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Guest Posts, Letting Go, Self Care

QUIETING THAT LITTLE VOICE THAT STRESSES ME OUT

August 20, 2020
stress

By Jen Butler

I’ve spent so much of my life doing things to make other people see me a certain way. I talk about my accomplishments or my wounds, depending on the conversation and the crowd and which topic I intuit will most impress. I’ve observed people, learned their likes and their humor, and then adjusted to fit in.

Perhaps this is part of being human. A desire for connection, for a tribe. A desire to be liked.

But I wondered tonight, while folding super comfy pajama pants I normally wear with mis-matched socks and an old lady sweater (but only alone, in the privacy of my own home), “What if people would have liked me anyway? If I hadn’t have tried to be a certain way. If I didn’t exhaust myself with witty banter or getting the last word. What would be different?”

Perhaps nothing would be different. Maybe the same people would be my friends and colleagues.

Or maybe, just maybe, my life would be a little different.

Maybe if I reallocated my credits of “care” toward being myself, standing up for myself, and saying what I wanted to say rather than what I thought would be most popular… Maybe I’d have smile lines instead of the crinkle in between my eyebrows from a near-perpetual furrowed brow.

I stress myself out. And I say that in the most loving way possible. I stress myself out, recognize that I’m stressing myself out, decide to worry less and relax more, then share this awareness with those close to me, all of whom are like: “Yea duh. You didn’t realize you were a bit high strung and super hard on yourself? Glad you’re learning to take it easy.”

And I’m like: OH. I’M DOING SOMETHING THEY AGREE WITH AND LIKE. I SHOULD DO MORE OF THIS.

And so, naturally, I then dive into a very dedicated and regimented plan on how to be the most relaxed person I can be.

I’ve always been irritated by the people who say, “This is just how I am. I can’t change.”

But I realize I’ve been camping out on the other end of that extreme: “I can change everything about myself until I become the exact person I want to be.”

Spoiler alert: the “exact person I want to be” is a moving target, it’s not at all a quantifiable goal, and the comparison between myself and that dream version of me results in my feeling left behind, left out, and generally like a failure.

But it’s not that I feel I’m failing my parents or friends. I feel I’m failing myself.

I feel a compulsive need to be “good” and think only good thoughts, say only good words, and take only good action. And any time something goes poorly in my life, I tell myself I wasn’t good enough and I must have manifested it with some sort of negative thinking, and I must do better.

While walking my dog today, I marveled at the white fabric peeking out from my shoes and the fact that this was the first time I’d gone in public without no-show socks. I was wearing the “wrong” socks for the shoe choice. This would have been debilitating to me in the past. (+1 point for progress, Jen!) (But -1 for poor style, which could fall under the genre of poor self-care.) (Net zero. Try better next time. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.)

I smiled at the socks, and continued the self-analysis work I’d been doing all day (and most days). I was scanning my brain for limiting beliefs and negative thoughts so I could eradicate them all with my laser beam vision, which stems from perfectionism, which stems from seeing myself negatively rather than lovingly. I was trying to stop negativity with something that is, by its very nature, negative. Trying to fix my thoughts with my thoughts.

I then had the thought pop in my head of “restriction,” and I remembered my relationship with food when I struggled with disordered eating.

I obsessively labeled foods as good and bad, shaming myself if I ate or craved a bad food, and feeling a temporary relief (combined with a bit of elitism) upon consumption of good foods. I knew there was factual evidence backing up certain foods being healthy and others being unhealthy. This was the perfect thing for me to control! I will be the healthiest eater ever!

Until I realized that food itself stressed me out, no matter the type. And consistent stress is far more harmful than occasionally eating a bowl of Life cereal.

I removed the labels of good and bad around food and instead re-learned how to trust my body and its signals.

My relationship with food and my body are both healthier than they’ve ever been. It’s not perfect. I sometimes still stress out over end-of-the-world stuff, like running out of vegetable juice, and then my boyfriend talks me back to earth. Overall, it’s much better and life feels easier.

Today, I realized I’ve been treating my thoughts and self-work the same way. I’ve found a new application for perfectionism and obsessive compulsion: monitoring and judging my thoughts and words.

It’s like a proofreader’s dream: “Your job is to tell me what’s wrong with everything I’m thinking, saying, and doing.”

I’ve rarely ended a day without a needs improvement stamped on my forehead, in the shape of a deepening brow crease. If I feel accomplished on any given day, I feel relief rather than celebration. “No negative points today, Jen. Now just do every day like today except a little bit better and then you’ll be positive and get everything you desire.”

Is anyone else stressed out reading this? I’m stressed out writing it, while also feeling so fucking free for owning how I feel and how I experience life.

Yes, I believe it is true that our thoughts and feelings and actions and words create our reality.

It is also true that we are here to have a human experience, which is imperfect in its very nature, and I personally think it’s far healthier for me to let the fuck go and allow for a natural progression of life than to try and control every word, thought, and step.

Because even if I say everything positively and in alignment with my positive new belief system, I’m still doing it from a place of fear. And stress. And furrowed brow-ness.

What’s in between “This is just how I am; I can’t change” and “I’m gonna’ change everything so I can be perfect.”?

I don’t know. I’m thinking it’ll find me. And I’m thinking it starts with removing the labels of “good” and “bad”.

Did you know I lost the extra fat on my body when I removed labels on food, even though I increased the “bad” foods and decreased the “good” ones? It’s because I stopped giving them so much power. I learned what it felt like to feel actual hunger rather than approaching diet analytically as if I was a research project.

If my brain is ever like, “OH NO YOU SHOULD GO EXERCISE OR YOU’LL GET FAT,” I will march my happy ass into the kitchen and eat a “bad” food and be like, “I refuse to exercise with that mindset or to be held captive by it. So this chocolate is code for FUCK YOU.”

And then I eat it.

And then the thoughts shut up because they don’t know what to do with their hands. And the stress immediately leaves.

And do I get fat? Nope. I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. Truly.

I’m not sure what the equivalent will be for the self-help, self-analysis stuff. Maybe it’s as simple as removing the labels and seeing what happens next. Maybe if I find myself being all like, “Oh that thought was bad, -2 points, and now you’ll attract negative things from the Universe” I can respond with something like “Gosh I sure hope my head falls off” or “Fingers crossed for food poisoning!” or “I sure like the word ‘c*nt’ even though it pisses people off.”

It’s the same approach recommended for people to escape other perfectionistic or anxiety-ridden tendencies. For instance, folks who nervously sweat can start being like, “I’m going to sweat more than I ever have today. Gallons of it. GALLONS!” And, in time? The nervous sweats stop.

Yea, seriously. It’s real.

So, while all y’all Love and Light Brigaders are telling your clients that the reason their lives are the way they are is because they need to eat clean and that their thoughts aren’t perfect enough, I’m going to be eating chocolate and exclaiming “CU*NT!” from my basement apartment while wearing a grandma sweater and mis-matched socks.

Maybe it won’t get me out of my apartment. Maybe it won’t bring me abundance. Maybe after a surprising unexplainable beheading you can be like, “I knew Jen before her head fell off.”

But, in the meantime, it’ll be a helluva lot more fun. And maybe, in the process, I’ll gain some smile lines.

Jen Butler is a comedic real-talk writer and artist in recovery from alcoholism, addiction, self-harm, disordered eating, cancer, Breast Implant Illness, and a weird period of time when she only listened to dubstep. Her passion is helping people feel less crazy and alone by openly sharing her own experience, strength, and hope. Her portfolio, books, and one video with a flamingo puppet can be found at www.jenniferannbutler.com.

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Guest Posts, motherhood, Pregnancy

Pregnancy at Forty Versus Twenty

August 18, 2020
pregnancy

by Regina Tingle

Tell people you’re pregnant and prepare for the unsolicited onslaught of advice from well-meaning folk.  “Get all the sleep you can, now!” most say.  Or, as a woman recently said to me, “These are the final days of your life as you know it.  Get ready to give up all control.” 

I managed a half smile.  Considering how many times I get up in the middle of the night to pee, I feel I’ve already begun to receive the message: this body ain’t entirely under my jurisdiction anymore. 

I mentioned how irritating people can be on the phone to my mother who had three children within five years and who would do anything for us, still. 

I sighed, suddenly feeling exhausted.  “Everyone loves to tell you their horror stories.”  She had just told me (yet again) about the debilitating pregnancy pains that so often brought her to her knees forty years ago when she was pregnant with me. 

“Oh, I know!  People say the strangest things,” she said before telling me how when she was pregnant with my sister she suffered from painful Braxton Hicks contractions.

Feeling guilty, I made a mental note vowing to be a more self-aware mother than my own.

“I just wish people could be a bit more positive,” I said while considering going into the kitchen to grab toothpicks to prop my eyes open.  I was in too much shock, too exhausted to worry about the actual practicalities of having a baby.  Loss of sleep and control felt like distant dilemmas compared to the emotional flush that colored my every thought:  ‘How am I going to do this?’  Not just raise a child but maintain my sense of self and not dissolve entirely within the role of Mother?

“The truth is, honey, once that baby comes, you won’t be able to imagine how you ever lived your life without that child.” 

Gulp, precisely what I was afraid of. 

I called my husband to vent, hoping to discredit my mother’s theory.

“How old was your mother when she had you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Well, unlike her, you’ve lived a full life of your own before a baby.”

I sniffled, considering the five countries, two marriages, many men and jobs. ‘Full’ only half-described my life.

“You know very well what it feels like to have lived without a child until now.”

