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Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Lizard Brain

July 2, 2021
jeffrey

by Samantha Ley

Thud.

Feeling a dull throb where his forehead had hit the wall, Jeffrey wished he had cut out wider eyeholes. Then again, a lizard’s eyes are not that large, so bigger holes would ruin the authenticity of the costume. No, not costume; “costume” was what his mom called it. His suit. He had started making it with his dad. Jeffrey couldn’t wait to show off the finished version when Dad got home from his business trip.

He thought of it as his green self. His new self.

Two felt feet with long, clawed toes approached the stairs. Jeffrey could tell that his plan to scurry down headfirst was going to be noisy and probably not that safe. He decided, after swaying and testing his weight over the first step, that some lizards must crawl backwards. It would certainly confuse their predators. Holding on to his tail to avoid squishing or breaking it—and having to grow a new one, which would be tedious—Jeffrey slowly turned around and started to slide down the stairs, lizard belly to carpet.

The steady murmur of his mom’s dinner party. An underlying hum of voices. A shrill laugh. The deeper boom of a voice. Agreement. Fork against plate. Glasses clinking. Grown-up things.

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

More padding, thought Jeffrey, as he slid onto the landing. The next iteration of his being would come with way more padding. He couldn’t wait to show Dad the lizard suit once he got back from his business trip.

Jeffrey’s class was studying reptiles: where they lived, what they ate, what types of them existed, and how they acted. Jeffrey had concluded that you could figure out how anyone lived once you knew those details. So, this seemed like the next logical step.

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

His two front feet gripped the new carpet on each stair as he drew closer to the sounds downstairs. And suction cups, he thought. Suction cups could make or break his life as a lizard.

He peeked around the corner of the wall dividing the foyer from the dining room. A quick scan: four grown-ups, two empty chairs. Crumpled napkins, empty plates, lots of empty wine bottles. There was a large man with a long white beard who looked a lot like the picture of Charles Darwin in Jeffrey’s science textbook. He was telling a very loud story to the other guests and using his wine glass, nearly empty, for emphasis. Did one of the seated women see Jeffrey?

Jeffrey darted backwards, thinking of the lizards he had seen out by the town pond with his dad. When they felt threatened, they ran and hid, bodies twisting wildly from side to side.

Scurry, scurry, with a light, accidental brush of his tail against an ornate vase in the corner. Then into the adjoining living room, dark. But Jeffrey knew the layout in here, and his senses turned on with a sort of click. The eye holes were too small, yes, but he could sense he was not alone. He imagined a hawk hunting for his little green self. Circling silently, gauging his prey, waiting for just the right nanosecond for a swift attack. If Jeffrey was lucky, he would be able to scuttle under the glass top coffee table for protection. If he were less than lucky, the hawk would snatch his tail, which would take two to three weeks to regrow. And if he were truly unlucky…

He heard his mother’s voice, right near him but as though it were far away.

“Did you hear something?” she whispered.

A man’s voice, and not Jeffrey’s father’s: “Stop worrying so much.”

Jeffrey froze, feeling his heart in his head. He could see from the corner of his eyehole his mother’s leg, her discarded stiletto heel on its side by the couch. A man’s hand gripped her calf and then ran smoothly up her leg, to where he could no longer see it without turning his head. He didn’t want to. His heart choked him, filling his throat. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Rather than acknowledging the cacophony of his heartbeat, they simply resumed whatever they were doing, with noises that Jeffrey did not wish to acknowledge. Sounds that must have been part of a huge misunderstanding.

Maybe, thought Jeffrey, his dad was not really in San Francisco on business. Maybe this was him, just different. Maybe this was what people were like when they came back from California. Or maybe his dad had died, and his mother didn’t want to tell him just yet. But even if he was dead, it made little sense for her to be kissing another man, a stranger, on the newly upholstered couch in the living room. Jeffrey wasn’t even allowed to eat on there.

This had to be a mistake.

His mother’s foot arched out towards him, nearly grazing the tip of his lizard nose. He burst out from under the glass top table and kept going, through the half-lit kitchen and back into the dining room. He faintly heard a crash and an exclamation from the living room, but the guests in the dining room heard nothing. They were all laughing, all drinking. The man with the puffy beard was red-faced and hideous. All Jeffrey could see through tears and his eye holes was gaping mouths with red lipstick, razor sharp nails. He heard shrieks and a yelp as he half-ran and half-crawled through the dining room, into the mudroom, and through the doggie door out into the night’s world.

Gasping, heaving, he ran into the neighbor’s yard. It had elaborate manicured gardens and an ornamental pond. Jeffrey was never, ever to go over there without an invitation.

He tripped over his tail, fell to the ground, and crawled, soaking his costume with the beginnings of the evening’s dew. Swallowing a wave of nausea, he imagined the hawk, swooping over him with night vision and an empty stomach. He quickly scuttled under the neighbor’s giant prize rhododendron bush.

Shoving himself through sharp branches, Jeffrey burrowed into the mulch. He pulled his tail around himself and clutched at it, fingernails clawing the fabric as he curled into a ball. Inhaling the scent of leaves and wet earth, he steadied his breathing. He pictured the lizard videos he had watched over and over. Lizards hiding from prey made themselves completely still, but the ones who were truly asleep had a tell-tale tic in their throats. In, out. In, out.

Jeffrey closed his mouth and breathed through his nose. He concentrated on not moving a muscle, on becoming a stone that a hawk wouldn’t look twice at. In just a few minutes, his breathing slowed. A light rain began to patter on the bushes as Jeffrey’s fingers loosened on his tail. His chest slowly rose and fell under the cover of glossy green leaves and delicate pink flowers.

Samantha Ley holds degrees from Kenyon College and the University of Virginia. Her fiction has been published in a number of online journals and has been nominated for Best of the Net. Most recently, her work has appeared in Fairfield Scribes and Albany Poets. She is a freelance writer and editor who lives outside of Albany, NY. 

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Self Image, Self Love

Ugly Duckling Goes To The Prom

June 30, 2021
prom

by Emma Margraf

After four or five hits of pot on prom night, the hotel bed felt like the most amazing place I’d ever been. I was still in my discount-find dress with shoes kicked off and my date, James, was smoking his share of pot out of a small ceramic pipe. James was still in his suit shirt but without his jacket and tie. We were sharing a suite in San Francisco with two other couples. We paid for it with our part-time jobs and some contributions from our parents  after giving them a complicated argument for why this was a rite of passage they should support. The pot was James’s contribution – not part of the argument. I laid there wondering what I expected out of this moment – James and I were exes at this point – he was with someone new. He was with me because we had history, even though at the time I didn’t know what history meant.

I was certain my doctors wouldn’t be ok with the pot smoking, but I was young and, even with a number of chronic conditions piling up, it didn’t seem to matter. I would realize the direct consequences decades later.  My doctors were perplexed by my propensity for illness and injury and by my head size. I had to get a graduation cap special ordered.

My friends were in other parts of the suite with their boyfriends, and they all had muddied expectations as well. They wanted to lose their virginity, and also didn’t.  They’d pulled us off the dance floor, because of their anticipation. James and I lit up when the hits came on, goofing on dance moves and swinging each other around during the slow songs. I bristled at the way the photographer moved me around and told me to try and look pretty. I could hear James mutter to himself, come on man. So much of this didn’t feel as fun as it was supposed to be.

Come on man.

As we’d been walking into the hotel that night, James and I both noticed a look from a frenemy of mine. She used to copy my answers in Government class and somehow still get a higher grade. She called me an ugly duckling under her breath one day, thinking she was the smart one. I didn’t know she wasn’t at the time.

I was self-conscious about my dress. The only other formal dance I’d gone to was the year before, and my drunken father spent more money than was appropriate on a dress  I liked because it looked like Marilyn Monroe’s dress in that famous picture where her skirt flies up. This dress was more mainstream, a struggle to find, and one my friends liked. James turned me around toward a large mirror in the lobby and put his arm around me. It was the first time I realized that our outfits matched.

“LOOK at us!” he exclaimed, “I mean LOOK at US. We are FLY”.

He wouldn’t let up until I agreed that yes, we were fly. We were.

Doctors don’t ever tell you that you look fly. My doctors have always been sort of surprised when I even did normal things, like join the basketball team in seventh grade. When I did, I got unsurprisingly injured. The injury led to one of my favorite moments in my short sports career: too many girls on my team fouled out, so my coach put me in and told me to stay on our side of the court. When the other team came back with the ball I would be right there, arms in the air. It would be unexpected.

Doctors don’t talk to you about those moments. Doctors never ask you if you are going to prom. Or at least mine don’t. Sometimes I find myself trying to tell them I am normal. I am here. I am a person who lives a real life.

Come on, man.

My girlfriend Erin jokes that between me and our Great Dane, she loves big heads. She loves us both intensely, and it soaks into all of her daily choices. She came home one day from Costco jubilant, excited by a possible victory: she’d found a helmet, and she thought it might actually fit. I pulled it out of the box and put it on while looking at her hopeful face as she jumped up to push my hair into the sides of the helmet.

I love movement, and a helmet means that I can get on a scooter again, or an electric bike, or get my roller skates out. Wearing short shorts and a Star Wars shirt she’d given me for my birthday, I put on my skates and practiced in the house, smiling the whole time.

She and I have moves like James and I used to, only better. We have danced in the street in New Orleans and Las Vegas, but also in the Christmas aisle at Home Depot, where we bought a singing avocado that we dance to in our living room. We met in a Zumba class, where she was the teacher and I was the student. I fell totally in love with the way she taught us to Samba, the way she expected everyone to constantly improve, and most of all, the way she loved the music. It was thrilling.

After a few months of Zumba, I felt comfortable enough to move up to the front rows of the class, closer to the mirrors, with more of a spotlight on my body, my arms, my legs, my big head. I knew that some of the men who collected outside the door to watch us wondered why I would feel so confident. I knew some of the women in the class would feel that way too. I kept dancing.

“Don’t stop, make it pop, D.J. blow my speakers up

Tonight Imma fight ‘till we see the sunlight

Tik Tok , on the clock, but the party don’t stop no”

Our hands waved above our heads, back and forth as we strutted down towards the mirrors and backed up to our spots, singing along to a song sung by a woman twenty years younger than most of us. A song sung by a woman who would later sue her handlers to get her freedom back.

Leaving class one day to get water I heard a YMCA staff member telling a guy to stop staring at our class.

Come on, man. 

That guy, that look, that feeling —  like the photographer at prom, like a boss who said I was easy to get to know, like the frenemy who told me I was the Ugly Duckling. I didn’t get overtly bullied for my big head, mostly because I grew up in communities that took bullying seriously. But it was baked into our culture. When folks referred to mainstream kids, they didn’t mean me. Everyone knew I was in a wheelchair as a kid and you don’t bully someone who used to be in a wheelchair. And the big head isn’t her fault, you know? She’s sick.

Come on, man.

What the mainstream folks didn’t know was that the wheelchair protected me. I didn’t get conditioned to feel like I had to look a certain way or to be a certain way because the wheelchair made me a nobody to everyone except those that really loved me. I didn’t get invested in rituals like the prom because no one expected me to be a part of them. When I did participate, the narrow view of beauty that came along with the ritual felt like a shocking inability to see the whole world.

We’d spent more money than any of us had to spray our hair high, layer on makeup, and put on pretty dresses. That part had actually been kind of fun, all four of us girls moving in and out of the bathroom, trading makeup and curlers and hair dryers along with gossip. The terribly overpriced terrible dinner was the first of many I would pick at later in life at weddings and fundraising dinners, but I didn’t know it at the time. Then my friends wanted to leave early, cutting our dancing short, racing to their expectations.

And so this is how James and I found ourselves clothes on, laying on a hotel bed smoking enough pot to make up for the fact that we wanted to be dancing. The dancing was like the time on the basketball court, like roller skating, like Zumba. We talked and laughed about the awkward people at prom that were Not Having Fun and whispered about the occasional sniping we heard from the next room, where it didn’t sound like things were going well. I woke up the next morning in my dress, with a blanket pulled over me, James asleep on the couch nearby.

I was listening to Allison Janney on a podcast last year reliving some of her time on the tv show The West Wing twenty years ago, and she said she looks at her younger self and thinks that she had no idea how beautiful she was. Folks have always told me I looked like her. I’ve always thought she was beautiful. Were people making it clear to her that she wasn’t considered beautiful too? Are we the same? I think about her looks vs. her career and her life and I don’t long for her glamour, but I would give anything to spend time in the same room as Martin Sheen, to trade dance moves with Dule Hill. Dule Hill danced with Savion Glover on Broadway.

Erin and I now live in the country, across the street from an inlet that produces some of the most sought-after oysters in the world. She read an article about the science of oysters and champagne and why they’re paired. Soon, we’ll go down the street for the oysters and have some champagne delivered. If we feel so inspired, maybe we’ll put on dresses and have our own prom. We’ll eat at the farm table my dad made me using the discarded wood from a millionaire’s mansion’s floor and dance in the living room or outside on the deck, under the country stars.

Emma Margraf is a Northwest writer whose work can be found in Folks, Entropy, Chronically Lit and more. She lives with her girlfriend and her Great Dane on a small inlet in the forest.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

 

 

 

 

Guest Posts, Nature

Where Do We Go?

June 28, 2021
forest

by Kristine Kimmel

I live near an ancient forest. I know that it’s ancient because there is a small placard as you enter that reads “Ancient Forest.” My favorite species are the Coast redwoods, which tower over Sago palms spreading their stiff green arms, and the Australian tree ferns, which show off feathery plumes like proud strutting peacocks. Even through my mask, the woodland balm- a mix of warmed bark, musk, and spice- (a scent I am continually searching for in perfumes) loosens my shoulders and untangles the knots of my mind.

As a forest dork, I am fortunate to be tucked into a hillside with an abundance of nature. Monterey pines in which hawks nested for the last three mating seasons and a Coast live oak, recognizable by her razor-sharp leaves that resemble dead beetles and make going barefoot impossible. But it’s those redwoods in the ancient forest that inspire me to use words like transcendental, metaphysical. Spiritual? I’m going to stop because I’m starting to sound like a box of tea. But only when I walk among them do I think to myself, Okay, maybe there is something to this God business.

In Japan, a researcher named Dr. Qing Li studied the benefits of spending time in the forest. He encouraged something he termed “shinrin-yoku.” “Shinrin,” means “forest,” and “yoku” means “bath.” Forest-bathing is “taking in the forest through our senses.” According to his research, trees release phytoncides- antimicrobial essential oils that purportedly boost the immune system. In the early days of Covid, I placed a blanket on our front porch and asked my two eight- year- olds to join me for forest bathing. They were perplexed. This is boring. Can I bring my iPad? When does the bath part start?  It reminded me of a time years ago when a friend in Austin sent me some Reiki to help with my neck pain. A few weeks later, I called her: “Did you ever send that Reiki you were talking about? I haven’t gotten anything in the mail.”

In August, my husband and I rented an RV and took our two kids on a four- hour drive north to Santa Cruz to stare at something other than screens. The kids loved the RV, but I advise parents to skip this house on wheels set-up. There is a kitchen and, with that comes a constant expectation of food preparation. The sleeping quarters are akin to folding yourself into half or thirds origami-style, so you might fit into a suitcase or the trunk of a Toyota Corolla. As we walked among the old-growth coast redwoods, I felt humbled and awed in the presence of these venerable elders. Coast redwoods are a deep rich auburn, and their bark resembles fur. They are impossibly soft like a fuzzy sweater or an animal’s downy coat. I said to my kids, “You know, the next time we come up here, these trees could be gone.” My daughter looked up at me and said, “Can I look at your phone?” Less than a week later, one of California’s massive wildfires swept through Big Basin Redwood State Park and threatened some of the trees, which are among the tallest on earth. Luckily most of them survived, but how much longer can these ancient trees withstand the devastation of these annual fires when 2020 saw over 4 million acres burned? And how much longer can I?

