from checking the news feed constantly. We picked out earrings. We practiced breathing through our anxiety. I tried to tell her she was ok, but really, nothing felt ok. A woman was shot by Capitol Police, while they measured and marked my daughter’s earlobes.

My mind conjured up constant images of our elected officials on their hands and knees in their pencil skirts and suit pants, ties dangling around their necks. I wondered if they were crawling, dizzy with panic, between padded chairs, fumbling to text loved ones. The lawmakers, now the quaking prey.

On April 20, 1999 I was a junior in college in Utah. I was twenty minutes into my aerobics class when my boyfriend flung open the studio door and lifted me right off the floor. The class came to a halt.

“What school does your brother go to?” he said, voice breaking.

“Chatfield,” I said. He insisted we leave. He drove me home, sat me in front of the T.V. And there were my neighbors, Clement Park, Columbine Library. On CNN. People I grew up with, weeping with reporters. The United States made its free fall into mass school shootings with Columbine High School, in my hometown.

My mother at that moment, was sitting with hundreds of distraught parents waiting in agony for news of their children, still unaccounted for. She was holding her friend Cathy’s han as they waited to hear if her sons were alive. My brother was a senior at the rival high school just a few miles down the road.

One of Cathy’s sons watched his teacher bleed to death. One of her sons was locked in a crowded closet, listening to classmates die outside the door. They were among the last kids to tumble out of the mouth of a school bus, bloody and traumatized, into their mother’s arms.

In July 2012, I was moving with my husband and three young children from Colorado to Connecticut. Just after midnight, while heading to the Denver airport, I pulled to the side of the road, hearing sirens. Not one or two rescue vehicles. A legion of sirens as police cars, ambulances and firetrucks converged on a movie theater just to the right of the freeway. Where I learned later, people were crouched behind padded chairs, crying, bleeding, dying. They went to a movie, and someone walked in with a weapon and opened fire into the crowd.

Watching the news the next day, I thought about the time my husband went with a friend to a midnight release of Star Wars. I could not help but think, It could have been my husband, dead among the popcorn. 

On December 14, 2012 I was in a hardware store, buying a hammer, when I began to get texts from friends in Colorado. It was too early in Colorado for texting.

One texted, “What school do the girls go to, Megan!!!?”  Another texted, “What town did you move to? Is it Newtown?”  I Googled Newtown, Connecticut. It was 47 miles away.

I ran to my car, turned on the radio, and drove straight to my girls’ new elementary school. I fought the urge to snatch them from their classrooms as I listened to reporters relay an incomprehensible nightmare. Other parents began lurking around the school too, we ached to hold our children. After an hour of sitting vigil, my mom called wailing. The wailing of all the mothers everywhere.

***

In the spring of 2016, I arrived at the elementary school to volunteer in my daughter’s first grade class. The atmosphere was soupy with tension. Principal Cleary and several staff members were holding the doors open, their arms forcefully beckoning morning stragglers into the building. The principal called, “Mrs. Poulin!” as he gestured, leaning in as I approached. He said, “We are in lockdown. This is not a drill. I can’t tell you why.”

Gasping, I lurched for the door, my baby inside.

“Not a shooter, it’s ok,” he said. My mind went wild, searching for reasons to call a lockdown without a gunman. Inside, the hallways were eerie and silent, backpacks abandoned on the floor. A freckled little boy with bed-head was knocking frantically on a second grade door.

“My classroom is locked!” he cried. His teacher opened the door and pulled him in. I began to run. I arrived at Stella’s classroom door just as her teacher was yanking it shut. I reached for Stella’s soft hand, kneading it in mine.

“Mr. Cleary says we must stay in our rooms, we must be silent, first graders. But today, we do not need to practice hiding under our desks,” the teacher whispered. The children already knew how to hide under their desks, arms over head, eyes squeezed shut. I found out later, the lockdown was due to a medical emergency. A teacher, before school, needed an ambulance. A nut allergy, not a bullet wound.

In April of 2019, my middle schooler came home distraught. During a lockdown drill at school, one friend whispered something funny to another friend as they were getting into position. It triggered an illicit giggling fit, the hardest to control. They had to be shushed. After the drill, their outraged teacher told the girls in a career ending move, they deserved to be shot since they wouldn’t take the lockdown seriously. I was horrified, but I understood. This teacher was not meant to keep unruly teenagers from being shot dead in their classrooms. She was not trained to become a human shield, to teach on a battlefield.