“I know she didn’t mean it but it just felt so invalidating.  As though my life has been all for nothing thus far because I haven’t yet been a mother. I will be able to imagine my life without a child because I was there.  I’ve lived thirty-nine years without a baby.”

“Honey, no one knows anything about what you or we are going through because no one is going through this pregnancy, now, but us — you.”  My shoulders loosened and my eyes welled.

What my husband and I didn’t touch on was my decision to terminate a pregnancy four years ago.  This was before his time, and even though years have passed, the decision still sits on my heart-space like a heavy kettlebell.  When your current pregnancy comes with the invisible, unforgettable weight of a past pregnancy that didn’t make it to term for whatever reason, everything is both.  Joy is laden with grief, happiness clunked with sadness, excitement filled with dread.    

Having a baby at forty is a different game than having a baby at twenty: everything is anything but straightforward.  When you’re twenty, life has yet to happen.  All the loss, the divorces, the decisions, the regrets, miscarriages, abortions, cancers and surgeries most likely haven’t yet occurred.  (If you’re reading this and your in your twenties, forgive me for sounding like such a Negative Nelly.  As you know, there are joys, too.  And beauty.  Not to mention opportunities and successes, growth and learning.)  I’m simply saying that at forty, you’re playing from the other side of two decades of experience…and so are your friends. 

When I found out I was expecting, I cringed at the thought of sharing the news with our friends who can’t have children of their own.  It felt cruel, especially seeing how my pregnancy was unplanned.  After all, choice is the ultimate freedom.  And because I am blessed to live in a first-world, modern society which respects the rights of women and their bodies, I had a pregnancy and a choice — two luxuries they very well may never have. 

While it might not ring true for them, I feel I have a lot in common with those friends of mine who can’t get pregnant simply for the reason that, unlike men, forty seems to be the final mile marker in which you continue to have a choice.  At least where fertility is concerned.  Which is why the years approaching the big four-0 can be so tormenting for women who aren’t sure if they want a family, or aren’t in the position they’d like to be in to begin one. 

Regret, as it turns out, comes in many unexpected forms.  Such is the nature of adulthood that, at some point, we must all give up our personal picket fence, Barbie dream house fantasy life that never quite came to fruition.  I suspect that even those women who mapped and planned, carefully executing their life’s course must learn to accept and reconcile their actual life with their dream life, their actual self versus the version of themselves they had once imagined and yearned for at twenty. 

As someone who has tried repeatedly and (so far) consistently failed to accomplish creating the exact life I had always pined for, I’ve learned that this is where wholehearted, hands-up surrender comes in.  I am reminded of the importance of knowing how to give in and get on with things every time I wake up in the middle of the night, grateful for heaps of things, mostly in that I didn’t wet the bed. 

As I move through the strange, in-between space of the first trimester, I am are no longer what I thought I was — or even who I thought I was.  My cravings and wishes, whims and urges are foreign and strange — yet they come from the same place I’ve always known: me. 

As we become mothers, we slowly drift from the familiar geography of the only womanhood we’ve ever known.  Meanwhile, the steady beat of a distant drum pounds on an island in the distance.  There, the tribe of all the women who’ve come before us, our own grandmothers, mothers and step-mothers, await.  You turn toward the flickering fire and gaze with wonder at all those glorious females who’ve survived the same transformation you’re experiencing now, wondering what wisdom you’re yet to gain.

Perhaps, like me, you are not quite ready to be among them.  You are still looking back, floating alone on your rickety raft, longing for the dazzling life you’re leaving behind — nevermind it wasn’t perfect or the way you’d wanted.  The point was, you were free in the fact you were just you.  It’s okay — more than okay — to grieve that loss.  To feel the truth that what comes alongside birth is not without cost or sacrifice to the self. 

Unlike with my last pregnancy, life is different.  Far from ideal, things feel true and right for me and for this little one who has come knocking.  This time, I don’t want to change the course of the current.  I want to see where it goes.  So while I wish I could say I am overcome with joy or a sense of vocation and that those are the things that keep me pointed onward toward the isle of mothers, I am not that kind of woman.  Thanks to my age, I’ve had time to become okay with and forgive myself for not being exactly the kind of woman I had dreamed I’d become.  What keeps my rudder steady is the same undercurrent that has guided every decision I’ve ever made in my adult life: possibility, and a great sense of wondrous adventure, a deep curiosity of both what and who is to come, mother and baby. 

Regina Tingle is an American writer originally from Texas based in Brighton, England and the Founder of Duende Retreats. She loves okra and the smell of jet fuel, can’t remember jokes, card games or how to set the table properly but that doesn’t stop her from trying anyway. Despite her blotchy memory, Regina just finished her first memoir. Find out more at reginatingle.com or duenderetreats.com and follow her on Instagram at @regina_tingle.

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Guest Posts, Relationships, Sexuality

Wreckless Abandon

August 16, 2020

By Kevin Wood

It was the second car accident and third hospitalization that spelled the end. We’d known each other six months, had sex many times, but never spoken on the phone. Now we never would.

Last summer, I connected on a hook-up site with a guy I’ll call Daniel. On the evening we agreed to meet, I was late. I arrived to find him sitting at the end of the bar. He was in his late-thirties, a few years younger than me, cuter than his photos—a rarity. I remember thinking he looked profoundly lonely. The kind that shows up in slumped shoulders, staring into an empty glass, circling with a straw, as if to stir up a connection with the world. I walked over and we greeted awkwardly, then I sat down and ordered a drink.

Before meeting Daniel I’d decided to give dating a break. I was two years out of my last relationship. I’d thought I wanted to find another. But a few dating stints had followed, and several firsts, none going anywhere. I reasoned that, for now, just sex was less frustrating or complicated.

It was clear Daniel and I were into each other. We made small talk a while, then left. The bar was closer to my place than his, the understanding from the start that’s where we’d go. He lived with a cousin who doesn’t know he’s gay. When we got there, we each drank half a beer before we locked lips and clothes started coming off. Afterward, we talked a few minutes. Then he jumped up, seized by a furious need to leave.

Just like that, he was out the door.

Daniel came over again the next day. We went at it again, and he left just as suddenly. He was going to the Dominican Republic later that week, where he’s from, staying with his large family for a month. We agreed to meet when he got back. I wasn’t sure that would happen and wasn’t particularly concerned.

A week after he left, I got a text from an unknown number. It was Daniel, using a phone with better reception wherever he was. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he wrote. This surprised me. That he’d made the effort, the forthrightness that contrasted with quick, silent exits, that he felt that way at all. I’d thought about him too, though not as often as he claimed. The next time we messaged, he said sometime he’d like to take me to a place as beautiful as where he was. This also seemed strangely intimate.

Right after he got back, Daniel and I were in bed again. Afterward we lay in the dark. I had my hand on his leg. His body was as stiff as it had been relaxed minutes before. He seemed consumed with shame. We talked a while, stilted, incongruous to his expressiveness in tiny words. Then he abruptly wanted to leave, just as before.

“That’s cool,” I said, casual, instead of betraying the disappointment I felt. After he left I began to realize I recognized his behavior. That was me before coming out.

*

The sweet and flirty texts continued. Despite thinking I didn’t want it, I found myself starting to develop feelings for this person. The next time Daniel came over, I asked him to stay the night. “I wish I could,” he said. “But I can’t.”

“It’s complicated,” he added. I didn’t push it. We stuck with quick visits, and quicker exits.

Daniel was surrounded by family who lived local all the time, just as he said he’d been in the D.R. He mentioned his mom frequently. Aunts, uncles, other cousins. More than once he cancelled our plans last minute because he ended up with family and didn’t know how to duck out. He always apologized. Still, the back and forth grew wearisome.

We sometimes bickered as if we were an actual couple—over text, of course. Passive aggressive, snarky even. We always found a way back, neither able to maintain a petty argument on our respective ends. The intimate affection would return. It was becoming the most relationship-like non-relationship I’d ever experienced.

A couple of times, Daniel disappeared for a week. He didn’t initiate contact or respond. This upset me more than expected when it happened the first time. I wasn’t yet willing to admit how much I’d started to like him. I excused the inconsistent behavior as “complications.” Knowing that for him our relationship—if you could call it that—was illicit only contributed to my denial that he meant something to me.

It turned out, that first time, Daniel had been in the hospital for a back injury he didn’t explain. This wouldn’t be the last. He seemed to exist in constant chaos. Doctors and hospital stays—his or family; he might have to move suddenly; a car accident; a new job quit after three weeks; a torn knee ligament; a real estate scam in the D.R. And on it went.

I recognized this too, chaos that had engulfed my own life while hiding in a shrinking closet, down to repeated car accidents. Constant distraction, preoccupied with something, manifesting in how I operated in the world. But as the boomeranging continued, Daniel’s inner turmoil became my anguish. I thought about him constantly and never knew what to expect.

*

For two months, Daniel didn’t come over. We stopped contacting each other, though neither explicitly said it. For my part, I decided the whole thing was too big a struggle. I deleted his number, which of course only suggests finality, as if reversing it isn’t simple. But thoughts of him hung around, like mosquitos you just can’t seem to swat away.

Then, he surfaced again. Annoyance was almost overcome by the excitement I felt. The un-named number got its name back. “Why are you contacting me?” I said, then immediately worried this was too dismissive. “I wanna see you,” he responded. It took a while, but this time I said no. I fancied this cutting off an act of self-preservation. He honored the break, apart from a couple more texts and me finally saying no more communication.