I worship California. Despite the crushing traffic, the constant threat of “the big one,” and years-long droughts, she has been my purest and most enduring love. I’ve never, in nearly two decades in my adopted state, thought, “Gee, I wonder what it would be like to live in “FILL IN THE BLANK.” Never once have my eyes wandered from her blooming jacaranda and palm-lined sunsets.

That is, until last year, after our third time nervously eyeing Twitter updates on the latest giant fire’s progress. All the while, thick yellow smoke obscuring our mountain view, our car nose- out in the driveway, go-bags packed. We’ve never had to evacuate, but we’ve had more close calls than I’m comfortable with- my comfort level on close calls with evacuation orders being zero close calls. Many nights, struggling to sleep, I’ve turned to my husband and asked, “Are we doing this wrong? I feel like we might be doing this wrong.” This year, the wildfire season and the pandemic brought a double quarantine. We couldn’t go outside because the air was at toxic levels, and the entire state was in the same predicament. Oregon, which I’d always considered my backup state- aka California Two- had it even worse. Climate scientists predict a growing number of autumn days with extreme fire weather over the next 80 years. Am I on board for keeping my children inside days and weeks at a time because of toxic air? Or scarier scenarios I’ll imagine tonight at 2 am when everyone else is sleeping?

I’ve noticed I have friends in two camps. The ones who don’t want to face this. I see their eyes gloss over or a slight tensing of their jaw. Why is she talking about this? I imagine them thinking. I don’t want to worry about this right now! I am worried enough about Zoom school and my marriage and Covid, and it’s not fair of her to bring up this climate catastrophe crap when I just want to drink my rosé and talk about how hot Adam Driver is! Yes, I am the bummer Zoom hang; I am a surprise screening of the documentary Blackfish when you thought you were going to Sea World. Then there are the other parents who are putting their houses on the market, reconsidering moving back to the states where their parents live, trying to convince themselves how hip Toledo is now.

I’m researching Vermont lately and Maplewood, New Jersey. I’ve never been to either place. Vermont because I suspect it might be the second most beautiful place in the United States and Maplewood because my friend Jen is moving there with her family, and she says it’s “the new Brooklyn.” I already don’t want to leave California, so New Jersey is a hard sell. Leaving California feels like breaking up with my boyfriend for him because he doesn’t have the guts. “California, I hate that you are making me do this,” I’ll say through my snot and tears. California, head hung low, like a dog that just peed on the rug, will reply, “I know, I’m the jerk. You’re great.”

I realize how lucky I am that I can worry over this. I’m not standing in line at a food bank, worrying about how I will feed my kids. I’m not forced to put myself and my family at risk as an essential worker. My family is safe, so far.

The night Pennsylvania was called for Biden, a heavy downpour drenched our region. The next morning, shrouded in a comforting fog, I pored over the news on my phone. Maybe the fire season was finally over. I threw on a warm coat and returned to my ancient forest, with an eight-year-old in tow. As we entered, we pulled down our masks, but the familiar smell I longed for was gone. Instead, crisp cold winter invaded my senses. I could see my breath. I pulled my daughter’s hood over her head. She promptly pulled it down, because don’t you try and tell her what to do. I placed my hand on the first redwood we encountered in greeting. My daughter joined me. I asked her what she thought. “Feels like a puppy.”

We found a bench, and she opened her notebook and began sketching. Mine remained tucked away in my backpack. I allowed my thoughts to float freely with the wind rustling through the treetops. I was bathing in the forest just as Qing Li advised. I focused on my eight-year old’s sun-lit copper tangles as she huddled over her aquamarine flip sequin notebook. A shift had occurred, and it was beyond the temperature change. The forest felt more settled, more secure. On a rational level, I knew that none of the West coast’s forests are any safer in the coming fire season than the last five seasons. But a tiny voice inside me looked upon my ancient forest and thought, you are protected. I had the sudden urge to throw myself on the soft earth and sob in relief because it no longer felt like the fate of this forest- all the forests, all the people suffering, my own children’s safety, and my own mental health- was all on me.

“Look, Mama, I drew a redwood.” A giant tree took up the entire page. At the bottom, two tiny stick figures spread their skinny arms wide on the redwood’s massive trunk.

Kristine Kimmel is a Los Angeles based writer with multiple television credits. She has an MFA from Antioch University and a memoir currently out on submission. Her work has been featured in Dame, Mommyish, Motherlode, The Establishment, and more.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Books, Guest Posts

Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of Second Chances by Diana Kupershmit

June 27, 2021
emma

We first met Diana Kupershmit in 2016 when she published an amazing essay on our site. This is also when we first met Emma. Emma is Diana’s first child, and she was born with a rare genetic disorder that left her profoundly physically and intellectually disabled.  Diana’s description of life with Emma was moving and her essay, Motherhood, Art in Motion, gave us a sense of what it meant to care for a special needs child. This week, the bigger story of Diana and Emma was published by She Writes Press and we are thrilled to be a part of it her journey!

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love. Read Diana’s essay here, order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org. And enjoy the excerpt below.

From Emma’s Laugh, the Gift of Second Chances, By Diana Kupershmit

EVERY CHILD CHANGES YOU IN different ways,” wrote Lauren Slater in her memoir, Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother. Hanna was my artistic muse. She manifested my dreams of performing to an audience whose approval and praise I inherently sought, ever since my grandmother Manya took me around to sing and  collect sweets that would be responsible for my teeth-decayed smile. I lived vicariously through my youngest child, collecting accolades as if they were my own, because they were a product of my relentless encouragement to nurture her natural talents.

Joshua was my sweet boy, tender of temperament, generous of his love and   unconditional acceptance of me even as I struggled to reign in my perfectionist tendencies. He was smart, witty, funny, and perpetually happy, with confidence that I could only recall nostalgically before it shattered in adolescence.

Emma was the fulcrum upon which I teetered. She was my perfectly imperfect child, my teacher, my sage, and I loved her more for it. She elevated to the surface my worst fears and perceived flaws and shed light on them so that they no longer had the power to possess me, to threaten my existence. By casting the focus on her care and well-being, Emma relieved me of the burden of self-obsession, to be perfect and lead a perfect life. I was less a prisoner to others’ judgment and no longer succumbed to the anxieties that so mercilessly plagued my psyche in years past. It was as if by taking on my pain, she freed me of my existential wounds, just as I had wanted to do for her all those times she hurt.

From Emma, I learned there is beauty in the unspoken words, in the actions of implied determination. In all the ways that she had communicated her wants and needs, the unconditional love her uncooperative body housed, which I had first seen as not whole and now saw for what it was, a concerto of desires, a lightness of being I could only dream of, an existence dictated by a  connection that surpassed body and spoken language, that surpassed all that limited her. She was freer than I would ever be: free from judgment, free from psychic pain, free from all the suffering I imposed on myself in a world of rules, conditions, and expectations.

Emma helped me navigate the tangled pathways of my heart and rearranged it. From her I learned that sometimes you find beauty where you least expect it. In her, I found beauty and wisdom and grace. This little girl, who in my youthful ignorance I believed was broken, had healed me.

Because it was me that was broken all along. She was always the whole matryoshka, at the center of the nesting dolls. My mission, once I chose to accept it, was to move through the extra layers of myself, through the other matryoshkas nested in different versions of myself, to get to the heart, the soul, the epicenter of everything that was perfect and forgiving and whole about me. And that was Emma. She lingered patiently until I found her, found myself.

Diana Kupershmit is a social worker for the Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene, in the Early Intervention program, a Federal entitlement program servicing children birth to three, with developmental delays and disabilities. She has published on-line in The Manifest Station, Power of Moms and Motherwell Magazine. On the weekends, she indulges her creative passion working as a portrait photographer, specializing in newborn photography, but also family, maternity and event photography. 

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Grief, Guest Posts

Emergency Cigarette

June 25, 2021
barb

By Ellen Wade Beals

Barb thinks she’ll call out, “Hello,” but when the front door key sticks in the lock, she has a moment to realize that Bernadette, her mother, is gone. To call out seems kind of maudlin, but Barb does it anyway. That’s how she’s feeling. What better place than an empty house to show those feelings? Her “hello” sounds feeble.

The house smells fusty, which would have driven Bernadette crazy. She’d be opening windows. “Let’s get some fresh air in here.”

It’s been three days since the funeral. Barb had needed a break. Now she plans to start the first rash of cleaning out her mother’s home. She’s been dreading the task. Sifting through all her mother’s possessions—it’s like paring down a life. And so final.

Today’s goal:  tackle the top layer, the trash that can be safely tossed without regrets. The hard stuff—whatever was too good to toss but of no use to her; her mother’s personal items; the things Barb would look at for fifteen minutes and still not know what to do with—is for another day. This is the preliminary trash day, she told herself and Alec and Aunt Rosemarie who had offered to help, and she can handle it. She’ll get as many trash bags done as she could and that will be that.

Barb drops the box of giant plastic bags in the hallway and looks around. She slips off her shoes. Though the lady herself is gone this is still her mother’s house. Neat and tidy. But chilly. She goes to the thermostat to turn up the heat and then to the closet to hang up her jacket.

First order of business: her mother’s winter coat, the green one she’d bought new for Barb’s graduation and that was over 25 years ago. She checks the pockets (nothing but lint) and notices the sleeves, so worn the coat couldn’t go to charity. On the front collar of the coat is the Christmas wreath brooch Bernadette had bought at Woolworth’s and wore every holiday season for as long as Barb could remember. She unpins it and tucks it in her jeans pocket.

Barb puts her nose to the wool blend and recalls the afternoon they met on the Evanston corner before going to the movies. The cold air was so clear that Barb could smell the coffee on Bernadette’s breath when she spoke: “Lead the way.” They were going to see Philomena, about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby. That they chose the  movie without first reading the reviews was a mistake, it turned out, because it brought up issues. Barb had to bite her tongue lest she sputter that the Catholic church could be evil. Bernadette’s reaction was “At least the child wasn’t denied life.” Barb sensed Bernadette held back too. Though she was adamant about the mortal sin of abortion, the son in the movies had been gay, and Bernadette did not exactly denounce homosexuality. Instead she shook her head and summed it up as something she could not understand. At least they both liked Judi Dench

She slides the coat off the hanger, notices the label and  laughs. In marker are written the initials “B. S.” Bernadette always said one reason she named her daughter Barbara was so they’d share a monogram. That way if she ever had a mink with her initials embroidered on the silk lining, she could leave it to Barb and the monogram would still be right. The uneven block letters on the tag make Barb a little sadder–one of Bernadette’s ideas that never came to pass. When she billows the garbage bag to open it, the noise is so harsh it makes her grimace. In it goes.

She moves into the bedroom and opens the big dresser drawer. Beige and white, the bras and panties have that funky rubbery smell of old elastic. All sorts of cotton and rayon, no lace, no silk. Lots of Platex. Or ordered from an ad in Parade Magazine. She grabs handfuls to add to the trash bag. Secondhand underwear. Nobody wants that.

Beneath the underwear are cards and letters, but she dares not start with them lest she get waylaid. Her mother saved all the cards she ever received. She can see the corner of a pink envelope, knows it was from her father, and doesn’t have to pull it out to picture her Father’s perfect Palmer method handwriting. Ephemera, that’s what it’s called, but just seeing the envelope evokes her father. What if he were still alive?  How might their lives have been different? Maybe he would have softened Bernadette because sometimes she was hard. Especially on herself. On the dresser top is their wedding photo, black and white, Buddy was in a dark suit and Bernadette wore a lace mantilla veil.

Since his death in 1982, Buddy has gone on to sainthood. Bernadette idolized him. Countless times throughout her childhood and even more-so when her mother had grown infirm. Bernadette would proclaim, “My one and only” or “the love of my life,” and hold the framed photo to her heart. A rare moment of weakness and heartfelt emotion that Bernadette let show.

As she pushes the drawer shut with her hip, Barb tries to think whether she’d describe Alec as the love of her life. Maybe. But not in the same way Bernadette meant it. They were partners.

Especially as she got older and dated and moved out, Barbara wondered whether companionship wasn’t something Bernadette lacked. There was no one. No other. But it was not a subject her mother cared to discuss. Bernadette worked as a receptionist for a dentist, Dr. Ken, since 1986. For a while when Barb was in her teens, she entertained the idea that maybe he was her mother’s love interest. But that was not the case. Bernadette was loyal to the dentist and even protective of him, but it was just old-fashioned respect. He was a doctor and he was her boss. That was that.

“My one and only,” Barb says to herself. Her voice sounds tinny. Suppose her father had not died –what then? No matter how she thinks about the question, there is really no answer.

Barb drops the bag by the bedroom door and heads to the kitchen. The only male who sparked anything in Bernadette was Bill O’Reilly. She watched him every day. If Barb called while The O’Reilly Factor was on, Bernadette asked her to call back, she wanted to watch. When Barb asked what was so special about him, Bernadette would say, “He’s just so no-nonsense,” and “He’s easy on the eyes.”

“Anderson Cooper is handsome,” Barb had countered once but Bernadette wasn’t hearing it

“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”

Later when Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges and lost his show, Barbara didn’t want to bring it up. By then Bernadette was sick again.

Barb flicks on the kitchen light switch and the fluorescent fixture buzzes awake. If Barbara’s purging of the house goes okay, she’ll have to chalk that up to Bernadette. Her mother had a file folder “My Demise,” and it had all the necessary papers – the DNR and Living Will, the last Will and Testament, the contact info for the attorney, the numbers (and even PIN numbers) to Bernadette’s banking and credit accounts.

Barb hadn’t known how to go about selling the house but, on the refrigerator,  there was a magnet from a Realtor, Mike Toomey, who specialized in estate cases like this. Bernadette’s house will be listed in two weeks. It will sell pretty fast, he’s assured her. As is.

In the kitchen, the Formica is the same: boomerangs in grays and pink on an open field. The refrigerator’s been replaced over the years. It’s a bare bones side-by-side Kenmore, meticulously maintained by Bernadette. Just the other week Barb came across the wire brush contraption her mother used to dust the condensers.

A couple of weeks ago, when her mother was still in hospice, Barb gave the refrigerator a once-over, so today it does not contain much: a carton of creamer she doesn’t dare open, the green carboard can of Parmesan cheese, some other condiments, all of which she dumps. The freezer is more packed.

Barb pulls up a kitchen chair, slides the garbage can over to her side and sits in front of the open freezer compartment. There are two standard blue plastic ice cube trays. But typical Bernadette, there are also two of the old-fashioned aluminum kind that are louvered like window blinds. Bernadette never threw out anything that was still useful.

As Barb puts the trays in the sink for the ice to melt, she notices something stuck to the bottom of one of the aluminum trays. It’s a white envelope, labeled clearly: Emergency Cigarette. Barb stares at it. She touches the letters.

When Barbara was in fifth grade, she had her first health class and came home with handouts on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. It was obvious to both of them that  her mother should quit smoking. Bernadette made a promise to Barbara. She remembers it clearly. They were at the kitchen table. Barbara rested her head on her crossed arms. The Formica felt cool. No more, Bernadette told her, only maybe this one exception. Barbara watched side eyed as her mother took the last Kent from its pack and wrapped it in waxed paper, which she carefully creased into a rectangle that she then tucked into a small envelope. With a black felt-tip marker, she wrote on a white business-sized envelope: Emergency Cigarette. She put the smaller envelope into this, sealed it.

“I’ll feel better knowing it’s there if I ever need it,” Bernadette told Barb. “What if there were an emergency and I needed something to calm my nerves? The last thing I’d want to do is run out to buy a pack.” Then Bernadette walked to the fridge and stashed the envelope.

“Of course, I’m hoping we’ve had all the emergencies we’re going to.” Bernadette raised her eyes to heaven.

Her father Buddy had been a big man in every way. He was an ex-Marine who worked as a building engineer at the Standard Oil Building. He took the earliest train there every morning. He had a clunker car, Old Bess, a Ford Maverick, banana yellow, that he drove to their station and back.

Bernadette and Barbara were stumped when it was still in the lot, even after the later train. He wasn’t in the tavern across from the station. He wasn’t anywhere they looked that Friday night. They came home exasperated and could hear the phone ringing as Bernadette put the key in the lock, but it stuck when she turned it until finally the bolt released and Bernadette shoved open the door, “It’s bad news Barbie I just know it.”

She ran to the phone, but it had stopped ringing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.” The phone rang again. Buddy’d had a fatal heart attack on the 4:04. Her mother crumpled and then let out a cry that pierced Barb..

She feels the envelope; the cigarette’s still there but it seems different, shorter maybe. After that day so many years ago, Barb never saw her mother smoke again. She puts the envelope on the counter to deal with later and tries to resume her work, marveling at the thought Bernadette had kept that cigarette all these years.

Her mother’s ability to hang onto things seems impressive now. When she was a kid, Bernadette’s frugality only embarrassed her. She can still feel how the color rose in her cheeks. It was recess, sixth grade, always a fraught time, but she felt good, wearing the new sweater her mother had given her the night before–a Fair Isle pullover, off-white with forest green and purple accents; the label had a name she didn’t recognize.

AmberLee Donovan practically announced, “Oh my god, my sister had that sweater and my mother just donated it to rummage sale at church. Where did you get it?” Barbara knew then where Bernadette had gotten it, but she had no answer for AmberLee. That night Bernadette had not understood why there was a problem. If AmberLee wanted to make fun of Barbara because she wore a perfectly good sweater, well, that was AmberLee’s problem. Bernadette, always big on the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, had admonished Barb, “Offer it up.”

Barb stands, shuts the freezer, walks to the counter, and picks up the white envelope to inspect it again. She presses it gently between her fingers. Had Bernadette smoked it, or had it shrunk from the cold?

Barb opens it carefully not wanting to rip her mother’s printing. A cigarette is there, but this one is wrapped in Saran.

She looks again at the envelope. This is a different Emergency Cigarette.

Sure enough, it’s a Marlboro Light, not a Kent. And the tip is gone. Bernadette must have had a drag or two and then put it out and snipped it with a scissors. But it’s been smoked because the filter is yellowed and there’s Bernadette’s lipstick, Tangerine Dream. Barb always urged her mother to change her lipstick color because it was far too orange for her rosy complexion. She even bought her a pink shade from Clinique but always Bernadette came back to Tangerine Dream.

She feels herself deflate. What? Did she expect her mother to never have smoked the Emergency Cigarette? Is she disappointed? Really? Get over yourself.

She’s not really mad at her mother for smoking. What hurts is that she didn’t know this about Bernadette. Maybe she would have seen her mother differently if she had known this vulnerability. Bernadette came across always so matter of fact, so certain.

When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?

Maybe when she got sick. After all, she kept it to herself. At first, she waited to see if the lump would go away. Then she kept the diagnosis quiet for at least a week. It was only after she made her first appointment to determine the course of her treatment that she called Barbara, asked if she would accompany her. Bernadette explained it was good to have another set of ears to hear everything the doctor said. Always practical.

At the appointment, when the nurse called her name, Bernadette started on her way to the examining room and Barb followed, but Bernadette halted in her steps, said, “I’ll have the nurse call you in when it’s time for the consultation.” For some reason that nearly brought Barb to tears right there in the waiting room. How stupid. Here she was crying when her mother was so strong.

Had Bernadette bought a pack of cigarettes during that time? Maybe she’d wanted one last smoke to steady her nerves. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t Barbara been at her side?

Barb always envied those close mothers and daughters who joked and teased. She and her mother had a strong connection, a reliance on one another– not a friendship. Now she had a sincere appreciation for Bernadette’s grit as a single mother. Growing up she hadn’t seen things so positively. She’d be the first to admit she’d been a haughty teenager who looked down on the life her mother wrought. Barb was going to accomplish something, not merely eke by. But after all those months of her mother’s being sick, of Barb coming up so often and sharing hours with her mother, they had come to a kind of ease with one another.

There was the circuit they did on Saturdays to the Greek diner and the grocery store and Dollar Tree, Bernadette’s favorite store. Some evenings they brought out the TV trays for dinner; Bernadette would say grace and they’d eat and watch the local news. Barb washed up and usually left when Wheel of Fortune was on. During the commercials Bernadette would switch to Special Report with Bret Bair.

How many times had her mother replaced the Emergency Cigarette? Barb shakes her head and takes her seat back at the open freezer.

Aside from a penchant for Fannie Mae candy, Bernadette didn’t have many bad habits. Butter was something she indulged in, stocked up on. And there it is: a one-pound brick, which hits the garbage bag solidly. Bernadette would kill her for throwing out good food, but there’s no going back.

Next in the trash is a bag of frozen peas, strictly used as an ice pack. Bernadette would drape a bag over her knee and settle into watch reruns of Law & Order, or NCIS, her favorite show, what with that Mark Harmon so handsome and so nice in real life—did Barb know he’d rescued someone from a burning car?

There are plastic containers (filled with what Barb doesn’t know, but suspects is cabbage soup). All of which she tosses without opening. She considers how she should really recycle them, but it’s garbage day tomorrow and everything must go. Clunk, clunk, clunk. A pint of Walgreen’s ice cream. Butter pecan. Clunk.

Between an olive green Tupperware and a butcher-wrapped chop, Barb finds another white envelope. This one is labeled “Emergency Cig, 2011,” so it has been in the freezer for seven years, for as long as Barb’s been married to Alec. Is that why her mother needed it? Bernadette and Alec never seemed to warm up to each other. “Your Alec is as smart as Alec Trebek,” Bernadette told Barb like it was a compliment, but Barb could decode it, knew it meant Bernadette felt intimidated. She didn’t correct her mother on the Jeopardy host’s first name.

Alec was raised a Catholic, so he had that going for him. His parents were from Cuba and he grew up in Miami. But like Barbara he was a lapsed Catholic. So, both of them disappointed their parents.  They managed to peeve everyone even more when they got married at the clerk’s office. Alec’s parents wanted to host a luncheon at their club to celebrate the nuptials. But Bernadette wouldn’t get on an airplane. So, to compensate Barb and Alec had a Chicago celebration; a brunch party at a nice restaurant. They invited their close friends along with Aunt Rosemarie, Bernadette’s priest friend Father Malec, and Dr. Ken and his wife. It hadn’t seemed stressful but maybe Bernadette had needed to light one up to get through it.

Barb puts this envelope on the counter next to the first one. She shuts the freezer, leans back in the chair, and closes her eyes.

How many cigarettes have there been? When had the first Kent been lit and when and how many Marlboros had she needed?

If her memory is correct and the first cigarette had been put away when she was in fifth grade, it was only a few years later that Barbara had changed, insisted on being called Barb or Barbara –she hated Barbie. The tweens. That was the start of when she could see only her mother’s shortcomings. Conformist. Boring. Barb had been such a handful, so strident, it was no wonder her mother hadn’t smoked carton after carton.

The heat comes on, and it makes a regular tick, once, twice, three times. Barb listens to the house; wonders if it will belong to someone loud after all these years of quiet.

She thought she might get teary when she cleaned out Bernadette’s dresser or smelled the White Shoulders perfume.  Instead, it’s here at the freezer where her feelings thaw.

Then it flashes to her, how egotistical she is to presume the reason her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette had anything to do with her. Didn’t her mother have a life of her own? Barb did not share with Bernadette, but maybe Bernadette didn’t share either. There could have been things she never mentioned. Worse even, it could be that something had upset her mother and she didn’t even know. And now would never know.

Or perhaps her mother, with her TV companions, poured herself a 7-Up and lit one up. She could picture it, maybe. Bernadette would take the time to arrange cheese and crackers on a plate and use cocktail napkins. She’d probably even used an ashtray, though it seemed the Emergency Cigarette was only smoked for a puff or two.

Barb would have known if her mother smoked then because she was around a lot; she came home to take care of her mother on those treatment days when the radiation and nausea sapped Bernadette’s strength. And most weekends. Barb had been a dutiful daughter, hadn’t she?

Come to think of it, with the world as crazy as it is, it could have been a news event that drove her mother to the white envelope in the freezer — 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? Surely the Emergency Cigarette was not from that long ago. Maybe it was when the classrooms of kindergartners were shot up?  Or something else. There were plenty of atrocities–there were many to choose from.

The freezer stands empty and the garbage bag sags like a heavy heart. Barb is ready to tie it up when she notices some items on the shelves of the door. Behind a sticky can of frozen orange juice concentrate, she finds another white envelope, this one with a plain face, no writing. How many emergency cigarettes had her mother needed?  And why did she save them? Had she lost count or forgotten them?  Was she further gone than Barb suspected?  Barb tosses the envelope on the counter.

Taking the full garbage bag to the can outside the kitchen door, Barb wonders how much she doesn’t know about her mother.

Back at the counter, the three cigarettes are lined up: a Marlboro Light, an Eve, and a Benson & Hedges, all partially smoked, each white filter ringed in faint tangerine. She gathers them all, brings them with her when she sits at the kitchen table.

Lately who hasn’t wanted to smoke and drink and tear their hair and jump off buildings?  Even Barb, Ms Health Consciousness, had been tempted to bum a smoke those weeks at the end of 2016, the situation so bleak with the election turning out as it did. And that was another thing that drove them apart. Really drove them apart.

“Even the Trib won’t endorse that woman,” Bernadette had told her when Barb brought up the election.

“But you’re going to vote for that man?”

“I’m voting for the Republican Party,” Bernadette said firmly. She never mentioned it again, but Barb thought about it a lot.

Such a disappointment. Barb could not come to terms with how Bernadette voted. It flabbergasted her. Of all the things she did not understand about her mother, this seemed the hardest for her to fathom. How could someone who valued decency vote for him? And now the cigarettes.

Her mother is dead and the man she voted for is the President and they are all left to deal with it. It’s a mess. The only mess Bernadette left behind.

They were getting to a good place with one another, she and her mother, where they understood and appreciated one another. But he ruined things between them just like he is ruining the nation. Everything tainted.

Here she is 46, the same age as Bernadette when she had her. She used to want a baby. But now she is glad she never conceived because the world is so screwed-up. When menopause started and the possibility of pregnancy diminished, Barb was relieved as well as disappointed, if that made any sense.

Her eyes are watery as she touches the cigarettes. She’ll smoke them all, one by one, just to imagine she is taking in some breath of her mother. But she can’t get up from the chair and she doesn’t have a match. All that’s in her pocket is that stupid Christmas brooch. Somewhere far down the street a car alarm starts up and then seems to fade away.

When Barb looks down at her hands, she finds that without thinking, she has broken the three half-cigarettes, crumbled them until the filters and paper and tobacco are in a pile on the table. Tears come. When she is done crying, she picks up the three tangerine-tinged filters, lines them up in the smoothed-out Saran, and carefully wraps them. This she puts in the smallest envelope, which she then tucks into next envelope, and then the last. She looks once again at the indelible printing: Emergency Cigarette. She brings the packet to her lips. Then she shifts in the chair to put it in her back pocket.

Only tobacco and paper shreds are left on the table. She brushes all the mess into her palm. Because the garbage can is empty, she doesn’t want to use it. Instead she opens the kitchen door and blows her hand clean, all the little bits flying this way and that.

Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland and the UK. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Beauty Hunting, Current Events, Guest Posts

A Eulogy for Comets

June 22, 2021
ison

by Natalie Torentinos

Three years ago, I was lying on abandoned elementary school bleachers staring at the sun. My sweaty skin burned against the unyielding metal, but I didn’t care.

It was August in South Carolina. My three friends and I rode our bikes for nearly 10 miles along narrow roads with no sidewalks and little shade to the path of totality because we couldn’t find any hotel rooms in Charleston. My whole body ached from peddling, hand signaling, and sitting on an uncomfortable saddle. But this was all to experience a cloudless afternoon fall instantaneously into darkness and eerie quiet for a few precious moments.

What did past generations think of these events, I thought, without any warning?

This irregularity of light and shadow left me feeling envious of anyone underneath clear skies for the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. A series of internet searches left me feeling sentimental for events I never knew happened or would never live long enough to see.

The astronomy community once dubbed Comet ISON a famous “sun-grazer,” or comet which flies just under 870,000 miles from the Sun. This comet spent most of its life from just beyond Pluto until a few million years ago, when it was gently nudged from its home by the gravity of a moving star. ISON entered our inner solar system with all the hopes of scientists resting on its frozen and rocky surface.

Scientists hoped ISON might survive its dalliance with our sun and be a spectacular sight in the night sky, visible to the naked eye. But it was not meant to be. As it passed our yellow star, ISON dissolved into nothing but dust and vapor.

“Born 4.5 Billion BC, Fragmented Nov 28, 2013”, reads an ISON-observing blog. “Survived by approximately several trillion siblings.”

The astrophysicist observing ISON commented that its disintegration was “a process of heartbreak.”

When I think back to how I felt watching the solar eclipse, I could understand the attachment and anticipation for an object flying more than 800,000 miles away, but ISON’s tribute was made all the more poignant by marrying the language of emotion and science.

I feel the constant struggle between emotion and the adherence to guidelines dictated by science. Seeing friends and family these days is, perhaps, a journey too close to the sun, but our basic human needs are not so different from the forces of gravity. No one wants to stargaze alone on a cold winter night.

Pandemics and celestial events, both cyclical in nature and harbingers of doom, connect distant generations. The last time Jupiter and Saturn were ever this close, a plague began in northern Europe belonging to a cycle of epidemics often referred to as the “Second Pandemic,” which started with the Black Death and kept recurring at regular intervals over decades. People were ordered to stay indoors for one month after the death or infection of someone in a household. As we communicated and entertained ourselves mostly from our homes, I wondered how past generations managed seclusion and feelings of loneliness. How can we comprehend periods of history when letters would be the only source of comfort, if they could read and write at all, and when modern medicine could not prescribe an effective treatment or vaccine in such short order?

Despite our modern comforts, we have become all too familiar with the process of heartbreak, but the pain hasn’t been fully realized, maybe because we know this isn’t over yet. Maybe it’s because we’re not accustomed to collective mourning. Maybe we are afraid to acknowledge our own deviations from the prescribed path of limited human interaction.

My friend’s brother wanted to surprise their parents with a holiday visit. He self-quarantined for two weeks and then drove cross-country nonstop for almost 30 hours, sleeping in his car and never staying in a hotel, only to develop flu-like symptoms upon arriving at their family’s home. All subsequent COVID tests came back negative, but the effect was crippling just the same. My friend, who had initially rejoiced at the idea of finally being reunited, could only cry in the driveway before daring to see him. They saw each other on Christmas through zoom.

Another friend lost her job this past year, and since her parents are both doctors in their 70s, she resolved to not see them until all were vaccinated. She was prepared to spend Christmas ordering takeout and binge-watching Orange is the New Black, but one of her neighbors, also single and recently unemployed, made her a dinner of brined herb chicken. They ate the meal separately in their apartments, apart yet perfectly aligned.

I attended a small gathering of family friends on Christmas Eve. Each person ate at their own table spaced at least six feet apart. After the meal, the hosts directed us to the living room, and while seated six feet apart from one another and wearing masks, we listened to Christmas carols on a 1920s Victrola phonograph record player. I heard those reedy voices singing to us in that living room, these voices of nameless and faceless people who likely lived through the 1918 pandemic, as if they were traveling across decades to comfort us in a time of uncertainty.

Christmas caroling and nativity plays were cancelled during the pandemic of 1918, but people continued to gather. One difference between now and then, however, is that while viruses were too small to be seen by any available microscope, we can now see detailed images of their structures. One news article pointed out that COVID-19 looked “otherworldly, a death star floating in deep space, with curious stars glimmering in the distance.”

It seems that microscopes, like telescopes, can see into deep space and instill a sense of wonder – and fear.

The collapse of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Telescope seemed an apt representation for a growing weariness of science. The 305-metre wide dish assessed asteroids and observed spinning stars for more than 50 years. An astronomer likened the loss to “losing an elderly relative,” as it persevered through the pitfalls of life – budget cuts, natural disasters, and periods of neglect. A student who saw the telescope through a research program said it hurt to talk about the observatory in past tense.

While navigating the varying emotions we’re all experiencing – whether due to losing one’s health, job, or sense of safety – it can be difficult to contemplate how we transition from present to past tense. Will there come a time when I sit a young child on my knee and start a story with, “back in the COVID days”?

I long to toss out the mask hanging from my car’s rearview mirror, but even when that day comes, these invisible death stars will linger in the air. Science may indicate that an acceptable level of immunity has been reached, but what will our emotions dictate? I suspect the same forces compelling us to gather now will compel us to look upon large crowds and cramped spaces with suspicion in the future.

Will we confront our changed psyches as the pandemic’s long-term effects cast an ever-growing shadow?

We are not so different from the universe, one that is both ever-changing and predictable. A pandemic will happen again; we will praise scientists, and we will ignore science-driven restrictions placed on us. We will take for granted the comforts past generations suffered without. We will find ways to assuage our grief.

Three years from now, the next total solar eclipse will cross the United States. When the moon and sun cross paths again, I will ask my friends to gather together so we can watch and wonder – about the past, the future, and all the worlds we cannot see.

Natalie Torentinos is a lobbyist for a medical society in Washington, D.C., but earlier in her career worked as a reporter for several weekly and daily newspapers in Texas and Pennsylvania. She holds a bachelor’s in history and journalism from the University of Delaware and a master’s in political management from the George Washington University.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Child Birth, Guest Posts, Relationships

My Husband is Getting a Vasectomy for Father’s Day

June 20, 2021
day

by Marni Berger

Our sense of humor isn’t so dark. We didn’t morbidly plan Leo’s vasectomy for the Friday before Father’s Day weekend, so that it can hover over the day like a cloud, preventing him from not only becoming a father again, but also from doing much of anything that weekend besides rest.

The decision itself is made closer to Mother’s Day, which is also fitting: I will never again have a baby growing inside me. But despite the resolution, my uncertainty rears its head as an identity crisis. What’s certain to me is that eliminating the possibility of pregnancy and motherhood, after nearly five years of both, will mean I won’t know who I am.

***

We talk in circles here and there over the span of a few nights before Leo makes the appointment. My head spins for days, as though we only just decided, even though we really made this decision while I was most recently pregnant, almost a year ago—after my second round of hyperemesis when I was unable to move for five months without vomiting, when I lost my job, as I did with the first pregnancy; when I nearly lost my mind; when, on Halloween night, Leo stood in the dark beside the bed, as I curled into a ball on top of the covers and asked him to call an ambulance and his shadow said slowly to me, “We don’t have to do this, you know.”

But we did do it, the pregnancy. And the result—which is our second child, Frances—has bloomed out a tormenting equation in my mind whose solution I’ve yet to explain: if you add isolation to indefinite suffering, you get the kind of blinding beauty that incites amnesia. Frank, as we call her, just like her older sister Mona, is the sun that has blighted the night. It’s difficult for me to close the door to any more of that kind of light. And the ability to create it feels like the stuff of God.

(Isn’t it?)

But with each child, it’s been more difficult to forget the pain that created her. And so here we are—

The night we finally decide, Frances is ten months old. I look up at Leo in the pixilation of dusk when I say, almost apologetically, “When I was a little kid, I always thought I would have three kids when I grew up.” When he looks at me pained, I look down and mumble like a child, “Not only two.”

He sighs. Leo is standing in his t-shirt and shorts beside the banister. The lights are dim; it’s after bedtime for both the children—and adults. We are about to ascend the staircase to bed, bleary-eyed. We’re too tired to talk tonight, but this is our only time not to be heard (as far as we know) by the little ears of our oldest, a four-year-old with the memory of a muse.

“But I know that’s crazy, and I never want to be that sick again,” I hurry. The words rush out like a train whose cars are colliding into each other. The fantasy of no hyperemesis is dashed by the look on his face, and how it mirrors reality: Leo’s expression bears no trace of amnesia.

“We can adopt?” he says.

“True,” I say, instantly trying to shrug off the tens of thousands of dollars and miles of improbability that I know adoption entails by categorizing it on the shelf in my mind labeled “possibility.”

But then there’s my other question: “What if I die, or we divorce, and you want to have more children?”

He’s clear about that. He doesn’t want children with anyone else.

Then my final question: “Do you really want to do that to your body?”

This, he may sense, is a sort of test of his feminism—after all that has happened to my body, which I occasionally, in tears, refer to as “mutilated” despite my immense fortune of having had “easy” and “textbook” births (textbook births are still akin to being ripped in two). If it is a test of his feminism, it’s only semi-conscious on my part.

The window is cracked. The neighbor’s lilac tree breathes through. The adolescent leaves on the oaks and maples rush into the wind as a soft brush of wings. The goldfinches have been shedding dark feathers and reflecting their names in shimmering new light, and they chirp now happily.

“It just seems,” Leo says, “like the evolved thing to do.”

***

That night, I can’t sleep. Our baby is in the crib beside me. My brain, my heart, my lungs—all in flux. I sweat, but it’s cold. Ducts pulse and release, milk for her, hormones for me, energy in my body that rushes in and out of balance. I would never in a million years get pregnant now anyway, so soon after a baby, not even a year, I tell myself; so soon for me, someone, I think, so easily thrown off by change.

I begin to cry into my pillow, as though someone is dying, and Leo hears me and asks if I want to keep talking. “It just doesn’t seem fair,” I say, “that we can’t do this one thing, because I’d get so sick, but—”

“I know,” he whispers, and I cry as quietly as I can so I don’t wake the baby, and we sleep, and Frank grumbles beside us, and I feel very sad even in my dreams, but tomorrow, when the light shines into the window, I will know that there’s more to this decision than the hyperemesis; that there’s an impossible line I am trying to straddle, a question I can’t answer: What does it mean to love motherhood with your whole heart, while not wanting to be consumed by it?

***

The next day I get my period, a timing that seems too absurdly obvious to be true. It brings with it its usual relief and clarity. Revelations are most likely in the bathroom these days anyway, with kids playing loudly outside it (or in it), so it’s fitting that today is no different.

I know now that the past five years of two kids, of two debilitating pregnancies, and their recoveries have tumbled together and on top of me, making it hard not only to see ahead but behind.

Should it be a surprise that the very thing in me that could carry a baby—as though agreeing with me—is shedding its skin like a snake? As though to ask: Could you grow into a new kind of motherhood, and alongside it, into someone besides a mother, even someone you’ve known once before?

Marni Berger holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University and a BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. Marni’s short story “Hurricane” appeared in The Carolina Quarterly 2020 summer issue and her short story “Edge of the Road with Lydia Jones” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (Matador Review). Her short story “Waterside” appeared in Issue 96 of Glimmer Train. She has been a finalist or received honorable mention in nine Glimmer Train contests and one New Millennium Writings contest. Marni’s novel-in-progress, Love Will Make You Invincible, is a dark comedy about a mother and her precocious tween. Marni lives in Portland, Maine. She has taught writing at Columbia University and Manhattanville College. She currently teaches writing at University of Southern Maine.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) each day when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fatherhood, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Father’s Day

June 18, 2021
poppa

By Shirley Dees

We’re going to visit James’ dad again. Before we leave I manage to squeeze a few moments alone in the bathroom of the duplex James and I rent and hang my head over the cheap, cushioned toilet seat, the kind that keeps your ass from hurting while you’re doing your business, and try not to puke while James stands outside the door. The timing of this year’s trip is a real bitch. He’s been dead for ten years, and every Father’s Day, James and I drive out to the cemetery to stand next to his headstone with James’ Poppa and talk about nothing. I never met him, but since I started dating James six years ago, I tag along.

“Leah, you about ready?” James is in a hurry. That’s what all of this is, really. A dreadful hurry.

“Can you give me a skinny minute?” I am surprised to find I can open my mouth without vomiting. Things are looking up.

“A small one. I hate to make Poppa wait.”

I stand up and move over to the sink. I study my face for obvious hints of morning sickness and add a touch of makeup. I don’t want his grandfather to be put out, either, so I try to hurry. “Is your Poppa feeling good enough to drive today?”

“Larry is taking him,” James says. His voice comes through the bathroom door like it’s worn down by hammers. I give myself one last scan, one last breath to steady this awkward and hurried day, and open the door.

“Okay, let’s go.” I walk by quickly without giving James the chance to get a real look at me. I am running out of time to tell him about the baby. I love him, which only makes all of this more complicated. He pulls the car keys off the hook hanging by the backdoor as I throw my purse over my shoulder. I feel him behind me, staring at the door, doing his yearly hesitation.

“James,” I begin, “we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” He grabs the door handle to pull it open.

“It’s Father’s Day, Leah. You know I have to go.” Before I can ask again, he’s outside, feet crunching the gravel as he walks to his Ford Ranger. “Come on,” he says.

Every year, I try to cruise through this day with a level of indifference to make it all sort of just disappear, but every time I see the scars on the back of James’ head, that indifference melts into protective anger. I want him to know he is the one in control now. But I’ve learned not to push the issue. I offer to stay home in his seconds of hesitation by the backdoor, just to remind him the option is always on the table, but he always declines, stating it’s his duty to go. After all this time, I don’t really expect anything different anymore.

I climb into the steamy, black truck we share to get to and from work, each of us alternating with co-workers and carpooling when we can. We never drive it more than fifteen miles in a day so this is the truck’s longest journey every year at 60 miles, and I wonder how much longer it will last. James always says we’ll drive it until the wheels fall off, but I don’t think we can make it until then. This truck is twenty years old and suddenly too small. I crank the window and let the air hit my face, praying to God I don’t have to throw up on the way there.

Pretty soon we’re pulling out of town and the annual tour of my boyfriend’s childhood horrors begins. When he first told me about the abuse, it rolled off him the same way it does now. Ritualized. The Dairy Queen they met at for his dad’s public visits. The house where his dad used to live with Larry, an old friend and now Poppa’s neighbor, and the place James went when his dad was finally allowed overnight custody. This house was the one with the stairs whose pointy edges lead down to a wooden floor. The stairs and floor that birthed the scars on the back of my boyfriend’s head. He points them all out, every time. I’ve come to see them as his demons, evilness that must be excised regularly to keep them away, the reason for all this hurried dreadfulness. There must be a better way to heal, for everyone.

The heat-scorched Texas earth zips by as we cruise down the highway at the fastest speed the Ranger allows: sixty-three miles per hour, which means it will takes us an hour to make the trip. This is easy math that I keep in my mind to help make this day seem simpler, but one look out my window at the speeding ground and my head spins.

“We’ll stop in McKinney and get a bite to eat, that okay?” he asks like this isn’t what we always do. Normally, the stop in McKinney is the highlight of the day. They have this burger joint where the burgers are so juicy, they soak through the paper that lines those red, plastic baskets. The French fries are cooked in oil and bubbled until they’re perfectly golden and crispy, the ketchup salty and tangy on the lips. Food so good it makes you want to slap your granny. But today, just the thought of those greasy burgers makes me want to dry-heave, so I push it away and curl my legs underneath my hind-end.

James glances at me from the side. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know, maybe we can try some place else this time.”  I look straight ahead, keeping my sour face out of view. A car screams by us on the left, a red convertible of some type. I’ve never bothered much with learning car brands and models, but sometimes I’ll take a guess at what it is to impress James. He whistles as the car switches back into the right lane, ahead of us.

“Damn, must be nice,” he sighs. I give a little silent shout of praise to the owner of the sport car for pulling James’s attention off my lack of an appetite. I know we’ll probably stop there and eat anyway, because there is nothing else in McKinney. Maybe I can get away with scarfing a small quarter-pounder and puking in the restaurant’s commode before we get back on the road.

“Your Poppa still going out to the cemetery every day?” I ask.

“He doesn’t like driving much anymore so he only gets out there when Larry can take him.”

“I didn’t realize he wasn’t driving anymore,” I say, pausing a moment to let a passing thought linger. “What’s he going to do with that truck of his?”

“The man’s got to get to the grocery store and what not. He’s just not driving anywhere long distance.”

“I wouldn’t call fifteen miles to the cemetery long distance.” Immediately I recoil, guilt pinching at my insides.

“Yeah, but to get there he’s got to get on the highway.”   

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.” I realize I’m coming off like I’ve been waiting for Poppa to slide his big toe inside the old folks’ home to transfer the title to his vehicle into James’ name.

“You want to take his truck?”

“Well, no I just . . . I don’t know.”

“That’s Poppa’s vehicle, Leah.” James’ voice takes on that condescending tone that sends tethers of defensive coils up the back of my neck.

“I know.”

“Man ain’t quit driving more than a month and you’re already thinking him some kind of invalid.”

“No, James.”

“Claiming his property.” James shakes his head and disappointment spreads over him along with the crinkles that set into the corners of his eyes when his temper has run out of fuse.

“That’s not it at all.” I keep my voice calm in hopes to steer him back towards sanity.

“We have a truck, Leah.”

“I know.”

“We ain’t ever had a problem with it. But my Poppa gets old and you start seeing money bags.”

“I wasn’t thinking about taking your Poppa’s truck, James.” His knuckles tighten on the steering wheel and I know I need to get control. “You know me better than that. I just don’t want him giving it away without talking to you about it first. You know how some people will take advantage of Poppa.”

“Hmm,” he keeps his eyes on the road but I both hear and see his suspicion. He is trying to keep his temper in check and keep his demons tightly roped inside. “Okay, just sounded like you had other intentions.”

“Please don’t put words in my mouth.” Another car zooms past and there goes his focus, just like that. A little flame of frustration still flickers away in my mind but I swallow again to try and put it out. My temper is on a shortened leash today, too. I can’t handle the accusing tone he gives me all the time when stuff like this comes up. We fight about the most stupid things like any normal couple, but mostly we argue about the future. He believes he’s doomed to repeat the mistakes of his father. James ain’t ever hurt me. Not physically, anyway. We’ve had our bickering, and he’s gotten in my face a time or two, but it never goes any farther than that. It’s like a spark, something goes wrong and he snaps into anger, a few harsh words come flying out of his mouth without thinking and then his face fills with remorse. It’s what I point out to him all the time the minute I know he recognizes it.

“You see,” I say, never backing away. “That’s why you ain’t like your daddy, James. You have awareness.”

I think that’s why I haven’t left yet, because I can see past those crinkles of anger and deeper than the illness that’s cursed his genetic line. Awareness. It’s been like this since we first got together and I’ve just put up with it because I love him deeply. I’ve never asked for a ring, but I’m pregnant now and it ain’t just our future anymore.

The miles speed by in silence. Pretty soon, we’re pulling into McKinney and I see the burger joint up the road. My stomach is feeling okay, so this may not be so bad after all. In fact, as we walk in, I’m ravenous. I scarf my burger and inhale the fries. I want all the Coke that’s in the soda machine and then I order a chocolate milkshake to go. James wants to share, and I oblige, even though I don’t see why he can’t just order his own damn ice cream.

“You know, Dad used to buy us ice cream from here,” James says as we walk back to the truck.

I perk up. “Oh really?” James has never mentioned this before.

“It tastes the same now as it did then.” He reaches over and grabs the cup from my hands and pulls a mouthful of shake from the straw. “Then I got sick one time and threw up in his car and he beat me so bad I couldn’t sit down for a week.” He semi-slams the paper cup in the holder on the dash and angrily turns the key. Gravel shoots off from the Ranger’s tires as we pull out of the parking lot and are back on the highway again, heading towards complications. Maybe it’s my shortened temper, but for the first time in the six years of this annual trip, I get upset with James for this outburst and let out an irritated sigh.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, James.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he says, turning his entire head towards me.

“Nothing,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Don’t pull that.”

“I’m tired of this damn stuff every year,” I spit out. “We drive these terrible sixty miles and the entire time you talk about all the bullshit he pulled when you were growing up, and then by the time we get there, you’re all angry and pissy with me and Poppa and the whole thing just sucks.”

“Well, Christ, what do you want me to do about it? Not go? Poppa’d kill me if I didn’t come out here every year,” he keeps his eyes on the road and I can tell he’s trying to control his temper again.

“No, all I’m saying is, well, don’t you think you can at least try and think of something good? I know it couldn’t have been rainbows and peaches with the man, but there had to be something. Maybe if you think of something good instead of all the awful, you won’t be in such a foul mood by the time we get out to the cemetery, and then Poppa won’t get on you about being a grump, and I don’t know, we can finally spend Father’s Day in some peace.”

James doesn’t say anything for a hot minute. He passes a car on the left and then switches back over to the right lane.

“You’re not being fair,” he says.

“Ain’t I?”

“There ain’t nothing good I can talk about.”

“Bullshit.” I try to dig for a specific moment, but nothing is coming to mind under pressure, and I start to panic.

“I said there’s nothing,” his grip tightens on the wheel again. I cross my arms and start to run through holidays and moments that could spark a memory, any memory that was positive, but it was pointless. James hates Christmas for reasons I know stem from his dad. His family was poorer than mine so trips anywhere as a kid were a pipe dream, but I’m desperate. I have to keep the stack from wobbling too far off course into a dangerous area.

“James,” I start to say, my voice soft and flat. “Come on, tell me something good.” He says nothing, his eyes with that tempered glaze. I ignore the feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Come on.”

“No!” His wrist hits the steering wheel and the truck swerves, the car next to us honks, but I don’t think James hears him, or cares. “There isn’t any good stuff. There never was!” His voice bounces off the windshield and the passenger window. I pushed too far, but it was too late to try and reverse course. I might as well keep steering this messed-up ride on my own course.

“I don’t believe that,” I say.

James groans. “You’re being damn difficult.”

“You can’t blame me for wanting my boyfriend to remember decent things about his father.”

“I just don’t see why it’s so important to you.”

“I think it’s important for you, James.”

“I don’t.”

“So we disagree, but I still want you to try.”

“I have tried.” James says this with a touch less anger, and it saddens me because I know it’s true. But I push on.

“Try harder,” I say.

“You don’t understand.” He shakes his head.

“James, I can’t believe your father didn’t love you.”

He doesn’t say anything for a while, but I keep my eyes on him, studying the muscles in his face. I take his silence as him going to those depths, to find something he’d kept shoved at the bottom of his soul, buried in the darkness.

“He didn’t love me,” he says.

“How are you so sure?”

“Because. . . I didn’t love him.”

“James. . . .”

“You wanted the truth, Leah, so there it is. Though, I don’t know why you haven’t figured out any of this before. My dad broke something in me long ago. Love like that, it ain’t possible, alright? Not for me. There ain’t no good left.”

“But how can you say that when I’m sitting here right next to you? I mean, you love me, don’t’ you?”

“That’s different.”

“No it ain’t. Love is love, James.”

“Like shit it is.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, well…” he breaks off into a silence.

“What’re you trying to say?” My stomach rumbles. A wave of nausea hits me and the road swerves, but James’ hands are tight on the wheel. I grab the dashboard to keep the earth from flipping upside down. “You can’t love anyone else?”

No answer. His silence is like a scythe. Heat pulses across my body, a salty sickness creeping its way into my mouth. The Ranger jumps a slab of buckled asphalt and suddenly I have to vomit. No time to ask him to pull over, I slam my hand on the window crank and lower the glass just enough to poke my head through and unleash the juicy burger and fries on the side of the highway at 58 miles per hour.

“Leah!”

I pull my head back inside and roll the window up. I pop open the glove box and pull out one of the hundreds of restaurant napkins we keep stashed in there. “Sorry, must have gotten car sick.”

“Car sick? You ain’t ever gotten car sick before.”

I wipe my mouth and lean my head back against the seat, closing my eyes. My stomach feels lighter, calmer, but my heart is beating too hard, sadness spilling from its chambers and spreading through the inside of the Ranger. “Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

I consider a couple of options. I could cry and tell him I’m pregnant and everything else that is on my mind. Or I could ask him to pull over and let me out, find a way back home and pack up my stuff and leave. Problem is, neither of those options really solve the problem. There’s still a life growing inside me.

Fatigue falls on me like rain so I close my eyes, the sun on my face and shoulders failing to comfort me the way a blanket would a tired baby. I want to sleep and figure I can because James clearly isn’t in the mood to talk anymore, and to be honest, neither am I.

***

I didn’t notice when the truck stopped. I didn’t even realize I had fallen into such a deep sleep. James shakes me and I see his face as I open my eyes, close to mine, holding a cup of Sprite to my lips.

“You feeling alright?” He actually looks concerned, all of the glaze and crinkles gone from his eyes. Fatigue melts into affection as I stare into those honey irises and feel their devotion. I don’t know why he thinks he isn’t capable of love.

“I’m okay. We here already?”

“Yeah, but Poppa ain’t yet. Come on, take a sip of the soda.”

I grab the cup from him and place the straw between my teeth. I sit up and look out. The cemetery is empty, the grass a light brown, thin and withering into dust. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky and I feel the heat radiating off the marble and concrete headstones from inside the Ranger. I pull a sip of soda from the straw.

“You want to wait here for Poppa?” I ask.

“No, let’s just go on over. He should be here in a minute.” James pops open his door and steps out, so I follow. Caliche rocks poke the thin bottoms of my flip flops and I regret the decision to wear them. The sticker burrs in this dead grass are going to tear my feet to hell. We start walking to the gravesite, one of my hands firmly on the soda as I suck in more of the cold liquid. A pathetic excuse for a breeze tries to blow over the cemetery but it really only feels like God just opened a giant oven door. My brain is beating on the sides of my skull and I try to swallow the rest of the Sprite to get it to quit. I wonder if it’s disrespectful to puke on hallowed ground.

“I didn’t bring anything,” I say, realizing we don’t even have a single flower to place on the headstone. James just shrugs. I guess it doesn’t bother him that we’re the first ones to arrive and are walking up to his dad’s grave empty handed. Doesn’t seem right. Poppa’s usually the one who gets here first and typically has something to lay on the grave. Typically, we all stand around, James shuffling his feet in the dirt while Poppa talks, saying nothing more than “yeah,” and “uh huh,” which usually pisses Poppa off. Then we all get quiet for a while. Poppa takes out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and stares at it for a few minutes, then folds it back up and stuffs it into his wallet, never reading it aloud, never leaving it by the headstone. James has never asked what that was all about, and because he hasn’t, neither have I.

We pass a few more rows of grave markers before we arrive at his dad’s. It is so hot I consider hiding out in one of the freshly opened plots, just so I can run my hands through the cold soil that’s been shielded from the heat by layers of earth. We stop a few feet from the stone, and both of us stare at the ground. I start picturing the memories James brought up in the truck and a feeling of anger ripples across my chest. I know it’s not the time or place but I can’t help it. Love spurns a protective desire, but what could I do? The son of a bitch was already in the dirt.

“Well. . .” the rest of my words die away. They all seem so pointless, even more so now. I want all of this to be over and I feel the hurried dreadfulness creep between the graves and lie at our feet. James puts his hands in his pockets and lets out a breath, but he doesn’t say anything, either.

Tires moving through the caliche make us turn our heads. “That’s Larry and Poppa,” James says as the truck parks a few rows back, but only Larry gets out of the vehicle. He’s wearing starched jeans and snakeskin boots with a collared shirt. He is dressed for another occasion separate from this disaster of a day.

“Poppa driving himself?” James asks.

Larry shook his head, his white hair bouncing. “Sorry, James. Your Grandfather wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t make it out, but he does want you to come by before you head back home.”

“Well, he could have called.”

“He figured if he called you this morning and said he wasn’t coming you wouldn’t show,” Larry says.

“Well, that’s not a lie.” James wiped the sweat from his brow.

“But he wanted you to have this and he asked if I could bring it to you.” Larry reaches in his pocket and pulls out the familiar, aging folded piece of paper and hands it to James.

“You serious?”

“Well, your grandfather sure was.”

“What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Keep it, I think.”

“Poppa don’t want it back?” I ask.

Larry looks back and forth between us, then opens only the corners of his mouth to answer like he’s trying to protect us from something. “I don’t think your Poppa’s going to come back out here much anymore.”

This isn’t a hard truth. Poppa is getting mighty old, and Larry is only in his late fifties and has a business to run and new grandkids of his own to visit on Sundays. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time to bring Poppa out here, though I’m sure he would keep doing it if Poppa didn’t step in and say something. I suspect it was all Poppa’s decision, seeing the stuff Larry had piling up on his plate. He didn’t want him missing out and knew he would keep coming unless he told him to get lost, so that’s what he must have done this morning. Very quickly I saw the Father’s Days in the years ahead and tried to imagine what it looked like at this graveside, and who was all standing here if one of them wasn’t Poppa.

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll leave you two to your affairs. I’ve got a barbecue to get to. Just, go see your grandfather. I think he’d like to see you, James,” Larry says.

“Sure, thanks.” James sticks out his hand and shakes Larry’s before he turns and walks away.

“Have a happy Father’s Day!” I shout after him. He waves a backwards hand and gets in his vehicle and drives off. I turn back to James and eye the paper in his hand. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“The paper! Aren’t you wondering what it says?”

“It can’t be the same one, can it?”

“I’d recognize that folded paper anywhere. Your Poppa always brings it every year.”

James looks down at it, then at his dad’s grave, then shakes his head. “No, let’s just go.”

“James.” I try to let him know this decision is more ridiculous than this whole affair combined. “You stubborn asshole. Just read the thing.”

“Fine, but then we’re going straight home. We ain’t going to Poppa’s. I can’t stand this heat no more.” He unfolds the paper and takes a step closer to the grave and starts to read, rotating his back towards me.

I wait, reading his body language as I imagine his eyes running across the lines of writing and try to think what the paper has to say. Another boiling breeze moves across the air and a sickness stirs in my stomach again. That would be something, to throw up on this man’s grave. I look over at where we parked the Ranger and wonder if I’d even make it back, giving the cup in my hand a shake and almost weeping at its empty silence. After about another minute, James picks his head up and turns around, staring straight through me like hail cutting through trees. A hot redness creeps onto his cheeks, and I expect the glazed, crinkling look of his eyes to follow, but instead he allows the muscles in his face to fall flat. His shoulders droop and his lips curl south. His knees shake and bend, and then all at once, he falls to the ground.

“James!” I drop the cup and kneel down next to him, sticker burrs poking through the soft layers of the skin on my legs. I put my hands on his arms, his neck, and then his face, and pull it into mine, a river of tears streaming down and off his chin. The tremble of something buried deep in him rises to the surface. It is complicated. It is confusion. It is truth. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. I pull him into my shoulder and let him cry, the paper in the dirt half folded, only a few lines visible on the bottoms of the page. I hold James in my arms, and everything unspoken pours out of him and into the ground below us. Suddenly, the heat doesn’t seem to be such a bother anymore and if he needs me to, I’ll sit here for the rest of my life with him.

The cicadas pick up and that stirs James enough to lift his head. “Okay,” he says.

“Okay,” I reply. He stands up and shakes the dirt from his legs and then helps me to my feet.

“Let’s go see Poppa,” he says.

“Okay.” I fold the paper and place it in my pocket. I’ll ask James what he wants to do with it later.

He grabs my hand and stares at the grave. I don’t pull him along.

“I wanted to love him,” he says.

“I know.” I give his hand a little squeeze, and then we move back to the Ranger, opposite of how we arrived, hand-in-hand, neither of us wanting to let go.

We keep our hands together for the fifteen-mile drive to Poppa’s, and I turn the radio on, music filling the cab for the first time on this trip. As we pull into Poppa’s driveway, James turns off the engine and turns to me, still holding my hand.

“I know about the baby,” he says.

My heart leaps into my throat and tightens every muscle around my voice box. Something like a roar fills my ears. “James—”

He shakes his head. “It’s okay.” His voice is like cotton. The burn of tears builds in the corner of my eyes and in my heart.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” and a smile so big lands on him with such assurance, I let everything inside of me go and weep like a child.

Shirley Dees received an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional writing in Spring 2021. When not writing, Shirley is busy parenting, seeking sunshine rays, and sampling local craft brews. She lives in Southeast Alabama with her husband, daughter, and geriatric pet turtle.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Books, Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black

June 17, 2021
kahlo

By Angela M Giles

It’s not often that an author you admire has two new books published within months of each other. Yet, with the release of  Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg this week, Emily Rapp Black has done just that.

Sanctuary was released in January of this year, and came nearly seven years after Still Point of the Turning World. Both books deal with the what it means to face the unfathomable, the loss of a child, and together these two books present a look at grief and love and loss in a way that is both moving and humbling. Her most recent book deals with loss of a different type, the loss of an “able” body, and while not as heart crushing as the story of losing her son, it is just as remarkable.

For avid readers, the time between books by a favored author can be lonely. At least for me. When I read, I am all in. I don’t have a problem not finishing a book that isn’t working for me, and when I find a book or an author that resonates I want more. Emily is in the latter group.

I first met Emily at a writing retreat in Vermont in 2013. Still Point was on the horizon and while I understood the strength of her writing, I hadn’t read enough of her work to understand the depth. Emily is a prolific, often fevered, writer who is unafraid to talk about messy things. While her books are far between (at least until this year) her essays abound and deal with similar themes. I love her essays. I may love Emily as an essayist more than I love her as a memorist, but I suspect that is due to my  own delight when I see she has published something, anything, new.

***

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is not a linear narrative, it circles back to loss–both Rapp Black and Kahlo are amputees–but the the loss here is not that simple. The loss of an “able” body, the objectification of bodies that aren’t “normal”, the ways grief over loss changes people are all addressed. The book presents as a collection of essays on these themes, and while this may feel disjointed to some, the form and format are well suited to the subject. The near cult-like following of Frida Kahlo continues to grow, with the details of her personal life at times overshadowing her art. This alone makes her a valid subject for Rapp Black, whose own experience has often been defined by her experience as an amputee and/or grieving mother. But as Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg demonstrates, there is so much more to the sum of an existence.

The book opens with a discussion of  The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas) and closes with the retelling of a conversation with Rapp Black’s then five-year-old daughter about her own prosthesis. In the 140 or so pages between the opening and the close of the book, we experience Kahlo as the author does and ultimately we are left with understanding the painter as well as the writer in terms of what shouldn’t define them. This book is a tribute to Kahlo, perhaps even a love letter of sorts, but it is also a well rendered examination of a subject Rapp Black knows well, living with loss.

The final lines of the book are among the most inspiring, and leave us with the reminder that “Love and bodies come apart…Art remains.” This book stands as Rapp Black’s most artistic book to date and will be one that I read and reference and gift over and over.

***

Emily is participating in a series of conversations about the book, information can be found on her website. Listen in to the livestreams if you can, I hope to see you there.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, Writing & The Body

Stuck

June 13, 2021
throat

by Billie Hinton

There is something stuck in my throat. It happens two weeks after a holiday on which two of the people I love most in the world argue bitterly and stop speaking.

It’s a cold day; I buy cream of broccoli soup at the co-op, drive through the winter landscape back home, bare branches of oak and poplar, maple and hickory inked black against the pale pink overcast sky.

I drink the soup from its white paper container while standing in our living room, the soft white Christmas tree lights reflecting in the panes of every window, comfort and heart ache.

I’m in a rush to get to the barn, do the chores, push my thoughts out past this to where there’s nothing, just me mucking manure, listening for the quiet, healing snorts of horses eating hay.

Something fibrous touches my throat when I tip the container for the last swallow; it feels big, not something I should swallow, but the impulse is to choke it down, so I do, only in that moment realizing I am making a mistake.

My mother always said to eat soft white bread for something stuck and we don’t have that, but we do have sourdough, so I chew and swallow, trusting the bread to take the fibrous thing down with it. It doesn’t.

Drinks of water don’t help, nor do salt water gargles. Sometimes it takes awhile for the sensation of scraped throat tissue to fade, so I walk to the barn and do chores. Waiting, everything seems to irritate: cold air, the hay, the dust in the barn as I muck stalls. I try to forget the throat part of my body, aim my focus hard at the horses, the little donkeys, my daughter’s pony. I take a walk around our farm, finally go inside at dusk, prepare dinner, which I cannot eat.

Later, in bed for the night, eager for sleep and escape, it remains, something sharp and worrisome pushing against soft pink tissue that I imagine but cannot see.

Morning light, the thing. Still pushing.

The ENT who sees me as an emergency walk-in puts a scope through my nose, down my esophagus, and says she doesn’t see anything.

But.

Her equipment is old, she confides, and there’s a dark area she can’t really illuminate.

I seize on that darkness. It isn’t hard to do; with my two beloveds still not talking, my own grim view of what happened between them, I am already thinking the worst. They might never repair this jagged rift, the edge of which seems to reside inside my chest.

The doctor, a thirty-something quiet woman who seems perfectly competent but has old equipment, suggests I wait a month and have another scope if I still have trouble. A month seems like a very long time.

For 30 days I feel the stuck thing, ticking the calendar in my head, sometimes out loud as I walk the farm, using the month as a prescriptive number. It will be gone in 30 days. The doctor implied this. The stuck thing is also a rogue thing: it goes vertical, other times horizontal, sometimes it is rough and fibrous, other times a sharper object, painful, a reminder of everything in my life that is hard to swallow.

***

I stop eating solid foods, liquefy everything into soup, smoothies, still hoping to wash the stuck thing down, reducing the possibility of food piling up behind it, a logjam. How big is the space of a throat? My brain runs with this image of tight dark spongy tissue, narrowness crisscrossed with a piece of something that shifts but cannot go any further than it is.

I lose 10 pounds but the stuck thing remains.

Visualizations, eucalyptus oil in the steamy shower, opening things up, pulling white light through my name written in the sky above our house, into my forehead, down through my throat with a rush of energy in an effort to push the thing through and out.

Meditation, release, relaxation, acceptance, forgiveness, all the things I have taught to clients in psychotherapy sessions, reminding them that these are not miracle cures, but if they do them, the techniques will help. Little, methodical ways to manage grief, anxiety, fear, sadness, the unnameable feeling that accompanies a broken heart.

The thing is still there. Beloveds still not talking.

Almost unbelievably, I learn to tolerate both.

***

More than a month later, because it takes a long time to get an appointment, I walk into a huge university hospital’s ENT clinic. Their equipment is state of the art, the doctor a young woman from India who puts a scope in expertly and shows me live video of my throat.

My laryngeal tissue is pink and healthy, she is impressed.

She asks me to eat a big spoonful of blue jello; her assistant peels the foil lid off a container and offers it and a plastic spoon to me. I swallow tentatively, watch the gelatinous blue bolus slide down and disappear with ease.

You see how that went down, the doctor says. I nod. This is powerful knowledge, she adds, and I nod again, wanting this knowing to be more than just a swallow, I want it to grow larger, expand into my life and the lives of those I love. Powerful knowledge, letting things go. Swallowing pride.

She offers whole graham cracker squares and tells me to eat them quickly, an entire cracker in one bite, the way you would if you were having a snack, she says.

I balk, tell her I don’t eat entire crackers in one bite, the image in my head is that of a stubborn, frightened horse.

She urges, like a mom might, assures me she’s a doctor, can save me if I choke, though she knows I won’t.

I try to explain that it’s not choking I’m afraid of, not that I might die, but that I might have to live with this thing forever, the feeling of it, the sharpness, the lack of control.

It will be okay. She is lovely even in the harsh light of a medical clinic exam room, her brown skin rich and deep, dark eyes full of care and confidence. I wonder where her family is, if she’s married, are there children. Whether they talk to one another.

I cram the cracker in and chew, swallow quickly and watch as the tan lumpy blob slides down without a hitch.

This is important, she repeats, pointing to the screen. You see there’s nothing there, right? She moves the scope, illuminating every shadow. This is state of the art equipment. There is no darkness here.

I nod, because I see the clear passage that is mine, but even so, I feel the stuck thing lodged like an invisible lump, hard to swallow, heart in my throat, stuck in my craw.

***

She turns off the machine and removes the scope. I know you feel something, but trust me, she says. Eat regular meals, no more liquid shakes. How much weight have you lost, she asks. 20 pounds. You need to move past this. The longer you go the worse it will be.

Walking in and again when I leave, I pass a huge wall-sized display in the ENT clinic hallway, crammed with actual objects that have been removed from people’s throats. A toothpick with a green cellophane decoration, a car wash token, large baby diaper pins, the pop top from a sardine can, a belt buckle. Things no one would imagine putting in one’s mouth, much less try to swallow. How satisfying it must be to have such things removed and held out to you, pinched between forceps, no question the ordeal is done.

A week later, still stuck, I call my homeopathic doctor and share the saga. She prescribes a remedy for grief. A month passes. I cancel the return appointment with the ENT because I already know what she’ll say. Powerful knowledge.

My weight is down 30 pounds.

I read online about people who have lived years with things stuck in their throats, every test done that can be done, procedures far beyond my own two ENT scopes. They believe doctors missed the stuck things, know without doubt something is there. Some schedule procedures in which their esophaguses are stretched.

***

Another month passes. I feel better, less sad, but the thing in my throat remains. I’ve lost 40 pounds, still eat soup, scrambled eggs and sandwiches with soft fillings. Nothing fibrous. I leave the celery out of tuna salad, refuse anything toasted, broccoli is verboten. Sometimes at night, when I’m trying to fall asleep and my mind races with remnants of conversations I’ve had with the two who won’t speak but communicate through me, the mysterious object seems to grow larger. I sit up, read, drink water, gargle salt water. I take another dose of the homeopathic remedy, as if it might spark an instant and miraculous cure.

Nearly every day I stop in the barnyard while horses and donkeys and pony watch, raise my arms to the sky, imagine yet again writing my name in white light across the blue or gray day, or the dark velvet of a starry night, envisioning the light streaming through the center of my forehead, down my throat, my body, my legs into the earth beneath. Grounding. Safety. Clearing all stuck things.

When I feel something in my throat, I invoke the live video of the blue jello going down, the graham cracker blob, the perfectly functional, visibly clear passageway.

***

Late one night, when I can’t sleep because the thing is overpowering my ability to ignore, I read about a man who also had a stuck thing. He too had every test, saw in live video that nothing was there. He’d had a rough time with his boss, big stress, and eventually determined that his vagus nerve had been activated. He had his vagus nerve stimulated, says it was only when he resolved the original problem with his boss that his throat cleared, that anxiety and depression medications often prove useful in cases like his. Like ours.

I’m a psychotherapist, I talk out loud while walking the farm, administering soothing words and self-hugs, research to affirm the facts. Maybe I should get Zoloft, or Prozac. Can medication do what I cannot? I read neuroscience, excitable nerve cells.

Mine are excitable for sure, but I’m starting to have multi-hour spans of time when I don’t feel the thing in my throat. I let my mind go there, slowly, almost sneaking to think the thought: it’s gone. Later it returns, sharp, fibrous, vertical, horizontal. I feel it when I swallow, feel it when I don’t. How can something that is not truly there feel so real? What triggers the sensation that it’s there, then not? Maybe this will be the rest of my life, monitoring the position and pressure of something inside my body that is not actually present.

I start to think about living with this thing. With my throat. Being in between two people, holidays and celebrations incomplete because they won’t be in the same place anymore. I imagine a life that includes two of every holiday.

Maybe neither are as bad as I think they will be.

***

In the spring it’s decided; I’ll travel with one of the beloveds to California, 9 days down the Pacific coast. There is still no direct communication between the two, but feelings have shifted and mellowed; I have hope that the silence between them might not last forever.

We revisit old haunts, the place I lived as a graduate student during my final clinical internship, the gorgeous vistas down Highway 1, Santa Cruz to Los Angeles, where I lived as a young woman for a year, a long evening with my best friend, meeting her husband and sons, she meeting mine.

So much joy.

I’m still careful about what I eat, but no more liquid-only meals. I chew my food with precision, try to forget everything when I swallow, trust that the healthy throat tissue and muscles will manage their tasks.

The powerful knowledge of the graham cracker video remains with me, but I’ve also learned something even more powerful. When I feel the sensation, I can make it disappear with my mind.

I don’t know how it works. I feel the thing in my throat, then I relax something. It’s not an actual muscle that I relax, more like a mental muscle, a silent gesture. I bestow a sort of forgiveness, time traveling back to the moment before anything was wrong at all. When I do this, the sensation disappears.

Do we have the power to heal ourselves but don’t even know it?

***

It’s been years since the thing in my throat hijacked a winter and all of a spring. I can’t name the day it left for good. I don’t know if there was ever anything truly stuck, if something in the cream of broccoli soup nicked my throat tissue and started the ordeal, or if the entire thing was related to what in hindsight feels like two seasons of pure heartbreak.

I know the phrase, she carries her heart on her sleeve, and the other one, her heart was in her throat. I know the feeling of actual tight searing pain that seizes my throat when I’m upset, tearful, emotionally unwound. It makes sense that the vagus nerve could be activated and take months to resolve.

What I also know is that the mind and the body are powerfully connected. Our bodies can take upsets and hang onto them, creating symptoms that mimic disease and disorder, defying laboratory testing, procedures with state of the art machines, resulting in mistaken diagnoses, no diagnoses, puzzlement on the faces of doctors.

And beyond this, our minds can learn, in what seems a miracle unto itself, to let these things go.

The vagus nerve registers heartbreak and gut-wrenching feelings.
-Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
-The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Billie Hinton is an award-winning writer and psychotherapist who lives on a small horse farm in North Carolina. She keeps horses and bees, studies native plants, and wrangles cats and Corgis. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Not One Of Us, Manifest-Station, Riverfeet Press Anthology, Streetlight Mag, Longridge Review, and Minerva Rising, among others.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing spaces are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

funny, Guest Posts, parenting

Drive Home, Leave Home, Wake Up

June 11, 2021
Johanna

By Dawn Urbont

My breast pump talks to me. Its mechanical sucking noise morphs into language inside my sleep-deprived brain. Vy-vo, vy-vo, vy-vo, drive home, drive home, drive home, it commands in two-four time. Drive home from where? I wonder. I’m already home.

“Did you say something?” Alex shuffles into our dining room turned pump station, where I sit hooked up and strapped in, eyes shut, head lolling to the side. He calls it the unamusement park ride.

“Did I?” the words barely make it past my too-tired-to-talk lips. I right my head and open my eyes halfway. He’s holding a bowl of grown-up cereal and a rolled-up New York Times tucked under his arm. He sports a thick layer of stubble, striped pajamas, a robe and slippers. He’s really going for the whole fatherhood thing. “What did I say?” I ask, unable to remember moments ago.

Alex shrugs and sets the cereal bowl and newspaper on our crummy thrift shop dining table. “Fuck,” he manages as he slumps into a chair and bows forward with exhaustion. The table tilts. Milk threatens to leave the bowl. “I’m tired.”

“You’re tired? Really?” I fix my gaze on him, and he glances at me. I am attached to plastic and valves and tubing and two collection bottles that grow heavy with every painful squeeze of my darkened areolas. Alex knows not to take my bait.

“No?” he replies. We sit at the table, quiet as a still-life. Porcelain Pitcher with Wilting Flowers. Somewhere in the house, our new baby lets out a tea-kettle cry.

Drive home, drive home, drive home…

“Good morning, Mommy,” Johanna, the live-in baby-nurse we hired for three weeks enters holding Mathilda in her thick, sturdy arms. The sight of M makes us smile. She looks fresh and alert with a clean diaper and a onesie that says Girl Boss. “I’m hungry, Mommy. Did you save any milk for me?” Johanna, in her breezy Trinidadian accent speaks for Mathilda as though she were a hand puppet, which I find utterly cloying. I cast a furtive glance at Alex, who remains expressionless. He inhales a spoonful of cereal, and I watch milk dribble down his chin, navigating his stubble like a plinko ball.

Hiring a baby nurse was my mother’s idea. In fifth grade I was cast as a flying monkey instead of Dorothy and reacted by drinking a bottle of rubbing alcohol. After the doctors pumped my stomach, I woke up and said, “Who cares? I’m fine.” And Mom said, “You know what fine means? Fucking In Need of Everything.” The seed of incompetence planted long ago, I ran the baby nurse idea by Alex.

“Hell no. You really want a stranger living with us? I won’t be able to fart in my own house.”

“That’s a pro, not a con.”

“Look,” Alex had said, “live-in’s are expensive. We can figure out our baby on our own like the fucking cavemen. Cavepeople. Whatever.”

“But what if we can’t? What if I can’t? What if you roll on top of M in your sleep? What if I drop her?”

Johanna turns off the pump. Its voice dies out like a short-circuiting robot. Time to feed my girl, but first I unequip. The collection bottles are attached to plastic shields held over my nipples by a garment that’s at once ludicrous and essential: the hands-free pump bra, a zip-up bandeau with two circular holes like cruise ship windows for nipples to—I want to say—look through. Picture the Madonna cone bra circa 1990, avant-garde, fashion forward, sexy. This is not like that. It’s the opposite and quite possibly the beginning of the end of my marriage, I’m thinking. How Alex can sit there and eat food while I pump is beyond me. Is he looking for a way out? Were the delivery room proceedings too much for him to handle? The blood, the excrement, the unshavenness of it all… If this is it, I won’t blame him.

I detach the bottles and fasten buttery yellow lids onto them. I unzip my pump bra and peel away the plastic shields from my damp skin. My breasts hang down like aged-out foster children, worse for wear but free. Three weeks ago, Johanna was a stranger in my house. Now she watches me in my most intimate of moments, all honest and raw. Some people find this act of motherhood beautiful, but I’m telling you, it’s disgusting. I should be embarrassed milking myself in front of a rando and the one person who’s supposed to find me attractive. But guess what? I’m not, and that’s what’s so crazy about motherhood! You just roll with humiliation, because you have to. Because if you don’t, either you won’t survive or your baby won’t survive and neither is okay. I mean, if you had told me I would be so constipated after giving birth that I’d be begging for a colostomy bag, because it hurt too much to crap with stitches in my taint, I very likely wouldn’t have gone through with the whole “having a baby” thing. There is no dignity in child-bearing and the weeks that follow.

“So. How did Bessie do this morning?” Johanna asks holding up a bottle of my “liquid gold” as she calls it. Bessie is not my name. It’s her idea of a joke. A lame one. Alex shoots me a side-ways glance. He knows I hate when she calls me a cow’s name. In my mind, I ask her how she would like it if I called her a genetically-modified-cud-chewing-ozone-destroying behemoth. In my mind, she laughs like I’m joking, and still in my mind, I ask her if it looks like I’m joking.

Then, somehow and without warning, the word cunt falls out of my mouth like a bite of rotten apple. My eyes go wide. Alex nearly chokes on his ancient grains.

“Excuse me?” Johanna says. My stomach tightens.

“My cunt—it still hurts from, you know, third-degree tears and everything.”

“I don’t like that word, Mommy,” Johanna/Mathilda says.

“Sorry,” I say as she transfers Mathilda into my arms.

My little TillyDillyChickenBug latches onto my right breast like a pro. Her sucking reflex is strong, but Johanna tells me that sucking doesn’t equal swallowing, and I worry that I’ve pumped out her entire breakfast.

“What if my funbags are empty?” I ask, my forehead creases deepening with anxiety. Alex explodes into laughter, and my head whips around in time to see bits of cereal splattering all over the newsprint. “What’s so funny?”

“Funbags.” He chuckles shaking his head side to side. My face hardens.

“You think they’re not fun anymore? You think I’m being ironic?”

“No, babe. If anything, they’re more fun now.”

“Then why were you laughing?”

“I don’t know. It’s a funny word.”

“It’s two words,” I snap. When I look it up later, I find out it’s one.

I’m about to cry. Anger, sadness, exhaustion, a body I don’t recognize, a helpless life that’s dependent on a mildly depressed person with a sleep deficit. This is nature’s plan? Is that smart?

“Don’t worry, Mommy. Those funbags are definitely not empty. Look,” Johanna motions toward Mathilda. I look down and see a tiny mammal suckling at my teat. I watch for signs of a swallow– the subtle up-down movement of her throat. Creamy straw-colored milk pools at the corners of her mouth, and my furrowed brow relaxes. “Ten minutes on each side,” Johanna picks up the bottles of milk along with my pump parts and carries them out of the room. In the mirror on the wall opposite me, I watch as she disappears into the kitchen. Alex and I turn to each other and break into huge grins, wide-mouthed and weighted with disbelief. We hear the opening and closing of the refrigerator followed by the rush of sink water.

“You called her a cunt,” he whispers.

“I know!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know!”

The sink shuts off, and we quickly dummy up. Is this how parents behave?  I kiss my baby’s petal soft forehead and think to myself, We’re the absolute worst.

After the morning feed, I transfer Mathilda into her daddy’s arms so he can burp her; so he can be part of the process. “Don’t pat her back like you see on TV,” Johanna had instructed us during her first week. “Rub her back, soothe her, be gentle,” she had said. I watch Alex bounce around the dining room table, cradling Tils over his shoulder. He raps on her back like she’s a storefront window. Are you still open? Can I come in? I leap out of the chair ready to take her.

“That’s not—” I catch my reflection in the mirror. Who is that? My bottom lip droops, and I gaze at Her with the crazy bed head and squinting, tired eyes. Her with the deflated double D’s, the wrinkled belly fat and that hideous umbilical hernia. I want to burn my bikinis.

“What’s wrong?” Alex asks.

“I’m taking a shower,” I say and walk out.

I don’t make it to the shower. I can’t make it to the shower. My pits reek and my pussy smells like the monkey house at the zoo, but my need for sleep supersedes my need to wash away bacteria proliferating in the warm, damp nether regions of my flesh. Alex might see things differently, but Mathilda’s the one I’m trying to impress, and Mathilda could give two shits what I smell like. I am her warm body, and she loves me in my natural state. Half naked, wearing only pajama bottoms, I sink into my unmade bed and yank the comforter up over this hard to look at mother-thing I have become. As my head falls to the side, I suddenly remember what I couldn’t remember saying this morning: we have to pay Johanna. Tomorrow is her last day. Too tired to yell, I consider texting Alex a reminder, but the fog of sleep is rolling in, and I can hear those words. Drive home, drive home… My pump’s voice lingers in my head, lulls me to sleep. Machine and I, we are one.

At exactly 10AM, Johanna, her flip-flops slapping against the hardwood floor, enters my sunlit bedroom and hands me my baby. I arrange her in a football hold as I shimmy up wormlike against the upholstered headboard, shaking off my dream-drenched sliver of sleep. It doesn’t matter that I was in a sleep so deep I could have drowned peacefully and that my nipples are raw and fissured. This baby is on a schedule, and Johanna, for one thousand dollars a week, sees to it that she will eat, play and nap every three hours until her 7PM bedtime. While Johanna’s daily duties end there, I don’t get to clock out. Ten PM is my daughter’s dream feed, when I will prowl into her black-out shaded room, tip-toe my fingers around her swaddled little body and lift her to my chest ever-so-gently so as not to wake her. Then seated and slow-rocking in a toile-covered glider, I will insert my breast into her mouth as she sleeps. Once, during my freshman year of college, this frat guy, Brad McCarthy, tried to insert his dick into my mouth while I lay passed out in the basement of Psi U. Not exactly the same thing, but similar. After the dream feed, my brain will want to sleep until morning, but my breasts won’t let me. Should I test them, they will punish me with engorgement, hot, lumpy and hardened with milk. Instead, I will wake at 4AM and pump when the house is pin-drop quiet. In those pre-dawn hours when it’s just the two of us, my pump and me at the dining table, cast in the LED glow of my iPhone, and I’m holding my head in my hands, because my hands are free thanks to my hands-free pump bra, my pump speaks in window-wiper rhythm.

Leave home, leave home, leave home

There’s this optical illusion on the internet of a dancer spinning. Most people see her spinning counter-clockwise, something having to do with whether or not you’re left-brained or right-brained. For the life of me, I can only see her spin clockwise, and for the life of me, I can’t unhear my pump speak English. I try to listen from the other side of my brain, to hear machine noise, nonsense, onomatopoeia, but all I can make out is an electronic voice spitting out words. Drive home. Leave home. Last week it said Wake up.

Alex’s heavy footfalls grow louder until he’s hovering in the bedroom doorway. His wavy brown hair is wet from a shower, and he’s dressed in street clothes and sneakers.

“I’m going to the bank. Payday, babe. Johanna’s leaving tomorrow.” He pumps his fist triumphantly until he notices Johanna standing in the corner, where she waits while I nurse. He offers a closed-mouth smile, his hand falling loosely by his side. Johanna shakes her head and mutters a curse under her breath– not a curse word, but I’m pretty sure a curse she’s placing on Alex.

“Want anything from outside?” he asks.

“No,” I lie. I want everything from outside.

“Get a frying chicken for tonight. I’m cooking dinner,” says Johanna.

“A frying chicken?” Alex looks perplexed.

“It’s just a chicken,” I say.

“Make sure it’s organic,” Johanna instructs then turns to me. “Everything you eat, the baby eats.”

“Organic,” I tell Alex as if he didn’t hear. “Go to Whole Foods.”

Alex clasps his hands together tensely. Too many instructions. He can’t handle it. “Anything else?” He exhales audibly.

“Carrot and celery,” says Johanna.

“I should write this down,” Alex grabs a pen from his pocket. Clicking the end of it repeatedly, he scans for paper. The dresser is littered with old receipts, pieces of mail, ValPak coupons, and news clippings from my father-in-law, who thinks we won’t know what’s happening in the world unless he mails us a manila envelope stuffed with articles curated from a variety of print media he swipes from doctor office waiting rooms. Alex starts pawing at papers, sending articles, mail and receipts to the floor. Johanna and I watch as he begins to unravel, his breathing heavy and erratic.

“Babe, chill.”

“I’m very chill.”

“Here.” I find a wrinkled napkin on my night stand. He grabs it and tries to scrawl the shopping list on it, but the tip of his pen tears through it.

“Fuck!”

“Keep cool, Daddy,” JoTilda says.

“Forget it. I don’t need to write it down.” He walks out leaving me tethered to our baby, her caregiver sentinelling by my bedside.

I should be high now. Above-the-clouds high, legs outstretched behind me, airplane arms, head crooning crane-like and strung out on oxytocin, the feel-good hormone released naturally through breastfeeding to make mommies fall in love with their babies. Oxytocin, nature’s secret party favor, that love drug, that bonding glue, that country’s gone crazy glue. Instead, I feel pangs of something akin to road-rage. I’m not big on social media. I don’t put on blast that I ate a muffin, and I particularly loathe those “That moment” memes, but currently I’m having a “that moment” moment. I mentally update my status: That moment you realize you’re being held hostage by a baby.

“Alex!” I yell seconds before the front door bangs shut. I grab my cell phone, touch the facechat icon, and jab at Alex’s name. His oval head appears, moving against a blue sky backdrop.

“Alex—”

“What’s up?”

“You always get to do the errands,” I complain in a voice reserved more for a brother than a spouse. Alex looks at me with a blank stare and stops moving. “I haven’t left the house in weeks. I wear pajamas every day.”

“What are you saying, you don’t want me to go?”

“Go if you want to go.”

He starts to move again, and I erupt, “Why can’t I go to the bank and get a frying chicken?!”

“I’m coming back.”

We both hang up. Within minutes he’s in the bedroom doorway. “You’re in the middle of nursing!”

“I’ll be done in ten minutes!”

“Mommy, Daddy, calm down!” Johanna hollers without bothering to sound like a sing-songy puppet child. “Negative emotions poison my milk!”

“Shit!” I hurriedly slip my pinky between my breast and M’s little mouth. Unlatched, she starts to cry. “This is turning into a bloodbath,” I whimper, my eyeballs tightening as if being screwed deep into their sockets, saltwater tears rising.

“It’s not a bloodbath,” Alex assures me. “Take breathe deep ujjayi breaths.”

“I can’t breathe. There’s no air.” I grip my neck, panicked.

“There’s air all around us,” he says with a forced calm, then he turns to Johanna. “I think she’s having breakdown.”

“Let me take the baby.” Johanna plucks Matilda from my arms. She starts singing a strange little island song, cradling my daughter into a sea of serenity.

“Look at me,” Alex puts his hands on my shoulders.

“No. I’m gross,” I cry into my sweaty palms.

“You’re beautiful. You’re hot. Just, come on, babe, look at me.” I peek at him, certain my ugly-cry will to haunt him for years. “I’m sorry. I thought I was being helpful, but I was wrong. You do the errands.”

“I can’t.”

“It’ll be good for you to get out of the house.”

“You don’t understand, I’m on a schedule,” I sob. “There’s reading time and tummy time and music appreciation– we’re listening to Aaron Copeland today, then the one o’clock feed, and I need to drink thistle tea so my tits make milk, and what about my shower? I still haven’t had a shower, you took my shower!” I catch Alex and Johanna exchanging a look of grave concern. A pit forms in my stomach. What is wrong with me?

“Okay,” I sniffle. “I’ll go.”

As it turns out, anything you do alone by yourself after having a baby feels like a vacation. Taking a dump, sitting in traffic, waiting on line at the bank… these moments of solitude bring with them a sense of escapism for which I feel rescue-dog grateful. Who ever thought a trip to the bank could be exhilarating? I stroll back to my car with a thousand dollars cash for Johanna and a smile that feels involuntary. As I open the door and get into my Prius, I glimpse the words Lick Me etched in dust on the rear window. I look around. A sun-tanned, bleach-blonde homeless woman across the parking lot smiles at me. From a distance, her teeth look like rocks. Perhaps Lick Me was her little idea of a joke. I’ll never know, but as I drive past, I roll down my window and hand her a buck.

“That’s it?” she asks gruffly.

“Yup,” I roll up my window and drive away, delirious with freedom. Sky blue skies peek through the open moonroof, and sunlight warms the crown of my head. Thirty minutes later, there’s a four-pound organic chicken, a bushel of carrots and a bag of celery riding shotgun, and instead of driving home, I’m heading straight for the mall. Tilly’s next feed is in an hour, and I’m not ready to relinquish this intoxicating Me Time.

When we got pregnant, Alex became obsessed with the cost of college tuition in 2038 and started balking whenever I came home with items like re-usable ice cream cones or Gremlins on BluRay. He banned me from Target, where I could lose myself for hours and come home after dark toting bags of future Goodwill donations and a massive shopping hangover. When he found out how much Johanna would cost, a corkscrew-like vein in his forehead stuck out for days. He refused to fuck me for fear it would burst. If Alex knew I was mall-bound, he would have a coronary.

I step into the parking garage elevator cast in its moony glow, my excitement rising with every floor, and step off into a high-end department store, a perfume scented bistro of style and luxury. Drifting through a gallery of oddly-shaped statement shoes, floating up the spiral staircase, running my hands over iconic and classic and iconoclastic fashion stories, I feel electrified. I’ve come back to life. Old me is back, I can feel her, she’s here. I pluck a colorblocked asymmetric plissé dress off a rack, hold it up to my body, twist left then right, the ochre and berry skirt swishing side to side. Suddenly, my phone buzzes, a text from Alex. He wants to know when I’m coming home. Before I can text back, I hear a thin, buzzsaw-like voice behind me, “So, where are you going? What do you need it for?” I turn to find a waif-like salesperson, a genderless “they/them” dressed all cool in black and navy.

“Oh, I don’t need it,” I say.

“That’s the best time to buy, when there’s no occasion. Shopping under pressure gives me a silent migraine.”

“I’m just looking.”

“Oh,” they rub their lips together and part them with a popping noise. “Okay.”

“I just had a baby,” I add, suddenly feeling the need to offer an excuse. “I’ve been going stir crazy. I had to get out of the house.”

“I used to hate babies…”

I smile and wait for them to continue. “But now?”

“Now what?”

We look at each other, decades between us, only to be interrupted by another text from Alex, this time a picture of M with a pouty bottom lip followed by a picture of Alex, eyes closed, hand to forehead as if to indicate some kind of spiritual distress. Drive home. My pump’s voice echoes in my head. Drive home, a portent impressing upon me that wherever I go, I cannot be. Drive home.

“Can I get a dressing room?”

This was dumb. A post-partum body under dressing room lighting in a three-way mirror is the rudest awakening. Cellulite and skin tags and melasma, oh my fucking God. I don’t belong here. All I wanted was to look around, feel like my old self again, but here I stand, staring at stretch marks and the bulge of a sanitary napkin in my panties, while a sumptuous dress on a shiny hanger taunts me. Put me on, bitchDon’t keep me hanging on. Pun intended. A dress with an attitude, I like it. I slide it off the hanger and hold it against my body. The silk feels soft against my skin, and for a moment I feel gratitude for little white worms spinning threads as fine as a baby hair. “I’ll be home soon,” I whisper to no one as I slip the dress over my head, the material parachuting down around me. In the time it takes for a camera to flash, I glimpse who I was before I split in two.

My cell phone rings. Alex’s name comes up.

“What?” I answer abruptly.

“Did you get my texts? M is losing her shit. I think she’s hungry. I don’t know what to do.”

“Where’s Johanna?”

“She’s packing. Should I give her a bottle?”

“Are you crazy? It’s not time yet. I’ll be home soon.”

There’s a knock on my dressing room door. “How’s it going?  Do you need a different size? Bigger?”

“Who’s that?” Alex asks. “Where are you?”

“I gotta go.” I hang up, but not before a glass-shattering wail pierces my phone and hooks me like a trout. My stomach lurches and fills with molten lava. Every cell in my body begins to weep. My baby needs me, and I’m at the mall trying on a criminally expensive dress I have no intention of buying.

“Is everything okay in there?”

Is anything okay in here? I want to fake nibble baby toes and breathe in corn starch air. I want to sing about twinkly little stars and blow raspberries on a teeny tiny tummy. Another knock. Reluctantly, I slide the door latch and show myself. My salesperson looks me up and down with a quizzical expression, mouth twisted to one side, perhaps slightly amused. What does this face mean?

“Someone’s buying a dress today,” they announce before I have a chance to look in the mirror. I shake my head no.

“I’m just trying it on for fun.”

“Well, now you kind of have to buy this dress.”

Have to? I look that good? Suddenly thoughts of my infant daughter turn into a fine mist and get sucked into the ceiling vent. That a piece of clothing without an elastic waistband could look good on me three weeks post-partum makes me think perhaps my stealth detour wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I feel lighter, taller. I turn this way and that, allowing the corners of my mouth to curve into an I-feel-pretty smile. I actually say, “Weee,” as I spin around. “This is such a…” and as I step toward the mirror, my smile fades, “…let down.” My breastmilk has let down. My breasts have let me down. Two wet circles of mother’s milk expand in the silk over my nipples.

The salesperson is sucking in their lips, which I take as their way of preventing their thoughts from reaching my ears. “I’ll be over by the register when you’re ready,” they say and walk off.

I speed change in the dressing room and pay for the dress with cash, the cash meant for Johanna. Alex can never know about this. I can just picture him, eyes bugging, the corkscrew vein popping. You went where? And spent how much? Is that even legal? He gets so crazy, he makes me crazy! With a pounding headache and a dress I now despise, I race down to the garage, jump in my Prius and floor it back to the bank, breasts engorged, nipples leaking and twenty minutes past my baby’s one o’clock feed. As I park, I spot Rock Teeth loitering in a new, more strategic location by the bank entrance.

“What happened to you?” she studies me as I brush past. “You look like horseshit.” I pause and glimpse my reflection in the bank’s tinted glass doors: it’s Her. Her, now an adrenalin-fueled, wide-eyed, wet-chested train wreck looks back at me with an unrecognizable grimace and a plastic hair-clip hanging limply from stringy tresses. When did I even put that in? I turn back to the homeless woman and feel slightly jealous. She can rock this look and get away with it.   

“Wait here.” I hasten back to my car.

“Like I have somewhere to be,” she calls after me.

Moments later I return with a sleek black shopping bag and hand it to her. She takes it without so much as a thank you and begins digging away at the white tissue paper to see what treasure lies beneath. I have no time to wait for a reaction. I don’t need the thanks. To give is thanks enough. I run inside the bank and withdraw five hundred dollars to make up for the cost of the dress, and as I’m rushing back outside, stuffing bills into my purse, I see the sidewalk littered with white tissue paper, the silk dress lying in a puddle of itself, Rock Teeth nowhere in sight. What the hell? Where did she go? Why would she leave this stuff in the street? The questions fly at me like a cauldron of bats, which is what a group of bats is called, and I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Something must have happened. Something awful, and I don’t have time for a mystery. I scan the lot, whipping my head left then right. I hear a car peel out and look toward the far end of the lot. That’s when I see her perched in her encampment transferring indecipherable belongings out of a tattered plastic grocery bag into the sleek department store shopping bag. That’s all she wants? Just the bag? I really don’t have time for this. I snatch the dress up off the ground.

“Hey!” I yell across the lot to get her attention. “Do you have any idea how much this dress cost me?!” I march toward her, my heart hammering inside my chest, my baby’s lunch seeping through my tank top. She doesn’t hear me or chooses not to, her eyes focused on inspecting each item as she transfers it. “Hey!” I call louder. “Woman!” She finally looks up, and I find myself waving the dress in the air like a lost hiker trying to flag down a rescue helicopter. “Not my style!” she yells back then resumes her affairs. This triggers me. I don’t know why. I toss the dress at her, but it’s so light, the mild September breeze carries it down to my feet. I try again, this time twisting it into a rope and lassoing it into the air. It unfurls in the wind. Stretched out like a sail, flapping, dancing, it collides with a moving Subaru, spreading across the windshield in shapeless abandon. The Subaru swerves and hits a parked SUV. A horn blares, a car alarm goes off.

Beep, beep, beep, beep, flee, flee, flee, flee…

People within earshot start to gather, and I can feel something like soapy bubbles rising up inside me, filling my mouth, oozing through my parted lips. Only it’s not soapy bubbles. It’s laughter, and it keeps coming and coming and coming.

Originally from New York City, Dawn Urbont has worked as a television writer of both sit-coms and dramas for over fifteen years. She holds a B.A. in English and Film Studies from Dartmouth College. When she’s not writing, she is an incredibly underpaid chef, chauffeur, teacher, doctor, personal shopper, and event planner for her kids. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two boys, and an Airedale Terrier named Acorn.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Activism, Friendship, Guest Posts

Bad A** Feminists

June 9, 2021
catherine

by Tammi Markowitz Inscho

I took my most feminist action on a cold, grey day in January 2017.  I strapped  on my fanny pack with my id., my i-phone and three granola bars. A friend had knitted me a hot pink hat that was supposed to look like a uterus.  She was new to knitting. The hat was too small and looked like rhinoceros’ head.  Still, I stretched it over my head and made my way to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  I was ready to protest the inauguration of our pussy-grabbing 45th President of the United States.

I met Catherine at Logan Square—Philadelphia’s version of the National Mall.  Tens of thousands of other women stood shoulder to shoulder with us.  The crowd began to inch its way down the Parkway.  “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Donald Trump Go Away,” we chanted in unison.

Catherine and I stopped to take selfies.  We huddled together around Catherine’s i-phone. We admired our photography.  We edited the pictures we liked best.  There was one of me with my rhinoceros horn standing at attention, I held up a peace sign with one hand, my LOVE TRUMPS HATE sign in the other. My lips were glossy and just pouty enough-the picture was Instagram ready.

A half hour passed. We crept along with the crowd.  We hadn’t gotten very far.  Catherine looked over at me “I’m cold,” she said.

“Me too,” I admitted.

Catherine nodded her head toward the old Four Seasons Hotel.

“What?” I said

“Want to duck in–warm up for just a minute?”

I wanted to.

We laid our signs against a telephone pole.

We fought our way through the crowded.

The bell boys swung the hotel doors open for us.  The lobby was warm and smelled like gardenias.

“Heaven.” Catherine sighed.

I took off my hat, ran my finger through my hair. Catherine tore off her gloves rubbed her numb fingers together. She looked at me.  There was a glimmer in her eyes and an almost imperceptible smile across her lips. I recognized the look from tenth grade when Amy McGowen would routinely convince me to cut school and hang out in her basement all day drinking clear liquid from her parents liquor cabinet.

Catherine held up her reddened index finger. “One glass of red wine.” she said.

Red wine sounded perfect.  I could hear the crowd through the Four Season’s windows. “Show me what democracy looks like.” The crowd chanted.

I held up my index finger. “One.” I said.  I tried to sound stern.  I think I just sounded thirsty.

We sank into two leather seats at a round candle lit table. It was 11:15 a.m. We were the only ones in the bar. We ordered Cabernet. While we waited we grabbed fistfuls of mixed nuts.

The bartender set down our wine glasses. Grabbed the empty bowl of nuts and came back with a fresh bowl.  We sipped our wine and feasted on the nuts.

“First person to talk about their kids—takes a shot.”  Catherine said grinning.

I agreed.

Catherine and I met in 2011 at a Mommy and Me class.  She had twin boys and a Cadillac  of a double stroller.  We bonded over things like the pros and cons of phasing out the second nap and whether feeding the boys vegetables in squeeze pouches would lead to bad eating habits.  Now that our kids were five we consulted each other about whether to do soccer shots and where to have the kids’ birthday parties.  Our husbands coached tee ball together.

When we finished our first glass of wine Catherine cocked her head to one side. I knew what she was thinking. My body felt warm.

The bartender came by, “can I get you ladies another round?”

We answered in unison. I said, “no.” Catherine said, “yes.”  The bartender grinned and brought two more glasses of cabernet.

“He is cute.” Catherine said about the bartender.  Then she told me that she hadn’t had sex with her husband in a year and half.  I was shocked but, tried not to show it.  She told me how rough their marriage was.  How unhappy she was. How she fantasized all the time about being with men who truly desired her.

I told her about how rough my marriage had been. I told her how we almost didn’t make it –how we worked so hard to get to where we are today but that things still felt so fragile.  I gave her the number of our couples counselor.  She typed the number into her phone.  She told me about the trauma she endured in her childhood.  She cried and so did I.  We kept shoveling in the nuts as we sniffled into our cocktail napkins. No one suggested bringing tissues to the March.

Catherine twirled her index finger in the direction of the bartender. He brought us two more glasses of Cabernet. I told Catherine about Pema Chardron, Eckard Tolle and Marianne Williamson.  She had never heard of any of them.  She typed their names into the notes in her phone. My body felt weightless and my head heavy.  I couldn’t hear the protestors any longer.

We ordered French onion soup.  It was the best I’d ever had.

I admitted to Catherine that even though Dylan was five years old I still checked to see if he was breathing multiple times a night. I told her I knew that was crazy.  I told her I loved him so much sometimes I thought my heart would explode. I said I wasn’t sure it was healthy.

She told me I had to take I shot.  I refused.

It was 4:00 p.m. when I said, “maybe we should get back out there.”

Catherine threw her back and laughed.  I laughed too.

“We are a couple of bad ass feminists aren’t we.”  I said.

We high fived.

I went home.

I described the day to my husband as “empowering and invigorating.”

I didn’t feel guilty.  I wasn’t lying.

Tammi Markowitz Inscho is a reformed trial lawyer turned writer. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her nine year old son, Dylan and husband David. She has written pieces that have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and is currently working on her first novel. Additionally, Tammi leads writing workshops for kids and teen girls.

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

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, memories

Why a Kosher Butcher’s Daughter Made Ham Sandwiches

June 7, 2021
ham

by Barbara Krasner

An elderly man in a plaid shirt and dark-rimmed glasses walked up to me after the meeting of the Museum Committee. He said, “I knew your grandparents. I went to their store all the time for ham sandwiches.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He had to be wrong. Max and Eva Krasner would never touch ham, let alone serve it. Maybe a helper in the store did it for them, although the helpers would have been my father and his brothers.

The man broadened his smile, likely recalling the taste of the sandwich. “Your grandmother was Eva, right?”

“Yes, I never knew her though. She died years before I was born.”

Maybe it was the ham that did it. Eva Zuckerkandel Krasner was the daughter of a kosher butcher. This man’s memory was playing tricks. Maybe he got his sandwiches somewhere else in the neighborhood. But as our conversation continued, he said he crossed Ridge Road from Queen of Peace Roman Catholic Church to my grandparents’ general store in North Arlington. Publicly, I had to accept the compliment that my grandmother made a great piggy sandwich, but privately, I was plagued by the question: Why would a kosher butcher’s daughter comply with such a treyf (non-kosher) request?

To answer the question, I started with what I already knew. In 1920, my grandparents moved northeast across the Passaic River from their flat on Van Buren Street in bustling Newark to a lot at the intersection of Ridge Road and Sunset Avenue in North Arlington, where a sewerage system had not yet been introduced. Perhaps Max and Eva thought this dorf resembled a shtetl. For Max that meant a village near Minsk and for Eva that meant her hamlet in the southeast corner of Austria-Hungary known as Galicia. Max immigrated to Newark in 1899 and eventually set himself up as a grocer. It was as a grocer he chose to present his best self (while he still had hair) on a matchmaker’s post card. Eva immigrated to New York City in 1913 and somehow was introduced to Max. She had other suitors, but Max had a business, a store. This she found attractive, and why not? She was a kosher butcher’s daughter, the eldest child.

In 1920, Max and Eva, along with their one-year old (my father), settled into their corner lot. They had an apartment behind the store front. They numbered among the very few Jewish families here at the confluence of Bergen and Hudson counties and midway between Newark and Jersey City. My grandmother, who had a head for business, must have figured their general store could make a buck in this burgeoning burg, what with the store on the main street and rentable apartments above the store.

In 1920, the cornerstone to Queen of Peace was laid on Ridge Road at the intersection with Sunset Avenue. Max and Eva would have looked out their store front windows to see stacks of lumber and bricks piled up on mounds of dirt just waiting for cranes to put these materials and the spire in place. In 1925 the church’s grammar school opened. The high school saw its first graduates in 1934.

My grandmother laid out a pot of something to simmer on the stove for my father—and later my two uncles and aunt. Eva would only cook kosher food—hot dogs, stews, soups—on the private family residence side of the door that separated it from the store. But as the Krasner kids ate their kosher meats bought from Prince Street in Newark’s Third District, the Queen of Peace kids popped across the street to get sandwiches. Ham sandwiches.

A kosher butcher’s daughter making ham sandwiches. I imagine she washed her hands constantly to make sure she minimized contact with treyf. I also imagine she thought it was a necessary sacrifice she had to make for the business. Catholic customers want ham, and kids’ money came from the parents, and if the kids were satisfied, the parents might patronize the store more. Generally, my grandfather ran the grocery and my grandmother ran dry goods. Making ham sandwiches had to be a shrewd business decision. I am guessing the sandwiches were made with white bread, certainly not on Jewish rye. I’m also guessing my grandmother would have a “ham” knife and “ham” slicer. There would be milchadik (dairy) utensils, fleyshadik (meat) utensils, and treyf utensils. She would never intentionally violate the traditions. No, ham was business and it’s not like she herself was eating it. What one does at home was sacred. What one does in a public space was something else.

There could be no question that the proximity of this large church and the volume of parishioners had to be taken into consideration in my grandparents’ business. My father had always intimated that the church ran the town, especially when it turned down his request for a parking lot and he was forced out of a twenty-year supermarket business because he could no longer compete.

Ham sandwiches began to make sense, practical dollars and cents. By making ham sandwiches, Eva Krasner showed she could be counted on in the community. She was one of them—a North Arlingtonian, not a Jewish immigrant outcast. She spoke English as did Max with barely a trace of an accent, I’d been told.

A Jew who would make ham sandwiches protected herself against antisemitism and stuck to her vision of buying land throughout the area.

A Jew who would make ham sandwiches eased the way for her kids to make friends outside the tribe.

A kosher butcher’s daughter who made ham sandwiches knew how diplomacy worked. She knew the way of the world.

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Manifest-Station, Gravel, South 85, Jewish Literary Journal, Poor Yorick, and other journals.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, pandemic

Longing For Lysol and a Burger

June 6, 2021
lysol

by Fredricka R. Maister

Disinfecting wipes, a thermometer, bottles of hand sanitizer, masks, mega rolls of TP and paper towels, boxes of Kleenex, and cool purple latex gloves. The only item missing from my overstocked arsenal of anti-COVID household products: a can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray.

I used to always have a can of Lysol on hand. My luck, I ran out of it just as the novel coronavirus and the hoarders struck, snatching up every last can on the planet.

For almost a year, I’ve been trying to score a can—one can!– in stores or online, but the product is perennially out-of-stock which has made me want it even more.

The clerk at my local CVS told me the store sometimes receives a limited supply of Lysol spray, which the staff puts out in the wee hours of the morning.  Since the store is open 24/7, people line up to get first dibs on the new inventory. The Lysol, along with other items endangered in the Age of COVID, are gone within hours.

I have a friend, a night owl, who happened to be in the store a few months ago at midnight when she spotted a box labeled “Lysol” in a stack of boxes waiting to be unpacked. Without hesitation, she pried open the box with her fingernails and pulled out a can.  If only I had been with her, I could’ve checked Lysol spray off my wish list.

I’ve repeatedly complained in person at CVS. The staff’s only solution to my plight is for me to wait in line in the middle of the night with the desperadoes ready for a scrimmage in Aisle 6, Cleaners.  Even for Lysol, I have my limits.

So, I’ve had to accept the inconvenient reality that Lysol Disinfectant Spray may continue to elude me until this pandemic is over.

I’ve also experienced a relentless longing for a hamburger due to COVID-19. I almost never indulge in red meat, but there is something familiar and comforting about a burger slapped with lettuce, tomato, onion and a slice of melted cheese, served with crispy fries drenched in ketchup, that can satisfy my burger craving for months on end. A take-out, reheated-at-home burger doesn’t taste the same. I like my burgers hot off the grill.

With the reopening of restaurants, especially the pub across the street, the aroma of grilled hamburger wafting through the air has constantly reminded me of my last burger eaten only a few days before self-quarantining. My fear of eating out in a pandemic, inside or even outside, has trumped the instant gratification I know a hamburger could deliver.

I’ve been surveilling the pub for the last few months to check out the outdoor dining situation.  Tables are properly spaced.  Staff and customers, when not eating, are masked. Weeknights are quieter and street traffic is minimal. “Maybe it’s time to take the plunge while the weather is still cooperative,” I thought.

With my heart and mind set on finally having a hamburger, I called up my friend Phyllis, a like-minded COVID-phobe also in need of a burger fix.

“Look, we have a window of opportunity before it gets really cold. Let’s go to the pub tomorrow night,” I said.

Phyllis was game so we, with some trepidation, ventured out to the pub.  Our dining experience did not disappoint. We savored every last bite of our burgers and fries. “I’m good to go for another six months,” I told Phyllis.

Sharing a meal with a friend and chatting about things unrelated to COVID felt like old times, a much-needed reprieve from our new reality.

After eating, Phyllis asked if I wanted to walk with her to CVS.  “Sure, not that they have anything I need or want,” I said.

As I browsed the aisles with little or no inventory, Phyllis suddenly called out, “Look!”  She pointed to four cans of Lysol Spray in the center of an otherwise empty shelf. I stared in disbelief.

“Do you think it’s the real thing?” I asked.   I picked up a can. Sure enough, “Lysol Disinfectant Spray…Kills 99.9% of Viruses & Bacteria.”

No one can accuse me of being a hoarder. The happiest of campers, I left CVS with my one can.

For me, just the mundane acts of being able to hold a can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray and eat a hamburger in a restaurant assumed monumental significance that night, restoring a sense of normalcy to my life turned topsy-turvy by COVID-19.  For a few hours, for the first time in many months, I forgot I was living in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York City, now based in Philadelphia. Her personal essays have appeared in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY, and Broad Street Review. Her essay, “Forgiving Mom…Finally” recently appeared on The Manifest-Station.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level? Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human