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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.

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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.

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Guest Posts, Inspiration

The Coach Who Breaks All The Records – Ronda Shirley

February 11, 2020

By Viktoria Velika

Ronda Shirley is 48 years old head volleyball coach. Shirley comes from small county town Earling, Iowa, where she grew up living at her family’s farm. She is currently located at University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg where she moved last spring. Looking at her one would never guess how important this woman is for many people. She is short with light brown hair, beautiful blue eyes which reflect her personality of caring and loving human being who loves to spend her free time reading and playing board games on the family nights. However, once she comes to her well-organized office, full of her awards, pictures with quotes and a diet soda on her table, she changes into focused, hardworking woman who brightens up every place with her confidence. Shirley is not just a successful coach, she is also mentor, and role model who motivates her players and children to become the best versions of themselves.

Besides having a busy life as a coach, always preparing for matches, spending hours in the gym or in the office watching film and recruiting new players, Shirley also has six beautiful children. They often come to her games to watch and support their mom, screaming and cheering for her and her team. Despite the fact of having a team of about fifteen players, who also become her kids as they join her team, being a mother and a coach is not hard for Ronda Shirley. When I ask her how does she handle everything her answer is simple: “I have great husband, Jeff is always supporting me, I know I couldn’t be as successful as a coach as I am without him, he takes a lot of pressure of me during season, he takes the bigger responsibility, so I can be more focused on coaching. I have to give a lot of credit to Jeff.”

Shirley was also a successful athlete herself. However, the sport she dedicated her career to as a student-athlete was not volleyball but softball. “I have always liked volleyball but softball was just natural to me,” explains Shirley when I ask her why she picked softball over volleyball. She was a Varsity Starter catcher all four years of High School and her team made it to the State Tournament three out of four times. When she was named All-Conference, All-Southwest Iowa, and All-State player it was clear which path she will choose. During her college career she won many awards but the one that she enjoyed the most was being named an All-American and winning NCAA DII National Championship for Kentucky Wesleyan. As we are speaking about her achievements as an athlete she looks at me with serious face: “I dedicated all of my time to softball and studying, I was working hard every minute of the practice, bringing hundred percent every day. I would always find time to do some extra work, because I knew how good I can be and how much I could help my team.”

After graduating from Kentucky Wesleyan with a degree in English, she began her career at Brown Mackie in 1995. “I never planned to be a coach, I wanted to be an editor, or teach English at college level, reading and writing was always my biggest passion, but my coach from junior college would always tell me that I should be a coach, he saw something in me that I didn’t at that time,” says Shirley with smile on her face. When she graduated, she took her first job as an assistant coach at her alma mater in Kansas where she spent four seasons on the sidelines and won Coach of the Year in 1998. Shirley coached for 13 seasons at Hutchinson, Kansas, where she achieved 378 wins and .708 winning percentage. She led the team to winning five Regional Championships and five NJCAA National tournament appearances. In 2017 she was inducted into the Hutchinson Community College Hall of Fame. After that she became a head coach at Tyler Junior College in Texas. She led Tyler to three Region XIV conference championships, while she was also named three times the Coach of the Year, and went to the National Tournament in 2012, 2013, and 2014. In 2017, she took over Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas.

Last season, Ronda Shirley was standing on the side of the Lee College volleyball court, leading her Navarro team towards breaking every school record. And they did. Navarro finished with a 37-8 overall record, winning the conference for the first time since 1999. At Regionals, they won a nail-biting fight against TVCC, scoring a ticket to the NJCAA Nationals for the first time in the school history.  “Nothing from what we achieved would be possible without coach Shirley, she is the reason why Navarro became winning team, why we now have a name in the volleyball world, she would push us every day making us work hard towards reaching our goals, and she was successful,” says Bailey Foy, one of Ronda Shirley’s All-American players.

Shirley changed history in every school she went to and the key to her success is quite simple: “I just work hard, I think people can see that I have passion for it and I really love it.” Over her 19 seasons as Head Coach, she has coached many successful players. Five Players of the Year, seven Freshmen of the Year, 53 All-Conference, 36 All-Region and 15 All-American players are just a few of the player nominations obtained under her belt. “What I enjoy the most about coaching is seeing my players reach a level that they never thought they could reach, but I knew they could do it, that is more important to me than any win,” said Shirley. She also has players who excel in their classrooms and 12 Academic All-Americans: “I always want to make sure my players are well educated, and I also feel like the skills they learn on the court like working hard, and pushing themselves to use their skills and all their tools, being a good teammate and leader, that’s going to help them to get a job in the future and be successful off the court.”

After spending almost twenty years as a head coach at junior college Ronda Shirley is now a head coach at a DI NCAA volleyball program at USC Upstate. “I loved coaching at junior colleges and I miss it a lot, it has more ‘family’ feeling. I loved knowing that I can help my players to go to the next best thing in their lives,” smiles Shirley. During her career at JUCO Shirley has achieved many awards including almost 600 wins in her 19 seasons as a coach. In 2015 she was inducted into the NJCAA Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The reason why she has decided to leave JUCO and coach at four-year University is simple. She needed to take the challenge, to experience new things, and change the way of how USC Upstate is think of. “All of the schools I went to coach to have never won conference title before, so one of my goals is that I can get them to win a conference championship, but before that my goals are to change how people think about this program,” says Shirley with confidence.

However, all this success is not easy to reach and being a player on Ronda Shirley’s team is not an easy task. Luana Rezende, one of her former players, who won All-American Second Team award last year says about Shirley this: “I would say that she definitely had huge impact on my life. Of course I didn’t agree with everything she did, but she made me a stronger person and she made me look at life differently. She is a really, ‘really’ nice human being, however sometimes it was hard to play for her.”

One of the quotes on the board in her office says: “Winners never quit,” and it is exactly what Shirley requires from her players. She wants them to give everything they have, to work hard, to be determined, confident, courageous and give their hundred percent every day. Despite all the wins and success, creating relationship with her players is the most important thing for Shirley. She wants them to be ready for the world, but also she makes sure that they know she believes in them, which makes them work harder not for her, but themselves.

During the season but also offseason she creates different types of team bondings. She takes her team to games, makes movie nights, when it comes to fall and Halloween time, her and her team paint pumpkins, and sometimes she invites the players to her house and cooks a good dinner for them. She becomes the second mother for her players while they are away from home. “Even though I know that sometimes it is hard to play for me, I know that at the end of the day my players know that I care about them as a person, that I am tough on them because I want the best of them, that I will always be there for them,” says Shirley. As we are finishing the interview Shirley tells me one last important thing: “It’s the moment when I see the look on the faces of my players. The look that shows amazement and shock when they realize how good they have become. They don’t believe it at first, how great they can be, but I do. And when they reach their potential, it is very heartwarming moment. It’s the moment when I know that coaching is what I am supposed to be doing.”

Viktoria Velika is a writer and sports enthusiast. 

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Converse-Station, Guest Posts

The Converse-Station: Alma Luz Villaneuva Interviews Gayle Brandeis

February 3, 2020
gayle

A note from Angela: Gayle Brandeis is a person I cherish, not only because she is an amazing and brilliant and generous human, but also because she and I share a bond I would not wish on anyone. I had the opportunity to talk with Gayle about The Art of Misdiagnosis, surviving my mother’s suicide at the Coachella Review and that important book remains on my list of books I would read again. Gayle has just released a book of poetry and Manifest-Station alum Alma Luz Villaneuva took time to speak to her about it. This is their conversation. Enjoy.

Introduction:

Alma Luz Villanueva and Gayle Brandeis first met in 1999 when Gayle entered the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Alma became her mentor, and later, when Gayle returned to Antioch as faculty, they became colleagues; through all of it, they have formed a deep, nourishing, forever friendship. When Alma’s novel  Song of The Golden Scorpion, came out in 2014, the two of them discussed it here; now they have come together here again to discuss Gayle’s new novel-in-poems, Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony), in which Gayle gives voice to the hundreds of girls and women killed by Countess Erzsébet Báthory of Hungary between 1585 and 1609. The ghosts of these girls and women speak in chorus, compelling us to bear witness to the violence enacted against them, and to share their quest for justice—not only for themselves, but for all girls and women to come. A lyrical, polyphonic protest against silence, Many Restless Concerns speaks to today’s upswell of voices claiming their own worth.

Alma Luz Villaneuva: I was very moved by your testimonies, these so alive voices, these murdered/tortured girls women, centuries later, within your book, Gayle. First of all, what inspired you to hear these voices? How did they come to you? I often receive a dream from a character, announcing their arrival. And these voices arrive four centuries later, so alive, each one. Also, how did Countess Bathory come to your attention?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much! When I was pregnant with my youngest son, my daughter, who was almost 16 at the time, was fascinated by notorious women of history, and asked me to buy several books about women pirates and other outlaws. I was idly thumbing through one of these when I found a chapter about Countess Bathory, who I somehow had never heard of before. I was chilled by the fact that she had killed hundreds of girls and women–stories say up to 650–and I found myself haunted by this. Who were all these silenced girls and women? I started to dig deeper, and found there was much written about Bathory, herself, but I couldn’t find anything that put her victims at the center of the narrative. Eventually I started to be haunted by their voices, a ghostly chorus of them–they visited me in a sort of waking dream–and knew I’d have to try to capture them on the page, maybe even bring them some much belated justice in the process.

What voices have you been dreaming lately?

ALV: My current novel in progress which has become a ‘magical realism’ journey, which includes Quetzalcoatl, a Mexican deity that’s both God/Goddess, female/male- I love that. I love her/his voice, I’m listening. In our email exchange you mentioned that writing these voices, these women and girls, came to you when you were pregnant, but the violence you would have to undertake and enter was too much while pregnant. I understand completely, as a once pregnant poet/writer. Our body, mind, spirit, is tuned to creation, not torture and murder. And so, when you finally were able to write these voices what was your experience of being inside their bodies, listening to their voices. As my Yaqui Mamacita used to say to me, “Tienes coraje, niña…You have courage, child.” Tienes coraje, Gayle- these voices coming through you, their spirit bodies.

GB: I am so excited to read your book in progress! *You* have so much courage, dear Alma–you inspire me unendingly.  Thank you for all of your kind words.

And yes, I realized this was definitely not a healthy book for me to be writing while pregnant–I didn’t want the baby to absorb the agony of all the torture and murder I was reading and writing about, although sometimes I do wonder if my early foray into this book helped prepare me emotionally for my mom’s suicide one week after I gave birth. My creative energies shifted after her death–I needed to write about her, about our relationship; I needed to try to make sense of our past together and the brutal way she ended her life. The memoir that came out of this, The Art of Misdiagnosis, was the most necessary and difficult book I’d ever written, and when I was done with it, I felt so lost as a writer. I didn’t think it was possible to write anything that could ever feel as meaningful as the memoir had. Then these ghosts started to whisper to me again, so I decided to look at the early pages I had written, and got sucked right back into the project. It ultimately felt like the right book to throw myself into after my memoir–I was ready to step out of my own story into a grief bigger than my own (for somehow it felt right to continue to write about grief. And to continue to break silences. I had broken so many within me for my memoir, and this project was a chance to break historical silences).

Entering the experience of these girls and women was excruciating–it broke my heart and took my breath away again and again to not only learn what they endured, but to try to enter into their pain on the page (knowing what they endured is beyond anything I can comprehend with my own body, something I acknowledge within the book, when the ghosts tell the reader they won’t be able to comprehend the pain these girls and women experienced). These ghosts no longer have bodies, of course, but I imagined them still being able to access echoes of their physical trauma, as I write here:

“Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body
(some tender part of you still flinches)
(some immaterial nerves still flare)”

I should mention that Bathory’s story has been written about in a titillating way, and I didn’t want to do that, not in the least; I wanted to show the true human cost of the suffering she inflicted. I wanted to force us to confront the horror these girls and women faced, because I believe it’s important to look at inhumanity head on; If we don’t face it, it’s harder to stop it, to prevent it. And I want to use the book as a way to raise awareness of current horror–the devastating number of missing and murdered indigenous women–and to raise funds for organizations working to stop this present-day genocide.

ALV: I love the above quote, “Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body”…I think of the science based fact that our DNA memory/trauma is passed onto the family line, future human beings. These voices had that kind of alive echo for me; that their memories, traumas were being passed onto me, the reader, via their channel, you. Silenced no more; their spirits can now rest, move on to current lives, as in reincarnation, with joy (I hope). Writing these voices, their horrific experiences in the body, must have been a passing through the fire ritual for you as the channel, the writer. And after your mother’s suicide, the birth of your baby, the ritual of fire, that cleansing, so wise, and so hard. Yes, The Art of Misdiagnosis, your memoir, the relationship with your mother, an immense fire ritual, that cleansing.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, there’s a yearly fire ritual, Zozobra, where a huge man figure is burned, wailing all the while. People bring divorce papers, painful letters, their own letters to pain and grief, and who knows what, to add to this fire. I imagined this man figure as The Patriarchy burning to dark ashes, all the pain from that centuries old false power structure. And in the Southwest the pain of native genocide is still felt strongly, and as you write the ongoing missing, murders, rapes of indigenous women. Those thousands of silent voices, their in the body experiences. The genocidal Femicide that continues globally; the millions of girls, women, boys trafficked globally. For those who are receptive, they come to us in dreams. I just included some in my novel in progress, and have a feeling they’re not done with me. As I also believe they aren’t done with you, amiga, gracias a la Diosa…the Goddess in all her guises.

And so, with the ritual of fire, that cleansing, in mind- what gifts did you receive in return as channel, writer and woman? *Again, I love your coraje, courage…

GB: Oh, thank you so much for sharing all of this–I loved hearing about the Zozobra ritual; your imagining of burning the Patriarchy to ash really hits home. May it be so! I’ve used fire to burn things that no longer serve me (and water to do the same, the Tashlich ritual of casting bread during the Jewish High Holy Days) and it’s always such a freeing ritual. This book definitely felt like a trial by fire, and did have a cleansing effect. It showed me I am stronger than I know, that I can face the world’s pain, give voice to the world’s pain, and still find joy on this beautiful, broken Earth. It helped me expand my creative envelope, which makes me want to keep stretching it, to keep finding new ways to approach my work. I agree–these silenced voices aren’t done with me yet, and I’m eager to see where they’ll take me. I envision this book being adapted into a theater piece–I love the idea of a real chorus giving voice to these ghosts–and have a few irons in the fire toward that end. We’ll see what happens! I would love to know more about the silenced voices entering your novel (and to reading them some day!)

ALV: A theatre piece of a chorus giving voice to these Spirits, wonderful. This makes me imagine them all in red (fire) costumes, speaking, witnessing their very brief lives- mostly girls from ten to fourteen, from what I’ve read. Which makes me wonder what Countess Bathory’s voice would sound like, say. Supposedly she had epilepsy as a young girl, with blood swiped on her lips, a cure. And she witnessed cruel punishments as a girl, the royal household. It makes me wonder what her girl voice would sound like, say. However, given the acutely alive voices of her victims, their horrific experiences flesh out the Countess vividly. And so, even briefly, to see/hear her voice as a girl here, for a moment. Briefly. I love that these voices expanded your creative envelope, to find new ways to approach your writing- exciting!

As I journey with my characters, this novel in progress, we keep listening to the silenced voices, as well as to the joyful, singing voices. That balance keeps me going- this is my first all out ‘magical realism’ journey, novel, so I’m constantly surprised.

GB: Surprise is one of my very favorite parts of the writing journey–I love that your novel in progress is offering up so much surprise for you!

Your question about Countess Bathory’s girl voice is such a profound one, and one I’m not sure how to answer. I knew I had to include her in this narrative to some extent, since her actions led to the current state of these ghosts, but of course I wanted to center the narrative on the lives she impacted, the lives she ended, not her (just as some journalists are trying to do in this era of mass shootings, focusing on stories of the victims of gun violence instead of their killers, to avoid giving notoriety to perpetrators of these horrific acts.) That said, she is certainly a compelling and complicated figure, and her childhood does fascinate me. I’m not sure I can access her voice at this point, though. It reminds me of when I started writing my memoir–I was so angry at my mom, it was hard to see her with compassion (and a large part of the journey of my memoir was coming to that place of compassion.) I think I’m still too angry at Countess Bathory to be able to see her clearly, and I think that comes through when the ghosts say “The Lady knew what it was like to leave home at a young age, sent to live with the Nádasdys at twelve so she could learn the ways of the estate before her wedding two years hence.//Does that give you sympathy for her? Have it if you must, have sympathy for poor, poor, Erzsébet Báthory (who had sympathy for none but herself).” I do have some glimmerings of compassion for her, though, and when I think of her girl voice, I really only hear two words: “Help me.” No one did.

ALV: “Help me.” Bathory’s girl voice. “No one did.” Your response says it all, Gayle- punched me in the gut, where truth often lands. And I can hear her small girl voice whisper, “Help me.” As so many girls whisper, shout if they have the chance- the millions of trafficked girls, and boys- who hears them. The voice, your answer, chillingly true. The hundreds of girls she passed her pain onto- the chorus of voices in your book. At last they are heard, and of course I love the idea of a real chorus of voices speaking for them. I imagine their spirits joining those throats, voices. What that space will feel like as they speak their truths. Powerful stuff.

You speak of being angry with your mother; her suicide, your loss, your sorrow. As you felt anger with Countess Bathory; I felt waves of anger, and sorrow, reading the spirit’s alive voices. I’m wondering- do you imagine your mother taking part in the chorus of voices if she was still with us, now. I loved that photo of her in that stand in opera dress/costume, so magnificent. I can almost hear her- her body, her stance. I sense her intelligence, courage, strength in that stance. I also sense how proud of you she is, perhaps cheering you on page by page. I feel my Mamacita’s presence as I write- my joy, sorrow, rage, how it all transforms on the page. My body, every cell. Transformation. Your book, the voices, leads to this, transformation. Healing.

GB: So deeply grateful for your insight, your vision, dear Alma. I’ve had to sit with this question for a while, as you know. After my sister in law mentioned that the book cover reminded her of one of my mom’s opera photos, and I found the photo in question, I was blindsided by how similar the two are, how the red (a skirt in the cover, a cape in the photo of my mom) drapes in the exact same way to the lower right corner of each image. My breath stopped for a moment. I am still puzzling out the connection–both are powerful women who caused harm, although my mom did so on a much, much smaller scale; it’s likely I’ve made other subconscious connections between them, our stories, that I’ll need some time to excavate. But even so, yes, I do feel my mom’s pride in me–she was always so proud of me, even though I could feel her frustration with the fact that I was never as “successful” as she had wanted me to be–and I’m realizing in some ways, I’m carrying on the work she started. She wanted to give women voice, too. She started her organization, The National Organization for Financially Abused Women, to create a chorus of women’s voices to change divorce legislation (and even though the founding of it was based on the delusional belief that my father was hiding millions of dollars from her, the organization did real and important work in the world.) I think she would love to be part of the chorus of this book. I can hear and see her, too, dressed in red, lifting her voice with all her heart.

ALV: I simply love the final sentence of your response, “…lifting her voice with all her heart.” If you’ve made subconscious choices between your mother and Countess Bathory- the pain in your relationship, the pain of the voices you heard, brought to life on the page, what a strange gift of healing. And it seems all healing comes to us as a strange gift- nothing planned, nothing tidy. Healing comes to us with its own life force if/when we’re ready for transformation, to be healed, again. I imagine your mother’s presence in your imagination, body, memories, will always bring you strange gifts; as Mamacita’s presence has for me for sixty-three years.

I am so honored to have this exchange with you, amiga- our first exchange as student-teacher twenty years ago. I immediately saw your brilliance as I read your first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, which has since, of course, been published with so many deserved awards. Then we became friends, and then colleagues as you began teaching in the same MFA in creative writing program. How I loved seeing your shining face of light at our opening faculty meeting- how I loved our deep talks at our traditional Thursday night dinners, with piña coladas. And our humor together- graduation day, so many amazing writers, poets graduating. As we stood in line in our faculty graduation robes, we began to feel a bit wacky, threatening to do The Worm. Right there in our robes. I was crying with laughter, as you were. I love the ecstatic energy you carry and share, from your own being, to your writing. And so, to say it publicly, how grateful I am to know you, and always to read your work, all genres.

Okay, one more question- a brief answer will do. In Bali I walked into a courtyard with an immense eagle perched on steel, tethered by its leg/talon. A woman shaman, healer, walked out to greet me- I asked why the eagle wasn’t free. She asked me, “What is freedom, madam?” Over the years I’ve answered this question in many ways; there’s so many answers, of course. I would love to hear yours, even a sentence.

Mucho amor, amiga, milagros y piña coladas. And The Worm, always.

GB: I’m so honored and grateful to know you, too, my dear Alma, to have this conversation with you. What a gift. Whenever I see an eagle, I think of this question that was posed to you in Bali–in fact, it pops into my head quite often. And yes, there are so many answers, but what speaks to me right now is the very first poem I ever wrote when I was four years old, a poem called “Little Wind” that went “Blow, little wind/blow the trees, little wind/blow the seas, little wind/blow me until I am free, little wind.” I think I somehow knew even then that creativity can be like a wind that blows through us, that makes us free, and to this day, I never feel more free than when I allow that wind to blow through me, when I get out of my own way and allow the poem or story or essay or dance to barrel through, not worrying about how it will be received in the world, just giving it the space to roar.

Thank you again, amazing Alma. You have helped me be more free through your mentorship, your example, and I’m forever grateful for your presence in my life, your presence in the world. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Order Alma Luz Villaneuva’s work here.

Order Gayle Brandeis’ work here, including her latest Many Restless Concerns, The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus.

 

 

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Health, motherhood

Promises

January 28, 2020
blood

CW: Stillbirth

By Whitney Lee

Four years ago, the Friday before Mother’s Day, a team of Emergency Department nurses barreled through the double doors of my Labor and Delivery Unit with a term-pregnant woman. It was just before dawn and I had been the physician on call overnight. In anticipation of this woman’s arrival, I’d already shed my white coat and removed my wedding rings––prepared to transport her to the operating room. As the gurney clattered across the linoleum floor, the woman twisted her body and clutched the dome of her abdomen gathering the fabric of a blue hospital gown into her fists.

Throughout the night, bleeding, adhesions, and brand-new babies had stolen my sleep. After twelve hours of standing, gravity pulled blood into the veins of my feet, my ankles, my calves. I felt as if there were weights in my shoes­­––I was tired.

The windows on Labor and Delivery glowed gold. It was a typical Southern California morning––a city with gorgeous yet monotonous weather. Soon, the sun would warm the air, the asphalt, and the enormous seals lethargic on the La Jolla shore. Light would illuminate brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea and the wings of hummingbirds, osprey, and lanky blue heron. All night, I had anticipated the sunrise that would signal the end of my shift and my escape from the hospital.

As the Labor and Delivery nurses rolled the woman into a triage room, the emergency department team explained that her name was Lisa. She was thirty-eight weeks pregnant with two prior cesarean deliveries. Severe pain started at home along with vaginal bleeding.

***

The week before I met Lisa, I’d promised my five-year-old son, Zachary, and my three-year-old daughter, Esmae, I would attend their school’s “Muffins with Mom” breakfast in celebration of Mother’s Day. I am an obstetrician and Obstetrics is a conspicuous thief. It has stolen weekends, my husband’s birthdays, Sundays at church, family dinners, at least two Christmas mornings, Zachary’s first day of kindergarten, and my grandfather’s funeral.

In truth, missing those events and navigating the interruptions was a nuisance but not a burden. I found meaning in my job and possessed a physician’s arrogance: I served a unique role. I felt necessary in a hospital, which provided instant gratification. A baby delivered, a family consoled, a diagnosis made, all justified my absence from home and validated the story I worked to build around my value as a physician and a person.

But the December before my life intersected with Lisa’s, when I came home from work, Zachary asked, “Where were you? All the mommies and daddies were at the Christmas Party but you. Esmae and I had to sit with Jonathon’s mommy.” I imagined my children in a neat, sparse, yet beautiful Montessori classroom filled with tiny versions of common adult items––china tea cups, a blue metal pitcher, glass bowls, a short countertop with a sink. I pictured them still and sad as they both waited for me to stroll through the classroom door. I imagined Zachary and Esmae sitting beside Jonathon’s mother––a woman I’d never met. But I pictured her lovely like calla lilies, ballerina skirts, ivory cashmere, soufflé, ribbons, and monarch butterflies. She wasn’t a woman who wore a pair of bloody scrubs and missed Christmas parties.

I’d sent a plastic container of store-bought oatmeal cookies with Zachary and Esmae that morning––my children’s contribution to the potluck lunch––price tag stuck to the side. The package of cookies was reflection of my approach toward many traditional maternal tasks. I found little value in baking cookies, cakes, or brownies.

***

Lisa twisted her body like a fish on a line. She pulled her knees to her abdomen, and shifted her legs right and left. I leaned over the metal rails of her bed and asked if she had any medical problems. Was her pregnancy complicated? Did she have a surgical history? When was her due date? She provided fractured breathless answers. She asked me to save her baby. She called him Jonah.

Nurses held down Lisa’s arms so they could thread needles into her veins, draw labs, and start intravenous lines. An obstetrics resident quickly rolled an ultrasound machine next to Lisa’s bed. I positioned the probe on her abdomen then gazed at the black and white image on the screen.

A baby’s heart pumps twice as fast as an adult’s. In a healthy baby, on ultrasound, the mitral and tricuspid valves, the flaps of tissue that separate the chambers of the heart, open and close in rapid succession like the wings of a starling. Rapidity offers reassurance. But the myocytes, the cells that coordinated the muscle of Jonah’s heart, were starving for oxygen. They had lost the energy and strength to beat, thus they failed to pump blood through his body. His heart contracted then fell open in a slow and labored motion. Jonah was dying.

With the tone and intensity of a drill sergeant, I instructed the charge nurse to call a Code Purple. In our hospital, like a Code Blue, Code Purple meant a life was at risk––that someone, in this case Jonah, may die without immediate intervention. The code alerts anesthesiologists, pediatricians, nurses, and scrub techs, to hustle, run, dash through corridors and up the stairs, toward the operating room.

I maneuvered the foot of Lisa’s gurney out of the triage room toward the operating room. The resident ran next to me and a nurse sprinted ahead of us opening three sets of double doors at various points along the path to our destination. As we rushed through the corridors, I directed the nurse to call the blood bank, call the NICU, explain to them that Lisa was abrupting­­.

An abruption meant that inside Lisa’s body, the arteries that connected her uterus and her placenta, the source of oxygen, to her baby, were shearing apart. Blood surged from both maternal and fetal vessels and spilled into her uterus, which clamped down like a vice in protest. This contraction was the source in Lisa’s unrelenting pain. Like all pregnant women, a half a liter of blood flowed through Lisa’s uterine vessels per minute. The bleeding was torrential. She and Jonah were hemorrhaging to death.

***

I had planned to leave the hospital at 8 o’clock that Friday morning. I would get to Esmae and Zachary’s school by 8:30 a.m., when the Mother’s Day celebration would begin. At that time, Zachary and Esmae would be choosing chocolate chip or blueberry muffins, opening their cartons of milk, and taking their seats at short square tables.

Every day that week, my children reminded me of the event and every day I promised them I had not forgotten. They excitedly described the details of all the presents they made for me: popsicle stick picture frames, ceramic necklaces, cards, and painted boxes.

***

Outside the operating room, the obstetrics resident handed me a surgical cap and mask. As I tugged the gauzy blue bouffant over my hair and tied the mask behind my head and the nape of the neck, I pushed through doors and passed the scrub sinks. Those sinks would remain silent––no hum of the plumbing, no water spraying on steel. We would not wash our hands. In emergent cases, sterility transforms from a necessity to a luxury.

Inside the operating room, a team of anesthesiologists and nurses moved Lisa onto the operating table. The pediatrics team set up equipment needed to resuscitate Jonah. A scrub tech opened a rectangular metal box, removed instruments and laid them on a sterile blue table––a scalpel handle, Kelly and Alice clamps, hemostats, Richardson retractors, bladder blade, Debakey forceps, Ferris-Smith forceps, Russian forceps, Adson forceps, Bovie tip, needle drivers, Metzenbaum and Mayo scissors.

I ignored Lisa’s cries and questions. There was no time to address them and I had no answers. I ran through a surgical checklist in my mind. I asked if we had antibiotics in the room. I positioned huge circular lights over Lisa. Then I picked my surgical gown off the back table, stretched my arms through the sleeves, and pulled gloves over my hands. There was no time to count instruments and no time to scrub Lisa’s abdomen. Lisa and Jonah’s condition forced us to start the case without performing the rehearsed rituals associated with almost every surgery.

A nurse tied the back of my gown. Another nurse opened two bottles of betadine and squeezed them onto Lisa’s abdomen––a crude, rapid, and likely ineffective way of sterilizing her skin before I cut through it. The brown liquid pooled in her umbilicus, spilled over her belly, then dripped down her pale flanks like a massive ink blot. The scrub tech passed me the blue surgical drape. In a synchronous motion the resident and I unfolded it over Lisa’s abdomen.

Then I paused. I could not start the surgery––I could not slice into Lisa’s skin––until medications rendered her unconscious. It took energy to alter the inertia I had set into motion. I shivered because a cold sensation grew and spread across my body––the sort of cold that comes when wind pulls sweat from your skin. I shivered because adrenaline zipped through my blood vessels teasing the muscles I worked to keep still. The commotion in the operating room had ceased. I heard Lisa’s cardiac monitor chirp. I folded my arms across my chest and bent my right leg then my left to the rhythm of her heartbeat––a subtle sway.

The anesthesiologist pushed Propofol, a thick white anesthetic, into intravenous tubing that snaked into Lisa’s arm. When her body relaxed, I peered over the blue surgical drape. He slipped a tube into her throat. “Go,” he said.

The resident pulled a scalpel over Lisa’s skin, cutting down to her fascia with one clean swipe, then handed the instrument back to the scrub tech. We hooked our fingers through two small nicks in the silver and white fibrous tissue that held Lisa’s abdomen together. We leaned back with all of our weight bending at the knees like water skiers. The force ripped open her abdomen. I split Lisa’s rectus muscles then felt the warmth of her abdominal cavity as I pushed my index finger through her peritoneum––a thin glistening membrane that draped over her organs.

The swirling muscle of Lisa’s uterus should have been pink. Instead, like India ink, shades of purple and black spread and diffused across its surface. Blood had seeped from her placenta into the centimeter of muscle that separated Jonah from me. The scrub tech placed a scalpel back into the resident’s open hand. Then he incised the lower portion of Lisa’s uterus entering the space where Jonah had thrived and grown for thirty-eight weeks. A tide of blood tinged amniotic fluid spilled from the incision, over Lisa’s abdomen, splashed onto the floor, soaked the bottom of my scrubs, shoes, and socks. The resident grasped each side of the uterine incision then pulled it open.

A blood clot, the size of a cantaloupe, erupted from Lisa’s uterus. I reached down into her pelvis, wrapped my hand around the top of Jonah’s head and pulled it up to the incision. The remainder of his slippery body followed with ease. Sixty seconds had passed from the time of Lisa’s skin incision to Jonah’s delivery.

Jonah’s dusky arms and chubby legs hung from his body motionless. He did not cry or gasp. His face did not grimace, his mouth remained still, gaping, and blue. I held his flaccid body in my hands. “Oh God,” I thought. “He’s dead.”

The resident clamped Jonah’s thick rubbery umbilical cord with two Kelly clamps and cut it with a pair of heavy scissors. Then I placed Jonah into the arms of the pediatrician. She carried him to the neonatal warmer, rested a stethoscope on his chest, and announced, “No heart beat.” Meanwhile Lisa’s uterus was failing to contract and the thousands of the spiral arterials that supplied her uterine muscle gaped open spilling blood into her pelvis, turning the surgical field into an opaque red lake. The resident sewed and stitched with a swift mechanical motion while I soaked up and swept away blood with white laparotomy sponges. Lisa had already bled enough to consume most of her clotting factors––proteins that achieve hemostasis. The more she bled, the more her body consumed the factors, and the less her blood clotted. In this situation, the only treatment is transfusion. Unless we replaced Lisa blood faster than she lost it, she would never stop hemorrhaging.

In the corner of the room, the pediatricians worked to save Jonah. They pushed epinephrine, performed chest compressions, and announced time, “One minute, no heart rate. Five minutes, no heart rate. Ten minutes, no heart rate. Fifteen minutes, no heart rate. Twenty-five minutes, no heart rate. Time of death, 7:10.”

Lisa continued to hemorrhage. I compressed her uterus in my hands slowing the bleeding while we repleted her blood and clotting factors. With my hands in Lisa’s pelvis, I asked one of the nurses to contact my husband, “Tell him my kids cannot go to school today.” I would not leave the operating room in time to make it to their school. I could not bear the thought of Zachary and Esmae waiting for me.

The morning Jonah died, no one reached my husband. Zachary and Esmae waited in their classroom. They waited with ceramic necklaces, popsicle stick picture frames, handmade cards, and homemade boxes. They each picked a muffin for themselves and they picked one for me. My kids did not know I saved a woman’s life. They did not know that Jonah died. And to them, those truths did not matter.

When I finally finished the case and stabilized Lisa, she woke, then asked about Jonah. I said nothing. Though I knew the inside of her body, though I had worked to keep her alive, though I held her son as he died, I did not know Lisa and she did not know me. We were strangers. She deserved to have someone else, someone closer to her, unveil the devastation.

As the anesthesiologist transferred Lisa to the Intensive Care Unit, I lumbered out of the operating room. My back hurt. My jaws were tired from clenching my teeth. My eyes had grown heavy.

Outside, the morning was ablaze and dust sparkled in the sunlight as it stretched through windows and across the hospital floor. The day-shift obstetrician, a colleague, had taken over the unit. He met me at the nurses’ station. As I approached, he opened his arms to hug me. I rested my forehead on his shoulder, then cried. We were not close friends. We did not confide in each other. We did not eat lunch together. But the pain we experience as obstetricians in the midst of losing a baby is universal.

After I settled, I collapsed in a chair. The rest of the world moved as it would any other Friday morning. Residents managed the laboring patients––flitting in out of rooms. Nurses wove through the unit. Pregnant women waited at the front desk to check into triage. Someone had abandoned a travel mug on the counter next to me. My white coat draped over the back of the chair where I sat. Monitors tweeted as they recorded fetal heart rates. Like a culture shock, I reeled from the contrast of the mundane world outside the operating room with what I had just experienced inside of it.

A social worker called from the Intensive Care Unit and informed me that Lisa knew Jonah had died. I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to Lisa. Through the glass doors of her room, she saw my pink scrubs, and panicked. I heard her say, “Don’t let her in here. She killed my baby.”

I bent over, put my hands on my knees and worked to catch my breath. I neglected my children who waited at an oak table with a muffin at an empty seat intended for me. I failed to keep my promise to them. For what? A dead baby? A critically ill mother? Painful accusations? This was an excruciating trinity. I found no solace or explanation for that morning. I dissolved into despair while Lisa suffered and grieved.

***

Four years after I delivered Jonah, on Mother’s Day, I wore a bracelet Esmae constructed out of clunky foam geometric beads and a pipe cleaner. She had asked me to promise I’d wear it all day, even to work. With great joy, I wore the bracelet. But after Jonah died, I quit making promises to my children because I break them. They forgive me. But I fail to offer that grace to myself. So, I don’t make promises.

But on that Mother’s Day, with Esmae’s awkward bracelet dangling from my wrist, I opened my laptop. Lisa’s name was in my email inbox. She had found me and sent a message. With reluctance, I opened it.

What waited for me was a great deal of peace. Lisa explained that she now had solace on Mother’s Day. The memories of Jonah were more of a celebration than a source of pain. I have always loved Lisa and Jonah in my own way. I bore witness to Jonah’s life and then death. I knew Lisa in the midst of excruciating pain. But I believed she would never understand how her story affected me as a mother and a physician. Yet, in her message, she acknowledged my pain and thanked me for enduring it so I could continue to take care of women like her. She shared that she only had to face the death of a baby once but knew as long as I practiced obstetrics, the tragedy would not end for me. Then, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day.

Names have been changed. This essay first appeared in The Rumpus.

Whitney Lee is Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a memoir about a physician’s experience with death.

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Nevertheless She…

January 15, 2020

By Shirley O’Shea

In 2016, my nervous system fell apart, like a blue supernova of gases collapsing in on itself. After a hot, sleepless night in July I knew it was time to go to the hospital. At the age of 49, I knew when the hospital was the only place I could be sick and not have to keep trying to be healthy for the sake of my family or employer or anyone else, and at this point, anyway, such efforts would have been impossible. On the morning of July 2, I sat at the kitchen table trying to calmly sip tea and hold my husband’s hand while I waited for my psychiatrist’s call to let me know if a bed was available. I smiled at my husband; I told him I would be in the hospital for only a few days. More than three years later, I am still working on my recovery.

I work hard at recovery. I exercise whenever I can muster the mental energy to leave the apartment and elevate my heart rate at the gym, go on a hike or roll out my yoga mat. I have a strong spiritual practice. I remind myself to be grateful for the good and precious things in my life – my husband and son, the natural beauty of the upstate New York region in which I live, my faith. But sadness dogs me. I never feel that I am anywhere near good enough for….what? What?

Recovery for me means being at peace with myself, being able to abandon my inner critic as I would a toxic “friend.” Why is this so monumentally difficult for me to do? Why is peace so elusive for me? Naturally, the roots of my lack of self-acceptance run deep. It is a hell of a journey to claw one’s way out of hell.

July is my month to break. The first time I experienced a major depressive episode with severe anxiety was in 1984. I was 17 years old. I had worked harder at my studies than I ever had, because I wanted to be accepted into a prestigious university. But I woke up one morning and, instead of thinking about what I could do that day to get into Harvard or some such institution, I felt lost, oppressed by guilty ruminations and sad about everything. For a few days I was sleepless and unable to eat. I told my mother about my feelings of guilt and shame and she listened, but did nothing. Her own father had just died from liver cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of self-medicating with beer, and my father’s sister was in the late stages of alcoholism, having survived a suicide attempt in the spring; she would not survive the attempt she would make in October of that year. Therefore, my parents were completely unavailable to help me as I struggled to survive my own illness.

There were one or two moments when I opened the hall closet where my father kept bottles of whiskey for when his father came to visit. While my parents slept, I contemplated drinking as much from those bottles as necessary to send me to heaven. But I was too afraid to try.

The one thing my parents did to try to help me was to request a visit from our family’s fundamentalist pastor and his wife. They brought a carton of ice cream and as I sat next to Pastor John’s wife, I told her about taboo thoughts I was in agony about having and about which I cringe now. The woman smiled bravely – this was clearly unknown territory to her – and told me there was a Christian psychologist I should see. My parents didn’t take me. They didn’t have health insurance, and most likely a conservative Christian psychologist would have done more harm than good.

I am convinced that religious fundamentalism is not just a social evil – it destroys the psyches of emotional individuals who are predisposed to self-examination and who care about being good people. As a teenager I had beseeched my parents to attend a mainline Protestant church, but for reasons never made clear to me, they resisted. The black and white theology they imbibed at our church suited them in many ways, and it did not occur to them that it was harming me.

Two things helped me to recover from that severe episode – time and literature, specifically, Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” convinced me I was not the only person who was mad around here, and even made me think that, possibly, the madness was around me, not in me. Also, during my first year in college, I discovered the religious poetry of George Herbert, whose gentle verses on the love of God showed me there was a different way of being Christian – something I had already intuited. George Herbert was a priest in the Church of England, and at the promptings of a seminarian I met while in college, I became an Episcopalian – a much more humane expression of the Christian faith, and a major step in my journey to becoming a Christian humanist.

But even sound theology cannot completely rearrange bad neurochemistry, the legacy of fundamentalism, a stern upbringing and a family history of mental illness. During my junior year of college, I became absolutely driven to earn straight A’s. I pulled it off, but that summer I became seriously ill again, plagued by the obsessive guilty thoughts and frightening thoughts that I might harm others. I had an exceptionally needy boyfriend who was devastated to discover that I was weak and flawed. He drove me past a state psychiatric hospital and said to me, “That’s where they put the crazies.” In the middle of the night, I took a pair of cuticle scissors and lightly drew them across my wrists, thinking what a feeling of relief I would have if all the hot and tormented blood in my veins drained out of me. But an internal voice told me, “It’s not worth it.”

A few days later I admitted myself to the psychiatric unit at my local hospital. I was diagnosed with OCD and secondary depression. Again, even with medication and psychotherapy, it took a year for me to recover, which was really just a return to baseline. I hadn’t really learned anything from my experience.

When I was 28, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm that was infamous for the mistreatment of its employees. I gave the job all my energy and dedication – I wanted to be the perfect paralegal. My second summer there I broke down again, went into the hospital and came out with a new diagnosis: major depression with obsessive and psychotic features. This time, I had a boyfriend who accepted my illness in stride, as part and parcel of someone who had ambitions of writing – the divine madness of the artist, that sort of thing. This sweet, accepting and gentle man became my husband.

Although I recovered from the worst of my symptoms – guilty ruminations, distressing OCD thoughts, sleep disruption and lack of appetite – I did not change the substrate of my mind, which was perfectionism. Perfectionism is a demon that condemns those who live with it to self-loathing and fear. Whether my illness causes my perfectionism or vice versa, I do not know and may never know. But I believe if I do overcome perfectionism, I will have achieved something greater than writing “Hamlet” or “Paradise Lost.”

I believe the genesis of my 2016 breakdown was my belief that I must be a perfect mother. Although I grew up wanting to have a career and motherhood, my illness made having a career very difficult. But I believed I could handle motherhood. It’s all about instinct, isn’t it? How hard can it be to love?

A strange and wonderful thing happened early in my pregnancy. I remember the moment distinctly. I was driving home from my part-time job at a small-town newspaper, and I realized that I could reject all the negative messages I had received from fundamentalist Christianity, or any faith, from my family – I felt profound liberation and joy. As I scanned the countryside all around me while I drove and thought these wonderful thoughts, I felt two new lives within me. Pregnancy hormones were the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. The problem was, the moment I pushed my son out of me, the hormones immediately returned to pre-pregnancy levels and I returned to my baseline depressive thinking.

Loving a child, for me, is not a problem. But motherhood, the daily striving to meet the needs of a child, is more stressful than any tyrannical boss. And when it became apparent that my beautiful, exquisitely sensitive son suffered from anxiety and began to struggle in school, I became consumed with fear and guilt. I had failed at my most important calling yet. None of my husband’s or mother’s reassurances that I was doing my best, and all that was possible, put my fears to rest. This time, I was not failing my ego, or an employer, or a church. I was failing my flesh and blood. Psychically, I began to die.

Despite numerous drug trials and electro-convulsive therapy, my depression worsened. But I noticed that my depressions were sometimes, briefly, interrupted by times of elation and euphoria. I suspected I had bipolar type II disorder. I was diagnosed as such in 2012, but none of the medications prescribed for me worked. And then, in 2016, my mind disintegrated. I was practically unable to walk or speak. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks. I was gripped by fear that I would not be able to raise my son. Each time I walked past the cupboard where my battalion of medication bottles was kept, I thought surely now was the time to swallow them all and be done with it. But then, who would love my son? I believe the grace of God helped me to believe my life was worth sparing.

It is taking me longer to heal this time around. But now I have realized that the perfectionism I internalized and to which I am genetically predisposed, most likely due to an anxiety disorder, is my greatest enemy. Maintaining my spiritual practice, spending time in natural places and on my yoga mat are, for me, coming home. Yoga places great importance of awareness of the breath, and as a Christian, I believe I am made of stardust and the breath of God. And now, God’s oxygen is the substrate of my brain, rather than perfectionism – at least, some of the time. So I need to remind myself of this every day. It is okay to love myself as I am, just as I love my son as he is. The important thing for me is to keep going. For the sake of all the beings I love, I will.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and literacy volunteer who lives with her husband, Geoff, a psychology professor, and her tween son, Jeremy, in Oneonta, NY. Shirley grew up in the hinterlands northern New Jersey and graduated from Upsala College. She has worked as a paralegal and a first-grade teacher and newspaper reporter. She has had essays on mental health and experiencing the sacred in nature published

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Child Birth, Choice, Guest Posts

No Kids, No Regrets

December 27, 2019
zoe

By Lisa Mae DeMasi

“Children are not a zoo of entertainingly exotic creatures, but an array of mirrors in which the human predicament leaps out at us.” John Updike

Until a little princess, right out of a storybook, toddles into the seating area of our gate. She is unhurried, functions in her own dimension, immune to the chaos, the germfest, the push to get to point A to B.

Her presence casts a tiny spell on me. My book collapses into my lap. I’m drinking her sweetness in: a beautiful, clean-faced, bright-eyed little girl—a gene pool homerun.

What would my path have looked like with children in it?

Rarely do I question my decision to forgo becoming a vessel of reproduction. My goal in life was to become CEO of a wildly growing company, not wiping little beasties’ noses. I even left my husband when he wanted them. But as sometimes happens, this delightful girl seems to be showcasing my poor decision. She looks like what I imagine my little girl would have looked like had I not married my dark-haired husband of 5’7” with a 27-inch waistline, but Bob Redford.

Not to mention that I never did become the CEO of wildly growing company, and the jobs I have had have been sort of wildly unsatisfying.

I watch her, feeling that regret wash over me. She stands on sea legs between her mother’s thighs, crunching Cape Cod potato chips with less than perfect execution, savoring what makes it into her mouth. She babbles, a form of self-engagement, and randomly feeds “Kit-Tee,” a wide-eyed cat peering out from a crate on the floor.

Women of all ages watch her, heads cocked, wearing expressions of maternal yearning, remembrances, maybe regret, like my own.

I bet she still has that baby smell thing going on. You know, like puppies.

I surmise, too, that Zoe’s recently graduated from applesauce and whipped franks to adult food. And now, I think, and a disgruntled flatline my mother used to wear when I was in high school settles on my lips, her parents are giving her junk food, creating an unhealthy palate and a rhythmic type of oral indulgence.

I elbow Dennis. “If that sweetness were mine, I’d give her a hard cooked egg and fruit to eat, not crap food.”

He eyeballs Zoe for a nanosecond, nods and returns his gaze to his handheld.

I think of the other things I’d feed Zoe: Greek yogurt, kale crisps (much softer than potato chips), hummus, non-GMO whole grain crackers, organically grown vegetarian stuff.

And then, Zoe begins to choke.

When adults get something caught in their throat, we place a napkin to our mouth, cough, grumble it away. If that doesn’t work? We set into panic. We choke like hell to obtain clear passage. We don’t care how much attention we draw doing it. We want to live and we fight like hell to continue doing so.

Zoe, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the threat of death. Maternal instincts, ingrained in women’s DNA, alert three to their feet. Those not wearing headphones or enthralled with an electronic device, register a disturbance.

Zoe has one hand on her mother’s knee, stabilizing her squat before Kit-Tee’s crate. She brings herself upright and faces me. Her blue eyes have teared up, no sound comes from her windpipe. The fragments of crap food are lodged in her throat. She is the little girl I never had and wish was mine and she can’t breathe.

Someone, do something.

The book slides off my lap and crashes to the floor as Zoe’s mother scoops her up and lays her across her knees.

The little girl lies there flat as an ironing board.

Zoe?

Three deft pats on her back and Cape Cods chips in a variety of shapes project from Zoe’s mouth. Saliva spills over her lips. Oxygen returns to her lungs. She cries.

The maternal patrons lean in, ask if Zoe is okay. Her mother waves them off. “Yes, thank you,” she says.

My dream child is back on her feet; the waterworks have subsided. Her father strokes her cheeks dry. Her mood changes back to the state of pre-choking as if by a flick of a switch. I pick up my book from the floor.

She’s perfect again.

She asks for another chip.

This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.

I listen with the book covering my face, curious to learn if good ole mom is going to give her toddler just off Gerber Stage Four another chip.

“You can have some Goldfish,” she says.

Goldfish?!

In a Mickey Mouse voice, I say onto the open pages, “How ‘bout some yogurt?”

Dennis elbows me, a prompt to behave.

Over the P.A., a flight attendant announces the initial stages of boarding.

We gather our things. I impart a secret smile to Zoe, which she catches. Means nothing to her.

When we’re settling into our seats, an emaciated brown-haired woman with a Tom Petty overbite slides in. Her thighs are the same width as my forearms, and Zoe appears in the aisle. She’s screaming like a banshee. Ear piercing stuff. I barely get a glimpse of her because she passes by so swiftly—her father carries her like a surfboard. This must be a common position for her—flat and rigid.

Zoe’s mother follows behind, toting a handbag crammed with baby survival equipment and the crate containing Kit-Tee. She wears an expression indicative of the relief she’s feeling that her husband has finally stepped up to the plate, but also of deep embarrassment about her imperfect daughter.

Emaciated Woman and I snap together our respective seatbelts. By the sounds of it, Zoe has been strapped into a seat four or so rows behind us. Amid the chaos of the 737’s boarding, she has stopped crying and is sweetly introducing Kit-Tee to neighbors.

And now again, I wish she were mine, mine, mine.

The cabin is packed. There’s little clearance, cramming of luggage in overhead bins. Last minute phone calls are made. The air is stale. Actually there is no air. Tim is giving emergency landing instruction, his props old and yellowed. The teenager across the way is licking the remnants of a BK cheeseburger from his thumbs. Zoe’s voice pierces through all this clear as a bell. She has dismissed her affections for Kit-Tee and is dead set against keeping her seatbelt fastened.

“No, no, no, Mama!”

My dazzling opinion of this little girl, wanting to drown in the pools of her aquamarine eyes, having envisioned birthing her through my own womb and canal, flickers like a film noir played on an old projector. I don’t want it to. I want her to remain fresh, magical, novel, her presence filling me with regret about what I could have had.

The flight gets underway. The minutes slip into hours, it’s horrendous. Not because of turbulence, the crew, Emaciated Woman, or lack of turkey, sprouts and avocado sandwiches. It’s because Zoe’s steady stream of “no!” is now followed by parental correction with an edge and curmudgeon-type shushing. My iPod is packed away in cargo below; I have no way of tuning out the racket, which would have kept Zoe magical to me. Instead, I watch the display that shows the plane’s elevation, speed, and the long ass Midwest state we’re hovering over.

We’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.

Dennis types away on his laptop, the time flies by for him. I listen to little Zoe carry on; tearing apart her magicalness. She was so perfect before.

When descent at last begins from 40,000 feet, cabin air pressure intensifies. Zoe begins wailing with a set of lungs worthy of crossing the English Channel.

I know this: if I stayed married, I couldn’t have had all the daring affairs with executives my father’s age. I wouldn’t have experienced the freedom of telling off Gloria Steinem and discovering the rugged beauty of the West, proving myself and doing “boys’ chores” where my leg “got broke.”

So what’s the seduction of remorse, regret?

Even if we are self-actualized, accomplished people who have had good lives, why do we actually like that deep longing for what we could have had? And that’s when I discover something really genius about not doing things.

It makes us heroes in our own minds. It buoys us up. We can’t do everything, there will always be paths we could have taken. And the brilliance of that is we get to imagine doing it all and being perfect at it. I know I know we’re supposed to stay in the moment, but most of us don’t because the moment can be as boring as a…well, a long-ass plane ride.

So, thinking of all those unlived lives can be a way to boost self-confidence for one happy soaring moment.

If we’d written the novel, we would have written a bestseller. Not going to Hollywood to audition for all those bit parts and staying back east, we get to imagine our lives as movies stars. Not going to law school means we can tell ourselves we would have been kick-ass prosecutors, killing it in the courtroom. People tell us not to regret what could have been, but actually it’s sort of fun. Not becoming a mother is so much better than actually becoming a mother because I can imagine I would have had the perfect child. Never mind the choking, the quick-switch moods, the screaming like a banshee. I would have nourished my daughter perfectly, and she would have been absolutely flawless.

Zoe snaps me out of my reverie. She’s back to her ear-piercing screaming. Somewhere around 15,000 feet the display shows the aircraft has overshot SFO. The plane’s nose is sticking into the Pacific.

I see around me that people are glimpsing in Zoe’s direction—even Emaciated Woman—and shrugging their shoulders in a way that suggests they wish they could envelope their ears with them.

Land is drawing ever closer out Emaciated Woman’s window, but we’re back on track, the pilot tells us the 737’s nose is destined for the runway. We drop elevation in big chunks until at last the wheels skid. Only minutes remain before we get off this tin bus and little Zoe will disappear from my life forever.

When she and her parents file out before us, I catch those beautiful aquamarines, her body is horizontal and at waist-height again. In my mind I make peace with her, thank her for giving me the chance to be a perfect mother to a perfect child.

She has returned to lightheartedness and answering the saint-of-a-lady behind her about what color Kit-Tee is.

“He’s pink and purple,” she says.

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on two sequels. You can contact her at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.

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Guest Posts, parenting

THE FIELD

December 24, 2019
bat

By Maureen Mancini Amaturo

Just ahead is the familiar field, a triangle with rounded corners. I walk up with head down, anticipating that time will drag its feet while I sit and wish I could be attending to other things. But I sit on the aluminum bleachers, surrounded by mosquitoes, gymnastic squirrels, trees full of bugs, and everyone’s dogs. I’m here for my son. My son, who is at his designated spot on the field, crouching behind home plate, wiggling fingers, giving signs to the pitcher, his very handsome face protected by a caged mask. My son, the only baby boy ever born. He is why s-u-n and s-o-n are homonyms.

On arrival, I greet other parents, other fans, address the social niceties, then I dissolve into the book I’ve brought. Some comment that they don’t usually see someone bring a book to a game. But I always do, so the regulars are not surprised. I remember bringing a copy of WIDOW FOR A YEAR by John Irving to Madison Square Garden. The Rangers were playing. While hockey fans bounced in their seats and waved team towels, I focused on my pages until my husband tapped me on the shoulder to stand for the national anthem.

I arrive at the field after the national anthem this evening. I sit between the third corner and home, turning pages, moving through chapters, absorbed in Dan Brown’s words at this game. Being honest here, I’m not interested in the sport, not interested in the team. Don’t even care who is playing. Cannot pretend to root for someone else’s son. I’ll look up when my son is at bat, and I might glance a time or two to see him walk to his position when the innings change. I have no idea what the score is. I don’t know what team my son’s team is playing. I don’t know the inning is over until my husband says, “Michael is up.”

I hold my page with my finger and look at my son, his familiar batting stance. The intensity on his face. I say the “Our Father.” I imagine that Jesus Christ Himself is standing beside my son, and I say, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” The image of Jesus in flowing robes and billowing sleeves standing beside the batter’s box at Disbrow Park at dinnertime does not seem at all strange to me. I imagine that every time my son is up. I have complete faith that Jesus’ robes won’t get in the way of his swing. I say again, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” I know there are cancers to cure, crime and carnage to correct, and at this moment, I don’t care. I don’t care that people in countries with names I can’t spell don’t have clean drinking water. My son is up. This moment is important to my son, so it is important to me. My heart pounds. My teeth clench. I grip my book more tightly.  I am praying in a loop. Jesus is used to hearing from me. I’ve asked Him for many things, big things. I assume many people have. A hit is such a small request. I imagine Jesus shrugs and is amused. I’m still asking, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” As a mother, I can’t bear to see either of my children have anything less than a perfect experience. “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.”

I pray. I pray. I pray.

I hear the ching of the aluminum bat. It’s a double. I watch my son leave home and round the corners, stopping at second. I wish it were a triple, so he’d be standing on the third corner, closer to where I’m sitting, where I could see him better. I tell Jesus, “Thank you.” And I can breathe again. I go back to my book.

And in each inning my son is at bat, my interest will go from flatline to spike. I’ll close my book and focus on my son, praying, use meditation tactics to manifest an outcome, envision him surrounded in white light, picture Jesus with arms outstretched toward my son as if He is sending divine power straight to him like a laser. I conjure images of my son’s bat connecting with the ball. In my mind’s eye, I see my son getting a hit. The emotional effort is almost painful. The intense concentration gives me a headache, even my sinuses hurt. I feel his hits and misses to my very core; my soul vibrates with worry. No, unmeasurable love.

After the game, my son asks, “Did you see how hard I hit that? It was a bomb, right in the gap.”

I say, “No, I was watching you, not the ball.”

“Why would you watch me run? You’re supposed to watch the ball.” He tries to explain why I was watching the wrong thing, but I know I saw exactly what I wanted to see.

Maureen Mancini Amaturo is a New York based fashion and beauty writer and a contributing columnist for The Rye Record. She teaches Creative Writing, produces literary events for Manhattanville College, and leads the Sound Shore Writers Group, which she founded in 2007. Her publications include: two beauty how-to guides for Avon Products, personal essays, creative non-fiction, short stories, and humor pieces published by Ovunque Siamo, Boned, Bordighera Press, Months To Years, Bluntly Magazine, Mothers Always Write, Baseballbard.com, Flash Non-Fiction Food Anthology published by Woodhall Press, a poetic tribute to John Lennon published by Beatlefest, articles and celebrity interviews published in local newspapers and on line. She was diagnosed with an overdeveloped imagination by a handwriting analyst, and has been doing her best to live up to that diagnosis ever since.

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Guest Posts

Woman Reading Newspapear

December 22, 2019
gallery

By Judyth Sinclair

A middle-aged woman stood just inside the entrance door, tired and seemingly waiting for someone. I often looked over at her and wondered why she kept patiently standing there and why she was watching me each time I looked at her. She wore wrinkled khaki slacks and a colorful tee-shirt, had a burlap tote bag on the floor by her feet, and one hand rested on a bright beach type of umbrella. It makes me uncomfortable to say that it took me most of a day, passing her several times, to realize that she was a sculpture.

I discovered Duane Hanson that day at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. It turns out he was a Minnesota-born artist who became a sculptor. He invented some materials and combined others so that his full-size “people” would look as real as possible. His technique used fiberglass and paint to show veins, freckles, wrinkles, sallow skin and all the other visible things that make real people less doll-smooth than we might like ourselves to be.

Hanson’s proprietary materials and skill succeed in avoiding the waxysmooth look that celebrity museum inhabitants often display, perhaps helped in part by his subjects. Unlike wax museums displaying actors and royalty, Hanson’s are slightly plain and “ordinary” people we see paused in their days. For example, he has a court reporter waiting on a bench, a lying-down couch potato, a head-phonelistening teenager, a cheerleader in full regalia, a surfer, a repairmen in a one-piece uniform, an exhausted political protester, and an old man relaxing and maybe napping, among others. And you expect them to start talking with you.

In the late 1990s, I took a group to see a Whitney Museum exhibition of Hanson’s work and they were delighted. The teenagers loved that the table and food in front of “Woman Eating at a Diner Table” looked like their own favorites. And they liked “The Sunbather” reclining in a black almost-too-small bikini on a white plastic chair with a huge colorful beach towel under her seemingly sweaty back.

Their enjoyment was overshadowed, however, by my mother’s. She murmured something along the lines of how well she’d fit into Hanson’s crowd. Indeed, true to her often dowdy appearance, that day she wore a baggy long wool black coat over polyester pull-on lime green slacks and she’d shoved a newspaper into her brown fake leather handbag along with her reading glasses and a small loose-leaf notebook. Her too-large shoes flopped as she walked. Her hair was mousy brown and straight, unstyled. Her red fingernail polish was chipped on several fingers. She did fit right in, the main difference being that she was covered in epidermis instead of fiberglass.

I had been wandering through other gallery rooms and went to join my mother only to see that she had claimed a spot on the floor near a corner. She’d seated herself, let her coat fall off her shoulders, plopped her handbag on the floor beside her, and arranged the newspaper in front of her as if she were reading. Within minutes, people walking by exclaimed things like, “this one is quite realistic, too!!”

The rest of our group came to find us, saw my mother on the floor, and started to squeal but I gestured to them to be quiet and join me on the gallery bench. We sat for nearly an hour, enjoying passers-by appreciating our very own performance artist. The gallery guard was apparently in on the illusion, directing people toward that corner and smiling at their reactions.

I wasn’t sure how long I would wait or what I was waiting for until a woman stopped in front of “Woman Reading Newspaper” and paced back and forth in front of her, frowning. Her friend asked what she was thinking. She said, “I’m not sure what it is but so many of the pieces are amazing. This one just doesn’t seem as realistically well done.”

My mother raised her head. People in the room gasped and one or two put their hands to their mouths. My mother stood up, gathered her handbag and newspaper, shrugged on her coat, nodded to the guard, and glanced at the spectator who thought her unrealistic. She walked over and greeted me and the kids on the bench.  “I fit right in,” she said.  “What are they all yammering about?”

 

Judyth Sinclair wrote her first book when she was a preteen at camp in New Hampshire. It was about a girl who loves horseback riding (at least partly to spend time with the handsome riding teacher), sleeping outdoors and watching the moon and stars, playing croquet, and swimming, while dealing with being both African-American and an orphan. Had to have a zinger and a twist, y’know? In the years since, she’s studied and written poetry and fiction, presented a paper at a Danforth Foundation seminar, had a story published about a girl and a giraffe, and tried to hold onto imagination and insanity while (sometimes) keeping one foot in practical life.

Judyth grew up in Greenwich Village, that hotbed of creativity and eccentricity, majored in philosophy t college, got married, moved to the exurbs, set up a library in a small grammar school, worked for a non-profit, and now at a great law firm. She loves to write, knit, sew, read (especially while eating out), go to the theater, watch movies, and – most of all – have long long long conversations. And, as they say in Playbill bios, she is very thankful for her family and friends.

 

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