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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Black Holes

June 12, 2022
light

My son and I stand on the driveway bundled in blankets and staring at the sky above us. It is the Blood Moon Eclipse. Astronomers tell us an event precisely like this has not been seen in 580 years. He set an alarm for 3:30am to watch it happen and opened the door of my bedroom to pull me from the edges of fuzzy sleep and stand here alongside him. Our feet are cold on the concrete, and we stand side by side. We are alone with no one else awake at this hour to watch. The edge of the moon is bright like a crescent, the rest of it shaded a deep red. I stare at the shadowed shape beyond nearly empty November branches. I let the silence settle around us, and “Wow!” is all he can say, eyes wide. “Mom, just look.”

My son is twelve and obsessed with all things science. He reads biographies of famous scientists, watches YouTube explanations of scientific concepts, and has his own laminated copy of the periodic table. Among this fascination for science lies an overwhelming attraction to the cosmos. The swirling galaxies of stars and planets, the little we know and the long list of things we don’t yet understand. I wake with him at 3:30 to see the eclipse because I have learned through his eyes to see the phenomena as he sees them, vast and mysterious and endlessly interesting.

I have a photo of my own father when he was my son’s age. Freckles scattered across his nose like stars, a chip on his tooth as he smiled, eyes shining through the veil of the glossy, sepia-toned paper and across the stretch of decades between this moment and that one. Like a scientist, I look for clues connecting his DNA with my son’s. Their eyes, their hair, their searching spirits stretching backwards and forwards and through the blurry hands of time. I wonder if the two of them can somehow find each other across the swirling cosmos.

We talk about the universe, the stars, the moon, and the space in between. At the dinner table, driving down the road, packing lunches, as we place piles of folded laundry where they belong. My son asks me what I think about these unknowns, explaining to me what he believes and the connections he makes between all of his reading and watching. Last year, his favorite topic was black holes. By the end of the summer, he knew more about them than I’d ever cared to know and would prattle endlessly at me explaining as I half-listened, getting lost in his wordy explanations and listings of facts. “Did you know, Mom, that black holes can be millions of times heavier than the sun? Black holes are born when a star dies and explodes on itself, and then the hole just grows bigger and bigger.”

I watch him grow bigger, too. His shoulders broaden and he grows taller everyday. I watch the baby cheeks fall off his face and the jaw become more defined. I watch him reading his science books in the living room with his long, bony legs folded up beside him on the couch. I watch him as he begins to understand sarcasm and laugh at the same jokes that I do and as he begins to spend more time alone. I watch the space between us change shape and become larger as he grows.

I chop vegetables at the kitchen counter while my son explains again the process of exploding stars creating black holes. I make piles of red peppers, onions, and tomatoes, organizing them in separate stacks, while he tells me about what cannot be categorized or fully understood. “Black holes are invisible,” he explains. “But scientists know they exist because they can bend light, and then in space, people can see the light around them.” He leaves me thinking about exploding light and expansive voids, and my imagination finds itself squarely back in 1986. My father, with his unexpected accident like an explosion on the constellation map of my life. His end wasn’t the slow fade of a long life well lived, but instead a human star eclipsed in a moment of cosmic surprise. Not a gradual end but an explosion of light like a firework, a flame folding in on itself over and over until you cannot see it anymore. A gravitational pull, my father’s short life has bent the light around it for decades so that I know it’s there even as it isn’t.

When I held my son for the first time, the veil was especially thin, though I wasn’t ready for it. A moment that felt heavier than the sun. Studying his face, which was entirely new to me but somehow also entirely known, the light bent around us. We fell into some place, the two of us, squarely in this hole that I have been swimming in and out of ever since, the place where I stand as a binding thread between a boy and the grandfather he never met. As my son grows through ages and phases, I swim with the current of what could have been, wondering what they’d think of each other, what they’d say if they were to meet.

Months ago, I took a quick snapshot of my son on the morning of his elementary school graduation. He wasn’t ready for the camera, so I didn’t get a posed smile but instead a glance somewhere beyond where I’m standing. He looks solid and true and squarely in the middle of that space between boyhood and manhood, galaxies before him and unknown paths ahead. My older cousin saw the photo and sent me a message. Wow. The first thing I thought about when looking at this photo is your father. I see traces of your dad in him here. I see him here. I just wanted to tell you that.

I swallowed the knot in my throat and did the exercise I have done a million times before, put their photos back-to-back in my phone camera roll and flip repeatedly between them. Dissecting the faces. Eyes, nose, hair, mouth. Nothing is precisely the same, yet there is something there, the star folding in on itself. He asks me, “Did you know black holes don’t even have a surface, but the gravitational pull is so powerful that nothing can escape it, not even light? It’s like they are just emptiness, but they are powerful.” And when he sees my concentration on something else or my thoughts far away, he’ll add, “Mom? Are you listening?”

I’m listening. My father is not here to see us standing on the driveway with our sleepy eyes and bed hair, huddled in blankets, staring at the shadowy moon. But then again, he is. The light bends in a way I can see with my heart if not my eyes. I have so few things of his, but I do have his old copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a work I cannot read cover to cover because it is as overwhelming to me as the cosmos. It tells me death is as sure for that which is born, as birth is for that which is dead. Exploding stars don’t return to nothingness.

There is so much I will never understand, both about the cosmos and the small and particular life I was given. As we stand on the driveway, bundled in blankets and staring at the sky above us, I marvel at the moon and the sun, the golden November leaves hanging on the branches, stars, fire, memory and time, the oldest trees, rolling mountains, the deep ocean, the infinite space in front of us, how small we are but these lives are all we know. Maybe my father is there somewhere, watching us across the stretch of space and time, or maybe instead he is right here in the space between us where the light bends. I feel my cold toes and folded arms, the weight of silence as we stare. I watch my son’s bony frame angled to the sky, his hair resting on his forehead, his searching eyes, the pull of empty space holding the whole universe together.

*this piece appeared previously in Braided Way Magazine

Katie Mitchell is an English teacher who lives in suburban Atlanta with her two children. Her work has previously appeared in Yellow Arrow Journal, The Appalachian Review, HerStry, Braided Way Magazine, and Huffington Post, among others. She is endlessly curious about the ways the natural world mirrors our internal landscape.  A seventh generation southerner, she is currently at work on a memoir about grief for both people and places that are long gone. You can find her occasionally on Twitter or Instagram @mamathereader.

***

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, healing, self-loathing

My Monster

April 10, 2022

I wasn’t always a monster, of course. I like to believe no one ever really sets out to become a monster, and I think most monsters are created by forces bigger than themselves, often in the murky darkness of childhood.

My sister Michele and I spent a lot of time on my family’s dairy farm as children. Our mother was the oldest of nine siblings, so my sister and I were delightful little playthings to the many aunts and uncles who still lived on the farm. We basked in their attention as they showered us with sleepovers and wagon rides and trips to the nearby lake.

There was a dangerous freedom to the barn, with the powerful hind legs of the massive cows that towered over our small selves as we ran down the center aisle, squealing to avoid a sudden discharge of liquid shit. Michele, the cherished first-born, was a tomboy who loved running around chasing cats by their tails and dodging in and out of the barn as our uncles and grandfather worked the cows on their rigorous milking schedule. My sister languished in the smells of summer hay being put up and danced in the swirls of dusty dry sunshine that accompanied all those animals.

But it was soon discovered that what seemed like wild, sweet freedom to one granddaughter was the very thing that threatened another. My grandmother never quite seemed to accept that I wasn’t just being stubborn or lazy when I stopped wanting to go to the barn. That, in fact, I had asthma. And all that dander from the cows whose milk was the sole source of the family’s income was cutting off my airways and strangling me.

But in the mid 1970’s, things like asthma and allergies weren’t well understood – at least, not in our neck of the woods in Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, where my people lived and worked. Generations of my family were raised on milk: not just to nourish bodies, but to pay the bills. Going against the family farm in any way was akin to treason. My grandmother, in particular, had little tolerance for time-consuming things like asthma attacks. Sniffles? Quit all that snorting, Krissy. There’s work to be done. Stop bothering me.

So, every summer I tried in vain not to be a nuisance, to get out in the barn and help with chores like my good, big sister. And each time, I’d end up coughing and wheezing and back at the house, crying as I knew how much I’d disappointed my grandmother by being weak.

Crying only worsened my asthma attacks. I fled to the bathroom, closed the door, and ran a washcloth under cold water to wipe my face. I stood at the sink trying to calm down as aunts and uncles would bang on the door, saying they had to pee. Looking in the mirror, I watched my itchy and enflamed eyes as the whites turned an angry red and swelled over the green circles of my iris. For a few hours, my eyes took on the appearance of some swollen, sickly Christmas decorations in the middle of July.

My grandmother was a woman of efficiency whose nerves were worn thin by too many people needing too many things. What love she had in her heart was painfully and privately shrouded in vigil for her own long-dead mother who was cruelly taken from her by cancer when she was only sixteen. Unprocessed heartbreak with no place to go can get lodged on repeat in a cruel sort of rhythm that no amount of barking at sick children will unstick. Such is life for a generation with nowhere to place such cavernous grief.

But I didn’t know this as a child. Instead, I learned from a young age that there was something wrong with me. Something inside my body that was bad. Something shameful that didn’t allow me to participate in the regular work and play of the family like everyone else.

By the time I was five, I learned that my wheezing and gasping for air were something akin to a moral weakness – that if I would just toughen up a bit, I could get over it. Thus, I didn’t deserve to breathe like other people. I was five years old, and I didn’t deserve to breathe.

***

Sheila, my uncle Mitch’s wife, was a teacher who worked with special needs kids and took an interest in me. She loved my drawings and encouraged the stories I wrote. I relished the whirling worlds in the books we shared, one adventure weaving into another. We stayed inside her yellow brick house across the road from my grandmother’s, with air conditioning that insulated our activities from the farm’s threatening allergens.

Sleepovers at her house were a special treat for me and my sister with ice cream sundaes and buttered popcorn so rich it gave me a tummy ache. As the sun set through the white eyelet curtains of the yellow room with the shag carpeting, cool darkness fell over the house. We would lay our heads on embroidered pillows, knowing that she was safely nearby in the room she shared with Mitch, just on the other side of the closet door that secretly adjoined our room.

***

Years passed. I turned twelve before my mother finally took me to an allergist to treat my asthma. Several rounds of steroids to clear my lungs resulted in rapid weight gain and crushing depression, which perfectly coincided with the onset of puberty. It didn’t take long for my inner monster to latch on to my self-loathing. An eating disorder quickly took root, enabling me to lose fifty pounds in three months, and by the time I was seventeen, I had downed a bottle of pills in a botched suicide attempt and earned a month long stay in a mental hospital.

My psychiatrist found me to be a curious case. I’d landed a coveted spot on the high school pom-pon squad, and we had a somewhat stable, loving, upper middle class family. I had excellent grades, an artistic gift, and a boyfriend who was the running back on our school’s state-winning football team. Yet, my symptoms didn’t seem to add up. Debilitating depression. Self-loathing. Cutting. Looking at my chart, the doctor asked my mother: had I ever been sexually abused?

Goodness no, she said. Of course not.

***

It wouldn’t be long before I discovered the joys of alcohol. My Irish Catholic family was practically raised on beer, bourbon, and brats. When we weren’t floating in a lake drinking under the warm sun, we were at college football games, Summerfest, and family weddings. Life was one big celebration, and my monster loved to party.

It was at one such wedding where I met my future husband, a longtime friend of the groom. A few years older than me, he was a good Catholic farm boy from Iowa whose steadiness was the perfect counter to my volatile self. We married when I was just twenty-two, but it would be many years before I’d fully appreciate just what a fantastic sense of foresight God had in bringing us together.

We went on to have three children and life appeared to be good, but the darkness was always lurking just under the surface. My monster was often hiding in the corner, whispering that I wasn’t quite good enough. That I didn’t deserve to be happy. That there was no point in trying – I was just a sham. There were so many days when I didn’t know what would happen because I could never trust when my monster would demand to be fed next. Living with depression was like dragging myself through the day with a big boulder strapped on my back. Most days loomed dark, heavy, foreboding, as the weight threatened to crush me.

Alcohol has a cunning way of latching on to mental illness to create the perfect storm. I found that if I drank just enough, I could keep my darkness at bay. Wine had a way of blurring the edges of my anxiety, while vodka would obliterate them completely. To me, this was just the solution I needed.

Soon, I was waking up every day sick, parched, disgusted. I repeatedly told myself today would be the day I’d stop doing this. Today would be different. Knowing, even as I said it, that I was lying to myself. Just willing change into existence doesn’t make a damn difference if you don’t do anything to change. If your next move is to open up a bottle, you’ve already lost at your own game – and your only opponent is yourself.

My boogeyman never lurked around some dark corner. That bitch lived inside me. I opened the door and welcomed her to come right in and take a seat every time I bought a bottle. I thought I drank to quiet her down, hoping that the more I drank, the more likely I was to flood her out of her cave. What I didn’t know was that I had it all wrong. Alcohol didn’t put out my monster’s anger. Pouring alcohol on my monster only fed the flames, like gasoline on fire. My monster loved alcohol – thrived on it. More! More! She cried as she laughed, threw up all over the floor, then went on drinking.

With alcohol mixed into the equation, I had no chance against my monster. I hated myself when I drank. Everyone around me hated me when I drank. And even though I knew better and had everything going for me, I wasn’t smarter than alcohol; it had locked me in a vice grip that I couldn’t break. I no longer wanted to drink, but I could barely function without it.

I was circling the drain but instead of putting the cap back in the bottle, I was pouring my life away with every glass I emptied. That’s the way addiction works. Nobody wakes up one day and says they want to become an addict. It’s a slippery slope that seems to work just fine for a long time as it does what it promises to do: it takes the edge off. But after a while, it stops working. And you need more and more to get the same effect.

Twenty-five years after my first suicide attempt, I found myself with an Exacto knife in my hand, pulling it across my wrist and drawing blood. Another time, I stumbled into the middle of a country road and stared down a Mack truck that was barreling towards me. And it became commonplace for me to stand on the Metra platform in Chicago, willing my body to throw itself in front of the train. I told my doctor at the time that this was normal for me. Nothing to worry about here, folks.

But this time was different. I wasn’t just some dumb seventeen-year-old kid. I was married with three children. I owned a business with employees and was doing work I loved. I had everything. But I couldn’t see any of that when the monster came out of her cave. She was now a fire-breathing dragon, and she was going to burn down every last fucking thing that stood in her path.

The thing that wasn’t different this time was how I felt. The way I felt at seventeen was still the same way I felt again at forty-two. Twenty-five years later, and the pain inside me was exactly the same. No number of years or ounces of alcohol could drown the darkness that a lifetime of trauma had built. That powerful pull to finally give in and end it all – it was too big to resist, and I just wasn’t strong enough. And once I finally decided to kill myself, the decision was complete. Then, just like when I was seventeen, it came as a relief.

If I thought of my children at all in that moment, my only thought was: the kids are better off without me. They had my husband to take care of them. I was useless. Better off dead. And that logic made perfect sense to me. Perfect sense.

That’s what depression does. It’s a darkness that works on you from the inside out. It wears you down and pulls you in and wraps its tentacles around you and doesn’t let go until it sucks all the light from your soul. It squeezes the air out of your lungs until you’re gasping for breath. Until you can no longer breathe.

Because you don’t deserve to breathe.

***

I was surprised to find that my mental hospital had been locked in its own stagnant time capsule: faded floral artwork trapped behind plexiglass screwed to cinder block walls. A single caged lightbulb dimly casting shadow over moldy shower stalls. A wall-mounted telephone with a frayed eight-inch cord flanked by nefarious steel-barred windows. I snagged my color-coded socks on cracked and peeling linoleum as I learned that pink signified fall risk, blue for suicide watch. Mine were blue. I could have gone a lifetime without knowing any of this.

For five days, I walked up and down the stale hallway thinking of the many ways I’d changed in twenty-five years, and the many more parts of me, like this place, that were still the same. Those early days of padded, shaky steps in my fuzzy blue socks were the first of many in the tentative direction of eventual healing. It took a long time to realize that alcohol was a former friend that had turned on me a long time ago; I was just too sick to see it. Once I was able to get some clarity and distance from my old pal, I finally had a fighting chance.

I learned there were many root causes to my monster’s growth. Genetics played a part, such as living in a family with layers of madness and addiction. Ultimately, it didn’t matter why a monster had grown inside me like a cancerous tumor. The damage was done. But understanding where it came from was a way to help me untangle its interwoven grip on my life. And in order to extricate myself and live freely, I had to do the work.

I learned to separate the monster from myself. The monster lived inside me, but she was not me. In time, I could learn to tame her and live with her.

I learned that when I stopped drinking, I stopped being so afraid. And I was finally able to ask myself: what was I so afraid of? What was I trying to drink away?

My fears ran from broad and expansive to precisely imagined scenarios. Drinking had been a way to run from the fear of living in a violent and unpredictable society full of senseless acts and random school shootings. I found that I could alleviate the anxiety of not knowing if each morning’s goodbye kisses would be our last by turning to the bottle. But eventually, no amount of alcohol could keep the terror at bay; in spite of our country’s lavish thoughts and prayers, the shootings kept coming.

I was afraid of what would happen if my kids found out I was an alcoholic. But judging by the way they dumped out my wine, it was pretty clear they already knew.

I was terrified that my children were destined to live with the same madness that had hijacked my own brain from such a young age. That my daughters would develop eating disorders that would ravage them for decades. That my son would develop an addiction and attempt suicide. In sum, I was afraid of everything. Most of all: myself.

I finally had to admit to myself that I was afraid of saying I was an alcoholic, because I just didn’t want it to be true. I was afraid to stop drinking because I didn’t know how to live without it. And if I was really trying to be honest with myself, I just had to edit that last sentence a bit:

I was afraid to stop drinking because I was afraid to live.

I believed that addiction and mental illness and abuse and suicide attempts were all just a matter of time for my children, because that’s simply how it was. Because that’s what was passed down through generations of trauma in my family. Because it was destiny, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I kept continuing the cycle with every bottle I drained because I didn’t believe I had any power to stop it.

Until: I stopped.

When I learned to stop fearing my monster, I found that I was growing stronger and could finally start to face my fears. And I realized that my monster was really just a coward that hid in the darkness of her cave and thrived on alcohol, and bred depression and shame.

I learned that love is stronger than fear. Love is what breaks the cycle. Love is what cracks open the darkness and allows the light back in. And by coming back to love, one day at a time, I learned to start trusting myself again.

I remembered the ferocious love I felt for each of my children from the moment I was aware of their tiny sparks growing inside me. And I remembered the biggest love of all: God’s love. In beginning my recovery, I learned that though I never believed I was worthy of God’s love, that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. It was there all along, from the moment I was just a spark in my own mother’s womb. I just couldn’t see it through the darkness.

I finally learned to love myself.

And twenty-five years later, I would recall my psychiatrist’s question to my mother about whether I’d been sexually abused as a child. Memories would float back to me at random, like fireflies flickering in the night. The yellow room with the shag carpeting. The white eyelet curtain. The sleepovers that endured long after I wanted them to. I would remember my uncle, insistent that we keep up those overnight visits far after we felt comfortable. And when given the choice of any of the other rooms in the farmhouse, he would emphatically press on that my sister and I should stay in that room, the yellow room with the shag carpeting, the one that connected to theirs via secret passageway.

***

My monster’s fire-breathing roar has been replaced by the sounds of laughter that now fill our house. Our comings-together at the end of the day are reminders that we’ve survived something together. My children may carry the strains of mental illness; time will tell. But if that happens, we now have the tools to manage it. I’ve finally learned that dealing with mental illness and addiction is something I can control. At least now, we have a fighting chance.

My monster is still there. I see her sometimes, sleeping in the back of her cave. I like to think of her in a sort of permanent hibernation. To keep her there, I’ve learned to put a blanket over her when she’s cold. I’ve taken away her alcohol and replaced it with nutritious food that I put at the mouth of her cave, offering it to her if she ever gets hungry, too. I sometimes wave to her as I pass by on my daily walk, or during yoga. I see her sleeping and I think – oh yes, there she is. I remember her. I nod and respect her space. I let her sleep if she’s tired. And I pass by, thankful that she no longer has any power over me. I let her keep sleeping.

And then, I walk out into the light.

Kris Martinez been in marketing for over 25 years and has owned an award-winning digital creative agency near Chicago since 2004. Her work has been published in Entropy, The Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, Iris Literary Journal, and Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year. In 2020, Kris completed her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay “My Monster” is an excerpt from her memoir and first book, for which she is seeking representation. Kris lives near Chicago with her husband and their three teenage children.

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Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, healing, memories

The Revisionist

April 4, 2022
jacket

I found my leather jacket yesterday, the one that reminds me of you. It was in a box, folded haphazardly beneath a pile of scarves, tucked behind old paint cans. It doesn’t fit anymore. I’m much rounder and softer now.  You weren’t there on that weekend trip to Rome when I found it at a market and fell in love with its scent. You weren’t there, but I can’t extricate you from its worn and faded lining.  I wore it to vineyards and piazzas and smoky bars, and each time you declared it belissima.

I credit you with my quick grasp of Italian. Before arriving in Siena, I knew a handful of words I gleaned from a phrasebook. I’d been looking for a semester abroad to shed the skin of my first heartbreak and seek the adventure I’d been craving. This is what one is supposed to do at twenty, yes? I wanted to see the Duomo and sit in cafes with cappuccinos while pretending to like coffee. I met you three weeks into my semester in a club whose name eludes me now.

My intensive Italian classes give me the courage to falter through a conversation with you as we lean in at the bar. My drinking resume is limited.  I order a tequila sunrise because it’s one of the few drinks I’ve heard of. Wine still feels too grown up, too sophisticated. You speak no English, not a word. Four drinks in and it doesn’t matter. We find a corner and you slip your hands inside my jacket, and I murmur in agreement when you invite me to a party at a vineyard.

On the walk to your car, I pull my jacket snugly across me as as I push down my mother’s voice whispering, This is how girls get murdered!  My new roommate and I grip hands as we follow you and your entourage aimlessly. We quietly assure ourselves that this is the adventure we signed up for. Nothing bad can happen if we stay together. We’re not stupid. Twenty minutes later, we pull up to a dark vineyard. Maybe you work here. Maybe you just know someone who does. The details are unclear, but you are funny and charismatic, and your English speaking friends help translate the gaps as you continuously fill my glass with wine. It’s bitter and I hate it, but I don’t let on. I choke it down, swallowing the nerves until my eyes burn and the room refuses to sit still. I’ve never been this kind of drunk before.

