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Guest Posts, Relationships

A Four Way Stop (is a conversation)

March 22, 2021
traffic

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Many years ago, fresh out of college and broke as an egg in a bakery I took a job teaching traffic school. I dutifully learned as much as I could about the rules of the road and then, a few times a week, I talked for nearly eight hours straight in a series of hotel conference rooms. In addition to a much needed paycheck, the main perk of overseeing this detention for grown ups, was my access to a group of adults, most of whom were happy to answer my questions about “the real world.” I taught them the regulations of a four-way stop and reminded them who has right of way on a hill and, in return, they gave me their opinions on everything from cheap health insurance to the best Dim Sum.

I’ve been thinking about this class lately as I drive around Los Angeles. In the twenty-five years I’ve spent in this city, traffic has become increasingly congested. My old secret, speedy routes are flooded with Wazers and every four-way stop seems to have been reduced to a hair raising game of “Chicken.” Nearly everyone seems to have one eye on the road and one eye on the screen. At stoplights, heads are bent over texts and emails and status updates.

During the lunch break at Traffic School we all ate pizza because it was included in the price of the class. Because these classes usually took place in a corporate hotel in some far flung suburb, everyone stayed together. Because no one had the opportunity of turning their faces toward the tiny screen of a phone, we all looked up and into the eyes of the person across the table. As a result of these conversations, I wound up with book recommendations, casserole recipes and once, even a date with someone’s recently divorced nephew.

A four-way stop is like a conversation. It is an exchange that requires awareness and patience and the desire to take an interest in the lives of your fellow human. At a four-way stop, the first person to arrive has the right of way. If two or more people arrive at the same time and are travelling a perpendicular route, the default always goes to the person on the right. If there isn’t a person directly to the right, the turn passes to the right of the empty space. In this way you alternate between east west traffic and north south traffic. It’s a loose and imperfect system and one that was developed when there were less cars and fewer distractions. It’s a system that relies upon eye contact and careful attention.

At the beginning of every class, I’d go around the room and ask my students what brought them to traffic school. I knew there were two ways to answer that question. It was truthful to say “because I don’t want the points on my record.” It was also truthful to say “because I was driving 85 miles per hour in a school zone.” Both answers revealed something about the student. Both answers spoke to the commonality of the group. No one argued about whether or not they belonged in traffic school. Everyone accepted the fact that they’d broken the rules. Some people may have disliked the rules or disagreed with them, but we all believed in the existence of the rules.

As I drive around my city, there appears to be less and less belief in the existence of the rules. The streets, which belong to all of us at once, seem considered by some drivers to be private property. Rules apply only when deemed convenient or without burden. The conversation of the four-way-stop has turned into a shouting match or worse, the concentrated, willful obliviousness my children call “ghosting.” From some, there is no response save the gunning of the engine and the squeal of tires.

What separates us on the streets is mostly paint. There are yellow stripes between lanes and painted shapes and words on signs to guide us and keep the peace. When I was just out of college and teaching traffic school to a room full of adults, I was moved by our general acceptance of the power of paint. That we would drive at high speeds in opposing directions separated only by a line the width of my palm seemed a shared acknowledgement of both our vulnerability and our courage. Our human bodies are soft and cars are hard. This fragility can also be applied to the rules of the road and the whisper thin strands of humanity that connect us all.

Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown,” (University of New Mexico Press 2013.) Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Best Book, Best First Book and Best NM Biography. Winner of Sarton Memoir Award and New Mexico Presswomen’s Zia Book Award. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Family Magazine, The Orange County Register, Alligator Juniper, Perceptions: A Magazine of the Arts, the “Cup of Comfort” series published by Adams Media, Literary Mama, The Huffington Post and Brain Child Magazine and is a blogger for the TheNextFamily website.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Bullying, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

77, and Still

March 19, 2021
ribbon

By Ceresa Morsaint

It’s a chilly first night of Autumn, and she’s sitting on the bench hidden behind the playscape, where no one has to watch her cry. She adjusts the hat on her head, trying to keep her ears from freezing. She tries not to break her fragile nails, or agitate the arthritis in her right shoulder. And as she does, she feels a familiar ache in her arms, remembering the way she’d undo the ribbons in her hair, and leave the red, satin strips on the bench of the playground in her younger years. Mother would be so disappointed when she got home.

“I lost them playing tag!” She’d cry.

“Why do I even bother with the ribbons, Maria? Always ripping your stockings and losing your ribbons. You should be ashamed!” Her mother would curse in her Northern Irish accent. It made her laugh sometimes.

She wonders if her mother knew then what was really going on. Older boys don’t like girls with ribbons in their hair. She watches the swingset sway back and forth in the Autumn wind, and everywhere she goes, she only sees him. Her socks, now warm and fuzzy, were once long and laced. She tried visiting without them once. He didn’t like it.

“You look younger with your socks on. Keep it that way,” he smiled. She didn’t understand. But it made him happy, and so she kept wearing the long, laced, knee-high socks provided by angry catholic nuns from school. His words made her skin crawl.

“He can’t hurt me now,” she says. The words leave her lips and twirl in the air like loose paper. She says it, but why can’t she feel it?

“He’s dead, Maria. He can’t hurt you now.” She says, again. She still does not feel it.

From a distance, there is a crashing sound. A clank, maybe a thud. She jumps so hard, she nearly falls off the park bench and onto the cold cement floor.

“Christ, Maria.” She says to herself, “Should be over this by now. It’s only been 67 years, you old fool.” And though she says he can’t hurt her, he can’t even touch her, she’s still afraid. What if his ghost comes to haunt her? What if he’s playing dead to trick her into letting her guard down again?

“No,” she whispers “I’m too old for him, now.” Older boys don’t like girls with grey in their hair.

Ceresa Morsaint is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studies American Sign Language and writes for a small newspaper, The Siren. Her work has been published in The Book Smuggler’s Den and The Scriblerus. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and reading Frank McCourt novels with her cat, Burt.

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

The Art of Acceptance

March 15, 2021
jessica

CW: This story contains outdated, culturally insensitive references to individuals with developmental disabilities. Prior to the 1990s, the term ‘’mental retardation’ was used to describe individuals diagnosed with low IQ.

By Cathy Shields

“Your daughter Jessica is profoundly retarded.”

The string of words yanks like an invisible chain, back to that moment in 1988 when the doctor made his decree. Those five words launched a journey I struggled to navigate for twenty-four years. Today I face what awaited at the end of my passage.

I stand in the middle of Jessica’s bedroom. Everything appears the same as yesterday; the same, but different. An assortment of posters hangs on the wall above her bed, most of them, images of the band, the Backstreet Boys. In one photo, the five boys lean forward, arms linked. They smile, and for a second, I imagine they can hear me. I whisper the words like a well-kept secret.

“We moved Jessica to a group home today.”

I turn my attention to the posters Jessica told me to bring. My fingers tremble as I grab the edges. I wonder whether my heart will crack into a million little pieces, like the broken keepsakes she has refused to throw away. Jessica often followed me around the house and repeated the same questions. “Mommy where we go today? Mommy, what we do? Mommy? Why you no answer me?”

What if we made a mistake moving her? Thoughts teeter like a seesaw. We should have waited. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she thinks we’ve abandoned her?

“You’re making that face again.” My husband Chip stands in the doorway. “I can tell what you’re thinking. The staff at the group home said they’d call if there were any problems.” He folds his arms across his chest. “We were supposed to wait a few days. You’re going to call anyway, aren’t you?”

I shrug. “Sorry, I have to.” I grab my cellphone and dial. Two rings later, Nina, the house manager, answers.

“Hi, it’s Jessica’s mom. I know you advised us to wait a few days to call, but can I speak to her?” The words leap from my mouth as if they possess a mind of their own.

“Yes, Mrs. Shields, but we want her to adjust to the new environment. Can you wait? I promise she’s fine.”

A long silence follows. I’m not sure whether to wait or hang up. When I don’t respond, Nina sighs. “Okay, I’ll get her.”

Seconds tick by until I hear Jessica’s voice.

“What you want Mommy? When you come here?”

“Um, I’ll come soon. In a few days.”

“You forget my posters? You say you bring them.”

“No, I didn’t forget. I started taking them down.”

“Okay Mommy. I love you. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and stifle an urge to cry.

“So do you feel better now?” Chip uncrosses his arms, a tiny smile peeking through his graying beard. His green eyes are like beacons calling me home. “What are we making for dinner? It’s getting late,”

“I’m not hungry,” I murmur. “Go ahead and grab something. I might be a while.”

“Are you still worried? Nina just told you Jessica’s fine.” He waits for me to respond and when I don’t answer, he says, “Okay, fine. Do whatever you have to. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

A rumpled pink bedspread covers Jessica’s mattress. I sit, pull her pillow close to me, and inhale. Faint traces of her vanilla-scented shampoo remain. Chip doesn’t understand. He didn’t spend years worrying about how to make Jessica normal. It seemed easy for him to accept. Why couldn’t I?

Stacks of empty video boxes, loose CDs, magazines, and crumpled pictures are scattered over the top of Jessica’s nightstand, and when I straighten the hodgepodge of items, I spot my favorite picture, a photo of me and four-year-old Jessica. In the photo, we smile at the camera. Her saucer-like blue eyes sparkle with childlike innocence. Silky bangs frame her face and her blonde hair cascades like a waterfall of curls. People often said she should be a child model. If things had turned out differently, it could have happened. My finger traces the curly lines of the embossed silver frame. I had insisted Chip take that picture. To mark the occasion.

I slide the photo from the frame and turn it over. In blue ink, I had written the date. April 5, 1988.

Dr. Morgan, the neuropsychologist who headed the program, met with us. He made his pronouncement. My mind reconstructs the scene. Snippets of details; the cold room, the red leather chair, the click of a pen, the tears. The meeting ended. Chip clasped my hand and led me away from the shards of broken dreams. I remember the way Dr. Morgan rose from his seat as I swept past him and headed into the hallway. For one split second, my mind had conjured an entirely different scene. What if I could change the ending? Then Chip opened the door to the children’s activity room. Jessica saw us. Her eyes lit up. She pointed and beamed at us. “That my Mommy.”

The woman beside her, clad in pink scrubs, laughed as Jessica tugged on her hand. “I’m Carol,” she said, “one of the nurses here. Your daughter is so sweet and adorable.”

A second nurse sidled up and stroked Jessica’s hair. “She certainly is. She’s angelic.”

I nodded, barely able to look at Jessica. Perhaps I would never see her the same way again. What then?

Carol touched my shoulder. “Oh, please don’t cry. So many kids come to our center, but your daughter is special. Perhaps she arrived in your life to help you. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

I hated it when people said that. It sounded so condescending. Jessica held up both hands. “Up, Mommy. Pick me up. We go home?”

“Yes. Daddy and I will take you home.”

I remember how I held Jessica, pressed my face against her cheek, and inhaled the fragrance of her skin. A precious, heartbreaking moment. How could I live with the fact there was no cure for her irreversible brain damage?

*

Chip pokes his head through the bedroom doorway. “Didn’t you hear me call you? You’ve been in here for over an hour. Dinner’s ready. Come and eat.”

I steal one last glance at Jessica’s photo before I return it to the nightstand. It might take the rest of my life to learn the art of acceptance.

Cathy Shields is a retired educator with an M.S. Ed in Exceptional Education. She is a member of the South Florida Writers Association and a member of the Memoir Writers Circle. Her short stories have appeared in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, ’45 Magazine Women’s Literary Journal, Flash Fiction Friday, A Story in 100 words, Spillwords and Variant Literature. Her work “The Phantom Ovaries” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida where she and her husband raised their three grown daughters.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

aging, Guest Posts

Fifty

March 12, 2021
fifty

By Shell Feijo

Goddess delineates the cusp of my navel
Stretch marks circle my thighs, stripe my ass, sag into skin hanging as wings
My knees crack, random ache in an ankle
Twinges I don’t remember
Reminded of space and time

Baby girl curling body hiding from yelling mother
Little girl learning to keep her mouth shut
Silence is necessary
Cigarettes come to close
Cherries burn
Why is it a cherry, its not sweet or red
Orange fire turns gray ash in blonde hair and the smell of girl skin.

Thighs ache
Bottom burns
Rashes with names
From infections she should never have
Step fathers like little girl bodies
Mothers do too
Ripe for destruction.

Burn marks mixed with freckled tattoos of time and loss and men and love and babies
States and food and sex and starvation
Scars, dimples
Stories in skin.

Oakland target
Trafficked before it was trafficking
Fifty dollar teenage girl
Riding buses with pimps who didn’t drive their cars
Anything for a meal
A bed
Warmth
An arm to keep her safe.

She warns
Protects
Acts in my defense
Keeps me alive

Foster home
Group home
Cottage
Shelter
Bull pen
Foster home
Thirteen Times

Sixteen marriage
Little girl face, stringy blonde hair
Ripe
Running
Scared
Survival.

She did what she needed to.
See how she can disassociate?

Twenty to forty
Never look in mirrors
Never below the neck
Move through the world in fear
Acting
Impenetrable stubbornness camouflaged as strength
Babies and beatings and bottles thrown
Body keeping secrets between heated folds.

At forty, few fucks left to give. I dance with her, start to think about her, rub her, talk to her
Her response?  Smooth and forgiving
“Welcome,” she says. “I’ve been waiting.”

But when I love her fierce, outside? Push back.

The white boys on the Pentacrest of the college town yell, “Roll her in flour and look for the wet spot!”

The white women online, “Go to the gym/ try this/that/shame on me I ate/try this and this and this and this/its worth the money in the end/fat fat fat fat fat

She was not beloved, she was shunned. There was no discussion of thick white women when I was a child budding big hips and a round ass. There was no love of flesh that ripples. There were only skinny blonde women with long cigarettes to keep them from eating.

But I’d seen them – women in my neighborhoods, strong hips and moving bodies of all sizes, shapes, and shades, wearing tight shorts if it was hot, tank tops with no bra, big breasts hanging – laughing and cooking and loving all the same. Even in the pain. Laughing. I paid attention.

The men though
Give me, give me, give me
Age is just a number
Old stories
Act.

There are skin stories and there is culture and there is racism and there is aging and there is writing and there is brand making and there is capitalism and my body doesn’t fit. Alive little girl in the system that tried to kill her now a grown woman.

Reclaiming
Body
Pain
Sex
Love
Joy
Beauty
Scars
Dirty.

Balled up bracing for a mans fear turned to fist
Protects me
Holds me tight
Helps me get loose

She holds memory
Loss
Triumph
That 5K
Pushing
Burning
Babies
Meals
Wanting
Him

Morbidity and all their labels

Thicc
Fat
Teased
Once, a long time ago, too thin

Too many freckles
Too much love
Too much want
Too much desire
She has always been too much
And always just enough
And no one
Ever
Truly hears her.

She has lines
Scars
Puckers
Deposits
Still
She wakes up every morning
She loves me fierce
Pulls in breath
Lets me know I am thirsty
Growls at me for food
Reminds me the world is still out there
I can move through it
however that takes shape.

I go to Instagram to look at Lizzo
Goddess

I watch her and love her love of her body. I smile at Lizzo twerking and holding her belly, praising it, and laughing and eating and loving and loving and loving. And I am not Lizzo.

I want to twerk by a pool and hold my belly and take fabulous pictures that show my glorious traumatized beautiful fucked up body. She kept me alive, whole, and I am here, survivor.

Fifty.

Shell Feijo is a former foster kid from the streets of Northern California. She never graduated from high school, but she earned a PhD from a fancy midwestern university. She is a workshop facilitator for A Trauma Healing Center (ATHC), a new site being developed for holistic healing from trauma. Her publications have appeared in NailedThe Fem Literary Magazine, Utne, Hip Mama, The Manifest Station, and the edited collections Places Like Home and Without a Net: The Female Experience Growing Up Working Class, among others. Her memoir of surviving foster care and the streets is forthcoming. 

Photo Credit: Marques Brooks- Divine Media Group LLC

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

aging, Guest Posts, Health

Resonant Imaging

March 10, 2021
mri

By Cynthia Stock

I recognized the radiology tech, a gray-haired woman named Danielle. A ponytail, looking as apathetic as Danielle could look after a long day, limped down her back. Lufkin, Amarillo, and North Dallas complicated her lilting drawl. She didn’t recognize me, but I remembered her.

Shortly before I retired, I transported a critically ill patient to Danielle’s subterranean world. The MRI room reminded me of the Chilean miners, trapped for days without light or contact with the “real” world, struggling to stay sane while facing off with death in a very small space. My patient, fully equipped with a ventilator and nine life sustaining IV infusions, required two ICU staff members and one respiratory therapist to travel to MRI. When we arrived, Danielle’s face collapsed into a web of wrinkles.

“I don’t think we have enough MRI safe pumps for all those drips,” she said.

I knew the patient’s blood pressure hardly tolerated a quick change to fresh IV tubing, much less a complete stop of one of the drips. “Let me call the doc.” I don’t remember which one. None of the doctors either experienced or understood the logistics of taking an ICU patient to another universe far, far away from critical care for a diagnostic that ultimately, would not, could not, alter the plan of care. After a terse risk-benefit analysis and an explanation of the equipment dilemma, the doctor canceled the order.

“I’m so sorry,” Danielle said, resigned. Her head nodded, side-to-side. I remembered using that gesture to voice my own frustration with job responsibilities. Her body expressed regret more clearly than any words.

“Not your problem. Thanks for trying.”

Danielle helped push the patient and his mechanical paraphernalia down the hall to the elevators, something some of the younger techs would never do. Danielle and I, almost the same age, found ourselves conjoined by a dated work ethic.

Facing my own MRI, I slipped into my “health-compromised” persona. Danielle explained things about the MRI as if I had no medical knowledge. That was okay by me. I laughed at the irony of MS, not a master’s degree, although I had one, but Multiple Sclerosis. The acronyms gave me two separate identities, neither complete. My first symptom of MS appeared in the early 70s.

Fresh from nursing school I remembered all the landmarks I memorized for my anatomy class. Mixing some sterile saline in a vial of the white powder of some antibiotic, I bumped the plunger of the syringe against my wrist. It felt numb. I finished giving the drug to the patient. Then I traced from my inner wrist up to my elbow and mapped the roadway of my radial nerve. No feeling, cause unknown. Just as mysteriously, the feeling came back.

I didn’t interrupt Danielle’s explanation of the procedure, didn’t ask if she remembered me or our day of futile labor. The almost saccharine sweetness of her voice grated, but then it soothed. Or maybe it was the Xanax I’d managed to sneak before a tech led me though the labyrinth of the radiology maze. I was almost ready for the forty-five-minute claustrophobia challenge.

I often I wrestled with feelings of invisibility, except when it came to my career. I didn’t often tell people I was a nurse. At the gym, I didn’t want to hear about poor nursing care in such and such hospital or offer information in conflict with doctors who practiced medicine by recipe rather than individualized care. I only allowed my family the luxury of free nursing-medical advice. For my MRI, I didn’t want to be the retired nurse in MRI Room 2. You remember her, she took her job way too seriously. Such a control freak. I wanted to be the frightened, anxious person who loved to workout, read, write, hold her husband’s hand, and dote on her two new kittens.

Danielle secured my head in a padded support as if it were a precious piece of art in need of safety and stability. Six ceiling rectangles boasted a beach scene complete with striped beach chairs and cherry red umbrellas. I weighed the benefits of wine versus margaritas at the beach, while Danielle admired my ample veins, poked my hand, and inserted an IV. So far, so good.

“I’m gonna flush it with a little saline,” she said.

A jolt of cold shot from my hand towards my elbow.

“Do you know what we’re looking for today?”

I knew what I was hoping for, no new white spots highlighting a most unpredictable, aggravating disease. “They want to see if my lesions are stable.” Since I’ve had to stop taking my Tecfidera. I remembered losing seventy pounds in six months and then losing sensation as if I’d had what in the old days was called a pudendal block. Dammit, since retirement I can’t afford the drug that enabled me to work at the bedside for forty years. I didn’t say what I felt, nor did I mention the meningioma nestled like a pearl in the oyster of my frontal lobe. Anger can kill you just as easily as any disease.

Sixty-seven-year old backs become ardent protesters with immobility on a flat surface. Danielle eased a triangular pillow under my knees. My back stopped complaining. When she snapped the plastic cage over my head to keep it perfectly still, I ordered myself not to open my eyes again until the test was over. I’d done that once. Through the plastic matrix I saw an infinity of ivory plastic looming inches away from the length of my entire body. It closed in on me and spawned an adrenalin rush so potent I started screaming. “Let me out. I can’t do this.” Not this time. I had to get this done.

Danielle’s voice changed into a something hollow and distant. The table shuddered and moved by inches. “We’re gonna get started.”

I clutched the call bell, my panic button. It was soft, round, no bigger than a plum, but knowing my body slid through the gullet of a heartless, automaton, it became my lifeline.

I wanted to shout at the sounds. First a riveter. Then a jackhammer. A soprano wasp nesting in my ear. The thunderous NUNUNUNUNUN. I wondered about damage to my hearing. The sounds shattered any sense of time. The bane of my MS existence, bladder urgency, remained at bay.

Unlike other techs who occasionally chatted over the intercom, Danielle remained quiet. So quiet, I imagined the worst, a national crisis requiring all employees to go to designated posts as part of a disaster plan. A bomb threat that cleared the building and left the helpless and entombed. My favorite, a zombie apocalypse where the only safe place to hide was an MRI machine. A new story line for The Walking Dead. After a brief hum, the riveting started again.

I made it through the MRI. Danielle helped me sit up. My head spun for half a second. Danielle held my arm for support when I jumped off the table and headed for the dressing room. Danielle never recognized me. However, when she grabbed me, for the first time I noticed she wore a compression sleeve on one arm. The well-worn seam suggested Danielle had worn it for a long time. With retirement, I saw things differently. With retirement, I saw different things.

After forty plus years as a Critical Care Nurse, Cynthia Stock is in the process of reinvention at the age of sixty-nine. Writing represents a great part of that and Cynthia’s work can be found here. We are thrilled to be part of her journey.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parents

Just a Moment

March 8, 2021
moment

A photograph of the author’s parents.

By Allison Amy Wedell

Here’s what you need to know for this photo to make sense: I love my dad. I say “love,” in present tense, even though he’s been dead for almost four years. I would raid heaven to have him back, even if just for a moment—a snapshot, if you will.

Here’s how it happened: Dad and I went on a six-day, 360-mile bike ride in Wyoming in mid-July, my brother got married at the end of July, then Mom and Dad left for a month-long trip to England and Scotland in early August. Two weeks into the trip, he checked himself into an ER in London, where they confirmed what my dad, a retired doctor, had already suspected.

He had acute myeloid leukemia.

So Dad spent four weeks in a London ICU, fighting to put together enough white blood cells that they would let him fly home to Cheyenne. After a night in the local hospital and a frank talk with his doctor there, he realized he wasn’t going to bounce back from this, and opted for hospice instead. He spent six wonderful, heartbreaking weeks in hospice, saying goodbye to everyone he loved.

He died on October 29, 2016.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve already realized that he went from biking up mountains with his daughter and dancing at his son’s wedding to his deathbed in a scant three months. The speed of it still takes my breath away, like that instant after a car crash when you’re just sitting there blinking while you try to figure out what just happened.

Anyway. Back to the photo. My mom sent it to me about six weeks after Dad died. She received it from her friend Shel, who had been on the England/Scotland tour with my parents. Shel had been sorting through his photos from their trip, and he sent her a few. This one is my favorite.

It’s so casual, isn’t it? Just a couple of tourists, surrounded by a few other tourists, taking a break in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in August of 2016. They could be any retirees, caught in a moment of rest, planning their next foray among the antiquities. But I see so much more. So many tiny details of this captured moment reveal to me, in heartbreaking clarity, all that I am missing.

For example, the man has a camera slung over his shoulder. It evidences his passion for both photography and technology, and makes me wonder how many beautiful photos he has already snapped on this day alone. Some of them have his wife in them; some are landscapes; some are closeups of flowers in gardens. All of them delight in the world around him.

You can’t quite tell, but those pant legs zip off. This man is nothing if not practical. If it gets too hot in Oxford on this summer day, he’ll convert his pants to shorts and stow the legs in a backpack (that same backpack that contains a windbreaker and hat, should the weather turn in the opposite direction) or on the tour bus. He was a Boy Scout, and their motto has served him well all his life: Be prepared.

Despite the fact that he is thousands of miles and an entire ocean from home, he manages to look neat and tidy, right down to that crease in his shirtsleeve. His wife ironed that shirt before they left, but he packed it carefully and hung it up as soon as they arrived at the hotel. He wears a plain white undershirt so it doesn’t get sweaty, and any excess sweat on his face will get mopped up by the clean white handkerchief he carries in his pocket. Tomorrow’s shirt will be similarly plaid and similarly crisp.

That lovely salt-and-pepper hair (that same hair he will lose to chemo in less than a month, but we don’t know that yet, do we, viewer?) sticks up a bit in front. Several times today, he will unconsciously run the fingers of his left hand through it, smoothing it down and to the side. When it gets particularly unruly, next time he’s in the men’s room, he’ll take a little black plastic comb out of one of his pockets and tidy it more thoroughly.

The guidebook he reads is probably not dog-eared or wrinkled or creased in any way; if it has a binding, said binding remains intact. If he has found it necessary to make notes in it, he has done so lightly in pencil. The man and his wife have a large library at home, love books, and have instilled a deep respect for them in both their children.

You cannot see his right ankle, but if you could, you’d realize that his left ankle is swollen by comparison. This is due to an issue he has with the lymph glands in that leg; complications from a condition he developed when he and his wife lived in Haiti 45 years before, where he gave inoculations and saved babies from tetanus seizures using Valium they had smuggled in for that very purpose.

And speaking of his wife, that’s her head (with the curly hair inherited by both their children) just beyond his, bent over a map. They sit in the companionable silence borne of decades of marriage. She is the love of his life; he knew it the moment he met her, and they were married less than a year later.

They have already begun to make plans for their 50th wedding anniversary, but he will miss it by just over three months.

So yes, it is just a snapshot. It is just a moment—and not even a moment I witnessed. But oh, if I could have it back, what I wouldn’t give.

What I wouldn’t give.

Allison Amy Wedell is a blogger and speechwriter for the state of Minnesota. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and The #TeamEric Chronicles, a blog about her dad’s illness and death from leukemia. Her work has been published by MomsRising, Committee for Children, and Free Spirit Publishing. She is the single mom of one amazing daughter and one rather ill-behaved cat in St. Paul.

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

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Binding the Generations

March 7, 2021
papa

By Daniel Osborn

On Sundays, my parents drove my sister and me to Hingham for dinner with Nana and Papa Al at my father’s childhood home. Growing up, this house was the thing of legend. Unassuming in a town notable for its critical mass of colonial mansions, conspicuously displaying plaques from the local historical society that advertised the 18th and 19th century dates of their construction, generations of Osborns had lived in this modest home with acres of lawn and woods beyond. It did not have a plaque but it possessed an iconic place in family lure.

The story goes that my Papa was born upstairs, in the room at the end of the hall, past the bathroom. Hearing this story as a child, it seemed otherworldly. I could not fathom a birth outside of a hospital, let alone a lifetime spent living in the same house. Yet, my stoic Papa was one with the home, devotedly tending to the land, the custodian of the property. His love was quiet and understated, more diligent than overtly affectionate.

The Hingham house was always a source of pride for me. It echoed with unmet relatives who seemed so distant as to have lived in a time unimaginable to me and the trappings of my late 20th century childhood. I was raised on Ninja Turtles and Nickelodeon and the few glimpses I had of previous generations from yellowed photographs made me question whether they were at all acquainted with the automobile and telephone, let alone cable television and the action figures spawned by cartoon programming.  Black-and-white people once inhabited the home that I came to associate with endless rounds of card games with my Nana and evenings spent trying to up the sarcastic ante one pithy remark at a time in between bites of pizza from Denly Garden.

My Nana usually had enough cutting remarks in reserve to protect her honorary title of wittiest Osborn. Dorothy Parker may have woken up every day to brush her teeth and sharpen her tongue but my Nana could have held her own at the Algonquin Round Table, if only circumstances had favored her in youth. The premature death of a mother, an alcoholic father, the Great Depression, and a childhood spent bouncing around between relatives does a lot to develop a biting sense of humor but is not, exactly, the formula to getting an adoring audience of sophisticates to guffaw at one’s quips.

Arriving at the Hingham house, I would often see my Papa sitting outside in the shade by the barn in the backyard. Beyond the barn was the field. On days when I would walk straight into the house without checking by the barn, we would be greeted by my Nana at the kitchen table. “Where’s Papa” somebody would ask, inevitably eliciting the response, “He’s down in the field.” The low muffle of a ride-on lawn mower indicated the distance between Papa and the house.

Whenever I strain to conjure a mental image of my Papa, I imagine him riding his lawn mower in the field or sitting on a white plastic lawn chair down by the garden wearing an almost neutral expression that all but conceals his urge to be younger and physically fit enough to tend to his crops without the reluctance of a body in its ninth decade. In the days immediately following his death, I sat in rapture in the same kitchen where my Nana and I often ate lunch and exchanged verbal jabs. In these emotionally exhausting days, this space was transformed into a sanctuary from grief. Eddie Carnes and Tom Studley, my Papa’s lifelong friends, regaled my family with stories from their youth and filled in the details of a life I only knew in broad strokes. Only a teenager when my Papa passed, I had hardly considered his life before my time. My adolescent mind was still too enveloped in the immediacy of youthful egocentrism to entertain the notion that Papa was more than who he was in relation to me in this particular stage of his life. His mannerisms were given a backstory with each colorful accounting of his time as a young man.

Tom’s loose and wrinkled skin hid in its valleys his World War II era Army tattoos, the ones gotten when deployed with my Papa in the Pacific. Tom spoke without the reservation that marked my Papa’s interpersonal style. For every moment of silence we spent together in that kitchen during his life, Tom volunteered to fill this space with war stories. Now, my Papa’s limp had an origin. It was not the toll taken by time, the signifier of age I assumed but, instead, the emblem of personal sacrifice worn long after parades ended and uniforms were relegated to collect dust and musty odors in closets. Eddie and Tom laughed as they recounted my Papa’s impressive physical strength as he lifted bombs and other munitions with apparent ease. By the time I started planting the garden with him, his broad shoulders and thick hands were a reminder of a gradually eroding powerfulness. My presence in the field was, in part, because I now enjoyed my own ease with physical tasks that were increasingly becoming out of my Papa’s reach, too demanding for him yet not even registering with me as taxing.

It was in the garden that I felt most like I was participating in my family’s heritage. As a child, I watched with awe and embarrassment as my Papa and father used tools and unveiled their adeptness at maintaining the property. Over the creek bed separating the grassy field from the tree-lined woods beyond, my Papa and father built two foot bridges by hand. I observed as they measured and cut, ordered and arranged, and, all the while, worked in concert in a nearly unbroken silence. From a pile of lumber emerged newly engineered connective tissue to the untamed portion of the property. While I am sure some trivial duties were delegated to me, I felt utterly inept in contrast to their aptitude for executing the undertaking. Then and now, tools are alien to me. My dandy-like tendencies precluded any understanding of their process. I simply knew that my Papa possessed a work ethic and an acuity for such tasks that mystified me.

My father worked alongside his father on these types of projects throughout my childhood. Together, they ascended ladders and repainted the house. They cut down trees and chopped the wood. I played cards with my Nana and looked on from a distance much of the time. The two of them completed tasks together, both intuitively understanding the nature of the work and the processes at hand. Neither looked dumbfounded enough to ask at each step along the way, “What do I do next,” a question I swallowed more than I posed, lest I appear totally lost in these chores. But, there was always a tension between the two men.

Papa Al spoke infrequently, using his hands and a sunrise-to-sunset work ethic, instead, to communicate to the world. Yet, he always managed to connect with my sister and me. Without fail, he would greet me with the question, “How’s old Chester,” inquiring about my childhood dog. I would give an update, keeping silence at bay for a moment. It seemed to my father that from the time his father became Papa Al to his grandchildren, his emotional distance and unpolished paternal style were replaced with a more affectionate state. My Papa would always remain a quiet man but, to my father, his dad had undergone a transformation into a more gentle person. My father watched on as Papa unfurled a spirit unknown to him as a child living under the yoke of a more stern paternal figure.

The time in the garden during my youth that defines my memories of Papa Al are markedly different than the associations my father has with his childhood. As Papa introduced me to the process of tilling the soil and supervising the ground until it bore fruit, I adopted an enthusiasm for the work. On occasion, my father would recount the laboriousness of being a child on these acres with the grass-to-be-mowed and the garden-to-be-weeded. A favorite didactic tale my father would recount was when he would be caught or accused of being bored. His father would then tell him to go to the garden and weed a row of string beans. In my father’s account, this could occupy the rest of his evening, replacing boredom with hours on his hands and knees plucking unwanted vegetation in between the fledgling plants. The lesson being conveyed was simple. Papa had changed over time and being his grandson was a different experience than being his son. While I got to sit in the back of the trailer that was hitched onto the lawn mower, enjoying a leisurely, albeit bumpy, ride around the property with my Papa as the chauffeur, my father was subjected to a different person in his youth. The quiet yet doting Papa was not the man my father was acquainted with at the age when he was called on to tend to the garden.

Whereas my father recounted the parts of his youth with decades-old frustration, during my teenage years, I enjoyed the work and was surprised to find an outlet to contribute to the property as more than a Sunday tourist, hoping Nana prepared my favorite dessert or stocked my preferred snacks in the back hall pantry. But, before I was invited to plant the garden, the field was where I ambled. When sports were the centerpiece of my youthful pursuits, my father and I would play catch there. Somewhat uncoordinated but determined to improve, I would chase down the baseballs that ricocheted off my glove and hurl them at my father with varying degrees of accuracy. What I lacked in innate athletic prowess, I compensated for in effort. For well over a decade, I dutifully attended practices and obediently followed coaches’ directives. For this, I was frequently rewarded with third string status and a spectator’s view of fields from the sidelines. Yet, on this hallowed ground, my father and I would throw the ball in near silence. These hours held the promise of enough improvement in my skills to ascend the ranks of little league athletics.

One day, my father presented me with a green and red bow with a quiver of arrows. In the otherwise unbroken expanse of the grassy field was a lone tree which became my target. The bow was a vestige from my father’s childhood, before the term “free range” was used to describe a parenting style which typified the autonomy afforded to his generation. With the other neighborhood kids born during the Eisenhower Administration, they would take turns shooting an arrow into the air, scattering around the property, each following the arc of the projectile and vying to be nearest when it plunged back down to earth. Raised before the concept of “helicopter” parents had taken root in the American zeitgeist, my generation straddled this laissez faire approach that granted tacit permission to young Baby Boomers’ bow-and-arrow pastimes and the more zealous hovering that I would observe later in life in affluent suburbia where parents chose to live vicariously through their Gen Z children. Listening to my father tell these stories as he taught me to aim the arrow and release it towards the tree, I was fascinated and horrified by the audacity of his childhood self to scramble across the field evading medieval weaponry. I was also envious, knowing this would not be replicated by me and my friends even with the bow in my possession.

But my ambling lasted only until I was recruited to till and plant. On the first day of what would become an annual tradition, my Papa sat just beyond the freshly plowed soil and gave instructions for how to convert the churned dirt into a series of neat and orderly rows across an expanse that approached the size of a football field. It was at this moment that my Papa handed my father a wooden spool around which was wrapped twine. The wood was dry and on the cusp of splintering. The thin rope looked aged and brittle. While my Papa sat and explained the process in short punchy sentences, my father interjected with a little back story. This spool and rope were ancient, even to him. It was a rudimentary way to ensure the rows of plants were straight and uniformly spaced. This mattered because, soon, my father and I would strike the ground with our hoes and insert hundreds of saplings to the ground.

Even though my Papa and Nana were the only two people living at the house, he filled the garden with dozens of plants that far exceeded the demand of the household. Row upon row of tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, zucchini, summer squash, butternut squash, and other varieties filled a plot that was larger than my childhood backyard. The space where I would play soccer or lacrosse with my father or search for crickets when I was younger was but a parcel of the land my Papa plowed each year and filled with vegetable plants. The overabundance of the annual harvest enabled my Nana to produce batches of her hot pepper relish, a beloved condiment to sandwiches and hot dogs. When the relish was being made, the kitchen felt dangerous and toxic. An enormous pot sat atop the stove, heat radiating off the burners. The pungent odor of white vinegar, onions, and peppers enveloped the house and penetrated one’s senses to the point where breathing felt nearly impossible and eyes strained to remain open. In the end, the relish was jarred, the tangy and spicy sauce lasting only as long as the collective self-restraint of the family could muster.

The excess of tomatoes would serve as the fodder for tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches served on scali bread with sesame seeds. Throughout my childhood, my Papa would cultivate this yield and I would arrive at the family house and be greeted by juicy tomatoes that I would savor as Nana and I played round after round of War, the only card game I ever seemed to master and, unbeknownst to me, her least favorite. The only skill required by the game was enough hand dexterity to flip one card at a time until one player possessed the entire deck. Often, I would win and benevolently split the deck again with my Nana, taking pity on her and keeping the game alive. Later, after her death, relatives would lovingly recount how little she enjoyed the game. She humored me, nonetheless.

With the remaining yield, Papa would fill the cart that he hitched to his lawn mower and drive up and down the neighborhood, delivering bags of produce to the community. Always understated, Papa would, nevertheless, find ways to demonstrate his generosity. Bestowing fresh vegetables to the neighbors was one of the acts of selflessness that came naturally to him. It was a small gesture that seemed kind but trivial to me at the time yet is so rare as to almost seem obsolete today.

With the rope unspooled, my father and I used our hoes to commence digging small holes. I had seen the hoes hanging in the barn for years with all the other farm implements that looked menacing. When my Papa was a child, the property was actually a small working farm. The family kept cows and in the grassy field were a few mounds that I was told were their final resting places. With the rampant sarcasm in the family, I never knew definitively if this was true or yet another sly remark. Many of the tools from the days of cows and more robust farming remained suspended from the rafters or mounted to the barn’s walls. We only had use for the spooled rope and hoes.

The dimensions of the garden invited my Papa’s generosity. Parceling the space between friends and neighbors, we only had to fill a quadrant on this inaugural day. Rows of corn stalks would soon grow tall in an adjacent plot, put there by John Barry. Mr. Barry was, to me, a specter during this time, a frail figure dutifully walking the grounds parallel to the work underway by the Osborns. Politely, I would wave and greet him on the occasions when our visits to the garden overlapped. Slow-moving and hunched, Mr. Barry would walk the few hundred yards from the driveway to the garden where he would plant and tend to his hundreds of heads of corn.

Years after my grandfather passed away, Mr. Barry exceeded the brevity that typified our exchange of pleasantries and informed me through a crooked smile that this garden saved his life. Recovering from surgery, he lacked the motivation to undertake physical therapy yet the long walks from his car to the garden offered the exercise he needed to recover. My Papa’s subtle generosity, the mere act of lending him a fraction of an acre, galvanized Mr. Barry to step out of bed and into the world again when he just as easily could have succumbed to resignation.

If playing catch in the field and missing the tree when I released the arrows from my inherited bow taught me anything, it’s that my physical coordination was underwhelming. While my Papa impatiently observed his son and grandson completing the annual ritual that had been his prerogative decade after decade, I struck the soil and carved out space for our plants. Lacking the muscle memory that comes from a lifetime spent caring for this property and mastering each facet of the chores, I lifted and dropped the hoe to the ground. After only a few minutes participating as an equal to my father and inheritor to my Papa’s role in the process, I missed yet another target, striking the rope and relieving the tension.

Inexperience amplifies emotion. Without reference points, it becomes nearly impossible to calibrate a response; nor is experience necessarily an antidote against novelty. Even after all these years, I can still recall the bursting sensation of my cheeks turning flush as I stood over the  limp rope in disbelief of the almost-immediate severing of this ancient tool that, in the moment, felt like a vessel holding the legacy of a family tradition that had withstood over a half century of wear and tear but less than a half hour with me. In my mind is an image of my Papa, mouth open in shock. To this day, I am unsure of this memory, doubting whether Papa’s  reaction is a figment of my imagination or if my action was actually met by his astonishment.

Just as quickly as the hoe came down on the rope, my father would bend down and tie it together, reestablishing the tension that had always been there when he and his father went out each year to plant the garden. Quickly, order was returned and I resumed the task. The disturbance lasted a few moments at most and barely a word was exchanged among us.

Without fail, on our first day of planting each summer, my father reminds me of the garden rope. He squints his eyes as his face turns crimson with the release of his wheezy laughter. He shakes his head and smiles, remembering his father and my embarrassment. Our annual tradition now consists of his mirthful reminder of my first day working in the garden.

Shortly thereafter, the laughter ends and we unspool the garden rope and dig our hoes into the ground. Soon, we are both on our hands and knees, filling in the holes and feeling the soil between our fingers. Weeks will pass before we harvest peppers to make a batch of relish. In between, we will alternate between lovingly and grudgingly tilling and weeding the garden. We will curse the deer that eat the plants. Patches of the garden now remain untilled and untended. There is no more corn that grows in the adjacent plot. But, now my dad is his grandchildren’s Papa. When my sister visits and her children enter the house, the sound of the mower in the field is being operated by my dad. He will place his granddaughter on his lap and take her for rides. My mother will walk her down to the garden to name the plants my father and I have planted. I am experimenting with kale and broccoli. We have expanded the eggplant since the deer ignore these plants. Now, it is my father who will look at what we have planted and suggest another dozen peppers or tomatoes, assuming the mantle of caretaker. The house still stands and stories are told to a new generation. They hear about Nana and Papa, real life people who they only know through flat pictures and the curated memories recalled at family gatherings. The day my hoe cut through the rope like a guillotine now lives on in the canon of family lure. No longer a rupture with the past, it is rooted in the sly and sarcastic stories told around tables by a papa to his children and grandchildren.

Daniel Osborn, Ed.D. is a program director at Primary Source, an education nonprofit. Daniel’s academic background is interdisciplinary with advanced degrees in Near East and Judaic Studies and History and Social Science Education. He is the author of Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness, published by Routledge. He also is the creator and host of the Joy and Conversation podcast on Jewish history and culture. 

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

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Paper Lessons

March 5, 2021
gran

By Maggie Bucholt 

Loretta watched her mother loading packages of toilet paper into a huge cardboard box, then folding yards of wrapping paper patterned with hot-pink roses around the monster parcel. Her mother’s lips twisted in a hateful way as she taped the seams and tied the box with a purple ribbon so dark it was almost black.

“Mom, it’s…” Loretta folded her arms across her chest, wondering if Frances had forgotten her pills—or swallowed too many. She frowned, searching for the right word. She was about to say mean, but thought better of it. “Why not give Gran a nice pocketbook?” She nibbled a cuticle on her thumb. A drop of blood appeared, and she licked it away.

Frances—as Loretta had started referring to her mother in her head—signed her name to the card. Gran’s birthday was Saturday, three days away. Frances tucked the card under the ribbon when she was finished. Skinny arms stuck out of her short-sleeved blouse, and there were deep circles under her eyes. Watching TV news images of wounded soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam kept up her up at night.

Loretta was desperate to leave for college in August, ten months away, ready to start her own life; she had put in her time taking care of Frances. But all she could think about was how her mother would fare when she left. She would have to convince Gran that Frances could live on her own and not have to return to that horrible place. The nurses with their plastic smiles and their squeaky orthopedic shoes, the padded rooms behind the corridor’s locked doors. The first time when Frances had gone away for a “rest,” she had come back subdued. After she returned this time, she had been acting weird, as if they had fried all the normal parts of her brain along with the sick ones.

Ignoring her, Frances stood back and examined her work. “The lady in the Hallmark store said the gift was a hoot. Maybe I should get a job on Newbury Street wrapping fancy presents.” Frances removed the bobby pin from her stringy hair and repinned it. Then she laughed, without joy. Ha, ha, ha. “It’d probably pay more than my job at the card shop.”

“You’re working?”

A job. Proof that her mother was doing well, despite the ridiculous gift. Loretta seesawed between hope and doubt that this job would last any longer than the others Frances had had in the past three years since the last hospital stay. She ticked the jobs off in her head: Saleswoman at Jordan Marsh in Boston, and cashier at the five-and-dime, waitress at the diner on the main street of their suburban town. Frances argued with everyone—supervisors and co-workers, her own mother, and Loretta. She found fault with the downstairs apartment in Gran’s two-family house and brought up every injustice, present and past: the broken change machine at the Laundromat to Gran’s refusal to let her prune the rosebushes to her husband dying young.

“Why not?” Frances said.

“I’m glad, Mom, really.”

“You should be. The sooner we start saving, the sooner we can leave, just you and me, the way we planned.”

“Don’t you get tired of saying the same thing every year?” The walls in the living room were as bare as the day they moved in ten years ago, after her father’s car accident. Don’t bother to hang anything up, Frances had said. We won’t be here long.

Her mother whipped out a large manila envelope from the drawer under the white Formica counter. She waved it near Loretta’s face. “What’s this, huh?”

Loretta snatched the envelope and glanced at the return address. The brochure from the university in Colorado. Would be a good fit, her art teacher had said. “That’s my mail. You know what it is.”

“Still dreaming, are you? Well, stop, because you’re not going. We’re leaving here together.”

“Gran is paying the tuition, paying for everything.”

“Did she tell you what to study too?”

“You never say anything nice about Gran.”

“Because there is nothing nice to say.”

“What about her letting us live here without paying rent, taking care of me when you were… away.”

“You’ll see.”

They glared at each other. Frances was the first to look away, and a moment later the tension lines around her mouth deepened. “Oh, go on. Get to your room. You spend enough time studying in there anyway. Brush your hair, will you? And stop biting those nails.”

“At least I wash my hair.” Loretta ran her hand over her thick, long hair that never lay flat. “At least, I… ” Worry about what will happen to you.

Loretta closed the bedroom door, grateful to be alone. The last of the sunlight filtered in between the blinds, casting dark bars onto the beige rug. A car horn beeped twice, a sharp sound that echoed down the street. She peeked through the blinds. Old Mr. Tierney pulling his Buick out of his driveway. The beeps were his farewell before driving to the VFW to drink away the pain of losing his son in Vietnam. Oh, she hated this crummy neighborhood, and especially Mr. Tierney’s mousy wife who asked in a pitying tone, “How is your poor mother?” as if she were ready to hear the truth. That gossip would murmur something falsely reassuring before turning away, like everyone Loretta had tried to confide in.

Father Donovan, she avoided too; he pretended not to understand her predicament, and whenever he stopped her to talk about faith or about the children’s art program where she had taught the previous two summers, his breath smelled as though he hadn’t brushed his teeth for a week. No, the faith she had was in herself, and the only thing she liked about mass was watching the votives that burned as insistently as her desire to leave home.

She set the college materials on the blue-gingham quilt and went to the bureau. Under the bottom drawer, she felt for the fat envelope taped there, savings from her two summers of working and from birthday gifts from Gran. Eight hundred and fifty dollars and twenty cents. The bills were crisp, new, like the life she envisioned far away from Frances. She replaced the money and slid the college materials under the mattress with the others before fixing the sheet, hospital cornered, the way Gran had taught her.

In the living room, Frances had her legs tucked up under her on the sofa, transfixed in front of the TV. Her cigarette case rested on the lace doily that hid the threadbare arm. A plume of smoke from her cigarette wafted up toward the ceiling.

“Where you going?”

“Upstairs.”

**

Loretta entered her grandmother’s apartment without knocking. The living room smelled of lemon polish, and the crowded apartment had everything Loretta and her mother’s didn’t: gold-framed bucolic scenes on the walls, heavy red-brocade drapes on the windows with sheer curtains underneath, a china cabinet with Waterford crystal, and a grandfather clock with handsome Roman numerals, Loretta’s favorite.

“Gran?”

“In the bedroom, sweetheart,” her grandmother called.

Her grandmother sat at a dressing table with a three-paneled mirror, smoothing cold cream over her plump cheeks and under her eyes, lifting, then straightening her silver-frame eyeglasses. The bottom of Gran’s tent-like, navy-blue dress, the kind that hid her fat stomach and thighs, grazed the carpeting.

“You hungry?” Gran said. “I was about to start dinner.”

“Mom’s making spaghetti,” Loretta said, not meeting her eyes. She hated to lie, but it was easier to let Gran think that her mother was able to boil water.

Loretta ran her fingertips over the polished dressing table with its little atomizers of fragrances, the cobalt-blue Evening in Paris bottle, and the tubes of lipsticks on a glass tray. The thought of seeing Paris, especially the Impressionist paintings, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, that she had read about in books, made her smile. It was a dream she hadn’t shared with Gran yet.

She perched on the edge of the bed and leaned back, resting on her hands. The deep green comforter was silky beneath her palms. Watching the rhythmic strokes of her grandmother’s hands putting on lotion was a soothing ritual that had started in her childhood. Gran would pick up Loretta’s small hand, press it to her lotioned cheek, then to her lips for a noisy kiss. It made Loretta laugh when she wanted to cry. Everything will be fine, Gran seemed to say. It was Gran who sewed the ripped shoulder of her Raggedy Ann doll, and washed and ironed the small dress and white apron. Gran who had helped her with homework. And it was Gran who had given her the little booklet after Loretta noticed pink spots on her underpants when was she was twelve.

Gran told her a story she had heard a gazillion times, and Loretta wondered if her grandmother would begin forgetting more and more things, the way old people did. It was the story of how Gran survived the death of her young husband so many years ago. Unlike Frances, Gran was quick to remind her, she had found a job in a factory, at a time when not many women worked. Eventually, Gran had met and married a widower, the grandfather Loretta knew, before being widowed again.

“I had to do what was best for me.” Gran gazed at Loretta over the tops of her glasses. “You, too, have to figure things out, think of yourself.”

“Yes, Gran.” Loretta started to chew on a fingernail, before her grandmother gave her a warning look. She dropped her hand.

“Because no one else will.” Gran turned this way and that in the mirror, examining her wrinkled face before wiping the excess cream from her misshapen arthritic fingers. “How are things at school?”

“A’s in English, history, and biology.” Loretta plopped back onto the bed, pleased that her grandmother listened carefully as she talked. But an A- in math. She vowed to study harder, when she wasn’t taking care of Frances—she didn’t do sports or afterschool clubs. “I asked each teacher what was expected for me to get an A, and then I made a list and completed the extra assignments.”

She never mentioned she ate alone in the cafeteria or the bitchy girls who never invited her to their tables. She imagined the way they saw her: a too-tall girl who kept to herself and painted posters for school plays. Instead she talked about the library book with the glossy photos of the works of Monet.

Gran nodded approvingly. “You’re serious, not like your mother, marrying your father before she graduated. She could have finished college, if she let me help her. Stubborn, too stubborn she was. You know, your mother was always… different. I suppose losing your father was too much. Goodness, the shock was too much for me.”

“Mom is making an effort,” she said, feeling hopeful. It wasn’t as though she didn’t love Frances; her mother was the only parent she had left, not counting Gran. “Mom’s ….” She stopped. She would tell Gran about the job at the card store only if it lasted more than a week.

Loretta jumped up and from behind, wrapped her long arms around her grandmother’s bosomy frame, conscious of her height—tall like her father, Gran always said. She put her cheek to her grandmother’s and rocked her back and forth, eyeing both their reflections in the mirror. Gran, her short gray hair done up at the beauty parlor every week; and she, Loretta, with hair ballooning around her thin face, was about to start the rest of her life.

“Oh, you’re being so cool, Gran, about college and all.”

“I want you to begin your life the right way. Plenty of good colleges close by, in Boston.”

“Around here?” Her voice faltered. They had never talked about where she would attend college, and she was taken aback. “A university out west is what I was thinking. I’ve never been there, of course.” She was excited by the prospect of studying in a place she had never been, of traveling to Paris after college graduation. “I don’t know about Boston.”

“Think about it.” Gran patted her arm.

Later, Loretta sat on the back porch steps with the sketchbook and charcoal pencil for the preliminary drawing of the cardinal. A lone leaf zigzagged toward the ground. The bird in the denuded maple tree cocked its head, as though it were waiting for her to begin. A sketch for her senior art portfolio. Focus. She inhaled deeply. Focus. Empty your mind, the art teacher said, when she struggled with a sketch in the art room. Let your hand work its magic over the paper.

But she was unable to draw, her thoughts ricocheting from dissuading Frances on Gran’s present to convincing Gran about Colorado to improving the application essay so she would be accepted. Tomorrow she would show Gran the brochure and talk up the Art History major. Long after the cardinal flew away, she stayed where she was, staring into the autumn twilight.

**

The following afternoon, Loretta was home from school late, and when she heard Gran’s voice in the living room, her insides somersaulted. Gran’s birthday was two days away. Why was she here? She jabbed her jacket onto the brass hook. Gran hadn’t been inside the apartment in months.

Frances was on the sofa, legs crossed, the couch springs squeaking in rhythm with her wobbling foot. She had on a flower-print dress that Loretta hadn’t seen her wear in a long time. The red lipstick, smeared outside the natural contour of her lips, looked as though it been applied by a three-year-old. Frances’ tremulous smile was so wide, Loretta thought her face might crack.

Gran, her posture straight as a knife, sat on a kitchen chair; the sofa was too low for Gran. Gran shot Loretta an accusing look. Why didn’t you tell me?

“Loretta sweetheart, isn’t it nice your mother is working again?”

Frances turned to Loretta and raised an eyebrow. The eyebrow almost reached the uneven part in her hair.

“Yes, it is.” Loretta glanced nervously at the mammoth box with the dark-purple ribbon on the TV console. She still had to figure out what to do and quickly. She tugged down the hem of her sweater and perched next to Frances on the sagging seat, smoothing her plaid skirt over her knees.

“You feel up to doing this, this job?” Gran grasped the strap of the big black purse in her lap. She snapped the clasp open and closed, open and closed. Click, click. Click, click.

“She’s doing fine, aren’t you, Mom?” But Loretta could see her mother didn’t appear fine at all and, worse, Gran could too. Frances’s gaze darted around the room, and she pressed a folded piece of paper into her lap.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise, Mother,” Frances said, a slow flush spreading up her neck to her face.

“Now Frances, I didn’t mean anything by it.” Gran winked at Loretta. In her own way, Gran was trying.

  “Don’t start, Mother,” Frances said. “That’s not why I invited you in.”

“No, then why did you?” Gran gazed at Frances over her glasses that had fallen to the middle of her nose.

Frances’s foot bobbed faster. And Loretta tensed. She leaned over and whispered, “Don’t give Gran the present. Please.” Her mother struggled away from her.

“To say that we will be moving out as soon as I save some money,” Frances said.

Loretta groaned inwardly. She had heard the argument many, many, many times before. But at least she hadn’t given her the birthday present. Don’t say anymore, Mom. Don’t.

Gran seemed to consider this without rancor and adjusted the purse on her lap. “I see. And what apartment do you think you can afford, on a card-store salary?”

“Here’s the budget,” Frances said, her tone triumphant. She unfolded the paper and dropped into Gran’s lap. “An apartment’s for rent a few blocks from here.”

“Mom.” A flare of hope sparked in her chest.

Gran adjusted her glasses and made a show of studying the numbers. “This isn’t going to work.” Her words sliced the air.

Frances’s lipsticked mouth worked, but no sound came out. She sank onto the sofa and crossed her legs, staring into space. Loretta could tell by her grandmother’s stricken gaze that she knew she had gone too far and didn’t know the way back.

“Gran, come on, it’s a start,” Loretta said quietly. “You could help with a plan.”

Frances shot up, and before Loretta could whisper in her ear that this wasn’t the right time, Frances snatched the huge birthday present from the console and placed it at Gran’s feet. Frances’s smile was as gleeful as a mischievous child.

“For your birthday, Mother,” Frances said. “A couple of days early.”

“Why, thank you, Frances,” Gran said. A look of astonishment, then happiness flickered across her plump cheeks.

Loretta slid her moist palms down her skirt as Gran tore off the dark ribbon and wrapping paper. Gran sorted through the packages of toilet paper as if she were searching for something. Was there a real present hidden among the paper that she was missing?

  “A little joke. Right, Mom?” Loretta, her face hot, tried to laugh.

“I don’t see the humor.” Gran’s thin lips pursed.

“You get what you deserve, you mean old thing!” Frances started laughing, the same mirthless sound as when she had wrapped the toilet paper.

“Mom, stop.” Loretta tried to put her arms around her thin shoulders, but Frances pushed back in an irritated way, a smirk on her face.

Gran stood up to leave, trembling.

“Gran, wait.” Loretta was desperate to do something, anything to lessen the animosity. She ran to her bedroom for the bright yellow box with the black fancy script, the Jean Nate gift set she had bought, and at the last moment stuffed the university brochure into her skirt pocket.

“Happy birthday, Gran.” Loretta handed her the present. “I, I didn’t get a chance to wrap it.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Gran swayed a little, holding her purse and the yellow-and-black box. “You’re a good girl, a very smart girl.”

Gran had fixed her gaze on Frances, and Loretta stiffened. “Gran, let’s go.”

“Which is why Loretta will do well at college,” Gran said.

“Mind your own business, Mother.”

“Won’t you do well, Loretta?” Gran said, turning to her, with fiery eyes.

Loretta wished she were outside sketching the cardinal. Or unpacking her things in the dorm at the university in Colorado. Or painting the long view of the Eiffel Tower from the banks of the Seine.

“Come on, I’ll walk you up,” she said, and steered Gran toward the door.

Upstairs, she stood near the grandfather clock and trimmed a fingernail with her teeth. For once, Gran didn’t scold her about biting her nails. Gran moved slowly to hang her coat in the closet. Neither of them spoke. Gran seemed to collapse into the dining room chair.

“Mom’s doing OK, she does have that job.” Loretta hoped she sounded convincing.

Gran sighed and opened her arms, and Loretta moved in for an awkward embrace. She could smell Gran’s lavender-scented lotion.

“Did you think about what I said? About Boston?” Gran ran her hand over the polished surface to the table, brushing away imaginary crumbs.

Loretta pulled out the colorful brochure. “Colorado, see for yourself. The college has an Art History major and I…”

Gran shook her head. “Come now, sweetheart, did you think I wouldn’t be the one to decide? I will be paying for everything.”

“I didn’t realize that meant I couldn’t go where I want.”

“Look at you, getting all upset. I’m your champion, sweetheart. All I’m saying is that the college has to be closer to home.”

Loretta shifted from one foot to another, feeling miserable. “Because that’s best for you, Gran,” she spat. “That’s not fair.”

“Not for me, either.” Gran gave her a wan smile. “I can’t take care of her forever. I’m not getting any younger.”

Back downstairs, Loretta emptied a can of tomato soup into a pot and added water, trying to swallow the panic that stuck in her throat. The blue flame flickered under the pot. She had fooled herself into thinking she would be free, first at college, then after graduation. Free to do what she pleased, live wherever she liked. The realization that she could not left her cold. She stirred the soup with a wooden spoon. The soup sloshed over the sides. Mom had to eat something, had to feel better. She hoped the aroma would lure Frances into the kitchen. At the table, she opened her loose-leaf and turned to the unfinished college essay for Colorado, the one giving her the most trouble, perhaps because it was her first choice. Empty your mind, focus. But she couldn’t shake off the dread. Of course Gran expected her to take care of Frances when Gran no longer could. There was no one else.

“So what do you talk about with your grandmother when you’re up there?” Frances stood in the doorway, one hand on her hip. Loretta was surprised that Frances seemed fine, as though all she needed was a few moments rest to clear her head and change her vengeful mood.

“School, stuff.” She shoved the essay into her loose-leaf. She had gotten good at hiding the truth. The soup gurgled and the tomato-y scent filled the kitchen, and she stirred the pot. She had expected shouting, angry words from her mother, not this. An argument she could deal with. A self-pitying mother, she couldn’t.

Her mother lit a cigarette and shook the match until the flame died. She inhaled deeply, and smoke shot out of the side of her mouth. “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”

Loretta didn’t answer. She got out two white bowls from the cupboard, ladled steaming soup into one, and set it on the table. Frances slipped into a chair and balanced her cigarette on the lip of the glass ashtray. She dipped the spoon into the soup. Halfway to her lips, she dropped the spoon back into the bowl, splashing soup all over the table.

“Mom, you’ll do fine.” Loretta wiped up the soup with a wet sponge. Another lie. Shame washed over her. “You can save money like you said and move, if that’s what you want to do,” she said, wishing she could believe her own words. “You don’t need me.”

Frances sucked on her cigarette, eyeing Loretta. “That store needs a better manager. I told the woman she could ask me whatever she wanted, that I’d help her run the place. She got all huffy.”

Loretta filled a bowl for herself and tasted the soup. The soup had a bitter, metallic taste, as if she had boiled nickels along with the tomatoes. She listened to her mother complain about the smart-alecky salesmen and the lumpy grilled cheese sandwich she had for lunch at the diner where she used to waitress. At last Frances stubbed out her cigarette, and all Loretta could feel was relief that the terrible moment, when she feared hearing the words I do need you, had passed.

**

At lunchtime the next day, Loretta shifted in a hard-seated chair at the guidance counselor’s office, one of two chairs that faced Mr. Crowley’s desk. The desk was cluttered with pens, pencils, forms, and a half-eaten, smelly tuna sandwich. Piles of college catalogues were lined up with precision on the floor.

“I’m having trouble with this essay for Colorado, my top choice.” Loretta pushed the two-page draft for the university in Colorado across his desk. “Could you take a look at it?”

“Certainly, give me a moment,” he said. He was a short man with a round face and a snub nose. The kids called him Porky behind his back. He jotted notes in the margins. After a few moments, he reviewed the essay, point by point, and suggestions to add why sketching and painting were so important to her.

“I have no doubt you’ll be admitted to a good college with your grades.” As he talked, he rubbed at a stain on his green-striped tie. “Have a backup plan, besides Colorado. Did you want me to review the other essays and applications?”

“I’ve already finished three.” Loretta tucked the essay into her loose-leaf. “They’re at home.”

“Good girl. I know they’re lengthy.”

“You, ah, said something about financial aid, when I came in before. My grandmother offered to pay but I’m not sure about.…”

“It can’t hurt to apply for financial aid, no matter what your resources. Colleges offer grants based on aptitude as well as need.”

He handed her a thick packet, and she listened carefully as he explained the different federal grants and work study. She thanked him and stuffed the daunting paperwork into her loose-leaf, hoping she wouldn’t have to fill out those applications too; she still hoped to persuade Gran about Colorado.

“I tried telephoning your mother, so she could be here.” Mr. Crowley nodded at the empty chair.

“She’s working, Loretta said quickly. “She won’t have time.”

“I can help you start filling out the aid forms, if you like. Just come in again.”

Back home after school, Loretta opened the front door and heard the soft, unmistakable sound of weeping coming from Frances’s bedroom. She dropped her bag and struggled out of her jacket. Disappointment knifed her insides. Frances had been fired. Why else would her mother be home before five o’clock? She ran down the hall and pressed her ear to Frances’s door. She knocked lightly.

“Mom?” She tried the doorknob. Locked. She waited, resting her forehead against the doorframe. “It doesn’t matter,” she said through the crack, willing herself to sound upbeat. “You know I love you, right?”

The wailing turned to loud sniffles.

“You can find something else. Mom?”

In the kitchen, she sipped a glass of milk and nibbled an Oreo. She would have to help Frances get past this setback, find the right job. Only she didn’t know how. The scribbling on the pad by the telephone caught her eye. An enormous X crossed out Mr. Crowley. A panicky feeling swept over her, and she hurried to Frances’s door. She stood outside, biting a nail, contemplating what she could say, something to soften the truth. But nothing came to her. She sighed. Frances would have to hold her own when she was gone.

Loretta opened the door to her own room, bent on making Mr. Crowley’s suggestions to her essay, and flipped on the light switch. She stood stock-still. Her sketches were torn from the wall, her dresser drawers emptied and left half open, her sweaters and underwear strewn on the floor, along with the blue-checked quilt. Balled up in the corner were her bed sheets, and her mattress hung off the box spring at an odd angle.

A pile of cut-up paper and the kitchen scissors were on top of the naked mattress. She picked up a sliver of paper with her name still visible. The essays and carefully filled-out applications had been shredded into millions of pieces. Her heart banged against her ribcage. She rushed to the bureau and pulled out the bottom drawer. The thick envelope with the money was still taped to the bottom. She shoved the envelope into her waistband of her skirt. She ran down the hall and pounded on Frances’ door with her fist—bam, bam, bam—until the side of her hand ached.

“How could you?” she shouted. Her pulse drummed in her ears. “I’ve always helped you, been on your side.”

No answer. She rattled the knob in frustration, picturing how Frances, her face blotchy red with rage, had overturned everything, cut all the paper with the same expression of gleeful revenge she had worn when presenting Gran with the monster package of toilet paper.

She flew up the stairs to Gran’s, her chest heaving, but at the top, she stopped and stared at the closed door. A college closer to home, Gran had said. I will be paying for everything. She gripped the banister, sick at heart and frightened. When had she ever been able to change Gran’s mind about anything? Gran would expect her to stay after graduation, too, find a job, and do what she had always done to keep Frances out of that dreadful place. Loretta turned and started downstairs as though she were sleepwalking.

In the apartment, she picked up the sketchpad and charcoal pencil and went out to the back porch. The sun was low in the sky and she gulped the cold, fresh air. She sank onto the wooden steps. From the Tierneys next door, she heard the grating sound of a metal rake and the rustle of brittle leaves. She glanced over. Mrs. Tierney was focused on clearing a path to the street. The lifeless leaves had been raked into organized piles.

The envelope in her waistband pressed into her side, and she placed a protective hand over the money for a moment, her mind churning with everything she had to do—she would ask Mr. Crowley for help with the paperwork—and the lies that she would have to tell until she left. She would learn to forgive herself for leaving Frances, the way she had learned everything else that Gran had taught her.

She opened the sketchpad and smoothed a new sheet of paper. The solitary cardinal appeared, bright red against the maple’s dark bough, and seemed to watch her. She assessed the cardinal, making tentative strokes at first. The strokes became bolder, deeper as the image of the cardinal took shape on the page. The body, the sharp beak, the unblinking black eyes. Then she drew the bird’s legs, fragile but strong.

Maggie Bucholt a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and was awarded a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to work on her novel. A story, “Deer’s Leap,” was a finalist in the Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture fiction contest. Her credits include an essay, “Rhyming Action in Alice Munro Short Stories,” in The Writer’s Chronicle, and “Death and the Desire to Live Deliberately,” in Desire: Women Write About Wanting, published by Seal Press.

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

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Abuse, Guest Posts, Relationships

Love Thy Neighbor

March 3, 2021
told

By Kelly Wallace

Biking around my Portland neighborhood, I saw a moving truck with a good looking guy front of a house. He was photographing a Bianchi bicycle in front of the fence.

“Nice bike,” I told him as I cycled by. He was tall, thin, and looked Italian with dark curly hair.

“Thanks. I’m trying to sell it on Craiglist,” he said. “I used to ride it to my job. But since I retired a year ago, I don’t need it anymore.”

“Where did you move here from?” I asked. Up close, I noticed silver mixed in with his black bangs and sexy eyes.

“I was living in Florida,” he told me.

“Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” I said. “It’s a beauty. Good luck selling it.” Cycling to my exercise class, I made a mental note to try and strike up another conversation. It was exciting to have a hot new guy so geographically desirable.

He was often out in his front yard. I stopped to chat whenever biking by. We’d chat about cycling and his luscious garden. He’d managed to retire at 40 by never going on vacations, buying everything second hand and cooking at home, he said. He spent hours planting vegetables. As a 38-year-old, brunette business consultant, with fifteen years of recovery from alcoholism under my belt, I’d purchased my own two-bedroom bungalow but felt lonely living alone. An agnostic, I didn’t want marriage or kids. The only relationship I’d been in post college was five years with someone who couldn’t commit. As a survivor of sexual abuse, emotional intimacy wasn’t easy for me.

One night I asked him if I could try some cherry tomatoes from his garden. After the tomato tasting, he offered to make me dinner. We stayed up late talking. Within weeks we were an item. On Halloween we rode in the pouring rain to haunted houses, posting pictures of each other sitting on bales of hay. We sautéed Thai green curry with shrimp in his kitchen, then played cribbage on my sofa with my brown tabby Billie. He drank a beer here and there while he cooked but it didn’t bother me. My craving for alcohol had long since disappeared.

When I was sick, he made shakshouka, a middle eastern poached egg dish. He was a great cook and offered me tips, like the importance of having a good cooking knife. He taught me how healthy food was nurturing – something I needed after struggling with drinking and starving my way through college, another byproduct of my childhood trauma.

It was so awesome with him just a few houses down, not even a car, cab or Uber away. I loved popping into his place for dinner, snuggling up to watch old episodes of “The Jersey Shore,” then going home to sleep in my own bed. It felt like the perfect distance, the trick to finding love at last.

In June, during a city wide bicycle festival we road our bikes in the Bowie vs. Prince annual ride. We dressed up in David Bowie outfits, rode through town with hundreds of others and danced in competitions featuring the two iconic musical performers. On a rare Portland snow day, when the entire city shut down, we walked around our precinct, holding hands. We went to the mountain and tried cross country skiing, gliding along groomed trails, posting goofy pictures of ourselves with a frozen lake in the background on Facebook.

I invited him to my family Thanksgiving. Roasting cauliflower and delicata squash in the morning at his house, he prepared dishes to take to my dad and stepmom’s house an hour way. We feasted on turkey, mashed potatoes, and my stepmom’s famous lime green Jello salad. My dad and stepmom rarely drank. After years of not talking to them, we’d reconciled in therapy. On one visit, my stepmom and Dad sang “Walkin’ After Midnight,” by Patsy Cline in my beau’s living room while he accompanied on guitar. I loved watching him play, a remnant of his former life as a high school band teacher, before I knew him.

I was traveling a lot, mostly by myself. I went to the Women’s March in Washington, then to Atlanta to visit my cousin, renting Airbnb’s. I admitted that the owner of an apartment in Kyoto had invited me to go out for a beer, but I’d turned him down. Though I’d declined his invite, my boyfriend thought I was hanging out with him. I reassured him I wasn’t for hours over Skype.

“He seems too possessive,” my pal Julie said one night. “He’s sounds narcissistic.” She had a masters in vocational rehabilitation and knew about personality disorders. After a fight, I told him what Julie had said.

 “So Julie thinks I’m a narcissist? What did you say when she said that?” He asked while making parsnip puree at the hot stove.

“I told her I didn’t think it was true,” I said, but I had doubts, tucking away her observation.

A psychic once told me, “You are a loner in this lifetime.” At seven, I told my mom that I was being molested by my paternal grandpa. She believed me. My dad did not. At eight, I testified against my father’s father in a courtroom and his side of the family turned against me. They insisted I wasn’t telling the truth. He was found not guilty. I thought it was all my fault. I didn’t know sexual assault cases were incredibly difficult to prove in a court of law – the chances of conviction were less than 3%.

As an adult, I escaped to college 3000 miles away. Now, with my partner’s charismatic personality, he was a bridge to my paternal relatives, making me feel more protected and at ease around them. Besides, they had a four-month old border collie that he loved to play with and soon he got his own dog.

My boyfriend adopted a twelve-week old golden lab mix, Augie, and he watched YouTube videos to learn to teach him new tricks. At a special store that sold only organic pet toys, he bought the puppy a special synthetic tennis ball.

The puppy went everywhere with him. He bought a trailer for his bike to put him in and watched videos on how to get the canine to be comfortable in the carrier. We went out to dinner one night, biking with the Augie in the trailer as a test run and sat at a picnic table with us after we ate. “Take a picture of us,” he asked as he fed the dog the leftover pizza crusts. I uploaded it to Instagram. It seemed insanely cute.

Weeks later, I went to upstate New York for my college reunion. As soon as I landed, we argued over the phone. I didn’t tell my girlfriends what was happening. I thought I could follow what the relationship book I’d consulted said: keep the lines of communication open and try to make it work. My beau posted videos of himself training the pup. I was glad he had company while I was away.

On the last day, there was an event at a winery. Not knowing what to do with myself at the winery and surrounded by drinking, I followed my schoolmates, Melissa, Katie, and Tuesday, listening to their interchanges about their kids, and work life. All three were happily married. I broke down crying.

“What’s going on?” Katie put her arm around my shoulder.

“It’s not working out with my boyfriend,” I admitted. “We’ve been fighting all weekend.”

“Let’s go out the parking lot,” Melissa said. Tuesday followed behind.

“Your marriages are perfect and I feel like a failure in comparison,” I confessed. “But I feel stuck since he lives down the street from me and wants to be together.”

We stood in a circle like a college football huddle.

“We aren’t perfect,” Tuesday said.

 “But if you’re not in love and happy, you don’t have to stay,” Melissa said.

“He has his puppy,” Melissa reassured. “He’ll meet someone else.”

I finally realized I could put a stop to it, just like as a child when I told my mom what happened. I broke up with him calmly over the phone.

Now, entering my twentieth year of sobriety, we still live on the the same block. I see him walking his dog every day but keep my distance. We had some good times together and I don’t regret loving him but I’m relieved it’s over. I’m more comfortable being single. The only downside of dating a neighbor three houses down is I have to keep seeing him long after I stopped seeing him. But when I try out a new vegetable recipe I think of him fondly and all that he taught me about cooking and nourishing myself.

Kelly Wallace recently completed work on The Book of Kelly, a memoir, about her experience as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She previously had words in On Loan From the Cosmos and The Manifest-Station.

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

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health, pandemic

Ghosts

March 1, 2021
shadowy photo of woman during day

By Laura Cline

I feel her following me.  The ghost.

Somehow, it is already seven p.m.  My hands are under the hot running water, rinsing the dishes and leaning over to put them in the dishwasher.  The little girl voices swirl around me.  “Girls, time to settle down.” They don’t hear me.  I keep rinsing the dishes and the ghost wraps her arms around mine- strangling- embracing.

I’ve been here before.  This feels familiar.

Not that I have lived through a global pandemic, but my heart has been in this place, my head, my hands, all the parts of my body. My days have melted together into the longest day, the mornings weeks, months from the nights.  The rhythm of my day is need- food, water, attention, sleep.

I wake up every morning and immediately feel the fog pull me back under.  I haven’t slept enough the night before.  I was up late folding the laundry, slipping into the warm water of the bath, rocking the baby, holding her to my breast.  I hear the voices, the cries.  “Mooooooom, mommy, get me mommy.”  This day will be just like the last. I put on my glasses so I can see and pull back the covers.  The ghost sits in the rocker across the room.  My eyelids feel heavy, made of lead.

The television is always on in the background, but I barely hear it.  My daughter asks questions about what is happening. “What is she doing, mommy?”  “I don’t know, honey.  I wasn’t paying attention.” Instead I scroll though post after post on Facebook.  I stop when I see one about the virus, when I see one about the baby.  I read it and feel it sewing the sides of my rib cage together, the tightening of uncertainty.  When will it be over? Will this last forever?

After my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with PPD, PPPTSD, PPA, and PPOCD.  Four acronyms, but one feeling.  One ghost, drifting through her days. One shadow, drawn in tears.

COVID-19 is it’s own ghost, invisible, but we all know it is there.

The afternoons are the hardest.  I’m at my worst.  Most days I feel like I am giving my ghost a piggy back ride, dragging her around the house by her ankles, asking her again and again to please leave me, but she doesn’t listen.  Most days, I curl around my daughter for a nap in my king sized bed.  I leave the window open and a warm breeze blows the blinds and taps them against the window.  I feel the softness of my daughter’s blond hair pressed against my lips.  Sometimes I sleep and she doesn’t.  She wakes me up, and my heart pounds, I feel dizzy.  Where am I?  What day is today?

After nap, I feel like I’m just waiting to sleep again.  Am I awake?  I feel raw on all my edges.  My nerves jitter around in my body.  So many sounds: squeaks and screams and crashes. My daughters’ sticky hands and sticky faces grab my hands and my clothes, wrap around my neck.  They run wild, play aggressively, fall and cry, and fall and cry.  They are all scraped knees and off the wall ideas.  I look out the window again and again.  Is my mom’s car in her driveway?  Should we get in the car and drive somewhere? I crave talking to another adult.  Out in our shared yard, my mom and I talk about the news of the day, what will happen next, what did the girls do today, as we pick up weeds from the driveway, water the plants, sit six feet apart in chairs.  My youngest always runs right up to her grandma, “No, June. Space.  The virus.”  They have seen her, hugged her, kissed her goodnight almost every day of their short lives. When we go inside, some nights I break. I scream at the top of my lungs in the middle of the kitchen.  I sob until I can’t breathe.  I kick around the toys on the floor, the trash, the crumbs sticking to the bottoms of my feet.  Some nights I am even, Zen almost. Numb.  We laugh at the dinner table, play Bob Marley and Elton John, have dance parties, read books, snuggle and eat chocolate. When I look in the mirror, my face is the ghost’s.

Every night it seems we go to bed later.  The sun lingers.  It is almost summer.  It is mid summer. It is the heat of the longest of summers. Some of the voices on the news wonder if the heat will kill the virus, render it dormant, but it doesn’t hibernate.  It still lurks in our breath, on our fingertips.

My firstborn came in the summer.  One afternoon in July, I swaddled her up and put her into her rocker.  She fell asleep and I waited for her to jerk awake, like she always did.  Instead, she stayed quiet, and outside it began to rain, one of the early Monsoon storms that season.  I turned on Fleetwood Mac.  I was still.  I felt like I was flying.

One day while I am watering the bush in front of the house, a bird shoots out.  My mom tells me that she has seen the bird too.  “It must have a nest there.”  The next day, the kids and I trim back the bush.  “Don’t touch the clippers. Pick up the leaves.”  Eventually, we can see the nest near the edge of the bush, four tiny eggs inside.  “Don’t touch them,” I tell the girls, but later that afternoon, I find them in the front, hiding their hands behind their backs, a cracked piece of shell on the ground.  “I saw the tiny beak, mom,” my daughter tells me.  My heart cracks and fissures like the shell.  I hope that the mama will come back.  I tell my girl that the bird is dead; that cracking it’s shell killed the bird.  Her sister tells everyone, “The bird is dead, dead, dead.  Gracie killed the baby bird.”  “Stop it,” she shrieks, “they already know.”

The next day I go out and rustle the leaves on the bush.  The mother bird flies out and hops across the yard.  She came back.

Every morning my girls want to check on the eggs.  I feel like I am holding my breath.  I so badly don’t want them to be disappointed.  How much loss can any of us stand?

The ghost has felt the hot summer sun on her shoulders and the back of her neck.  She has felt the sting of the sweat running into her eyes. She watches like the mother bird, shooting out, anxious, to watch as giants hover over her babies, with their careless hands.  Those hands already took one of them. Will they take the others?

But they don’t.  The eggs hatch and the babies – two of them- are there in the nest, naked, tiny, eyes glued shut, organs and veins just visible under their translucent skin. They grow patches of feathers.  My daughters give them names: Tiny and Flower.  One day, one of them is gone, just a rustle in the bush.  I push the girls on the swing, my feet in the warm sand, and when we come back, both baby birds are gone.  Did a crow eat them?  A javelina? Did something invisible take them away?

There are orioles all over the yard.  Some days, we think we see the babies, slightly smaller than the others, eating at one of our feeders.  The girls stand at the window, yelling, “I see them! Tiny and Flower!”  I see them too, I think, and I almost believe it.  “I see them, too.” My ghost nods.

We leave the house just a little for a few warm weeks at the start of summer.  We go to the playground.  We play with friends. The kids are almost like kids again.  I start taking the baby places.  She is stronger, bigger.  They are the healthiest they have ever been.  While we are out, I feel alive.  When I come home to the house, I feel the energy drain out of my body.  The house is a succubus.  The ghost is always inside.

And the virus descends.  Overnight, eleven people die. I don’t know them, but I feel their loss.  Were they alone?  I know they were.

I can’t control it anymore.  The chaos descends.  Every day is a whirlwind, and I want to get back in bed as soon as I get out of it.  The laundry piles up, the floors are dirty, every thing is wet.  The clutter makes me crazy.  I throw things out with abandon.  We take out the trash again and again.  I rage.  I cry.  I laugh at my kids’ antics.  They start to talk like me, to become me.  I wait for night when they go to sleep.  When I can breathe.  The sun stays out and they go to bed later and later.  Will it end?

When I find out the kids will be going back to school, I am terrified and exhilarated at once.  This must be how the mother bird feels when her babies leave the nest?  The act of protecting them, of holding them under my soft belly, is exhausting.  But outside, there lurks the invisible danger of the virus, of the unknown, of the dark chasm of what the future will hold for them, for all of us.

The ghost sits down next to me on the couch, surrounded by the mess of the day.  She takes my hand.  We wait together.

Laura Cline is an English teacher at a community college with an MA in Literature from the University of Arizona. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, including an article about birds and babies at Motherwell, and an essay titled ‘Dear Left Big Toe‘ published in Entropy.

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

Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Permission to Speak

February 28, 2021
writing

By Abby Schwartz

I’m scrolling through Instagram while eating my oatmeal. It’s August 2019 and writer Cheryl Strayed has posted this announcement: I’ll be teaching a workshop at the @kripalucenter in April called The Story You Have To Tell. It’s for writers at all levels of experience—really it’s for anyone who wants to crack it open to get at the good stuff inside…All you need to bring is a notebook and pen. I hope to see you there!

I’m frozen mid-spoonful, her words an electric jolt to my heart. I recognize this as a moment to seize without overthinking.

I respond to the post: @cherylstrayed your words always inspire me to be brave and authentic so I am going to push aside my fear of going this alone and sign up. Thank you!

I am thrilled when, moments later, Cheryl likes my comment and responds: @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

I’ve been a professional copywriter for 20 years, though I started in advertising as an art director. Back then, we worked in teams—an art director paired with a writer—or with the entire creative department in one room, scribbling ideas with black Sharpies and tacking them to the wall. Brainstorming was energizing; we fed off one another. When our sessions got long we grew punchy, our ideas verging on the absurd. You could hear our roars of laughter down the hall.

What I miss about those days is the camaraderie. Though our group was competitive—each determined to be first with the winning idea—we supported one another, celebrated our wins and created a safe space where no idea was off limits.

Even as an art director, I approached each concept through words, crafting a headline before giving thought to the visuals. My creative director Tom was one of the original Mad Men, a copywriter who worked at some of the biggest Madison Avenue firms in the sixties before starting his own Philadelphia agency. He pulled me aside one day and told me I was a good writer, that he could see me writing a book one day. His validation lit something in me. I tucked his words inside—a glowing coal that kept me warm.

At my therapist’s I tell Dr. G. about registering for Cheryl Strayed’s writing workshop. She can see how excited I am and thinks this is a wonderful idea. She tells me, “You are someone who is open to trying new things and is enthusiastic about them.”

I like viewing myself through this lens. I’ve only recently begun the work of unpacking the fear and anxiety I’ve stuffed deep down to avoid facing those feelings head-on. I sought therapy because trauma will find its way to the surface; in my case I was spiraling emotionally, grasping at any semblance of control over my daughter’s life now that she was a young adult, her health no longer mine to manage.

Since being blindsided by her diagnosis of cystic fibrosis 20 years earlier, I’ve lived in a state of hypervigilance—on high alert for the next lung infection, medical complication, hospital admission and worse.

In my early days of therapy, we talked about my childhood. The third youngest, I watched my older brother and sister fight with our mother, whose short fuse could detonate at any moment. I navigated those years with my ears finely tuned to detect a tone of voice, a slammed door, a heavier footstep—clues that my mom’s mood had taken a turn. I learned to keep a low profile and stay off her radar. I remember hovering silently outside my parents’ bedroom late one night, having just thrown up in my bed. I needed help but was scared to wake my mom. I stood in their doorway, willing my dad to notice me first. Afraid to use my voice.

In therapy, I discovered that the hypervigilance I had assumed was born of my daughter’s illness had roots that ran deeper. My state of high alert was my mode of self-protection growing up. But here’s the thing about being on high alert: when your guard is constantly up, it’s like living behind a wall. It’s hard to connect to others from behind a wall.

I rely on written words to create order in my life. On paper, my thoughts line up obediently, no longer tumbling inside my head like clothes in a dryer.

In my early thirties, when my daughter was diagnosed, writing was how I grabbed the reins to keep us from hurtling off a cliff. I wrote heartfelt letters to raise money for CF research and crafted emails that explained the disease to her teachers. I began documenting each doctor’s appointment, lab result and breathing test in a notebook. I created lists and charted her therapies. My child needed more than a dozen prescription drugs a day to keep her alive. Writing kept me vigilant and prevented details from slipping through the cracks.

Soon after, I left my corporate advertising job to start a freelance healthcare marketing business, and I added copywriting to my creative services. My crash course in managing a chronic illness had given me an insider’s perspective on the patient experience and I recognized that there was value in what I had to say.

There is power in naming things and using words to define yourself. I had been secretly keeping that warm coal of encouragement from my creative director glowing for years, but it was only after I spoke the words out loud, I am a writer, that I stepped more fully into that identity. Still, I remained one step removed from telling my own story.

Though I write professionally, I’m not writing as myself. I am a surgeon explaining breast reconstructive techniques after mastectomy. I am a patient describing his recovery from stroke. I am a hospital president congratulating her staff for earning national recognition.

Many years ago, I was contacted by Roland M, a bestselling writer who was working on an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer about cystic fibrosis. Mine was one of several families he profiled. Roland’s daughter had also been recently diagnosed, and we became long-distance friends, keeping in touch by email.

A few years later, he wrote a novel about a young woman with cystic fibrosis. As part of his research, he stayed with my family overnight—our first in-person meeting—and came along to a pulmonology checkup. He asked if I’d be willing to share notes about my experience and I remember the thrill of the invitation—permission to tell my story.

I wrote pages and pages, the words flowing like water. When I lived it I couldn’t write about it, but now it was all pouring out. After all, this was only for research—I was simply providing background for the real writer. What I secretly wished was this: that Roland would share my writing with his agent, who would call and offer me a book deal. You have a story to tell, he would say. The world needs to hear it.

In my early forties, I responded to a call for writers and became a regular guest blogger for a website about hooping. The hula kind. Blogging for Hooping.org was a way to scratch my creative writing itch. I had been bitten by the hooping bug and in a fog of euphoria, I enrolled in Hoop Camp, a three-day gathering of hula hoopers held annually in the redwoods of Northern California. A Hoop Camp virgin, I would document my experience for the blog. I brought my sister Sue along for company and a shot of courage.

On our first day, I looked around and regretted my decision. I didn’t fit in with these younger women and men with their toned and tattooed bodies, multiple piercings and outlandish costumes. Yes, I could keep a hoop spinning, but these people were Cirque du Soleil-good—light years more advanced in their hoop-dance skills. I felt myself shrinking self-consciously.

That evening, I introduced myself to a group of women and something shifted. They recognized my name and told me they were fans of my writing—that my posts were relatable and authentic. I beamed. For the rest of Hoop Camp, I felt like I belonged. I participated in workshops by day and uploaded a new column each night. Sharing my experiences through the eyes of a journalist lent legitimacy to my presence. Writing granted me permission to try, fail, and look foolish. Nora Ephron famously stated, “Everything is copy.” Today’s embarrassing gaffe would be recast as tomorrow’s humorous story.

I am hoping to find similar inspiration from Cheryl Strayed’s workshop at Kripalu. Perhaps my experience navigating the trauma of a child’s life-threating illness could be transformed through writing into a story of hope. In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes about the power of art. In this excerpt she is speaking about music, but it applies equally to writing:

“Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope…Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time…The transformative power of art is in this sharing…It’s the sharing of art that whispers, ‘You’re not alone.’”

Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, is what first put her on my radar, but it’s Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of advice columns, that I turn to repeatedly for solace. Her voice is a whisper in my ear letting me know that even when life is brutal, I am not alone.

I’ve been obsessed with reading my entire life. Books have been my doorway to escape, enlightenment and connection to the human experience. As a little girl I read under my covers, a flashlight clutched in one hand, on high alert for footsteps on the stairs, terrified of being caught by my mother awake past my bedtime.

Reading transported me to distant places, parallel universes containing other lives I might have lived. In sixth grade, when I discovered Judy Blume, the telescope flipped and I was the one who felt seen. I’d never before read an author who spoke to me in such a real and personal way. Judy had a way of validating the awkwardness of adolescence and normalizing the things we’ve all felt and done but didn’t dare speak of out loud.

As a teenager, books allowed me to connect with my mother. An avid reader, she’d take me to our local library where we’d collect our haul for the week. She’d hand me books that she loved, further expanding my world. When I toyed with the idea of being a veterinarian, she introduced me to James Herriot’s series about his life as a country vet in England. She put a copy of The Thorn Birds in my hand during my freshman year of high school and I swooned over the epic, forbidden love story. We passed Sydney Sheldon thrillers back and forth and shared trashy novels by Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz.

Even at my lowest, when my daughter was hospitalized, books provided a lifeline. I’d lie awake in the dark on the stiff vinyl daybed, reading by flip-light as the night nurse drifted in and out of our room to check vitals and reset the beeping IV pump. I seized on memoirs, looking for proof that humans were resilient. If that writer could survive her own trauma to reflect on it today, maybe I could get through the uncertainty of these days and tell my own story in the future.

Cheryl’s workshop, The Story You Have To Tell, will be my way in—the tool I use to drill past the protective barriers I erected in my mind; the walls preventing me from writing about the most defining moments of my life. Through memoir, I want to process my experiences in order to transform them. To reframe the narrative in a way that allows me to see myself not only as the timid child and the anxious mother, but as the strong and resilient woman who found beauty amidst the pain. And just like the writers who made me feel seen, I want to be that person beaming out signals in the night. Reaching the person who lies awake in the dark, seeking solace by flashlight.

My weekend at Kripalu is six weeks away. I wonder how many people will be there? I call the venue and ask. Over 200. This is a disappointing development.

In my fantasy, our group is small, maybe 30 max. I read my work out loud and Cheryl praises it. She pulls me aside after class to tell me I have real talent. We hit it off over dinner, bonding over conversations about her late mom and my late dad. We talk about books and dogs and kids. We stay in touch. She becomes my writing mentor and recommends my new memoir to her followers, catapulting it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. She introduces me to her writer friends—modern-day Judy Blumes whose words are a balm to my soul: Liz Gilbert, Pam Houston, Glennon Doyle. They welcome me to their circle. Reese Witherspoon chooses my memoir for her book club, as does Oprah (as long as I’m fantasizing).

Cheryl’s workshop will be page one of a new chapter in my life. The spark of permission granted by my former creative director has fanned into a roaring flame. Now that the workshop is 200 people, my writing had better be damn good to stand out.

It’s now late March 2020. Cystic fibrosis is primarily a lung condition and this novel coronavirus poses a direct threat to my daughter’s life. Cheryl Strayed’s workshop has been a beacon calling to me for the better part of a year, but that no longer matters. Kripalu is a yoga center built on communal gatherings. To expose myself to large numbers of people from all over the world is to put my child at risk. According to the cancellation policy, I have a two-week window in which to cancel and get a refund. I make the decision to pull the plug. Two days later, Kripalu cancels the retreat and shuts its doors for the foreseeable future.

To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. I had psyched myself up to push beyond my fears, befriend a group of strangers, and—inspired by Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly—embrace vulnerability by exposing my insides through writing. It’s now up to me to keep that flame alive.

Today is the day I would have driven to Kripalu. These weeks of quarantine have been stressful, pushing my brain into fight-or-flight response. Still, I recognize that we are in the middle of something historic and I decide to start journaling again as a way of processing my emotions and capturing these extraordinary moments in real-time.

I pull a Moleskine notebook off my shelf but before I write, I reach for my phone and scroll to Facebook. I’m not sure what compels me to check my newsfeed at this moment. I see a post about a project called The Isolation Journals. I click to the page and read the description: A global movement cultivating community and creativity during hard times.

TIJ is a 30-day project conceived by Suleika Jaouad, a writer and memoirist who wrote her way through cancer in her twenties. For the month of April Suleika is offering a daily writing prompt, with help from a talented pool of writers, artists and musicians. The prompts can be used for journaling on our own or we may share our writing on the private Facebook page.

I begin reading people’s posts. I write an essay and upload it. Within minutes it receives a handful of likes and positive comments. Fueled, I start writing daily and interacting with others, offering feedback and support.

We begin to know each other. We remark on the safety we feel sharing intimate thoughts in this private space. Day by day, more people join. This space feels sacred. There are no trolls, political rants or snarky memes. There are raw, painful posts about grief and shame and loss. There are beautiful essays about love and life and what it feels like to blindly feel our way through the long days of quarantine. There are hilarious parodies, song lyrics and experimental poems—the talent on these pages shines brightly. We are tender with one another. We encourage and celebrate each revelation and, word by word, we build a community. I imagine Cheryl Strayed whispering encouragement in my ear. @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

By popular demand Suleika expands The Isolation Journals from 30 days to 100. My writing muscles are not only warmed up, they grow stronger each day of this project. I write about growing up with a tough mom. I post tributes to my loving dad and share what it was like to lose him to cancer. I open up about my daughter’s illness and my fear of her dying young.

As a little girl, my mother would say to me, “Will you just be quiet? Stop talking so much.” She taught me that to speak is to invite criticism and conflict.

I am no longer that child who needs permission to speak. I have learned the power of words as a tool for transformation and connection. With every prompt I am strengthening my voice and taking a sledgehammer to those interior walls. I am, in Cheryl’s words, Telling The Story I Have To Tell to a global community more than 7,000 strong.

Abby Alten Schwartz is a self-employed copywriter, designer and healthcare marketing consultant who lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she loves memoirs and nonfiction essays and has always dreamed of writing her own. It only took a global pandemic to get her started. She is currently at work on a memoir and can be found on Instagram at @abbys480

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

Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Guest Posts

The Honest Clown

February 26, 2021
balloons against sky, joe

By Shirley O’Shea

Joe the Moper walked from the entrance to his apartment building across the parking lot to a narrow space between the Dumpster and the recycling bin and lit up a cigarette. This was where he smoked when he was at home. It was cozy.

It was a foggy September morning in upstate New York.  As Joe exhaled, the smoke drifted, dispersed and became part of the cloud that had settled all around the neighborhood, which sat on top of a hill which overlooked other round, sleepy hills that Joe could barely see.

Joe liked his morning smokes because few people were about. No one passed by him, looking away. Joe was tall and skinny, with a head of thick, wiry salt and pepper hair and skin that seemed to be stained a tint of grey by his years of enjoying tobacco. In the early evenings, after work, Joe would go to the Dumpster to smoke and sometimes people passing by pretended not to notice him. Occasionally someone would give him a small smile and mutter a greeting. Joe, however, would widen his mouth into a melancholy smile and say, “Hi, how are ya,” almost invitingly, even though he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to have any kind of conversation.

The thing was, Joe looked wretched.

His clothes were hanging on him, and they seemed to have the same grey patina as his skin. His cheeks were hollow, and his chest was caving in. He wore a jacket in all weather. His eyes were slightly sunken. It wasn’t good.

He’d moved to the apartment complex after the tire outlet, at which he worked in customer service, had cut his hours, making his mortgage payments unmanageable. His wife, Mary Jean, had been philosophical about the loss. “It’s always boom or bust in this country,” she’d said with a sigh. “At least we have a roof over our heads.” She’d then rolled over and fell asleep. Their daughter, Christina, fifteen, had immediately begun to think about how she would set up and decorate her new, smaller bedroom. She was creative, and welcomed challenges.

Although Joe was a conscientious and, despite his appearance, energetic worker, helping the residents of Blacksville and its surrounding rural villages choose the most suitable and economical tires for their vehicles, he considered the job an avocation, the means to support his real work, which was entertaining and enlightening people as a clown.

Now that fall had arrived, he would have fewer clown gigs. He thought about this as he flicked an ash to the ground. He had to find a way to get as many apple and pumpkin festival gigs as possible because 

The cloud-fog was lifting, and Joe looked up at the emerging patches of cerulean. In the northern sky he saw the waning gibbous moon, white-grey and bluish where the craters and valleys were, sensual like a pregnant belly and as full of secrets.

“Hey, moon, can you line up a few gigs for me? I really need them,” Joe said plaintively. His cigarette was smoked almost down to the filter. He threw it to the ground and let it fade out.

He reached into the pocket of his blue flannel shirt and drew out another smoke. He’d been a clown for almost twenty years. The best times were during the summer agricultural festivals, which took place every weekend all over the local counties. Dairy fests, garlic fests, blueberry fests – they always wanted a clown or two to make balloon animals and tell ridiculous, innocuous jokes as they did so. And to perform a few magic tricks. Now that it was autumn he’d get called for the festivals at the waning of the year. It seemed to Joe that the revelry at the autumn festivals was all the more intense because of the shortening of the days.

Despite his reputation for being somewhat unconventional, Joe the Moper got calls regularly to perform at these country family hootenannies. There was inevitably at every festival two or three people playing a guitar or fiddle, occasionally a banjo or mandolin, and singing songs that were playful, mournful, spiked with wisdom, because it is a musician’s duty to sing or strum or bow the truth in a way that compelled the wandering, meandering folk at the fair to stop and listen carefully, if only for a few moments. Even during the Dairy Princess crowning or the awarding of the blue ribbon to Best Rooster in Fair, every soul on the fair ground hungered for an uplifting moment of truth.

Joe figured it was for the best that he would not be getting too many more calls to play the clown. He was weakening in almost every way; even his jokes with customers at the tire outlet were deflated and rueful. The tumor that had begun in his right lung had grown upward, encircling his esophagus like a snake or a choking vine, and made it almost impossible for him to swallow solid food. Mary Jean had demanded that he go to the doctor, who knew Joe smoked and had ordered a CT scan which revealed the reason for all Joe’s physical suffering. He had told Mary Jean nothing, putting her off by saying that the doctor had ordered some tests but wasn’t very concerned, that he results were not available yet and it was probably something gastroenterological.

“Well, what tests? Why are they taking so long? You look like a scarecrow.”

Joe shrugged. “You know there’s not a lot of doctors around here. Everything’s slow.” Joe couldn’t bear to tell Mary Jean that he would begin radiation treatments in a week. Until then, he would smoke as he always had, slowly, thoughtfully, considering the great gift of tobacco that the Creator had made to humanity and its almost supernatural ability to calm the agitated and arouse the lethargic.

If Joe could have smoked when he did his clown gigs, he would have. After all, he’d seen a number of photos of artists with a cigarette balanced between their lips as they worked. He thought of Jackson Pollock smoking while he drizzled paint all over one of his canvases. And Joe’s favorite was an elegant portrait of Tennessee Williams seated before a typewriter, a nimbus of cigarette smoke swirling about him like a muse. There were more addicted artists than anyone could count, Joe often thought. It was an unfortunate but necessary pathology of the creative urge. It was probably why he smoked three cigarettes after he made love to Mary Jean and she drifted off to sleep.

When Joe did his clown jobs, he wore black, head to foot, What he believed was most impressive about his clown costume was the long black tunic he wore over black trousers, and the black bowler hat he’d purchased from an antique shop. He believed the get-up made him look like a Victorian clergyman. He painted his face white, of course, but he took special care when applying his mouth paint. It was a dull carnelian, with just a hint of an upturning at the corners. The great circles about his eyes were violet, and his dramatically arched eyebrows were a ponderous black. He looked like he was someone who was almost shocked, but not quite.

He placed a rubber rat beneath his bowler, and when he introduced himself as Joe the Moper, he bowed and removed the hat and feigned mild surprise that a rodent had hidden itself in his favorite topper and wanted to launch a career of his own as a comedian.

Joe wore black because he wanted to tell the truth, like a good priest in his black robe would while sitting with an anxious seeker. Joe knew that humor came from fear, desperation, isolation. Like a seasoned clergyman or a Buddha, one faced it all with a slight smile of equanimity, and Joe vowed to himself, and his audiences, that he would do the same.

“You can stay in here and mind your own business,” Joe the Moper said to the rubber rat as he slipped it into the pocket in the side of his tunic. “Or maybe I’ll enter you in the beauty contest! You’d make a great ambassador for locally made cheese.

“Oh, you wanna be a clown, huh? Well, you didn’t pay good money to go to clown school, like I did. I am a highly educated clown, like some of our most illustrated politicians – oh, I’m sorry, folks, I meant to say illustrious politicians. Although most of them seem to be cartoon characters. Oh, there I go again! Better get to the balloons.

Joe made nothing but birds with he balloons. “Why d’ya think owls have such large eyes?” he asked the small crowds gathered around him.

“Because they hunt at night!” someone, usually a child, would call out.

“Precisely! Very good!” Joe said, and pulling out a white balloon, he fashioned into something that looked very much like an owl. He twisted the head three hundred sixty degrees and then a wind always came, caught the owl out of Joe’s slightly trembling hands and bore it away. This happened with every owl, hawk, and woodpecker balloon Joe huffed and puffed and twisted into existence. The children and most of the adults strained to capture the balloons as they soared overhead.

“You can’t get them – no one ever does,” Joe called out. “I don’t know where the magic comes from. I just tell lame jokes. And I didn’t go to clown school. At least, not in the usual sense. But I think we all go to clown school. You all think about that. The balloons are always out of reach because the wind wants them. Have a wonderful day. Wow! Look at this sunshine!” Then Joe would walk with long, gangly strides to the back of the agricultural pavilion to smoke a couple of cigarettes.

Now, this morning, watching the uncanny amorousness of the swollen gibbous moon, which had remained in the morning sky while Joe smoked four cigarettes meditatively, he felt like the moon was his wife, and he was impatient for her to give birth. He thought of Mary Jean just over fifteen years ago, and the impossibly round protrusion of her belly, all amniotic fluid and placenta and baby. Mary Jean had begged him to give up smoking the moment she had found out she was pregnant, and he’d said he’d try, but he was less than sincere. He knew he’s smoke more than ever. Between the two of them, there were barely able to make their mortgage payments. The anxiety grew in him, and some mornings, before getting up to dress and have coffee followed by cigarettes, he curled up in a ball and prayed.

Growing up, he’d listened as his mother instructed him to pray everyday, throughout the day. He and his brother, who was now an insurance sales rep in the Midwest, and their parents has attended a fire-and-brimstone church which had only served to set Joe’s nerves on fire. How could the pastor say that God is Love and be so eager to send poor, foolish human beings to hell? When Joe, still in grade school,  had asked his mother, in desperation, why this was so, she’d shake her head and tell him there was nothing to worry about. And when he’d brought up his fears with his brother, his brother had shrugged and said, “That guy is crazy. Sneak a book into church and hide it in the Bible. I do it all the time. I think Mom and Dad know, but they’ve never said anything to me. They just pretend …”

But Joe continued to listen to what the pastor said, because there was some kind of terrifying logic to it. Then he went off to college and let the bond between himself and church dissolve. But the fear lived on in his body without abatement. He studied sociology and was a competent student – some of his professors even told him he had talent – and returned to upstate New York and ended up in retail.

Because Joe still had the demons, he liked to make jokes. They purified the air around him and drew people to him. He considered finding out what it took to do stand-up, but he knew he would get so nervous before performing that he would probably die. So he decided to be a clow. No birthday parties or school character education gigs, just the local seasonal festivals when he could be outside, twisting balloons into birds.

His first gig had been a spring festival with a medieval theme. A man in green velvet played a lute while a lady with a ring of artificial flowers in her hair and a purple gown sang songs with little ribald jokes, to celebrate fertility. Morris dancers stomped on the cold earth, to awaken it. The sun had shone brilliantly on that day, and the air was almost hot.

Joe had studied books on balloon animal shapes and practiced for dozens of hours before the full-length bedroom mirror, making cats and poodles and alligators. But now that he was here, in front of a curious audience, made all the more enthusiastic by this burst of light and warmth after an upstate winter, he froze. All he could think of was birds. He’d found some shattered robins’ eggs on the ground that morning, as he had brought his boxes of uninflated balloons to the car, and the pale blue of the fragments made him pause and he exhaled forcefully enough to ruffle the feathers of a hatchling that lay on the ground, forced out by its mother, Joe thought. Then he drove to the fair.

And as Joe drove, he began to feel light-headed. When he arrived at the fair and saw the Morris dancers pounding the sodden ground, he thought of the shattered eggs, the doomed hatchling, and the fact of the perpetual changing of the seasons caused his heart to race and his breath to quicken. If only his life could be one unchanging winter or summer, without the interruptions of the seasons of emergence and withdrawal, that disoriented him and filled him with such grief at their brevity and their blatant declaration of the impermanence of things. He thought that perhaps his entire performance should be blowing air into balloons and releasing it, slowly, so that the kids would laugh at the flatulence-like sound. But then he came to himself, realized all of this was stage fright, and drove on until he reached the Blumenfeld Vernal Fest on the top of a hill that overlooked other gently curving hills transforming into verdancy under the kindly sun. Spring was, perhaps, not quite so disorienting, Joe thought, as he parked his car and began to unload his boxes of balloons.

The parking area for vendors bordered on a stretch of woodlands, and Joe heard the calls from the cardinals and robins as he lifted the boxes from the hatch of his car. Then he stopped and pulled out a cigarette. He had been so deep in thought about how this gig was going to play itself out – how he would play himself out – that he hadn’t even thought to smoke. This was passing strange. It was as if he were keeping the air in his lungs pure and strong before forcing it into the balloon toys he was about to make.

Joe took one last drag on his cigarette, crushed it on the ground and then put it in an empty coffee cup in the car.

So, now he would find out if he could do it. He stacked the three boxes of balloons – much more than he would need, but best to be prepared – and walked to the information kiosk to find out where he should set himself up. The lady at the kiosk – round, grey-haired and amiable – told him he would be near the petting zoo, which was about one hundred fifty yards west. Joe looked up at the sun to determine where west was, and followed, glancing upwards every few seconds to keep his bearings. Some fair goers looked at him and grinned, others looked with slight consternation – a clown, in springtime, should not be wearing black. And his smile should be wider, freer. Joe had the feeling these people considered him a clown with an ungenerous spirit. And what was the point of that? A clown gives himself completely, divests himself of all dignity, and even self-respect in order to entertain. Joe didn’t feel a vocation to be quite that kind of clown.

The balloons and the wind – they stole the show. The creatures Joe intended to make resisted creation – dogs, giraffes, monkeys. They all twisted themselves into birds, and the moist spring breezes lifted them away. The children jumped up and tried to grab them, but they soared out of reach and the audience let out a groan. It seemed as if the wind grabbed the balloons out of this strange clown’s hands. But Joe pretended that was exactly what he’d wanted to happen. “Well, folks, thanks for stopping by. Remember, I’m Joe the Moper. Weird and inexplicable things happen whenever I’m around.”

So it went with all of Joe’s performances. But the people didn’t come to listen to his mordant humor, his absurd imitations of celebrities, and the few magic tricks he had learned to broaden his appeal. They came to see the bird balloons. And how impossible they were to hold. People in the audience believed that Joe the Moper and the wind colluded to let the bird balloons ascend into the heavens.

Joe looked at the moon again and thought of how his daughter was growing, so awkward and lovely, and he knew the Mary Jean would give her all the love she would need. That didn’t mean Joe the Moper didn’t intend to fight this serpentine tumor with all the strength, sarcasm and something like faith that he had in him. But he knew how these things went. The radiologist wanted to shrink the tumor, get him some time.

For much of his life, Joe, with his easily rattled nerves, had felt that time could not pass quickly enough, so that night would come and in the darkness he could feel unseen and uncalled upon to be anything but what he was – a confused and congenitally frightened man. All the sardonic jokes that he threw out into the air, to his wife, the guys at the tire shop, to his bemused audiences, did nothing to protect him from his terror. And now that he finally had something to be beside himself about, he felt gentle and quiet and somewhat remorseful about his jokes. And he felt gratitude for the balloons that had all taken flight and left his audiences in awe.

That night, as Mary Jean slept fitfully beside him, Joe knew he had to tell her about the tests, the tumor, the treatment. He began to shake and feared he would have a sleepless night. Well, all right then. He remembered the angels that the pastor of his youth had described in more than one sermon. The angles in the Book of Revelation were monstrous – immense, with countless eyes and wings, wings, wings flapping and concealing and then revealing those eyes. There was no place one could hide from them, and that was why Joe wanted an angel to pay him a visit. He prayed, “God, let one of those hideous and holy angels come and look at me. I want – need – something now that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not afraid of being afraid – at least not now, not of that.”

But as Joe lay awake, no angel came. Well, perhaps it’s invisible, Joe thought. Even without the angel’s help, he would tell Mary Jean that …

While he was in a deep sleep, a great golden balloon, as round as the sun, drifted down to Joe, as he sat in a meadow overlooking the round, verdant hills in upstate New York, someplace where he’d visited as a child and had been very happy. The gold balloon had one great eye that looked on him with mercy. It extended a wing and enfolded Joe, who was now in the realm beyond speech. He was in the air, the golden air and with the balloon floated higher and higher and he could see himself far below, where a crowd had gathered, and he could see himself at the center, as his black tunic fell off and he stood denuded before the audience laughing until they cried.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and full time mother living in upstate New York. She has worked as a paralegal, elementary school teacher and small town newspaper reporter.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

Revenge Outfit

February 24, 2021
roger

By Amy Turner

“Always be dressed like you’re going to run into your ex” was a maxim a friend trotted out recently and I had an urge to fight it. But could also not help thinking about Roger. Roger was a man I dated. A stylish, bitter, brilliant man. A Goop kind of man. Which at a certain age, is appealing. Until there are too many lip balms and you want to be the vain one. The other thing he had was impeccable taste. So, when I began shopping, after we’d broken up, I’d stand in the mirror, looking at a blouse and think: would Roger like this?

It was awful. His ghost floated in the mirror behind me, squinting, the way he had during our relationship. Judging my taste, body, all of it.

Was this the height of low self esteem? Yes!  But sometimes the universe pinches with one hand and provides with the other. Because Roger had no qualms about buying the perfect thing. Whereas I was nothing but qualms, which resulted in piles of ill-fitting bargain dresses.

Until we broke up: and in a fit of rage, I spent money. I will never be superficial and unkind, I promised myself, purchasing a Marc Jacobs blouse. I wore the blouse to an editor’s fashion launch and when I was told I looked fantastic it was true.  Good silk did look fantastic. Previously, I would go to events like that, in a sad poly blend singing out in defense, I am an artist, I am not materialistic! Then I’d walk in and a wave of shame would render me mute. Which is not helpful for writers even if you do go to a lot of therapy.

That ex-boyfriend knew clothes were armor. He knew people thin slice. I remember asking him, why do you judge people externally? Saves time, he said with a laugh. I burned. What a garbage person. What an absolute cretin. But he had asked me to dinner five years earlier I was wearing a safety orange t-shirt, Levis, and combat boots.  So, unless he was turned on by highway maintenance workers, his theory needed work.

Thankfully, we broke up and my re-active era of fancy clothes waned. Sure, it felt nice. But it also felt like a bid for value.  I began looking around my world for a gentler person to put in my dressing room with me. I kicked Roger out and I decided on… my hair colorist, G. Good colorists are prime visual movers and I appreciate healthy tricks/support.  She’s a master of subtle improvements and looks like Los Angeles cool plus health. (If my hair salon doesn’t intimidate me, I’m not interested.) So, now I think would I go see G in this.  I know that if I would feel comfortable wearing it to see her, I’m keeping it.

The things I’m not keeping? The pile on the floor that says: You could wear that skirt to a luncheon, if you could find a matching sweater (What luncheon? Where is the sweater? Is Nixon president?). This dress is an Around The House Dress (Because the print is vile and it is okay to torture people in the house?). Those pants are not the right length but good for work. (Work is asexual, be a corgi! Who cares!)

It is how a lot of people shop. It is not bad, per see. But it leads to purchases that require justifying.  The way my relationship with Roger needed justifying. He is good at constructing drinks involving espresso and tequila. He is not good for going to your folks for Thanksgiving. He is good for making jokes. He is not good for revealing tender dreams. He is good for doing 60 down Beverly in a Bavarian twin turbo engine. He is not good if you want to feel safe. We had a lot of caveats in our relationship, namely I couldn’t talk about my feelings. It’s seemed all his feelings were funneled into the latest Paul Smith shirt he bought. Worn to coffee, the beach, and meetings. Until I ended things and he cursed me for longing for mediocrity/wanting to go the speed limit/feel safe.  But I could not place my heart in a shirt.  Fancy or otherwise.

Now, my clothes can be from anywhere. Zara, Target, or the vintage store on third where I got the Marant blouse that was still too expensive, but they must feel beautiful.  I would be happy to run into my ex in these outfits. Happy to have made it through mimicking his extravagance in my thirties, learning what I value. Which was not what he did.

The adage ‘women dress for women’ is more true for me now, despite being a woman who dressed to run into her ex-boyfriend for a few years. I’m not mad. It tamped out my I’m-a scrappy-art monster-who-will-never-invest-in-herself attitude.  But it’s a relief to not have him hovering in my closet.

Recently, we ran into each other on the street.  He looked me up and down, just like the phantom I’d imagined in my mirror.

When he asked me to dinner, I said no.

Which felt so good, I can’t even remember what I was wearing.

Sometimes, boundaries are the cutest.

Amy Turner lives in Los Angeles and writes in TV.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Birds

February 22, 2021
paper

By David Simmons

We ran so fast I almost lost my schizophrenia papers. I hadn’t slept in days so my shoes were soggy and the footfalls sounded like wet sacks of chili hitting the sidewalk.

Chauncey yells out behind me, “Hold up bruh, you dropped your schizophrenia papers!”

I keep running, my sneakers splattering across the block. I bend the corner at 15th and Center Street, keep going, Chauncey catching up to me.

Americans are stupid. They’re stupid because sixty-four percent of Americans think schizophrenics have split personalities. I don’t have split personalities. I barely have one personality, but then again, I don’t actually have schizophrenia.

I just have the papers for it. They give them to you when you have nowhere to go.

Sometimes you can’t go straight home from prison, especially if you don’t have a home. If you can’t provide an address, they make you check in with the Department of Behavioral Health in that big, menacing, dystopian-future building on E Street. There’s this guy who works there, Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that. The guy’s got this big, swollen belly that sits like a bowling ball beneath his bird chest. Guy wears his slacks with the front pleats over his distended stomach, stuffs the bloated thing underneath the waistline of his pants. Then he gets one of those braided belts, like the kind Salvadorian children wear to church, and he wraps it around the whole mess. The whole get up makes him look like a tall humpty dumpty.

So this guy—Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that—is the one who does your orientation. He says community college criminology degree buzz words like “reintroduction” and “reintegration ” and how “it can be difficult for one to adapt to living with others after being institutionalized.” At this point you feel like if anybody is familiar with the social etiquette that is required for living with others, it would be you, so you tune the bastard out and eye-fuck his tumescent belly.

Tayvon Lancaster, Lannister, something like that; he takes you to the psych doc because you have to see the shrink before they can discharge you. The doctor looks like broccoli. She’s tall and shapeless, like two parallel lines drawn up into a grey poof of short, curly hair. Exactly like broccoli. She makes you do serial sevens, where you gotta count backwards from one hundred by seven.

She asks you what your ideal circumstances post-release are.

She wants to know if you have a poor sense of smell.

It’s difficult to answer the last question because how do you know if you have a poor sense of smell comparatively to anybody else? You can’t smell what they smell. And I can’t think of anything to tell her in response to the other question so I’m all, “I’d really just like a decent meal and a shower by myself.”

The doctor says, “What is your history of psychiatric hospitalizations? Have you ever been certified for treatment?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“Do you hear things other people don’t hear or see things other people don’t see?”

“How could I know what other people don’t hear or don’t see? If I told you that I could you would say I was crazy for claiming to be a psychic. It’s lose-lose for me.”

The broccoli-looking doctor scribbles something down in her notepad.

“You wanna hear something that’s actually crazy?” I ask her.

She stops scribbling and looks up from the notepad.

“I totaled my first car three months after buying it with money I had saved up from working at Blockbuster and selling drugs,” I tell her. “It was a 1995 Lincoln Mark VIII. Midnight blue with the air suspension compressor. If that air ride shit ever broke, the repair bill would cost you more than the car was worth. After I crawled out of the sunroof of the vehicle, I looked up at the walls of the ditch I had crashed into. One by one, what must have been the lights in the windows of houses went on, surrounding me in yellow rectangles of light. One by one, a firetruck, an ambulance and a cop car pulled into what I soon discovered was a cul de sac in a residential neighborhood, meaning I had crashed my Lincoln into a ditch at the end of a cul de sac.”

“How did that make you feel?” the doctor asks.

“It was all very surreal. One minute I was on the highway and the next I was in a ditch or ravine or something. When the cop gets out of his car, the first he does is ask me if I like ice cream. He says to me, ‘Do you really like ice cream or something?’ He doesn’t even ask me for my license or registration. He just wants to know if I like ice cream. And I’m all like, ‘What does that even mean? Doesn’t everybody like ice cream?’ So then he’s like, ‘I just figured you really liked ice cream, you know, on account of your car and all.’ And I’m eighteen years old and disoriented from the crash and confused because this cop is asking me if I like ice cream. Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know why he would do that,” the doctor says. “Why do you think he would do that?”

“Well that’s just it, “ I say, raising my voice a little, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t know why he would do that. And what was it about the car I was driving that insinuated I liked ice cream? Was it the color?”

“Let’s move on. Do you feel that—”

I cut the doctor off. “Was it because I crashed the car into a ditch? I was barely an adult. I had just learned how to drive. And how does that relate to ice cream? It’s all I think about.”

“That was a very long time ago.”

“Time doesn’t change anything,” I tell her, sinking my body into the couch and crossing my arms. “Everything is inevitable. One day your parents picked you up, put you down, and never picked you up again.”

The doctor is writing something down on her yellow legal pad. I can see that she’s got a list of words in a vertical column going down the left side of the page. I can’t read the words but it looks like she’s putting some kind of symbols or marks to the right of the words. I decide to stop talking.

“If you see things people don’t see,” the broccoli doctor says, “are they in the periphery of your vision or in the center?”

I move my eyes from side to side and the top of my skull is electrified by a serotonin brain zap.

The doctor continues to vomit stock questions at me. “Do you see these things in daylight? Or only in the shadows?”

I tell her that everything I see is in the shadows and how the first time I smoked PCP with Chauncey I watched him cough up a piece of flesh. It was a slug-shaped thing, something pink and made of meat. She asks me if I’m thinking about hurting myself or others. I tell her how I picked up the slimy thing that Chauncey coughed up onto the street and put it in the fifth pocket of my jeans and saved it, in case it turned out he needed it. She asks me if I need any medication. I tell her how the skin of my hands are just gloves for my true hands. She writes me out prescriptions for Serequel, Risperdal, Lexapro, Zyprexa and some green papers with information about me that translates into a billable diagnosis or two for her.

And that’s how we ended up where we are now; Chauncey and I, running down Shattuck Avenue because we just robbed the Cheeseboard Collective; my schizophrenia papers flying out of the front pocket of my soggy hooded sweatshirt.

Schizophrenia papers. They give them to you with your medications. That way, if you get stopped somewhere by the police they don’t have as many questions for you. The papers explain it all. The papers are green and folded in half, then folded in half once more. The police still ask you plenty of questions, but not quite as many as they would if you were sans schizophrenia papers.

When the papers fly out of the front pocket of my hoody, they unfold, flapping in the wind like the wings of chartreuse birds. I spread my own wings and manifest thusly; spreading my blackened feathers across the sky as I take flight and disappear into the sinking California sun.

David Simmons paper

A portrait of the writer at work.

David Simmons spent his childhood within the juvenile justice system in various institutions and holding facilities. His work has been praised by D. Harlan Wilson, Brian Evenson and Snoop Dogg. He has been featured in the Washington Post, Prometheus Dreaming, 3 Moon Magazine, Across The Margin and the Washington City Paper. David lives in Baltimore with his wife and dog, where he is responsible for creating the colloquialism “Whole Time.”

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

Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen