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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts, pandemic

Theme & Style

July 23, 2021
theme

By Sara Gray 

The seminar was wrapping up.

“I want you to think about your poetry,” the poet said. “I want you to think about the themes running through your work, and how your style expresses those themes.”

The poet was a professor in her mid-30’s and would not have been giving a seminar via Zoom to a bunch of amateur poets if it wasn’t for the pandemic that had side-lined her own book tour and other, more prestigious teaching opportunities.

Marie wouldn’t have attended this seminar or any other if it wasn’t for Zoom and the pandemic as well. Instead, she would have been ferrying her children to hockey, soccer, and sleepovers.

For two hours, they had discussed poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver. They had analyzed the author’s word choice, the percentage of Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon root words, the number of adjectives. It had been so long since Marie had spoken to anyone about poetry. Her husband wasn’t interested in it; her children weren’t interested in her; her writing group was forced to delay their meetings because they weren’t allowed to leave their homes, and Betty didn’t know how to set up an online meeting.

For two hours Marie had listened, taken notes, and thought about nothing except poetry. She felt exhilarated, like she had drunk one too many coffees. Unfortunately, they had arrived at the point where they were supposed to ask questions.

The one benefit of everything pivoting to online was that she could, if she wanted to, leave early, turn off her camera, get a mug of tea. It was a little power, sure, but it was still a thrill. She never liked listening to other student’s questions. It was, perhaps, a cruel thought, but she always found the questions to be dumb or repetitive or a clear attempt to grab attention from a well-regarded author who, it was clear, had no real interest in answer the same inane questions she undoubtedly got at every seminar, whether in person or online.

Yes, Marie decided, she would simply leave.

“I can take questions now if –”

She pressed the leave meeting button, cutting the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet off mid-sentence, which also made her feel giddy. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the poet. In fact, she regarded her work highly, which was why she had signed up for the seminar in the first place, and why she bought and read all of her books even though between her job, children, and her husband, she really only had time to read about twelve books a year.

Twelve books. The thought made her anxious. How was she supposed to pick twelve books out of the hundreds that were published in a year and the millions – billions –that had been published before that? She tried make lists, recording names of authors mentioned at literary events or on Twitter. She kept lists of new releases and other, longer lists of books she hadn’t read yet. A copy of War and Peace glared at her resentfully from her bookshelf, knowing she would never touch it. But still, how did one choose?

She pushed back from her chair and pushed the thought away. She was not supposed to be thinking of her book-related anxiety. She was supposed to be thinking of her own work and how her style worked to express her themes.

She stood up. The floor was cold against her feet. Before she had been confined to her house, she hadn’t noticed the seasons change. One day it was summer – hot, humid – the next day, she was pulling sweatpants over her pyjama bottoms because she was cold. Now, even though she rarely left the house, she found herself noticing the small changes in weather. First, the days were shorter; then, the air-conditioning clicked off for the final time; the leaves were bruised and brittle on the branches, ready to fall; now, she was required to wear socks.

Perhaps she was noticing things like this because there was nothing else to observe. She no longer saw interesting people on the street because no one walked the street. Her social interactions were limited to her husband, her two children, and her sister (though they had stopped seeing her sister because she had read something on Facebook and now refused to wear a mask).

Marie wasn’t out of her husband’s office and already her mind was wondering away from the central question. How did her style impact her themes? The truth was, she wasn’t sure what her style was. She assumed if she wasn’t sure about this, it wasn’t coming across to her audience (which consisted of her husband, her sister, and the people in the Writers in Belville Facebook group she had joined).

Just as she was about to sit back down, the dryer buzzed. She left room and walked down the hall to the laundry room.

She had an open style, she decided. She didn’t like poetry she couldn’t understand. When poems made her feel something just by their rhythm or tension or whatever, she didn’t trust that feeling. If she couldn’t understand, then she couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds with the author.

She opened the washer. The laundry room smelled vaguely of cat litter. Jack, her 10-year old, had promised that if they got a cat, he would scoop its poop every night. Her husband thought it would teach him responsibility. Not surprising Marie – or any mother anywhere – Jack had cleaned the litter box once and had never done it again.

Marie pulled handfuls of wet clothes out of the washing machine. Cold water slipped down her fingers and wrist. The washer was not spinning as efficiently as it should be. The machine was getting old. Marie meant to call someone in to take a look at it, but the machine wasn’t completely broken and laundry kept getting done, so she continually put it off.

Anyway, the washing machine didn’t matter, she reminded herself as she separated out the clothing that went in the dryer from the clothing that needed to be hung to dry, what mattered was style and theme, and how they connected to one another in a poem.

In a writing class she attended once, a girl half her age had said that her poems were too direct. It was true that Marie rarely used rhetoric. Again, it was something she didn’t trust. People tended to gravitate towards similar turns of phrases, and they didn’t always work. In almost every one of her classmate’s pieces, someone ‘paled’ or ‘went pale’. Marie did not think the body worked that way. She had never gone white like that, and she was fairly sure colour did not drain out of one’s face when one was frightened. Maybe it did. But –

Footsteps in the hallway. Marie poked her head of the laundry room.

Rachel was walking by, a box of cookies in her hand. She was still wearing the pyjamas she slept in though it was almost dinner time. Marie hesitated. Rachel was twelve, meaning that everything Marie said or did was offensive, embarrassing, controlling, or otherwise unacceptable. Her daughter had been – still was? – a happy child with friends, good grades, and a wide range of extracurricular activities. It was harder to be all that when one wasn’t allowed to leave the house. Usually, half-way through a Saturday, she would be asking Marie if she could sleep over at a friend’s house, or if she could have friends over so they could gorge on pizza, soda and then fall asleep in front of horror movies while browsing the various social media accounts of the boys they liked and the girls they pretended hate but really admired.

Marie had worried about her daughter in those days as well, but if she was being honest with herself, she knew that Rachel was well-adjusted. Worrying simply felt part of her job as a mother, same as explaining the importance of deodorant and packing school lunches.

Now, though, the worry had transitioned to genuine concern which left Marie feeling like she was permanently free-falling off of a cliff. It was not a pleasant feeling. She didn’t know if she should take away the cookies and force Rachel to shower and put on a pair of jeans. Months ago, she would have said that would absolutely have been her response, but who was she kidding. There was no one reason to put on jeans, and cookies were one of the few joys left.

Rachel’s door closed.

Marie bent over and started to scoop the cat’s hard, sausage-like shits out of the litter box and into a crumpled up plastic bag. It was too late anyway. Rachel was in her room. She would spend the next few hours watching videos on Youtube or TikTok. In the before times, Marie didn’t have to monitor Rachel’s screen time, her kid had been far too busy working on her lines for the school play or doing her homework.

What if she didn’t get into college?

Marie tied the bag closed. Beans, the fluffy brown cat they had adopted from the animal shelter at the beginning of the year, trotted into the laundry room to check out his litter-box. Finding it clean, he ran his long body against Marie’s calves. She stroked his fur. It was the closest thing she got to a thank you these days.

Bag of shit in hand, she walked down the stairs to the foyer and slid on a pair of Jack’s flip-flops that were sitting by the door. Jack was only ten, but his shoes fit her feet perfect.

The last poem she had written was about Jack’s flip-flops. How his feet kept getting bigger. How he kept getting bigger, and she couldn’t stop it.

Themes. Style. The poetry world probably had an unkind word for middle-aged, suburban woman who wrote poetry about her children: saccharine, clichéd. They weren’t wrong. There was nothing about motherhood that she, Marie from Belleville, could possibly say that hadn’t been said before.

The excitement she had felt from the online seminar was starting to curdle. She felt like she often did in these moments: that she didn’t have a unique perspective on the world at all, that she was an interloper in the world of books and reading, and that she should, as quickly as possible, buy herself a t-shirt that said wine o’clock and curate her Pinterest boards while watching the Bachelorette. The thought made her feel small and translucent.

It was cold outside. The flip-flops did little against the cold. She was wearing thin sweatpants and a t-shirt. Her nipples, rebelling against the cold, pointed through the fabric. One arm across her chest, she jogged to the garbage can and dumped the garbage bag in the organics bin. In the bottom of the bin, she could see a few maggots wriggling around, clinging to life. Someone – her husband – had thrown old food directly into the bin without a bag. She would have to call waste management and have them sanitize the waste bins.

She wondered, as she returned to the house, if she really needed to do this. The maggots weren’t harming anyone. It was a waste bin. No one was expecting it to be sanitary. But she didn’t want anyone to notice. She didn’t want to become that lady with maggots in her garbage. To whom would it make a difference?

Was that the correct use of whom? She wasn’t sure. She slipped off her son’s flip-flops and walked across the cold hardwood floor to the kitchen. Someone had once said it was a pity that ‘whom’ was going out of fashion. That the ongoing whittling of the English language was restricting writers more-and-more to subject-verb-object sentences: I eat carrots. I is the subject. Eat is the verb. Object is the carrots. It had taken Marie a long time to figure that out. She wasn’t entirely convinced that it mattered, that the on-going whittling of the English language was, in fact, something she should concern herself with.

She turned on the tap and washed her hands for government-mandated 20-seconds. The soap she bought was purchased in bulk from Costco at the beginning of the pandemic. It was the last variety available. It smelled harshly of chemical green apple. She hated it, but wasting something like soap seemed cruel and ungrateful.

Her husband would get mad as well. Not that he would get mad mad. Bob was a mild-mannered man whose idea of rage was a disappointed shake of the head. Still, she doesn’t like to add to the stress. Like many other people, he lost his job. It was not a good time to be a city planner, not with construction slowed to a halt and projects deferred.

Marie turned off the tap. They were luckier than most. They had some savings and Marie had found part-time work answering calls from people and business confused about what kind of government assistance was available to them. Those calls put things in perspective. Mothers called looking for directions to the food bank so they could feed their children, apologizing as they did so, explaining it was their first time, that they were trying to get work.

Marie dried her hands on the clean towel. Thinking of food banks, of Bob and his ‘employment situation’ was like waking an angry barking dog inside of her. The dog was fear and it was barely restrained, ready to break free and ruin her carefully maintained garden of mental health.

Marie screwed up her eyes. This was she didn’t love metaphors. Fear wasn’t a barking dog. It was her hormones squirting chemicals into her bloodstream. This squirting was supposed to help her, but it was not.

Themes and style, she remembered, that’s what she had been thinking about. The poet had instructed them all to think about what they couldn’t say in their work, what ground their projects forbade them to tread simply by their nature. A Hallmark movie, for example, would not end in divorce. Marie thought there was a lot of ideas her work was incapable of exploring: mathematical axioms; the eight minutes and 48 seconds George Floyd spent on the ground, dying.

Marie stopped listing things. It didn’t seem right to put anything after George Floyd’s death. Her neighbourhood book club had decided to read How to Be an Anti-Racist at their last book club meeting. Jack and Rachel – seeing celebrities and kids their own age on social media taking to the streets – had insisting upon going to the marches, and Marie had insisted upon accompanying them. She carried her own Black Lives Matter sign, but she came more of out of a need to monitor her own children, than out of a desire to be part of the resistance. At first, she had been uncertain, both of her welcome and of the wisdom of protesting in a pandemic. Thoughts buzzed around like flies in her head: what if they all got each other sick? Am I too complicit to be here? What if things get violent?

But, she had neither been welcomed not rejected. She was drop in the sea of people who were walking through the streets. There was no violence. Everyone was masked. Children, too young to understand what was happening, sat atop their parent’s shoulders and occasionally clapped or squealed. She wondered, as she often did, what the protests looked like to the littlest children, what they understood the cacophony of shouts, cheers, signs, and people to be.

Despite the new reading list, her book club had not approved of Marie attending the march (dangerous, looting, etc.). Marie had learned something she thought be very important, which was that talking about property damage after someone was murdered was, at best, tone deaf, at worst, violence itself. It was one of those thoughts that seemed so obvious to her once she heard it, that she could hardly remember seeing the situation another way. Marie tried to share this with her book club, and it had not gone well.

They seemed to think that she was saying that she didn’t care at all about the looting and rioting. Marie tried to explain that it wasn’t that she didn’t care, it was just that she cared about people more than property, and they should keep the conversation centered on the harm done by police and white supremacy.

Her voice had shaken as she said this, partly because she was a nervous public speaker, but also because Bev’s husband was a police officer, and she could see the woman scowling, and because whenever anyone said ‘white supremacy’, Irene puffed up and threatened tears, acting like someone had accused her of trying to join the Third Reich.

Since she was in the kitchen, Marie pulled out the alfredo sauce and linguine from the cupboard. She opened the fridge. There was nothing in the fridge but containers of yogurt, cheese, and rows of condiments. Tomorrow, she would have to don a mask and brave the grocery story. She had always hated grocery shopping, and she despised it now. The freaks refusing to wear masks came too close to her in line, and the odd empty spaces on the shelves that made it feel like they were at the beginning of the end times.

Marie opened the freezer. The package of shrimp was sitting there, slightly freezer-burned. She had forgotten to transition it from freezer to fridge this morning. She swore to herself, took the package over to the sink and started to run it under cool water.

She thought about book club as the cold water ran over the shrimp and her hands. The conversation had devolved into an odd sort of pissing contest where each woman reiterated the horrible things their parents had said about Black people and how they felt scared to say the wrong thing now. Some of them cried. Marie looked around and came to the conclusion that there was not much to be gained from a bunch of white women whipping themselves up into a self-indulgent hysteria and suggested they read Transcendent Kingdom for their next book club pick. Perhaps, Marie thought, they would all do better with fiction.

She turned the water up. She knew she was supposed to defrost shrimp in cold water, but never understood why and she didn’t relish the thought of standing there for twenty minutes, her fingers in murky, cool water.

What we she supposed to be thinking about: Theme? Style? If Marie thought about it, she wouldn’t have been quite to remember the joy she had felt at the end of the seminar. Each emotional state restricts a person’s imagination. It is hard to remember joy when one is miserable and vise-versa. She wiped her damp hands on the cloth, then started to collect the ingredients: salt, chili peppers, pepper, olive oil.

It wasn’t that she was better than the women from book club. She was just less certain than they were about who she was and what was right even though she supposed that, at 56, she should have worked all of that out. Their certainty pounded against her like hail, stinging and confusing her. Irene, for example, was so certain she was a good person with a good heart. Marie was never certain whether she herself was right and good.

The shrimp were defrosted. She started to unpeel the them, pulling the crusty shell off of each one and dropping them into a glass bowl that held chili flakes, oil, and cilantro.

Sometimes, she thought of her children as old people, sixty, or, god-willing, eighty years in the future. Obviously, she would be dead. They would be nearing the end of their lives. It was weird that she would not be there with them for decades potentially. That they would have years of life and she simply wouldn’t know about them. That they would get sick and die and she wouldn’t be there to help them. Sometimes, she worried herself by wondering if, by the time they got to heaven, they would even recognize one another. The thought made her want to cry.

Her phone buzzed. The red CNN logo just visible. 200,000 thousand Americans had died from COVID-19. She stood in the kitchen, her hands cold and wet from the shrimp she had been peeling. Her screen went black. The update disappearing like it had never been there at all.

“Mom, is dinner ready?” Rachel yelled from her room.

Marie jumped like her daughter had just prodded her with a cattle prod. Marie cleared her throat and dried her hands on the crumpled tea towel.

“30 minutes, sweetie,” she called back.

“OK.”

Rachel’s door shut again. From the living room, Marie could hear the swoosh of lightsabers coming from the living room. Jack was watching Star Wars again. Bob was in his office, she knew, looking for jobs with more-and-more desperation. Last time she was cleaning in his office, he had left his computer on, and she had seen an application for a position as a Claims Adjuster at an Insurance Company. He had been Regional Manager of Consumer Marketing for a large national movie chain before the virus, and he had loved his job. He had always loved movies and television.

On their first date, he had taken her to a drive-in. She couldn’t remember the movie now, but she remembered that he had known everything: who the director was, who the writer was, the producer, and all their previous works. She never paid attention to that stuff and was impressed by his passion.

He did not, as far as she knew, love insurance.

She put the shrimp in the pan and pushed them around with a wooden spoon she had bought on a whim from Williams Sonoma back when they could afford to splurge on things like that.

The oil hissed and popped. She was probably cooking it at too-high a temperature, but she didn’t care. For a moment, she wanted to burn dinner, if only because she wanted to burn something.

She turned the heat down, measured out some rice, water and salt and set it to boil in a separate pot. Not in any mood to make salad, she poured some frozen peas into a microwave-safe bowl and filled it with water. That would have to do.

She dried her hands again and picked up her phone. The CNN news banner was still there, reminding her of the death toll. Her finger hovered about it. It felt like her duty, as a citizen, to read the article, but what more was there to say than was already written in the headline. People were dying because of selfish people led by a selfish man.

She had a friend on Facebook, a Trump supporter who, after posting multiple mask-related conspiracy theories, received a barrage of critical messages. She beseeched her Facebook friends to ‘look at her heart’ and treat her with respect and then moments later posted a meme claiming pro-choice Democrats wanted to kill babies.

They were no longer friends. Trying to be friends with someone like that was like trying to befriend a cartoon, there were too many layers of ridiculousness to work through. Still, it was one less friend. A friend Marie had known since high school. Those were hard, perhaps impossible, to replace.

Marie sighed. Theme and style, that was what she was supposed to be thinking of, wasn’t it?

Jack came in from the living room, the movie still playing, and took a swig of milk from the carton.

“Honey, use a glass,” Marie said automatically.

“We all share the same DNA,” he said in that petulant manner of teenage boys who think they know everything.

Marie didn’t protest further. If she had learned anything other the past few months, it was how to pick her battles.

“Dinner will be ready soon,” she said.

He passed her and gave her a kiss on the cheek, smiling sheepishly when she looked at him with surprise.

“I’ll get Rachel,” he said, disappearing out of the room as fast as he came.

She listened to his feet thump up the stairs and opened her phone. The Belleville Writer’s Collective was offering another writing workshop next weekend. The guest author had been short-listed for the National Book Award, so Marie assumed they were talented (Marie had their book on her shelf, but had not had time to actually read it).

She wouldn’t have time to read the book before the workshop, though she would try. She likely would not have time to work out what she thought about theme and style or whatever it was she was supposed to be thinking about (the words from the first workshop were already starting to fade from memory).

She clicked the enrol button. She put her phone down and stirred the shrimp.

Sara lives in Toronto with her fiancée and cat. She has previously been published in the York Literary Review and Tishman Review and others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, running, and planning vacations she can no longer take.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Adoption, Guest Posts

Born of Stars, This Love of Mine

July 22, 2021
stars

by Amy Sayers 

I held her in my arms, not believing all 6.8 pounds of her was real. For months she came to me in meditation, in visions, in my breath. But here she was in the flesh and perfect, all ten toes and ten perfectly slender fingers. Satin cheeks and searching eyes. What do you see, I wanted to ask—What are you thinking? Why is your brow furrowed? Then her belly peaked in a tent-like contraction. Was it a cramp? Was it hunger, gas? Or grief…

The bellowing began. The tubes and bottles from the breast pump tugged with her sucking but to no avail. All my dreams of loving and being loved by this child expired like air hissing out of a balloon. Not being able to feed her from my body made me feel a complete failure. I held her and rocked her, from her opening scream till the noontime nap. I walked her on my body, bathed her skin to skin, slept with her on my chest, wondering, what had I done.

Who was I to adopt this baby from her birth mother? Clearly she was missing her birthmom’s particular scent, the timbre of her voice, her touch. I struggled, knowing scent was primal, something that was part of her DNA, something I couldn’t replicate. Only in time would she come to recognize mine.

Colic can be digestive, allergies, fussiness—they don’t always know. I tend to think it was grief. And all I knew to combat it was steady love. So I held her, I sat in the swing and I sang the one lullaby I knew. I walked with her, I concocted home made formula, store-bought Whole Food’s colostrum, but nothing worked. I finally relied on the packaged formula, which probably had sugar in it and god knows what else, but she had to eat. She had to sleep. And so did I.

We made the mistake of reading the Ferber book which advocates letting your child cry themselves to sleep. It was hideous. No grace. No laughter. No song. No. Love. She’d make herself physically ill, throwing up, coughing, or an explosion of diarrhea. It was too much.

I said to my husband, “This doesn’t feel right. It’s not just belligerence. I’m convinced its grief. She needs to know she’s safe. She needs to feel love. This, for the rest of her life.”

Attachment is so crucial in the first months. And so we took turns sleeping with her, sometimes she snuggled in the middle, sometimes she slept with my husband, mostly with me, sleeping skin to skin. In time, the blankie served as a pacifier, in addition to the ‘bubba’, but she didn’t relinquish her bottle until she turned four. We then had to do a ceremony so that Blues-Clues wouldn’t feel abandoned. We wrapped him in tissue, sprinkled him with rose-petals, covered him in a fairy-box and sent him off in care of the angels.

Ceremony helped. Tough love is hard. I realized in an instant, I wanted it to be easy, without pain, pure and dazzling, mine to hers and hers to me. We had moments of that, along with laughter, song, dance and stories. Always stories. Birth stories, creation stories, and the hard questions that followed. The grief-stricken, angry, belligerent “you’re not my real mom” cry. The marking and cutting and other demons that broke her into her many scattered selves. The painful times where I felt so helpless, again, as to how to give sanctuary while she flailed in the darkness. Still, I continued to hold space and to listen. I offered therapists, healers, and for all the compassion, affection and love, I still couldn’t take away the pain. That being the hardest lesson to learn about love.

Now she’s finding her way, making her own discoveries and our affirmations and prayers continue. She is a gift, my beam of light, my inspiration. But she is not of me, she is of her own soul. She came from the stars. She was born of my dreams. That is how she came through. This is love and I hope I am blessed to have it dazzle for years to come.

Amy Sayers is a mother, writer, artist, healer, and Pilates Instructor. Her memoir, TINY WHITE DRESSES is a synthesis of life events, a culmination of dreams and visions that led to the adoption of her daughter, Marika. She lives in Santa Fe, NM with her British husband and their two dogs. Amy is currently working on a novel with her editor, Alice Anderson, while querying her memoir. Amy paints in her free time and has exhibited in local galleries. Her essays have been published in local anthologies and magazines, as well as Manifest-Station—a chapter from the memoir called PLATTER OF ORANGES.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, Relationships

Half Life

July 21, 2021
ocd

by Ronica Hagerty

Another evening, sitting on the couch, after cleaning the dishes, and I feel numb.  Finally, today was a normal day.  I was resting through the calm after the last storm, and wondering when the next one will be.

He is in the bathroom getting ready for bed.  I hear the water running from the faucet, then it is turned off, then it runs again, then it is off, on, off, on and off for 15 minutes.

How many times does he have to wash his hands!

But these aren’t rituals to be questioned. They just are.  We have been married for 18 years.  Ever since Adam was born, we stopped going to bed together.  I brush my teeth, wash my face and get under the covers.  Gone are the days when I waited for him.

I imagine taking my life. I am half-living anyway. I quickly expel the idea like a cancer. I have to be here for Adam.  Robert was his age when the symptoms came on, like a shark chewing him up, depriving him of all foolishness of a teenager, then spitting him out into a jungle of anxiety for life.

Hold it together. Someone’s got to keep it together.

There’s a rhythm to this house.  At 5 am I hear the newspaper hit the driveway.  At 7:30 I wake up Adam and fix breakfast.  The highway two miles away hums like a lullaby that gives way to birds chirping at dawn and dusk. There are meals to make, homework to do, and throw pillows to arrange neatly on the couch– nightly routines that keep the contours of this middle-class family pretense intact.

But the rhythm of this house is broken.  I haplessly watch the neighbors’ dog sneak into our backyard through the tunnel under the fence. The ugly rascal is smaller than a cat and chases the squirrels up the big oak.

I read Robert’s face at the onset of another episode.  His brows closer together, his eyes glazed over, his hair oily.  He spins with the overwhelm of a last breath before his mind is drowned by worry.  I harden.  There’s dinner to be made, homework to be done and my throw pillows to be arranged before going to bed.  And, there’s a man to catch at the end of this episode.

I remember the night he told me he had OCD twenty years ago.  We made love then cooked in my small downtown apartment. The living room was dimly lit.  The round glass-top dining table he helped me move days before our first kiss fit perfectly in the corner. We sat for dinner, still in our bathrobes, and with a finished plate in front of him, he took my hand, leaned forward, and said “I have something to tell you.”  Smitten I was, I leaned in and said “What is it?”

“I have OCD. You know what that is?” His hands were sweaty.

My Indian friend from college instantly popped in my head. Her younger brother would go around the house turning all the light switches on and off before bedtime.  “He has OCD,” she told me.  It was a child’s thing. Harmless.

“Ok. Yes, I know what OCD is,” I said back.

“You do?!” he exclaimed.

“So what?” I said.  “That doesn’t change anything.”   He smiled and kissed my hand.

Odd behaviors became familiar… checking his reflection in the rearview mirror while driving, then checking it again looking at the dinner knife at a friend’s wedding.  Sneaking behind me every time we approach a public door so that I end up the one touching the knob.  Heck! Nothing to lose a good man over.

He is a handsome California man of Bostonian stock going back to Harvard lawyers of antebellum Massachusetts.  I laughed on our first date like I hadn’t in months. Being with him was restorative. He quickly introduced me to his family.  Tall men and beautiful women.  I felt at home, and I desperately wanted to stay there.

Robert wakes up several times a night. He quietly walks to the bathroom.  I hear the water running. It stops, and it restarts again. On and off for a good while. He tiptoes back to bed, and carefully gets under the cover so to not touch the wrong thing.

I curled up to him once after one of those mid-night runs. As my breath got heavier, he gently wrangled himself out of my embrace and got out of bed.  I heard the water running again, on and off for another 10 minutes. He was back in bed, careful not to wake me up.  He had to wash me off.  My heart wept that night. I vowed not to do that to him again.

I no longer curl up to him.  He doesn’t mind.

Ronica Hagerty is an immigrant American of Egyptian origin. A mother, wife, friend, and an executive coach who believes in destiny and our power to make something of it. She is inspired by transitions and what it means to cope. Her claims to fame in public writing are an opinion piece in an Egyptian daily, a letter to the editor in the New York Times (yes, small but made her son quite proud! :)), and personal reflections on her dad’s unwavering optimism.

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


Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Home, memories

Memory and Loss Where a House Once Stood

July 20, 2021
house

By Gina Coplon-Newfield

My mother texted me a photo of an unfamiliar house. When I recognized the slope of the hill, I gasped with realization. My modest childhood home was gone, replaced by a McMansion.

I haven’t lived in that house for 27 years. I wish I could better trust the reliability of my memories from inside it, but I know which memories are from before and after grief moved in.

I can picture my father at our dining room table pouring over maps, trying to determine the perfect driving routes for our national park vacations. There too, he paid the bills and created my soccer team line-up. He grew up in rural Georgia in the 1950s where soccer was an unfamiliar sport, so coaching girls’ soccer in suburban Boston in the 1980s was something he studied like a new language.

I recall one dinner when my sister and I, at ages two and five, were laughing at the silly names we were brainstorming for our new puppy. My mother exclaimed with her pointer finger skyward, “That’s it, Feathers! Golden retrievers have hair like feathers.” But it’s possible I remember it that way because my mom often makes exuberant exclamations, or I’ve seen a photo of us in the kitchen that morphed into that memory.

I can summon a scene –like a movie- of Feathers sneaking into the living room, taking my dad’s wallet from the table, chewing it to bits, and looking sheepishly at my dad when he entered the room. My dad started yelling at her, but then he stopped, having realized she was just a puppy, and took her for a walk. Or at least, years later, that’s the way I told my children that story over and over when they were little. They loved hearing it. Had it really happened that way?

Memory is a curious thing.

I can picture myself at 14, struggling through a math assignment at the kitchen table. My dad urged me to approach it one section at a time rather than get overwhelmed by the entirety. I interpreted this as not just a logistical way to think, but also a calming way to feel about what I needed to accomplish. One step at a time, I tell myself regularly even now in my 40s when I’m facing a difficult work project or just staring down a mountain of dirty dishes. My dad was a psychiatrist. He likely often repeated this kind of guidance, but for some reason, I only remember him sharing it this one time.

My dad died of a sudden heart attack at age 47. My sister, age 12, and I at 15 were at sleep-away camp. Our mom shared the grim news with us in the camp owner’s living room. We screamed in horror.

When we returned home, the house felt completely different. On my dad’s bedside table, I saw Night, Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir. I wondered if he had read it on my recommendation and what he thought of it. I realized I’d never get to discuss the book -or anything- with him again.

I can picture my paternal grandmother lumbering up our steps that day. I thought this is what a broken person looks like.

After the funeral, I was sitting in my bedroom with an older cousin on my dad’s side who said, “Your dad was the glue that held our family together.” I remember thinking this was the new kind of grown-up conversation I’d need to get used to having.

That week when family and friends poured into our house with food, and our rabbi led nightly services in our living room, I learned that the Hebrew mourner’s kaddish prayer actually doesn’t mention death. Rather, it describes our belief in an awesome God that makes life possible. Learning this made me feel like life was more powerful than death. Reciting the prayer felt like a small act of resistance, like I wasn’t going to let death win.

In the years that followed, the absence of my father felt like a presence just as formidable as a living person. There my dad was not at our dinner table making corny jokes. There he was not sharing the gratification of me making the varsity soccer team after his years of coaching. There he was not sitting with my mom at the edge of my bed looking at college brochures. There he was at bedtime not saying “love ya” in his southern twang. This absence of him made our house feel heavy.

The walls of my childhood home did go on to contain some joyful memories during this after period. Close friends often slept over, and we talked into the night. On my 18th birthday, my mom made me a cake topped with icing in the shape of a ballot box. At 19, I brought home my college boyfriend –now husband of 21 years. My mom likes to recount how I was trying to leave, but he said, “No, let’s have a cup of tea with your mom.” Kiss-ass.

There are countless experiences that occurred inside that house –wonderful, terrible, and mundane– that I will never remember.

In my twenties, my mom sold the house and moved to Boston with Bob, the kind man who would become her new husband.

In my thirties, I became a mom. We named our first daughter Farah, choosing the “F” in honor of my dad Fredric. When Farah’s younger sister Dori was a toddler, I was once telling her a light-hearted story about my father –perhaps the one about Feathers eating his wallet– and Dori burst out crying. She sobbed it wasn’t fair that I got to know my dad, but she never did. I was amazed that my daughter felt so strongly the loss of a relationship she never had.

When I turned 40, my high school friend Abbie flew in from Michigan to surprise me. We drove the twenty-five minutes from Cambridge, where I live now, to Lexington where we knocked on the door of my childhood home. Farah, then nine, came along. No one answered the door when we knocked, but I felt comfort knowing the house was there, the vessel of my fortunate childhood and the painful intensity of my late adolescence.

Perhaps this is why I was so affected by the photo my mom texted me after she learned from friends of our demolished house. My memories felt more vulnerable because the house was gone.

Soon before Covid-19 prevented in-person gatherings, Dori stood next to me at a friend’s Bat Mitzvah. At the end of the service, we recited kaddish in honor of those who had passed. Dori looked up at me and said, “don’t die.” “OK,” I said, tearing up because we both knew this was an impossible agreement.

With some disbelief, I realize that my daughters are now the same ages my sister and I were when our home became a house of mourning.

My husband and I, too, are about the same age my parents were when my dad died and my mom became a widow. I am nearly the age my mom was when she successfully, quickly fought off uterine cancer, avoiding the early death my dad could not escape at so-called middle age.

I worry my kids might experience loss like I did, aware that life can be taken or not taken at any time –by the likes of a heart attack, cancer, or a pandemic. All we can do, of course, is treat life as a gift, though sometimes that’s hard to keep top of mind.

I wonder which memories of joy and pain my children will keep from our house as they get older. I am realizing each memory is not a solid thing, but rather something re-shaped, lost, or cherished over time.

house

Gina Coplon-Newfield is an environmental and social justice advocate. She has published a case study about environmental advocacy with Harvard Law School, written many recent blog articles about clean transportation issues, and is quoted regularly in the media in such outlets as the New York Times, Bloomberg News, and Politico. This is her first venture into writing a personal narrative for a public audience (since a few overly serious poems in college). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. She can be found on Twitter @GinaDrivingEV.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Relationships, Starting Over

Turning Around

July 19, 2021
year

by Monica Garry

The other day I was driving down a road by the river that all of a sudden came to a dead end. There was no warning for the road closure until it happened, which was totally fucking inconvenient given that this particular road was one that stretched no wider than 20 feet. I muttered through what must’ve been an entire library of curse words while making an 8 point turn-around, only to find myself facing one of the most stunning views.

The sun, which we don’t get much of in February in Minnesota, was blaring through the trees, just about to set; leaving all of the snow and the big silver buildings that sat just by the waters edge blindingly glistening in its reflection – the sky bluer than I’d seen her in months – and amongst all of the snow and ice, on my right, sat one small patch of rock that the sun had warmed just enough to let water pour down its edge. As I began driving, following the sun blindly, a smile stretched across my face, I realized that this is exactly what life had been doing for the last year. That today wasn’t the first time it had stopped me in my tracks.

I thought about how my three-year relationship had ended, how the pandemic hadn’t allowed me to see my family, how my mom’s relapse had landed her at rock bottom, how I felt burnt out at work. But I thought, really, about how my break up gave me the space, freedom and, frankly, fear, that I needed in order to find myself again. I thought about how even though I couldn’t see my family physically, I’ve spoken to them more in the last year than I had the previous two years combined. How my mom‘s relapse had brought about incredible healing and strength, how I’m closer with her now than I have been in a long time.

I thought about how my burn out at work stemmed from a lack of connection, and how this had allowed me to see how truly accessible connection is, how I just needed to actively seek it; to actively participate in it. I thought about how many new places I had found and felt profound amounts of love.  I thought about how all of these challenges were really just life forcing me to change course. Because left to our own devices, we humans tend to miss out on the really good parts of life – the parts that come from the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable.

So, here’s my advice: if life turns you around, let it. It’s going to feel like it’s being a bitch, and truthfully, it’s probably going to hurt like one. But once you get there, you’ll realize it’s doing just what it did for me that day, what it did for me that entire year, and what it’ll do for all of us hundreds of more times to come – making sure we don’t miss out on the really good stuff.

Monica is a community mental health worker, currently living and working in Minneapolis. Aside from this work, she has a passion for writing. This past year and a half, with all of it’s tragedies and hopes, have inspired this piece.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, Miscarriage

Porcelain

July 18, 2021
letter

CW: This essay discusses miscarriage.

by Cammie Clark

“Yours is the light by which my spirit’s born;
you are my sun, my moon and all my stars.”
~ e.e. cummings

This is a letter to the tile floor in my bathroom––hexagonal and white, grouted a dingy grey. I sit on the toilet, connecting imaginary shapes in the inch-sized pieces beneath my feet. Maybe the tiles are porcelain––they’re always cold––but they’re original, laid into the home about 100 years ago. I live here with my husband and daughter; we don’t own it, but we dream about it. I’m careful of the tiles in here and also of the hardwood floors throughout the rest of the house. I wipe things up immediately––splashes of water, spilled coffee, bodily fluids.

Or maybe this is a letter to the sky blue painted walls of our bedroom, a dreamy color I did not pick but love to get lost in. 375 weeks ago I posted my first post on Instagram––it was a view of these walls from where I lay in bed. I simply captioned it, “Blue”. Because it was and I was, and I laid there for a long time, but this isn’t a letter to the color blue.

I don’t like to turn onto my left side while I sleep––mostly it’s uncomfortable, but I’d also have to contend with my husband’s snoring much too close for my liking as he sleeps on the left side of the bed. Sometimes in the morning, after he is in the shower and the sun has come up and brightened the blue walls of our bedroom, I’ll roll over to my left side and reach my hand out to touch the spot where he was laying––warm still. Just a glance past his pillow hangs a framed graphic print of the stars in the sky, as they appeared on the night of December 5, 2013. This is definitely a letter to that framed print. At the bottom, a quote from e.e. cummings.

This is a letter to my anxiety, and to the morning of Dec. 6, 2013, when I think that something is not quite right. It was still early––too early, except what I mean is there was no sun up yet, no blue walls, no shower or warm spot. I propped myself up––it was too early for me too, at 17 weeks pregnant, to feel not quite right. What was moving? No, what was the movement that was happening inside me? I walked halfway down our short hall and quickly returned, each step agonizing. This is a letter to the edge of the doorway, to the edge of our bed, to the edge of my sanity.

My husband, annoyed by the hall light and by my indecision to go to the bathroom or not, “What’s up? It’s 5:30 in the morning?” he had groaned. “I don’t know––I don’t know, something doesn’t feel right. Just let me go pee.” For a moment, I felt fine and I stood fine, but each step brought a familiar radiating pain that reached around my back and clamped down––hard––into my pelvis. The pain was coming in waves and I was like a wave, ebbing back and forth in the hallway, attempting to drift into my bathroom, unsure if this was all just nothing. I sat on the toilet taking deep breaths–––I counted tiles, then traced shapes like geometric hearts and geometric flowers with their outlines.

This is a letter to my entire bathroom, to its walls and pedestal sink––a place that held me. When something warm and small slid out of me I breathed a sigh of relief when it wasn’t red and for the briefest of moments, everything paused––there was no pain, no early morning nature sounds outside the window, just a magnitude of nothing pressing deep into my ears––I didn’t even move or exhale. I didn’t exhale because I couldn’t, not with the sudden terror and racing heart beat when I realized that the small, yellowish sack that slid out of me was the mucus plug from my uterus.

This is a letter of inevitability.

But I think this letter is also to my body, how it did what a woman’s body does, and with my uterus clamped down into contraction after contraction, I steadied myself over the toilet. I glanced with a fury toward the door, beautiful and ornate as it was but pissed off by the antique door knobs with locks that no longer functioned. I tried not to alarm my husband in that moment because this is also a letter to his childhood trauma and to his sobriety and how if he opened that fucking door I knew all of this would break him, my sweet husband.

I write this letter on behalf of myself, as the woman in the moment, trying not to scream in agony too loud, trying to control the level of terror and disconnect that was taking place in my mind, so much so that I placed both my hands over my mouth, one atop the other, only to release them to say through clenched teeth and sobs: “Don’t you open that door, Timothy! Don’t you open it!”

And him pleading from the other side, “Just tell me what to do––I don’t know––please.“

There was no such thing as time in that moment. So this is a letter to lost time––how my body got it wrong, or maybe got it right, and what I believe about it now is wrong. The physical agony suddenly stopped, but still, I didn’t exhale––because I couldn’t, that racing heartbeat came back as I peered down and saw our baby, still connected to me, swinging upside down from between my legs as I half stood, half propped myself up on the edge of our sink. So much time––lost.

Where do you send a letter like this? To god? Do I write it and then burn into the sky? Or should I consume it––like the way it keeps consuming me?

This is a letter to trauma, to my disjointed self. There is a version of me that only exists in this moment––and she never comes forward with me in time, she’s stuck back there in that bathroom with the beautiful tile. This house, in my mind, comes to me like a diorama, the roof removed and I peer in over the edge. Inside, I am a carefully felted doll––fibers poked and compressed together by pins––save for one long stray thread that’s dangling away from me, unravelling.

“Timothy, get me a plastic bag, hand it to me through the door please.”

“Should I call 911?”

“No, there’s no time. We need to drive ourselves––now.” This is a letter to my curious mind that read book after book about pregnancy risks and knew that an undetached placenta––a placenta accreta––could become a life or death situation very quickly. This is a letter to my grade school daughter, who would be driving by our house with her dad that morning, on her way to school, and did not need to see an ambulance parked out front. This is a letter to my hands and the careful way they cradled our baby like a broken bird, first in the plastic and then a bath towel, still attached to me between my legs. I tucked the baby bird infant against my pelvis and pulled my elastic pajama pants way over the top and waddled out to the car.

“Drive.”

This is a letter to the gurney that was rushed to me in a panic as I stumbled in through the emergency room doors, doubled over and mumbling, and to the nurse’s horrified face when I said “My baby fell out of me” in wretched sobs, my body folding around itself. And that diorama of my home exploding into the deepest recesses of my mind as I imagined splintered pieces of tile and wood and plaster piercing memories of birthdays and holidays past, every precious moment torn asunder.

I thought this letter might also be for the skeptical nurse who questioned the plastic bag, demanding to know what happened–––as if I had done something to our baby–––but there is no letter that comes to mind, only broken pieces of a diorama that no longer resembles a home, and I think maybe if the nurse had just taken my hand, she would have felt the little bits of plaster and tile and wood and understood why I could not fathom my husband wandering out to his car while I lay in a hospital bed and having to wipe the contents of my womb off the passenger seat of our car. Surely even she would see that this is a letter to an almost father.

Perhaps more than anything, this is a letter for my first home: my mother–––I really need my mother; all children do.

But now, this is only a letter to memory. Every now and then, I’ll lay down on that cold, porcelain tile, all of its geometry leaving mathematical indentations on my skin––my body attaching to home like we are being felted together. It’s me looking back up at me, from the bottom of the diorama––like our baby became this place, and this place forever holds me. It is a kindness I’ve imagined for myself.

This is a letter to 375 weeks, to constellations and going home.

Cammie Clark is a Creative Nonfiction student at UCLA, currently workshopping her memoir about being raised by disabled parents while living off the grid in Yosemite National Park. Clark’s work has been published online at The Rumpus, Salon, The Woolfer and Medium, as well as in print for several Bay Area newspapers. She is a professional member of PEN America and is a part of their Prison Writing Mentor Program. She lives with her husband in Half Moon Bay. To see a sampling of her published work, go to to cammieclark.contently.com.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Can’t

July 16, 2021
christine

By Lauren Anton

You’re turning thirteen tomorrow. It’s time to act like it.

She looked around her pink and white bedroom. Pink: her favorite color. Her journal, also pink, with a picture of a pretty little girl on it, surrounded by flowers. She had gotten her period, as if on cue, the day before. When she went to tell her mother, she had handed a pad to her, unceremoniously. Her dad had hugged her for no reason that morning.

It was all pretty awkward. But still. She took the event and her upcoming birthday as a sign that things needed to change.

No more being loud. No more tomboy. You need to be quiet and pretty.

She thought back to the times when she would hang out with Natalie, prowling the mall for guys.

At least that’s what Natalie was doing.

“Did you see that guy?”

Never.

“He’s so cute! I think he was looking at me.”

According to Natalie, they always were.

They would then follow the guy (or guys) around, while she became increasingly more anxious, when she would eventually duck into a bookstore to read magazines, not books. She was trying to figure out how to be a pretty girl who attracts boys. She would stand there for an hour, waiting for Natalie to be done with her guy-hunting, reading magazines like Seventeen, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan not for enjoyment, but for the task of research.

It didn’t seem to sink in.

No matter how many quizzes she took, she didn’t naturally have the eye that Natalie – and all the pretty girls in her class – had.

Even if she did attract a boy, she didn’t know what to do. She liked her guy friends in class, but never seemed to like the guys that she was told were “looking” at her.

She felt that she had been left behind in fifth grade, when they had “Family Life” – sex ed in Catholic school. She had hidden behind her book when they learned about “intercourse,” lest she make eye contact with any other human being.

“Intercourse” was defined as “a man placing his penis in the woman’s vagina, with the hopeful outcome of conception of a new human life, within a loving marriage.” The book went on to say that it was a “precious gift from God” and was to be “held with the deepest respect.”

Meaning never done outside of marriage.

The daydreams, as she called them, started when the “Family Life” classes started. She would spend hours fantasizing about being a boy in a relationship with a girl, having sex with her, getting married, having a family. Her imagination was expansive, which was important, as she didn’t know that girls could masturbate.

She thought only boys could do that.

In fact, the book had been so centered on the penis and ejaculation (and other words that made her want to die when she heard them), she didn’t realize girls could have an orgasm and that there was something called a clitoris.

She had no clue about her own body.

And so the daydreams where she was a boy having sex with a girl continued for over two years.

The penis was all she knew.

Her pen hovered and then drove into the paper.

You need to stop these daydreams.

Her sexual fantasies that she called daydreams because she didn’t know what sexual fantasies were or that she could have them.

She didn’t know why she had the daydreams. She just knew she couldn’t stop and found her mind on them, not even realizing how long she had been thinking about it. She just knew they were bad and had to stop. She had to find a way.

She remembered what happened two years ago in her pink and white room on her frilly twin bed. Her cheeks burned with the shame.

They had just started “Family Life” and her friend Christine had come over to spend the night. It had been a normal visit, nothing noteworthy. Dinner, playing games up in her room, talking, until her mother had told her it was time to get ready for bed.

When the lights were off, they continued to talk, as ten-year-old girls do, in the dim light of the nightlight.

The topic of “Family Life” came up and how embarrassing it was.

But she wasn’t feeling embarrassed.

She was feeling…like she did in the daydream.

“We should practice.”

Christine was nervous about this so she offered that they could leave out the kissing. She was secretly bummed by this but realized that compromise was needed.

And so, she lived out her daydream in her pink bed, in her pink and white room. At ten years old.

She didn’t know she could float, but she did.

When her eyes were woken by the sun shining through the split in the curtains, she looked over at her friend, still asleep. She shifted to her side to watch the ray of sun creep up Christine’s body under the covers, her blonde hair in wisps around her face, until at last the sun reached her eyes. She blinked herself awake.

“Morning.” She smiled.

“Hey.”

Christine immediately got up, taking her change of clothes in the bathroom. Her stomach had a tiny pang of fear which she quickly shoved away and instead got dressed, taking her cue from Christine.

When Christine came back in the room, she sat on the edge of the bed, her gaze on the floor. She sat beside her, a respectful three feet away. Her body sent off alarm bells.

“What we did last night was wrong. We should never do it again.”

There was a moment when she couldn’t really see and her stomach dropped to the floor. She thought she was going to faint.

Christine looked at her, expectantly. Waiting for her response.

The right response.

“Yeah…yeah…” She trailed off, her head nodding slowly.

“OK. Yeah. Let’s never do it again.”

You can’t do that. It’s disgusting.

Her pen dug into the paper of her journal, almost ripping it.

Turning thirteen would need to involve an entire personality overhaul.

And her sexuality would be the first order of business.

Lauren Anton is a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders by day and a writer by night. She is a mom to her beautiful 8-year-old son, who is a constant teacher of what it is to be in love with life, feeling everything so, so fully. She enjoys hiking, yoga, piano, and her little rescue poodle, Bernie.

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


Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, memories, Relationships

Camping Under the Influence

July 14, 2021
camping

By Carrie Friedman

I squint as I read the fine print of the disclaimer that says the campsite is NOT responsible for any coyote, snake, or bear bites or maulings. As I sign our lives away, I say, “This was a mistake,” loud enough for my husband to hear. Our daughters are already running free, up and down the meadow, like they’ve never seen so much open space, possibly because they never have in our crowded Los Angeles suburb. We have arrived at this southern California campsite for a whole weekend of “unstructured fun!” as the parent-email boasted, with other families from our daughters’ school. Our daughters begged us to go this year, so here we all are. “It could just be that you’re not in the right mindset,” my husband, who is one important notch more outdoorsy than I am, says.

He’s not wrong. Only hours earlier, I boarded a plane back to California, from my native Wisconsin. I was visiting my dad, who is in the late stages of dementia and Parkinson’s. Every time I leave him, I know that this could be the last time I see him. This slow-motion loss feels unscalable.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. I want our girls to have this camp experience.

I go to the campsite store and buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of pre-made, pre-mixed margaritas. I start drinking as soon as I find a cup. I drink to blur the edges.

I’ve never been the type of person who drinks in the wilderness, gulping the air like it’s a delicious treat, then says (and means) things like, “I love nature,” or talks about a higher being “creating this masterpiece for us.” But when I inhale the air at the campsite today, I feel a familiar ache. I’m reminded of why I hate camping: it makes me homesick. If the smells of evergreen, mildew, loneliness, and campfire were blended in a bottle, they’d be called Eau de homesickness.

I down a margarita as if I’m a marathoner at a pitstop.

When I was a gawky and overly sensitive 10 year old at summer camp in Wisconsin, my escape was red Kool-Aid that the camp rebranded “Bug Juice.” It was so sweet and concentrated you could chew the sugar granules. I was addicted to the sugar high it gave me: it helped me forget how much I missed my family back home, 90 miles from camp. It helped me feel less awkward around kids I didn’t know. The inevitable crash left me lower than before, sobbing all night in bed while my cabinmates slept. It was a gutting cry, a cry that physically hurt – replaying every fight I’d ever had with my parents or siblings, wishing I were back with them.

My dad, sensing my homesickness, would send funny letters, mailed to arrive by every day’s rest time. I’d read them as I scratched mosquito bites into scabs. His words always made things better.

I drink my way through the first half of the weekend – buzzed, friendly, seemingly carefree – having a drink anytime the ache, or a thought or memory about my dad tries to creep in, like a sad version of a drinking game.

People call this “Glamping” because we are in cabins with indoor bathrooms, not tents and outhouses, but there is nothing “glam” about it. Directly above our bed is what appears to be a hastily made loft with about 20 inches of crawl space and some crib-sized mattresses for our six and seven year old. A rickety metal ladder is propped precariously against a wooden railing that feels like it is as sturdy and well-put together as a shelf I constructed in shop class in third grade. My kids and husband sleep well. I stare at the cedar walls and ceiling all night, trying not to think but thinking nonetheless. If that was the last time I’ll ever see my father, did I say everything I needed to say?

The next morning, I admit to my husband that perhaps the pivot from emotional wilderness into actual wilderness was too much for me. He offers to pack us up and leave early. But the kids are having so much fun, we decide. They have already strapped on their bike helmets and taken off on their scooters with their friends for the morning.

The days are packed and noisy. There’s a hike and a talent show. And smores and drinks with other parents, as our kids don glowstick necklaces and bracelets and chase each other through the woods – streaks of neon as they run past and between the trees.

I buy and drink more wine. In the middle of the final night, dizzy from alcohol, I leap out of bed and vomit in our cabin toilet. As I’m about to flush, I spot a giant brown spider on the handle. I nearly vomit again, but instead scream into a towel, so as not to wake my family.

“I just killed a brown recluse spider in our bathroom,” I tell my husband. He rolls over in bed. I’m not expecting a parade but at least a little gratitude for saving his and our daughters’ lives would be nice.

“Really, Carrie?” he asks, dubious. “A brown recluse, with the violin shape on its back and everything?”

“Yes,” I whisper, a chill running down my spine. “Except it was so big it was more like a cello. This guy could have carried our suitcases. I’m done with camping,” I say.

“Glamping,” my husband corrects.

“I’m going to sleep out in the van.”

I wake up on the third row of seats in the back of the minivan to a blinding sunrise. It’s a new day. My pounding hangover headache feels like a nuisance, a distraction, from the real pain I’ve been trying to avoid. How quickly in the two years since my father’s diagnosis and rapid decline, had my drinking gone from a glass of wine after the kids went to bed to “take the edge off” to “mommy juice at a late afternoon playdate,” to a nightly necessity to numb or push out sadness, which I defended as “self-care.” If this is self-care, it’s not working.

Again, the smells of homesickness fill the air, and I remember things I don’t want to remember.

The letters my dad sent me when I was at camp were a funny serialized mystery he had written, in installments. Each chapter ended on a cliffhanger, and he timed when he mailed them perfectly: I always had a new letter, a new chapter, waiting for me in my cubby every afternoon for resting time. But my camp experience began to improve. I enjoyed horseback riding and canoeing and making lanyard bracelets. When I returned home after camp, my dad discovered his last three envelopes unopened in my suitcase. I tried to explain that I was too tired to read each day. My dad pretended not to care, but I could tell he was hurt.

With this memory, my gulping sobs shake the van.

Suddenly, I am starving. The campsite seems deserted at 7am. I walk to the restaurant/general store. Campfire ashes from the night before float in the air like feathers. My eye makeup presumably everywhere, I imagine I look like a raccoon walking on its hind legs.

I wander through the empty store/restaurant, looking at foods and offerings but not really seeing them. For awhile, I stare without realizing it at a woman making eggs in the kitchen. She has long press-on nails that wrap around the spatula and flip fried eggs and scrape scrambled eggs on the griddle. She has velvety Disney princess eye lashes that must take forever to glue to her eyelids.

I can tell by the way she’s looking at me that my eyes are swollen and red.

“Rough night?” she asks.

“Rough week,” I say. “Rough year.”

“What can I get for you, Hon?” she asks.

Her term of endearment makes me cry again. “Could you make cheesy eggs? They’re just scrambled eggs with cheese on top.”

“Of course, Hon,” she says.

She unwraps and slaps an orange Kraft single on top of the scrambled eggs. It becomes shiny with sweat as it starts to melt.

Cheesy eggs taste like what he used to make on Sundays when we were kids and teens. His variations on the classics, like applesauce pancakes, fried matzo, spaghetti pie, never tasted very good, but now, just thinking of them makes me crave them. The gooey applesauce, somehow still cold, oozed out from the otherwise cooked pancake. The nutty, charred edges of the matzo.

The cook hands me a Styrofoam plate with the eggs covered in cheese, then says, “I’ll ring you up. They’re a dollar fifty.”

Maybe she feels sorry for me and is giving me a discount, I think as I swipe my debit card. Nothing costs so little anymore, let alone a protein.

I sit at a picnic table in the woods, with the yellow scramble. The eggs taste like cheese flavored plastic, just like when my dad made them, and go down easy. Comfort food indeed.

Before I left the last time, he said two things that made sense. I was shocked by the clarity with which he said each, considering he barely speaks anymore and when he does, it’s usually gibberish. He said, “You never give up,” more as a command than a fact, and “I love you so much.” When I was a teenager, I had felt overwhelmed by his belief in me. At that time, I think he loved me more than I loved myself. I felt that way again, but stronger in the thought of losing him.

I can’t swallow anymore because of the lump in my throat. I’m remembering all the things I wanted to say to him, but didn’t, two days ago while I sat with him and held his hand: I’m sorry I didn’t open those last chapters of your story, I’m sorry we made fun of your creative Sunday meals. Thank you for writing those letters, thank you for your food and time and love.

I sit in the pain and really let myself feel it. Sober. At first it feels like I might suffocate, so I take slow, deep breaths while I cry. I cry because I miss my father, and I cry for the moments I have missed with my own children this weekend, blurry from alcohol when they could be sharper, more vibrant in the light of reality: my older daughter singing in the talent show, my younger daughter blowing dandelion fuzz every chance she could, strands of roasted marshmallows sticky on their cheeks.

I decide it’s time to stop multiplying my depressants, so I vow to quit drinking and camping, at least for a while.

“Well,” my husband says as we pack the car, “at least we weren’t mauled by any bears.” I laugh. I breathe in the last of the evergreen, mildew, and campfire smells. I’m relieved to be leaving, but to my surprise the wilderness and the loneliness follow me home.

Carrie Friedman lives and writes in southern California. She has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places. Her website is: www.carriefriedman.com

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Current Events, Guest Posts, memories

Up A Tree

July 12, 2021
shot

By Katherine Flannery Dering

I spent days getting up early and clicking on various websites, eager to get my COVID shot appointment. And then, one morning, a friend sent me an email saying he and his wife had reserved a spot at a nearby CVS. I clicked on his link and got a spot two days later.  I’ve now had one shot, and the second one is coming up soon.

I wasn’t always so eager to get a shot.

One afternoon back in 1960, my brother Johnny and I shimmied up the two trees in our backyard to escape a shot. They were a pair of plane trees about twenty or thirty feet tall, with pale, splotchy bark and a full summer complement of big, fluttery leaves. We’d climbed them many times before, so we made short work of getting fifteen or so feet up. I found a secure crook and waited, my arms around the trunk. Maybe they’d give up and the doctor would leave. It was a warm, clear day; I could barely make out my brother, hidden in the leaves of his tree. But through a break in the branches, I could see off to the Davids’ house a half mile up the road. I held my breath, hoping to disappear into the canopy.

It was eerily quiet. Our house was on a new road that had been created from a farmer’s field several years before. Behind us was a big cornfield.  Across the main road that came up from the village were about twenty acres planted in wheat—my other secret hideout. I liked to sneak into the field and tromp down some wheat out in the middle and lie down there and look up into the sky. People raised dairy cattle and goats just beyond the David’s house, and there was usually some mooing and bleating from the herds. But a hoof and mouth disease epidemic had just rampaged through the area, and all the remaining livestock were put down, to make sure it didn’t spread. The quiet was ominous.

“Katherine, Johnny,” my mother’s voice suddenly called. And then I saw a man’s brown leather shoes below me. The shoes’ owner moved, and a bald head and dark coat appeared through the leaves and moved along above the shoes. “Zay ran zees way,” a man’s voice said in a thick French accent. “Zay must be here in some plaze.”

Three of the little kids—our younger siblings—were raking the area with their bare little feet. Did they think we were hidden in the grass? Like mice, they were always everywhere, opening my dresser drawers, drawing pictures with my Tinkerbell lipsticks and spilling the nail polish. It was Patrick who looked up. “They’re up there. They’re in the trees.”

A woman’s black flats and a seersucker, plaid dress appeared. Dark hair in a French twist. My mother’s voice had that “Don’t tempt me!” sound. “Come down this instant. You’re embarrassing me.”

We’d been living in Switzerland for a year now and the English-speaking doctor my mother had found had already given the little kids their shots. She’d probably negotiated a group discount. “Doctors are busy people. He can’t hang around all day. And I’m not paying for a second visit for you two.”

We gave up. Climbing down, I lost my grip for a moment and slid, gaining a big sliver in the palm of one had. I shook the hand and winced. Patrick smirked; he’d gotten one on us older ones. I felt like a condemned man in front of a firing squad. I knew that the inoculation would pinch, and that my arm would throb for days. A typhoid booster was a thing to be reckoned with. But what was worse was that I knew what was coming, and I couldn’t stop it.

***

In 1960, Europe and the World Health Organization were still battling the lingering health problems that followed in the poverty and rubble after WWII. Students at my school, the International School of Geneva, had to be tested each year for Tuberculosis—serum injected into   the delicate skin on the inside of your forearm, covered with a bandage, and then checked by a WHO nurse who came back to inspect the site a few days later. If the skin bubbled up to a certain size, you were sent for a chest x-ray. I passed.

Before we moved to Geneva from Detroit, which was our real home, most of us kids had all been vaccinated or revaccinated for smallpox, typhoid and tetanus. My little sister Monica, who was now almost three, hadn’t had the small pox vaccination yet, because she had problems with eczema, and her pediatrician didn’t think it wise. But now there had been a small pox scare somewhere and she had to be vaccinated in order for us to return to the U. S. that summer for home leave. The twins, who had been born in Switzerland and were now six months old, also had to be vaccinated before the trip home. The rest of us needed various boosters.

The small pox procedure looked pretty barbaric to me. The doctor sliced a little cut on the babies’ thighs and slathered on some sort of goop, then bandaged it. They screamed, of course. That’s when Johnny and I ran out of the house and up the trees.

***

And now, sixty years later, another terrible disease to try to prevent. The Typhoid vaccination back then involved three shots and a booster every so often after that. It was a Typhoid booster that Johnny and I needed that day. The COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 is only two shots, although it sounds like we may also need annual boosters for a while. Unlike in 1960, though, I’m not running away from this vaccination. Quite the opposite. Before I secured an appointment, I had spent days getting up early and clicking on various websites, eager to get my COVID shot, eager to be released from the jail of sheltering in place.

The first shot was easy-peezy. The drug store was set up for an assembly line. I arrived fifteen minutes before my assigned time and checked in at a desk just inside the door. I was then sent to a line that snaked down a long aisle toward the back of the store, where the pharmacy had been set up for a crowd. The other over-65ers and I waited our turn standing six feet apart, on big red circles arranged to keep us socially distanced along an aisle that displayed Depends and other “adult incontinence” supplies. The shot itself took a few seconds—a quick jab and I was sent to a chair nearby, where the CVS employee/ ringmaster set a timer to go off in fifteen minutes, by which time I would show signs of an allergic reaction, if I was going to get one. Timers were going off every minute or two. “You’re done. Next,” the ringmaster would say. I had no after-effects to speak of, then or the next day.

***

Now I am in suspense again, like when I was 12, sitting up in that tree, knowing I would eventually have to come down. I’d have to let the doctor give me that shot. And now I have to do something similar. I’ve heard that more than half the people who receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines have a very unpleasant reaction to the second dose—body aches, fever, chills, sometimes even vomiting and diarrhea. My baby sister Julia, who wasn’t even born yet in 1960, said she had no problem with hers. And my brother Johnny, who’s a doctor now and got his second shot weeks ago, also had no problem. But there’s still a big part of me that wants to hide up a tree somewhere.  I’m tempted to not take it. But then what? Hide from the world forever?

I came down from the tree that day. And in another week, I will go get my second shot. And this time, I know I am very lucky to have the opportunity.

Katherine Flannery Dering received an MFA in 2013 from Manhattanville College. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle, was published in 2014 by Bridgeross. A mixed-genre book of poetry, prose, photos, and emails, it deals with caring for her schizophrenic brother, and she is an advocate for better care for the mentally ill. Her poetry chapbook is titled Aftermath (2018, Finishing Line Press.) Her work has also appeared recently in Inkwell, RiverRiver, Tilde, Cordella, and Adanna, among other literary journals. She serves on the executive committee of the Katonah Poetry Series and lately divides her writing time between poetry, essays, and a book of short, feminist fables. She seldom climbs trees. Her author website is KatherineFlanneryDering.com.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, Relationships

Daylight

July 11, 2021
love

This piece was written in response to Dustin Grinnell’s essay from earlier this year, How to Fix a Bluey Heart. We love the idea of publishing response pieces, so keep them coming! 

By Sam Cooke

The first playlist I made for someone came in the form of a mix CD that I’d burnt on an old Dell desktop computer. It was a summer mix, meant to be played in my best friend’s pink Sony portable CD player as we skateboarded and biked down the backroads of our small Florida town.

I liked the feeling of sharing music with people in my life. I felt a sense of vulnerability in showing someone “this is what reminds me of you”. This particular mix, carefully curated in 2003, covered everything from “Dip It Low” by Christina Millian to “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams. When the computer hissed—the sound it would make as it finished burning songs onto a CD—I felt a sense of completion. My work there was done, and my first playlist was born.

Music was also my biggest coping mechanism. It followed me through the most troubling times of my childhood. My father, the addict, provided little warmth and comfort to my two sisters and me. Perhaps the only fruitful thing he ever did for us in those early years was share his love of music. There was always a song playing, which meant that every emotion was always associated with music. My morning routine before school became second nature to me: wake up, turn on MTV’s music video hour, and have music videos playing in the background while I got ready for school. Then I’d put in my headphones on the iPod shuffle (the one that didn’t have a screen and didn’t let you choose what song you were listening to) and walk to the bus stop. I was the last of my friends to get a car, but I’d always come ready with a new playlist to listen to on the way to school. Each day, I’d fumble with their car stereos and press play for the ten-minute drive from my house to our high school.

In the age of iPhones and music streaming services, creating and sharing playlists became astronomically easier for me. When I got my first iPhone as a graduation present from my grandparents, the first app I downloaded was Pandora. Remember those days? It was a professional playlist-making service that recorded your musical interests and found songs that you would probably like based on said interests. My days of burning CDs slowly came to an end as cars began building models with AUX adaptors and Apple Music and Spotify took over. I tucked away my packet of blank CDs that were just waiting to be given a musical home and put my thumbs to work. The words “New Playlist” became ingrained in my brain.

I made playlists for myself as well: thirteen songs here and there that brought me back to a moment; a playlist of fifty-odd songs that inspired me to write; songs to listen to when I needed to feel pumped; songs to play in my ears when I was training to become a runner (that was a short-lived thirty songs). Songs were everywhere.

It wasn’t until my early twenties, though, that I realized that I wasn’t making any playlists about love. I didn’t have a high school sweetheart to remember with fondness—days spent at the beach, nights tangled up in sheets (a la “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” by Luke Bryan). And I didn’t have a first love who would haunt relationships that I’d enter into long after their scent was off my favorite pull-over hoodie. I was twenty-two and realizing, with a jaded and bitter heart, that I had never been in love.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t heartbreak. In 2013, I listened to the song “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift on repeat. Though I don’t have the exact data points, it’s safe to assume that the total play count neared at least five hundred. I’d scream along to it in my Nissan Versa on the way to work at a hospital gift shop. My best friend Jenna and I would listen to it in her Nissan Versa on the way to the beach. When I saw Taylor Swift in concert that year, I swayed with a beer in hand as I sang along to the words, “There we are again when I loved you so.” That was the product of my first true heartbreak, a story of unrequited love with someone I worked with.      The words “I don’t feel the same” were never said, I was just left with silence. For someone who constantly has music, silence is deafening.

I wish I could say that in the years that followed, my playlists were eventually filled with love songs. But they weren’t. Even after packing up and leavingmy small hometown for New York City, where I was sure I’d meet someone to fall in love with, I was met with more heartache. I went for drinks with men who looked at their phones. I walked down busy Brooklyn streets with men who thought it was “cute” that I was trying to be a professional novelist. There are various usages of the word “cute”, and these men were not calling me attractive. They pitied me. I was cute. And though I knew many of the men I’d met were simply not a right fit, at the end of the date I’d slip my headphones back in and take the subway home filled with a sense of sadness. I felt there was something about me that was missing. And so, I’d listen to my playlists. I’d play “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, like I mentioned, but I’d also play deeply romantic love songs that made me daydream about falling in love. These included “If I Should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen and “You Get Me” by Michelle Branch. I was lovesick, not for a specific person, but for the feeling that stirred inside me when I heard a great love song.

One day, I would make a playlist for myself of songs that reminded me of the person I loved so dearly, and I would be able to share that playlist with them. And though they’d laugh at the weird variety of it—everything from U2 to Usher—they would know that my love language was making playlists. They’d listen to it in the shower or on the way to work. They’d start a song over because of a certain lyric that hit in a way they could never describe. Maybe it would be a lyric that reminded them of me. Hopefully it would be a lyric that reminded them of me.

My lack of love song playlists allowed me to really dive into what my idea of love was. I had a skewed perception. My grandparents have been married for 67 years and their relationship started as an arranged marriage in the village of Lefkara, Cyprus. They grew to love each other, though, despite not having a say in the matter. My parents seemed to have married as friends, creating a family together that then fell apart because of addiction. The day my mom filed for divorce, I don’t think she even shed a tear as she accepted full responsibility for my two sisters and me and just went about her life. And then there were my two best friends, who both fell in love at a young age and married their high school boyfriends before we were twenty-five years old. Though there were different degrees of love around me, I’d never understood how to get from first-meet to forever. I wasn’t sure if there was a path for me, or even what that would look like. Come what may, I had my playlists and my books, so I could always slip into someone else’s love story and pretend it was mine.

Then I met Dustin.

Meeting him was one of those moments in life where I wish I had kept a written record of it; what I was wearing, what my hair looked like, what song was playing on the overhead speaker that surrounded us in the lobby of the college that housed our MFA in Creative Writing program. But I don’t have any of that. I assume the first thing we said to each other was “hi”, as we were being introduced. He was one year into the program, writing fiction, and I was the new girl, starting my first semester as a writer for young people. I was in the program to write and to hone my craft, because if I wanted to be on track to be a New York Times bestseller before I was thirty, I still had a lot of learning to do. And after five minutes of talking to Dustin, I could tell he wanted the same thing. He was articulate and intelligent, and he had a sarcastic edge that went underappreciated by our classmates.

We took to each other pretty quickly. We’d eat lunch together and sit next to each other in classes. We were just on campus for ten days, as was how our low-residency MFA program worked, but in those ten days we spent hours together. One afternoon, when we both had no classes to attend, we got into his car and drove into Boston. We walked the streets of downtown and talked about everything from how different it was from where I lived in New York City, to the intimidation we felt when reading books by our favorite authors; Michael Crichton for him, Morgan Matson for me. We sat at a high top in a bar and I told him about a best friend from high school who had died the summer before, and how guilt followed me around because I hadn’t spoken to him in years. He did whatever it took to make me laugh, a trait he still brings to our dynamic two years later.

When I left Boston at the end of the ten days, I knew that what we had was special. He quickly became the person I wanted to tell the best parts about my day to and the person who would help me through the worst parts. And it was easy. To me, it felt like a no brainer that we would end up together. We had identical goals, similar personalities, and care for one another  that was deeply rooted. I should be clear that very early on we said we didn’t know what our relationship was. Some days I imagined passionate physical encounters where he’d make my body feel a way it never had before. Some days I thought about what it would be like to introduce a boyfriend to Dustin, have them get along and become friends. Most days, though, I thought about what it would be like to spend my life with him.

As the months of togetherness went on, the insecurities that had been following me around my entire life were on full display. In our early months of friendship, I’d hear about women he’d loved before. Beautiful, petite women with successful careers and wealthy families. The self-image issues that I had tried so desperately to push to the back were front and center again, and instead of trusting that I could share these with him, I ignored it. When I would come to Boston for a weekend to visit him, I would pretend that I didn’t see the notifications on his phone from dating apps or other women. I began to look at myself in the mirror and outline all the reasons he didn’t love me: I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t on a secure career path, I was dirt poor growing up, I wasn’t girly enough. Of course he didn’t want to be with me romantically. These were the insecurities that haunted me from men in the past, and now he was paying for it, whether he knew it or not. The assumptions that love could only look like the beautiful woman he’d dated in college settled in on me, and again, I started curating playlists about heartbreak.

Again, though, I was good at holding onto hope. I was growing tired of New York City and wanted a change of scenery. As a preschool teacher, I could find a job pretty much anywhere. So without much thought, I set my sights on Boston. I found an apartment on Facebook marketplace with three other women my age, and Dustin and I celebrated the prospect of us living less than thirty minutes away from each other. I made a playlist.

Living so close together felt like a fairytale. We would meet at a coffee shop and work on our stories over iced coffees and spicy egg sandwiches. At lunch, we’d go to the bar next door and get margaritas and nachos. We’d watch a movie together every Saturday night. Some nights, after the movie, I’d sleep on his couch and we’d make breakfast together the next morning. It felt deeply confusing and deeply fulfilling at the same time. I was so confused how I loved this man as hard as I did, but still felt like a visiting buddy from college when he’d pass me an extra pillow and blanket. And we talked about it constantly. While there were times where we did get physical, the majority of our time was spent talking, often late into the evening and continuing early the next morning. With each day that passed, I knew I was loving him harder than I’d ever thought I could love someone. We were happy.

Just a few months into me living in Boston, the coronavirus pandemic hit hard. I was sent home to teach preschool aged children a few times a week via Zoom, and Dustin worked from home as well. We had an unspoken agreement that we would still find a way to see each other. I’d ride my bike to his studio apartment or he’d pick me up and we’d bring my laptop to a park near my apartment. Without words, I began packing an overnight bag on Saturdays and we’d spend every weekend together. Everything in my life was uncertain. I didn’t know what work looked like, and with one year left in my MFA program, I had no real clue about what publishing would look like in the post-pandemic world. Dustin and I would sprawl out across his living room, me laid back in a tan recliner and him with his legs up on the couch, and we’d ponder the meaning of a writing life. We’d spend hours watching a true crime documentary, and then quote the absurdity of it all.  Slowly—painstakingly slow, actually— my insecurities were at bay. They would sneak up sometimes when I’d wander deep into my brain about the type of woman that Dustin should be with. When I eventually started sharing these insecurities with him, he told me I had every part of him. When I told him I was terrified he was going to leave me, much like my father had when I was a child, he told me he was my rock and that he wasn’t going anywhere. In the past, when I’d get lost in dark or deep thoughts, I never had a way to escape them. He notices when I start to have spiraling thoughts, whether they’re about us or a worry about my future, and he grabs my hands and pulls me out of the darkness. He’s constantly pulling me into daylight.

In my years of listening to love songs, it was implanted in me that when you meet the person who brings out a joy in your life that you didn’t know existed, you would feel it right away. You’d instantly make plans to run away with that person, surely ready to commit your life to them. Mornings would be sun shining through the window, lighting the silhouette of your soulmate perfectly. I was positive that’s what love was, that this was the only way love looked. With Dustin, I was learning that sure, love does look like that, but it also looks like the person who will hold you when you’re crying over having missed saying goodbye to your students. Love looks like knowing someone is out of K-cups and ordering them Dunkin’ Donuts on Uber Eats so they don’t go without. Love looks like bike rides along the Charles River and getting into an argument because one of us (me) can’t jump fences. Eventually, without a word of recognition, our Saturday nights turned into me lying next to him in his bed. We’d talk through the darkness, him once remarking that it felt like summer camp. He’d hold me for a little while, until one of us said goodnight and rolled over.

In our two years in each other’s lives, we taught each other what love looked like for us. I never called him my boyfriend, yet every time we left each other for the day, we’d exchange an “I love you”. And I do. I love him on a level that love songs never prepared me for—because it’s not a show. Loving him is not over-exaggerated for a good rhyme or a beautiful melody. Loving him exists on the days that feel so good I might explode, and the days that feel so bad I don’t want to get out of bed. Loving him is there when I stumble over not calling him my boyfriend and when he tells me that I helped fix his heart. “You fix it, you keep it,” we joked on Valentine’s Day.

And so, I made him a playlist: “Daylight” by Taylor Swift, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd (which was his addition), “I Choose You” by Sarah Bareilles. But there were sad songs, too, because we were learning that love wasn’t always the perfect melody. Sometimes we would piss each other off and sometimes our feelings weren’t affected by each other at all. But we both kept our promise. We stayed put.

I’d spent my entire life thinking that love existed only in a love song, and only in the way that it was painted. You either loved someone forever or never thought of them again. It was only love if you loved them with such a physical passion that you couldn’t see straight. Love was either ‘this’ or ‘that’. To quote the song that Dustin and I both fondly say reminds us of each other, “I once believed love would be black and white, but it’s golden. Like daylight.”

And it is golden. He’ll do anything to make me laugh. He’ll challenge me when I’m being stubborn. He’ll poke me to open up, instead of going into “sad town”. He’ll tell me at all hours of the day that he believes in me, that he’s proud. With him, I have the home I always searched for and the companionship I always dreamed about. There are moments of darkness, sure, but the majority of our life together is daylight.

Sam Cooke is a Boston based writer and educator. Her fiction and essays have been published in Sad Girls Club Lit, Bluing the Blade and Prometheus Dreaming.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Expression of It

July 9, 2021
Blake

by André Narbonne

Blake stood on the wooden steps leading to our house, in plain view but away just the same. His clenched fist was covered in blood, my blood, although the fact hadn’t occurred to us yet. I was still stunned by the lunacy of his anger, astonished by the blow that must have come out of a desire to knock down not just his younger brother but something bigger.

The air was strangely comical. It chirped. Clouds fled the veranda exposing Blake and me to the naked glare of the sun.

I pulled myself up. I spat, “I hate you,” brushed the dirt and broken fingers of leaves off my jacket, became aware of the red stain on my shoulder and chest. Rubbing a hand against my face, I held out a thick streak of blood.

“There,” I said.

That opened him. He stared at me and he bit his lower lip, and I knew that he was aware of having hurt me.

It had never happened before.

Blake was four years older and he understood what that meant, recognized that being older was more a duty than an inconvenience. It wasn’t that we didn’t fight. We fought like brothers, which is to say almost daily. Whenever we ran out of words, we came out swinging, but Blake’s hardest cuts had a knack for missing. They were chivalrously errant. He fought like a friend, allowing me to lose by exhaustion.

So we were both astonished by what had happened, by the blow that was meant to injure.

We weren’t alone in our surprise. There was a third to our party. Mr. Bryant, who lived in the trailer across the street, stood on the edge of the lawn shifting his balance between clown-sized feet as though he were himself sparring with something unseen. Beneath a feral tangle of red hair his beet-red nose and blood-shot cheeks mapped with broken capillaries marked him as a heavy drinker. He was our father’s best friend (a fact that had never caused him to treat Blake and me with anything but contempt).

He bellowed, “You’re awful.”

Awful, what did he mean by that? Did he imagine himself watching theatre? “Both of you:  stop it now.” As if we hadn’t, as if the punch that threw me three feet hadn’t been conclusive.

I gather Blake still held some of his rage because he uttered a word I had never heard him speak before. He said, “Go fuck yourself,” and Mr. Bryant spun on his heel and headed across the street to his house, moving with the heavy, purposeful stride of a clown bent on retaliation.

When he was gone, Blake turned to me and asked in a trembling voice, “Is it broken? Let me see.”

“It hurts.”

He walked to me and touched my face, gauged its symmetry. “Nope, it’s okay,” he concluded. “I’m sorry, Matt. I don’t know what happened.  I lost it.”

I was crying, but not from pain. “You don’t detest me?”

“I don’t detest you. Let’s not talk about him anymore. You don’t understand.  Even if I told you, you couldn’t.”

He smiled a nervous smile. I returned the same. And then Blake went back to the house. The veranda creaked under his weight; the screen door pitched and then rattled back into place. And he was gone for real.

I heard the phone ringing. Someone was waking up Dad.

They were both my protectors, Blake and my father, although Dad was an uncertain presence in the house.

My father worked the graveyard shift and had a graveyard cast of mind. He seldom spoke except to command. During the week he allowed himself to be shirtless and unkempt until an hour before work when he shaved and made himself up. He was fit for forty but that was largely an accident of genetics, I supposed.  He lived for no other purpose than to make money it seemed. With that money the three of us carried on our indifferent lives in an isolated mining town that was on its last vein. I wondered sometimes whether it was the impact of my mother, Marlene’s, defection that had knocked him into silence, but the truth was I could not remember him living any other way. He was a silent man.

The year my mother left Blake was just fourteen. He was handsome, the most handsome boy in school, but he didn’t date. All his energy went into raising me. He was the family cook. He ordered the cleaning, demanded my room be neat and my laundry kept in its basket. He helped me with homework and bullies, even though he wasn’t big.  But something was wrong with him.

Blake had changed a lot even before my mother left, had gone into intolerable lapses of…what?—just lapses. He thought deeply about things I hadn’t considered. He told me once that he detested every person he knew at some time—but not all of the time. Even people he loved, he detested. The trick for him was not to act on his feelings. Even if he loathed someone he had to wait until he could find value in the person again or he knew he’d be friendless. He said that was why he didn’t have a girlfriend. He was too afraid of how he’d behave if he found himself in love with someone and discovered he detested her.  He thought it would make him hate himself.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I told him, confidently adding, “You don’t detest me.”

“No,” he shot back. “Never mind. I hope you never understand.”

The window was open. I heard my father’s terse, “Yeah.” There was a pause. I saw Blake at the living room window. He was closed again. He had that look. “Oh yeah, hi, Bill.” It was Mr. Bryant. He’d called to exact his clown revenge. I knew Blake could hear the conversation, too. He picked up the camping picture on the bookshelf, eyed it carefully as though for clues. It was the only picture of the whole family that was kept out, taken shortly before my mother left.

It framed our parents on either side of us, as far away from each other as possible while still remaining in focus. Blake and I had fish—were the glowing champions of something inconsequential. My mother’s smile encouraged interpretation.

Her departure, sudden and mysterious, was treated at first with supreme calm. Joined in purpose, my father and Blake cleaned the house. They scrubbed in silence for an entire weekend. I gathered they wanted to wipe away all trace of my mother’s presence.

It wasn’t just that she was gone. She would never return. They seemed to know that right away.

A tense silence held court in every room. I knew that something terrible was in the offing. I was frightened of the looks Blake and Dad manufactured for each other.  They were constructing hatred. That was the expression of it. They were both trying to be the adult in the house: my father by working himself to exhaustion and bringing back money to a home he was too tired to inhabit, Blake by working as an adult at home and by pretending that his lack of responsibility elsewhere had no bearing on his maturity.

It wasn’t long after Mom left that Dad warned me in a hushed conversation, “I want you to watch out for Blake. He’s not right. You can’t trust him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a born liar. He says things. Don’t believe them.”

At first I didn’t understand. But then, one night, Blake lied to me in a way that proved Father right.

It was the beginning of a northern autumn and a wolf had gotten onto our island. Probably it had crossed the single bridge that connected our scrap of Precambrian Shield to the rest. However it arrived, two dogs were dead on their leashes in the morning.

In the evening, I couldn’t sleep. Animal noises in the dark, a single unrestrained bark in our narrow hall: it occurred to me that the wolf was inside.

I called for Blake but he didn’t answer so I clutched the blankets around my face.  Still those noises. Wolf anger. Animal contempt. It sounded muffled like the wolf didn’t want to be heard. Finally it ended.  Silence held the dark and the dark was an animal, too.

I was almost asleep when a soft squeak told me someone was opening the bedroom door.

“Blake?”

“Why are you awake?”

“I think the wolf was in the house. I heard him.”

More silence.

“Blake?”

“It’s not a wolf. I heard it, too. I checked.”

“What was it?”

“The pipes. Someone left the toilet running.”

I felt relieved. And then I remembered what my father had said. I couldn’t trust him. Trust him with what?

And even though there was no wolf in the house I wondered about the dogs on their leashes, facing an impossible beast.

And then I saw it, the anger Blake and my father held for each other and my role in their war. It came upon me stupidly, but I grasped it.

I hurt myself playing. I frustrated myself with a cap gun that had no pop. Despite the triviality of my trouble, I walked into the house with real tears streaming down my face. Blake and my father sat in opposition at the kitchen table. My father jumped up first. He said, “What’s wrong? Are you all right?” His concern had a dangerous quality about it; I detected fear.

“My gun doesn’t work.”

“Show me. Give it to me.” I handed him the gun. He checked the barrel and fired a dud round. I could see him considering my toy sternly when Blake reached over and tore the gun from his grip.

“I know about these. I’ll fix it.”

“Give it back.”

“I know about these. When was the last time you fired one?”

And then, as though in a comic ballet, they wrestled with the gun. I watched them in stunned silence, fighting over a plastic weapon that had become real in some way. Blake was agile. With a sudden motion, he slipped the gun out of my father’s hands and escaped the house into the woods where he remained until after supper. When he returned, he had no gun. I don’t know what he did with it, but I never saw it again.

I didn’t cry over its loss. It had occurred to me in a flash exactly what they were up to. They were protecting me from each other. That’s how they managed. They were both able to continue through this horrible disaster of which I was only dimly aware, the devastating consequences for Blake of losing his mother, for Dad of losing his dignity, because they had thrown their identities into the task of guarding me and of making sure I didn’t grow up to be like the other man or boy who pretended to authority.

“What!” My father’s voice thundered through the window. “He said what?”

I watched Blake slide the picture from its frame. Where was he? His fingers fumbled with the glass, which fell and broke on the floor. I thought I knew what he would do next.  I thought he would tear the picture into fragments.

He didn’t. He put it carefully into his pocket to save it from what was approaching.

Watching him in his quiet actions I was overcome with guilt. I had goaded him into our fight.  I was the one who told him to stop fighting with Dad. I told him that he was unfair, that if he just did what Dad told him to do instead of always fighting the house would be fine. It was his fault, I said, that we were in a perpetual state of turmoil.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know everything that goes on. I know how you two fight. I hear you in the morning when Dad gets off work.”

“Shut up.  You don’t hear anything.”

“I do.  I know everything.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s your fault. It’s always been your fault. You’re why Mom left. You’re always complaining and fighting with everyone.  Why can’t you just…”

Something happened then. He’d been bringing his hands to his ears, but they never made it.  Instead, he lunged at me. I heard the crack of contact, felt myself lifted into a sky that tasted like blood. Blake retreated to the steps, perhaps to protect me from himself. For a good two minutes, no-one moved.

“He did what!”

The hallway pounded back against my father’s steps. I saw how Blake waited, saw that he was afraid, and I understood.

I would be afraid, too. My father had a reason at last to lay a beating on his deviant son. I felt the horror of the situation. I discovered in an instant how pitiable we were: all three of us.

Even as I reached the veranda I could hear the first blow landing, that hideous consonance of fist on flesh. I tore at the door. It slammed open. Then I was between them, breathless. Blake was on the floor, his face already bloodied. My father stood with fists of steel.  His face was mottled red in his rage. “Out of my way,” he cried.

“No!”

“Get out of my way, Matt. He needs to know he can’t hurt you.”

“No!”

Blake struggled to his feet. He whispered, “It’s okay, Matt. Let him come.” He raised his fists weakly.

There were tears in my eyes. I turned on my father. “This was our fight. Not yours. I started it. You don’t have the right to do this when I’m as much to blame. If you’re going to hit Blake, you have to hit me, too.”

He seemed staggered by my words.

I lowered my hands to my sides deliberately. “Hit me,” I said. “I won’t let you do anything to Blake that you wouldn’t do to me.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Blake cried. “For God’s sake, don’t say that. You don’t understand.”

But my father did. His lower lip trembled. He began to shake.

“Do to me what you did to Blake.”

My father turned from me. A sound came from his mouth that I couldn’t understand, a wordless breath of horror. He fled the house.

My father came home late that night and held Blake in a hushed conference. After that day, they did not fight. My father seemed to guard himself against me as though I held the power to hurt him. Blake became more withdrawn. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday he left the house. A year later he left town. He wrote to me for a few years. He was a waiter in a Toronto hotel, but he lost the job to his drinking. I didn’t know he was a drug addict until his drugs almost killed him at twenty-four. He overdosed at a house party. He wasn’t dead but he looked dead, so his best friend dragged him out into the snow to hide the body. He died of exposure.

I had already left my father’s house for university two years before Blake’s death.  I would come back to visit on a monthly basis, then on weekends after the funeral, because he seemed to need me more. Even so, my relationship with my father was subdued and mysterious. I could not fathom his aloofness.

And I often wondered about my mother’s disappearance. I had not seen her since I was nine; she didn’t attend Blake’s funeral. Could I believe that she hated her life with us so much that she left forever, leaving everything behind? Or did she wonder about the fights between my father and Blake that made no real sense? Did she ever hear one of their secret fights, as I did, while playing spies as a child? They were at odds in the bathroom with the door locked. I never heard words, just noises, like their complaint wasn’t with each other but with themselves and their own natures. I can’t imagine what happened next if she did.

André Narbonne is a Windsor, Ontario writer. Since 2011 his writing has seen publication in Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review, The Nashwaak Review, FreeFall, Wascana Review, CV2, Antigonish Review, Rampike, Windsor Review, Numéro Cinq, and carte blanche.

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

emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Eating/Food, Guest Posts

Taking Up Space

July 7, 2021
scale

by Molly Krause

Maybe it’s just the quarantine fifteen. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t weighed myself to get the actual number. I do know that my clothes are tight and some don’t fit. I know that it was sometime after I started weighing my eighteen year old daughter weekly that I stopped stepping on the scale myself. This was months before we were all gripped by the onslaught of all that the novel virus brought to our lives. I couldn’t have even imagined all that at this time. This was when my anxiety rose like a freight train when my daughter said, “I’m struggling to eat enough.”

I flew into action – appointments with the primary care physician, the therapist, the dietician, and I bought The Scale. I ordered it online with some dread as I’ve never had a scale in my house. Shiny and black with a digital display that revealed the number to a tenth of a pound, it was both inexpensive and highly rated. I hid it in my closet.

I bought it to monitor my daughter’s weight but this is not a story of a young adult controlling her life through restricting.

As a serious student of ballet throughout my teens, I viewed my body as a vessel to create beauty through movement. At a yoga class a few years ago I scoffed internally when the instructor said, “If it’s available, reach for your extended leg.” If it’s available? This was not a cooperative relationship I had with my limbs; I would make it available without question. Naturally lean, I did not grow up worried about my weight because I didn’t have to. I was happy with my size and my size was small. My body performed well for me by executing the physically difficult movements of ballet. I wasn’t conflicted about my body image as mine was easily accommodating with what I wanted from it. I never even had to consider if what I wanted from it was reasonable or even right.

Two pregnancies and changing middle age hormones stretched my comfort with my shape. I resolved to stay under a certain number, I even wrote that number down in my planner. I exercised to burn calories and played around with various diets. I only weighed myself occasionally at the gym and used clothing fit as a measure if I was on target. But it wasn’t until The Scale came in my house did I realize the pull the number had on me – what is the numer? Have I been going “good”? Is this water weight or muscle? So I stopped myself from stepping on The Scale, hidden in the closet, every day as a friend of mine told me she did to control her weight. When my daughter entered an intensive outpatient program for eating disorders I gave myself permission not to ever get on that scale again.

But I’ve wanted to and what I’m not sure about is why. To feel better about myself or worse?

When I told a friend that I had gained some weight during quarantine she said, “Really? You look the same to me.” I responded, “I can tell I have but I haven’t stepped on a scale because I don’t hate myself.” We snickered and quickly moved on but my comment stuck with me. Wouldn’t it be better to like myself no matter what the number is?

 I get out The Scale once a week for my daughter. Covid has eliminated in person meetings with most therapeutic professionals, dietitians included. My daughter does not resist The Scale and doesn’t seem fazed by the number it reveals. I still haven’t gotten on it for almost a year at this point. I’m trying out the idea that it’s ok for my body to take up as much space as it wants – whether that’s active on my paddleboard or lazily watching my new favorite station, Acorn TV. The Corora virus has taken away many things from me – from us all – but perhaps it has given me the time to view my shape as something other than a way to project smallness or beauty. Maybe this same body that I happily allowed to grow large to carry two lives will be the vessel to grow new chapters and lives so far not lived, of an unknown and exciting future, of a time that is not bound or defined by a number.

Molly Krause is the author of the memoir ‘Float On’, the novel ‘Joy Again’ and the cookbook ‘The Cook’s Book of Intense Flavors’. Her writing has appeared in numerous locations, including Brain Child, Ragazine and Front Page Review. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, her grown daughters and a pack of dogs and loves to hike, snowshoe and paddle board.

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

emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Eating/Food, Guest Posts, parenting

Saving Your Family, One (Complicated) Recipe at a Time

July 5, 2021
cake

by Lee Ann Cox

There’s a 20-year-old photo of me rolling out dough on a floured pastry board while wearing my son in a backpack. I was creating his first birthday cake.

The idea was sparked long before that moment, as I thumbed through the pages of the Martha Stewart catalogue, lingering over a set of oversized copper cookie cutters, a whimsical menagerie that included a bear, an alligator, a donkey, a dove. They were absurdly large, but then so was I, pregnant with this baby. I didn’t yet know what it would mean to balance a food writing career with an infant who merely dallied with the notion of sleep. I only knew the cookie cutters were adorable, a splurge, and I had to have them.

As the birthday neared and my vision for the project crystalized, I was fortunate that my husband’s parents were visiting from California; I had three adults to help distract my son as I set to work. I began by making quantities of sugar cookie dough to the sound of Bay’s chortling from the front room as he knocked down towers of blocks. His mood didn’t hold, hence the backpack.

I chilled and rolled the dough thick enough to achieve a sturdy giraffe whose head would not break loose from its slender neck. Soon an unadorned zoo sprawled on racks around our farmhouse kitchen while I made icing of pale yellow, deep sky blue, sea glass green. I mixed two consistencies of each color, one thick to outline the shape, forming a dam to hold the flood of flawless liquid color. Once set, I piped manes and claws on lions, fluffy wool on sheep, an intricate caparison for an elephant adorned with various colors of sanding sugar I had mixed myself.

Of course, this was to be a cake, so I picked a family favorite, vanilla with the layers split and alternately spread with lemon curd and cream cheese frosting. To achieve my fever dream of perfection, though, I needed two cakes of different sizes to stack, supported by wooden dowels. Over the course of a couple days, I had concocted a child’s version of a tiered wedding cake, graced, not by a spray of elegant flowers or ironic plastic newlyweds, but by a double carousel of handmade edible animals, each unique, one cuter than the next.

“Mom are you high?” my daughter would say now. I must have been undone.

This cake, I need to say, was not the centerpiece of an overdone celebration with too many presents and too many people; no hordes of aunts, uncles, and cousins were coming to admire my two creations. It was just us and a close friend and baby from playgroup. That eases my embarrassment and heightens my wonder at the forces that drive me. The birthday boy was too young to be enchanted by this cake (nor, it turns out, would any confection not chocolate ever achieve that standard). But when my husband held Bay aloft to blow out his single candle, both of them grinning, my camera shuttered on a moment of pure beauty.

*

Time spun out from there. Bay turned 18 having spent equal parts of his life with and without his dad, who died young of a rare cancer. On this birthday, the cake was a basic, rich chocolate number; his dinner request was the two-day cooking festival: the tagliatelle with braised lamb ragu he’d had in New York, helpfully codified in The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual, a book I highly recommend for the recipes and the writing. Even for a dish whose steps are helpfully divided into “Day 1” and “Day 2,” the authors charm you through the process, suggesting a flip of the lamb mid-roast “if you think of it” and, later, to remove the meat from the stock so it can rest and “regain its composure,” suggestions I recommend for the cook as well.

I bought my lamb and bones from a local Vermont farm, filled my basket with onions, carrots, fennel, and tarragon. I roasted and braised. I made the Frankies tomato sauce, a simple affair, demanding only devotion (along with your good olive oil and the best Italian tomatoes). “Take your time—there’s no rushing it… when you’re cooking the garlic, you want to very, very slowly convert the starches in it to sugars and then to caramelize those sugars. Slow and steady.”

By the second afternoon, I skimmed my lamb broth of fat in favor of fresh butter that married the tomato and lamb concoctions, finally, into a sensuous, swoony situation, like the ones that really should come from restaurants.

I will confess how the years have changed me, especially as I was also the one to make the cake and wrap the presents and parent the son and also his little sister. (First, no, she did not get a two-tiered carousel cake, an already preposterous enterprise without a baby, a toddler, a job, and a 130-pound Newfie upending the kitchen for any unmonitored morsel of food, but she has not been denied her share of fanciful cakes.) I dismissed the Frankies’ instruction to make a double recipe of Basic Pasta Dough from page 94, cut into tagliatelle. I bought the pasta.

*

Nearly a year later, I made the ragu again for my son’s farewell dinner before he left for college, 3,000 miles from home. I felt from the tender ache of my own bones as if they were rendered into that stew, an amalgam of everything I put in it, lovingly tended, and every hope I had for what it would yield. I hid my tears and fed the dreams we both shared, of joy and challenge, adventure and a new sense of belonging.

And then, abruptly, he was home. The pandemic put it all on ice, suspended him between two worlds.

With third-quarter finals cancelled and an extended spring break, Bay came to the kitchen. “Mom, I think we should cook something.” His grin suggested that it would not be banana bread.

“Watch this video with me,” he said, reaching for my laptop and pulling up Joshua Weissman’s YouTube page, introducing me to the obsessive food phenom with nearly three million followers. “Making the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich at Home, But Better” was Bay’s fixation; we would hit play and pause on that video uncountable times.

The next afternoon we got started, beginning with the Japanese milk buns (which begin with making the tangzhong). We mixed up our marinade, our spiced dredging flour, and our sauce, albeit without the optional oyster mushroom powder, and, more critically, and ashamedly, the black garlic—it’s clear now we had the time to start aging our own ingredients, since he wouldn’t return to school, but we lacked that kind of patience.

We did choose the largest boneless thighs we could find, properly slice our pickles lengthwise for maximum coverage, and toast the truly amazing buns. I taught my son how to deep fry. And I acquainted him with the fact that, no matter how much you clean as you go, the exalted experience at the table will temper at the sight of a grease-splattered stove and the general havoc wreaked preparing a plated meal. The regret, like the mess, is temporary.

*

For two decades I’ve thought about that birthday cake, wondered if there was an impulse behind it beyond what food writer Tamar Adler, in a recent essay I admired, called “a peacocky presentation of leisure time and skill.” I won’t argue there wasn’t a tinge of that, but if it was for anyone, honestly, it was me. I know it’s more, though, that I wasn’t quite kidding about being undone.

I feel so vulnerable at times, on the knife’s edge of joy and heartache. My infant son turns one, then moves far away. My infant daughter turns two with a party held in a hospital lounge near her dad’s room, then she’s a beautiful, maddeningly sassy teenager. The weave of love, longing, and potential loss is gossamer silk and the instinct to protect is fierce, tireless effort. That takes me to the kitchen. The sense of control is a mirage, but there’s art in the attempt and at the end you have dinner, or, even better, cake.

The crazy thing about COVID is that it upends the promise I made myself years ago to try to keep my anxieties and fears from infecting my kids. What I want—on my best, bravest days—is for them to live big, juicy, connected lives, for their regrets to be few, especially for experiences they didn’t seize. Now we’re told to hide our children at home and mask them from danger. There was a moment’s appeal in that, my deepest instincts sanctioned.

Mid-March was like the first hour or so of losing electricity—candlelight Scrabble and toasting marshmallows over a gas flame—before the melting down, before we met the grief spilling out from every angle of this disaster. There are worse things, to be sure, but I ache for my kids, for everyone’s. Instead of testing boundaries, they’re circumscribed by them.

At the end of the summer though, my son, unable to return to college in the fall, quarantined and then met up in a central location with his would-have-been roommates in an Airbnb for a week. Bay texted a photo of the meal he made for his friends: better-than-Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwiches. He had made the buns himself, crisped the coating on the tender thighs to tanned perfection, slathered on his homemade spicy sauce.

I imagine those big blue eyes gazing over my shoulder from his backpack, absorbing my need, the protective pulse that drove my energy. With food, he would now nurture the fledgling life he’d begun, hoping the web holds through untold months ahead in Zoomland. And sure, I’m guessing there was a serious dash of peacockiness behind it, too. I mean, that was an insane amount of work.

Lee Ann Cox is a Vermont-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon and The Rumpus, among other publications. She is a recipient of the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award for the manuscript of my memoir Beauty Like That, as well as a Vermont Arts Council creation grant. 

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

Improvise, Stabilize, Stagnate, Repeat

July 3, 2021
all

By Abby Braithwaite

“Mom, let’s go up there!”

“You don’t want to go just a little farther on the flat part, see if we can find the stream, and maybe see some of those frogs making all that racket?”

“No, up there! Hmph.”

My daughter stomps her foot, crosses her arms, and juts her chin at the near-vertical bank to our right. An expanse of loose rock, dead grasses and newly-awakened poison oak leads up to the abandoned mine above us, and beyond to the top of the rim-rock where her dad, brother and beloved babysitter are hiking. But really, it wouldn’t matter if no one was up there. Every time we have hiked this trail over the past couple years, off-roading has been this 4-foot, 9-inch teenager’s path of choice. She huffs again, tossing her pink bangs off her mostly-shaved head and standing firm.

“That way. Now.” It’s amazing how clearly she enunciates when she is mimicking my get-serious-and-listen voice. If only her speech therapist could hear her now.

“Alright, let’s go.”

***

If you want proof that evolution is dangerous, all you have to do is parent a teenager. Or teach one. Or just choose one out of the crowd and watch her move through the world. The fact that an entire species has banked our survival on the teenage brain is a mind-bender, and the ultimate proof that in order to get anywhere in life, you have to be willing to risk it all on a twist of DNA.

That first amoeba family could have just trucked along blob-like for an eternity, comfortable in its amorphousness, and populated this planet with slime. But no, some type-A couple of perfectly good cells had to go and mix it up and complicate the next generation with extra material, and things just went from there.

Improvise, stabilize, stagnate, repeat. Evolution in a nutshell. Sure there’s some loss along the way, but how else is a fish supposed to crawl out of an ocean and walk across the sand, if it’s not willing to take a chance?

***

As I follow Adara up the side of the hill, I keep one hand on the small of her back to remind her to keep her weight forward so she’ll tumble up if she trips, and not topple all the way back to the nice sandy path below us. As I feel her push herself up, muscles tensing under my hand, I notice again that her right glute is about half the size of her left, the result of a long-ago surgical repair on a bad hip, and I wonder if she likes this kind of climb better because it’s a break from the relentless, crooked pound-stumble that is walking when one leg is an inch shorter than the other. Maybe, like the short-sided mountain goats in that old comic, she knows she’s built for side-hilling.

Or, maybe she just likes to do it the hard way.

Either way, I’m glad to be walking behind her in the April sun, grateful I was able to get her off the couch and out the door after the rest of the group headed out on a hike I would have been on if there was someone else to hang out with my kid. And truth be told, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up with them anyway. I’m probably better off down here where I can collect rocks, listen to the frogs, and watch the clouds roll by while Adara picks her way up this impossible slope.

***

And so, some number of millennia and branches of the tree of life later, we arrive at the human species. Like many living things before us, plant and animal alike, we had figured out that for the healthiest populations, we had to spread out to mate. Trees send their seeds on the wind. Thistles catch onto the coats of the wandering beta wolf, and so propagate new thistle fields on the other side of the mountain range. The scent of ripe berries on the breeze brings a feeding frenzy, and berry seeds are shat out in myriad piles across the watershed.

Travel to make babies. It’s a pretty foundational principle of procreation.

But humans had to complicate things. We birthed impossibly dependent babies that stayed helpless far longer than any other animals’ offspring, and we became programmed to nurture, to tend, to need each other. We created intricate social structures, interdependency, emotional attachment. How were we supposed to get far apart enough to mate safely, to ensure the mutations that would lead to increased variability and strength, rather than the dangerous effects of an insular community?

Enter the teenager, a creature designed to cast out on its own to points unknown, with a particular penchant for pushing away the very people it has depended on most for the past decade and a half.

***

We’re spending a few days at our family cabin on the Deschutes River in central Oregon. It’s on the site of an old perlite mine, where several buildings were converted to a fishing camp after the mine closed in the 1940’s. My husband’s grandparents happened across the place when the mine office building was up for sale, so we have access to a ranging two-story box in the desert that can hold more than a dozen people comfortably. It’s just the five of us this weekend, though. My husband, our two kids, and our babysitter, here off the clock to explore this place she has heard so much about in the years she’s been working for us.

On the far side of the river—you have to take a cable ferry to get here, with everything you need for however long you’re staying—with no internet or cell reception, and stone’s throw from the shriekiest mile of curving railroad track in the West, it’s a love it or hate it kind of place. It’s fiercely cold in the winter, and impossibly hot and dry in the summer. In late spring and early fall, it’s mild and lovely. In April and September, it’s all those things in the span of an afternoon.

Adara’s on the hate it end of the spectrum, but we ply her with salt and vinegar potato chips and let her smuggle her phone over the river so she has her music, and she puts up with it. And every couple days, I manage to get her out for an explore. Every teenager who has come of age here—except maybe my introverted fisherman of a husband—has had a period of hating the place, hating the spiders and bugs, hating being away from friends and stuck with family, hating, over the past decade, the prohibition on technology, which doesn’t really work here anyway. But they come, and they are forced outside, and they learn to take care of the place; eventually keys pass from the hands of one generation to the next. Corwin, my 11-year-old, loves the place still. But given her druthers, Adara would take a pass altogether.

***

A quick Google search on “evolution as risk”—looking to see if any researchers have asked whether evolutionary steps can be viewed as a species-level gamble—tells me I need to spend more time on research if I want to follow this trail any farther. I find hits on Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—the threat posed by the mere concept of evolution to the human understanding of our roots, when the theory first arose—and the evolution of risk, with lots of sub-articles on the evolutionary role of adolescence. And that’s part of what I am talking about here, of course, but my bigger question is about the gamble of mutation itself. Why evolve at all? Why not just stay the course?

A species grows from the mire, defines itself, settles into a niche. All is fine, if not terribly exceptional, to be a lizard crawling around on the ground. Everything is working, comfortable enough. But then one day a cold wind blows across your scales and on some cellular level, some strand of lizard DNA buzzes awake and—bam—scales grow into feathers, feathers grow longer, lizards spend more time on the edges of cliffs, lots of them fall off, and the once stable ground-lizard population is suddenly on the brink, life is a lot more dangerous. And then, one day, instead of falling, a lizard flies. And so we have birds, which never would have come to be if there wasn’t space for just the right mutations to build on themselves, improvising, stretching, changing.

***

“I can’t do it, Mom!” she shouts, after her third attempt at a handhold tumbles down the bank behind us. We’ve been climbing for about half an hour now and, despite frequent breaks, we’ve gotten through the hardest section. It’s grassier here, less rocky, and I notice that there’s a trail beaten by deer that traverses the slope off to our right, taking a gentler approach to vertical gain, following the contours of the hillside rather than heading straight up.

“You’re doing great, look how far we’ve come!”

She turns to look down, scares herself with the sheer drop, and turns back, crossing her arms and harrumphing again. “That scared me. I can’t do it.”

“Well, we can’t sleep here, can we?” I ask, attempting the light humor that will sometimes snap her out of recalcitrance. “And look, there’s the tree we’re heading for. We’re almost there. Look, you’re the leader, and you’re doing a great job, so I want to show you two choices. Either one is fine. We can keep going straight, up this way,” and I point to the rocky draw she’s been following, that traces a straight line between us and a budding oak tree. “Or, we can follow this sneaky deer trail that’s an easier path. I know it looks like it’s going the wrong way, but it twists back around, I promise.”

***

And what greater metaphor for this moment of improvisation, of leaving behind the cozy, safe, necessary known for some new dimension, than human adolescence? A risk-taking, precipice-walking, edge-living phase of our development carefully designed to carry us away from our community, out to points unknown, to mix with others and create new family lines. With the skills, knowledge, and strength to set forth for new spaces and places, but without the wisdom to worry so much about what’s coming; the power to plunge straight ahead to the next thing, without the discernment to think maybe there’s an easier way, around the corner, just out of sight. In order to survive babyhood, we needed to create the attached family unit. But in order to thrive as a species, we needed to find a way away from each other, a vehicle to spread the wings and sow the proverbial wild oats further afield.

***

True to form, Adara insists on heading straight up the draw, not interested in my advice about a so-called easier path. She’s tired now, and can’t make it more than a few steps at a time before she needs to stop and catch her breath, rest her shaking legs. She can see the tree, with the picnic rock next to it, and she’s confident in her knowledge of the best way to get there. Straight. Up. The. Hill. Though the pauses between pushing upward grow longer with each break, push herself she does, and we make our way slowly up the slope.

“MOM, I NEED your hand.”

“Kiddo, if I hold your hand, I’m going to pull you down the hill. Here, I’ll just hold your hi-“

“Fine, I CAN’T DO IT!” And she plunks back down, lifts up her butt to toss a sharp rock out from under her. It just misses my kneecap. “And I’m not a kiddo. I’m THIRTEEN!”

I take a deep breath and look out over the river. We’re so close to the top, where we can sit on a flat rock and eat the salt and vinegar chips and sing songs and tell stories and build fairy houses in the dust on the side of the old mine road while we wait for the rest of the crew to come down the mountain.

I just need to keep my mouth shut, and we’ll get there.

As a teenager with a developmental disability, my daughter perhaps inhabits the brink more precariously than others; she toggles in an instant between a deep dependence—still needing help to zip a zipper, tie a shoe, sneak a pee on the side of a mountain—and a fierce desire to do it her way, on her own, without interruption and condescension. But, then, the more I talk to her classmates’ parents, the parents of so-called typical children, the more I realize that it’s only really a difference of degrees. All the kids her age are doing this dance. She just does it a little more transparently. And she needs a little more help to get free of me.

As we push on up her chosen path, my thoughts continue to circle on this idea that as a species, we have banked our survival on this risk-taking phase of human development. And as we stop again, angry at a piece of sharp grass that pokes into the sock, I remember something our midwife said, back when people were still saying things to try to make us feel better about Adara’s Down syndrome diagnosis. Something about how there are people who believe that Down syndrome—a genetic mutation that causes a triplication of the 21st chromosome, rather than the typical duplication, and the most survivable trisomy, as these triplications are collectively known—is the next evolutionary phase of the human species. That the emotional intelligence that is a common trait in Down syndrome is exactly what we need to survive the challenges in front of us right now.

I never looked the theory up back then, to see if she was just blowing smoke to make us feel better. And now I suspect any discussion of the theme will be rife with stereotypes and platitudes about Down syndrome—about how “those people” are happy all the time, and are pure love, and are just perpetual children who have found some stash of joy and contentment that we should all learn from.

But watching my kid choose the hardest path with a force and determination that I could only hope to attain, I have to wonder. No, she’s not happy all the time. She bridles at her little brother just as much as any 13-year-old should. No, she’s not a forever-child. She’s determined to finish school, go to college, and live in an apartment without her boring parents and their annoying rules and chores. But her joys are deeper than just about anyone I know, and she doesn’t carry a grudge. She has a gift for finding lonely people and bringing them into the circle, and for making them laugh with bad puns and absurd knock-knock jokes. She navigates life’s most challenging moments with a resiliency we all should envy. Maybe we could all stand to move that way after all, or at least to weave a little of the ways of that bonus chromosome into our dealings with ourselves and each other. Perhaps we’ve achieved a place as a species where we can choose some of our next adaptations. Choose to weave a new way.

A new thought to ponder. Luckily, there’s plenty of time for thinking on these hikes we take together.

Abby Braithwaite lives in Ridgefield, Washington, where she writes from a converted shipping container in the woods overlooking the family farm. She enjoys the soundscape of sandhill cranes, coyotes and freight trains trundling from Portland to Seattle underneath her bedroom window. Her essays on parenting, escape, and disability have been published in the Barton Chronicle, the Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and the Hip Mama blog, as well as a handful of non-profit newsletters. In 2019 she created “Contained”, a chapbook of her collected musings. She shares her home with her husband and two children, three cats, and two dogs.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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