There’s a bedroom in the guest house. Of course there is. You lead me there so I can rest and recalibrate. I squeeze my eyes shut and lean back against a pillow as I wait for the room to hold still, but it refuses to do so. I’m veering on the brink of sleep when I feel you unzip my pants.  I jolt and twist.  No, no, I mutter as I push your hands away.  Just let me sleep.

Your face contorts, not with rage, but with disbelief and frustration as your voice raises and you say things I don’t understand. I shrink into my own skin as guilt shrouds my body. This is my fault. Of course it’s my fault. What did I think you were bringing me here for? My shame and stupidity leak down my cheeks as I struggle to translate your indignation. And because I won’t find my voice for another few years and because I don’t yet know my own worth, I acquiesce and let you fuck me. I am limp as I stare at the patterned ceilings, recalling the one and only other person I’ve ever been with. Crying is futile by now, but it doesn’t stop me from doing it. You aren’t looking at me and don’t seem to notice. When it’s over, you slide your body off of me and grin as you program your number into my little, blue Nokia phone. The night air is damp and I feel it through the sheet as I lie there rehearsing what I could have done, should have said.

I don’t allow myself to be angry with you. I can’t. I can only wrap myself in the humiliation of my own naivety. And when you call me a week later, I will let you take me to dinner, because dating you is a better story than the way we could have left it. We will spend the rest of my semester together, exploring the parts of the city I would have never otherwise known. I will pretend to tolerate the smell of your cigarettes, and I will rewrite our story and call this chapter the exotic Italian fling of my youth. It has a much nicer ring to it, don’t you think?

But when my daughter finds the jacket in a Goodwill pile and asks why I would get rid of something so beautiful, I tell her that I don’t want a story full of half truths anymore. She’s too young to understand, but I’ll tell her when the time comes. She deserves a story that needs no revision.

Emily Corak has spent the last three decades in the Pacific Northwest and now resides outside of Portland. A mom to two kids, ages 4 and 7, Emily has been an educator for the past decade and is now taking a break to see what’s left of her identity outside of teacher and mother. She is now going back to school for her MFA in creative writing after deciding she had more to offer the world than breast milk and unsolicited grammar advice. When the world allows, she spends any spare cash on plane tickets, and she lives for books, tea, and all things Top Chef. She occasionally writes about anything and everything that comes to mind, and you can find her work here: https://offbrandmusings.blogspot.com/

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Wordless Messages: Grief and the Power of Touch

January 23, 2022
massage

I missed how my massage therapist always began with cradling my head in his hands. How, when he placed his palms over my ears, my skull filled with the ocean of my whirring aliveness, smoothing some jagged places in my psyche into round pebbles.

During the year of lockdown, I missed getting massages. I feel a little embarrassed or even entitled saying this since I’m grateful that during quarantine I was with my girlfriend: I had someone to talk to and touch. But I deeply missed the specific kind of touch I received during a massage, and being removed from it for a year underlined something to me: therapeutic touch is unlike any other kind—it holds within it the capacity for deep connection to the self, since we are composed of all the experiences our bodies hold, everything both joyous and jagged, every embrace and every injury, papercut-small and fissure-deep. Our bodies remember everything, including what our conscious mind has let slip away.

There is a specific experience I carry in my body: I went almost ten years with much touch of any kind, except the perfunctory; I hold this story in between my ears, and in my lower back, along my arms, and sometimes in a tight spot in my jaw: when my mother died, I was fourteen, and my father had a breakdown that no one talked about. Up until that point, even though my mother was slowly dying of cancer, I had a fairly nice life: my parents loved each other, we lived in a nice, somewhat affluent suburb, my interests were nurtured, and I always felt safe in my home.

Then, my life snapped off from everything familiar, as if a neat and manicured path unexpectedly diverged into wilderness that I had to navigate alone. Then, my father couldn’t take care of me, of my sister. Then, I had to go to my first year of high school and my home became a place that simply housed the relics of a civilization that had crumbled around me. Everything seemed wrong, even the colors of my bedroom walls. Suddenly, everything felt too yellow.

For many years, I wanted affection so much that my skin ached. I started getting migraines. Every morning, when I was sixteen years old, I dry heaved into the toilet not due to any eating disorder, but because the fact of my physical existence in a world where I knew there was no one to hold or take care of me made me feel literally sick. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Even when I felt “better” later in life, I still carried this time in my body the way a tree holds a year of blight in a dark hollow ring.

I stumbled into getting massages after a bad break up in my mid-thirties. The first massage therapist I saw, Stephen, was part of my queer community, and while other massage therapists had dug elbows into places that felt too tender, Stephen asked for what I needed before I got on the table. When I said I had PTSD and needed him to be gentle, he gave me the first massage that didn’t hurt, that I didn’t grit myself against, crying uncle. He seemed to understand: taking my first layer of protection off, all my clothes, except my bottom underwear, was an act of trust. “I’m going to listen to your breathing,” he said. “I’m going to make sure you’re ok.” As he wrapped the sheets and blankets around me near the end of that first massage, I felt deeply warm, and I let my head fall into his hands. I began going to see him every month for four years, and I found myself transformed: talk therapy had helped me, but massage soothed places words couldn’t touch. My body felt like someone had extracted an invisible burden from my body. I kept looking back into the train car as the subway doors closed, convinced I had left something heavy behind.

When I tell someone that I typically get a massage every month, they often looked confused or even judgmental. I don’t make much money, and massage has been branded a luxury, one doled out in spas only the wealthy can afford, and this is often the case. Even though I’ve been lucky because the massage therapists I’ve seen have worked out of their homes and operated on a sliding scale, a situation that benefits us both, I have paid around $75-100 a session.

But Massage is, as every book on it states, the oldest form of healing, and has gone by many names over the span of recorded history: rubbings, friction and unction, anatripsis, which translates to “intensive rubbing” in Greek. Only the recent century has demoted massage to empty pampering at best and sketchy sex work at worst. American and British Nurses in the late 1800s through the 1930s trained in and practiced massage. During WWI, nurses treated soldiers with massage for injuries and “nervous disorders” caused by the traumas of war. Medical professionals viewed massage as a “basic comfort” practice, and even famed nurse Florence Nightingale massaged patients and trained other nurses in what was deemed a valuable medical practice.

But by the mid-1930s when pharmaceutical solutions such as aspirin and morphine presented themselves, and it was less expensive to give someone a pill than it was to train a nurse in massage. Pushed from traditional medicine, massage parlors proliferated, and “happy endings” cast a lascivious light on the practice. Massage became either a form of sex work or a “complementary” healing modality.

I believe massage could be a more widely used practice, one that could benefit many, especially those who have gone through trauma, and while the pandemic continues to impact disenfranchised groups more than others, every single one of us will be continuing to deal with the stress of a pandemic, and we will likely continue to have periods of isolation, and with it, many will have to cope with a lack of touch.

In the year of no massages, I found myself taking more pills than I have in a long time: I washed countless blue over the counter anti-inflammatory pills down, hoping they wouldn’t eat away at my stomach lining. I diminished my supply of prescription muscle relaxants, the ones I save for when I feel as if I’m about to become immobilized, which happened far more frequently. When I feel a relaxant begin to bloom in my body, my muscles release as they do in massage. But I never feel better the way I do after a massage. I never wake up the next morning feeling like I’ve been rocked to sleep, like the hurt animal part of me has been sung to, like the music of my pulse has shifted.

There is something a pill isn’t offering me that a massage does: a human connection.

After my first massage therapist moved away, I worried I wouldn’t find someone I would connect with in the same way I had with Stephen. After I saw a few practitioners I didn’t quite click with, I found Josh on a queer community listserv. Like Stephen, Josh exuded a deep patience when he worked on me, and he listened carefully with his hands. I began to notice the distinct difference between being worked on by someone I saw just once and someone I bonded with over time. I’ve been seeing Josh for years now, too. Once when we sat together chatting after he had worked on me, I asked him if a client’s breathing and his would sync up during a massage. I’d been reading about circumstances that cause humans to fall into a kind of sync together; if people sing together, their hearts beat together, too. He thought a moment, and said, no, not exactly, but if a massage was going well, usually the person being massaged would breathe in a kind of unconscious call and response with him.

In her book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, science journalist Jo Marchant explores the potency of human connection through examining what we think of as the placebo effect. She cites a study from Dr.Ted J. Kaptchuk, who performed “fake acupuncture”—acupuncture that didn’t follow the traditional meridians used in the treatment—to two groups of patients (one control group was given no treatment at all), the first group were given treatment by a “cold but polite” practitioner, and in the second group, the patients were treated by a warm practitioner who sat with them, and talked with them for 45 minutes before being given placebo acupuncture. Neither group received any other treatment for the primary complaint which was IBS. 44% of the patients treated with the placebo style acupuncture felt better, but Marchant reports that the patient’s experience of wellness shot up to 62% when offered care from a warm practitioner which was “as big an effect as has ever been found for any drug treated for IBS.” She notes that “If an empathic healer makes us feel cared for and secure, rather than under distress, this alone can trigger significant biological changes that ease our symptoms.”

In another study, done at Berkley, where researchers discovered that social messages could be communicated through touch with near lighting-fast speed. This of course makes sense since touch is our oldest form of communication, older than stories passed between us through language, much older than paper, or even marks carved into stones or animal bones, perhaps older than singing. Some anthropologists wonder if touch, specifically the kind of touch that releases oxytocin, the chemical released through bonding like breastfeeding, set our evolution in motion, making us a species capable of doing all the above.

Once Josh pressed a spot on my lower back and I tensed because sometimes when something hurts, I find myself unable to speak—I just freeze. But immediately I felt his hands respond, with a soothing message I can’t quite translate into language. It was this exchange, the feeling of being listened and responded to with such care, that felt so profound, perhaps even more so since it happened without either of us saying a word.

For a while I kept mixing up the word message and massage, constantly misreading the word “message” as “massage” or typo-ing message when I meant massage. I realized that massage has offered me a way to receive a wordless message my body has needed, on repeat, one that echoes in my skin and bones and muscles, in my breath and blood, one that tells me: even if my father couldn’t give me the comfort I needed when my mother died, other people will be there for me, and my community would be there for me.

There’s no doubt that I tend to choose male-presenting therapists since the hurt animal part of me grieved the loss my father as he lived, a ghost of himself; I mourned the father who was a gentle plaid mountain I climbed, who read me all the chronicles of Narnia, who made me and my sister heart-shaped pizzas. The death of my mother was one trauma–the loss of my father while he continued to sit on the couch staring at the wall was another. I struggled to hold the latter, the ambiguous grief of it, even more than the death of my mother; there was only a funeral to acknowledge one of these losses.

Through seeking this particular form of healing, I have gotten better at holding my history in my body. I’ve gotten better at holding the past in one place in my body while I moved forward; changing how I held my body, loosening its tensions and habits, made me a person who could hold the past while keeping my feet in the present. I got better at forgiving my father, even though neither of us ever brought up the past in conversation. My father got better too: he happily re-married, sold his business, and retired to a life of collecting ship replicas in a house a short drive from the beach.

This past July, I was standing alone in my kitchen when my stepmother called to tell me my father had died suddenly that morning. And so I found myself alone again as one of my parents died. I longed for my people—I longed for my girlfriend, who was waiting for me in rural upstate New York as I prepared to move from Brooklyn, I longed for my stepmother and the family I still had left alive; I longed for my friends, but I also longed for the person who had given me a source of comfort in other stressful times: my massage therapist, or put another way, despite the cheesiness the word has gathered over the past decades, my healer.  I longed for my healer to cradle my head in his hands as I learned how to live with my father’s sudden death, as I learned how to hold this new reality in my body.

The longing for my healer, and even calling him this word, felt strange, even embarrassing, but we have no real word in American English to contain this kind of therapeutic relationship: one that technically involves a service, and yet, much like therapy we seek out for our minds, is imbued something more, something deeper and elemental.

Today, we are only beginning to break the taboo of even talking about the essential human need for touch, and it seems we only have these conversations under extreme circumstances. As the pandemic continues, I hope we can talk more about the need for touch. I also hope we can also seek out therapeutic touch if we need it. I hope that, in time, perhaps massage can be seen as what it is: a healing practice with potential far beyond what we have imagined. I hope that if massage can be witnessed in this way, perhaps, it can be covered by all insurances, so it could become more accessible. And no matter what, I hope we can all feel less embarrassed to seek out a therapeutic space for touch when we need it.

Kat Savino holds an M.F.A. from Columbia, and wrote a brief personal essay about how massage helped her heal from trauma for Narratively; She has been researching this practice for many years and is currently working on a long hybrid memoir that fuses art history, psychology, and neuroscience to explore the need for touch, and the trauma of abandonment, and how healing is possible. Kat has also published essays in Ravishly, Apogee, Marie Claire, Belladonna: Matters of Feminist Practice, The Los Angeles Review, and Prism International, where she placed third in their nonfiction contest.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Abuse, Guest Posts, healing

What I Didn’t Know

August 9, 2021
ugly

by Ruth Arnold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, healing, Mental Health

Humans Need Trees

July 24, 2021
trees

by Dez Hill

Numerous people in this world have encountered some form of conflict in their life. How these conflicts are dealt with varies from person to person. Many people have traumatic incidents that they endure also, which can cause a disorder called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The traumatic events that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder are usually so overwhelming, and frightening that they would upset anyone. When your sense of safety and trust are shattered, it’s normal to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb, and most people do.

Let’s explore different ways to deal with PTSD. Self- soothing activities is the most popular way to help keep your emotions under control. If you are unfamiliar with what self-soothing activities are here is a quick summary for you. Self-soothing activities are a source of decreased arousal, pleasurable sensations and calming feelings. They are characterized by: slow, gentle or rhythmical movements; softness in texture, tone and hues; quietness in volume. They include but are not limited to the following: • Calming breathing • Gentle holding and rocking • Calming self-talk • accessing calming sensations: e.g., warm baths and showers, warm drinks, soft textiles (blankets, bed socks, soft toys, hot water bottles), calming music, soft lighting walking, gardening or swimming therapeutic process.

These activities are an incredible way to deal with what symptom’s you may be feeling in that moment; but I want to explore a different route. Let’s think outside the box; trees.

A symbiotic relationship exists between trees and humans.  Humans breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, while trees breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. There are many similarities between humans and trees. For example, let’s take the American Hardwood tree. These trees are like humans in three distinct and profound ways: Both are mostly water; both have a peak life span of approximately 80 years and both are completely unique. The most important similarity between humans and trees is that each tree, like each human, is unique and beautiful in its own way.

People need trees. They need to see leaves from their windows, to sit in green spaces, and to play in the shade. Trees draw people out from behind walls of brick and glass. Nature restores the mental functioning in the same way that food and water restore bodies.

Man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back. . Forests, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans demand very little from us, though they’re still engaging, ever changing, and attention-grabbing. The difference between natural and urban landscapes is how they command our attention. While man-made landscapes bombard us with stimulation, their natural counterparts give us the chance to think as much or as little as we’d like, and the opportunity to replenish exhausted mental resource.

Choosing Nature is always the best way to go.

Desarae “Dez” Hill is a Californian, Amateur Writer and Poet who has been published in “Timeless Voices” and in “BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON”. She is a huge advocate of Mental Health. She, herself, suffers from chronic PTSD and has been searching for ways to help not only herself but to also help others who suffer from PTSD.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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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.

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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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Guest Posts, healing, reconstruction

Remaking Bodies

November 8, 2020
one

By Lisa J Hardy

I am a gruesome puzzle.

I sob in front of the mirror and then throw it into the hallway where it breaks into 6 pieces that I step over for days. It’s just a body. It doesn’t matter. Only it does. I was reconstructed. Gentrified. My torso is created like new construction. 2x4s and tax abatements. My veins were harvested to feed fat flaps. My waterways, re-routed. Lymph nodes are trying to connect again. Subterranean regeneration.

*

I pushed blues and greens together on my paintbrush. My dorm room always smelled like art supplies. Oil paints and linseed oil all over my hands. Intertwining our bodies into liquid snakes and sculptural poses outside of the dorm window, Meg and I were the sun and the moon. Everyone watched. We were so young.

*

Mammograms are torture devices. Psychopaths should have them in basements. They could put their captives in shuffling paper gowns and tell them, “Don’t worry about the radiation. It’s as much as an air flight.” But I love to travel, and these things add up. Why don’t they understand this simple math? After, I exit the lab holding a $2000 invoice and clutching my bruised and bleeding breast. BI-RADS five. She was positive the squishy bump was bad. It was reaching tentacles out into the surrounding tissue to look for its own blood supply, eating me.

*

Patterns on my skirt like deserts and rivers. I close my eyes, my hair spinning around my head. Music festival. 20. Thousands of us, perfect, fragile, connected beside trees and streams. I spin free in a shirt and purple stockings. A tall man with long hair and rough teeth curls himself toward me. “I know what that’s from,” he sneers. I reach back and feel the rough quarter where a single vertebrae scraped against a floor. Dylan, my boyfriend, lifts me up and spins me onto his shoulders where my trip begins again.

*

A surgical team scrapes it all out and replaces it with an expander made from someone else’s parts. Weeks later while on a trip to the ocean a hole opens. I can see into my own darkness through the hole. It has to be removed. The plastic surgeon swaps parts and builds new ones then sends me emails asking if I want to plump my lips for Valentine’s day or lift my butt for New Year’s.

*

On the other side, tree limb nerves wind through like remains of Body Worlds, signaling to all the other nerves. Touch moved from insides to tingling edges. Opening dandelions. Every cell connected to memories. My constructed side is numb and cold. I want the original lands before bulldozing and excavation.

*

The second reconstruction. A surgeon attaches central beams and skylights. My chest swallows belly fat. My familiar appendectomy scar is relocated over my heart. I think of a thin fishing line between two wooden dowels, cutting through a slab of clay.

*

In college I make bodies. Life-size busts made by smoothing latte-colored clay over wire armatures. I create the perfect softness by mixing powdered dirt, mica, and grit with warm water in buckets and then press my hands and arms all the way in. I carve naked busts large enough to embarrass everyone and joke by stabbing them in the heart with a clay knife. My favorite artist is Janine Antoni, whose Lick and Lather show consists of seven soap and seven chocolate self-portrait busts she washes, soaps, and devours.

*

After college I travel the country yelling “stop!” to various lovers. I jump out of the car and run down soft riverbeds or up sides of blue-grey cinder hills collecting earth that I mix myself. I stick my hands in muddy streams and press pink silt into my skin. I make little pinch pots with my fingers, polish them with shiny stones, and fire them in trash cans.

*

Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforators surgery or DIEP flap. Two surgeons cut through and roll back my belly like a weighted blanket. Slice four lines through abdominal muscles to remove veins. Sever and sew. The surgeon locates a nerve. He twists and sews and attaches it back together. Everything else is tossed. Contaminated dirt beneath a city. Illegal movement of a toxic brownfield. Watch out for the peripheral dust.

*

In junior high I hold skinny arms up over my purple swimsuit. Too-thin with a concave midriff, knobby knees, and curves. I hide myself under clothes that don’t protect me.

*

Once, on the plane alone, a man pulls a blanket over his lap and holds it in my direction, doing something vigorously. Lowering the blanket when the flight attendant passes by. I tell my seventh grade friends at the lunch table while they eat grey-brown meat on yellow buns. At 14, my best friends sit on a concrete planter. A dull man approached quickly, grabs a breast, and walks briskly away.

*

After losing, I get on with life. I use my body to make a point. An embodied protest of the for-profit healthcare machine under whose gaze bodies are revenue and healing is not profitable. I take off my shirt to have a friend write “pre-existing condition” in black marker over my skin. She stops, marker in air, and holds back her disgusted gasp. After that, I cover up.

*

I live on a mountain. I see a shooting star nearly every night. I trade the darkness of feeling mangled and broken for a gentle stillness under the sharp shape of the moon.

*

High school hallway chats consist of each one of us standing in front of the mirror one-by-one. “Your boobs are too big and you’re skinny,” everyone agrees. After graduation, my best friend Ginger and I drop acid in Nantucket and go walking around. Ginger tells me I shouldn’t wear white shirts anymore. I looked down to find my giant breasts leading the way down the sidewalk.

*

I collect hungry glares. They look back at me after they pass as though we share a secret. Sometimes they approach me on the street with phone numbers or propositions. I’m not safe. I go to sleep staring at the light under the door, wondering if a shadow of two shoes might appear, always aware of the location of the phone and mace. But, in bedrooms I am not afraid. Getting to the bed with the clothes off becomes a goal I pursue with unyielding desire. After my first questionable biopsy, a friend-once-lover texts me to say that there is no way I had breast cancer. “They’re too perfect,” they quip. “It’s not possible.”

*

I tried and tried to became a model patient. One who advocates, but not too much. One who is not meek but not assertive. Just like I used to mold my body into small spaces to make room for men, I molded my person into acquiescence, waiting for instructions. My boobs, and my life, depended on it. New construction on the way.

*

Two surgeons drew lines and rearranged parts. Two trips to the operating room, 12 hours, and the placement of four drains. Flexible tube tails of these drains wound through my abdomen and chest collecting and suctioning blood and fluid out into bulbs at the end. My once thin stomach had transformed with medications into what my daughter called “mommy belly,” a soft lumpy pillow that children and pets liked to sleep on. Soon it would be flat and smooth as a two-dimensional magazine spread of stomachs, with a jagged line running from past one hip to right past the other. A hastily stretched drum.

*

Once I decided to have this surgery, I joined an online community too-full of too-many women who had had or were going to have it. They told me and each other how to be a proper patient. We must trust our surgeons. He (they were all men where I went) will make the perfect choices. “And he’s also not bad to look at,” one of them said. He knows. He’s an expert. Over bodies. I wondered what he thought the perfect boob would like. It takes six weeks to heal but everyone said, “Not you.” If I was good enough, behaved, I would heal faster. I was new construction.

*

Instead of moon phases I chart emotional circles by distance from medical appointments. My doctor hollered, “You’re overdue for your mammogram.” What about my radiation dose? “Well,” the nurse said as she repositioned me into the cold machine, “you live at 7,000 feet. You get radiation every day.” The nurse found something in there, in my one healthy breast. Probably nothing. Probably debris. I return later that day for a biopsy, my dog waiting in the car.

*

Nurses came every hour after surgery with pocket dopplers to press and see if fat flaps had heartbeats. Red, pink, and orange liquid drained out of me. Some of the drains got skin in them. One had a bloody worm-like-thing sitting at the bottom that I kept squeezing through the flexible plastic to make sure it wasn’t alive.

*

I clipped stitches, ran an alcohol pad over, and pulled 14 inches of tubing out of my skin. It leaked and gurgled and then it was gone, leaving a little hole.

*

Worth should not be contingent upon economic functioning, but if not typing or reading or speaking, I wondered what I was at all. In a burst of anger I threw forks and spoons that wouldn’t fit into the drawer all the way down the hall where they stayed, arranged in a bizarre obstacle course, which I was unable to pick up.

*

No one will ever know the me before. The one that loved all-night sex with the lights on. The one who had smooth lines and a mother’s belly. Now, I’m just covered in scars. The marks of illness and staying alive. Reconstructed “breasts” that, as one friend says about her own, “look like a drunk four year old made them.” A body doesn’t matter. But it does.

*

My acupuncturist told me about a contractor patient whose shoulder surgery failed, leaving him without a livelihood. I responded that this was a good reminder because “my boobs don’t do anything anyway.” We laughed as she said, “Yeah it’s not like you say to them, ‘can you go clean up the house?’” She pantomimed her boobs running around and picking up the trash.

*

After five weeks I had energy to go on a friend trip. We left early in the snow. Stars were not visible, and the roads were slick. Stitches wound underneath incisions where I had been cut and sewn back together, snaking across my torso and breasts. The car slid and I grabbed the seat. My veins felt rubbery and fragile, insecurely attached. Once I pulled too hard on an exercise band and the handle flung off. I could hear the pop. Rivers, moved. The car spun. Would the walls of this quickly-built replica fall down on new sidewalks? Skin stapled and sewn. I imagined everything opening up and insides spilling out onto the road. I imagined running around and collecting all of these parts like chocolate or cheese spilled from a delivery truck, and putting them back into the spaces where they belonged. In my imagination there were zippers instead of sutures and I put the parts back in, zipped them up, and got back into the car. We turned and turned over a median, up a hill, and came to a stop facing the highway.

*

When the swelling subsided, I realized that it’s kind of amazing to be Frankenstein’s creation. Relocated. Reconnected. Skin sewn to skin. This is my house. The old lines and trails are red purple fascinations winding across. Nothing looks the way it should.

*

In a dream I was walking on a white sand beach. I felt something under my feet and dug my hands down into the fine sand and pulled up an old, ornate sapphire ring. Flowers and leaves were carved delicately around the edges. I knew the ring was a family heirloom that had been my great grandmother’s connected by something to another gem. On my knees I pushed my hands through sand, uncovering family gem after family gem from generations before. I pulled each one out and looked at it in the sun, leading toward sea, remembering whose it had been. When I reached back down, I saw that the thing connecting each of the jewels was a long, sinuous string. It was the nerve my surgeon cut and tied reaching through the sand to connect me.

Lisa J Hardy is a medical anthropologist. Her creative work appears in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Entropy, Bird’s Thumb, Riggwelter, and elsewhere. She is Associate Professor of Anthropology and the editor of the journal Practicing Anthropology in northern Arizona where she lives with her tween daughter and menagerie of pets.

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Books, Guest Posts, healing, Young Voices

Inside Out

April 5, 2020
head

By Allison L. Palmer

I threw up in the bushes outside the hospital the day my sister was born. I didn’t stomp my feet and demand that my mom shove her back up there or refuse to go hold her. I didn’t hop up and down and beg my dad to bring me inside so I could kiss my brand-new best friend. No tantrums, no joy. Just vomit. I stopped right next to the E.R. entrance, put my hands on my dimpled kindergartener knees, and barfed. My dad looked down at me with a crease between his eyebrows as I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my sweater. He knelt next to me and patted my back, checking my forehead for fever. Yes, I feel better now. He shrugged and took my hand as we walked through the doors. Even then, my body knew the things my head didn’t. This is gateway love. My sister was my first. She will probably be my last. Maybe we have to empty out parts ourselves to make room for everything new.

My dad made space for us. Now that I’m older, I see that he was always up ahead of me. Carving away splinters, repainting colors, clearing cobwebs. He could blow clouds from the sky as easily as I could make a birthday wish. My childhood had soft edges. When I was ten and my sister was five, he took us on a trip to a small island off the coast of Canada. He drove us around in a red rental car with the windows down. July air rolled in off the St. Lawrence River, warm and light blue. He pulled the car off the road at the point of a finger. Anything we wanted. Waterfalls, homemade jam, sheep in a field. For me, we stopped at four used bookstores in a day. He popped sour cherries in my sisters’ mouth whenever she started to pipe up and spun her around in circles so I could empty the stacks into baskets with no limit. I wasn’t picky, not even a little bit. While I glossed over titles and artwork, I willed the piles to grow until they reached the ceiling and enclose me, unreachable, in a fortress that smelled of ink, where every wall and window would be made of paper and I would never run out words.

Growing up, I read the same books over and over until their covers fell off. I stole from libraries. I learned from The Lovely Bones that it’s easy to keep things that aren’t yours and make them yours, in more ways than one. I stuck V.C. Andrew’s Flowers In the Attic under my sweatshirt because at the time, it looked huge and menacing and exactly like something I shouldn’t be reading. I didn’t let that thing go until all 400 pages of arsenic and incest and locked doors and mothers who shouldn’t be mothers were branded on my brain. As Cathy and Chris descended their knotted sheet rope to the lawn of Foxworth Hall, I chewed gum and thought about evil. Then ordered the rest of the series on the internet along with the audiobook of Lolita because the jacket art, a girl in sunglasses sucking on a lollipop, seemed undeniably and captivatingly wrong. For days, I laid crumpled on my bed and cried to Jeremy Irons unidentifiable accent. I cried for Humbert Humbert and for the way people can’t fix their hearts, cried because I thought Dolores was undeserving. Cried because nymphets probably do exist. I filed away that word away under “L” for lust, love, lies and loneliness. All of the above. I took to organizing everything I read in books into neat boxes in my head.

After I’d finished gutting the bookstores and the sour cherries had dwindled to just pits and stems, we took a drive up the coast of Bas-Saint-Laurent to see the whales. We wrapped ourselves up in neon orange wind jackets with matching pants and climbed into an aluminum airboat, barely scraping 25 feet long. My dad sat in the middle and tucked my sister under one arm and me under the other. The guide alternated excitedly between English and French in the same breath. My dad kept his eyes on the horizon as the land behind us became nothing more than a thin green strip. I was watching the sun glint off his glasses when the guide began exclaiming things in Frenglish and making big gestures and everyone on the boat stood up. I gripped back of my seat and craned my head around their legs. My dad sat unmoving, but he had pushed his glasses up on his head. He took my face in his palms and turned it out to sea. The blue whale is the biggest living thing on the planet. 200 tons. Its body looked more silver than blue and it stretched an incomprehensible distance, rising in and out of the waves. I held my hands up to the sides of my eyes like blinders and worked my way down the length, head to tail, trying and failing to put boundaries on its existence. Its mouth was the size of the boat. If it opened its jaws, we might drift inside and float for an eternity along an endless shoreline of bones and blubber. I leaned closer into my dad’s side. There might be someone in there right now. We probably couldn’t hear the shouting.

I saw a dead whale about a year later. I could put limits on this one, easily. The three of us had just moved to a beach cottage in the wrong season, the middle of the winter. The ocean was our backyard and we talked there on weekends, down eleven flights of stairs worn splinterless by the saltwater and wind. Even in the frost, the rot smell was still strong enough to make my eyes water. I breathed exclusively through my mouth. Only a hulking skeleton was left, taller than me, with grey flesh still clinging on in some places. My sister was hardly a quarter of its pelvis, toddling around the perimeter like a lost duckling who has mistaken its mother for a corpse. I had never been that close to something so dead. I felt something next to sadness. In the backyard of reverence, but not quite. No one makes coffins that big. I stood in its ribcage and next its open eye sockets. Bizarrely inside and outside all at once. While we explored, we must have talked about how it ended up there, beached, alone, and now three quarters decayed. The likely death. I tried to chase away the gulls that hovered around the body, but more came. Before we left, I took off my gloves and bent at the edge of the waves to rinse my hands. The water was so cold it burned. I thought of the man sailing along the gut of the blue whale, calling out to empty, unforgiving waters and I felt small.

On the way back from the coast, we stopped at an antique-ish gallery surrounded by gardens. My dad admired its history. I’d been promised a stop at the bakery next door. The building was a refurbished barn made of smooth wood painted yellow with big windows. Windchimes tinkled and swayed around all the doors, betraying the way it had settled quietly into the background. I wondered if ghosts could make noise. Inside, the walls were cluttered with paintings of distorted faces and oversized clocks and sculptures made of things like obsidian and repurposed wire netting. I wandered absent-minded up and down the aisles, brushing my fingers along the eclectic treasures. My favorite bauble was a carving of a ballet dancer with movable parts. Her joints were set on loose hinges and splayed out in all directions around a fringe of white tool. I held her by her tiny wooden waist and rolled her head around between my fingers. The little dancer’s face was blank, expressionless. I imagined a soft smile should have been painted there, along with sleepy half-closed eyes. Something fuzzy, out of focus, and full of grace. I imagined she had a lot of secrets.

The thing about a body made of wood and set on hinges is that begins to stiffen. Arms that once stretched seamlessly through space now barely extend. Legs that once leapt and faltered without abandon start to creak. The thing about being afraid of your own body is that it becomes a stranger. I think this is what we think grace is, partly. Ethereal fear floating under your heart. We mistake it a lot of the time for beauty. As I learned to dance, my body lengthened and hollowed out right before my eyes. My teacher’s name was Ms. Mary. She sat always in the front, always in black, doling out critiques like sunshine and lightning. I remember we were practicing pirouettes for the fourth time that week. We practiced and practiced, with red cheeks and quick breaths until all of us turned together but we couldn’t stop because one girl in the back kept falling. Her name was Maggie. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, pulling herself off the floor, madly blinking back tears. Ms. Mary shook her head in slow motion, then called out my name. She instructed me to stand in front of Maggie, so she couldn’t see herself. She was getting in her own way. Stand there and don’t move. The other girls silently parted as I crossed the studio and aligned myself carefully in the mirror. The top of Maggie’s auburn bun was just visible above my head. She was taller than me. Keep going, Ms. Mary said. Until she gets it right. As she turned, I could sense every hot cheek in the room blistering until the heat fried away every nerve that said to scream, to run, to throw yourself on the floor along with her until we were all unmovable, peaceless, quiet. Lovely in our paralysis. I heard Maggie hiccup as she stumbled and hit the floor again and I retreated completely inside myself. I felt the grains of wood overtaking and splintering along my skin and straightening my spine, felt my face rounding out to nothing. Get up. My ribs began shrinking down onto my lungs and grasping hold of my throat. Her breath came faster and began breaking into sobs and the thing about being afraid of your own body is that you can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else to go.

There was a sharp smack on the window over my head. The figurine fell out of my hands and clattered onto the floor. I hadn’t even noticed that the sky had opened up and was now heaving down rain. I ran towards the noise and found my dad and sister kneeling just outside the door. I peeked around their shoulders and saw a bird half-limp in my dad’s hand, maybe six inches long, with black and white tipped wings. It was laying on its side, little legs outstretched and stiff. Poor thing got confused in this weather and flew straight into the window. Wispy noises came out its beak. It reminded me of my sister when she was a baby and how she cooed while she slept. I used to sneak into her room to run the tip of my pinky along her jaw until she would bat my hand away in her sleep. I dropped to the floor in front of her crib before she could wake up. Must be in shock. My dad shook his head and set the bird down gingerly under the edge of a bush. He took my sisters hand and reached for mine. Come on, let’s go. I was still looking down. Its black eyes were lolling around wildly in its skull and its body had started twitching. The muscles had nothing to hold on to, like a little girl who can’t stop falling long enough to stand.

In second grade, a boy I knew died. He stabbed me with pencils and tripped me on the basketball court at recess and I hated him. He gave me a scar, on my right knee. Shaped like a T. Then an ATV flipped over on top of him in the woods and he was brain-dead before my scab hadn’t even fallen off. My mom brought me to the funeral, and we sat in the last pew of the church waiting for a eulogy that no one managed to deliver. She handed me green and blue Sweetarts from her purse and I sucked on them until my tongue was numb. The casket was open, filled with stuffed animals and sports trophies and an entire embalmed life. I looked at my feet and fidgeted and tried to pray even though I had absolutely no idea how to. I am still uneasy in long lines and in silence. My knee itched and I could see the fresh pink skin peeking out from underneath the scab. I wondered what happened to cuts and scabs when you were dead. When I picked mine off eventually, it didn’t bleed. The skin was permanently puckered. I dug my nail into it, to no avail. A tiny spot of nothing. I remember I laid on the hillside outside the church with my mom after it was over and held her while she cried. Both of her parents died when she was 16. She likes to say that I saved her life. I wonder if now she loves less because I’m branded by a dead kid. The thought is fleeting. On the outside, my body is only 99% alive.

Before I could stop myself, I had reached out and taken the bird in my own two hands, cupping it against my t-shirt like a newborn. I laid down on the grass, tucking my knees up to my chin. The wet blades glued themselves to my limbs and cradled my head and left trails of goosebumps like comets on my exposed skin. I didn’t hear the hectic symphony of the windchimes clanging to a fever pitch. I think a small coffin must be much easier to build than a big one. If I could, I’d build one myself, from the softening wood of my body. This is close enough. Didn’t feel the icy rain drops that slid down my spine and under the rain coat my dad must have laid over me. For once, the cold was freeing, limitless. I could swim through it for an eternity. Didn’t notice when the storm had gone, and the sun lit the backs of my eyelids pink. My thoughts were replaced with all the words I’d ever read in books. It’s like when you drop something heavy on a floor covered in dust and the world goes away, just for a second, in the disarray. When it clears, I see my small sister’s face pressed into the grass in front of me. Her eyes are open, and calm. In them, are the parts of myself I thought had gone. When she places her hands over mine, I think about how hearts sound like they are gulping. Like they want to break out of your chest and drink in the air, how they crave leftover life, the 1%, and how there is nothing else like the impossibly tiny body underneath both sets of our fingers.

 

Allison Palmer is an undergraduate student and new writer. She studies Biology and English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her other work can be read online in Pithead Chapel and Eunoia Review. We are THRILLED to be featuring her work.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, healing

Clay Glue

March 22, 2020
glue

By Ali J. Shaw

When the halls cleared out, I went into the art room and let my backpack slide off my shoulder onto the floor. Mr. Evans nodded quietly to acknowledge me, but he focused on whatever was on his computer screen. I turned the combo on my locker and glanced at the clock. Robbie would be here any minute, so I used both hands to heft the plastic-wrapped block of clay out of its cubby and onto the table. For my last assignment—vase making—I’d made one only half as tall as my classmates’ so I could conserve my clay.

“It’s for wildflowers,” I’d told them when they smirked.

Now I had a good-sized chunk left over to give to Robbie. “Hey!” Robbie yelled at top nine-year-old volume when he came into the room. I startled, and he laughed dramatically. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, okay, come on over here.” I waved my hands. “New haircut?” He beamed. “Buzzzzz.”

Robbie and I had had a rough start. I’d signed up for the Buddy Program because I’d always wanted a younger sister. Visions of teaching jump-rope songs to a little girl had flooded my imagination. Then came time for the first Buddy Program session. The elementary school counselor who had facilitated the high-schooler and elementary-schooler pairings handed me a slip of paper, where I saw his name: Robbie. A boy. There was no time to brood on it, though—I could already hear kids’ shuffles and giggles coming toward us in the multipurpose room. While the other kids ran to their high school buddies, slapped high-fives, and laughed, Robbie slumped into a chair next to me.

“Hi, I’m Ali.” I was not good at making awkward situations more comfortable. Robbie’s eyes glassed over, and he whispered, “Hi.”Before long, I learned that his grandpa, who’d been living with him and his mom, had died the night before. I felt paralyzed. My “I’m sorry” sounded empty, and it seemed so unfair that we were sitting in a room full of raucous children and teens scribbling colorful answers on their Getting to Know You worksheets. Robbie and I spent that first hour-long meet-up mostly silent. I didn’t know if he’d show up the next week, but he did. And the week after that. I never figured out how to talk about his grief, but just being there with him seemed to help.

Before long, his teacher asked me to come by on Tuesday afternoons to help tutor Robbie on telling time and counting money. Two years later, we were still meeting weekly with the whole Buddy Program and an extra day one-on-one doing some other activity—tutoring if he needed it; art if he was caught up. I took a deep breath as I thought about the transition over the years but turned my focus to prepping the clay for him. The outer edges of the block had dried out a little, a result of the used and reused plastic bag that had accumulated tiny holes and let air seep in. With my finger and thumb, I pinched off the hard bits until a ball of soft clay remained.

“Hey,” I said to Robbie and held the ball in front of him, squeezing until it squished out through my fingers. “I’m strong, huh?”“Not as strong as me!” He reached for the clay and mimicked me.

Somewhere around the end of the first year, I gave Robbie a model house I’d built, and he gushed, “That’s so cool!” So we started building things together—mostly in the art room. At the end of each session, he’d take home his creation.

“You know that smiley face painting we did last time?” he asked me now as he dug one finger into the center of the clay wad. “Mmmhmmm,” I mumbled, rolling out coils from my less-pliable clay. “I used it for target practice with my mom’s boyfriend’s darts!” I laughed.

The first time he’d told me about his nearly immediate destruction of something we’d made together, I—as someone who had formed a sentimental bond with every object I’d ever owned, especially gifts—couldn’t hide my cringe. But for Robbie, things were no good collecting dust on a shelf. You had to make experiences with them! And so every week, we created, he destroyed, and then he told me the story. He grunted in frustration, and I stopped rolling coils to see why. He had formed a softball-sized glob and several smaller ones, one of which he was trying to press to the side of the big one.

“Oh, hey, there’s a trick for that.” I lay my coil down and held out my palm. “Can I show you?” When he handed me the small ball, I demonstrated scoring the soft clay with a sharp tool that left jagged cuts on one side of the little ball, then the big ball. “Then you have to make slip, which is a weird word, but it’s basically clay glue.” I tore off two inches of my coil and put it in a bowl with water. “Here, put your fingers in here and mush it around.”

Robbie’s cheeks tightened skeptically. I’d looked that way at my older brother nearly every day of my childhood, trying to gauge if he was tricking me. I’d never tricked Robbie, but obviously someone had.

“Really, come on.” I nodded and plunged my fingers in.“Ew, it’s slimy,” he yelled when he tried it. Mr. Evans looked up disapprovingly. “Shhhh. You know what else is slimy?” “What?” “Glue.” I winked as I dabbed some slip on my fingertip and then onto the scored clay and pressed the two balls together. “Tada!” I sang when they stuck. Robbie made what had become my favorite sound since I’d met him.

“Whooooooa!” From our first meeting, something had seemed familiar about Robbie. Did I see myself in him somehow? No, we were opposites in nearly every way. Rowdy/quiet, destructive/creative, easily bored/could sit in one activity for hours. But below those surface behaviors, there was something similar. Something broken. When I’d tutored Robbie, sometimes his body shook in tiny convulsions. “Are you okay?” I’d slide the flashcards to side of the desk and line my face up with his. Robbie would stare down, his eyes lost in the wood grains of the desktop, or someplace far beyond. But part of him was still with me. In a thin voice, he said, “Just cold.” I took off my fleece jacket and wrapped it around his shoulders.

“Should we take a little break and draw?” I used to say color instead of draw, but he finally informed me that only girls color—boys draw, and only in black. But maybe sometimes yellow or red. Before he answered, I pulled paper and a black marker out of my backpack. For about a year, Robbie drew only round yellow faces in a variety of expressions, shockingly similar to today’s emojis. Sometimes they smiled, but mostly they expressed pain or fear, and he laughed at his creations. I was sixteen, trained only in art and writing and basic math, never psychology. I never knew what it meant. I still don’t. But I knew that drawing stopped the trembles and brought his eyes up from the void, his smile back to his face.

So I gave him more paper, more pens, more time. Eventually trees and dogs with wagging tails and even flowers started to appear in his drawings too. And I knew that time with Robbie meant less time at home for me. I could delay getting into my rusty red pickup and shambling home to my father’s frigid trailer. Every moment with Robbie was a moment less with my father’s unpredictable rages or over-the-top professions of love and “Family is the most important thing. Don’t you ever forget that.” Robbie’s and my time together became a sort of glue that kept us both from fracturing.

We spent the rest of the hour gluing small clay shapes onto his clay softball. We left it in my locker to dry before he took it home the next week. The week after that, he told me it was the perfect size for launching from his catapult toy into the fields behind his house.

“I did it over and over until it broke into three pieces,” he said with a shrug.

“I guess we better make something else,” I said as I laid out Popsicle sticks, glue, and paint.

Robbie and I were buddies for three years, until I graduated high school and moved away. I have a single photo of us together. We’re at my graduation party, and he’s trying to stand up straight in my letterman’s jacket, weighed down by the running medals I sewed onto it. Our faces are round and red, laughing about something.I keep the photo in a pocket of the jacket, which collects dust in a closet, where I hope neither will ever be destroyed.

Ali J. Shaw has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. Her nonfiction has been featured in r.k.v.r.y., Hippocampus Magazine, VoiceCatcher, and the Get Nervous reading series, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. Ali is an editor who collects typewriters and rescue animals.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

I Made Peace With My Body And Found My Soul

December 15, 2019
body

 By Lisa Poulson

The house, above the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, is set on a hill overlooking the whole Luberon valley. Climbing roses cling to its traditional Provençal stone exterior. In California, a plant with just one or two flowers seems in ill health, but here a single blush rose on a vine by the front door feels like beautiful simplicity.

The chic and spare interior is layered with thick coats of pale plaster that curve around me as I walk up two flights of stairs to my room. It’s my first time in Provence, with six girlfriends in this wild, raw and beautiful part of France.

There are wide, cool terracotta tiles, a velvety duvet and no curtains in my bedroom, which is on the third floor of the house, facing the valley. After I settle in and unpack, my friends and I have our evening meal at a long, rough hewn dining table under a tree on the patio. It’s the first week of May. A hint of the Mistral rolls through the hills. I haven’t felt this peaceful in a long, long time.

The next morning, the barest hint of dawn through my uncovered windows wakes me. I smell the remnants of my Diptyque Pomander candle before I open my eyes. I turn my head toward the window and, drowsy and semi-conscious, am immersed in exquisite beauty.

It’s a little chilly as I sit up in bed to watch tender pink light emerge from a piercing bluish fuschia, to see the tall trees shift from shadowy black to darkest teal, to see the rows of lavender on the hill opposite our house emerge from the darkness. The mountains beyond the hills are a Pantone palette of dark to lighter slate blues. Birds are singing. The wind is soft. This dawn is as delicate and rich as Venetian velvet.

After several minutes of watching the colors change and the light bathe the whole scene, a voice, insistent and gentle at the same time, says, ‘If you didn’t have a body, you wouldn’t be able to experience any of this beauty. Not one bit.’

Sitting in my sleep-warm bed, bathed in this exquisite sunrise, I feel peaceful enough to simply accept this truth about my body without argument. As the sun’s light turns the trees green I roll this idea around in my head, thinking about what beauty means to me. Everything. Beauty means everything to me. I’m almost breathless as I absorb the blindingly simple truth that I can only experience beauty through and because of my body.

I am 56 years old. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my body since I was a tween. And yet, in this moment, seduced by the serene Provençal beauty all around me, I reorder what I feel and believe about my body, what it is for, what it has given me, why it’s a miracle.

 ***

It’s been a long and grinding road. I was 10 when I first doubled over with burning pain on both sides of my gut. It wasn’t until my twenties that I got a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me a name but not a solution for the boiling distress that turned my body into an incomprehensible ‘other’, a caustic alien that delighted in causing havoc on dates, before job interviews, at baseball games.

At 30, the man I loved was killed after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. Grief came in molten waves that would growl and stretch, enveloping every part of me. I never knew when my body would start sweating and shaking, drowning me in unbearable sorrow. When grief descend my only choice was to submit to being ravaged.

About a year after my fiancé died I went on a date, thinking it was time to “move on.” But at the end of the evening when he leaned in to kiss me I panicked. Another man having access to my delicate mouth was more than I could bear. I ran up to my apartment and burst into tears.

In the midst of this emotional disarray I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley. Just 15 months after my love died, I left New York City and all of my friends behind. In a strange place, with few friends, tons of work pressure, and carrying a mountain of grief, I turned to food, the most reliable and consistent comfort I knew, and buried myself. I gained 75 pounds in six months.

My gut tormented me, I came down with mononucleosis, my head raged with migraines. I felt trapped inside a body that hurt and humiliated me daily. With bitter self-hatred, I told myself that this body, this alien saboteur, was a billboard for my weaknesses as a person. I didn’t deserve amity with my body, I wasn’t strong enough or good enough to be free.

By the time I was 35 I was emotionally numb, physically miserable and nearly 100 lbs overweight. I was in New York on an exhausting business trip. I stumbled into my hotel room and collapsed against the side of the bed in my underwear, my short legs splayed out in front of me. I stared at my undressed body in the wall of mirrors that were the closet doors. I watched my piles of flesh undulate as I breathed in and out. I forced myself to face everything in the mirror. My legs, my belly, my double chin. My lip curled in revulsion as I stared into deadened eyes. I hated everything about my life. My job. My body. Myself.

Eventually I lost the weight, but I couldn’t love and happily inhabit my complicated and demanding body, where the alien still reigned. In my 40s my career grew and grew, but inside my body was one long repressed scream of rage and frustration. I wanted to swear, to smash things, to scream and shake, to quiver and whimper with passion, to drown in and be intoxicated by love and lust. None of those things happened. Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a proper Mormon girl does not do these things.

I could have gone to the gym every day to expel that pent up desire, anxiety and anger. But a completely numb body is easier to manage than a body that is partially awake. A body that is awake and vibrant and beautiful wants things. Things a Mormon girl can’t have. So instead my weight yo-yoed. My gut burned. And then I got eczema – the skin on my palms became raw and started to peel off. My spirit was choked in a body I refused to love. I was a broken soul.

***

During the next decade I patronized several spas, worked with a cornucopia of health practitioners and healers, tried so many elimination diets. Sometimes I looked better, sometimes I felt better, sometimes I had beautiful moments of connection with my body, usually at an expensive spa after a luxurious treatment. But back in my real life, every time there was a new injury, every time my IBS flared up, every time I gained weight, I blamed the alien, the mute and malevolent force inside me who seemed determined to hurt and undermine my every effort to heal. I saw no way out.

But in late 2016 the movie Arrival hypnotized me. The heroine, a creative, accomplished linguist, was asked to interpret the language of aliens called heptapods. I drank the movie in, read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life on which the movie is based. I thought and thought. What if my body is like a heptapod, a benevolent and complex organism with miraculous gifts to give? Was it possible that within my body I’d find a wisdom that would transform me if I could just learn to speak and listen to its language?

***

That late spring morning in Provence, watching that glorious sunrise, was the first time I heard and understood a sentence in heptapod. ‘It’s your body that gives you the gift of all of this beauty.’

For decades, I had only seen what was wrong and broken – I thought my body was 90% a disaster. I did not see that the things I love – color, art, music, flowers, the scent of perfume, the feel of cashmere on my neck – only come to me because I have a body. My body isn’t a crucible of humiliation and frustration, it is a miracle.

I let the slow and pure beauty of Provence work on my nervous system. Everything there taught me the simple joy of living in a body in the world – fresh goat cheese drizzled with new olive oil and tiny flowers, earthenware vases filled with hardy irises, fields of red poppies shimmering in the breeze, baby green leaves on grape vines that aren’t manicured into antiseptic perfection.

At the end of a week there, after several more ravishing sunrises and sunsets, after living among a people whose lives are bound up in the beauty of the land, I came home to California with a changed heart.

There’s a calmness between my body and me now – the anger and shame have been replaced by a patient, warm affection for the wise heptapod who is teaching me a new way to live. I am learning what it feels like to move through the world with a partner – a wise and remarkable heptapod who has always been with me, every moment of my life. I am whole.

Lisa Poulson is a voice in favor of the complex beauty of female power. She is the descendent of fiercely resilient pioneer women who crossed the American plains with their children – even after their husbands died along the way. She is a successful Silicon Valley PR veteran and a woman who survived her the death of her fiancé four months before their wedding day. Lisa lives in San Francisco, where she spends her free time absorbing and creating as much beauty as possible.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Breeze

November 15, 2019
breeze

By Lisa Poulson

As I walked out of the grand lobby of the apartment building onto Riverside Drive, a soft, plangent breeze lilted across my face, swaying my hair. Equal parts summer humid and fall crisp, the breeze coming off of the river felt so delicious on my cheek that I had to stop, close my eyes and drink it in. For nineteen days, my skin hadn’t tasted a touch that delicate, that present, that sublime.

Nineteen days before I found my fiance in the ICU after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks.

As I walked into the hospital room he was still and barely breathing, his face so swollen and bloodied it was only his eyelashes I recognized, his body so broken it was only his fingertips I knew. No other fingertips traced my face the way his had.

Careful to avoid the IVs as I reached for his hand, I found that it was still warm. But the Coast Guard said he had been underwater for fifteen minutes. Was the soul I deeply and eternally loved still inside of that mashed and broken body? Would those fingertips ever come back to me?

Marc lay in the hospital bed, never opening his eyes, never parting his beautiful lips to say a word.

On the third day, the swelling from his injuries decreased enough for the doctors to do an EEG. When they said there was “no organized brain activity,” it was clear what that meant. Marc’s mind and soul were gone, even if his lungs were pushing air in and out on their own. I left the hospital with a leaden heart.

On the fourth day, his lungs stopped doing their work. He slipped away on his own, before dawn.

At the cemetery, when the hearse opened and I saw the coffin, I almost lost my capacity to stand. How could the strong, beautiful body I loved be in that box?

Two weeks after the funeral I was still in a stumbling, useless daze. Grief came in molten waves that flowed into my body with no warning, drowning my senses and suffocating my capacity to reason.

Sometimes it came when I woke in the morning and realized anew that he was gone. Sometimes it seized me in the middle of the afternoon at work, or in a restaurant, or on the train. When these waves overtook me, my mind and my senses would desert me as the heat rose from my gut or my heart. I would no longer be able to hear what people were saying to me, comprehend time or speak. The grief would growl and stretch, enveloping my whole body and subsuming my brain. I would shake, or sweat, or cry, or all of the above when it had possession of me.

***

I couldn’t be in my apartment because it was too full of his absence. He was not standing in the kitchen making us dinner, he was not sitting on the sofa inviting me to lay my head against his chest, he was not kneeling beside me to pray aloud with profound gratitude for our relationship at the end of the day. He was not there to nurture my quiet, budding hope of a life filled with love.

I did not go to work. I did not cook. I did not do laundry. I stayed with friends, barely able to breathe in and out. The competent 30-year-old I used to be was lost.

But there on Riverside Drive, nineteen days later, a moment of unexpected grace reached through my grief. I closed my eyes as the nerves under my skin awakened to the delicate sensation of the tender breeze.

My skin didn’t understand why it hadn’t been touched. I hadn’t realized how lost and hungry it was.

I opened my eyes to the afternoon sun glowing over the Hudson, my heart full of compassion for the mute grief of my body. I hear you, I said. I will care for you.

Lisa Poulson, is a San Francisco-based tech veteran. She has her own business as a communications coach and is reinventing herself as a writer. Lisa can be found on twitter as @thelisapoulson.

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Guest Posts, healing

I Diagnose Other People for a Living, but No One Can Diagnose Me

July 15, 2019
surgery

By Melissa Neff

My psychology career has been devoted to helping other people learn about themselves. But when chronic back pain usurped my life, no one could tell me what was wrong with my back, or how to fix it.

As a psychologist in private practice, I divide hours into 15-minute segments, punctuated by the beep of a timer and my client’s choice of Batman or emoji stickers. A few weeks ago, I handed Jaden, an energetic and wiggly 6-year-old, a pile of putty to fidget with as we waded through an IQ test. Through a projective storytelling task, I learned what monsters were hiding under his bed, and what type of laser proton field he plans to construct to keep them out.

When Jaden’s parents return for the results, I explain, “Assessment is like pieces of a puzzle. Each test tells me something about your child.” Test by test, I plot out Jaden’s abilities relative to other kids his age on a giant white board, dotting his exceptionalities and weaknesses in purple marker. “He can solve 8th grade math equations, and he is smart enough to grasp that one day he will die; however, this thought, which most 6-year-olds can’t yet contemplate, terrifies him. So, he has constructed a laser field as a way of coping with demons that he does not yet understand.”

I inundate Jaden’s parents with labels – Gifted, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder – labels which do not define him, but which describe him so we can strategize how to best help him. When Jaden’s parents leave my office, I want them to understand their child better. I want them to feel supported and validated about what they’ve always known to be true about their child, which often, no one else saw or believed. I want my clients to have answers.

Like many psychologists, I have, too, have spent some time on the other side of the couch. Like Jaden, I, too, have been plagued by anxiety. When I was still healthy, I spent nearly every day running and dancing and hiking those thoughts away until they melted into a pool of sweat at the back of my tank top.

But all of that changed six years ago, when I twisted my left foot the wrong way while shaking my booty to Rihanna during a high-intensity dance class. When my foot didn’t heal, the podiatrist shoved it in a boot for two months, which slanted my pelvis and led to a gradual stabbing in my low back that didn’t remit when the boot came off. I began to curse the Devil Spot, the dwelling inside my low back where it felt as if tiny trolls were stabbing me from the inside, punishing me for a transgression they had yet to reveal.

No matter how much stretching and resting and icing I did, the Devil Spot nagged at me, pleading to be heard like a tantruming child. Its screams grew louder and louder until they were all I could hear. Pain eclipsed my every waking moment, and suddenly, I became one of 25 million people in America with chronic pain. At work, I couldn’t stand up and talk to my clients for longer than 3 minutes. At home, it was all I could do to not toss a spatula across the kitchen, infuriated that I couldn’t stand for long enough to sauté a goddamn pan of broccoli.

I threw all of my free time and savings into rehab. I just wanted to dance again, to run again, to feel my body sherpa up and down mountainous hiking trails the way it was made to. My osteopath glided and jerked my left leg until my pelvis straightened, explaining in carpenter-speak how a normal pelvis should connect to the spine without jamming. My chiropractor jerked me back into place, asked me for my copay, and rushed me out the door. After each adjustment, I slid back into crookedness, but I kept going back for more because I didn’t know what else to do. My physical therapist urged me to try water aerobics. After about fifteen minutes doing low kicks with the 80-year-old women in my class, the Devil Spot detonated, forcing me to hobble out of the pool in tears.

Pain became the only thing I could think about. Nothing I did to stop it helped. In fact, every intervention seemed to generate more pain. The only thing everyone agreed on was that I should avoid back surgery. Failed back surgery is so common that it has its own diagnostic code.

Months passed. Years passed. For a while, I sought relief instead of fixes. I tried every type of massage –Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, deep tissue, and Rolfing. I begged Chinese doctors to poke my feet with long acupuncture needles. I asked a woman who saw angels to clear up energy from my past lives. The stabbing would relent for a day or two, but never more. So, I stopped. I stopped getting adjustments. I stopped trying to hike. I stopped at my third physical therapist. I stopped having dinner parties. I stopped getting invited to dinner parties. I stopped having sex or only had it in the dark, where I could covertly wince.

More months passed. Each day, I averaged about a 7 on the pain scale. My stomach ached from popping Ibuprofen like Tic Tacs, but I needed them to get me through the day. I hated my life. I hated my job. I hated myself. I was becoming a person I didn’t recognize, a person whose fat clothes didn’t fit, a person who got her only endorphins from Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzards. I needed answers. I needed to find someone like me, someone who would sit with my images, get out their white board, and contemplate my symptoms until they morphed into the correct diagnosis and paved a road towards treatment. I didn’t care anymore that this might mean someone drilling my spine apart, filleting me like a fish, and rebuilding me piece by piece. I was out of money and patience, controlled by something I couldn’t get under control no matter how hard I tried.

Dr. Keller, my pain doctor, agreed that it was time to consult with surgeons, who are known for their diagnostic precision.

Surgeon Number One suggested there might be a tear in my disc.

Surgeon Number Two diagnosed sacroiliac dysfunction. If he just literally could nail together my pelvis to my spine, it would become less mobile and less painful, he said.

Surgeon Number Three, the arrogant one who I was sure would break the tie, turned around slowly in his leather chair and said, “I’m not sure why you’re here. There’s nothing wrong with your back.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“There’s no surgery I would do on your back, because it’s totally fine.”

The tears I’d been holding back busted through, my face opening into a floodplain. “It’s fine? Then why am I in so much pain? Why does my back stab so badly that I can I barely stand, or concentrate? Why can’t I ride in a car for longer than an hour? Why can’t I get through Costco without an automated cart?”

“You just need physical therapy.”

“I’ve tried that. Three times, with three different therapists. It hasn’t worked.”

“Acupuncture can also help.”

“I’ve tried that. Twice. Didn’t work.” I breathed back the snot dripping from my nose. When he didn’t offer me a Kleenex, I wiped it away with my sleeve.

“Do you think there’s a tear in my disc?” I asked. “That I need a fusion?”

“No.” But he leaned in closer as he noticed my tears.

“You know, I’ve had some patients with similar pain. You know what helped them? Therapy. They go see a therapist, talk a little bit about their family, and in three, four months – their pain goes away.”

Clearly, this asshole had omitted reading the check-box where I’d listed my profession as “psychologist,” implying that I know something about this stuff. Had he read any of my check-boxes? Was he saying that I was crazy? That I had conjured this problem within my body as a way of dealing with my issues? Had he read the referral from Dr. Keller, who’d shot me with cortisone in my SI joint three times that year, issued me a handicapped parking pass, and sent me to this man for an actual answer?

In my car, my head fell on the steering wheel, dousing it with sobs. I wanted to call my partner to debrief, but what was the point? I was still at the same place, with no answers.

For weeks, I contemplated my choices. I insisted that my doctor perform the dangerous discogram that did, indeed, reveal a tear in my disc. I had a minor surgery to cauterize the disc. But when I started to move again, the Devil Spot ignited and raged on. I blew up balloons with my new physical therapist to pull more air into my left lung in an attempt to align both sides of my body. I let a different physical therapist put her finger in my vagina, inspecting my pelvic floor for tightness. I tried new medications. I cut down my hours at work. I forced myself to meditate. None of it helped.

Left without a clear direction, I made a radical choice: to have a surgery that wouldn’t fix the problem, but which would mask the pain. An implanted spinal cord stimulator would send soothing signals to my brain to divert it from the perception of pain. I scheduled the surgery, but my insurance required me to have a psychological evaluation first. After laughing my ass off at the irony, I drove three hours south and sat all day in a fake leather chair like the one I had for clients in my office, checking off answers on personality inventories I’d spent years administering to other people. The psychologist gave the green-light, but on the eve of my surgery, my gut rumbled with uncertainty. Scanning my brain for a last-minute fix, I recalled a conversation I’d had with a friend’s father years ago, who told me that a physiatrist, a doctor of the muscles, had saved him from back surgery. I Googled physiatrists, found Dr. Landon, who was new in town, and told Dr. Keller that I wanted one more consult before moving forward.

In his office a week later, Dr. Landon thanked me for sending him a three-page synopsis with all my provisional diagnoses and every treatment I’d tried. He’d reviewed that and my imaging the night before. He spent two hours asking me a series of rapid-fire questions to rule out all kinds of different disorders. He looked me in the eye and listened to my story. He offered me more Kleenex as I cried. He spent two hours examining my hips, pelvis, legs, and back. He told me that he had a few ideas about what might be wrong, and he labeled them all: Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction. Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. Hip-Back Syndrome. Myofascial Pain Syndrome. He assured me that we would go down each rabbit hole, investigating symptom by symptom until I had my answers. He didn’t have a white board, but he did make a drawing on his iPad explaining how my hips might be causing back pain, which made me consider my symptoms in a new way.

Dr. Landon asked me to postpone surgery until I tried the rehab program he created for me. “I will do my very best to help you,” he said as I left, “But I can’t promise anything.”

In the safety of my car, I simultaneously grinned and sobbed, allowing child-like bawls to crawl up my chest and quake out my lips, loosening my grief like leaves on a tree that had needed a good shake to break free. Finally, I had found someone who would diagnose me with the same level of precision, empathy, and care as I did for my own clients. I always tried so hard not to cry, not to complain, not to ruin conversations by talking about my pain, but hopelessness had become a rock in my chest, hardening around my broken heart.

For the first time since the Devil Spot had made my life a living hell, I felt less alone.

Dr. Landon’s program is working. I can stand for 30 minutes instead of 3. I can do half of an old lady water aerobics class without tears. Last week, I walked into a gentle dance class and grapevined and kicked behind Dolores for ten whole minutes without stopping, and shouted with her along to Huey Lewis. The more I squat and lunge, the stronger the tissue around my disc becomes. I am forcing myself to meditate, and when I sit in silence, I learn things – about the way I sit, the way I stand, the way I don’t take in full breaths, how I hold in stress until it becomes a stabbing pain in my ass. Surgeon Number Three was right, even if he was a jerk about it; I needed to go back to therapy, because how I manage my emotions is a piece of my puzzle.

Twice a week in neurofeedback, my therapist attaches electrodes to the calming center of my brain. Twice a week, I leave feeling less anxious, and in less pain. I am noticing that when I have a bad day at work, the Devil Spot cramps and pulses much earlier than usual. As I lean forward to bear witness to other people’s stories of abuse and abandonment, my muscles clench more with the weight of their stories. When I am a receptacle for other people’s pain, my pain worsens.

In therapy, it is my turn to speak. I tell my therapist the truth: I am no different than my clients. I was born with big feelings, big reactions, big thoughts. I never felt safe expressing them until I met my current partner, who holds me when I cry and does not ask me to stop, who listens to my ideas and loves every part of me that’s big.

It has taken me forty-one years to realize that I’ve spent my entire life putting other people first. As a six-year-old, I became a mother to my mother. After my dad left, she secured two or three jobs at a time to make sure we had Gap jeans and could afford to play after-school sports, but there was no time for cooking, cleaning, or feelings. When I tried to tell my dad how much I missed him on visits, when tears welled up in my eyes and my words grew gummy, he insisted we change the subject because it was obviously upsetting me. For him, I joined clubs and earned scholarships, learned to courageously mute all my big feelings, and championed his marriage to a woman who smiled at me through gritted teeth to ensure that I wouldn’t take up any more of his time. It was the right thing to do – choosing attachment over acceptance meant that I would be supported, loved. When I headed off to a big city college, I felt brave, strong, and independent. By graduate school, I was on my way to becoming a logical, impenetrable adult. I had a life plan: I would help people with their big feelings, and run far up mountains away from my own.

But I didn’t respect myself. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t helping people. I didn’t know that my voice needed to be heard too, until the right people listened. Now, I’ve begun to stop and notice when the pain flares, and ask myself what I am feeling, not feeling, or not saying. I let myself feel it, although I am still learning how to say it.

The more I creep back into my body, which froze with pain until I felt safe enough to learn why, the more I release the trapped emotion from my back and baby the Devil Spot back to life, the less I want labels and procedures. I insist to Jaden’s mother, who cries when I label him with autism, that a diagnosis does not define a person, but is a valuable guidepost – a roadmap – to greater self-understanding. What I don’t say is: I understand. We are all jagged and broken in some places, but if we don’t let our edges come up for air, if we don’t let others see them, hold them, and heal them, they will fester and become unnecessary wounds.

Melissa Neff is a writer and psychologist living in Montana. Her fiction has been featured in WitLit and Wild Quarterly. She is currently writing a memoir about chronic pain and how it has unexpectedly healed her body, mind, and spirit. She is fortunate to spend most of her days supporting her differently wired clients to become their very best selves. You can follow her on twitter at @MelissaNeff17.