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Guest Posts, motherhood

Treasure

May 28, 2020
breathe

By Shannon Lange

He arrived in December of 1987, 4 days before my 23rd birthday.

Tufts of downy black hair sticking up all over his perfect-shaped head, arms pin-wheeling, and fists tightly curled; prepared to fight right from the moment of his birth.

Those early moments and hours of watching his every movement and mood in wonder and fear-emotions in tandem. Flowing from one to the other with every breath we both took and knowing deep inside myself that nothing this beautiful and perfect can last forever. Keeping my face close to his, imbibing in the sweet scent of his neck and feeling tears run down my face as I whispered sweet nothings and loving promises into his tiny seashell ears, with the baby fuzz still intact on the tops of them.

🙢

He calls me one morning a few months back, on a work day. That in and of itself, startles me and immediately causes my stomach to clench and my hands to shake a bit as I grab my phone. My sons are of the generation that text primarily. They send funny memes to me as a means of checking in every few days, but often send them with no personal messages at all- the millennial version of Sunday dinner, I guess.

“Mom- I can’t breathe- something is wrong with me and I’m really fucking scared.”

“What do you mean you can’t breathe? What is going on, where are you, are you ok?”

“Mom, my chest feels tight and hurts and my fingers feel numb and tingly and I feel like I’m going crazy. I am sitting in the parking lot of a strip mall by work and I can’t work today. I can’t be alone and I have my girlfriend’s car and I need to pick her up at the airport in a few hours and I don’t know what to do!”

I tell him that I don’t have my own car on this particular day, as I have given it his younger brother to use. I ask if he wants me to call an ambulance, and I listen to his shaky uneven breathing as he tries to decision-make in the thick of whatever is occurring inside of his body and his brain.

“ I will drive to your place- I’ll be there in 20 minutes, Mom- I can’t be alone. I need you.”

I tell him that he can’t possibly drive in the state he is in, that I want him to stay on the phone with me and breathe, while I use my mother-voice to hopefully calm him down.

He hangs up on me halfway through, telling me he is on his way.

I promise myself that I will not call him back within the next 20 minutes, as I know he will be on at least 2 freeways driving towards my home in the burbs, and that if I call him, he WILL answer the call.

🙢

We are off to the Pediatrician’s office for the 4th time within a 2 month period between his 2nd and 3rd birthdays. He has turned into a daredevil and a constant whirling dervish of energy and impulsivity. He is prone to wildly jumping off furniture and picnic tables and the trunks of people’s cars and from branches of trees that should be light years away from his reach or climbing skills.

His first concussion is still 3 years in his future; his second 4 years ahead.

The pediatrician assesses him for lumps and bumps, bruises and contusions, and then suggests I keep a better eye on him and to hide anything cape-like in appearance, as these mishaps have a common denominator- the capes he ties around his neck. Capes made of tea towels primarily, which I tie or pin on autopilot for him when he brings them to me. I am distracted by his younger brother’s colicky wails during these months, and feel gratitude that he can amuse himself so well in his imaginary pleasures of being a superhero.

I cry tears of relief and shame all the way home from those visits to the pediatrician’s office with my son safely strapped into his car seat in the back of the car. He babbles non-stop in the car with me, telling me about Aladdin and Jafar, Littlefoot and Sara, Falkor and Bastion; also the old man next door that he talks to through the fence in the backyard.

🙢

The year he is 13, the car I am driving is hit by a train and the memory of the scent of him as an infant swirls around me in the wreckage. I am transported back to the promises I made him, and the whispering of sweet nothings into his perfect seashell ears. I babble to myself incoherently and remind myself to breathe as I slither my broken body out the shattered window.

The memory of his scent and the promises made spur me toward survival.

🙢

Three Christmases ago, he is with me in my home. He works with children and youth who are taken into care due to neglect or abuses too horrific to share. He tells me he is on call and will need to step out of the room to privacy if the cell phone he’s holding rings. It rings over and over that day, a constant background sound to the day’s festivities. He is absent more than he is present that day. Even when he is in the rooms with us all, he is not there. His brow is furrowed and he is deep within himself.

He leaves his plate of food mostly untouched and I watch the gravy on the plate in front of his empty chair turn to a gelatinous sludge, while sipping wine.

I make the mistake of commenting that he maybe should have skipped coming, as he has been so preoccupied and absent most of the day- that he couldn’t have possibly enjoyed the gathering.

“Mom, there is an infant that is one day old that is going to be taken away from its mother this evening. I have been on the phone with police and child services and coworkers and hospital social workers, coordinating the details and logistics. I am sorry I ruined your holiday.”

I sit in the chair after he leaves, and feel tears of shame and regret snake their way down my face in the dark like they did all those years ago.

🙢

The year he is 7, he ends up with strep infection and goes into a delirium state. I pull him into the bed beside me, and feel the burning heat coming from within his thin body. I rock him a bit, feeling his rigid limbs slowly relax against the softness of my stomach.  He eventually drifts off into fever dreams and upon awakening, tells me stories of pirate ships and buried treasures and makes me pinky swear I will always remember the location of the buried treasures. He says he will not remember it when we really need it when the bad times come.

He tells me he can save me with the treasures he will bring me.

🙢

The summer of his 13th year, while I recuperate from the accident, he works full time landscaping. We are living in an apartment, with no air conditioning, in the midst of a heat wave. My mother far away has taken my younger son for the summer; I am unable to care for him properly in my broken state.

He goes to work at 6 in the morning and doesn’t come home until the evening, working long hours in the heat like a man, coming home with brown skin and hair bleached by the hot sun.

He asks for my bank card and runs across the street to buy hot dogs or pizza pops or bacon- anything he can find at the convenience store that will feed us both for dinner.

He never complains, cooks for us both and then falls into his bed to rest for the next day.

He tells me that we need to talk about how often I am taking the pain pills and we make a plan together for me to wean myself off of them safely.

I begin to heal.

🙢

He arrives at my home the day of his breakdown and I sit with him.

I bring him cool water and stroke his hair and encourage him to breathe, while I strap my blood pressure cuff to his arm. I watch the numbers on the machine go higher and higher and higher, but tell him in a calm voice that everything will be ok, and just breathe.

My eyes fill with tears he cannot see as the numbers on the machine blur into the ages that my father and my brother died from heart attacks.

He worries about letting the children and his coworkers down and I remind him to breathe.

He worries about picking his girlfriend up at the airport in 3 more hours and I remind him to breathe.

He apologizes for scaring me and bringing his troubles my way and I notice that we are breathing together in perfect sync – slow life-sustaining breaths together.

I take him to my doctor across the street from my home and he tells him it is anxiety and lack of sleep and that he will be ok.

He sits with us both and reassures us that this too shall pass.

🙢

The year he is 15, we have a stupid argument over him not cleaning up after himself.

He is a man now physically and feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof as only teenaged boys can.

He has started to lip me back when I scold him about things and I sometimes search desperately to see even a trace of my baby in his angular features. I need it to remind myself that this isn’t some random male yelling in my house. I am mostly angry that year, for a variety of reasons, most of them having nothing to do with him or his brother. I am in school trying to better myself and my earning potential for all of us, and worrying constantly about keeping food in the house for my sons.

I decide to employ the silent treatment on him, and I go 24 hours or more without speaking to him.

I walk past him in the hall and the kitchen and do not respond to him when he speaks to me.

I am on the computer in the spare room when he walks in and approaches me.

It feels like a Mexican stand-off- him looking tearfully into my eyes and me looking back at him coldly.

“Mom, I can’t take you not speaking to me- it reminds me of when you had your accident and everyone said you were going to die. This is what it would have felt like living without you.”

I took him in my arms on that day and held on for dear life, thinking about the treasures he told me about all those years ago, how he knew he would save me someday, how it all came to pass.

Shannon Lange is an emerging writer and who has worked in healthcare for the last 25 years. She is also the mother of two adult sons, one a film maker, and the other a musician. Shannon and her family value creativity in its many forms, and her dream is to be able to write full time. 

Upcoming events with Jen

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

aging, Guest Posts, motherhood

Well Played

April 23, 2020
run

By Natalie Serianni

The buzzer sounds as I pull up my white soccer socks. It’s freezing; I can see my breath.

I’m inside.

Inside but outside. An old airport hangar converted into a three-field soccer complex.

The scoreboard reads 10:52 pm.

The game is a few minutes late to start, people like ants piling on to the pitch.

It’s familiar territory, this kind of a field; my home for at least 20 years of my life.

The highlight reel:

Suburbia 80’s soccer: Members Only jackets on the sidelines; my mother, her frosted hair and Reeboks cheering and clapping as we whizzed by. Kids running around orange cones or picking flowers in the corner. Learning to kick. To run.

Elementary soccer:  Billy Ocean blaring as we drill, drill, drill. Stations: moving us along down, down, down the field.

Teen games: Sweltering summer games. Cold washcloths, straight from the Coleman cooler, strategically placed on wrists and necks. On the face, the faint smell of Tide during an inhale. Calves aching, but young bodies craving movement. Able to rest, play. Repeat.

High School: Hot sun and short shorts. Boys. Are the boys looking? Here comes the boys team. Learning how to play dirty. Sitting on busses. The spaghetti dinners and “We will Rock You” piped through the PA. Warm up tapes, mixing the power of Public Enemy and Led Zeppelin. It was theatrical: the show, the spectacle instead of the game. There were parents in the bleachers; my father at every game. Home or Away, home or away. On the cusp of a bigger game.

College Soccer: Always away; so far from home. Different state, different soil. So many sprints. Practices that were competitions. Late nights lit by black lights and Rage Against the Machine in cement block dorms rooms. Hung over mornings that began with pushups, noses tickled by fresh mowed grass, trickling temple-sweat. It was four years too long.

The muscle, the memory. That competitive monster. It does not fade.

And now, present day: Indoor and on the team. 43. I’ve returned. I’ve paid my dues. I paid my registration fee and there won’t be a trophy. Or an end of season banquet where we don something other than sweats and eat Chicken Marsala in a Holiday Inn conference room. 40 year old soccer is having carpet burned knees and burning lungs. After-game pitchers of cold Coors Light and forty year olds circled around a table, talking about “sweet shots” and back slaps with Nice move out there! Sweaty socks, tiny turf bits falling out as we munch stale, hours old popcorn under buzzing fluorescent lights. It’s the joy of knowing I’ll be sore for two days; my husband tucking my babies into bed. Returning home to a quiet house. A lone, dim light above the oven, my midnight invitation to solitutude. A late, silent shower.

There is freedom on that field.

An ability to fly. Away from preparation, or list-making, or lunch-packing for others. The anchor of motherhood and other demons temporily lifted.

It’s a game and I’m playing.

It’s just play.

And I’m just a mother running and running.

Finally, running.

***

Running was my extra-curricular activity as a women’s college soccer player.

I was running to stay in shape; training for the next match. Preparing. And also, strangely,  whittling myself down to a muscle; stripping away to the leanest version of myself. Past the woman I hated; past the woman who had to be playing a sport. I ran away from myself, from my disdain, running at 5:30 in the morning to think, and think and think and think and think

…about how much I hated playing soccer.

How much I hated my body for playing this game that was no longer a game.

I remember being a college sophomore in a dank, sweaty basement gym, floor fans blasting at 11pm.

Alone.

My old monster: Working out. Losing all traces of myself.

Fanatically exercising. An hour plus on the Stairmaster was normal. Push down, push down, hold on, hold on. Whoosh, Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Incremental Red lights on the machine dashboard, dots, Screaming: go faster! Push harder! Pulsing: Don’t slow down! 275 Calories to go! Dripping with sweat, my hands slipped off the black handrails. Add a scratchy white hand towel and the sliding became more comical: the towel and I slipping further down the machine. I prop myself back up, my sweaty body hunched over the machine in agony, pushing myself.

And this was after two hour practices on the college soccer field.

Self-sabotage. I had to work it off because bigger, stronger, meant fat.

I wasn’t. I was a muscular 20 year old woman playing a collegiate sport, feeling betrayed by her body’s strength. Where it showed; the armor I created. I needed the heaviness gone.

Why did I confuse strength with size?

More Cardio. More stairs. Only eating small sections of apples. Maybe a few raisins.

The cycle continued for a year, my legs becoming chicken bones.

Can a competitive sport turn you into the opponent?

Trying to disappear, shaming myself away from my muscular thighs and too-strong arms.

To combat this, I:

ran at odd hours and ate salads with no dressing and drank hard liquor since my college friends told me there were no calories and wore too baggy jeans and woke up starving in the middle of the night and dreamed of delicious cheese-y lasagna all while I could not brush the stench of hunger from my breath. 

There was a warped, seductive power in wearing a white v neck t-shirt with your clavicle peaking out. It screamed small. In control. Look at me, dammit. See me. I’m more than the game.

My body wanted nothing to do with this warfare. It didn’t fight back. It collapsed. A non-female body; period loss for a year and a half. Complete disconnection.

There was running. Morning miles and marathons. Hip flexors tight from repetitive repetition.

There was pulling: a row machine. Picking up: Black dumbells from their home on the rack.

There was pushing: leg lifts. A heavy bar away from my chest.

And later, babies.

Mothering is its own kind of sport, birth the ultimate sporting event. There are not many spectators, but the world has a wager on you.

Growing big and small, and big and small. The weigh ins. Once, both of our growths recorded on charts, listening for two heartbeats and placing hands with measuring tape on bellies. There was a pre-game type of excitement, energy and even anxiety: delighted worry mixed with sweet longing.

Two different babies, two different births: a 15 hour overnight labor; a quick two hour event. No medications. Contractions that split my body from its core; hunched over on all fours. Reaching through legs to pull out my bloody heart.

I pushed, plumbing my body for a strength I didn’t possess. Searching inside, trying to get out of my own way.

And then, the after. Lightness. Relief. Like the athlete, there’s recovery. Loss of fluids, blood and energy. To be replenished.

There is a sweet decline. Loss. The gestational heft that buoyed you both, your plump – the admirable warrior who carried and grew another.

Then, moving on to figuring where you fit: new mom groups, old jeans. A new life.

The focus is on the baby. But it’s also about you. Where are you?

Nine months at the mercy of a growing body: cells restoring, blood volume doubling, hearts beating simultaneously. Placenta placement? Fine. Baby measurement? Small, but healthy. You after birth?

Just you wait.

I made an intentional choice to be big, not small in mothering –  done listening to me tell me I wasn’t up for the job. I could no longer be steam rolled by my inadeqauices. Or my core-shaking anxiety: that my baby might slip through my fingers and fall on the hard wood. That I couldn’t drive with a baby in my backseat. The imagined terror that she would tumble off the overpass while strapped in the stroller. Or stop breathing without my hands lightly on her chest, feeling for movement at 3am.

I’m left to wonder about mothers, the wounds we have. The weight we carry.

Are we ever in control?

It’s what we all know: it’s work to keep the motherhood monster in the cave. The one that consistently tells us we’re not winning, but failing; we’re doing it all wrong and one step away from messing up our children. When I can’t control, I manipulate: my mind. My body.

No more.

I question my ability to protect my child. It haunts me at night. But I name my faults and know my weaknesses. I know the enormity of living a life. There, I find myself.

***

Motherless at 25, my body was betrayed. Again.

My stomach felt it first; a sucker punch to the solar plexus.

Aching: on and on and on, through the fibers of my interior.

Her body was betrayed, too: a stroke. So fast. Was there a chance for her?

For recovery, for a life?

After eighteen years of grief, I’m finally, nearly, out.

The body does, indeed, keep score.

There is emergence: the catalyst was my baby born on September 2nd. Also, My mother’s birthday. And, also, the day my mother died. Eighteen years before.

September 2nd.

At the dawn of my daughter’s life, I’m taking my mother’s lifeless, leftover years and converting them into a kind of currency.

I’m ready to play again.

I’ll slide quarters into the machine

Put me in coach I think to myself.

I gather my curls and rake them into a ponytail.

I’m warmed up, I’m primed. Loose.

I’ve loosened around my mother’s absence.

In returning to the void, I’ve found connection. Connecting me to her, me to my body. There’s power when you inhabit what you fear. Loneliness. Longing. My body used to be a container to evacuate, curse, question and crush. Today, I can embrace. Even when grief’s tentacles have taken over the ship, how we become our bodies dictates our course forward.

***

“SUB!!!!” I hear my teammate scream from the field.

I scan the field for her voice. I look to the clock: 2 minutes and 37 seconds left in the game.

I tuck my shirt in.

I’m looking forward to that field.

I wait for her to run over. She looks me in the eye, and our sweaty hands slap each other.

At the same time: “Good work out there” I said, starting my jog.

“You got this,” she says, breathless, winding her run down to a walk.

Let me out there, I think.

Watch out, I think.

I run towards the game.

I run towards the things I know.

Natalie Serianni is a Seattle-based writer, teacher and mother of two. Her work has appeared in Seattle’s ParentMap Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Sammiches and Psych Meds, and various blogs and literary journals. Her writing centers on grief, gratitude and motherhood.

Upcoming events with Jen

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

aging, Guest Posts

Wait, and Hurry Up

April 19, 2020
clock

By Susan Goldberg

The clock radio in my younger son’s bedroom is gaining time.

At first, it was a couple of minutes a day. I’d tuck him into bed at night and notice that the time was off, and sigh, and reset it, syncing it back to my iPhone. I assumed that a child had accidentally pressed the minute button, or that one of the cats had walked across the clock — originally purchased by me at the age of 14 from Consumers Distributing — pushing it ever so slightly into the future.

Except that it happened every night, every bedtime, until I finally clued in that the clock, after more than three decades of service, was dying.

“I think it’s time to replace this thing,” I told my son one evening. He protested. He liked the clock radio, perched like a loaf of bread on his dresser. He liked the way it made mornings come earlier. He thought it would be mean, not to mention environmentally unfriendly, to get rid of it over something as trivial as a few minutes each day, to throw it into landfill when we could just reset it each night.

I was inclined to agree. The frugality of his position, his make-do attitude, appealed to me. I, too, liked the clock. It reminded me of the 19-year-old cat we’d recently lost. She had held out for so long, years and years of the same routine: sleeping in her red chair in the corner of the living room, making her slow way up the stairs each winter afternoon to the same bedroom that housed the clock, basking on my son’s bed in the warm light of the southern exposure. She deteriorated so slowly that it was hard to really notice it: the way she weighed a little less, shed more fur, took a little longer to climb the stairs each time. Until a week before she died, when her decline sped up markedly: her eyes suddenly milky, her gait stiffer and wobbly. I found her, one evening, on the floor in my older son’s bedroom, tiny and gone. We wrapped her body in one of the boys’ old satin baby blankets and buried her underneath the rhododendron bush in the back garden, next to the previous dead cat, also wrapped in a satin baby blanket.

In the past week or so, though, the clock seems to have taken its cue from the cat, speeding ahead each day not in increments of a few minutes but dozens. It’s 2:08 PM as I write this; the clock’s display currently reads 3:21. After years of perfect health followed by incremental degeneration, it has suddenly upped the ante. The curve of its demise has turned sharply upward; has become visible, measurable, pretty much literal in its countdown to the inevitable end, when we unplug it and put it in the box with all the other e-waste.

These days, some days, I feel like that clock.

Like this: One morning this past summer, I sat down to journal and realized that the words were blurry on the page. I’d been journaling nearly every morning for more than 20 years, the same Hilroy 5-subject notebooks, the same Pentel RSVP fine-tipped ballpoint pens, and all of a sudden it was almost intolerable, the way the words fluttered subtly on their light-blue lines, the way the pen strokes seemed to bleed.

Or this: at the end of the same summer, I was besieged suddenly with waves of nausea, unexplained, unbidden. Almost daily, I’d close my eyes and breathe through the sensation, sour and shaky: the clammy skin and dizziness, the tightening of the ligaments in my neck. It felt like morning sickness, although there was no earthly way I could be pregnant.

Now, all of a sudden, I am the person with four pairs of reading glasses: bedroom, office, kitchen, purse. For more than 40 years, since I learned to make sense of print, I could easily read the words on a page, and then one day I couldn’t. And now, I have a prescription for Zantac, admonitions from my doctor to cut back on caffeine, alcohol, mint, onions, garlic, fatty foods. I’ve been diagnosed — after a series of highly invasive and unpleasant tests involving tubes and barium and fasting and suppositories — with reflux. The sphincter between my stomach and esophagus is weak, loose; stomach acid slips past it and up into my throat, burning it just a little bit each time.

“And that’s what’s making me nauseated?” I asked my doctor. It seemed incongruous.

She nodded. “The body,” she said, “doesn’t always have the best ways to tell us what’s going on.”

I thought of all those nights, countless nights, in the past few years, when I woke up, chest tight, feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath. The tightness was familiar: it was the same feeling I’d had since 11th grade math class, when I began doubling over in pain around exam time. “What are you worried about?” my doctor had asked me, not unkindly, when I went to see her with my teenage complaints. She diagnosed me with math stress and suggested Tums, trying to relax.

The reflux diagnosis — which came on the Friday before my 46th birthday — felt on the one hand like a relief: I was heartened to know that there was a physical, medical explanation for what was going on (and that the explanation was not, say, cancer), that it could be treated through medication and “lifestyle modifications.” On the other hand, I found it oddly unsettling, even a betrayal: for years, I thought — because my doctor had told me as much — that my gastrointestinal issues were all in my head, purely the result of anxiety. All those times I woke in the middle of the night feeling sick with what I assumed was worry, when I tried to soothe the burning in my chest with calming self-talk (or, in a pinch, Ativan or sleeping aids), I could’ve just taken a Zantac and waited 20 minutes.

It’s strange, to rewrite that kind of story about oneself. Yes, of course I was anxious: about math class, my mother’s cancer, my separation, every other stressful event in the intervening three decades. Yes, stress triggers reflux; the two aren’t entirely unrelated. But I had never thought to ask about, and no one had told me, that its manifestations had physical causes, that I could do something more than breathe through the nausea or up my meditation practice (and be stressed at my lack of initiative when I didn’t).

Most unsettling, though, was that sharp upward curve in symptoms. Arguably, I’ve had reflux since my mid-teens. And then, in August, my body — like the clock — upped the ante, hastened the decline, doubled me over with a queasiness I couldn’t identify and finally couldn’t ignore.

I can see, already, how the same story could, probably will, play out with menopause. Right now, it’s still, mercifully, on the horizon. Despite everything I’ve read in my Facebook perimenopause group, I have lulled myself into thinking that it will be a smooth transition, unnoticeable: cycles that will gradually shorten until they one day disappear, without drama, without fuss.

Logically, of course, my assumption makes no sense: a series of increasingly shorter spans between periods doesn’t lead to a gradual cessation but, rather, to one long, unbroken bloodbath. My friends’ testimonies bear this out, as does math. What I should prepare for is that sudden, dramatic onset of symptoms: headaches, chin hairs, weight gain, insomnia, hot flashes. It’s not like I haven’t been warned. I was born with a finite number of eggs, and, one day, the last one will be released and then, suddenly, there will be no more. (Each month, I am half-amused and half-irritated at my ovaries’ persistent hope that this time might just be the time. “What exactly about my life,” I ask them, “makes you think that what I really need right now is one more baby?”) And yet I persist in imagining that I can get it “right,” that with regular exercise and (even) less coffee and alcohol, and some well-chosen supplements, I might be able to avoid all of that, to continue along my straight and narrow path toward menopause rather than slamming into that sharp, sudden curve of night sweats, broken sleep, the 10 pounds (more?) that will appear over the course of four months, no matter how many carbs I don’t consume.

It will feel sudden, but it won’t be. Just as, although I persist in thinking of the nausea as coming out of nowhere, really it’s the culmination of decades of acid, the slow weakening of muscles, associated nerves finally frayed that nanometre too much. Ditto, I imagine, with my vision: it’s more dramatic to think of my need for reading glasses as sudden, but isn’t it really the culmination of years of gradual decline? Aren’t we all dying from the moment we’re born? What’s that saying? Even a broken clock radio is right twice a day.

Can we really prepare for the passage of time? More specifically, can we really prepare for the number it does on our bodies? More and more, I’m inclined to think that I’m asking the wrong questions. You don’t really prepare for decline. You confront it, the way you confront grief, in stages: At first you deny its possibility, and then you ignore its symptoms, and then you rail against it, compensate subtly for it, think you can overcome it. Finally, with more or less grace, you get used to it, incorporate it into your daily life. The curve flattens out, becomes the new straight line. Until you’re hit with the next curveball.

I think of my friend J, whose own stomach upsets were, in fact, cancer. Ovarian. I’ve watched her move through precisely that cycle: ignoring or putting up with the symptoms until she had to drive herself to the hospital, puking in the parking lot from the pain. Her initial impulse to “get cancer right”; to arm herself with information, make the best decisions, to leverage every ounce of privilege and training and gumption she possessed (and she possesses all those things, in spades) to be the best cancer patient ever, to elude (or at least best manage) side effects, to stay in control of this whole thing. As a friend and fellow perfectionist, I have watched how cancer, how the system itself, has steadily countered these impulses. Ovarian cancer, her doctors told her, is now considered a chronic disease, one more damn thing to incorporate into daily life. I think of my own mother, diagnosed at 37, dead at 59, the decades in between and how she, how we all, learned to incorporate the disease and its possibility into each day. What she taught us, what I see in J, was how to live in a state of grace, gritty and hard-won though it may be.

If you’re lucky — and I think I’m lucky, so far, knock wood — you notice the grace within the grit. In the midst of your various declines, you begin to notice some sharp trends toward the better: how the friends you have now are the best friends you have ever had. How you are so much happier living single in your own house than you ever were married in it. How wonderfully sharp the reading glasses render the words on the page, your reflection in the mirror — now you can see every chin hair in high definition!

Your focus sharpens in other ways: now, all of a sudden, you no longer have any patience for the friendships that drain your energy, and give them up, revel quietly in the space their absence creates, the increased calm. How you stop beginning your sentences with the phrase I think or I might, and start saying I want or I am. Or I did — because you’ve stopped asking permission in advance. You have enough money: to buy a new clock radio for your son, for plane tickets when you really don’t want to drive, for new lingerie (not the utilitarian stuff) when perimenopause makes you spill out of the old bras.

You unplug the clock from its outlet and can’t quite help running your hand over its 1980s-brown plastic casing. You were so young when you bought it. You feel a bit silly, laying it down gently rather than tossing it into the box with all the other digital and electronic detritus: the immersion blender your former mother-in-law gave you one Christmas, an ancient cell phone with a cracked screen. You think of every milestone the clock witnessed, the way it kept the time, held the space, even and unruffled, all those years. If you had one handy, you might have wrapped the clock in a satin baby blanket. You think, but don’t quite say out loud, the words Thank you.

Susan Goldberg’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Catapult, Full Grown People, Toronto Life, Stealing Time, TueNight, Today’s Parent, and a variety of anthologies and websites, as well as on CBC, to which she is a regular contributor. She is the coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. She lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Guest Posts, motherhood, The Body

We All Live Here

April 16, 2020
hair

By Jillayna Adamson

First, the wrecking.

For months, my hair would come out in clumps. Gobs, pulling out in my fingers while gathering it into a ponytail, or brushing it out of my face. In the shower, the gobs were bigger, and as I rinsed the conditioner I would gather my broken hair onto the side of the tub to throw it in the trash can. In my palm, a mass, wadded and shocking.

16 months later, every single day when I strip my clothes, I am shocked at my body. If I lower myself into the tub, I get flashes of those months I was so immobilized in it, barely able to wash myself. Flashes of the huge round of my bulging belly. Of the weakness of my whole body, my legs hardly able to carry me. And I still see the endless needle marks and swells all down me. Bruised veins from the IVs. My pump hanging over the tub, its tube a trail to my bruised and scarring thigh. “I don’t like needles” my son would say, watching me reinsert the tubes every two days, tracing my body for untapped skin not scabbed or knotted with scar tissue, to insert.

Now, my hair isn’t coming out in clumps. Instead, it breaks like straw. Over one half of my forehead, you’d swear I went scissor crazy and started for bangs and changed my mind mid-forehead. And so I moved my part, dividing my hair down the middle to hide the long patch of short jagged hair. At my part, it is brittle with scattered short patches. And underneath, it’s all broken off. It coils into curls under my long blond waves that stretch half down my back. Perhaps a person wouldn’t notice, but I do. Every day it dictates how I am no longer able to wear it, and the careful ways I have to keep all the broken parts in some semblance of order.

It reminds me every day that I am in shambles.

The great bulge of my belly is gone. It’s now walking around with my same curls, wreaking general (though adorable) havoc. And my stomach has a sag of wrinkles below my belly button. A deflated balloon, extra skin bunching up in patches, slick white stretch marks now collapsed and synched. Again and again, I look in the mirror, or down at myself and I recognize a light alarm of disbelief through me. Throat shock, sinking down, down, down, to a pit in my stomach. This is me now, somehow.

I see it in the mirror, the now-lines on my face, the way the bags under my eyes have grown and darkened. How I look older, creased. And again, I feel those shambles. Not much the shambles of a great passage of time, which might feel more natural, but the tumbling shambles of experience. Of heavy living, in relatively short spans. Of getting wrecked.

You have done something amazing, they tell me. Your body has been through astronomical things—twice. You have survived grave illness twice over. I know these things. I say them too. They are true, yes. But I am still here in these shambles. Within the leftover rags of wars I somehow survived and yet don’t even feel close to out of.

*

Exhaustion exacerbates the shambles. There are almost always people on me. Grabbing at my body, laying atop me, cozying themselves into my nooks. Climbing, pulling, pushing.  Rarely am I just there with my own autonomous self. The scarce self. There are days I can’t help but flinch at the hugs and grabs of my husband because he counts as one of these beings always situated on me, or pressed close, or pulling for a kiss. The dog too. And I wonder why. Why do they all come to me? At me? On me? My body, my autonomous self so far from my own. We all live here. It’s all of ours. And the times it’s just my own, I’m scarcely awake.

But I do love these people. These grabby, needy people that ask for all of me. I love them endlessly and consumingly. But I wonder, where have I gone?

This mothering thing, it is all of you. A disappearing act. In the gain of that love, you can feel an overwhelmingly exhausting and hollow loss.

This wasn’t in the parenting books. My mum never mentioned it, nor did I ever suspect it. It occurred to me one morning, after reheating my coffee for the tenth time, that as a child it never crossed my mind that parenting—that motherhood, specifically—would be hard. Would be difficult, exhausting, depressing, depleting. I carried around my sweet, rose-skinned dolls, and swaddled them up and pushed plastic bottles to their lips without ever once considering any possible unpleasantries within it. I played house, and mothering—I always wanted 12. I was a nurturer, a lover of kids. Never once did I look up at my mum and think is all of this hard? The three kids? Three! That are always hungry, and wanting more, or complaining or fighting, or having meltdowns. Do you know where you are? I never wondered if my mother knew where she was, if she lost herself or sought herself out. And now, she comes and she visits, and she scrubs at the crust on my stove I’ll never get to, and spoons yogurt to the baby while the boy runs in loud, fanatical circles around her, and she says, “You forget. I don’t know how I did it all.” And she doesn’t blame me for being in bed by 8:30 and she says, “It gets easier”. But I can’t help but think it should have crossed my mind, as I cradled my waterbabies, or made my mum lay with me at night until I fell asleep, my little hands gripping at her arm.

I told my 6 year old son the next day, after a regretful argument. I had yelled at him—I never yelled. I hated yelling. But I had lost it, my patience had cracked. And so I told him. “It is hard, you know, being a mom.” And from the back seat of the car, he was perplexed. I watched his eyebrows furrow in the rearview mirror. He was so young, so small looking sitting in his booster. “I love you and your sister more than anything, but sometimes I make mistakes. Because sometimes being a mom is exhausting and difficult. It is a lot of work.”

“I didn’t know that” he said. “Why?”

“Well,” I answered carefully, not wanting him to misunderstand that this didn’t mean I didn’t love him, nor love being a mother. “It never shuts off or stops. Moms worry, moms do all the little things to take care of you all the time. It’s a whole lot of little things. Big things too. There aren’t breaks from it. There aren’t clear cut answers to everything. There isn’t time to do a lot of things we like to do for ourselves.”

