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Guest Posts, poetry, Winter

A Winter Spell for the Changeling

December 31, 2020
ice

By Sandra LeDuc

Turn into the slide.

It’s the first thing you learn about driving on ice.

Do not pump your brakes.

Do not panic and overcorrect

lest you send the car into an unrecoverable spin.

You were probably going too fast for the conditions.

Because what the ice wants, it gets

a frozen wave seeking its shore.

You are a pebble, turned, lifted, spat out

against guardrail, snowbank, ditch, over the embankment down into a ravine

snow dusting the hood.

Or maybe you are flung into unending light.

Turn into the slide.

Incantation, blessing, plea to the unknown.

Strength in your hands as you let go of the wheel.

You are drifting.

Sandra LeDuc is a queer writer, adoptee, and musician. Originally from Minnesota, she lives in Seattle with her wife, two cats, and a dog named Noodge. Her work has been published in The Rumpus and Entropy. She can be found on Instagram as @sandrainseattle

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Pay Attention

December 30, 2020

By Tuni Deignan

pay attenton
be astonished.
tell about it.
-mary oliver

I have a delicate, black on black on black, layered, lace and lace-y, tulle and silk and satin cocktail dress. There is an overlay of trimmed triangular lacing. It flares just a bit, from my lower rib cage to the middle of my thigh where it rests. The torso is a blocked bodice, feminine, sensual, quiet. Above the bodice is sheer black fabric hinting at a strapless effect and its exquisitely frayed neckline is demure, sweet and scooping at the nape, a proper width from shoulder to shoulder ends just at the outsides of either end of my collar bone; seductive silent shoulders.

Usually, I wear this dress with a four-inch dark brown stiletto slip into, with a satin pine green and burgundy tapestry slipper, open-toed, it ties up ultimately with a phat fat burgundy bow at its arch. Gorgeous. Fun. Unexpected.

(pay attention, be astonished, tell about it)

Items of nostalgia stay hung in my closet and folded away in my drawers. The shelf life of my belongings has much more to do with my soul than fashion. In the bottom of my dresser’s fourth drawer, hides a full-length silk night gown, skinny shoulder straps, cut on the bias (like my third wedding dress) an ivory colored nightie with water-colored pink pansies large and splashed also on the bias at random; it’s stained. I wore this night slip to the hospital before delivering my last-born son, Lucky. I’d had plenty of opportunities laboring and delivering in a paper and cotton snap-up-the-back sack and shrugged off the nurse’s suggestion to change into one as wouldn’t I be blood staining my beautiful nightie? That’s my baby’s blood, that’s my blood, we’re doing a miraculous thing here, I thought, I’m good. The nightgown stayed.

Sometimes, I’ll give someone the shirt off my back. I love your shirt, she’ll say, my friend. And before she has taken her next breath I’ve taken it off and handed it to her (I’m wearing a leotard or something underneath), and she looks at me like I’m silly, and sweet and but of course you’re joking but no I’m really not joking because if you can feel the soul I attach to my t-shirt, and that feels special for you, then please, I am, sweet friend, all in. I send attention. She smiles astonished. Let’s.

The last time I wore the delicate, bodice hugging, demure yet inviting black dress was four years ago, almost to the day: August 29, 2016; the day my brother eulogized his youngest daughter, in his backyard. We all stood around his small pool, in South Florida, numb, cracked, broken. We listened to my sister play a movement of Bach on her flute, drifting and breathy and hollow and full, on breezes, the palm fronds receiving her; nodding alongside the notes and sorrows. The sun was hot. My cousins flew in. I bought floral arrangements: tropical jewels potted and dotted the ledges surrounding the circle of mourners. Tropicals, like my brother’s daughter, Gabrielle Esther:  wild, intense, whimsical, dream catching. Grandparents had been assisted to their chairs in the front. Sisters of the deceased, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends bowed their heads, struggled for words, wept.

I wore my black dress. I wore it to feel loved.

My brother spoke and invited our embrace. We paid attention. The day before, the tattooist carved Gabi’s tattoos into my arm and torso, into my brother’s, and his daughters and my daughters, all of us together, at the parlor she favored. We stung, our arms and torsos. By the pool, as the winds curled and held my brother’s grief, it began to lightly rain. In the back I stood eyes wet, watching slow drops plop onto my black-fairy dress. The timing was good, the service was closing, the family began to stand up from their chairs. The rain kept coming, just slowly, and sweetly, no one paid attention. The family started moving inside toward the food.

In that moment, my dress billows upward gaily next to my hips. In that moment, because I have kicked off the burgundy London heels, my arms are wings bent at my elbows, my elbows pitch northward toward the sky, my chin lifts and I am suspended, airborne, cartoon-like, briefly hovering over my brother’s saltwater pool. The raindrops slot my nostrils as I inhale, mixing with the salty tears releasing from my eyelashes. I search for the sun and greet the rain hoping.

Silent.

Quiet.

Peace.

My dress weighted by water, it suctioned up like a jelly and pressed me up to the surface, a mikvah cleanse, a soak.

It’s raining, Rainbow.

What else but this, Angel?

You will always take my breath away, please, please, tell me more.

My nieces and nephews, wide eyed and joyful, one by one cannonball and fly, dressed in funeral nines, plunge swiftly and willfully, joining me in my perfect black dress, the salty wet.

Antonia Deignan is a lifelong storyteller. She danced professionally in Chicago and New York, owned her own dance studio, and was artistic director of a pre-professional youth dance company – T Move. She is writing a memoir about surviving childhood trauma and rising above. She hopes her experience will help and inspire others. Her work has been published in Manifest-Station and Storied Stuff. She is a mother of five grown children and two great danes.

Recommended Reading:

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts, pandemic

Isolation Blues

December 29, 2020
people

By Loreen Lilyn Lee

If you live with people, sheltering in place has its challenges, but lack of human contact is not one of them. If you live alone like me, the absence of human contact feels unendurable—a seismic event for social beings.

~ The last moments of normalcy. ~

On Saturday, February 22, I dined with friends before attending a hula concert to celebrate my 71st birthday. I’m grateful to have been born and raised in Honolulu; Hawaiian music and hula feed my soul. Several hundred people filled the performance hall and took pleasure in both the chants that accompanied ancient hula’s staccato rhythms and the sweet melodies inspiring modern hula’s graceful movements. On Sunday, I met my Asian American women friends for lunch at Hong Kong Dim Sum, crowded as usual. Later we spent a pleasant afternoon playing mah jongg. During the week, I completed my regular schedule as an English and writing tutor at North Seattle College and in fitness classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. My hairstylist gave me a  perm.

                     Then everything        changed.

                        Seattle reported the first coronavirus death

            in the U.S. on February 29.

                                    Soon after, each household became an                       island.

I live in an apartment building for active seniors. The managers locked the doors on all common areas: community room, computer room, movie room, and gym. They cancelled all community events, including fitness classes. We tenants, in effect, were isolated in our apartments. For me, that’s a one-bedroom apartment, approximately 520 square feet, not exactly a prison cell, but still confining. Most of us live alone, so social interactions make a huge difference in quality of life and provide health benefits. I also hoped to stay healthy by continuing fitness classes to strengthen my immune system; this was not the time to stop. I thought the managers had over-reacted, while some called it “an abundance of caution.” I called the corporate office to complain, and the public rooms were unlocked, but it was only a brief reprieve.

            No one knew

                        a state-wide lockdown was imminent.

           I began   sheltering   in place

                                     Fri day            March   13

                                                            when the college         shut down.

Only a few days earlier, the administration had announced it would stay open until the end of the quarter. Okay, I thought, my life will hold steady for the next couple of weeks. While the crisis was still unfolding, I dreamed of maintaining my routine, some semblance of stability, and didn’t realize that solid ground had shifted to sand. So, I was shocked when Monday’s decision was overturned on Thursday morning; the gravity of the situation and the urgency to safeguard staff and students from contagion had become undeniable to college officials.

~ In Week 3 of staying at home, I learned to breathe deeply again. ~

Life was still on hold, but I began writing after clouds of anxiety dispersed. My creative energy flowed into words that converged on the page and lifted my spirits. I called a friend to go for a walk. It was a decent day for Seattle, meaning no rain, some sun. Although I’m out of shape, we walked for an hour on the college campus, now eerily empty of cars and the bustling energy of students, and in the adjoining neighborhood with tree-lined streets. We chatted while conscientiously keeping our distance. I was happy to see a familiar face, have a conversation, be outdoors, and move my body—much-needed respite from my apartment walls. However, no touching, no hugs.

~ In times of uncertainty, people need hugs more than ever. ~

I miss the intimacy of sharing time with loved ones: sitting together in a movie and sharing popcorn; jostling and jesting with an amiable crowd lined up to buy tickets at the Crest Theater, only $4 for a second-run movie; going to a concert or literary reading; enjoying meals with friends at a dinner table or in a favorite restaurant; working side by side in a kitchen preparing food; touching a pal spontaneously, throwing an arm around a shoulder or waist or patting a hand; whispering a private joke into someone’s ear; hearing live music at the cozy North City Bistro that features talented local musicians; receiving a massage from healing hands of a woman I’ve known for thirty years; feeling the warm energy radiating from another person; being near enough to see cheeks blush or the twinkle in an eye.

      When will we be able

                                    to dance        in   public   spaces    again?

Two weeks ago I hit a wall. It was late May when a convergence of profound isolation (living alone for over two months without human touch) and the frustrations of dealing with ongoing technical issues of working online slammed me. My energy reserves dipped with each new online task requiring a learning curve. Trying to troubleshoot technical issues heightened my stress. For example, connectivity without unlimited broadband access created problems: students suddenly disappeared from the screen.

            A Zoom ex istence is an         e m pty                     one,

                                                like living on a            desert               island.

People in pixels are not equivalent to someone in the flesh, and communication can suffer. My isolation is sharpened when shopping requires a six-foot perimeter around me and constant vigilance. God forbid I should bump into anyone! Life felt shaggy like my unruly hair. It felt completely unnatural.

            By early June

                        in     iso la tion        for twelve weeks,

                        without         touch ing or   being     touched by

                                                             a living,          breath ing soul.

~ I grew up on the island of O’ahu. ~

Giving a lei with a kiss on the cheek for a birthday or graduation or any special occasion was traditional. Other than this, my Chinese American family did not express physical affection often, but neither did we avoid touching one another. With seven children, we were often jammed into a car or crowded around the television. I grew up on an island, but I was surrounded by family and friends.

As a woman, I gravitated to warm, affectionate people and realized that I crave human connection, the physical communication between bodies; I need hugs and the love they convey.

            The nearness of people is    on  hold        for now.

                                                            I           get       it          and  sorely miss it.

Still, my aching heart is real—this desert heat of desperation, feeling my heart could simply shrivel up and cease working without  touch. I realize my pain may not be assuaged anytime soon, but I recognize it serves a purpose; I will hang on to this longing for human comfort, touch, and camaraderie. I don’t want to forget what it’s like to be human even though I have no idea when I’ll hug anyone or reach across a table to clink glasses in celebration. The simple gestures of friendship and love are absent for now. It is what it is. I’m hanging in there one day at a time, but I insist, I have to believe that these simple blessings will one day be ours again.

~ My island roots ground me in times of crisis. ~

An ancient Hawaiian canoe chant keeps coming to mind. I often quoted it at readings for my book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir. Skilled navigators, these Hawaiians traveled throughout the vast Pacific Ocean in their voyaging canoes. All the paddlers chanted these words in unison, from deep in their solar plexus, before pushing off from shore. They understood the risks of navigating uncharted waters and the criticality of every paddler working for the good of all in order to reach their destination. To survive.

I kū wā huki
I kū wā kō
I kū wā a mau
A mau ka ēulu
E huki e
Kūlia!

~ These words are not suggestion, but instruction and prayer. ~

Then as now, we’re all in the same boat. Social isolation is damn hard, wearying, soul-crushing. And yet, I have to do my part.

Together, we pull
Together, we draw
Together, now and forever
Unceasingly, from the top
Pull together
Persevere!

Loreen Lilyn Lee was born in pre-statehood Honolulu. Her debut book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir won the 2018 Willow Books Literature Award, Grand Prize in Prose. She has received fellowships for a Hedgebrook residency and the year-long Jack Straw Writers Program. Her work has appeared in The Jack Straw Writers Anthology, Burningword Literary Journal, and Raven Chronicles’ Last Call. She is a writing and English tutor at North Seattle College and can be found online here.

Recommended Reading:

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts

Gene(s)

December 28, 2020
gene

By Julianne Ho

“They have the best pork katsudon,” I told Gene, as if I were a true food connoisseur. We were walking through the prepared bentos section of Sunrise Mart, this tiny Japanese market on Stuyvesant Street. Conveniently situated across from my NYU dormitory on 3rd Avenue, it was one of my favorite places to grocery shop.

Our fellow dorm resident Eugenia, who had grown up in Japan, had vouched for their katsudons a month prior.

“Really?” he replied.

Perhaps Eugenia had already mentioned that to him too?

I looked past Gene’s handsome face, past his inquisitive brown eyes, which seemed to match his sandy brown hair, and his mouth, forever curved into a smirk when I was around, and squeezed into the cramped grocery aisles. I grabbed a package of nori and placed it gently into my shopping basket next to the bag of rice. It seemed like something Eugenia would have bought. I thought I caught him watching me, as I feigned interest in the various brands of bonito flakes before I decided to just check out with the nori and rice. I only knew of one dish that I can make decently with bonito flakes anyway, and I barely liked its taste.

***

Gene and I saw each other around NYU’s Alumni Hall, occasionally ran errands together, but we never went on a proper date. Once, he asked me to join him at Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village for pierogis, but I declined. I really should be studying, I told myself, instead of thinking about food or dating.

Every day during the spring of my junior year, I would bring my books to the dormitory TV lounge to study, and Gene would be there. Neither of us had TVs in our rooms. I knew studying in front of the television wasn’t the most effective use of my time, but I couldn’t help myself. I loved spending time with him.

“I can read the subtitles out loud while you study for the MCAT,” Gene offered one night from the couch in the TV lounge. “I love this movie. I want you to watch it with me.”

I was sitting at my regular study table near him. I’d just gotten back from a Kaplan MCAT Review session, but I still felt a compulsive need to study. The MCATs were coming up in a few weeks. As a pre-med student who was trying to enter medical school, I constantly felt guilty about how I spent my time. Any moment not spent studying led to extreme anxiety. Gene’s ability to watch foreign movies at ease seemed like a luxury to me.

My left ear itched so I scratched it absently as I answered, “Thanks, but I won’t retain anything from the movie or the MCAT books if you’re reading the subtitles out loud.”

I eyed him from the table where I sat with my books, and then compulsively gave my right ear a scratch for balance.

He read five minutes of subtitles for “The Vanishing” before giving up and watching the movie quietly as I worked on the practice test questions. I found his presence comforting.

***

“Eugenia is working on oil paintings today,” Gene informed me. “She offered to paint our portraits.”

I had heard that Eugenia and Gene were probably dating. Since they were just rumors, I had allowed myself to believe that they weren’t. Plus, Gene and Eugenia never indicated to me that they were seeing each other.

Eugenia’s father owned a successful appliance company in Asia that did business with major companies in the U.S. She had extra canvases, like the lots of other extra things that she owned. And she was also habitually sweet and generous. She had suggested that I paint something also. I was too self-conscious about my lack of artistic ability so I painted some leaves. I told her I didn’t want to waste her canvases. I had trouble finding storage space for her finished pieces so Gene offered to store them in his dad’s office in the city. I declined and ended up shipping them back to my parents’ house.

***

Gene and I were standing next to each other in an elevator packed with people. I could smell the faint scent of the little clove cigarettes he liked to smoke. It was the end of my junior year, and my backpack was sitting uncomfortably on top of my shoes as we tried to cram in even more passengers.

He had recently told me that he had a TV in his room this whole time, and that he just enjoyed hanging out with me in the TV lounge.

“I’m thinking about transferring to McGill in Montreal,” Gene told me, his voice muffled by the head of the man in front of us. “What do you think?”

Stunned by his sudden news, I held myself still, then shifted my weight, and the forgotten backpack at my feet tumbled a little bit as I mumbled, “McGill’s a good school. And you’ll be closer to your family.”

I couldn’t be honest with him. I couldn’t tell him I didn’t want him to go. I stooped a little in order to fumble with my backpack. Why were there so many people around? Couldn’t they mind their own business?
I suspected that some of the people in the elevator were watching so I stuck out my hand for a handshake instead of hugging him good-bye. Maybe some of the eavesdropping elevator passengers murmured, but I couldn’t be sure as I had kept my head down, trying to seem distracted by my backpack. Gene looked surprised, shook my hand, and when the elevator doors opened onto his floor, he said goodbye. I never saw him again.

***

“I think they are out to destroy my medical career,” I whispered to my mother. We were standing in a terminal at LAX airport where this distinguished, elderly couple had been seated across from us for a while. I had just graduated from college in May 1999 and hadn’t gotten into any medical school. Two had waitlisted me but ultimately rejected me. I was sure the couple were spies who had plotted with those medical schools to end my potentially prestigious and promising career, as I would later be convinced that the solo passenger seated behind us on the plane had done. As I filled my mother in on their plot to destroy my precious career, I switched to a different Chinese dialect to throw off the suspicious-looking couple and glared, since they had been staring at me.

I hadn’t slept nor showered for two weeks. My exhausted mother nodded. By then, she would have said anything to get me on the plane headed to the Pittsburgh, to the home of my dad’s psychiatrist colleague and good friend. My parents didn’t want me to see the psychiatrists in Los Angeles. If I were hospitalized in the Los Angeles community my dad practiced medicine in, people might gossip.

I didn’t know what a psychotic break was or whether the doctor in Pittsburgh was right or wrong about me. All I really wanted was for him to help me figure out whether people were really out to ruin my career or whether I just needed to study harder.

***

I had gained about forty pounds within a month or so of taking a combination of various prescription medications. At twenty-three years old, I had been rejected by twenty-five different medical schools in two sequential admissions cycles.

Despite my parents’ efforts, I was eventually hospitalized in Los Angeles in the year following Pittsburgh. But even before my hospitalization, I had started using food as a salve. My mother would watch me in disapproving silence whenever I sat at my parents’ table for dinner and shoveled noodles into my mouth.

“I’m already fat,” I would say, if she dared suggest I’d had enough. “Just let me eat what I want before I die so that I can have a little bit of happiness in my life.”

My mother looked alarmed and pained, but she still refused to ask me the obvious question: Do you really want to die? Because for me to verbalize my suicidal thoughts could mean that they could actually happen.

So she watched me eat so many excessive dinners in disapproving silence that, seven years later, by the time I was thirty, I was morbidly obese: 5’1” and well over 200 pounds.

***

Several years ago, I found Gene’s profile on Facebook and sent him a friend request. He did not recognize me from my profile picture because of the weight I gained. He sent me a message to ask whether I was the long-lost friend who painted the three beautiful portraits of him that still hung on his wall.

I told him that was Eugenia. I painted the leaves.

I thought about reminding him about me, his friend who studied like a maniac for the MCATs and pretended to know a lot about all sorts of foods, but I couldn’t find the right words. Instead, I told him that I missed him and appreciated his friendship, but he didn’t reply. Maybe because my confession came decades too late, I failed to become part of the memories of his time in New York. Maybe he forgot me because I never did anything that was worth remembering. I wondered if he really forgot, or if my memory was faulty. I wondered whether my perception was really so far off from reality.

***

When I returned to the NYU dormitory for my senior year of college, I had made a beeline for the TV lounge. I wanted to see Gene there, hoping that maybe he had forgotten that awkward handshake incident in the elevator, or perhaps had decided not to go to McGill. That maybe he would stay at NYU and finish out the following year with me. I waited and waited, but he did not appear.

That was also the year of the first round of medical school rejection letters. I thought about Gene and was grateful for his presence, the way he helped keep me calm, happy, and sane the year before all those rejections, the year before I felt like I started to lose everything, including my own sanity.

I thought about what my therapist said about how most people are not out to hurt others; that they were just doing the best they can. I thought about my own mistakes—my moods, flaws, and regrets – protracted silences, refusal to attempt portraiture, ignoring movie subtitles read aloud, and my cold elevator good-byes, and I realized that what my therapist said had been true.

***

Last fall, I went back to New York City for my 20-year college reunion. I had been residing in Los Angeles since college, with only occasional jaunts to the city. I knew I wouldn’t see Gene nor Eugenia at the reunion as they didn’t graduate with my class, but I would often think of them whenever I visited. On the last day of that reunion trip, I stopped by Washington Square to listen to the street musicians play their instruments by the fountain. I ambled by my old NYU dormitory to admire the building’s orange and gray façade, watched as the crisp autumn leaves fell from the surrounding trees, and then stopped into Veselka in the East Village to eat a plateful of potato and cheese pierogis. And by the time I flew back home to Los Angeles, I finally felt like I had said a proper good-bye.

Julianne Ho lives in Los Angeles and is a first-generation Taiwanese-American. She works as a financial manager for UCLA and enjoys arts & crafts and watching Hulu. Being solitary these past months and having those fears realized, it has helped her see how strong she can be and that being alone is not so bad.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Pilgrimage in the Land of the Rising Sun

December 27, 2020
temple

By Edith Darmon

As the steps keep going up and up, my breathing becomes faster and faster. There is no end in sight. My eyes get a glimpse of the top but as I reach it, each apex becomes illusive. It keeps going further again past my eyesight up higher and higher. I am only concentrating on going up another level to get closer to the crest. I am in Japan, on Shikoku island, the smallest of the four main islands of the archipelago. I am out of breath and a sharp pain accompanies each step while climbing up these tall stairs. Through the bamboo forest, I can now see the light from the open sky. A few more heavy lungfuls of air and finally I hoist myself onto the top where I am blinded by the beauty of Anrakuji temple. I slowly recover my breath and take in my surroundings. In the setting of the afternoon fog, the deep ocean with its different hues of blue is emerging with the underlined coastline. At the forefront, the soft vision of pink flowering trees is overlapping the green meadow. I stare, allowing my tears to flow freely.

A couple of years ago, when the love of my life, the man with whom I had been living for twenty-five years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, all equilibrium tilted towards a downward spiral. He died five months later and I lost my anchor. I was floating on a deflated balloon bound to crash. I hung haphazardly by a fragile thread. I let my instincts guide me instead of trusting my wounded brain. I went on walking treks as therapeutic healings. I walked in Spain, Canada,  India. When I heard of a walking trail in Japan in the form of a  pilgrimage, I was enticed with the idea but I never associated it with a clear need but rather with an instinctual behavior. I contacted a lifelong friend who also likes to walk as a way of life. The experience of embarking on such a journey held a significant amount of depth and unknown mystery.
Walking helps me calm my anxieties but also elevates my spirit to higher realms of reality. We are following Kukai’s steps. Kukai also holds the honorific name of Kobo-Daish – the enlightened one. He was the monk who brought an important sect of Buddhism from China to Japan around the year 800.

Over my five-week stay, each time I reached one of the 88 temples Kukai built around the island, I performed a suggested ceremonial from the Zen Buddhist tradition. This ritual was meant to restore peace within and helped erase conflicts at hand, or at least lessened their potency. I was eager to pray since I understood that the more I  loved, the more I grieved. The prayers would help me go deeper within my grief and learn to fathom the magnitude of my lost love. On this journey, I also hoped for guidance towards my life choices.

Upon arriving at the imposing arched doors of the temple, I bowed in front of the statue of Kukai whose role was to scare off demons inside and outside of us. To do that, Kukai took on the terrifying features of the angry devils he was fighting. He was our protector although his intimidating appearance and his ferocious gaze were unsettling. I wanted to trust him to help me fight my dragons during the long treks. I traveled with them perched on my shoulders, coloring my mood from dark to grey to golden yellow as fear or faith would alter my daily reality. I proceeded to the temple ground on a stone path through an orchard of pink blossoming cherry trees with statues of saints aligned along the edges. Each saint was small in size and wore a pink-colored hand-knit bib as a symbolic image of childhood and a reminder to protect children. While murmuring a prayer for their safety, the children in the world winked at me.

I stepped forward to locate the dragon spitting water. This was the time to cleanse my hands with respect from left to right while I prayed for the healing waters to flow freely in the world and in and out of me. My body was bursting with worries which have impeded the natural flow of my own waters. It was time now to honor and feed the earth by pouring a little water down. My personal harmony was contingent on the balance of the planet. I could not reach peace if the world around me was distressed. The process continued towards the stone steps and striking the largest gong on the compound. The sound rippled in waves and the echo could be heard far and wide. The deep, cavernous sound expanded my desire to opening up to new beginnings and a return to my joie de vivre.

My yearning was also strong in forgiving my beloved for leaving me unexpectedly, all alone on the path of life. I believed that finding acceptance and compassion for myself through prayers would ease my journey. The gong announced my presence. My dragons filled with anger and rage were acknowledged and temporarily appeased. I wanted to believe that I was now protected while my steps took me towards the main temple. In one of the combed sand barrel rings facing the entry, my three sticks of incense were lit as the prayers began.

Each day, my prayers took a different tone as suited for the moment. The flow of my invocations guided me towards what I wanted to ask, hoped, or wished for. Afterward, I peeked at the rich and ornate altar inside the central room before chanting the sutras three times as recommended. The melody was unknown to me, therefore I invented a rhythm from my imagination or borrowed it from other chants from other ceremonies I have participated in. I have been deeply touched by the Buddhist practice in India in the province of Ladakh, which borders Tibet. Sitting and chanting next to a monk in cool darkness in the sanctuary of a temple vault transported me to another realm of serenity.

When I was fortunate and other pilgrims were gathered at the same temple, chanting in unison their well-known prayer, I joined in gingerly and felt grateful to be among Japanese pilgrims during their spiritual practice.

One week into my stay, the recurring rite at every temple had become habitual. My ritual was nearly finished, but not until I visited the office where I waited for my turn to present my special gold and black book to one of the monks. The monk’s signature was an ornate black calligraphic design enriched with three red stamps acknowledging my passage in this temple. The book was purchased at the beginning of the pilgrimage and would slowly get filled up at every temple. The monk presented me with a sacred image to store in my sacred book. The symbolism of the image was unclear but its energy was treasured. In return as a token, I gave the monk three hundred yens.

Today was a very special day because I felt honored beyond words. I managed to reserve sleeping arrangements on the temple grounds for my traveling companion and me. This was a rare occurrence since temples did not allow lodging for pilgrims unless they came as a large organized group. But once in a while,  travelers had the privilege to sleep in the temple compound.

After recovering my backpack I had stashed behind a stone bench, my steps steered me around the corner, to look for a large building which should hold the sleeping quarters. Upon rounding the bend, another vista of the ocean greeted me with a striking wide expanse of crystal blue water. The warmth from the mesmerizing late afternoon light playing tricks with the sun embraced me closely. Another group of blossoming cherry trees was standing graciously in front of a building. Only then did I detect that the partially hidden building could easily be my temporary nest for the night. My traveling companion and I walked in; a monk was sitting chatting with visitors over tea. The monk was fully engaged and did not seem to discern our presence. We waited politely for a few minutes but no one seemed to notice the two western women still carrying their heavy loads on their backs while standing by the doorway. Therefore, I captured their attention. One of the women sitting next to the monk pointed out a room in front of us without looking. We were relieved. We took off our bags and our shoes. We slipped into the leather slippers provided and we let ourselves into what we believed was the waiting room.

The large and empty tatami room welcomed us. We were dazzled by a large bay window overlooking the landscape we just left outside. My head was slowly clearing up. I survived the exhausting although invigorating hike to let myself be revitalized by the meaningful temple ritual that always brought hope into my reality. Since my husband`s passing, burdensome darks clouds often obstructed my vision. This place was so inspiring in its beauty and its serenity that if any notion of paradise was pertinent, then we had attained it. We waited patiently. We thought someone would come soon, would ask us to fill out forms and lead us to our cubicle away from our captivating viewso little did we realize that we were standing in the room allocated to us. I found out by peeking outside because I was not able to hold my curiosity any longer. The mere view of my western face got the reaction I was looking for. One of the women motioned for us to stay put, indicated that she will unroll our futons at seven o’clock, the bath, the ofuro will be ready at five followed by dinner an hour later. We were also invited to participate in a ceremony after dinner. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a cup of green tea from the thermos sitting on the table.

Later, as we walked down the hallway towards the bath-house, I  transformed into a new human wearing a blue indigo yukata covered with a dark blue heavy cotton jacket. The other pilgrims encountered on the stairs dressed in similar attire. The bath was composed of a large carved stone-heated pool surrounded by several individual hand showers with stools close to the ground where people were washing thoroughly before sliding delicately into the hot water. After cleansing and soaking my body at leisure in the healing waters, the moment had come to get some sustenance. I got dressed and followed some of the pilgrims through a side door towards the dining area.

Sitting regally among other fellow pilgrims in the grandeur of the temple dining room, it was time to savor a delectable feast of dishes displayed in front of me: tuna, snapper, and octopus sashimi fanned over grated daikon radishes, miso soup with wakame seaweed and morsels of baked tofu. I was fully present to delight in the cuisine from the attractive and mysterious culture of the land of the rising sun. There were perhaps twenty-five pilgrims in the room, all dressed in the same blue indigo yukata; everyone was lively. I smiled and observed quietly my surroundings since it was impossible to communicate.

After the meal was over, we were told to move towards a room at the back of the temple where instructions were given along with small brown paper bags. A friendly man came up gingerly and sat next to us explaining in hesitant English the different steps of the ceremony. It was said that this particular ceremony aimed to bid farewell to the deceased. My heart jumped to the point of badly hurting. When I entered into this pilgrimage I did not think it would affect and touch me so deeply. I thought I could separate my outer experience and let it float as a superficial layer while keeping my core protected and closed. In hearing the meaning of the ceremony, I realized that it would soon be three years since my husband passed. I knew his anniversary was approaching but I was attempting to behave as normally as possible and was hoping that the tornado would not hit as hard as it did in the past years. While my thoughts often converged towards him, and his name leapt frequently into my speech, I struggled between two lives careful not to impose on people around me by constantly talking about my beloved.

My eyes blur, my throat contracts, and I have difficulties breathing. I feel myself entering into a trance. I blindly follow my fellow pilgrims to the back of the temple where we penetrate the underbelly of a cavern filled with several Buddhas watching us. Everyone starts chanting sutras while my head rolls back and forth, following the rhythm and the sound. I am lost in a dreamlike state with intensely palpable sensations more vivid than images. A movement catches my attention, my eyes startle open to notice the pilgrims standing up and moving forward. I trail behind them, slowly advancing into a long, dark narrow passageway. We emerge into a curved room with a small stream along the side. As per instruction, I light the candle in the little wooden boat found in the brown paper bag. One by one, we delicately place the boats in the waterway.

My mind is busy now with strong visions crowding and fighting for attention. The boat of Charon, the ferryman of Hades takes the stage carrying the souls of the newly deceased through the River Styx. The fragile vessel is crowded. The frightened souls are led to the threshold where the world is divided between the living and the dead. Fear is vividly painted on their faces. I have often had this lingering vision after my husband left. I could clearly distinguish every feature in front of me inside my wide-open eyes. Once strong and detailed, these images had slowly fizzled away as months, then years went by. At this instant, however, the vision promptly flooded my consciousness again.

Another persistent and profound vision seizes my attention, one that followed me when awake since the first week after my sweetheart died: We are both sitting on the back of a small motorized boat, which is moving at a hurried pace. Suddenly, my husband falls out of the dinghy but I remain on board. I cannot stop the boat. I shout but no one reacts. It is as if I am alone but I know I am not alone. No one can hear me. I spin around, but my beloved has disappeared in the swift current of the fast-moving waters while the boat speeds on. The life force was pushing me forward while my husband plunged unexpectedly out of the boat, out of the living world, and into the mysterious realms of the deceased.

While in this cave still with tears running down my face, I push my little vessel off. I tentatively wave farewell to my departed, trying to put words to the unknown journey waiting for him. But I do not know anything about his voyage.

We slowly leave the water chamber and our group keeps walking towards a large round space where we burn our little sliver of wood, adding it to the dancing blue and yellow flames from a small pyre. I am filled with images connecting death to fire: Fire from hell that symbolizes the suffering but also the releasing. When my husband was dying, he kept telling me that he needed quiet. He did not want to be brought back to the daily reality of the chattering conversation or even peaceful music. He said he needed full concentration to let go of life because it was very hard and painful to leave the world of the living. My heart was wrenching to witness his strength as he released his soul.

I am blinded by the orange glow of the setting sun when I step outside, I am out of breath and unsteady. I hear my husband`s hearty laughter telling me to seize the day while the whiff of his morning brew fills my nostrils. I fully inhale the vision like a forceful breath helping me cope with the present.

Through the hidden side of the temple, I opened a sacred door into my soul today. I had not known why I came to Japan but at this instant, I get the hint that I am here to attempt to heal my bruised soul and to learn to remember the joy of waking up in the morning next to my beloved, drinking tea in bed, and welcoming the new day. This journey to the islands of the rising sun did not augur as a comfortable voyage but a necessary one.

The next day, I  leave Anrakuji appeased and filled with hope even though the struggle will most likely return. While walking slowly towards the next temple of the pilgrimage, I take the time to hear the birds sing and pause as I bend to smell a cluster of pure white jasmine. My eyes follow the lines of the sea on the blue horizon. I find a friend in the constant presence of the ocean. My friend is faithful and stays with me along my journey. The ocean feeds my soul with its power and its infinity by refueling my life force when I am weak and desperate. The sky will not always be blue and serene, but I hope to be more prepared for the next invasion of black clouds hindering my eyesight.

Edith Darmon was born in Algeria and immigrated to France as a teenager. As a young adult, she traveled extensively throughout Europe, North, Central and South America. Edith is a retired Spanish and French teacher. Following many years of world travel, she has settled in the mountains of Northern New Mexico where she now gardens, writes, and frequently travels to Colorado to visit her daughter and granddaughters.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Birthday, Guest Posts, memories

I Hear You, Please Come In

December 26, 2020
birthday

By Charna Cassell

 “The hand that still works grips, won’t let go.”
-Margaret Atwood, A Visit

I recently turned 45 and for the last few years, I’ve dreaded my birthday. Not for reasons you might think, like sagging skin or facing my mortality or no longer making certain age-group cut-offs on dating apps. I’ve dreaded it year after year, right around my birthday, I re-experience the pattern that was imprinted on me before I could talk.

This bracing around my birthday began five years ago. That was the year I offered trauma and resilience training at an orphanage in my birthplace, Nepal. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been to the country since I was 16: I felt like I belonged.

The staff and children threw a party for me on the day I left. The gifts were abundant, and touching: Hand-drawn pictures, a small Buddha statue, a red felt hat. 400 people celebrating your existence with genuine love sets a new standard.

The contrast of returning to Oakland (on my birthday, no less) was stark. As I unlocked the door to my apartment, it struck me that I was entirely alone. This wasn’t a new feeling; during different periods of my life, I’ve felt like an orphan too. Not because I developed a special talent for forgetting my past, or got good at being alone, what with my father in prison for the first half of my life and my mother addicted to drugs and habitually choosing men over me (her ability to parent herself, let alone a child, insubstantial). It was because of what happened when I was born.

A triangle of isolation existed between my dad, my mom, and me before I came into the world. My father was hiding out from the police when an earthquake hit Nepal and my mother fell down a set of stairs, leaving her with a partially severed placenta. Ten days in a rural hospital passed before her water broke and out I came in a rush. I was tucked into a cardboard box that functioned as a makeshift incubator while she grew distraught in a distant room, not knowing if I was okay. Although I imagine I was tended to well by the Nepali nurses, I only saw her intermittently. Years later, I learned they told my mother she would kill me if she overfed me and took me away from her frequently.

My body learned, before anything else, that I could not depend on my primary caretakers for food, shelter, or love. That I could not trust that protection would consistently be available when I needed it.

My nervous system recalls this when my birthday arrives. Around this time, I feel caught between two worlds; trapped between the panic of birth and the numbness of being in utero. A blanket of tension runs the length of my body while my chest feels like it’s clogged with stones.

Under my skin, I sense an urge to mobilize into action, to complete something. To get out of this skin, this relationship, this home, this womb. Anniversaries of any kind can evoke plenty.

What does this tell me? It reminds me that we decide a lot before we are verbal. We know and choose what feels good and right and safe, just as we know in our cells and bones what does not. The frantic flapping in my ribcage, the shame I feel for wanting contact and the assurance that it’ll arrive on time, those stones in my heart—all of these sensations that I experience when my birthday rolls around were created before I had the words to articulate what I needed.

We’re inclined to think of these preverbal feelings as the realm of fetuses and infants, but their distant cousins surface in the adults we become, dictating actions and reactions that emerge without the concrete memories to explain them. This unconscious voltage may run through us for years.

The day before my 45th birthday, I was at a friend’s party. Two men who previously held starring roles in my life—one as a close friend, the other as a lover—were milling around the dance party and food table. Both are my teachers (or my “sex angels,” as I call them) because they come in and out of my world to teach me things and help me evolve. (These lessons don’t have to involve sex, but they do usually involve intimacy and pain.) Echoes of the sorrow and fear I once felt in being alone and forgotten had been activated by both of these men in the past. I was already feeling vulnerable, and now this?

My formerly close friend told me at the party that he was moving to Bali and asked, “Have you been there?” I looked at him and couldn’t tell if he was joking. When I saw that he wasn’t, I laughed in pure awe. Eight years earlier, he had invited me on a month-long trip to the very place he was asking me if I’d ever visited. We’d purchased tickets, planned for it with giddy excitement—and then he disinvited me because his other friend wasn’t sure about traveling with me. Once I reminded him of this, he said, “Why would I want to remember something like that about myself?”

Why indeed.

But memory is an interesting thing. When I think of selective memory, I think of memories that were once conscious but carried an untenable amount of remorse, terror, or grief—so much so they fell into submission, below consciousness, to protect the feeler.

My old lover’s memory seemed to work towards a similar sort of self-preservation. We had an on and off-again relationship for years. When we were on, he expressed he loved me…then later denied it. A week after gender-bending, kinky sex, he forgot it happened.

I broke up with him, and broke up with him again, only to be pulled back in by an invisible thread that seemed to connect us across multiple dimensions. I imagine that our souls and bodies remember each other and that in a different timeline, we were madly in love and able to express this with ease.

In this particular life, he doesn’t have the capacity to be in a skillful relationship with me. Sure, we’re friendly when we bump into each other in the produce aisle—or around the cheese platter at mutual friends’ parties—but he’s cautious and awkward, no matter that (or perhaps precisely because) we’d seen each other naked. With a slice of brie in one hand and a glass of sparkling water in the other, I teetered between wanting to hold him a little too long when we hugged and the desire to turn away.

I saw both of these men three hours after an attachment therapy session where I moved through the preverbal fear of not being chosen, remembered, or loved. The universe, I’m convinced, orchestrated this encounter.

Because here’s the thing: A great deal can be imprinted on us before we’re born or when we were children, but we also have a lifetime to unwind the hardships our bodies remember. Triggers are opportunities to bring buried traumas into the present, to where they can be integrated.

When I was a child, my grandmother disowned my mom. This devastated both of them. It prompted my mom’s self-destructive, numbing actions—her tireless desire to not feel a thing, which she bedded down with for decades.

The first signs of my grandmother’s dementia surfaced during a conversation about attachment theory, when I was trying to explain what can happen when a parent is not attuned to their infant and care is erratic or nonexistent. She interrupted me to say, “Well, anyone who throws away a child should be taken out and shot. I found a baby in the trash can outside my house. I cleaned him up and gave him a haircut. His name is Charlie and he goes to college but every day, he always comes home and eats sandwiches with me for lunch.”

She paused. “He’s such a good boy,” she added.

Charlie was one of many children my grandmother rescued. By her 93rd birthday, she had hundreds of children she’d “adopted,” and they all lived with her in Cassell’s Castle. They all shared her birthday, too, and when we sang, “Happy Birthday, Marion,” she gleefully sang over us, “Happy Birthday to everyone.”

Some of our relatives thought she was crazy. I didn’t. I was only reminded that guilt runs deep, and that what she couldn’t remember—abandoning her flesh-and-blood daughter—was making itself known and asking, in its strange way, to be integrated.

My grandmother passed away five years ago. These days, I treat my nervous system with as much care as she, in her mind, did her Charlie.

I acknowledge my triggers and excavate the source of the original hurt; I try to remain in the present. I power through strength-training exercises with a personal trainer—slow, weight-bearing practices that activate my fight-or-flight response and fortify my nervous system. I parent myself each time I snuggle my dog or take a walk instead of blazing through work and ignoring my need for food or a good stretch or a conversation with nature. I’ve stopped choosing lovers who are scared of their desire for me or the emotions that are aroused in our relationship; ambivalence doesn’t have the same draw it once did. And in the process of becoming as conscious as I possibly can, I realize that these people—from my mother to my father to my sex angels—are each playing their part in reminding me that we are all doing the best we can. That so little is personal.

Through this lens, I see them as gifts that help bring the preverbal forward. I feel through the pain, loss, and separation as if feeling my way through a dark room, knowing, when I reach the light, that their forgetting and absences aren’t really about me.

I am alone I am not alone I am loved I am cherished I am valued I am important I am an item on the menu at Café Gratitude, apparently. And I am 45.

Charna Cassell is an Embodied Leadership Coach and Body-Centered Psychotherapist who has helped people heal and celebrate their sexuality for the past twenty-five years—first as as sex educator and sex toy clerk at San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, then as a somatic coach and bodyworker, and now as a psychotherapist specializing in working with trauma. Charna can be found online here.

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Activism, Guest Posts, Mental Health

Exercise, Weed, Sex…Nothing is Easing My Anxiety

December 23, 2020
people

By Andrea Askowitz

I used to feel like I could make a difference in the world. I used to march in the streets. When I was a kid, my mom took my brother and me to March on Washington three times. For fifteen years after college, I worked full-time to help homeless people find jobs, working-class people make a livable wage, and queer youth who’d been bullied out of their schools or homes. I volunteered for Democratic candidates all my life. My candidates didn’t always win, but I always felt like the world was moving in the right direction.

Four years ago, I dragged my kids to phone-bank and canvass door-to-door for Hillary Clinton. Then the most qualified candidate that ever ran for president lost to the most absurd candidate. And the world went dark.

***

Now, at 52, I have never been this panicked by what’s happening in the world. I can’t sleep. I know I’m not alone because when I wake up at 3 a.m. and check Facebook, half my friends in my same time zone are awake and posting.

I’ve been living with low-grade depression and anxiety since Trump took office. When coronavirus started to scourge the world six months ago, my anxiety amped up. My iPhone screen time went up 20% to four hours a day. I knew it was a problem, but I was scared, so I let myself be distracted. I did yoga on Facebook live, enjoyed a friend’s daily piano concerts, learned how to braid challah, and watched a man in France run the length of a marathon on his 10-foot balcony. None of this helped to lessen my panic.

For 20 days in a row, I danced with my kids—my own little way of reducing stress. I created the hashtag #coronavirusdanceparty and posted on Facebook. I’d dance, post, then check my feed every half hour to see what others had to say. Finally, my kids said, “Stop.” They knew the dancing wasn’t helping.

When George Floyd was murdered, I watched that video over and over. And then I watched the reactions of people protesting in the street. My daughter and I put masks on and went to one protest. But, mostly, I quarantined inside and watched the news.

I’m not a very good swimmer, but this summer we found a public 25-meter pool that lets 10 people swim at a time and I’ve worked my way up to 64 lengths. That’s a mile. When I get out of the pool, I’m dizzy and exhausted. That kind of physical exertion used to relax me for the rest of the day; help me sleep. Not now.

Now, wild fires are ravaging the West Coast. I wanted to reach out to a good friend in San Francisco, but the orange-sky images she posted were so apocalyptic, I couldn’t. With coronavirus threatening people’s lungs and headlines like this one from the Insider: “An Ominous Map Shows the Entire West Coast with the Worst Air Quality on Earth,” all I could say was, “Holy shit! You must be freaked out.” So, I said nothing.

Last year, before coronavirus and the fires and before white people were reminded of our roles in subjugating Black people, my mom, my brother, and my business partner—three people closest to me—beat cancer. Back then I thought my world was sick. Now, I see that the whole world is sick.

***

I have several friends with prescriptions for medical marijuana. One has been on the phone with me enough lately to know I need a chill-pill. A few weeks ago, she dropped off her remedy. She said, “Two puffs before bed.”

I know people smoke weed to get their mind off things. But as soon as the weed kicked in every scary thought I’d ever tamped down rose to the surface. My wife and I lay there in the dark. I said, “My mind is flooded with scary thoughts…Flooded.”

Hurricane Laura and then Sally had just flooded the Gulf Coast, killing at least 13 people. Tropical Storm Vicky brewed in the Atlantic. Vicky is my wife’s name. The World Meteorological Organization has already gone through the whole alphabet naming storms, which has only happened one other time, and we still have two months left in this hurricane season.

All of this anxiety is rising up with the presidential election in the backdrop. And then Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.

Sex usually puts me right to sleep. I mean after sex. But now there’s a gaping liberal hole in the Supreme Court. Now, it’s hard to think about anything else, but I’m desperate for sleep, so I locked the bedroom door and lit the candles and after, instead of spooning my wife and peacefully nodding off as usual, I was wired for hours.

***

I called my weed friend and told her the weed wasn’t working. I said, “When corona hit, I increased my screen-time; when Floyd was murdered, I got in the pool; the fires, weed; RGB, sex. Nothing’s working.”

She said, “You know what? Maybe you should get your ass out of bed and do something for someone else.”

That same day, my sister-in-law, who works 24/7 for the Democratic Party, asked me to write postcards to encourage people to vote. She said they need people to hand out slate cards at the polls, starting with early voting. She asked me to get other people to write postcards and work the polls too.

I said, “Whatever I can do!” Then I emailed 20 friends. Ten wrote back immediately: “YES!” “Count me in!” “Whatever I can do!”

Other people needed something productive to do too.

Why didn’t I think of this? I know helping others can help a person get out of their own head. When did I stop helping?

I know the answer. I let myself wallow in my own misery when it all started to feel so bleak; when democracy itself felt threatened. But I also know that Democracy is government by the people, and I’m one of those people.

I’m hoping this is the turning point.

Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her essays have appeared in The Manifest-Station, The New York Times, Glamour, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, Salon, The Writer, and other publications. She’s also the co-host and producer of the podcast Writing Class Radio.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, postpartum depression

Prescriptions and Postpartum: When It’s Easier to Medicate Than Listen

December 22, 2020
receptionist

By Amanda Aardse

“You still there, hon?”

The walls are the colour of the inside of my skull, bland and jumbled, fuzzy thoughts tied in knots. I hate waiting rooms. My palms are all sorts of wet and I can’t sort myself out. It took two whole days to work myself up to the phone call, and the receptionist was on the other line, sounding bored.

“Yeah, I’m here, um, is there someone else I could see? I just need a referral to a psychologist.”

The words drench me in shame.

I gave birth three months ago. Motherhood. That should at least earn me just an inch of kindness, but so far all I find I get is reproach. You wanted this.

Everyone thinks I wanted this. That I spent my early morning hours for one long year being poked and prodded intimately by nurses who would yawn behind their gloved hands, sip their coffee during the internal ultrasound. That I pumped my body full of hormones it lacked, that I cried over an empty womb month after month for this.

No, I did not want this. I thought motherhood would make me feel fulfilled, beautiful, so in love I couldn’t stand it. This just makes me feel achingly alone from everything and everyone, even my former self, whoever she was.

I’m just Mom now.

“Well you really should see your doctor. She’s on holiday for the next two weeks, did you want to make an appointment for then?”

I picture her in the sun and sand, enjoying her two beautiful children while I have not taken a shower in three days, while my heart jitters with too much anxiety and caffeine. My eyes well with tears.

“Is there anyone else I can talk to?” I whisper and feel the eye roll on the other end of the line.

***

The nurse calls my name and I scatteredly grab my things. I’ve been staring at the magazine table rehearsing my lines – you need to do this, to advocate for your own health when others won’t.

The desire to be seen as more than just Mom is overwhelming.

She lets me into the doctor’s room. I’m explained this isn’t my regular doctor, he’s just taking her emergency patients. Am I an emergency? I wonder. What did the receptionist say about my teary phone call?

Well, that’s just having a baby, the receptionist informs me. A gatekeeper who mocks me. I use google instead, get confused by conflicting advice, and cry on the floor of his nursery while he joins me in wailing harmonies.

I sit on the chair beside the desk. I refuse to sit on the weird papered examining table like a patient. I came to get a referral. That’s all. A name and I’m out.

He enters the room and introduces himself, not smiling, barely making eye contact. I smile too widely to show I’m a happy, loving mother, that there’s nothing wrong. That is what everyone tells me they need to see. That, if I’m struggling, I must hate motherhood, must just not be good at it. I want so desperately to be good at it.

He begins to open fire. I am reduced to five questions, taken apart piece by piece and examined. Unfitting. Ill equipped. I feel mechanical, unhuman.

How often do you sleep? Well, not often, but I have a newborn, nervous chuckle.

Do you engage in my regular hobbies? If I could find the time or energy, I spiral, scrabble

Are you having regular intercourse with your husband? I –  I pick at the skin of my nail until it bleeds.

“How would you say you feel?” He turns to look at me at last. I heave a sigh of relief and decide for honesty.

“So incredibly tired. Some mornings I don’t want to get out of bed. I vomit before I’m able to accomplish anything. I love him so much, but he won’t stop crying, I just feel like I’m losing bits of myself…” I trail off and begin to dissolve.

He hands me a tissue and turns back to his computer, begins talking about prescriptions. How I’ll feel worse in the beginning, but it’s the right choice. I want to open my mouth, I just want someone to talk to, to ask if I get a choice, but I’ve withered.

Do you want to harm your child?

Amanda Marie Aardse lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her husband, toddler, and pleasantly round cat, where she is the third generation in her family’s custom woodworking business. She has spent her days riddled with nail biting anxiety and has nothing but a beautiful life to show for it.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Friendship, Grief, Guest Posts

Remodeling, Loss and the Kitchen Sink

December 21, 2020
sink

By Devra Lee Fishman

I could tell I confused the Home Depot kitchen designer when I burst into tears.

“Most people are happy to hear they need a new sink when they change out their countertops,” he said.

“I do not want a new kitchen sink,” I said, as I dug around in my handbag for a tissue. “All I want is a new white countertop to replace the forest green one I installed when I remodeled fourteen years ago.”

I have always decorated to my taste with no worry about resale and at the time, I had a taste for forest green. I also had a dear friend being treated for breast cancer.

Leslie and I met on our first day of Syracuse University almost thirty years previous when we were matched as roommates. We clicked immediately, lived together all through college and over the years laughed our way through good and tough times. We were in each other’s wedding and when I didn’t get my dream job and I thought my world was at a dead end, Leslie helped me see the open road. Her bad news came at the same time I was going through a rough break up, yet Leslie consoled me. “Dev, in a lot of ways having a broken heart is worse than having cancer. At least I have treatment options to get me through this.”

When I started the remodel, Leslie had just moved back to upstate New York from Los Angeles. I was looking forward to spending more time with her now that we were both living on the same coast, but she was diagnosed shortly after she unpacked. Her cancer was advanced and advancing. As time went by and her world seemed to only revolve around doctors and treatments, I thought she might enjoy a distraction so I asked her to help design my new kitchen.

I visited every few weeks and brought my architect’s plans. Leslie had a great eye for form and function and there were many decisions to be made about cabinets, hardware, and colors. I valued her opinions and I knew how much she valued having something other than cancer to think about.

After the space planning was done, I sourced the fixtures and appliances locally. The only thing I could not find was the sink. I wanted a deep, double bowl under mount. I knew it had to exist somewhere so the next time I visited Leslie we went sink hunting. She knew of a high-end home goods store that was having a going out of business sale and the thought of snagging a bargain appealed to both of us.

It was mid-August and the temperature was burning into the nineties. Leslie wore a short black and white checked shirtdress, which hung on her like a drop cloth. Even though she was cooler without it, she put on a red baseball cap to cover her chemo-bald head.

We drove to the store that had a five-foot high neon yellow banner out front advertising its closing sale – everything was marked down. Inside it was Kansas after the tornado with faucets, lights and curtain rods strewn about the shelves. After pacing several aisles we finally spotted a sticker with a picture of my dream sink but did not see any nearby. While I searched for a cart, Leslie enlisted the help of a stock boy and together they found the sink on a high shelf, behind a tangled sculpture of showerheads. The stock boy lifted the sink into the cart, and Leslie and I wheeled it over to check out.  There were four cashiers, each with lines five people deep. Leslie and I chatted while we waited.

“The stock boy, Darryl, is very sweet but he smells like he had a lot of garlic for lunch,” she said. “He’s been working here for three years, putting himself through college and now that the store is closing, he’s nervous about how he’s going to pay for his tuition next year.” She only needed a few minutes to get a life story from a perfect stranger.

“Did you also find out if he has a girlfriend, where he lives and what his mother’s name is?”

“No, didn’t have enough time. He did ask if you were single. Are you interested in cradle robbing? Because he’s up for it.”

“Cradle robbing appeals. Garlic could be the deal breaker,” I cracked.

“Hey, we’re next”, Leslie said. “I’m going to see if I can get you a better deal on your sink.”

“How you going to do that?”

“I’m going to play the cancer card.”

I caught my breath and lowered my voice.  “Don’t you want to save that for something more important than a kitchen sink?” I pointed to the sign on the cash register that said ‘PLEASE DO NOT ASK FOR A BIGGER DISCOUNT’. “I think they mean business,” I said, trying to talk her out of making a scene.

Leslie locked her eyes on mine. “Dev, I have cancer. I don’t save anything for later.”

I nodded my understanding but still tried to make myself as small as possible when Leslie stepped up to the cashier.

“Hi, my friend here is buying this sink and I’m wondering if you would give her another five percent off. After all, we had to climb all over to find it and wrestle it down from the top shelf,” Leslie said.

The clerk looked like she was barely old enough to work. Her voice was rehearsed, but warm. “We have a policy that we can’t give bigger discounts,” she said.

“Do you give bigger discounts for people with cancer,” Leslie asked as she lifted her hat. The entire store seemed to go silent as the nearby customers and cashiers froze waiting for the answer.

The girl took Leslie’s hand and whispered, teary eyed, “I wish I could, but my manager said no discounts to any one under any circumstances or I’ll get fired.”

I interrupted and asked, “We don’t want her to get fired, do we Leslie?” I quickly swiped my credit card and finished the transaction.

Leslie asked, “Can we at least get someone to help us carry this out to the car?” She was going for a victory, no matter how small.

Before the cashier could answer, the store manager and two other men who were in the line next to ours almost collided as they vied to take control of our cart.  The three of them walked us outside and lifted the sink into my car.  Each one of them gave Leslie a hug before going back inside.

Leslie died the following year and I think of her – and our sink buying adventure – every time I walk into my beautiful kitchen. But my forest green countertop was fading and there was a stain from when I did not clean up red wine fast enough. It was time for a new countertop.

The kitchen specialist explained. “When we remove the old countertop, the sink will get damaged.” The finality of the trade-off made me cry more. He pulled out a brochure and said, “We’re having a promotion on new sinks this week. Do you like any of these?”

I wanted to tell him that I bought my sink with my dear now dead friend and that shopping trip was our final crazy caper, but I just sniffled, nodded and pointed to the only double-bowl under mount on the page.

When I got home that day I called my mother for solace.

“Grief is a wicked shape shifter, honey. We never know what will trigger us. This is difficult because it reminds you that Leslie is gone,” she said.

She’s right. My kitchen holds the last memories I have of Leslie and the project we worked on together throughout her fight with cancer. I feel like I am saying goodbye to her all over again and will with each piece of the kitchen that has to be replaced. Just last month the motherboard of my original refrigerator crashed and the appliance was diagnosed beyond repair. I cried then, too.

**

I kept the sink. I had to. I planted it in my backyard and now use it as a container for irises, Leslie’s favorite flowers. I know Leslie would get a kick out of that. But the refrigerator…I had to let it go and I am trying not to resent the new one taking its place. I know Leslie would like that, too.

Devra Fishman is a writer and long-time hospice volunteer. She is currently working on a full-length memoir about the beautiful transformational friendship she shared with my college roommate who died from breast cancer way too soon. Devra’s essays have been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Manifest-Station and Laura Munson’s summer guest blog series. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

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Guest Posts, Relationships

Crazy Ex-Lawyer Meets Happily Ever After

December 20, 2020
life

By Jennifer Lauren

It’s four years ago, and I’m obsessed with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

When my husband’s in the bathroom, I repeatedly rewatch the cheaply animated introduction and smile at a wide-eyed Rebecca ch: successful New York lawyer, makes a fortune, corner office, crying her eyes out. She has it all, but she doesn’t want it.

Enter Josh Chan, her never-forgotten high school summer camp love. He’s leaving New York to go home to West Covina, California. As he waxes poetic (“two hours from the beach, four with traffic”), he keeps saying “happy.”

Happy. The word follows Rebecca, mocks her from billboards and commercials. She’s not happy. She should be, but she’s not.

I laugh, then clamp my hand over mouth because my husband is still in the bathroom, and it’s that laugh. You know the one, the half hysterical, teary eyed, holy shit laugh that’s just a little crazy. Because I’m Rebecca. Hell, every woman I know is Rebecca. She’s us after too much wine, in the middle of the night, bewildered by our perfect-on-paper lives and asking, is this it?

“Why isn’t this enough?” women all ask at some point, and then every Tuesday. The rest of us shrug. Because it’s not enough for us either, so we offer a hug and more wine. It’s not like we can do something about it.

I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because Rebecca does something about it. She quits the New York job and moves to West Covina. Because she thought she could be happy there. Maybe. Even though she’s kind of chasing a boy.

We call her crazy.

“Wait, no I’m not,” she says. And we laugh at her obliviousness.

Except I don’t think she’s crazy. I’m like – whoa. That would be so cool. I am a successful lawyer. I have the perfect-on-paper life. And I totally want to ditch it and move to West Covina. Well, at least California. Or anywhere sunny. I want to get a dog and walk in the sun and write books. I want to quit my job.

But I can’t, because I have everything.

“You should quit your job. You should write,” my husband says one night when I’ve had a couple mojitos, since I’ve never been much of a wine person.

I think of Rebecca, and I say ok. I put in my very long notice two weeks later. It’s rainy and cold and we don’t have a dog, but I’m happy. I start a novel. I ignore the raised eyebrows and tight smiles I get when I say I’m leaving law.

It’s Christmas Eve.

We are putting cookies out for Santa with our ten and seven-year-olds, and my husband calls me from the bathroom. I’m irritated. I want to get the cookies out and the kids to bed. I want to do the present thing so I can collapse into bed.

He can’t move his left arm. I tell him to sit and he lies down on the floor at my feet.

The doctors can’t believe my marathon-running, kale-eating, 35-year-old husband had a stroke. They run more tests, but they say the same thing. He video conferences into Christmas morning with the kids long before Corona was a thing.

But he’s lucky. The kale-eating, marathon-running thing probably saved his life. He’s fine. No residuals. He goes home the day after Christmas.

The doctors and nurses keep using the words “life changing.” I don’t want my life to change. I quit my job. I’ve changed it enough.

“Some people come away from this full of fear,” one doctor says. “Others decide they will finally live the way they’ve always wanted to live.”

I choose fear. I ask for my job back. I stop working on the novel. I obsessively research stroke recurrence rates. I stop sleeping. Eating. I lose 25 pounds in three months.

After a year or so, I break down completely. Like an overloaded car that can’t go any further, I just stop. I’m afraid I’m going to die. That I’m already dead, having lost some essential part of me forever. In that hospital room. In too many courtrooms. In the moments between doing when I caught my breath and realized I was missing my own life.

It’s two years later when I come up for air, blinking against the rare Seattle sunshine. There’s no magic moment, no Josh Chan on the sidewalk, but slowly, subtlety, “happy” begins to follow me around like a puppy.

I get a puppy. I quit my job. Again. This time I don’t ask for it back. I take yoga teacher training. I decide to finish the novel.

It’s early March, 2020, and a new virus erupts in the nursing home down the street. My daughter’s girl scout troop leader, who works at the elementary school, says schools may close. I startle. That seems extreme.

They close the next day. First for two weeks, then for two months, then for the rest of the year. Then everything else follows. My husband’s office. Shops. Restaurants. Yoga studios. Like the world itself had too much to carry and broke down like an overloaded car.

Now there’s stillness. Like the stillness between the beats of busy that used to make me wonder if I was missing my own life. But I’m not willing to miss anything anymore.

I try to stop watching the news. Instead, I look at houses in sunny cities. Pretty mission style homes near California wineries replace Trump briefings. McMansions by the beach in Florida distract me from daily death counts. I spend my quarantine dreaming of sunshine. Beauty. Living somewhere it doesn’t rain ten months of the year.

I’ve always wanted to live somewhere warm. It’s the last item of my trifecta.

It’s two months into the pandemic. I’m sitting with my husband, noticing the stress lines disappearing from his face. The way he listens more, smiles larger. Working from home is working for him.

I take a breath, remembering when he told me to quit. To write. I don’t expect to say anything, my voice surprises me.

“You can work remotely. Forever. It makes you happy, I can see it. What if we moved somewhere warm? Not when the kids are gone, not when you retire, but now. Because we can.”

I don’t say, because we don’t know how much time either of us have left. Maybe the next time it’s my arm that goes dead, or maybe you’ll lay on the floor and never get back up.

I don’t say this because I don’t have to. It hangs in the air between us. The choice between living with fear and living the life we’ve always wanted.

It’s today, and we’re moving. I tell myself it’s a trial run: we’ve rented a house for three months in Austin, Texas. We can come back. But I don’t think we will.

In the series finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca is surrounded by friends. She’s quit law. Taken a break from chasing men. Took singing lessons and written songs. The camera cuts as she opens her mouth to perform for real. For the first time.

My eyes tear up, because I never expected a happy ending for either of us. And here we are, me and Rebecca Bunch, doing something crazy. Slowly putting together the puzzle pieces until we’ve formed a life we actually want. A life we have no right to demand.

It’s ridiculous. Selfish. Stupid. Impossible. Crazy.

Jennifer Lauren is a recovering attorney moving from Seattle, Washington to Austin, Texas. Ever since she wrote her first masterpiece, The Creature, when she was five, Jennifer wanted to be a writerBut life happened, sidetracking her with pesky bills and peskier children. She’s worked as an award-winning reporter at a nationally recognized newspaper; fundraising director for inner city schools; and civil litigator for 13 years. In May 2019 she had a mid-life crisis and quit her day job to write, teach yoga, travel, and chase her dreams. The travel dreams proved ill-timed when the coronavirus hit the U.S. two miles from her home. Check out her blog, Crazy Ex-Lawyer, at jenniferlauren.net.

 

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Guest Posts, Politics, Relationships

Irreconcilable Difference: Living With A Trump Supporter

December 19, 2020
trump

By Zarr

I have to do all of this by phone so I can’t upload it as a file. I’ve attached a picture instead because I can’t submit without an upload. My submission was written and hidden as a draft email. I can’t risk it being found. I can’t use my real name. This was written in June. I’ve begun to narrate the thoughts I have because imagining them as a story I am telling as opposed to an experience I am living, makes it somewhat more bearable. Even if not selected, I wanted someone else to know of my pain.

“I can’t wait for Trump to be re-elected………best president….feminists want feminism when it suits them, they want it both ways……”, I cringe and shrink. The words are coming from within my own home. Not on the tv, not the internet, not on a podcast, but from my own husband’s mouth. I can feel my heart rate increasing. I’m anxious, I’m in survival mode. We’ve been home together every single day for 3 months. Apart only when one of us goes to the store. I can feel myself struggling more to emotionally navigate through each day. I can’t sleep. I’m always on edge. Things are challenging with our children. I can dish it out and I’m not timid, but I avoid political conversations at all costs. Have you had a discussion with a Trump supporter? Have you tried to reason with one? They don’t want to hear you. His disregard for etiquette, his disregard for women, his disregard for common sense. Trump has given every man the green light to treat women as he does, to dismiss any woman who questions them, who has an opinion not aligned with his own.

We weren’t always political opposites. We both were passionate about Obama leading up to his election, and during the years of his presidency. We debated friends over his brilliance and the impact he’d have on our country. We prominently displayed Obama signage in our windows. I don’t know what sparked the transition to Trump-dom, but it began long before Trump’s arrival on the political landscape. It first started with my husband committing to one ill-reputed media source after another, and believing more and more of what he heard. A once minor divide widened to cavernous proportions.

I believe couples can have opposing beliefs and still have a healthy, loving relationship – perhaps only until those beliefs involve Trump. I feel absolutely shattered that this is who my (by the way, immigrant) husband supports. I rarely invite friends over to the house less politics come up. Just like Trump, he would counter any reasonable response with an ill thought out, dismissive rebuttal. I always refrain from engaging when he spouts Trump-isms. Like Trump he is mostly speaking to validate himself, and not to have actual intellectual discourse. Because on top of intense anxiety (that I can’t even remember if it was as intense prior to 44) and four children, this is too great an argument for me to become trapped within.

The impact of Trump has gone beyond conversations that are political. My husband is easily bothered by trivial things. It’s always someone or something’s fault. It is never because he has chosen a negative reaction. Everyone else should change, everything should meet the invisible standard that he has set – the one that he won’t inform you of until you’ve failed to meet it. You should have known! Once I said, “The reason you like Trump so much is because he communicates just like you!” I saw it actually took a few moments for him to register that it was not a compliment.

When I mentioned that I was going to watch the Together Graduation 2020 event (because we had a graduating senior this year), with Obama as commencement speaker, he let me know that if I turned it on he would turn something else on, to tune mine out. I am in the den every day while he is one room over watching both current and past news segments of ass kissing Trump reports and I never ask him to turn it off because it will be a fight. Now that I’m going to turn on something he doesn’t like, he Trumps out on me. When I question him, his glare becomes dark and he asks “Do you want to start a fight?” No, actually! What I want is to feel free to say how I feel and be involved in an adult conversation where our opinions differ and have it be ok. Instead of my admittedly fragile state not being able to withstand a Trump level argument that would just be him eventually yelling (but saying it’s not yelling) about liberal sheep.

Leaving, and why I haven’t, is a whole other story. As much as we hear how “Anyone can do it” and “If you really wanted to you would find a way”, it is truly not an option for every single person. It is not an option for me today, or in the near future. I was a stay at home mom for almost two decades, now I work part time to accommodate school drop off and pick up for two young kids. My husband has a successful career, and travels semi-regularly. During those trips I could breathe, I’d be so productive, things were easier with our children. I don’t know when I will catch my next breath now. Some days I hear him in his man cave, Trump-ing through a phone call and I go to my room and scream into a pillow, or I cry. It is absolutely draining.

Some of the things I am doing to cope, that whole self care concept that we keep hearing about, weren’t possible pre-shelter in place. With the absence of a brief commute to and from work, school and activity drop offs and pick ups with long waits, and social activities for myself and the kids, I now use that time to actively make an effort to keep my head above water. For me it is little things that are fulfilling and I love the small wins as someone who usually has the best intentions but never remains consistent. I exercise just 30 minutes daily, walk on the treadmill 3x/week and yoga on the in between days, I take a long, hot shower every night while I imagine washing away all the bad energy I am exposed to all day, and just hope for an uneventful next day, I read- to escape into another world, another mindset, an immersion outside of my own heavy reality, and I listen to guided meditations and sound baths, to get as comfortable as possible as I try to minimize the anxiety – even temporarily, and I have tele-sessions with my therapist.

With the election upcoming and no candidate to be excited about, I’m in a lesser of two evils mindset. Once upon a time I thought that once Trump left office, the constant politically induced pontificating would begin to fade. Maybe a reconnection would be able to start. Now with sheltering in place likely to continue through the summer, and November just around the corner afterwards, I’m less hopeful of that possibility, and am taking things moment by moment in order to protect my mental health. I think Trump has brought out the worst in many, and has validated the worst in people to be revealed.

Zarr is a mid-40’s mom living in Seattle. Trump has become the ultimate stalemate in her marriage of over 20 years. Despite her efforts to treat it as a non issue, which still causes tremendous internal self loathing and emotional turmoil, the negativity and hatred permeates her being.

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Christmas, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Waiting For Flicker, Christmas 1963

December 18, 2020

By Byron Spooner

“The holidays are hard on everybody,” Mother says, stubbing out her half-smoked Kent in a chocolate-smeared dessert plate, as if that might head the conversation off at the pass. If Dad were here he’d be giving Mother his usual hyperbolic ration of shit about smoking, but he’s long gone so she can do pretty much anything she Goddamn well pleases. Plus, she only smokes about three or four a day. Five, tops. If I could get away with that I’d still be smoking.

Arranged around the table in roughly the same configuration as at that lunatic Christmas dinner forty-odd years before, the three of us are the only ones left and none of us remembers exactly. Not that it matters.

“And really, what was Dad thinking?” my brother Davey says.

Which is exactly the question Mother doesn’t want me or Davey asking, the start of a discussion she’s endured many times; another rehash of that evening we still tell stories about—obsessively, she would say—and embellish and laugh about, at our increasingly infrequent gatherings. She hopes she can still steer clear of it.

“Who knows?” I say.

“Who cares?” Mother says too late.

At the head of the table, the tinsel-shimmering tree in the bay window behind him, looming over us, was six-and-a-half feet of Dad. He was halfway into his third martini. At the other end, Mother, tiny and starting to put on weight, had a VO on the rocks within easy reach; who knew how many she’d had in the kitchen. The entire Northeast region, as the weatherman called it, may have been glazed stiff from three days of continual freezing rain, but inside the heat was on full, the food was steaming. The perfect way to bring the day to a fitting finish.

Granted, the morning’s gift exchange hadn’t gone as well as it could have. Davey and I had each gotten at least one thing we wanted and had managed to keep the whining to a minimum. Davey, at seven, had been, for weeks, nearly beside himself with anticipation; I played it cool, it was my tenth Christmas and I acted the unimpressed veteran. Dad’s asshole buddy Garnett and his glamorous wife Marge were with us and, as always, exchanged token gifts with Mother and Dad. But they’d been staying with us ‘for a couple of weeks’ since around April. Another thing for Mother to be chronically pissed off about.

Things got off on the wrong foot early when Dad gave Mother a flat white box with red wrapping paper and a gold ribbon. She unwrapped it carefully, putting the paper and ribbon aside intact, and slid the top off the box. She peeled away the tissue paper and slowly, with a puzzled smile on her face, held it up for view in front of us before she realized what exactly it was; the flimsiest, shortest, sheerest negligee legally offered for purchase within the borders of the contiguous United States. There were straps going every which way with seemingly no imaginable purpose, it looked as if the whole rig couldn’t modestly cover one of the cats. What there was of it was the thinnest black fabric with blacker vertical ribbing and a feathery—or maybe furry—scarlet trim. The second she realized what it was, her smile disintegrated and she flushed red as the trim, dropped it back into the box while trying simultaneously to refold the tissue paper around it, jam the top back on the box—if she could have rewrapped it she would have—and drop it on the floor next to her. She couldn’t look at anyone in the room, instead scowling at the box as though it were a Great Dane soiling her clean floor.

“Go ahead, try in on!” Dad said to her, leering slightly and elbowing Garnett.

“What was that?” Davey asked, “What’s it for?”

What was Dad thinking? Did he mistake the flush of embarrassment and anger on her cheeks for some rosy dawn of eroticism, a pinkening of the cadaver of desire afresh? Was he so out of it that he misinterpreted the obvious signals?

Mother was short-tempered the rest of the day and when I asked Dad why, he said, “Christ, who knows? It’s always something with her.”

Dad wore his suit to dinner nearly every day and there was no reason Christmas dinner should be any different. Expecting guests, especially wealthy guests like Aunt Doobie and Uncle Flicker, brought out the blade in him. Flicker had inherited money—“a shitpot full,” according to Dad— from his family. Money made from the manufacture and sale of a nationally-known constipation remedy. Which was what made “shitpot full” even funnier, again according to Dad.

When Flicker wasn’t around Dad referred to him as the “The Laxative King,” but on the rare occasions Flicker was around he sucked up to him unsubtly, calling him “My favorite brother-in-law” and stuff like that. It was Dad’s conviction, his only unshakeable tenet of belief, that the one and only reason Flicker existed on the earth, the reason he’d been born of woman and suckled and nurtured and expensively educated and raised to maturity and unleashed on an unsuspecting and undeserving world in all his slim, urbane, cigarette-holder-sporting, Thunderbird-driving, condescendingly-nasal-voiced glory, was to make Dad look bad.

Dad’s attitude was: You never knew when a rich person might be suddenly convulsed by the irresistible urge to begin handing out random cash. Stranger things had happened after all and there was no reason not to be close by should such a compulsion come over Flicker.

But Doobie and Flicker, never the most reliable of jetsetters, still had not shown. They were already a couple of hours late when Mother and Dad powwowed in the kitchen, hissing and whispering. Mother wanted to go ahead and serve; dinner was going to be too late for us kids if we waited much longer. Dad wanted to hold off for another hour or so. Mother’s winning point, the one that changed Dad’s mind, was ‘If we stall around any longer the roast’ll be ruined.” Overdone and tough. Hearing this, Dad, who liked his beef cooked ‘so it moos’ immediately relented and started herding everyone in sight to the table. He always said sophisticated people ate their meat rare.

With or without Doobie and Flicker, Dad had been looking forward to the Christmas roast since sometime around the Fourth of July. He loathed Christmas and all things associated with it but wasn’t about to let that spoil a good meal. Just because he’d been collecting Unemployment for the better part of nine months didn’t mean we couldn’t splurge a little for the holidays. The roast alone had set him back enough to feed the entire family the usual slop for a week. We’d be eating nothing but macaroni and cheese and store-brand canned crap into mid-January at least, but it would be worth it. Mashed potatoes, peas with pearl onions, Parker House rolls, real butter, Jell-O salad. Gravy. Garnett had said he’d kick a share into the pot but came up short, having been unemployed even longer than Dad.

Dad seemed to hover over the roast, a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, letting the anticipation build.

He peered into the gravy boat, the good one our grandmother had given us, silver and shaped vaguely along the lines of Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, from over his glasses. If you asked him—not that anybody ever did—there was never enough gravy; the woman never made enough. If it had been up to him he would never, ever, have to ladle out the gravy in carefully measured, niggardly portions as if we lived in the poorhouse or something. If it had been up to him, he’d have poured it. He’d have poured it on his meat, his potatoes, his vegetables, his salad, his goddamned ice cream, if he wanted to. He’d float the whole flipping meal in it.

And he always, at this point in the proceedings, asked the same question, “The gravy situation is MIK, I presume? More In Kitchen?”

“Just what’s there,” Mother said, her voice tense. To her, the most galling part of the whole performance was he always, no matter how many times he trotted out the same tired line, felt the need to translate the acronym for her. Did he think she hadn’t heard ‘More In Kitchen’ the last two hundred times he‘d said it? Did he not realize he was prodding a hornets’ nest with this MIK nonsense?

He shared a downcast look with us kids, and then with Garnett and Marge, as if to say, ‘See how much I have to suffer?’

He paused for another solemn moment.

“I must say that Christmas dinner is always extra special when I’m serving all these wonderful people. All these people who are so close to me and whom I love so dearly.”

Was he sincere or just bullshitting us? Probably a little of both if my ear could be trusted. It was hard to know.

“I know we’re all broke this year…”

“Just like last year…” Mother muttered.

“…but there are still some things…”

“…and the year before that…” she continued.

“…that are more important…”

He went on from there, blessing each of us several times including the roast and the gravy and the pearl onions, with the gravy ladle.

“A-men, a-men,” Marge said.

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said. He was defrocked minister, so he still knew how to make stuff like that sound sincere and insincere at the same time..

“The food is getting cold,” Mother said.

Carefully and with all the high-seriousness befitting the occasion, Dad carved the roast and doled out the slices, a few at a time. His disappointment was obvious as each successive slice peeled away; the meat was gray, without even a trace of pink, through and through. The rest of us, hungry and not nearly as worldly as Dad, fell on the food like starved peccaries. All the while we kept one keen eye on the remaining food and plotted ways to get a little more than the others when the time came for seconds. Everyone talked at once: the gifts, the rain outside, the fire in the fireplace, Santa, Christmases past, Dickens, the Grinch, a week off from school.

No one mentioned Kennedy, who’d been shot and killed just over a month before.

“We’re not going to spoil our Christmas just because that sonofabitch is dead,” Dad had said, earlier in the day, making clear his position. As if there had ever been any doubt.

Garnett pulled a palmed marshmallow out of Davey’s ear. He kept a bag of them hidden in his coat pocket. Davey giggled.

“I love this time of year; the Christmas trees, the decorations, the store windows,” he said.

“Yes, it is lovely isn’t it? Why don’t we drive into the city tomorrow and see the decorations on the big stores one more time before they take them all down,” Marge suggested.

“Good idea,” Mother said, “We all get tired of being cooped up in the house after a couple of days. I know I do.” A glance at Dad.

Dad rolled his eyes ceilingward. Not his idea of a fun way to fill an afternoon.

“Did you see the guy owns the hardware store downtown?” Dad said, “He stuck a sign in his window says, ‘Give Your Husband a New Screw for Christmas!’ You might want to take the kids past that way. Good for a couple of laughs.” It was always hard to pinpoint who his intended audience was for this kind of thing. The rest of us could practically hear Mother simmering at the other end of the table. He was oblivious. At least it seemed so.

Garnett laughed, as would be expected, but Marge hid her mouth behind her napkin.

“Why would you say something like that at this table, with the children here, everyone in such a good mood?” she said.

“It’s a joke, m’dear, a joke. Best just to let it pass.” Garnett said, pulling another marshmallow from Davey’s ear. I monitored this pretty closely. Usually after another highball or two he’d switch from marshmallows to quarters. You wanted to be around for that.

“I hear Doobie and Flicker are headed for Aruba after the holidays,” Dad said.

“Yes, they are,” Mother said, perking up, momentarily encouraged that her husband had been paying attention to something other than his own needs for a change.

“Maybe they decided to head down there early,” Dad said.

“I understand it’s lovely this time of year,” Marge said.

“Me, too,” Garnett said, “No freezing rain, at least.”

“Art Plouts had a buddy went to Aruba,” Dad said, “He told me it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said.

“I remember ole Art,” Garnett said, “Wasn’t he…”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said again, incredulous, wanting none of Art Plouts, a gin-soaked housepainter Dad had met in a barroom in Memphis who’d mooched room, board and booze off us for several months in exchange for a couple of shaky coats of exterior white.

Mother said, “If Aruba’s such a hellhole how come people are practically killing themselves to get there?”

“Just ‘cause you’re rich, doesn’t make you smart,” Dad said, directing this at me and Davey as if it were a valuable piece of advice.

Mother said, “I guess by that measure you’re about the smartest man in town.”

He gave her a look of wounded incomprehension.

“You should be a regular genius,” she said.

Garnett reached over and pulled a quarter out of my ear. I must have miscalculated his rate of consumption.

“You and Art and all your other deadbeat friends? You idiots think it’s smart to not work? You and your friends are too fucking smart to hold a steady job?”

The table went silent.

Garnett issued a barely audible burp.

Dad swore like a drill sergeant, we heard obscenity and profanity daily—hell, hourly—from him. It had only been only a year or two since I’d figured out ‘motherfucker’ wasn’t another word for ‘lawnmower.’ Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, exclamations, he swung the words the way Dizzy Gillespie swung high notes, the way Jackie Gleason delivered a punch line, with precision and artistry, yes, but also for the sake of pure entertainment. But that word—Fuck—coming from Mother, and not just the word but in that tone, in front of her children and Marge and Garnett, and on Christmas, was nothing but unalloyed rage. It sent a charge of fear through the room.

“See here,” Marge said.

“Shut up,” Mother said, “You’ve been on my last nerve all day with your holier-than-thou, high-and-mighty attitude, so right now, just for now, why don’t you shut up?”

After a minute and with deliberate and exaggerated patience Dad said, “If you’re referring to the alleged differences between me and the sainted Flicker, I would like to point out, A, he’s never had to lift finger one in his entire pointless goddamned existence. B, he inherited everything…”

“It wasn’t Flicker who gave you the idea for that…that…filthy…thing you tried to give me this morning. That idea had to come from Art or some other dirty-minded friend of yours.”

“I came up with that on my own…” he said, leering again at the memory.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Garnett said.

“And in front of these poor children…?”

“…and, getting back to my original point, don’t forget, C, everyone…” he said, going back to his list, his forefinger pointing to the ceiling, massively oblivious to what was coming.

“…and on Christmas…?” she said, wanting nothing more to do with his alphabet.

“… on the entire face of the planet…”

“And…in…front…of…all…these…people?”

  As she said this last, she jumped out of her chair, gripping the edge of the table, bringing her end up with her as she rose.

“…kisses his rich ass…”

Like all tragedies, this one happened in slow motion.

We all watched breathless, frozen in place, useless, as Mother tilted her end of the table upward and sent an avalanche into Dad’s lap; the tablecloth with our dinner, dishes, silverware, serving platters, water glasses, the cocktails, the roast, the Jell-O salad, the peas with pearl onions, the mashed potatoes, the gravy—the gravy! Dad tried to save the roast, grabbing it as it sailed by. At the same time, he tried to stand, to get out of the way of the rest of our dinner, but in his rush to throw himself clear his legs got tangled in his chair legs; his left shoe clomped onto the silver-plated gravy boat, half-flattening it. He slipped in the spreading slick of gravy and fell backwards, kicking out, shooting the gravy boat, which no longer resembled Aladdin’s Magic Lamp or anything recognizable, at a terrifying speed and sending it smack against the opposite wall. It ricocheted back at him, caroming off the ceiling on its way. There was still enough gravy in the ruined thing to spatter Dad’s face and clothes when it struck him square in the forehead and rattled to the floor, came to rest in nearly the exact spot it had taken off from. More stunned than wounded, he fell backwards into the tree, bringing it down with a great, sickening crash. The plugs on the Depression-era light strings sputtered and smoked under the strain and finally gave up the ghost, flickering once, twice, and dying. Dad sprawled on top of the ruined tree, the roast resting on his chest like some wet trophy.

“Shit,” Dad said.

An extended stunned silence ensued punctuated only by the miniature crash—Ding!—of a last glass ornament dropping to the floor. We all sat in our chairs feeling suddenly exposed, absent the table, napkins in our laps, knives and forks still in our hands

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said and Dad, from where he lay moaning, his suit gravy-spattered and covered with pine needles, could only laugh. He always thought Garnett was a fucking riot.

“A few years ago,” I say, “It came to me that the world didn’t need me to point out all the already obvious hypocrisies of the season. Most people work out ways to live with them, reconcile with them, so they can still enjoy the season. And I’m not helping anything by acting like Dad; trying to convert everyone into an atheist or a Scrooge. So he hated Christmas? So what? What gave him license to go around spoiling everyone else’s holiday?”

“So if you don’t have anything nice to say I just dummy up? ” Davey says, “Doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s the new me,” I say.

“How’s that working out for you?” Davey asked.

“So-so, I’d have to say, Dr. Phil,” I say, I’ve been the other way for so long it’s just habit to be that way.”

“Forty Christmases under our belts since that one,” Davey says, “I guess we’re the last of them.”

I ask Mother, “What happened to Garnett?”

  “After your father died, I lost touch with Marge and Garnett,” Mother says, “I assume they’re gone. It was no state secret I never really cared much for them.”

She always said that, “No state secret.” Some things never change. Actually, most things never change, if you think about it.

“No, it certainly wasn’t,” Davey says, laughing at her understatement.

Mother says, “The last we heard they’d gone up to Providence to live with Marge’s sister, ‘looking for work’—probably sponging.”

“Doobie and Flicker never did show up,” Davey says.

“The peripatetic Doobie and Flicker,” I say, jumping on the rare chance to insert ‘peripatetic’ into a conversation.

“Wow, nice word,” Davey says. In our family, sarcasm is the mother tongue.

“Yeah, and I remember how pissed off you were,” I say to Mother. Davey just laughs. Whatever happened to her sister Doobie and Doobie’s husband Flicker that night is lost in the mists—the freezing rain—of history; never satisfactorily explained, never resolved. Nobody ever asked, nobody ever explained. Like everything else, we all just acted as if nothing had happened and trudged on. It was a tradition that had been passed down through generations. They died a few years later off the coast of Mexico, marlin fishing. Apparently everyone on board was loaded—’knee-walking drunk’ was how Flicker’s ancient mother put it—when they capsized.

“They always lived like the rules didn’t apply to them. They were terribly reckless.” she says, “And, just to set the record straight, I wasn’t ’pissed off’ so much as disappointed.”

Davey laughs again, “‘Disappointed?’ Hell, you didn’t speak to them for a couple of years after that.” He is always brutally honest with her, the one who calls her on her bullshit, never giving her an inch, ever since he was little.

“Yes, I never got the chance to reconcile with her,” she says, “And I would’ve too.”

Davey and I exchange glances that say, ‘Yeah, right.’

“It was all so long ago,” she says, sighing “I don’t understand why we always have to come back to it. Every Christmas it’s the same Goddammed thing.” She lights her last Kent of the evening and shakes the match out.

Davey says, “You’re right, ‘the holidays are hard on everybody.’”

Byron Spooner has recently retired after twenty-one years as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library where he produced literary events including a weekly poetry series with San Francisco Poet Laureate Emeritus Jack Hirschman. He founded and edited of The Readers Review, the Friends’ literary blog, where he wrote about books, music, film and bookselling. With his wife, writer Judith Ayn Bernhard, Byron co-edited Arcana: A Festschrift for Jack Hirschman (Andover Street Archives Press, 2014). His writing has been published in the San Francisco Examiner, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Autobiography and Isis. He has written introductions to several anthologies published by FSFPL. His short story, A Book for Christmas was published by Red Berry Editions in 2011. Byron has served on the San Francisco Poet Laureate Nominating Committee and the One City, One Book Selection Committee of the SFPL, on the Board of Litquake, and the Advisory Board of the Beat Museum.

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Guest Posts, healing, Mental Health

The Long Path: Healing the Wounds of Childhood

December 15, 2020
bag

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete.
It’s so f***in’ heroic.”
–George Carlin

By Julia K. Morin

When you look at this photo, you probably see nothing more than a plastic bag.

I see the trigger that caused me to have two panic episodes in the hospital— the first roughly three years ago, and the second about a year ago — and ultimately, the catalyst for me realizing I was struggling with unaddressed childhood trauma tied to my mom’s sudden death 25 years ago, and needed to seriously consider trauma therapy (which I began almost five months ago). Unfortunately, due to current events with the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing and the transition to virtual therapy sessions as the new normal for the time being, my therapist and I came to the decision together to table any further trauma “digging” until we’re able to meet in person again. I quickly learned just how emotionally triggering and draining these sessions are, and that I need as much support as I can get — in person — to get through them.

I’m proud of the difficult trauma work I’ve already done, I’m proud of myself for taking the first step (despite how long it took) to recognize that I needed this help, and then getting it — without any shame, explanations, justifications or apologies. And I know I still have a lot of hard, emotional work ahead of me when we resume. But that grueling work is what needs to be done in order to begin peeling back many complex layers, and prying beneath the surface I’ve just barely scratched all these years of loss, trauma, triggers, and how this has all manifested in my adult life.

It has taken me a while to open up about all of this, but recently I had to pick something up for some medical labs, and was sent home with this bag. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because I only saw the white side of the bag. It wasn’t until I got home, put it down and saw it in my dining room, and the words on it, that I realized it wasn’t just any plain old white plastic bag — and felt the familiar panic rising up.

I crumpled the bag up in a ball and threw it in the trash. I crumpled myself up in a ball and threw myself into bed. I took the bag back out of the trash and broke down crying and wanted to set it on fire.

Because 25 years ago, I saw this very same ‘patient belongings bag’ in the dining room of the house I grew up in…and its contents were the clothing & jewelry my mom had been wearing when she entered the hospital, and died less than two days later.

In April 2017, I was in the hospital for a diagnostic procedure (my first time in a hospital as a patient) prior to surgery, and suddenly found myself inconsolable. And then I had an epiphany: the plastic belongings bag I had been given by a nurse. A light bulb went off in my head. And then everything got very dark.

And this is how a plastic bag became the thing that makes me come undone.

My hope is that over time, addressing & talking about this and other trauma triggers/memories (and addressing associated cognitive distortions) will help to lessen the panic and intense emotion an inanimate object or other visual association has been causing me.

Because right now, it feels like a Goddamn plastic bag has control over me.

I keep catching myself saying it’s stupid or it’s silly, because…it’s just a bag. But in truth, nobody else can possibly know or understand how “just a bag” makes me feel. And now I recognize this as trauma.

My plastic bag is someone else’s fireworks that trigger the memory of an explosion that nearly killed them while deployed overseas. Or another person’s certain smell that they associate with someone who abused them.

This is hard, heavy stuff, and I understand not everyone is comfortable with it. I’m still not completely comfortable with it. But if you’re still reading, please remember to be gentle & kind with yourself and with others.

Because these are the invisible battles people are fighting as they go about their day, doing the best they can and just trying to be okay. These are the silent struggles we so often don’t see or know about that keep people up at night. These are the reminders we all need that everyone carries an invisible burden on their back, and what we see portrayed on social media is rarely a complete picture of what people are dealing with internally.

At eight years old, I watched my mom being loaded into an ambulance in our driveway from a bedroom window. That was the last time I ever saw her. That was the last time I would ever see her again for the rest of my life. Will I ever “get over” that? No. Certainly loss and traumatic experiences change shape over time, and we somehow figure out how to continue on with life and adapt with that massive void in our hearts. We learn to “dance with the limp,” in the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers. I know many, many people who have experienced and witnessed horrible, painful things that have changed them forever. They will never be the same. They will never “get over it.” They will be forced to learn a new normal and to figure out how to breathe with a piece of their heart missing, and they will survive and maybe even thrive eventually. But there is no date they will circle on a calendar with a note: “Be done hurting about this by today.”

These experiences are a key part of our stories. But do they define us? No. Neither does how long it takes us to process them, to feel a little less broken apart, to start to patch our shattered hearts back together, to feel “okay” again. And it’s okay if we’re never completely okay again.

It’s okay if we dance with a limp forever.

And, a note about grief now that I’ve recently survived the 25th anniversary of my mom’s death, and another Mother’s Day without her: grief is not linear. Neither is trauma. There is no straight line from point A to point B. There are no shortcuts. There is no right and wrong; no mathematical equation or formula. It has taken many years for me to figure out that the reason I’m still carrying around such a heavy burden of grief and trauma from my childhood is not because I’m broken, weak or somehow defective at healing. It’s because I experienced a significant loss and associated trauma at an age where my brain was still growing & developing, and simply was not capable of processing the loss and its magnitude. The result in these cases is typically a sort of delayed processing that only really begins to occur later in life.

And then one day at 30 years old, you have a panic episode in a hospital (followed two years later by another), and suddenly realize the sheer weight of this grief and trauma you’ve been carrying on your back for 22 years is actually crushing you. It’s winning.

So I decided to take back my power and start on the path of turning trauma into healing. I’m giving myself credit for doing the hard, painful work…and giving myself grace that it’s not going to be an overnight process.

This bag is my cross to bear. It is the tidal wave that keeps trying to ravage my boat, knock me down and drown me.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it steer this ship.

Julia Morin is a writer, wife, aunt, dog & cat mom, sister, daughter, friend, and a survivor, residing in New Hampshire. She is passionate about ending the stigma around both mental health and grief, and speaking openly about these struggles and the ways they have impacted her own life.

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Family, Guest Posts, Holidays

The Hanukkah Owl

December 13, 2020
hanukkah

By Sharon G. Forman

I’ve inherited more than a few traits from my mom: dark brown hair and eyes; a love of orange sherbet mixed with vanilla ice cream; and a dangerous driving habit of hesitating before merging into highway traffic. One December evening decades back when I was eight-years-old, my mom faltered for a second too long before flooring the gas in our blue Buick station wagon to enter an acceleration lane on an expressway from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. It was back in the early 1970’s, and I doubt that any of us kids in the back seat had strapped ourselves into seat belts. An approaching car bumped into us, as we made our way to the Hebrew Academy for the school’s Hanukkah celebration. Just a fender bender, the main worry from the minor accident was that it delayed us from my 3rd grade Hanukkah performance in which I was set to debut in a prominent role as one of Judah Maccabee’s brave brothers. Truth be told, I don’t exactly remember which of those five Maccabee sons I was portraying. The name Eleazer seems to ring a bell in the hazy crevices of my memory, but I can’t really be sure. I definitely was not the starring brother, Judah, the boldest military hero. In his famous Hasmonean family, there was also a  “John” and a “Jonathan,” which struck me as curious even as a young child. What parents give their kids practically the same name (other than the boxer George Foreman who is famous for his indoor grilling devices as well as gracing all of his five sons with the name George)?

Back to Hanukkah, though, which concerns itself more with frying than grilling. I clasped the cardboard handle on my aluminum-covered shield emblazoned with a magic marker-inscribed Star of David and my flimsy tin foil sword, as a policeman with a sheriff’s hat guided us out of traffic and helped us on our way. I had no fear of the friendly Virginia sheriff, although my mom, a transplanted midwesterner and ardent civil rights supporter, seemed suspicious of Southern law enforcement. She wondered out loud about how these same people who were so kind to us might have treated members of the black community in Virginia just a few years back when they were trying to vote or attend public schools in neighborhoods as lily white as the Commonwealth’s dogwood blossoms. My mom did not possess the most trusting view of human impulses, but was grateful for the roadside assistance under a darkening sky.

Our bumper may have been dented, but all of my armor was intact, as we arrived at the campus of my Jewish day school, and I rushed into the cafeteria which was doubling as an auditorium. I remember dashing on stage to tangle with some Greek-Syrian enemies, singing Hanukkah songs, and at one point donning a construction paper candle around my head like a crown, as a handful of my peers and I became the embodiment of a living Hanukkah menorah. The teachers handed out gifts of rainbow-colored Hanukkah candles, with a preponderance of murky colored green ones that I tried to trade with my siblings, as well as plastic yellow and pink dreidels, spinning tops, that had been hollowed out to contain candy. I’m sure my older sister used her sharp fingernails to burrow through the clear tape placed around the dreidel. Now a scientist, back then she was our fixer of broken toys and errant math homework, as well as the most competent person to help us outmaneuver plastic barriers to candy.

Like my mom’s attitude toward the Virginia police, Hanukkah was a bit confusing with its competing tales of valorous guerilla warfare mashed up with songs touting prophetic messages of spiritual peace. These were hefty contradictions for a small child to sort out, and even my all-wise sister, Julie, did not attempt to unravel this puzzle. Hanukkah could be about the fried potatoes, the music, the games with spinning tops and all of the mathematical probability equations their twists engendered.

People always seem to assume that Jewish children love Hanukkah because of the profusion of presents. Some kids receive a gift each night for a week plus a day. In our family, Hanukkah gifts tended toward the practical- socks, a few silver dollars of gelt, chocolate coins, paperback books, and vinyl records or eight-track tapes of Israeli nightclub music or Irish Rover folk songs. The gifts were less than dazzling. At least for me and my siblings, Hanukkah was all about the fire. You picked your candles, your color scheme (avoiding the ugly green ones, of course), and then loaded up your personalized menorah. Then, you stared in wonder as the tapers burned down just inches from your eyes, mesmerized by the variations in melting times. After the candles transformed into nuggets of wax, you picked at the colorful coating that clung to the base of the menorah or pooled on the foil below. We may not have learned much Hebrew grammar in religious school, but the four children in our family could have filled a Jewish museum’s gallery with handmade menorahs. My favorite candelabra was created from a slab of wood I spray painted shiny silver and then attached candle holders to by gluing on upside-down soda bottle caps. In retrospect, I may have been influenced by 1970’s Minimalism design with an emphasis on sleek materials and sparse ornamentation. The menorah also embodied classic 1970’s culture since the aerosol paint probably accelerated emphysema and punched holes in the ozone layer; the bottle caps were so sharp they could have transmitted tetanus with a single slice; and the chemically coated wood could have been used as toxic kindling. No matter. This was my handmade and beloved religious object, and it adorned our Hanukkah table for years.

Just a week after I portrayed a 2,000-year-old Israeli special forces Maccabee fighter onstage at the Hebrew Academy, I made my debut at the Old Dominion University Technology Theater in another martial role in their ballet school’s version of The Nutcracker. For a slightly built, non-muscular child, I was having a peculiar run of combat-girl typecasting. In this 19th century ballet, I played the Nutcracker’s head soldier who orders the attack on the nefarious mouse forces. I stood in the wings of the stage listening for my musical cue, then raised up my right arm, lowering it to signal to my battalion that we were on the offense. My cheeks were painted with giant red circles, and my hair was pinned up in a tight bun. I wore a soldier’s uniform. With sharp movements of bent knees known in ballet lingo as “passes,” I marched over to my sleepy sentries and initiated a theatrical bloodbath with my musket prop. By the time the final measures of the battle scene had concluded, the bodies of tiny soldiers and pudgy gray mice littered the stage. I was chased away by a larger rodent (possibly a fifth grader) who was now pointing a musket at my back, and my prospects must have appeared bleak, as I exited the stage fleeing in surrender. It was up to Clara to win the war with a mortal clunk of her ballet slipper applied to the head of the Mouse King. Following her victory, she would travel in a magical walnut to the land of sweets with her enchanted prince.

My brief third grade acting career encompassed these two roles- valiant Jewish soldier and ill-fated military captain. Back then, I did not spend too much time contemplating the morality of armed conflict between religious zealots and Hellenized Jews who flocked to gymnasiums and ceased to circumcise their sons or the territorially inspired battles between soldiers and mice taking place under the shadow of a giant Christmas tree. I was too busy wishing that I portrayed one of Clara’s little friends in the first act. Those girls were at least a year older than I was, and they wore beautiful jewel toned velvet dresses. They danced and frolicked onstage at a shimmering Victorian Christmas party, and pretended to eat, argue with annoying brothers, and play with their beloved dolls. Their dance movements involved twirling. My soldier steps were jerky and crisp. Instead of playing a charming, happy child, I was a red cheeked toy soldier about to be gnawed on by a rodent.

My acting career slowed substantially after that peak year. I did have one final starring role as “Suzy Snowflake” in my public elementary school’s holiday program. Another student (“Jingle Bells”) and I narrated the concert, offering pithy introductions to the chorus, band, orchestra, and song flute performances of Christmas carols and even a few Hanukkah songs in a gracious nod to Judeo-Christian ecumenicalism. Well into January, glitter from my snow crown shook out of my hair onto my pillowcase. In my homeroom, a real girl named Suzy started to scowl at me and flipped her hair back in an exaggerated act of contempt whenever she saw me in the hallway. Maybe she had more of a right than I did to portray Suzy Snowflake. By the end of junior high school, though, Suzy wrote a conciliatory message to me on the back page of my yearbook, and I no longer took ballet classes or participated in scripted performances. My theatrical career, complete with critics and unpredictable roles, was over.

Four-and-a-half decades later, my own children play instruments in winter concerts at their public schools. Where we live in New York, the only nod to winter religious festivals appears in the last band piece of the evening, a religiously neutral rendition of “Sleigh Bells.”  On Hanukkah, my children light their own menorahs, just as I did, although we strive for ones consisting of environmentally sustainable materials. My sons select orange and blue candles to honor their downtrodden and beloved Mets, a team that could use a miracle almost every single year.  After all this time, the green candles are the ones that remain in the boxes, still rejected and undesirable. My children clamor for my husband to fry up his mother’s latkes, potato pancakes. The recipe calls for limited onions and a generous helping of milk, a strange deviation from my family’s traditions. To this day, we don’t make a big deal out of the gift-giving aspect of Hanukkah. The holiday is about the light and the fire.

In rabbinical school, my mouth fell open when I learned that Hanukkah was probably a belated celebration of the more important Biblical harvest festival of Succot. I had always appreciated Hanukkah as a winter festival that insists that light should increase dark world. I wished Hanukkah could be a simple holiday honoring the miraculous victory of the scrappy Maccabees and the fairy tale story of the little oil jug that could push us toward optimism and hope just when the earth seems so very far away from the warm sun. And Hanukkah, of course, is that. But also, it’s late Succot. Nothing is ever quite as romantic as you might like.

For me, Hanukkah will forever be entwined with the miracle of arriving on time to my performance as a Maccabee brother. Every night around our table, my mom (younger than I am now in this memory) sings the obscure fifth verse of the 13th century Hebrew anthem,“Rock of Ages,” much to my father’s dismay and my brother’s devilish expression when she blurts out the Hebrew words describing the Greeks bursting through tower walls – “Ooh-fartsoo...” Hanukkah is greasy, Jewish hash browns served with applesauce and brisket. It is my busy high schoolers rushing downstairs to light candles and devour traditional foods. Hanukkah is being Jewish and being American and dancing to different melodies during the same season. Hanukkah is the tug of wanting to be Clara in her blue velvet dress with the white ribbon in her hair, but understanding that for centuries the world viewed Jews more as the character of Drosselmeyer, the old, slightly dangerous clockmaker who infused life into inanimate objects using magic and engineering.

The dreidel spins and lands on one of four sides, one of four Hebrew letters, each an initial of a word in the statement, “A great miracle happened there.” Sometimes your dreidel lands on the Nun, and you get nothing. Other times, your luck is strong, and you win it all. The years spin round, and the wicks consume the flames. My mother-in-law wears her apron to cut the potatoes and fry them in her mother’s cast iron pan, and my children line up to ingest the greasy treats. They snicker at the fifth stanza of “Rock of Ages,” when I remember to sing it.

One Hanukkah many years ago, my Uncle Judah’s family presented me with a necklace with a dangling owl charm. Its bright orange eyes seemed to light up from within. Its head could move around, and its feet could fold under its belly. When we studied Greek mythology in junior high school, I learned that the little owl was Athena’s favorite bird because it appeared to carry its own light. The goddess of wisdom loved the owl, and so did I. My Greek, Hanukkah owl reminds me that religion is not simple, but the love from Uncle Judah and Aunt Joy that went into selecting that gift and wrapping it up for me is straightforward. The owl is flexible in an ever-spinning world. Each Hanukkah, I remind myself to keep lighting candles and searching in the flames for what is good and worthy. Maybe this will be the Hanukkah when I no longer stop myself short and accelerate with confidence and some joyful singing.

Sharon Forman is a reform rabbi and the author of The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings and numerous essays about Judaism and parenting. She resides with her family in Westchester, New York where she teaches bar and bat mitzvah students. Sharon’s work can be found online at www.sharongforman.com.

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