Less than a month later, I gave in and contacted Daniel. A moment of weakness, I told myself. Friday night, jet-lagged, home alone. He replied right away. “I just can’t get you out of my mind.” Of course, I invited him over. A lot had changed since we last got together. I had moved, started a new job, he had another new job. When we saw each other, it was if no time had passed. I think we were both surprised by how strong the chemistry still felt. After the hottest sex yet, Daniel threw his leg over mine and scooted next to me—a casual affection he’d never exhibited before.

For the first time, he stayed and we talked. For hours. Next to each other, naked, my hand on his back, his on my arm. It was mostly about family. Each of us with a very Catholic mother. His father’s lost battle with alcoholism. It was then Daniel told me he was married, to a woman, with two young kids, in the process of getting divorced. I was stunned but pretended not to be, worried if I made a big deal out of him being in my bed he might never be again.

He hadn’t told his wife he’s gay—nor anyone in his family—and insisted no one knew. As we talked, his phone across the room repeatedly rang and dinged with texts. He tried to ignore it, which became difficult. “My cousin thinks I’m at the gym,” he said, tone completely flat. His eyes darted back and forth from me to the phone, unsure which way to go, body positioned between two worlds, equally powerful in that moment, each in its own way.

The inevitable side won. Conversation dropped off, as it always had. Agitated, he went and looked at the blue screen glowing in the dim light. “I have to go,” he said. Once again I affected a lax, sure that’s cool response. After he left, my mind rolled back over our interactions, now, with this new information. Some things made more sense, others led to bigger questions.

*

We had plans for Daniel to come over the following Saturday. He cancelled last minute—in the hospital, another car accident. He was clearly shaken. I had my coat on, ready to go, worried he was there alone. Then he said an aunt was with him. In other words, don’t come. We checked in after that. His pain lessened. We agreed he’d come over soon.

I never saw him again.

A few days after the accident, I got a long message from Daniel. He said it had caused him to re-evaluate who he is and what he wants. He made a vague reference to feeling lost, and a relationship to God and faith. He needed to recover his life, he said. In short, he couldn’t see me anymore. He apologized twice, which felt unnecessary, once “for all the chaos he had created.” His use of the exact word I’d been using for months to describe his life felt telling.

I sat at my desk in silence and re-read his note, work spread in front of me, suddenly unable to concentrate. With this decision to will a piece of himself away, I wondered, what would happen now?

I went out and wandered the streets a while—a gray sky fittingly somber—feeling almost breathless with sadness. At first I thought it was all about the situation of Daniel’s life, the inner battle I’d recognized, how his body would claw its way to connection, then seize with shame and flee. And the chaos he himself had called out. That familiar, relentless, brutal chaos that can engulf a life with such conflict within. Representations of how we resist living as we’re meant to, at odds with how we believe we should.

But the sadness lingered for weeks after. “Why are you so sad about his life?” a couple of friends asked.

It took me a while to recognize I was using Daniel’s situation to obscure my own. Til the end I struggled to accept I’d developed real feelings for him, beyond the bedroom. I felt foolish. Romance from a distance is essentially fantasy. And I’d told myself from the start I wasn’t looking for a relationship, knew this would never be more. But maybe that’s what made those feelings possible. Opening my heart was somehow safer than when trying for a lasting relationship. After multiple burns, I have to admit I’ve struggled with that in recent years, which I suppose contributes to why new ones don’t last.

I’ll never know the true nature of Daniel’s feelings. But what I know to be true is sad. Meeting Daniel reawakened me to how insidious homophobia can be. I haven’t been naive to the fact it still exists. But I’d forgotten what it feels like so close to the skin.

On one of our last exchanges Daniel had just bought a new car, soon battered in an accident. He sent me a picture. I said I hoped for a ride one day. “Definitely,” he said. More banter, then I signed off with, “Don’t be a stranger.” I had said this before, though never to Daniel. The lightheartedness is always overshadowed by the suspicion you will forever remain that. Maybe I already knew.

His immediate response, a single word: Never.

I hope when it comes to discovering a relationship that feels right the subtext of that word doesn’t prove true.

This essay was originally published online in Litro Magazine.

Kevin Wood is a freelance writer, writing coach, and contributing editor for the online publication Good Men Project, where he focuses on social justice and queer issues. A former teacher, he also works with college students training to be educators. Kevin holds master’s degrees from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and the School of Education at NYU. Previous work has appeared in The Washington Post, Fast Company, Litro Magazine, American Chordata, Thought Catalog, and Elephant Journal, among others. He was a finalist for Sequestrum Literary Journal’s 2019 Editor’s Reprint Award. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.

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Guest Posts, Trauma

I Remember My Dad As Brutal, But It Was Far Worse

August 14, 2020
father

CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse and/or assault.

By Caroline Leavitt

There it is, the photo I have saved to remind myself of the feelings I had tamped down. I’m at my Aunt Gertrude’s sedar table, standing for the obligatory family shot. I’m ten years old, in a starchy blue sailor dress my mother made me wear and though I am smiling, I am terrified, desperate to get away. I can’t, though, because my father is holding my elbow in a vise grip even as I lean away toward my older sister on the other side of me. She’s smiling, not coming to my rescue. My mom, who I love, is outside the frame, her face turned away.

Here are the facts: My dad is a bully who often uses a strap and literally screams so loudly that it sounds like his voice is tearing from his throat. When he talks, he belittles. He never says I love you, never hugs or kisses anyone, and the one time he takes me to a movie, he leaves me alone in the cavernously empty theater to watch the film by myself while he stays at the refreshment stand wolfing down candy. My mom endures him because she doesn’t know what else to do, my sister inexplicably loves him, and his rageful behavior is never spoken about in my house. No, that’s quarantined, a room full of secrets roped off by silence.

Family, I’m told, is everything.

Instead, I learn to bury my feelings, and in many ways, myself. I make myself small—as small as the last line on a vision chart. The one nobody can see.

I grow quieter and quieter because any sort of speaking up can get me hit. I’m not allowed to close the door to my room (and if I do, it will be yanked open and I will be yelled at or struck), but I learn to simulate privacy by getting lost in the world of books, and then writing. I do this for hours and hours because who can yell at me when I am so silent, so invisible? And in books, my writing, I’m lost in a whole other world which seemed much safer than the real one.

I grow up around my father’s rules. Don’t dress like a hippie and embarrass him. Don’t dare get up earlier than he does because I’d wake him with my noise and be punished. And, of course, the rules include what to think. I soon know that my thoughts are not respected, that any opinions have to match his. The government’s always right. Any war going on that the United States was raging is the right one. Women are lesser than men. We are to respect his mother and agree with whatever she does when we visit her every week, and if we don’t say good morning in the right way, he will give us the silent treatment for week, making us beg over and over, “What did I do?” until he would deign to tell us.

But if my thoughts are not my own, then either is my body. We are little girls, my sister and I, but my father never tells us we were darling or smart or beloved. Instead, my father keeps piles of Playboys around the house, the glossy centerfolds of women who look nothing like us, nothing like our mom or any woman we have ever seen, out in plain view and my sister and I stare at them amazed and uncomfortable. One day, my father catches me looking and snatches the magazine away. I go to sit on the couch, and turn on TV, and then my father strides over to me and takes my little hand and shoves it into his wet mouth. Horrified, I jerk my hand free and run to the bathroom, washing my hands over and over, and when I come back, he motions me to him, and he does it again, only this time he’s laughing.

And that’s when I begin to have nightmares. I sleep with the covers bunched over my head and only my nose poking out, terrified. Sometimes I call for my mother and ask her to lay beside me until I fall asleep and then gradually I can and it becomes a habit.

But my father doesn’t like that.

One night, my mother cautiously tells me, “Your father wants you to sleep beside him tonight.”

I look at her panicked. “I don’t want to,” I say. “Why do I have to?”

My mother sighes.  “Please do it. His feelings are hurt. He asked me to ask you.”

“Can I say no?”

I am five. I have no power. That night, I curl into my father’s twin bed, separated from my mom’s bed by a night table, my whole body turns away from my father, facing my mother, whose eyes are closed. All of us have pajamas on, and I’m careful not to let any part of him touch me. I move to the edge of the bed, reaching across to try and touch my mom. I whisper, “Mom,” but she doesn’t hear me. Her eyes stay shut. Mom. Mom. Mommy. In the morning, I wake as my father is getting out of bed, but he doesn’t have pajamas on now, and he is naked and hairy, and I stare at his penis, his balls, the first I have ever seen. He sees my eyes locked on his genitals and he shouts, “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What’s the matter with you?” My mother, rising, says nothing except his name, trying to calm him down. All that day I live in terror that he will ask for me to do this again, but he stays silent, and my mom and I never talk about any of it. But it roils inside of me.

Three weeks later, my mother is called in by the kindergarten teacher because we have been asked to draw paper dolls of our family and I have drawn mine all naked. My father’s penis is so large, it dwarfs him, reaching down to his ankles. His balls are like balloons. The teacher’s concerned but my mother shrugs it off. “She’s precocious and imaginative,” she tells my teacher.

When my mother comes home, she holds me and tells me about the meeting. “Maybe keep things in the family in the family,” she says gently. My sister, listening, looks appalled. “You’re disgusting,” my sister tells me. “You lie and lie and lie. You made Mom feel bad,” she says, and I feel a flash of guilt. I never think to ask my sister, does he ever make her sleep in the bed with him, too?

We grow, and I turn ten and then my sister tells me the facts of life. “It’s revolting,” she says. “No one wants to do it, except for guys.” She bangs two rocks together to show me, a violent coupling that scares me. I grow afraid when I think I’d have to do this with boys. “You just do it,” my sister says, and then she asks me if I want to touch tongues with her, if I want us to touch each other’s butts. I recoil. “Why would I want to do that?” I ask and she laughs at me. But it makes me wonder. Did something happen with my sister and my dad? Or did she escape it all? And if she had, how? What does she know that I did not?

