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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Frostbite

August 10, 2021
cold

by Alec O’Hanson

Winter comes after me like a starving dog. I can feel its breath against my heels when the leaves turn, hear the snap of its bitter teeth in the coldness of the wind. I know that by the time the leaves fall, I will have fallen with them. There is no running from something that lives inside of you like a dormant parasite.

By August, I can already tell this winter will be far too long. The sky itself is as hollow as the space in my chest. With each drop of the temperature, I can feel warmth draining from me; a steady trickle that’s just significant enough to know it’s happening, but also just faint enough that I can’t convince myself it’s really there.

It is hard not to feel helpless against the bitter cold when it creeps upon you and tangles itself into your skin so quietly. There is no warning or noticeable first frostbite. I wake up in the middle of the week and I realize it’s far too cold to go outside without a coat to protect me against the winds, and by the end of the next week I’ve decided it’s far too cold to go outside at all.

Before the tides of September hit, I find myself submerged in carpeted walls and the low, noise-cancelling hum of a false sense of security. My mother says it’s strength and willpower that puts me here, but when I tell the new therapist that I think winter is trying to kill me, I feel nothing but fragile and weak.

“The first step towards getting better,” she said, half-hidden by the frost-bitten car window, “is wanting to do so.”

It feels almost futile to attempt therapy only when I am finding myself so cold that I can’t feel my fingers, much less my own heart. I do not want to be in this room in the same way I don’t want to be anywhere else. It’s an hour of my day and a shred of my energy that every fiber of me wants to hold onto for tasks that used to take no time or effort at all. It’s almost as if I have put myself on emergency rations. I have developed a scarcity complex towards life itself — there is only so much of myself to give when I already feel so empty.

I tell this to my therapist, and she asks if I’m still on medication, which I am. But I’ve found that all they do is stabilize, and that holding still at a low is still nonetheless a flatlining low. But it’s a compromise, and I figure that being able to settle a score with myself with my bargaining chips in scarcity is the best I can ask for. It’s just difficult to explain this to somebody who only feels the cold on the surface of their skin instead of running deep beneath it like mine.

I have memorized the answers to the quiz my therapist gives me halfway into October. They aren’t lies, because if I’m going to put energy into it, I don’t want to waste it by sabotaging myself in such a pointless way. But I find myself tired of being tired, and I don’t have the energy to try and stay positive about what is still a consistent negative because I don’t have the energy to attempt any methods of improving the state of it.

That’s a mouthful if I’ve ever heard one, and a confusing one at that, so I stick to my compromises. More than anything, I want to be understood, so I speak in tongues that don’t fully translate to the same truth.

Do I struggle to fall or stay asleep? No, but I am sleeping more than usual. It’s another hour towards spring; another minute away from the cold. Do I feel down, depressed, or hopeless? They like when I joke about exam season, so I do, instinctively. It’s a half truth, which isn’t an entire lie. More often than not I feel nothing at all, as if the coldness of winter has sunken itself into my bones and made me numb to its bite. Have I lost interest in things that I typically enjoy? I don’t remember what it feels like to laugh, but somehow I’ve managed to waste all twenty-four hours of my day without realizing it, so I must not be that bored.

I make it to exactly five of these weekly appointments before the cold finally makes itself a home within my bones and I decide that I’m too tired to keep thawing it off only for it to freeze back in place. I also decide that medication is making me far too aware of what day of the week it is, which is easy — the pharmacy stops calling after the first time and I reckon in hindsight that the medication wasn’t really meant to warm me up in the first place. When there is very little to rely on, and when I am so opposed to unsteady footholds, I have to make these kinds of compromises. I am helpless, I tell myself, against the direction of the northern winds.

I spend the next two weeks scraping the bottom of an empty barrel, shaking and vomiting but most definitely feeling something for the first time since I bothered trying to medicate myself in the first place. Cold as I am, even the lick of flames against my frostbitten skin comes as a relief rather than the searing agony it ought to be.

Sometimes, it’s so easy to get caught up in everything and forget about what’s most important. When November strikes down, I have been so caught up wallowing in the throes of nothing that I have forgotten what important even is. I am getting colder again, and it is getting easier to tell people I’m sick and that I’m sorry but I can’t make it after all.

Actions have consequences, but if you bury your head far enough in the snow you can convince yourself they don’t. People stop calling and visiting because it’s impossible to reach out to somebody who has been swallowed up in the tundra so thoroughly. The peace and quiet is nice, even if the silence leaves way too much space for misery to fill. It’s still a choice that I made, amidst a suffocating helplessness, and I know what’s best for me in the coming months. I am terrified to spread the frostbite that clings to my skin and spreads into everything I touch.

There is a snowball at the top of the hill in the middle of a windstorm. It’s probably December, but I don’t fully realize this until it isn’t December anymore. Which is fine with me. I always found December to be somewhat of a drag, though I’m frequently told that I’m the one that’s a drag.

Perhaps there is a sliver of truth to that. A small, cold, and bitter part of me hates the lights and the family dinners and the presents and the holiday. I have a reputation for being a grinch, but at least that means nobody wants to bother me.

It is only with the reprieve of New Year’s Eve that, for a fleeting moment, I feel the ice melt away. There’s very little comfort that comes with the sting of thawing. It’s as if I’m standing in the center of a hurricane, surrounded by what I’ve missed and what is inevitable. There are so many days in a year. There are so many days of waking up and getting dressed and talking to people, and I am already wind-beaten and exhausted from the thousands of days behind me of this exhausting sameness.

I write a list of resolutions out of habit and desperation, and as always there are two of them that I find myself making every year. I want to get better, and, I want to make it out alive.

I can say, at least, that I have seen the last one through every year since I made it. I don’t write it because I feel particularly like there’s a chance I won’t do so, but rather because I can at least make sure I reach one of these resolutions by the end of the year. I like to think of it as a safety net, because when you are standing in the eye of a snowstorm and seeing three hundred and sixty five or so days of broken resolutions, it’s easy to forget which direction you were heading in the first place.

As for the first, it’s hard to tell if I ever meet it, but I think that might be the point of making the resolution. It’s impossible to define “better” when you struggle to define “worse” or really anything of significance at all. Measurement of successes is futile, which is something I learned from my therapist, but that means my acknowledging this must be indicative of an improvement somewhere. I’ll take what I can get in that aspect.

Sometimes I do feel like I have gotten better, but then the winter comes after me again and pulls me back down into it. It’s hard to tell how close you have flown towards the sun when you are already drowning twenty thousand leagues back beneath the freezing sea.

I make a promise to myself every year to get better not because I feel like it’s a point I can reach, but instead because I think the resolution itself is the foothold I have in doing so in the first place. The first step towards getting better is wanting to do so.

For a moment, as I watch another year bury itself in the snow that makes itself a graveyard around me, I want to do so. It’s a stab of desperation, and it’s molten.

I know that beneath the sheet of white is something warmer, something bigger. I have made it through plenty of starving winters before, and with each one I feel the sharpness of the cold grow softer against my weathered skin.

Humans and beasts and what lies between them have all adapted to circumstances to survive. Survival, if anything, seems to be the best way of defining “better.” What doesn’t kill you inevitably must make you stronger, so if facing a dozen winters hasn’t frozen me to death yet, then maybe there’s a possibility I’ve developed a resistance to the cold.

Winter comes after me like a starving dog, but at least I know when it comes. There are only so many times a dog can bite you before you learn how to grab it by the teeth, after all.

January arrives, and this time, I brace myself against the cold.

Alec O’Hanson is a (closeted) transgender man currently finishing his last semester at New River Community College, aiming to transfer to Radford University afterwards in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in English. He has been writing in fervor for as long as he’s had access to words, and his goal is to make that everyone else’s problem, too.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Abuse, Guest Posts, healing

What I Didn’t Know

August 9, 2021
ugly

by Ruth Arnold

I didn’t know that a father wouldn’t solve all of my issues of being fatherless for my children.I didn’t know he would yell. I didn’t know he would make us feel bad. I didn’t know he wouldn’t be home a lot. I thought I could manage him and still give my children the luxury of two parents. I didn’t know that when he was yelling in the house that they were getting hurt and made to feel unsafe. I didn’t know that when I calmed him and told them he’d had a bad day that they felt I was choosing him over them. I didn’t know that they would feel better at home when he wasn’t there. I didn’t know that  things wouldn’t get better. I didn’t know that yelling was not better than silence than not speaking as in the house I grew up in.

I didn’t know that I couldn’t fix him. I didn’t know that when he was annoyed with me it wasn’t about me being annoying. I didn’t know that I couldn’t modify myself enough to make him happy. I didn’t know that if he was unhappy with me that my children would feel he was also unhappy with them. I didn’t know that spending more time with him in my life would only make things worse. I didn’t know why I felt so lonely in a house with three people. I didn’t know how to make things different without also making them worse. I didn’t know that being quiet and also talking were both problematic so I had no mode of behavior that would make it better.

I didn’t know that loving talent and intelligence were not love. I didn’t know that the first person who asked me to marry him actually gave me a choice of yes or no. I didn’t know that I was worthy of seeking. I didn’t know that staying married wouldn’t prove everyone wrong because nobody was checking. I didn’t know that if I told everyone about how good things were with my husband it wouldn’t make it true. I didn’t know that I was not the only problem. I didn’t know that he wasn’t better than me. I didn’t know that he could be kind to others and so unkind to me. I didn’t know that he could be so unavailable to his family yet so able to stay late at work and help others when they needed extra time.

I didn’t know that I should feel good in my home. I didn’t know that I wasn’t mentally ill. I didn’t know that I wasn’t ugly. I didn’t know that I wasn’t boring. I didn’t know that I was worthy. I didn’t know that I should’ve been treated with kindness. I didn’t know that when I was sick I should’ve been helped. I didn’t know that everything wasn’t my responsibility. I didn’t know that I was doing everything for everyone and being challenged for not doing better.

I didn’t know that while we were sexless he was seeking sex with others. I didn’t know he regarded me as so awful. I didn’t know that he didn’t hope for things to improve. I didn’t know that he felt lying to me was justified. I didn’t know he kept his schedule nebulous for more reasons than real conflicts. I didn’t know that he was available to others for intimacy but not for me. I didn’t know he spoke ill of me to others.

I didn’t know he would die But then he did. And then I knew.

Ruth Arnold is a widowed mother of two boys living with metastatic breast cancer. Her husband passed away almost 11 years ago but only lately has Ruth begun to share her story due to complicated grief and shame that she is working to overcome. This essay was inspired after she shared the story of her husband’s death to her two sons ages 10 and 16 who were 9 and 5 years old when he died. In spite of this darkness, Ruth is living happily and well.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Relationships

When Spicing Things Up Cools Everything Down

August 8, 2021
cinnamon

by Joelle Hann

I knew the box was coming but expected it to be small. The size of a shoebox, or maybe a jewelry case. So when I was handed a box big enough to house a couple of Queen-sized duvets, my heart stopped. I didn’t have enough space in my Brooklyn apartment for whatever was inside. It suddenly felt less like a gift and more like a headache.

“I’m getting you a present!” David had said, several weeks earlier. We’d been having long phone calls for a couple of months, him in Chicago, me in Brooklyn. We’d met on a weekly Zoom cocktail hour, organized by mutual friends, during the first weeks of shutdown, then started flirting in private texts. The phone calls followed. Illinois’ high COVID levels had prevented us from meeting in person so far. The word “relationship” was not yet on the table.

But a gift, that was significant. That was a step. Blood had rushed to my face.

“So, I’ll need your address. And also, what spices do you like?”

Spices?

“I just love this spice store I discovered and I want to buy everything. But that’s crazy, so I’m buying them for friends instead.”

My blush had subsided. “So, actually this is a present for me,” he’d said, as if reading my mind.

I had thinned out my spice cupboard earlier in the pandemic, chucking whatever was expired or unrecognizable, leftovers from some long-gone roommate, or a dinner party I’d once had. I didn’t want more clutter.

“Please! Pretty please, let me buy them. You’re going to love them.”

I loved that he wanted to give me something. I also knew that he could get lost in worlds of his own making. On the phone, he tended towards monologues rather than conversations. I could put him on speaker phone and walk into another room without him noticing. But, then again, why crush his enthusiasm?

I let him make a list. I could always use more turmeric and cardamom, I reasoned. “But no cinnamon. I’m the one person on earth who does not like cinnamon.”

Several weeks later the shipment had not arrived. That wasn’t a bad thing except that it added to my doubt. I wondered if David was someone who made grandiose gestures without following through, like proposing marriage without offering a ring.

He copped to it before I could bring it up. “I lost the list,” he offered on one of our phone calls. “It must be here somewhere under all these other piles of papers.”

I tried to reframe his fumble. David was brainy and tech obsessed. He didn’t so much fall down rabbit holes on YouTube, TikTok and Twitter as run down them. Of course he’d lost that list! His cluelessness was almost endearing. His love for gadgets and his new efforts to learn to cook produced some interesting purchases. The excess of spices was one. A self-contained grow box of salad greens was another. It had an embedded light to help sprout basil and lettuce from plastic soil pods — all on his bookshelf.