He is quiet for a moment, taking it in. Then he nods. “I just thought you get to play like all the time. Plus grownups get to do whatever they want.” He puts his arms out, hands flexed like it’s a question he sees a different answer to.

*

When I gave up my business and we moved out of state away from family and friends, it came up most starkly. I was playing the role one hundred percent. The glue. Making the best choice for the marriage, the family. Sacrificing the elements of me—that’s what this so often was, wasn’t it?

But there, in the beautiful sun and the palm trees, in a town I knew no one and had nothing, I was just a mother and a wife. Just the glue, with no independent self. Day in and day out, the shambles of me so apparent. I felt like nothing. Like the great erasing had taken hold.

My body showed it. Cracking, breaking, creasing. The wrecking.

Enmeshed in love and devotion but also stripped and also wrecked.  Highlighting Japanese Folklore about the Crane Wife, CJ Hauser wrote for the Paris Review, “ to keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps, she plucks out all of her feathers one by one”. I read this, and I think, yes.

First the wrecking, then the erasing. We all live here now, this body and self isn’t just me.

I push my partner away (No, I don’t want you to join me in the shower, I want literally 15 minutes without another human on or near me, thank you!), I sigh at the dog’s eyes following and beating into me constantly (Really, you too?). At the baby, holding my legs in screams as I try to make dinner, my son, asking for the 18th time if dinner is ready yet and lamenting that he will starve as he wraps himself around my waist. Not because of a lack of love or devotion. But because of depletion. Because of the tightness atop me, of the energy it takes to take a breath. There is no getting your oxygen mask on first in all of this—there isn’t. It’s a nice thought, and it’s true health-wise, sure! But it isn’t realistic. It is goddamn unattainable. It is a laugh, and every mother knows it. We, by our very nature, will scramble like hell for that mask at the final moment for ourselves because we are fucking busy and we are relied on and even when we want to take care of ourselves first, we don’t know how. The world is on top of us and screaming at us and for us, and until it stops, until we can simmer it, there is no breath, no mask. Try and tell me that we can’t help until we can first breathe, and you’d be wrong. I’d tell you, you don’t know mothers.

*

My hand travels mindlessly up to my broken chunks of hair often. Twirls their short coils. My hair has changed. It’s no longer its familiar texture, no longer thick. Sometimes my hands run through it again and again, feeling the frame the breaks made around my face. As if searching for familiarity, as if getting to know this new wrecked self.

My breasts, the soft stretching skin of my stomach. My body half nourishment, half playhouse and home for grabbing, poking, squishing. And it’s the same on the inside. The reflection is right, it is truth.

For centuries, folklore, literature and history has shown us just how love allows humans to leave ourselves for others, to neglect and deplete, but to somehow carry on, shells intact, some semblance of strength we can’t quite find the source of. And mothers are the queens of wrecked selves who soldier on, who pause in the mirror, who stare a moment longer in the bath. But don’t get to dwell a second longer than that. It’s in the background, there isn’t much noticing in it, nor heroic championing. It’s just the bare bones of motherhood. Not the main character, scarcely explored nor marveled at. I think back to mothers across cultures and time and history—mothers who have fared true hardship I could never fathom—mothers whose stories haven’t been told because they never had a moment unneeded to do so, and because these are just the things mothers do. Their sheer devotion, survival, their pain and isolation, the stripping of their selves. And why mothers have held onto this so quietly, so careful not to let their children or those around them know that this is hard, I don’t know. The core, the basic structure of motherhood is careful knives carving folds into our bodies for our littles, chipping at pieces of ourselves we’ll sew onto them. Becoming a house, a home, the food, the love, and the catcher of tears, the holder and fixer of little hearts. Allowing for, inviting the wrecking, the erasing. Our bodies and selves, the background noise, the unnoticed shell for piling into. What we become, so far beyond ourselves, a place for us all.

Jillayna Adamson is a mother, psychotherapist, writer and photographer– and can often be found wondering how just to fit all those pieces together. She is passionate about all things people and culture, and explores this through writing and photography.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Universe in the Kitchen

April 13, 2020
sun

By Adrienne LaValley

I didn’t know that everyone doesn’t spend their lives waiting for the other shoe to drop until I was well into my thirties. I think it was the look on my friend’s face when I said “I’m so nervous things are going well right now. When’s it all gonna end?” She couldn’t quite understand the palpable, stomach twisting fear I had about the inevitable future. I thought everyone had that certainty. That no matter how long things had been good for, the shit was coming to hit that proverbial fan. Hard. You could bet money on it. Because it was fact. Not speculation. Not paranoia. Fact. The better things were, the longer they stayed that way, the more terrified I’d become about the looming fall out. These fallouts that were slowly shaping who I’d become as an adult. Not that I could see it at the time. Or until five years ago really. Enlightenment by therapy. The fallout was dark and moved with the momentum of a freight train barreling around the bend. An unstoppable blackhole that sucked the life out of everything around it. Just writing this I can feel my face fall. It’s visceral. The fallout is far enough away to stop causing damage, but close enough to still make my skin crawl. Not my fallout though. My dad’s.

Living with a bipolar parent is like living with the sun. Forever orbiting someone who wields both the power to nourish and love you and the spontaneous drive to destroy who you are at your core. Like termites eating away at your foundation until there’s nothing left but anxiety and self doubt. Then they die and you’re bestowed the gift of reconstruction. Who will you finally be now that the sun has gone down?

One morning in the nineties I came barreling down the stairs like a kid leaving for Disney World. The house was treading on the thinnest ice sheet of normalcy for a moment and I was cautiously hopeful. Again. A sort of middle ground that only came around when my dad was well medicated. But as I bounced into the kitchen, arms wide and ready to vomit love on anyone I came across, I saw him hunched over in such a way that I knew it was all gone. The air changed. It was thick with tension and smelled of evil enjoying itself just a little too much for 7 am. “Morning dad!!! Sleep ok?” My heart dropped like a ton of bricks at the deafening silence that followed. “Morning…” he said, with the heaviness of someone who’d lost everything and didn’t even know it. Fuck, it’s gone. It’s all gone again. Here we go. Man your stations, war is imminent. Shields up. Head down. Get ready.

…“Did you take my braided belt?”

“Your what?”

“My braided belt. The brown leather one. Did you take it?”

“Nope, didn’t take your belt.”

“Someone god damn took it.”

“No dad, Jesus I didn’t take your belt. Why would I do that?”

“Did one of your friends? They did, didn’t they? Was it Colleen? It was, wasn’t it? Selfish little asshole. You get that back from her. Someone took my god damn belt. Where is it?”

My brain usually fails me when digging through these particular memories. The ones where I meet my other dad. The evil one. “Hello there. You suck so bad. Gotta jet.”

I’m sure I said something for the record books, I just can’t remember exactly what. I have gaping holes in my childhood memories. They come in waves of bad dreams, flashes of screaming a lot and crying until my face was blue, apologizing for something I didn’t do then slamming a door somewhere. Sounds right.

That was only if the sun was pointed at me though. Which I preferred. I knew how to handle it and if for some reason I just couldn’t on that particular occasion, I knew how to live with the constant stomach churning and heartbreak. It was just a regular Tuesday. But to watch the sun shoot flares at my family was like watching our house burn down, helpless to stop it and paralyzed with fear. That barreling train crashed into everyone who loved and supported it and to the untrained eye, it relished in taking as many people down with it as it could.

The sun didn’t always rage and spew flares though. It could be warm. Warm and shiny and really excited about everything in life. And if that warmth was pointed my way, I basked in its glow and relished how lucky I was to know and be loved by someone like that. Someone so bright. So full of life. Someone who convinced me I was incomparable to virtually every other person alive. I was special. To be separated from the pack and nurtured to perfection. Days were full of snowball fights and inappropriate jokes at someone else’s expense, spontaneous road trips, manic fun, 5am tennis practices, and overly eager encouragement to be the best no matter what. At this. At that. And definitely at that. I could always be better. It was an endless merry go round of love and pressure and hurt and betrayal and love and pressure and hurt and betrayal. As the planets circled the sun.

I know all of this because I am one. I’m a planet. And my brother and sister and mom are too. We orbited the sun of our home for half our lives, then from a close distance for the other half. All of us. We orbited and constructed our lives around the unsettling, unpredictable love of my father. Until we ran away. Or he died. Or both.

I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more empathetic, sensitive, intuitive, malleable, loyal and compassionate. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun. Fine tuned the art of tip toeing. We know the delicate ballet of appeasement like we know how to breathe. We can intuit someone’s mood like our lives depend on it. Because it did. For however many years we spent reassuring the sun that someone loved it. We do all of this simply by loving an impossible person. Someone who everyone else gives up on or shakes their head in confounding exhaustion at. And we don’t often let go of our impossible person. Because everyone else already did. Somewhere in the recesses of our hearts we believe impossible people deserve love too, in spite of not being able to reciprocate it very reliably. Even deeper in our recesses we believe that if we do let go, we’ll lose our sun forever. And that’s the scariest thing of all. To be abandoned by someone you abandoned first. After all, saving ourselves was never the first priority. It wasn’t even the second or the third. Frankly, it never crossed our minds until someone mentioned our well-being one day. We stared at them with a genuinely perplexed look. And they stared back just long enough for something to spark in our chest. A whisper of self preservation. Something niggling in the back of our heads that we deserved a better life than this. Our souls carefully tapping from below, just in case we were listening this time. Just leave, it says. Just leave.

But we’ve been well trained to know that the sun can’t survive without us. It can’t survive without its planets and its moon. We’re the only ones who understand how it operates. And without us it would be all alone in the inky blackness of its own celestial abyss. And so the dance of codependency forges on, stronger than ever. I’ve heard that children of a mentally ill parent tend to be more untrusting, desperate for structure, constantly self effacing, full of anxiety and always in search of something more perfect. Of course we are. We’ve danced with the sun.

Last year I rode out to Fort Tilden to catch the solar eclipse. I was in awe of how many people were in awe of it. Millions of gazers all over the country gathering to watch the sun god be rendered powerless by our little planet and its little moon. Our pale blue dot. Even more astounding was that in the looming countdown to artificial nighttime, the life around us adjusted accordingly. Crickets started chirping, a few bats started flying around disoriented from lack of sleep on a long summer day, the fresh scent of early evening wafting through the breeze. A powerful entity going dark, the life around it adjusting. Surviving. When the sun and the earth and the moon are all perfectly in line.

When we lined up in the kitchen to watch our personal eclipse we also adjusted accordingly. We’d hunker down for dark mode, which could last for weeks depending on the season. We spoke quietly and avoided the sun at all costs, careful not to disturb it. Never complaining if it tucked itself away in it’s room for days on end. We were safe if it stayed behind closed doors, doing whatever it needed to do to survive the grip. During these times my walk home from school slowed to a crawl. Surely there was a friends house I should be visiting right now. Maybe Nicole’s mom bought fruit roll ups again. I’d drag my feet and trudge home every day, mentally preparing myself to find my dad hanging from the garage rafters. “Would I get there in time? Why am I walking so slow? Feet, fucking move faster. Would I even be able to get him down though? Is there a ladder nearby? Do we even have rafters? I don’t think we have rafters.” But I could picture it so clearly. Like it had already happened and the universe was trying to warn me. It knew that’s how he’d do it. And that he’d make sure I was the one who found him. I was the one he opened up to, after all. I was the one he’d sit down in front of to explain why my mom was so horrible and why he was unfaithful to her for all those years. Why my friend’s mom was something he just needed. I knew how the sun operated. I’d surely be the one he’d bestow his suicide on. But I’d never find him hanging in the garage. He was always alive. Hunched over, now keenly aware that he’d surely lost everything. But alive. A sad calm would hang in the room as long as it was silent. Sarcasm and utter despair if we engaged. Spinning around and around, getting lost in the orbit of the sun never knowing which dad we’d land on but always knowing the truly evil one would be back. He always came back. Like a heavy shoe forever hovering above.

I can’t help but think about what could have stopped the cycle? What could slow the orbit? Something that could have made our universe even marginally more tolerable. Like ketchup on dry eggs. Sometimes I think naming it would have. Just calling it out helps it lose some power. That’s what they say, right? The enlighteners? We knew who and what our sun was, but we didn’t really talk about it. We blamed the sun over and over and then when that got old we blamed ourselves until the rage came clawing from below. Then we blamed the sun again.

Had my dad really sat us down and named the things he did maybe we’d be better off. Therapy was long and painful and arduous and obnoxiously expensive. And I’m still talking about it, for Christ’s sake. He’s still a star in my fucking galaxy. I still struggle to understand healthy relationships and have a distorted ideas of authority. I always gravitate towards people I think need to be fixed. However irritatingly subconscious that is. Because it’s what I’m uncomfortably comfortable with. Feels like home. Maybe if he’d been able to admit to the things he did I’d be a better version of myself. I don’t know the answer to that and I never will. He took his guilt and shame and apologies to the grave with him. If they were ever there in the first place. That’s still up for debate amongst my family members. Did he even know what he did? Did he clock the damage he caused? Probably not.

At one Thanksgiving dinner where we all know family recovery starts and ends, I reminded him of the time my rabbit Poster Nutmeg was found missing his entire body. I found a small pile of him in the neighbor’s dilapidated garage where we knew this one evil cat liked to hang out. George, the orange striped serial killer. My dad joined me in the garage to stare down at what used to be my fluffy pet. He stuck his hands in his pockets rocked back on his heels and said ‘Hey, at least someone got a good meal.’ Then walked back inside. Even as I was recounting the story to him over mashed potatoes and too much wine I could see on his face that nothing was registering. He was incredulous, even. If that wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity, the roaring belly laughter and: ‘I’d never say something like that’ that followed certainly drove the point home. Even if he did know what he’d done at one point, he lied to himself until he believed it never happened. Is there really a difference?

My question for fellow lovers of impossible people is… would you change it? If you were the child of a mentally ill parent would you go back and be a different formula blended in a different bowl if you could? Have a different set of genes? My genes terrify me. Bipolar disorder can be incredibly genetic sometimes ripping through generations of family, as it has mine. Its companions are addiction and eating disorders and anxiety. Who’s kid will have it? Do I have the gene just hiding away in there somewhere waiting to rear it’s ugly head? My own anxiety fuels that fire. But would I be someone else in order to erase all that?

I have family members who suffer on a daily basis. They can be utterly debilitated by the pain their own brain inflicts on them. Would they change that if they could? Would my dad? If he knew what he did to us, would he go back and never get married or have kids? To spare them? I don’t have the answer. But sometimes I think about who I’d be if I never lived this life. If I was born with different parents in a different house with stability and safety and normal mornings. Who would I be now?

I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t change it. The more I look into it, the more I look back at the ugly, the more I like myself just exactly this way. If I changed everything, I’d have to change well… everything. I might be less loyal, less empathetic and less intuitive. I might love people less, or want to have conversations about the Kardashians instead of mental health. And then someone who really needed to hear this might never know that someone else grew up orbiting their own personal sun too. And that it all really happened. That someone believes them. I believe them. If the formula changes, so does the product. And if I start to accept that, who knows what road I might find myself on. Learning to love who I am just exactly as I was made? Preposterous. Right?

Sometimes I wonder if living with an impossible person wasn’t the greatest worst thing I’ve ever done. This is only after years of dissecting the facts of course, or what I remember of them anyway. I know I’ll never fix all the things. I don’t even think I want to. All the digging around and ripping apart and examining has just made me think… if hurt people hurt people… what do you think healed people can do? And when will the planets finally be healed from years of orbiting the sun so close? Maybe never. Some burns just leave a scar that way. So they heal the best they can and then they look for shade. Hoping to find another planet cooling off under a tree somewhere so they can finally talk about just how bright that sun used to be.

Adrienne LaValley is an actor, writer and creator of the podcast ‘The Old Man and the Me’. She writes and records in an attempt to expel shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues while also never tiptoeing around the frequent crapstorm they can cause. She tells stories about life, mental health and lack of both in the hopes that people will feel a little less alone out there. Her full length play ‘The Good Father’ recently had a reading at The Paramount Theatre with the Dramatist’s Guild and will start workshopping in the new year. She lives with her husband and superdog Junebug in the Hudson Valley and wishes everyone would pay it forward just a little more often.

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Guest Posts, Self Image

Don’t be a Baby – Lessons in a Roy DeCarava Photo

April 8, 2020
decarva

By Trish Cantillon

Labor Day Weekend 1979 before we started ninth grade, my best friend Mery and I went to my family’s vacation home in Newport Beach. Since my parents’ separation it was where my dad spent most of his time, and by extension, my time with him. I assumed that since I was fourteen, I would be afforded some independence. I believed I’d outgrown the obligation to keep him company while he sunbathed on the front patio glistening with cocoa butter, a vodka cocktail always at arm’s reach. My plan was to spend those days laying out at lifeguard station fifteen, with afternoon bike rides down the boardwalk to the Fun Zone for Balboa Bars. We’d endure dinner with my dad, and whatever drunk personality he embodied, because his barbecued chicken was delicious. After dinner, we’d disappear upstairs to talk about boys and how great high school was going to be. This was my expectation.

Late Saturday morning, as we finished up bowls of cereal, Mery and I made our plans. My dad sat on a barstool at the counter: newspaper, coffee and vodka screwdriver in front of him. “I’m out of vodka. I’m going to need to go to the store before you head out,” he said, without looking up. His arm was in a sling from a shoulder injury and he wasn’t supposed to drive, though he seemed to pick and choose when he followed that rule. I was unsure what this had to do with us until he stood up, slipped his wallet into the pocket of his trunks and plucked the car keys from the dish next to the phone. “Come on, you’re going to drive me to Balboa Market,” he said.

“What? I can’t drive! I don’t even have my permit,” I replied, certain that once he realized that he’d back off.

“Oh, it’s fine. It’s just a few blocks. Come on,” he insisted. His tone got sharper. I was not in the habit of talking back, especially when he had been drinking, but this felt like a legitimate place to speak up.

“I’m not driving you to the store,” my voice quaked.

“Don’t be a baby,” he said. Me being a ‘baby” was an idea often directed at me, either in a lighthearted way, like when he’d sing, Yes, sir, that’s my baby on our bike rides, or, in this case, with anger and disappointment. It always made me feel small.

“No. Please don’t make me. I don’t want to.” He was silent, then looked at Mery.

“You wanna drive?” he asked. Mery looked at me and shrugged, as if to say, if you’re not going to, I will.

“Sure,” she answered.

“Atta girl,” my dad replied. I was dumbfounded. My grand gesture undermined in an instant. Mery didn’t see him as a bully trying to get his way. She hadn’t lived with that behavior her whole life. For her it was something cool; an opportunity to break the rules and have fun. I felt the heat rise inside me with nowhere to go but smiled as he handed her the keys. I followed them out the open front door.

Mery looked confident as she climbed into my dad’s loaner, a red Ford Granada. The jealous part of me was glad she wasn’t getting to drive his Mercedes 450SL. In abbreviated stops and starts, she backed the car out and pointed it in the direction of Balboa Market. From the sidewalk, I watched the surreal sight unfold slowly, like the final scene in a movie. Everything about it unrecognizable. My best friend behind the wheel of a strange car with my dad riding shotgun on an errand to buy vodka. I felt empty and deserted. I wandered into the house, unsure of what to do with myself. As the minutes ticked by, I began to question why I was so worked up about this in the first place. What’s your problem? It’s no big deal! You’re being a baby! I grabbed my beach bag, tossed in the Bain de Soleil, two cans of Tab, Seventeen Magazine and waited for them to return. Eager to pretend the whole thing never happened.

***

The tears came suddenly and completely. Before I was even aware, they were running down the sides of my cheeks. My husband Quinton and I drifted through the Museum of Modern Art that spring afternoon in the mid-nineties and happened upon the Roy DeCarava exhibit. I shuffled, along with the other patrons from one image to the next and came upon Graduation 1949. When I saw it, I was overcome with a sadness that’s hard to articulate. In Hyperallergic, Colony Little describes DeCarava’s work this way, “He transforms otherwise mundane moments into intriguing narratives with beguiling characters, extracting drama like no other.” The sadness I felt was familiar; an echo and I could instantly envision the life of this girl at this moment.

On a day she thought would be free from disappointment, she put on a happy face when things didn’t turn out as she hoped. She walked alone to her own graduation, through a decaying Harlem neighborhood and an empty lot strewn with trash. She gathered the sides of her beautiful white dress into her hands and lifted the hem so it wouldn’t drag. Everything she reasonably expected for the day had disappeared; except her fancy clothes and accoutrements. She would look the part, even if she didn’t feel it.

Graduation, 1949 exposed an interior life I had long kept at bay with a smiling face and cheerful demeanor. The physical representation of the young girl alone spoke to a deep abiding loneliness. I grew up in a large family and found myself most comfortable amidst the attendant noise and chaos that accompanied that life. I loved falling asleep listening to my brother’s music down the hall and my sister’s hairdryer in the bathroom. However, because I am the youngest by seven years, I often found myself alone. In those moments when life was quiet, I was consumed with a melancholy I could not name and didn’t understand. Distracting myself with elaborate imaginative play, TV and food, I felt a little less blue.

When I was ten new neighbors moved in next door. It was a Friday afternoon and a last-minute change in plans meant I would not have the standard-issue divorced kid weekend with my dad. My mom had a date so I would stay home with the housekeeper who spoke little English. I had the house, and, most importantly, the kitchen to myself. A few days earlier I had talked my mom into letting me buy a fancy Bundt cake mix I’d seen advertised on TV. Because we weren’t the type of family that baked cakes and had them around our own house, I had to have a reason to bake it and a somewhere for it to go. I told her I thought it would be nice to take to the new family next door.

With the family room TV on in the background, I put all my baking supplies on the counter: cake mix, egg, oil and water. I put an apron on over my t-shirt and shorts and when I was ready to begin preparing the cake, I silently called “action” on the imaginary TV show I was starring in. I carefully walked through each step of the recipe explaining the process and offering my valuable tips for the make-believe audience at home. When the cake was finished, I drizzled the packaged icing over the top (the whole reason to buy this cake mix), saved some for myself for later, and proudly displayed the finished product, with great personality and flair, to an invisible camera. I then walked it to the neighbor’s house and rang the bell. A petite brunette woman opened the door looking surprised to see a chubby blonde ten-year-old stranger holding a cake.

“I wanted to give you this to welcome you to the neighborhood,” I offered the plate to her.

“Oh, well, that’s very nice,” she replied, taking it from my hands, ‘Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. It’s kind of a neighborhood tradition,” I said, puzzled by how quickly the lie flew out of my mouth.

“Hope you like it. Bye.” I turned and stepped off her porch.

Back at home, I polished off the leftover batter that clung to the sides of the bowl and the beaters. I fixed myself a boiled hot dog and large bowl of buttered popcorn for dinner, then settled in for a night of television, interrupted only by a move from the den to my room upstairs. Tucked in bed with the portable black and white TV perched on the end of my desk so I could still see it while lying down, I watched The Rockford Files and waited for sleep to take over. Sometime in the middle of the night the white noise, or the National Anthem that preceded it, woke me up. The TV station’s final sign off for their broadcast day brought with it a profound sense of dread and flickers of panic. I was all alone. No one or no thing left to keep me company.

***

Aside from what was obvious in the light, the darkness and shadows in Graduation, 1949 said plenty to me about a literal childhood fear of the dark and an adult fear of the unknown. In Reading the Shadows-The Photography of Roy DeCarava, Ruth Wallen maintains, “The shadows house the riches as well as the dangers. DeCarava’s persistent focus on life in the shadows demands that they be read in a new way, as fertile ground full of possibilities.”

My mom was thirty-nine when I was born in 1965, which, then, was considered late. I was the fifth child who came seven years after the fourth. Growing up I was conscious of the fact that she was older and quickly attached myself to a fear of her death. In its early state, it was born from panic that if something happened to her, I’d have to live with my dad. After he died when I was fifteen it was simply the prospect of losing her that was devastating. Then, as I got older, it became more acute. I’d fret if she didn’t answer the phone or if I got a busy signal for more than an hour. I monitored every sniffle or cough that lingered. I read obituaries to check the average age of the old people that were dying. I didn’t want to think about life without her, or what it would feel like, so I tried to manage what I could not control.

She was a life-long smoker of unfiltered Pall Mall reds. She had a glass of wine and a cocktail every night and considered her vanilla ice cream a good source of calcium. She did not look after her health but managed to appear healthy. From 1978 to 2003 her only visits to a doctor were via the emergency room for a twisted ankle, a broken wrist and finally a broken pelvis. The extended gap in her health care was precipitated in 1978 by an irregular brain scan that doctors incorrectly presumed was a tumor. From that point she adopted the philosophy that doctors make you sick. By 2003 and the fractured pelvis, some legitimate, long-ignored, health issues were unmasked. She spent eight weeks in the hospital and rehab with a few touch and go all-nighters in the emergency room. In the darkest moments, I tried to talk myself into being okay with the fact it might be her time, but quietly sobbed at the thought. On top of knowing I would grieve losing her, I wasn’t sure how I would get through it.

Mother-daughter relationships are complicated by nature and ours was no different. Its complexities, however, were not typical. I never sassed her, talked back, or crossed her. Her emotional support was the only thing I felt I could trust and rely on as a young overweight girl with an alcoholic dad, who just wanted to feel good about herself and fit in. And she relied on me as a companion and ally, her number one booster and cheerleader. For her, my being “the baby” made her believe she appeared young to her peers, even after she had a handful of grandchildren. When she lied about my age to an old friend we ran into, she told me “They don’t want to know how old you are, it will make them feel old.” But an identity of “the baby” made me believe, by its definition, that I was not capable as an adult. This idea seeped into my fear of her death. Could I handle it? Or would I be an inconsolable mess?

In 2012, after several years of declining health, and several remarkable rebounds, my mom let us know that she was ready to not be here anymore.

“I want to be knocked out,” she said. Sitting up in her bed at the assisted living home she’d been in for a couple years, sipping the Bloody Mary my sister had fixed for her.

“You mean, like go to sleep and not wake up?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered. Her mind was sharp, but her body was frail and, quite literally, shutting down. Less than twenty-four hours later, after the first dose of morphine had calmed her breathing and her nerves, my brothers and sisters and I gathered in her room. We’d been told she’d get a dose of morphine every four hours. The hospice nurse would be back in a day to check on her. I stood near the doorway and observed the scene for a moment and then felt compelled to go sit on the bed next to her. I rubbed her hand, remembering how much I loved the liver spots I thought were freckles as a kid. I could see and feel that she was slipping away, life draining from her body. It was not terrifying. It was not beautiful. It was a somber experience punctuated with inexplicable odd, humorous moments and a peacefulness that’s hard to describe. I felt no fear.

I realized, not long after, I had been present with her when she found out my dad died, when she broke her pelvis in 2003, when she fractured her back in 2010 and finally on the day she died. I had been moving from light to shadow and back to light endlessly but needed to fully experience the thing I feared most to appreciate what was possible in those shadows.

It’s been over twenty years since I first experienced Graduation 1949, it still evokes the same deep melancholy from the first time, when I may have believed I conjured an imaginary life for this young girl on her graduation day, but I what I really did was ascribe my own to her.

Los Angeles based writer and native Angeleno, Trish Cantillon has published personal essays on The Fix, Refinery 29’s “Take Back the Beach,” The Refresh, Storgy, Brain Child Magazine Blog and Ravishly. Her fiction has appeared in Gold Man Review and Berkeley Fiction Review.   She works for Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization providing end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults. 

 

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Books, Guest Posts, healing, Young Voices

Inside Out

April 5, 2020
head

By Allison L. Palmer

I threw up in the bushes outside the hospital the day my sister was born. I didn’t stomp my feet and demand that my mom shove her back up there or refuse to go hold her. I didn’t hop up and down and beg my dad to bring me inside so I could kiss my brand-new best friend. No tantrums, no joy. Just vomit. I stopped right next to the E.R. entrance, put my hands on my dimpled kindergartener knees, and barfed. My dad looked down at me with a crease between his eyebrows as I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my sweater. He knelt next to me and patted my back, checking my forehead for fever. Yes, I feel better now. He shrugged and took my hand as we walked through the doors. Even then, my body knew the things my head didn’t. This is gateway love. My sister was my first. She will probably be my last. Maybe we have to empty out parts ourselves to make room for everything new.

My dad made space for us. Now that I’m older, I see that he was always up ahead of me. Carving away splinters, repainting colors, clearing cobwebs. He could blow clouds from the sky as easily as I could make a birthday wish. My childhood had soft edges. When I was ten and my sister was five, he took us on a trip to a small island off the coast of Canada. He drove us around in a red rental car with the windows down. July air rolled in off the St. Lawrence River, warm and light blue. He pulled the car off the road at the point of a finger. Anything we wanted. Waterfalls, homemade jam, sheep in a field. For me, we stopped at four used bookstores in a day. He popped sour cherries in my sisters’ mouth whenever she started to pipe up and spun her around in circles so I could empty the stacks into baskets with no limit. I wasn’t picky, not even a little bit. While I glossed over titles and artwork, I willed the piles to grow until they reached the ceiling and enclose me, unreachable, in a fortress that smelled of ink, where every wall and window would be made of paper and I would never run out words.

Growing up, I read the same books over and over until their covers fell off. I stole from libraries. I learned from The Lovely Bones that it’s easy to keep things that aren’t yours and make them yours, in more ways than one. I stuck V.C. Andrew’s Flowers In the Attic under my sweatshirt because at the time, it looked huge and menacing and exactly like something I shouldn’t be reading. I didn’t let that thing go until all 400 pages of arsenic and incest and locked doors and mothers who shouldn’t be mothers were branded on my brain. As Cathy and Chris descended their knotted sheet rope to the lawn of Foxworth Hall, I chewed gum and thought about evil. Then ordered the rest of the series on the internet along with the audiobook of Lolita because the jacket art, a girl in sunglasses sucking on a lollipop, seemed undeniably and captivatingly wrong. For days, I laid crumpled on my bed and cried to Jeremy Irons unidentifiable accent. I cried for Humbert Humbert and for the way people can’t fix their hearts, cried because I thought Dolores was undeserving. Cried because nymphets probably do exist. I filed away that word away under “L” for lust, love, lies and loneliness. All of the above. I took to organizing everything I read in books into neat boxes in my head.

After I’d finished gutting the bookstores and the sour cherries had dwindled to just pits and stems, we took a drive up the coast of Bas-Saint-Laurent to see the whales. We wrapped ourselves up in neon orange wind jackets with matching pants and climbed into an aluminum airboat, barely scraping 25 feet long. My dad sat in the middle and tucked my sister under one arm and me under the other. The guide alternated excitedly between English and French in the same breath. My dad kept his eyes on the horizon as the land behind us became nothing more than a thin green strip. I was watching the sun glint off his glasses when the guide began exclaiming things in Frenglish and making big gestures and everyone on the boat stood up. I gripped back of my seat and craned my head around their legs. My dad sat unmoving, but he had pushed his glasses up on his head. He took my face in his palms and turned it out to sea. The blue whale is the biggest living thing on the planet. 200 tons. Its body looked more silver than blue and it stretched an incomprehensible distance, rising in and out of the waves. I held my hands up to the sides of my eyes like blinders and worked my way down the length, head to tail, trying and failing to put boundaries on its existence. Its mouth was the size of the boat. If it opened its jaws, we might drift inside and float for an eternity along an endless shoreline of bones and blubber. I leaned closer into my dad’s side. There might be someone in there right now. We probably couldn’t hear the shouting.

I saw a dead whale about a year later. I could put limits on this one, easily. The three of us had just moved to a beach cottage in the wrong season, the middle of the winter. The ocean was our backyard and we talked there on weekends, down eleven flights of stairs worn splinterless by the saltwater and wind. Even in the frost, the rot smell was still strong enough to make my eyes water. I breathed exclusively through my mouth. Only a hulking skeleton was left, taller than me, with grey flesh still clinging on in some places. My sister was hardly a quarter of its pelvis, toddling around the perimeter like a lost duckling who has mistaken its mother for a corpse. I had never been that close to something so dead. I felt something next to sadness. In the backyard of reverence, but not quite. No one makes coffins that big. I stood in its ribcage and next its open eye sockets. Bizarrely inside and outside all at once. While we explored, we must have talked about how it ended up there, beached, alone, and now three quarters decayed. The likely death. I tried to chase away the gulls that hovered around the body, but more came. Before we left, I took off my gloves and bent at the edge of the waves to rinse my hands. The water was so cold it burned. I thought of the man sailing along the gut of the blue whale, calling out to empty, unforgiving waters and I felt small.

On the way back from the coast, we stopped at an antique-ish gallery surrounded by gardens. My dad admired its history. I’d been promised a stop at the bakery next door. The building was a refurbished barn made of smooth wood painted yellow with big windows. Windchimes tinkled and swayed around all the doors, betraying the way it had settled quietly into the background. I wondered if ghosts could make noise. Inside, the walls were cluttered with paintings of distorted faces and oversized clocks and sculptures made of things like obsidian and repurposed wire netting. I wandered absent-minded up and down the aisles, brushing my fingers along the eclectic treasures. My favorite bauble was a carving of a ballet dancer with movable parts. Her joints were set on loose hinges and splayed out in all directions around a fringe of white tool. I held her by her tiny wooden waist and rolled her head around between my fingers. The little dancer’s face was blank, expressionless. I imagined a soft smile should have been painted there, along with sleepy half-closed eyes. Something fuzzy, out of focus, and full of grace. I imagined she had a lot of secrets.

The thing about a body made of wood and set on hinges is that begins to stiffen. Arms that once stretched seamlessly through space now barely extend. Legs that once leapt and faltered without abandon start to creak. The thing about being afraid of your own body is that it becomes a stranger. I think this is what we think grace is, partly. Ethereal fear floating under your heart. We mistake it a lot of the time for beauty. As I learned to dance, my body lengthened and hollowed out right before my eyes. My teacher’s name was Ms. Mary. She sat always in the front, always in black, doling out critiques like sunshine and lightning. I remember we were practicing pirouettes for the fourth time that week. We practiced and practiced, with red cheeks and quick breaths until all of us turned together but we couldn’t stop because one girl in the back kept falling. Her name was Maggie. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, pulling herself off the floor, madly blinking back tears. Ms. Mary shook her head in slow motion, then called out my name. She instructed me to stand in front of Maggie, so she couldn’t see herself. She was getting in her own way. Stand there and don’t move. The other girls silently parted as I crossed the studio and aligned myself carefully in the mirror. The top of Maggie’s auburn bun was just visible above my head. She was taller than me. Keep going, Ms. Mary said. Until she gets it right. As she turned, I could sense every hot cheek in the room blistering until the heat fried away every nerve that said to scream, to run, to throw yourself on the floor along with her until we were all unmovable, peaceless, quiet. Lovely in our paralysis. I heard Maggie hiccup as she stumbled and hit the floor again and I retreated completely inside myself. I felt the grains of wood overtaking and splintering along my skin and straightening my spine, felt my face rounding out to nothing. Get up. My ribs began shrinking down onto my lungs and grasping hold of my throat. Her breath came faster and began breaking into sobs and the thing about being afraid of your own body is that you can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else to go.

There was a sharp smack on the window over my head. The figurine fell out of my hands and clattered onto the floor. I hadn’t even noticed that the sky had opened up and was now heaving down rain. I ran towards the noise and found my dad and sister kneeling just outside the door. I peeked around their shoulders and saw a bird half-limp in my dad’s hand, maybe six inches long, with black and white tipped wings. It was laying on its side, little legs outstretched and stiff. Poor thing got confused in this weather and flew straight into the window. Wispy noises came out its beak. It reminded me of my sister when she was a baby and how she cooed while she slept. I used to sneak into her room to run the tip of my pinky along her jaw until she would bat my hand away in her sleep. I dropped to the floor in front of her crib before she could wake up. Must be in shock. My dad shook his head and set the bird down gingerly under the edge of a bush. He took my sisters hand and reached for mine. Come on, let’s go. I was still looking down. Its black eyes were lolling around wildly in its skull and its body had started twitching. The muscles had nothing to hold on to, like a little girl who can’t stop falling long enough to stand.

In second grade, a boy I knew died. He stabbed me with pencils and tripped me on the basketball court at recess and I hated him. He gave me a scar, on my right knee. Shaped like a T. Then an ATV flipped over on top of him in the woods and he was brain-dead before my scab hadn’t even fallen off. My mom brought me to the funeral, and we sat in the last pew of the church waiting for a eulogy that no one managed to deliver. She handed me green and blue Sweetarts from her purse and I sucked on them until my tongue was numb. The casket was open, filled with stuffed animals and sports trophies and an entire embalmed life. I looked at my feet and fidgeted and tried to pray even though I had absolutely no idea how to. I am still uneasy in long lines and in silence. My knee itched and I could see the fresh pink skin peeking out from underneath the scab. I wondered what happened to cuts and scabs when you were dead. When I picked mine off eventually, it didn’t bleed. The skin was permanently puckered. I dug my nail into it, to no avail. A tiny spot of nothing. I remember I laid on the hillside outside the church with my mom after it was over and held her while she cried. Both of her parents died when she was 16. She likes to say that I saved her life. I wonder if now she loves less because I’m branded by a dead kid. The thought is fleeting. On the outside, my body is only 99% alive.

Before I could stop myself, I had reached out and taken the bird in my own two hands, cupping it against my t-shirt like a newborn. I laid down on the grass, tucking my knees up to my chin. The wet blades glued themselves to my limbs and cradled my head and left trails of goosebumps like comets on my exposed skin. I didn’t hear the hectic symphony of the windchimes clanging to a fever pitch. I think a small coffin must be much easier to build than a big one. If I could, I’d build one myself, from the softening wood of my body. This is close enough. Didn’t feel the icy rain drops that slid down my spine and under the rain coat my dad must have laid over me. For once, the cold was freeing, limitless. I could swim through it for an eternity. Didn’t notice when the storm had gone, and the sun lit the backs of my eyelids pink. My thoughts were replaced with all the words I’d ever read in books. It’s like when you drop something heavy on a floor covered in dust and the world goes away, just for a second, in the disarray. When it clears, I see my small sister’s face pressed into the grass in front of me. Her eyes are open, and calm. In them, are the parts of myself I thought had gone. When she places her hands over mine, I think about how hearts sound like they are gulping. Like they want to break out of your chest and drink in the air, how they crave leftover life, the 1%, and how there is nothing else like the impossibly tiny body underneath both sets of our fingers.

 

Allison Palmer is an undergraduate student and new writer. She studies Biology and English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her other work can be read online in Pithead Chapel and Eunoia Review. We are THRILLED to be featuring her work.

 

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Gratitude, Guest Posts, memories

Take The R Train

April 2, 2020
choice

By Laraine Herring

My mother could have remained in Bay Ridge, taking the R train into Lower Manhattan to work at the Stock Exchange. She could have not met my father, who could have passed Spanish at Wake Forest and graduated there instead of transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where they did not require two years of Spanish for a History major, where he did meet my mother, who was the first female accepted into the graduate school of mathematics at Chapel Hill, at an uncharacteristic football game where she’d gone with her roommate as an out for her blind date. But if she had remained working at the Stock Exchange riding the R train this would not have happened.

My father would have married a woman named Betty, not Elinor. I’m reasonably confident of this because when he died we found drawings Betty had made for him of his face, his golf swing, his eyes, and she called the house a lot and tried to make friends with my mother. She stopped calling once we moved from North Carolina to Arizona, but I still have one of the pictures she drew in a box in my closet. She could have been my mother, but there’s a reasonable chance she is dead now, or at the very least married to someone who never quite measured up to my father, but who nonetheless was a decent man. Betty could be writing this piece too. She would start with: I might have married Glenn…and I don’t know what she would have written next because I don’t know her. But I have her picture.

My father could have died with the polio in 1949 like he was supposed to. Like everyone did. Like the boy who was in the iron lung next to his who died in the night, my father talking to him in the dark, not realizing he had gone. The boy’s name was Charlie, and the two times my father spoke of him, he trailed off into ellipses.

Charlie could have lived like my father lived. He could have broken out of the iron lung and not imprinted my father with his death in the night. It is hard for a boy of eight to carry the death of a boy of seven in the dark. That’s a weight that lingers, like the bitter of chocolate.

My father could have died in 1976 after his heart attack like he was supposed to. Like the doctors said he would. Like maybe he would have, except one round of doctors had already told him in 1949 he should have died and he told them he was not going to die and so he had a script for what to do the next time he heard that.

I could have died in 2017 of colon cancer, but I didn’t. I knew how to tell the doctors no because my father told them no twice. Even when he died, he told them no. He pulled out his tubes in unconscious urgency. He clawed at his oxygen. It was his time for dying, and he was telling them no to the saving.

If my father hadn’t died in 1987, I would have gone to Oregon. I had a scholarship to William and Mary and I was desperate to get out of the desert and into the green. But I graduated from high school in 1986 and I knew I couldn’t go because my father was dying and so I didn’t go, but every time I visit the Northwest I see my shadow in the train and I see a possible life where I wouldn’t have met my husband, who is a born and bred Northern Arizona man, a man who becomes sad in the rain. Too much sun makes me sad, but not my husband, and somewhere between 1986 and now I realized that every choice I make may not give me everything I want. Every choice is many choices. I can visit the trees and the water and the damp, but I slept with many wrong people before I met my husband and I know what right feels like now, even if it’s in the desert.

If I hadn’t lived with the abuser in 1988 after my father died, I wouldn’t have had my heart smashed open to an empathy I didn’t know was possible. Or I might have died there. Other women do. I walked out of their graveyard.

If my father’s family had not been Southern Baptist we might have remained in the will and could be living in North Carolina by the Atlantic in the family home. We could have an altar of sand dollars on the dining table, gathered over years of morning walks at low tide. I might wear navy and forgo white after Labor Day and know how to can peaches. But probably not.

If I had stayed in Phoenix in 2003 instead of moving to Prescott—I had to get out of the haunting heat-sun—I wouldn’t have met my husband. I left Phoenix because a tree fell on my house and then I had a dream that echoed the dream I had when we first moved to Phoenix in 1981—I will die in this place if I don’t leave—and so I was gone in a month. This is the only time in my life I made a decision of that magnitude so quickly.

That’s not true. I told the oncologist I would not do chemotherapy and radiation even quicker. They pushed it like a desperate realtor hawking swampland in Florida but I said no. I come from a long line of people who told the doctors no. They were exasperated and fired me as a patient. This was OK because I am not patient.

If I hadn’t told my doctors no, I wouldn’t have met the psychic in Encinitas the year after my surgery who handed me a rose quartz and looked me straight like only the real psychics can do and said, “It must have been so hard for you to fight for your body’s intuition.” And I cried in the middle of the psychic fair, watching the Pacific breeze blowing her psychedelic psychic skirt around her legs. She was the first person to recognize that—the first person to let me recognize that—yes, yes, I had to fight to say no. I had to fight. The wrong choice was easier. The wrong choice was covered by insurance. My wrong choices—every single one of them—were the easier decisions. The ones that cost me my voice.

“I didn’t know how hard it would be,” I told her. Harder than cancer. Harder than surgery. The refusal to walk the pre-written cancer-journey-story filleted me. “If I did chemo, I would die,” I said. And she held my hands and let me cry and the ocean carried my salt away like she always does.

If my mother had stayed in Bay Ridge riding the R train, I wouldn’t be with her today, riding the R train, returning to Bay Ridge to eat pizza at Lucas, which is now the Brooklyn Firefly, because it was where they went for pizza when she was a girl, back when she wasn’t allowed in the special math and science high school because it was only for boys, back when my father was learning how to walk again and Betty was drawing his picture and I was waiting somewhere velvet-dark until I found the woman who was strong enough to bear all of me.

Laraine Herring holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in counseling psychology. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in national and local publications. Her fiction has won the Barbara Deming Award for Women and her nonfiction work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in K’in, Tiferet Journal, The Manifest-Station, Quiet Storm, Vice-Versa, and others. She currently directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. She can be found online at www.laraineherring.com.

 

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Guest Posts, Self Care

Madame Defarge in the age of Corona

March 29, 2020
knitting

By Caroline Leavitt

Years ago, in 2004, while my husband Jeff and I were sitting watching the election returns, I was stress knitting in terror. That evening, I made twelve (I’m not kidding) fingerless mitts that I, always the writer, embroidered with the words Hope on the left hand, Love on the right.

It didn’t help. Bush won. Crying, I wrapped up all those mitts and sent them to the friends I had made them for with a note: Maybe next time will be better.

Next time isn’t better. The next election, a day before I am due to go out on Book Tour, for a new novel, Cruel Beautiful World,  about how the world drastically changed from the late sixties to the early seventies, my world drastically changes as well. Trump wins. I get on a plane and people are crying. I have two events, ticketed, $70 a pop and five people show up for the first, and only three for the second.

I keep writing. I keep hoping. I have a new novel coming out in August and I sold the one after that, too, though on a partial, so I have to write it. And as I hoped, this year is something very different, but not in a good way. Trump terror seeps into everything we hear and see and do. People worry that he might stop the elections, that he might make himself Emperor for life, which given his erratic sociopathic nature, is not implausible or impossible. A second term would be a disaster.

And then in the midst of this, sneaking in on little virus feet, is Corona.

I live in the NYC area, and things are quietly surreal. On the subway, I actually can hear the usually garbled announcement which urges everyone to wash their hands, to cough into their elbows, to not panic. Don’t panic. Don’t Panic. Don’t Panic.

Panic.

Of course we all do. A man coughing in the subway is glared at. More and more people are wearing masks. I try not to touch the poles, to keep my hands away from my face. For the first time in years, I am not biting my nails. Stores are emptying out of goods and people. Things are being cancelled. Concerts and plays we had tickets for. A big event I had for my novel coming out in August. Gone. The Poets & Writers 50th anniversary extravaganza. Gone. Publishing houses are working at home. Even my cognitive therapist tells me we can do sessions by Face Time, since she has just come back from a vacation in Germany.

I’m so anxious I get a refill of Klonopin and my therapist tells me that small motor activity might be a good idea, even if it is just tapping my knees. Is there something I can do, she asks. “I can knit,” I tell her.

I haven’t knit it years, not since my first terrible marriage a million years ago, when I designed a sweater for him with dinosaurs feeding on vegetation, one I scissored up when I found out he was cheating on me. I hadn’t knit since. I was writing all the time, so why would I want to relax by using my fingers again? Didn’t they deserve a rest? But now, everything is bigger and seems more fraught with danger. I tell myself I will just straight knit, just to have something to do, that this is not about actually making anything, but just soothing my nerves.

I make my first sweaters, just two rectangles and two tubes, and when it is done, it has so many mistakes, it makes me wince. But I put it on, like a talisman, like a lucky sweater, and it’s warm, cozy and well, perfect. I did something concrete, I tell myself. That’s something.

I cannot stop knitting. I buy more yarn, more needles. Every night, when my husband Jeff and I sit to watch films, there is the click of knitting. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I tell Jeff and he takes my hand. “I bet you do,” he says. I think about Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities. She was like one of the Fates in Greek myth. She never stopped knitting, stitching in the names of the people she wanted killed, creating her own kind of revolution with yarn.

My second sweater, soft, glossy gray, is absurdly perfect and I am going to wear it to a reading, but the reading gets cancelled. All that day, I write my novel, thinking about the evening when I wouldn’t have to think, when I can just knit and turn off the churning in my mind. I think about how knitting, like a novel, has a structure, a spine that has to hold things together, how every stitch can tell a kind of story—that one there that is twisted is when I heard Trump say on the news not to worry. That one where I dropped a stitch is when I was stress eating. When my niece Hillary, who is supposed to come stay with us, along with her husband and two kids, cancels because of the virus, I go online and order more yarn, a deep dark blue, to knit a pullover for her the one way I can be with her.

The day I start that sweater, and WHO announces we have a pandemic. Italy is in lockdown. The first big event for my novel, The Texas Library Association in Houston, is cancelled. The Virginia Festival of the Book is cancelled. The Poets & Writers 50th Anniversary is cancelled. Colleges are holding virtual classes.

I sit with Jeff watching Sorry Wrong Number with a particularly hysterical Barbara Stanwyck, who begins to have an inkling she’s about to be murdered. I am knitting and knitting and knitting through the night, my eyes on the screen. It isn’t until I am done for the evening, that I look down at my work. To my shock, the garment has lost its structure. It isn’t totally blue the way it is supposed to be. I must have picked up the wrong yarn, because the second half of the back of the sweater is now deep green.

At first, I’m pissed. I wanted to control this. Rip it out like errant pages that aren’t working. The way this is supposed to go is not thinking, just knitting. Plus, the thought of ripping out all that work makes me ill. I’m terrible at taking out stitches and picking them back up and I know if I even try, there will be a stunning number of holes.

So I leave it. And the next day, I keep knitting, picking up other colors, making something that I don’t even think about having control over, that I can’t possibly know how it might resolve. As I knit,  I look down every once in a while, surprised, and sometimes pleased. The steady rhythm is so soothing, so hypnotic. I think about my novel, the characters so real I know what color sweaters I could knit for them, and that makes me think a bit about plot. I think about my mom, who died, two years ago, who I wish I could call to make sure she’s all right. I think about the sweater I’d make for her, deep purple, her favorite color, a sweater she’ll never get to wear. I think about my sister, who is estranged from our family and how I’d like to make her a purple sweater, too. I think about our son Max, who is in Brooklyn, who I get to see and hug. I move closer on the couch to Jeff, the click of my needles like a kind of Morse code. I love you. It’s going to be all right.

And so I keep knitting for other people. Pullovers that will hug them because I can’t anymore, at least not without a mask. Despite myself, I am getting better and better. Knit. Knit. Knit. I’ve come to realize that this is how I give up my desperation to control the narrative and the fear I’m feeling. Knitting a sweater isn’t writing a novel, not in any sense. We can’t know how the world is going to go with the virus, we cannot know what is going to happen with Trump and his cronies or with our planet that is falling apart. We breathe in and we breathe out. We wash our hands and cover our coughs and I keep knitting.

I buy more yarn. It doesn’t matter what color, just that I have enough for four more sweaters. Just so I can see the pile of yarn, provisions against terrible times and anxious thoughts. Despite the fierce intensity of my knitting, I’m no Madame Defarge, purling my way to revenge. This is not A Tale of Two Cities as much as it is a tale of one world in crisis. Instead, every night, this is how I knit connections, this is how I knit away the terror, one stitch at a time.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her new book, With or Without You set for release in August and can be ordered here.  Her essays and stories have appeared in Real Simple, The Millions, and The New York Times. Visit her at @leavittnovelist on Twitter, on Facebook, and at Carolineleavitt.com

 

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Guest Posts, healing

Clay Glue

March 22, 2020
glue

By Ali J. Shaw

When the halls cleared out, I went into the art room and let my backpack slide off my shoulder onto the floor. Mr. Evans nodded quietly to acknowledge me, but he focused on whatever was on his computer screen. I turned the combo on my locker and glanced at the clock. Robbie would be here any minute, so I used both hands to heft the plastic-wrapped block of clay out of its cubby and onto the table. For my last assignment—vase making—I’d made one only half as tall as my classmates’ so I could conserve my clay.

“It’s for wildflowers,” I’d told them when they smirked.

Now I had a good-sized chunk left over to give to Robbie. “Hey!” Robbie yelled at top nine-year-old volume when he came into the room. I startled, and he laughed dramatically. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, okay, come on over here.” I waved my hands. “New haircut?” He beamed. “Buzzzzz.”

Robbie and I had had a rough start. I’d signed up for the Buddy Program because I’d always wanted a younger sister. Visions of teaching jump-rope songs to a little girl had flooded my imagination. Then came time for the first Buddy Program session. The elementary school counselor who had facilitated the high-schooler and elementary-schooler pairings handed me a slip of paper, where I saw his name: Robbie. A boy. There was no time to brood on it, though—I could already hear kids’ shuffles and giggles coming toward us in the multipurpose room. While the other kids ran to their high school buddies, slapped high-fives, and laughed, Robbie slumped into a chair next to me.

“Hi, I’m Ali.” I was not good at making awkward situations more comfortable. Robbie’s eyes glassed over, and he whispered, “Hi.”Before long, I learned that his grandpa, who’d been living with him and his mom, had died the night before. I felt paralyzed. My “I’m sorry” sounded empty, and it seemed so unfair that we were sitting in a room full of raucous children and teens scribbling colorful answers on their Getting to Know You worksheets. Robbie and I spent that first hour-long meet-up mostly silent. I didn’t know if he’d show up the next week, but he did. And the week after that. I never figured out how to talk about his grief, but just being there with him seemed to help.

Before long, his teacher asked me to come by on Tuesday afternoons to help tutor Robbie on telling time and counting money. Two years later, we were still meeting weekly with the whole Buddy Program and an extra day one-on-one doing some other activity—tutoring if he needed it; art if he was caught up. I took a deep breath as I thought about the transition over the years but turned my focus to prepping the clay for him. The outer edges of the block had dried out a little, a result of the used and reused plastic bag that had accumulated tiny holes and let air seep in. With my finger and thumb, I pinched off the hard bits until a ball of soft clay remained.

“Hey,” I said to Robbie and held the ball in front of him, squeezing until it squished out through my fingers. “I’m strong, huh?”“Not as strong as me!” He reached for the clay and mimicked me.

Somewhere around the end of the first year, I gave Robbie a model house I’d built, and he gushed, “That’s so cool!” So we started building things together—mostly in the art room. At the end of each session, he’d take home his creation.

“You know that smiley face painting we did last time?” he asked me now as he dug one finger into the center of the clay wad. “Mmmhmmm,” I mumbled, rolling out coils from my less-pliable clay. “I used it for target practice with my mom’s boyfriend’s darts!” I laughed.

The first time he’d told me about his nearly immediate destruction of something we’d made together, I—as someone who had formed a sentimental bond with every object I’d ever owned, especially gifts—couldn’t hide my cringe. But for Robbie, things were no good collecting dust on a shelf. You had to make experiences with them! And so every week, we created, he destroyed, and then he told me the story. He grunted in frustration, and I stopped rolling coils to see why. He had formed a softball-sized glob and several smaller ones, one of which he was trying to press to the side of the big one.

“Oh, hey, there’s a trick for that.” I lay my coil down and held out my palm. “Can I show you?” When he handed me the small ball, I demonstrated scoring the soft clay with a sharp tool that left jagged cuts on one side of the little ball, then the big ball. “Then you have to make slip, which is a weird word, but it’s basically clay glue.” I tore off two inches of my coil and put it in a bowl with water. “Here, put your fingers in here and mush it around.”

Robbie’s cheeks tightened skeptically. I’d looked that way at my older brother nearly every day of my childhood, trying to gauge if he was tricking me. I’d never tricked Robbie, but obviously someone had.

“Really, come on.” I nodded and plunged my fingers in.“Ew, it’s slimy,” he yelled when he tried it. Mr. Evans looked up disapprovingly. “Shhhh. You know what else is slimy?” “What?” “Glue.” I winked as I dabbed some slip on my fingertip and then onto the scored clay and pressed the two balls together. “Tada!” I sang when they stuck. Robbie made what had become my favorite sound since I’d met him.

“Whooooooa!” From our first meeting, something had seemed familiar about Robbie. Did I see myself in him somehow? No, we were opposites in nearly every way. Rowdy/quiet, destructive/creative, easily bored/could sit in one activity for hours. But below those surface behaviors, there was something similar. Something broken. When I’d tutored Robbie, sometimes his body shook in tiny convulsions. “Are you okay?” I’d slide the flashcards to side of the desk and line my face up with his. Robbie would stare down, his eyes lost in the wood grains of the desktop, or someplace far beyond. But part of him was still with me. In a thin voice, he said, “Just cold.” I took off my fleece jacket and wrapped it around his shoulders.

“Should we take a little break and draw?” I used to say color instead of draw, but he finally informed me that only girls color—boys draw, and only in black. But maybe sometimes yellow or red. Before he answered, I pulled paper and a black marker out of my backpack. For about a year, Robbie drew only round yellow faces in a variety of expressions, shockingly similar to today’s emojis. Sometimes they smiled, but mostly they expressed pain or fear, and he laughed at his creations. I was sixteen, trained only in art and writing and basic math, never psychology. I never knew what it meant. I still don’t. But I knew that drawing stopped the trembles and brought his eyes up from the void, his smile back to his face.

So I gave him more paper, more pens, more time. Eventually trees and dogs with wagging tails and even flowers started to appear in his drawings too. And I knew that time with Robbie meant less time at home for me. I could delay getting into my rusty red pickup and shambling home to my father’s frigid trailer. Every moment with Robbie was a moment less with my father’s unpredictable rages or over-the-top professions of love and “Family is the most important thing. Don’t you ever forget that.” Robbie’s and my time together became a sort of glue that kept us both from fracturing.

We spent the rest of the hour gluing small clay shapes onto his clay softball. We left it in my locker to dry before he took it home the next week. The week after that, he told me it was the perfect size for launching from his catapult toy into the fields behind his house.

“I did it over and over until it broke into three pieces,” he said with a shrug.

“I guess we better make something else,” I said as I laid out Popsicle sticks, glue, and paint.

Robbie and I were buddies for three years, until I graduated high school and moved away. I have a single photo of us together. We’re at my graduation party, and he’s trying to stand up straight in my letterman’s jacket, weighed down by the running medals I sewed onto it. Our faces are round and red, laughing about something.I keep the photo in a pocket of the jacket, which collects dust in a closet, where I hope neither will ever be destroyed.

Ali J. Shaw has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. Her nonfiction has been featured in r.k.v.r.y., Hippocampus Magazine, VoiceCatcher, and the Get Nervous reading series, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. Ali is an editor who collects typewriters and rescue animals.

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Guest Posts

Working in Circles

February 29, 2020
richard

By Elizabeth Earley

The first time I met Richard Yaski, I was 32 years old and freshly heartbroken. I’d been living in Phoenix, which proved to be a metaphysical as well as physical desert. I had moved there from Chicago to be with a woman I loved, but she cheated on me and left me, leaving me to turn to bad and destructive habits like cigarette smoking and affairs with married women. Women who were married to men. In the end, there were only two such affairs, but, as a wise friend told me then, it only takes two to make a pattern.

My move to Phoenix was significant in a different way as well—it marked the first time I was offered a job as a writer. I’d applied to the job with writing samples from my half-finished graduate program, and they not only hired me, but also paid for my moving expenses.

From the outset, I felt a fraud in the role of paid writer—the work was too easy and was, fundamentally, unearned. I hadn’t published much of anything. I’d written maybe three novels by then, all of them withering in a drawer collecting rejections faster than dust. It was in this state that I travelled to Northern California with my older friend and mentor who had dated Richard. And although it didn’t work out romantically between them, he remained a significant part of her life, and she wanted me to meet him—a celebrated artist with enormous metal sculptures decorating a pictorial property nestled in a redwood forest.

Back then, Richard was on fire. Brimming to excess with energy, he was filled with an insatiable and relentless, highly creative and spiritual drive. It came out of his mouth in rapid, run-on speech; through his eyes with long, thoughtful and interested gazes. He had asked me to write about him back then and I agreed, swept up as I was with him and his sculptures and his home fashioned from trees. But I never did. A combination of my sense of inadequacy at the time combined with a single rejection I received in response to a pitch to a much too famous magazine conspired to have me quit before I even really started. Then I fell out of touch with Richard.

A decade elapsed during which I finished my graduate degree and experienced some accomplishments as a writer. Then I survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident and wrote a new kind of book in its aftermath—a hybrid memoir, which I titled, The Eternal Round. While writing this, I learned that my second novel had won an award and would be published by a well-known and coveted publisher. As my publication date approached, I knew I needed to finish a draft of the new manuscript before my second novel came out because I would need to focus on its launch. As I searched for a place to go where I could separate from my daily responsibilities and write, nothing short of a self-abduction from my life would do. I thought of Richard and his property.

Now, ten years later, Richard is calmer and more settled. He’s been through a lot—illness and injury and a financial crisis in which he was the victim of a ponzi scheme and lost most of his life’s savings. He was involved in a drawn-out court battle over it. There was a time when he thought he might lose the home and land. But thankfully, he kept it, and I was able to visit yet again. I came to finish my manuscript. And I stayed to fulfill my 10-year-old promise to write about him.

He is nobody and nothing. That is what Richard Yaski asserts is the most important lesson of his life. During a 5-day meditation retreat he attended, he realized that art has to be authentic. And to be authentic, it has to be let through the conduit, the artist, honestly.

“I am not Richard, my name is Richard. I am not a sculptor, I make sculptures.”

I listened to him with skepticism. Aren’t all artists and writers desperately attached to the positive yet wholly subjective reception of their work? I see my regrettable though undeniable writer’s ego as a big, glass sphere: as immense as it is delicate. Holding it in my hands, seeing my own warped face reflected in its gloss, I am it and it is me. Until I trip on the casual criticism of anyone and the whole thing is smashed. What saves me are the other dimensions of my life, the parts that round it out like being a mother and a partner, a friend, a human.

Richard is also human. He makes more than sculptures. The home he created from the trees is perhaps the most stunning. Never mind the world-class art that sits half a mile down a dirt road in Mendocino County, California. The kind you would expect to see inside the clean walls and high ceilings of a distinguished gallery in New York. But it’s so not New York that I have an experience of cognitive dissonance just looking around.

Yellow and orange construction vehicles, some parked along the edge of the woods, some in the gravel carport alongside the car. A crane, folded up and sleeping, resting from the weight it’s carried. The forklift beat up from good use. These and other heavy machinery somehow seem a natural part of the landscape, as do the sculptures they helped to create. Large, metal works of art dignify the opening in the woods, the clearing of trees where plant life has been tamed and cultivated in the area around the house and other buildings. There are several buildings: a yurt used as a detached office/art studio/meditation space adorned with prayer flags, a tiny house with a lofted roof and large skylight (this is where guests like me stay when they come), a building that seems to be for storage, a large, cluttered workshop, and, out behind the house on the other side of a wooden fence and wall made of logs, a converted 1953 International School Bus permanently installed and built into a cottage.

This last was the vehicle that Richard Yaski arrived in when he was 24 years old. It was the early 70s and he was working as a leather smith in Topanga Canyon. He and his girlfriend came to see a friend in Albion. The rugged coast of Mendocino County flanked by the Redwood forest beckoned him with its beauty and sense of magic, like anything was possible. When he returned to Topanga, he couldn’t get the feeling about that place or its inspiring power out of his mind. When the owners of the house he and his girlfriend rented decided to sell and gave them notice to move out, he knew where to go. Putting everything they owned in the bus, they drove back up to Mendocino County and looked for their next home.

Home is a word most people associate with at least four walls and a roof, but that’s not what Richard found. The 10-acre plot of forestland he purchased in 1970 was densely wooded, though it did come with a well and septic tank. “I had to crawl on my hands and knees under the brush to see that it had a back yard,” he said.

With deep respect for nature, Richard began the project of building a home by searching for trees that were already on their way out. These sick and dying trees became the raw materials for the house he roughed in but that remained unfinished for years. Years during which he lived in the bus with his first wife and young son.

Seven years earlier, in a metal shop class in high school, Richard made his first sculpture. It was an abstract metallic woman with steel-wool hair, copper coils for eyebrows, a welded together face, can-shaped torso, and gear cogs for breasts. While his older brother was in art school, Richard sold that first sculpture for $3,000 to the president of Interstate Host Corporation and it was installed at Detroit international Airport at the hotel restaurant. He used the money to travel Europe with a friend after finishing high school. When he returned from that months-long trip, he decided it was time to grow up and earn a living, so he enrolled in real estate school where he would get his license and sell houses. But he hated real estate school and left. He went to junior college after that, but walked out after a few weeks. Finally, his father agreed to pay for art school, but he dropped out of there as well. After two years of art school, a teacher convinced him that a better art school would be a garage wired for 220 electricity where he could spend his time just making sculptures. He agreed, so he left the prestigious art school, Chouinard, and did just that. He had his first one-man show at 20 years old on La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles. From there, Richard curated his own education wherein he hired people for $6/hour to work alongside and learn from. He learned to be a carpenter this way, then a general contractor.

Richard reminds me of myself in this way—exploring many trades and wearing various hats to earn a living to support the true passion while remaining anti-establishment at heart. In spite of my prejudice against it, I pursued higher education like any conquest and achieved the paradoxically meaningful and meaningless credential labeling me as a master of fine art. Even so, I pursued that art not as a central but peripheral vocation, placing a series of other, more lucrative professions before it.

All along, Richard made and sold his large sculptures in steel, copper, and aluminum. Now, 56 years later, he sits with me at his home in Little River and we look out at the surrounding forest. His heavy sculptures around the property, each featuring some form of a circle, look as though they’ve grown there straight from the earth, roots and all, as native as the redwoods. This strikes me as a significant coincidence, given the title of the manuscript I came to finish at the desk in the tiny house.

“Why are they all circles?”

“I’ve always worked in circles.”

He explains that he’s been drawn to circles because they create emptiness. And when emptiness gets created, it can get filled.

“Birds make their nests in circles. Life is a circle from birth to death. Each day is a circle from dark to dark. Our bodies are circles from the cells up.” His large hands connect at the fingertips and thumb, forming a circle. From there, he spreads them palms-up toward me, bridging the space between us.

“I’m only responsible for the craftsmanship. These hands merely give birth to whatever wants to come through them.”

This method of transferring the credit for a creation from the creator to the force of creativity itself strikes me as radical. Its humility is only matched by its arrogance, as the assumption is that the artist as conduit is messiah—worthy of both carrying and putting into form an important message from beyond. And yet, the audience’s reception of that message—any assigned merit or liability—will be the sole responsibility of that force. Suddenly I could see what that round decade that delivered me back to this place I started from had to offer: liberation from the obligatory fragile artist’s ego.

I think of this idea of creating emptiness and stillness in the context of an image I have of Richard in my mind, dressed in welding gear, up on a ladder, torch in hand. From such an incredible amount of noise and violence, heat and grinding with sparks flying everywhere, there emerges a source of calm.

Over the years, he’s made sculptures on commission for Apple and Google executives, for corporate collections, for the Kremlin, and in international hotels, including one in Istanbul.

He was offered a one-man show at the California Museum of Art. One of his major sculptures was exhibited for 13 years at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. But many of those ended up also full circle—back on his own property. A property whose centerpiece is the house it took him 35 years to finish. It’s a house with no right angles and overflowing light. There is an outdoor shower on the back deck facing the forest and a catwalk out to a smaller, peninsula deck with a table and chairs.

Inside are cathedral ceilings with generous skylights, bottom to top windows, a wide airy space, and a feeling of being lost in the forest and snug at home somehow simultaneously. Artistry is in all the details. Imported Mexican tiles over hand-thrown sinks. Rough-hewn logs for beams. A lofted bed tucked into the wall under the ceiling in the great room, which looks so cozy and inviting, I have to climb up and try it. In the bedroom, above the bed is the largest skylight, where Richard and his wife sleep blanketed by stars. The other dominant feature of the bedroom is the handcrafted stone fireplace, the second in the house.

The energy in the bedroom feels different somehow, even quieter and more peaceful. Richard speaks and I remember why. “This is the room I built for my late wife to die in,” he says. His current wife, Diane, stands beside him. I look at her, search her face for a reaction. She smiles and says, “It’s an honor for me to sleep here.” She’s radiant and intelligent and warm. She’s 25 years his junior. When I first met Richard a decade earlier, he was with another woman he’d been with for years but hadn’t yet married. When Richard talked about Loama, his second wife who he was with the longest, and who he cared for during an eleven-year losing battle with cancer, that girlfriend had been uncomfortable and angry. She was threatened by the reverence and love in his voice when he spoke of his late wife. But Diane, who’s been with him four years now, has no trace of jealousy or insecurity.

After Richard began building the house, he and his first wife didn’t make it. She moved into a cabin on the neighboring property and their son, Jud, went back and forth between them. He also had a stepson from that relationship who often stayed with him. Then he met Loama, his second wife, and her daughter, Dakota. They were together for 21 years before she died of cancer. The bedroom was the product of her wish—that he build her a beautiful room in which to die.

In the years following Loama’s death, Richard cycled through many lovers, another way in which I relate to him. My instinct even when I first met him was to judge him, to write him off as a typical womanizing, egomaniac white man artist. But he defied my ready and waiting judgments with small surprises—soft eyes, deep respect for nature, politically progressive ideology, true humility, and, perhaps most surprising, an anti-masculine, unapologetic affection toward other men with whom he shared intimate friendships. By intimate I don’t mean sexual. With one brief exception in the free-loving 60’s, Richard had been decidedly hetero in his affinity for lovers. The platonic intimacy he shared with men was a closeness and a tenderness that men like him culturally reserved only for women.

One such friendship was with a man who ended up engaging him in the ponzi scheme that almost was his financial undoing. He lost most of his life’s savings in that ordeal, but the real injury was that the perpetrator was a close friend of Richard’s who was present and in the room the night before Loama died. The worst blow was the betrayal.

I ask Richard if Loama’s death followed by his financial loss contained the worst times in his life. He says no. It was the loss of a child to suicide. Richard’s first wife had a son when he met her, Brandon, who Richard helped to raise as his own.

“That was the worst thing I ever had to walk through,” he says.

Another strange parallel. In the manuscript I travelled there to finish, I wrote about my grandfather’s suicide. And perhaps it’s that subject matter combined with the setting that had brought me so close to my own existential angst. Having been there in the forest for four days already, the calm and the quiet are cacophonous. With no cell reception, no internet, no access to the outside world, and with a darkness at night so total there’s nowhere to look but within, it makes sense that someone in a tortured mental state would feel driven to leave the planet. But the hush and the stillness is juxtaposed with a frenzy of activity: leaves rustling in the wind, water trickling in a deep ravine, insects and critters busy doing their part in a robust ecosystem teeming with diverse life. And the quietest yet most profound enterprise there among the trees—the oxygen pumping and flowing like lifeblood out into the world.

Now, it’s been eight years and Diane and Richard have been through a lot together. Diane cared for Richard through his bout with prostate cancer and supported him through his long, painful court battle. I asked her what she thought when she got together and he then lost everything, including, almost, his home. “I love him and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I knew I’d live with him in a tent if we had to. It would be hard, but we would face it together,” she said.

Through rental income and the small amount of work Richard was able to do during those years, he didn’t have to lose his home. And he emerged on the other side of the court battle and the health crisis with enough money to live and with his health restored. And as we sit on the back deck talking, I can sense the peace in his heart. I can see how the events of the past decade since I first met him, although they may have been difficult, have softened and reorganized him, oriented him toward stillness. The effect is to dispel my skepticism about his egolessness. And with that, a yearning so strong it makes a physical ache to also have no ego.

“How do I separate myself from the work I produce when it makes me feel so vulnerable?”

Richard smiles and looks me dead in the eyes. Something in the look makes me understand: he does still have the fragile ego, he just doesn’t relate to it as who he is.

“If you aren’t scared shitless, you’re not being honest with yourself. It’s part of what creativity requires of you. But creativity is its own thing, its own intelligence.”

Because of his financial drama and illness, Richard hasn’t made a large sculpture in years. But it’s clear that at age 73, he has more to come. He’s spent time clearing out and organizing his workshop. “I’m ready to get back to work,” he said with a smile.

Richard’s greatest work of art may not be any of his sculptures. It may not even be the beautiful home he built for himself and the loves he’s adopted into it over the years. It’s instead the person he is inside of each empty, still moment. “Just being is my art,” he said, “the art of living is the finest.”

And perhaps he’s correct. Perhaps the finest art I can never hope to master is just that.

Having come to his forest home and accomplished my goal of finishing a draft of The Eternal Round, I’m struck as Richard talks by the range of metaphysical meanings in the forest surrounding us. The forest as a harbor. As a refuge. As a trap. As a witness.

Listening to him, I watch the trees, which seem to watch Richard. They gaze down at him from their impossible heights, professing their own ancient love. They’ve witnessed the past half-century of this man’s life. They offered up some flesh to make him a home. They held him and those he’s loved close and safe among them. They’ve mirrored the drama, the joys and the heartbreaks, with the breathtaking filtered light of sunsets and with the total darkness of the night inside them.

Elizabeth Earley is the author of two novels: A Map of Everything, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and Like Wings, Your Hands, which won the Women’s Prose Prize at Red Hen Press and the American Fiction Award for best LGBTQ novel. Earley is also an editor at Jaded Ibis Press. Purchase her latest audio book, Like Wings, Your Hands, here.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Interview, Women are Enough

The Converse-Station: Emma Hudelson interviews Erin Khar

February 20, 2020
recovery, drugs

A note from Angela: Jen and I have been fans of Erin Khar for years, and we were thrilled when we were asked if we could share this interview. Erin’s book, Strung Out, is being published on February 25th and Emma Hedelson provides us with a window into Erin’s remarkable story. Enjoy this introduction to both Erin and Emma and after you finish reading, you can order the book here

Introduction by Emma Hudelson: 

At thirteen, I took my first gulp of liquor, kept gulping, and woke up in the hospital. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you it was just a little fun that had gotten out of control. But really, the escape of booze had seduced me completely. It promised disappearance, and eventually, it made me turn my back on a strong education and a promising career as a junior exhibitor equestrienne with a high-performing horse. By the end of high school, my list of disappearing acts included running away from home, getting blackout drunk every weekend, smoking pot daily, developing a cocaine addiction, and attempting suicide.

Therapists and psychiatrists couldn’t reach me. My mom, a single mom, tried her best, but she couldn’t contain me. She read guides like Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which is a great book, but with only one chapter devoted to substance abuse. What my mom needed—what I needed—was a book like Erin Khar’s Strung Out, a memoir of addiction and recovery, written by a woman who had once been a girl like me—a girl who wanted to disappear.

I survived my adolescence, entered recovery, and went on to find a career as a writer and teacher. Eventually, even horses found me again. Today, I’m ten years sober and in graduate school. Most young women whose teen years look like mine aren’t so fortunate, and most don’t have a good model of successful recovery. Strung Out could be that missing model. None of the existing addiction memoirs address the intersection of girlhood, trauma, mental health, and substance abuse the way it does.

Like most of her fans, I found Erin Khar online. She runs “Ask Erin,” the popular advice column at Ravishly.com with the tagline “She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to.” Erin is compassionate with her advice, whether the issue is as serious as “I think the guy I’m dating raped me” or as less-serious as “An update on a one-night stand with my coworker.” She always provides suggestions to seek professional help when needed and links readers to available resources. She’s the cool big sister most women never had: smart and savvy, with a strong lipstick game. In the midst of writing about my own addiction and recovery, I found out Erin had written an addiction memoir. To my delight, I also discovered she had a history with horses, too. Naturally, I decided she was my long-lost, much-cooler, way-better-with-lipstick big sister, and requested an advanced copy of her forthcoming book.

In its pages, I saw myself. I’d discovered a role model, one generous enough to share her story with the world. Luckily, Erin was also generous enough to spend an hour chatting with me about recovery, community, and of course, horses.

Emma Hudelson: Why did you decide to tell your story in memoir form?

Erin Khar: I wanted to write the book that I had needed when I was younger, to give people who were struggling a voice, and to open up conversations about addiction that will contribute to reducing stigma and shame.

EH: I definitely could have used this book when I was younger! It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about your readers. How do you view your relationship with them?

EK: My goal is to make anyone, whether they’re experienced with addiction or not, more comfortable with talking about it. Shame and letting go of it is another big theme of the book, which is something that someone who hasn’t struggled with addiction can relate to. We all have ghosts that we’re afraid to face, and the trick is facing them so we can move on. I hope I connect with readers in a personal way, so that it feels like an intimate conversation. Hopefully, something productive comes out of that writer-reader relationship.

EH: I love how you don’t shy away from talking about things like shame, trauma, and mental illness. That’s something the recovery community doesn’t always handle well. So many of us in recovery, myself included, have a dual diagnosis of substance abuse disorder and a mental health disorder. To stay sober and stable, I have to work on both my mental health and my recovery. Were you conscious of that as you were writing?

EK: Yes. My foundation for recovery was in twelve-step programs. At that time, there was a lot of stigma about psychiatric medications. I thought there was only one path of recovery and I thought that if I couldn’t fit into that path, I wasn’t going to make it. I hope people walk away from this book understanding that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to addiction, because in my experience, particularly with opiate addiction, there’s often another component. It could be an actual mental health diagnosis or have a trauma-related origin. You can do all the recovery work in the world, but if you’re not addressing those deeper psychiatric issues, I think it’s difficult to maintain any sort of recovery.

EH: I’ve been sober ten years, and I’m still involved with twelve-step programs. When I first came in, I heard a lot of, “if you take a mood- or mind-altering drug, you’re not sober.” That included antidepressants. That’s bullshit. There are multiple roads to recovery. Twelve-step programs work for some people. Others need something else. I know twelve-step wound up not working for you, but it seems like you don’t have any bitterness towards it.

EK: No, not at all. I think I would have died trying to get sober if I didn’t have twelve-step programs. The work that I did there gave me enough of a foundation to get the help that I needed. I don’t know that they’re for everyone, but I’ve seen them help a whole lot of people. The sense of community there is super important. I don’t ever want anyone to feel that there’s only one way to achieve recovery. I achieved long term recovery after I realized that I could have recovery without being restricted to a twelve-step model. It’s been almost seventeen years since my last drug.

EH: That’s so cool!

EK: Yeah, it’s a big deal! I’m also a proponent of harm reduction. I would much rather have someone be on suboxone for ten years than constantly relapsing and detoxing. That wouldn’t necessarily be the answer for me, but if suboxone is improving someone’s quality of life, then I’m 100% for it. I look at addiction as a public health issue. We have a responsibility as a society to ensure that people who are suffering have the opportunity to get help. That help might not come all at once. Often, harm reduction is a path to recovery. I think people are starting to see that model works better than this all-or-nothing from the beginning model.

EH: There are multiple pathways. It’s not just the twelve-step model, SMART recovery, or moderation management.

EK: Whatever works, works. It shouldn’t matter how somebody gets there. You’d tackle any other medical problem the same way. There are several approaches to treating cancer, so if one doesn’t work, then try another. The same should be true for recovery.

EH: With cancer, you would try multiple treatments. You wouldn’t just try radiation. I think that really makes sense. You said the sense of community that can be found in twelve-step programs is something you see as a foundation of recovery. What can women in recovery do better to stay connected and form that community?

EK: As much as everyone has criticisms of social media and the internet in general, it does connect us in ways that were never possible before. So even if you’re in a physically isolated place, you can find online recovery groups. There’s a whole world of help of there. I have formed some of my closest relationships with people I’ve met online. When it comes to supporting each other in recovery, the best way people can support each other is to avoid judgment of how recovery unfolds. That includes relapsing. When you’re in recovery, it’s scary to see someone close to you relapse because that can feel threatening to your own recovery. It’s very easy to jump into a judgmental place. Remembering the old adage that’s used a lot in twelve-step—“there but for the grace of god go I”—I always remind myself that the person in relapse could so easily me be. Even if we’re outwardly in a very different place, we’re both humans. That’s a human being having a human experience. Obviously, in early recovery, you might have to distance yourself to protect your own sobriety. But as the years go by, it becomes a lot easier to be there for people in jeopardy.

EH: In the book, we see you relapse, but we see people who are close to you relapse. It’s a struggle for all memoirists to write about other people. You write about your parents and ex-husband, too. Did you have any self-checks that you used to make sure that you were staying in your story and not moving to into someone else’s story?

EK: I would look at myself as a character in the book. As in, “Erin is the protagonist. Is this told from Erin’s perspective?” I can’t fill in the blanks for anyone else. I’m the camera, so I can only see it from my point of view. I can say, “she told me she felt this way,” but I can’t assume anything. It’s challenging! Even now, I’m sure I could go back into the book and realize I didn’t always do it perfectly.

EH: Speaking of turning yourself into a character—I love how you portrayed all the horrible, heartbreaking negative self-talk throughout the book. While you were writing, how did you navigate these moments where you were in conversation with this really dark part of yourself?

EK: It helped that I have so much distance from the events. I probably couldn’t have written this book ten years ago. When reconstructing moments, I tried to focus first on things I knew were concrete. Yet still—facts that I recorded in my journal are only facts according to what I observed in that moment. As I moved through the different parts of my life in the book, I tried to write each chapter with the voice of me at that age but with the added commentary of me at this age, right now, looking back. By working chronologically and trying to focus on concrete details, I was able to separate myself enough to keep the narrative arc without being swallowed by it.

Especially in edits, I had to make sure that I was doing things to take care of myself. I went back to therapy and made sure that I have everything in place for this whole journey. Not just the writing, but the publishing, and talking about the book once it’s out in the world. As comfortable as I am talking about it, it’s certainly emotional, even in my body.

EH: Speaking as a writer, it’s a gift to be able to recreate memories and write about them, but it’s definitely not comfortable. People will ask me if writing about addiction, trauma, and recovery is cathartic or healing. Sometimes, maybe, but it’s also—no. Not at all. What’s your experience?

EK: You have to do the healing before you sit down to write the memoir. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but for me, I had to do the work beforehand. Without it, I couldn’t have written as honest a memoir. I couldn’t have confronted the things that I confront in the book. Putting all my ugly truth out there is very freeing, because I don’t feel like I have anything left to hide. For victims of trauma, that can be very satisfying. It’s like getting the last word on your own story.

EH: Your pub date is coming up soon.

EK: February 25.

EH: Do you feel like you’re prepared for the barrage of emails and messages that you’re probably going to get?

EK: Because of the advice column, I already get 50-75 emails a week from people—and obviously, I can’t answer them all. I’m sure that will increase, but I’m trying to remember that the book is only one part of my life. Obviously, it’s a very big part of my life, but even though my story is out there I’m still allowed to have personal boundaries.

EH: In the book, you address that. You explain isn’t all of you on those pages. I think that’s really important to understand. It’s easy for someone to pick up a memoir and think they know the author intimately.

EK: In some ways, they do! They will know parts of me—more than what I showed people in the past, back when I was hiding from everybody. But they’re only seeing me through one lens.

EH: I have to ask you about one more thing. When I was younger, I was really into horses, like, going-to-the-world-championships into horses. When I got away from riding, my addiction took hold of me and didn’t let go. In your pre-addict days and days of early addiction, you were a very serious rider, too. When it comes to addiction and young women, is there something about the horse that’s special?

EK: There is a special relationship that happens between a human and a horse. It’s difficult to put it into words that make sense to people who haven’t experienced it. When a horse and rider are really connected, it’s symbiosis. The best riders in the world don’t have to utilize a lot of aids. They have really light hands and legs because everything is done through this symbiotic connection. It’s not just a shift in physical weight, but energy, too. I could hop on one of my horse’s back—maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea—bareback, without a bridle, just a halter on, and ride. There was so much trust between us. For young women growing up in this world, it’s difficult to trust people. We’re given conflicting messages. Our bodies become both super sexualized, but then we’re shamed for that. That makes us not trust people. I’m speaking generally here, not just about my own experience. With a horse, there’s this love story because of the trust. The horse doesn’t want anything but to be in the moment with you. The horse becomes a place where we can put our trust.

Emma Faesi Hudelson is a teaching fellow and PhD candidate studying literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She writes on addiction, recovery, and mental health. Horses, too. Her work appears or is forthcoming in BUST, the Chattahoochee Review, the Fix, the Manifest-Station, the Rumpus, and other publications. Her essays have been selected as finalists in the 2017 International Literary Awards and Creative Nonfiction’s Spring 2018 Contest.

 

Erin Khar is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared in SELF, Marie ClaireEsquireCosmopolitanGood Housekeeping, Redbook, and others. She’s the recipient of the Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize and lives in New York City with her husband and two kids. Order Strung Out here

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Guest Posts, Yoga, Young Voices

My Practice

February 18, 2020
practice

By Shelby Palmeri

I can’t physically hold onto it, but it has made a profound impact. I don’t think about it often in the day-to-day, but looking back over the years, it has always been there, my constant.

How did all these years pass by?

Did I ever really choose this or did it choose me?

I lay my dingy outdoor yoga mat down in my big backyard. I’m reminded of my first few months of practicing. Limited by space in the deplorable frat boy style living arrangements of the boyfriend I stayed with nearly every night, I had to seek the solace of their big (dirty) backyard.

Avoiding broken glass, and scattered folding chairs, not bothered by a roommate’s skittish purebred beast of a dog I wanted desperately to befriend, I’d set up in the tall grass.

Yes now I have an outdoor mat, two extra mats just in case, and of course my expensive and on brand everyday mat, the one that lives in my passenger seat or on the floor of my sunroom. Back then, I just had one mat- my first mat, a bright pink thin thing I rescued from a closet in my parent’s house, bought then quickly forgotten.

I’d take it to the flattest spots I could find, hiding myself from the view of any of the rambunctious tenants of that rented residence. I’d practice the little bit I had picked up from YouTube and Google. Child’s pose was nice and easy, throw in a cat, cow or two. It was in these sessions when I realized how far I had to go, realized how much effort it took just to sit in a cross legged position for minutes at a time.

When looking back on what drew me to yoga, it is kind of funny to admit. At that time in my life, somewhere around 19, I was discovering how much I liked getting high, and I was exploring a variety of ways to do so. I remember thinking that maybe yoga would provide me some sort of transcendental experience. Maybe, it’d get me some sort of high.

The more spirituality books I read, the more I became a little obsessed with this idea of enlightenment. It was a totally new concept and one I wanted to conquer. I thought downdog and the Bhagavad Gita would give me the tools I needed to transcend my reality. I would have an edge. I’d go somewhere I couldn’t come back from. I’d be a yogi master, a guru, all-knowing and always Zen.

As the months went by, I kept practicing. My motivations fluctuated. This new connection to my body turned me onto fitness. My obsession became core work and planking. I discovered avocado toast and calorie trackers. I thought little about my spiritual journey and more about my six-pack. I took lots of bad-form yoga selfies, admired how my butt looked in tight leggings.

I kept practicing.

Nearly two years into this relationship with yoga, I had a pretty solid routine. That same boyfriend and I were now living in a spacious apartment, with floor to ceiling windows in the living room that I fell in love with the moment I walked in the door. It was in front of those windows, that I’d lay my mat down every morning, trading plush carpet for the rocky un-mowed lawn of my previous practice space.

By this time, I had all the classic yoga texts, expensive mala beads I never used, and a couple of props and Aztec blankets. I kept them all stacked together near the windowsill along with my succulents and occasionally my slinky cat. I loved my little yoga space.

One morning, I woke up to practice. I spent about twenty minutes moving by body then rested it on the floor. I lay in corpse pose as the sun filtered through the blinds, casting shadows and warming my face.

A few hours later, as I sat on the couch in that same living space, the sun casting shadows on the wall, my boyfriend killed himself in our bedroom.

I, traumatized and grieving, kept practicing.

I forgot about enlightenment. I forgot yoga body. My motivation became healing. My mat caught all my tears; my journal caught my frustrations. I spent hours and hours on the floor in meditation, hoping that maybe I’d be able to feel him. I read more books. I looked for signs. I explored the metaphysical. I survived the unthinkable.

And, I kept practicing.

Years have passed since that day, as have many milestones. I graduated college, moved away from home, fell in love again, went through teacher training. Through it all, my mat has been underneath me. I unroll it in happiness and in times of struggle. I’ve unrolled it on sandy beaches, rock ledges, and countless studio floors. I’ve unrolled it by trickling rivers, near bubbling hot springs, and in airport terminals.

Over the years, I’ve had to wonder if it is the exercise, the healing or the distant and mysterious possibility of enlightenment that brings me back? Maybe it’s all three, and maybe it’s a whole lot more.

As I lay my outdoor mat down on this warm and sunny summer day, the dirt smells the same as it did so many summers ago in that distant backyard that was much less mine than this one. The wind ruffling the trees sounds the same, and extended child’s pose is just as soothing.

I think about all the things that have changed in my life in such a short time. And I think about all that’s stayed the same.

I keep practicing.

practice

Shelby Palmeri is a registered yoga teacher living in Colorado, trying to chase the dream of teaching yoga and writing. She enjoy mountains, music, and craft beer.

 

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Books, Guest Posts

Strung Out: Prologue

February 13, 2020
recovery, drugs

A note from Angela And Jen: Erin Khar has a spectacular book coming out next week and has graciously shared the prologue with us so we can share it with you. Enjoy this excerpt and preorder the book. Trust us, this is one everyone will be talking about.

By Erin Khar

Prologue
October 2015

 “Mom, did you ever do drugs?”

The words of my twelve-year-old son, Atticus, lingered in the space between us. A car horn from the busy street outside could be heard from our fourth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village, punctuating the moment. Parts of myself, other selves, past selves, collided headlong into who I’d become—a mother, a wife, a writer, an advice columnist.

At that moment, I wanted time to stop. I wanted Atticus to remain too young to understand the perils of drug addiction. I know how drug use can obliterate a life; I didn’t want any part of it to touch him. I wanted to protect him from the harsh realities of the opioid crisis that is ravaging our country. But this impulse to look away, to avoid confronting the opioid crisis and pretend it’s not happening, is the very thing that keeps us in danger. How can we recover as families, as a nation, and create a healthier space for our children if we don’t talk about it? We must be willing to share our experiences and be willing to examine the opioid crisis from all angles, even the angles that hit close to home.

The fact is every eleven minutes an American dies of drug overdose. Overdoses are the leading cause of death in this country for people under fifty-five[1].

A lot has been reported about the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the opioid crisis. And undoubtedly, the proliferation of drugs like oxycodone flooding the market via doctors has created a whole new generation of opiate users who may not have found their way to addiction otherwise. That’s not the whole story. Not everyone who gets a prescription for opioid pain killers becomes addicted, and not everyone starts with pills.

But over two million Americans are currently struggling with opiate addiction and nearly 20 percent of them are young adults. Even more staggering, use among young women is up, and the incidence of young pregnant women using opioids has increased by as much as 600 percent in some areas over a ten-year period[2].

To say we have an opioid crisis is an understatement. You can’t go a day, let alone a week, without the opioid epidemic infiltrating the news cycle.

And yet, so many people ask why anyone would do drugs in the first place.

The simplest answer is emotional pain. We live in a time in this country when everything moves so fast, when we are confronted by an altered view of other people’s realities through social media, the social and political climate is divisive, and the guarantee of creating a better life for ourselves than our parent’s generation has all but disappeared.

Our approach to mental health care is broken. Free and subsidized services are limited at best. The people who are most at risk—those in poor and marginalized communities—have financial and social barriers to accessing help.

The American ethos of putting your nose to the grindstone and persevering does a great disservice to our mental and emotional health. When you can’t get out of bed in the morning, when you have no self-worth left, when you’ve had childhood trauma, when you suffer from any form of PTSD, the option of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and overcoming addiction or other mental health issues is not possible. And that’s not a moral failing.

The stigma associated with opioids, with heroin, with “being a junkie,” prevents people from reaching out. And that stigma is killing us. Americans are stuck in a spiral of shame, and that shame drives the vicious cycle of relapse that many drug users get caught in.

The only way to break through that shame is by talking about it. It is terrifying to admit that you need help, to admit that you are addicted. This is especially true when it comes to heroin. Heroin use conjures up the gruesome images we see reported. Even among people who experiment with drugs, who drink and smoke pot and try cocaine, heroin represents some moral boundary—one that is reinforced by media. Those who cross that boundary, who “choose” to use heroin, are marked with shame.

Shame is a gatekeeper that prevents people from seeking help. Stigma is bred from that shame.

That stigma has killed so many. That stigma almost killed me.

*

I turned toward the television. Atticus had been half watching the news. A successful female dermatologist from Long Island had been found dead here in New York City, presumably from a drug overdose. She was married, had kids, seemed to have it all. The reporter speculated on the double life she led.

From my chair across the living room, I didn’t look up from my book, ignoring the question that hung in the air like a balloon that was quickly deflating.

“Mom?”

“What was that, honey?”

“Did you ever do drugs?”

I paused again, suspended in the moment, making a quick mental inventory of how to answer. The truth is I did do drugs, a lot of drugs. I used heroin off and on from the age of thirteen until I got pregnant with Atticus at age twenty-eight. I never got into pot or alcohol. I’d needed something to take me further away. I took Valium and Vicodin, I dropped acid and  took X and mushrooms, I smoked crack, shot the animal tranquilizer Ketamine, and snorted the occasional line of crystal meth, but I always came back to heroin. I wasn’t fucking around; I craved unconsciousness, but I wasn’t about to tell my twelve-year-old son that. Not yet.

“That’s a complicated question. You know, alcohol’s a drug.”

I tried not to visibly cringe at my own deflection at my son’s question. Confusion spread across his face, between his freckles. He looks so much like me, except for the freckles, but we’re so very different.

“Why do people take drugs?” he asked.

The first time I used, I took a pill. It was a Darvocet, an opiate. I stole it from my mother’s medicine cabinet. The bottle was expired, with my grandmother’s name on the label. I was eight.

“Well, people take drugs for different reasons. Sometimes, they try drugs because a friend talks them into it, or they are trying to escape something in their life. But drugs never help anything. They usually make things a lot worse.”

I did not tell him that, in some ways, the drugs were once what kept me alive.

He squinted, scrunched his nose, clearly thinking about what I’d just said, licking his lips the way he does when he’s concentrating. “I don’t understand why someone would take drugs,” he said definitively and walked out of the room.

A wave of nausea started at the top of my head, rippled down, anchoring itself in my stomach. Nausea was nothing new. Vaguely nauseous was homeostasis for me when I struggled with addiction. I put down my book and followed him. I saw my reflection in the hallway mirror. I was a healthy, happily remarried mother and writer. I was not the desperate and broken twenty-something, frighteningly thin and green all the time, the one who was married to his father for all the wrong reasons, the one who was constantly chasing an exit, any exit.

I stood at Atticus’s open bedroom door. He was lying down on his bed with his iPhone in his hands, watching a video on YouTube. His bangs were getting too long, and he kept pushing the straight brown strands of hair aside. He looked just like he did when he was a baby, just like he did in the 3-D ultrasound photo I have, head to the side, one arm up, his hand in a fist against the cheek of his round face. But he was not a baby. He was in those awkward years between childhood and early adulthood, the years that demanded the conversations that I, as a mother, wanted to have with him, wish someone had had with me, but I was petrified. I didn’t want to shatter his image of me. If he knew what I’d done, who I’d been, would he still respect me, still love me? Could I still be the mother I’d always been? Aren’t you supposed to protect your children? Atticus was only a year younger than I was when I first started using heroin.

I knew I must have been doing something right because he didn’t understand the impulse to use drugs. He thought they were stupid. He wasn’t searching for a way out the way I had. We’d talked about it when we watched reruns of my all-time favorite show—Beverly Hills, 90210—together. He’d asked me questions—when David stayed up for days on end doing crystal meth, when Dylan smoked heroin and crashed his car, and when Kelly went on a cocaine binge with her boyfriend and landed in rehab. He had a concept of the consequences, but he didn’t grasp the reasons. Until now, he’d never considered the possibility that I may have done drugs. And now this question.

How could I explain it to him? Would he understand? I thought about what I could impart by telling him—or telling someone who may be struggling with opioid addiction—my story. I wanted him to know that drug use doesn’t look the same across race, class, and other privileges, but that it stems from a primal place of want and loneliness. I hoped that when the time came I would be successful in communicating a story of experience, strength, and hope, one that might make a difference.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/29/upshot/fentanyl-drug-overdose-deaths.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/magazine/children-of-the-opioid-epidemic.html

 

Erin Khar is the author of STRUNG OUT: One Last Hit and Other Lies that Nearly Killed Me, forthcoming February 25, 2020 from HarperCollins |Park Row Books. She is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared many places including, SELF, Marie Claire, Salon, Huffpost, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, HuffPost, and Redbook. She’s the recipient of the Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize and lives in New York City with her husband and two kids.

Upcoming events with Jen

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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