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Guest Posts, Relationships

Woman Seeking Man, Age to be Determined

January 24, 2022
years

It was three years since my husband died. I sold the house, found an apartment in New York City and decided to try on-line dating, signing on to JDate, Match, and Plenty-of-Fish. My oldest son, the arbiter of all things popular, told me to never post my real age. He said nobody does. Everybody lies.

I agonized for a week. I’m a pretty straight shooter but sixty-seven was kind of up there and so I wrote down sixty. My son was upset. “Put fifty-nine,” he said. Have you ever seen a dress priced at $600? It’s always $599. And if it’s on sale it’s $399 not $400. It’s psychological.”

I knew from the psychological. I was a psychologist with a doctorate; he knew he was speaking my language, but I told him I wasn’t a dress, and I wasn’t ready to be discounted. I stuck with sixty and hoped that my picture would pull it off. If I met someone viable, I would tell him the truth.

Sophisticated 60-year-old woman looking for a sophisticated man. I’ve climbed to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda and barged down the Amazon to meet the Yagua Indians. I’ve done research in Africa, live in NYC, have a practice in Princeton, and a writing cabin in Woodstock. I have a long story to tell a good man over a slow dinner.

I read it over. Even I was impressed. I clicked send and waited.

It didn’t take long. I was the new kid on the block. It was great but all the guys were under forty-five. I responded to an eager 35-year-old, suggesting he reread my profile; I was sixty-years old. I gulped at the lie but couldn’t imagine that the extra seven years mattered in this case. He said he had seen my age; it was fine; he liked older women. I said it wasn’t fine with me.

This went on for several weeks. None of the age-appropriate men were knocking on my door. I decided to get aggressive, remembering the younger Linda—the one with chutzpa—who’d been married at nineteen, had three kids by age twenty-seven, started college at thirty and got divorced at thirty-one. The Linda that signed on for assertiveness training, consciousness raising and masturbation workshops. The masturbation workshops—taught by a bald woman in a mini skirt with very high black boots—were particularly intriguing.  She had a carousel filled with slides of female genitalia. The diversity was fascinating. She flashed them on a screen side-by-side with slides of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. It made me consider taking an elective in contemporary art.

Sadly, I had completely missed the sixties. Instead of doing drugs and making love, I was changing diapers and stitching needlepoints. It was 1970 when I divorced my first husband—a heady time for women. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were leading the march for equality while Gloria Gaynor sang the anthem, I Will Survive. Fortified by the women’s movement, and with no time to waste, I headed for the singles bar.

I walked in, scoped the scene, picked out the best-looking guy and started a conversation. The following month I went on a singles vacation to the Club Med in Martinique where the help, hired for their looks, were paid extra to fraternize with the guests. I was having a great time but then my friend Sally called and said her best friends had recently split and did I want to meet the husband?

“He’s fifteen years older than you,” she said, “but he’s a great looking guy. Think Omar Sharif or Sean Connery.”

The fifteen years worried me, but Sean Connery? Friday night he came to pick me up and by Saturday morning my single days were over.

Now thirty-seven years later, my husband gone, it was time to be proactive again. Thinking about the age difference between my second husband and me, I decided to flip the coin and reconsider the interest of the younger man. According to Ron, the cutie from Queens: younger men preferred older women because they’re more interesting, don’t play games, do drugs, or want kids and, he added, they’re great in bed.

Great in bed was going to be a stretch. These guys were physically fit. I hadn’t been to a gym since I’d had back surgery the previous year. Pictures from the Kama Sutra flashed in my head. My back started to ache like a phantom limb.

I got a hit from an African American man. His handle was Bodybuilder. He was forty years old. He said I was beautiful and asked if I would like to chat. “Beautiful” was always a hook. I thanked him for the compliment and confessed that I didn’t take a shine to buffed men. He said he wasn’t buffed, he was chiseled. I told him to post a picture and I’d decide. The picture looked like a guy out of Sports Illustrated: naked from the waist up, elbows out, fingers gripped, gleaming pecs. He wasn’t chiseled. He was buffed. I said I’d like to see him in a suit.

“What would you like me to wear?” he asked.

I suggested for formal attire he consider a well-tailored suit, probably black, with a French blue shirt and a good pair of shoes.

“And for casual?”

I suggested pleated linen slacks, draped nicely over his hips, a white shirt open at the neck and good shoes.

“What about you?” he asked.

I told him for casual I’d wear a pair of tight-fitting jeans, black boots with a good shine, a white man-tailored shirt and a straw Stetson hat.

“And for formal?”

“The same outfit but I’d ditch the hat.”

“LOL,” he said.

I told him I was looking for a man who had as much confidence in his brains as he had in his body. He said he would send more pictures.

The next week he posted another photo. The only thing between him and pornography was the steering wheel of a boat. I told him to contact me when he got dressed.

This was fun. The Internet lent itself to snappy repartee and vapid conversation. I was pretty good at both. It became my entertainment after a long day at the office.

There was the forty-three-year-old writer from Plenty of Fish. His first email asked, “Why haven’t you invited me over yet?” I thought that was a little presumptuous. I wrote back something brilliant like “We haven’t met yet.”

He wrote, “Let’s meet. We’ll have a drink and we’ll go back to your apartment.”

I told him no one comes back to my apartment on a first date.

He said I was closed-minded.

“How about a ninety percent chance we’ll go back to your apartment?”

I said, “No way.”

“What about eighty/twenty?”

I wouldn’t budge.

Negotiations went on for two weeks. It was Friday night and I told him I was going to the Café Luxembourg for a martini and some oysters. He was welcome to come. He said fifty-fifty was his final offer. He didn’t show. That was fine with me. The oysters were superb.

A week later he agreed to meet, no strings. He was waiting when I walked into the cafe. He was nice looking—young, but young was beginning to look older. He said he’d written four novels and taught creative writing at City College. Okay, this had possibilities. Ten minutes into the date he took my chin in his hand, turned my head to him, held up two fingers, pointed at his eyes and said very seriously, “Look at me. You really want to take me home, don’t you?”

I began to laugh. He had to be kidding. He let go of my chin, turned back to his drink, and said, “Whatever.”

Two minutes later he turned around and did it again. After the fourth time, I was rolling on the floor.

“What’s so funny?” he asked in exasperation. I said I wanted to know how he wrote four novels when he only knew ten words?

“Whatever,” he shrugged, turned around and walked out of the bar.

That was my best night out since I’d signed on to the dating sites. I laughed all the way home.

In January I got an email from an attractive fifty-four-year-old, 6’5” Israeli. His picture showed him standing at a stove, a bandana on his head, apron around his waist concentrating on whatever it was he was stirring in a pan.

His profile read: “Good man/bad boy/ whiz in the kitchen…blah…blah…blah.” I liked the “blah…blah…blah,” at least he wasn’t into platitudes. “Looking for a woman,” it continued, “thirty-five to ninety-nine.”

Ninety-nine. I figured I’d made the cut with room to spare. I gave him my number. He called five minutes later and invited me over for dinner on Thursday.

“You’re in Israel,” I exclaimed.

He said, “So, you’ll take a plane. You’ll come to Israel. What you like? Chicken? Fish? What you like, I’ll make. Come. You won’t be sorry.”

He was serious. I laughed. We said we’d talk the next night. He was a fantasy without a face.

The on-line thing was beginning to get tired. I was thinking about going off. The coup-de-gras came a few days later. Each day Match sends you your perfect match. I logged on one morning to find I was staring into the face of my first husband. Your perfect match, it said. I screamed, as though a large beetle had crawled out of my computer. His profile read; “…likes to travel but hasn’t really gone anywhere. Likes to do crossword puzzles but not the New York Times. Likes to go to the movies but rarely has the time.” Last book read, “The Da Vinci Code- waited for it to come out in paperback. Wanted a woman 45-65.”  Seriously? I was too old even for him!

That was it. I’d had it. I got off all the sites. It didn’t matter if I was sixty or sixty-seven; if my ex-husband was supposed to be my perfect match then I’d rather live the fantasy. I picked up the phone and called Israel.

“What’s for dinner?”

Linda I. Meyers is a clinical psychologist in private practice in NYC. She is also a writer and author of the memoir, The Tell

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Wordless Messages: Grief and the Power of Touch

January 23, 2022
massage

I missed how my massage therapist always began with cradling my head in his hands. How, when he placed his palms over my ears, my skull filled with the ocean of my whirring aliveness, smoothing some jagged places in my psyche into round pebbles.

During the year of lockdown, I missed getting massages. I feel a little embarrassed or even entitled saying this since I’m grateful that during quarantine I was with my girlfriend: I had someone to talk to and touch. But I deeply missed the specific kind of touch I received during a massage, and being removed from it for a year underlined something to me: therapeutic touch is unlike any other kind—it holds within it the capacity for deep connection to the self, since we are composed of all the experiences our bodies hold, everything both joyous and jagged, every embrace and every injury, papercut-small and fissure-deep. Our bodies remember everything, including what our conscious mind has let slip away.

There is a specific experience I carry in my body: I went almost ten years with much touch of any kind, except the perfunctory; I hold this story in between my ears, and in my lower back, along my arms, and sometimes in a tight spot in my jaw: when my mother died, I was fourteen, and my father had a breakdown that no one talked about. Up until that point, even though my mother was slowly dying of cancer, I had a fairly nice life: my parents loved each other, we lived in a nice, somewhat affluent suburb, my interests were nurtured, and I always felt safe in my home.

Then, my life snapped off from everything familiar, as if a neat and manicured path unexpectedly diverged into wilderness that I had to navigate alone. Then, my father couldn’t take care of me, of my sister. Then, I had to go to my first year of high school and my home became a place that simply housed the relics of a civilization that had crumbled around me. Everything seemed wrong, even the colors of my bedroom walls. Suddenly, everything felt too yellow.

For many years, I wanted affection so much that my skin ached. I started getting migraines. Every morning, when I was sixteen years old, I dry heaved into the toilet not due to any eating disorder, but because the fact of my physical existence in a world where I knew there was no one to hold or take care of me made me feel literally sick. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Even when I felt “better” later in life, I still carried this time in my body the way a tree holds a year of blight in a dark hollow ring.

I stumbled into getting massages after a bad break up in my mid-thirties. The first massage therapist I saw, Stephen, was part of my queer community, and while other massage therapists had dug elbows into places that felt too tender, Stephen asked for what I needed before I got on the table. When I said I had PTSD and needed him to be gentle, he gave me the first massage that didn’t hurt, that I didn’t grit myself against, crying uncle. He seemed to understand: taking my first layer of protection off, all my clothes, except my bottom underwear, was an act of trust. “I’m going to listen to your breathing,” he said. “I’m going to make sure you’re ok.” As he wrapped the sheets and blankets around me near the end of that first massage, I felt deeply warm, and I let my head fall into his hands. I began going to see him every month for four years, and I found myself transformed: talk therapy had helped me, but massage soothed places words couldn’t touch. My body felt like someone had extracted an invisible burden from my body. I kept looking back into the train car as the subway doors closed, convinced I had left something heavy behind.

When I tell someone that I typically get a massage every month, they often looked confused or even judgmental. I don’t make much money, and massage has been branded a luxury, one doled out in spas only the wealthy can afford, and this is often the case. Even though I’ve been lucky because the massage therapists I’ve seen have worked out of their homes and operated on a sliding scale, a situation that benefits us both, I have paid around $75-100 a session.

But Massage is, as every book on it states, the oldest form of healing, and has gone by many names over the span of recorded history: rubbings, friction and unction, anatripsis, which translates to “intensive rubbing” in Greek. Only the recent century has demoted massage to empty pampering at best and sketchy sex work at worst. American and British Nurses in the late 1800s through the 1930s trained in and practiced massage. During WWI, nurses treated soldiers with massage for injuries and “nervous disorders” caused by the traumas of war. Medical professionals viewed massage as a “basic comfort” practice, and even famed nurse Florence Nightingale massaged patients and trained other nurses in what was deemed a valuable medical practice.

But by the mid-1930s when pharmaceutical solutions such as aspirin and morphine presented themselves, and it was less expensive to give someone a pill than it was to train a nurse in massage. Pushed from traditional medicine, massage parlors proliferated, and “happy endings” cast a lascivious light on the practice. Massage became either a form of sex work or a “complementary” healing modality.

I believe massage could be a more widely used practice, one that could benefit many, especially those who have gone through trauma, and while the pandemic continues to impact disenfranchised groups more than others, every single one of us will be continuing to deal with the stress of a pandemic, and we will likely continue to have periods of isolation, and with it, many will have to cope with a lack of touch.

In the year of no massages, I found myself taking more pills than I have in a long time: I washed countless blue over the counter anti-inflammatory pills down, hoping they wouldn’t eat away at my stomach lining. I diminished my supply of prescription muscle relaxants, the ones I save for when I feel as if I’m about to become immobilized, which happened far more frequently. When I feel a relaxant begin to bloom in my body, my muscles release as they do in massage. But I never feel better the way I do after a massage. I never wake up the next morning feeling like I’ve been rocked to sleep, like the hurt animal part of me has been sung to, like the music of my pulse has shifted.

There is something a pill isn’t offering me that a massage does: a human connection.

After my first massage therapist moved away, I worried I wouldn’t find someone I would connect with in the same way I had with Stephen. After I saw a few practitioners I didn’t quite click with, I found Josh on a queer community listserv. Like Stephen, Josh exuded a deep patience when he worked on me, and he listened carefully with his hands. I began to notice the distinct difference between being worked on by someone I saw just once and someone I bonded with over time. I’ve been seeing Josh for years now, too. Once when we sat together chatting after he had worked on me, I asked him if a client’s breathing and his would sync up during a massage. I’d been reading about circumstances that cause humans to fall into a kind of sync together; if people sing together, their hearts beat together, too. He thought a moment, and said, no, not exactly, but if a massage was going well, usually the person being massaged would breathe in a kind of unconscious call and response with him.

In her book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, science journalist Jo Marchant explores the potency of human connection through examining what we think of as the placebo effect. She cites a study from Dr.Ted J. Kaptchuk, who performed “fake acupuncture”—acupuncture that didn’t follow the traditional meridians used in the treatment—to two groups of patients (one control group was given no treatment at all), the first group were given treatment by a “cold but polite” practitioner, and in the second group, the patients were treated by a warm practitioner who sat with them, and talked with them for 45 minutes before being given placebo acupuncture. Neither group received any other treatment for the primary complaint which was IBS. 44% of the patients treated with the placebo style acupuncture felt better, but Marchant reports that the patient’s experience of wellness shot up to 62% when offered care from a warm practitioner which was “as big an effect as has ever been found for any drug treated for IBS.” She notes that “If an empathic healer makes us feel cared for and secure, rather than under distress, this alone can trigger significant biological changes that ease our symptoms.”

In another study, done at Berkley, where researchers discovered that social messages could be communicated through touch with near lighting-fast speed. This of course makes sense since touch is our oldest form of communication, older than stories passed between us through language, much older than paper, or even marks carved into stones or animal bones, perhaps older than singing. Some anthropologists wonder if touch, specifically the kind of touch that releases oxytocin, the chemical released through bonding like breastfeeding, set our evolution in motion, making us a species capable of doing all the above.

Once Josh pressed a spot on my lower back and I tensed because sometimes when something hurts, I find myself unable to speak—I just freeze. But immediately I felt his hands respond, with a soothing message I can’t quite translate into language. It was this exchange, the feeling of being listened and responded to with such care, that felt so profound, perhaps even more so since it happened without either of us saying a word.

For a while I kept mixing up the word message and massage, constantly misreading the word “message” as “massage” or typo-ing message when I meant massage. I realized that massage has offered me a way to receive a wordless message my body has needed, on repeat, one that echoes in my skin and bones and muscles, in my breath and blood, one that tells me: even if my father couldn’t give me the comfort I needed when my mother died, other people will be there for me, and my community would be there for me.

There’s no doubt that I tend to choose male-presenting therapists since the hurt animal part of me grieved the loss my father as he lived, a ghost of himself; I mourned the father who was a gentle plaid mountain I climbed, who read me all the chronicles of Narnia, who made me and my sister heart-shaped pizzas. The death of my mother was one trauma–the loss of my father while he continued to sit on the couch staring at the wall was another. I struggled to hold the latter, the ambiguous grief of it, even more than the death of my mother; there was only a funeral to acknowledge one of these losses.

Through seeking this particular form of healing, I have gotten better at holding my history in my body. I’ve gotten better at holding the past in one place in my body while I moved forward; changing how I held my body, loosening its tensions and habits, made me a person who could hold the past while keeping my feet in the present. I got better at forgiving my father, even though neither of us ever brought up the past in conversation. My father got better too: he happily re-married, sold his business, and retired to a life of collecting ship replicas in a house a short drive from the beach.

This past July, I was standing alone in my kitchen when my stepmother called to tell me my father had died suddenly that morning. And so I found myself alone again as one of my parents died. I longed for my people—I longed for my girlfriend, who was waiting for me in rural upstate New York as I prepared to move from Brooklyn, I longed for my stepmother and the family I still had left alive; I longed for my friends, but I also longed for the person who had given me a source of comfort in other stressful times: my massage therapist, or put another way, despite the cheesiness the word has gathered over the past decades, my healer.  I longed for my healer to cradle my head in his hands as I learned how to live with my father’s sudden death, as I learned how to hold this new reality in my body.

The longing for my healer, and even calling him this word, felt strange, even embarrassing, but we have no real word in American English to contain this kind of therapeutic relationship: one that technically involves a service, and yet, much like therapy we seek out for our minds, is imbued something more, something deeper and elemental.

Today, we are only beginning to break the taboo of even talking about the essential human need for touch, and it seems we only have these conversations under extreme circumstances. As the pandemic continues, I hope we can talk more about the need for touch. I also hope we can also seek out therapeutic touch if we need it. I hope that, in time, perhaps massage can be seen as what it is: a healing practice with potential far beyond what we have imagined. I hope that if massage can be witnessed in this way, perhaps, it can be covered by all insurances, so it could become more accessible. And no matter what, I hope we can all feel less embarrassed to seek out a therapeutic space for touch when we need it.

Kat Savino holds an M.F.A. from Columbia, and wrote a brief personal essay about how massage helped her heal from trauma for Narratively; She has been researching this practice for many years and is currently working on a long hybrid memoir that fuses art history, psychology, and neuroscience to explore the need for touch, and the trauma of abandonment, and how healing is possible. Kat has also published essays in Ravishly, Apogee, Marie Claire, Belladonna: Matters of Feminist Practice, The Los Angeles Review, and Prism International, where she placed third in their nonfiction contest.

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Guest Posts, Self Care

Mine Alone

January 17, 2022
shed

by Pamela Cravez

The first afternoon in my shed it is impossible to write, even though that is why I am here, sitting on a folding chair in front of two end tables stacked one on top of the other to bring my computer to eye-height.  But I am so distracted all I can do is breathe in the smell of rough cedar and look through the eight-foot-long windows, one in front of me and the other behind. It is 40 degrees outside, but the shed’s propane heater is keeping me warm.

The second day it is dark outside when I walk to the shed in the morning to turn on the heater. The temperature has dropped below freezing. It is fall in Anchorage and there is no turning back from the colder and shorter days to come. I am delighted when the motion sensor light pops on in the shed. I turn the igniter on the heater and a little blue flame appears. On my way back to the house I look back at the shed. It shines against the dark, looking cozy and warm among the trees. When I return an hour later, I set my computer on the table and begin typing but my nose and fingers are cold and so are my cheeks and my feet. Chilled to the bone and frustrated, I turn off the heater and carry my computer to my warm home when I spend the day working.

The third day, I wear a headlamp on my way to the shed and turn on a small fan to blow the heat around. I wait for an hour and a half in the house before walking back to the shed with a thermos of hot coffee. It feels warmer and smells good. An hour into writing I feel my body relax and realize I’d been willing myself to work through the cold that has finally subsided.

The fourth day, the temperature has fallen again, it is single digits, and the moon is full and bright. I can easily see my way to the shed without a headlamp and turn on the heat.  Two hours later, I sit in my shed wearing a down jacket and a soft scarf, along with gloves cut off at the fingertips and watch the moon as it slips through the trees of my backyard, luminous even as the light from the rising sun brightens the windows at my back. By the time I lose sight of the moon, my shed is warm.

It is the morning of November 1 when I see the full moon, a blue moon. It is the moon that has brought me to the shed this morning, brought me outdoors when I might have preferred to stay in the warmth of my home. The lakes are beginning to freeze, but there is still no snow on the ground. When the sun shines it means colder weather not warmer. Other years, my retired friends would be leaving to spend time outside of Alaska, some place warm. But this year, the pandemic year, everyone is in their home.

I keep track of how long it takes for the propane heater to make the space comfortable enough to work, when the propane tank needs to be replaced. I drape a fleece sweater over the back of my folding chair to cover the cold metal trim. I order two narrow tables from Amazon, long enough that together they stretch ten feet, just two feet shy of the length of my eight by twelve foot shed.  My son, Josh, forced home from college by the pandemic, helps me carry a stuffed armchair from the house into the shed so that I have a place to sit and read.

From the window of my shed, I see long gnash marks on the side of a willow left by a moose scraping the tree with its teeth. I am wary in the dark mornings, letting my headlamp sweep over the tangle of black spruce, willow, and birch before I set foot on the path to the shed, looking for a solid body, an ear, a broad snout. The idea that I might run into a moose on the way to the shed or be trapped in the shed by a moose, is just one more challenge to wade through these first days in my shed, challenges that are dwarfed by the desire to have this place of my own.

The desire for a place of my own to write has been with me for as long as I can remember. That idea of a room of one’s own translated to a room in the public library set aside for writers, a spare office, a friend’s apartment when she was at work, a spare bedroom in our home, and the landing of our chalet style house while our children were growing up. When our eldest son left for college, I transformed his bedroom into an office for myself. I boxed his model cars, moved in bookcases, and filled the closet with drafts of books and essays. I bought headphones to block out the noise from my husband watching basketball on television or listening to music in the family room below. From that room I looked onto the trees of our backyard. Not a large yard, but one that had become wild with mountain ash and Mayday trees competing with aggressive willows and bushy shrubs.  I gazed out at the tall white birch that curved toward the mountains and watched the sunrise along its trunk. Both my children were out of the house, but I was still here, with a room of my own. I had it painted, put art on the walls, yet when I walked to the backyard I wanted to be here, outside of my house, I longed to escape. I wanted a shed.

A friend began to send me pictures of sheds. Beautiful she-sheds with colorful interiors open to lush gardens. But it was the photo of a shed in the snow, an extension cord from the house providing electricity, the doorway framing a writer sitting at a desk, that was the image I held in my mind. A practical place, a working place, my own space. I began to watch where the sun fell in the backyard behind our house and put a chair to read there on summer afternoons.  The year I learned I was going to be a grandmother, last year, I had dead trees removed so that it was possible to walk to the old swing set. I stopped among a group of black spruce gathered in the northeast corner, felt the warmth of the sun and a quiet stillness in the air, and thought this would be the perfect place for a shed.

“You control all the space in the house,” my youngest son, Josh, observes. He has returned from college for spring break and just learned that he will be having to complete his classes virtually. “Dad just has part of the bedroom and the bathroom. You have control over all of this space,” he is standing in the middle of the living room and looking through to the dining room and family room and kitchen.

“Your dad doesn’t want control. He hates buying furniture or appliances, anything having to do with the house.” I know I sound defensive. “And he has his own office downtown.”

But this is more. I never think of myself as in control of the house, just responsible, a division of labor that has come down to me. With the pandemic, though, I am the one to figure out who will work where. This is what Josh is observing. I set up a home office for my husband in our bedroom so he has the privacy he needs to see clients. Josh’s bedroom is right next to my office. The wall between us is so thin that he can easily hear the tapping of my computer keys. I set up a workstation for him on the landing, the same place I used while the children were growing up.

I have the only real office in the house and need to reassure myself that I deserve this space, that I should not consider giving it up, though I do want to give it up. I want everyone else to have what they need in this house and I want to leave. I recognize these feelings, that feeling of wanting to escape, that it is impossible to have the space I need to think and write without worrying about the needs of people around me. “You have control of this space,” my son said, and I knew even as he said it, that I did not want the responsibility of control, I wanted autonomy. I wanted my own space.

The day Josh started his fall semester classes virtually from his workstation on the landing, I called a contractor and asked him to build me a shed in the backyard.  A shed with insulation and electricity, one I could use year-round. One with lots of windows in the spot where I stopped and stood in the sun the year before the pandemic, the year that I became a grandmother.

I kicked at the dead leaves on my way to the shed this morning. There is still a wet patch from where the snow melted last week, but the rest of the path is dry. When I opened the door to the shed, I reached for the remote control, and turned on a small electric heater, replacing the propane heater that broke. The temperature in the shed is 42 degrees according to the heater. I’ve programmed it to warm to 60 degrees, which will take about a half hour and make the shed very comfortable for working in a sweatshirt. It is May and buds are beginning to form at the end of tree branches, it will take no time at all for them to spring into leaves. This will be the first year that I will see spring and summer from my shed, something completely new to me.

New to me, too, is this room of my own. Not carved out, not moveable, mine alone.

Pamela Cravez is a writer living in Anchorage, Alaska who has worked as a reporter, communications director, and editor of publications including Art Matters and the Alaska Justice Forum. In a lifetime before children, she was a public defender and did an oral history of lawyers who practiced before Alaska became a state. Her book, “The Biggest Damned Hat, Tales from Alaska’s Territorial Lawyers and Judges,” was published in 2017.  

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Grief, Guest Posts

Babyland

January 6, 2022
cemetery

By Kris Martinez

Though I’d barely known him, I’d thought about him off and on over the years. If anything, he came to me as a passing thought of the strange way seventh grade had begun with the announcement of our teacher’s death just after Labor Day. The memory was almost always accompanied by the vision of Joyce K. running around the playground at recess in her hand-me-down maroon plaid uniform, the warm September sun shining on her ratty reddish hair as she sang her song in soaring arcs. The old elastic of her graying white knee socks puddled down around her ankles and her arms spread wide as she flew across the blacktop and dashed over the lines of the basketball court, singing, “Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad! Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad!”

Every time his memory knocked at the door of my brain I tried to will it away, telling myself I barely had any right to remember him. I didn’t know this man. His story wasn’t mine to tell. And yet, the more I tried to ignore it, the more insistent it became.

When I finalKris Martinez has over twenty-five years of experience as a marketing and advertising professional and has owned a digital creative agency near Chicago for the past sixteen years. Her company’s work has been recognized with dozens of industry awards and she is a member of several professional organizations. Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.ly went looking for him after thirty-five years, there wasn’t much to find. He wasn’t married and didn’t have children. My research uncovered a brother, now deceased. He’d had a niece and nephew and was preceded in death by his parents. I’d long known he was from St. Charles, where we’d lived for the past fifteen years, which I considered a minor coincidence. But it never really occurred to me to look for his grave until the day I was suddenly consumed by the thought and couldn’t focus on anything else.

Union Cemetery on the east side of St. Charles was my destination, just north of town on Route 25, the north-south highway that runs adjacent to the Fox River, about thirty-five miles west of downtown Chicago. It would be impossible to count the times I’d driven past the cemetery, taking Harper to her Little Acorns program at the park district or picking up Maya from birthday parties and outings with the Girl Scouts. In the past thirty-five years that I’d been living my life, Mr. LeVasseur had been there in the ground.

As I drove north on Route 25, I passed the St. Charles Episcopal Church where I’d been to a few A.A. meetings early on in my recovery. On this day, I was happy to see they were proudly flying a rainbow flag with the words, “Everyone is Welcome.” It was a balm to see such an inviting message in a world that seemed to get more divisive by the day.

Across the street is Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where I’d desperately gone after I slipped up and drank again only to find that they were closed. As I dejectedly walked away from the locked doors that day, a woman in black glasses and grey sweatpants asked me if I was looking for a meeting. I said yes. She said it only took two people to meet, so we sat on a cement bench outside the closed doors of the church and she recited all the familiar words by heart. She said that alcoholics slip up all the time, but it’s getting back on the wagon and trying again that counts, so that’s what I did. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.

As I drove past these two churches where I’d laid my sinful heart bare, I checked in with myself: it no longer hurt to remember these things. I needed every last drink to find my bottom. And it took every last meeting to get me on the path of recovery.

I arrived at Union Cemetery and pulled to the side of the paved lane to assess the grounds, not knowing where to begin. Fortunately, I had seen a photo of the headstone someone had posted online. It was a red granite stone, at a low angle to the ground. Newer, if thirty-five years is new. Which I guess it is in a cemetery.

It was a warm day, sunny and in the upper eighties with the humidity creeping towards one hundred percent. The grass was thick with moisture and clung to my flip-flopped feet as I worked my way methodically up and down the rows, training my eye on only the newer, red granite stones.

As I read name after name, the concept of a grave marker intrigued me. It contains only the barest of facts: a name, the dates of birth and death, and that’s usually about it. A veteran will typically have the details of his or her branch and years of service. Some people opt for a short poem or scripture passage, but not often.

I saw many headstones that had the word Mother or Father etched into them. The deceased’s children or family would have placed these stones and settled on this singular word to describe their loved one. But these people – they weren’t just Mother or Father. They were Son, Daughter. Friend. Sister. Aunt. Lover. At what point does one decide: now, forever more, she shall be known as Mother? Such a commitment to confining the dead to a single-word description in her relationship to others. How can one’s life be summed up on a single stone? And yet – isn’t it our relationships with others that matter most?

I came across several old St. Charles families I recognized, notable names like Baker, Anderson, and Norris. So many prominent people who’d had roads, parks, and hotels named after them like Beith, Farnsworth, and Dunham. These were distinguished people who’d made names for themselves in life and whose elaborate gravesites now served as permanent reminders of their lasting influence – or at least, their wealth. Now, they were all gone.

I thought of how all of these people had lived and died. What had their lives been like? Did they accomplish everything they wanted in whatever time they’d been given? What sort of pain and suffering had they gone through? How did they die? But more importantly: how had they lived?

I tried to peel my shirt away from the river of sweat that was now running down my back. The heat almost suffocated me as another elaborate stone jolted me with its familiar name: Swanberg, the country road near our home. It was to Swanberg Road I’d gone on the day I decided to end my life. After texting my husband and siblings goodbye and telling them to tell my kids I loved them, I’d planted my feet in the middle of Swanberg Road as a Mack truck barreled down on me, closing my eyes as I prepared for impact.

Swanberg Road was the site of my second suicide attempt, and I was here to visit the grave of my teacher who had died by suicide. I thought of this now as I stood looking at this headstone. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I listened to the insects buzzing nearby and felt the warm sun on my skin. I put my hand on my chest to feel my beating heart and the rise and fall of my breathing. I needed to remind myself that though these Swanbergs were gone, I was still here.

As I searched for my teacher, I thought of how he had lived. I realized again that though I knew nothing about this man, his death had continued to haunt me after all this time.

***

While I had been wandering through row after row trying to cover as much ground as possible, there was a young couple in the cemetery who had stayed in the same general area, hugging each other as they cried. I was mindful to keep my search at a respectful distance.

A groundskeeper walked over to talk to the couple. I overheard him telling them that he was a fourth generation caretaker: his great grandfather had been in the business, followed by his grandfather and father. Job stability, I thought. There’s always going to be death.

As my hunt through the headstones brought me closer to the couple, I realized the caretaker was consulting with them on different spaces that were available. The area they were standing in was edged by a well-manicured row of hedges, and the plots were much smaller and closer together than in the rest of the cemetery. Many of the gravesites had little toy cars or stuffed animals placed on them. One featured a blue ceramic Cookie Monster painted in a perpetual smile.

Unlike the headstones in the rest of the cemetery, many of these said “Our Baby” or “Infant Child.” These were people who would never have the chance to grow into or be defined by any other relationships; they would forever be Our Baby. Here, I had no need to be so judgmental of the choice of words selected by their loved ones. In almost all cases, these headstones had been chosen and purchased by the parents of a dead child.

I heard the caretaker say he had to head back to his office for a bit and told the couple they could stay as long as they liked. Realizing he could probably help me in my quest, I got back in my car and followed him to the old groundskeeper building.

“Can I help you find someone?” he said kindly. I noticed he didn’t ask if I was looking for a grave or a headstone. He didn’t even say just a generic, “Can I help you?” or, “Need some help?” He asked if he could help me find someone.

“I’m looking for a person who died in 1985,” I said, showing him the picture of the headstone on my phone.

“Aw that’s great someone posted a picture so you had something to go off of,” he said, looking at the photo. “I recognize him. Let me find him for you.”

I followed the lanky caretaker into his wood paneled office which was filled with a massive desk and a few folded American flags on a battered brown couch. I was thankful for the air conditioning unit that was trying mightily to battle the rising temperature outside; it felt good to catch a break from the heat.

He pulled a beat-up old map of the cemetery out of a closet cabinet. The ancient paper was mounted on a large board and protected under cracked plastic that curled at the edges. He opened a thick three-ring binder that listed the details of each burial plot and quickly turned to the L’s.

“LeVasseur…Delmar. There he is!” he said, marking a miniature map of the cemetery to help guide me in my search. “Looks like he’s in Babyland, right where we just were.” I was shocked to hear him use my teacher’s name, thinking, like a child, that teachers don’t have first names. It was uncomfortable to hear it; it felt too intimate. It made him human.

But it rattled me to hear him use the term “Babyland,” like it was an amusement park. It seemed too casual a name for the infant section, like the babies deserved something more respectful.

He pointed to the Babyland section on the map and I saw something that I hadn’t realized when I’d been standing there: the well-manicured row of hedges outlining the area was in the shape of a heart.

“Really? He was forty-two when he died,” I said, surprised that he’d be buried there.

He checked his log again. “Oh, I see what I did. No, Delmar’s over here,” he said, apologizing as he corrected my map for me. The grave I was looking for was on the other side of the cemetery and back toward the entrance; at the rate I’d been going, it would have taken me another two hours to find it. The whole process was so efficient, I wondered why I had let myself wander around for so long before asking for help.

“That couple I was just talking to? They had twins, and one didn’t make it,” he said, shaking his head. “Losing a child – that’s the worst way to go.”

My chest ached as I thought of the torment the parents of the deceased child must be going through. I’d been at the cemetery almost an hour, and they had been standing in the same place the entire time: under a tree near the manicured hedge as they tried to decide on the impossible.

“The man I’m looking for – he was a suicide,” I said. “Is he…I mean…you don’t have a separate area for suicides, do you?”

“No, no, we have them all over the place.” He laughed as he thought about how that sounded. “I just mean, they’re treated like anyone else. But that’s a terrible way to die. I mean, when someone’s in their eighties or whatever, that makes sense. But babies and suicides – that’s never good.”

I told him about the book I was reading on suicide and how not so very long ago, people who died by suicide weren’t allowed to be buried in a regular cemetery. In some societies, they often weren’t allowed to be buried within the city limits, and heinous things were often done to their bodies after death an in effort to shame them and make an example of them to everyone else.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “That’s a terrible way to treat people. It’s hard enough losing someone to suicide. Why would they put their families through that?” He went on to tell me that he’d lost two of his closest friends to suicide.

I thanked him for the map and his time and drove to the north end of the cemetery near the entrance, just on the other side of the golf course. I heard the thwack of a golf ball and saw golfers through the tree line making their way down the smooth, green course. It was a beautiful day for golf. A beautiful day to be alive.

I got out of my car and scanned the rows of headstones, my eyes now accustomed to searching out only red granite. I quickly zeroed in on two rows of red and made my way closer, but I was in no way prepared for how I would feel once I actually saw it: Delmar LeVassseur.

Seeing his name etched in red granite was so final. Reaching out to touch his headstone, I heaved as I traced with my fingers the year he had died: 1985. I pictured his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow patches, his neatly trimmed goatee. But it was his quiet demeanor and his kind, dark eyes that came to me now. I exploded in tears and collapsed to my knees as I cried in heavy, gasping sobs.

Embarrassed by my reaction, I chastised myself: why was I crying? I didn’t know this man. I didn’t know anything about him at all. Logic would say: move on. Forget it. It’s a non-thing.

But it wasn’t, to me. Something in me needed to understand what drove him to take his own life. After all these years, I needed to know more. I needed to know: what happened? What happened next? And here, finally, I had at least part of the answer.

What happened next was that his body was placed here in this cemetery, likely by his brother, and he’d been here ever since. What happened next was what happens after suicide: death. Forever.

I knew that he had been preceded in death by his parents not long before he had died, but his grave was alone, between two strangers. Where was his family? Why wasn’t he buried with them? I cried even harder realizing that he had been buried alone.

I knelt on the grass and cried as long as the tears would come, taking off my sunglasses to wipe my eyes. Streams of black mascara ran down my face and stained my white shirt.

After a time, I stood up to go and casually looked at the names on the surrounding graves and noticed two red granite headstones in the next row: Lee and Ann LeVasseur. I hadn’t seen them when I first found his grave; I’d been too overcome with emotion. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t alone after all.

I wanted to see his grave because I needed to know that he was real. He was more than just the way he died, more than just a troubled girl’s singsong hanging on the September sky.

He was a real human being who battled a lot of demons and lost. He mattered.

It wasn’t Mr. LeVasseur’s suicide that led to my first attempt to take my life five years later. Nor was it his fault when I made a second attempt twenty-five years after that. When I was seventeen, I’d already been living at the bottom of depression with notions of death for longer than I cared to remember. When I was forty-two, the same age he’d been, that same madness had returned, now compounded by addiction.

My seventh grade teacher wouldn’t be the last person I’d know to attempt or die by suicide, but he was the first. I didn’t know him, but I knew his pain.

As I got back in my car, I saw that the couple with the deceased twin was still standing under the tree, near the heart-shaped manicured hedge, putting off their agonizing decision as long as possible. My grief was no match against the awful reality of a dead baby; I could drive away, but for this couple, they would never escape the tortuous agony of losing a child.

And yet – grief is not a competition; we don’t need to compare. There is simply no limit to the amount of sorrow in this world. But allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is the only way to get through it and make our way back towards the light.

Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. Kris completed her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Letting Go of the Why

January 2, 2022
infusion ketamine

by Tammy Richards

As I leaned back into the soft, adjustable recliner I realized that this was it. The potential of the next 45 minutes would either lead to triumph or defeat and if the result was defeat, I was certain I would die. The last 25 years were a compilation of all my successes and failures, and the results of a lifetime of self-doubt and struggle masked by a wicked sense of humor and relentless drive to be the best. But today the stakes were higher — I was exhausted, hopeless, and the pain was unbearable. I had to decide whether I was ready to give up the control I had so desperately clung to and embrace the willingness to let go of the why. I had to decide I wanted to live more than I wanted to be in control.

“This is just the initial dose, and then we’ll increase it from here throughout the first six infusions. Let us know if you are experiencing any nausea, and we can give you something for that. We can’t predict what you will see or experience, but if it becomes distressing, please let us know, and we can help with that as well. Are you ready to start?” the anesthesiologist looked at my masked face hesitantly, and I wondered to myself what the bottom half of his face looked like.

“Yes,” I replied nervously, “I never thought I’d be getting a “Special K” infusion at the age of 48 to try to manage my chronic, soul-sucking depression, but at this point, I’m willing to try anything because I’ve tried everything else. Let’s do it.” The doctor nodded and pushed the initial injection of ketamine into my arm and then started the IV drip.

“Do you feel anything?” he said.

“My hands and feet and lips feel weird,” I think I said, and then everything changed. My body felt warm, but disconnected and as I closed my eyes, the acoustic guitar music in the room became a touchpoint for my consciousness as what I started to see around me took on different shapes and colors, and my perception of time and space began to shift into a place I had never visited in my mind before. Maybe this was the answer I had been searching for — maybe things could change? Dare I hold out hope one more time?

Major depressive disorder has been an uninvited guest in my life since my late teens. While I wasn’t officially diagnosed until my late 20s, the eventual diagnosis explained so many things about the way I have always perceived the world. An entertainer at heart, my greatest hope was that people would like me. In my mind that meant I had to be exceptional, special, better.

In my childhood mind I remember every failure as a stain upon me until I was covered in darkness, disappointment and sadness. Throughout my quest to measure up, I had always fallen short, was never enough, but was somehow too much.

How I envied my younger sisters. They were prettier than I was, and they didn’t seem to care what other people thought of them. I watched them grow up and become confident, beautiful women with amazing children. They seemed so happy with who they were, and lived their lives authentically, while the shadows of impostor and fraud chased me like so many specters.

My first stay in the hospital was after my psychiatrist found out I had stockpiled enough medication to kill myself.

“You have two choices,” my psychiatrist said as I stared at the worn carpet in her office. Do psychiatrists ever change the decor in their offices, I wondered? I wished the plush pillows behind me would somehow suck me into the couch and port me to a place where I didn’t want to die every day, but I remained in the office.

“You can go into the hospital voluntarily, or I will commit you for your own safety,” she looked at me expecting an answer. I didn’t know what to say. All I could think of was the cost. The financial cost, the emotional cost, and the humiliation.

“I guess I will go voluntarily,” I said grudgingly, knowing that the worst was yet to come. Later that day, my husband of eight years dropped me off at the front entrance to the hospital ER

“See you later. I hope you feel better. I love you. I will visit later,” he signed to me before driving away and leaving me to either flee or go into the hospital on my own. My husband was Deaf, and he knew as well as I did that the hospital wouldn’t make communication with him accessible, and I was in no state to interpret for him, despite interpreting being my chosen profession. Just another kick in the teeth watching him struggle to understand what the actual fuck was going on with his wife.

After entering the ER, I was screened, searched for implements I might use to kill myself, and taken to the fifth floor psychiatric ward — a locked ward with patients whose diagnoses ranged from schizophrenia to mild depression and everything in between.

All around me patients in hospital robes and pajamas wandered talking to themselves, to people the rest of us couldn’t see, or sat looking vacantly at something they wished they could reach. I wondered what alternate realities they inhabited and if any of them were better than actual reality. I entered my room and climbed up on the windowsill looking out the window at the parking lot below. If only I could break the window, forever escape would be mine. Like a deep, pounding heartbeat I began to bang my head against the window, willing it to break and for me to plunge downward to freedom.

The next thing I remember is waking up rather groggy and feeling hungry. What had they given me? Images of nurses pulling me from the windowsill and a sharp prick of pain flashed through my mind as I pieced together that they must have tranquilized me like some kind of psychotic racehorse when I wouldn’t/couldn’t stop banging my head against the window.

What now?

It has been 22 years since that hospitalization. Since that time, I have divorced, re-married and now have two teen sons. Through all the medication changes, additional hospitalizations and ever so many treatments of electroshock therapy the depression has been lurking, ready to pounce at the sign of the tiniest crack or the most minor divot in my mental armor.

In 2017, that crack began to appear. Something visceral shifted and I could feel the descent into despair. How could this be happening to me again? What had I done wrong that had sent me back into the place where every day I woke up wishing I hadn’t?

By January 2020 I was back in the hospital. A week there and I felt that all I had done was reaffirmed that I couldn’t live this way anymore. I couldn’t stop thinking about my poor children. The day I checked myself into the hospital my 13-year-old-son was crying and hugging me,

“Honey, it’s ok. I will come back soon. I just need some help right now,” I tried to reassure him and hold back my own tears.

“Mom, I’m not crying about you leaving, I just don’t want to end up like you,” he replied, sobbing.

My heart cracked and broke into sharp shards of glass, too small to piece back together.

“You won’t, honey. You will be fine,” I replied, the guilt and shame overpowering now.

By June 2020, after months of the pandemic and barely being able to crawl out of bed each day, I knew it was only a matter of time before depression would kill me and reduce my family by one.

“I have done everything I can, Ryan. I don’t know what else to do at this point. I’ve been on too many medications to count, shocked my ever-aging brain dozens of times, and done so much therapy I’m surprised you haven’t sent me packing yet!” I complained to my long-time therapist and staunch supporter.

“Tammy, there is one thing that is somewhat new, but you could consider trying. It will take an extraordinary amount of willingness and bravery to try it, but I think you should consider it. There have been a number of very successful trials and studies, and they have shown this treatment can be effective in up to 70% of patients struggling with depression,” Ryan explained.

“What is this magical unicorn treatment that I haven’t yet tried?” I said, sarcastically.

“It’s called ketamine infusion therapy,” he explained.

“Wait, you want me to take Special K — like the party drug??” I was skeptical. Was my therapist seriously telling me I should consider taking a psychedelic drug to alleviate my depression? I was absolutely terrified by this prospect. I have serious control issues. I cannot stand to feel like I am out of control. The idea of taking a party drug, via IV infusion no less, sounded instinctively like a bad idea to me. Here I was at 48 years old, and I had never even been drunk or smoked a joint before! I hadn’t even partaken in THC-laced edibles, though all these things had been legal for years in Oregon.

What if I became so altered that I started doing or saying things I couldn’t remember? Visions of crazy, naked, trippin’ hippies running down the street came to mind. And dare I even have the slightest bit of hope that this treatment would help when so many others had failed in the past?

“What do you think?” Ryan asked as he stared at me through the video monitor as we continued our online session. It seemed like it had been an eternity since I had seen him in person. I secretly wondered if he still existed or if I was just talking to a therapist avatar of some sort that happened to look like Ryan.

“I am terrified. I don’t know if I can take the disappointment and feelings of failure if it doesn’t work for me. My capacity for hope is gone. I just can’t be disappointed again,” I explained.

“You don’t have to hope for anything,” Ryan reassured me, “I’ll hold that hope for you, but I need you to be on your own team, ok?”

Somehow having Ryan be my “hope proxy” was comforting. If this didn’t work, I wouldn’t have to have my own hope crushed, he could just hold it for me. I had to make a critical decision at this point: would my need for control outweigh my desire to live? Would I be able to choose willingness?

I decided that I would try the ketamine therapy. I had nothing left to lose by trying it, and everything to lose if I didn’t.

Ketamine infusion therapy is done in a six-infusion series over the course of two to three weeks. The dose is titrated up over the course of that time until the patient starts to experience clear dissociation which is the effect that the doctor is trying to achieve. All treatments are overseen by a nurse monitoring vital signs and a board-certified anesthesiologist who administers the infusion.

By the second infusion, I could feel a small shift in mood. I felt the boulder on my chest had decreased in size just a bit, and while I could still hear her, that horrible internal voice that railed against me, telling me that I was worthless, stupid, and vile, was more of a whisper instead of a shriek. And then, during the fourth infusion, things broke wide open.

A tiny crack appeared. It was slight but real, and with each failure, it grew until I poured out of it leaving myself empty and hollow.

I knew this feeling well. The innumerable fissures that I had carefully patched and spackled so as not to reveal the damage and breakage to anyone because I couldn’t let them see the imperfections and so much damage.

Sometimes the voices were so loud they overtook me in waves as rough and surly as any hurricane; screaming to me of my worthlessness and failure until all I heard was death and wished so hard it would take me. I cried as I believed the mind that tricked me, telling me lies so convincing that I couldn’t hear anything else because I KNEW it was right.

For years, I awoke, bitterly disappointed that I woke up at all. Wanting so desperately to end the screaming and hate and loathing that consumed me. But even when I tried to help it along, death wouldn’t come and teased me by saying I couldn’t even get that right.

But one day, I was so deep in the ocean that I couldn’t hear the screaming anymore and I floated upward seeing the light at the surface. I didn’t dare hope because hope was for suckers, and I had been fooled so many times before, but I pushed toward the surface as hard as I could until I broke through and was engulfed by the sun. I smiled, with genuine joy because the voices stayed quiet, and my mind didn’t tell me how stupid and worthless I was, and I could finally breathe, at least for now because something inside had popped.

The fissures and cracks had been made watertight again, and I felt myself inside myself again, not leaking out onto the floor and into the despair I usually occupied. There was finally space again.

It was after this fourth infusion that I began to allow in hope, and I made the choice to be willing to accept that I may never know why I experience such profound depression. I just do, and that explanation must be enough.

As Ryan has said to me many times, everyone struggles sometimes, it is learning how to struggle without suffering that is what we all need.

Tammy Richards lives in Portland, Oregon (a proud, life-long Oregonian) with her husband of 18 years and her two sons. She has served as a certified American Sign Language Interpreter for the past 31 years. When she is not writing or interpreting, she enjoys volunteering for access-related social justice causes (such as interpreting for inaccessible YouTube or Livestream content) and participating in endurance cycling events with her AIDS/LifeCycle team: Team Portland. She is an avid reader and is also a thriving child-taxi, driving her kids around to their various sporting activities (when we are not in lockdown). She has three mini-pigs: Zena, Zorro, and Zoey, who she adores. Tammy has trained Zena as a therapy pig, so she makes appearances in special needs classrooms and nursing homes where she visits, does tricks, teaches people about pet pigs, and gets lots of treats and belly rubs. Tammy’s memoir, “Toward Not Away: A Journey Through Depression to a Values-Driven Life” is currently in the works. You can follow her on Instagram @towardnotaway and on Facebook at @towardnotaway. 

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Guest Posts, Self Image

Of Delicate Girls and Frozen Yogurt

December 29, 2021
yogurt

by Eve Mankoff

A weekly massive frozen yogurt pie, topped with whipped cream, might have been excessive. But my twenty-year-old son, home from college, and my other two teenagers bearing their own disappointments, demanded comfort at the start of the shut down in March 2020. My kids grew up making late night runs to The Bigg Chill yogurt shop, and the nostalgia imbued in those flavors was a welcome distraction in uncertain times.

I dug right in with them until there was nothing but buttery crumbs in a pie tin.

Once upon a time, I had a more complicated relationship with food. I could scarcely enjoy it, laden as indulgence was with judgement.

As I have watched them emerge, unapologetically themselves, I have tried to believe that I have created a home where my children, especially my daughter, eschewed that critical voice, the one that had told me to be smaller.

***

Ten years ago, when my daughter Caroline was eight, we went to a Jonas Brothers concert with friends. The afternoon of the show, Jeannine and I let the kids splash in the Hyatt pool and eat chicken fingers from the grill before dripping through the lobby as they raced to get ready. Caroline and Cole had been friends since preschool but got together less often now because boys play with boys and girls with girls, or so they thought. However, when we, their moms, eager to hang out, enticed them with a live show featuring their favorite Camp Rock stars, they fell back into the easy friendship they’d enjoyed as toddlers.

Back then, Caroline had struggled to relinquish the long, jingly Talking Stick, enamored with the bells inside and with holding court. Cole, more shy, had taken his time to warm up before he shared a few well thought-out words before passing the implement to another child with relief.

The amphitheatre seats rose up the hill and sectioned out like rays against mountain silhouettes. In the front row, Jeannine and I hung back, eager to talk about jobs and frustrating exes. But we found ourselves endlessly distracted, our eyes drawn to the two small bodies bobbing next to us like untethered ocean buoys.

The music rumbled to a start. The lights lifted. The air filled with a hum and the vibration of bodies readying to let loose. When eighteen year-old Demi Lovato’s husky contralto pierced the din, the audience froze, spellbound, by the delicate girl with the giant voice.

But a heaviness gathered in my chest as I took in the child star, her thick hair swirling about, her tiny body writhing, electrified by the adoring crowd, as her voice strained to reach impossible heights. I saw something in her face, in her bearing, that I recognized. Jeannine whispered, “What a powerhouse!” My mind went elsewhere.

New York circa 1987, I was  barely twenty, a junior in college. I was  on-stage playing a secretary on roller skates in The Memorandum by Vaclav Havel. Let me clarify that I was  playing a piece of furniture – I was  wheeled off between my scenes. I got the role because I was  angular.  I was “perfectly cast,” said one review. The play is about conformity. On the stark set, my paper-thin body and white blouse blended in.

Having had an eating disorder since at least age thirteen when I had no place to share an abundance of sad feelings, I learned to contain myself. I was perfect for blending in. But in earlier years, I needed food to distract me, and I just couldn’t stop eating which put me in an impossible bind.

As a teenager Frozen yogurt was on my “yes” list despite its sugar content and calorie count. The limited number of fat-free varieties, before there was every kind of option, saved it from the other list, the off-limits one, whose foods would make me fat. Pizza, nachos, movie theater popcorn, and everything else that my friends consumed without a second thought were on the “no” list.

My caloric intake was always running in my head. The numbers seemed to rise as I calculated what I could afford behind the counter at TCBY (The Country’s Best Yogurt), working out my eating for the day and how I might stay within bounds to avoid the purge. The TCBY store on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica lay across from Fong Wong, a sliver of a Chinese takeout restaurant whose spicy fumes of Sweet and Sour Chicken wafted in and reminded me of a time before I measured my value in how small I could become.

But the truth is, bulimics knew that cold creamy desserts came back up easily. They had no sharp edges or bulk to induce gagging, and caused fewer headaches and less frequent bloodshot eyes. To this day, I eye tiny women ingesting gigantic containers of the cold, milky treat with suspicion, and  concern. 

When I went to college, I found the East Coast version of my Los Angeles favorite. Tasty D-Lite was sold in narrow shops, every twenty blocks or so in Manhattan, wedged between the stately buildings that characterize the architecture whose beauty and grandeur had lured me to a new life when I visited in high school, desperate to start over, determined to move past obsession. But instead I got worse and I latched onto this food full of nothing.

Tasty D-Lite flavors had names like “Angel Food Cake” and “Banana ‘n Peanut Butter.” They sounded interesting but all tasted the same. However, I didn’t care because they  had so few calories. As I trudged from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village, trying to burn fat, I sucked down quart after quart of the insubstantial stuff, tricking my mind into liking it, tricking my body into thinking it was fuel.

I had traded the binging and purging of my teenage years for a version of starvation. And when I lost my period and my brain started to black out, I thought I had triumphed. Because I was thin.

At family holidays like Thanksgiving, I bounced up to fill my plate wearing my Laura Ashley dress, my hair in two thick braids. But as I walked back to my chair, I felt the weight of eyes on my food, on my little body that was fleshy in spots, and heard words that were repeated year after year: “ Are you going to eat all of that?” Or if I took seconds: “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

These admonishments came from Aunt Loraine, with her bleached bouffant hair and tar stained fingers, who never had a nice word for anyone, and whom no one told to shut up because feelings were not what mattered.

Then others chimed in, all of them worried about what my body would become. Worried that if I was fat I would never get a man. Because that was what mattered. So as I grew up I learned to hollow myself out, to become devoid of feelings and empty of food.

That night at the concert Caroline’s small soft body gyrated in an open expression of joy. Un-self-conscious, she drank in a near perfect moment. Up late under a blanket of stars, she was so close to Demi, she must have almost felt the warmth of her breath. But next to my daughter, I only felt an uncomfortable tug as I watched the older, celebrated girl, the one on stage who seemed to be trying so hard, who produced that haunting tone, so beautiful but tense that it sounded like it would shatter. Her tiny frame seemed overwrought from the effort to be seen while also threatening to disappear.

In my own life I had a turning point.

It happened in my mid-twenties at a  “Hollywood” party, in New York, after the worst of my eating disorder, but before it was resolved. I was with a “Hollywood Guy” who felt safe in that world. His gender protected him from predation, from immolation. He was a success. This man and I grew up together in LA and had a love affair the June when we were sixteen. At that time, we each had other relationships in disrepair so our affair  was secret by design. We spent late nights talking on the phone, kissing on his little boy bed, and driving the hills above the Pacific Ocean in my blue car.

In our twenties, we came together in New York, hoping to rekindle what started  that illicit summer.

“Hollywood Guy” left the key with the doorman. I let myself in and saw his success, his spacious apartment, the expensive decor. Feeling awkward, I stood next to the coffee table and reached for a decorative book, wondering who this man was. I retracted as his key jiggered in the lock, as though I had been caught. And in walked a person I did not recognize. Not the boy with the open face, but someone more contrived, in his khaki pants and his moussed up hair. However, his hug was so warm… I tried to settle in.

“Um, we have to go to this party. Is that okay? It’s a work thing. I’m sorry.” But he seemed giddy, not sorry, and determined to show me his world, hoping I would fit right in. He so wanted this to work, he had told me this on the phone while I lay on my bed in Providence, where I was in medical school.

Cornered, in his space, I said “Sure. Why not?” Yet somehow I knew better.

Dressed in slimming black under my thick winter coat, I slid into the taxi and off we went to a party. The heavy elevator doors parted. I braced myself to enter the room with the mannequin-thin ladies draped like scarves across the men and on the various couches.

Everything in me rejected this scene, this cast of emaciated ladies surrounding the long table with food none of the women would touch, women who seemed hired for effect, for decoration, and for men who would eat their fill. It became harder and harder to breathe as I took on the dark wood floors with weakening legs. In that instant I  flashed back to my own shame about eating, about my mushy little body, around my own family’s table, and the gazes that warned me that I would always be alone if I didn’t  control my eating. I gripped my guy’s arm for support as I whispered in his ear that I was done there.  “But I have to stay,” he replied. “Just a little bit longer” he pleaded

I remembered him at sixteen, on his bed, so sure of himself. As we listened to his music, I stretched out  beside him to escape my chaos and rest in his natural male confidence. We ate cookies just out of the oven as I pretended to be normal, especially about food.

In 2006, when I was 39, with three young children, Caroline just four, I left medicine to open a boutique in L.A. By then I was in the practice of celebrating women’s bodies, including my own, by offering clothes from zero to plus-sized. One block south was The Bigg Chill store. The owner, Diane, would come in to make conversation or try on a blouse. And I would stop at The Bigg Chill for the treat of the day. She watched my kids grow, their sticky faces wearing her flavors. I watched as her daughter started serving customers from behind the counter. Diane was proud of what she had built, and the customers kept coming. I watched girls and women frequent the shop, some obviously struggling inside their skeletal bodies, and I wondered if Diane thought about frozen yogurt and eating disorders. But I never got comfortable enough to ask her.

***

Recently Demi Lovato dispensed with comfort and took to Twitter, another stage where so many of us, older now, perhaps addictively gather. There she accused The Bigg Chill of complicity with the diet culture that pervades Los Angeles. Over photos of low-carb snacks highlighted by a cherry-red sign, “Eat me, Guilt free,” she declared that she was triggered. But she also offered more:

“I still to this day have a hard time walking into a froyo shop, ordering yogurt and being content with it and keeping it down.”

For so many years I had lived with the feelings Demi Lovato expressed so simply, so accurately, that even all these years later, I nearly gasped when I read them on Twitter. Right there for everyone to see, she exposed herself, in ways I never could. And she paid a price. Demi Lovato was accused of causing “unnecessary drama” and of being “narcissistic.”

***

In “Shameful: Women who write about their pain suffer a double shaming: once for getting injured, twice for their act of self-exposure,” Katherine Angel describes a re-wounding that women endure when they bare themselves.

“There is a circulation of shame; triggering pangs of identificatory shame in the reader could lead to convulsions of repulsion and spasms of contempt for the woman who’s committing her shame to paper.(1)”

Share “too much” and the narrative may be rejected “like a baton that no-one wants.”

That was my experience growing up.

At the same age as Caroline was when she danced solo on stage, her body vibrating as she lost herself in music, her feelings pouring out through every gesture, exposing everything, I was told to stop eating, to rein myself in.

As the delicate girl on stage retreated, the Jonas Brothers plunged into harmonies and gazed at the crowd with puppy dog eyes, their faces now massive on giant screens, wholly comfortable with their awesome projection. My daughter’s soft arm beside me was still taut with excitement.

And I was comforted, in that moment, that she hadn’t yet noticed how sometimes girls just disappear.

  1. Aeon.co. April 23, 2021

Eve Louise Makoff is an internal medicine and palliative care physician. She has had personal and narrative medicine pieces published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, PULSE, the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, CMAJ, and soon the Annals of Emergency Medicine. She is studying narrative medicine at Columbia University.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Guest Posts, Self Image, Self Love

The Breast of Me

December 23, 2021
statue breast

by Isidra Mencos

She’s looking straight at the camera, standing relaxed and confident in the front patio, right by the gate that opens to Avenida del Tibidabo. Her blond hair in a pixie cut suits her petite features. It’s hard to know if it’s late summer or fall based on her lovely but indecisive top. A thin jersey snug to the body, it’s sleeveless, but has a turtleneck. The color is lemon chiffon, a very pale yellow. You can clearly see two tender mounds and the dark whisper of nipples through the fabric, but she’s unsuspecting. At 9 years old, she’s not yet aware of the power of breasts.

A few years later, when she finds this photo in her brother’s drawer, Nabokov rushes to mind. Oblivious Lolita, this girl in the see-through top may have aroused the imagination of creepy old men, or even her siblings, with the suggestive innocence only a young virgin can harbor.

I had breasts. They lived on my chest. But I didn’t mind them. They were mine, but they were not me.

Slow dancing, lights off, shutters closed. Summer heat banned outdoors, fire in her 12-year-old body. Pressed from shoulders to knees to the boy she likes. Not even a pin could come between them. Let’s stay together says Al Green. She wants to whisper it in his ear. The song ends, he goes away, another boy, one she doesn’t like, lines up. Hands on his shoulders pressing backwards, waist tense with the effort to recoil. Song after song a boy in line, seeking to mold the soft putty of her breasts with their tight embrace. Her flat-chested friend, they dance with at arm’s length, their one-track twitchy minds at ease.

I had breasts. They lived on my chest. They were small but they ranked me high. We were getting acquainted.

She’s 15, her breasts grown full size. Not too big, not too small. Perfectly proportioned with her body. Catcalls follow her from construction site to construction site. She feels flattered.

She’s 18. “You have beautiful breasts,” says her boyfriend. “What do you mean?” she asks. “They are round, soft, perky, nice size,” he says. She thinks he’s silly. Breasts are breasts are breasts.

She’s in her 20s, then in her 30s. She discovers drinking. She discovers Barcelona’s underbelly. She discovers salsa. She discovers dancing. She discovers lingerie. She discovers seducing. She discovers a part of her that lay sleeping under hundreds of Sunday masses, confessions, and repressions.

I had breasts. They lived on my chest. I carried them like a banner. They sparked desires and delights.

Early forties, a suckling alien takes residence at her udder. She alternates between bliss and resentment. Eleven months go by. The mouth expelled, a warm little hand takes its place. Seeking refuge and comfort, her bosom his womb, the last thread of a union that will forever be missed.

I had breasts. They lived on my chest. They performed miracles. They were his.

She’s 49. “This will be a blip in the story of your life,” says the nurse. How can having a breast chopped off be just a blip? A polka dot pattern in the milk ducts is just pre-cancer, they say. Better safe than sorry, they say. It’s your lucky day, they say post-op. No chemo, no radio.

The last few years of rebuffs unspool in her mind. They sagged a bit, the traitors. Lights off. Hands off. Don’t come anywhere near.

(She could have cupped them in her hands like fluffy newborn puppies, presented them like an offering. Instead she concealed them like a blemish. All that bliss missed out.)

Indignities pile up.

Reconstruction. Pretend nipple with pretend tattooed color. Lifting of the other breast. Different sizes. Different shapes. No more diaphanous, delicate lace. Bras like armor.

Lights off. Hands off. Don’t come anywhere near.

I had a fake and a real breast. They lived on my chest, but they occupied my whole body.

She’s 54. Hardened scars encapsulate the implant. It sits hard as a billiard ball, three inches higher than it should. That last dash of her, the skin, exiled from blood flow, frosts like shaved ice. It brings tremors to her mind when she lies in bed, this unyielding blotched orb.

New surgery. New implant. New scar. This one will crinkle her skin, but she doesn’t know it yet. Right breast reduced to match the size of the fake left. She will lose sensation in the nipple, the only real one she has, but she doesn’t know it yet. Symmetry improves, but truth settles. She will never be the same.

A few years go by. She grows into the woman she was supposed to be. Brave. Ignited from within. She makes peace with all of her, past, present and future. Even the pain of lost ecstasy fades away.

Pleasure awaits on the crook of her elbow, on the back of her knee, in the meet of the eyes.

I have some sort of breasts. They live on my chest. But I don’t mind them. They are mine, but they are not me.

Originally from Spain, Isidra Mencos has lived in the US since 1992.  She has published in The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Penmen Review, Front Porch Journal, Newfound, WIRED, and Jane Friedman’s Blog among others. Her essay My Books and I was listed as Notable in The Best American Essays Anthology. Her debut memoir Promenade of Desire—A Barcelona Memoir will come out Fall 2022 at She Writes Press. 

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Family, Guest Posts, memories

Future Past

December 18, 2021
portland maine lighthouse

by Casey Walsh

I’ve been craving just one good beach day all summer, nothing to do but lie in the sun and gaze at the peaceful horizon. There’s something hopeful about looking out at the sea, as though you can see the past and the future, all there in the shimmering expanse of blue. Beyond the children on the sand and in the shallow water, past the more capable swimmers and surfers and the small vessels, ocean kayaks and canoes and catamarans, farther even than the cargo and cruise ships miles out, there is, at some point, nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination. No end in sight.

I’ve finally had the day I dreamed of—two of them in fact—at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. My husband, Kevin, and I spent a couple of days there and two more in Newburyport, just what we’ve needed as fall closes in.  Now we settle in for a meandering drive home, including a planned detour north along the coast.

Leaving Newburyport’s historic downtown, I assume my role as navigator to Kevin’s as driver. When we first began this alliance, my task typically involved paper maps. Now, though, it’s a dance of devices. As we drive over the Merrimack River on Route 1, I plug the address into the dashboard GPS, and while it calculates, I alternate between checking the Maps app and the radar on my iPhone. Glancing up to admire the boats in the inland harbor, I plan our route and hope the weather will hold while we explore Portsmouth, NH.

For the past few days, I’ve been focused on local treks, how to get from our hotel into town or from one hotel to the next. But as we turn off onto 1a—the scenic road along the coast—I take a broader look at our surroundings. It surprises me we’re so close to Hampton Beach, the crowded honky-tonk seaside scene my first husband and I had thought was fun back in the dark ages, before kids, when we still believed we’d be together forever. It won’t take Kevin and me long to reach Portsmouth. We’ll get a feel for the city, browse the shops, and grab a bite to eat before heading home to Albany.

Scrolling up on my phone as we drive, I see the places where my high school friends spent yearly summer vacations with their families: Kittery, York, Ogunquit, Wells, Old Orchard Beach, places I only dreamed of. I scroll still more, farther up than I remember, and there it is: South Portland.

Suddenly, it’s fall 1997 again, and I’m driving east across Massachusetts, then up into New Hampshire with my oldest son, Eric. We reached the outskirts of Portsmouth, then ventured on into Maine, past exits for beach towns, and finally arrived in South Portland. I was instantly enchanted by this small city, with its cobblestone streets and cyclists and parks, as we drove along the mouth of the Fore River. I pictured Eric here in the fall, riding his bike to a job in town, making a little cash to keep him afloat.

Eric and I drove out of downtown and out toward the water, where the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse marks a dangerous obstruction on the west side of the main shipping channel into Portland Harbor. Like most lighthouses, its distinctive beam patterns, varied sequences of light and dark, not only warn sailors of hazards but help them find their position as well.

Beautiful as it is, the lighthouse was not our destination. We were here to see the campus of South Portland Technical College, where the lighthouse is located on a breakwater at the tip.

Earlier in the year, I’d ventured into Eric’s high school guidance office asking for information about colleges for him. While the counselors offered personalized support to top-tier students, they paid little attention to kids like my son—those who had caused more headaches than pride for faculty in recent semesters. Screw ups…I believe that was the technical term. I was fairly certain the only way we’d figure out the right direction was for me to show up in person, put my best intelligent, efficient foot forward, and ask all the right questions. Essentially, I would stand in for Eric: patiently navigate the information, lay out his options, and apply just the right spin to help him see all the world could offer outside of Cambridge, our small upstate New York village.

Predictably, the counselors were busy, busy, busy, but they could steer me to a computer with a program that allowed a filtered search. Carefully, as though his life depended on it, I entered my criteria, channeling Eric as best I could: Industrial Drafting and Design. Dorms. Intercollegiate soccer program. Bingo. South Portland Technical College it is, I thought, within driving distance yet far enough to allow him to see what’s out there.

I gathered materials and made my pitch. Eric was surprisingly enthusiastic, devouring the catalogs, and soon we were planning a visit. I remember the tour, Eric realizing he’d had such good preparation at Cambridge, having already taken many courses in high school not available to some of the other students on the tour. And the coach was bursting with enthusiasm for what Eric would add to the team. All spring phone calls and letters arrived from the college, encouraging Eric to keep up his grades and updating him on who had been recruited, what promise lay ahead.

“By the time I graduate, I will have made so many new friends, snowboarded on the toughest mountains, and played college soccer,” he’d said with his trademark grin, slipping into the future past tense that swelled with optimism.

“Ah, but first you have to do well on that chemistry exam,” I’d teased.

From Eric, in characteristic form: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

After years of guiding him through life closer to home, it seemed he, too, was ready to broaden his view to a world that just might include South Portland.

None of this would ever be. In the end, Eric settled on a local community college rather than leave his on-again off-again girlfriend, who had somehow completely drowned his ability to imagine a future on his own. That semester was a bust; partying and killing time killed all of his focus and enthusiasm for life. Afterward, he floundered for a while, searching for a path until he chose the Navy. He scored so well on the ASVAB that he was selected for aircraft technician school in Pensacola, FL, following completion of naval basic training in Illinois. If only he would stay the course.

Yet each of these options was somehow part of the tornado of trouble, the huge disturbance that had already begun its wreckage and was simply too big to fail. Though they offered brief glimmers of possibility, it was obvious even then that they were never to be. There would be stressors of a divorce that no amount of my own intelligence or efficiency could allay, adults who let him down, bad decisions and bad luck. There would be factors even I, the better part of two decades later, couldn’t begin to understand. Ultimately, a tragic crash would end his life.

Still, I remember so well how South Portland, where it all began, had a different vibe entirely. It seemed its lighthouse—which had protected seafaring travelers on Casco Bay from all sorts of dangers for more than a century—had the power to keep my son safe as well. But first he would have had to get there. Once Eric had turned away from that beam of hope, he lost his way. With nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination, there was no end in sight.

I squirm in my seat next to Kevin, who is oblivious to the places I’ve gone in my mind. Staring out the window at the sand and the waves, I feel the lump form in my throat, feel the tears form, hot and insistent. I let them wash over me. I’ve learned there’s no use in the fight, anyway. It’s a mystery to me, how I can feel so resolved at times, accepting of Eric’s life and of his passing as what was. What is. Then come days like this one, when everything is so present, invading my thoughts, refusing to share space with my current life, teasing me with visions of the life he never had.

I think of something I heard years ago—how sadness is missing what has been lost, but sorrow is missing what will never be—and I’m overcome with a rare wave of anxiety, something I haven’t felt in quite this way since the day Eric dashed out the front door that one last time. If only I could reach back and change one little thing, it all so easily could have happened for him. He’d been so damn close. I picture Kevin and me driving to Maine to visit Eric and his wife and outdoor-loving, risk-taking kids living out their happy lives in an idyllic seaside town. It tortures me.

I sit silently for a while as we drive along the coast, wallowing really, and fantasize about the student Eric could have been—living in the dorms, playing on the soccer team, making new friends on campus and in town, enjoying the ocean views that might have inspired him as they do me. Caught in the past, I’ve been exercising my best Google-fu, frantically searching for the online home of the place that had once drawn us in, frustrated that SPTC seems to have vanished along with the life I imagined for my son, and for me. Using the lighthouse as the beacon it was meant to be, I finally locate Southern Maine Community College on the web, the same campus anointed with a new name, another entity entirely. How like my own life, it strikes me, completely rewritten, though some of the old remains in different form. Still, the college will never again be what it was on that day, at that time.

And neither will I.

I notice we’re about to reach Portsmouth.  Kevin and I are on vacation, after all, and I owe it to him to at least attempt to come up for air. “Hey, listen to this,” I offer, feigning enthusiasm, hoping the feelings will follow.  “They even have a comic book on their website describing the lighthouse and its origins.”

Step Into History!  the title commands.

If only it were history, I think, not a future imagined but never fulfilled.

I close the app, drop the phone into my bag, and turn my eyes to the road ahead.

Casey Walsh is a writer and former speech-language pathologist living with her husband in West Sand Lake, New York. She writes about life at the intersection of grief and joy and embracing the in-between. Her work has appeared in The Good Men Project; Fresh.Ink, The Under Review; Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine; Barren Magazine; Brevity Blog; and ModernLoss, among others. Casey’s essays also appear at TheFHFoundation.org, an organization dedicated to the genetic cardiac disorder that affects her family. Learn more at www.caseymulliganwalsh.com.  Casey is currently seeking representation for her memoir, The Full Catastrophe.

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Guest Posts, memories, Trauma

Beyond The Haunting

August 17, 2021
trauma

by Micah Stover

My favorite auntie told me when I was little to be careful. She said it with a wink, but I knew it was a warning. She told me not to be scared of boys. That really the girls are the powerful ones because we know things. But knowing things can be dangerous.

*

Trauma spreads through my bloodlines like bamboo, strong and supple. Sometimes dressed as madness. Sometimes addiction. Sometimes violence. It wears many faces and has many names, but mostly it lies hidden with everything evocative of shame.

It took me years and much work to understand that inside everything labeled as trauma rests a jewel – a seeing, a knowing, a power. Intuition is the key that unlocks that house of divinity. Inside that house, there is no battle for control. There is only truth and clarity. Inside that house, I sleep like a baby and walk like a warrior in tune with the earth. Inside that house, my life is my own and I understood it to be a gift, not a curse.

*

This was the truth as it was revealed to me under the elixir of the great mycelium and her perfect, little flowering body. How little I understood about this vast, robust network under the soil, communicating, connecting, severing, mending, ending and beginning. Everything. All of life held clearly here in the womb of nature where she spreads and pulses her rhythms out into the world, like a woman in labor contracting with life and possibilities. My aunties were midwives. They knew all these things and whispered them in my ears.

When the psilocybin carried me down into the dirt, into the center of all that is living, she showed me the intricate weave of my ancestors. In a voice familiar, loving and firm, she insisted my self-concept deconstruct. She repeated this over and over again, until it was all I knew. Until my ego completely dissolved returning me to the earth from which I’d come. Then it became clear how subservience and humility rendered so little space for agency. How rage filled in the spaces where potential might otherwise have been.

I saw myself inside the construct of time and generations, chasing the truth like an elusive thread. I was the canary in the coal mine of my lineage, my karmic inheritance clear. I’d come to sing a song, to seek and speak the truth where all the other women before me had been silenced. I grabbed this thread woven into the essence of me, and I started to work.

Deep down in the belly of the earth it was apparent how much had been hidden and buried in the small cemetery with dilapidated fence and hand carved tombstones, sitting just behind Grandma’s old farmhouse.  The garden, fertile and ripe, with succulent tomatoes popping off the vine, tasting more like a fruit than a vegetable as they toppled like offerings onto the graves. Death and life juxtaposed, swirling together in the soil, side by side. The lush and loss represented in equal measure. My cousin commanded the four-wheeler like a master at age eleven while I clung to his waist, pink frock and blonde curls trailing in the wind. A small shiver on my spine as we whizzed past the stretch of cemetery where all the spirits moaned and grasped at my ankles.

Etched in the family code was reverence to a severe god who required we reject our desires and curiosities. Feeling sorry was inherent to being conscious. I was raised in this context to speak earnestly but in code, to tell half-truths and leave the rest behind. I was taught to live my life as an apology and required to subvert my power in attempt to find a place in a world that was not ever mine.

*

I never met Cecil, my paternal grandfather, though he visits sometimes in my sleep. He was dead before I came along, buried in that cemetery out back. My grandmother visited him daily, loyal beyond time to a man she loved almost as deeply as she despised. His stories linger large even after all this time. Charismatic and unhinged, he was prone to episodic drunken outbursts before the war. His body returned, but not his spirit. His spirit was a casualty into the wasteland of unresolved PTSD. He returned taunting death, begging for an escape that would stick. When he was almost fifty, the doctor came to unplug the machines keeping his barely breathing body alive. The black cancer had spread to his lungs from his heart leaving the entire chest cavity a shadow. He left behind lots of babies and a teenage wife who couldn’t drive or read.

He is the dark man I see sometimes in my dreams, appearing like a hunter, seeking me out. Initially his shadow evoked a shiver, but these days, he wanes and turns to walk before running away. My body in this dream is also black, more iridescent than dark or opaque. I move lithe, strong and equally foreboding, approaching him dead on. I am a large, sensual cat in the twilight. I am not here to hunt. I have come to protect and preserve myself, my cubs, the lineage that is now mine. I’ve come to retrieve something sacred and pure from a black hole of ancestral pain.

For a moment, Cecil and my eyes meet, and an inexplicable recalibration transpires with our gaze locked. We remain transfixed until his black shadow shrinks to the size of a small boy far more frightened of me than I of him. His spirit begins to pulse little specks of red blood from a heart that used to beat. Cecil had come all this way for salvation, not conquest. Salvation was not mine to give, but there was something universal I could offer him. I could tell him he’s forgiven. As a mother, learning to soothe a scared little boy, out of control, I said simply: “You’re safe now. The struggle is done.”

It turns out my canary song was more a lullaby than a cry for help. All I needed to do was let love loom larger than fear and replace caution with courage.

*

Cecil raised Richard, my father, third of eight kids born into poverty and chaos. In the back hills of Tennessee where my father was raised, his pedigree was well known. Because there were so many of them and because their charisma and epic feuds ricocheted through the corn fields, nothing was really secret. The shotgun rang out like a sheet of music to accompany the family score. Richard was raised by ghosts, damaged spirits above and below the earth.

He made his way out of the wreckage by identifying two goals – stay sober and make money. His money created a different life for me than he had known. Though his sobriety did not. He still lived from the haunted place that devoured love and left another kind of scarcity in its wake.

*

Richard’s goals were well set before he met my mother. My mother was equally smart in different ways – an intellectual, not a survivalist. No trauma swirled inside her. By contrast, her idyllic childhood left her with no sense of all that could possibly go wrong.

They bore me not from rage, but neither from clear intent. Love can also lend accidental objects. This was my predicament, nestled between a mother who wanted a baby and father who was terrified of passing on his pain. His rejection of me was also a matter of his love, a deep desire not to hurt me as he’d been hurt. I understand this knee jerk response better now as a mother myself. Though as a girl what I felt most was loneliness, stuck in the landmine between them, their squabbles and projections. Their unconsciousness, almost my inheritance.

The child me needed a bad guy and a good guy. Someone to be angry at and someone to save. The adult me understands what the child could not. A woman without voice and boundaries will always believe she needs someone other than herself.  And a little boy longing to be loved will raise a little girl in search of the same. The adult me now knows I was always enough, and they did the best they could. There are no binaries.

Trauma does many things. It cultivates your intuition, your ability to read people and the environment. It leaves you lonely, but never bored. It makes you resourceful and creative, albeit potentially and periodically manic. It gives you stories to tell, if you can find the courage to tell them. My sons gave me cause to bury the ghosts, to find a way to turn tragedy to triumph, to work with the pain rather than resist it.

I’m not the same kind of midwife my aunties were. But I’ve learned how to birth certain things. How to take hurt and transmute it into something different. How to take bitter and make it sweet. How to find the little overlap where shame and blame give way to empathy and forgiveness.

The tiniest voice buried deep inside me had much to say and was not so tiny after all. A tickle in the way back of my throat, followed by something that felt like choking. Ancestral hands constricting the airways, begging not to be shamed. Then something that was half cough, half growl, barreled forward from the depths and what came out was my life. A story about moving from pious to righteous. A story being rewritten in real time.

Raised by evangelicals on a farm in rural Tennessee, Micah Stover is now far from home in Mexico where she resides with her family and works as an integrative support therapist with trauma survivors. Micah is currently writing and revising a memoir, chronicling the path to heal intergenerational trauma and PTSD with MDMA, psilocybin and guided psychotherapy.

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

Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, parenting, parents

Driving With Mom

August 15, 2021
car

by Susan Cohen

The house is bathed in black. There are no lights to guide me.  I move slowly, step by step on the icy walkway covered with snow, clinging to the iron railing.  When I reach the landing, I stamp the snow off my boots and ring the doorbell.

I hear the quiet, gentle, familiar sound of the chimes echoing through the hall and then wait patiently for the lights to flip on and to hear the sounds of footsteps on the carpet.  But minutes later, the house is still dark.

The car is sitting in the driveway covered with a layer of snow, and I don’t see any fresh footprints along the walkway.  My mother never goes to bed before the 9:00 movie.  My heart beats faster, remembering how last winter she was anchored like in her chair, robotically bringing a cigarette to her lips, one after the other.

Reaching into the ceramic pot through a clump of gray snow, I feel the sharp edge of the key and then try to push the front door open with a firm shove. It resists opening as if it’s frozen shut, and I need to muster up all my strength until it finally gives in.  I wonder when the door was opened last.

“Anybody Home? Mom?”

The electric radiator is clicking away, struggling to heat the air through a film of dust. I fight the urge to sneeze.

I am beginning to regret my decision to hitchhike home to retrieve the backdrop for “Midsummer’s Night Dream.”  I came without warning because I didn’t want my mother to get excited, make a fuss, and start shopping and cooking, but I forgot after one year at college that she had a habit of folding inside herself during the cold dark days of winter.

I slide open the kitchen door, and I see my mother surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke.   She doesn’t jump up, shout my name in surprise and wrap me in her arms.  Instead, she is staring at the upper left-hand corner where the kitchen cabinet meets the ceiling.   Deep in concentration, her eyebrows meet in the middle of her forehead, and her eyelashes flutter as if she is dreaming sitting upright in her chair.

The plan was to take her to a restaurant for dinner and then borrow her car to drive to the summer cottage where the backdrop is stuffed in a trunk in her bedroom. But I can’t leave her this way.  I decide to take her with me. Perhaps the memories of sticky hazy afternoons dangling her feet into the lake from the dock will reignite and warm her spirit.

After I rinse and load dishes in the dishwasher and scrub away fried egg glued onto a frying pan, I sit opposite her at the kitchen table.  I push aside a burning cigarette that’s dangerously close to an open newspaper.

She startles when I gently touch her hand.

“You want to drive with me to the summer cottage?”

Her gaze moves down from the ceiling and but she doesn’t look at me. It’s more like she sees through me.

“It would be nice to get out of the house, don’t you think?”

I pat her hand gently. She nods, gets up from her chair, and slowly heads towards the coat closet.  This is a good sign.

I watch her quietly as she slips on the same ankle-length mink coat she has been wearing for over thirty years. Miraculously preserved, it’s still soft and shiny, and I feel an impulse to pet it, just like I did when I was a child.

Thrusting her hands into the deep pockets of her coat, she pulls out a red wool hat with a pom-pom and a brightly striped scarf that I wore when I was in junior high. If she was pushing a shopping cart, she could be mistaken for a homeless person. On a good day, I could tell her I am calling the fashion police, and she would laugh.

In the car, we sit on the icy cold seats and put on our seat belts. I crank the heater all the way up.  A chill from the night air seeps in as my Mom opens her window a small crack and lights up a cigarette.

She blinks as she exhales as if the smoke is stinging her eyes.  I am waiting for her to ask about my studies or ask if I am seeing someone.  As much as I long to hear her voice, I’m not in a mood to answer either question. All I hear is the purr of the fan.

Suddenly she giggles.  I don’t know why she’s laughing.  It’s silly to visit a summer home in the dead of winter, but I wouldn’t call it funny.  My grip grows stronger on the wheel until my knuckles turn white as I drive down the ramp and merge into the middle lane of the highway.

“Hope you’re in shape. We have to hike through the snow to our back door.”

She’s doesn’t turn to face me but keeps her gaze straight ahead at twelve o’clock.

“Have you been to the summer cottage in the winter before?”

I am afraid she has been hypnotized by watching the white lines fly by, one after the other, and is now even further away from me.  Perhaps I won’t be able to coax her out of the car, and I begin to fear we will be doomed to driving forever. I fiddle with the radio until I find a light rock station. Putting my hands firmly on the wheel, I keep the speed at a steady 65 miles per hour.

Then I hear Carole King’s voice.  I see myself, thirteen years old sitting on my twin bed looking at my poster of a fluffy white baby seal taped on my wall, and I begin to sing,

“It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late.”   

“What does this mean?”

She’s speaking!  Her voice is sweet and soft, like a bashful child.   But then I am confused, and I don’t know how to answer. There are several different possibilities.  She might want to know why we are driving to the summer cottage or maybe the significance of life itself.

“Are you asking what the song means?”

She nods her head up and down. Something as simple as being heard feels magical.  My shoulders soften.

“A woman fell out of love and wants to end her relationship.”

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

“I guess there comes a point in a relationship where you just can’t try anymore.”

Then my mother exhales smoke with a loud sigh.  She seems satisfied with my answer for now.

I want to ask her what “it’s too late” means to her.  But I am afraid her answer will bring memories that will force her back inside her shell.  I have memories of my own.  Like the night my father came home late after making full professor; purple balloons strung along the ceiling, a bottle of champagne sitting in a sea of melted ice, cheese dreams with a hard crust from turning cold.  At midnight my mother jumped, thinking she heard his footsteps on the landing was the sound of a tree branch blowing in the wind, rubbing against the windowpane.

A sign announces a familiar exit up ahead, and I panic because I can’t remember if I’m supposed to take it. I try to bring back the warmth from the hot sun beating on the roof, the sound of crickets through the open window to remember if this is the exit l took last summer. Meanwhile, the exit is coming closer.  I need to decide.

I feel a sharp tug on the steering wheel and the car veers sharply to the right.   Terrified, trying to regain control, I grab the wheel and pull to the left. The car begins to skid.  It spins into a circle and then falls gently against a snowbank with a muffled crunch.

I turn towards my mother, looking straight at me for the first time, and I let her have it.

“What were you thinking?  You could have killed us!  If you reach for the wheel again, I am going to put you in the back seat.  Do you want to sit there all by yourself?”

My mother is squished against the car door, looking small and helpless, but now she is looking me straight in the eye as she tries to defend herself, “The exit was coming closer, and you were listening to the radio and not paying attention..”

“Why can’t you speak to me instead of grabbing the wheel?  Why do you have to act crazy and scare the hell out of me like this?”

This is a familiar pattern.  The withdrawal, a blowup, and then the gentle trickle of confessions and regrets.  A slow slide to something that resembles normalcy where you say what you feel, and it’s possible to breathe love in and out.

We drive in silence for a few minutes.

“Sorry I yelled at you.  But you could have killed us.”

“Why are we going to the summer cottage, anyway?” Her voice is stronger, challenging me.  Only now she realizes how strange it is to go to a summer cottage in the dead of winter.

“I want to get the backdrop for our production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Ah, yes, it’s stuffed in the antique trunk in my bedroom.”

I sigh and take a deep breath. Although the spell is broken, there are more challenges ahead. I haven’t thought this through.  The snow might be so deep or icy that it is impossible to hike to the back door.  I didn’t even think to bring a shovel.  The door could be frozen shut.  Even if I succeed in prying it open, it would still take a miracle to hop through all the lawn furniture stored in the hallway, find that trunk, pry it open, and drag out that backdrop.  Even if I can set it free and reclaim it, it might be stained by mildew or, even worse, became a nest for baby mice or squirrels.

As we approach the lake, there are fewer and fewer street lights, just an occasional spot of yellow between long dark corridors.  When we reach the road closest to our house, there is a windy ribbon of snow leading to our back door. The snow has a slight crust on it, like cake icing.

Before I can take the key out of the ignition, my mother opens the passenger door, and a blast of cold air comes into the car.

She places her right boot on the snow, and she manages to stand momentarily when suddenly the layer of ice beneath her foot gives way with a loud crunch.  With one foot six inches below the other, she begins to lose her balance but manages to steady herself with her two hands extended out on either side. Images flash in my head of her twisting her ankle, me trying to lift her back into the car, looking for an emergency room back home late at night.  But she’s filled with energy and isn’t discouraged in the least bit.

She laughs, “I ate too many cookies.  I am just an old fatty.”

“Mom, it’s not you. The mink coat weighs a ton.”

I walk around the car and have us swap coats so that she can wear my light down jacket to reduce her weight. As I slip on my mother’s mink coat, there is the faint smell of sweat mixed with a hint of Channel Number 5 that I give her every year for Christmas.

“I will hug you from behind to help you keep your balance. One, two, three march!”

We sink just a little bit. Thankfully the edges of the ice aren’t sharp.

I start chanting a song we sang together when we hiked through the woods in the summer years ago.

Left, left, I had a wife, but she left.  My wife left me with 36 children, and there is no gingerbread left.

Crunch, crunch, crunch,  our feet keep pace with the beat. The snowdrifts form a peak reaching up to the roof.

“Oh my Lord, where is the door? Mom, I need to set myself free so I clear the snow.”

I release my arms from around my mother’s waist to walk around her from the left.  At first, the ice supports my weight, but then after just a few seconds, my foot crashes through.  I grab onto my mother for support.  We stagger and fell to the ground giggling, making two small craters where we lay side by side, our backs on the snow, our eyes to the sky.  The snow isn’t wet but instead squishes under our bodies like a soft cushion.  There is a grounding feeling of being flush with the earth.

I look up to see a long band of stars packed so close together they form a swirl across the sky.  I feel like I am a child again at the Planetarium, seeing a black field filled with lights.  There is awe in seeing the width and breadth of forever.

“Mom, look at the arm of the Milky Way.  It’s beautiful.”

“Did you know that there is a whole generation of children that have never seen the big dipper?  New laws are forcing businesses to shut off their lights so people can see the night sky.”

Ah, here is the mother I love, quoting US News and World Report, a river of words traveling through topics all over the world and through time.  There is that opening of the chest, the spark to the brain, the rapid exchange of thoughts and ideas, insightful, thoughtful, and rational.

“Mom, we could talk all night.  But if we don’t move, we’ll freeze to death. How can I even find the door through all this snow?”

My mother chuckles and then laughs.

“No need.”

“Mom, why are you laughing? You’re scaring me with this laughter of yours.”

“The backdrop is back home in the attic.”

“What?”

“I brought it back last summer when we closed the cottage. I thought you might need it for college.”

“And you just remembered now?”

I reach over and place my gloved hands on my mother’s neck as if I want to strangle her. We wrestle in the snow like we are two little kids.

We follow our footsteps back to the car.  This time separately, my mother leads, and I walk behind her, putting my feet in the same impressions in the snow.  After we settle in the car and fire up the heat, I hear about my cousin’s wedding and my uncle’s retirement.  After half an hour, she snores lightly.

I open the door to my home that this time surrenders to my touch easily, tuck in my mother, and place a kiss on her cheek.

Lying on my childhood bed staring at the wallpaper with vines running up and down the walls, I think about the patterns of my shared life with my mother;   the laughter, silence, withdrawal, absence, hospitalizations, medications, and her homecoming to start the cycle again. There are no facts but only theories about what triggers her slow disappearance; a bad gene, chemical imbalance, poor nutrition, failed marriage, empty nest, boredom, loneliness.  Perhaps it’s all of these things, or maybe it’s something simpler. Her spirit is searching for the calm that comes from having a witness, a caring soul to exchange her thoughts and feelings, the positive energy that comes from breathing love in and out.

Susan Cohen has had her work appear in Cyclamens and Swords, All Things Girl, Adanna Literary Review, Six Hens, and Chaleur Magazine and has been shortlisted twice for Glimmer Train short story awards. She is also the co-founder of a PR firm located North of Tel Aviv.

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

Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Four Shots: Looking for Signs of a Life

August 14, 2021
white

by Suzanne Orrell

The black and white photograph you scanned that day shows your mother ­–– my would-be-mother-in-law. She is holding you on her jutted-out hip in waist high water at Lake Pontchartrain Beach. Her dark curls gather under a sun bright straw hat. Upturned crinkles smile at the corner of her eyes. The crook of your left arm is firmly clasped around her neck. Sunshine catches water droplets that linger before sloping from the fingertips of your right hand. Fred, your older brother, easily splashes beside you. The shot captures the roller coaster tracks of the Zephyr in the background as they arc skyward before sinking into troughs. You look certain that she, is

Your mother, guiding you down a playground slide. Your brother sits behind you, hands taut against your tummy. Both of you, dressed in plaid, short sleeved shirts patiently smile, not one hair out of place on either of your heads. This shot shows how the skinny white belt encircling the dark material of her dress accentuates your mother’s waist. Her hair looks freshly done. She has recently applied lipstick. She looks stylish, seems cheerful. The gleam in her eye is genuine given the low sky, broken by distant storm clouds. When you first discovered this photograph a couple of years ago, you called me in from the kitchen. Somehow, in all this time, it is one you’d not seen. “Does this look like her?” you ask. I couldn’t believe you weren’t certain that, she is

Your mother, tacking friction rubbed balloons to the wall for your birthday party. The black and white photograph proves it is your fifth because the number five is visible on the party-hat you are wearing. Neighborhood hat-wearing children gather with you around a large, unopened present. Even Jingles, the German Shepherd, wears a hat. Your mother wears one too. If there is a gleam in her eye in this shot, it is obscured from behind her cat-eyed glasses. Her hair looks flat, faded. She does not smile. She is staring down the barrel of the camera. If a look could kill. Her floral apron makes her look frumpy. “Has she put on weight? Or maybe, is it conceivable she’s pregnant with my sister?” you ask.

The final shot you scanned that day shows a tall glass lamp with a dark lampshade crowned by a belt of white ribbon. The lamp offers zero illumination. The black and white photograph shows off the lamp’s proportions visible in the long-necked taper toward the flared curve of the base. It is graceful, transparent, window-pane wavy yet impossible to tell whether the lamp is wired for a three-way or single wattage bulb. After the photograph was taken, your mother, custom fit tiny red pieces of tile to this lamp, little mosaic pulse points positioned in cement. Then, in one final action she extinguished her own life. Your mother is absent, missing, from all further photographs.

Today, the lamp sits in its final resting place, a monument on a waist high table in your stepmother’s house, surrounded by accumulated clutter, a melee of mail–some not even opened–magazines, mess. Despite its height, despite its grace, despite the red tiles, despite her handiwork, the lamp tends to go unnoticed amidst the chaos. It’s plugged in, but rarely, if ever, switched on.

You, forever her son, scan the documentation, search the long shadows in black and white, looking for clues that she, is your mother.

Suzanne Orrell lives and writes in Idaho. A former chef and caterer, she finds that writing, like cooking, requires patience, craft and honesty. When she’s not writing or dreaming up the next meal she enjoys taking long walks, playing tennis and travel.

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

Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Friendship, Guest Posts

Yoga Pants

August 13, 2021
meryl

By Tamar Gribetz

They thought they could make their daughters’ best friends with each other.  They lived in yoga pants – Athleta or LuLuLemon, of course—and they kept the pants on all day. Sometimes they worked out and, and sometimes they just didn’t get the chance.  They didn’t work but were highly educated – Ivys or small fancy northeast liberal arts colleges.  The few who did work before they had kids had been nursery schoolteachers, social workers, or “in fashion.” A couple of them had even been lawyers, but never really planned on practicing law.  It was just a good thing to do, a “good experience” that gave you “credibility.”

Now they had a higher calling:  motherhood.  Thankless and endless.  But they all had nannies and wouldn’t have made this noble decision without the nannies.  They tried to plan to meet for dinner Saturday night with their husbands who were mainly “in finance.”

Sometimes I would look at them all cliquey like they had undoubtedly been with others in middle and high school, and I wondered what each would be without the others. Each wouldn’t thrive on their own, but together, they each shone like dominoes. If one piece fell, they’d all tumble.   I was the outsider, and I convinced myself I didn’t care. I was smarter than them, and I was my own person and more authentic. Independent.  But a part of myself wanted to be included. To be part of them.  I had my two best friends, Ally and Michelle,  who worked full time.  But that didn’t get me very far; I was standing here alone.

I remember a girl from middle school who seemed so ordinary – looks, brains, personality – but she was in the clique for some reason. Did they need a listener, someone not threatening, or was it because her mother was best friends with the queen bee’s mother?   I was so envious.  It all seemed so easy. None of that aloneness, that angst, that insecurity. She was so lucky. Maybe it was her ordinariness that they liked.  I never really got it. I tortured myself over if it was better to just be like her: an ordinary, not very smart, not very interesting girl who never had to worry socially or me, arguably more interesting, stronger, smarter.  But so alone.

The moms in the clique were into vacationing in the same places.  Not necessarily together, but they chose the same places. I overheard them talk about this at pickup. Barcelona was hot for a couple of years. Now it’s Lisbon.  The same restaurants too. There’s a new place in Portchester that they’re all trying now.  I’ve seen others insert themselves in the group simply by inserting themselves in the group.

I suppose one could say that I’m standoffish because I stand by myself. But why don’t they come up to me?  They have strength in numbers. Besides, I’m welcome if I want. I look forward to the day when their daughters no longer want to be friends with each other.  When they outgrow the nursery school set ups.  Won’t that be delicious?  “Fuck you, Mom. I can choose my own friends, thank you very much. And I can’t stand Meghan.” And just like that, their whole world would crumble.  What if.

Sometimes these moms gathered outside of preschool and hugged each other when they dispersed.  Watching them, I could feel my skin touching the inside of my jacket, craving warmer contact.

The other day, when I got home from pick up, I had to eat.  I craved chocolate chip cookies and milk, but we were out. I had a mix lying around. I wanted to sink my teeth into the butter and let it sit on my tongue, its gooeyness and its crystals of sugar that hadn’t fully settled. I wanted to just have it all to myself, all my pleasure with nobody watching.  I had to put Sophie down for a nap so she wouldn’t see, and so I wouldn’t have to share. I had to eat until I was stuffed. And, thankfully, I had plenty of space, having skipped breakfast.  And I also had to masturbate at some point after the fulness wore off. I had to be full and spent.

***

I stood in the hallway outside the Fours classroom and busied myself on my phone, assuming a serious face. Two of the moms from the group, Jodi and Lauren, were talking, trying to be quiet. But I was close enough to hear.

“Should we tell her?” Lauren asked.

“Tell her what?  We don’t even know for sure,” Jodi said.

“But we — something is up. You could just look at them and feel it.”

“Maybe they’re just flirting.”

Lauren shood her head. “So that’s bad too.”

“Come on.”

Lauren chewed on her nail. “But it could be close to happening, and if she knows, maybe — maybe she could say something in time.”

“It’s not our place. Not with no proof. Besides, you don’t think she senses it?  Sees them together at the club and at least feels a little jealous? Or something?”

“Maybe she’s in denial.  She doesn’t want to see. But we’re her friends,” Lauren said.

Jodi nodded. “Exactly, she doesn’t want to know. Remember last week when we were driving to the city and she was talking about her friend from the Hamptons who found out about her husband, and she said she wouldn’t want to know If it were her because then what?  Would she want to disrupt her comfortable life?  Her endless money, travel, and active social life?  She herself made it clear she wouldn’t want to know.”

Who were they talking about?  It must be Meryl.  Her husband was too good looking, tall, with a thick head of hair and lots of money. Or maybe it was Rachel?  She always looked somewhat sad. They all had money, so it was hard to tell.  I didn’t dare look up, kept tapping and scrolling.

“Hey ladies!”  One of the others approached them.  She was out of breath.  “I’m so glad I’m not late. I rushed like a lunatic to make it on time.”

“You could have called me. I would have picked up Chloe.”

There. That’s what I needed. That type of support. A sisterhood.

***

When we got home, Sophie laid down in front of the T.V., and I put Jonah down for his nap.  I was friends with most of them on Facebook, if not in real life. But nothing gave it away. Just loads of happy, thin, tan, made-up women with their husbands on vacation or out for dinner. All living their perfect lives. They were blessed for each other’s friendship.  Sisters for Life. Please.   

Maybe it was time for me to go back to work. For real. Ally and Michelle didn’t waste their time worrying about making friends with the cool girls like a bunch of middle schoolers. What the fuck was I doing?  I had been the head of my Marketing team at work before I decided to stay home with my kids.  This was absurd! And sad.

So I scooped up the kids and drove to Wegmans to pick up dinner and just to feel productive, busy.  To buy things we were out of but that could really wait: vanilla extract, granola, frozen broccoli, another new strange-flavor tea.  Still, an activity and a way out of my head, the endless ruminating.   

I squeezed pears for ripeness and spoke out loud to the kids, telling them what I was doing, to involve them, as the parenting experts recommended.  I felt I was performing for others when out with my kids, and I had to seem like the happy mom.  Should we buy apples, sweetie? Would you try a green apple if I bought it?  When really, who gave a fuck?  This is who I’ve come to.

“Hi, Julie.”

“Oh, hi Meryl.”

“I guess we’re on the same schedule.”  She wasn’t with her kids.

“Yeah, this is my life. Drop off, pick up, supermarket, gym, repeat,” I said.

She laughed. “Yes, we are on the same schedule. So how’s Sophie doing?  Does she like the teachers? They seem like a cohesive group.”

“Yes, they do.”

“Ben is happy, so I’m happy.”

“Yeah, that’s how it goes.”

“Are you working these days?”

“No, I’m home with the kids.”

“Oh, I thought you were working. I feel like I never see you at school. You should come join us for coffee. A bunch of us often go after drop off.”

She wore lip-gloss that was just the right color for her skin tone.  Nude with a little ruby-red grapefruit tint. I never knew what was the right color for me.  Her eyes were kind and forthright.  She really had no idea I noticed their coffee dates all year. There was a softness about her features. Her face wasn’t round, but wasn’t angular either.  Her blue eyes were a soft, pale blue.  Nothing harsh about her. Her hair, a light brown with subtle highlights around her face.

“That sounds great. Thanks.”

“Tomorrow. Are you free tomorrow?”

“Sure. Yes.”

“Great!  If I miss you at drop off, meet us at Michael’s on Main Street.  There’s a big table at the back where we sit.”

Something inside me stirred when she looked into my eyes. I was being seen. I was there with her.  Something in her eyes recognized my loneliness, my need for connection.

***

“I have plans for coffee with some of the cool moms tomorrow,” I told my husband Joe in my sarcastic tone.

“Wow! You have made it.”

He opened his eyes wide in mock amazement and smiled.   But when he turned his back to me to hang his pants on a hanger, I couldn’t help but notice – to my disappointment — that he seemed very happy to hear this news.

***

The next morning, I planned to get out of the house early so I could run into Meryl at drop off and not have to walk into the coffee shop alone. But Sophie  had a meltdown and wouldn’t eat her cereal, insisted on a toasted waffle, which delayed me just enough to have missed Meryl.

As I walked from the coffee shop’s parking lot to the entrance, I felt nauseous like I used to before a sweet sixteen party or a first date.  My heart raced as I walked to the back of the coffee shop and saw the group.

“Hey, Julie. Right here.” Meryl called and waved.

I tried to act casual and strutted over with a forced smile.

“Everyone, you know Julie . . . Sophie’s mom.”

“Hey,” they all called out.

Meryl sat at the end of the bench and had everyone move over to squeeze me in.

“We’re all complaining about how tired we are,” Meryl said. “We don’t sleep like we used to, lots of anxiety apparently.” She winked at everyone.

“Or Mommy bladders,” said Monica.

“I think it’s a combination of both. You wake up to pee, and then your mind starts racing,” Suzie said.

“Yeah, suddenly the need to pack a healthy, nut-free snack is terrifying. But my 3:00 a.m brain is convinced it is,” Jodi said.

“My therapist told me to never trust my 3:00 a.m. brain,” Lauren warned.

Jodi said, “That’s another thing: Therapy.  Mike thinks I don’t need it anymore, that it’s enough. But I think it’s the best spent money.”

“If only the good therapists took insurance,” Monica said.

“Mine does. But Mike says I shouldn’t submit in case I want to be a judge someday. Please!  I haven’t practiced law in ten years. It aint happening.  He thinks there’s still a stigma to see a therapist because when he was a kid everyone spoke about a boy who went to therapy when he flipped out over his parents’ divorce.”

“We’re all in therapy. You could tell him that,” Monica said

Jodi rolled her eyes. “He’s old fashioned. Anyway, it’s not negotiable.  He has no idea how bitchy I’d be without therapy.”

“What about couples counseling? Does that count as therapy?” Meryl asked.

“Are you and Brad – ,” Jodi asked.

“Maybe. I’m sure he doesn’t want me to talk about it.”

“Everyone should be in couples therapy. Even prophylactically.  Marriage is tough,” Jodi said.

“Anyway, I insisted on it because I feel like we’re not good.  Like things have shifted.  Like maybe he’s cheating.”

“But would you even want to know?” I blurted out.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me.

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

I raised my eyes and Jodi glared at me.

“Why, Julie?  Would you want to know?” she asked

I shook my head. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Sounds like you have.”

“Jodi!” Meryl said.

“It’s something we have all thought about, I’m sure. I’ve thought about it.  I don’t think I’d want to know,” Jodi said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because what good would it do? I’d upend my life and then what?  If Mike is cheating, it would stop eventually. He’d get bored and maybe tired of all the work.”

“Jesus, Jodi!” Suzie said.

“No really.  I see how my divorced friends struggle to meet someone. It’s shit out there. We’re older and there are so many losers out there. We’re not in our 20s anymore.”

“Wow.” Suzie said

“Complete honesty is over-rated and painful.”  She looked directly at me.

As we walked to the parking lot, Jodi ran up to me.

“Did you hear my conversation with Lauren the other day?” Jodi asked.

“What?”
“You were nearby.”

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

“Just the way you asked Meryl if she’d want to know.  It’s interesting. That’s all. The timing.”

“What?”
“I got to go,” she said.

I felt sick. My stomach churned. I fucked this up before it even began.

Meryl walked up to me as I was getting in my car.

“Hey.”

“Hey. I don’t think Jodi likes me,” I said.

“Oh. She’s always a bitch. A lovable bitch, but a bitch.  You can’t take what she says personally.”

“I really have thought about what we discussed.  I don’t think I’d want to know if Joe was cheating on me.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’d want to know either.”

“Have you ever discussed it – with the others?”

“What?”

“Nothing. I don’t know. It’s just that I do think about it. As I get older . . . that’s all.  I think it would make things worse.”

“But it might suck to have to wonder all the time,” Meryl said and shrugged.  “I gotta do some errands before pick up.”  She smiled, “I’m glad you came.”

“Yeah, me too. Thanks.”

***

I decided to put the whole exchange with Jodi out of my mind. It was none of my business. I became friendly with the coffee group.  The women included me at pickup and drop off. I knew it was only because I was cool enough for Meryl, that it was fake and shallow. But – I have to admit—I liked having women to talk to at school. I didn’t stand by myself at pick up pretending to be reading an important text on my phone.  I had friends to talk to at preschool, to laugh with. Sophie was even asked on more playdates from the moms of the coffee group.

I was invited for coffee again the following week. I think they all assumed I would join them regularly, and when I didn’t come for a couple of days when Jonah was sick, they texted me afterwards to be sure everything was okay.  Jodi was even friendly to me as if we never had those words in the coffee shop parking lot.  I was happier all around, even with my kids at home. I got to know Lauren and Monica better. They invited me to walk with them on Sunday mornings.  I bought an expensive pair of yoga pants from Athleta to walk in. I couldn’t be seen in my ten-year-old sweats. Joe seemed happy I was making friends, though I tried to play it down for fear I might jinx it. I was embarrassed at myself for being so happy about this, but the truth was it felt good not to be lonely.

One Friday afternoon, Meryl invited the group and the kids to her house after school.  While we sat around the kitchen table, Meryl confided to us that she was almost certain her husband was having an affair — probably with someone from  the club or through work. She had confronted him, and he denied it.

“I’m just sick of worrying about it.  If it’s happening, I don’t want to be the blind, clueless wife.  I should have some dignity. Right? I mean I’m fed up and pissed off.”

“Yeah, I guess. But are you sure?  Think about it. What would be better in your life if he confirmed your suspicions?” Jodi asked. “Your life would have to change once he knew you knew. I mean, do you really want a divorce?  Do you want to split custody of the kids, fight over money?”

Meryl wrung her hands. “I’m surprised you’re so one-sided about this. Yes, you’re right. I have thought about it. But I can’t act so stupid. I should have some pride.  If I knew it would end soon, maybe I wouldn’t want to know. But what if it doesn’t?”

“It always ends.  If something is happening, it will end. But you don’t want your life to blow up because of some temporary fling.  If anything is even happening,” Suzie said.

“I think it is. Shit, I don’t know what to do.”

The conversation ended when the kids ran into the kitchen after someone fell, nothing serious, but tears and cries and blame cast.  What a convenient distraction, how we busied ourselves with our kids.  We cleared the juice boxes and pretzels, forced the kids to say, “thank you,” zipped  up coats, tied shoes.  I lingered on the side with Sophie as everyone left.

“Call me if you want to talk,” I whispered and gave her a hug.

“Thank you, Julie.  I’m so glad we became friends,” she said as she squeezed my hand.

***

For the next few days, I went back and forth in my mind about whether I should tell Meryl the conversation I had overheard between Jodi and Lauren. Part of me felt the wise thing was to shut my mouth because I knew nothing for certain.  And we had just become friends.

Over dinner, I asked Ally and Michelle what they thought.

“Are you kidding,” Ally said, “How could you not say something?”

Michelle shook her head. “Jesus, Jules.  Wouldn’t you want to know?”

I knew in my gut that I would too, no matter what I had said to Meryl. I lifted my glass of wine and took a sip, to avoid having to look at them, ashamed that I had even asked such a question.

***

The following day, after I folded laundry, cooked dinner, shuttled the kids to appointments and playdates, a familiar loneliness descended on me as it normally did in the late afternoons.  It was when I finally stopped running that I was able to feel its sting. It creeped into my gut and began its gnawing. I thought of Meryl and wanted to pick up the phone to say hi. Only it didn’t seem honest, knowing what I suspected and keeping it to myself.  I crawled onto the couch and closed my eyes as the children watched T.V.. I thought of Meryl.  I envisioned our vacations together, our kids playing in the sand, as we lay under our beach umbrellas sipping chardonnay, our husbands (her’s new) running together in the mornings before it got too hot.  I saw myself picking up Ben with Sophie at school so Meryl could go to therapy or get a pedicure.  After preschool, our kids going through lower school together, middle school, then high school. Remaining friendly, looking out for each other, referring to each other as “close family friends.”  I saw Meryl with a husband who treated her well, respected her, Meryl grateful that I had stepped in and helped her realize she deserved more.

I texted Meryl and asked if we could meet for lunch the following day, a Friday.

“Listen, Meryl, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What?”  Her face appeared frozen.

“I didn’t want to say anything until now . . . because . . . well, I’m not even sure, but –”

“What?  You’re scaring me.”

“A few weeks ago, I heard Jodi and Lauren talking at school about suspecting some husband was having an affair with a woman at their club.  I didn’t know who, but given that you’re suspicious of Brad —”

“No.”  She ran her hands through the roots of her hair.

“I’m not certain they were talking about Brad, but then Jodi acted strange in the parking lot after we had coffee when she thought I had overheard.   Then you said something about suspecting someone from the club. It just seems like maybe — I don’t know. I just thought  I should tell you. You’re my friend.”

“Shit.  I was hoping, praying I was wrong.” Her voice was flat, barely audible.

“Maybe just ask Jodi. I know she’ll be pissed at me for saying something.  But it’s more important that you find out what’s going on.  You’ve been so worried and —“

Tears welled up in her eyes. I held her hand, and she hugged me for a while.   I smelled her coconut shampoo and felt a tenderness for her that I had rarely felt for a friend. I wanted to protect her from a world that she had mistakenly thought was harmless.

***

The following Monday, I saw Meryl at drop off. She wouldn’t make eye contact.

“Hey, how are you doing?” I asked her.

“Fine. Great.  You?”

“Okay.  I tried texting you over the weekend to check in and see how you were doing.”

“Yeah, I had a busy weekend.  Lots of running around, family obligations.” She looked down at her phone.

“Are you going for coffee now?”

“I’m not sure.  I might have to run some errands.  See you.”

The others from the coffee group were talking in a corner. I walked up to them, and they turned quiet.

“Are you guys going for coffee?”

“I think it’s not a great idea if you come today. Meryl is upset and I think we should keep it a small group,” Jodi said.

I walked up to Meryl as she was about to get in her car.

“Meryl, are you upset with me?  From the other day?”

“Look, Julie, I have a lot going on.  I’m not in the mood to get into this now.”

“Into what?  I was only trying to help.  I thought you’d want to know.  You said you did.”

“This is complicated. I don’t want to discuss it.  Brad and I are good, we’re working on our relationship.”

“Was it true?”

“I don’t think that is any of your business. I gotta go.”

***

We haven’t spoken since that day except for a cursory hello at pick up and drop off.  The other women in the coffee group acted like they did before. It was like those weeks of friendship had never happened.  I stood alone again and busied myself with my phone.  I ran my errands right after drop off and pretended I was  happy that I had time to get the house in order, be productive, run to the gym instead of wasting time at the coffee shop.  But when I saw the group huddled together in the morning, laughing together like sisters, I felt a nostalgic longing for something I suppose I never even had.

***

It’s been a few weeks since Meryl and the group dropped me. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about middle school, about the clique I felt excluded from in 7th grade. I remember one afternoon, the girls called me into the locker room. They demanded to know if I was in their clique or not because I spent a lot of time with Lisa, another girl in the class.  I had to make a choice, they said. Be part of us or not. I couldn’t be sort of in it.  Instinctively, I said I still wanted to be friends with Lisa, with whom I had been friends since kindergarten, that I didn’t want to choose. I was surprised by my own words; they just came out.  They also looked surprised. They had assumed I would have chosen them, been honored to be included, apologetic for making them even feel otherwise. They dropped me the very next day.

Over the years, I often wondered if my life would have been better had I embraced the clique. I’d have had a built-in sisterhood, would’ve rarely been lonely.  I had drifted from Lisa anyway over time. But now, looking back, I remember my younger self at that moment in the locker room, how it just didn’t feel right:  being tethered to a group. Being stuck like that. Having to conform, being controlled, dictated to.

Though I didn’t understand it back then, I now know that’s what I had rejected: having to compromise myself, to mold myself into something that was no better than I, just bigger. Chipping away at the best part of myself so that I could fit into a uniform block that was merely mediocre.  I had made a choice! It wasn’t something that happened to me!  And, foolishly, all these years, I had romanticized the very thing I had rightfully rejected.

The other day I noticed my yoga pants thrown over the chair in my bedroom. They would soon gather dust, and I would donate them to charity like other trendy clothing I had sampled over the years, but ultimately rejected because they weren’t comfortable or just weren’t me.  Because really, I could wear whatever the hell I wanted – even my ten-year-old sweats – when I walked alone. Proudly.

Tamar Gribetz’s short stories have appeared in The Hunger, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and Poetica Magazine. She teaches writing and advocacy at Pace Law, where she also serves as the Writing Specialist. She lives in Westchester, New York, where she is at work on a novel and other short fiction.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Antiracist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, pandemic, Relationships

Building Mom A Bridge: How To Cross Over Seas and Pandemics

August 12, 2021
mom

by Amy Challenger

Connecting has never been easy, my overweight rescue coonhound reminds me with his fervent stare. He once refused eye contact when I found him at a dusty Northern California farm nine years ago running in circles as if entirely disconnected from other beings. This disconnected feeling has become one most of us have suffered with this year. We’ve had to find a way out of our own little heads, seeking a thread to others in strange ways — squishing eyes over masks, staring through screens, and waving at mouthless friends in parking lots or at bonfires. I found a way to build a bridge to my sick mom and other women this year, all the way over the Atlantic, in a way I wouldn’t have imagined without the pandemic..

In March 2020 after lockdowns began in Switzerland, where I live with my husband and children— my asthmatic then 78-year-old mother coughed heavily on her couch in South Carolina. She struggled to breathe on Facetime causing even her fox terrier Harry to point his long nose to the side. I was petrified. I’d just returned from Northern Italy where crowds of masked passengers packed my train, and truckloads of dead bodies appeared on my Ipad screen. To me, the pandemic was no distant myth like it still was for many of my American friends. So when my mom hacked, I said, “Get tested.’’ Naturally, she brushed me off. I’m the family worrier, afterall, and people were still spreading the ridiculous myth that only those who’d traveled to China could have COVD-19. A week later, her symptoms had made her so weak she could hardly walk. So she finally got to the doctor who diagnosed her with pneumonia. And due to a lack of access to COVID test kits, she still didn’t know if she had the virus.

At that point, my mom and I started connecting daily face-to-face, online. I felt helpless watching her suffer in her floral patterned bed. She listened to me jabber about home learning challenges and the risks of spreading COVID. My father who suffers from Alzheimer’s roamed nearby, peeking at the screen.  Thankfully my mother’s friend made arrangements to stay with her, and my nearby sisters visited regularly, but I wanted to do something too. Even if I could afford to fly to the US, leaving my husband working from home with my three kids home-learning— travel was unwise especially with my flaring autoimmune condition.

So aside from sending my mom pizza dinners, Amazon gifts, and Facetiming regularly, I needed a more meaningful way to reach her. What about writing together? I thought. My mom and I are both painters and writers. And years before, she’d attended one of my creative writing workshops originally designed to connect women in crisis through writing. I’d been trained to lead these sessions by the New York Writers’ Coalition in Connecticut to serve struggling moms of neurodivergent kids. After my mom visited a workshop, she’d said she loved the method inspired by Pat Schneider, a poet who created a format for all levels of writers to gather and seek what Pat called “the original voice.’’

So one morning my dogs and I had an idea as my mom flopped like a five foot pale doll in her dimly lit Carolina bedroom with Harry perched nearby, his eyes pooling with worry. She’d just become breathless trying to fix breakfast.

“I might start an online writing workshop— to supplement my normal Zürich workshops,’’ I remember saying.… “Would you want to join if I do it?” I kept my tone casual. She might think my suggestion idiotic.

“I’d love it.” Her voice quivered. “You don’t know how much I could use that.” I think my mom needed more than connection. She needed a way to use her creative muscles to heal and find hope. The pen, if filled with the stuff of her powerful mind, could help with that.

And so we started meeting weekly online with a small group of women. My mom woke early, dialing in, along with several writers from Switzerland and some from the US. We gathered from bedrooms, Swiss lakes, and offices to write about feeling stuck, about growing, about finding wellness through dialogue we created in separate rooms, but together.  In these two-and-a-half-hour sessions, we greeted each other, then penned responses to my visual or verbal prompts. We scribbled our bottled up stories into our notepads, and then we shared verses that continued on, for that small moment, into the spaces of others. These connections bound us. Each week we became closer, and I felt more like I was really touching my mom.

“What’s strong?” I asked after a woman read her work. It was a question I’d learned from my former teacher Valerie Anne Leff a fiction writer whose voice I still hear if I try. She taught me to treat everyone’s original words like a newborn. I attended her workshops for several years during a crisis with my atypical boy. This question, what’s strong, was one I needed to repeat even in the midst of my child and family’s pain— to find meaning.  It was also a question I had to ask this year. To my children, my mother, my husband, and workshop attendees, I had to inquire, what’s strong in your words, your work— in you and in others? I needed to identify my power, as I fumbled through my own identity in a pandemic.  When I felt insufficient, I had to dig for strength. This habit was the bridge to my mom then to all the other women who wrote with me, virtually.  Through asking for strength in workshop sessions, I touched the space between my mother’s world that flowed into mine. Her tales of waking as a child in her victorian home in Big Rapids, Michigan; her views on mothering three girls; savoring shades of fern; meeting my naval officer dad— these powerful narratives brought her to me physically.

As she shared, our stories transcended internet boxes, oceans, and expectations. Common threads emerged in verses that had little to do with the prompt, yet pieced our strange pet stories, our favorite flowers, our lonely walks together. My mother wrote poems that slipped under my skin. Her narratives incorporated the feel of a forgotten Christmas ornament, the voice of my grandmother calling her home, the pine scent of my grandfather’s cabin beside a river. My mom waded for her strength like she was in the river fly-fishing with her father, and I saw her emerge healthy while reading her own mind. Eventually, after weeks of workshops, she dialed in from the couch— rosy-cheeked like the mother I longed for, even if still on a screen beside Harry’s twittering tail.

Almost a year later, my mom and I still write online with many of the same women. She and my dad have been vaccinated and are bearing well, all things considered. My cats’ and dogs have become so attached to me, after a year mostly indoors, that sometimes I think I’m a pet too. Though we’ve got scars, we’re closer and stronger than we knew. We’ve survived a pandemic, afterall.

This summer my husband, three kids, and I plan to finally visit my parents. When I’m physically there, I’ll feel their hands and arms embrace me in a way I wouldn’t without our separation and our storytelling over the sea. But in the meantime, I’ll celebrate the power of all the unpublished parts of each of us. In these narratives, if we listen, we’ll find ties that bind us together, even over seas and pandemics— and maybe forever.

Amy Challenger is a contributor at The Washington Post, Newsweek, Huffington Post, International Living, Poets Reading the News, and elsewhere. She completing a novel about an atypical boy and his mom trying to grow and find truth in a work that wants everyone typical. Amy can be followed online at amyaveschallenger.com.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts

The Hunt For Happiness

August 11, 2021
novel

 by Nicole Bokat

While researching my new novel about a woman’s relationship with her stepsister, a wellness guru, I was surprised to find myself getting hooked on Happiness. All my life, I’d been a mix of self-effacing pessimist and tenacious worker, resilient in the face of defeat. Sheer will had pushed me to meet my goals. But, within the last decade, a career slowdown coincided with the grief I experienced over my sons leaving home. I was able to handle the rejection and the loneliness–just. I continued to persevere, although my dark moods and cynicism hung on longer than usual. Like Natalie, the heroine of my book, I needed to look on the bright side.

At the library, I plucked tomes off the shelves on flourishing, thriving in the “blue zones,” finding “flow,” stumbling onto, falling into, and consciously choosing to be gleeful. When I checked out one on ‘angel guides,’ I tucked it immediately into my backpack, as if hoarding spiritual porn. But, I persisted on my quest for well-being.

Until my husband fell ill.

When the urologist drew lines on the image of a plum-shaped prostate, with the besmirched areas, my anxiety peaked so high I could smell it. Coming from a family where cancer snaked through the male line, I worked hard not to be retraumatized. My uncles died young from lymphoma. On the eve of this new century, my 67-year-old father had received a carcinoma diagnosis that killed him in eight months. Death came for my father with a ferocity that yanked me upside down. Now, fifteen years later, I couldn’t lose my sense of gravity again.

I ditched the luxury of self-improvement and embraced survival for my spouse.

Thankfully, he recovered after receiving an ultrasound treatment that was hard to get in the United States at the time. The frequent bloodwork, scary MRIs, and follow up appointments have kept us vigilant. But five years have passed, and the disease hasn’t returned.

Then, during a routine physical, my EKG came back abnormal. I underwent a month-long prescription of cardio tests for a congenital defect that, somehow, had gone undetected until my fifties. While I was asymptomatic, my thickened heart wall might give me trouble in the future. Plus, my sons could have inherited my condition.

How, I wondered, could human beings—with all our fragility, our lurking mortality—find true joy? The work on my new novel proved fortuitous, a way to shake myself out of my existential slump. I was secretively hopeful —like Natalie—that I’d discover a recipe for a more hopeful, sunnier attitude.

Experts seemed to tell me I could, even in the face of multiple life challenges, be happier. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a UC Riverside professor, claimed our mindsets were malleable. That perked me up! According to her research, our “happiness set point” determines 50% of our mood, our intentional activity 40% and, circumstances only 10%. She wasn’t alone in endorsing the idea that I could tweak my temperament. A host of PhDs and MDs swore that our brain could be retrained away from its negativity bias. Mindfulness could alleviate tension. The message was that with grit, persistence and the right perspective, we could change our collective minds.

I was determined to implement the right techniques to be rosier. I eagerly purchased Professor Ben-Shahar’s book Happier, based on his class, the most popular course in Harvard’s history. Martin Seligman, the Director of the Positive Psychology Institute at University of Pennsylvania had much to say about Learned Optimism and The Circle of Hope. I downloaded the Happify app, created by participants with doctorates and medical degrees. Heeding these specialists’ advice, I scribbled into a gratitude journal, tried to savor the moment, and meditated to the mantra “OM.” Practicing religion or searching for the sacred was tougher. But I managed to murmur “Namaste” at the end of yoga class.

Two hundred TED Talks given by a bevy of doctors and therapists encouraged looking on the bright side. Yet, like Natalie, the more I tried to apply their techniques, the more frustrated I became. When I received professional rejections for my novel, I berated myself. Why couldn’t I enjoy the journey and not worry about the reward?

Like my fictional counterpart, I persisted in trying to change my negative thinking. But while I could tame anxiety, my cynicism prevailed.

One day, while listening to the advice of a successful executive coach, I had to admit the truth. For these experts, there was good reason to celebrate: they’re part of a nearly ten-billion-dollar audience for motivational self-help programs and products. But for the rest of us, searching for contentment often feels elusive.

So if self- help doesn’t always work, what does? Scientific American reported that one in six adults in the United States takes a psychiatric drug (as of 2016) and, according to the World Mental Health Consortium, we are the third most anxious bunch out of 26 countries. The Census bureau data found that symptoms of depressive disorder in Americans doubled from 25% to a whopping 50% since the pandemic. In the 2020 World Happiness Report, we ranked 18 out of 150. Not a bad number but way behind Nordic countries like Finland (#1), Denmark (#2), Iceland (#4) and Sweden (#7), where trust between citizens, safety, gender equality, equal distribution of income and less economic insecurity all contribute to collective satisfaction.

How could we get out of this muddle? Experts in the mental health field emphasize that the solution to despair can be found in several areas but that social connections and a sense of purpose are key. Engaging in activism — doing for others — can not only benefit the less fortunate, but gives one a sense of control.

I realized that bliss can’t be found from a blog, a webinar, an app, or a cleansing breath. Once Natalie has this revelation, she begins to make sense of life’s worst traumas by creating art through her photography, to take chances. I, too, needed to revise my work, to reimagine. While deep in the writing, I wasn’t thinking of health emergencies, or contentious politics or even the tragedy unraveling over the course of this life-shattering pandemic. Instead, I was lost in another world, a deeply satisfying one: my novel.

Nicole Bokat is the author of the novels The Happiness Thief, Redeeming Eve and What Matters Most. Redeeming Eve was nominated for both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction. She’s also published The Novels of Margaret Drabble: “this Freudian family nexus,” She received her PhD from New York University and has taught at NYU, Hunter College, and The New School. Her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Parents magazine, The Forward, and More.com. She lives with her husband in NJ and has two grown sons. Find her online at her website, Facebook, or Instagram.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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