My friend Max, who, long before I’d met her, had been a popstar in Australia, was staying with me when the oversized box finally did arrive. I hauled it upstairs into my sun-streaked kitchen pausing on the landing to catch my breath.

“We have to film this!” Max exclaimed, pulling out her iPhone. She moved the table from against the wall into the full sun. “This is incredible! The light is fantastic!”

I squinted into the blazing sun, stripping the tape off the box. She brought the phone in for a close-up, then pulled away for dramatic effect. I dug toward the bottom, tossing out wads of crumpled brown paper, looking for an end to the packets inside — 20, 25, 30, 50? Seven kinds of dried chilies; countless spice jars; a boxed set of pre-sweetened hot chocolates and chai, a Chicago-themed trio of spicy garnishes, one called Chicago Deep Dish, containing shelf-stabilized cheese. A lot of cinnamon.

“My god, this guy must really like you,” Max swooped around me as I unspooled each item, reading its label out loud into the camera. “That’s gotta feel good.”

“These can’t all be for me.” I said, showing Max the labels trimmed in scarlet, embossed in gold. Who was I supposed to be, to relish all of these things?

There was no chance I would use the hot chocolate or the chai mix.  I made chai at home, brewing the ginger, cardamom, saffron and black tea on my stove. I had Dutch-processed cocoa in my cupboard already, but if I wanted hot cocoa, I’d go to my favorite coffee shop where they made it better than I ever could. What to do with seven kinds of chilies? There was no turmeric.

To my surprise, in Max’s unboxing video, I don’t look disappointed. I look like I’m enjoying myself. I posted the clip to Instagram where it got a lot of comments. “I’m jealous — and also loving this!” said one friend. “I watched this all the way through!” said another.  “Who is this admirer? How do I get one?”

I sent a copy to David. I felt queasy about all the excess; the shipping label cited $230 spent. I could not gush so the video stood in as my thank you. He seemed satisfied, admitting that he’d sent my Instagram video to the spice company. They’d wished him luck in his courtship, a word that now made me wince. If he was going to spend so much on me, why not buy AirPods, something I wanted?

I remembered years ago when a boyfriend had taken me out for my birthday at the Gramercy Tavern, an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. I’d been ambivalent about him and I think he’d known that. But I couldn’t deny that the amuse bouche romanced me, especially with the wine pairing, and the duck confit that followed, served from the left, and the creme brulee with the hard, burnt-sugar crust we had to crack before spooning out the buttery insides. I hadn’t broken up with him just then.

And who hasn’t given gifts that were more about themselves than the recipient? For my part, these included second-hand novels with strong feminist plots that I’d given to my mother when I was in college, in a desperate wish that she’d liberate herself from my controlling father. I’d made healthy meals for my sister-in-law who avoided vegetables, preferring pizza and Doritos. When I was 22, I’d given a high-school friend the wedding present of a bird cage, an unsubtle metaphor for the way I felt she was trapping herself in a loveless marriage.

I realized that the very best gifts sometimes knew the receiver better than they knew themselves. The Gramercy Tavern boyfriend had once bought me an incomparable ring. One friend regularly sent me eye-opening books that I would have otherwise passed by. Max had an instinct about the clothes I should try.

The night I received the oversized box from David, Max invited her Aussie friend Matthew and his boyfriend Scott over for dinner.

“They’re fine — they’re careful,” Max said, justifying the invitation of strangers into my home during COVID. “Matt loves to cook. He’ll cook for us. Show him the box.”

Dinner was splayed chicken rubbed with cacao and chilis dug up from the depths of the box, plus vegan pudding and wine. After, I gave the boys a tour of the rest of the spices, taking a closer look myself, now that the shock had worn off. They oohed and aahed over the varieties of chilies — mulatto, ancho, guajillo, chipotle, New Mexico, chile de arbol — the cinnamon, the hot chocolates.

“Take whatever you want!” I plied Matt and Scott with packets. I slid the cinnamon sticks into small plastic snack bags, labelling each with a black Sharpie. I made a bag for Max, too, who exclaimed, “It’s antiviral!”

Matt passed on the hot chocolates and chai mix. Like me, he didn’t want the added sugar or dehydrated milk powders. But Scott was curious. For a moment, I got caught up in his fascination with the chilies, their odd, flattened shapes that ranged from plump to skinny, matte to shiny, the evocative descriptions typed up on the pretty labels. We googled “guajillo” and “korintje,” and admired the many rolls and folds of cinnamon. I wondered what made the Ceylon cinnamon “quills” and the korintje “sticks,” and why one was a fat roll while others were slivers and shavings. It did seem like if I learned to cook with seven kinds of chilies from around the world my life might be more interesting. I might even find a compatible boyfriend in my own city.

Scott asked repeatedly if I didn’t want to keep more for myself. I wavered, drawn in by the suggestion of faraway places and cultures: Turkey, Ceylon, Madagascar, New Mexico, even Chicago. Places I wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit for a long time under pandemic travel rules. But then I remembered how I hated clutter and I swallowed my fantasies. I insisted that they take what I foisted on them. “Please, you’re doing me a favor.”

What spices were left after our dinner, I shut into the box and put under my desk, unable to either move them into my cupboard or throw them out.

I did not text David in the week that followed, and he wasn’t in touch much, either, except for a quick note about the fun of courting.

But the budding romance now seemed as artificial as that plastic box of red-leaf lettuce sprouts growing in David’s 57th floor apartment in downtown Chicago. It was cute and kind of a miracle. But it was also unlikely to produce much satisfaction before becoming a lot more work than either of us had signed up for.

Maybe we both had needed a pie-in-the sky fantasy, a sparkle of connection at a safe distance. Some light flirtation to get us through a difficult period of isolation.

Max stayed with me for several more days. After my morning walks, as I sat down to a day of work, she’d call down to ask if I wanted a coffee. Later, she’d bring me a cup, with milk she’d frothed by hand. “I made it strong. I know that’s how you like it.”

She’d walked out of her way to find organic coffee beans so that I wasn’t ingesting pesticides, and she insisted that the milk be organic. She brought the hot drink downstairs and across the living room and put it in my hands. It was a simple gesture that cost her nothing but gave me a lot. “Sometimes all you need is a good cup of tea!”

A few weeks later I gave away the rest of the spices. The hot-chocolate set went to a friend on her 50th birthday, and the remaining chilies and cinnamon went to two chef friends who’d driven up from North Carolina for haircuts and facials in Manhattan.

For myself, I ordered a half-pound each of organic turmeric, cardamom, and ginger and dispensed them into clean glass jars that I had on hand. There was still room in my cupboard for the right kind of spice.

Joelle Hann has published essays, journalism and poetry on NPR, in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Poets & Writers, McSweeney’s and in many other print and online outlets. She was a writing fellow at CUNY’s Writer’s Institute from 2015 – 2016 and a poetry fellow at NYU before that. Joelle lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can read her clips at www.joellehann.com and find her on Twitter: @joellehann

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts

On The Cusp

August 7, 2021
steve

by Joy Riggs

Elias packed everything he needed for eight weeks away at college, and Steve helped him stow it all in the trunk of my car. Everything except the bean bag chair, which they smushed into the right rear passenger seat. The trunk contained a plastic laundry basket brimming with bedding for an extra-long twin bed. A suitcase packed with spring clothes and a few sweaters. Books, new spiral notebooks, a desk lamp, classical piano music, plates and utensils for in-room dining (the cafeteria still under a pickup-only operation). A laptop. Three bottles of allergy medication. A fan, which Elias had deliberated about – how hot would it get by the end of May? He wasn’t on campus last spring, so he didn’t know.

The trees in our yard stood tall and bare, ready for new buds to emerge. The snow was gone. Elias left his winter coat on a hook inside the house.

After he hugged his brother, who was staying back with the dog, Elias buckled himself in next to the bean bag chair, and we set off on a four-hour drive, grasping the welcome chance to inject some life into what remained of his sophomore year.

Forty minutes into the trip, Steve realized he’d forgotten his sunglasses. He was usually uber-organized when it came to vacations, but we weren’t used to traveling anymore. The opportunity to plan this overnight trip had made him almost giddy.

“There are some plastic sunglasses in the driver’s side door, if you need them,” I said.

Ahead of us, the afternoon sky was a dull gray; rain seemed more inevitable than sun. I turned my head to look back at Elias. His long fingers were tapping out a rhythm on his knee.

“Have you thought of anything youve forgotten?”

He paused. “I might run out of toothpaste. I have a few travel-sized ones,” he said.

“Well, if that’s all you’ve forgotten, you’ve done well. That can be easily remedied.”

Elias was the youngest and most organized of our three children. But I never thought of him as “the baby.” He’d always seemed like an old soul, from the  he emerged at the hospital, with his shock of sandy brown hair, clear blue eyes, and laid-back demeanor. Although most people said he looked like Steve, he reminded me of me, personality-wise. Responsible, steady, high-achieving but modest. Slow to anger – in fact, had I ever really seen him angry? Not for years. He grew up being talked over by his older sister and brother; when he made the effort now to speak up, it was usually because he had something thoughtful to say.

The rest of the drive was uneventful and drizzly. That evening, we met up with Elias’s girlfriend, Nameera, and ate dinner outside in the 40-degree weather, preferring to risk frostbite over COVID. The next morning, we chose “grab-and-go” items from the hotel breakfast area and ate them in our room.

I felt like I should say something meaningful, but after sheltering together for twelve months of the pandemic, what more was there to say?

“I’m really proud of you. It’s been quite a year,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s been strange,” he said.

Tears formed in my eyes, so I changed the subject.

“How did you sleep last night?”

“I had trouble getting to sleep at first,” he said. “I’m really excited.”

At the campus center, he picked up a room key and a plastic bag stuffed with snacks, hand sanitizing wipes, and a face shield – essentials provided by the college. What had they given him at the start of freshman year – a lanyard, a water bottle? It was hard to remember now. He made two trips to carry everything from the car to his dorm room; we weren’t allowed to help him.

When he returned to say goodbye, I pulled out my phone. “Can we get a picture? And can you take it? Your arms are the longest.”

The three of us squinted into the morning sun, and he snapped a picture for posterity.

“I love you,” I said, as I hugged him.

“I love you, too.”

Steve and I walked back to the car, wiping tears from our eyes.

“It actually seems harder saying goodbye this time,” I said.

“I know, that’s what I was thinking,” Steve said. “Why is that?”

As Steve and I drove out of town, I stared at the trees. A derecho had struck Iowa in August, and the damage inflicted by the straight-line winds was still apparent. Trees with their tops shorn off, as though snipped with a giant scissors. Trees stripped of branches and bark. Trees bent in half, as though bent over in grief.

Yet, against the backdrop of trees and dormant farm fields, I also spotted life: cows in pastures, raptors soaring overhead, songbirds flitting across the highway. A gentler wind was blowing. We were on the cusp of spring.

JOy Riggs’ essays have appeared in numerous publications including Toho Journal Online, Topology Magazine, and Peacock Journal. She lives and writes in Northfield, Minnesota. Joy is the author of the nonfiction book Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The Story of a Minnesota Music Man.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, travel

The Gravity of Human Life

August 4, 2021
sour

by Alexandra Steffgen

“Take me somewhere beautiful.” I requested of Sour, my dear friend and favorite tuk-tuk driver, one September evening. I was desperate to shirk my responsibilities for the next few hours in search of a different perspective. Earlier that day I’d walked through the school doors, and braced myself in the air-conditioned teachers’ lounge. I’d stood in classrooms with boarded up windows (the school director thought views of the busy street provided too much distraction), I’d fought to raise my voice above the ricocheting whispers, and assuaged the restlessness of the second graders with a word search puzzle. After four hours, I’d set out toward my second job, onto the uneven sidewalk where bits of jungle reached through the cracks, past pop-up restaurants and tuk-tuks hung with hammocks. I’d walked into the choking, melting heat, alongside the swerving, droning traffic until I’d reached the Greek restaurant. There, I’d changed out of my sweat-stained shirt and skirt, straightened the tables, and joined the kitchen ladies in the attic for salty kor stew. I’d watched as tourists passed under our electric blue awning, served them when they came in. When the boss, a tall Turkish man twice my age, stopped by, I’d swallowed as he told me, “You look like a sexy secretary in those glasses.”

When I finished my shift, I fought the urge to return home, knowing my boyfriend was probably sitting in our garden, getting stoned and drinking beer. I knew that the tension between us was drawn so tight that any wrong move would cause it to snap. Life was weighing me down, and I needed to be reminded of why I had forsaken a college education, a life in the US, to be an expat in Cambodia. I needed to be relieved from having to be strong six days a week, while I worked two miserable jobs that barely paid enough for me to afford rent and a frozen margarita on my day off. I needed to forget that my relationship was precariously balanced, that the thought of breaking up and having to make a new home by myself in a foreign country as a 20-year-old made my stomach hurt. I needed to be coaxed out of the confines of my mind.

Dust lifted at the sides of the tuk-tuk as Sour swung onto a red dirt road. The concrete of the city gave way to unruly foliage, splayed out palm trees, plots of land where kids played soccer. Trenches by the sides of the road revealed lounging water buffalo. A sinewy cow passed by so closely that I had to jerk my hand back from the armrest. The road came to an end where the flooded rice paddies began, and a row of wooden huts formed a barrier between land and water. Locals sat on overturned boats and reclined in hammocks, snacking on rice and crunchy shrimp cakes. They turned to look as we pulled up, and I could imagine them thinking, “Is that a barang, a white person?” Half-naked kids raced into the flooded rice paddy, seeking relief from the sticky warmth of the day. To our left, dark clouds gathered and spit out rain on the fields below. To our right, the sun shone. Two rainbows ran down the middle.

“This ok, Sister?” Sour turned around on his bike. “Perfect, Bong.” I answered, using the respectful word in Khmer for an older friend or relative. The languid locals, the double rainbow, the greens and blues and reds around me, they provided just the right dose of awe to pluck me from my inner pains and plant me right down in the presence of the evening. Sour stuck a thin cigarette in his mouth and approached a family sitting nearby. The woman threw her head back to laugh at something he’d said, her kids prodded each other toward a stand that displayed sugary snacks. I took a deep breath, craving the sense of abandon I’d felt on many of my travels. “Should we swim?” I asked Sour. Without waiting for an answer, I kicked off my flip-flops and waded in.

The mud was slimy under my feet, so I dove under, letting my own momentum carry me through the lukewarm water until my lungs begged me to resurface. Swimming had always brought me peace. As a kid, I’d spent my summer days splashing around in lake near to my house, emerging shivering and prune-y, hair plastered to my head. Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d imagine I was plunging into a clear blue lagoon, letting the water relieve me of gravity’s pull, relieve me of the pull of human life. Sour took off his shirt and joined me. We got up the courage to plant our feet in the slippery mud, then watched the rainbows shimmer and taunt us with their ephemeral beauty. Sour took a photo of us, smiling with the joy of unplanned fun, a reminder that we were very much alive.

When I finally trudged to shore, the white and black striped skirt I’d worn to school showed no signs that it had once been white, my shirt dripped water the color of coffee with cream. I wrung out my clothes and enjoyed the breeze through their dampness on the ride back. At that point the sun had eked out its last rays, and the first stars appeared through the smog. Calm spread from my heart out toward my fingers and toes. As we rode, my clear mind began to sneak back to its darkest corners. I imagined the conversation my boyfriend and I might have that night, the look in his eyes when I told him about this outing. Suddenly, an image appeared, as if it had been dropped into my head. I was swimming in a river with my boyfriend, looking up at looming mountain peaks, letting the current sweep us along. Maybe it will all be ok.

That night, seated at our picnic table in the garden, watching the geckos shimmy up the doorframe, I told my boyfriend about the vision. “Usually when I see things like this it’s showing me the future. We will be together somewhere like that, I believe it. And I hope for it.” He scoffed and looked over my shoulder. “So we’re supposed to stay together just because you dreamed it?” Lying in bed a few minutes later, in the thin stream of air coming from the AC, I imagined I was diving back into the muddy water, shedding the gravity of the day, the gravity of the conversation.

Often the biggest moments in our life are disguised. They enter, seemingly innocuous, then prove to be earth-shaking. At least that’s what I would come to believe a few months later, lying in a hospital bed with an IV leaking into my arm. The words of my doctor in the US echoed in my head. For someone with Cystic Fibrosis, staying in Cambodia is, frankly, crazy. You picked up an E. Coli sinus infection from a flooded rice paddy, and you will only come down with worse. My boyfriend and I had broken up the night after the swim, in one of those fights that seems to escalate in slow motion, then suddenly explode, sending us careening towards the end of the world, then fizzling out in stony silence. With the help of friends, I’d moved into my own apartment, where I could shut the door on my adult burdens and dance with my solitude. Those same friends offered me temporary jobs, gigs that would pay the bills and allow me to escape from the misery of teaching and being underpaid by a creepy restaurant boss. With some distance from my former pains, I sought to make the most of what I’d soon find out would be my last months in Cambodia.

Two years later, that same boyfriend and I sat on the banks of the San Miguel river, except this time as husband and wife. The memory of him showing up at my apartment and falling into my arms, the memory of his promise to stick with me through my sickness, of his decision to sell his business, of the discussion on the plane flight back to the Western world with all our belongings in tow—they were all faded now. We had long since shed the gravity of my infection and the infusions in the local clinic, the flights to a hospital in Bangkok, the slow deterioration of my body, for a lighter reality. Outside the courthouse in the small ski town where we made our next home, we had promised to love each other forever. Then we’d sought out a private spot on the river, a place to sit and read our vows. Our silence now meant that we were both thinking of Cambodia, aching for it. We watched the swift current swirl around silvery trout. Rust-colored hillsides, dancing aspens, and craggy mountain peaks blurred on the surface of the water. And all the reds and greens, the blues and silvers, provided just the right dose of awe to pluck me from my inner pains and plant me right down in the presence of the afternoon.

Zanny Steffgen is a young woman who uses writing to explore her transition from life in the US to expat life in Cambodia, then the jarring return to the Western world. Her travel essays have been published on The Mindful Word and Verge Magazine, among other publications.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, memories, Trauma

My Body Remembers What I Don’t

August 3, 2021
mother

by Meredith Resnick

I am six. I am standing on the cement pool deck behind our brick apartment building in Yonkers. A sticky day in August. My body is wet. The pool is blue. The sky is gray. It is a weekday. All the mothers are lined up on woven beach chairs in a row that spans the chain link fence. All the mothers except my mother. There is a break between her and the other mothers. No chairs, no towels, just gray cement.

I stand in front of her in a pink bathing suit. My ribs stick out like a xylophone. I cradle my fingers between my ribs. She tells me to stop. You look insecure, she says, and lights a cigarette. I don’t know what insecure means but I stop. I shiver. She has called me out of the pool to put on a t-shirt to wear in the water because you can get a sunburn on overcast days. This is before we know that t-shirts in the water can make a sunburn worse. This is before we know a lot of things. Before I know a lot of things.

My mother hides behind large sunglasses. She wears a black and white bathing suit. She smokes. She pulls a towel over her squishy thighs. She hates her cellulite. She hates her body. She flicks ashes into a Fresca can and slides the lipstick-marked butt after it. I hear it sizzle. She lights another. I slip the t-shirt over my wet hair, over my pink shoulders. Good, she says. I can’t tell if she is looking at me.

My feet slap the cement. I’m back at the pool. I squat on the steps in the shallow end then let my body glide through the water until my feet no longer stretch for the bottom. The water holds me. It wants to hold me. It teaches me to swim. This part is easy. I float. I touch the bottom. I buoy to the surface. I hold my breath.

One year ago I knew without knowing that I must teach myself to swim. I don’t know what that meant until years later and I am an adult. I don’t know what a lot of things mean until years later. There is a large gap in my knowledge of things that a daughter should understand.

I learn to swim by gulping air and holding my breath. I look like other children splashing in the water, trying to learn.

My mother does not look like other mothers sitting on the deck.

For a reason I don’t understand, I am afraid she will abandon me. This happens when I’m in the water, always when I’m skimming the bottom of the pool, furthest from the surface, from her. I force myself to count. To not panic. One to ten. Ten to twenty. The longer I wait the more my panic grows. I am frantic. I burst from shallow depths in my t-shirt and search for her. Scan the long line of mothers. But she is not like other mothers. She sits alone in the corner, with her cigarettes, after the gap and I forget, I always forget.

When I wave she waves back, a limp hand in my direction. She blows smoke into the summer air.

As if on cue the other mothers rise from their chaises and lower into the pool like some synchronized dance they all know. In the water, all around me, mothers with black hair and brown hair and blond hair or hair tucked beneath flower bathing caps pull their children in slow circles around their thighs, even the kids bigger than me. Through my chlorine-stung eyes, mother and child are one.

Except.

This time I look for the red hair and the orange tip of the lit cigarette. I push up the edge of the pool and run to her, then run back to the edge and scoop the water up with my hands and dumped it over my head.  I don’t know why or what I am doing. My mother blows more smoke. She laughs.  She laughs so hard I think she might cry.  She laughs so hard she tells me to stop.  I don’t stop. I wave to her. Silly excited waving.  Simmer-down excited.

“Enough already,” she says, cigarette between her teeth. I stop. I stand there. I want to hug her. I don’t hug her. She doesn’t like me to touch her. I turn and jump into the water and swim in this vast sea, warm water touching every part of me except what is beneath the t-shirt. That part feels cold. That I want to wrap my arms around her too tight, and sit too close, and touch her arm or leg is normal. This must mean there is something wrong with me or with my body where the t-shirt touches. She is the mother; there is nothing wrong with her. But I don’t know that yet. There is so much I don’t yet know.

I peel off my t-shirt. I will get another sunburn. I let the water hold all of me.

***

I am thirty-three. I am meticulous about birth control.  About preparing my diaphragm. When I use the foams, creams, and jellies, and the doughy sponges that never stay put.  I lay in bed and watch my husband don the prophylactics, the Trojans that stick like glue, wrapped in the knowledge that as two mature responsible adults who are learning to grow together, we will know when it is time, when it is right, to grow our family.

My interior universe already knows no sign, time, or alarm clock exists. I don’t long for a baby who melts into me, who captures my hair between her fingers. I long to be the type of woman who does. I don’t fantasize about a real baby I can love, or dream of pregnancy the way some women do.  I never stuck a pillow beneath my dress as a child and pretended I was pregnant.  But I do now, as an adult.

I act “as if.”

I act.

I try.

I am trying.

I wonder if there is something wrong with me.

I am seven.  My mother and I are in the den on the couch. Raindrops ping the air conditioner perched on the windowsill. It is morning. It is Christmas vacation. It is going to be a boring day.  On her side, face creased into the pillow, my mother lights a cigarette.  Her doughy legs fold into an L; the fetal position. Freckles, our miniature poodle, crawls into their right angle.

“Can we get a Christmas tree?”

“We are Jewish,” my mother says. Smoke streams into the air.

“Can we get a crèche?” It is a serious word. I understand serious words. I say I will take care of the baby Jesus all year, and that he can be a child for my Barbie doll. They will live in the crèche. My mother says Barbie doesn’t have a husband, is too young to have a baby, and that even if Joseph were the father, it wouldn’t be nice to leave Mary out and besides, the Baby Jesus doesn’t look like a Barbie would be his mother.

The girl who lives next door has a cross over the side of her bed at pillow height. In the middle of the night when she’s scared, Jesus makes her feel safe. It’s her secret with Jesus. This cross is made of wood and Jesus is nailed to it. The nails stick out of his palms, their flat tops painted red. His face is so sad. I wonder what Jesus was like as a boy. Did he like milk? Did he get scared? When I get scared I crawl into my parents’ bed. Fear and safety are how I feel close to them.

“I touch his feet every night. Want to touch them?”

“No,” I say.

“Because you’re Jewish?”

“Because he looks so sad.” Because he looks like my mother.

“He’s not sad,” she says, hands on hips.

I don’t answer. She leads me into the living room. Beneath the Christmas tree is a crèche. My friend hands me the baby. “That’s the same Jesus,” she says. “In case you didn’t know.”

“I know.” I cradle him in my palm.

I ask my mother to tell me the story of how I was born. We are on the high riser, in the den.

She lights a cigarette.

“I missed my period.”

I slide my foot across the cushion. I want to touch my mother in such a way so she doesn’t notice. It will be my secret. So slowly, like my foot is the medium from the Ouija board I got for my birthday. I move against my will but every bit my will, toward my mother’s leg.

“We brought you home and I put you in an infant seat, propped a bottle against a balled-up receiving blanket, and watched you drink it from across the room.”

I hate when she tells me about her period.  And when she says she never held me.  That she hated feeding me.  Was afraid she’d drop me.

I look down into my lap then I look at her, smile. “But are you glad you had me?”

I don’t know that this is not a question all children ask.

My parents are older than other parents. I am only in second grade but I’ve already vowed to never be that old when I become a mother. In real life, my parents are not so much old, they just seem old—she is 42 when I am born in 1961, and my father is about to turn 44.  I know my father always with gray hair, a bad back, and perpetual cancer that warrants lengthy hospital stays, and my mother with wrinkled skin, few teeth save for her silver bridges, and leg cramps that leave her toes curled like fists.  My sister is 21 years older than me, and my brother 18 years older, and look more like the parents of kids my age. “That lady,” friends say, pointing to my mother, “looks like a grandmother.”

My mother exhales smoke. “I would never have an abortion.”

I have looked up this word. This word is in the grown-up dictionary, not in my children’s illustrated dictionary. I have checked.

“But you were our change of life baby. A great big surprise.”

She moves. The dog scurries. I can’t get my foot to touch her leg fast enough before she sits up.

Secretly I worry that my lack of desire to have a baby, to be pregnant, to carry a child indicate something fundamentally wrong with me.  I’m afraid I’ve inherited my mother’s lack of baby desire and maternal instinct.  That in some odd twist my own mothering instinct was tweaked in her womb.  It seeps from my pores, a disease that takes generations to cure.  But mine is not the generation for such miracles.  Babies, with hands like rose petals and toes like creamy pebbles, are natural.  My lack of maternal instinct—or maybe it is my mother herself?— is not.

***

The year my husband I adopt our daughters—two sisters, Russian, who are ten and thirteen when they come to us—I find the mirror I’d given my mother on her birthday long ago. She is eighty now. I’m thirty-eight. I’m packing her things. She can no longer live alone. Dementia has changed her. Softened her. She gazes at me sometimes.

But now my mother sleeps and I hold the frame. The metal warms in my fingers. The green patina features a slender silhouette, a metal woman peering back at herself in the mirror. I’d chosen this mirror for reasons I did not understand until now. To hold my mother’s gaze was like trying to balancing a gyroscope on the tip of your finger at the bottom of the ocean. This embellishment, this expressionless woman, was the face I’d memorized. It was all I ever saw because it was all she showed me.

For some there is the urge to develop. To move beyond. But for me, developing means deepening. My body remembers. It has become a kind of appendix that has collected the bits and pieces of my girlhood. Its captured the outlying events that inform but don’t define the story arc of me. What has deepened me has also wounded me, and the person who wouldn’t touch me may well have also loved me in their very particular way. These footnotes and asterisks about someone else also comprise the main narrative of mine, and sometimes it can be difficult to explain and understand. How could your mother have been like that? You’re nothing like that. I didn’t inherited my mother’s lack of desire or her inability to love. I am still trying to understand why that feels like a transgression.

So what happened; what really happened? It all happened. I won’t say that I raised myself. But, rather, that something larger than myself, than my mother, than any of us whispered in my ear to keep going. I never feel alone and yet, in many ways, I always feel alone.

And that is okay.

I am okay.

When you become a mother you become acquainted with the rights others take in telling you what motherhood is or, rather, what it should be. This goes for daughterhood, too. These are binaries, though, eithers and ors that appoint shame and pity to the ones who cannot give, and the others who don’t have something to receive. This fault line demands not a choice of one or the other but, rather, falling backwards into the depths and darkness. That is where you become. From this you emerge. This is what I’ve learned. To find myself there, no longer unseen.

 

Meredith Gordon Resnick’s* work appears in the Washington Post, JAMA, Psychology Today, Lilith, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Motherwell, Literary Mama, and the Santa Monica Review. Meredith is creator of the Shame Recovery Project, work devoted to healing the unwarranted shame of sexual (and other) traumas, and founder of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey, an award-winning site about the intersection of writing, creativity and depth. She is co-author of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss. 

*Her work also appears under Meredith Gordon and Meredith Resnick.

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


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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, pandemic, parenting

A New Kind of Wild

August 2, 2021
bus

by Melissa Bauer

“I DON’T WANT TO DO SCHOOL ON THE COMPUTER!!” my five-year-old daughter shouts at me while catapulting herself onto the floor in the hallway, right outside of our kitchen.  I agitatedly glance at the clock on the microwave; her virtual class starts in five minutes.  Five minutes to try and rescue this sinking ship.  “I know,” I say, and walk over to try to soothe her.  “But you have to,” I add.  As if knowing you have to do something ever makes doing it any easier.

We’ve been in virtual schooling for about two weeks now.  The novelty, like my positivity, is wearing off.  My daughter’s friends and classmates from preschool have chosen not to go the virtual route for kindergarten.  “You can’t do kindergarten on the computer!” they all crooned in my ear, spewing their seeds of doubt.  So off to private school their kinder went while we forged ahead apprehensively with public school.  The pandemic, it seems, wiped clean all of our familiarity.  It feels as though we are navigating this alone.

Still lying on the floor, but crying now, my daughter continues to shout “Noooo!  I won’t!”  Exasperated, I walk back into the kitchen.  My eyes immediately dart towards my candle burning on the island, bonfire and spun sugar filling the air, but I can’t smell it.  My irritation is mounting.  And now my three year old is on my heels looking for a snack.  “Alexa” I yell to my echo dot “play Freeze Dance” in hopes to change the energy.  But as the rhythmic beats penetrate the air, things only get worse.  Her crying has turned into sobs.

We’ve officially entered Emotionville.  An unpleasant, foul little town where emotions are big and patience is small.

Here’s what I want to tell my daughter.  I DON’T want to do school on the computer either!  When I pictured my little, big girl going off to kindergarten, it certainly wasn’t through Microsoft Teams.  When I imagined buying her school supplies, it didn’t include a desk and chair for her online classroom.  Or where to comfortably place her desk and chair within our modest sized home.  By a window overlooking our wooded backyard so she can get a glimpse of nature while she learns?  Or will that be painful to see the open-air, verve beyond our four walls, just outside her reach.   No, I didn’t imagine buying a “reading buddy,” a stuffed grey elephant that sits on her table, substituting for another child.  Or how my back would ache from bending over her kid sized desk repeatedly when she needed my help completing her assignments.  But I don’t say any of this.  I swallow my feelings and pinch my eyes shut.

Breathe, I tell myself.  Remember to breathe.

One minute.  We have one minute now until class starts and my daughter is still lying lithe on the hardwood floor, her tears flowing, my anger rising.  It’s becoming a living, breathing thing, my anger, panting down my neck with each second that passes.  The smell of burning wood fills me now.  I pick her up, whispering tersely in her ear “I know honey, you don’t want to do this, but you’re going to” and I carry her over to her chair.  She sits begrudgingly, a limp and nimble rag doll, as the teacher’s voice rings through the speakers.  “Welcome back class!”  My daughter straightens up in her seat.  I breathe in, and smell wood and this time, a little sugar too.  I squeeze my daughter’s shoulder, an offering, I suppose.  All is calm for an exhale, and then my three year old shouts at me from the kitchen “MAMA, I wannnaaa snack!

———

Our virtual school days continued like this, more or less, for nine weeks until we slowly transitioned to face-to-face learning.  Phase 1 included a ninety-minute session, one day a week, for two children while the remaining ten classmates participated virtually.  We were assigned to Mondays.  Watching the other students participate in person while my daughter remained online was hard for her.  “That’s not fair!” she’d cry out to her computer on her non-assigned days.  “Soon it will be your turn,” I offered, silently counting down the minutes for both of us.

“Good morning sweetheart!” I chirped as I turned on the lights to wake my daughter up for her “first” day of school.  Sleepy eyed, but smiling she dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast.  “I can’t wait to ride the bus!” she squealed with a mouth full of cereal.  To her, riding the bus was akin to getting your driver’s license.  She could taste the freedom.  “Let’s go!” I shouted and we hastily ran to the bus stop.  Within minutes the bright lights of her yellow chariot rounded the corner.  “Don’t forget your mask,” I said as she donned it on her face.  “Bye mom!” she yelled over the loud engine as she entered the bus, one giant step at a time.  But my excitement soon faded when I looked around and noticed she was the sole rider.  Am I an irresponsible mom for sending my daughter to school in person?  With her big, curious blue eyes peering over her mask, she looked straight-ahead and then at me as the bus pulled away.  Her little hand went up in a wave, five fingers spread open.  My lungs filled with the smell of exhaust as the bus drove away.  My chest constricted.  I was overcome with the urge to run and grab her off that bus.  To take her home and cradle her inside our little bubble, where my candle burned at both ends, because at least there I could keep her safe.

“Bye sweetheart” I mouthed in the rearview.

——-

I walked back into my house, and felt like I was missing an appendage.  Our virtual schooling was tempestuous at best, but now I feared the silence.  I hadn’t had a moment to myself since my children’s preschool shut down the previous year.  Yet, I couldn’t relax.  Instead, I padded towards the kitchen worried for my little girl out there in the wild.  Will she have a hard time wearing a mask for 8 hours a day?  I washed our morning dishes and thought about her.  I stared at her empty desk.  Her vacant chair mocked me, a silent reminder of “what if?”

The days slipped by and I held my breath as we transitioned through each phase.  Slowly, more students joined her class in person.  Turns out, my daughter didn’t mind wearing a mask all day or eating a socially distanced lunch in the cafeteria.  Especially if it meant she could try the chocolate milk.

We settled into a new norm.  After several months, she was finally attending face-to-face learning full time with her entire class.  And I began breathing again.  What once felt wildly terrible and wildly devastating now felt wildly normal.

“What was your favorite part of school today?” I ask her, our hands clasped, her mask shoved into her backpack as we walk home from the bus.  “Recess!” she shouts, her lips curling into a smile at the mere memory of it.  A take-a-picture-and-show-it-your-sister kind of smile.

I’m smiling now too.

———-

Not long after face-to-face learning resumes, our town is hit with the after effects of a hurricane.  Hundred-year-old giant oak trees are uprooted by the winds, and they’ve fallen on houses and power lines.  They are blocking our roads.  School has been put on hold.  Again.  I am looking at one of those massive trees splayed out across our roads, like an enormous carcass, lying belly up, and I can’t help but think this is a metaphor.  This year stripped us bare; left our roots exposed.  And yet, in our shared vulnerability, we learned that hard times don’t last forever.  The wind eventually stops howling.  Fallen trees are removed.  And maybe, just maybe, we learn to love the view.

Melissa Bauer lives in Milton, Georgia with her husband and their two young kids. A former nurse turned stay at home mom; she has been writing about her journey through grief, loss, motherhood and healing since the death of her parents in 2010. An avid reader, podcast junkie, and mindfulness advocate she is passionate about living authentically and with gratitude. She values connection and the best compliment someone could give her is an honest ‘me too.’

 

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


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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

The Converse-Station: Sari Fordham Interviews Gina Troisi

August 1, 2021
book

Introduction by Sari Fordham

I got to know Gina Troisi because we both had debut memoirs coming out this year of all years. How does one launch one’s book during a pandemic? A group of us had the same question and we decided to join forces and ask it together. Over Zoom we chatted about our jobs, the falling snow (or the orange blossoms), the stories around our books, and how to connect with readers during a pandemic. I was particularly drawn to Troisi and her steady enthusiasm for writing and creative nonfiction. She is originally from New Hampshire and has written a book seeped in place, even as it uncovers the relationships in her lives.

Troisi’s debut memoir The Angle of Flickering Light is an insightful examination of how a childhood of abandonment and abuse spoke into her adulthood and how she learned to navigate the past through narrative. Trosi’s prose is sharp, her structure is unconventional, and her story is one that has stayed with me.

Sari Fordham: What inspired you to write your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light?book

Gina Troisi: I actually didn’t intentionally set out to write a memoir—at least not at first. When I began working on my MFA in 2007, I had one goal in mind: to improve my craft, and to ultimately become a better writer. Writing has always been the way I’ve processed, the way I’ve made meaning of what has happened, so I began writing personal essays—examining situations, events, and circumstances that had been instrumental in shaping the person I had become.

As I completed these essays, many of my mentors and peers continued to point out that I was returning to the same themes and subjects, as well as the same characters and settings. Even though I was working on disparate pieces, it became undeniable that the essays made up a larger body of work, with an overarching narrative.

Through writing, I was asking personal questions, but they were naturally becoming universal. Some of these questions were about despair and loneliness, but I was also weaving ideas about hope and perseverance throughout.

SF: Your memoir begins with this striking scene where you’re five years old and playing with your father’s novelty pens. The pens have women on them and when you turn them upside down, their clothes come down. Did the book always begin there for you?

GT: No. I experimented with multiple beginnings. In fact, at one point that first scene came way later, in the last third of the book.

While thinking about structure, I spent much time contemplating what I wanted to illuminate as the core of the memoir—the narrative through-line that the reader could follow, but which would also allow me the freedom to veer off into the past or future with ease, in order to illustrate the heart of the story.

But when I was revising, , I realized that it would make the most sense to begin the book with my father having just moved out on his own, which was not only one of my earliest childhood memories, but also where the conflict began.

SF: I’m really interested in how imposing a structure onto a story can open up a narrative. Your memoir is divided into three parts. How did using defined sections, which feels like a compartmentalizing tool, allow you to create that through-line?

GT: It absolutely was a compartmentalizing tool. That’s a great way to describe it. It allowed me to see the larger shifts of the narrator’s story, and to summarize her transitions in a neat way, by including titles for each of the three parts. In reality, the transitions were not neat; they were chaotic and erratic, but the division and labeling of the sections allowed me to gain even more distance—to really step back and assess what each part of the story was about.

SF: I admire how your book moves with such ease through time. By considering two different memories together, you added in layers of depth. How did you discover the shape of your chapters?

GT: At first, this felt tricky, since the memoir covers such a wide span of time; there are scenes when the narrator is five years old, and there are scenes when she is thirty-five. But once I had defined the heart of the story, the shape of the chapters became pretty instinctual and organic.

As you mentioned, I divided the book into three sections, which helped my focus. I decided to begin with prominent childhood years and scenes that would show the way the narrator had been molded, followed by a second part detailing young adult years that would exemplify the different ways in which she becomes lost and stuck, and I ended the book with a third, more reflective section, where I was able to integrate more of the present-day adult narrative voice—questioning, contemplating, and dealing with the aftermath of events and choices. This three-part division helped to clarify the shape of the chapters—where they needed to begin and end, and how they needed to be framed in order to highlight the core of the narrative.

SF: There is a really memorable scene in your book where you’re on a research trip for your memoir and you discover that a story you were told as a teen might have been completely fabricated. Were there other surprises as you were researching or writing?

GT: There were many surprises, yes, but not as dramatic as the one you mention, where the research almost completely changed the reality of what I had believed.

Most of the surprises had to do more with self-revelation rather than discovering a false truth. I have found that, in order to write memoir, we need to first have a heightened sense of self-awareness. But even when we have done a tremendous amount of work on ourselves, and when we think we understand circumstances fully, there is always more to learn. We have so many different versions of ourselves. And of course, as we work on a project, we are also aging and changing, and our perspectives tend to revise themselves. Through the act of researching and writing, I often realized I needed to do more digging in the way of self-discovery.

SF: How did being open to self-discovery influence the book you were writing?

GT: Being open allowed me to let the book and the material take its own shape, in a sense. It provoked me to question my understanding of the way things happened—how and why—and to challenge my own perceptions and beliefs. It prompted me to be as honest as possible on the page, even when I was still actively trying to figure things out, and to dig deeper, even if I already believed I’d excavated all that I needed to. And it prompted me to explore the fallibility of memory.

SF: As a reader, I was drawn to the authenticity of your voice and your vulnerability. As a writer, that’s a hard place to stay for an extended period of time. Did you feel protective of your younger self? How did you remain open?

 

GT: I don’t know if I felt protective exactly. In order to write this memoir, I had to become pretty removed and detached, and to really see myself as a character rather than a version of myself. Which of course, took a lot of self-work over a period of years.

When I received feedback on earlier drafts of the book, a few people pointed out that the narrator wasn’t self-aware enough—that the reader couldn’t make sense of her choices, of her self-destructive decisions, and in turn couldn’t always empathize with her. So I realized that it was going to be important to show the way she’d been shaped from a young age, even if it felt vulnerable at times. I knew that I needed to show her raw interiority, and that I owed that to the reader.

SF: In the chapter Cleaning House, you write: “California was a place where I stepped out of time. I attempted to transform myself into someone who I was not, at least not yet—someone who rested and reflected, someone who paused to make sense of her choices.” I love these lines because they speak to the journey you were on and gesture to who you were becoming. They also reflect the importance place plays in your memoir. Whether the place is an apartment, a playground, a city, or a state, you’re attentive to where you are and how you are shaped by it. How did you reinhabit those places while you were writing? Did you look at pictures? Visit them? Take notes? Listen to music?

GT: I actually did all of the above. I revisited old journals and letters and photos, listened to music that was etched into my brain from various moments and timeframes in the book. I did visit places, especially when I could drive to them—houses and apartments and restaurants where I worked.

When I wrote about Santa Cruz, California where I lived for a short time in 2002, but which was a pivotal time both in life and in the book, I flew out there from Boston and stayed in a cheap motel for four days. I revisited the places where I spent time when I lived there so long ago; I ran the same roads alongside the ocean, went to bookstores and coffeeshops and bars—even the grocery store where I’d bought my food. And it helped to uncover the memories in a crucial way. I love thinking about place in all aspects of writing, no matter which genre I’m writing in. I’m fascinated by the way a place can become as essential as any other character.

SF: What books inspired you while you were writing this one?

GT: Oh gosh, so many. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Sue William Silverman’s Love Sick, Fleda Brown’s Driving With Dvorak, Tim Hillegonds’s The Distance Between, Randal O’Wain’s The Meander Belt, Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water was a particularly strong influence. Before I knew of Yuknavitch or her work, I saw her speak at an AWP conference in Seattle, where she was part of a panel of authors who’d written non-chronological memoirs. I’d been wrestling with the structure of my book–with how to shape what was then an essay collection into a memoir, and I was resisting telling the story from beginning to end; I just knew it wasn’t the right direction for my material, but I couldn’t fathom how to do it any other way. Lidia, in the most passionate, lovely voice, said, “I believe in art the way other people believe in God.” She had me right there. And then she went on to describe the process of shaping her memoir. After the seminar, I immediately bought The Chronology of Water. I read and reread it, and thought about deeply about the structure of my own book. It not only inspired me, but it gave me the liberty to think about how I might break the rules when it came to structure–it opened me up to the possibilities available, and assured me that I did not have to be boxed in by narrative convention. It was a true gift.

Sari Fordham’s work has appeared in Brevity, Green Mountains Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Passages North, among others. Her memoir Wait for God to Notice is available from Etruscan Press. She lives in California with her husband and daughter.

Gina Troisi received an MFA in creative nonfiction from The University of Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program in 2009. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Fourth Genre, The Gettysburg Review, Fugue, Under the Sun, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, and elsewhere. Her debut memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light is available from Vine Leaves Press. She is currently working on a novel-in-stories.

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


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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, Marriage, memories

The Summer We All Got Married

July 31, 2021
wedding

by Larkin Warren

Eight of us were wed that summer of 1981. Each of the four engagements had come about during the previous bone-crackingly cold New Hampshire winter, although I’d like to believe that all the troth-pledging was more about love and joy than the need for warmth in icy weather.

We lived then in a university community, where marriage itself was subject to flinty-eyed skepticism—three of us eight to-be-marrieds were divorced, with kids in tow and wedding albums long lost in an attic or cellar. Nevertheless, as mud season passed and the lilacs appeared, we all prepared to take a plunge that seemed to grow ever more traditional as the days went by. Gathering on weekends, we ate pints of strawberries, pounds of brie, drank more Champagne than was customary on a teacher’s salary, agonized over venues and budgets, and complained, of course, about our parents—because what’s a march towards a wedding without that?

Coincidentally, another couple, first-timers both, planned a similar event. Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding would be larger, certainly, than all four of ours combined; her engagement ring big as a Volkswagon headlight, the invitation list and seating chart more complicated than the annual gathering of the UN General Assembly. We guessed that Diana’s and Charles’ whole coping-with-the-parents thing resembled rolling a large power mower over a hornets’ nest. We tried to envision the monogrammed thank-you notes, the writer’s cramp. “Ha!” somebody grumped. “Not likely she’s writing them herself!”

Whether Royalists, Fenians, or flat-out cynics, we refused to begrudge them the royal circus and the related hoopla. We were all determined not to be cynical that summer. They were in love, we were in love—and when you’re sufficiently love-addled, Frank Sinatra is forever crooning in the background, every sunset is peach perfection, and it’s an easy if somewhat wacky leap to emotional kinship with the future King and Queen of England.

By the day of the royal wedding, our own four weddings had been achieved. All our kids were in embarrassment recovery and all the wedding-cake tops (two organic from a local farm store, one eight-layered from a fancy caterer, one Mom-made) were stashed in fridge freezers, to be thawed and eaten at the first anniversaries. And so it was that on July 29, each new married couple, bleary-eyed and feeling more than a little sheepish, rose at dawn, fired up the coffee and joined teams of gushing TV network anchors and the billion other guests at the Spencer/Windsor wedding.

Feminism, pragmatism, and reality checks notwithstanding, it was difficult at first not to think in fairy tale terms as the veiled girl, swathed in an acre of virginal silk, arrived in the golden coach, glanced shyly up at her prince, and Bach rang throughout the cathedral; we were, after all, the first generation of Disney-movie kids, brought up on princes, princesses, and happily ever after, even if Ms magazine and Our Bodies Ourselves sat on the bookshelf next to a Virginia Woolf novel and somebody’s dissertation on the various psychoses in Grimms’ fairy tales.

It did occur to me, however, that if we dropped a nickel into the piggy bank every time a commentator actually used the words “fairy tale,” we might make a sizable dent in my son’s tuition savings account. “Why doesn’t he just grab her and kiss her?” asked said son with a medium measure of disgust, having witnessed many other silly grownups do precisely that for weeks.

A month or so later, my husband’s parents returned from a vacation trip to the UK with gold-trimmed souvenir royal wedding cups, one for my sister-in-law, one for me. I kept mine on the kitchen counter for a while, ceremoniously using it whenever I drank tea, silently begging forgiveness of my paternal grandmother, who’d secretly funneled her pension money to the Irish Republican Army. My sister-in-law used hers briefly as well, then stowed it away for safety after her two kids were born.

By the time little princes Wills and Harry were making shiny appearances in People magazine, our Summer of ‘81 group numbered three babies, two divorces, a few rounds of infertility treatments and a couple of complicated midlife career adjustments. At that point—pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-cell-phone cams in every hand around the world—we didn’t know about the mistress, the affairs, the drama worthy of Bizet’s Carmen. We didn’t know that Diana had flung herself down a flight of stairs in a bid for Charles’ attention, although one or two of us might’ve understood. I surveyed my own castle—eggy dishes in the sink, two dogs who ate shoes as if they were kibble, the husband who worked all hours, and the moody adolescent who painted Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover on his bedroom wall—the entire bedroom wall. “A lady in waiting would be nice,” I muttered.

Time kept passing. Parents aged and died. Kids grew up, friends moved away. Somebody’s son flunked out of college, another joined the Navy, a daughter eloped. Soon, we were all linked only by Christmas cards with ever-changing zip codes. Somewhere in there, the UK fairytale went all to hell.

On the last day of August 1997, the Princess of Wales and two others in her car died in an automobile crash whose grisliness was surpassed only by its agonizing stupidity: the drunk limo driver, the frenzied pack of paparazzi, the dying woman pinned like a butterfly in a shadow box.

A week later, I once again rose at dawn, heading for the television and feeling grim. For breakfast, I ate an entire box of Peek Frean lemon biscuits (with the “by Royal appointment” seal on the box), and drank Earl Grey in the gold-trimmed wedding cup. I don’t even like Earl Grey, and I had no doubt my IRA Granny spun in her grave. There again was the cathedral and the soaring music. Some of the faces were recognizable, all of them were older. “I thought I’d feel like an idiot watching this,” said my husband, who joined my vigil late and under protest. “But I don’t. I’m actually sad.” We both agreed that Sir Elton John could’ve used a couple of second thoughts.

That afternoon, my sister-in-law called, tired and teary. “I stumbled all over the place in the cellar this morning,” she said, “hunting for that damn teacup. Scraped my shins on every toy my kids have ever owned.”

I told her about her brother’s unexpected sadness, about my lemon-biscuit breakfast. We tried to figure out what it was that we were feeling, why someone and something that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with us seemed, suddenly, to have everything to do with us. For her, a mother of very young children, it was the unimaginable sorrow of two boys walking behind their mother’s coffin. For me, it seemed somehow about the sun-burnished wedding summer, the strawberries and champagne, the blind hope and optimism, and the friends whose lives and loves we had shared. We’d made promises. Mostly, we’d kept them “The odd thing is, I think I feel grateful,” I said.

“Me, too,” she said. “For the junk in the cellar. The dirty laundry. Even the old Barney videos.”

How often, in the frayed ribbon of a lifetime, do lovers and friends, husbands and wives, parents and kids, do wrong, disappoint, betray, yet somehow manage to start over? What’s the score now, as we pass another anniversary and roll however clumsily towards the next? My son, when he was little, had a term for the number of stars in the sky: “infinity many.”

“Most of all,” said my sister-in-law that long ago morning, in a very soft voice, “I’m just thankful for my completely ordinary life.”

Larkin Warren lives in northern NH. She has collaborated on six-and-a-half memoirs, is writing one of her own, and her poetry’s been published in Mississpipi Review, Ohio Review, Yankee magazine, Slow Motion Review (NYU), Quarterly West and others, She is currently owned by a mini Aussie shepherd rescued from a NYC kill shelter. Her poetry chapbook, Old Sheets, was published by Alice James books (Farmington, Maine) in the previous century. Her essays have appeared in New York Times magazine, NYTimes op-ed page, AARP magazine, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Salon,  and others.

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


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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Wildfire

July 30, 2021
regan

by Holly Easton

Shortly before he left my mother, my brother, and me, Daddy gave me a copy of Heidi for my eighth birthday. He wrapped it in glossy red paper and left it on my bed. Before the year was out, he was gone.

I see him again the summer I turn 12 and Lukas turns 16. My mother screams into the phone, then click, and she tells us we’ll be spending three months with him in the Rockies. I kiss her even though I know she’s mad about it. Daddy’s been bouncing around these last few years, but whenever I asked, he said when he had a place of his own, we’d get to visit. Now it’s finally happening.

I got my braces wire tightened just before we left. I spend the flight placing balls of wax over the metal brackets in my mouth. I ask Lukas if he thinks Daddy will have goats, like the grandfather in Heidi, but he’s writing out guitar chords to whatever’s blaring on his headphones. He lets me rest my head on his shoulder though, which is progress since he swore off talking to me when I snipped all the strings on his guitar a few weeks ago.

My mother wants to buy me a training bra but I keep refusing. My chest is throbbing though and when we land, I hold the new triangular growths in my hands while we wait for Daddy, but then I see him and I drop my arms.

This Daddy has rough fur, instead of the prickly pear face he had when I was little, but otherwise, he’s the same. I run to him but then I see Regan, like The Exorcist, next to him. Regan’s his “life model.” She gives both me and Lukas tight hugs, leaving Lukas breathless.

“My chauffeur,” Daddy says, patting her scapula and we load into the car. I had forgotten that my mother used to drive him everywhere.

***

Regan wears her hair in a black braid that goes down to her hips and arrives a little before dinner almost every night. Lukas hangs onto her every word, although she is parsimonious with her speech. After dinner, she and my father lock themselves away as Daddy works on what he’s calling his “experimental phase.”

Lukas tells Daddy the altitude gives him headaches, so he spends most of his time in town drinking slushies and chatting with tourist girls. I’m too pimpled and my chest is too sore to be seen, so I stay on the cliffside with my Dad and his cans of turpentine.

I have no memories of him painting before he left, but remember having the notion that he was ‘known’. Parent-teacher conferences with his uneven stubble and my mother’s polished suit; his exhibits rather than my comportment, teachers ignorant to the brandy on his breath. I didn’t mind then. I misbehaved a lot.

“Stevie at the diner says he’ll teach me how to cook if I help him serve the lunch crowd on the weekends,” Lukas tells us over dinner. He gets loud whenever he talks about his new job at the diner.

“That’s good, a man should know how to cook,” Dad says, pointing the prongs of his fork at my brother.

“Stevie says,” gulp from Lukas, “he says the ladies love it.” Dad looks over at Regan, who meets his eyes and pours him some more wine. I keep staring at him in case he decides to share the secret exchange with me too. He doesn’t. I start to clear the dishes.

“Stevie’s probably right, but it’s still a bit early to think about that, son.” I pile them in the sink and reach out for the dish soap, but Regan’s hands stop me. I flinch because they’re cold, but her eyebrows soar up and her head shoots back like a concerned chicken.

Lukas shrugs his right shoulder and stares into his root beer, “yeah, but still, cooking’s better than just wiping tables and stuff.” I plonk down in my chair and Dad knocks my elbows off the table and flips through the day-old newspaper.

After dinner, Lukas locks me out of our loft. I can hear the twanging of his guitar through the door.

***

Because Dad is nocturnal in his work and he often retires for the day around eleven in the morning, leaving me alone on the mountain with no older boys to flirt with, and no younger girls to chase. It’s too quiet when Dad’s asleep, so I carry around the small radio I find in the loft. We only get the CBC on the mountain and even then, it’s fuzzy. Still, it’s better than silence.

I catch Lukas before he heads out one morning. “Can I come with you today?” I ask, even though I don’t really want to, I’m just bored.

“I’m working all day,” his thumb and forefinger stroke the fluff above his lip as he gives himself a final look in the mirror.

“I could come watch. Read, or something.” He spits in his hand and flattens his hair.

“You can’t sit in a diner re-reading Heidi all summer, Daisy.” I hear Dad send him off and I roll over and go back to sleep.

***

CBC starts its hour of classical music just as I hear my father crawl into bed. I turn it off because I can’t stomach another concerto. I want to run and scream, but the peaks of snow in the distance scare me off, I’m afraid my voice will boom and start an avalanche. Instead, I find myself in Daddy’s studio.

The door creaks only slightly, but it’s so quiet that I’m immediately on edge. His studios, his gallery openings, his work has always been off-limits. I was too young, it was too dangerous, the work was too precious. Standing there, for the first time, I see the brilliance that has driven a stake through my family. The colours of his passion refracting against itself and rolling over.

Regan puts her hand on my shoulder and leads me out.

She stays late to make me lunch. I tell her it’s too hot for soup, but she puts some on anyway. “He’s teaching me to draw,” she says, drying the mug he uses for his brandy. My face is dewy with sweat as I eat. She stares at me and I flush tomato, like the soup. I feel the bumps on my forehead or the new wires on my chin more pronouncedly. I think, maybe if I focus hard enough, they’ll retreat back into my face. She leans closer towards me, our noses level and almost touching. She traces my features with her eyes. She reaches for her sketchbook but pulls her hands back. Instead, she grabs her purse. “Do you want me to show you how to pluck your eyebrows?”

Leaning away from her, I smash my elbow into my bowl of cold soup. The clatter echoes out because there’s so little noise, so little else, on the hill. “You have a beautiful natural arch,” she says, reaching out to stroke my brows.

“Does it hurt?” I ask

She smiles, tucking my hair behind my ears. “You get used to it.” Her fingers brush my skin so gently, they smell like cocoa butter. “Besides, I think Jack– your Dad– would like it if we had some Big-Girl bonding time.” She smiles and then collapses her lips into a pout as she searches through her purse.

I hold my breath as she brings the tweezers to the first hair. “Ow!”

“Did that hurt?” Regan pulls back.

“Of course it did, you ripped my hair out!” I snap. She gets up and I think she’s about to leave, but she just goes to the fridge. The crack of the ice tray and she wraps ice cubes in a paper towel to numb the skin.

She shapes in silence, pulling back to look at me or tilt my chin as she sculpts and paints my face with the contents of her purse. I wonder if this is what my father does to her in his studio and suddenly I remember I hate her. “My daughter would be a little older than you,” she says.

I don’t ask what she means. My neck starts to ache from supporting her canvas and I straighten out. I hate her for staring at me. I hate her for making me untimely soup. I hate her for taking my father’s time. And I hate her most, in that moment, for acting like a friend, or maybe a mother.

Regan moves the ice over my pimples. “The cold will help them heal,” she says. My parents had to evacuate their home the day after I was born due to a forest fire. When they returned, the fields were already germinating with flowers, daisies, and trees that had been scarified into growth. The surface of Regan’s face was smooth like pulled toffee. I imagine the ice putting out the little fires burning under my skin. I lean into her hands.

My father shatters his coffee cup when he sees what she has done to my face. She’s traced my eyes like an Egyptian queen. I’m done-up like a, he struggles for a word, choking before he spits up “an inappropriate” and storms off into his studio. Regan tries to follow him.

“We’re just having fun,” she says, but he slams the door in her face. I ask if I can keep the lipstick she put on me.

***

 

Wearing Pomegranate Persuasion, I return to the studio every morning after that. Regan doesn’t linger after her sessions with my father anymore, so there’s no one to stop me. With the door shut, the studio air is damp in my throat. Every step is muffled by globs of oil streaked across countless canvasses. Every day I push in a little further until the colours don’t make me dizzy anymore. Then it’s the texture I absorb.

I run my finger pads over the peaks and ridges, feeling how they expand after every sleep. The landscapes are vast and uninhabited. The newer works scattered around the easel have been hybridized with Regan’s form. Her guitar-shaped body as mountains; her black hair as waterfalls, her eyes as valley basins. Oil takes a long time to dry. I push in from tip to first knuckle, squishing Regan’s curves. The paint parts around my finger, tarnishing my glitter nail polish.

I’m not allowed in the studio anymore after that.

Instead, I’m sent down the mountain with Lukas. Dad waits at the kitchen table with his mug in the morning to ensure we leave. He doesn’t say anything to me when we do. On our way down, Lukas splits the slushie money with me, waving at everyone we pass. “I’m going down to the quarry with the boys. If I’m not back here for 5, just head up without me, okay?” He says, sticking his too-long thumbnail between his front teeth to get out a fleck of toast. I pull out Heidi from my back pocket and spend the day reading at the bus stop.

“What the hell are you wearing?” It’s after 5. Lukas is still at the quarry and I’ve come home on my own. We go through this every day. My summer clothes from the year before hadn’t quite fit when I packed them, but it’s been getting worse as the days go on and grow hotter. My shorts ride up the back or bunch in a V at the front. My shirts are too short as I’ve grown a good few inches since my eleventh. My mother’s promised a shopping spree for my twelfth, but that’s just before school starts. And, of course, I’m with my father until then.

“They’re just shorts, Dad.”

“They’re inappropriate.” There’s something else “inappropriate” every day. His concerns are more than just fit. The colours, the patterns. When I dress, I make-believe a theme for the day. The light-up sneakers with my cupcake dress (celebration). These butterfly shorts and the inappropriate unicorn top (things that can fly). Dungarees and Dragons (that one’s self-explanatory). It all bothers him. He still hasn’t forgiven me for defacing his work.

“What’s on your mouth?” Pomegranate Persuasion. I stay quiet. He shakes his head so slowly.

“Everyone wears it– ” but I’m wiping my lips into my palm.

“My child will not.” He sniffles with a summer cold and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. I edge towards the loft. I’ve got my hand on the stair railing, “and you’re wearing those clips again.”

My daisy clips. He hates them most of all. The daisies come in every colour with smiling faces in the pistil. “Take them out.”

“They’re my favourite.” I reach up to touch one of the smiling pistils with a finger.

“Why do you never listen?” The mug pounds onto the table.

“I can just stop wearing them, Daddy.” He’s looking away from me. I climb a few stairs.

“You need to learn how to dress your age.” If he means I looked too young, or too old, I never know.

Regan brings shepherd’s pie for dinner, but Lukas still hasn’t returned and she and my father don’t eat with me, so I listen to the CBC. It’s been a dry summer and fires are burning along the west coast. After dinner that night, I find the clips, the plastic cracked through the pistil, in the bathroom garbage.

***

Marvin, who sells the slushies in the village, calls one afternoon. My father yells at everyone that night. Regan leaves in tears before their session. He tells me he doesn’t need to be woken up by concerned citizens telling him his daughter is “whoring about with boys on motorcycles.” I tell him they were mountain bikes. He’s not consoled. I don’t tell him they only asked me for directions.

The next day, he piles up his old painting clothes and Lukas’s hand-me-downs on my bed. But after a night of bridge at the cottage with Marvin and a few of his pub buddies, he bans me from going into the village altogether.

The village is unsuitable, but I’m still not allowed in the house. Instead, I throw a pack of Oreos in my backpack and walk halfway down the mountain, to the pasture, with Lukas. My beaten-up copy of Heidi was growing more insipid with every read. So I bring the radio too, but the reception is even worse in the pasture.

The radio tracks the fires as they move across Alberta. It’s all anyone seems to talk about. The sun beats down on my back and I lie in the grass staring into that speaker like it’s a face. They interview people who’ve lost homes, people looking for their pets, firefighters, and climate scientists. Sometimes they’d ask people to call in with their stories.

“We’ve got Daisy on the line,” I imagine.

“Hello,” I say, “No fires here yet, but my brother Lukas says the village is booming with tourists.”

“Really?” Roger’s voice is like dark chocolate and whole milk.

“Oh yes, Roger, they’ve been pushed out of Jasper and Banff by the flames.”

“So that must mean there are lots of kids around for you to play with Daisy.”

“So many, Roger! You wouldn’t believe. I might even get a boyfriend before the summer’s out.”

“Aren’t you too young for that, Daisy?”

“I wouldn’t kiss him or anything, he’d just be mine.” And then Roger would laugh, or invite me to be his co-host, or send me undercover on special assignments. But sometimes we didn’t talk about the news or the fires at all. And sometimes they’d just play music, and then I’d lie on my back with Heidi as a pillow, counting clouds and wondering if like Clara and her wheelchair, I could push Regan down the mountain.

***

The fires leave a grey cloud on the horizon that’s visible even at night. It’s hot and I can’t sleep, so I go outside to watch the smoke. Being outside at night feels against the rules, although it was never strictly mentioned, and I get that bubble of fearlessness in my stomach at the thought of being free and in charge. “Trouble tummy” my mum had called it after she caught me stealing chocolate bars from the Mac’s Milk. I crawl underneath the open window to my dad’s studio.

“You don’t know what she’s like,” he says, his voice startling me by how close it is to the open window.

“She’s just a little girl, Jack.” It’s Regan, but she’s using her other voice, the one she only used with him. It’s higher, smoother. “She’s curious. She didn’t– ”

“She knows what she’s doing.” There’s a pause. The sounds of Regan shifting on the stool, and the lick of a brush on a palette waft from the window.

“I think she misses you.” I hear as I lie down and close my eyes, warm from the summer air wrapping around me. My father’s snoring when I come back inside to brush my teeth.

***

“I like it here,” Lukas says after meeting me in the pasture so we could march home together. “It’s a simpler way of life.” We stop near some bushes out of eyesight from the cottage so I can put on the windbreaker and jeans my father has deemed more weather and age-appropriate than my tee-shirt and shorts. I rub Pomegranate Persuasion off on the sleeve of the jacket.

My father’s in a good mood when we get home. He slings his arm around Lukas’s neck and ruffles my hair. “My babies!” He yells, but not an angry yell like I’m used to. We eat dinner as a family because Regan isn’t coming tonight. My father even puts off his work for a few hours to hear all of Lukas’s exploits. I gather and start to wash the dishes and watch as my father leads Lukas into his studio. They don’t come out before I’m in bed.

Their snoring wakes me up. They’ve passed out cold on the couches and there’s an empty bottle of wine between them.

“Celebrating,” says Regan’s voice from behind me. We haven’t been alone together since the afternoon she plucked my eyebrows, the regrowth of my messy brows as evidence of the month that’s passed. “Jack called me last night, so I came up this morning to congratulate him. I guess I should have known he’d be asleep.” She turns to the sink and starts re-washing the dishes I did the night before. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?”

I don’t know what’s exciting, so I don’t answer. Locking myself into the loft, I block the door with the wicker chair so Lukas can’t stumble into bed. The loft is so sparse and dark and the only evidence of home is Lukas’s guitar in the corner. I flick on the CBC, but the radio sputters and the batteries die, leaving only the muffled sound of water running over already clean dishes.

When Lukas finds his guitar, the neck is tucked into bed, and the body has been launched from the tiny loft window, smashed against a weathervane. He spends a week with Stevie from the diner. My dad even goes down to the village to be with him. When Lukas agrees to come home, he doesn’t look at me anymore, which I can handle. But he packs up the rest of his stuff only a day later and moves it to Stevie’s. Dad starts having dinner with him in town every night. Being alone in the loft is like being trapped in the brain of a zombie. Everything is muffled, grey, dead. If the house burned down, no one would know I had ever been alive.

***

As the days grow shorter, Regan’s nights with my father get longer. The day of my birthday, she hikes a rainbow sprinkle cake up the mountain for me with my father’s bridge buddies. I blow out my twelve candles and my father uses real wine glasses, not just a paint-stained mug for his booze. I don’t get any presents because I’ve been bad, but they teach me to play bridge and for one night, forgive me. I pour their drinks and laugh at their loud jokes, even if I don’t understand them. My father lets me have a small glass of wine.

As Regan brings me to bed, my head is foggy from the early hour and the cigarette smoke flooding the house. I hear Marvin downstairs. “She’ll be a heartbreaker one day, Jack,” He’s got a heavy wheeze caused by his belly or maybe his smoking. Regan shuts the door behind us before I hear my father’s response.

“Happy birthday, Daisy,” Regan says, handing me a little box. I don’t take it at first, because I don’t really understand. “Don’t tell your father.” Inside is a bracelet with tiny beads of jade and a small silver flower charm. “The green brings out your eyes.” She takes the bracelet from my hand and slips it over my wrist. “Oh, and I made you this.” Regan reaches into her pocket and pulls out a piece of heavy sketch paper.

It’s a charcoal portrait. My eyebrows mid regrowth, with the smiling faces of my daisies in my hair. She doesn’t have my father’s skill, but her hand is practised. I touch a finger to the pistil of the daisy. She lifts my duvet for me to slip into bed. Her touch is gentle as she pulls the blanket up to my armpits.

“Regan?” I ask, and she looks at me straight in the eyes. “Thank you.”

“You’re almost a young lady now.” Her eyes are on mine until I break away. “Good night.”

They’re all still there when I wake up, asleep on the couches and kitchen chairs. My father’s bedroom door is open. He and Regan are naked, covers kicked off in the heat. The mountains, the valley basins, the waterfalls of Regan’s body, encircled inappropriately in my father’s arms, his face discoloured from alcohol, buried in bunched, patterned sheets.

I walk past them into the studio. It feels tighter. The colours have melted with the heat and the oil is spiking off the canvasses, reaching out to press into my skin. I dry heave from the stale air, the bottom of my lungs filling up the way they had when I blew out my cake the night before. I think about my birthday candles.

***

The crack of the fire wakes my father when I’m only halfway through the masterpiece. The ash from the pasture has darkened the clear mountain air. I’m sure he’s yelling, but his paintings burn so loudly, air pockets trapped under oily prisons exploding from the heat, that I can’t hear him.

My mother arrives later that day, but Lukas stays through the school year. We have our shopping spree, as promised. She lets me buy whatever I want.

Holly Easton has a degree in archaeology that has proven to be just as useful as her parents said it would be. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in science history. Holly is a volunteer science communicator at a local museum where she teaches guests about evolution and ecology. She enjoys meeting and chatting with neighbourhood cats.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Grief, Guest Posts, Self Image

The Grief In My Belly

July 29, 2021
weight

by Elizabeth O’Nuanain

Fatness: Everyone will look at me. Everyone will judge me. Everyone will imagine I spend my days shoveling doughnuts and pizzas in my mouth, one after another, and another…

Fat sucks ass. Can I get an amen, people?

Fat programmed me to avert my eyes from full-length mirrors and large window-panes. Fat, I imagined (though not without evidence) made people look at me and think ‘lazy’; ‘unclean’, ‘dim-witted’, ‘gluttonous’, ‘weak-willed’ and as a cultural subject within patriarchy, ‘utterly un-fuckable’. Fat is still, after over forty years, a feminist issue.

Internalisation: Body-size and shape equate not only to body-worth, but overall human-worth.  From jobs, to education, to romance, fat girls and women will struggle far more than their thin counterparts. Unless I shaped up and embraced the aspartame, my body weight doomed me to a life of ignorance, poverty and loneliness. I learned this lesson at my mother’s knee before I could write my name.  My mother, now eighty-one, arthritic and losing her eyesight, spoke with me on the phone last week. She informed me she weighs one-hundred and ten pounds and wears a size three jeans.  What struck me was not that she shared that specific information so quickly, but that this is the routine of all our talks.  She is an excellent woman who watches her weight with steadfast commitment. I grew up immersed in this oversimplified notion of what fat means, how fat happens, and the place(s) that fat occupies in my culture.

I now weigh in somewhere between my very thinnest and my (more moderate) heaviest.  I am fifty-eight years old and have spent close to fifty of those years worrying over, or downright hating, my body.  This afternoon as I write this post, I feel only tenderness and appreciation for this body of mine.  It may go against the grain with all the lessons I internalised and all the practices (diets, obsessive weighing) I took part in, but here I am, living my quiet revolution in a world so full of callous regulations imposed within and without upon the bodies of women. In this new mindset, I have spent hours thinking, journaling and deconstructing my relationship with weight — particularly what has informed my thinking about weight and body shape over the past ten years as I notice the changes to my body corresponding to bereavement, emotional pain and the natural disaster of menopause.

Grief. How I lost my husband and swallowed my sister: When I met my husband, he stood over six foot, four inches tall. He was a good forty to fifty pounds overweight. When we buried him, his suit — the one he bought only a year before and that had so beautifully fit him, now completely engulfed him. The funeral director had to gather and pin the material at the back. In the months before he died, his thinness, the act of touching his body, running my hand across his shoulders and back, staggered me. So much of him had gone. I often retreated to another part of the house to weep alone. After he died, I became a walking, talking testament to emptiness. In the first two years I scarcely ate, every part of my body ached. I grew enviably thin. Insanely, I saw my aching, starving, empty body as perfect, and, importantly, lovable.

In the following years, I became little more than a body for draping clothes and garnering male attention. My capacity for joy, creativity, and human engagement scarcely functioned. My truncated grief found a place in my malnourished belly, where it hardened like a stone and rattled inside me. All the while I exchanged my slender body for (abusive) affirmation, seeking to fill that void in my belly. Then, out of the blue, my sister, Leslie, suddenly died from complications of the flu. After losing her, I put on weight and everything (it seemed) changed. In the magical thinking of bereavement, I imagined that my body had taken on the weight of her loss. I fixated on Leslie’s own emotional struggle with weight; her self-reproach, her isolation and her intense desire to be ‘thin enough’. Then I made that struggle my own.

Only, I did not really swallow my sister. My body did not mysteriously incorporate her weight. I did not become her, anymore than I became my emaciated husband six years earlier. Rather, I grieved, and I gained weight; these circumstances were not unrelated, nor were they the full picture. My body and I did not embark upon the grieving process with a clean slate — prior to her death my body was already experiencing depression, menopause, chronic back pain and recurring insomnia — all of which impact the body’s metabolism and contribute not only to weight gain, but even where the weight appears. Instead, I just reminded myself of my sister through my frustration and my self-deprecating inner dialogue. I merely succumbed, and reasonably so, to the cultural myths that shaped my conception of a worthy woman — a myth I complied with, even while common sense told me otherwise — throughout my life.

How grief also taught me self-acceptance. While grief played an active role in harming my body and enhanced the divide between my emotional and physical self, I discovered over time that allowing my sorrow to flow helped me to mend that divide. I cannot imagine anyone wants to feel loss; the relentless weight of an absence hanging across your shoulders like sandbags; the jaw perpetually clenched to hold the sobs at bay, the utter exhaustion mocked nightly by insomnia — it was horrible; it was also necessary. Allowing myself the space to experience my loss, I learned how what I think and what I feel are not activities separate from my body, but are instead of my body; interrelated and acting in concert at all times. Learning how intrinsic my body is to all else that I am, compels me to challenge my lifelong habit of seeing my body as an unruly, uncooperative force that threatened my happiness and self-image by its refusal to transform into some imaginary standard.

I have not made complete peace with my body; but I have ended our protracted war — it is more about treatment than cure. I still get frustrated if my jeans grow tighter, or my crow’s feet deepen. I have not defeated the effects of menopause on my mood, memory, and sleep cycle. Aging and corporality are inescapable facts for sentient beings like me. Sometimes the facts suck, but I prefer them to the alternative.

Elizabeth O’Nuanain is a (re)emerging blogger, poet and chicken keeper, living out her post-menopausal days in the wilds of West Cork, Ireland. She writes about grief, trauma, depression and recovery, and experiments with poetry. The Grief In My Belly was previously published in Elizabeth’s blog Shriekinglizzy.com and on Crow’s Feet.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Home, memories

The House of Two Years

July 28, 2021
house

by AnnMarie Roselli

Vito and Carmella defied age in such a way that pretending they’d live forever was easy. My parents were entering year two in a house I’d badgered dad into buying. Sort of. It had taken years of imploring him to sell their big home in Pennsylvania—a lake house with a steep gravel driveway, too many decks, and tremendous upkeep. Though mom relished living on the water and her morning swims, she’d been ready to relocate for some time. In the end, it was more dad’s age that bullied him into buying the townhouse eight minutes from my home in Orange County, New York. And, as in every previous home, mom’s brilliant smile would burn away the dark spots created by dad and his unequivocally fierce temper—a temper that often let loose above his otherwise contemplative nature.

Before my parents moved into the house in Pennsylvania, they’d lived in many other houses. Our family home in northern New Jersey was a ranch-style house which harbored room to run, but never enough rooms to hide in. There were years that ranch turned silent at 6 p.m. when dad walked through the front door after a long day in New York City. Those same years I tried sneaking peeks at the FBI-issue weapon holstered at his hip before he stashed it away. During intolerable adolescent spans, table setting and dinner cleanups pervaded our lives. Years of sweating out report cards and awkward boyfriend introductions passed inside those busy kitchen walls. There were endless Saturdays of facing mom’s chore list written on yellow legal paper. And every second weekend of the month, dad’s big fist slammed the kitchen table because mom forgot to record a few checks into the checkbook log. There were weeks we learned how to ride bicycles and months we learned how to parallel park. Sunday services and bargaining with mom every Christmas Eve to avoid midnight mass were predictable occurrences. And for two decades, despite dad’s mad roaring, a parade of boisterous relatives and happy celebrations arrived.

Before settling in New Jersey, where our youngest brother was born, we’d been a family on the move. As a new agent, dad went where instructed and his young family followed. There was a different house in a different place for five of mom’s six pregnancies. After I was born—daughter no. three, we moved to Monterey, California for six months so dad could learn Sicilian at the Berlitz school. He mapped the way west to east with each move finding a suitable home for our arrival. Often pregnant during relocations, mom moved with bodacious purpose. Any complaints she may have had melted in the fire of her spectacular smile—a smile, I’d grow to unabashedly compare to the occasional comet.

My parents chose Pennsylvania after the New Jersey nest emptied. They pinpointed the area closest to where their first grandchildren would be born. In Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania, dad and mom blueprinted and built their new home and their new life. They embarked on intercontinental adventures, visited their Italian relatives, accessed highways to spend time with family, friends, and took in Manhattan—their birthplace. For eighteen years, they appreciated waking to a rippling sunrise over the boat dock in their backyard.

At eighty-four years of age, dad finally agreed to sell their home in Lake Ariel, and to relocate closer to me. Once settled in New York, mom, with the smile of sunshine and voice of song, filled the townhouse with life. She doted on her children and grandchildren. She filled most days of their social calendar with traveling and entertaining. She was a voracious reader and taught conversational Italian at the local library. She participated in morning exercise classes and walked with neighbors. I even picked her up several days a week to go swimming at the YWCA. Wherever she went—Carmella, now eighty, was affectionately called Millie.

Most mornings, my visits to mom and dad’s townhome required descending their basement stairs where I’d find dad madly pedaling on his exercise bike. He’d offer me a goofy grin and continue pedaling amidst an ocean of balled white. Since his nose had taken to excessive dripping, he often dispatched tissue artillery. He biked to Latin rhythms, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennett. A stalwart son of Italian immigrants, he didn’t care for Frank Sinatra because, according to him, Sinatra didn’t sing enough Neapolitan songs. Dad enjoyed recounting his many childhood tales—one favorite was working on papa’s ice truck at the tender age of seven. He danced to Glen Miller at weddings and nurtured a lifelong crush on Lena Horne. He traveled alongside mom and their social calendar. And like mom, he was a voracious reader. Several times a month he drove his convertible Mustang from New York to a Pennsylvania casino to best poker players sixty years his junior, all with the gumption and grit of a man named Vito.

One day, I entered the house of two years to find an oversized lawn bag sitting near the entrance. It was bulging with retired files, FBI magazines, Hemming’s Motor News, and used legal pads. I used my entire body to drag the bag out the door and heave it into the garbage can. Dad, who was planning to use his hand truck, reprimanded me for risking my back health. A week after a lawn bag, filled with items kept for decades, was discarded, I watched a paramedic team struggle  to revive an eighty-six-year-old man who’d died in his sleep. The medics didn’t know this man. If there was any way for that iron-willed figure to go upright, he’d have done so. As dad’s body bounced beneath resuscitation equipment for nearly an hour, I could hear him yelling that very morning because the water heater had broken.

Mom didn’t want to live in the townhouse without dad. Before she officially moved into my home, the woman who never blocked dying in on her brightly filled calendar pages suffered a major stroke. My eight-minute drive across town became a 50-minute drive to a New Jersey rehab. While mom was there, the contents of her townhome was emptied—furniture, dishes, clocks, and framed memories were passed down. The house of two years sold in one week’s time. After six months of rehab, mom was transported to my home to live in a room retro-fit with medical equipment. Much as we all tried, much as mom’s star-studded smile never waned, she never improved, and after a year, the gut-wrenching decision was made to move her into a long-term nursing facility.

It was nearing the year and a half anniversary of the nursing home I was always anxious to reach when the pandemic arrived. Covid restrictions placed me outside her window where I could still see the brilliant smile she offered every day until she was no longer able. Mom smiled through nearly a year of window visits, glass embraces, and drive-thru coffee hand-delivered by aides or security guards. She contracted Covid mid-December and died beneath her last roof several weeks later.

I find myself trying to remember the many homes I’ve lived in. Whenever I attempt to summon the print of a wallpaper or the fruit bowl on a kitchen table, the handsome faces of my parents sitting down to pasta Sundays appear. I feel mom’s smile and hear her singing Ave Maria. I sense dad’s piercing eyes and see his exercise bike grin. I remember a father and mother who cherished family and friends. I recall two people who embraced life and lived it well. Now that my own children are grown, my husband and I are selling our house of 18 years to find a smaller place to call home. I pray that our daughter and son remember with fondness each imperfect home that love built to keep them safe.

AnnMarie Roselli is a writer and artist living in Hudson Valley, New York. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Barren Magazine, Cagibi, 5×5 Literary Magazine, and others. Her collection of illustrated poetry, Love of the Monster, was published in 2016. Follow her online at www.anntogether.com.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

cancer, Guest Posts, Starting Over

27 Stitches

July 27, 2021
surgery

by Lauren Gobell

I got skin cancer for the first time when I was 28. Basal cell carcinoma, right temple, one freeze and burn surgery required. I’ll wear lots of sunscreen, and this won’t happen again. This is my health scare, and now it’s done, I reassured myself. But a year later, at twenty-nine, my white scar that I was painfully self-conscious of became suspiciously pink around the edges. My insides churned in that way that only happens when you know something bigger than you is brewing beneath the surface.

By then, I was four-and-a-half years into my marriage, and it’d been touch and go the entire time. After the diagnosis, I brought my then-husband to a consultation, so a doctor could explain that “basal” is not to be confused with “benign.” This was in fact, cancer, and therefore, it needed to be removed for medical reasons. After confirmation from a medical professional, my then-husband felt reassured that I was not just being dramatic about the whole skin cancer bit. By the time my surgery came in December, we’d separated, but I knew we were most likely headed for a divorce.

Prior to my surgery, I noticed another spot on my center forehead, near the hairline. I call this a, “For Fuck’s Sake” moment. As humans, we’re  all guaranteed 2-3 “For Fuck’s Sake” moments in our lifetime. These are the moments that bring us to our knees. They sometimes make us more resilient in the long run, but, let me abundantly clear, the interim period is extremely unpleasant, and if not handled properly, can really get the better of you.

Two weeks later, that biopsy from my For Fuck’s Sake moment came back positive as well. My one surgery in December would now be a “two for one” surgery. I spent hours bracing for impact before the operation. I scoured the internet for pictures of MOHs surgeries, telling myself it would make it easier post surgery to deal with my own recovery.

I was mistaken.

On December 15, 2016, I had an eight-hour surgery to remove both basal cells which left me with two facial scars. There were twenty-seven external stitches total, and I simply didn’t recognize myself every time I accidentally caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The pale, terrified, stitched-together girl that gazed warily back at me seemed like an imposter. How could this be my life? How did this happen? It was the first time I’ve ever truly felt unlovable, and that feeling lingered for longer than I care to admit.

I wish I could tell you that going through skin cancer quickly made me realize I was a badass. I wish I could tell you that when I caught people looking at my scars, I came back with some fabulous fictitious tale about a skiing excursion gone awry. I wish I could tell you that I left my toxic marriage right then and there.

But I didn’t feel like a badass; I felt broken. But I couldn’t make a clever joke; I was mortified by my own appearance. As women, we’re told by society both directly and indirectly to be hairless, poreless, blemishless. Most days, I was haunted by an inner voice that hissed,Who would ever want you now?”

Fortunately, as the months crept by, my scars went from bright red, to medium red, to an aggravated pink, and finally a subdued white.

And then, five months after my surgery, my husband did the smartest thing he could have possibly done.

He called me dumb.

He called me dumb one last time.

The specifics of that conversation don’t really matter. My hungover husband who had driven home blitzed the night before, who was so hung over we missed therapy with the Christian marriagie counselor he insisted on seeing, called me dumb because I refused to agree that the Hulu show we were watching at the time was “liberal propaganda.”

Dear reader, sometimes specifics do matter.

Because those lovely specifics converged at just the right moment and created a crescendo, a tidal wave of clarity if you will. And when that wave broke, it allowed me to have another “For Fuck’s Sake” moment when I needed it most.

Dear reader, my hungover, drove-home-drunk husband called me dumb, and suddenly everything within me realigned. All the nuts and bolts came together with a resounding internal click.

This was not, is not, could no longer be my life.

The beauty of a For Fuck’s Sake  moment is that it brings about clarity whiplash. Meaning, the truth comes at you so fast, you’re forced to examine it head-on. And since I’d just dealt with a FFS moments months earlier with my two-for-one basal cell diagnosis, I had a better inkling of how to handle a FFS this time around. That skin cancer FFS had been overwhelming, but this FFS ended up being the compelling kind.

The best way to handle an FFS moment is by taking action while doing everything possible to maintain your sense of humor. I had just handled double skin cancer surgery. Surely, I could handle divorce.

And so, I did it. I finally walked away from a dysfunctional nine-year relationship that frankly, never should have made it past a year. I found a mediator. I filed for divorce. And since I was a teacher at the time, my summer job became “Getting Divorced.”

It turns out, that if you have the luxury of making “Getting Divorced” your sole job, you can actually expedite the whole thing rather quickly. I made a “Getting Divorced” playlist. I did more cardio than most doctors would recommend in a fiscal quarter. I went through a brief, albeit dedicated, house music phase. Please be advised, A For Fuck’s Sake moment requires outside-the-box coping strategies. Green smoothies and an FFS don’t pair well.

Nine weeks after uttering the words, “I want a divorce,” I walked out of the courthouse with my marriage dissolved. Sometimes we have to leave.

I left a marriage having been brought up in a very strict, conservative household, having been told my whole life that nothing was more important, nothing was more sacred than marriage.

And yet, I was still able to rebuild my life. I was able to regain financial security and independence. I was able to make a career change. I was able to date and form healthyish, (just being honest, some things really take time) romantic relationships again. And so it turns out, there are things more important, more sacred than marriage. Self-worth being one of them.

27 stitches broke my soul, but they forced me to become whole.

Most days, I still wish skin cancer wasn’t part of my vocabulary, but in a strange way it saved me from myself. Because for fuck’s sake, it gave me my moment.

Please Note: In a bizarre twist of fate, I heard from my ex-husband a couple years after I walked out of that courthouse. He got skin cancer. Life is simultaneously strange and simple.

Lauren Gobell is a former middle school English teacher and now works for a digital media company. She is probably running, reading a thriller, or reapplying sunscreen.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

#metoo, Guest Posts

The Columbian

July 26, 2021
studio

by Linda Summersea

The first thing I saw upon entering my professor’s studio was a discarded tube of cadmium red paint. Its depleted remains lay in a trash bin atop a broken Kolinsky #12. The brush’s ferrule was rusty, its stiff bristles tipped in blood-red, coagulated paint. The room was quiet. The light was dim.

He was Colombian, my Drawing 401 teacher, and thirty-eight-years-old, although his beard and paunch made him appear older. If you had told me he was forty-five or fifty, I would have believed you. He was a respected artist, married, and had a well-known reputation for seducing students with his soft Latino accent.

My sandals flip-flopped across the hardwood floor to the table left bare for my work. The shades were drawn on a bank of windows, blocking the luminous north light. I placed my portfolio on the table, unzipped it, and turned around at the sound of a click.

I saw his hand drop from the deadbolt. Our eyes met, mine questioning, his confident. He strutted slowly and deliberately around the studio like a fighting cock awaiting his opponent. His machismo was on full display, preening as he pointed out his various drawings hanging on the walls. I followed him to where he stood before a charcoal and pencil nude in progress on an easel.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

I nodded. The nude female was almost life-size. His style was tight and sparse. Thin lines, sharp hipbone angles, nipples that were barely there on small, half-round mounds of breasts. A pubic area tight with wiry curls of brown.

“I want to draw you,” he said. “Like this.” He gestured towards the drawing.

“Today.”

Seconds later, he had laid a blanket on the floor, stood on it, and began to strip. Slowly, he unbuttoned the black cotton shirt that matched his curly black hair and beard. Dropped his jeans and peeled off his BVDs.

My eyes never left his. I stood horrified, lips sealed, as he stepped closer and proceeded to undress me, pulling my t-shirt over my head, slipping my blue jeans and panties from my hips.

Could this be happening? I was repulsed. It was as near an out-of-body experience as I have ever come.

Did he not notice my perplexed expression?

I told him I had my period.

He immediately reached down and deftly plucked the bloody tampon from between my legs. Thunk. It popped like a champagne cork, and he swiftly tossed it in the trash.

This man was not going to let a little menstrual blood get in the way of his conquest.

He reached out his hand. “Join me.” He gestured to the blanket on the floor.

I remained standing, motionless, a paper doll with parts unfolded, expressionless, in shock, passively observing his flaccid penis beneath the paunch of his bloated belly as he pawed at me. I was naked and vulnerable.

The ceiling fan circled overhead as I joined him in the slow dance of contenders facing off. I took a step backward. He took a step forward.     It was his lust versus my lack of passion, and it ended as quickly as it had begun.

“You are so cold.” He spat the words at me.

“You make a man impotent!” He was disgusted.

Seduction aborted, he retrieved his shirt, bringing the plackets together, each button sliding smoothly into its empty hole. All the while, blood trickled down my inner thigh.

I was wounded, but safe. I dressed and fled the room with my portfolio, not giving him the benefit of my thoughts. The last thing I saw was the tampon. It lay upon the discarded tube of cadmium red and the #12 Kolinsky brush.

My heart began to beat faster as I walked to my car. Once in the driver’s seat, I took some deep breaths, and thought about what had just happened. I knew I hadn’t done anything to encourage his actions, but still… There’s an unspoken communication between predator and prey. If I had not shut down his seduction with my disgust and passivity, would seduction have turned to rape?

I drove to the apartment, still upset, but shook myself off and went inside. My roommates were in the midst of preparing their dinners and I joined them to do the same. I didn’t have the courage to share what happened in the Colombian’s studio until now.*

***

*On October 16, 2017, Alyssa Milano created #MeToo following the exposure of widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. I wrote this chapter that day and read it aloud the next evening in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Body of the Book manuscript class in Portland OR.

After earning a BFA and MFA in Art Education, Linda Summersea (pen name) enjoyed a long career as an art teacher and especially appreciated being able to work with Youth-at-Risk given her own background with neglect, abuse, and psychological suffering. She has published in NPR’s Tales from the South, and produced ArtBreak, an award-winning children’s art program on Community Access Television in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her current work in pre-production is a free-verse narrative regarding her husband’s Vietnam experience for Voice of Vashon Radio, Vashon WA. She’s a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and the EPIC Writers Group and is active on social media. She blogs about life, writing, and travel at www.LindaSummersea.com.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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