A week later on May 7th, 2019, I was bagging a head of cabbage at the grocery store when I noticed a stream of news alerts on my phone. Highlands Ranch, Colorado. A school shooting. This time it was me, frantically seeking clarity.

I texted Carrie, a close friend in Colorado. Her boys were the same age as my girls. “I’m seeing headlines about a Stem School in HR, a shooting. Are the boys ok??”

When I saw her reply, “Yes, it’s the boys’ school,” I abandoned the cabbage and ran to my car. Nathan. Evan.

She texted me again. “Earlier today, Nathan suddenly started texting me,” she wrote.

He sent, “There’s a school shooter I love you so much I love dad.”

There is so much to examine about the riot at the Capitol building. The people who were curled on the floor in mortal danger, are now standing in that same space, arguing over what happened. Is this terror worth action?

Meg Poulin is a Connecticut textile artist and writer. She loves politics, the science of consciousness, childbirth, hypnosis and baking cakes. Her passion is in raising her three daughters to be strong, independent, expressive young women.

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

.

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

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Grief, Guest Posts, Miscarriage

Relentlessly Human

May 29, 2021
human

By Alli Blair Snyder

“What do you eat for breakfast on the morning of your son’s death?”

Sarcasm flirted with the tip of my tongue as I was carefully wheeled into a steel elevator. My nostrils flared in protest, but I knew it was better if I kept my mouth shut. Sobs kept erupting when I opened it. We spun and the metal doors slid inward, revealing a gaunt and grey-faced gargoyle. Except the gargoyle was a hospital patient, and she was glaring back at me. “Sallow.” I tasted the word in my mouth for its accuracy. That’s how I looked. My husband and his mother stood like statues behind me. Who would we become from here?

My skin hung from my bones in a lifeless sag. My arms in my lap bore the track marks of non-existent veins and the many painful attempts to dig around for them; blood seeped in red blossoms through the white bandages. My boney hands clutched a worn journal in my lap. I assessed my outfit in the elevator door reflection; I was wearing a baggy blue sweater my dad got from the Walmart up the road and a pair of Eric’s sweatpants. I don’t even remember if I put them on, or if someone else did. My body had been prodded, exposed, and moved around like a science project for the past week. I looked up at the sign on the wall of the elevator exclaiming, “Joy to the World!” My glare hardened to stone.

I ran my hand along the back of my neck and pushed away the errant nips of hair leftover from the haircut; I realized I hadn’t showered since before then. After we finally got out of the first hospital Monday night, Eric took me for ice cream and haircuts to calm down after the scary weekend we had. I didn’t even care how it looked. I just slapped a sparkly headband back on and we went home to cuddle, relieved. We didn’t realize we were in the eye of the storm.

Assessing my reflection during the elevator ride, what crossed my mind is how a woman puts on mascara on the morning of her husband’s funeral. I’ve always wondered how someone could have the strength to lift their arm to carefully swipe a wand over their eyelashes and pull on something as trivial as stockings before they bury the love of their life. I saw myself wearing that same sparkly headband from my haircut and a sheer pink Chapstick, despite my hollow appearance otherwise. Remember the alien from ET when they try to make him look like a human? I kind of looked like that. Half human playing dress-up.

But I guess I do understand now, how you can still get dressed on the day your life has imploded. We look for normalcy, even in the middle of tragedy. On the worst days of our lives, the gears keep turning. We hold on to the small things, the ordinary things, the things that feel like home. Mascara, stockings, headbands, Chapstick. Things that remind us that somewhere, normal and peaceful days existed. And that maybe they would exist again. Right before they wheeled me into the elevator, Eric and I decided against a funeral but agreed on cremation; then we handed the little bundle back to the nurse. They said he was perfect, over and over again. At the first hospital, when I was in so much pain, I couldn’t see straight, and at this one. And now we’ll never see him again. That’s the disaster I found myself in during that elevator ride. I grabbed at normalcy in my sparkly headband, pink Chapstick, and wondering what I should have for breakfast.

I imagine she wasn’t trying to be flippant with her question about what we should eat, my mother-in-law. She’s all business, all the time. Practical as salt, as she would tell you a hundred times over opening Christmas presents. Always toothpaste or a calendar. I guessed it was morning, so she was asking what we should have for breakfast. That made sense. I am normally grateful for her no-nonsense efficient energy, but I didn’t respond to her, sarcastic or otherwise. There was something lurking at the edge of my brain that I was trying desperately to shove away, so I just watched myself in my reflection thinking about how we got here.

I arrived at this hospital on a Tuesday by rickety ambulance, with a catheter taped to my leg and fear running a marathon in my heart. The ambulance worker kept telling me I was going to have to name him Todd if he delivered him mid-drive; my awkward laugh turned into hysterics and he had to stab me with another needle. We didn’t have a name for him yet. We talked about naming him at the first hospital, but they said he was perfect, they said I was fine, they sent us home for ice cream and haircuts. When the ambulance arrived, I was wheeled straight to a room and hooked up to every machine available to stop my uterus from doing her job entirely too early. My parents and my sister came to decorate my room with a little Christmas tree and twinkling colored lights. I said they didn’t have to, but they said it made things feel homier. Normal. Human. By what the doctors said to us last night, I calculated that this day on the elevator was a Sunday. Last night when I pushed him from me, Eric shouted excitedly, “December 20! That’s a great birthday!” The doctor mercilessly pushing on my stomach to pull out my placenta quickly responded, “Actually, 11:59pm. December 19.” Our wedding day was just over a month ago. It seemed like another decade.

Eric and his mother continued to respect my outward silence during our metal enclosed descent. We hit the first level with a jolt, and the gargoyle disappeared to reveal a whirlwind of brightness and busy. Nurses, visitors, hospital workers all whisked around a blue circular atrium; voices and footsteps were echoing at me from all sides. Every person seemed totally unaware that the world just ended. I guessed it was just my world, then. I looked back over my shoulder at Eric’s face as he pushed me forward. He looked like I felt. Dead inside. Not even human. I tilted my face upward to the beams of light cutting through the glass above. I noticed dust floating through the air catching the sun. It looked beautiful for a moment. But I flicked the thought away; nothing was beautiful to me anymore. It was just dirt.

I felt hands on my arms, and I dropped my face back down to ground level. “Hi babe, are you hungry?” It was my mom. My dad stood behind her with trays of food.

She crouched in front of me smiling; I ached for her smile to be real. But it wasn’t. She was looking for normalcy too. People try to feed you when your world ends. It makes sense, even broken half-humans need to eat. I pictured her making pancakes for me when I was little, to remind me and my siblings that everything would be okay. “Nothing can be bad when you’re having pancakes,” she would say. I knew she was being strong for us, and I knew she was being strong for me in this moment too. I thought that its probably just what moms do.

“I’m not a mom anymore.”

There it was. The thing I was keeping at bay, the thing my mind was dancing around with all of these other thoughts. Human brains are funny, that way. They do what is needed to keep us safe, but they can’t always protect us. The thought fluttered across the front of my brain when I wasn’t paying attention like an errant, unassuming butterfly before I could stop it. And it morphed into a bomb.

My chest exploded and my breathing became heaves. I looked down and my hands began to clutch at my stomach, pulling at my sweater. I was empty. He was gone. The bloodied bandages on my hands and forearms caught my eye and I grabbed them with opposite hands to rip them off. I relished in the sudden sting on my skin as hot, salty tears filled my vision. A wild animal was letting out a guttural scream, and as I looked around, I realized the noise was coming from me. I thrashed in my chair and tried to push myself up with the handles to run a thousand miles away from this hospital where my baby died, and my world ended. I whipped my head frantically looking for Eric so he could come with me. I wasn’t going anywhere without Finn’s dad.

My face became suddenly engulfed with pink pillowy cotton and I got a nose-full of coconut-lime. I was eye level with the freckles on my mom’s chest. She always smells like this; I bought the same lotion in Key West. It smelled like home. I felt her compress my arms to my sides firmly. I stopped struggling and sobbed into her as my tears soaked through her top. I heard concerned murmurs over my head and Eric’s hardened response to whoever rushed over during the scene I made; always protective of his wounded-animal half-human of a wife. My mom interrupted them and calmly asked, “Could you please point us in the direction of the chapel? My daughter just lost her child.”

