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  The Vanished Hitchhiker

January 15, 2021
hitchhiker

By James Gallant

December 1971, a clear, cold late afternoon sky. Maya had good luck thumbing rides after leaving college in Des Moines that morning. She was now within thirty miles of her family’s home in Evansville. But for the last couple hours, she’d been standing by a two-lane road in rural southern Indiana, her backpack at her feet, cars and trucks whizzing by as if she were invisible.

She was making the mandatory trip home for the year-end Xmas shopping and gluttony revels conjured by the retail industry, with the assistance of spectacular imagery explosions: Coca-Cola Saint Nick, the stable scene in Bethlehem, jingle bells silver bells candy canes at the five and dime dreaming of a white Tannenbaum hung by the chimney with care. Scrooge and his entourage of spirits had materialized again with the reminder that anyone who didn’t shop until he or she  dropped one was going straight to hell; and  there was Bob Cratchit and (god-bless-him) Tiny Tim to obscure awareness of the atomized, essentially gratuitous, American family. The seasonal hoopla, whose continuance was guaranteed by cultural inertia, reduced millions to depression.

Maya liked the word “inertia.” Both of its contrasting definitions were appropriate where “the most wonderful time of the year” was concerned. “Inertia,” on the one hand, described tendency of things in motion to continue in motion until impeded by an external force or obstacle. Otherwise, the term referred to stagnation, immobilization, paralysis, and torpidity.

If “inertia,” in both senses, was valuable for describing the year-end holidays, it  described also the American educational system that involved her, superintended by what Paul Goodman called the “school monks”: the creeping sludge of curricula, schedules, and testings valuable mainly for developing habits useful once a person was conscripted into the employment army: showing up on time, sitting still, following  instructions.

She’d encountered recently in a college text, William F.  Ogden’s conception of “culture lag,” a form of inertia. As rural-small town America was undergoing transformation into a predominately urban and industrial society, Ogden observed in 1922 that the altered material circumstances did not prevent people from passing on from generation to generation mores, values, and folkways that had originated in other circumstances. Conflicts between expectations and reality were inevitable. “Culture lag” epitomized Maya’s life experience. She understood immediately what Ogden was saying without even having to read the book in which he had said it.

She’d been warned countless times about the dangers of hitchhiking, but she’d  never had any trouble on the road, and liked thumbing rides. There was a pleasing simplicity about having one’s attention being focused on the simple task of getting from here to there,  temporary liberation from the dubious purposes and artifice imposed on her otherwise.

However, she was feeling a little anxiety at the moment. It was getting late. Dusk came early that time of year. Traffic was sparse now, and the temperature dropping. A cold breeze blew fitfully. She was not far from Evansville, but too far to walk.

A huge full moon appeared on the horizon. From the back pocket of her jeans she withdrew a little red notebook whose cover bore the title she’d scrawled across it:  MANTRAS FOR ALL OCCASIONS. The “mantras” were lists of related words she’d jotted down, mainly synonyms, characterizing aspects of her life experience. In order that the moonlight would shine over her shoulder on the pages, she turned her back to the roadway. Her musings on inertia and culture lag attracted her to the page titled GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS. Listed under it were stereotyped, standard, walking through it, keeping up appearances, pro forma.

She flipped through the pages to PASSE: outmoded, defunct, dated, extinct, fusty, old-hat, out-of-date, faded, lapsed, obsolete. The enigmatic phrase “a posthumous society” which she had written in parentheses at the bottom of that list after encountering Ogden, brought a smile to her face.

A presence in the corner of her eye caused her to look back to the roadway. Approaching slowly, silently, was a  scene from a nostalgic Christmas card: a carriage pulled by four horses. The driver seated on the carriage bench above the horses, reins in hand, wore a top hat. She assumed the coach-and-four were participants in Christmas festivities somewhere, and it did not occur to her that might try to hitch a ride, but the carriage kindly stopped for her, and the door in its side sprang open invitingly.

“Are you going to Evansville?” she called up to the coachman, whose face was silhouetted by the moon so she could not see its expression. He did not reply, but simply extended an arm, and pointed a finger, to indicate his direction, which was toward Evansville. Wherever specifically the coach was bound, she would at least be going in the right direction, better off than where she was.

The coach was egg-shaped. She stepped through the open door. The dark interior was only large enough for a single person. There was no one inside. Who had opened the door? Seating herself, she felt the upholstery grip her shoulders firmly on either side. The door shut.

There was no sound of horses’ hooves or wheels turning on the pavement. It was as if the carriage were stationary, but looking through a narrow horizontal window in the side of the carriage she witnessed the illusory movement of the moon behind skeletal winter tree tops. It was as if the coach were flying.

When streetlights began to appear Maya supposed the coach had reached the suburbs of Evansville. She must inform the driver where she wanted to be let out, since for all she knew the coach might pass through Evansville, cross the Ohio River on the bridge to Kentucky, and continue into the South. Stagecoach compartments in historical films she had seen, had little windows that could be opened to allow communications between passengers and drivers. She felt along the front wall of the dark carriage, but found nothing of the sort. Perhaps she could get the driver’s attention by rapping on a solid surface, but she could not find one of those, either. The interior of the coach was a padded cell. She tried the door handle. It was locked.

Now the carriage was passing homes in residential streets, and when it came to a halt she saw through the carriage window a portion of a house door decorated with the blinking red nose of Rudolph the Reindeer, which could only be the battery-powered seasonal ornament her father installed every December. She had somehow reached home.

The carriage door opened. She got out. Making her way across the lawn to the porch, she watched the carriage continue down the street silently to the dark dead-end where it appeared to vanish.

The house door was unlocked. She entered. From the foyer she could hear a murmur of voices, and the dining room clink and clank of silverware on plates. She went to the doorway of the dining room where her mother and father, with her two younger siblings, were at the table.

“’Lo,” she said.

There was no response.

“’Lo,” she said louder.

Her little brother, the one with artistic skills, was drawing on a paper napkin.

“I expect Maya will be barreling in any time now,” her father said.

“If she didn’t decide to spend Christmas somewhere else,” Mother put in.

“O, she wouldn’t do that,” Dad said.

“I wouldn’t put it past her.”

“Goofy Maya,” her brother Timmy said. “I did a picture of her.” He handed around the table the cartoon drawn on a napkin, Maya glimpsed the caricature which featured her very large ears. The picture stirred general merriment.

“That’s not nice, Timmy,” Mother said.

“It’s a good picture,” Dad said, “but you shouldn’t make fun of your sister. She’s just trying to find herself.”

Maya was reminded of Alan Watts’ remark that people trying to “find themselves” could be trying for a long time, since they were looking for what did not exist.

“With Maya, we just have to batten down the hatches and be patient,” Dad said. “She’s smart, and there’s nothing with her that getting a job, marrying and having a couple kids won’t fix.”

“I’d be happy if she just stopped hitchhiking,” Mother said. “It’ll be the death of her.”

James Gallant’s “La Leona, and Other Guitar stories,” which won the 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature, is now available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. His e-novel, “Whatever Happened to Ohio?” from Vagabondage Press, and a collection of essays and short fiction, “Verisimilitude: essays and approximations,” published by Fortnightly Review press (UK), appeared in 2018. (Gallant has been an online columnist for FR since 2015 (http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/category/verisimilitudes/). His website is: www.jamesgallantwriter.com

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Guest Posts, Self Care, Self Image

Resistant as F*ck, part 2

January 14, 2021
body

This is part two of a two part essay.  Read the first installment here.

By Melody Greenfield

Drew agrees to come back later in the week. In preparation for his arrival, I light some candles, curl my hair in loose, sexy waves, and down the requisite two glasses of wine, just like I’d done at the bar. Just like always. I’m uptight by nature, and a bit of vino helps me to relax the way that, years later, yoga nidra meditation will.

Greeting Drew at the door, I feel confident and uninhibited. I go to give him a long kiss, then lift up his shirt and run my hands against his strong, warm abdomen. He tenses up instantly.

“I don’t usually do things like this—sex on the first date,” he confesses in his smooth, sexy voice as he takes a seat in the overstuffed chair. “And now, I don’t know if we’re good together anywhere but here,” he motions over to my bed.

I sit on the ottoman facing him and reach up for his face. I try to pull it towards mine in an effort to comfort us both, but he backs away again—resisting my touch, my advances.

“Stop trying to distract me with your eyes and your feminine wiles,” he warns me. “I know what you’re doing. Focus for a minute. I want to talk to you.”

I attempt to seduce him the way I do every man—with a look that will be his undoing—but he sees right through me, even though he’s half blind.

“Sex too soon…” his voice trails off. “It ruins things. I mean it.” He is opening himself up to me, but I want him to open me up, instead. I decide that if I refresh his memory on our compatibility in bed, it will prove, somehow, that we work well everywhere. “Seriously,” Drew says. “You’re so beautiful and way too smart to be doing these kinds of things. Why do you do them?”

I get quiet for a minute. “I don’t know,” I sigh, looking down. I refuse to say out loud what I already half-intuit. That I want to feel powerful, desired, sought after. That I hope his physical yearning for me will translate, miraculously, into love. That at the same time, I am too scared to delve into something real, for fear I’ll get hurt. My childhood babysitter was right: I do have walls up all around me.

I can stand naked before this man, but I can’t expose more than flesh. That would be riskier than the unprotected sex we’ve already had. Here in this moment, I don’t want to face reality. Or my patterns. So, I lift my chin back up and give him a puzzled look like I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I suspect though, that by being inside my body, Drew has somehow gained access to all of these answers; to my psyche; to the stories I hold tight in the core of me; to the secrets I bury between my legs. And, of course, this makes him the exception. He may be the first person since the babysitter, who knew me well, to read me in this way. He is that rare soul—unusually perceptive and sensitive to those around him—who picks up on things that others shrug off, just like I’m doing now in hopes of barring him from the truths of me.

It’s not working though. He wants answers. I make my mouth go all pouty and give him my best distracting, sultry stare. Think Blue Steel from Zoolander, only sexier. Maybe that will do the trick, I think, but it’s no use either.

“I’m not going to sleep with you tonight, you know,” he says, disappointed at my blatant attempts at seduction. “We really have to start over if we’re going to do this right,” he continues, softer.

But I have a different idea. Reliant as ever on my sexuality, I wrap my legs around his body and plead for him to touch me. I convince myself that I can make this man love me without so much as knowing me. (To his credit, I should probably know and love myself, first.) I convince myself that a purely sensory experience can open his heart, as I believe it has mine. I convince myself that I’m good at convincing, but again, Drew is the outlier.

“I should go,” he says brashly, the upset visible on his face, in his eye, even in the candlelight.

“Don’t leave,” I plead, my buzz wearing off quickly. I tell him, as I’ve told so many others before him, that I hate it when you go. I yearn, instead, to feel that release, that human connection and contact that drives me. But I don’t share that. Nor do I share that there is a part of me that goes through the motions of sex for the afterward, when the guy pulls you in close and falls asleep with his nose in your hair. Or that listening as a man’s heartbeat slows to a normal rhythm, your ear to his chest, is the closest thing you can get to a real connection with a veritable stranger. Or that watching my partner close his eyes peacefully in my bed is, for me, the ultimate feeling of security.

I never get the chance.

“You left your jacket here,” I inform his message machine and type to his phone mere moments later. “Do you want to come back to get it?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer. Suddenly nauseous, I realize that he isn’t going to reply, that I have sabotaged another potential relationship, alienated another partner, and I am to blame. His forgotten belonging, his fleecy overcoat, serves as the sole reminder of what we shared: the passion, the intensity, the feel-good endorphins I confused for real emotions; the connection I futilely hoped would extend beyond the physical. Alone in the bed we so recently shared, I breathe him in with a pang of regret. If I can’t have him beside me or inside me, at least I can have his sweet scent. I cling to his sweatshirt pathetically, leaving a trail of salt in its soft hood—a realization which makes me think of his manhood and our lovemaking all over again.

***

“We’ll always have real estate in each other’s important zip codes,” Drew tells me some months later, after I’ve informed him of my impending move, and he’s decided there are no hard feelings. I’m not entirely sure what he means by the real estate comment (he often says things that go over my head, and I chalk it up to a mismatch in intelligence—he’s lightyears ahead of me, despite having no formal education beyond the twelfth grade), but he claims it’s a good thing. Something no one can take away from us. Something as resistant as tear stains on a jacket, or so he jokes, after I sheepishly out myself. We’re both giant (albeit good-looking) nerds, and his smart sense of humor endears me to him even more. Fortunately, Drew remains open to texting and talking occasionally. I even manage to convince him that we should celebrate his thirty-first birthday together. He’s not typically one for celebrating, he says, but I insist. I like making a big deal over people to let them know how much I care.

I bring a personalized cake over to his place, a studio apartment in Burbank. I bring his jacket, too. He’s grateful but doesn’t beg me to stay—that night or in the country—as I’d hoped. Instead, after he blows out his candle and makes a wish, he offers to walk me out to my car. I stall by petting Rowdy. That’s a good girl, I say to her, even though I’m totally clueless when it comes to animals. (My parents gave the dog away when I was a baby, and I haven’t had one since.) I’ve always hated leaving, hated being left. But this goodbye is especially tough—especially poignant—because it’s final. In just a few weeks’ time, I’ll be Canada-bound.

His parting words to me: “I really could have loved you, if only you’d let me.”

 ***

I think of Drew occasionally, even now, three-plus years into a happy marriage. That last sentence specifically—more than the smell of him or his touch or the way he saw into my soul— sticks with me. At the time, it gutted me. During quiet, reflective moments, I’ve been known to mouth a silent “thank you” or two into the ether. I like to think he sparked a resistance inside of me—a revolution of sorts. Though we hardly knew each other, despite a physical connection that felt transcendent, even spiritual, the way he cared for my body, loved my body, made me want to care more, too. By the time I met my now-husband Eric, a few months into my international move, I was ready to believe what I now know to be true—that my body is a fucking masterpiece. And it was Drew who laid the groundwork, the foundation.

Ironically, in older homes, like the ones you’ll often find in less-affluent Canadian suburbs, foundations are built of brick as opposed to concrete. Brick—the very material I envisioned when my childhood babysitter told me I had walls up all around me. Drew strengthened the foundation, but he also began to chip away at those walls, brick by brick. Why do you do it? he’d asked about the way I mistreated my body, the implication being: Why don’t you love yourself the way I could have loved you? Maybe it sounds cruel—how he put the onus all on me. But we’ve kept in touch, very loosely, over the years. A “happy birthday” here; a “you were a beautiful bride,” there; and, most recently, an encouraging nod about my writing: “The vulnerability you write with is a gift. More people should be able to read your beautiful words,” he said after clicking on the link to a published essay I’d posted on social media. I know he had the very best of intentions. That he faulted himself for sleeping with me “too soon” as much as he blamed me. We both met our b’sherts—the life-partners we were destined to be with—after we almost-loved one another. It comforts me to think that we launched each other into loves that are an even better fit.

***

If I rewind back to my childhood, I’m confronted by my own fragility: I had a high resistance to, a low tolerance for, heartbreak—despite the hard façade I presented to the world. I feared that men would leave, like my emotionally-absent father already had, so I gave them my body—my amazing, beautiful body, my chef- d’oeuvre—without having to earn it. I was resistant to change this pattern because it had become comfortable, routine. What’s more, I resisted the truth about my own body—its inherent greatness—because acknowledging it would have required a shift: I’d have to start caring for myself the way it cared for me. The way Drew cared. The way Eric still does.

I never had to pray for Eric’s love—he gave it freely, the way I gave myself to the ninety-three men who preceded him. His gestures, his lightness—they reminded me of Drew. Of what might have been but never was. This is intimacy, I thought on our first night together. This is what people do when they care. This is how bodies care. How they love: gently, with small caresses. I want to respect your body, he told me, and he showed me with his actions too, looking deep into my eyes—blue-to-blue. He saw my body as something sacred. As the foundation to build his love upon. The very foundation that Drew had strengthened and simultaneously dismantled.

But I had to do the inner-work necessary to believe him. To believe them: Eric and Drew and all the bedfellows prior. If talk is cheap, pillow-talk is cheaper. Through my Pilates practice, I learned the importance of opposition. In Pilates, we stretch in two directions at once. We press down to go up. Reach forward but pull back. I was learning to be two things at once, too. I could strengthen my bones and muscles—harden my core—without also hardening my insides. I could be as emotionally pliable outside the studio as I was physically pliable on my mat.

In college, I’d written a children’s story about a turtle named Sammy with a tough exterior but sweet interior. I didn’t even know I was writing about myself. A sixth-grade student aptly pointed it out to me after I read the story aloud. (I dabbled in teaching English before ditching the kids and books for adults and Pilates equipment.) Ms. Greenfield—you’re Sammy. You’re the turtle! Strong center, soft heart-center: of course, I was. It was an opposition as true as the Pilates ones I still preach. How obvious it seems now in hindsight.

To some extent, although my walls are low enough for a wolf—big, bad, or otherwise—or a genuine suitor, like my husband, to get in, I wrestle with my Sammy-like tendencies, even today. But I know there’s been a shift, an easing. What protects me aren’t bricks or a turtle shell anymore so much as the physical body I’ve built for myself. (Think: less plaster, more abs of steel.) But it’s not physical perfection I’m after, either. This pièce de resistance is perfect in its imperfections, the stretch marks and scars proof of where I’ve been and how far we—this body and I—have come.

“MELODY GREENFIELD” has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. The LA-native and Pilates instructor has been published under this pseudonym in The Los Angeles Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and forthcoming in HOOT. Her work can also be found under a different name in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and Meow Meow Pow Pow. She enjoys reading CNF, furthering her Pilates practice, and occasionally curling her hair and getting out of stretchy pants to enjoy this pandemic-life with her aforementioned husband. Melody can be found here on Facebook and as @melodygreenfield_writer on Instagram.

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Guest Posts, Self Care, Self Image

Resistant as F*ck, part 1

January 13, 2021

Photo credit: Peak Pilates

This is part one of a two part essay.  Read part two here

By Melody Greenfield

My body is a masterpiece.

Sacred.

A pièce de résistance.  

An amazing doer of all the gerunds: twisting; bending; reaching; rounding; arching; fucking; praying.

But for so long I didn’t regard it as such or even so much as respect it. As a pre-teen and teen, I deprived my body of food. I chided myself for the way I stored fat on my cellulite-ridden thighs. For the way I resembled my pear-shaped, chef-mother. The photos, however, tell a different story: I was thin enough to slide through a fence; I was simply developing faster than other girls my age. What I thought was fat was actually just my new womanly shape (hello, hips!). What I thought was cellulite could only be seen under a microscope if I pinched and squished and otherwise manipulated and contorted my skin. I exercised compulsively (if there was an informercial for it, I owned it), then went through rebellious periods where I was completely sedentary. This pattern continued on into my twenties, when I doubled-down on misusing my body—sleeping with too many men, often unprotected. My type (aside from tall, dark-haired, bespectacled, and Jewish) was whatever was new. Fortunately, my body was resistant…to STIs.

My heart did its fair share of resisting too—always looking to dodge suffering. My childhood babysitter once told me, on a walk around the neighborhood, that I had walls up all around me. I was about seven at the time. Even then, I was suited up in armor to resist hurt and heartbreak. I think she was trying to warn me that, later on, if I continued to keep my guard up, it would be hard to form lasting relationships, which was exactly the point. I pictured a brick structure when she spoke. Think: the indestructible third house in The Three Little Pigs. Impenetrable. Resistant to wolves. I wore those walls proudly for decades because change is hard and scary, hence my resistance to it. The walls kept me safe. If no one could get in, no one could leave, either. Likewise, if my body never changed, I would never become my Jenny Craig- and Weight Watchers-going mother. May Mom never fit into my pants was a secret mantra of mine that I recited even at her thinnest when, on occasion, she tried (and failed) to borrow my jeans.

Judaism teaches that each morning when we wake, we should take the time to appreciate our bodies, aloud. In reciting the Birchot HaShachar blessing, we thank God for the miracle of our bodies—these complex machines that work so hard to keep us alive. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those evenings that I willingly went to bed hungry, ignoring the empty feeling in the pit of my already-flat stomach. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those times that I exercised obsessively—doing jumping jacks on the school yard and then coming home to pop workout videos into my parents’ VCR. Two favorites were The Firm Aerobic Workout with Weights (Volume 3) and Kathy Kaehler’s Strong Legs; she was Michelle Pfeiffer’s personal trainer, and my hope was that she’d make my legs not only strong, but also skinny and cellulite-free. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those nights that I treated my body as so much less than a gift when I gave it away to men who didn’t care, who wouldn’t stay. Your own father doesn’t love you, or so I believed. Why on earth would they?

Since taking up Pilates nearly a decade ago and especially since teaching it for the past six-plus years, I’ve learned to love myself a bit more. To treat this God-given vessel, this container that expertly stores my equally-worthy insides, as something special. To show it a modicum of respect. To celebrate its splendors. Interestingly, in Pilates when we work with the apparatus—complex machines (like our own bodies), designed to stretch and strengthen the limbs—we are often resisting the springs, pushing back against them. Take the Leg Springs series on the Cadillac: We push our legs into the straps, and the attached springs try to bully us—woman versus apparatus—but we don’t let them win. We are the machine. They’re strong, but we’re stronger (especially after years of that Kathy Kaehler routine). Other times, we’re asked to lean into the springs. We allow them to give us feedback. To support us. Take Airplane on the same piece of equipment: We press our feet into the straps and our hands into the metal poles behind us in order to sail through the air. The springs help us levitate. This is how I see my body now—as this magnificent structure that quite literally soars. But what a journey it’s been to get to that place. For far too long, rather than lift myself up, I was the damn bully-spring, fighting myself.

***

December 2013: North Hollywood, California

It isn’t my body but the road I’m focused on as I rush, in my bite-sized electric Chevy, to meet Drew—my date. We’ve been texting for several weeks since both swiping right on Tinder, and tonight we’re meeting face-to-face at a dive bar in North Hollywood, which I’m speeding to straight from a bad day at work. I’m in a new job as an admissions assistant at a small private school, just down the street. This is our busy season with prospective parent tours, so no more leaving the office when there’s still daylight to burn. Stealing a glance in my light-up sun visor, I confirm—to my horror—that my hair, which I’ve deepened for the fall, is having a worse day than I am, even resisting the quick finger-combing I gave it. I also confirm, via the car clock on my dashboard, that I’m seven minutes late for our date. Crap. It always embarrassed me as a kid when my mom ran late, so I try my hardest to value other people’s time.

With the help of street lamps, I can make out a tall, lean Drew—his back against the bar’s entrance—from my parking spot across the street. He’s dressed for the occasion in dark denim and a button-down shirt, which makes me suddenly self-conscious of my own attire: wrinkled corduroys and a sweater that isn’t as figure-hugging as it was when I put it on early this morning. Aware that he’s been waiting for me, I quickly touch up my burgundy lipstick, blot with a tissue from a to-go pack in my purse, check the mirror once more to make sure no tissue bits have stuck on, then dart across Magnolia. The air is brisk in that LA-winter way that feels more like East Coast fall, and I go in straight for the hug (remember those?), hoping to warm up. I’m also convinced that physical contact is the surest way to make my date warm up to me, and it seems to work, too. He pulls me in close, surprising me; so close, in fact, that I can smell the musky cologne on the nape of his neck. When I take a step back, I can see that his pleasant face matches his profile pictures. Delicious, I’m still thinking as we take our seats. I’m drunk on the idea of him—heady and dizzy and floaty-feeling—and this is all before I’ve taken so much as a sip of booze.

Sitting across the table from him, I can finally inspect Drew, close up. He’s thirty to my twenty-nine and six feet tall to my five foot seven. He has even, honey-colored skin and a warm smile. He’s put together, well dressed and groomed. His voice is sexy and soothing, as deep as it is gentle. I find myself admiring his strong, capable hands and the way he effortlessly strings words together. I love an articulate man. What holds my attention most though is not his vocabulary or the timbre of his speaking voice but his eyes. Even in the dimly-lit bar, I can tell there is something off about them—I just can’t quite put my finger on what.

Just then, our waitress whizzes by, creating a brief breeze, and I catch another whiff of that yummy musky man-scent that got my juices flowing and made my head all spinny a few minutes ago. When she swings back around the corner again, I order a glass of Pinot Grigio, then another. Just be normal, I say to myself. Quit staring. I try to distract myself by prattling on nervously about my crappy work day. I’ve had so many of them in this new role, and I’ll have many more before I’m eventually laid off in June, which, I learn, is Drew’s birthday month. Typically, Gemini men and I don’t mix, but I already find myself hoping: Maybe he’ll be the exception. Incidentally, Drew will soon be let go too, only neither of us knows this yet. Nor do we know that sixteen days after his June 9th birthday, I’ll surprise us both by moving in with friends across the globe in Toronto.

In between crisp, fruity sips, I explain that my boss makes me feel incompetent, which, in turn, makes me act incompetently (the ol’ self-fulfilling prophesy at work); I’m worried that too many more days like today—when I was admonished for alphabetizing the touring parents’ nametags in rows instead of columns and slicing the bagels unevenly—and I’ll be sent packing. Of course, I’m right to suspect as much, but Drew does his best to reassure me. Isn’t it possible you’re being too hard on yourself? It’s probably not as bad as you’re making it out to be in your own head (except that it is). I divert his question with humor—“No non-Jewish person should ever correct a Jew when it comes to handling bagels. Am I right?”—then deflect by asking about his job, instead. As it turns out, he’s been a glove designer at the same company for eleven years now.

“Holy shit,” I say. I tell him I admire his ability to stay put and wonder silently if this means he might stick around with me, too.

“I’m blind in one eye,” Drew blurts out. Talk about a non sequitur. “I’m sorry to cut you off. I just needed to say something.”

Crap. He must have noticed me staring. “That’s okay,” I assure him, both about interrupting me and being part-blind. “If you’re willing to share, I’d love to learn more.”

“Well, I wasn’t born blind, but I didn’t get the care I needed, not soon enough anyway. It was too late to save my vision by the time I finally saw a doctor. Please don’t feel bad for me,” he says in response to my doe eyes. “That isn’t why I told you. I just sensed you were wondering about it. It’s no big deal that you were curious. Everyone is.”

I’m ashamed to admit this, but rather than go to a place of empathy or outrage over his negligent upbringing, my mind goes instead to a place of curiosity. To him, I may look concerned, wounded, even horrified, but I’m actually determining where to affix my gaze—that intense look that gets me into exactly the kind of trouble I seek. I’m also worrying that, in staring at his one eye all night, I’ve failed to send out those come-hither signals with my own. I take his hands in mine, tell him I’m sorry about his sucky vision, his suckier parents, and my blatant staring, then invite him back to my apartment to make it up to him.

 ***

Comfortable on my own turf and emboldened by the liquor (which I’m not as resistant to as I like to believe), I begin to kiss Drew. Like my car, the kissing is electric—all tongue and lips. It’s the kind that leaves you lightheaded and that happens when two people either really like each other, have an undeniable physical connection, or both. Hoping for option C, I run my fingers through his hair voraciously. I’m hungry for more of him, greedy for the high that sex brings.

Drew unbuttons my blouse, as I likewise busy myself removing his clothes. This is a man who works with his hands, I think to myself as he expertly undresses me. I am startled, but not revolted, by his many tattoos—a tiger on his chest (my husband has a nearly identical one in the same spot); a symbol of some kind on his left shoulder; a star below his waist; and a quotation written across his ribs—In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king—he tells me later. Gently, Drew licks and breathes on each of my nipples until my entire body warms and responds. He holds me close, and his intoxicating scent—part man, part cologne—fills my nostrils once more. Tenderly, he makes his way down my torso and in between my legs, licking me softly, then sucking on me more aggressively, drawing a figure eight with his tongue.

“Mmmmmmm. You taste so good,” he says, as he reaches his left hand out for my larger breast, and my legs begin to quiver. I pull on his hair, and my body unfolds, submitting to him, wholly. Finally, the build-up becomes too much to bear. I’m cumming!” I shout for the first time that evening but not the last. Before I know it, I am tasting my own sweetness in his mouth and putting his hard condom-less penis inside of me.

“Oh my God,” he says, his hood gently massaging me. “You feel amazing.”

“Yeah?” I ask innocently. I’ve heard this countless times before but never tire of it. Compliments are my crack. I grab onto his firm butt cheeks, moist with perspiration, as he holds onto my face, seeming to see all of me, if only with one eye.

“You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever been inside of,” he whispers sensually in my ear like he knows it’s a portal to my soul. “Your body is perfect,” he goes on as he slides himself in and out of me more gently than any one-night stand has before. Men always praise my physical form—my hourglass figure—but I’m still a few years away from believing that what they say is true.

It does occur to me, for an instant, that Drew is being genuine, but the thought is fleeting, my inner-skeptic loud. I force myself to quiet the noise, to stay present. I kiss him hard, and the shock I feel courses through us both. “You feel amazing too, baby” I tell him, and I mean it. In this moment, as I glance up at him, and we move in sync together, we are utterly connected. It’s like he was made just for me.

“I love fucking you,” he tells me as we near climax, but I hear what I want to hear instead, mentally subtracting one word from his sentence. He is making love to me; he can love me. I am sure of it. In fact, touching me in ways no one ever has before—brushing the wispy, chocolate brown tendrils from my too-pale, too-trusting face; cupping my head with his gentle hands; tickling the tops of my ears; looking deep into me, his thumbs against my now-messy brows—he already is loving me, or so I reason.

Drew places one arm under the small of my back and pulls me in close as he hardens and contracts inside of me. Together, we surrender to the building sensations. I feel hazy and clear-headed all at once. In control and out of it. My heart and groin clamp onto him with equal intensity and, magically, our bodies shudder in unison. He moves to pull himself out of me just then, but I reach for his penis and put it back inside of me, as a rush of semen fills me and makes me whole.

I know it’s dangerous, which is part of the allure. It gives me the kind of stomach-dropping thrill that roller coasters used to until I became terrified of them, without warning or reason. I’ve been on birth control since before my seventeenth birthday, so pregnancy isn’t my concern, but there are diseases out there that, HPV aside, I’ve been lucky enough to dodge. (Thank you, resistant body!) But that’s just it. Taking chances—even big ones—is habit at this point, and I am hooked on it the way I’m now hooked on this beautiful man. On the way he strokes the soft spot behind my ears and uses the tips of his fingers to trace a line from my jaw down to my neck. There is no denying that this is different. That he is different.

We fall into a blissful sleep: Drew’s stomach against my back, his hands wrapped around my small waist (a family trait). Some hours later, he turns towards me—our bodies two crescent moons making a full one—and softly kisses me. It’s late, or rather early, and my date has to leave on account of his pit bull Rowdy. I turn to look at my nightstand and see that the green numbers on the alarm clock read 4:03 a.m. That means his dog has been alone for at least nine hours, and now I’ll be alone, too. He kisses me again on the lips, and this time, it means goodbye.

I don’t feel contemplative or regretful about our night. I’m on autopilot. Groggy and still naked, I take out my list of sexual partners, which by now is thirteen years old and several pages long, front to back. Even in the dark, I can see that my lopsided C-cup breasts are also thankfully round and perky (another genetic win). My nipples, quarter-sized and peachy-pink, harden as my bare feet touch the floor. I’m grateful for the faux marble, which I’ll take over ugly apartment carpeting any day. When I stare down at myself, I don’t love how I look, but when I’m standing upright in front of my closet’s (slimming) full-length mirror, I don’t hate the curves I see, either. Yesterday morning I weighed in at 130.5 pounds—half a pound more than I’d like. I’d jotted that down on a Post-it Note. Now, grabbing a pen from the kitchen, I neatly write Drew’s name down beside the number eighty-five on my ever-growing list. (May my body not follow suit!)

85) Drew M.

I like the way this distinct combination of letters and numbers looks on the page—round and clean—and how his initials, DM, like direct messaging, remind me of the way we first communicated: with words instead of bodies. I like the way committing this act to paper feels—the “8” in 85 conjuring to mind the figure eights he drew on me with his tongue a few hours ago (word-play always makes me smirk), and how writing it down solidifies the experience, makes it real. This really happened. He really happened.

As a teenager and young adult, I kept detailed food journals, cataloguing everything I ingested. A page from seventh grade might have looked something like this:

 

Weekday:

Breakfast: Half a plain bagel and 1 pack of Sour Punch Straws (blue raspberry) from the food truck

Snack: 3 Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine – gave the rest away

After-school: Half a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (blue box)

Saturday:

Breakfast: 2 bowls of Life cereal with nonfat milk

Lunch: 1 Yoplait yogurt cup (peach)

Dinner: Half a chicken tender and a Shirley Temple at Michael’s bar mitzvah

Then, with equal precision, I kept track—am still keeping track—of the men I put into my body: 7 Mikes, 6 Adams, 5 Matts, 5 Jon/John/Jonathans, 4 Dans, 3 Jeffs and a Geoff,

3 Joshes, 21 J-names, 15 M-names, 60 Jews, 40 men from the Interwebs. I like that there’s never been another Drew—just two Andrews and a Dru surname. As I play the night’s happenings back in my head, I shiver. I need socks, and another dose of this man.

To Be Continued…

“MELODY GREENFIELD” has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. The LA-native and Pilates instructor has been published under this pseudonym in The Los Angeles Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and forthcoming in HOOT. Her work can also be found under a different name in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and Meow Meow Pow Pow. She enjoys reading CNF, furthering her Pilates practice, and occasionally curling her hair and getting out of stretchy pants to enjoy this pandemic-life with her aforementioned husband. Melody can be found here on Facebook and as @melodygreenfield_writer on Instagram.

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Guest Posts, Self Image

“Deaf” Does Not Define Me

January 10, 2021
deaf

By Challis Popkey

Jen Pastiloff writes about her “undue shame” about her hearing loss. I also feel shame for my hearing loss, but I still feel like mine is due. Like it was my fault.

I overdosed on heroin, cocaine, and benzos on Valentine’s Day 2017. I was living in New York City and was not breathing, no pulse, when my boyfriend found me. I’d been ‘down’ for an unknown period of time when the paramedics arrived. I was 0-0-0 — unconscious, no breathing, no heart rate —  and it took them 20 minutes to restart my heart. My body had given up. It quit. I died.

They wouldn’t tell my dad if I was alive or dead when he called the hospital. He flew out from Boise, my mom from Hawaii, and my brother from LA to spend 3 weeks at my side, hoping, praying that when they removed the ventilator I would breathe again. On day four, a CCU surgeon told my parents that I had a 0.5% chance of surviving.

I did.

I woke up with this terrible ringing in my ears, and honestly, I was confused as to why everyone was beaming. I found out my lifestyle was over; I’d lived on my own since 18 and now at 24 I was to move back into my dad’s pink house on the corner? Not to mention learn to sit up, talk, and walk again. They called me the “miracle baby” – and I couldn’t grasp why everyone was celebrating. I felt ungrateful for my second chance at life. I flew back to Boise from New York two weeks later, now moving slowly and with a walker (which I proudly tossed when I saw my friends awaiting me at the gate in Boise).

Still, the ringing. I couldn’t hear what the doctors were telling me about my condition, the wound vac, compartment syndrome, medically induced coma, overdose… I felt unable to participate in conversations about my own body, my health. Conversations about my future, was I going to rehab? Was I a drug addict or was this just an experiment gone wrong? What about my career in journalism (or my server gig at Henry’s, I had been fired at this point from a PBS station in New York).

I saw an audiologist in April 2017 and learned that I had lost 70% of my hearing in both ears (actually, 73% in the left). They attributed this to the lack of oxygen arriving to the cilia in my ears — I’ve since come to think of this as flowers wilting, shriveling up, dying due to carelessness, lack of love and attention.

My first pair of hearing aids were over the ear. It was late May when I got them and despite the heat I refused to wear my hair up. I felt such shame about my hearing loss, and I still do.

Since then I’ve gotten a pair of in-the-ear aids. Only recently have I started to wear my hair up at work. Still, on first dates or when I know I will be hugging someone, I take them out. I don’t want that awkward buzzing feedback that happens when someone gets too close, like rubbing against a microphone. The questions, “Did you hear that?” “Are you a robot?” “What’s that noise?” Because then I would have to explain that I am deaf. So instead I pick up about 30% of what they’re saying to me, nodding and smiling when I don’t hear them and I can’t read their lips. Do you think they get it anyways, that I can’t hear?

“What’s that?” is my placeholder for, “Can you repeat that, please? I am hard of hearing and I don’t have my hearing aids in because I am ashamed of my hearing loss.” Three years, one rehab, twelve steps, good and bad therapy, and now a career as a therapist later, I still feel like it’s my fault. I am embarrassed to ask for subtitles on TV with new people, people who don’t know why I need them. If I’m with someone who knows, I might wear those headphones in movie theaters.

I want to believe my shame is undue. And I AM grateful for this second chance. I currently work at a women’s drug and alcohol rehab as a therapist, working towards my MFT licensure. When I tell my story I have included a few times that the overdose also caused hearing loss, and my clients don’t gasp or treat me differently. If anything, they speak more clearly. They look at me when they speak so I can read their lips.

People often ask me what it was like on the other side. I wish I had an answer. There is shame around that, too. I literally died – no heartbeat, no breathing for untold minutes – and I don’t have anything to report. My memories of the weeks leading up to the overdose are blurred, shifting, a mirage. They change over time, and are ultimately unreachable.

I remember this narrow basement pharmacy where we bought Q-tips and insulin syringes and how I pleaded with my boyfriend that morning to “let me try it straight.” He didn’t want to, but after doing coke all night I can be quite convincing. I remember shooting heroin that morning, watching as the blood punched up into the syringe, knowing we had a hit. It felt psychedelic, warm, safe.

Later that day, just hours before I died, I called my father from the sculpture garden at 110th and Amsterdam. The February sun was holding me close, whispering, imploring, “You like this, you like life.”

That was the last thing I heard.

Challis Popkey is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist based in Santa Barbara, California. She grew up in Idaho and her love for wild places and adventure have been her steadfast companions. She is an ultrarunner, running coach and wood-fired pizza aficionado. Challis can be found on Instagram at @challypop and online at www.challispopkey.com.

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Song Looking for a Tune

January 8, 2021

By Travis Stephens

“What’s the matter?’ she asked for the third time in as many nights.

Tonight he was ready to say “nothing,” knowing it would sound half hearted. Low down half hearted, a song would say. Roman rolled those words around in his mind, probed them with his tongue. Can’t make it rhyme, can’t make it carry.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with you,” Susan said. “You’re in one of your moods.” They had moved into this place two years ago, glad for a house close to the city park. Now Susan could walk out with the dog and do a clockwise loop on the walking path. There were a lot of dogs in the neighborhood and Susan waked with a tight knot of Labs, spaniels and standard poodles. Roman’s dog, an otherwise proud Walker hound, had taken to whining and sometimes peeing in anticipation of the morning walk. Roman felt embarrassed for the dog.

That dog had been the impetus and star of his second best song, the one picked up by that handsome Nashville singer married to the Australian actress. Not that the singer needed a hit, but got one anyway. He put a little Oklahoma onto the song when Roman had wrote it with a Kentucky state of mind. A little moonshine and banjo around a hound who left him with his estranged wife. Nashville had run a fucking dobro over the best finger picking Roman ever tried. The royalty checks helped ease the pain, but goddamnit anyway.

His first hit, the song he was known for, was told through the eyes of a little boy whose father drove a truck “steering big wheels of sadness” for days at a time. A tear jerker in the best country tradition, with mandatory slide guitar wail. It ended with an uplifting final message.

“Where did that come from?” Susan asked, when he had played it for her.

“I dunno. Just did.”

“I don’t see how. Your Daddy teaches economics at Saginaw Valley.”

“It’s not about me, Sue.”

“It’s weird.”

Roman had been teaching composition at the two-year university and sending free verse poems out to literary magazines. He had shared the song with Debbie Garnet, a folk singer he had grown up with. Dated, briefly, too. Debbie knew someone who knew someone and when the publication contract arrived in the mail Roman thought it for one of his poems. The call from Jackie followed shortly after.

“Hey, bub,” Jackie said in her whiskey and Diet Coke voice, “you probably need a better agent. I got you covered right here.”

“I don’t have an agent?”

“You just book shows on your own? Oh, honey child, time to move out of your parents’ garage.”

“I don’t do shows. I’m not part of a band. I work teaching English and composition full time.”

“You’re just a Kris Kristofferson, ain’t you?”

“More like a John Moreland.”

“I don’t even know who that is.”

On Jackie’s advice he had rented a small studio and reduced his teaching to part-time.  He attended a songwriter’s workshop in Nashville, which Roman found to be exactly like any other writing workshop, full of snark and self congratulation. Jackie took him on a round of the smaller recording companies.

“Let me do the talking,” she said.

Roman paged through the press releases she was passing around.

“Wait, I’m not from Texas.”

“Hush. Everybody is from Texas. Just talk slower when anybody asks you something.”

“I’m not a trucker, either.”

“Don’t you worry about it. Nobody reads these things anyway.”

Afterward he was glad to go home. Nashville seemed  enamored with slight young singers with oversized guitars. These singers, usually attractive blond women, were guarded by a coterie of executives and makeup artists. Roman heard his songs when they emerged from a radio and sometimes struggled to recognize his writing. It was why they lived across the line, in the corner of Kentucky that abutted Arkansas. “Whooee,”Jackie, said, “why you want to live over in that cracker barrel?”

“I just like it, Jackie. We can afford a nice house there. Besides, it’s only a few hours away.”

“If you say so.”

Today Roman had taught class from eight to eight-fifty and had spent the rest of the day in his studio. The painter who had the adjoining studio had been spraying fixer on a series of abstract landscapes so Roman was forced to open his windows. Eventually he moved a stool onto the tiny galvanized steel fire escape and sat out there. It overlooked a lot of gravel, grass and the bones of a burnt out garage. As Roman watched a cat slunk along the cinder block wall. It moved with a sneaky furtiveness that spoke of having done some terrible wrong.

Roman strummed the guitar and mouthed a series of phrases that contained “cat”, “heartbreak”, and “night” which eventually tuned into a few good lines about tomcatting into the morning light. Not bad.

But that was it. No focus. A few words surrounded by daydream. These were full of jingles and carried by cliché. He was strumming when he heard movement behind him.

Stuart was a self taught painter who, Roman suspected, lived illegally in his studio. That couch looked too slept in. It wasn’t like Stuart had a string of models he bed. The artist was a pear shaped man with a mean set of eyes. He’d stepped into Roman’s open door and was wearing a full face shield. Roman saw him peel it off.

“Must be nice,” Stuart said.

“What?”

“To work with nothing. No paints or canvas. Man, I got thousands of dollars tied up in oil paints and gesso. You can just sit with a guitar.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is.” Susan had framed one of his songs and it hung on the wall. Stuart tossed his thumb at it. “What is that, two chords?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You’d think all country songs would already been done. All the possibilities run through. We have been painting for hundreds of years. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. Rembrandt. You could go back to the cave painters. Thousands of painters. It’s art that never ends.”

“Listen” Roman said, “How much longer you going to be spraying over there? You about give me a headache.”

“I just did the first coat,” Stuart said. “Two more coats to go.”

Roman fled to his car. Tossed the guitar in the back and drove the opposite direction of home. He wasn’t hungry. Before he went two miles he saw a ROAD WORK AHEAD, followed by WAIT FOR FLAGGER. He drove slowly past yellow behemoths grubbing in the dirt. Roman stopped when a flagger in a safety vest stepped in front of him. She held her palm toward him like she could fend off a songwriter in a half ton of steel.

She stood in the road a yard ahead of his radiator with a flag held lazily horizontal. The flagger wore scuffed work boots and jeans, a gray t-shirt. Her hair tried to lift the hardhat. County tomboy. Roman tried to imagine what someone like that would say when she came home after a day of standing on a road shoulder. How was your day? Exciting. Today I saw a red sports car. Kids on a bus waved to me. How was my day? Like any day just outside the grave.

Were there any songs about flaggers? He couldn’t think of one. Most country songs glorified the manly pursuits—ranching, trucking, building stuff or knocking it down. Roman tapped on the wheel, playing with a loose string of words that might be coaxed into a rhyme. Flag, nag, brag. Wave, crave and save. Maybe wave the flag and tie it to the US flag. Checkered flag.

Darlene, he decided. Dar—leen. Like darling. She lived in a trailer—no, she lived on a little place just big enough for a horse. Dreamed of carrying the flag on horseback like she used to do at the rodeo, flag over her shoulder, proud and tall with a Stetson instead of a hardhat, a pearl buttoned shirt with those western yokes. Big smile for the crowd. let’s give her a hand, folks, Miss Darlene of Abilene….

“Hey.” The flagger was at his driver’s side window. She was not smiling. She placed her hands on her hips. “What’s the matter with you? When I lower the flag it means you can go. Okay?” He heard her say “Dumbass” just under her breath.

Roman stepped on the gas a bit too hard. Spat gravel at the car behind him and toward the flagger. Damn. So long Darlene. So long. Nobody sings about flaggers and now he knew why.

Travis Stephens is a tugboat captain who resides with his family in California. An alumni of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, recent credits include: 2River, Sheila-Na-Gig, Hole in the Head Review, GRIFFEL, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Tangalooma Dreaming

January 1, 2021

By Nicole Adair

Breeze, breeze, breezes. Lotti sat on a blue, plastic seat on the top level of the Tangalooma Flyer, as the cool morning air rushed past her. For a moment she closed her eyes and just breathed in the smell and salt of sea water, her shoulder-length brown hair whipping around her. She could hear the propellers underwater alongside the boat shooting out frothy bubbles of the churning ocean. They left two long strands of white, which floated on the surface behind the ferry before dissolving back into the ocean, as the blue and white aluminum catamaran bounded over Moreton Bay.

Lotti had missed the ferry with seating at the front. From where she sat facing backwards, she could still see the Sandgate mud flats on the mainland and the urban sprawl of greater Brisbane. The ferry terminal, where the river met the ocean in brown, brackish water, the muddy, beige beach extending out on either side, had already disappeared from view. Once out of the docks, the ferry had picked up speed over water that was already bluer. But it was nothing yet like Moreton would soon be, with its shimmering translucent turquoise and the bleach-blonde sands that ran around the entire shoreline of the island. Here it was wild and deep, and the ferry’s dramatic jumps over the surface made it clear that the ocean wasn’t flat like it seemed from above. Only from the moving boat could Lotti tell that the bay’s waves, though they would never break on the sandbank, were still monstrous. Once she got to the island, to Issa’s house in the Tangalooma hinterlands, she would look out at the water below, still and glimmering, like an open lake, and the island would be transformed into a lake of land itself, wrapped inside the calm and cool and meditative expanse of blue.

On the seat beside Lotti, two little girls, already dressed in their togs, with thick white stripes of sunblock painted on their cheeks and noses, scrambled over the empty plastic in a game that involved jumping to the ground in sync with the bounds of the Flyer. Lotti moved her small duffel bag onto her lap to free up space for the girls. The older one began the game, showing her sister, who was younger maybe by a year, how to jump. She landed with her hands and knees smacking the painted metal floor of the boat as the Flyer jumped upwards. From the ground, she grinned at her younger sister who prepared to follow suit.

Out of her peripheral vision Lotti could see their mother, a young women, possibly in her early-to-mid-twenties, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a tight-fitted white polo shirt, and cropped denim shorts. She inattentively read Cosmopolitan Australia, but kept one eye on the girls who jumped from the plastic seat one last time and then changed games, now running out toward the back of the boat to peer over the side. Lotti watched their small bodies collide energetically with the railing. They began to point knowingly out toward the now horizonless water, pointing to things that Lotti couldn’t see, things that were just for the two of them. Lotti felt the urge to glance back at their mother. But she resisted, realizing in the moment that she didn’t want to risk making eye contact with her; she felt that the girl might see through her, that she might somehow guess and then judge what Lotti had been doing for the past few months, how dangerously she had been playing with fire. Feeling a wash of anxiety–also for how quickly the seventy-five minute trip would take to Tangalooma and for what she would have to say to Issa once she got there–Lotti looked back out over the water.

The mid-morning sun was beating down on the water’s surface. At sunset, the rays would flicker and catch like fire on the waves. But with the sun now already high in the sky, the ocean looked like a giant pool of rolling crystals. Lotti adjusted the light jacket she wore over her long halter dress and thought of how the air would be hot on the island, especially up in Issa’s tin-roofed home that had no air-conditioning, that was thick and stifling in the dead of summer. Only when the wind was blowing inland would the breezes up there rush stronger, the draft through the house bringing with it the air that spun up from the crests of the waves on the rough side of the island. Tangalooma had a quiet, understated temper, but it was on the east coast that the Pacific Ocean was always raging.

She turned in her seat toward Kooringal, the most southern tip of Moreton Island and the meeting point of bay and wild ocean, where the island seemed to collide with the water that reached the shore from so many angles, where the sand bank ribboned out for kilometers, just barely contained beneath the water. She couldn’t see it yet, but she knew where it would be when the color of the evergreens came into view. She already imagined the light sands swirling with the aquamarine blues of the shallows, where you could lay, cooled by the water but warmed by the air, sunbathing both in the sea and out on the sand itself. But Lotti regretted the fact that she had no front view because it meant that she couldn’t watch for the iconic sand walls of the island’s west coast to appear on the horizon line, as the rest of it came into view, the tall dunes that marked the midpoint between the Tangalooma Island Resort and the Wrecks.

She thought about the Wrecks: fifteen rusted metal ships sunk decades before, now lying just off the coast, a strong swim away from the beach, an artificially natural habitat for fish and coral. They’d named the wrecked vessels after wildlife and small Australian towns: Groper, Morwong, Kookaburra, Platypus II, and Uki, Maryborough, Bermagui. For a second, Lotti couldn’t remember where she’d learned their names–or the very fact that they had names at all. But then she remembered and swallowed. It was Issa, of course. Issa always knew the history of artifacts and monuments, random sites and stories about South East Queensland, and she loved to tell Lotti stories each time she visited the island, somehow bringing each story back to Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa, as they would always say.

And then their adventures–Issa always had a new one. Lotti couldn’t help but let her mind remember how many experiences Issa had given her: Kooringal in the four-wheeler, Blue Lagoon on quad bikes, a hike up Mount Tempest the month after the wildfire stripped it bare, a run on the beach that continued on for miles in the middle of one of Moreton’s wild summer hailstorms, learning how to snorkel at the Wrecks, to swim out from the beach when the tides changed. Her memories of snorkeling she would treasure the most. She thought then of Issa checking her printable, salt-stained timetable of the tides, as they stood on the shore looking out at the ships, mask and fins in hand.

“Ten minutes,” Issa had said, sitting back down on the towels they’d laid out on the sand.

“Then what?”

“Then we can go.”

“Why ten minutes? Does it make that much of a difference?”

“When the tides change,” Issa told her, “the current is completely still for about five minutes. We won’t get swept out into the bay or, you know, down into the propeller of the Tanga ferry.” She held Lotti’s gaze for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing.

“Fine, you queen of tides,” Lotti replied playfully, “my life is in your hands for the next fifteen minutes.”

Issa kissed her on the cheek and said, “Yes, once we get out to the wrecks, you’re on your own.” And they laughed again.

When they finally geared up and headed into the water, Lotti got a thrill, as she did every time, not just from seeing the small, white fish that darted through the shallows, but from the sand bank’s drop off, which angled downward steeply for some time until it turned into dark blue and then almost to black, and Lotti couldn’t see a thing through her mask as she swam. Only the white specks, like snowflakes, of sea dust were visible, and the translucent bubbles that her arms made in front of her as they pulled the water back to push her body forward. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of Issa’s dark arms and neck and torso gliding through the water beside her. Often Issa tried to speak to her through the mask, pointing to fish that she had seen, exclaiming everything delightedly to Lotti in an incomprehensible gurgle. But Lotti’s eyes always missed them, as the fish darted from the surface. Concentrating on her breathing, she couldn’t turn her head fast enough to spot them against the ocean darkness.

When Lotti and Issa finally reached the ships, the metal walls and hulls and rusty pieces of cabins and chains and door frames came into sudden view sitting beneath the water. Even the ocean floor would inexplicably become visible, and Lotti would examine with joy the creamy sand color that was always covered in schools of brightly colored fish darting in and around the coral or floating with the rushes of waves, which came with every passing motor boat that spun up on the surface. On special days, they saw the sea swarming with packs of wobbegongs. Speckled with patterns of orange and yellow, the carpet sharks moved quickly but gently over the sea floor, and Lotti always felt lucky whenever she saw them.

A shriek from the Flyer pulled her back to the present. Hanging onto the railing, the little girls had begun a new game. The older sister pulled the younger’s hat down over her eyes so it covered half her face. Then, laughing, she cupped her hands to yell against the wind something into her sister’s ear. The younger immediately pulled up the hat, pointed out over the water, and laughed wildly, gleefully in return. Then the Flyer bounced over a particularly high wave, and the girls swung around, one hand still gripping the railing but their bodies smacking against the metal.

Lotti’s face flushed with maternal anxiety. The sun pricked her arms, and she looked around for the mother. She no longer felt self-conscious but rather indignant, a little self-righteous, about the mother who was mindlessly, it seemed, letting her daughters be thrown around by the boat. But when she saw her, the young mother, she was waving calmly at the two little girls, a relaxed, unfazed expression on her face. The girls were waving back, jumping up again with grins on their faces. They giggled to each other and turned back to the railing.

Lotti looked away over the water. She felt annoyed at the mother, at how unrealistically collected, how unworried, she seemed. But then her eyes focused, and she saw the green strip of island coming into view on the horizon. They were forty-five minutes away. Lotti knew that Issa would be standing on the jetty already, holding lilies and wearing sandals, her toenails painted royal blue, her legs long and brown and wrapped in a sarong at the hips. The blue bikini she wore would match the color of her nails, and she would have no shirt to cover the bikini triangles that held her breasts. Issa would wave and smile exaggeratedly as soon as she saw Lotti on the ferry, and the dimples on her cheek would deepen. Lotti could picture her long braids, which Issa often pulled back into a thick ponytail, and the half-moon birthmark tattooed by her eye.

Lotti’s face flushed again, but now for a different reason. She didn’t want any of this anymore. She didn’t want Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa. She didn’t want the “escape” from real life that was no longer working. She had felt it on her last visit, the claustrophobia of the perpetual holiday, the fear and guilt that came with her attempts to flee the real world. There was something tight and bitter about the idea of Lotti and Issa forever. The mantra that she had repeated so often in her head, as a way of getting through her other life, had begun to sound dull. As fun as her memories were, she could barely tolerate the thought of having to continue actually living them. The rhythm of Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa battered her mind, now an involuntary chorus inside her head.

This trip was the last time she would see Issa at Tangalooma, she had determined. It had to be. She had felt it on her previous visit and increasingly since then, the need to catalyze her life, the real one, in some way. She could no longer pretend that she had no other life at home in Brisbane. She had a family. Children of her own. The sun was suddenly burning Lotti’s arms, and she felt sick thinking about the affair that she’d carried out for so long, how all this time she’d been playing with fire. How she was risking it all for something that would only ever be an illusion.

But then, she thought, maybe Issa sensed this too. The last time Lotti had visited, Issa had pressed her about the time she spent away.

“I wanted to work on our canvas,” she said, “but you missed spring.” She had twisted around from where they sat on the floor of the living room, where Lotti had been mediating on the yoga mat. Issa lifted a wooden box from the couch.

The box was an old miniature desk for a toddler, the surface small and angled on a slant. Issa had decorated it a while back when the two first met. Eyes from photo magazines cut out and pasted all over its top and sides, then covered over with the clear paste used for paper-mâché. The box lid was coming loose from its hinges.

Lotti took the box from her, scooted backwards on the mat. Issa came beside her to watch her lift the lid. Inside, filled to the brim, just feathers and feathers and feathers. Tiny plumage, whites and blacks and blues. Many blues, some like the royal blues Issa always wore, others greying, others almost purple. They all came puffing out. Some were blowing with the breeze. Others just swayed gently, but stayed inside the box.

“There are so many.” Lotti said. “I can’t believe you remembered to collect them all while I was gone.”

“Of course I remembered.” Issa frowned. She paused. “I always remember.” Then she looked Lotti straight in the eye. “I am always going to remember.”

Lotti glanced up at her. “Well,” she started, trying to be chipper about it, “there are so many. We’ll have so many to work with.”

But Issa wouldn’t let it go. “I had a lot of time.” She shook her head. “I didn’t want to keep working on it without you.”

Lotti inhaled sharply, but before she could reply, Issa stood, her face barely expressing the unspoken words between them, and headed into the studio. Lotti followed her in and watched as Issa pulled back the giant sheet that covered their canvas that leaned against a set of chairs, a makeshift easel. It stood by the window on top of a thick plastic floor cover spattered in paint splotches.

“You really did keep it right where we left off, didn’t you?” Lotti said, trying to laugh good-naturedly and examining the canvas. It was their ocean masterwork, a thirds of the way covered already with the small feather puffs glued as close as possible, marked by the longer feathers, some white and some black, of cockatoos. Those were the shadows that dipped and rose with each wave on the ocean. But most of the feathers were so small, some even the size of half a finger, and even the tiny ones were always colored. Lotti and Issa would dot the small white keratin strips of each feather with a cue-tip of glue and then softly pressed the feathers into the canvas surface. The smaller feathers made the rough texture of the canvas even more noticeable.

“It’s all ready for us to jump right in,” Issa said, pulling up their two chairs in front of the canvas and setting the box of feathers on a small table beside the chairs.

“Shall we ease into it?” Lotti said, trying to laugh, to keep the mood light. “Maybe we can start tomorrow.”

Issa dropped her arms, her brow furrowed. She swallowed and turned to look at Lotti. “We have a lot of work to do.” Her voice was filled with anxiety, annoyance, desperation. “You were gone so long… if we want to get through all the feathers I collected, we need to start straight away.”

“Issa…”

“Don’t you want to continue the artwork?”

“Of course I do, but…”

Issa shook her head and, without another glance in Lotti’s direction, she grabbed an empty paint bucket from the floor of the room. “I’m going to gather the macadamias before they all start rotting.” And she left, the bucket swinging in her hands.

Lotti heard the screen of the front door squeak open and then clang shut.

“You’re it!”

Lotti looked around the on the ferry as the little girls ran past her.

“No, you’re it!” The older sister tagged the younger on the shoulder who squealed as they changed direction, running between the rows of plastic seats that lined the ferry balcony.

Then Lotti heard another voice. “Ava, Aria!” The young mother was standing up now. “We’re almost there. Come back up your things.”

Lotti looked back toward the island. It was true, she could see Tangalooma coming into view. She could make out the tall palms that stood at the edge of the sand and the townhouse villas that lined the beach behind them, though they were mostly just a wash of white and blue amidst the dark green trees. Behind the first row of residences was the taller resort complex, built partly into hillside. In ten minutes they’d be docking at the jetty, and Lotti would see Issa’s face appear, her black sunglasses blocking her eyes, her black braided hair bleaching ever so slightly in the sun, the light kissing her face.

It was almost time, and Lotti thought of everything she wanted to say. That their feather artwork was great, but that she needed to find a way to be creative more regularly, in her real life; that their adventures were thrilling, but that too, she needed to learn how to make a part of her who she was back in the real world.

She imagined Issa’s cold response. “This is real life, Lotti.”

And Lotti would pause because she wouldn’t know how much to tell Issa. In her momentary cowardice, she would concede a little. “You know what I mean.”

Issa’s suspicion would appear in the scrunch of her eyes. She would cross her arms and say, “Not really. No, I don’t know.”

In the imaginary conversation, Lotti was still searching for the words. “Come on, Issa. You know what I mean. This is…”

“This is what? What is it?”

“A holiday… a special time, outside of time… it’s an escape from the real.”

Issa’s face would get tighter and darker. “I’m not real?”

Lotti would try to laugh, but even then she knew it wouldn’t be convincing. She could say, “Of course you are.” But then she’d be thinking that, no, Issa wasn’t real. She wasn’t real enough. “Not anymore,” she would say instead, letting her arms fall limply at her sides. And then she would have to watch Issa’s face fall too in the confusion and the upset and the anger that would take a hold of her entire body.

And it wasn’t just that it wasn’t real, but that it was too risky. She was risking her own children, playing with fire. She needed to be there for them, no matter how unhappy she was.

The Flyer was pulling up to the jetty now. Beside Lotti on the boat, the two little girls had been calmed. At their mother’s command, they were threading their arms into the loops of their backpacks. The young mother was rubbing another layer of sunblock onto their toes, then slipping back on their thongs.

Lotti reached down to the blue plastic seat for one of their hats. “Don’t forget this.” She passed it to the young mother.

The girl took the hat, looked up at Lotti, and smiled. “Aw, thank you so much. You must be a mother too, eh?” She shook her head with a laugh. “They’re a wild bunch, aren’t they?”

Before Lotti could reply, the little girls ran off toward the front of the ferry, racing each other to be first in line, their mother following closely behind.

Lotti watched them step off the boat onto the docks. She wasn’t searching for Issa’s face in the crowd, but thinking for the first time ever that this place was still real. It had always been real and would always be. Suddenly she could picture herself out in the real world, here, coming back with her son, with her own two daughters. The four of them renewing this place together. She could already see it, each of them gripping each other’s hands as they stepped out onto the island.

Nicole Adair is an Australian-American author, composer, and game designer based in New York City. She received her MA in English-Creative Writing and her PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Adair has worked closely with authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Vikram Chandra on long- and short-form fiction that explores themes related to Australia, climate change, and the different mediums of art (image, text, video) as tools of storytelling. Her fiction appears in World Literature Today.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

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Guest Posts, poetry, Winter

A Winter Spell for the Changeling

December 31, 2020
ice

By Sandra LeDuc

Turn into the slide.

It’s the first thing you learn about driving on ice.

Do not pump your brakes.

Do not panic and overcorrect

lest you send the car into an unrecoverable spin.

You were probably going too fast for the conditions.

Because what the ice wants, it gets

a frozen wave seeking its shore.

You are a pebble, turned, lifted, spat out

against guardrail, snowbank, ditch, over the embankment down into a ravine

snow dusting the hood.

Or maybe you are flung into unending light.

Turn into the slide.

Incantation, blessing, plea to the unknown.

Strength in your hands as you let go of the wheel.

You are drifting.

Sandra LeDuc is a queer writer, adoptee, and musician. Originally from Minnesota, she lives in Seattle with her wife, two cats, and a dog named Noodge. Her work has been published in The Rumpus and Entropy. She can be found on Instagram as @sandrainseattle

Recommended Reading:

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Pay Attention

December 30, 2020

By Tuni Deignan

pay attenton
be astonished.
tell about it.
-mary oliver

I have a delicate, black on black on black, layered, lace and lace-y, tulle and silk and satin cocktail dress. There is an overlay of trimmed triangular lacing. It flares just a bit, from my lower rib cage to the middle of my thigh where it rests. The torso is a blocked bodice, feminine, sensual, quiet. Above the bodice is sheer black fabric hinting at a strapless effect and its exquisitely frayed neckline is demure, sweet and scooping at the nape, a proper width from shoulder to shoulder ends just at the outsides of either end of my collar bone; seductive silent shoulders.

Usually, I wear this dress with a four-inch dark brown stiletto slip into, with a satin pine green and burgundy tapestry slipper, open-toed, it ties up ultimately with a phat fat burgundy bow at its arch. Gorgeous. Fun. Unexpected.

(pay attention, be astonished, tell about it)

Items of nostalgia stay hung in my closet and folded away in my drawers. The shelf life of my belongings has much more to do with my soul than fashion. In the bottom of my dresser’s fourth drawer, hides a full-length silk night gown, skinny shoulder straps, cut on the bias (like my third wedding dress) an ivory colored nightie with water-colored pink pansies large and splashed also on the bias at random; it’s stained. I wore this night slip to the hospital before delivering my last-born son, Lucky. I’d had plenty of opportunities laboring and delivering in a paper and cotton snap-up-the-back sack and shrugged off the nurse’s suggestion to change into one as wouldn’t I be blood staining my beautiful nightie? That’s my baby’s blood, that’s my blood, we’re doing a miraculous thing here, I thought, I’m good. The nightgown stayed.

Sometimes, I’ll give someone the shirt off my back. I love your shirt, she’ll say, my friend. And before she has taken her next breath I’ve taken it off and handed it to her (I’m wearing a leotard or something underneath), and she looks at me like I’m silly, and sweet and but of course you’re joking but no I’m really not joking because if you can feel the soul I attach to my t-shirt, and that feels special for you, then please, I am, sweet friend, all in. I send attention. She smiles astonished. Let’s.

The last time I wore the delicate, bodice hugging, demure yet inviting black dress was four years ago, almost to the day: August 29, 2016; the day my brother eulogized his youngest daughter, in his backyard. We all stood around his small pool, in South Florida, numb, cracked, broken. We listened to my sister play a movement of Bach on her flute, drifting and breathy and hollow and full, on breezes, the palm fronds receiving her; nodding alongside the notes and sorrows. The sun was hot. My cousins flew in. I bought floral arrangements: tropical jewels potted and dotted the ledges surrounding the circle of mourners. Tropicals, like my brother’s daughter, Gabrielle Esther:  wild, intense, whimsical, dream catching. Grandparents had been assisted to their chairs in the front. Sisters of the deceased, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends bowed their heads, struggled for words, wept.

I wore my black dress. I wore it to feel loved.

My brother spoke and invited our embrace. We paid attention. The day before, the tattooist carved Gabi’s tattoos into my arm and torso, into my brother’s, and his daughters and my daughters, all of us together, at the parlor she favored. We stung, our arms and torsos. By the pool, as the winds curled and held my brother’s grief, it began to lightly rain. In the back I stood eyes wet, watching slow drops plop onto my black-fairy dress. The timing was good, the service was closing, the family began to stand up from their chairs. The rain kept coming, just slowly, and sweetly, no one paid attention. The family started moving inside toward the food.

In that moment, my dress billows upward gaily next to my hips. In that moment, because I have kicked off the burgundy London heels, my arms are wings bent at my elbows, my elbows pitch northward toward the sky, my chin lifts and I am suspended, airborne, cartoon-like, briefly hovering over my brother’s saltwater pool. The raindrops slot my nostrils as I inhale, mixing with the salty tears releasing from my eyelashes. I search for the sun and greet the rain hoping.

Silent.

Quiet.

Peace.

My dress weighted by water, it suctioned up like a jelly and pressed me up to the surface, a mikvah cleanse, a soak.

It’s raining, Rainbow.

What else but this, Angel?

You will always take my breath away, please, please, tell me more.

My nieces and nephews, wide eyed and joyful, one by one cannonball and fly, dressed in funeral nines, plunge swiftly and willfully, joining me in my perfect black dress, the salty wet.

Antonia Deignan is a lifelong storyteller. She danced professionally in Chicago and New York, owned her own dance studio, and was artistic director of a pre-professional youth dance company – T Move. She is writing a memoir about surviving childhood trauma and rising above. She hopes her experience will help and inspire others. Her work has been published in Manifest-Station and Storied Stuff. She is a mother of five grown children and two great danes.

Recommended Reading:

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

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Guest Posts, pandemic

Isolation Blues

December 29, 2020
people

By Loreen Lilyn Lee

If you live with people, sheltering in place has its challenges, but lack of human contact is not one of them. If you live alone like me, the absence of human contact feels unendurable—a seismic event for social beings.

~ The last moments of normalcy. ~

On Saturday, February 22, I dined with friends before attending a hula concert to celebrate my 71st birthday. I’m grateful to have been born and raised in Honolulu; Hawaiian music and hula feed my soul. Several hundred people filled the performance hall and took pleasure in both the chants that accompanied ancient hula’s staccato rhythms and the sweet melodies inspiring modern hula’s graceful movements. On Sunday, I met my Asian American women friends for lunch at Hong Kong Dim Sum, crowded as usual. Later we spent a pleasant afternoon playing mah jongg. During the week, I completed my regular schedule as an English and writing tutor at North Seattle College and in fitness classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. My hairstylist gave me a  perm.

                     Then everything        changed.

                        Seattle reported the first coronavirus death

            in the U.S. on February 29.

                                    Soon after, each household became an                       island.

I live in an apartment building for active seniors. The managers locked the doors on all common areas: community room, computer room, movie room, and gym. They cancelled all community events, including fitness classes. We tenants, in effect, were isolated in our apartments. For me, that’s a one-bedroom apartment, approximately 520 square feet, not exactly a prison cell, but still confining. Most of us live alone, so social interactions make a huge difference in quality of life and provide health benefits. I also hoped to stay healthy by continuing fitness classes to strengthen my immune system; this was not the time to stop. I thought the managers had over-reacted, while some called it “an abundance of caution.” I called the corporate office to complain, and the public rooms were unlocked, but it was only a brief reprieve.

            No one knew

                        a state-wide lockdown was imminent.

           I began   sheltering   in place

                                     Fri day            March   13

                                                            when the college         shut down.

Only a few days earlier, the administration had announced it would stay open until the end of the quarter. Okay, I thought, my life will hold steady for the next couple of weeks. While the crisis was still unfolding, I dreamed of maintaining my routine, some semblance of stability, and didn’t realize that solid ground had shifted to sand. So, I was shocked when Monday’s decision was overturned on Thursday morning; the gravity of the situation and the urgency to safeguard staff and students from contagion had become undeniable to college officials.

~ In Week 3 of staying at home, I learned to breathe deeply again. ~

Life was still on hold, but I began writing after clouds of anxiety dispersed. My creative energy flowed into words that converged on the page and lifted my spirits. I called a friend to go for a walk. It was a decent day for Seattle, meaning no rain, some sun. Although I’m out of shape, we walked for an hour on the college campus, now eerily empty of cars and the bustling energy of students, and in the adjoining neighborhood with tree-lined streets. We chatted while conscientiously keeping our distance. I was happy to see a familiar face, have a conversation, be outdoors, and move my body—much-needed respite from my apartment walls. However, no touching, no hugs.

~ In times of uncertainty, people need hugs more than ever. ~

I miss the intimacy of sharing time with loved ones: sitting together in a movie and sharing popcorn; jostling and jesting with an amiable crowd lined up to buy tickets at the Crest Theater, only $4 for a second-run movie; going to a concert or literary reading; enjoying meals with friends at a dinner table or in a favorite restaurant; working side by side in a kitchen preparing food; touching a pal spontaneously, throwing an arm around a shoulder or waist or patting a hand; whispering a private joke into someone’s ear; hearing live music at the cozy North City Bistro that features talented local musicians; receiving a massage from healing hands of a woman I’ve known for thirty years; feeling the warm energy radiating from another person; being near enough to see cheeks blush or the twinkle in an eye.

      When will we be able

                                    to dance        in   public   spaces    again?

Two weeks ago I hit a wall. It was late May when a convergence of profound isolation (living alone for over two months without human touch) and the frustrations of dealing with ongoing technical issues of working online slammed me. My energy reserves dipped with each new online task requiring a learning curve. Trying to troubleshoot technical issues heightened my stress. For example, connectivity without unlimited broadband access created problems: students suddenly disappeared from the screen.

            A Zoom ex istence is an         e m pty                     one,

                                                like living on a            desert               island.

People in pixels are not equivalent to someone in the flesh, and communication can suffer. My isolation is sharpened when shopping requires a six-foot perimeter around me and constant vigilance. God forbid I should bump into anyone! Life felt shaggy like my unruly hair. It felt completely unnatural.

            By early June

                        in     iso la tion        for twelve weeks,

                        without         touch ing or   being     touched by

                                                             a living,          breath ing soul.

~ I grew up on the island of O’ahu. ~

Giving a lei with a kiss on the cheek for a birthday or graduation or any special occasion was traditional. Other than this, my Chinese American family did not express physical affection often, but neither did we avoid touching one another. With seven children, we were often jammed into a car or crowded around the television. I grew up on an island, but I was surrounded by family and friends.

As a woman, I gravitated to warm, affectionate people and realized that I crave human connection, the physical communication between bodies; I need hugs and the love they convey.

            The nearness of people is    on  hold        for now.

                                                            I           get       it          and  sorely miss it.

Still, my aching heart is real—this desert heat of desperation, feeling my heart could simply shrivel up and cease working without  touch. I realize my pain may not be assuaged anytime soon, but I recognize it serves a purpose; I will hang on to this longing for human comfort, touch, and camaraderie. I don’t want to forget what it’s like to be human even though I have no idea when I’ll hug anyone or reach across a table to clink glasses in celebration. The simple gestures of friendship and love are absent for now. It is what it is. I’m hanging in there one day at a time, but I insist, I have to believe that these simple blessings will one day be ours again.

~ My island roots ground me in times of crisis. ~

An ancient Hawaiian canoe chant keeps coming to mind. I often quoted it at readings for my book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir. Skilled navigators, these Hawaiians traveled throughout the vast Pacific Ocean in their voyaging canoes. All the paddlers chanted these words in unison, from deep in their solar plexus, before pushing off from shore. They understood the risks of navigating uncharted waters and the criticality of every paddler working for the good of all in order to reach their destination. To survive.

I kū wā huki
I kū wā kō
I kū wā a mau
A mau ka ēulu
E huki e
Kūlia!

~ These words are not suggestion, but instruction and prayer. ~

Then as now, we’re all in the same boat. Social isolation is damn hard, wearying, soul-crushing. And yet, I have to do my part.

Together, we pull
Together, we draw
Together, now and forever
Unceasingly, from the top
Pull together
Persevere!

Loreen Lilyn Lee was born in pre-statehood Honolulu. Her debut book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir won the 2018 Willow Books Literature Award, Grand Prize in Prose. She has received fellowships for a Hedgebrook residency and the year-long Jack Straw Writers Program. Her work has appeared in The Jack Straw Writers Anthology, Burningword Literary Journal, and Raven Chronicles’ Last Call. She is a writing and English tutor at North Seattle College and can be found online here.

Recommended Reading:

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts

Gene(s)

December 28, 2020
gene

By Julianne Ho

“They have the best pork katsudon,” I told Gene, as if I were a true food connoisseur. We were walking through the prepared bentos section of Sunrise Mart, this tiny Japanese market on Stuyvesant Street. Conveniently situated across from my NYU dormitory on 3rd Avenue, it was one of my favorite places to grocery shop.

Our fellow dorm resident Eugenia, who had grown up in Japan, had vouched for their katsudons a month prior.

“Really?” he replied.

Perhaps Eugenia had already mentioned that to him too?

I looked past Gene’s handsome face, past his inquisitive brown eyes, which seemed to match his sandy brown hair, and his mouth, forever curved into a smirk when I was around, and squeezed into the cramped grocery aisles. I grabbed a package of nori and placed it gently into my shopping basket next to the bag of rice. It seemed like something Eugenia would have bought. I thought I caught him watching me, as I feigned interest in the various brands of bonito flakes before I decided to just check out with the nori and rice. I only knew of one dish that I can make decently with bonito flakes anyway, and I barely liked its taste.

***

Gene and I saw each other around NYU’s Alumni Hall, occasionally ran errands together, but we never went on a proper date. Once, he asked me to join him at Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village for pierogis, but I declined. I really should be studying, I told myself, instead of thinking about food or dating.

Every day during the spring of my junior year, I would bring my books to the dormitory TV lounge to study, and Gene would be there. Neither of us had TVs in our rooms. I knew studying in front of the television wasn’t the most effective use of my time, but I couldn’t help myself. I loved spending time with him.

“I can read the subtitles out loud while you study for the MCAT,” Gene offered one night from the couch in the TV lounge. “I love this movie. I want you to watch it with me.”

I was sitting at my regular study table near him. I’d just gotten back from a Kaplan MCAT Review session, but I still felt a compulsive need to study. The MCATs were coming up in a few weeks. As a pre-med student who was trying to enter medical school, I constantly felt guilty about how I spent my time. Any moment not spent studying led to extreme anxiety. Gene’s ability to watch foreign movies at ease seemed like a luxury to me.

My left ear itched so I scratched it absently as I answered, “Thanks, but I won’t retain anything from the movie or the MCAT books if you’re reading the subtitles out loud.”

I eyed him from the table where I sat with my books, and then compulsively gave my right ear a scratch for balance.

He read five minutes of subtitles for “The Vanishing” before giving up and watching the movie quietly as I worked on the practice test questions. I found his presence comforting.

***

“Eugenia is working on oil paintings today,” Gene informed me. “She offered to paint our portraits.”

I had heard that Eugenia and Gene were probably dating. Since they were just rumors, I had allowed myself to believe that they weren’t. Plus, Gene and Eugenia never indicated to me that they were seeing each other.

Eugenia’s father owned a successful appliance company in Asia that did business with major companies in the U.S. She had extra canvases, like the lots of other extra things that she owned. And she was also habitually sweet and generous. She had suggested that I paint something also. I was too self-conscious about my lack of artistic ability so I painted some leaves. I told her I didn’t want to waste her canvases. I had trouble finding storage space for her finished pieces so Gene offered to store them in his dad’s office in the city. I declined and ended up shipping them back to my parents’ house.

***

Gene and I were standing next to each other in an elevator packed with people. I could smell the faint scent of the little clove cigarettes he liked to smoke. It was the end of my junior year, and my backpack was sitting uncomfortably on top of my shoes as we tried to cram in even more passengers.

He had recently told me that he had a TV in his room this whole time, and that he just enjoyed hanging out with me in the TV lounge.

“I’m thinking about transferring to McGill in Montreal,” Gene told me, his voice muffled by the head of the man in front of us. “What do you think?”

Stunned by his sudden news, I held myself still, then shifted my weight, and the forgotten backpack at my feet tumbled a little bit as I mumbled, “McGill’s a good school. And you’ll be closer to your family.”

I couldn’t be honest with him. I couldn’t tell him I didn’t want him to go. I stooped a little in order to fumble with my backpack. Why were there so many people around? Couldn’t they mind their own business?
I suspected that some of the people in the elevator were watching so I stuck out my hand for a handshake instead of hugging him good-bye. Maybe some of the eavesdropping elevator passengers murmured, but I couldn’t be sure as I had kept my head down, trying to seem distracted by my backpack. Gene looked surprised, shook my hand, and when the elevator doors opened onto his floor, he said goodbye. I never saw him again.

***

“I think they are out to destroy my medical career,” I whispered to my mother. We were standing in a terminal at LAX airport where this distinguished, elderly couple had been seated across from us for a while. I had just graduated from college in May 1999 and hadn’t gotten into any medical school. Two had waitlisted me but ultimately rejected me. I was sure the couple were spies who had plotted with those medical schools to end my potentially prestigious and promising career, as I would later be convinced that the solo passenger seated behind us on the plane had done. As I filled my mother in on their plot to destroy my precious career, I switched to a different Chinese dialect to throw off the suspicious-looking couple and glared, since they had been staring at me.

I hadn’t slept nor showered for two weeks. My exhausted mother nodded. By then, she would have said anything to get me on the plane headed to the Pittsburgh, to the home of my dad’s psychiatrist colleague and good friend. My parents didn’t want me to see the psychiatrists in Los Angeles. If I were hospitalized in the Los Angeles community my dad practiced medicine in, people might gossip.

I didn’t know what a psychotic break was or whether the doctor in Pittsburgh was right or wrong about me. All I really wanted was for him to help me figure out whether people were really out to ruin my career or whether I just needed to study harder.

***

I had gained about forty pounds within a month or so of taking a combination of various prescription medications. At twenty-three years old, I had been rejected by twenty-five different medical schools in two sequential admissions cycles.

Despite my parents’ efforts, I was eventually hospitalized in Los Angeles in the year following Pittsburgh. But even before my hospitalization, I had started using food as a salve. My mother would watch me in disapproving silence whenever I sat at my parents’ table for dinner and shoveled noodles into my mouth.

“I’m already fat,” I would say, if she dared suggest I’d had enough. “Just let me eat what I want before I die so that I can have a little bit of happiness in my life.”

My mother looked alarmed and pained, but she still refused to ask me the obvious question: Do you really want to die? Because for me to verbalize my suicidal thoughts could mean that they could actually happen.

So she watched me eat so many excessive dinners in disapproving silence that, seven years later, by the time I was thirty, I was morbidly obese: 5’1” and well over 200 pounds.

***

Several years ago, I found Gene’s profile on Facebook and sent him a friend request. He did not recognize me from my profile picture because of the weight I gained. He sent me a message to ask whether I was the long-lost friend who painted the three beautiful portraits of him that still hung on his wall.

I told him that was Eugenia. I painted the leaves.

I thought about reminding him about me, his friend who studied like a maniac for the MCATs and pretended to know a lot about all sorts of foods, but I couldn’t find the right words. Instead, I told him that I missed him and appreciated his friendship, but he didn’t reply. Maybe because my confession came decades too late, I failed to become part of the memories of his time in New York. Maybe he forgot me because I never did anything that was worth remembering. I wondered if he really forgot, or if my memory was faulty. I wondered whether my perception was really so far off from reality.

***

When I returned to the NYU dormitory for my senior year of college, I had made a beeline for the TV lounge. I wanted to see Gene there, hoping that maybe he had forgotten that awkward handshake incident in the elevator, or perhaps had decided not to go to McGill. That maybe he would stay at NYU and finish out the following year with me. I waited and waited, but he did not appear.

That was also the year of the first round of medical school rejection letters. I thought about Gene and was grateful for his presence, the way he helped keep me calm, happy, and sane the year before all those rejections, the year before I felt like I started to lose everything, including my own sanity.

I thought about what my therapist said about how most people are not out to hurt others; that they were just doing the best they can. I thought about my own mistakes—my moods, flaws, and regrets – protracted silences, refusal to attempt portraiture, ignoring movie subtitles read aloud, and my cold elevator good-byes, and I realized that what my therapist said had been true.

***

Last fall, I went back to New York City for my 20-year college reunion. I had been residing in Los Angeles since college, with only occasional jaunts to the city. I knew I wouldn’t see Gene nor Eugenia at the reunion as they didn’t graduate with my class, but I would often think of them whenever I visited. On the last day of that reunion trip, I stopped by Washington Square to listen to the street musicians play their instruments by the fountain. I ambled by my old NYU dormitory to admire the building’s orange and gray façade, watched as the crisp autumn leaves fell from the surrounding trees, and then stopped into Veselka in the East Village to eat a plateful of potato and cheese pierogis. And by the time I flew back home to Los Angeles, I finally felt like I had said a proper good-bye.

Julianne Ho lives in Los Angeles and is a first-generation Taiwanese-American. She works as a financial manager for UCLA and enjoys arts & crafts and watching Hulu. Being solitary these past months and having those fears realized, it has helped her see how strong she can be and that being alone is not so bad.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Pilgrimage in the Land of the Rising Sun

December 27, 2020
temple

By Edith Darmon

As the steps keep going up and up, my breathing becomes faster and faster. There is no end in sight. My eyes get a glimpse of the top but as I reach it, each apex becomes illusive. It keeps going further again past my eyesight up higher and higher. I am only concentrating on going up another level to get closer to the crest. I am in Japan, on Shikoku island, the smallest of the four main islands of the archipelago. I am out of breath and a sharp pain accompanies each step while climbing up these tall stairs. Through the bamboo forest, I can now see the light from the open sky. A few more heavy lungfuls of air and finally I hoist myself onto the top where I am blinded by the beauty of Anrakuji temple. I slowly recover my breath and take in my surroundings. In the setting of the afternoon fog, the deep ocean with its different hues of blue is emerging with the underlined coastline. At the forefront, the soft vision of pink flowering trees is overlapping the green meadow. I stare, allowing my tears to flow freely.

A couple of years ago, when the love of my life, the man with whom I had been living for twenty-five years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, all equilibrium tilted towards a downward spiral. He died five months later and I lost my anchor. I was floating on a deflated balloon bound to crash. I hung haphazardly by a fragile thread. I let my instincts guide me instead of trusting my wounded brain. I went on walking treks as therapeutic healings. I walked in Spain, Canada,  India. When I heard of a walking trail in Japan in the form of a  pilgrimage, I was enticed with the idea but I never associated it with a clear need but rather with an instinctual behavior. I contacted a lifelong friend who also likes to walk as a way of life. The experience of embarking on such a journey held a significant amount of depth and unknown mystery.
Walking helps me calm my anxieties but also elevates my spirit to higher realms of reality. We are following Kukai’s steps. Kukai also holds the honorific name of Kobo-Daish – the enlightened one. He was the monk who brought an important sect of Buddhism from China to Japan around the year 800.

Over my five-week stay, each time I reached one of the 88 temples Kukai built around the island, I performed a suggested ceremonial from the Zen Buddhist tradition. This ritual was meant to restore peace within and helped erase conflicts at hand, or at least lessened their potency. I was eager to pray since I understood that the more I  loved, the more I grieved. The prayers would help me go deeper within my grief and learn to fathom the magnitude of my lost love. On this journey, I also hoped for guidance towards my life choices.

Upon arriving at the imposing arched doors of the temple, I bowed in front of the statue of Kukai whose role was to scare off demons inside and outside of us. To do that, Kukai took on the terrifying features of the angry devils he was fighting. He was our protector although his intimidating appearance and his ferocious gaze were unsettling. I wanted to trust him to help me fight my dragons during the long treks. I traveled with them perched on my shoulders, coloring my mood from dark to grey to golden yellow as fear or faith would alter my daily reality. I proceeded to the temple ground on a stone path through an orchard of pink blossoming cherry trees with statues of saints aligned along the edges. Each saint was small in size and wore a pink-colored hand-knit bib as a symbolic image of childhood and a reminder to protect children. While murmuring a prayer for their safety, the children in the world winked at me.

I stepped forward to locate the dragon spitting water. This was the time to cleanse my hands with respect from left to right while I prayed for the healing waters to flow freely in the world and in and out of me. My body was bursting with worries which have impeded the natural flow of my own waters. It was time now to honor and feed the earth by pouring a little water down. My personal harmony was contingent on the balance of the planet. I could not reach peace if the world around me was distressed. The process continued towards the stone steps and striking the largest gong on the compound. The sound rippled in waves and the echo could be heard far and wide. The deep, cavernous sound expanded my desire to opening up to new beginnings and a return to my joie de vivre.

My yearning was also strong in forgiving my beloved for leaving me unexpectedly, all alone on the path of life. I believed that finding acceptance and compassion for myself through prayers would ease my journey. The gong announced my presence. My dragons filled with anger and rage were acknowledged and temporarily appeased. I wanted to believe that I was now protected while my steps took me towards the main temple. In one of the combed sand barrel rings facing the entry, my three sticks of incense were lit as the prayers began.

Each day, my prayers took a different tone as suited for the moment. The flow of my invocations guided me towards what I wanted to ask, hoped, or wished for. Afterward, I peeked at the rich and ornate altar inside the central room before chanting the sutras three times as recommended. The melody was unknown to me, therefore I invented a rhythm from my imagination or borrowed it from other chants from other ceremonies I have participated in. I have been deeply touched by the Buddhist practice in India in the province of Ladakh, which borders Tibet. Sitting and chanting next to a monk in cool darkness in the sanctuary of a temple vault transported me to another realm of serenity.

When I was fortunate and other pilgrims were gathered at the same temple, chanting in unison their well-known prayer, I joined in gingerly and felt grateful to be among Japanese pilgrims during their spiritual practice.

One week into my stay, the recurring rite at every temple had become habitual. My ritual was nearly finished, but not until I visited the office where I waited for my turn to present my special gold and black book to one of the monks. The monk’s signature was an ornate black calligraphic design enriched with three red stamps acknowledging my passage in this temple. The book was purchased at the beginning of the pilgrimage and would slowly get filled up at every temple. The monk presented me with a sacred image to store in my sacred book. The symbolism of the image was unclear but its energy was treasured. In return as a token, I gave the monk three hundred yens.

Today was a very special day because I felt honored beyond words. I managed to reserve sleeping arrangements on the temple grounds for my traveling companion and me. This was a rare occurrence since temples did not allow lodging for pilgrims unless they came as a large organized group. But once in a while,  travelers had the privilege to sleep in the temple compound.

After recovering my backpack I had stashed behind a stone bench, my steps steered me around the corner, to look for a large building which should hold the sleeping quarters. Upon rounding the bend, another vista of the ocean greeted me with a striking wide expanse of crystal blue water. The warmth from the mesmerizing late afternoon light playing tricks with the sun embraced me closely. Another group of blossoming cherry trees was standing graciously in front of a building. Only then did I detect that the partially hidden building could easily be my temporary nest for the night. My traveling companion and I walked in; a monk was sitting chatting with visitors over tea. The monk was fully engaged and did not seem to discern our presence. We waited politely for a few minutes but no one seemed to notice the two western women still carrying their heavy loads on their backs while standing by the doorway. Therefore, I captured their attention. One of the women sitting next to the monk pointed out a room in front of us without looking. We were relieved. We took off our bags and our shoes. We slipped into the leather slippers provided and we let ourselves into what we believed was the waiting room.

The large and empty tatami room welcomed us. We were dazzled by a large bay window overlooking the landscape we just left outside. My head was slowly clearing up. I survived the exhausting although invigorating hike to let myself be revitalized by the meaningful temple ritual that always brought hope into my reality. Since my husband`s passing, burdensome darks clouds often obstructed my vision. This place was so inspiring in its beauty and its serenity that if any notion of paradise was pertinent, then we had attained it. We waited patiently. We thought someone would come soon, would ask us to fill out forms and lead us to our cubicle away from our captivating viewso little did we realize that we were standing in the room allocated to us. I found out by peeking outside because I was not able to hold my curiosity any longer. The mere view of my western face got the reaction I was looking for. One of the women motioned for us to stay put, indicated that she will unroll our futons at seven o’clock, the bath, the ofuro will be ready at five followed by dinner an hour later. We were also invited to participate in a ceremony after dinner. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a cup of green tea from the thermos sitting on the table.

Later, as we walked down the hallway towards the bath-house, I  transformed into a new human wearing a blue indigo yukata covered with a dark blue heavy cotton jacket. The other pilgrims encountered on the stairs dressed in similar attire. The bath was composed of a large carved stone-heated pool surrounded by several individual hand showers with stools close to the ground where people were washing thoroughly before sliding delicately into the hot water. After cleansing and soaking my body at leisure in the healing waters, the moment had come to get some sustenance. I got dressed and followed some of the pilgrims through a side door towards the dining area.

Sitting regally among other fellow pilgrims in the grandeur of the temple dining room, it was time to savor a delectable feast of dishes displayed in front of me: tuna, snapper, and octopus sashimi fanned over grated daikon radishes, miso soup with wakame seaweed and morsels of baked tofu. I was fully present to delight in the cuisine from the attractive and mysterious culture of the land of the rising sun. There were perhaps twenty-five pilgrims in the room, all dressed in the same blue indigo yukata; everyone was lively. I smiled and observed quietly my surroundings since it was impossible to communicate.

After the meal was over, we were told to move towards a room at the back of the temple where instructions were given along with small brown paper bags. A friendly man came up gingerly and sat next to us explaining in hesitant English the different steps of the ceremony. It was said that this particular ceremony aimed to bid farewell to the deceased. My heart jumped to the point of badly hurting. When I entered into this pilgrimage I did not think it would affect and touch me so deeply. I thought I could separate my outer experience and let it float as a superficial layer while keeping my core protected and closed. In hearing the meaning of the ceremony, I realized that it would soon be three years since my husband passed. I knew his anniversary was approaching but I was attempting to behave as normally as possible and was hoping that the tornado would not hit as hard as it did in the past years. While my thoughts often converged towards him, and his name leapt frequently into my speech, I struggled between two lives careful not to impose on people around me by constantly talking about my beloved.

My eyes blur, my throat contracts, and I have difficulties breathing. I feel myself entering into a trance. I blindly follow my fellow pilgrims to the back of the temple where we penetrate the underbelly of a cavern filled with several Buddhas watching us. Everyone starts chanting sutras while my head rolls back and forth, following the rhythm and the sound. I am lost in a dreamlike state with intensely palpable sensations more vivid than images. A movement catches my attention, my eyes startle open to notice the pilgrims standing up and moving forward. I trail behind them, slowly advancing into a long, dark narrow passageway. We emerge into a curved room with a small stream along the side. As per instruction, I light the candle in the little wooden boat found in the brown paper bag. One by one, we delicately place the boats in the waterway.

My mind is busy now with strong visions crowding and fighting for attention. The boat of Charon, the ferryman of Hades takes the stage carrying the souls of the newly deceased through the River Styx. The fragile vessel is crowded. The frightened souls are led to the threshold where the world is divided between the living and the dead. Fear is vividly painted on their faces. I have often had this lingering vision after my husband left. I could clearly distinguish every feature in front of me inside my wide-open eyes. Once strong and detailed, these images had slowly fizzled away as months, then years went by. At this instant, however, the vision promptly flooded my consciousness again.

Another persistent and profound vision seizes my attention, one that followed me when awake since the first week after my sweetheart died: We are both sitting on the back of a small motorized boat, which is moving at a hurried pace. Suddenly, my husband falls out of the dinghy but I remain on board. I cannot stop the boat. I shout but no one reacts. It is as if I am alone but I know I am not alone. No one can hear me. I spin around, but my beloved has disappeared in the swift current of the fast-moving waters while the boat speeds on. The life force was pushing me forward while my husband plunged unexpectedly out of the boat, out of the living world, and into the mysterious realms of the deceased.

While in this cave still with tears running down my face, I push my little vessel off. I tentatively wave farewell to my departed, trying to put words to the unknown journey waiting for him. But I do not know anything about his voyage.

We slowly leave the water chamber and our group keeps walking towards a large round space where we burn our little sliver of wood, adding it to the dancing blue and yellow flames from a small pyre. I am filled with images connecting death to fire: Fire from hell that symbolizes the suffering but also the releasing. When my husband was dying, he kept telling me that he needed quiet. He did not want to be brought back to the daily reality of the chattering conversation or even peaceful music. He said he needed full concentration to let go of life because it was very hard and painful to leave the world of the living. My heart was wrenching to witness his strength as he released his soul.

I am blinded by the orange glow of the setting sun when I step outside, I am out of breath and unsteady. I hear my husband`s hearty laughter telling me to seize the day while the whiff of his morning brew fills my nostrils. I fully inhale the vision like a forceful breath helping me cope with the present.

Through the hidden side of the temple, I opened a sacred door into my soul today. I had not known why I came to Japan but at this instant, I get the hint that I am here to attempt to heal my bruised soul and to learn to remember the joy of waking up in the morning next to my beloved, drinking tea in bed, and welcoming the new day. This journey to the islands of the rising sun did not augur as a comfortable voyage but a necessary one.

The next day, I  leave Anrakuji appeased and filled with hope even though the struggle will most likely return. While walking slowly towards the next temple of the pilgrimage, I take the time to hear the birds sing and pause as I bend to smell a cluster of pure white jasmine. My eyes follow the lines of the sea on the blue horizon. I find a friend in the constant presence of the ocean. My friend is faithful and stays with me along my journey. The ocean feeds my soul with its power and its infinity by refueling my life force when I am weak and desperate. The sky will not always be blue and serene, but I hope to be more prepared for the next invasion of black clouds hindering my eyesight.

Edith Darmon was born in Algeria and immigrated to France as a teenager. As a young adult, she traveled extensively throughout Europe, North, Central and South America. Edith is a retired Spanish and French teacher. Following many years of world travel, she has settled in the mountains of Northern New Mexico where she now gardens, writes, and frequently travels to Colorado to visit her daughter and granddaughters.

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Birthday, Guest Posts, memories

I Hear You, Please Come In

December 26, 2020
birthday

By Charna Cassell

 “The hand that still works grips, won’t let go.”
-Margaret Atwood, A Visit

I recently turned 45 and for the last few years, I’ve dreaded my birthday. Not for reasons you might think, like sagging skin or facing my mortality or no longer making certain age-group cut-offs on dating apps. I’ve dreaded it year after year, right around my birthday, I re-experience the pattern that was imprinted on me before I could talk.

This bracing around my birthday began five years ago. That was the year I offered trauma and resilience training at an orphanage in my birthplace, Nepal. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been to the country since I was 16: I felt like I belonged.

The staff and children threw a party for me on the day I left. The gifts were abundant, and touching: Hand-drawn pictures, a small Buddha statue, a red felt hat. 400 people celebrating your existence with genuine love sets a new standard.

The contrast of returning to Oakland (on my birthday, no less) was stark. As I unlocked the door to my apartment, it struck me that I was entirely alone. This wasn’t a new feeling; during different periods of my life, I’ve felt like an orphan too. Not because I developed a special talent for forgetting my past, or got good at being alone, what with my father in prison for the first half of my life and my mother addicted to drugs and habitually choosing men over me (her ability to parent herself, let alone a child, insubstantial). It was because of what happened when I was born.

A triangle of isolation existed between my dad, my mom, and me before I came into the world. My father was hiding out from the police when an earthquake hit Nepal and my mother fell down a set of stairs, leaving her with a partially severed placenta. Ten days in a rural hospital passed before her water broke and out I came in a rush. I was tucked into a cardboard box that functioned as a makeshift incubator while she grew distraught in a distant room, not knowing if I was okay. Although I imagine I was tended to well by the Nepali nurses, I only saw her intermittently. Years later, I learned they told my mother she would kill me if she overfed me and took me away from her frequently.

My body learned, before anything else, that I could not depend on my primary caretakers for food, shelter, or love. That I could not trust that protection would consistently be available when I needed it.

My nervous system recalls this when my birthday arrives. Around this time, I feel caught between two worlds; trapped between the panic of birth and the numbness of being in utero. A blanket of tension runs the length of my body while my chest feels like it’s clogged with stones.

Under my skin, I sense an urge to mobilize into action, to complete something. To get out of this skin, this relationship, this home, this womb. Anniversaries of any kind can evoke plenty.

What does this tell me? It reminds me that we decide a lot before we are verbal. We know and choose what feels good and right and safe, just as we know in our cells and bones what does not. The frantic flapping in my ribcage, the shame I feel for wanting contact and the assurance that it’ll arrive on time, those stones in my heart—all of these sensations that I experience when my birthday rolls around were created before I had the words to articulate what I needed.

We’re inclined to think of these preverbal feelings as the realm of fetuses and infants, but their distant cousins surface in the adults we become, dictating actions and reactions that emerge without the concrete memories to explain them. This unconscious voltage may run through us for years.

The day before my 45th birthday, I was at a friend’s party. Two men who previously held starring roles in my life—one as a close friend, the other as a lover—were milling around the dance party and food table. Both are my teachers (or my “sex angels,” as I call them) because they come in and out of my world to teach me things and help me evolve. (These lessons don’t have to involve sex, but they do usually involve intimacy and pain.) Echoes of the sorrow and fear I once felt in being alone and forgotten had been activated by both of these men in the past. I was already feeling vulnerable, and now this?

My formerly close friend told me at the party that he was moving to Bali and asked, “Have you been there?” I looked at him and couldn’t tell if he was joking. When I saw that he wasn’t, I laughed in pure awe. Eight years earlier, he had invited me on a month-long trip to the very place he was asking me if I’d ever visited. We’d purchased tickets, planned for it with giddy excitement—and then he disinvited me because his other friend wasn’t sure about traveling with me. Once I reminded him of this, he said, “Why would I want to remember something like that about myself?”

Why indeed.

But memory is an interesting thing. When I think of selective memory, I think of memories that were once conscious but carried an untenable amount of remorse, terror, or grief—so much so they fell into submission, below consciousness, to protect the feeler.

My old lover’s memory seemed to work towards a similar sort of self-preservation. We had an on and off-again relationship for years. When we were on, he expressed he loved me…then later denied it. A week after gender-bending, kinky sex, he forgot it happened.

I broke up with him, and broke up with him again, only to be pulled back in by an invisible thread that seemed to connect us across multiple dimensions. I imagine that our souls and bodies remember each other and that in a different timeline, we were madly in love and able to express this with ease.

In this particular life, he doesn’t have the capacity to be in a skillful relationship with me. Sure, we’re friendly when we bump into each other in the produce aisle—or around the cheese platter at mutual friends’ parties—but he’s cautious and awkward, no matter that (or perhaps precisely because) we’d seen each other naked. With a slice of brie in one hand and a glass of sparkling water in the other, I teetered between wanting to hold him a little too long when we hugged and the desire to turn away.

I saw both of these men three hours after an attachment therapy session where I moved through the preverbal fear of not being chosen, remembered, or loved. The universe, I’m convinced, orchestrated this encounter.

Because here’s the thing: A great deal can be imprinted on us before we’re born or when we were children, but we also have a lifetime to unwind the hardships our bodies remember. Triggers are opportunities to bring buried traumas into the present, to where they can be integrated.

When I was a child, my grandmother disowned my mom. This devastated both of them. It prompted my mom’s self-destructive, numbing actions—her tireless desire to not feel a thing, which she bedded down with for decades.

The first signs of my grandmother’s dementia surfaced during a conversation about attachment theory, when I was trying to explain what can happen when a parent is not attuned to their infant and care is erratic or nonexistent. She interrupted me to say, “Well, anyone who throws away a child should be taken out and shot. I found a baby in the trash can outside my house. I cleaned him up and gave him a haircut. His name is Charlie and he goes to college but every day, he always comes home and eats sandwiches with me for lunch.”

She paused. “He’s such a good boy,” she added.

Charlie was one of many children my grandmother rescued. By her 93rd birthday, she had hundreds of children she’d “adopted,” and they all lived with her in Cassell’s Castle. They all shared her birthday, too, and when we sang, “Happy Birthday, Marion,” she gleefully sang over us, “Happy Birthday to everyone.”

Some of our relatives thought she was crazy. I didn’t. I was only reminded that guilt runs deep, and that what she couldn’t remember—abandoning her flesh-and-blood daughter—was making itself known and asking, in its strange way, to be integrated.

My grandmother passed away five years ago. These days, I treat my nervous system with as much care as she, in her mind, did her Charlie.

I acknowledge my triggers and excavate the source of the original hurt; I try to remain in the present. I power through strength-training exercises with a personal trainer—slow, weight-bearing practices that activate my fight-or-flight response and fortify my nervous system. I parent myself each time I snuggle my dog or take a walk instead of blazing through work and ignoring my need for food or a good stretch or a conversation with nature. I’ve stopped choosing lovers who are scared of their desire for me or the emotions that are aroused in our relationship; ambivalence doesn’t have the same draw it once did. And in the process of becoming as conscious as I possibly can, I realize that these people—from my mother to my father to my sex angels—are each playing their part in reminding me that we are all doing the best we can. That so little is personal.

Through this lens, I see them as gifts that help bring the preverbal forward. I feel through the pain, loss, and separation as if feeling my way through a dark room, knowing, when I reach the light, that their forgetting and absences aren’t really about me.

I am alone I am not alone I am loved I am cherished I am valued I am important I am an item on the menu at Café Gratitude, apparently. And I am 45.

Charna Cassell is an Embodied Leadership Coach and Body-Centered Psychotherapist who has helped people heal and celebrate their sexuality for the past twenty-five years—first as as sex educator and sex toy clerk at San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, then as a somatic coach and bodyworker, and now as a psychotherapist specializing in working with trauma. Charna can be found online here.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Activism, Guest Posts, Mental Health

Exercise, Weed, Sex…Nothing is Easing My Anxiety

December 23, 2020
people

By Andrea Askowitz

I used to feel like I could make a difference in the world. I used to march in the streets. When I was a kid, my mom took my brother and me to March on Washington three times. For fifteen years after college, I worked full-time to help homeless people find jobs, working-class people make a livable wage, and queer youth who’d been bullied out of their schools or homes. I volunteered for Democratic candidates all my life. My candidates didn’t always win, but I always felt like the world was moving in the right direction.

Four years ago, I dragged my kids to phone-bank and canvass door-to-door for Hillary Clinton. Then the most qualified candidate that ever ran for president lost to the most absurd candidate. And the world went dark.

***

Now, at 52, I have never been this panicked by what’s happening in the world. I can’t sleep. I know I’m not alone because when I wake up at 3 a.m. and check Facebook, half my friends in my same time zone are awake and posting.

I’ve been living with low-grade depression and anxiety since Trump took office. When coronavirus started to scourge the world six months ago, my anxiety amped up. My iPhone screen time went up 20% to four hours a day. I knew it was a problem, but I was scared, so I let myself be distracted. I did yoga on Facebook live, enjoyed a friend’s daily piano concerts, learned how to braid challah, and watched a man in France run the length of a marathon on his 10-foot balcony. None of this helped to lessen my panic.

For 20 days in a row, I danced with my kids—my own little way of reducing stress. I created the hashtag #coronavirusdanceparty and posted on Facebook. I’d dance, post, then check my feed every half hour to see what others had to say. Finally, my kids said, “Stop.” They knew the dancing wasn’t helping.

When George Floyd was murdered, I watched that video over and over. And then I watched the reactions of people protesting in the street. My daughter and I put masks on and went to one protest. But, mostly, I quarantined inside and watched the news.

I’m not a very good swimmer, but this summer we found a public 25-meter pool that lets 10 people swim at a time and I’ve worked my way up to 64 lengths. That’s a mile. When I get out of the pool, I’m dizzy and exhausted. That kind of physical exertion used to relax me for the rest of the day; help me sleep. Not now.

Now, wild fires are ravaging the West Coast. I wanted to reach out to a good friend in San Francisco, but the orange-sky images she posted were so apocalyptic, I couldn’t. With coronavirus threatening people’s lungs and headlines like this one from the Insider: “An Ominous Map Shows the Entire West Coast with the Worst Air Quality on Earth,” all I could say was, “Holy shit! You must be freaked out.” So, I said nothing.

Last year, before coronavirus and the fires and before white people were reminded of our roles in subjugating Black people, my mom, my brother, and my business partner—three people closest to me—beat cancer. Back then I thought my world was sick. Now, I see that the whole world is sick.

***

I have several friends with prescriptions for medical marijuana. One has been on the phone with me enough lately to know I need a chill-pill. A few weeks ago, she dropped off her remedy. She said, “Two puffs before bed.”

I know people smoke weed to get their mind off things. But as soon as the weed kicked in every scary thought I’d ever tamped down rose to the surface. My wife and I lay there in the dark. I said, “My mind is flooded with scary thoughts…Flooded.”

Hurricane Laura and then Sally had just flooded the Gulf Coast, killing at least 13 people. Tropical Storm Vicky brewed in the Atlantic. Vicky is my wife’s name. The World Meteorological Organization has already gone through the whole alphabet naming storms, which has only happened one other time, and we still have two months left in this hurricane season.

All of this anxiety is rising up with the presidential election in the backdrop. And then Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.

Sex usually puts me right to sleep. I mean after sex. But now there’s a gaping liberal hole in the Supreme Court. Now, it’s hard to think about anything else, but I’m desperate for sleep, so I locked the bedroom door and lit the candles and after, instead of spooning my wife and peacefully nodding off as usual, I was wired for hours.

***

I called my weed friend and told her the weed wasn’t working. I said, “When corona hit, I increased my screen-time; when Floyd was murdered, I got in the pool; the fires, weed; RGB, sex. Nothing’s working.”

She said, “You know what? Maybe you should get your ass out of bed and do something for someone else.”

That same day, my sister-in-law, who works 24/7 for the Democratic Party, asked me to write postcards to encourage people to vote. She said they need people to hand out slate cards at the polls, starting with early voting. She asked me to get other people to write postcards and work the polls too.

I said, “Whatever I can do!” Then I emailed 20 friends. Ten wrote back immediately: “YES!” “Count me in!” “Whatever I can do!”

Other people needed something productive to do too.

Why didn’t I think of this? I know helping others can help a person get out of their own head. When did I stop helping?

I know the answer. I let myself wallow in my own misery when it all started to feel so bleak; when democracy itself felt threatened. But I also know that Democracy is government by the people, and I’m one of those people.

I’m hoping this is the turning point.

Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her essays have appeared in The Manifest-Station, The New York Times, Glamour, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, Salon, The Writer, and other publications. She’s also the co-host and producer of the podcast Writing Class Radio.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, postpartum depression

Prescriptions and Postpartum: When It’s Easier to Medicate Than Listen

December 22, 2020
receptionist

By Amanda Aardse

“You still there, hon?”

The walls are the colour of the inside of my skull, bland and jumbled, fuzzy thoughts tied in knots. I hate waiting rooms. My palms are all sorts of wet and I can’t sort myself out. It took two whole days to work myself up to the phone call, and the receptionist was on the other line, sounding bored.

“Yeah, I’m here, um, is there someone else I could see? I just need a referral to a psychologist.”

The words drench me in shame.

I gave birth three months ago. Motherhood. That should at least earn me just an inch of kindness, but so far all I find I get is reproach. You wanted this.

Everyone thinks I wanted this. That I spent my early morning hours for one long year being poked and prodded intimately by nurses who would yawn behind their gloved hands, sip their coffee during the internal ultrasound. That I pumped my body full of hormones it lacked, that I cried over an empty womb month after month for this.

No, I did not want this. I thought motherhood would make me feel fulfilled, beautiful, so in love I couldn’t stand it. This just makes me feel achingly alone from everything and everyone, even my former self, whoever she was.

I’m just Mom now.

“Well you really should see your doctor. She’s on holiday for the next two weeks, did you want to make an appointment for then?”

I picture her in the sun and sand, enjoying her two beautiful children while I have not taken a shower in three days, while my heart jitters with too much anxiety and caffeine. My eyes well with tears.

“Is there anyone else I can talk to?” I whisper and feel the eye roll on the other end of the line.

***

The nurse calls my name and I scatteredly grab my things. I’ve been staring at the magazine table rehearsing my lines – you need to do this, to advocate for your own health when others won’t.

The desire to be seen as more than just Mom is overwhelming.

She lets me into the doctor’s room. I’m explained this isn’t my regular doctor, he’s just taking her emergency patients. Am I an emergency? I wonder. What did the receptionist say about my teary phone call?

Well, that’s just having a baby, the receptionist informs me. A gatekeeper who mocks me. I use google instead, get confused by conflicting advice, and cry on the floor of his nursery while he joins me in wailing harmonies.

I sit on the chair beside the desk. I refuse to sit on the weird papered examining table like a patient. I came to get a referral. That’s all. A name and I’m out.

He enters the room and introduces himself, not smiling, barely making eye contact. I smile too widely to show I’m a happy, loving mother, that there’s nothing wrong. That is what everyone tells me they need to see. That, if I’m struggling, I must hate motherhood, must just not be good at it. I want so desperately to be good at it.

He begins to open fire. I am reduced to five questions, taken apart piece by piece and examined. Unfitting. Ill equipped. I feel mechanical, unhuman.

How often do you sleep? Well, not often, but I have a newborn, nervous chuckle.

Do you engage in my regular hobbies? If I could find the time or energy, I spiral, scrabble

Are you having regular intercourse with your husband? I –  I pick at the skin of my nail until it bleeds.

“How would you say you feel?” He turns to look at me at last. I heave a sigh of relief and decide for honesty.

“So incredibly tired. Some mornings I don’t want to get out of bed. I vomit before I’m able to accomplish anything. I love him so much, but he won’t stop crying, I just feel like I’m losing bits of myself…” I trail off and begin to dissolve.

He hands me a tissue and turns back to his computer, begins talking about prescriptions. How I’ll feel worse in the beginning, but it’s the right choice. I want to open my mouth, I just want someone to talk to, to ask if I get a choice, but I’ve withered.

Do you want to harm your child?

Amanda Marie Aardse lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her husband, toddler, and pleasantly round cat, where she is the third generation in her family’s custom woodworking business. She has spent her days riddled with nail biting anxiety and has nothing but a beautiful life to show for it.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen