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Compassion, Guest Posts

Without Touch

July 5, 2020
touch

By Liz Prato

This is a story about my lying on my own massage table in April 2020, where my clients usually come to me for therapeutic touch, but haven’t come to me for touch since March 11th. Because most of my clients are in their seventies and therefore technically “at risk,” I stopped seeing them two weeks before the Oregon Governor said massage therapists could no longer see clients, to cut down on the potential exposure to and spread of Covid-19. The last time I’d received professional bodywork was March 3rd—one month from when I was lying on my own table, with my husband giving me a massage. Although it had been twenty years since he, himself, trained in or practiced massage therapy, he still knew how to effleurage, petrissage, and knead muscles.

The previous day I had slumped over our dining room table, my entire physical and emotional body dysregulated. Pain twisted through my hips, it yanked at my low back, it burned my jaw and my thighs. I was depressed, desolate, unable to picture how I was going to live like this for another month, or two months, or however long it would take before I could again access to one of my primary forms of health care.

I live with chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic pain, insomnia and depression. I am easily overwhelmed by external stimuli, especially noise. My health care team includes an MD, a naturopathic physician, a psychotherapist, a cranio-sacral therapist, an assisted-stretch therapist, a Rolfer, a Reiki master, and a massage therapist. The MD is the only one who doesn’t “get” my chronic fatigue syndrome and pain. Since I was first afflicted in 2013, all MD’s have assumed everything wrong with me was a by-product of depression. Never mind that I was on anti-depressants, and relatively stable mood-wise. It’s just that Western medicine is stumped by chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s idiopathic, meaning they don’t know what causes it. Western medicine is all about applying cures to causes: medicine, or surgery. If they can’t figure out what’s causing a disease then they can’t figure out how to cure it—and then they’re out. All the other professionals on my team understand my health as a complex mosaic, and know there isn’t  just this one thing causing my problems. They recognize multifaceted dysregulation among my various body systems—nervous, digestive, endocrine, immune—and believe not just one tried-and-true cure exists.

Every day I swallow a dazzling cornucopia of prescription pills and supplements that act on my depleted levels of cortisol, vitamins B, D, and folate, estrogen and progesterone, and regulate my melatonin and serotonin. I receive some form of energy work once a month. I stretch a lot—with and without assistance. I haven’t had an ongoing emotional crisis for a few years, but I know that if I do, I can call my therapist. And every 10-14 days I get a massage.

Sometimes I forget to make an appointment, and can’t get in. Or my massage therapist gets sick or twists an ankle or has a family emergency and has to cancel at the last minute. Pain wracks my neck, my jaw, my arms, my spine, my low back—even when I’m still taking all those pills, and stretching and taking warm baths. I become stressed and depressed, and my productivity plummets, making me more stressed and depressed. Massage—effleurage, petrissage, kneading—loosens my tight muscles, it pushes away built-up lactic acid, and it stimulates my parasympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for feelings of calm. And it gives me something I never had as a newborn: the sense that someone cares.

#

The woman who gave birth never held me. I was born a month premature via an emergency C-section, because she had started hemorrhaging earlier in the day. Lots of blood was lost, is the story she told me forty years later, in one of two letters she wrote to me. We both almost died, she said. She told me she wasn’t supposed to see me at all, but she demanded they allow her. She didn’t hold me. She just looked at me, and maybe she said goodbye. I don’t know, because she didn’t share that part with me forty years later.

Ten weeks after my birth mother relinquished me, my adoptive parents took me home. It was the first time they met me, that day on August 11th, 1967, when Catholic Charities called and said they had a little girl ready for adoption. I hadn’t been available for adoption earlier because I’d been in an incubator, and after that “they” (Catholic Charities? The doctors?) were concerned I might be developmentally delayed. My parents—the ones who adopted me, raised me, loved me—told me that after my stint in the incubator and before they brought me home, a foster family took care of me.

“You were meant to be our daughter since the beginning of time,” my parents told me.

“Your birth mother was very young,” they said. “A teenager. She gave you up because she loved you, and wanted you to have a good life.”

Decades later, I learned my birth mother was twenty-three years old when she had me. So was my biological father. They came from middle-class homes. They were not impoverished. They were also not in love, and were Catholic. Having a baby out of wedlock was a great shame. My birthmother’s father stopped talking to her once he learned she was pregnant. He sent her to another state to live with her godparents, to let her belly grow with me, to give birth, and to leave me behind.

I spent over ten years—from my mid-thirties until my late forties—trying to find out who this woman was, the one who gave birth to me and then left me behind. There was someone out there who knew me in my first moments of being. Someone who rubbed and soothed her round belly, and therefore rubbed and soothed me. Bit-by-bit, I collected pieces of my origin puzzle, never knowing what the complete image was supposed to look like. I was eventually allowed access non-identifying information about my biological parents and adoption, later followed by two letters sent to and received from my birth mother through an intermediary who wasn’t allowed to tell me her name, then my adoption records. I immersed myself in a short relationship with a half-sister that yielded more of her mother’s story, received a threatening letter from my biological father’s lawyer, was shut out by two half-siblings without them ever speaking one word to me, and, finally got my birth certificate. They were enough pieces to solve most of my puzzle, even though the center would always be blank.

The puzzle yielded this reality: I never lived with a foster family. I was in the Infant of Prague orphanage in Denver for at least six weeks, if not longer. After I almost died being born, no one touched me, except in the medical ways required to clean and settle a precarious newborn. No one who loved me came to my incubator and put their hands through the holes to touch and soothe me and say “you are ours.” For the first ten weeks, I was devoid of loving touch. It was a crushing discovery, but also explained so much.

Touch is essential to the healthy physical and psychological development of infants. Touch deprivation can affect every aspect of their being, from the regulation of digestion and sleep, to their social and psychological understanding of self. Even touch-deprived infants who are eventually raised in loving homes still show signs of developmental and physiological disturbances years later. They produce higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower levels of hormones that facilitate emotional and social bonding. While some who were touch-deprived as infants might have a difficult time forming emotional bonds with anyone, others will try to assume a deep connection with any adult, because they didn’t learn the difference between family and others in their early development. Children and adults who were touch-deprived are more sensitive to external stimuli, like noise and light, and less able to self-regulate their emotions. They are more likely to be anxious and depressed.

As a child, I cried easily. It was (and sometimes still is) my go-to response to fear, frustration, and uncertainty. As an adolescent I was desperate for romantic love. Every single day my mood would rise and fall based on whether or not a guy paid attention to me. As an older teen and young woman, my sexual potency was a measure of self-worth. How many men wanted me and how much did they want me?

Sexuality was the intersection of touch and being wanted. What good was being wanted (intellectually, creatively, as a friend) if I couldn’t get touch out of it? It got to a point where I didn’t even realize that my behaviors signaled sexual interest. Giving a male friend a hug from behind was touch. It was what you did with someone you care about. You try to make as much contact as possible. Since they were just friends, doing it without clothes on was out of the question. That barrier between skin-on-skin was still safe. Or so I thought. I didn’t realize the message others received was “let’s get rid of that layer of clothes.” I didn’t understand why their girlfriends got mad, or why it was so hard for those men to be just friends. I didn’t understand there was another way to get touch, one that didn’t blur boundaries, that could calm down everything inside of me that was so insecure and overstimulated and unloved and scared.

#

When my husband gives me a massage, there is nothing sexual about it. He glides over my skin and kneads my prone muscles from head-to-toe, and then glides up my supine body from toe-to-head. A week earlier, I’d done the same for him, treating him just like I treat all my clients, draping him in warm towels amid flickering candles and calming music. There was no sex, no sensuality, but what I know: muscles, nerves, bone and skin. I didn’t become a massage therapist by accident, and being a massage therapist is not just my job or my career. It is a calling from my fascia, from my nerve endings, from my soul. I need to give massage almost as much as I need to get it. I need to give and receive touch.

We all need touch, a lesson being learned in the most cleaved, jagged way as we are isolated from each other during the pandemic. Some people are isolated with other loved ones who can hopefully provide a hug, a shoulder rub, fingers laced together. Some live alone and only have their own hands and their own skin. It’s not worthless, touching your fingertips to your own neck, your stomach, your foot. Nerve endings still meet nerve endings. Skin still meets skin. It is the self-calming, the self-regulation, that babies who were not deprived of touch know. Babies learn by mimicking. Someone stroked their skin and they felt better, so they know to do it to themselves. But it nonetheless lacks an essential aspect of touching another living being: bonding, connection, the knowledge that someone else cares, that someone else claims you.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I feel like I might die as these quarantined months drag on, deprived of the one form of healthcare that has the most profound impact on my entire physical and emotional system. Intellectually I know I will not actually die from this limited touch. I may suffer, but we are all suffering. There are worse forms of suffering than my body pains, my fatigue, my anxiety and depression. I have a husband who tries to soothe it. I know that when this ends—and it will, someday, end—I can go back to gratefully receiving massage, and I can go back to gratefully giving it, too. We can all return to that blissful state of knowing we are cared for, through the seemingly simple, but incredibly complex, act of touch.

Liz Prato’s most recent book is “Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai‘i (Overcup Press, 2019), a New York Times Top Summer Read, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is also the author of “Baby’s on Fire: Stories” (Press 53, 2015), and editor of “The Night, and the Rain, and the River” (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Her work was named a Notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing, 2018. Her stories and essays have appeared in over three dozen publications, including The Rumpus, Carolina Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salon, and Subtropics. She is Editor at Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals across the country.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Daughter Lost

July 2, 2020

By Katrina Willis

We had borrowed a baby, and now the baby was gone.

“Where did you last see her?” I asked my friend.

“I don’t remember,” she said. “But look… there are turkey sandwiches for lunch.”

“We can’t eat turkey sandwiches when the baby is missing,” I said.

“I’ll be quick,” she said. “I’m so hungry.”

While she ate her turkey sandwich, I rushed frantically from baby to baby—there were so many in the stress center waiting room—looking for the one we were responsible for. But the babies all had the same faces, and I could no longer remember what our borrowed baby looked like.

The car seats on the floor—there were so many—were all empty.

People wandered around, drugged and dazed, in stress center scrubs. The scrubs had no ties. Ties were too dangerous to those who wished themselves or others harm.

We didn’t find the baby before I woke. She remained missing.

It was just a dream, of course. But it wasn’t.

The baby was missing.

***

My 19-year-old daughter had texted me the day before: I only ever wanted my fucking mom. But she died when you came out. I don’t even recognize you anymore. I doubt I’ll ever get her back.

The word was a dagger.

            Died.

            Dead.

I was dead to her.

Erased.

Eliminated.

***

I’d spoken with her brothers earlier in the week. First the baby (17), then the oldest (23). The middle (20) chose to remain his usual silent self.

The two who talked told me they wanted more one-on-one time with me. I assured them I could do that. They listed all the things they thought I’d done wrong when I came out as gay, when their father and I divorced after twenty-three years.

I let them air their grievances. I listened. I nodded. I acknowledged their pain. Divorce is hard on everyone.

“What can I do moving forward?” I asked. “What matters most to each of you?”

“Time alone with you,” they agreed. And they said I should talk to their sister. She was the angriest of all. They told me to prepare myself for her storm.

There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for a child negating your existence.

***

When she was a baby, she never cried. She watched the world with bright, blue, inquisitive eyes. She laughed at her older brothers and sucked two fingers on her right hand. Her pink blankie went with her everywhere. When I had to wash it, she stood in front of the washing machine with her pudgy, starfish fingers pressed against the window. She cried as the pink spun round and round, “My blankie. My blankie!”

Before speech therapy she could not properly say her “r’s.” And she had so many ear infections when she was little, she could not hear the mispronunciation. Her father and I used to laugh at her adorable impediment. Hands on hips, she would confront our laughter with disdain. “I not talka you, Mama!” she’d say. I would fold her up my arms, hug her into my chest.

“I love you, Mary Mack,” I would assure her. “You’re my sweet, precious, smart girl.”

She was kind and gentle with animals. She loved them all, from hamsters to fish to puppies.

She and I made bags for the homeless because she was so distressed by the thought of someone sleeping on the street without an Oreo. We filled the bags with bottled water, toothbrushes, deodorant, and snacks. She and her little brother decorated the brown, paper outsides with sentiments like, “Hope you find a home soon!” We passed them out at stoplights and intersections.

***

The initial call went well. She was 2,200 miles away at college, walking on the beach.

“It’s going to rain here soon,” she said. “I might not be able to talk long.”

I asked her what she needed from me. She told me I was different.

“How so?” I asked.

She couldn’t articulate.

I wondered: Does she think I’m different because she’s only ever known me as a wife and mother? Is it hard for her to imagine me as a human, an independent woman who has her own doubts and fears and dreams? Is that why I felt different to her?

But she couldn’t really say.

I assured her that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that I hadn’t changed even though our family dynamic had. I was still her mother, I would always be her mother.

Then the rain came, and she was gone.

***

When my four kids were little, I read to them every night before bed. In our white-picket-fence-suburban-home, there was an upstairs hallway that connected all their bedrooms. At one end, was a sitting area with a rocking chair and a bookcase.

We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and when the mountain lion attack came, I choked back my sadness, breathed deeply.

“Do you want me to finish, Mom?” my oldest son asked as tears streamed down my face.

But I continued to read the fates of Old Dan and Little Ann.

My sweet, sensitive daughter burst into tears and ran into her room, crying, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too sad!”

It was Little Ann dying of grief over the loss of her beloved companion that shook me the hardest.

I didn’t fully understand that kind of grief until 16 years later when my blue-eyed beauty—who no longer had a speech impediment—erased me.

***

“She thinks she should have never been born because I’m gay,” I tried to explain to my own aging mother as I sat with her in the nursing home and cried.

Of course, I ran to my Mom. My rock. I needed her then like I’d never needed her before.

“She says she shouldn’t be alive, and she doesn’t know how to reconcile the fact that she is. She said I lied to everyone my whole life, but I didn’t, Mom. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could create a life with a woman. Her dad and I had 23 mostly good years together, but he wasn’t perfect, either. If she knew all the details about him, she might feel differently. But those aren’t my stories to tell. They’re his.”

“Oh, Trinks,” my mom said, “I can’t believe this is happening. You’ve been such a good mother to those kids their whole lives. Why is she being so selfish now?”

“She’s hurting, Mom. And I understand that. But she blames me for everything. She says her dad didn’t leave, I did. But I never left my kids, Mom. I would never leave them. I left the marriage. Their dad did, too. It was a mutual decision. But that’s not how she sees it.”

“She will someday,” Mom assured me. “She’s angry and young and selfish, but she’ll come around.”

“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.

What if she doesn’t?

***

I’ve thought mostly about pills or a closed garage. The other options seem too brutal, too violent. I don’t have access to a gun, and I’m afraid of heights. That makes a jump pretty implausible.

I’ve Googled the effects of suicide on the children left behind, and it’s not pretty.

But neither are the effects of coming out as gay and divorcing, either.

Would they be better off without me? Would they heal more quickly if I just removed myself from the picture? Would they bond more closely with their often harsh and degrading father in my absence? Would they appreciate my life insurance money more than they appreciated my presence?

Is it the one gift I can give them to atone for bringing them against their will into this painful world?

Ending a marriage that was laced with infidelity and condescension—and at the end, physical assault—seemed the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to stay in that situation. What kind of example was I setting for them if I continued to stay? To take it? To let myself dissolve into nothingness?

I thought I was teaching them to stand up for themselves, to live their own truths, to never kowtow to another.

But in their eyes, the lesson was about leaving instead of staying. It was about lying instead of living.

They were happier when I was closeted and quiet.

Was I?

***

My cousin said to me, “I don’t take credit for any of my kids’ successes, and I don’t take the blame for any of their shortcomings, either.”

I’m trying to cling to that belief system, but my guilt is strong. It’s a super power of mine, feeling the responsibility for everyone else’s well-being.

Some call that co-dependence.

***

I cry most every night thinking about my kids’ pain. All I’ve ever wanted is their happiness, but I cannot create it for them. Only they can make that choice. Each of them, individually.

I have loved and supported and championed them. They have had nice homes and good food and basements full of toys and fun vacations and strong educations. They have been held, nurtured, encouraged, and cheered. They have been disciplined and taught manners and have been held accountable for their actions.

They have been beloved.

They are beloved.

And they are themselves now, no longer mine.

When my head is on my pillow, I can still smell the sweaty, sweet scent of their baby hair; can feel the weight of their baby bodies in my arms in the middle of the night, feeding them, keeping them safe and warm, their baby bellies distended and full.

But when I wake, my pillow is just a pillow, smelling mostly of Downy dryer sheets.

And the baby is missing.

Katrina Anne Willis is the author of Parting Gifts (She Writes Press, April 2016). Her personal essays have been featured in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, and Nothing but the Truth So Help Me God. She was recognized as one of six distinguished authors at the 2016 Indianapolis Book & Author luncheon, was named a BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us & Voice of the Year; was awarded the 2014 Parenting Media Associations Gold Medal Blogger Award, participated in the 2013; Listen to Your Mother&; show, and was a 2011 Midwest Writers Fellow.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Activism, Guest Posts

An Open Letter to My White Would-Be Allies

June 27, 2020
black

By Charli Engelhorn

The “Last” button on my remote is wearing out. I’m pressing it every four seconds, hopping back and forth between CNN and MSNBC, popping in on my local Spectrum 1 channel because they supposedly focus on pressing news happening in my city. Maybe I have to check the networks. Did I see a “City Channel” in the guide? Back to CNN, then MSNBC, rinse, repeat… all in the hopes of finding some shred of coverage of the protests in our streets. I’m pressing, I’m hopping, but I’m not finding anything.

After fourteen days, the news channels have tired of reporting on the Black Lives Matters protests. Or at least they did until yesterday, when another black man was shot and killed in a public Atlanta parking lot. The protests are interesting once more now that their peacefulness teeters on the brink. But that will slip from the spotlight again and give way to the novel coronavirus, the un-novel and preposterous antics of Donald F-N Trump, unemployment, graduations, online yoga tutorials. And it’s finally summer. The beaches are open. The trails are packed. The ice cream truck is serenading your hood once more. No more homeschooling. No more cooking. No more hoarding of toilet paper. You finally have your lives back, and you intend to make the best of them. And your hair needs cutting, your nails need painting, the hedges need trimming. And look at what my cat just did! And this Black Lives Matter business doesn’t really affect you, anyway. The curfews are over, and if they’re not, they really don’t apply to you. Maybe your town never protested. And now you see protestors holding signs in German, the only words decipherable being “George Floyd” and “Defund the Police,” and if Germany cares, then everything must be in good hands. (Because, really? Germany? They don’t have their own problems?) But you don’t know about defunding the police. What about noise complaints and suspicious people in the neighborhood? What about people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer? Besides, you have your sign in the yard that supports science and feminism and—mixed in somewhere—black lives. And there’s still that “Hate Has No Home Here” sign in the window collecting dust from 2016. But there are other things going on. Like the bats. Did you hear about the bats? What about the bats in your attic?

I get it. There’s a lot to process in your world, other priorities besides black lives mattering. And you haven’t been hearing from me. You’ve noticed that I haven’t been on social media much these days. Maybe I’m upset about all things “Black Lives Matter” because I’m black. But you don’t see me as that kind of black, and I have a lot of white friends, like you, so maybe I don’t feel involved. Is it offensive to ask? And everything is just really depressing, so you’ve been taking a break—maybe didn’t even notice I wasn’t being vocal. If I was really upset, I would say something, right? I’m not shy. So if I’m not making noise, I must be fine, right? Right?

I am not fine.

There have been so many voices raised already, so for a while, it felt like mine could wait… that there would be a time when different voices would be needed. But the more conversations I have with my friends, black and white and everything in between, the more I realize how much you still don’t understand, and the more I realize it might be important for you to hear from someone like me: someone you know and care about. Someone who is not the first person who pops into your mind when you think about police brutality against black people—me, that light-skinned, sharp, friendly aspiring writer who just earned her MFA and can frequently be spotted laughing over cocktails with her white friends. Someone who grew up in white middle America. Someone who a friend once asked, “What did your parents say when they found out you were black?” Maybe if you hear it from me, a true understanding of how black people are experiencing this moment might occur, because I don’t want these issues to slip into the constant background noise of Everything Else. Because using my voice now may help keep the focus on racism from drifting away like it always, always does. Because black Americans don’t have the luxury of detaching or checking out. We can’t simply turn off the TV or pop in a movie (most likely a movie where no one looks like us anyway, which is another issue—one that is important to me and I’m actively working to change with that MFA I’ve worked hard to earn). We can’t turn away from the movement or the moment because we are “overwhelmed.” And, more importantly, I don’t want to.

To those of you who have reached out to me personally to see how I’m managing through all of this: thank you. I know you don’t always know what to say or how to say what you mean or maybe even what you are supposed to mean, but your making the effort is acknowledged and appreciated. The truth is, I haven’t been doing well. At all. But today, I’m finally on the other side of a lot of the pain and grief I’ve been struggling with the last two and some weeks—my emotions have balanced out to some degree, and my spirit has been lifted by the domestic and global response to this call for justice—and so, although my anger is constantly triggered by the continued violence against blacks and all the damn “Karens,” I feel heartened just enough to finally reach out. But please don’t think this slight uptick in hope obscures my daily reckoning with how to get through each hour. How to manage my sadness and anger. How to manage my resentment of the silence I still see so much of from so many of you. How to manage knowing how to break my own silence. How to navigate my grief and guilt over not being able to be out there fighting all day every day. Yes, I braved the virus and went out protesting more than once last week, and this week, I’m feeling a little under the weather. I don’t know if it’s the virus or a common cold or a physical manifestation of emotional grief, but regardless, I don’t regret protesting. It was important for me to add my voice and my body to this movement. It gave me a direction for my emotions, and it allowed me to fully engage in a fight I dearly believe in. I am being responsible and watching my symptoms, but make no mistake, if I am physically able, I will be back out there again.

What I really want to say to my would-be allies is that this movement is about justice for black people, absolutely. But it’s also about changing society in general. Because BLM isn’t just about police brutality. It isn’t just about the outrage we collectively feel when another black person is killed on the street, in their yard, in their own home, or in prison. It’s about the social ideology of race perpetuated in our homes, relationships, schools, jobs, parks, and minds. It’s about the divides we put around ourselves as individuals and groups to feel safe… to stay comfortable. It’s about changing our perspectives so black people can leave the house without having to calculate the risks involved in having black skin in white society. It’s about not having to feel unvalidated when our non-black friends tell us we’re being “too sensitive” or “judgmental” or “aggressive” or “angry” about our experiences with racism. So we’re not constantly having to explain why something is offensive or justify our right to be heard or assuage your discomfort or white shock that racism still exists. So we don’t have to resist the temptation to scream when we’re complimented for being educated, intelligent, polite, caring, successful, articulate, and [fill in with any positive attribute] because “good on you for rising above your blackness.” So we don’t have to keep fighting for the recognition and support enjoyed as a matter of course by those of you not living in black bodies. So we don’t have to keep telling people that “not seeing color” is not enlightenment—that, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Let me state this unequivocally: If you know someone who is black, regardless of what other racial composition they possess or neighborhood they grew up in, realize that they—that we—have experienced all the things you hear about. We’ve been profiled. We’ve been followed by police in aggressive ways for doing nothing. We’ve been pulled over for “a burned-out license plate bulb” in broad daylight and forced out of the vehicle. We’ve had people clutch their purses. We’ve had people warn others about watching their purses around us. We’ve had people move seats when we sat down. We’ve been assumed to be employees at sporting events, music festivals, department stores, and grocery stores instead of patrons. We’ve been followed around clothing stores. We’ve been asked where we live and what we’re doing here while standing in our own front yards. We’ve heard friends tell offensive jokes in front of us and tell us to “lighten up” because “funny is funny.” We’ve been called the “N” word. We’ve been treated worse than our white counterparts in school and at work. We’ve been accused of ridiculous things by bosses. We’ve felt our skin crawl because of a single look from across a restaurant or party. We’ve wondered if we’re in danger of getting beaten or killed simply for existing. We’ve felt our idea of home taken away because of a renewed and emboldened uprising of prejudice and racism in our country. We’ve questioned whether to attend events out of fear for our safety. We’ve struggled to find our voices and learn how to raise them. And for so many, we’ve been killed by those who knew they could kill us and get away with it.

This list is just the tip of the black experience. This list is just the tip of my experience.

So let me set some things straight, because there’s been some confusion in my world, and I know harm is not what was intended, but nonetheless… here are some truths:

  • I have no desire to get away from the protests. This fight is not bad or inconvenient or oppressive. It is necessary, hopeful, and inspiring. I turn toward it, not away from it. I don’t want things to calm down so I can forget and “go back to normal.” There is no forgetting, and there is no more normal. And, honestly, what passed for normal for you was never my normal to begin with.
  • Your support is appreciated, but please understand that our experiences are not the same. I know many of you are suffering, too. You’re dealing with your anger at the world. You’re reckoning with our country’s history and your place in it, large or small. You fear what’s next. You’re sad about everything that has happened. It is an exhausting situation for everyone. But the exhaustion we feel as black people is not the same. We are viscerally exhausted from dealing with racism for as many years as we’ve been alive. We are dealing with the trauma, pain, depression, and fear of decades and centuries of being treated as less than. And the damage from generations of trauma has altered many of our physiological beings to the point where we can’t even imagine who we could be in the absence of trauma. We are tired of swallowing the hateful words of racists and misguided words of those who fail to stop and think before they speak. We are tired of the silence of the rest of society, especially the silence of those who say they love us. We’re tired of trying to make people listen. We’re tired of having to defend our pain and outrage and anger. We’re tired of having to dampen our pain and outrage and anger to make you feel better. We’re tired of seeing just how much our lives don’t matter: in the inequities experienced by predominantly black schools; by the lack of support and assistance for black-owned businesses, even during a pandemic; by the disproportionate number of black deaths from COVID-19; by the disproportionate treatment of black men and women within the justice system; by the disproportionate number of felony convictions for black men and women; and by the degree of force relied on by police when dealing with black Americans, even when they are unarmed. You can’t truly get it, and that’s not your fault. But please know we are not suffering in the same way. No, we are not awesome. No, we are not all right. We are pissed. And we are ready for change.
  • If your gut reaction is to challenge my experiences or feelings about these issues or exonerate yourself from my message, please save it for someone who cares. It’s not me. There is absolutely nothing you can say that will change my black experience or how I feel about racism in this country or the movement to end it.
  • If you haven’t done anything to me personally that you can speak to specifically, don’t tell me how sorry you are. I don’t want your condolences or pity. It’s an earnest sentiment, but it’s not action.
  • Please don’t thank me for sharing my story. I didn’t do it for praise. Again, nice sentiment, but not action.

My white friends and aspiring allies: what I would love instead is conversation. This movement is forcing some solid policy shifts and new laws to be enacted, but that does not equate to sweeping change. Laws were enacted to give slaves back agency over their lives. Laws were enacted to desegregate our cities and schools. Laws were enacted to give blacks the right to vote. And yet… here we are. Here, where more than 40 percent of black men and women 20 and older suffer from hypertension, black men are more than twice as likely to die at the hands of police than white men, black communities have unequal access to health and community resources, and black women are underrepresented in high-paying jobs and make almost 40 percent less than white men and roughly 20 percent less than white women. Laws are great and necessary, but nothing is really going to change unless we change voluntarily on a societal level.

We have to be willing to look at ourselves and our prejudices and ask why we have felt as we have and been who we are and what we can do to move forward better. We have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations about our experiences and those of lives we don’t understand. We have to be willing to ask questions and risk sounding stupid or awkward. We have to be willing to bring down our walls and see each other. We all have prejudices. And I mean all of us, whether you’re aware of them or not. And it’s not just across race lines; it’s also within them.

A simple adjustment in awareness is not the answer. We must have a fundamental paradigm shift about how we think of each other as human beings. We have to find a real way to break the psychological divides that create “us” versus “them.” We have to talk. We have to talk. We have to talk!

What would happen if, today, every single one of you said something to spark that conversation? I don’t mean just on social media. I mean in person, in our real lives. Say something inspiring or supportive of the BLM movement. Tell a friend about a moment when you felt prejudiced against someone and why. Talk candidly about what you felt, why you felt it, and how you feel about it now. Explore where you think that feeling came from. Read up on and talk with other white people about what you can do to feel differently. If you are a non-BIPOC, talk about a moment where you’ve felt prejudice from another. Tell a white friend or a black friend how it felt. Tell them how it affected your perspective of life and society.

We all have to start being honest about how racism exists in our lives, even at the micro level. None of us are immune, and that’s okay. We can still do the work to come together to make sure that Black Lives Matter, that BIPOC lives matter, so that we can truly stand up one day and celebrate all lives mattering equally.

This is my wish for us: communication and honesty. We have to change on a base level to move forward with integrity. We have to start listening and believing. We have to be brave.

So here’s my story:

I made a quick judgment about a conservative-looking white couple I saw in France last summer. They were wealthy, had southern accents, and fit every box on my list of people to blame for Trump. I assumed they were prejudice against me, which made me want to talk to them… yeah, it’s like that. I was overly polite when I asked them what part of the States they were from and was not surprised to learn they lived near Mar-a-Lago. I was surprised when they turned their chairs and started a lively discussion about how terrible things were back home and how much they looked forward to the next election. In that moment, I knew I had committed the same crime I’d accused them of. I’d judged them and held prejudice against them because of what they looked like. I was humbled by that experience and promised to be better at walking my talk. And I realized the reason I’m often quick to judge people who look like that is because it provides safety for me. If I assume the worst and fortify myself against it, when I’m proven right, it won’t hurt as much. The fact is it always hurts no matter what, and I’ve probably misjudged a lot of people along the way and missed out on enriching conversations. The talk we had with the couple was amazing. The wife even caught our French waiter trying to overcharge us. My heart opened a bit more that day. It really doesn’t take much.

I am so tired of being tired. But I will be back out there anyway, and I will keep talking, and I will keep listening.

Now… your turn.

Start the conversation in your social group. Use the hashtag #mytruecolorstory to start the conversation with the world. I’ve challenged some of you to engage in these discussions already, and I’ve been heartened by your willingness to be vulnerable and lay your experiences on the table. But it’s not enough. We must do more. We must keep the conversation going.

And if you don’t know me, you know someone like me. Reach out to them. Offer your support. They’re waiting for it, and they’re wondering where you are.

Charli Engelhorn is an award-winning writer, freelance editor, and creative writing instructor. She received her BA in English from the University of Kansas and MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside Low Residency program. When not writing, she can be found playing volleyball, her fiddle, and one-sided fetch with her dog, Jacopo. 

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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Resources for Change because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Guest Posts

Only in My Imagination?

June 22, 2020
jimmy

By Jackie Bivins

When COVID-19 hit, life as we knew it came to an abrupt end.  We shifted from a “go-go-go” lifestyle to a complete stand-still. With so much time at home while quarantined, worries and fears can be overwhelming. Will this ever end?  If so, what will the world then look like? There is so much speculation about the “new normal.” But the reality is that it’s unknown; no one can define or predict what havoc or healing exists in our future.  As a result, so many of us are seeking comfort in the past. We are looking to our memories for a sense of stability, joy, and reassurance.  We are looking to the time when the future felt beautiful, unlimited, and full of possibilities.  Remembering what it was like when we were safe in the cocoon of those halcyon days can allay that middle-of-the-night panic.  It is, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity to share our stories, the very things that connect us with others.

 This is one of mine.

~~~

As a child I had an imaginary friend named Jimmy Raspberry. I would picture him sitting next to me on the forest green sofa when I watched tv, or helping me arrange the brightly-colored food packages from my prized cardboard grocery store, or watching me as I played board games like Candyland, Checkers, or Parcheesi –all made for two, or at least more than one.

Jimmy was tall with curly, raven-colored hair. He smiled often and his hazel eyes always held a twinkle. He was never cross, nor was he ever too tired to play. He seldom argued. With Jimmy, I was less alone. I was bolder.

The fantasy I most enjoyed enacting with Jimmy started with us tiptoeing into my parents’ room. Jimmy would stand sentinel as I took my mother’s pale blue suitcase from the bottom of her closet then started to carefully pack a lemon-yellow chiffon cocktail dress, a long tan full skirt made of stiff and quite wrinkled cotton, and a lime green silky blouse. I loved my dress-up box full of Mama’s discarded clothes, and these were my most cherished items. Sometimes Jimmy would suggest I pack the camel-brown clutch bag or remind me to include the red wool jacket.

Once done I would drag that suitcase through our ranch-style home. Jimmy would offer to help but I always refused. I knew I was strong enough to do it myself. The game was to pretend Jimmy and I were embarking on a grand expedition. That meant going somewhere, anywhere.

The reality is that during my childhood our small family of three — Mama, Daddy and me — rarely ventured far from home. When we did it was to see the same old places. Vacation time meant driving from our home in Rockville, MD to visit relatives in and around Richmond and to spend time by what native Virginians always called “the rivah”, no matter which of the state’s five rivers it was. I never brought Jimmy along on these trips because they were too boring. Instead, I would spend those car rides day-dreaming that we were finally on our way to a destination that involved neither swimsuits and fishing rods nor relatives.

My mother was a typical housewife of the 1950s.

Monday was wash day; white fluffy sheets and pink and green striped towels came first, followed by a cavalcade of shirts, pants, pjs, and underwear.

Tuesday was ironing day; Mama would never miss a wrinkle as she skillfully maneuvered that shiny metal contraption around all the buttons on Daddy’s dress shirts.

Wednesday was dedicated to the kitchen; Mama routinely scoured every surface, washed down all of the appliances, and mopped the checkered linoleum floor, although most of the time none of these were in any need of cleaning. Wednesdays were also when Mama would reward herself with a whiskey and soda before starting to cook dinner.

Thursdays and Fridays were for the rest of the house, beginning with the den and the seldom-used dining and living rooms. Mama would drag the mint green Hoover canister vacuum from room to room, intent upon sucking up non-existent dirt. She dusted any surface she could find, arranged magazines on the coffee table exactly one inch apart, and scrubbed the bathrooms so hard the smell of Ajax lingered for hours.

Periodically Mama gave herself permission to deviate from that routine. On those days we would drive to Congressional Plaza, an L-shaped outdoor shopping center on the other side of town.  Mama loved to visit J.C. Penney’s, or “the Penney’s” as she liked to call it. She didn’t care much about buying clothes, but enjoyed browsing, occasionally picking up towels, sheets, and other knickknacks for our house.

Woolworth’s was another frequent stop. Once there, sewing notions; hair products; personal care items; housewares; and, various “as seen on tv” gadgets vied for her attention. We would take a break at the luncheon counter for an ice-cold frothy Coke, or “Coca Cola” as my southern relatives called it.

The shopping trips ended with a visit to Cartwright’s stationery. Mama was always on the lookout for greeting cards. To her, maintaining good manners meant sending the proper card, whatever the occasion. Family members and friends came to expect them from her on holidays others would fail to acknowledge. St. Patrick’s Day? Mama was ready. Fourth of July as well. She loved Halloween, so that was when she excelled with cards funny or “scary”.

For Christmas, Mama would begin selecting cards in October. Shortly after Thanksgiving she would spend several hours a week at the kitchen table with the cards splayed out in front of her. She couldn’t just address a card and send it out, no!  She had to write a lengthy, detailed note for each one. Mama wouldn’t have liked the current trend of standardized, Christmas letters.  She would have found them rather cold and distant. She personalized the messages for each intended recipient.

Mama set high standards for herself, and she found security in maintaining her routines.

Most days Mama would start cooking dinner at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Daddy’s day at Washington Technological Associates, where he managed a large group of machinists, officially started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., so Mama planned for a 5:30 dinner. I would help set the table and place the hot dishes down. Just as we were finishing, Daddy would drive his white and black two-tone Oldsmobile down the driveway.

Except on Fridays. That was a special day. Fridays we alternated between dinner at Howard Johnson’s or McDonald’s. To me the food at Howard Johnson’s seemed bland and mediocre, but Mama loved their clam rolls and Daddy always appreciated their ice cream cones. McDonald’s, newly opened and thus a novelty, was my preference, with its juicy cheeseburgers and salty fries. That was until the Italian spot, Luigi’s, opened downtown. On summer evenings as we drove by with the car windows rolled down, we could smell the appetizing aroma of garlic wafting out. My parents eventually expanded our Friday night rotation to include Luigi’s, with its red-checkered table cloths and wine bottles with colorful wax drippings.  They also added Shanghai’s Chinese, where a tall golden dragon beckoned us to enter.

Just past my seventh birthday my parents decided that on Fridays, and Saturdays too, I could stay up until they went to bed, which was usually around 11 p.m.  Determined not to miss a single thing, I would curl into the scratchy plaid La-Z-Boy lounger where the aroma of my Daddy’s Old Spice aftershave always lingered. It was comfy, too comfy. I would struggle to keep my eyes open, lulled by the sounds of the tv and my parents’ muted voices.

One Friday night was different.

I had changed into my purple flannel pjs and taken my usual spot. Mama was wearing her blue and white striped robe, and she’d settled into her favorite chair next to the tv. Daddy, in crisply pressed pjs, was in the midst of one of his nightly series of solitaire games.

Just as my eyelids started to droop, I heard Mama say, “I think it’s time we took Jackie to New York City.” What?

This startled me given our usual travel plans. Mama was also prone to having a shot or two, well maybe more, of Seagram’s 7 on Friday nights so I wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey talking or not. I had barely absorbed her comment when Daddy then looked up to say, “Okay, we can go next weekend.” What!

Once Daddy started playing solitaire, he glanced frequently at the tv but rarely talked. This made his acquiescence even more surprising. Whaaat???

My mother’s suggestion promised new horizons far beyond what my imagination had ever conjured up.  Jimmy would definitely be joining me for this adventure.

Today Rockville, Maryland is a sprawling suburb. Back then Rockville was a sleepy southern town. The county courthouse, more than 150 years old, dominated the downtown landscape.  The Villa movie theatre, our only nearby cinema, showed films that had long since disappeared from screens in more metropolitan locales. Pumphrey’s Funeral Home was the area’s fanciest house. It adjoined Chestnut Lodge, the mental hospital for the rich and famous. Both of Henry Fonda’s wives were treated there; so was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. Whenever one of the patients escaped a siren blared so loudly it could be heard throughout the town. That was the biggest excitement Rockville proper had to offer.

Where we lived, about eight miles beyond the city limits, was even sleepier. Dairy farms dotted the rural landscape; horses and their riders would trot down the roughly paved roads; houses were set far apart; and, it was at least a thirty-minute drive to the nearest grocery store.

Before settling in Glen Hills, the name of our suburb of a suburb, we had looked at numerous homes, including several located in lovely neighborhoods that were at least within the “city” limits. While my parents found fault with the size of rooms, the workmanship, or some other aspect of these houses, I felt an immediate sense of belonging within their walls. I wanted so badly for my parents to say “yes” to any of them.

They had other ideas. When they discovered Glen Hills, they were seduced by the opportunity to build a home customized just for them and quickly purchased a plot of land there. When they told me of their decision, that we would be moving to the country, I wanted to throw a tantrum, but I silently cried instead. Even all these years later I can envision one of those houses I loved, nestled on one of Rockville’s prettiest tree-lined streets.

From as early I can remember, before I was a flower girl in my Aunt Joyce’s wedding, still so shy that the experience is almost obliterated from memory, I knew I wanted more.

Before I envisioned being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club and memorized all the names of the Mouseketeers, I knew I wanted more.

Even before I understood how letters formed words that told stories, I knew I wanted more than country life offered.

I wanted street lights, nonexistent anywhere around us, that could help me navigate unexplored pathways. I wanted sidewalks, squares or rectangles uniform in their symmetry, instead of having to make my way to the school bus stop through tall, itchy grasses. I wanted to visit my friends without having to ask my mother to drive me then waiting and waiting and waiting while she insisted on changing her clothes, combing her hair, spraying on perfume, and applying a coat of lipstick before we left.

I wanted city noises like the ones I heard on tv, the constant hum of traffic, the cacophony of accented voices, the squeal of horns, an occasional wailing siren that signaled mysterious dangers.

Most of all I wanted and knew intuitively but could not articulate in my youth was to feel the confidence that surges through my body whenever I encounter a vibrant metropolis. It’s where I can be the true me, the more intriguing me, the better me. It’s where I can don a cloak of invincibility.

A week after I overheard my parents’ unexpected agreement to venture to New York we packed our red leather suitcases, checked windows and door locks, and were on our way.

We left around noon with Daddy having taken a half-day off. He had shed his tie and rolled up the sleeves of the starched white Oxford shirt he had worn to work that morning. His thick black hair, which was freshly cut and tamed, was sleek and sat close to his scalp.

Mama’s shirtwaist dress reminded me of candy, with a plaid pattern of butter yellow and milky chocolate. She had slept in her pink foam curlers all night but you couldn’t  tell now. That morning she’d sat at her antique vanity applying her makeup.  She started with foundation, added a bit of rouge to her cheeks, and drew in completely new brows with an eyebrow pencil.  She looked transformed in her signature Revlon “cherries and cream” lipstick.

I had carefully put together my outfit, trying to look more like the teen girls I had glimpsed in magazines than a chubby second grader. I wore a blue cardigan, which I had unsuccessfully tried to drape around my shoulders, a blouse of a similar hue, and a poodle skirt Mama bought me just for the trip. I thought I looked sophisticated, not like a girl from the country.

We stopped at the Maryland House, (a landmark I would later visit countless times) for a quick lunch. The Maryland House was known for its crab cakes. The secret was lots of Old Bay seasoning mixed in with the meat of the Chesapeake Bay’s succulent blue crabs.

When lunch was over, we returned to the Oldsmobile. We took off our winter coats as the heater hummed along. Daddy never liked to listen to the car radio so it was very quiet inside. Having grown up as one of six children, he enjoyed being able to hear his thoughts. Mama leafed through the stack of magazines she had brought with her, including recent issues of Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I sat in the backseat, no seatbelt, alternating between laying half-way down reading my book and sitting up straight to peer out the windows. Jimmy sat quietly beside me with nothing to do.

It was the longest trip in the world.

Maryland and Delaware were just miles of rolling countryside that looked too similar to home. Then it was on to the New Jersey Turnpike. My parents talked excitedly about its four lanes, the lack of traffic lights, and how the newly installed mile markers made it easy to track our progress north. As I halfway listened to their conversation, I realized that one of the reasons for the trip was to see this new marvel. It replaced the previous route, Highway 1, where travelers would have to frequently slow down as they drove through town after town. I wasn’t impressed by what I viewed as just another dull road. I was tired of being cooped up. I would have loved to get out and stretch my legs but I didn’t want to take the time. I was thirsty but stopping for a drink would have also taken more time. I wanted to get there already.

We rounded what’s known as the helix, so named because the road spirals down, round and round, from the cliffs of New Jersey to the Lincoln Tunnel that crawls under the Hudson River.

That’s when I saw it, the New York City skyline.

Night was falling. I stared, spellbound, as the tall buildings began to sparkle.  I watched the tiny red lights of cars going up and down the just barely visible highway across the river.

Jimmy Raspberry and I had finally arrived. I let out a huge sigh. It was as if I had been holding my breath until this very moment. Deep within me I somehow knew that this was IT, a place where routines could be shattered and every street would lead to fresh adventures.

For over a decade, Jackie Bivins was a journalist who reported on the retail industry and interviewed many of its pioneers. She lives in the Coachella Valley, and is currently working on a memoir.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Resources for Change because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Racism

Silence is Not An Option

June 12, 2020
option

Black Lives Matter.

Over the past week, The Manifest-Station has been quiet as we watched the world change in reaction to the brutal murder of George Floyd. The subsequent flood of similar stories that continue to emerge is horrifying. The overwhelming number of people harmed or worse by a group sworn to protect is sickening. The growing list of names is heartbreaking. Support of it has to end and ending it is not someone else’s problem.

We all own this problem.

Marching, listening, amplifying…all of that is important, but those alone are not nearly enough. As individuals and as a collective, it is imperative we work for change from the inside out and the outside in. We need to learn what it really means for our black and brown friends to try to thrive in this country, we need to unlearn our own assumptions and bias. We also need to demand change and we need to be relentless in our efforts. When people talk about “doing the work” it is not a trope, it is work and it is necessary.

The Manifest-Station is about being human, and we have worked hard for it to be a safe space for words, for all writers. We are committed to continuing the support and amplification of black and brown voices, this includes the work published on the site and elsewhere. We are adding a “resource” page that will feature ways to get educated and involved. In addition, Jen’s instagram feed is filled with actionable items. If we are missing something that should be included, let us know, this is a work in progress.

At The Manifest-Station, we are proud to add our voices to the call for change. Silence is complicity, and frankly, it is not an option. Change is possible, moreover, if we work together it’s coming.

Guest Posts, motherhood

Treasure

May 28, 2020
breathe

By Shannon Lange

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

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

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

🙢

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🙢

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

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

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

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

🙢

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

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

🙢

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

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

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

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

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

🙢

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

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

🙢

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

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

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

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

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

I begin to heal.

🙢

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🙢

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

aging, Guest Posts, motherhood

Well Played

April 23, 2020
run

By Natalie Serianni

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

I’m inside.

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

The scoreboard reads 10:52 pm.

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

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

The highlight reel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is freedom on that field.

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

It’s a game and I’m playing.

It’s just play.

And I’m just a mother running and running.

Finally, running.

***

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

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

…about how much I hated playing soccer.

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

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

Alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did I confuse strength with size?

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

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

Can a competitive sport turn you into the opponent?

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

To combat this, I:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later, babies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just you wait.

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

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

Are we ever in control?

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

No more.

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

***

Motherless at 25, my body was betrayed. Again.

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

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

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

For recovery, for a life?

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

The body does, indeed, keep score.

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

September 2nd.

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

I’m ready to play again.

I’ll slide quarters into the machine

Put me in coach I think to myself.

I gather my curls and rake them into a ponytail.

I’m warmed up, I’m primed. Loose.

I’ve loosened around my mother’s absence.

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

***

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

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

I tuck my shirt in.

I’m looking forward to that field.

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

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

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

Let me out there, I think.

Watch out, I think.

I run towards the game.

I run towards the things I know.

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

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aging, Guest Posts

Wait, and Hurry Up

April 19, 2020
clock

By Susan Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guest Posts, motherhood, The Body

We All Live Here

April 16, 2020
hair

By Jillayna Adamson

First, the wrecking.

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

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

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

It reminds me every day that I am in shambles.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t know that” he said. “Why?”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Universe in the Kitchen

April 13, 2020
sun

By Adrienne LaValley

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

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

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

…“Did you take my braided belt?”

“Your what?”

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

“Nope, didn’t take your belt.”

“Someone god damn took it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Self Image

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

April 8, 2020
decarva

By Trish Cantillon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” she answered.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Books, Guest Posts, healing, Young Voices

Inside Out

April 5, 2020
head

By Allison L. Palmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Gratitude, Guest Posts, memories

Take The R Train

April 2, 2020
choice

By Laraine Herring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Guest Posts, Self Care

Madame Defarge in the age of Corona

March 29, 2020
knitting

By Caroline Leavitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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