And then I turn sixteen, and then seventeen, and while my sister, the good girl, never rebels, I begin to tentatively speak out and this time, for the first time, my mom yells at me. “Don’t be so independent!” she shouts. She doesn’t like my fresh mouth, my wildly curly hair, the way I dress in skirts so short I’m always being sent home. My dad yells in chorus with her. My sister begins to date and I listen to my mom talking to her about “playing her cards right,” getting married as soon as she can, but not letting any boy get fast with her. “Men need sex. Women don’t,” my mother says, and I listen, bewildered. Was that true?

My sister, newly gorgeous, suddenly has all this male attention, boyfriends who came to the door with flowers and smiles, Is it any wonder I look for my own male attention? That I fall in love so hard and fast with any boy who pays me attention in a kind of madness? I’m skinny and unpopular, and when a known “bad boy” boy in school asks me out, my mother tells me I can go, but we never tell my dad.

That date is magic. The boy likes me. He really likes me. He holds my hands and talks quietly and by the time we arrive back to my house and I have my first tender kiss in our doorway, I am insane with love.  But just as we are about to kiss again, my father barges out in his boxers, his fly wide open, screaming at me that I’m late, and who told me I could date? My father sends him home and then shoves me. He tells me I’m never to see that boy again, and if I do, he will keep me prisoner in the house.

Go ahead and try it, I think, feeling a flush of power. And that whole summer, I lie to my parents about having a job as a camp counselor, about going on overnights, so I can sleep with my boyfriend at an abandoned ski slope by his house, because by then I know for sure that it isn’t just boys who need sex. We are together off and on for a year, and my family never knows it.

I keep dating. My father has no idea about all the boys I sleep with. I keep score in a notebook, as if the amount proves my worth. 70 guys. Then 100. Then more. Every one I sleep with feels like I am ripping away the seam that still connects me to my family.

I go to college halfway across the country to Ann Arbor, as far away as I can get. Every week I speak to my mom on the phone, and when my father gets on, all he says is that I should work hard. “Don’t think I won’t cut you off if you don’t,” my father threatens. He shouts so loudly I have to hold the phone away from my ear. Good, I think. Cut me off. Good.

Why don’t  I ever confront anyone? Because I’m told my memories are wrong, that I must have exaggerated, “the way I always do.” I’m told this  so often, that I begin to believe it. And so I replace those memories with something else: My father loves me. In his own way. I visit home once a year, for two days at the most, and nothing important is ever said. I sleep in my old childhood room, the door locked, the covers around my head.

I am 25 when my father dies. He’s 57 years old, obese, with skyrocketing blood pressure and high cholesterol, a man whose only exercise is walking from the car to our house. I feel nothing about his death. I come back home and my sister is sobbing, my mother wailing, “I want him back.” She is so upset, I didn’t have the heart to ask her why. Later my sister tells me that she thinks she sees him watching over her, his profile in a nearby tree. “He protects me.”

“How?” I ask. She shows me the tree and I stare at it blankly.

“What was so great about him?” I ask.

“Lots,” she says. She tells me when she was in high school and she went to a party, some of the kids were dropping acid, snorting coke, and afraid, she called him to come and get her. “You did the right thing,” he told her. He would always take care of her, she says. “Shame on you for saying those bad things about our wonderful father,” she said.

My father leaves my mother nothing, no insurance money, no savings, but she has the house, and a teaching job, and friends, and without him, she blooms. But for me and my sister, he leaves a legacy. How are either of us to know what a good male partner looks like when our dad was our only model?

Doesn’t it make sense that my sister marries young, a man like our father, someone silent with a temper, a sexist who likes to cup his hands in the air like he was weighing boobs when a buxom woman walks by. I cry at her wedding, begging her to change her mind. “Don’t be silly,” she says. She has kids, one after another, the way our mother had, focusing on them for happiness. When I ask my sister why she stands for his behavior, she says, “because I have to.” When I ask her why she doesn’t shout back at him, she says, “because he can scream louder.”

I’m afraid of marrying a man like my father, like my sister’s husband, so I go for the opposite, the fast talkers who never shut up, who fill the silence so I never have to feel uncomfortable in its danger. It takes me time to realize they keep talking only about themselves, what they want, who they want me to be.  But with all those motor mouths, no one really notices how quiet I am. How quarantined.

And then, in my 40s, I meet Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who’s kind and sometimes quiet and I can’t believe he might really love me, so I test him, yelling sometimes, and instead of leaving, he comes closer, wanting to solve issues, to make things right. He actually sees me—all of me. He wants me to be happy. And that makes me want to revise my childhood, to try to think about it in a happier way, too.

I try to talk to my mother about my upbringing, my voice quiet, composed, even sympathetic to what she must have gone through. “I don’t want to talk about this because I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she says, and then her whole face changes, and she looks a thousand years old, and because I love her, I can’t hurt her, so I stop talking.

I never find out the things I’m so desperate to know, not then, and by the time I’m ready to try to ask again, my mom has dementia, and then she dies. I try to talk with my sister, but she now feels angry with me. She says I’ve stolen her life, grabbing the happy marriage, the writing career, that she was meant to have. The more I try to help her, to talk, the worse I make things. Her rage grows until she estranges herself from me. I haven’t seen her or spoken to her in two years.

So who can I find answers from? How can I put this to rest? I ask my friends, my cousins what they remember about that time, they said only that my father was oddly quiet, that they just felt he had a blah personality. When I tell them what I remember, they see my father through the lens of my reality. “Oh my God, I never knew,” they tell me. “I never imagined. If I had known, I would have done something”.

One day, just before the pandemic begins, I’m sitting with my friend Leora, and she’s asking me about my past, and I start to talk, and as I do, I see her face changing. I talk and talk and when I’m done, she is so still that I worry. “I’m not making this up,” I insist, and she shakes her head and reaches over and takes my hand. She says quietly, “Caroline, you were abused. You have to look at this trauma.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever used that word: abused.

 CLICK.

There it was, the lens of clarity as my friend reflects this truth back to me. And now it’s my turn to look. How could I not have known from the start who my father really was?

And so I go to talk to strangers, therapists who might help me decode what had happened.  When I tell my first therapist that I feel nothing about my father, that my memories are all jumbled up, he insists I am not telling the truth. “You have to feel something,” he says. Then he asks me to consider my father as a man who had had dreams and yearnings, that I consider his feelings, what he might have been going through. And that’s when I get up and leave the room, wired with rage.

And then I find a therapist I love, a woman who tells me that the brain neurons fire and rewire when we’re young, that a lot of what I’m feeling is leftover responses and if I talk about them enough, the firing will get weaker—I will be able to safely bury the past. “And,” she says. “You need to write about it. Writing about it will help you remember what was really going on underneath it all. The brain won’t know the difference.”

And so I do. Here. Now. The old feelings come back in a rage blizzard. I write about my love for a mother who took me to the movies, and was funny and bought me books, but who couldn’t stand up to her husband to protect her daughter. I write about hurt for a sister who seems to follow my mother’s past path unseeing, one choice after another. And I write out my outrage for a little girl who never got to be the adored daughter, who went through terrible things that she knew were terrible but she never once thought: this is wrong. You need to stop.

 And then I hear it again. CLICK. Like when you’re at the optometrist and you’re doing the vision test and you put your chin in the cup and stare at the chart, eyes wide, unblinking, and the doctor clicks different lenses in front of you as the random configuration of numbers and letters grow clearer and blurrier with each one. You see the first row, the second, the third—things seem clear. Then they don’t. CLICK. But the chart itself has not moved. Neither have you. And as you age, your vision changes, your clarity about your life changes, too. But the facts never change. The truth. You just may need different lenses to see it.

Now, I want to go back in time, first to my father to stand up to him and ask him why he did what he did, how dare he not treasure his little girl, how dare he not love her or want to know her? Why did he yell and abuse? Your loss, I want to tell him. You were wrong about everything, I want to say, especially me. Look at me, I want to tell him. I broke the pattern. I have a loving husband, a wonderful beauty of a son. No one yells. No one rages. No one hits or abuses emotionally or physically.

But you did. And it is your loss.

Then I want to go back to that other me, that quiet little girl in the starchy sailor dress and tell her, it’s going to be okay, honey. Because you are absolutely and completely okay. Right now. And later, too. You will be able to leave all of this behind. You will be able to be loved by someone who deserves you, whom you deserve—and you deserve happiness. You will have wonderful friends and work you love. You will continue to talk and talk and talk and write about all of this, telling the story of your family, the truth, until all that pain loses its power and all of your quarantine will be over.

You will remember. You will see.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

 

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Divorce, Guest Posts

From the Rock to the Pines

August 12, 2020
pines

By Destiny Irons

The frigid wind assaulted and fumbled me, rolling my shirt up over my pale stomach and pulling the crotch of my yoga pants down mid-thigh. I looked up at my chalked, bleeding fingertips digging into impossibly minute protrusions, and down at my toes crimping into barely perceptible fissures. My legs shivered and bounced from adrenaline. The sunny granite warmed my cheek as I flattened my torso and face against it. I took a deep breath in, letting it out slowly, repeating my mantra for the past year in my head: You’re okay. You’ve got this. Just keep moving. The bouncing slowed and stopped.

They say that divorce is like death, but from my experience, it’s really like a violent murder, with everyone trying to figure out whodunit. I’ve been playing a very old American murder ballad, “In the Pines,” over and over again, obsessing over its history, metaphor and haunting melody because the theme so strongly parallels my life over the past year.

In the song, depending on which artist covers it (pretty much everyone from Dolly Parton to Nirvana) the victim changes: the husband/father or the woman. In every version, the woman is always guilty and ashamed, even if she was the one murdered. It’s always her fault, somehow. She runs away to hide in the pines. Like the woman in the song, I had been metaphorically hiding for the past year in what can only be described as a dark, freezing pine forest. Being fully exposed on a sunlit, smooth rock, sixty feet in the air was essentially my coming out party.

In the song, the pines are interpreted in “The Haunting Power of ‘In The Pines’”  on Slate.com, as a “cold, dark wilderness” where “a person has left to be by themselves to face what they are and what they have done.” The chorus goes:

In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
I shiver when the cold winds blow

My journey through my divorce began in victimhood. A woman at a cocktail party, in a similar place, shared her story with me. She kept repeating the phrase “I had no choice,” like a chorus, and I kept murmuring back to her, “of course you didn’t,” like a refrain. Just like me, she “killed” her marriage. She felt compelled to confess to everyone who would listen, justifying herself in order to seek absolution in the court of public opinion. What I see now is that we were both ashamed, wanting to paint ourselves as victims, so we didn’t have to take responsibility for our choices. We didn’t want to kill our marriage, we told everyone who would listen. It was self-defense.

When I listen to Loretta Lynn’s “In the Pines,” it’s like an anthem of victimhood—the abused woman who still loves her man. In this song, the husband murders the wife and her spirit, betrayed and yearning, wanders the cold forest. She sings:

My love, my love
What have I done to make you treat me so? 

You’ve caused me to weep,
You’ve caused me to mourn
You caused me to lose my home.

Victims are just like ghosts—stuck between worlds. They can’t move on until they get some sort of closure. If I stayed that way, I would have eternally haunted those cold pines without resolution, never moving on or learning how to live my best life. I quickly got tired of hearing myself whine, at cocktail parties and everywhere else. It dawned on me that all along I had choices, because everyone does. I could’ve chosen to stay, but I chose to leave. It was my choice.

On the rock, I knew I had to keep going. I couldn’t hang suspended forever. I looked at my feet and calculated my next move. My right foot needed to get into a crevice 12-15 inches above my waist…I slipped, scraping my left elbow and leaving a trail of blood as I fought to hold on. Fuck! I screamed, irrationally angry at the rock. I wanted to destroy it before it destroyed me.

All of my anger at myself for playing the victim I turned right back onto my ex. I was angry and defensive. Whenever someone asked me to explain whodunit, (Gosh…What happened?!”) I would brazenly stare them down and say, “I chose to end it.” I made him the victim. A lot of people I loved turned against me, cutting me with their words, or worse, rejection. I took it. It wounded me deeply, but I didn’t show it. I bled internally. I was ashamed of myself for what I did to him. I completely isolated from anyone and everything. I didn’t need anyone.

This echoes The Louvin Brothers’ version of the song, where the husband-murder victim accuses the wife-murderer. In that one, they sing about how the husband gets hit by a train. They find his severed head in the engineer car, “behind the wheel,” but they never find his body. The wife, it’s implied, was the instrument of the husband’s gruesome death. She runs away to the pines in shame. He sings from the grave:

Little girl, little girl
What have I done that’s made you treat me so?

You caused me to weep
You caused me to mourn
You’ve caused me to leave my home

On the rock, as I slipped and started to panic, I remembered my belayer. I wasn’t alone. I had ninety pounds of fierceness below me, my tiny-yet-mighty-attorney-friend hanging onto my life by a very thin rope.

“You got this!” She yelled.

She caught me, taking up the slack and leaning back to brake. I swung over to a ledge and stood on it, looking up to where I had been, seeing the bloody marks left on the surface of the rock.

My friends and family called me out of the pines. They were my tether back to myself. I sought support from groups of people with similar experiences, therapy, yoga. Gradually, I began to arrive at an acceptance phase. The marriage had been long dead before my decision. I didn’t kill it, nor did he. All I did was call the time of death.

Like the woman in Nirvana’s cover of “In the Pines,” re-titled: “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” I had been hiding in shame, but needed love and support to get out. This is my favorite version of this song, because the singer, Kurt Cobain, has so much kindness for the woman. He’s asking her where she’s been and what she’s going to do, and answers in her own voice, full of pain. The chorus:

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me, where did you sleep last night?

In the pines, in the pines,
where the sun don’t ever shine.
I would shiver the whole night through. 

My girl, my girl where will you go?

I’m going where the cold wind blows.
I would shiver the whole night through.

Cobain is having a conversation with the woman, whom he lovingly calls “my girl.” He gently coaxes her to “tell me” the truth about where she’s been and where she’s going. None of the verses focus on the murder, only her shame and getting her to talk about it. If you watch the YouTube unplugged performance, there’s a moment of pure empathy in the song when Cobain sharply inhales and looks up, eyes open, full of hurt. Then he screams out the last mournful note.

I needed the people I loved to empathize with me, listen to me, and help me. I knew next to nothing about climbing. Even after losing those five feet and the skin on my elbow, I wouldn’t give up.

“Beta!” I shouted down to my belayer. This is how climbers ask for advice. A good belayer will never tell the climber where to put their hands or feet unless the she asks. A climber has to learn from her mistakes, or she’ll never get stronger or more experienced. That being said, no climber climbs alone.

“Look at your left knee,” she shouted. “Put your left foot in the hold where your knee is and push. Then you can reach up to that crack with your right hand.”

“Where? I don’t see it!” I yelled.

“It’s because you’re too close. Trust me!” She answered.

I trusted her. It was like magic. Somehow, my left foot found a solution that I couldn’t even see. I pushed and reached out, wedging my fingers into the fissure. From then on, I didn’t need any more beta. This new route was so much clearer than what I had been trying to do on my own.

I quickly made it to the top, thrilled and out of breath. When I got there, I yanked my pants up and my shirt down, then turned around and enjoyed the view. My belayer cheered, her voice going hoarse from whooping. No pines, just wide-open expanses bathed in orange desert sunlight as far as I could see. Smiling widely, I posed for a picture.

Destiny Irons is a digital content editor for a kick-ass, female-owned company whose entire goal is to save people money, called The Krazy Coupon Lady. She is also attending graduate school at Chapman University for an MFA in Creative Writing. Destiny lives in Southern California, where she enjoys hiking, backpacking and climbing with an amazing, strong, funny group of women who are her tribe. She has two teenagers, Jude and Ruby, and a good dog named Blackjack. Destiny chooses to be happy and grateful every single day.

On Being Human Online Workshops

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Black Lives Matter, Guest Posts, Voices for Change

DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR?

August 4, 2020
dignity

By Tianna Bartoletta

I hope you’ve never been raped.

But one in five women, and one in 71 men have.

And so odds are, you know someone who has been…even if they haven’t told you.

And if you still think you don’t know anyone who has been…allow me to introduce myself.

Anyway…

there is a moment… a moment when you know you’re about to be violated where you make a split second decision.

Well, it’s more like a rapid fire question. Do I fight? Or do I acquiesce and survive?

But fighting is risky. Fighting escalates an already out-of-control situation.

On the other hand acquiescing also comes with its own side effects.

For me, I was left beating myself up for NOT fighting. For essentially allowing myself to be violated, for giving my rapists permission to do what they wanted with my body. For sacrificing my dignity on the altar of survival.

The altar of survival…

I don’t usually sit around thinking about my own history of abuses, assaults, and violations but I watched a traffic stop of yet another black person getting pulled over and I thought for a split second, “just shut up…get home”

Yes sir.

No sir.

I’m sorry.

Thank you.

Okay.

Sandra Bland died in police custody almost five years ago. Initially pulled over for not using her blinker…

I watched the traffic stop via the Officer’s dash cam, and a bystander’s recording. And for a split second I thought again, “girl, please…just comply…can’t you see he’s looking for a reason to fuck with you?”

For a split second.

And then for some reason I had a flashback, my subconscious made the connection for me.

I heard myself saying, “thank you for not hurting me.”

Yes. I, Tianna mutha fuckin’ Tashelle thanked my rapist once upon a time, for not “hurting” me.

And all at once I understood that what we often see as “non compliance” or “resisting arrest” when watching this footage are people clinging to dignity.

Clinging to the vestiges of dignity that people who look like me have NEVER had in this country.

Black men, emasculated in front of their significant others and their children.

Black women, dragged out of their own cars simply for being irritated about being stopped at all.

These are human rights violations.

These are traumas.

They are lose-lose situations.

And one doesn’t simply get over them.

I got pulled over by a cop in college, who admonished me for not paying attention because I was “bopping along” playing my music too loud like “you people do” even though my radio had been off for my entire ride, I wasn’t speeding, and got no ticket. It was just a good day to be harassed.

I remember knowing on a cellular level that I needed to appease this Knoxville sheriff so that I could get on with my day and my life.

I remember immediately going into “yes sir, no sir” making no eye contact, both hands on the steering wheel.

I remember pulling away shaking in my skin, happy to be driving away, disgusted that I cowered to another human being that way when I had done nothing wrong.

The tragedy, when people say things like “stop resisting”, or “just do what they say,” is that a part of you dies when you knowingly and voluntarily submit to the violation of your human rights.

Your body keeps the score and it will never forget the time of death.

Like rape.

I will always know the sound of those voices, the smell of that body, the cadence of the breathing.

I will always wonder how things-how I- would have been different if I made the decision to fight for my life and my dignity,

And yet- when it comes to traffic stops and cops I choose survival.

I choose, again, to sacrifice my dignity on the altar of survival.

It’s not just a traffic stop.

It’s never just a run-in with the police, not when you look like me.

And, although our plight is fading from the news cycle, protests are getting less coverage, and hashtags less trendy this is still the daily dilemma.

Dignity?

or Survival?

And I ask you, straight up, what kind of choice is that?

Tianna Bartoletta is an American track and field athlete who specializes in the long jump and short sprinting events. She is a two-time Olympian with three gold medals. Follow her online at tiannabee.com. Tianna is also on Instagram and Twitter.

On Being Human Online Workshops

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, motherhood

Bitten

August 2, 2020
mosquito

By Audrey Beatty

I pull into the dirt and gravel parking lot of the Glastonbury Audubon Center. Stones kick up under tires and ping the sides of our car in a dusty cadence of grit. I get out, pull Bean from his backseat, driver’s side, rear-facing throne and plant him on the gravel. We are near a cement walkway. He toddles instinctively forward, drawn onward by a beckoning path. He turns and looks for Mommy. I’m never far behind.

We visit veteran birds of prey in their outdoor enclosure, all warriors grounded by vehicles. Cars. A one-eyed red-tailed hawk. A broad wing hawk with a partial wing. A blind barred owl. All seniors. Stolen from the wild after being struck by our two-legged, four-wheeled lot. Out-living even healthy relatives still free. Captivity suites them. They would have perished long ago if left on their own.

I can relate to those birds. I was no good on my own. Before I met my husband, I was a tornado of a girl, whirling in on myself and devouring all that was in my path. Dark and full of destruction and abandon; a cocktail only youth and bipolar II can mix up. One day fun and light, grasping at the fleeting beauty of hypomanic life brimming with late nights and damn-the-consequences, white-knuckled companionship. I would fly. The next would be cigarettes and vomit and regret. I’d imagine that’s like getting hit by a car. I might not have lost an eye, but I was grounded, head aching and flight an impossible dream. Yet, I had never left the ground.

The path veers right and changes from firmly packed dirt to loose woodchips. It dives down under a dense canopy of green. As my tiny companion and I enter the cathedral of trees, the air changes. It is at once dense and thick. Rain has been abundant already this summer and, under the outstretched limbs clamoring over each other with their leaves spread wide toward the sun, the air is close. A bullfrog song from a nearby pond reaches my ears. Sun spills down between leaves and gilds the forest path.

As we venture on, sweat beads in my customary places: upper lip, base of the neck, shallow cavern between breasts, underarms, hollows behind knees. The path is well-worn but uneven and my wobbly walker is uncertain. He stumbles on a rise in the earth but doesn’t fall. With a whimper, he turns his father’s big blue eyes up at me and I can see they are welled with unease. I smile and swing him up to my hip. We press on.

The path forks at the frog pond and we go right, turning toward a wide-planked wooden bridge. It smacks of an Eagle Scout project. I idly wonder what my little boy will accomplish in his life. Maybe one day he’ll be an Eagle Scout. Or maybe he’ll be a drug addict. Maybe he’ll be kind. Maybe he’ll be violent. Maybe, like his mother, his brain will sometimes betray him. Only time will tell. For now, I savor the sun-soaked moment. He’s healthy. He’s mine. And I am his.

A mosquito’s plaintive whine meets my ear and I instinctively swat it away. I plant my boy once more on the wooded path and he waddles on, feet determined but tentative. He finds his way amongst the rocks and roots insisting their way through trodden soil. He may place a hand down on the now upward sloping path, but he’s in control. He doesn’t fall. I cheer him on as I follow him up the hill. He can do this. So can I.

The mosquitos are insistent too. I didn’t remember bug spray. They hum around my head and alight on exposed flesh: upper arms, calves, ankles, face. Smack! I pull my hand away from my forearm and reveal a mangled form with a smear of my own blood. Got him.

Pardon me. Got her.

Did you know that only female mosquitos bite? She needs the protein from blood to produce eggs and procreate. Males feed on nectar. How nice for them. Did you know my husband is a vegetarian and I’m not? We had the same moral dilemma a few years back: meat comes from living animals that had to die for us to be fed. He chose to give up meat. I have grown to support and respect that choice, though I resisted at first. I, on the other hand, chose to reckon with the source. I understand where my food comes from. I pay attention to it. I honor it. It does not bother me. I crave red meat when I’m menstruating. It’s the metallic tang of iron. Blood. I guess I’m not all that different from the mosquito.

And choosing to procreate is at great cost, isn’t it? Could you imagine the female mosquito, sitting around with friends, and musing, “You know…I have a good thing going on with the gnat I met in grad school. I like my career and I’m enjoying travel. I think I might not suck blood. Laying eggs really isn’t for me. There are enough mosquitoes in the world. And it’s so risky!” I imagine her friends, bellies full of just-sucked plasma, gasping: “How can you say that?! What’s the point of living if you don’t lay eggs?!” They’ve already made the sacrifice. They’ve already seen kindred and kin swatted and squished, all in the name of furthering the mosquito population. They’ve already drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. What other choice is there?

But then I imagine another she-mosquito. She quietly reflects on her friends’ banter. She has yet to taste blood. She hasn’t found a mate. She feels a persistent tug as a clock embedded deep within her tick, tick, ticks ever onward. To suck or not to suck.

“My GOD my larvae are driving me NUTS! Please tell me it’s easier when they pupate. PLEASE.”

“I waited too long to suck blood and now my time is past. That ship has SAILED, sister.”

“I don’t know…can’t the boys pitch in with egg-care? I mean…we’re the ones biting, aren’t we?! We’re putting it ALL on the line! Why should it all be on us!?”

I imagine her considering all her options. Thinking about her limits. Whether she thinks she’s capable of biting. If she even WANTS to bite. What kind of mother would she be? Would her eggs grow to be full-grown mosquitos that will make a difference in the world? Will she leave the world a better place than she left it? Is laying eggs is even part of that equation? But she’s always dreamed of having larvae of her own…

Bean and I reach the end of a gravel stream. It opens to a clearing of long grass, sun, and abandoned cross-rails. He trundles forward and lets out a tinkling giggle in the bright light. Warmth washes over me. I step out into the field. His laugh is contagious. A smile spreads across my face and draws up into my eyes. A reciprocating giggle escapes my lips. I give chase. His pace quickens but he’s still developing sturdiness on the legs that hold him to this earth, though he looks like a cherub to me. I keep expecting him to leave the earth in flight. My heart soars with him.

I catch him, riotous laughter tumbling from us both in waves. His neck smells so pungent and sweet. Like the earth after a rain. I empathize with the mosquito; I give him a little nibble as he squirms and swats and giggles even harder still. I am full. Together, we move onward at the edge of the clearing, just outside the protective darkness of the trees.

I am different, but I am still the same. I dip into the shadow of the trees. There’s comfort and safety in darkness. I run, open-arms, into the light of the clearing. There is beauty and joy in the light. I am still a tornado whirling between both, my boy cradled in the eye.

Audrey Beatty is a writer, bookseller, and mother of two young children from Glastonbury, CT. She is a regular contributor at outandaboutmom.com and can be found most weekends slinging books at River Bend Bookshop (riverbendbookshop.com).

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cancer, Guest Posts, motherhood

Malfunctioned Muliebrity

July 31, 2020
never

By Jessica M Granger

The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past.
-Virginia Woolf

I remember feeling guilt the first time I met my daughter. I was told I could never have children and that was true until a medical procedure to treat my endometriosis while I was stationed in Texas left me pregnant by a man I had grown to hate. I decided to keep her, gave him control over my body when I decided to keep the fetus I never thought I would have and refused to give up. I was tentative when they placed my daughter in my arms. Then she opened her eyes as if she knew exactly what was going on and stared up at me with the will of a fighter. I was locked in that aged wisdom she carried in the most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen.

*

I was headed into Kroger grocery center today and saw a man, anger in his balled fists, his body swelling, his face contorted to fit the fear he was trying to instill in a woman. He stormed away from her as she stood in the middle of the street, palms up in a questioning gesture of his unprecedented eruption, and it made me think of you. I could see myself in her and turned away, huddled deeper into my winter coat, my shoulders caving in toward my center, arms hugging my chest, and I wondered if the approaching car would hit her. Then I realized it didn’t matter.

*

My stepfather is a heavy drinker. He had been drinking at Thanksgiving dinner last year when he thought it was a good platform to inject the recent political campaign into our family discussion. He was reeling from excitement that a man who refused to be politically correct would finally put women in their place. He slammed his fists into the table in a thumping sound that enhanced every syllable of his speech. “I’m sorry, but no woman could pull me from a burning building,” he told me. “Dad, I can pull you from a burning building and I am a woman.” “Well, you’re different. You’re a veteran and you save lives every day,” he shouted, spittle flying from the corner of his mouth. I explained many women are braver and strong than I am, that there are women across the globe just like me, women willing to face danger head on and overcome it. His eyes held mine for a minute when I was done. He lingered in my words as he swayed in the oak dining room chair. When he finally spoke, he said, “You win,” but I don’t feel like I’ve won anything.

*

I think part of why I chose a male heavy career is to prove everyone wrong.

*

One day, on a walk in the cold, bitter nowhere of Eastern Europe, a stranger put his hand on my shoulder, right above the stitched American flag on my Army uniform, and recited a practiced statement I asked my interpreter to translate. He said, “I won’t walk down the street behind a woman.”