As I sat in the chapel eating in silence, I had my answer. On the morning of your son’s death, you apparently eat blueberry yogurt. The colors from the stained-glass windows threw pictures all over the quiet room. I felt like I was moving in slow motion, and I could feel my mom watching me and waiting. She had one hand on my wheelchair and one hand holding my journal for me. Barely swallowing down the yogurt around the knot in my throat, I looked up at her. She smiled, again, the same pained one. I finally spoke without a wave of sobs. “Mom, I don’t know how I will ever be happy again. I can’t picture myself smiling or laughing. I can’t picture Eric happy again either. I don’t understand it. I don’t feel normal. I’m not me anymore. He died, and I think I died too.”

She took a deep breath, and told me, “Alli you will feel normal again someday. And by that, I mean you will feel human. You might be different after this. It will take a long time, moment by moment. You will feel joy and you will feel grief. Sometimes at the same time. You will smile. You will laugh. Eric will too. It’s okay to lose a piece of yourself in this, but it will show you who you are. Al, I promise, you will rise again. And when the next hard thing happens, you will rise from that too.”

I asked her immediately, “But how?” She said, “With us. And with hope.”

Eric said we should name him Finnick, our favorite character in the Hunger Games. I almost said, “No, not that name,” but it caught in my throat. I wanted that name so badly. I had dreamed about that name. I loved it. Eric loved it too, I could see it in the golden flecks of his green eyes when he explained that it comes from the name Phoenix. A rising from the ashes. He said that from this traumatic experience (my body going into labor four months early) Finn was going to rise from it, and everything would be okay.

Finn. I wanted to yell it after little toddler scuddles and scream it across a soccer field and write it on birthday cards and text it to him furiously when he was home late. “FINNICK MICHAEL SNYDER, where the hell are you??” I wanted to use it in all the small, ordinary, human ways. I wanted to say it out loud for a lifetime, his lifetime, and my heart was ripped open at the thought that I wouldn’t. But this little human was meant to be named Finn; for the short time that he was here, and forever after that. Instead of whispering it to him as I put him to sleep, I now have it tattooed on my arm where his head would have rested. Five days before Christmas, five feet from me, he lived for five minutes – and then he was gone.

The sun kept rising in the sky and the world kept spinning. It is clear to me now that a rising was to come. We thought it would be Finn’s. But, and I wouldn’t realize this for a long time (just like my mom said) – it would be mine.  My rising. Our rising. My husband’s, and our family’s. Everything my mom said in that little chapel – it turned into a bit of a prophecy. Even down to her ending it with hope. A few months ago, I found out I was pregnant again. We waited nearly five years to try to get pregnant after losing Finn. Without knowing what my mom said that day, Eric suggested that we name this baby Hope. It was perfect, just like they told me Finn was. And then we lost her too.

A miscarriage. A week later, Eric lost his job in the middle of a global pandemic. Another disaster. Different and also the same. I thought it was going to break me, but then I remembered. Here’s the thing about what it takes to rise from ashes – the roadmap of how you did it gets etched into your bones. We remember, not just our own capability of rising, but the rising of all who have come before us. And those who came before them. As humans, we are hardwired to get back up again. It’s in our blood. Even if it takes a long time, we find a way. To be human on this earth is to experience loss. To fully live is to relentlessly rise from the ashes.

As I write this, the morning sun is beaming through my windows. Tomorrow is Finn’s fifth birthday. It’s been a few months since we buried baby Hope. Our two rescue dogs are snoring lazily on the couch, and Eric flies by me to grab coffee before heading back to his work-from-home office upstairs for his new job. He kisses my head and flashes me a smile. My bangs are pulled back with a headband, and my favorite pink lip balm is swiped on my lips. On our Christmas tree hangs two little red stockings; one with an F and one with an H. The colors of the twinkling lights are bright. I notice little dust particles floating through the air and catching the light, and I think to myself how beautiful it looks, even if it is just dirt.

My joy feels different now; it sits in my heart next to my grief, like my mom said it would. Normal and peaceful days do exist again. Everything is settled in a way that sometimes makes me anxious, as if I’m waiting for the next disaster to come. But I remember that when it does, because inevitably it will, we will rise again. We will grab onto each other, and the little ways we find normalcy and pieces of home. We will pull out the map etched into our bones of how we did it before. We will rise a little bit every day, with our friends and families around us, and with hope in our hearts. We will string together ordinary things to remember we are human.

On the day Finn died, I wondered inside of a metal elevator who we would become. It feels like my answer is – fully human. Painfully broken-open and healed again. And again. Forever in healing. Existing in both joy and grief at the same time. Holding on to each other and the people who love us. Rising from the ashes like a phoenix and finding hope in all that we do. On the window in my hospital room, Eric wrote For Finn in marker, to remind me to keep going. That I could get through anything, even someone digging around in my arm with a needle, for our baby. Now we both have this tattooed to remind us the same thing. For Christmas this year, we are adding a new one to remember that we can rise from anything for the hope of our future. For Finn, with Hope.

This time of year can be painfully bittersweet; maybe this year even more than most. The twinkling holiday lights throw shadows around the places our loved ones would be; they can remind us, too, of the things we do have. Life has a way of being relentlessly beautiful, even when it’s hard to see it sometimes. It has a way of always coming back around, too. We rise, and we fall, and we rise again. As I look around my calm and ordinary home, I notice the shadows of my babies not here. I know I’m still a mom, and its painful and beautiful to acknowledge it. But the light lands on all the things I have in front of me, and what is to come. Joy and grief, together. Hope for the future. I glance above me, and my eye catches a piece of paper tacked above my desk. It’s a ripped-out page from my old journal, the one that I kept vigorously when I was pregnant with Finn. I wrote it the week before he died. It says, “You see, nothing lasts baby. Not the good, nor the bad. The world keeps spinning no matter what. The sun always rises, even on the darkest of nights. Just grab onto hope.”

I smile to myself, and the moment I read it, Eric yells down from upstairs, “Hey babe! What should we have for breakfast?”

Alli Blair Snyder is a storyteller. When she isn’t writing about her grief or buried in a book, she is snuggled up with her rescue dogs and husband in their little Pennsylvania town. She is a writing professor and Ph.D. candidate in Leadership theory, focusing on shame and resilience. She is also a Medicine Woman and Mental Health Coach who fiercely advocates for becoming the expert of your own life. Find her on Instagram @allisonislivingbravely or on her website www.alliblairsnyder.com.

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.

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

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Women Are Waiting

May 28, 2021
women

by Arya Samuelson

It always starts with a woman. Plunging into a clawfoot tub, burning her skin in waves. Or poised at the edge of her bed, head turned as if to pose for a portrait – only nobody else is there. What about the woman gazing at the rice fields, straw brim hat shielding her eyes from the feverish sun? She is not of this place and that’s why she has come. Because she feels freest in places where she has no history. (No history except colonialism, whispers a voice inside, which she swats away like the mosquitoes that form a curtain along the river.) A woman living inside a girl, furious and desperate because she can’t tie her shoes; the knot is slipping and she’s screaming inside, surrounded by a hovering crowd of her brother’s friends.

These women are waiting. Their story awaits. Hearts beat wildly, skin pulsing with the desire to be carried away on the boat of narrative that will give their lives, their pain, a purpose. The boats with engraved names like Plot or Character Development or Foil. Many will wait for a yacht to dock and hope for a big pay-off, others prefer a fishing boat (an ensemble drama,) while some settle for a sailboat: a self-published journey. It’s only the bravest and most foolish who dream of Transformation, the solitary ship that travails the rockiest, most violent waters. Capsizing is the deal you must strike. Body buckled beneath the current, black seaweed twisting your ankles. Heartbursting, striving for surface and a life beyond it. Survival is not a guarantee. Better to board the cruise boat that sails alongside and raise a cocktail glass to those morons. Sure, you only exist in glimpses – everyone’s attention fixed on Transformation, betting on the odds as if this were a horse race – but at least you’ll get to have some fun.

How to obtain passage on such a ship? Theories abound. Some say you need to cause a scene, shriek in the captain’s ear, and if it comes to this, grip your hands around his neck. Others whisper about underground bidding wars, where tickets are auctioned in exchange for unspeakable deeds. But another way is to climb inside an image – a woman plucking flowers, or lighting a house on fire, or climbing inside a bathtub and sing the words that resound at the core of your pelvis. Just stay there, resting inside the frame or moving your limbs when the impulse strikes, entirely and completely yourself, until someone walks by with a thousand questions. A passer-by so moved with wonder they’ll invite you onto their ship. Though you must wait for the right person, someone who won’t treat you like a circus monkey or glaze over your words. Wait for the person who will instead feed you fresh bread and crisp apples, who leaves a bowl of silence after each question, waiting to be filled with your voice.

Arya Samuelson is a writer currently based in Northampton, MA. She was awarded CutBank’s 2019 Montana Prize in Non-Fiction, which was judged by Cheryl Strayed. Her work has also been published in New Delta Review, Entropy, and The Millions. Arya is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Mills College and is currently working on her first novel. She is proud to be part of Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal coven of writers.

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

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

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Adoption, Books, Guest Posts

The Lonely Doll Made Me Feel Seen

May 26, 2021
megan galbraith doll

By Megan Culhane Galbraith

As a little girl I’d lie flat on my back and pour over The Lonely Doll. It was an oversized picture book with a pink gingham cover that featured a black and white photo of a doll sitting on the floor holding an open book. The author, Dare Wright, posed her Lenci doll, “Edith,” in various scenes inside her own glamorous New York City apartment, the park, the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond. Like Dare, the doll was pretty, blonde, with bangs and a high ponytail. She seemed a charmed life, but there was one problem. Edith was terribly lonely.

Wright was an amateur photographer and The Lonely Doll was her first book. The Lenci doll that represented Edith was the doll she’d played with as a child. Edith was Dare’s doppelgänger. In the book Edith’s parents are never home and she is essentially orphaned, wandering the huge apartment, staring out the window, hoping for friends to play with when suddenly two friends show up at her door, Mr. Bear and Little Bear.

I loved Edith, but what saddened me was her expression. Her eyes seemed searching and vacant. Her mouth was pursed in a way that implied a smile she wasn’t capable of giving. It’s no wonder Wright’s book influenced my work in deep ways. We were both searching for how to belong.

In my memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Baby Book, I recreate and photograph scenes from my baby book in my dollhouse similar to the way Wright did. My visual art project, The Dollhouse, became a lens through which I could safely question my personal history and interrogate the myths of adoption and identity. As an adopted child, I’d felt like a thing to be played with––a doll––instead of a person with her own identity. I’d felt looked at, but not seen. Playing in the dollhouse helped me reconstruct my identity after feeling invisible for many years. It helped me build a safe home within myself because for a long time I’d never felt truly at home anywhere, not even in my own body.

Children play to control the world. When I was a child, I wanted to control my world because as an adoptee I felt I had no control. I created small universes in shoebox dioramas in grade school, and built tiny natural habitats for the mice that lived in the field behind my house. I loved to create and explore new miniature realms. It was empowering to make all the decisions, so I imagined myself into another life. It didn’t matter that the stage was tiny. These were worlds into which I could disappear.

Dolls have no agency; they are objects to be acted upon. I didn’t play much with dolls as a child. I hadn’t been given dolls as a girl––no Barbie, or Baby Alive. My parents gave me Legos, a rock tumbler, and a frog hatchery, all of which dazzled me. Each Christmas, Mom gave me one Madame Alexander doll, which I was urged to keep pristine in its box. The one doll I remember playing with was Holly Hobbie. Holly had flat feet and a flat chest like me, and her dress was reminiscent of what Laura Ingalls wore in “Little House on The Prairie,” a show I watched religiously every Sunday. Holly’s tagline was “Start Each Day In a Happy Way.” She had a huge head, oversized eyes, chipmunk cheeks . . . and no mouth. She couldn’t have spoken if she’d wanted to.

I hated her.

One day, after cutting her hair so short it stuck straight up from her head, I tried to decapitate her. I held her flat feet and banged her giant head against the corner of my desk. When that didn’t work, I grabbed her head and tore it off with my hands. I realize now how angry I was that I couldn’t express my fear, or loneliness. It was there, living inside me all along but I didn’t have the words. I felt sad, emotionally fragile, and invisible when all I needed was to be held and comforted.

Years later, I began playing with a tin dollhouse I’d found at a local antique shop; A ’60s-era Louis Marx “Marxie Mansion” of the same time period in which my birth mother had been sent away to have me. That set the stage for what would become the basis for a visual art project called “The Dollhouse.” I staged the dolls and babies in household situations and photographed them from the outside looking in, just like Dare Wright did in The Lonely Doll. It was a voyeuristic way of seeing a situation from an angle of removal. It gave me the space I needed to examine my adopted life through a different lens. Thanks to those dolls I began to reconstruct and reclaim my identity.

“No one gets a dollhouse to play at reality,” said the child psychologist Erik Erickson, “but reality seeps in everywhere when we play.”

The New Yorker deemed The Lonely DollThe Creepiest Children’s Book,” and it has a cult following, but I don’t find it creepy at all. There’s a controversial scene in the book. Edith is thrown over Mr. Bear’s knee and spanked for being “naughty” for trying on her mother’s lipstick. Keep in mind it was Little Bear who provoked her to wear the lipstick and who wrote, “Mr. Bear is a silly old thing” on the boudoir mirror in that same lipstick.

Adults project eroticism on to that spanking scene (because adults ruin everything), but it was more about punishing a girl for showing her feelings than it was about kink. Why was Edith being disciplined for expressing a feeling and trying to connect with her absent mother? It was Little Bear who deserved that spanking. In my child brain I thought, “If a doll could get spanked for doing something “naughty” like expressing her feelings, then surely I’d better be a good girl and not make anyone angry.”

Writing this essay sparked a memory of my Dad coming into my room one night. He sat on the side of my bed and without introduction said, “Your mother and I have discussed it and we’ve decided you’re too old to spank anymore.” I don’t remember what prompted him to make that announcement, or what he said afterward. I just remember feeling mute and wanting to pull the covers over my head.

It wasn’t until years later, trying to write about my own numb loneliness as an adopted child that I returned to The Lonely Doll and realized its vast influence on my work. The cover of my book is also a doll—she’s my doppelgänger, Little Megan. She was given to me by my friend Elizabeth and had been part of her mother’s collection when she’d been hospitalized for a year with polio. The dolls kept her company.

As I considered the structure of my memoir-in-essays, I needed to tell my story in a fractured way, which is the way we adoptees get our information, either filtered through the fog of someone else’s memory, or obfuscated by secrets and lies. Dare Wright was telling her story through her doll Edith too. She was asking to be seen, truly seen, beyond her beauty and beyond what looked outwardly like a glamorous life.

D.W. Winnicott, a British psychologist, called the dolls, blankets, and stuffed animals children often have as “comfort objects.” These objects helped a child manage the stress of the mother not being there and allowed them build the confidence needed to become independent.

In The Dollhouse I created a world where women rule on a 1:12-scale. It became a portal to imagine myself into my birth mother’s life and her into mine. Playing with these dolls was also a way of managing a thorny relationship with my birth mother while grieving for my long-dead Mom. Comfort objects, indeed.

“Children are innocent before they are corrupted by adults,” said the child psychologist Eric Erickson, “although we know some of them are not and those children––the ones capable of arranging and re-arranging the furniture and dolls in any dollhouse––are the most dangerous of all. Power and innocence together are explosive.”

The Lonely Doll helped me feel seen. It was an influential book that gave me a window into the loneliness brought on by my adoption, and the feelings of numbness and invisibility. I realize now that I don’t need to apologize for my existence.

My greatest desire is to be fully seen.

Megan Culhane Galbraith is a writer, visual artist, and an adoptee. She is the author of The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, a hybrid memoir-in-essays published by Mad Creek Books. Her work was Notable in Best American Essays 2017 and her writing, interviews, and art have been published in HYPERALLERGIC! Severance Magazine, ZZYZZVA, Tupelo Quarterly, Parhelion, Hobart, Longreads, Hotel Amerika, Catapult, and Redivider, among others. She is a graduate and the Associate Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and the founding director of the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Young Writers Institute. Follow Megan on her website or facebookShe can also be found on Twitter as @megangalbraith and on Instagram as @m.galbraith and @the_d0llh0use.

Buy The Guild of the Infant Savior: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

Check out the Lonely Doll book here

 

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

.

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

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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen