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Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Quality Versus Quantity

October 27, 2019
move

By Tracy Bleier

My son is here. Here is the two bedroom apartment in Chicago where I moved over a year ago with my husband, my eight-year-old son, the two dogs and the cat. Here is not where my middle son lives but here is where he visits on school vacations, and a few long scattered weekends throughout the year. Before he arrives I make sure he has his own toothbrush in his bathroom, I buy him shaving cream and a razor and the 2-1 shampoo he likes. I buy his favorite cereal.

Last spring, he had his junior prom and I was not there to take photos with the other moms. His dad sent me the photos via text. Look at our boy! He texted. And there he was in a tuxedo with a red vest handing a rose corsage to his prom date— a girl I didn’t recognize. When I received this text I was at a friend’s house for dinner and I showed the picture to my husband. “Look!” I said. “Look at him,” and he did and smiled and went back to his conversation but for me, the ache of not being there for this lasted well into the next week.

Every day I have to get used to not having my son live with me full time. Some days it feels okay enough. I justify me being here and him being there by telling myself it is good for him to live with his dad, to live in one place for his last two years of high school. He spent most of his entire life living in two homes. His dad and I divorced when he was barely three and while he and his older brother were shuttled back and forth, I practiced adapting to time away from them. After dropping them off at their dad’s, I would eventually appreciate returning to a much quieter house for a few days. By Sunday afternoon, I would be ready for them to come barreling into the house with all their noise and sports equipment and backpacks and boy smell.

There are days where the weight of not living with my boys hits me hard. When I fill out certain documents or school forms I hesitate to write that my son’s’ primary address is not my own. A low point: I once lied and refused not to write my own address on the line that asked for “address of primary caregiver” or “permanent residence of child.”

When a student or new friend asks me about my other sons’ whereabouts, I say they are in college which is only half true. It feels more reasonable to admit out loud that I moved to a different state at the same time that both of my boys went off to school. It feels less complicated than having to explain that one still lives back east with his dad.

When I speak with my friends and their young children whine for them to get off the phone and pay attention to them, I hear my friends’ frustration for having to get off prematurely, but they do not hear my slight envy. It’s the middle of the day and my apartment is as quiet as an ashram.

When my son was little I did all the mom things. I sat with my mom friends in big backyards while our children played on jungle gyms and swing sets and I huddled over my son while I cut up his hot dog and squeezed the ketchup onto his plate and wiped his hands and face and deposited him into the bath with his bath toys and soapy water and read him Caps For Sale and kissed him goodnight. If you would have told me that this mother would be the same mother who 13 years later chose to pack up her home and live away from her children I would have said, not in a million years. When people ask why I moved, I look off into the distance and wistfully repeat, “It was just time.” The past few years of heartache and money issues and poor choices come flooding into the air. Perhaps my boys who watched me struggle more than thriving, perhaps they understood in their own way that it was time for me to make a change before it was time for them.

The weeks leading up to my move my son would come into my room and sit on my bed. “This is really happening?” He would say not sounding upset, just in mild disbelief. I stopped with the bubble wrap and tape and looked at him. “Mom,” he said over and over again those weeks, “I will be fine! It’s you who I am worried about!”

The day of the move I met both my boys for breakfast. We went to the same local diner where I used to carry a portable high chair in my arms and attach it to the table where my son’s legs would dangle from the leg holes and we would play tic tac toe on the paper placemats until his pancakes arrived where I would stuff huge forkfuls into his mouth and hand him his sippy cup from my bag.They were planning their day — Going off to the gym later that afternoon. I was relieved that the magnitude of me leaving did not hit them hard enough to distract them from their basketball game. That at the time they laced up their sneakers I would be crossing state lines, following my husband who drove the Uhaul which housed the entire contents of our life now. At this breakfast I handed the boys some of their winter coats and sweatshirts that had been hanging in my front closet; and despite trying to convince my husband we should have some of their stuff at our apartment in Chicago, he looked at me sympathetically and explained that the boys actually might need and want these things at their dad’s for the coming season.

I hugged my boys goodbye in the parking lot and held them longer and tighter than I usually do. They were smiling and shuffling me off like two normal teenagers who needed space from their mother’s coddling. “We’re fine mom!” And it seemed that they were as they walked together to their car already onto their future day.

It’s been almost two years since the move. I FaceTime weekly with the boys. I sit in my living room and watch their faces pop on the screen. I see the posters in their room hanging above their head. Often they are multi-tasking while we talk — but I don’t mind. For me, it’s less about the content and more about just being there with them while they are living their lives. They have both shared on occasion that they miss being able to just come to my house. “Why are you a plane ride away now?” My son asks almost hypothetically. We are still getting used to the way our family feels. I have to ward off the expectations I used to have about what now defines me as a good mother — a definition that certainly did not involve leaving. I have to stop comparing myself to other moms. I I put my hand on my heart most days to offer myself a little compassion.

The days leading up to their arrival my mood elevates exponentially.  My oldest couldn’t come this time but my middle arrived on Passover. It’s his third day here on a seven-day visit. We sit on the couch most of our first day together watching stand-up comedy, something that has become a kind of ritual for us. Inside my mind I hear my mother’s refrain, it’s the quality, not the quantity that matters. She worked full time when I was growing up and when I would lament to her about not being there when I got home from school she would offer me that line with a hug. Now, it is one of my mantras.

I absorb my son’s visit into my bones. The weight of his legs resting on my lap. He is now the entire length of my sofa. The sound of his phone chats drifting into the living room. His size 12 high tops by the door and the extra plates in the sink to be cleaned. My mothering — distilled down to the absolute essence, redefined, transplanted but no less of a calling.

I am no longer breathy or belabored by the physical presence of young children but now find solace and beauty in remembering even a sliver of what that life used to be.

With a Masters degree in English Education from Colombia University in New York City native New Yorker, Tracy Bleier has been a local teacher and leading voice in the field of yoga, meditation and creative writing for twenty years.  She has had many classrooms, from inside a traditional high school where she taught English to inside a yoga room.Tracy is a wordsmith both in a class and on paper. She speaks to the heart and senses that transports your soul to a safe and creative place. Her wisdom is deep in spirituality, meditation, the body, and teaching the teacher. Tracy is happily married and co-leads a series of continuing education programs for teachers in Chicago and is a proud mama to three boys. She currently resides in Chicago where she is completing her first manuscript about the journey of raising a child who struggles with anxiety. Her most recent work is featured in Brain, Child Magazine.

 

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chronic pain, Guest Posts, Hope

The Shame of Pain

October 24, 2019
pain

By Francesca Louise Grossman

I have tried 46 different times to launch myself out of chronic pain. I know this because every time I try something, I write down what I have done, what it feels like, what it costs, whether it’s covered and how worth it is in a small purple book. No one knows I do this. I scribble in it like I’m confessing to my sixth grade diary. In it is the same kind of anxiety about the future that I had in sixth grade, just not about Andy Apstein and whether he was going to kiss me or ignore me. Instead, it is about the treatment or therapy I try, and whether this one will be the one to finally help.

I opened the book the other day to pen a possible 47th.

The book is chronological, of course, but I put it in alphabetical order for clarity. I flipped through.

It starts:

Acupressure: December 2010 – Feb 2010 – dull pressure, not much change, $120/hr not covered – not worth it

Acupuncture – July 2002 (on and off) until March 2018 – sometimes painful, usually calming, blood flow, lasts less than a day but is relief $75/15 mins – sometimes covered – worth it but has to be ongoing

Acetaminophen – When needed – does nothing – over the counter – $9.89 a bottle of extra strength – not worth it

Bioelectric Therapy – October 2016-April 2016 – possibly dulls pain a little – for about an hour $165/hr at office – not covered by insurance

Cupping – February 2014 – one time, hurt like hell, not worth it. $85/30 mins – not covered by insurance.

Codeine – March 2009 – April 2009 – numb, good, not a long term option – covered by insurance $20 copay

Craniosacral Therapy – September 2000 – October 2001 – When in conjunction with other body work  – Myofascial etc – decent relief but dizzy – lasts a couple of days maybe $200/session – sometimes covered by insurance

Cryotherapy – June 2018-October 2018 – feels great right after, like putting ice on a knee. Lasts a couple of hours, heart races. $60/3 min session. Not covered by insurance

And on and on—and on.

The book is 24 years old. The same age as my chronic pain, more than half my lifetime, all of my adulthood, eons.

This book exists because all this time I have had a continuous faith that there is a valve for this pain; that I can escape it, or, more accurately, it can escape me. For all these years I have I known this to be true. I will find it. I will heal. I am a warrior, a survivor; tough, strong, and able. People have told me that pain is weakness leaving the body in all different scenarios, with all different motivations. I don’t have this recorded as studiously but I wish I did.

I have other lists I don’t love revisiting, but help to explain the pain. In my twenties I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an illness of the intestines that leads to violent pain and an urgent need to empty your bowels. I developed Colitis later, a more general type of the disease that bloats my stomach to look four months pregnant. I have had surgeries for my stomach, some of which were determined later to be unnecessary. I had thyroid cancer through out my twenties, finally treated when the tumor on my neck was the size of a ping-pong ball. I developed arthritis along the way, both as a peripheral malady and also it’s own disease. My body is gouged from piles of polyps removed from my insides, and (usually) benign tumors removed from my outsides. My neck doesn’t turn all the way to the right. My hips need forty-five minutes before letting me walk in the morning. I have an unidentified liver problem that swells without notice and bends me in two. If the saying is to be believed, there’s a lot of weakness in there, and it seems to be stuck.

*

When I was twenty-nine, I had surgery to remove my thyroid. The overnight nurse was a doozie of a lady.  Opera singer large, big calloused hands that vice-gripped onto my shoulders. Thighs thick as trunks that she used to pin me against the side of the bed so she could administer my catheter without “so much squirming.” She was brutal and brutish. A small silver peace sign sunk deep into her cleavage, drowning in flesh.

She had a hard time getting the catheter in, and as she struggled, she noticed my twisted face.

Pain is weakness leaving the body, my love, she said, repeating it over and over like a command until I could actually pee.

This is an extreme example, but at least once a year, often as much as once a month, this phrase earworms into my psyche. Related to illness and chronic pain or not, this saying has appeared like a subtitle again and again at the bottom of the screen of my life. When I was a weak child? A coach. A teenager who could not stomach even occasional beers? A boyfriend. A young woman unable to go to a bar without scoping out the bathroom situation ahead of time? A roommate. A thyroid cancer patient: a nurse. Doctors, PA’s, med techs. Physical therapists, friends, masseuses, acupuncturists, pharmacists, bosses, guy on the street.

*

I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and a delicate med tech took my vitals. She asked the normal questions, made the normal small talk, took the normal introductory tests. Her thin fingers flew across the keyboard, recording my responses. She asked me if I had any pain.

I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly.

“You mean right now?”

“Yes,” she smiled softly.

“Nothing acute,” I said.

“So no pain?”

“No. I mean, yes, I have pain, the same pain I have all the time.”

“What would you rate it, 1-10?”

How do you rate pain on a scale made for people with no pain?

“I don’t know, 4?”

She nodded and her hands took off. That was the wrong answer. I knew this, I knew that anything under 5 wasn’t worth her noting, that saying 4 was like saying I had a dull headache, or a splinter in my toe. But what should I have said? 7? Wouldn’t that be alarmist? Especially when that pain had been a relative constant for over twenty years? Especially when I knew from decades of experience that the litany of potential remedies for that pain were not going to help?

*

My husband stepped on a quarter inch wire sticking out of the ground near the beach in Fire Island this summer. The metal went a good inch into his flesh, and when he pulled it out blood sprayed mercilessly all over the sand and sidewalk. He howled. He made noises that I have never heard him make before and I have been with him through a lot of painful things. He was pale and sweaty, teeth gritting, eyes rolling back, that kind of pain.

Later that night, his foot gauzed up and iced, still throbbing, he looked at me and said “I’m so sorry you are in pain all the time.”

I didn’t know how to respond. This wasn’t about me, he was the one in pain, and yet a part of me felt smug at his discomfort. Now you know how I feel, was a momentary thought, I’ll admit it, and not one I’m not proud of.

But it got me thinking about pain and the way people relate to it. It is very hard to relate to pain if you aren’t in pain. Which is why I have such a hard time with the 1-10 scale.

Instead, for chronic pain patients, they should ask what kind of sharp thing is in your foot. Splinter? Pushpin? Nail? Quarter inch wire? Razor blade? Glass shard? Burning glass shard?

Nail. I would have said. Occasionally glass shard.

But instead I said 4 and she smiled.

*

I have fought against my pain and weakness for a very long time. I have tried, often unsuccessfully, to be like my friends. In my twenties I tried to stay out all night, I tried to ski, I tried to walk down the street without doubling over. I worked, I played, I drank, I sat as still as I could so that no one would notice the aftershocks. In my thirties I had children, pregnancy an event that paused my pain for a while so that when it came back it felt like a tsunami. Like many mothers of babies I didn’t sleep and then I had severe postpartum depression; I found having small children so physically demanding I came undone. I’m forty-one now and I am very often a prisoner in my house. My stomach bleeds, my liver pulsates, my head spins. Not all the time, but enough.

From my teens until today, this minute, and all those in the foreseeable future, there is pain. At least nail in foot pain. Sometimes glass shard. Never pushpin. A splinter would be welcome. In fact, when I think back on my childhood and that which was difficult – most sports, endurance, gym class, partying, anything else that required my body to function – I think it’s possible that I have been in pain all my life. Back then I never considered that my resting state was anything less than normal, but now I know better. Most people do not live with nails in their feet.

I hurt. I hurt in the morning when I turn over to get up. When I walk, when I carry groceries, when I turn my head to the right to reverse in the car. My stomach burns, my joints swell, my liver rejects everything I eat and drink.

I don’t talk about pain very often. I tell myself it is because people don’t want to hear me complain but it is more than that, I can admit that. I’m ashamed of my pain. I’m ashamed of my weakness.

What is it about pain that is so shameful?

We live in a culture in which wellness equals strength. People my age do cross fit and triathlons, women have babies without drugs, are lauded for their tight abs, their thick skin, their ability to play tough. I have never been strong like this. I have tried, but I have failed. I was never scrappy. I don’t think I will ever be. I am soft. My belly, the place of much of my pain, is squishy. Distended, bloated, doughy, depending on the day. I’m sensitive. I cry at pop songs.

Our society’s greatest hero story is about overcoming obstacles. We love a fighter. We love an underdog who comes out on top. We love triumph and happily ever endings. We love to fix a hoarder, intervene and send someone to rehab, remodel a decrepit house. We love treatment. We love survival. We love hope.

But hope is complicated. After all of these tries, this list of 46 different treatments and therapies, I no longer have hope that things will get better. I have hope that things will not get worse, which is not the same thing. I have a hope that feels a lot more like mercy than it does like faith.

When I ask myself this question about weakness and shame I hear a quiet hum suggesting a better question: why am I fighting so hard?

In my experience, pain is not weakness leaving the body. I realize this is a trope, and any mantra is nothing more than a slogan. But slogans have power. They convince. And I’ll admit I have always believed this – that the suffering I endure might one day let me free.

When I was pregnant and exhausted, a friend of mine told me that of course I was tired, I was making a person in there. Though not the same, pain sometimes feels like that too. Of course I’m tired, I’m fighting against myself all the time, trying to quell the pain so that I can live my otherwise fortunate life.

I’m not delusional about this. I know I live a charmed life in almost every way. I am educated, from a family that loves me – even when I behave idiotically. I am not from a country ravaged by war. I have a husband who cares for me, does not abuse me, even dotes on me sometimes. I have two healthy children whom I adore. I am from a privileged minority, I have more than I deserve. I can walk, breathe and think to exist in my daily life. I can afford therapy, eastern medicine, treatment outside of insurance sometimes, to do part time work. I can try 46 things. In short; I’m lucky. Unfairly so. And yet.

Here’s the whole list, abbreviated to just the titles:

Acupuncture, acupressure, acetaminophen, alcohol, aleve, aromatherapy, bioelectric, CBD creams and oils, cupping, chiropractic, chanting, codeine, cranial sacral therapy, cryotherapy, dairy free, hallucinations, gluten free, guided breathing, fasting, fentanyl, flotation, ibuprofen, oxycontin, marijuana, massage, meditation, myofascial, quell, reflexology, radiation, salt baths, saunas, steroids, sugar free, sodium free, sound bathing, surgery, swimming, percocet, physical therapy, psychotherapy, psychiatry, praying, vicodin, xanax, yoga.

Everything helps a little. Nothing helps enough to be worth the life altering work and piles of money it takes to keep it up.

Here’s a truth: the things that actually take the pain away feel a lot like addiction. They don’t remove the pain, that’s the trick. They numb. And they are delicious. But they don’t last and they unleash other pain, often more severe that the original. It’s never worth doubling the pain tomorrow to have numbness today, no matter how attractive the reprieve.

So the pain is there. It’s always there and most likely it will always be there. I don’t know how it got in. Maybe the pain was waiting for me when I came into this world. Maybe it comes from my ancestors, my DNA, my parents’ tragedies, my childhood bullies, or little or big assaults. Maybe I am sensitive to the world for some reason, and it simply hurts to be here. As woo-wooey as that sounds, that’s the one that feels the most accurate, the most likely.

I think it’s actually softness that makes us strong. It’s not skin made of iron. It’s showing the underbelly. It’s not bracing for the storm, it’s putting a kite up in the wind. It’s the willingness to see the world as a series of experiences some of which are going to hurt like crazy and the ability to just keep going anyway. It’s vulnerability. It’s asking for forgiveness. From ourselves as much as from others. It’s mercy.

Mercy is an open palm. It’s the meaty bit. Curling your hand so that your knuckles face the world is so much easier. But a fist to heart feels quite a lot different from a palm to heart, resting square on your breastbone, staying there, the heel of it pulsing the same rhythm as the heartbeat on your chest, marching your body along in a long trek to some sort of quiet absolution.

My husband’s foot healed in a few days. He stopped limping. The knowledge that he would get better permeated and defined the experience – the faith that this would be over soon.

Therein lies the difference between acute and chronic pain, of course: in how we define hope.

So what kind of hope can I have? What if I looked at my years and piles of pain and perceived weakness not as a failure but as a step towards becoming who I am? What if I forgave myself the years of fighting myself and sank into the deep cool water of acceptance? How would it feel down there?

I do not mean that I should give up. I’ll try things if they look promising. 47, 48, that’s fine. But what if instead of fighting so hard I allowed the pain to be part of me? What if, for a while, instead of the restrictive eating and the therapy and the medicine and the exercise and the planning and the trying (and the failing), what if I just stopped? Even if it hurt? Even if the pain never left? Could I recalibrate to “0”? Could I see that as the most radical act? Doing nothing at all?

For now I’ll put the little purple book in the drawer. I’ll cap the pen and sit quietly. I’ll let what’s in me stay put. I’ll put my feet up, expecting and accepting the pulse of the nail that might be forever lodged there.

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor based in Newton, MA. Her work includes contributions to The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, Word Riot, Drunken Boat Literary Magazine, xojane, Kids in the House, Ed Week/Teacher among others. She is currently working on a memoir and a novel. 

 

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Divorce, Family, Guest Posts, motherhood

Coda

October 20, 2019
affair

By Erin Branning

It was the day after Mother’s Day that Myles, my then twelve-year-old son, started questioning me. The night before, he’d gone to dinner with my husband alone – I forget now why I agreed to this on Mother’s Day – and the next afternoon on the drive home from school the questions began. “Mom, tell me what really happened, tell me the real reason you and Dad are getting divorced.”

“We told you,” I answered, praying to god the questions would stop, reciting the lines that the therapist had given us.

“The adjustment of your dad being back in Chicago after working in New York has been difficult.”

“We’ve tried very hard to work things out, but we can’t.”

“We love you and we promise to make this as painless for you as possible.”

My husband and I had agreed there was no reason for our children to know the specific conditions of the dissolution of our marriage. They’d simply know that things had been bad and now they were going to be better. This was the only truth they needed to know. This was what I told myself, what the therapist had said and what I thought my husband felt as well.

But all the things that sounded so good in the therapist’s office now sounded ridiculous and hollow. They weren’t answers and Myles knew it. He wouldn’t stop probing, wanted specifics. I stayed to the script. This went on for a few days until my husband called me a few minutes after I’d dropped the children off at school.

“I told Myles the truth at dinner the other night,” he said.

“The truth?” An emptiness, a pit, opened up below my heart.

“I told him you’ve been having an affair and I was willing to forgive you, but you had decided to choose him over our family.”

“You told him what?” I felt lightheaded, like the ground had given way. I gripped the steering wheel and pulled over.

“That you’re having an affair and that’s why we’re getting divorced. And I’m going to tell the other kids too. There’s been enough lying.”

Our other children were ten, seven and three.

“The therapist said not to tell them. You promised me you wouldn’t.”

“A marriage is a promise to stay faithful. I wouldn’t bring up promises if I were you.”

***

The truth was this: A few weeks earlier, while I was out at breakfast with our four children, he went through my computer and found texts and emails with a man who had become the love of my life, the person I could not imagine living without.  Matt was my chiropractor but his methods encompassed everything – the full range of body, mind and soul. We connected on music initially – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy—and then books. At some point I realized every book I had read over the past year that wasn’t required as part of my MFA program, was recommended by him.

During the winter, Matt and I, who had always confined our communication to his office, slipped into texting. A lot. First daily, then a few times a day, then hundreds. It was a numinous relationship, one therapist said. Numinous – spiritual, divine. Of course, it was meant to be. Never mind the fact that at the time my husband discovered our correspondence, we had not done so much as kissed.

The texting made it all too easy – the distance and time to be witty and use innuendo, to share thoughts, photos, articles, music. An entire consciousness can be sent through a phone. Of course, I couldn’t just delete the messages as they came, I had to save them by sending them to myself. I needed proof of what was happening. My inability to let things go into the ether was ultimately how my husband found out about our emotional affair. Since my divorce, I’ve had friends tell me about phone flirtations because they know I won’t judge. I have a hard time telling them to walk away. For me, my virtual relationship with Matt was a lifeline – what ultimately what got me out of something I’d been very unhappy in for a very long time.

In the weeks leading up to Chris’s and my separation, when I was in the throes of my texting with Matt, Myles played “Layla” on repeat in the car. I wondered if he was reading my mind, if he knew what was going on with me and if that was why he constantly played a song about an affair, about longing, about forbidden love, about betrayal.

When I used to hear stories of people cheating on their spouses I would think: how awful; if you can’t stay faithful, don’t stay married, and certainly don’t have kids. What I used to think about Eric Clapton and “Layla” was that he was a terrible person for falling in love with his friend’s wife. But when Myles played that song I thought, what incredible art. Clapton knew.

***

So why didn’t I leave earlier if it was so bad?  We had four kids, a full life, lots of friends. I adored his family. He had a high-profile job that “needed” a wife. How could I abandon him? Marriage was supposed to be hard and I wasn’t trying hard enough. I always thought I should be able to do better and my husband constantly told me so. For years, I thought the despair I was feeling was because of my own failing at love.

I never told anyone how suffocated I felt. My husband told everyone how much he loved me, all the time. But behind closed doors he loved me so much I couldn’t see friends if he was in town, couldn’t speak on the phone if he was home, couldn’t have male friends. When we moved to Beijing for his job, he asked me why I was making friends – wasn’t he enough? I read old journals. Five years before, as the movers were packing up our apartment in Beijing for a move to Tokyo, I had written – I don’t know if I can move to Tokyo with him.

I told my children and friends that I wasn’t leaving my marriage for Matt. I said falling in love with someone else was just the final thing beating me over the head telling me to leave – something I’d felt I had to do for a long time but been too scared to. And I wonder whether I let the marriage end as it did so that he wouldn’t be blamed, so that he could look like the “better person” and whether I was performing a service I had done for most of our marriage -protecting him at the expense of myself.

***

So, the narrative of our divorce became this: I was solely responsible for the end of our marriage because I had an affair. Chris told the children and anyone else who would listen that he was the victim and I was the victimizer. I imagined my children thinking of me kissing this man, wasn’t sure if they imagined sex too. At twelve, Myles certainly might have been, but I didn’t know about the others. I told them nothing physical had happened when their dad found our texts, but what did this mean to them? To them, their mother had fallen in love with another man while married to their father and wasn’t able to stop it, couldn’t walk away, was reckless with their lives and her own. In committing infidelity, emotional or otherwise, I’d lost all standing, not just as a wife, but as a person – especially as a mother.

And, while I felt shame standing in front of my children, I also felt relief. The worst thing I could have imagined had happened – my husband telling my children I’d had an affair – and yet, I was oddly okay. It clarified everything; I knew couldn’t go back. Every day I steeled myself for the children’s questions: What did Dad do to you that’s worse than cheating? Why do you want a divorce if he wants to forgive you? Why don’t you love Dad anymore? In my best moments I would say: I’m not going to talk badly about your dad.  And in my worst moments: God help you if you think this is the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

***

One afternoon in July, two months after Chris and I had separated, Myles and I were driving to a Jay-Z/Beyonce concert.

Shortly into the drive he looked up from his phone and said, “You’re not wearing that to the concert, are you?”

I was wearing a black motorcycle jacket that I’d recently bought, edgy, unlike anything I’d worn before I left Chris.

“You look stupid. Take it off.”

“I’m wearing it. I like it.”

“I’m not going into the concert with you then.”

“Look at me and apologize right now,” I said.

“Apologize for what? I’m allowed to have an opinion.” He said this, looking down at his phone.

And I suddenly felt overwhelming rage – rage that this night with my son already felt ruined, rage at my own impotence in the face of my son’s anger, and rage at the fact that I knew this argument wasn’t about my jacket. We were sitting at a stoplight and I ripped his phone out of his hands.

“Give it back!” he shouted at me.

“Not until you apologize.”

“You know the family is ashamed of you, right? You know that Dad’s family hates you and that even your own mom sent Dad an email saying how you made her sick.” He screamed at me, his face red now and contorted in pain. His words came at me:

Nothing is worse than what you did.

You’re a cheater.  

A liar.

I hate you.

And without even thinking, in my own blind rage, I slapped him. His hand went immediately to his face and he looked at me, shocked. “And now you hit me? Good job. Wait until I tell Dad.”

And I started to cry and knew I couldn’t take it back, couldn’t take anything back I’d done to hurt him. The agony on his face in that moment – my heart breaks every time I think of it.

***

Recently, Myles, now seventeen, and I were walking down Michigan Avenue and passed by Lowry’s Prime Rib.

“That’s where your dad and I met,” I said. I remembered what I’d been like that day – so young and hopeful, filled with the excitement of new love.

“What would you say to yourself now if you saw your younger self standing there with him?” he asked. I understood what he was really asking. He wanted to know if my marriage to his father had been a mistake, if I’d take it back if I could. The relationship with Matt had been short-lived, did I think that I’d broken up my family for nothing?

“I would say that you’re going to have a full life together for many years and many adventures. And have four amazing children.”

I wanted to add, “and it won’t be forever and that’s okay.” I wanted to tell him what I’d come to feel – that what I’d done was extremely painful and difficult, but that that didn’t mean it was wrong. I wanted to say I’d struggled and was still struggling to know who I was and what I wanted and how to love, but that didn’t make me bad. I wanted to say what is rarely acknowledged, that as humans – even as adults, even as mothers – we are all just figuring it out.

But that moment in front of Lowry’s I couldn’t say it was okay. I felt his pain and that of his siblings and knew that for them our divorce might never be okay. I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken by what we all had lost. So I said, “and it won’t be forever and I’m so sorry for that.”

He nodded and said, “I know Mom, its okay.”

I turned to look at him, tears threatening to spill down my face, and hugged him.

***

Layla has a coda – a piano solo that contains a shift, a calmness and peace in contrast to the rest of the song that precedes it. Not long ago, I asked Myles how that coda made him feel. He said it was like rebirth. New life.

Erin Branning holds an MFA from Northwestern and lives in Chicago with her four children. She is working on her first novel.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Advice, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Some Thoughts on Parenting

October 18, 2019
hug

By David D. Speer

Recently, my family was at a birthday party at Peter Piper Pizza in Ahwatukee. I was watching my son and his cousins run around, happy as children tend to be with pizza and games. It was while I was watching them that a few things occurred to me. These things are, in my opinion, things that all parents could and probably should have in common. With that in mind, here is some fatherly advice from an Arizona father:

  • Hug your kids. Often. For no reason at all. Sometimes they just need it and will never turn you down. In fact, hug anyone you love whenever you have a chance. Life is short.
  • Say, “I love you” as often as you can. In fact, make it the first thing your kids hear in the morning and last before sleep. Say “I love you” plenty in between, too. If we fill this world with children who know they are loved, perhaps this world will become a better place.
  • Let ‘em play. They will only be able to do this for a finite amount of time and these memories of playing will be the foundation of great memories.
    • Play with them whenever you can, too.
  • Chocolate milk was made for blowing bubbles into.
  • Don’t swear. At least don’t swear in front of your kids. If they hear you swear be prepared for possibly two things: 1) They are going to ask you what it means and 2) They may repeat it. In either case it is not a conversation you want to have.
  • Don’t get mad when the kids do something wrong and please don’t correct them in a way to embarrass them. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people yell at their kids just because they can. Its just awful to see and they may treat your grandchildren in this fashion someday.
  • Mom and Dad equals the name of God to children. Be a benevolent one.
  • Kids will go out of their way for your acceptance and to try to make you proud. If they don’t find it, they will look for someone who will accept them. Be very careful here.
  • Kids are usually quick to forgive and, therefore, you should be too. Don’t be afraid of saying “I’m sorry.” just because you’re a parent.
  • Kids are usually smart. In fact, they will surprise you if given the chance. However, don’t get hung up on math scores and academics. We all have individual talents and individual smart-ness. Kids are no exception. If they are struggling with their grades its ok. They ALL have a talent somewhere. Help them find it.
  • Teach them to say things like, “Please” and “Thank you”. They don’t cost a thing and are a simple way to be polite. Mr. Rogers was on to something with this.
  • Kids grow up fast. Before you know it, they go from asking for milk to asking to borrow the car. Cherish the little things that make them unique.
  • Take copious amounts of pictures while they are growing up. You can thank me for that one when they move out.
  • Never ask, “What’s wrong with you?” or “How many times do I have to tell you?” when you are mad. If they answer “Nothing!” or “Forty-two more times!” they gave you your answer. If you need to, take a few moments to compose yourself before dispensing discipline.
  • Be a friend when they need it and they need it more than you’d think. Be a parent when they need it too. I have found that the correct balance of parent and friend makes an amazing parent.
  • Leave home for a least a weekend once a year. Longer and more often if you can. Vacations are where the most memories of youth and strong family bonds tend to be made.
  • If you live in Arizona, get them a pool or take them to one and let them swim, all summer long.
  • You are going to make mistakes. Sometimes, big ones. Its ok. Admit it and move forward. Its when you hang on to those mistakes that things go south. Being human is allowed.
  • Stay off your phone (or other device) when your kids are around. They need to know they are more important then that text or whatever you think is more important. Trust me, they notice when you are not paying attention to them.
  • This one is for grandparents: You have waited your whole life for grandchildren, so make sure you are available for your grandchildren. The memories they have of you when they are older will resonate their entire lives. Make the most out of the small window that time has given.
  • Growing up is tough, but we can make it fun and little easier if we try.

There were some other things that hit me too. Not necessarily related to parenting, but I feel you should know:

  • Whipped cream has no business on cake and is NOT frosting, so stop trying to pass it off as such. Frosting is Frosting.
  • If you stand to pee, lift the seat. Or, at least wipe it after. To do otherwise is just lazy and gross.
  • If you haven’t called your mom today, pick up the phone and call her! Right now.
  • Don’t try to control things too much. You just can’t.
  • Delete Facebook, Instagram and other social media. IT IS A HUGE WASTE OF YOUR TIME. It also wastes the time of people closest to you. This is probably a form of addiction, though, so slowly ween yourself off.
  • No one can tell you the meaning of life but you. It is different for everyone and tends to change over time.
  • Say “Hello” when you pass someone on the street, in the hallway or at work. You never know if you are going to make a new friend or make the other person’s day.
  • Call someone from high school every year.
  • Visit all 50 states at least once (bring the kids).
  • Visit Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America at least once.
  • Put down that silly vapor pen. Those things will probably kill you, too.
  • When someone says, “To be honest” my first thought is that they probably tell lies most of the time.
  • Most things that seem important now probably won’t be in 10 years. (remember Walkman, Discman?)

And, finally:

  • Try something new and possibly thrilling. You’ll be glad you did.

David D. Speer is a husband, father of three, high school teacher, athletic coach, small business owner and aspiring author. He has a Master’s in Business Admin and a BA in Secondary Ed and a BA in History. He has lived in Phoenix most of his life, but has also lived in Colorado and Washington.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Reflections on Breastfeeding in Airplanes

October 16, 2019
breastfeeding

By Anna Luisa Daigneault

It’s 11am on a Thursday in mid-December, and I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in over 18 months. I am sitting on a cramped airplane, headed northward for the Christmas holiday. I’m in survival mode because I am solo-traveling with my baby daughter. I’m hyper aware of every little potential danger that could somehow harm her on this journey. I am also well aware of every possible way that she could annoy the dozens of people in close proximity to us on our flight.

Each person huddles in their own airplane seat doing their best to doze or block out the people around them by plugging into various devices. Beside us is a silent stranger who occupies every inch of his seat, and a bit of mine too. His headphones are on, and he is holding a smartphone very close to his face. I can see him browsing his social media platforms and typing away furiously with his thumbs. I do my best not to spy on him.

My writhing 18-month-old daughter is on my lap at the moment, but really she would much prefer to be crawling under the seat in front of us, which would of course be a death trap if there were any turbulence. So I am trying to mitigate that situation by breastfeeding her. In theory, the milk would help her slip into nap world for the rest of the plane ride.

Easier said than done. Truthfully, she is getting a little too big to comfortably nurse on a plane. When she was a little baby, she didn’t mind cuddling up to me for hours on end, so I didn’t have to worry about her smacking the passengers around us. Now, at 18 months of age, she is getting big, and has a mind of her own. She wants to be in charge of her own destiny.

As I gently wrestle her into the cradle position, while trying to not let my exposed boob flail around in public view too much, I am painfully aware that we are causing some discomfort and embarrassment to the passenger beside us. My baby keeps kicking him with her little sneakered feet, and he is averting his gaze because he needs to make sure he is not looking at my breast. I can see his sweat beads pile up on his neck.

I feel kind of bad that he might be nervous, so I keep saying sorry and maneuvering my baby’s plump little thrashing legs away from him. But she always finds a way to somehow jostle him, or press up against him. Even after such abuse, our fellow traveler doesn’t respond with a nod, a smile, or even any sound of dismay. He has retreated far away from this annoying reality by gazing into his smartphone, and he has every blessed right to do so.

I am glad he is not getting mad. But a little recognition of the situation, or signal of acknowledgment, would be welcome to us. At least my daughter is not trying to crawl onto his lap and play with his phone, like she did to our neighbor on the last flight.

Seeing as our stoic companion has had little to no reaction, I switch into my familiar mom mode of not caring too much. Motherhood is sometimes about embracing short-lived discomfort for the sake of the greater good. I often have a cruel little mantra playing in my head: we all have to make sacrifices.

But then my eye catches him posting tweet: “What’s up with mothers who still breastfeed their 3-year-olds? Are we still living in medieval times? Give the kid some cow’s milk and move on. Please and thank you.”

I feel my blood boil with rage. How dare he write that about us?! But then my anger diminishes to incredulity. Soon I sort of don’t care anymore, and shrug it off. His tweet is kind of funny, and in any case, he can write whatever he damn well pleases.

Ohhhh, life before parenting, I reflect. I used to be that person, thinking that I knew all of the things. Now, all I can do is stay in the present moment, and pray my baby will settle down soon.

Thankfully, baby drifts off into a peaceful slumber, milk dribbling from her mouth. I stash my boob away into my bra with ninja-like deftness, and try to doze with my neck at a weird angle. But I can’t sleep. I’m still a little hurt over the tweet, and want to say something. But I can’t risk waking the baby, after all that work putting her to sleep! Ugh. I tell myself, whatever, there is no point in arguing with a stranger right now. 

But if I did argue with this guy, this is what I would say.

Allow me to deconstruct your tweet, good sir. First of all, she is only 18 months old. Still technically a baby. Well, she’s a toddler, but she’s still more of an infant than a child. I can tell that you have no idea how old she is. She has enough hair for pigtails, so maybe she looks 3 years old to you, but trust me. She’s a baby.

Second, the reason why she is on my lap is because she rides for free as an infant-in-arms until the age of two. That’s coming up soon, I know, but we are not there yet. I’m on a budget over here. Have some respect! Did you know women are on average paid less than men?

Third, did you know that breastfeeding helps a child’s ears regulate the pressure changes in the cabin? Ha! You didn’t know that. Well, I can see why – I didn’t know that either until I became a mom.

And yes, my boobs are exposed. I know that makes people uncomfortable. I don’t really care. My boobs are not just sexual appendages anymore. They are a source of nutrition and life! They are the Milky Way! The Cosmic Breadbasket! The Sacred Keg!

Ok, I’ll stop there.

No, actually, hear me out. Lots of people breastfeed their kids until the age of two or more because of the multitude of health benefits. We’re obviously not in medieval times. We have many other sources of food. You haven’t seen her eat solid food: she loves it and it’s very messy. I’m actually saving you from being covered in fruity apple slime right now. Graham cracker crumbs and yucky, fruity slime that starts to smell bad surprisingly quickly.

Also, you should marvel at the fact that breastfeeding is really handy while traveling. Food and water on the go. Wherever you need it, it appears. Magical!

And since we’re on this topic, I actually kept breastfeeding my baby this long SPECIFICALLY so she would nurse during THIS exact flight and not cry about her ears hurting, and then as an added bonus, she would fall asleep. So there! I am ACTUALLY trying to help all of us on this plane. It’s not just about you or me. It’s all about the collective!

Lastly, what has our society come to? (Wow, I sound ridiculous). Can we no longer communicate with a human being sitting right next to us on a flight, and instead we decide to deal with our emotions by posting passive-aggressive tweets to our random and invisible assortment of followers?

Well, I suppose I am also communicating with you through a passive-aggressive blog post, months after the fact, so let’s just call it even.

Anyway, I’m sorry she kicked you for 10 minutes straight. Next trip, she gets her own seat.

Thanks for listening. Have a good flight.

Anna Luisa Daigneault is a mother who balances work, family life, being a musician, and endless chores. Originally from Montreal, Anna live in North Carolina with her husband and daughter, cat, dog, beta fish, where they all fend the house off from the million stray cats who wish to nest in their humble abode.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Guest Posts

Family Table

October 13, 2019
table

By Kat Read

This was my family table: I’d open the glove compartment and peel a small stack of paper napkins off the pile wedged inside. I’d layer them over one another on the open door and then reach into the paper bag, extract the packets of ketchup, usually three or four. I’d squeeze the foil packets onto the napkins, scraping down from the outside with my fingers pressed together. I’d jostle the fries loose onto the tray. Then I’d take the salt shaker that we kept in the glove compartment and sprinkle more salt onto the fries – we really like salt, my mom and I – and I’d hand her a fry, crisp and kissed with ketchup.

My dad did most of the cooking in our house when I was little, but he died suddenly when I was fourteen. My mom has never liked to cook. “Cooking was never an interest of mine,” she’ll say to me now, but I know that’s not the whole story. After he died, it felt ridiculous to sit and eat an elaborate dinner at our big empty dining room table, like we were performing in a play that no one was watching. Here we are, sitting down to dinner, bravely carrying on. My mom was exhausted. She worked full time, took care of me, took care of our house, all while trying to figure out how to live the rest of her life without her husband. Cooking dinner was just not a priority. I covered the table with my schoolwork and we mostly ate prepared foods and fast food.

We drove an hour and a half together in the car each day, and we’d spend the time talking about my classes, her work, our friendships. We made jokes and we listened to music and sometimes we’d stop for fries. We had our dose of family togetherness in the car, so most nights when we got home, we’d retreat to separate corners of the house. My mom would eat a frozen dinner in the kitchen and I’d sit alone in front of the tiny TV in the living room. Sometimes, I’d make myself a paper plate of nachos: a pile of Tostitos chips and pre-grated cheese melted in the microwave, the whole thing sprinkled liberally with Kosher salt that we kept in a little Pyrex bowl next to the stove. I’d peel the chips off one by one and sink into a crunchy fatty salty bliss. When I was done, I’d head into the kitchen, say hi to my mom, and wipe the plate down with a paper towel before sliding it back into its spot above the microwave. Even now, I love to make a huge plate of nachos and devour them all by myself, luxuriating in solitude.

Is that sad? I don’t know. Sometimes I think it must be, especially when I hear other people talk about their food memories from growing up. We didn’t have shelves of sauce-spattered cookbooks. I didn’t learn to cook from my mom. We didn’t sit down together at seven o’clock sharp every night for a family meal.

And yet: sometimes, we would stop at Whole Foods on the way home from school. She’d helm the cart while I skittered around the store looking at the cheeses and the fruits and the sushi. We always ended up buying the same stuff: a baguette, a slab of good butter, a jug of grapefruit juice, and two cannoli with little chocolate chips studding the ends. We’d eat the cannoli before we left the parking lot.

When we got home, we’d pour two huge glasses of juice and sit on the couch. We’d tear off chunks of bread with our hands and punch the cold butter into the crevices with the tip of a knife. We’d sit beside each other and giggle and chat and watch other people cook on America’s Test Kitchen.

I still crave the pairing sometimes, the fattiness of the butter and the acidity of the juice. It is strange and unexpected, like the life we had to make together after my dad died. But we made it work, sitting side by side, facing forward.

Kat Read is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program, an intensive writing course based in Boston, MA. She recently published an essay on the intersection of therapy and writing on the Brevity Blog and an essay in Coastin’, a weekly arts magazine. Kat works as a fundraiser at GrubStreet and lives with her husband and their dog in Cambridge, MA.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Beauty Hunting, Guest Posts

The Stream

October 11, 2019
stream

B Edward M. Cohen

Five year old Noah saw an old man in the market, he tells me, his body curling into an

imitation. He nods his head, pretends to be walking with a cane. The old guy was walking up and down the aisles, muttering, “Mine eyes! Mine eyes!” The memory makes him cackle.

I am not sure what this means but I’ll ask his mother later. Maybe she’ll know. Maybe not. . Ten minutes go by and, in the middle of another conversation, he mutters, “Mine eyes! Mine eyes!” his body curling, his voice crackling with make-believe age, and he giggles to himself once again. It doesn’t matter whether I understand or not. He enjoys the story.

He also loves to sing Allouette. He announces, “I can speak French, Grandpa!” Then he sings, “Allouette, gentil Allouette. Allouette gentil ploo merai!” He doesn’t understand a word. He is just mouthing sounds which his father probably taught him but he proudly sings the refrain over and over.

The most impressive thing about him at this age is the way he relishes private jokes, sets his own goals, pleases himself with his accomplishments, figures thing out, gets lost in his private fantasies.

We are spending the afternoon at the stream. His parents have rented a cottage near our summer home for the month because they can thereby get a vacation with free baby sitting: a treat for us all. They bring him over every afternoon and he has fallen in love with a nearby stream. We spent two hundred bucks on a membership in the town pool, figuring he’d meet other kids there, take swimming lessons, but no, Noah prefers the stream. The water only goes up to his waist so he can just wade in and sit and splash but the current is really strong and he loves to let the cool ripples rush over him. He has started to build a dam; flinging the rocks around, piling them up, then breaking them down, dousing his head under the waterfall he has created, singing Allouette to himself.

He used to be totally dependent on adults for information and stimulation. He soaked up whatever we told him. He wanted to hear the same story over and over. These days, when we walk to the stream, he talks to himself, repeats his favorite punch lines, does not care if I get the jokes or not.

In the fall, he will be going to a real school instead of the pre K he has been in for years. He will be learning letters and numbers. He will be losing old friends and will have to make new ones, travelling on the school bus. His parents are nervous, but not Noah. Now I know why; just when he needs it, his inner self is growing strong.

We walk home from the stream, he in his baggy bathing suit, hair golden from the sun, and he shows me his Karate poses, copied from television. He sucks in his tummy and I begin to see the outlines of muscles, like the very beginning of a scrawny pre-adolescent. He says, “I have to keep my knees bent like this for support!” God knows where he heard it but he seems to understand and is clearly impressed with himself.

I hope I never forget the way he is this carefree summer since there are so many hurdles ahead which he doesn’t even know about. He has been so happy in his current school, has been there for so many years, the darling of the teachers. This will be a great disruption in his life. To us, it seems frightening. Not to him. Maybe he is aware of the tension around him and, without even knowing, he has taken this summer to marshall his inner resourses. With the sense of self he is building, he will handle whatever awaits him. He knows it. We will learn. We have to, he is signaling. He will not be held back by our old-people concerns.

I know separation is a part of parenting but does it have to happen so soon?

This coming weekend, his friend, Andy, is visiting from the city so his parents tell us Noah will not be coming over until Monday. We will miss him terribly. After only these few weeks, we cannot remember how we used to fill the afternoons. And we are reminded how brief this period will be. Soon, too soon, he will be busy with soccer games and music lessons and boy scout meetings. There will be very little time for visits to his grandparents.

Maybe, every now and then, he will need to replenish his spirits by returning to the stream and, if so, we will be here.

Edward M. Cohen‘s novel, $250,000, was published by Putnam’s; his nonfiction books are published by Prima, Prentice-Hall, Limelight Editions, and SUNY Press. He has published over 35 stories in various literary journals, and his articles have appeared in CosmopolitanChildParentingAmerican Woman, and Out. Cohen has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the NY State Council on the Arts.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Young Voices

Amanda

October 8, 2019
coach

By Mary Clark

When I started texting my coach, I’d had a crush on him for two years. By the time things started with us, he was coaching a younger team. He started lending me things. I would find him after practice to return his copy of Brave New World or his first generation iPod, texting him later, “I like Animal Collective the best.”

I went to his house one warm morning for a date. We stuck our feet in the pool and joked about the legality of kissing each other. We asked, “Is this legal… is this?” as we leaned in closer to each other, or brushed our feet together in the water. We went inside to watch Ponyo and eat scrambled eggs from a bowl.

He often said formal things like “thanks for coming over” and “anime is my favorite genre.” At one point, as we sat close to each other on the couch, I farted and immediately turned to stone. I sat as still as I could, like a kid imagining I could make him believe nothing happened. No one said anything, but later he laughed too hard when a fish in the movie farted and a bubble floated to the surface of the water.

His roommate came home briefly and no one knew what to make of anything, so no one said anything beyond “nice to meet you.” I also gave a low nervous wave with the hand that wasn’t holding his under a pillow in my lap. Obviously, I wasn’t the loser in this situation, but how could I have known?

Later, I broke up with him, because one night a younger boy said to me, “I know I’m not unbiased in this situation, but I think that guy’s pretty much a creep.” I was convinced. Sam was more interesting and had already read Brave New World and was 17, not 27.

The coach and I had a date at the drive-ins that night, and when I showed up, he had two grocery bags worth of a picnic and a huge smile on his face. He brought cups for sparkling lemonade. I almost lost my mind. At that age, when I had to tell someone something horrible, I cried first so there was no getting out of it. He never took his hand off the parking brake while I told him I was done by saying, “You know that guy I went to homecoming with, remember him?”

He cried so hard and for so long I almost missed my curfew. He texted me that he loved me, that he had cried all night. A few weeks later he mailed a DVD of Ponyo to my parents’ house. I saw his tiny neat handwriting on the package in the mailbox. Thank god it was me who found it. Later, after I told my mom my secret, she told me that she wouldn’t tell my dad because he would have fought him. I thought that was ridiculous, but now, when I think about his tiny all- caps handwriting, I kind of want to fight him too.

When the roommate left the house that day of our first date, our knees touched each other’s on the couch. We had already kissed the weekend before at a First Friday downtown. I met him outside of a Spaghetti Warehouse, ostensibly to say hello. I said, “I just came from practice” and he said, “It smells like it.” Then we moved our heads around until we were kissing. It felt like kissing a brick wall. The kiss of a guy trying not to get arrested.

I changed his name in my phone to Amanda, as in, “A man, duh.” I loved that he was a man.

I went to his house after taking the SATs. He cut up an apple for a snack that we ate in his bed, before I gave him head for the first time. I hobbled naked to the bathroom for toilet paper. It was actually his parents’ house. I slipped on my green boots and drove away in the rain feeling proud of myself.

When I think about the way he looks I remember what a folk singer said about her ex-boyfriend. She said he looked like everyone she’d ever known. Walking around, I see a constant stream of similarly medium-sized sandy men with big arms and small noses.

On that first hang, at his own second-story brick apartment, we made out in his room where he had one framed Wes Anderson poster and man-themed bedding. I slept in all of my clothes on my side with a stomach ache.

My back had been tight for a few weeks, no doubt an athletic injury, and after being spooned all night by a man, I woke up feeling like I had been bent in half backwards. My mom was picking me up for church at 10. I told her I was getting breakfast with a friend, I’d meet her on the corner. I got into the car and could barely sit down. It felt like my body was strapped to a board, and I could barely bend my knees. My mom said I must have slept funny. I cried and asked if I could go home, but my mom said people were expecting me in the nursery where I worked.

When I got there, I could barely pick up the smallest baby, a recently adopted Russian orphan who was afraid of everyone except me. I tried to put her down, but she dug the plastic heels of her tiny Mary Jane’s into my back, pinching my skin and my nerves. I finally sat her down, and went to the bathroom to stand still and to cry.

Through my tears, I thought with relief, “Maybe now I can quit soccer.”

Mary Clark is a poet and fiction writer from Tulsa, Oklahoma currently living in Los Angeles. She graduated from UCLA in 2015 with a B.A. in Comparative Literature. Mary currently works as a nanny, and volunteers with the Prison Education Project.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Anxiety, Guest Posts

My Brain’s Airplane Busy Kit

October 6, 2019
airplane

By Darcy Lohmiller

Direct your focus to the little butterflies on my ceiling whispered the soothing voice in my head.  But there were no butterflies in the steel contraption about to launch 30,000 feet into the air.  After fifteen years of flying with prescribed sedatives, I was attempting a flight to South Africa with a backpack filled with aromatherapy scents, inspirational music, and ten recorded sessions of hypnotism.  Buried at the bottom was the emergency stash of Xanax I hoped I wouldn’t need to use.

I increased my phone’s volume and tried to focus on the therapist’s voice instead of the plane’s engines and my pounding heart.  You will have faith in the pilots and all of the training they’ve gone through… Keep in mind what you consciously already know, that this is one of the safest ways to travel……While we rumbled down the runway, I switched to the soundtrack from Apollo 13. My brain, like a toddler distracted by a bright rattle, took an interest in the soaring strings and the heroic brass anthem.  It remembered a rocket with Tom Hanks at the controls, launching to the moon.  I shook the rattle at my brain as we lifted off the runway.

I didn’t always fear flying.  My first flight was as a ten-year-old when my brain trusted adults and the safety they promised me.  A stewardess in a crisp blue uniform brought me a Pepsi with ice before the flight. I was so transfixed by the blurring tarmac outside my window the drink tumbled into my lap on takeoff.  I watched the puffy clouds and the sweeping quilt of wheat fields below, lulled by the engine’s steady hum and the stewardesses’ firm, businesslike steps up and down the cabin.  It became as familiar as the back seat of the station wagon with my father at the wheel and my mother’s intake of breath at each curve in the road.  My mother was an unbearable backseat driver.  She stared straight ahead at the road, clutched the armrest and applied her invisible brakes, always ready to alert my father to the dangers she was sure he couldn’t see. Her world view was if one was always ready for disaster, it would be easier to bear when it arrived.

I flew sporadically and uneventfully for twenty years. I’m not sure when I lost faith in technology and the men who handled it, when I stopped trusting the calm voice of the flight attendant assuring us the seat cushion could be used as a flotation device.  In the 70s, plane disaster headlines were accompanied by photos of suitcases strewn across blackened fields.  My brain stored these details and filled in the rest:  oxygen masks dropping from a disintegrating plane, passengers screaming and clutching each other as they plummeted to the ground.  How many minutes did they anticipate their own death?  My brain shuddered.

I was newly married when I traveled with my husband Dan and his family from Bozeman, Montana to Denver. The first rustlings of nervousness caught me when I entered the cabin.  The plane seemed smaller than I remembered, more fragile.   My footsteps sounded hollow on the thin floor and the plane wobbled when passengers stuffed their bags into the overhead storage and plumped into their seats.  Cracks in the upholstery, peeling paint on the armrest.  I looked out the window and watched the crew loading luggage into the hold.  A bored mechanic tightened a rusty bolt on a dented wing.   If the plane crashed, would he feel any responsibility?  Or were there so many cogs in the machine it would be impossible to find the loose screw and the person who had failed to tighten it?

As the plane gained speed, my heart beat faster in time to the spinning wheels.  I was trapped. I clutched the armrest and willed the plane to rise, but the moment it left the ground it seemed to lose all confidence.  The clouds fought the plane, hitting it on the side, the top, the bottom. The pilot’s voice assured us of a smooth ride, but the turbulence seemed to surprise even him.  “Looks like we hit a rough patch, folks,” his jaunty voice said.  Even the pilot didn’t know this would happen, my brain argued.  They had no control, it insisted.   We were all helpless against forces stronger than us, forces with no regard for us.  I clutched Dan’s arm with each bump and jolt and he was puzzled at my anxiety. In his mind, flying carried a low risk.  Until something happened, you may as well enjoy the scenery.  His fearlessness made me worry more.  I had inherited my mother’s brain with its fear of life’s unexpected bumps, and like hers it believed it must always be ready to take the jolt.  So while Dan gazed out the window, I braced myself for the next one.

Our flight back home was on a thirty-seater and I trudged to the gate as though I were on death row.  We had to walk directly onto a tarmac that radiated heat like an open oven.  As I followed everyone up the steep metal stairs, I recalled a Twilight Zone episode where a passenger is greeted by a stern-faced stewardess.  “Room for one more,” she says.  The passenger ran away before the plane exploded.  I walked down the narrow cabin to the last seat in the back of the plane and fumbled with my seat belt.  My heart had been beating wildly and now my hands were sweating as well.  I tried to calm myself but my body refused to listen.  My arms grew cold as blood flowed to my legs, telling them to move, to escape the danger.  But my brain knew there was no escape. I struggled to breathe.

The flight attendant asked, “Is she okay?”  Dan nodded.  The plane skittered down the runway and jumped into the air while Dan stroked my hand as though my fear was a spot he could rub out.  The flight attendant brought me a glass of white wine, and I downed it while she took her seat behind the pilots, two sturdy men in crisp blue uniform calmly adjusting the controls.  I focused on their closely trimmed hair beneath gold-trimmed military caps. Like my mother in the car, perhaps I could alert them to danger with a tap on the shoulder and a firm word.  As we descended through the mountains, the little plane took the gust of mountainous air like a boxer took body punches.  It shuddered, but righted itself, feinted to the side, then faced its opponent again. For an hour, I sat rigid against the punches that rained on me until we bounced onto the runway and braked at the gate.  I could barely walk off the plane.

For the next five years, I found an excuse to avoid any flight until a friend I wouldn’t visit urged me to see a doctor.  “You know, they have drugs for that.”

My doctor wrote a prescription for Xanax.  When the pharmacist handed me the little white bag, stapled at the top, she smiled.  “You’ll like this.”  No one thought less of me for using a drug to conquer fear.

And it worked.  It told the small amygdala in my brain to shut up but left my cortex free to manage terminals, gate changes, and subway systems.  My amygdala, I learned, had been working overtime, coordinating responses to dangers that did not exist.  My cortex tried to object, but it wasn’t fast enough.   Xanax put the brakes on the busy amygdala so the cortex could catch up.  My brain was quiet throughout the flight, and noted turbulence with only a mild curiosity.

For the next fifteen years, I traveled with a little yellow container tucked inside my bag.  Every six hours, I dug it out and snapped it open like a tin of Altoids.  The cabin’s noises turned into a soft buzz and I smiled at the flight attendants, talked to the person beside me about things I couldn’t later recall, and arrived at my gate with a calm heart and mind.  Thank you for the nice flight, I told the pilot and the flight attendants at the door.

But using Xanax had its tradeoffs.   I watched movies, read books, had interesting conversations and remembered little of them.  On a flight to the Bahamas, I looked out the window at a sea of turquoise waters and felt nothing.  Only a fully functioning brain can experience delight, wonder, and awe.  And though the numbing effects of Xanax were largely gone the next day, there was always a lingering dullness as my brain came back to life.  I only took it once or twice a year, but worried about its long-term effects.   I had hoped flying under the influence of Xanax would eventually allow me to fly without it.  But every time I tried to do so, the slightest bump would send me rustling in my bag for the tiny case of pills.  Doctors criticized Xanax because it made the brain lazy and demanding.   Using Xanax was like giving in to a child’s temper tantrum.  Okay, here’s your chemicals.  Now calm down.

As our trip to South Africa grew nearer, I worried about taking Xanax for the 22 hours it required to get there. How long would that lingering dullness last?  Would I spend most of the trip looking at wild elephants and lions with only mild curiosity?  Was it possible to retrain my amygdala instead of shut it off?   So I paid for six sessions with a hypnotist who tried to convince my subconscious that flying was safe.  My brain wasn’t an easy student.  It struggled to create mental images. It refused to respond to suggestions.  It never did achieve a trance-like state.  But I closed my eyes and listened to her voice assuring my brain it was safe, it was strong.  I just hoped it was listening.

During the flight across the country and the Atlantic Ocean and down the entire length of Africa, I was armed with my recordings and an emergency stash of Xanax.   Twenty-two hours of flying, twelve hours of two layovers, I arrived in Johannesburg drug-free, clear-headed and exhausted.  Without the rosy haze of Xanax, flying was as glamorous as a bus trip.  Hundreds of passengers were crammed into narrow rows of tight seats.  Lines formed at the bathrooms.  The flight crew pushed their carts through tight aisles and silently handed out Styrofoam cartons of food.  I didn’t have a panic attack, but I was drained from two days of trying to manage my restless brain in a three foot space.  I’d watched six movies, ate seven meals, and slept a total two hours out of the twenty-two.  I had been fully cognizant the entire flight.

It wasn’t that great.

On the flight back to the United States, my brain fought me for the first twelve hours.  It was tired.  It was whiney.  I had pushed it too hard.  Hypnotism had helped, but it didn’t eliminate over fifty years of hard-wiring.  My brain may always panic when it feels trapped, may always struggle to fight the disaster it is sure is on its way.  I hoped to train my brain to relax with reassurances of safety and images of butterflies, but instead forced it into a sort of whimpering, fearful submission.  Is a constant and simmering state of anxiety better for my brain than one milligram of Xanax?

With twelve more hours left in the flight, I surrendered.  I still hope to retrain my brain to become the calm flyer I want it to be, but at this moment I just needed it to shut the hell up.  I snapped open my little container and swallowed the pill.

Darcy Lohmiller is a middle school librarian and part-owner of a fly fishing shop in Bozeman, Montana. Her essays about fishing, hunting, dogs and trailers have appeared in The Drake, The Flyfish Journal, Shooting Sportsman Magazine, and The Big Sky Journal. You can read her essays at https://www.clippings.me/dlohmiller

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts, motherhood

What Grief May Come

October 4, 2019
dreams

By Becky Benson

Seven years on and the dreams keep coming.  Not with any discernable rhyme or reason; rather they enter my unconscious thought seemingly beholden to nothing other than their own unknowable will.  They’ve never been exactly alike, no repeating patterns, and for all other intense and purpose one would assume there was no connection between them at all.  It’s the underlying theme that connects them; one of grief and guilt.

It’s the details, so subtle they seem to play no real part in the story working itself out in my sleep-filled mind.  So trivial they are of no concern to plot of the wakeless movie my brain projects against the backs of my eyelids.  There’s never any alteration due to my actions.  After it happens a scene may simply stop, or the story moves along without addressing it again.  Only when I wake does the panic take the place of the air in my lungs.  And only in my wakeful mind does any of it make any sense.

It’s the only time I dream of her.  Never seeing her when I’m in a realm of happiness or a state of content.  The dreams themselves only ever spin a terrifying line of questioning that lacks rationale, but presents itself to me as unavoidable reality, nonetheless.  Dreams that ceaselessly rip open the innerworkings of my thoughts and force me to contemplate my deeply buried fears.

It could be hours, days or even weeks, and in my dreams I always forget.  It’s my fault, and I didn’t do enough.  She’s laid there, unable to move the slightest bit or cry out the smallest cry, for who knows how long before I realize I have to feed her.  I forget again and again.  I never give her enough.  I don’t give it to her often enough.  I try, but it never works.  She’s on the periphery of whatever else I’m doing, and by the time I realize it, it’s always too late.  She needed it long before.  And then she’s gone.

Over and over again it isn’t enough.  Over and over again in my dreams, as it was in life, I couldn’t save her.

Tay-Sachs disease is a genetic condition that is always fatal.  Infants who are born with the flawed recessive genes their parents passed on to them will suffer a relentless regression of their mental and physical abilities until death; usually by the age of four.  As their bodies shut down they will not develop the ability to walk or talk as typically growing children do, rather they will become paralyzed and blind, suffer seizures, and lose their ability to swallow, and all of their mental cognition.

Feeding was laborious and difficult.  Her inability to swallow well consumed my daily routine.  If liquids were too thin, she would choke, if her food was too thick, she couldn’t chew. I desperately fed her four ounces at a time, five times a day ensuring I maintained that perfect balance of nutrition, hydration, and caloric density that carried her body to the next morning.  Never more than four ounces at a time as she tired so quickly from the effort it took to consume even that small amount.  I blended in peanut butter, melted butter, bananas and heavy cream.  Scoops of formula and PediaSure accompanied strawberries or chocolate milk.  Baby food, step two, not three; three has chunks, were fortified with cereal flakes or Miralax, depending upon necessity.

Feeds could take up to half an hour each time, and even at that, she was lucky she was still highly functioning enough to eat by mouth at all.  Lucky she wasn’t aspirating her food, or her medication at that point.

I lived my life, day in and out for her.  I happily carved out a routine that was dedicated to her as the center of our world, and our every waking moment was spent making sure she had what she needed to survive for as long as she could.

It wasn’t long enough.  She died at the age of three years and four months, and even though I had known all along it was coming it’s something a mother can never truly prepare for.  It goes against everything we hold dear and that rings true in nature for a parent to lose a child.

I don’t remember when the dreams began, but they’ve haunted me since their inception.  I couldn’t fix her.  I couldn’t save her.  She was broken in this world.  I knew it.  It was biology.  I wasn’t afraid to confront the reality of it; I just despised the fact that it was our reality.  As a mother, facing the impending loss of your child is a soul crushing place to exist.

Grief and rationale rarely go hand in hand, so while I logically know that there was nothing I could do better, and nothing I did wrong, something inside always screams at me, clawing its way to the surface of my conscious thought that it was I who wasn’t enough.  I, her mother; the utter failure with the dead child.  We have one job as parents; it’s to keep them safe from harm.  One job.  I couldn’t do it.  And in the end, it’s true, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t stop Tay-Sachs from ravaging her body, and I couldn’t stop it from ripping her from this world and my arms.  Nothing I could have done better, or more, or different would have changed it, but still the dreams come.

They’ve shifted, recently.  It isn’t always her any longer.  Sometimes it’s kittens.  In the dreams they live in our garage.  I never quite know where they came from, but sometimes I remember they’re there.  So small and unassuming, hiding in dark corners without sound or movement.  I realize it’s been weeks since I’ve fed them, given them water.  I’ve forgotten their existence altogether, all over again, and I search through the maze of boxes and overflowing items to find out if they’re still alive.

Waking I recognize the garage as the garage of my childhood home, but in the dream it’s the garage in my home of today.  It’s cluttered and cramped, and no place to keep a living animal.  I never know why they’re there, and I never think to bring them into the house.  I just remember, finally, after all seems lost that they need food and water.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine posted a question on Facebook asking about what recurring dreams people have.  I shared my experiences with this, and how logical me knows it all stems from emotional me’s irrational feelings of failure toward her.  I wrote on the thread that I didn’t think these dreams would be as impactful as they are if she were still here.  We as parents are given new opportunities each and every day to make more and more mistakes, but when we see our children living and thriving, we know it’s all ok.  Parents of loss don’t have the confirmation of their actions having been the correct choices.  We don’t have the luxury of tomorrow.  Our children are gone, and whether we attribute that to our own actions, or lack thereof, we will never be able to rectify their loss within our hearts.

Predictably, someone else, someone I don’t know chimed in on the thread with some unwanted advice for me.  He said, “Becky, I am sorry you are having those dreams.  I’m certain once you are able to let the guilt go those dreams will end.  Think of the great dreams you could be having about her.  Love and hugs”.

I was mildly irritated.  It was something so flippantly obviously that certainly shouldn’t deign to be pointed out, especially by someone who likely couldn’t relate on a personal level (I took the liberty of assuming he couldn’t relate first-hand since he didn’t state his own loss of a child).  “As if it’s just that easy”, I thought.  Of course I need to let the guilt go.  I have nothing to feel guilty about, this is just how my particular brand of grief seems to manifest, no matter my attempts to avoid it, or face it hear-on to change it in these last seven years.  I didn’t respond.  In the end, he was trying for kindness, and I should accept it for that.

I didn’t give the comment any more thought and went about my way.  Last night I dreamt that I was with her again.  My husband was with us.  We had somewhere to go, but I stopped us before we left.  Thinking that we’d be out a fair amount of time, I recognized that I should feed her then, before we left.  I filled her bottle, expertly mixing the correct proportions of the necessary ingredients and fed her smoothly and easily.  When I she was done, I began to mix up some food for her in a bowl.  It was soft, but chunky.  It needed to be mashed.  I mashed it by hand repeatedly, taking great care and concern to achieve the correct consistency.  I fed it to her gingerly spoonful by spoonful until she had eaten it all.  For the first time, I looked longingly at her and relished in the fact that she was well fed.  It felt like an accomplishment.  I remember smiling.  The was no more of the dream after that.  It vaporized like dew in the sunshine.

Perhaps I had sat with this form of grief, repeatedly emotionally beating myself down long enough.  Was finally speaking it aloud all I had to do?  Was hearing the validation that my guilt was unnecessary all I needed?  Will the dreams stop now?

Becky A. Benson lives in Washington State. Read her work on Modern Loss, Brain.Child, Modern Mom, The Manifest Station, her Three Short Years blog, and in the pages of Taylored Living Magazine. She has both written and Spoken for Soulumination, The National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association, and The Center for Jewish Genetics. Purchase a copy of her memoir, Three Short Years, based on the death of her daughter from Tay-Sachs disease, here or connect with her via Rise: A Community for Women.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Why I’ve Stopped Reading Parenting Magazines

October 2, 2019
magazine

By Tariya Mukai

I was finishing up a purchase at a maternity store a couple years ago when the shop clerk shared with me a special promotion on parenting and housekeeping magazines.

“Sure, sign me up!” I shrugged. I liked to read, and I actually really liked reading about raising kids and keeping a nice home.

Before I begin, let me say that I don’t have anything against parenting magazines. They’re so cute! I love the bright, colorful pictures, and I’ve always found the writing to be fun, both casual and informative. I especially look forward to the holiday guide with reviews of “The Best Books and Toys” of the year and all the photos of beautiful Christmas decor and fancy cookies (which never quite turn out like the pictures when I make them).

So my decision to filter the parenting info that I intake is a personal one—the way some people limit their carbs to lose weight. It’s not that all carbs are bad; a diet needs good carbs to be healthy. I just eat too many carbs that make me feel bad.

It was the middle of a hard year for our family; I became a regular at the pediatrician’s office, bringing the kids in  every six to eight weeks because of an allergic reaction or hand-foot-mouth or the chicken pox (which my daughter caught before she was old enough to be vaccinated). We were on Week 2 of hand-foot-mouth, which was slowly taking down each member of the family every so many days, when I checked the mail and found that month’s issue of the parenting magazine I was subscribed to. The cover story was about “Ways to have the best summer ever!” I pointed it out to my husband and laughed bitterly, “I can sum this up in one line: Don’t get hand-foot-mouth if you want to enjoy your summer.”

I was already a pretty self-conscious mom, so that year wrecked any confidence that I had left as a mother. I berated myself for not keeping my kids healthy, and I didn’t have the time or energy to teach the kids their alphabets and numbers or do fun science experiments. A clean house basically meant the dishes were washed and the laundry clean (not even folded and put away … just clean!). At that time, it was difficult to convince myself that I was a good mother.

But I walked away from that year with an important lesson: For a mom like me, who struggles with comparison and perfection and is quick to believe the lie that I need to do more to be a better mom, I have to be careful with what information I’m feeding myself, whether it’s through social media, Pinterest, or the latest parenting best-seller grounded in revolutionary scientific research.

There are no rules in parenting, and for a mama like me who desperately wants to know what to do to ensure that her kids are happy-healthy-kind-smart-brave, it is particularly frustrating that there is no Parenting 101 class or “Guide to Raising Perfect Children” book.

Parenting magazines and books are the closest things that I have to the parenting rules that I so desperately seek. If you tell me there are “5 ways to keep your house clutter-free,” I will live by those rules with a religious fervor that will turn everyone in my household against me. If you give me an article outlining “How to raise a child who is kind,” I will do all the things, even if it goes completely against the parent that I am or the children that I have.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that having the perfect home and the well-behaved children and the healthy meals on the table are not indicators of the job I’m doing as a mother, or more importantly, how much I love my kids. Mom guilt is real. So when I’m already feeling bad that I let my kids watch too much tv or eat Costco pizza two nights in a row, the article about how bad screen time is for child development or the feature on “How to make a week’s worth of healthy meals in just one hour!” just makes me feel defeated.

The pictures and the stories in the magazines and on carefully curated social media accounts are supposed to inspire us mamas. But when I’m in a position of feeling “less than”, it feels like salt in the wound, like I’m not doing enough to cook healthier meals or manage the kids’ screen times better.

So until I can work out those issues within myself—until I can trust that I’m a good enough mother because I love my kids and do my very best to care for them—I’m careful what I’m feeding myself (good carbs, anyone?). I refuse to be overwhelmed by All The Things that go into parenting; I will not become a fashionista/healthy chef/interior decorator/expert disciplinarian in one issue. I need to take it one thing at a time.

I still end up on Google or Pinterest for stir fry recipes and classroom favors during the holidays because I want to learn how to make a killer stir fry for my family and I want my son to feel proud by the gifts he hands out to his classmates. But these are the things that I’ve chosen to focus on because I think they’re important, not because someone in a parenting magazine is telling me it is important.

I’ll figure out for myself what is best for my kids because they’re MY kids.

Until I can trust my voice more than the parenting experts outlining the “five ways to prevent toddler meltdowns” (because they’ve never met my toddler and survived her unstoppable meltdowns like I have), I’m just gonna recycle my parenting magazines. For now.

Tariya Mukai is a stay-at-home mom/former teacher/future librarian living in Hawaii with her husband, daughter, and two sons. When she’s not chasing after her kids, she loves spending time with her family at the beach, running near the ocean, reading everything but romance novels, and writing about motherhood. You can find her work on Instagram at mama.keiki.reads.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health, Surviving

Grab Life by It’s Horns and Don’t Let Go

September 30, 2019
horns

By Erin Barrett

Life is a road with many twist, turns and forks. It is about how you perceive your obstacles in life that can make or break you.

Grab life by its horns and don’t let go is my philosophy and my way overcome the road blocks and keep moving on.

In any rodeo the cowboy faces the deadliest challenges of his life. He gets up on top of the bull that could injure, paralyze or even kill him. The cowboy still climbs on top of it, knowing that he could die and hangs on to dear life for as long as possible. With determination and perseverance he doesn’t let go, no matter how many times the bull bucks to throw him off.

You are the cowboy or cowgirl, the bull is your life. Although it can be intimidating and scary you have to be strong and take control.

When I was a child I had to transfer to a public school, after four years of feeling safe being with kids like me.  It was scary, I didn’t belong with the “normal” kids in my school. They made sure that I knew that I never belonged there.

In Junior High I was the outcast. The boys called me names like “ugly” and “retarded”. Making unwanted sexual advances at me. It got so bad that I hid  in the copy room until the next bell. Not a single soul came to help me, I was by myself. I tried my hardest to kick him and fight him off.

The sexual harassment continued through out high school. During my senior year I wanted to prove the boys wrong. I prepared a speech, one with meaning and practiced it every day until it was time. On the day of graduation, it was cloudy and it was my turn to speak. When I walked up on the podium, not one but two rainbows appeared above me. I made it in the newspaper and inspired moms giving them hope.

I could have given up but I didn’t. I survived 6 years of depression through poetry and hypnosis. I do believe through the obstacles we face, we get stronger. Through the pain and hurt there is light at the end of the tunnel, you can’t give up.

My freshman year in college, guys would call me and say things like “he wants to fuck me against the wall.” Got so bad that I had to file a complaint. I tried to fit in sororities but  I didn’t belong there, so I had a bunch of guy friends I hanged out with. We would watch vampire movies and  go karting.  One of them had a crush on me and proposed to me Even though I had a blast with them, I still felt like I didn’t belong there. I would take long walks around the campus,  I would even get the nerve to get hit by a car.

I was working on an autobiography about myself and as I was writing, I met a black man. He read my story and invited me to his place. That was the first time I kissed a black man. He asked me how old I wanted to be to get married. He also told me his dream was to defeat George Foreman. One day he was coming back from a boxing match and told me he had something for me. All I could think was “Oh no what if he wants to propose to me” “ what if it’s a ring?” Luckily it was just a t-shirt.

When I turned in my autobiography into the teacher. She wanted to share it with the class. As she read it, the entire class became dead silent.

Although there were awful times at the college, there were also some memorable ones. I met a guy who could take my breath away and move me like no other.  I had my first angelic experience which will always be a mystery.

My life got a little better for a while then I met my husband on an online dating website. Back then it was considered to be dangerous and unsafe. Out of desperation and worried about dying by myself, I married him. It wasn’t love at first site but I grew to love him. With him I’ve been through 2 miscarriages and 2 C-sections. We have 2 beautiful girls now ages 10 and 13.

Of course like most marriages we had financial troubles but it wasn’t until Labor Day weekend in 2017 my world came crashing down around me. The police searched our house, trashing it like a tornado came through the house. Children Services took my kids away and the house was condemned for 2 weeks. We spent 2 weeks at a hotel.

Through this experience it has empowered me. I could wallow in my self-pity or rise up to the challenge and take the bull by its horns. So instead of moping around all day every day after work I would go back to the house and clean. I turned on my motivational music and cleaned the house from top to bottom. When I was done cleaning, I painted the entire house. I wanted to show children services that I can do this and that I am not giving up.

I followed my gut instinct, I got a part time job and set up my own checking account. It is a good thing because on May 18 2018 my husband got arrested. I lost his income to help me with the bills, my part time job saved me from losing the house. Now I am in the beginning stages of divorcing him.

Since I am separated, I am freer and have a strong hold on my life. Better control of my finances and a clearer sense of myself. I did not let myself get bogged down with pity and depression. I used all the emotions running in my veins to empower me to keep moving.

I taught myself how to cook, how to cut the grass. All the tasks I relied on him to do. I kept my head up high and kept moving forward.

I am not angry with God or even with my ex. I looked uncertainty and doubt  in the eyes and said give me your best shot.

In order to move past the pain and hurt you need to visualize your future and find your strength. Get a new perspective in your life and stay positive.

If I let my bull get the better of me I will have never seen the bigger picture. I chose to move forward and take it head on, leaving my fear and doubt behind. I chose to see my life in a positive light.

There is good everywhere sometimes its difficult to find. I’m  a strong believer that things happen for a reason.

Whether you lost a love one or lost a job and life has you down. There is a cowboy inside us, you may need to dig deep within you to find him but he is there.

When things are at your lowest, find one thing that inspires you and motivates you. For me it was my kids that keep me going. Turn that sorrow and pain into your strength and grab your bull by its horns and take charge.

As a person once told me when one door closes another one opens. Be your own champion, find your strength, grab hold and don’t let go. It might be hard and it may hurt at times but you just need to keep moving forward never looking back.

I promise one day when you find your peace and happiness you will look back at all your pain and heart ache and know deep in your heart that you survived and got stronger from the experience.

You will soon realize who you really are. All the pieces to your journey in your life will fit like a gigantic puzzle. You will be able to see the big picture.

It is in our human nature to take the easy way out instead of taking the road less traveled. It takes one moment in our life to impact us for the rest of our lives. Life is too short to not rise above the obstacles and challenges that come across our path.

Don’t let that bull scare you. Don’t let it control you and turn you into someone that you are not. We all face pain, we all hold onto the hurt and scars but it’s those who persevere and rise to the challenge that become champions.

With each heartache you come across and downfall you have, it will make you a stronger person in the long run. You have to rise above the occasion and persevere. There is light at the end of the tunnel. In order to reach it you must keep going and never give up.

That cowboy inside you wants to conquer the bull and live in history for the longest ride. It might be scary and it might think he has the best of you but it doesn’t. Not if you don’t let it get to you. You have to believe you can do it. Nothing is impossible if you have courage to take charge.

Take charge of your life, find strength to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way. Grab life by its horns and don’t let go no matter what.

Erin Barrett is a poet and essayist who believes in the power of language. She lives in Cincinnati Ohio where she is the mother of 12 and 15 year old girls. Erin has a bachelors degree in management and currently work as a medical assistant with cancer patients full time. 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Marriage

Finding Forgiveness in the Cheating

September 27, 2019
slept

By Anonymous

My husband made me a martini. He had taken a red-eye from Las Vegas where he spoke at a tech conference some days before and returned home early this morning. All day I watched him deliberately move about the room, organizing his desk and paperwork, a glint dancing in his eye, a sneaking smile at the corner of his lips. He was keeping something from me. Every cell in my body sensed it, suspicious gestures aside, since I pulled into the driveway two hours in his wake. I had been away myself, putting the last touches on a collection of essays up in Seabrook.

We were sitting on the couch when I swallowed the last drop of my drink. It was 7 p.m. Talking heads on the TV were yammering on about the Pats, but the words all ran together. Whatever he was concealing seemed an impromptu triumph between us, formless and muted, nonetheless an unfamiliar presence.

He placed his hand on my thigh. His touch was subtle, loving, foreboding. I gazed into my glass, lamenting its emptiness. His eyes penetrated my cheek and he said: “I slept with a twenty-six-year-old girl in Vegas.”

He had a reason for waiting to tell me; the vodka would lessen the blow. I’m not argumentative when I drink. Just pickled. But I wasn’t entirely drowned in it, not too far removed to do the math. That’s what my mind jumped to first. Twenty-six. Half my age.

I sat unmoving, gazing into the glass, the reality in its fullness seeping into the coils of my pickled brain. Did he just say what he said?

Thing is, Chris and I have this gentlemen’s agreement.

When Chris and I met I was having a sporadic fling as a fit and invincible forty-two-year old with a married billionaire, Max Litoris. Once a quarter or so, Max would fly into Logan to attend a meeting at a startup he had poured venture capital into and we continued to hook up. Chris was okay with the situation. We’re big on a relationship that values honesty, full disclosure and “being adults.”

Out of fairness, sparked in the aftermath of evenings spent with Max (featuring preliminary Tanqueray and tonic, then hot sex in his Four Seasons’ suite), Chris and I spoke of his taking advantage of an opportunity – if it presented itself.

Incidentally, the last time I saw Max, five years ago, I later received an email from him accusing me of making his dick itchy. For the first time in years of cheating, the guy had Guilty Dick. His kids had recently flown from the nest and he and his wife bought a new home, embarking on a new and exciting life together. To quote Howard Hughes at this point is not only fitting, it’s irresistible: “I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddammit, I’m a billionaire.”

I replied, what the hell is chlamydia? And Chris and I checked into Mass General’s STD unit. Imagine this: a couple devoted to one another go to a clinic because one has taken liberties outside the relationship and there’s talk of an itchy dick.

It’s a grueling experience, right?

Wrong.

Chris and I were in this together. And we checked out clean.

What about Max?

I can’t tell you what his reaction was to my report of cleanliness because I deleted every email he’s ever sent to me. Including, the dirty ones.

As for the twenty-six-year old…

The opportunity presented itself to Chris eleven years after we made our Gentlemen’s Agreement.

Despite the agreement and amid his depiction of the endeavor, words enunciated with the softness of goose feathers, I held up the empty martini glass and asked for another.

He had listened to the girl’s sad story. Bought her nachos. Paid her. Kissed her, his lips to hers, his fingers to her hoo-hoo. Let her ride his willy, perched on top of him. 

After the second martini, two glasses of wine and a shot of ginger Cognac, Chris got me into bed and held my hand. I took my hand away.

The next morning, I woke with I slept with a twenty-six-year old slithering through the coils of my aching brain. Before asking Chris to recount his confession, I asked him how I did in the reaction department the night before. He told me I handled it well. I hadn’t gone, as he expected, “ape shit.”

His acts were uninhibited because, he stressed, I granted him that freedom beforehand. He showed me the things he did with her; the same hot and sexy way he is with me.

Remember, it’s about being fair.

I had stepped out on him; doesn’t matter how long ago, how hot I was, how fat and gray I am now.

But this is a testament to our relationship. For as the minutes and the hours passed, my feeling offended lifted just like my hangover. I grew happy for him. Checkmark on the bucket list. At 65, Chris scored with a twenty-six-year-old.

Hell, he wasn’t looking for it. She came into the bar in Dick’s Last Resort and sat her young and sweet ass down, donning faded denim cutoffs, next to the only classy guy in the joint who was dressed in a suit and tie. She laid down a calculated bet and won.

I love Chris. Love that he’s already been to the clinic. I love our honesty and trust. I love how no one knows about the intimate facets of our relationship.

And the gentlemen’s agreement?

I hope it’s never enacted again.

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Current Events, Guest Posts

Serendipitous Endurance At the End of the Anthropocene

September 24, 2019
notre dame

By Meghan O’Dea

“Watching online as an irreplaceable monument to human history goes up in flames while helpless to do anything about it is extremely 2019,” read a Facebook post from Gin and Tacos, the popular political blog cum meme factory. The update came shortly after news broke that the Notre-Dame de Paris, arguably the best known cathedral in the world, was on fire and might burn to the ground.

While it was hard to argue with that take, given that our sitting President felt his response to the tragedy best included ill founded advice about firefighting, it seemed to me that it wasn’t just extremely 2019, but summed up the majority of my adult life. In the roughly fifteen some odd years since I began seriously considering things like my own mortality and the permanence of the universe, it was often easy to feel that the good times were already long gone, the best of human history long since converted to a conflagration that my generation would watch dim into embers.

After all, I came of age in the wake of another iconic building burning the ground in a cataclysm of Biblical proportions, when a plane flew into the World Trade Center on September 11th. George Bush Jr. was President. The Sopranos was still on air, just a few years into its six season meditation on death, decay, and the inherent moral struggle of American in the early aughts.In hindsight it seems clear that whatever the precise moment my adulthood actually began, if there is such a quickening, all our narratives neatly cleave into a long series of befores and afters.

Isn’t that always the way of both serious tragedy and adolescence? The prelapsarian prologue and whatever slouching epilogue follows the present narrative in which we can’t help but center ourselves. Here we are again, I thought to myself as Notre Dame’s iconic spire crumpled into ash like a spent stick of incense, glowing orange at its dying core. Another casualty in the anthropocene. Another horror strangely juxtaposed with an otherwise ordinary workday.

In a strange bit of serendipity, I was rewatching an episode from the final season of The Sopranos the day before the Notre Dame fire. The episode that kept me company as I carefully packed dirt around the thin, white roots of a fiddle leaf fig tree was ”Cold Stones,” in which matriarch Carmela Soprano and her friend Ro, a fellow mob wife, visit Paris together.

As the pair tour the ruins of some Roman baths, Carmela becomes overwhelmed by the weight of history, and all its banal glory. “Generation after generation, hundreds and hundreds of years, all those lives,” she says, gazing upward in unconscious imitation of the pose assumed by a whole host female saints, not to mention the blessed Virgin Mary, in countless iterations in the Western canon.

Carmela raises her eyes to the heavens, appearing for a moment as if she is about to ascend into inspiration. Instead, she looks down, her nigh-spiritual reverie abruptly cut short by the abrupt intrusion of her own mortality. “It’s so sad,” she says, trying not to cry.

She reaches out to touch the rough stone wall next to her, the tangible evidence of the kind of immutability of great cities that stands in such stark contrast to the way our own lives shuffle insignificantly on regardless of the bigger picture. Sometimes the synchronicity of the universe brings me immense joy, and sometimes it seems to highlight many of the themes that make art like The Sopranos so compelling, that sense of the inevitable, of decay, that the golden age has passed, never to return.

When it seemed for a few hours as if Notre Dame might really be reduced to nothing but ash, the sense of mourning I felt was, like most of the other things I have grieved for on various occasions, not exactly the thing in and of itself (as philosopher Immanuel Kant would put it), but for whatever that thing represented. I don’t mean to say I was unmoved by the loss of one of the greatest structures built by man, a thousand year old emblem of faith and art and durability. What I mean is that, in the face of such an abstract loss—the loss of a place I have been to only once and over a decade ago—I instead turned to something a little closer to home, both literally and metaphorically.

Watching Notre Dame burn, my thoughts turned to the person I knew who must be most affected, a close family friend who is like an aunt to me, a French teacher who has been to Notre Dame innumerable times in her life and has brought many students to see it for the first time. I thought of her not only because of her connection to the place, but because she suffered a far greater loss last year, when her husband, an art historian and beloved professor, passed away suddenly of pancreatic cancer.

No one saw it coming. Just a few weeks prior, he had stood at the top of Machu Picchu with my parents and a group of university honors students. How unfair that she should suffer such a loss, only to be confronted with another, however more abstract, so soon.

I myself had been with Dr. Townsend on another such college enrichment trip fifteen years ago when I saw Notre Dame and the nearby Sainte-Chapelle. At the time I was vaguely unimpressed in the way that only privileged, myopic teenage girls can be. The city I wandered felt far away from A Tale of Two Cities and Toulouse Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge and Monet. It felt like any other large, European city, no more in touch with its romantic past than I am now to the brash, careless young woman I am learning to no longer be.

Notre Dame was a beautiful item on our itinerary, but at the time it seemed like a place I could easily come back to. There was no urgency to the occasion. Only a few cockeyed photos are preserved in our digital family album. I’m embarrassed to admit that I barely remember it. And yet I spent the day nervously checking the news for updates on the state of the cathedral. I felt my stomach churn as I watched slightly stale footage of the spire falling an hour or so after the fact.

After work, I head to the bar, as I have after so many other tragedies— Dr. Townsend’s death included. The before and the after. By then, the fire had only just begun to cool, emergency responders saying that while damage was extensive, the blaze did not create a total loss. No one had been killed. The injuries were few. Still, I am more tempted than I have been in several newly sober months to order a glass of red wine. It seems an appropriate toast to gay Paris, where I read on Twitter that French resilience includes a blend of laughter, tears, and du vin.

Instead, I request a cold bottle of Einbecker, a German beer— “alkoholfre!” it proclaims on the label. The bar I’ve chosen reliably keeps a case of NA beers in the fridge, much as the pharmacy that once took up this storefront kept a variety of pain relievers in stock, some more benign than others. This is the kind of hip joint that capitalizes on nostalgia for things like old pharmacies, where the old lathe walls are left purposefully exposed, the wainscoting topped with stacks of antique books, two of the pharmacists’ old diplomas and certificates still framed and decorating the walls.

As I slide my credit card across the counter I realize the lyrics to the song that’s playing are not only improbably in French, but ridiculously on the nose. “L’argent est sur la table” sings Mark E. Smith, the lead mercurial singer of post-punk British outfit The Fall. He died last year, cancer of the lungs and kidneys. “Le money est sur la table,” the song goes. “The money is on the table in the brick house refurbishment of pubs in the hideaway.” That old, double-edged serendipity, the closest thing I possess to a higher power.

What blindsided Carmela in that episode “Cold Stones” was what blindsided me first as a naive, ignorant teen: that sensation of echoes throughout time and history, the reverb. The way a song randomly selected by an algorithm can seem to highlight the day’s events, which in turn can provide one the space and language to grieve a death that was too close for comfort. The way a thirteen year old episode of television is made newly relevant simply because I happened to rewatch it just preceding a tragedy that evokes a similar, if more acute, sense of morbidity and loss.

Why do I reflect on all this? What does it all mean? As a writer my job is to tease meaning from seemingly disparate events and braid them into something sturdy we can run through our hands to reassure us, the way Carmela reaches out to run her hands over that rough stone, the way I reach out to David Chase’s work to help explain my feelings about Notre Dame. But I struggle here to make sense of all these artifacts, to construct anything solid out of all this ash.

Edward Burmila, the political science professor behind Gin and Tacos, made an astute observation about our collective helplessness as we watch Notre Dame, and the world, burn. His post smacks of the cheerful digital nihilism that has special appeal for Gen Xers and Millennials who slogged through the Great Recession only to reach a span of years in which a generation of beloved artists and idols began to drop like flies, and when too many of the survivors were revealed to be a bunch of rapists, abusers, and racists.

It’s a moment in which populism and extremism and hate have been resurrected in our national consciousness like the villain at the end of a slasher film who the characters naively assumed to be long dead. We fret about social security and preventable epidemics and climate catastrophe—a whole other type of conflagration that looms just over the horizon. And yet we go on living our lives as best we can, like all those generations Carmela references at the baths, like the fifty some-odd generations that have lived and died since the first stone of Notre Dame was laid.

We consume our fatalism in bite-size chunks, a scrap of digital ephemeral quickly read and disposed of, if not entirely forgotten. But in this there is a strange, ironic sort of hope to be found in what appears to be a well of despair. How many generations before us have felt a similar sense of doom, have watched their own disasters unfurl, and have carried on because there was no other choice, because this is what our parents and aunts and uncles and loved ones would have us do?

Death comes for us all, it’s true, as cruel and unfair and undesirable an outcome as that may be. But first life has a peculiar habit of continuing to unfurl. And there are forms of resurrection, too, we can’t seem to extinguish, a human tendency towards hope. After all, that’s what makes Notre Dame such a potent symbol even for those, like me, who have barely scratched its surface, or for the vast majority who have never been at all.

Even in what seems like— and in many cases truly is— an era of unprecedented loss, both personally, nationally, and globally, what else can we do but carry on living, no matter how futile it seems or uncertain the future may be? Perhaps it is simply enough to raise a glass of whatever gives us strength and courage, to give our best effort at making the dead proud, and to try our damndest to head off the next inevitable blaze.

Meghan O’Dea is a writer and editor who traded southern Appalachia for the Pacific Northwest. She writes about camping and the outdoors by day for The Dyrt magazine. In her spare time she travels, hikes, and writes essays and articles that have been published in Bitch Magazine, Playboy, the Washington Post, the Rumpus, Nylon, Refinery29, and more. She loves opossums, cats, and small houseplants.

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