*

A woman once told me I could never be a mother and a writer.

*

Without my glasses on, I must lean in close to the mirror and see the real me in clarity. The one who smiles on the outside, who checks every blemish and tells herself it’s going to  be okay, the woman who traces the lines of her aging face back to the beginning of who she once was before the plastic surgery to repair the injuries to her broken nose after a car accident with a friend.

*

It was very early in one of my pregnancies that I discovered a second line accompanying the first, like the world’s most positive equal. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband so we could share the joy we’d been hoping for and anticipating for months, which turned into years, which turned into a crimson swirl as it left my womb to mix with the water of the shower floor a few days later.

*

The Army is a lot like miscarriage.

*

There is hope at the beginning of any pregnancy. There is happiness and love. Your expectations are high and you have dreams for the future. You picture the baby and question whose eyes will grace its face. Then suddenly it’s gone and you’re left to mourn what you never had, the miscarriage process irreversible. You can’t catch the bits of blood clot and reform it into a child, push it back into your vagina as if your life had never come apart in the first place.  Neither can an Army contract.

*

My defenses have morphed into a gilded cage around me that quivers at the proximity of a man.

*

One day, out of nowhere, I decided I’d had enough. Saying “out of nowhere” seemed to appease everyone who felt uncomfortable walking through a home riddled with holes in the drywall, pretending not to listen to the berating, to the words he truly meant when he was drunk. They said maybe I deserved it, the idea alleviating the pressure within them.

*

Being a single mother was a true test of my feministic ideology.

*

My mother allowed my biological father to go free when she petitioned the court to release him from past and future child support payments as she filed for bankruptcy due to her inability to both feed us and pay her bills. The bill collectors would be calling as I entered the house after school. They’d ask for my mom, but I kept telling them she was at work. “She won’t be home until after six o’clock,” I’d say, but they kept calling. I’d unplug the phone when my mom got home. I knew she was tired, because I could see her swollen feet stretching the nylon of her stockings when she’d finally sit on the couch. She would never eat until my brother and I had finished our meals. I remember being so angry with her then, because I imagined she was suffering in some way, but she only said, “I’m free,” when I asked why she did it.

*

I struggle with my obligation to be there for my children and my obligation to leave them at a moment’s notice to be there for my patients.

*

When something goes wrong in brain surgery and they ask me to call one of the guys to fix it.

*

I was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when I went into labor with my daughter. I was walking the hospital halls, timing my contractions with my ex-husband’s watch. They were three minutes apart. I Googled contractions and read a few articles about them. I called the Nation Naval Medical Center’s maternity ward, where I was supposed to deliver. I told them about my contractions. “Should I come in?” I asked. I was so confused; I had never been in labor before. The lady asked for my pain level, “On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being no pain, with 10 being excruciating pain, how do you rate your pain?” I stopped walking and turned inward. I could feel my daughter shifting around, her small body rotating low in my pelvis. There was bile rising in my throat and I felt nauseous, but I wasn’t really in any pain. “Maybe a four ma’am,” I said. She laughed at me in a good-natured manner. “Oh sweetie,” she said, “you are definitely not in labor if your pain is a 4.”

*

I hate the person I pretended to be with you.

*

I was six years old when I discovered Santa Claus was the figment of a dream I could never keep. I’d begged my mother for a toy kitchen. My brother and I were dressed in our blue snowman pajamas and eager to get to bed so we could open presents in the morning, but we never actually fell asleep. A few minutes later, alone, my mother began assembling the kitchen for us as we listened under the covers. I was devastated that Santa wasn’t real, but I remember she wanted us to be happy. The next morning I can remember wishing she would be happy too.

*

My drill sergeant had my graduation certificate from basic training in his hands. He looked down at my name, then at me. He asked the crowd who crazy belonged to. The crowd was silent, no one wanted to claim me, and no one understood who I was. As I turned red, my mother caught on and stood proudly. “Jessica, is that you? Are you crazy? I’m crazy’s mom!” she kept repeating as she took her place at my side and accepted my accomplishment on the brittle certificate. It was a day no one would ever forget, September 12, 2001. I was seventeen-years-old. The World Trade Center back home had just been hit by two planes and the buildings collapsed, taking lives and our will to live without the lost with them.

*

I remember the day my daughter Marleigh apologized for the pain I’ve endured. I became upset with myself because she wasn’t supposed to found out. I should have been more discrete, should have lowered the pitch of my late-night sobbing to a dull roar.

*

I took a day off from work to run errands. I went to the courthouse to file for divorce and I had a yearly appointment at my OB-GYN. It was a few days before my 27th birthday. My doctor came in and grabbed my hand, my tiny one being engulfed by his much larger hand. I looked up at him, waited for him to speak. He kept my hand, but rolled a short stool over with his foot and sat in front of me. “How are you feeling?” he asked me. “I’m going through a lot, but I feel better than I have in months.” “How are things at home?” he asked. “I’m doing much better now that I asked my husband to leave,” I said. I knew something was wrong by my doctor’s posture, the way he worked to seem smaller than his 6’7” frame, but I couldn’t get my mouth to form the words to ask. I leaned in toward him, kept eye contact, and lingered in this final moment of reprieve. “We found some irregular cells on your cervix, but they’re not anything we’ve seen before,” he said.

*

The words possible cancer written on the front of my chart.

*

By the time I was sixteen years old, my family was already talking about my children. I knew that I would want them one day, but I also knew I was too young to worry about it. I consoled myself with this to cover the stigmatization of being a Hispanic American woman and a mother. In the end, it took me eight years after having Marleigh to garner the courage to have my son Cameron, because I worried what people would think of me, the breeding machine.

*

Marleigh approached me recently about a problem she was having with a boy in school who was bullying her. I told her the reason he’s messing with her is because deep down he really likes her. I ignored what I’ve lived for repeating what I’ve heard all my life.

*

I teach my children values I don’t believe in.

*

At each delivery they’d ask for my birthing plan when I never took the time to make one. The hospital staff would smile and tell me I was doing great. They’d ask if I wanted to watch my children breech with the use of mirrors. Each time my answer was a resounding no.

*

I remember the first time I felt around in the dark for you and you weren’t there. I’d had a nightmare and realized it was you.

*

From the time I was full of angst, a defiant teenager, I knew I wanted to donate my organs and save someone even while I was dying. My only condition was that my eyes be left in my body so no one ever had to witness what I had.

*

I called my mom during my cancer testing. I sat in a Sonic parking lot and mustered up the courage to finally press the number programmed on speed dial. My mom was upset that I hadn’t told her sooner, but she’s sensitive, and I went back and forth on waiting to tell her until I knew for sure. If I received a clean bill of health, I would have stressed her for no reason, but I needed her to understand the situation and why I was making certain decisions for the future. “I’m getting married,” I blurted. I was so afraid to tell her, to disappoint her again, because I had already done it so much throughout my life. She scoffed at my outburst and told me I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to explain myself. “Mom,” I started, “I want to try and have another baby before they have to remove my cervix.” Cervical cancer is a slow progressing cancer, the replicating cells destroying the organ in a lumbering manner. My team of physicians agreed to let it go untreated while I had another baby if the test results came back positive. I called Granger, my best friend at the time, to ask him if he would have a baby with me. “Of course I want to have a baby with you,” he said, “but I want to do it the right way and get married.”

*

Last October, Marleigh’s boxer Loki, passed away after eleven years together. She had lost thirty pounds in six months, the dog’s ribs standing starkly through her brown fur. She began to have seizures, her body locking up as her eyes shifted rapidly when her brain began to depreciate from the pressure of the tumor. I took her to the veterinarian, but she was too old to treat a serious ailment so the veterinarian gave me his best guess. “With her symptoms, it’s most likely a brain tumor,” he said. I went home and called my parents, asked them to help soothe Marleigh in the days after we made the decision to put Loki to sleep. My daughter was devastated to lose her lifelong companion, the dog that cuddled her in bed while I left for work in the middle of the night.

*

The moment one of your children is grieving and you have no idea how to console them because you are already grieving what you once were.

*

I once witnessed my father drag my mother from the bank she worked in all the way to our house down the street. He had one hand fisted tightly in her hair as her skin tore on the concrete of the inner city street, but he kept on going. I sat pressed to the window, but I didn’t try to help her. Her eyes bulged as she begged him to stop, but he never heard her.

*

I am a fatherless daughter.

*

When I was pregnant with Marleigh, the doctors gave me the option to abort her at thirty-two weeks due to abnormalities in her growth. No one could explain what was wrong. Her long bones were being calculated at two percent of a normal child’s, they said she would be a dwarf, but there was no history of it in my family or her father’s. She was killing me from the inside. I had lost thirty-five pounds due to a diagnosis of hyperemesis gravidarum that kept me in and out of the hospital. I was weak, I needed relief. Begged for it and felt selfish afterward. In that moment, when they all sat staring at me in pressed, white coats, with ambiguous expressions on their faces, I remember being at peace with my own death if only she would live. I just wanted it to end.

*

My eyesight is failing.

*

Before I ended that call with my mother, before the results of the biopsy came back as irregular cervical cells, non-malignant, before I knew the struggle with my cervix would follow me as I aged, I knew that what I needed in my life was a stable relationship and that stability was Granger, the person who knew and accepted me more than I accepted myself at times, the person who would never raise his voice to a woman with my past. I told my mom I was sorry I upset her, but she needed me to know she just didn’t understand. “Why don’t you wait for love?” she asked me. “I do love him and he loves me,” I said, “It’s just time I saved me from myself.”

Jessica M Granger holds a bilingual MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas El Paso. She is an Army veteran, divemaster, writer, and mother who seeks to understand life by writing about it. Her work can be found in TheNewVerse.News, SHANTIH Journal, The Molotov Cocktail Magazine, As You Were, and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She currently resides in Columbus, Ohio.

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Guest Posts, motherhood, parenting, Self Image, Self Love, Women

The Pink Wig

July 24, 2020
wig

By Tricia Stearns

I have more regrets than Amazon has distribution centers. Still, one regret I do not have: buying a pink wig for my middle daughter.  At age 10, she was the self-appointed influencer for her brat pack, as well as her sisters. If she decided it would be cool to cut up their designer jeans and make them purses, they would have stripped and handed her the scissors.

While I chauffeured them through childhoods I wish I had experienced, Daughter Two commanded the CD selection for the ride to school and taught her sisters backseat dance moves to Brittany Spear. From fashion to food to music, she navigated her world as if she was the CEO of Me, Inc.

Her zest for extra-curricular activities kept me spinning a schedule of dance lessons, theater rehearsals and private singing lessons. I couldn’t count on child support, but I could count on the sun rising and a new performance idea from Daughter Two. Kitchen clean-up doubled as a re-cap of dance class or a reprise of the opening of “Newsies.” Bedtime stories were told with a theatrical flair and always included happy endings.

She scrimped her allowance to buy the acrylic pink bob only to learn that her school dress code banned wigs. After a few rounds of letters to the school board failed to change the rules, she threw it in the Prop and Future Halloween Costume bin.

When Daughter Two decided to wear the wig on a rare outing for pancakes, it did not surprise me. The smell of bacon and maple syrup thickened the air as our waitress sugar-pied us up, and we ordered. We gave no further thought to Daughter Two’s accessory, accepting the pink wig into everyday wear. However, pink wigs were rare in our southern suburb, and breakfasters’ glances soon fell into stares.

The girls and I folded our straws into pretend people and created a story, positioning the ketchup and salt and peppershakers as props. My voice rose trying to drown out the chatter from a four-top of older ladies going to a Baptist bake sale, or maybe on their way to bingo.

“I never.”

“…should know better”

“Bless her heart. ”

Daughter Two’s mouth pursed. She wiggled in her seat. She twiddled her straw.

She stared right back at them. She re-arranged her fork and knife on the menu.

“Why in the world…”

We started a new play; our straw characters already tired. Daughter Two surveyed the restaurant, meeting the looks of a family of four wearing matching soccer jerseys and the chatty ladies closest to us.

She slapped her napkin down and plowed by our waitress carrying a load of pancakes.

She’d be back, we assured the waitress who volunteered to keep her plate warm. We slathered on butter and syrup, and wondered about Daughter Two camping out in the toilet. Perhaps, there was a line.  Daughter Two’s chair sat empty. The glob of butter now melted over her pancakes, cold.

We found no line in the bathroom, just a weary traveler, adjusting her snowman sweatshirt, preparing to wash her hands. Outside a stall, I tried to coax Daughter Two with bathroom humor. The lady nodded toward the last toilet.

The girls and I shifted, peaking through the cracks. Daughter Two perched on the edge of the toilet, her blonde hair flattened, her small hands wringing the wig.

With eyes red and big tears raining, she declared she would never eat a pancake ever again, and to leave her alone. Forever.

“No pancakes for the rest of your life?”

“Can I have what you ordered?” asked Daughter Three.

“Hush.”

“Can I have your bacon?” asked Daughter One.

Elevator music looped, toilets flushed.  Women moved in and out, offering looks and opinions. “Yes, thank you.” “NO, thank you.” “Bless YOUR heart.”

My youngest squatted down in the corner of the bathroom, looking up and under the door begging Daughter Two to come out.

My mom genes kicked in. There was more at stake than a little restaurant embarrassment. I had to get it right.  I felt the weight of the moment: The rock of my daughter’s soul was tumbling down a dark hole and she might never be the same.

I needed time, to figure out how to pull the knife of doubt out of her heart, to stop the bleeding and convince her she could love the identity she created; at the bare minimum to re-enforce her natural strengths and beg her not to question her ability to pull off a fashion statement. She needed assurance it was okay to trust her truest self.  If she couldn’t trust herself then I had failed as a mother, as a fellow female.

No longer was I standing in the bathroom of an interstate pancake house. No longer were we just using a coupon for pancakes before it expired. I was kneeling in a forest next to a hole freshly dug by a beautiful human, my child. She had sunk into a deep space carrying her childhood comforts: cookies, nuts, a blanket. She smoothed out the tattered edges of her childhood lovey questioning her place in the world.

I looked through the crack of the door. Her puffy eyes met mine. And in that moment, she knew I knew that place, too. She made room for me under her blanket.

I wanted to tell her, it gets easier, but judgment is timeless. Judgment is a relentless foe. We all stood in silence. Swoosh, another toilet.

I knew when I gave birth to a bevy of girls what I wanted for them. I also knew it would be difficult to teach. I was still trying to figure it all out: How to be myself in a world ready to tell me who I ought to be.

The real battle, the battle for one female to get it right, was right before me.

“You know, I don’t know a lot, but I do know if you wear a pink wig, you will get stares,” I said, with a calm assuredness. I held her gaze through the crack of the door, leaning on the door.

“ You got to be ready for it. If you wear it, you can’t care.” I paused, not knowing what I was going to say next, praying for the right words to come out of my mouth.

 

“Wear it. Don’t wear it. You decide. But if you do wear it, wear it with guts.

But be ready. You do not need permission to be yourself.”

Stillness. We sat in stillness. No one walked in or out for a moment.  Daughter One sat down and grabbed Daughter Three’s hand. Moments passed into a future memory that I hoped would become a point of reference for my girls.

Daughter Two straightened and smooth out the pink wig and opened the bath room door. We walked out and into the world, feeling altogether different. Altogether better, all together.

Tricia Stearns has been published in Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bloom, Loose Change literary magazine, and wrote a weekly column for five years for  the Fayette Daily News. In this column, Tricia dcumented how she started a farmers market and built the largest community garden in the Atlanta metroplex. She is currently working on a personal narrative essay collection. Tricia can be found on twitter as @tstearns2014 and on instagram as @triciastearns.

On Being Human Online Workshops

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Other upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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Guest Posts

Elizabeth Gilbert, Jen Pastiloff & Krista Vernoff This Sunday For A Virtual On Being Human Workshop.

July 16, 2020

July 19, 2020 – 11am to 1pm PDT
July 26, 2020 – 11am to 1pm PDT
August 2, 2020 – 11am to 1pm PDT
Cost: $24 – $102
Purchase Tickets HERE

Jennifer Pastiloff presents three live events, bringing her acclaimed On Being Human workshop directly to you. Get ready to write, listen, move, and open your heart. Jennifer and her special guests will help you find your voice and use it!

Each workshop is a two-hour soul experience where Jennifer Pastiloff leads you through gentle body movement, inspiring writing prompts, meditation, illuminating conversation with a little bit of magic, and a lot of humor. Attend one workshop or all three to receive the tools to fearlessly create the life you want. Reserve your spot NOW!

Special Guests: Elizabeth Gilbert, Krista Vernoff, Kiese Laymon, Mandy Moore, Azure Antoinette, and Kevin McKidd

*All workshops will be ASL-interpreted.

Purchase Tickets HERE

 

This Sunday:

Join Elizabeth Gilbert, Krista Vernoff, and Jen Pastiloff as they move you through two hours of movement, writing, and listening. You need no yoga experience and will be encouraged to adjust physical prompts to your level of comfort. Bring your preferred writing tools, your sense of humor, and an open heart.

This workshop is about being brave, being human and being magic, of course. We will be fearless-ish as we go through a hybrid of Jen’s signature “On Being Human” workshop with participation and writing prompts from Elizabeth and Krista, as well as music performed by Krista.

This is a webinar so the audience will not be seen but we may call on some of you to share out loud (audio only.)

There will be ASL interpreters.

We will donate up to 1000 books

For each of the first 1000 tickets sold, a copy of either “On Being Human” or “Big Magic” will be purchased from a Black-owned independent bookstore and donated to incarcerated people, literacy programs worldwide, and women’s shelters.

Sunday, July 19th
11am to 1pm PDT
$24 – $102

This is a LIVE EVENT
It will be available for streaming for 36 hours after the initial broadcast
The next two Sundays can be purchased here.
Compassion, Guest Posts

Without Touch

July 5, 2020
touch

By Liz Prato

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, motherhood

Daughter Lost

July 2, 2020

By Katrina Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The baby was missing.

***

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

The word was a dagger.

            Died.

            Dead.

I was dead to her.

Erased.

Eliminated.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“How so?” I asked.

She couldn’t articulate.

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

But she couldn’t really say.

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

Then the rain came, and she was gone.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.

What if she doesn’t?

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were happier when I was closeted and quiet.

Was I?

***

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

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

Some call that co-dependence.

***

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

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

They have been beloved.

They are beloved.

And they are themselves now, no longer mine.

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

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

And the baby is missing.

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Activism, Guest Posts

An Open Letter to My White Would-Be Allies

June 27, 2020
black

By Charli Engelhorn

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

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

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

I am not fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s my story:

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

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

Now… your turn.

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

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

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

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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Resources for Change because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Guest Posts

Only in My Imagination?

June 22, 2020
jimmy

By Jackie Bivins

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

 This is one of mine.

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

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

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

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

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

My mother was a typical housewife of the 1950s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Friday night was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the longest trip in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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

Resources for Change because silence is not an option.

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND