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A Mexican Boy from El Paso

May 25, 2024
pharmacy

At the University of Texas

 My parents lived in five rental houses in El Paso before I graduated from college, all within a block or two from each other.  My bed was a couch in various rooms of those rental houses. I never had a bed of my own.

As I was boarding the plane for Austin to start pharmacy school in the fall of 1965 at the University of Texas, I realized that from now on I’d only return home for school vacations. Rather than thinking about the heavy course load awaiting me for the next three years, I smiled to myself that I’d sleep in a real bed of my own for the first time in my life for any extended period of time.  I found a boarding house near campus (my first rental in Austin) and shared a room with three other guys, each of us having a bed, a small dresser, and desk with a chair.  That evening I looked out the window towards campus in the distance and thought about my early life growing up as a Mexican boy in El Paso.

Jim, who I knew from high school, needed a place to live when he started pharmacy school, one semester later than me.  One very cold day in January of 1966 Jim arrived at the door of my boarding house room, needing a place for the night.  I had expected him to arrive the next day so we could go to an apartment I found near campus.  He was in luck because one of the boarders had quit school and there was an unoccupied bed in the room. The next day the maid saw that Jim had slept in one of the spare beds and yelled out to the landlady downstairs:  “Mrs. Johnson, there is a strange boy in the house!”  Jim and I grabbed our bags and hoped that his old Dodge convertible with a dilapidated top had survived the drive from El Paso and the cold winter night parked near the boarding house.  Jim had picked up a hitchhiker about 300 miles from Austin and allowed him to spend the night in the backseat.  He let him use an old blanket to keep warm during the night.  He apparently survived the night because he was gone when we arrived at the car.  It sputtered but started after a few tries.

I found a place on San Antonio Street, one block west of the main drag, Guadalupe Street, that separated the campus from the commercial and residential areas of the town.  That was my second rental in Austin. The house had a detached garage in the back which had been converted into a small apartment with two single beds.  Again I had a bed of my own. The couple who owned the house had been renting it for many years to students.  They were kind and friendly; it was cheap and clean.  It did not have much of a kitchen, but we charcoaled burgers and hotdogs in the backyard when it got warmer.  We survived that spring semester of pharmacy school.

Across the street from the couple’s house was a small joint that had live performers on weekends.  I heard for the first time Lightnin’ Hopkins play his guitar and sing; he is considered to be a major influence on many rock guitar players. I saw him for the price of a couple of beers.  It was a good place to relax after a hard night of studying and have a beer before strolling back to my apartment and falling into bed.  In addition, I went to several concerts that were held on campus.  One in particular that I remember was Duke Ellington and his band; it is only today that I realize that I was in the presence of greatness.  “I love you madly”!   I saw for the first time “A Hard Day’s Night”, an instant classic that confirmed the originality and genius of the Beatles.  There were things that I did not like about the University of Texas but for sure it gave me an excellent education in all aspects of my life.

By the time I completed that first year of classes, I learned how to study and prepare for my remaining years of pharmacy school.  The summer after my first year of classes I returned to El Paso to save up money for my last two years of pharmacy school.  My old couch in the back of my parents’ rental house was there for me.  At that time in 1966, the biggest retail pharmacy chain in the city was Gunning-Casteel, which had a monopoly in El Paso.  I got a job in one of their stores, which were bright, clean, and modern. Not having a car, I took a bus using two transfers to work at a new Gunning-Casteel in the south side of town near downtown.  It was my first taste of working in a pharmacy, encountering demanding customers and working the cash registers during the rush hours.  I also took prescriptions to the pharmacist, quickly learning drug names, and in my free time I’d study some of my pharmacy texts to determine what conditions were treated by those drugs.  I also found out that the chief pharmacist in a retail pharmacy was expected to manage all of the sections at the store besides the prescription area–cosmetics, OTC drugs, gifts and various sundries, tobacco and alcohol, and the fountain if there was one.  I remember an incident that summer when the head of cosmetics accused a senior drug clerk of stealing money by not ringing up certain cash sales.  The chief pharmacist had to handle the situation.  I never found out what happened; I had to attend fall classes in Austin.

Jim and I found a modest and inexpensive apartment (my third rental in Austin) for our second year of pharmacy classes in the fall of 1966 a few blocks south from our garage apartment on San Antonio Street. This one was bigger and had a kitchen that we rarely used.  The front door opened to a living area consisting of a double-sized bed, sofa, and a small desk and chair.  We flipped a coin on who’d sleep in the bed; I won.  We stayed in that apartment for two semesters.

One interesting feature of this small apartment complex was that it was owned by a retired pharmacist who lived on the first floor directly below us on the second floor.  When we returned from classes, she seemed to be around as we went up the stairs. Jim and I politely took time to chit-chat with her about our pharmacy classes.  She was somewhat amusing; I did not really mind talking to her.  But one day she was quite agitated when I passed her front door, and she grabbed me by the arm to tell me that the older lady living next door to her was taken to the hospital by ambulance.  I hoped for a medical explanation of her tenant’s condition, she, a licensed pharmacist and all and me, a pharmacy student eager to learn more about drug effects.  Instead, she told me that the old lady had a taken an overdose of her sedative, and to quote her–“she went coo-coo!”  So much for a detailed discussion of a drug’s pharmacological action on the brain by a highly educated pharmacist.

When I returned for my final year of pharmacy classes in the fall of 1967, I found a modest and inexpensive apartment behind the landlady’s home (my fourth rental near campus).  Jim had found a girl to marry, and I luckily teamed up with Nick who needed a roommate. This apartment was the best of my four rentals with a fully carpeted living room and a spacious bedroom with separate beds and two desks. I fell in love with my new bed. The rooms were soundproofed with egg cartons nicely arranged on the ceilings of the different rooms. Nick and I became friendly with the landlady who sometimes invited us for supper with her teenage son.  But I had very little money for food and other living expenses.  My answer was to work about 25 hours a week as a kitchen worker in exclusive private dorms for rich co-eds whose parents demanded the best living arrangements for their daughters and as a pharmacy clerk at a discount pharmacy in downtown Austin.  My reason for working so much was to save up money for a new car before I graduated.

When I started out at as a Mexican boy at the University of Texas, I did not know what to expect. By the time I graduated, I knew.  Mexican American students at the University were definitely in the minority, and I was usually the only Mexican kitchen helper at the private dorms.  I saw more signs of discrimination at UT and in Austin.  I was able to make friends with other Mexican American pharmacy students, and mainly studied and went out with them.  Because of my grades, I had the opportunity to associate with some white classmates in student organizations and honor societies.

I was nearing the end of my patience with not having a car. I had saved a good sum of money for two years but was still not able to buy a new car outright. I did not want a used car. What made the difference was that I received a scholarship for my final year of study.  I got the check in the mail and immediately cashed it.  I could do whatever I wanted with the money—presumably quit my jobs and concentrate on my studies and use the money for tuition and living expenses. Instead, I bought a 1967 sky-blue Mustang and continued to work at my two jobs to pay for car insurance, gas, and my other living expenses.

The Vietnam War was heating up.  I definitely did not want to be drafted, but I knew if I were drafted, I’d not leave the country for Canada.  A couple of my professors encouraged me to think of graduate school and to consider a career as a pharmaceutical scientist.  They were very optimistic that I’d receive a graduate student deferment.   I took the GRE and applied for several fellowships to cover my graduate tuition and living expenses.  Then I waited to see if I’d get a draft deferment for graduate school.  Several months before graduation, I learned that I had received a prestigious, nationally competitive fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which allowed me to use the fellowship funds to attend a university of my choosing.

My parents, my older sister’s family with her husband and three kids, and my unmarried younger sister came to Austin to celebrate my graduation.  After the College of Pharmacy graduation ceremony in early June of ’68, where I received several pharmacy textbooks for graduating with Highest Honors as the top student in my class, I took my family back to my apartment to eat. Nick and I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken and got several family meals. We ate, talked, and laughed.

The next day I said good-bye to my family and took off for Houston to take my pharmacy board exams. My next stop was the University of Kansas to begin graduate school.  I knew I could not work as a pharmacist for the rest of my life, but a pharmacy license would be handy to have while I was in graduate school. One month after my arrival in Kansas, LBJ canceled all graduate student deferments, and I was inducted into the army on October 6, 1968.  The next bed of my own was a barracks bed in a room with 30 or so strangers, my fifth rental so to speak.

In the Army

For my first eight weeks in the army I was assigned to a platoon that was composed mostly of draftees who were white, young, and came from lower income families.  There were a few who were volunteers and wanted to go to Vietnam.  There were a few Hispanics like me and surprisingly only one Black. Most of them were in their teens or early twenties.  I was one of the few college graduates in the platoon, who were no longer able to keep their school deferments.

Although I tried to keep to myself, it was hard because of the tight space in the barracks for thirty GIs and the close sleeping arrangements with bunk beds. Yes, I had a top bunk bed of my own. There was one large area for communal sinks, toilets, and showers. I made friends with several of the Hispanic guys who were recent high school graduates and who teased me about being the old guy in the platoon.  In the first week of training, our drill sergeant sarcastically made an announcement, making it clear he was not happy with the company commander’s order to inform us about a new program for officer training.  I am sure he thought none of his recruits were interested.  I asked the company commander if I could get more information about this opportunity.  One of his lieutenants (who was a Texas A&M graduate) whispered to him: “Who does he think he is-a Harvard graduate?”  I did not know if he knew I was a UT graduate; the Longhorns and the Aggies are bitter rivals in academics and especially in sports. The captain smiled and told me that I needed to take the morning off from training to fill out an application.

The drill sergeant was mad that he had to drive me to the other side of base to complete the application. To make matters worse, he drove me in his very sporty ’66 Mustang with a special paint job and an upgraded interior.  It was nothing like my base model ’67 Mustang.  I started to tell him about my car, but he quickly told me to shut up. I filled out the application and quickly forgot about it. There were three or four drill sergeants that I encountered throughout my training; one was a Hispanic who I thought was a Mexican American.  He did not play favorites and treated all of us the same.  The troops saw that he and white drill sergeant often disagreed on the format of some of the training exercises.  In the third week of training, there was a vocal outburst between the two of them, and they agreed to settle their differences mano a mano on the weekend.  The next week the white sergeant had been assigned to another company.  That is all we knew about the incident.

After completion of basic training, we received our next assignments.  Many of them were assigned to the infantry and had to take advanced warfare training.  They were going to ‘Nam.  Because of my college degree in pharmacy, I did not need any advanced training and was given several weeks of Christmas leave in El Paso.  I was one of the few lucky ones assigned to a base in the states.  My older sister, Tina, was now working at Ft. Bliss as a civilian administrator at the base EEO office.  When I told her that I was still waiting for news about the status of my application for officer training, she recommended that I contact the Inspector General at Ft. Bliss and make an official complaint.  I gave him all of the information and explained that I had tried to get more information from the First Sergeant at my basic training unit.  At that meeting with the sergeant, who was very courteous and a model of professionalism, I saw the company commander’s office near his desk.  It seemed that the commander had been informed of my meeting and that his lieutenant and drill sergeant were whispering in the office when I arrived in my civilian clothes.  They saw me enter, angrily stared at me, and said nothing to me. They knew that I had filed an official complaint and knew if they said anything to me it could be viewed as intimidation.  The Inspector General apologized that his investigation had to take a month or two to complete and that I had to report to my next assignment.  I was assigned to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah as a pharmacist at the base hospital, which served to train helicopter pilots and to treat returning pilots who had been wounded in the war.  I retrieved the Mustang from my parents’ home and drove to Georgia to begin my first year of two years in the army.

A few months later at Hunter Army Airfield I received an official letter from the Department of Army in Washington, D.C.  The letter explained that my application had been misplaced in a bottom desk drawer of the file clerk, most likely a private first class or corporal, at my basic training unit headquarters.  I read between the lines that the file clerk was probably told to hide the file because I was informed in the letter that the drill sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and their superior officers–a major and lieutenant colonel-were all given an official reprimand which was placed in their personnel records.  Such a blot on their military records may have affected their future promotions.  That was not my intention; I just wanted to see what happened to my application.

The Department of Army apologized for this incident and wished me well in my future endeavors in the army, which I did not consider after my two-year commitment to my country. Oh, by the way, I was able to get permission to live off base and found a comfortable bed of my own in a spacious room rented out by a gracious Southern lady.

Dan Acosta is a first-generation Mexican American, whose mother and grandparents emigrated from Mexico. He is a former professor, research scientist, and administrator, who retired in 2019 at age 74. He writes about his experiences as a Mexican boy trying to succeed in white America.

***

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

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Guest Posts, memories

Outcast

May 19, 2024
home

It was the first time I ran away from home.

I was fifteen in 1971 and school had just closed for summer vacation. I was fat. At five-foot-two-and-a-half-inches tall and a Junior Size 13 pants, let’s just say at least my lower half was disproportionate to my height, and I was embarrassed to wear a bathing suit in public. It was all about the thighs. They were roiled with excess wiggles of flab – a wicked combustion of puberty and genetics. Dieting was useless and my endless hours of exploring Atlanta’s winding hills on my bike didn’t make a dent in my flab other than to tighten my calf muscles.

I was a self-made outcast. I hated my body and I hated myself. And I was certain that people knew this and were critical of me because of it. So, I figured drastic measures were in order.

Without telling anyone except my best friend, I hopped on a Greyhound bus for Panama City. I’d been there before on family vacations, so I was comfortable with the idea of it if not familiar with its various beaches and bi-ways. My hope was that separating myself from the temptations of my suburban family’s refrigerator, replete with Sarah Lee poundcake, full-fat cheeses and other temptations, plus walking along the beach for several days would find me in slenderer shape.

Good thought, bad follow-through.

I had no plan, no expectations. Subliminally, that food in the fridge represented all of the people in my family who I thought were ruining my life… my peers in high school with whom I felt no connection… and the general alienation I felt from the stifling middle-class values that pervaded my upbringing. I had already rebelled by becoming a vegetarian, but it wasn’t enough. Of one thing I was certain: I had to get away from it all.

The first night of my arrival, I stole some sleep on a poolside chaise at the nearest beachfront hotel, then spent a full day traipsing along white-hot Florida sand, only to be rewarded with a fiery sunburn. The second night I camped near the ocean, my knapsack serving as a pillow. A stranger in light blue clothing awakened me at dawn. On his shirt, reflected morning light glinted from something metallic. A badge.

“Excuse me, you know it’s illegal to sleep on the beach.”

“Oh, I didn’t know… really…”
“Okay, how old are you? Do you have ID? And how much money do you have on you?”

“I’m 15. And I have around 25 dollars. Here’s my learner’s license – but you aren’t gonna call my parents or anything are you? Please… don’t. I… I’ll be heading back home soon anyway.”

Whatever happened next, I figured I was sunk. He’d either throw me in jail or call my parents and scare the shit out of them or send me home on the nearest Greyhound bus, the same way I came.

“You can’t stay on the beach. It’s loitering, or camping, but anyway, it’s illegal. So I’ll have to ask you to leave right now. Either get on home or find a place to stay. Get yourself some money together to get on home, but you can’t stay here.”

Whew! I copped a break. A little scared and a lot intimidated, I could have found the nearest pay phone and called my parents to wire me money to get home. But that would be a total cop-out and I had to see this thing through on my own.

I picked up my sunburned body and struggled on my way. Out on the street, there was still little relief from the heat of the day, so I cautiously headed back toward the ocean in search of a motel pool where I could cool off. Here in this strange place where no one knew me, I wasn’t as self-conscious about my appearance, and certainly no one would judge me as harshly as they had at home, so I thought. This made it easy to strike up a conversation with other teens hanging by the pool. Despite not having a place to bed down and not knowing what I was going to do for money and food, a feeling of relaxation began to wash over me that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

“Where are you from?” asked one young girl, probably a couple of years older than me.

“Atlanta. I just got kicked off the beach for, like, loitering or something.”

“Loitering? What were you doing, drinking or something?”

“No, I… I… I fell asleep on the sand…

“Ohh, I get it. So, you don’t have a place to stay?”

“Um, well, no, not yet…”

“Hey, if you don’t find a place tonight, you’re welcome to crash in my room. Room 312. Just knock. My name’s Julie.”

It would certainly make my limited funds go further. So I graciously thanked her.

I’m not sure what I did the rest of the day, just sort of hung out, but at nightfall I found myself knocking on room number 312. Someone other than Julie opened the door.

“Uh, is Julie here? She said I could crash here for the night.”

“Come on in, I guess,” said a young pimple-faced guy. There were about six or seven other people hanging out in the room. Beer cans were strewn everywhere and from a transistor radio blared a Jimi Hendrix song. Hendrix was my hero! I’d played the album Band of Gypsies so many times on my cheap record player that I knew exactly where the permanent pops and scratches would come through on each song. A couple of people were already asleep on one of the two beds. It was definitely a party atmosphere, but not too crazy. I had been to a couple of wild parties given by high school buddies at home, but this was so different. Not knowing anyone meant not knowing what would happen from one minute to the next. I was nervous and excited; it was like taking a dive into a pool before testing the temperature, plunging into uncharted waters.

But I happen to be a good swimmer, and the metaphor fit. So I was fearless. As I entered the room, for a fleeting instant I sensed the freedom that comes from making my own choices and being in control.

“I’m John. Julie said she has reserved the bed for herself. So, well, you’ll have to sleep on the floor.”

Tall and lanky with a wide, toothy smile, John reached out to shake my hand. He seemed like a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. A genuinely friendly person with absolutely no ulterior motives, no pretense, no mischievous intent, John was the self-anointed official greeter.

Since not being picked up by the police was top of mind, I welcomed the safety of the room. Floor or bed, it didn’t matter. I gratefully slung my knapsack onto the sticky carpet and searched for a place to stretch out.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. John ushered in two more people. This continued all evening, the room filling up with young people who were tired, drunk, high, or all three. The place had become a crash pad for wayward teens.

A good night’s sleep was impossible. There were loud discussions about keeping the radio on, turning it down, getting more beer, where could we cop some more weed for everyone to share, who had more matches, and how we would hide the evidence if the motel manager came to the door. We were also running out of toilet paper and had to find a find a volunteer to get more from the motel lobby.

Interestingly, although smoking was allowed inside the rooms, we unanimously agreed to forbid cigarette smoking inside the room, while pot was just fine. As a joint was handed to me, I shot a wary look at the guy who had just taken a toke. A fleeting concern crossed my mind. What if he had some weird disease? Could I catch something through his saliva? Should I even care?

I quickly sized up the situation and in an instant (my mind worked fast in those days) I created a pact with myself. You chose to come here, you decided to sleep here, so it’s time to chill. Don’t second-guess yourself. Go with the flow.

So I took a toke and passed it along to a skinny girl with long, stringy blond hair. That was the kind of skinny I was striving for, even if she wasn’t every pretty. I believed that if only I was thin I could be happy, or at least feel free enough within my body to go wherever I wanted and feel comfortable with anyone in any situation. But looking at that girl sitting beside me, with her sunken, scared eyes and bony knees drawn up to her chest, I thought, no, I definitely wouldn’t want to be like her. I mean, it would be nice to be about 20 pounds lighter and never worry about my wiggly thighs, but as I pondered her further, it occurred to me that I had better stop comparing myself to other people or it would ruin me. All it was doing was making me miserable. To protect myself from what I thought other people thought of me, I had constructed an illusory wall, an emotional barrier that kept others at a distance. Here, I was being fully accepted by people of all shapes and sizes, girls and guys of various races. That wall was turning into rubble.

And then and there I realized it wasn’t home I wanted to flee, it wasn’t even my body from which I wanted to escape. I needed a friend, and desperately needed that friend to be, well, me.

All the noise and talk and knocks on the door, the coming and going, made it difficult to doze off even for a few minutes. My space on the floor kept getting smaller, and by morning, I was squished in-between two people, my face crunched against the back of hoodie that smelled like pepperoni pizza and cheap sangria. I think I may have drooled on the hoodie, I’m not sure. The limited space forced a lot of skin-to-skin contact, but there was nothing sexual about it. We were all too exhausted or wasted and anyway it was just too crowded for any hanky panky. By the early morning rays of an already steamy sun streaming through a window, I counted about 25 of us curled up or stretched out on the floor and the beds.

And then it was daybreak. Someone opened a large bag of Fritos and offered it to me.

“Breakfast. Have some,” he said.

It was then I spotted Julie. She was friendly but a little perturbed that her generosity had resulted in this rag-tag horde of people traipsing through her space.

“Hey, we’re gonna have to be cool about all this. If the motel manager finds out so many people are staying in my room, I’ll be in trouble… and I don’t want to get kicked out. I’m planning to stay a couple more nights. I wanna make sure I have a good tan before I go back home.”

A couple of visitors offered to give her a few dollars if she’d let them stay, and she accepted. I thanked her for letting me stay. She smiled and held my arm for a few seconds.

“Look, I didn’t mind you staying here at all. Sorry it was crazy.”

“But Julie, do you actually KNOW any of these people?”

“Yeah, those two girls on the bed. We came down from Pennsylvania. Drove the whole way. We’re on a tight budget and, well, other people are in the same predicament and really, everyone here’s been really nice, and it’s been fun, but, maybe it’s time to scale back.”

I told her I might see her around, and with bleary eyes and still suffering from the sunburn, I tumbled onto the street. I had enough cash to stay in a cheap motel for a couple of nights. And, after walking several blocks, cheap I did find. I had never seen so many roaches — they call them palmetto bugs in the South — in one room. I slept with the light on in hopes it would minimize their constant scurrying, and I stomped on as many as I could. For seven bucks a night and cold, running water to salve my skin, it was worth it.

Still, I knew I had to find a way home. I mean, it was never my intention to be a permanent runaway. Hitchhiking was out of the question (and I was the last person to have predicted it would be totally in the question a few years later) and that meant I needed more money. And although they would have gladly paid for a flight home, calling my parents was another thing that was out of the question.

This was MY quest and I had to see it through MY way and not wimp out. So after a couple of recuperative days I snuck my head into a few retail stores and hotels to boldly describe my plight and ask for temporary work.

“I can work as long as you need me. A few days, a week or two. I’m being honest. I’m from Atlanta and just need enough money to catch a bus home. I can start right away.”

I spotted a small, old but clean cafeteria a short distance from the motel. My honesty apparently made an impact on the manager, a sweet, balding, rotund man who said he had a daughter about my age and he would do me a good turn.

They would give me a hair net and a long apron to wear — conveniently covering up my cutoff jean shorts and sleeveless tank top — and I would dish out heaping servings of mushy squash casserole and canned beans soaking in bacon grease and overcooked fried fish slathered in day-old béarnaise sauce.

I worked a solid five days in that place. It was a great feeling to have cash in hand – about $64.00 — for committed effort. It was an even better feeling to finally be rid of the roach-infested motel. As I untied my apron for the last time, I exalted in my accomplishment. My adventure was coming to a close but I felt a door was opening. I had tripped up a few times, yet I came out ahead. I was a stronger person, a more trusting person, and even more important, it was the first time I felt I could trust the one person I would be living with the rest of my life: myself.

As the bus rambled away from the station, my thighs sticking to the damp, sweaty vinyl seats and my hands resting atop my knapsack, I was comforted by the aimless chatter among the jumble of strangers — black ladies in lacy cotton summer dresses, farmers in overalls, children clutching dolls and toy trucks and clinging to their mothers, young working-class men gazing at the landscape buzzing by, dreamers hoping for a better future.  And the intermingling of odors among the passengers — perfume and peanut butter crackers, after-shave lotion and bologna sandwiches, perspiration and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum — created an earthy admixture that had a calming effect on my soul.

I felt at home among these people. As if I belonged on the road. But in an odd way, I looked forward to coming home, too. Because even though my body wasn’t toned, my mind was attuned to an energy I’d never felt before, my nerve endings tingled with the anticipation of what it might be like to escape again, to explore other places, to take more chances. And mainly to make my own decisions about who I wanted to be with and where I wanted to go.

What my parents were thinking, what their punishment to me might be, or how they would react to my running away, did not consume my mind at all. I knew the ups and downs, the challenges and the exhilaration, of running away, of being on the move. And I just wanted more.

Ellen Berman is a professional marketing and advertising copywriter, editor and erstwhile journalist whose articles have appeared in a variety of consumer, trade and business publications both regionally and nationally.

***

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.
Guest Posts, memories

Walked (and Found) in a Strip Mall Drugstore

May 17, 2024
store

Most Christmas Eves, I worked the night shift in a small-town drug store tucked, not stuck, at the end of a suburban 70s-era strip mall. The store was located a few yards from a major highway, its exits and on-ramps always growling. Dinner consisted of a tuna sub with extra relish (ordered from the pizza shop next door just before its early close, owner’s treat), a full-sized candy bar (typically Twix) that I’d make last until twelve, and a bottle of cola (typically Orange Crush). I’d select the candy bar from the drugstore’s front display and the Crush from the ice box cooler, then count out my coins at the register. 

 

The stacks of leaning pennies, nickels and dimes would be anchored by a single quarter. In the towers, I’d imagine bright lights and big cities. I’d wonder if the holidays were celebrated similarly. My hometown went all in, with lights and carols, though my family, small – just my father, a goldfish, and me — rarely noticed. My father worked nights at the local hospital and took on extra shifts whenever allowed. I knew he grew up in what he called “the projects”, but I had always understood that to mean that we made something out of everything, and nothing went to waste. I saved extra earnings (tipping strictly prohibited, all register drawers carefully checked at shift changes and closing) for gifts come Christmas morning. I had them pre-picked and on layaway. 

 

While my tag proclaimed by official title – clerk, I embraced the role for all its unknown worth. I always felt at home in the store’s aisles. I thought of my job as service oriented. Christmas Eve, I adopted an even more universal attendance. I was as determined as Rudolph when it came to ensuring all customers left with a heartful of holiday warmth.

 

I manned the front of the store and the register – a manual machine with hand-stamped numbers and letters. One more soul in need of Christmas dough worked the store’s back wall. I’d eat just before eight. Then, I’d buy a pack of Life Savers (butter rum or cherry) and wait. Last minute shoppers were my pride and my forte. 

 

On one side of the storefront, there was concrete. Hard, unforgiving. A reality. On the other side of the chimed door, the wall-to-wall carpet was dark. Unnoticeable. Like me; I could blend right in. The store was more than a destination for pain relief; it was also a home to a new way to see. The shelves were stocked of items brimming with possibility. From Aspirin to Band-Aids. Clorox, Deodorant, and Eyelashes (fake). Gnomes from the 1940s. Hallmark cards and ice cream treats. I don’t remember the lighting, pot lamps I believe. There was a single camera, tucked in the back with the pharmacy and its mysterious bottles. It provided an aerial view of what, I believed, was a homemade Disneyland. Each day, and especially Christmas Eve, we created real-life manifestations of dreams.

 

Our customers were as varied as the store’s collection. Slumped shoulders in plaid overcoats. Construction workers in high-top boots. Suits and heels. After-doctor visit details. Those for whom we had to raise our voices to be heard. Others with whom signing to cross language barriers was the only path forward. Singles. Double. Triples. One of my favorite aspects of the chimes above the door was the unpredictability of who’d come into the store. 

 

Hello, I’d say. Welcome to Bluestones!

 

Most would turn, nod, then carry on. I’d designate characters as I watched. Jane Eyre, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Nancy Drew all shopped with needs to fill. Except for Christmas Eve, when all hearts were open and varied needs morphed into visible displays of need. A last-minute invite, oversight, oh my! Of sorts. Customers would enter the store, the chimes still on, and then take a hard stop. Like a deer (sorry Rudolph) in headlights, the 3000 square foot artificially lit box was a lot.

 

I’d get right to work.

 

“Merry Christmas! Can I help you find something?”

 

“Yes, please” was the most likely response.

 

I’d field requests for babies and bouncers. Grandparents and ghoulish neighbors. For first loves and final visits. Forgetful spouses. I’d lead and they’d follow. I had gift ideas from every aisle.

 

In between customers I’d take stock in preparation for the late-night, last-minute flock. I had patterns, as did they. While last-minute shoppers would typically start to wander in around eight, my work began days prior. I was anywhere from fourteen to eighteen. Dressed in black combat boots and spandex leggings. I wore my hair straight. A group of local boys liked to come in and giggle. “She’s Elvira,” I’d hear them say. They couldn’t bother me, as much as they’d try. Not on Christmas Eve. 

 

I’d curate mental notes of curious collections. Stationary, toys, cosmetics. I knew all the hidden sales. I prepped for all budgets (with most sales under $5), reminiscent of my own days at elementary school holiday shops and book mobiles. Cash in hand. Hurry, Transactions in demand. I helped process rebates (answer this, sign here), shared coupons (clipped and cut), and spread holiday cheer.

 

The gifts were as varied as the shop’s stock. Sock puppets, Sweet and Sour Mixes. Boxes of Red Hots, Jawbreakers, and L’eggs plastic hose. For the readers — three recent paperback releases (from Harlequin romances to Stephen King’s trances), tie-dye reading glasses (powers of 1.5, 2, and 3), and a case of Kleenex. Matchbox cars for adventurers. Jean N’Ate, heart-shaped box of Whitmans, and an I Love You sticky notes for first-timers. For the love struck: a small teddy bear, cranberry lip gloss. For the movie buff — five pre-selected dollar store flicks, microwave popcorn, and a fleece blanket. A traditional — 12 candy bars – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas. For the bird lover: dove soap, red robin hand cream, and hummingbird-shaped mints. Kodak keychains, rolls of film, print-while-you-wait images. Baby reveals and sounds of music.

Plastic recorders and handwritten dinner orders in a spiral notebook with a promise to clean and cleaning supplies. About faces – makeup bags for night’s in. 


I helped teens find gifts for working parents. I helped working parents find gifts for their support networks. One year, Christmas Eve coincided with a fiftieth wedding anniversary. We packed ten packs of Juicy Fruit (five sticks each), a soft teddy bear Beanie Baby, a faux rose for old time’s sake, and three packs of pop rocks. Love sizzled bright. For a builder — Potato Sticks tubes and letter blocks. The alphabet from A to Z. Toothpicks and marshmallows. For the word lover — word searches and a can of Campbell’s soup, all for two bucks.

I’d study the card aisle and I knew what overstock was in undershelf bins. I’d color coordinate all pickings — A $100,000 Grand bar and ten pouches of Pop Rocks for the guy who planned to propose a life of big dreams. Big League Chew and soda pop for an impromptu gathering of a baseball team.

We offered gift-wrap services for no extra charge. I knew how to tuck corners and apply invisible tape with no marks. As I wrapped, I’d listen. Visibly relieved that their shopping needs were met, the customers would inevitably want to chat. Some told tales of loss – a first, second, third holiday without someone or something. Each of them had a tale and, often, wanted to tell it.

 

I’d consume stories of sugar plum fairies and red brick houses. Three-tiered cakes, decorated with spice. Drops of candle wax, gold bands (engagements to be) and American Bandstand (nostalgia always sprouting like seeds). Carrots and walking sticks. Fountain sodas with two straws. Drugstore aisles stocked of final desires waiting to be shared or salvaged. One year, an elderly man was desperate to replace his wife’s scent. She had recently passed, and he couldn’t recall the name of the perfume she’d wear. The next year he returned in need of gifts for a newborn grandson. For some, the holiday was a blend of the beauty in the world and the terror of being alone. 

 

Sometimes, customers paused and took pity on me. “You poor thing,” they’d say. “What are you doing here on Christmas Eve?” At the time, I simply smiled. Truth is, even now, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. I’d return tomorrow if I could. But the local shops are mostly closed. 

 Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces in and around Philadelphia.

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.
Guest Posts, memories

My Mom Drives a Red Race Car

May 13, 2024
Traci

When my mother was alive, she never drove a car. She didn’t fly on airplanes, either or climb the slatted staircase to the observatory at the college where my father taught, to see the stars. My mom had severe anxiety and agoraphobia, and throughout my childhood, our one weekly family outing, besides attending church, was a trip to the public library.

But my mother drives now. She wears glamorous black sunglasses and a scarf around her neck as she roars off in her red Pontiac GTO, similar to the souped-up 8-cylinder Mustang I would have bought with my inheritance, if I’d been brave enough to rumble up in such a car to my job as a college professor in Los Angeles.

Recently, when I told my therapist about my mother’s post-death transformation, his face grew still, a noticeable effort to conceal his reaction. I don’t blame him. I’ve had a hard time believing it myself, but the truth is that my daughter Ivy is a medium, and according to her, my dead mother has things to say.

When grief-stricken people come to Ivy for a reading, she senses the personality and sees the faces of their departed loved ones clearly enough that she could draw their picture. The dead show Ivy images in her mind’s eye, and she describes these to her clients, evidence from their lives the dead can see, or items they remember: a teacup set painted with twin cherries, a toddler’s Jellycat sloth, a hidden box of love letters, lilacs that bloomed where a grapevine was planted.

I didn’t know Ivy was a medium until two years ago. She went to Dartmouth and USC, where she now teaches, and if anyone else had told me they could talk to dead people, I would have had the same reaction as my therapist. But Ivy has always been a thoughtful and serious person. After her fiancé, a beloved psychiatrist, drowned in a surfing accident, as she describes it, “the dead became too loud to ignore.”

Thanks to a research study that involved Ivy as a subject, I now understand that mediumistic experiences, whatever they are, often emerge alongside unexpected loss. When she first told me, though, I was skeptical. I teach critical thinking for a living. As a young mother, I’d left the evangelical church in which I was raised and had spent my adulthood as an atheist. To go back to believing there was an afterlife after all felt like reverting to an inside-out version of the organized religion I had years before dismissed.

But I wanted to support Ivy, somehow help her bear the weight of grief. To understand mediumship better, I set an appointment, using an untraceable fake identity, with Traci Bray, a medium certified by researchers affiliated with the University of Arizona. I had heard it suggested to ask a departed loved one ahead of time for a sign, and although I felt sure I would hear nothing of the sort, I asked to be shown the Christmas cookies with pastel-colored icing and sparkly sprinkles my mom baked with me and my sisters every year, a tradition I had carried on with my daughters.

“Hello?” Traci said on the phone. Her voice seemed surprisingly ordinary, and after offering to allow me to record our call, she immediately came up with the name of my high school boyfriend, the name of my youngest daughter, Allison, and an accurate description of our family dog, who had died years before. She also said my mom was there, showing herself, and gave my sister’s middle name as evidence.

My mom showed the specific grosgrain ribbons she’d tied on my braids in girlhood, then showed herself taking deep, relaxed breaths. Traci asked if that meant anything to me, and I thought back on my mom’s last days. She’d been intubated and I’d sat by her side watching the machine artificially, and what had seemed violently, pushing air in and out of her lungs.

My mom also showed herself reaching for a glass of orange juice from a refrigerator, and when Traci made a point of describing the glass as small, my eyes welled up. Many people drink orange juice for breakfast, but my family’s dietary habits were a defining feature of my childhood, which I have often recounted to friends. My mom grew up traumatized by an alcoholic father. She wanted to give me and my sisters lives of stability, and to her that meant a familiar routine. She made us the same breakfast every morning—one scrambled egg, one piece of toast, a large glass of milk and a small glass of orange juice.

Traci then asked if my mom had had Parkinson’s – no, I said, but she did have an essential tremor, which others often mistook for Parkinson’s. Was this coincidence? Just good guessing? Lots of older people have shaky hands. But of the many symptoms a person could have when they are aging, Traci had described the symptom my mom had found most distressing. In the last few moments of the call, Traci asked, “Did your mom have a special recipe for the holidays, some kind of sticky green spread or cream cheese you’d spread on crackers?” It took me a minute before it dawned on me. Was she seeing our Christmas cookies?

I found the conversation remarkable and moving, but later in the day I was surprised to hear Ivy had another message for me. “Gran’s here,” she said, and when Ivy described seeing a name-inscribed, silver chain link bracelet my boyfriend had given me in high school, my mind began to shift. I hadn’t thought of that bracelet for years. How would Ivy know something I’d forgotten about myself?

Still, trying to absorb the surreal possibility that my dead mother could talk to me felt difficult. When I was a small child, my mom sometimes disappeared into her bedroom for hours, leaving me to cope on my own. And although we had cozy times, too, Sunday night popcorn, reading in lawn chairs together in the front yard, and as many presents on Christmas and birthdays as she could manage, much of my young life revolved around her distress.

The year I was a sophomore in high school, my parents and sister and I went on a rare outing to a new restaurant at the mall, which was on the second floor, up a flight of red-carpeted slatted stairs. When we got there, my mom put one foot on the first step and one hand on the railing, but couldn’t get herself to go up. The restaurant was visible above us on an open balcony, and I remember gazing at the people chatting at tables, as my dad searched for the elevator. After we realized it was out of order, and we’d spent a few moments standing awkwardly around, we got back in the car and drove home.

When I was eighteen, my sister and I tried to teach her how to drive on a country road near our home in southern Idaho, but she gripped the steering wheel for only a few minutes before her arms began shaking from fright and exertion. I can imagine how she might have felt, the road stretching out into the distance, impossibly long, open fields all around. When she put on the brakes and the car jerked to a stop, my hand flew up against the dashboard, and she didn’t want to try again. Everyone drove in Idaho—it was the way we got around, and her refusal to take agency over that part of her life felt emblematic of the way fear was allowed to rule our lives.

But we didn’t press her on these issues. We kept silence around them; that was our family’s unspoken pact. And now in this moment, I was finding it hard to accept this new mom, talking to me so openly, as if my childhood trauma had never taken place.

I decided to schedule a follow-up call with Traci, to confide in her about Ivy’s mediumship experiences, and the conflict I was feeling. “They’re showing me your mother’s anxiety came partly from her own unrecognized psychic abilities,” Traci said, describing mediumship as a strange inheritance that often runs in families. Traci said her own family has refused to acknowledge her stigmatized profession and remarked that my open-minded curiosity was a gift to my grieving daughter, who was struggling with self-acceptance.

And whether I believed it or not, Ivy frequently felt my mom’s presence, so I kept listening. “Why does Gran keep showing me a single raspberry and then strawberry shortcake?” Ivy asked me one night.

I was stumped, then remembered the cereal heaped with raspberries I’d had for breakfast. That morning, I’d been thinking of my girlhood, and how fresh berries had been a rare treat. I have so much, I’d thought, feeling grateful. I had said nothing out loud to anyone about this, but through the images she was showing Ivy, my mom was bringing it up.

“We did have strawberry shortcake in the summer. I remember that now,” I said, laughing at my mom’s correction of my memory, a moment that felt like normal conversation between two people.

It took a while after I started hearing messages from my mom for me to say to her, “I know you loved me so much, but I wish you had been more consistently present for me.” It took guts to say that, even to a dead woman.

Through Ivy, she responded, “I’m so sorry. I will say I’m sorry as many times as you need me to.” And then she said, “that’s the reason why I’ve been showing up so consistently for you now, because I want to try to make up for that.”

Her words made me weep. There were regrets on my side, too. I’d felt guilty when she asked to live with me in Las Vegas where I had a teaching job at the time, choosing instead to visit her in Idaho at the assisted living facility where she spent her final months. But now she showed herself to Ivy in what was unmistakably her own sense of humor, flying over The Strip in a cartoon airplane, quipping, “Granny goes to Vegas! Can you imagine? That would have been a disaster!”

I’d also felt ashamed about the amount of my inheritance I’d wasted buying clothes online, but before I even asked, my mom communicated that shopping had been a form of self-care for a grieving daughter. She said she was glad I’d found a way to bring myself joy in a hard time. I hadn’t known how badly I needed to hear that, and a knot of tension released in my chest.

I marveled at all my mom seemed to know about the private moments of my ongoing life, and she responded by showing Ivy the “cone of silence,” the goofy device used on the TV show Get Smart to send secret messages, as if to show me I now have a direct pipeline to my mom with my thoughts. It seemed purely silly, another perfect example of her sense of humor, until I watched a clip of it again on YouTube, and listened to the dialogue in the scene. Max says, “Well, Chief, I appreciate you taking me into your confidence like this.” And the Chief replies, “Max, there is always someone in whom we must have faith.”

My other daughters say I seem lighter now, more attuned and present. I know intellectually from therapy that my wiring from my upbringing has the potential to tip me into fear and anxiety, but as my ongoing relationship with my mom has evolved, I can feel something inside me healing.

Recently, Ivy spoke as a medium on a podcast hosted by two therapists called Love, Sex, and Attachment about how evidential mediumship can help the grieving develop a more secure attachment through the cultivation of continuing bonds. Similar to narrative therapy, Ivy’s abilities have helped me rewrite my own story of loss.

Somewhere I read that healing doesn’t occur outside of relationships; healing occurs inside safe relationships. Perhaps the most convincing evidence that my mom really might be alive and well in another dimension: my relationship with her is finally becoming a safe place to be.

Constance Ford is originally from Idaho, and has earned degrees in creative writing from Hollins University and UNLV. Her short stories have been published in Pif, Switchback, and Brain, Child, among others, and she currently has a novel out on submission. She lived in Las Vegas for thirteen years, raising her daughters there, and now teaches writing at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her daughter, Ivy Sunderji can be followed at here.  

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We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.

Guest Posts, memories

The Song that Binds Us

May 5, 2024
singing

During a middle school basketball game, my period leaked through my gold basketball shorts.  The coach, a friend of my Dad’s, called me out of the game to tell me.  I ran to the bathroom and changed into sweatpants.  I stayed there for an entire quarter of the game.  When I finally came out, hoping that no one else had noticed, a boy yelled across the gym, “Hey Brooke, why did you change your pants?”  It seemed like the entire gym erupted in laughter.  I was mortified but sat down on the bench anyway.  I didn’t play for the rest of the game.  I sat there like a stone, impenetrable.  When I got in my Dad’s car after the game, I continued to sit in silence.  He was the last person I wanted to talk to about what happened.

After about a half hour of driving in silence he began to sing.  Arms crossed I sunk lower in my seat wishing to be alone.  Slowly his singing started to unlock the armor around my heart.  His song reminded me that everything was still the same as it always was.  My Dad was still singing as he drove because he couldn’t help it.  My tragedy was not his, or anyone else’s and actually maybe it didn’t have to be mine either.  I let the song take my worries away, at least for a little bit.

Now that I am a parent watching my own children learn how to cope with the ups and downs of adolescence, I think of my Dad’s singing with such deep love and gratitude.  He never sang professionally or expressed an interest in singing beyond the house or in the car, but he sang around me all the time.  I hadn’t realized until now as I write about him, that his singing is a colorful thread tightly woven into my life.   I can see now that his melodies taught me how to soothe my worried mind and how to create lightness and contentment in any moment.   How rare it is to discover something new of someone who has passed on.  He has been gone for such a long time but I cherish that voice that I can still conjure up in a quiet car ride singing Buddy Holly songs:

Every day, it’s a-getting closer
Going faster than a rollercoaster
Love like yours will surely come my way
A-hey, a-hey-hey

I am now a little older than my Dad was in that car ride.    I feel as though I am on a Ferris Wheel that keeps circling around and around with different passengers getting on and off.  There was a time when I was holding tight to my Dad’s hand, another when I sat close to a boy as my heart beat too fast and then another with an exuberant toddler clutching my body.  The songs and perspectives are constantly changing.  Now I am the parent singing around my teenagers, who roll their eyes and say, “You are so weird.”

Recently I found myself sitting at our worn oak farm table on a Saturday afternoon.  Caught in a ray of sun streaming through the south facing windows, everything felt just as it should.  The entire afternoon unfurled itself before me with no real plans or lists of things to do.  Everyone was home and happily danced in and out of each other’s orbits. I perused through some cookbooks, thinking about the magic I could concoct for dinner if I could ever wake from the dreamy October sun that had caught me like a cat.

The abundance of life in that moment got me singing.

It doesn’t really matter what I am singing.  Often the same songs get stuck on repeat.  For weeks I had been singing Suzanne by Bermuda Triangle

You love Suzanne and I love you
Where is she now, go and get her
She don’t want you but I do
She makes us lonely here together

As I begin to sing, my shoulder’s drop, my breathing becomes deeper, and I start to slowly stretch my neck and back.  I sit taller.   It is like a gust of goodness and well-being sweeps over me.  Singing is my favorite medicine, a contentment I purposely unwind into, as a practice of happiness.   The effects are subtle but over time I have come to rely on the feelings of contentment that splash over me like gentle lapses of warm waters.

In all of my years of singing I can’t remember ever singing in anger.  It is unimaginable.   When I am singing everyone in my family knows that I am relaxed and happy.  It is a sign post at the door reading, all clear, Mama is in a good mood.

Knowing so well that singing is a beacon of happiness, I am hyper aware of others who are singing.   Happening upon someone caught in song draws me closer to them.  I am a voyeur in these moments, secretly entering into a magical sphere of music someone else has created.  The experience captivates me.   I feel as though I am chancing on a mating dance of a rare bird.  Is this how I look when I am lost in song?  There is something so universally binding about this happy singing that connects me to these passing singers.

A study by Loersch, C., & Arbuckle, N. L. (2013) theorizes that early human beings began singing for social necessity.  Singing bound us closer together to work collectively, ultimately enhancing our chances of survival.   The social connection was an important outcome of singing, but what kept us making melodies was how good it made us feel.  Scientific studies have been able to distinguish how our neurochemical make up changes while singing.  In a comparative study, Dunbar RI, Kaskatis K, MacDonald I, Barra V. shows that singing triggers a great endorphin release, evidenced by increased pain tolerance.  In another study Grape, Sandgren, Hansson, Ericson and Theorell found that oxytocin levels increase while singing, indicating an overall sense of wellbeing.    When we sing it simply feels good and the benefits of our songs are boundless.

Last winter the snow fell relentlessly for months.  Our snowbanks were over 12 feet high making it impossible to shovel the snow from our driveway as there was nowhere to put it.  Despite Winter’s intention to keep up us holed up like the Donner Party, my daughter Maya and I had to go to San Francisco for her dance audition.     As we drove back home, I could see the clouds puffing their billowy chests into massive dark forms.  The wind was roaring down the mountain toward us making the car sway back and forth.   We should have pulled over and got a hotel room.  Maya was insistent, “We should just keep driving.  It won’t be that bad.  I will drive.”  It was 11:30PM.  Maya was 16 and had only been driving legally for a couple of months.  There was no way she was driving.

With no other cars on the road, the wind had made snow drifts across the highway, making my minivan feel like a sled careening down the road.  I drove 20 miles per hour, white knuckling the steering wheel over the entire pass.

When we finally got home, Maya said that I sang for three hours straight.  “I did?” I asked.  “You were singing something when I fell asleep, then later I woke up in a complete white out and you were singing Lizzo.  By the time we got home you were singing Gillian Welch.”  She had fallen asleep in the middle of my panicked driving as only someone young enough to be oblivious of the real danger they are in can do.  It was just me and my songs in a white world of uncertainty.  Singing got us home.

One night recently after all the lights had been turned out and I was cozy under my blankets with a book, I heard Samuel, age 12, singing to himself in bed.  I couldn’t make out the song.  It sounded like popcorning notes exploring the borders of his voice.  It was loud and high-pitched sounding almost like Freddy Mercury singing “I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the Fandango.”

Samuel is naturally a quiet kid who doesn’t put too many unnecessary words out into the world.  He is thoughtful and intentional with his communication.  The juxtaposition of this night time singing was so wonderfully unconscious and free.  The sound of his uninhibited joy was magnificent.  It made my whole-body smile.   Despite the weight of his day that he never really talked about I knew in that moment that everything was going to be ok.  I closed my eyes and  heard my Dad’s voice in his song.   I imagined him singing a sweet little melody of contentment as he found a home with his grandson of the same name, whom he never met.

Brooke Chabot has published extensively in her local paper,  Moonshine Ink. Brooke has a background in education and music. She teaches, performs and writes about music because she is forever intrigued by the depths of beauty that music encapsulates.

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Your voice matters, now more than ever.

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.

Guest Posts, memories

Ramble On

November 3, 2023
love

Robert Plant was desire and fantasy. The quintessential rock god. Enrobed in snug jeans, his lean frame, gyrating hips jutting, shirt unbuttoned, tousled blond curls flashing as he strutted and commanded the stage. His keening, semi-orgasmic moans and melodies awakened something primal in me. And Jimmy’s galloping, rolling, guitar licks commanding my hips to move. Led Zeppelin was the soundtrack of my becoming. It kindled a fire in me that begged to be tended.

At the starting gate of my teens, I left every midnight showing of the concert movie Song Remains the Same at the Vogue Theatre only to return to my lonely room. I stared at the ceiling, wondering what it would be like for someone to sing for me, to dance for me. Even though Robert performed for legions of fans at enormous public arenas, I imagined this sacred bond between us, an inside secret only we shared.  At the end of the night, to have someone croon to me mournfully, magically, majestically, to be cradled in loving arms, head resting on a strapping bare chest, my man’s tender caress stroking my hair, my cheeks, tracing the line of my lips.

I wanted a Whole Lotta Love. Way down inside I needed it.

The creek behind my house smelled of earth and moss. I took my journal and climbed to a rock that jutted out over the water, my throne. I day-dreamed of a boy who would come along and see me on my cliffside perch, see my infinite coolness and fall instantly in love. He would demand to read my musings. I would demure, then hand over my dog-eared notebook. He would declare me a genius, and we would read the poems and entries, and talk about what they meant, talk about life, talk about dreams and desires, just talk, and maybe kiss a little, but gently.

I wasn’t sure I was worthy of something so magical. What I had known so far of love was secret and sinister, and made me feel desperate. I knew more than I should have about the needs of men, and I was already damaged goods. Somehow, I wasn’t meant to have anything so pure. Sex was my calling card. Men wanted my body and I wanted affection, and to belong to someone.

Being used and discarded was the price of admission. Mockery. Mortification. Shame. I didn’t understand how I already knew so much about what men wanted, and why I was vilified for pleasing, bringing pleasure. I kept hoping that someone would look beyond the blow job and see me, just see me and care.

Dudley was my first real boyfriend, a drummer, humble, humorous and unflappable. He was a much nicer guy than I deserved. My reputation preceded me He cared for me and defended me when others told him, who? Not her, man. She’ll do you wrong. Haven’t you heard her nickname, man?

But Dudley was most unconventional, a rare teenager who was a self-possessed, independent thinker and cared not at all what anyone else thought. He liked my fire, liked my weirdness, liked how my eagerness to embrace life made me act too bold, laugh too loud. He would write me sweet love notes, and I could feel his caring words warm me. He borrowed the words and I could hear Robert Plant’s soft voice singing to me as I read the poetry.

There were parties at the Pit, a crater-like fire hole where we built bonfires. It was a good 15-minute walk of bush-whacking deep in the woods behind the old fire station, virtually impossible to navigate after dark. If you had not been shown the way, or if you got too high or drunk, you would get lost. I knew this first hand.

Its seclusion guaranteed that, for a handful of us, the Pit was ours. Away from adult admonishments, we were free and invincible and open to our own goofiness. Dudley was my muse and my man. We had painted rocks with hearts and flowers and skulls and crossbones and decorated the perimeter of the pit and made pentagrams with sticks, pretending like it would scare intruders away. We took Ouija boards and played by firelight, trying to scare each other. We drank and drugged and our dramas played out — guys fought, and sometimes girls fought, and there were breakups every weekend.

There at the Pit, I listened to Led Zeppelin tell me the story of me in all the shades I was becoming —in brash, pulsing, empowering beats; in lacy, lyrical whispers of songs, in audacious, winking satires about plainspoken men and women with no regrets, in mournful my- woman done- me- wrong blues, and twangy, mystical folk, and complex story-songs with lyrics I dissected endlessly. Comfort and pain and seduction. Sublime.  And I danced, a one-woman whirlwind of buttocks and breasts and flying hair. Of course, it couldn’t last.

Glenn King was the name of my doom. To this day, I can never hear the song Tempted by the Fruit of Another without thinking of him. One of my best friend’s brothers, he was older by about four years. GQ handsome, his wavy dark hair, sexy green eyes and arrogant smirk exactly the bad boy recipe I couldn’t resist. Mostly, he didn’t give me the time of day as his little sister’s friend, but I had a serious crush on him One night after significant amounts of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill and half a Quaalude from my friend’s mom’s prescription, a bunch of us played spin the bottle in a neighborhood basement and the bottle spun to me and he kissed me, and then we kissed some more. I awoke from my reverie and bolted from the game, but it was too late. I tried to pretend it didn’t happen but there were too many “friends” there to witness my betrayal and Dudley found out. He was a laid-back guy but he had a code and I had broken it. I wept and begged and cajoled, told him Glenn meant nothing to me, but it was done. It would not be the last time my impulsiveness got me into trouble. I now knew I was exactly the girl everyone said I was.  The one boy who had seen through my image, my artifice, who saw my value was gone. Now, it didn’t matter anymore and I punished myself with self-destruction. I was back to the smart, socially awkward too-loud, inept girl who was the butt of jokes. Nights behind Rose Bowl bowling alley with joints and pills and wine to sweep away the snorts of laughter, the names, the rejection.

In freshman year of high school, in Mr. Paul’s Biology class, I traded my sister’s hand-me-down fringed leather poncho to Maria Niemann for her Led Zeppelin III album. I wonder what happened to Maria. We had bonded in our pariah-ness and our love of Zep and all things hippie. She wore combat boots with her uniform skirt. In sophomore year, she ran away from her abusive home – and school – with her biker boyfriend And I imagine her, wild brown hair and the fringes of the jacket dancing through the open window of a VW van adorned with Grateful Dead stickers.  She is free but a little scared. In her tough girl shell, she is laughing and drinking anyway. When I talk to old school friends about her, they don’t remember her at all, as if she only existed in my mind.

I have successfully lived long enough to forgive myself for the things I did looking to belong, looking for love.  I can cringe and laugh and marvel at the sweet girl, that rebel. I hope she is still way down inside me somewhere.

Holly Hinson is a writer and communications professional from Louisville, KY. Her poetry has been published in Louisville’s Literary Leo and in the literary anthology Calliope, and her journalism in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Business First, New Albany Tribune and Jewish Community Newspaper. She received an honorable mention for her essay Red Balloon in the 2016 Big Brick Review Essay Contest. Her website and blog is available at hollyhinson.com.

 

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Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, memories

April and Eternity

June 8, 2022
tom

At the water aerobics class where I follow my doctor’s orders for low-impact cardio, the instructor plays music we used to dance to, the beats perfect now for my aging limbs.  “I Ran (So Far Away),” blares while we do a Suntan-Superman reaching out on our backs and then flipping to our stomachs, working arms and abs while splashing chlorinated water, salty from the ocean breeze. I remember back when you and I tried to find hidden meaning in the lyrics, stretching our minds beyond our South Phoenix neighborhood and parochial school education.

“Were they really saying, Iran’s so far away?” we asked each other.

In the hormonal, smokey and boozy haze of those years we were also figuring out that we didn’t belong together.

René, I remember your powder blue Chevy truck, the front seat long and vinyl, unsectioned so I could slide in the middle of the three of us, you, Michael and me, sometimes Tom too, my college brothers taking me out every Saturday night. You showed off your new sound system, turning up the thumping New Wave until we couldn’t tell the music from the outside traffic as we glided along Mill Avenue, next to the sprawling university that occupied our lives then. The music and the weed we smoked lifted us into our own planet. A blaring siren made us jerk our heads around as if the cops were pulling us over, but it was the sound that enveloped us, time-traveling in your truck.

I’d gotten so drunk at one party and tried to take a boy home with me, but you and Tom hid my purse so I couldn’t leave. You had heard this boy talking about me by the keg, anticipating the night he would’ve had if not for you, you and Tom. I hated you and loved you like the brothers I needed then.

I only wanted that boy that night to show Tom I didn’t care that he fell hard in love with my roommate, the petite and serious Janis, who shared her mother’s care packages from Hawaii with me. The smoked eel came in tins with a key to fold open. Janis would spoon steamed white rice into bowls, add the eels and sprinkle sesame seeds on top. We ate it with chopsticks, which she taught me to use. There were also boxes of macadamias, something I’d never tasted, covered in chocolate. Janis laughed when she saw me one day squeezing out every last bit of toothpaste from the tube. She had never brushed with baking soda.

After I introduced her to Tom, he didn’t see me anymore. Their blossoming took over our apartment, fragrant and wild. My escape was extra work hours, not for the money, well, always for the money, but to spare me their vibrancy and happiness.

That party, where I got drunk and you hid my purse, that was when I knew you would never want me either. Why it all came to me that night, I don’t remember all the details now. You asked me, as I tried awkwardly to put my arms around you, “What are you doing?” You stopped me and my breath left me. You would never want me like I needed you to then.

We kept our friendship, you and I. Of course we did. We had known each other since fifth grade, when we hid from the nuns behind oleander bushes in the playground at St. Catherine’s. We always thought we were in trouble, a symptom of our guilty consciences from having too much fun when we should have been suffering. Or praying.

We kept our friendship through college as we worked our way into our futures, sharing an  apartment one year until I got a summer internship in Tucson and you felt abandoned. I should have given more notice, but I didn’t know how things were supposed to work then. I was still learning and I knew you wouldn’t stay mad at me forever.

One year later, after college and in our adult jobs, I was living in Colorado and you bought your first house. You stopped returning my calls and ignored my letters. I didn’t know it then but you’d done that with all our friends. You’d gone deep into your secret life, the one I had one hint about when we were still at ASU, when you got arrested late one night in downtown Phoenix. You told me and Michael about it, a weed-induced confession but then you said you never wanted to talk about it again.

After another year had gone by, still in our adult jobs, you called one morning. I was at my job at a small newspaper in a small town where I’d moved not knowing anyone, like a rattlesnake that sheds its entire skin, leaving room for the new. I wrote about schools, sometimes police and courts and really everything else too. It had been so long since I heard your voice, so immersed in this new job and life, that when you said my name, it took me a few seconds to connect it to you, my long-lost friend.

“René?” I asked. “Who died?”

And then, no joke, you told me about the plane crash.

Phones rang in the busy newsroom as deadlines loomed, but the pinprick of an image of Tom falling from the sky shaded my vision. The news of the crash had already run on our front page, but I didn’t know any of the passengers then, not until you called and told me I did. Snot ran down my mouth and tears soaked my blouse as I printed out the passenger list of the Northwest Airlines flight. And there he was, our beautiful Tom Barberio.

I went to stay with Janis where she was living in LA after Tom’s funeral. They’d gotten engaged after I lost touch. Now, just a month after his death, she had started to see him in other men until the poor suckers fell in love and couldn’t be Tom for her anymore. She believed that Tom was guiding men to her, loving her from beyond. I tried gently to bring her back to the permanent reality of his death. I felt like the lowest creature in the desert, a red ant crawling for miles carrying a dead leaf only to be thwarted by a gust of wind, or a human.

“Tom’s dead.”

I felt a sliver of selfish relief that he had not fallen in love with me after all but instead chose her. My grief couldn’t come close to hers.

I heard she moved back to the island, abandoned her graphic design practice and became a teacher, Tom’s passion.

Five years ago, René, you told me you’d die on April Fool’s Day and I thought you were telling me something you already knew. It was one of those things you used to say at the end of our long talks when I’d visit Phoenix from wherever I was living, Tucson, Los Angeles, Long Beach. You’d say it casually, sometimes waving your hands, like swatting a gnat.

You came to my father’s funeral and my eyes widened suddenly when I saw your normally full, round face was now gaunt, skin sagging at the jowls and gray. Your eyes seemed tired but you told me it was nothing to worry about.

But then I learned you had multiple diagnoses, so far gone on the cancer stages and another diagnosis that was too far along. Throw HIV in there as well. Why not?

It was September when you talked about dying and April and Eternity were so far away but the following spring you kept your promise.

And now you’re gone too. You and Tom, my college brothers who made wild poses for my 35 mm camera like runway models on our balcony as I slid the film with my thumb to the next frame and the next, holding steady through my belly laughs. Your secret is no longer a secret to those who loved you and who flamed near the light that was you all those years ago.

This morning, once again in the pool, a mallard, his head more deep purple than green, flew onto the pool deck and plopped into one of the swimlanes with his plain Jane brown and gray partner, delighting the whole class.

The instructor wasn’t distracted. “Now do crunches with a twist!” she ordered while we watched the pair pick at each other and then climb over a lane divider, then another and another. I turned to them as they swam, flailing my arms and legs in the cool deep, the sun beaming through clouds, my heart racing up to the aurora that you created, a swirl of another life that you left for me all those years ago.

Mary Anne Perez has worked at newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and California as a reporter and edited websites. In the last four years she has written freelance articles for local newspapers and did a short stint interpreting legal recordings for an attorney. She is currently working on a family memoir, and other creative endeavors, including a fairy tale.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, memories, storytelling

The Ever-Expanding Story

April 24, 2022
dad

I don’t discover the broken tree limbs until weeks after the ice storm. By then, my family has weathered not only the most snow and ice Louisville, Kentucky has seen since the 90s – we’ve also gotten through Achilles surgery, a child’s fractured pinky finger, and a $9,000 bill for a roof coming apart at the seams. I’m not even surprised when my husband returns from taking the boys to school one day and says, “Did you notice we lost some branches?”

I follow him into the backyard shaded by the abundance of trees planted on our small plot. I love our home like it’s another member of the family, our permanent address a respite after years of ever-rotating rentals. It’s where we have movie nights on a couch the size of a city bus, where I’m making my way through Wendell Berry’s collected poems in the living room we converted into a library, where I write, where I feed the blue jays and chase off the squirrels.

I clutch my coffee tighter against the chill still in the air. It’s the first official break in the February gray and sun streams across everything like someone threw the curtains open on the world. The rays of light dance across our one remaining pine – another ice storm our first winter took down its twin – now missing two enormous limbs. My heart aches for the damaged tree at the same time my brain starts running the numbers on calling someone to clean it up versus buying a chainsaw, like a self-respecting Kentuckian. Everything costs money.

It’s a few days before it occurs to me that my dad heats the rural home he shares with my stepmom and niece with firewood. Every fall, right around my birthday, he hooks the carryall to the tractor, rides down the big hill into the woods, and gathers firewood for the winter. I don’t have to close my eyes to imagine the wood pile that sits near the house. It stands so tall we could climb it when we were kids. If anyone has a chainsaw up for the job, it’s him. But I’m not in the habit of asking my father for things. Outside the refuge of my home, words don’t come easy in my familial relationships. There’s nothing noble about my silent suffering, the way I swallow everything because it’s easier to avoid someone I love than it is to tell them complicated truths.

A year ago, I probably would have made the drive to the hardware store for the chainsaw and tried not to break any bones getting down the massive limbs, one still attached ten feet up the trunk. But a lot can change in a year. I text my dad a picture of the tree and ask if he has time to help.

I prepare myself for it to be days before he texts me back, like when I sent the rare vulnerable text around the one-year anniversary of my brother’s death and asked him not to drink his way through grief. But this time his response comes back quickly. He fires off questions about the tree, but also the roof, my husband’s physical therapy, my youngest’s pinky finger.  He tells me we can get this done, no problem, do not hire a tree service, he wants to help in any way he can.

Survivor’s guilt goes from concept to experience as the thought darts through my head: He has time to help me because my brother’s dead. Even if it’s true that my brother’s addiction and the resulting costs to my father’s time, money, and resources impacted his ability to help me, it’s not as if I would have agreed to pay that price to have his help now. Not even for the way something blooms in my chest when I ask my dad for help and get an immediate yes in response.

*

The words dad and father have such different connotations. My dad cuts down the wood that heats his house. My dad and I take my niece on hikes and tell her stories about her daddy. My dad has a chainsaw I might borrow. A father, on the other hand, is mostly an explanation. I’m estranged from my father – that’s the formal line I used to tell people to explain his absence.  Writers care about diction and connotation because the right words help us tell our stories. The reader feels different things if I use the word deadbeat or mysterious or long-lost to describe my father. They feel the frost in father and the warmth in dad. There is no alternate word for daughter; only the one.

The story I’ve long told myself about my father uses straightforward words: my father stopped seeing me when I was in middle school and my mom and stepdad raised me through the hardest years on their own. A chapter in the story might read like this: The last time I asked my father to come to Louisville and help me with something it was 2010 and he said no.

*

Long before the Veterans Administration and an unprecedented streak of stable employment allowed me and my husband to buy our home, we rented an 1,100 square foot bungalow five miles west. It was 2010 and we were still feeling the effects of the post-2008 fallout. It turned out our landlords were, too. They were forced to sell their home and we (the colicky newborn, the toddler, and two over-degreed and underemployed adults) were forced to accept the grim reality that we could not afford a new place. Instead, we would move into my mom and stepdad’s small brick ranch.

The day we moved out of the rental house, when it came time to hoist the washer up the basement stairs, the tight fit took some of the original 1920’s doorframe with it. The white-painted frame splintered and exposed raw wood, like flesh tearing to reveal bone. We will never save up enough for a new place if we don’t get our deposit back was my only thought as I stared at the wounded doorframe. Neither my husband nor I are what you would call handy, especially then (this was before you could look up anything on YouTube). I was desperate. I flipped up my Blackberry Pearl, composed a text asking for help, and used the new camera feature to send a grainy picture to my father. We hadn’t spoken since my second son was born. I don’t remember exactly what he said back, but I know it could be summed up as no. I called my mom in tears. She brought over putty and paint and we fixed it enough to make it unnoticeable.

I never asked him for anything else. At least that’s the story I told myself.

*

My dad arrives to help me take down the broken branches on a sunny spring day. He brings his chainsaw, my stepmom, my niece, and donuts. He’s dressed in the working clothes I associate with cutting up wood – jeans, denim long sleeve shirt, work boots, and a hat to block the sun. If not for the lack of hair under the hat and the lines that now run across his face like creeks through earth it would be like no time has passed since I was a child trailing him around the farm.

My husband is working, the once colicky newborn and toddler are now older and away at (middle) school, and my stepmom’s attention is on my six-year-old niece, so it’s me and my dad left to tackle the tree.  In another life my brother might have come down too, like we helped with the firewood when we were kids. Sometimes I think about how my whole adult life we poured our love into my brother but not each other, and how these moments, just the two of us, are like a consolation prize, when you get something nice but you still lost.

We get to work, breaking only for pizza or to admire my niece’s theatrics and occasional demands for attention. We fall into an easy pattern – he cuts, I carry. We work like that for hours. We don’t talk a lot beyond the job. We couldn’t hear each other over the buzz of the chainsaw anyways. But even in the quiet lulls there are no serious discussions about the past, or my brother, or the conversation we have both tucked into our pocket like a buckeye you save to worry with your thumb: the what happened when I was a kid? talk and the what’s your side of the story? conversation.

They’re conversations he says he’s eager to have. When I sent the text on the anniversary of my brother’s death and he finally responded a few days later, he casually mentioned he read an essay I published about him under a pen name back in 2017. At the time we barely spoke unless there were updates about my brother’s various legal troubles and addiction relapses, or the dutiful invite to one of the boys’ birthday parties. In the essay I wrote about how my father was a stranger, a ghost. Four years later, as we texted about that very essay, he said wanted us to know each other, wanted to fill in the gaps. I didn’t text back all the things I have learned about him since I wrote that essay: that he likes the way walnut casings smell, that he has buddies who play bluegrass with my favorite musicians, that he found his youngest child dead from an overdose and survived it.

Today we are both content to keep those conversations tucked away awhile longer and do something we haven’t done in almost thirty years: work together. I wonder if other people realize the small miracles found inside the basic act of doing a task with their dad. Painting a room. Doing the dishes. Moving a dresser. We’ve never done these things together. In the past year we’ve spent more time with each other than in the previous thirty, but mostly on hikes or sitting around a table talking. This act – this doing – feels different. Like my whole adult life, we’ve been strangers visiting but today, today we are a dad and his daughter cleaning up a mess.

*

The truth is growing up I was a daddy’s girl and I basked in his attention like a seedling in spring weather. Dad, read the poem I wrote. Dad, look at the snake I caught, caught him right behind the head so he can’t bite me, like you showed me. Dad, can we play baseball after dinner? Dad, watch this.

What is it about our parents that makes us revert back to our youngest selves? My friends describe this phenomenon, too. How after five minutes with their mothers they go from self-assured middle-aged woman to the irresponsible child flushed with shame, or how the presence of their father can take them from easy going adult to willfully obstinate adolescent for no understandable reason. It’s as if our bodies remember the time when our parents were our whole universe, and what it took to break away and make a universe of our own. Maybe that’s why almost every essayist and memoirist writes about our parents. Maybe it’s muscle memory.

*

Like the sun makes its arc over the yard as we work, casting us first in silver and later in golden light, the passage of time also casts things in a different hue. Before the ice storm took down the tree limbs, I was working on another essay, this one revisiting my brother’s eulogy. I reread every one of my brother’s letters in preparation. I found new details for the essay, but the two letters that stayed on my mind long after I’d put the box back on the shelf had little to do with my brother.

One was the first letter my brother ever sent me from prison, dated August 2009. I saw the date and did the math. My brother was locked up off and on for ten years, a tidy decade, age twenty-two to thirty-two. Holding the letter, I realized our dad spent a decade with an incarcerated son. The new beginnings and relapses, lawyers’ fees and court costs, commissary deposits and phone cards fell on him. When I was asking him to come to Louisville and repair a piece of splintered wood, he was fresh in the early days of trying to figure out how to fix a splintered son.

The second was a letter from my father, written in 2012 (two years after the infamous no). I flushed with shame when I realized I held his response to a letter I wrote asking (begging) for money. We’re more of a generational trauma than generational wealth kind of a white family, so no one had anything to spare. Except my dad. He sent a check for $75 (more than I got for hocking my vintage dress collection) with the letter I now held in shaky hands: Glad to help, keep us informed and we will help when possible. I enjoyed seeing everyone at the birthday party. I am very proud of you and your family. We love you and hope to spend more time with you.

I forgot about the letter and the money, my memory cutting out what didn’t fit the narrative. I forgot my dad has never expressed anything but pride in me. When he found the essay I wrote about him the first thing he did was compliment the writing. When I wanted to write about the things that killed my brother, he gave me his unconditional blessing. A year of quarantine and grief had already made me question the story I told myself about my childhood, especially the one-dimensional main characters: mother – hero; father – villain; daughter – victim. And now I held in my hands tangible proof of a glaring plot hole.

Sometimes it feels like the narrative of my life is crashing down like the big limbs in our backyard, unable to hold under all the weight of something new.

*

We writers (and readers) want tidy endings, or at least emotionally satisfying ones. When I wrote about my dad before, I said There is no word that explains how girls love absent fathers. Maybe I got that right; sometimes there is no word. There’s only an ever-expanding story.

It’s fitting that something as ordinary as wood split in two could expand ours. I only have to close my eyes and I’m eight years old, riding the carryall down into the woods to get the firewood for the winter. I’m scrambling onto the back with my brother and lining up on the L-shaped lift, as good as any ride at the county fair. My belly flips as we rise in the air. There are no helmets or belts. We whoop, we holler, we hold on tighter for the descent and hope the worn wood doesn’t give us splinters. The air is thick with the contrasting smells of decaying leaves and fresh sniffs of split wood. The sun shoots through what’s left of the canopy in perfectly defined beams; they warm the crown of my head as we work. Our annual tradition falling right before my birthday makes it feel special even though it’s simply preparing for the next season before the current one slips away. When my brother dies eight days after my thirty-seventh birthday, I will think of the way I’ve always felt autumn in my body, deep in my chest, like something I love that I’m going to lose, and I’ll wonder if I always knew.

Once the branches are cut into pieces and stacked in tidy piles my dad loads the chainsaw back into their car. My stepmom and I bump elbows and my niece jumps into her booster seat with an unceremonious wave. The normalcy of the afternoon leaves disbelief in their wake as they drive away. This, then, is what it can be like. This is what can happen when the branch breaks and you use what remains to start a fire, to warm something new.

We finally got a clear view of the damage once we’d cut our way to the last of the second branch. The biggest of the two, it was still attached to the trunk. With most of the mess cleared we could now see the deep wound three feet tall, shiny and thick with sap congealed like a scab where the branches broke and took big pieces of the trunk with them.

As we stared up at the injured pine, I asked my dad if the tree was going to make it.

“Maybe,” he said. “The wound is pretty bad. But even if you lose it eventually it’s still got some time left.”

Lucie Brooks is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. You can read her work in Catapult and Taunt

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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

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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/

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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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Family, memories

Whatever Will Be

March 19, 2022
flowers on table time

Which scene should I begin with?

The time I threw coffee in her face to shut her up? Fortunately, it was a cold cup of coffee and we laughed about it. I haven’t the foggiest idea what we were arguing about.

Or the time she sat across from me and told me about a man who was dying of cancer who forgave and embraced his lesbian daughter after disowning her. I asked her what that had to do with me. (I, too, had cancer.) She said, well, you could forgive your daughters for not shaving their arm pits. (I think she thought she was being funny.) I gave her my most evil stare and said, “Never.” I was serious and she knew it.

How about when I sat all my girls down in the kitchen nook that looked like a diner with its red vinyl booth seating and told them what they needed to hear: that their father was a terrible man, a drunk, an alcoholic, who probably didn’t love them. She was 10 years old. She smiled, sort of a confused smile, and looked out the window and then asked to be excused.

I called her to ask her to come take care of me after my upcoming surgery to have my varicose veins removed. I told her that she should be the one to take care of me because she didn’t have anything important going on in her life. She refused.

She did come at a different time, when I really did need her. She stayed for a week while my husband, her stepfather, was away. I was very sick, bedridden. She asked me if I was afraid of dying. I said no, giving her my famous dirty look. I told her I was afraid of suffering. I made her read to me. I mean she was happy to read to me until we came to this pornographic section of the novel and she said she wouldn’t read it aloud to me and I made her.

When she was in college and needed money, I would sigh deeply, expressing deep disappointment, and tell her to ask her father.

Or how about the time she announced she was dropping out of college, in her last year. I was so angry. I told her I had always wanted to drop out of college but no one let me. Then I screamed at her, what about all that wasted money?

When a son-in-law I couldn’t stand and who I refused to talk to died, she was visiting me. My response to his accidental death: Well, that ends that argument. My response to his large funeral: Well, if you die young, you get a big turnout. I was with her when her father died, my first husband. My response: It is for the better.

She gave me a book that she said changed her life and she thought I would like. It was called, Women Who Run with the Wolves, all about women and creativity and psychology. I could not stand the book. I told her it was a bunch of baloney. I hate goddamn character-building experiences.

I took their father back to court for more child support. The judge laughed at me. My daughters were grown women. He still owed me money, I said. I don’t care. I was right.

I refused to see any of my children at the end. I didn’t want them to see me in my weakness. I refused to accept the fact that I was going to die. If I let them come visit me, I would be admitting defeat. I didn’t want their pity or their new-age, hippy ideas to comfort me.

Someone sent me a guardian angel pin. I opened it and it was broken. I showed it to her. See? I said. See the damage of this guardian angel shit.

***

When I called my stepfather to tell him we were coming, he said we were too late. She died 20 minutes ago. When I heard the news, the first thing that popped into my head was the song: Ding, Dong the witch is dead. I would like to wipe that from my memory.

We sat with a minister my stepfather had brought to their house. The man began by saying, “I never knew your mother.” Of course he didn’t. They weren’t churchgoers. Why was he here? To talk about the funeral service and to be of help in this sad time. I piped up: “That’s it. That’s all there is? That’s her life? It’s over?” There was some awkward silence and I looked around at my siblings and her husband, a bit apologetic. I’m certain the minister thought it was grief speaking but it wasn’t. What I meant was: No goodbyes. No final I love you. No final shared memories or laughter or forgiveness. No nothing. That’s it. It’s over.

This is what I will do. This is what I will try to do. I will go back to the time before.

“There is a time in our lives, usually in mid-life, when a woman has to make a decision – possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life – and that is, whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point where they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises.”   – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves

I will remember a houseful of women, giggling daughters and a divorced suburban mom. She was in her early 30s. Our dancing together to ‘Shall We Dance’ and ‘I feel Pretty’.  I will remember her as the actress she was and that the roles she played, from Rumpelstiltskin to Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I will remember her joy at seeing me on stage and calling me a ham. (Was she jealous of me? Wait, don’t go there.)  I will remember her loyalty to us and her involvement in our school lives. And how we laughed as we imagined the men in our neighborhood as possible boyfriends for her.

When the memories of my bitter, angry mother overwhelm me, I will go back to the time before, the time before she succumbed to a resented life with no regrets. The time when we would sing together, off-key, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the futures not ours to see, que sera, sera’.

time

J. Courtney Reid is a playwright, with two produced plays, Don’t Leave Me Just Yet for the Unchained Theatre Festival in Long Island City and Still in Prison, performed in venues in the Capital District of New York, under a New York State Artist Grant. She is an essayist. Published pieces include Learning Through the Ages in the Oxford Journal of Public Policy, and Sarah Orne Jewett in Maine Life Magazine. She has been a Features Editor for a small newspaper in NH and a bookstore owner in Saratoga Springs, NY. An emeritus Professor of English from SUNY Adirondack Community College, she was awarded the President’s and Chancellor’s Award in Teaching. She has, astonishingly, discovered a new love of painting. (Proof is above.)  Follow J. Courtney online at her blog, Opening Up the Valves and on Twitter: @JCourtneyReid1

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Time to (re)invigorate your writing?

Check out the Circe Promptapalooza!

Promptapalooza is the most fun you’ll have in a writing class. Instead of beat drops, we’ll have prompt drops.

Capped at 30 participants and happening only 4 times a year, these three-hour generative workshops, with opportunities to share, will get you motivated, inspired, connected, and curious.

Promptapalooza is great if you’re struggling with writer’s block, feeling adrift without a writing community in these strange days, or just want to laugh, learn, and dig deep.

When: Sunday April 3, 10am-1pm PST
Where: The Zoom Room
How Much: $250/person
Who: Gina Frangello and Emily Rapp Black.

**Anyone who enrolls in the class and later chooses to work with Circe privately will receive $100 off any of coaching/editing packages.**

Email info@circeconsulting.net to enroll now!

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.