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Guest Posts, memories

The Song of the Cicada

March 31, 2021
horse

By Jennifer Shneiderman

The quarter horse’s coat is shining in the sun like a freshly peeled buckeye seed. It is only 8:30 and already the humidity is up. The riding instructor, Dottie, guides the horse about by the reins, her tan muscular arms and rough hands revealing the physicality of farm life. Dottie wipes her brow with a red bandana. The suffocating Northwest Ohio heat will hover until evening when the fireflies glimmer and the sweet smell of corn washes over land cut into quilt-like agricultural squares. The buzzing of cryptic annual cicadas pulses and heaves in the heavy air.

Dottie watches as I became more confident, going around the ring, relaxing slightly into the saddle and going a little faster with each revolution. The horse trots and my internal organs adjust to the jerking movement. Next, I learn how to navigate a bridge obstacle. Dottie places a wooden platform, made of worn gray boards, on the ground. I practice having the horse step up, cross and descend. The platform is only a few inches tall, so it feels simple enough.

Suddenly, the trainer excuses herself. “I have to make a quick call,” she says abruptly. “Is that okay?” I’m too surprised to object. Sometimes, my Midwestern politeness gets in my way, to the point of endangerment. I watch her retreating figure as she hops over the fence and makes a beeline for a little white house by the weathered barn.

I sit for a while, the horse shifting, the only sound the creak of the leather saddle. I am grateful for the bit of breeze that blows through my hair and cools my reddening cheeks. I consider taking a turn around the ring on my own. I want to make progress quickly. My sister, two years older, is an avid horsewoman who disappears during these short hometown visits to go riding with her high school friends. I desperately want to join them and develop the close relationship with my sister that passed us by in our youth.

My heels dig into the horse’s flanks and I make that clicking sound with my tongue. We reach the small platform and I guide the horse on top of it. The horse’s hoof stamps down on the planks, too close to the edge, and the platform flips high in the air. The horse rears and takes off at a gallop across the field. The world goes violently sideways, blurring and jerking as the horse bucks and convulses. I fly off, hit my head and elbow and land on my back. I become acutely aware that I’m not wearing a helmet.

I lay on the ground, my head and back throbbing, my elbow a mess of dirt, grass and blood. Dottie comes running, sprinting across the field and calling my name. She reaches me, sees that I am conscious and puts her hands on her hips.

She advises sternly, “You really should get back on the horse. Otherwise, you’re gonna be scared to ride again.”

I feel a stiffness come over me, and I tell her I think I should see a doctor first. She shrugs noncommittally and, with perhaps a hint of disdain, watches me get up and limp to my rental car.

I gingerly climb into the drivers seat, my lower back throbbing. I’m not sure where to go for an exam. My family doctor died years ago. I drive to my father’s office. He works for the local newspaper, so he would know of the local businesses and medical treatment facilities. I stumble past the front office staff and they stare at me from behind their computer screens. My father is sitting at his desk engaged in what sounds like a printing press lease negotiation. I point to my bloody, pebble- encrusted elbow and he gestures toward a chair with his chin. I slowly sit down, cupping my left elbow in my right palm. I wait as he continues, his voice low and his eyes averted. I touch my head and feel the blades of grass and dirt matted in my hair. I pull them out with my fingers and drop the debris in a metal waste can. After about 10 minutes, I knock on his desk with my knuckle to get his attention. He holds up his index finger sharply for me to wait.

I get up and go to an empty desk in the front office and take out a phone book. I find an urgent care center on the edge of town and drive the mile and a quarter. The terse receptionist is leery about treating anyone from out of town, even if an insurance card is produced. She wants payment up front. I give her my Visa card and sit uncomfortably in a plastic chair. There are a few other people in the waiting room and we watch the news on a TV mounted on the wall. Madonna is being rescued from her own violent equestrian encounter. She was thrown from a horse on her English country estate, cracking three ribs and breaking her collarbone and a hand. Comparisons are  drawn to Christopher Reeves’ catastrophic accident, disability and eventual death. It dawns on me that I am getting off easy.

Finally, the doctor examines me and sends me for an X-ray. My elbow is fine and I don’t have a concussion. But my pelvis has a hairline fracture, painful but not requiring surgery, that resembles the Ohio Interstate 70 undulating horizontal line.

I cut my trip short. Driving out of town the next afternoon, I pass my  high school, a one story brick building surrounded by green corn stalks and bordered by a creek that overflows in the spring. I pull over and listen to the siren song of the male cicadas. They will return next year, the females forever silent, the deafening vibration of their hollow drum insides washing over the fields.

Jennifer Shneiderman is a writer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indolent Book’s HIV Here and Now, The Rubbertop Review, Writers Resist, the Poetry in the Time of COVID-19, Vol 2, anthology, Variant Literature, Bright Flash Literary Review, Trouvaille Review, Montana Mouthful, the Daily Drunk, Sybil Journal, Unique Poetry, Anti-Heroin Chic, Terror House, Thirteen Myna Birds, Potato Soup Journal, Awakened Voices, GreenPrints, Prospectus, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, and The Perch. She was the recipient of an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Laura Riding Jackson poetry competition.

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Family, Guest Posts, memories

Binding the Generations

March 7, 2021
papa

By Daniel Osborn

On Sundays, my parents drove my sister and me to Hingham for dinner with Nana and Papa Al at my father’s childhood home. Growing up, this house was the thing of legend. Unassuming in a town notable for its critical mass of colonial mansions, conspicuously displaying plaques from the local historical society that advertised the 18th and 19th century dates of their construction, generations of Osborns had lived in this modest home with acres of lawn and woods beyond. It did not have a plaque but it possessed an iconic place in family lure.

The story goes that my Papa was born upstairs, in the room at the end of the hall, past the bathroom. Hearing this story as a child, it seemed otherworldly. I could not fathom a birth outside of a hospital, let alone a lifetime spent living in the same house. Yet, my stoic Papa was one with the home, devotedly tending to the land, the custodian of the property. His love was quiet and understated, more diligent than overtly affectionate.

The Hingham house was always a source of pride for me. It echoed with unmet relatives who seemed so distant as to have lived in a time unimaginable to me and the trappings of my late 20th century childhood. I was raised on Ninja Turtles and Nickelodeon and the few glimpses I had of previous generations from yellowed photographs made me question whether they were at all acquainted with the automobile and telephone, let alone cable television and the action figures spawned by cartoon programming.  Black-and-white people once inhabited the home that I came to associate with endless rounds of card games with my Nana and evenings spent trying to up the sarcastic ante one pithy remark at a time in between bites of pizza from Denly Garden.

My Nana usually had enough cutting remarks in reserve to protect her honorary title of wittiest Osborn. Dorothy Parker may have woken up every day to brush her teeth and sharpen her tongue but my Nana could have held her own at the Algonquin Round Table, if only circumstances had favored her in youth. The premature death of a mother, an alcoholic father, the Great Depression, and a childhood spent bouncing around between relatives does a lot to develop a biting sense of humor but is not, exactly, the formula to getting an adoring audience of sophisticates to guffaw at one’s quips.

Arriving at the Hingham house, I would often see my Papa sitting outside in the shade by the barn in the backyard. Beyond the barn was the field. On days when I would walk straight into the house without checking by the barn, we would be greeted by my Nana at the kitchen table. “Where’s Papa” somebody would ask, inevitably eliciting the response, “He’s down in the field.” The low muffle of a ride-on lawn mower indicated the distance between Papa and the house.

Whenever I strain to conjure a mental image of my Papa, I imagine him riding his lawn mower in the field or sitting on a white plastic lawn chair down by the garden wearing an almost neutral expression that all but conceals his urge to be younger and physically fit enough to tend to his crops without the reluctance of a body in its ninth decade. In the days immediately following his death, I sat in rapture in the same kitchen where my Nana and I often ate lunch and exchanged verbal jabs. In these emotionally exhausting days, this space was transformed into a sanctuary from grief. Eddie Carnes and Tom Studley, my Papa’s lifelong friends, regaled my family with stories from their youth and filled in the details of a life I only knew in broad strokes. Only a teenager when my Papa passed, I had hardly considered his life before my time. My adolescent mind was still too enveloped in the immediacy of youthful egocentrism to entertain the notion that Papa was more than who he was in relation to me in this particular stage of his life. His mannerisms were given a backstory with each colorful accounting of his time as a young man.

Tom’s loose and wrinkled skin hid in its valleys his World War II era Army tattoos, the ones gotten when deployed with my Papa in the Pacific. Tom spoke without the reservation that marked my Papa’s interpersonal style. For every moment of silence we spent together in that kitchen during his life, Tom volunteered to fill this space with war stories. Now, my Papa’s limp had an origin. It was not the toll taken by time, the signifier of age I assumed but, instead, the emblem of personal sacrifice worn long after parades ended and uniforms were relegated to collect dust and musty odors in closets. Eddie and Tom laughed as they recounted my Papa’s impressive physical strength as he lifted bombs and other munitions with apparent ease. By the time I started planting the garden with him, his broad shoulders and thick hands were a reminder of a gradually eroding powerfulness. My presence in the field was, in part, because I now enjoyed my own ease with physical tasks that were increasingly becoming out of my Papa’s reach, too demanding for him yet not even registering with me as taxing.

It was in the garden that I felt most like I was participating in my family’s heritage. As a child, I watched with awe and embarrassment as my Papa and father used tools and unveiled their adeptness at maintaining the property. Over the creek bed separating the grassy field from the tree-lined woods beyond, my Papa and father built two foot bridges by hand. I observed as they measured and cut, ordered and arranged, and, all the while, worked in concert in a nearly unbroken silence. From a pile of lumber emerged newly engineered connective tissue to the untamed portion of the property. While I am sure some trivial duties were delegated to me, I felt utterly inept in contrast to their aptitude for executing the undertaking. Then and now, tools are alien to me. My dandy-like tendencies precluded any understanding of their process. I simply knew that my Papa possessed a work ethic and an acuity for such tasks that mystified me.

My father worked alongside his father on these types of projects throughout my childhood. Together, they ascended ladders and repainted the house. They cut down trees and chopped the wood. I played cards with my Nana and looked on from a distance much of the time. The two of them completed tasks together, both intuitively understanding the nature of the work and the processes at hand. Neither looked dumbfounded enough to ask at each step along the way, “What do I do next,” a question I swallowed more than I posed, lest I appear totally lost in these chores. But, there was always a tension between the two men.

Papa Al spoke infrequently, using his hands and a sunrise-to-sunset work ethic, instead, to communicate to the world. Yet, he always managed to connect with my sister and me. Without fail, he would greet me with the question, “How’s old Chester,” inquiring about my childhood dog. I would give an update, keeping silence at bay for a moment. It seemed to my father that from the time his father became Papa Al to his grandchildren, his emotional distance and unpolished paternal style were replaced with a more affectionate state. My Papa would always remain a quiet man but, to my father, his dad had undergone a transformation into a more gentle person. My father watched on as Papa unfurled a spirit unknown to him as a child living under the yoke of a more stern paternal figure.

The time in the garden during my youth that defines my memories of Papa Al are markedly different than the associations my father has with his childhood. As Papa introduced me to the process of tilling the soil and supervising the ground until it bore fruit, I adopted an enthusiasm for the work. On occasion, my father would recount the laboriousness of being a child on these acres with the grass-to-be-mowed and the garden-to-be-weeded. A favorite didactic tale my father would recount was when he would be caught or accused of being bored. His father would then tell him to go to the garden and weed a row of string beans. In my father’s account, this could occupy the rest of his evening, replacing boredom with hours on his hands and knees plucking unwanted vegetation in between the fledgling plants. The lesson being conveyed was simple. Papa had changed over time and being his grandson was a different experience than being his son. While I got to sit in the back of the trailer that was hitched onto the lawn mower, enjoying a leisurely, albeit bumpy, ride around the property with my Papa as the chauffeur, my father was subjected to a different person in his youth. The quiet yet doting Papa was not the man my father was acquainted with at the age when he was called on to tend to the garden.

Whereas my father recounted the parts of his youth with decades-old frustration, during my teenage years, I enjoyed the work and was surprised to find an outlet to contribute to the property as more than a Sunday tourist, hoping Nana prepared my favorite dessert or stocked my preferred snacks in the back hall pantry. But, before I was invited to plant the garden, the field was where I ambled. When sports were the centerpiece of my youthful pursuits, my father and I would play catch there. Somewhat uncoordinated but determined to improve, I would chase down the baseballs that ricocheted off my glove and hurl them at my father with varying degrees of accuracy. What I lacked in innate athletic prowess, I compensated for in effort. For well over a decade, I dutifully attended practices and obediently followed coaches’ directives. For this, I was frequently rewarded with third string status and a spectator’s view of fields from the sidelines. Yet, on this hallowed ground, my father and I would throw the ball in near silence. These hours held the promise of enough improvement in my skills to ascend the ranks of little league athletics.

One day, my father presented me with a green and red bow with a quiver of arrows. In the otherwise unbroken expanse of the grassy field was a lone tree which became my target. The bow was a vestige from my father’s childhood, before the term “free range” was used to describe a parenting style which typified the autonomy afforded to his generation. With the other neighborhood kids born during the Eisenhower Administration, they would take turns shooting an arrow into the air, scattering around the property, each following the arc of the projectile and vying to be nearest when it plunged back down to earth. Raised before the concept of “helicopter” parents had taken root in the American zeitgeist, my generation straddled this laissez faire approach that granted tacit permission to young Baby Boomers’ bow-and-arrow pastimes and the more zealous hovering that I would observe later in life in affluent suburbia where parents chose to live vicariously through their Gen Z children. Listening to my father tell these stories as he taught me to aim the arrow and release it towards the tree, I was fascinated and horrified by the audacity of his childhood self to scramble across the field evading medieval weaponry. I was also envious, knowing this would not be replicated by me and my friends even with the bow in my possession.

But my ambling lasted only until I was recruited to till and plant. On the first day of what would become an annual tradition, my Papa sat just beyond the freshly plowed soil and gave instructions for how to convert the churned dirt into a series of neat and orderly rows across an expanse that approached the size of a football field. It was at this moment that my Papa handed my father a wooden spool around which was wrapped twine. The wood was dry and on the cusp of splintering. The thin rope looked aged and brittle. While my Papa sat and explained the process in short punchy sentences, my father interjected with a little back story. This spool and rope were ancient, even to him. It was a rudimentary way to ensure the rows of plants were straight and uniformly spaced. This mattered because, soon, my father and I would strike the ground with our hoes and insert hundreds of saplings to the ground.

Even though my Papa and Nana were the only two people living at the house, he filled the garden with dozens of plants that far exceeded the demand of the household. Row upon row of tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, zucchini, summer squash, butternut squash, and other varieties filled a plot that was larger than my childhood backyard. The space where I would play soccer or lacrosse with my father or search for crickets when I was younger was but a parcel of the land my Papa plowed each year and filled with vegetable plants. The overabundance of the annual harvest enabled my Nana to produce batches of her hot pepper relish, a beloved condiment to sandwiches and hot dogs. When the relish was being made, the kitchen felt dangerous and toxic. An enormous pot sat atop the stove, heat radiating off the burners. The pungent odor of white vinegar, onions, and peppers enveloped the house and penetrated one’s senses to the point where breathing felt nearly impossible and eyes strained to remain open. In the end, the relish was jarred, the tangy and spicy sauce lasting only as long as the collective self-restraint of the family could muster.

The excess of tomatoes would serve as the fodder for tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches served on scali bread with sesame seeds. Throughout my childhood, my Papa would cultivate this yield and I would arrive at the family house and be greeted by juicy tomatoes that I would savor as Nana and I played round after round of War, the only card game I ever seemed to master and, unbeknownst to me, her least favorite. The only skill required by the game was enough hand dexterity to flip one card at a time until one player possessed the entire deck. Often, I would win and benevolently split the deck again with my Nana, taking pity on her and keeping the game alive. Later, after her death, relatives would lovingly recount how little she enjoyed the game. She humored me, nonetheless.

With the remaining yield, Papa would fill the cart that he hitched to his lawn mower and drive up and down the neighborhood, delivering bags of produce to the community. Always understated, Papa would, nevertheless, find ways to demonstrate his generosity. Bestowing fresh vegetables to the neighbors was one of the acts of selflessness that came naturally to him. It was a small gesture that seemed kind but trivial to me at the time yet is so rare as to almost seem obsolete today.

With the rope unspooled, my father and I used our hoes to commence digging small holes. I had seen the hoes hanging in the barn for years with all the other farm implements that looked menacing. When my Papa was a child, the property was actually a small working farm. The family kept cows and in the grassy field were a few mounds that I was told were their final resting places. With the rampant sarcasm in the family, I never knew definitively if this was true or yet another sly remark. Many of the tools from the days of cows and more robust farming remained suspended from the rafters or mounted to the barn’s walls. We only had use for the spooled rope and hoes.

The dimensions of the garden invited my Papa’s generosity. Parceling the space between friends and neighbors, we only had to fill a quadrant on this inaugural day. Rows of corn stalks would soon grow tall in an adjacent plot, put there by John Barry. Mr. Barry was, to me, a specter during this time, a frail figure dutifully walking the grounds parallel to the work underway by the Osborns. Politely, I would wave and greet him on the occasions when our visits to the garden overlapped. Slow-moving and hunched, Mr. Barry would walk the few hundred yards from the driveway to the garden where he would plant and tend to his hundreds of heads of corn.

Years after my grandfather passed away, Mr. Barry exceeded the brevity that typified our exchange of pleasantries and informed me through a crooked smile that this garden saved his life. Recovering from surgery, he lacked the motivation to undertake physical therapy yet the long walks from his car to the garden offered the exercise he needed to recover. My Papa’s subtle generosity, the mere act of lending him a fraction of an acre, galvanized Mr. Barry to step out of bed and into the world again when he just as easily could have succumbed to resignation.

If playing catch in the field and missing the tree when I released the arrows from my inherited bow taught me anything, it’s that my physical coordination was underwhelming. While my Papa impatiently observed his son and grandson completing the annual ritual that had been his prerogative decade after decade, I struck the soil and carved out space for our plants. Lacking the muscle memory that comes from a lifetime spent caring for this property and mastering each facet of the chores, I lifted and dropped the hoe to the ground. After only a few minutes participating as an equal to my father and inheritor to my Papa’s role in the process, I missed yet another target, striking the rope and relieving the tension.

Inexperience amplifies emotion. Without reference points, it becomes nearly impossible to calibrate a response; nor is experience necessarily an antidote against novelty. Even after all these years, I can still recall the bursting sensation of my cheeks turning flush as I stood over the  limp rope in disbelief of the almost-immediate severing of this ancient tool that, in the moment, felt like a vessel holding the legacy of a family tradition that had withstood over a half century of wear and tear but less than a half hour with me. In my mind is an image of my Papa, mouth open in shock. To this day, I am unsure of this memory, doubting whether Papa’s  reaction is a figment of my imagination or if my action was actually met by his astonishment.

Just as quickly as the hoe came down on the rope, my father would bend down and tie it together, reestablishing the tension that had always been there when he and his father went out each year to plant the garden. Quickly, order was returned and I resumed the task. The disturbance lasted a few moments at most and barely a word was exchanged among us.

Without fail, on our first day of planting each summer, my father reminds me of the garden rope. He squints his eyes as his face turns crimson with the release of his wheezy laughter. He shakes his head and smiles, remembering his father and my embarrassment. Our annual tradition now consists of his mirthful reminder of my first day working in the garden.

Shortly thereafter, the laughter ends and we unspool the garden rope and dig our hoes into the ground. Soon, we are both on our hands and knees, filling in the holes and feeling the soil between our fingers. Weeks will pass before we harvest peppers to make a batch of relish. In between, we will alternate between lovingly and grudgingly tilling and weeding the garden. We will curse the deer that eat the plants. Patches of the garden now remain untilled and untended. There is no more corn that grows in the adjacent plot. But, now my dad is his grandchildren’s Papa. When my sister visits and her children enter the house, the sound of the mower in the field is being operated by my dad. He will place his granddaughter on his lap and take her for rides. My mother will walk her down to the garden to name the plants my father and I have planted. I am experimenting with kale and broccoli. We have expanded the eggplant since the deer ignore these plants. Now, it is my father who will look at what we have planted and suggest another dozen peppers or tomatoes, assuming the mantle of caretaker. The house still stands and stories are told to a new generation. They hear about Nana and Papa, real life people who they only know through flat pictures and the curated memories recalled at family gatherings. The day my hoe cut through the rope like a guillotine now lives on in the canon of family lure. No longer a rupture with the past, it is rooted in the sly and sarcastic stories told around tables by a papa to his children and grandchildren.

Daniel Osborn, Ed.D. is a program director at Primary Source, an education nonprofit. Daniel’s academic background is interdisciplinary with advanced degrees in Near East and Judaic Studies and History and Social Science Education. He is the author of Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness, published by Routledge. He also is the creator and host of the Joy and Conversation podcast on Jewish history and culture. 

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, memories

How To Feel Iranian

February 7, 2021
iranian

By Maryam Keramaty

In 1978, I left 4 Padidar Street and boarded an airplane to the United States. When the wheels left the runway in Tehran, it seemed like the end of one chapter, and as an eight-year-old I didn’t look back. Now, at fifty, I do. I retrieve memories and feel longing for home. Longing to speak fluent Farsi, savor homemade rosewater ice cream, and eat plump, fresh-picked mulberries with my father. But there was a revolution and Iran vanished. I cannot seem to bring that richness, that life, back.

I want to be that eight-year-old again. The girl who has friends in a bilingual school, picnics on the river rocks with my parents, sister, and family friends, and day trips on winding roads through Alborz Mountain. I want to be the four-year-old who curiously watches tadpoles in the mucky backyard pool, plays with many cousins at large family gatherings, and sleeps under mosquito netting on the back porch. I want to be the young girl who is still Iranian.

Life in Medford, Massachusetts, is different now, but I still remember, remember enough to ache. The school bus driver who adored me, the majestic weeping willow tree in the front yard, and kesh, a schoolyard game I played with friends. The richness of the life I left is palpable. I want to see noon e sangak, stone bread, come out of the oven at the neighborhood bakery, smell sumac on my beef kebob and basmati rice, and taste the soft, sweet figs picked in our backyard. These memories come only in drips, as if to quench my thirst for only a moment. Can I ever quench this thirst? Can I retrieve Iran?

***

Seated at the kitchen table I share with a roommate, I open a gold wooden box, one that holds treasures from another time. I reach into the box and pick up my small perfume bottle from a “make your own perfume” kit. The bottle is no more than two inches high with a flowery round sticker: “Persian Spice.” I take a sniff, with hopes the scent will evoke memories, but there is nothing. It has been over four decades, after all.

I jingle the tarnished tribal Iranian necklace passed down to me from Grama, my American grandmother who visited Iran when my sister and I were born. Small spear-shaped trinkets dangle, and red and blue stones are embedded in silver shapes. I put the necklace on, half hoping I will be transported to a place, and the feeling of home. Nothing.

I stand to spread a small square cloth on the kitchen table and run my hands over the tan and beige paisley pattern and the hundreds of white tassels that hang from the edges. The texture is worn, with coarse, thick cotton threads. It doesn’t take me back. It feels like just a tablecloth to me. No memories, again nothing. My hopes for Iran to come to me are dashed.

These objects don’t bring my Iranian identity back to me, but now I remember spontaneous encounters with Iranians do. The interactions bring a feeling of surprise and generate warmth in my whole being. My heart opens; emotions swell up in me.

One sunny spring day on the community bike path, I notice a perplexed man who seems to be looking for something. It is Seezdebedar, the thirteenth day after Noruz, the Iranian New Year. The green clump of wheatgrass in his hand is the giveaway that he is Iranian. He is looking for a body of water to throw the wheatgrass in for good luck. Salam, Ayde shoma mobarak. Hello, and Happy New Year, I say. His name is Balash. I feel Iranian.

Babak owns the Iranian grocery in Watertown. I introduce myself, hesitate with my words, and tell him my dilemma with the language. When his customers come in, they choose from the tea, rice, dates, halvah, and chickpea cookies, and I hear Farsi here and there. I purchase lavooshak, dried fruit leather, dried mulberries, and dried squash seeds for my father. Ghodafez. Goodbye. I promise Babak that I will come back to practice my Farsi. I feel Iranian.

I crave to feel Iranian again for more than a few moments. I want to feel a grand reawakening, to feel fully alive, to feel Iran coursing through my blood. When I try to bring back this culture, my place of belonging, a culture that was mine, that was me, I’m not sure if it is retrievable. It may be futile; I may not be able to completely reclaim that part of myself.

***

The day my father returned from a trip to Iran, I sat in anticipation, kneeling in front of his suitcase on the rug in the living room. My father brought gifts, gave updates on family property there, how his siblings were, and when he could bring our Persian rugs back to the States. With relatives speaking in Farsi and my mother passing golden-colored tea around the room, I felt Iranian. But when I flipped open the top of the suitcase, the smell of my childhood home completely overwhelmed me. I was transported to Iran. I was there. I wept visceral tears that went unnoticed. Ache. Longing.

This experience stayed with me. The smells from the suitcase brought me closer to Iran. Now I decide a journey through my sense of smell in the kitchen might be a place to feel Iranian. I gather pomegranate sauce, walnuts, chicken, and rice. Tea, rosewater, and saffron. Sumac. Yogurt, seltzer, and mint. I have chosen a five-part menu: polo, rice; fesenjoon, a pomegranate and walnut dish; doogh, a beverage; sohan asali, saffron and honey candy; and chaee, tea.

I cook what I know and have seen family members cook. But, unlike my relatives, I rely on recipes. I regret not paying attention to my father and my grandmother, Maman, as a young adult when they cooked. Both have passed. My experience cooking Persian food is close to none. For these dishes I rely on an Iranian woman’s blog, a New York Times clipping from my mother, and things my father has told me.

1. Polo

I check on the basmati rice still soaking from yesterday. I empty it into a colander and rinse one more time. I measure eight cups of water in my big pot, turn the heat up to high, and set the basmati rice next to it on the countertop.

Basmati rice and tadik are staples of the Iranian diet, eaten at lunch and dinner. Tadik is the crust of cooked rice on the bottom of the pot, up to half an inch thick, made with vegetable oil and often with thinly sliced potatoes. When it’s cooked right, the bottom becomes crispy and golden orange. Perfect tadik has not come easily to me. I remember Maman’s secret was to use a lot of oil.

As children, the most sought after item at family dinners was tadik. My younger sister, cousins, and I scrambled to it, drawn to its color, crunch, and flavorful oils we would lick off our fingers. Going back for seconds was allowed, but then my mother insisted we get a plate and eat some of the main dishes. My father, my aunts, and Maman perfected tadik. I regret not paying more attention when they cooked.

The rice goes in the pot. Next, I add two tablespoons each of olive oil and butter. I pile the rice in a pyramid, away from the edges of the pot, and poke some holes in the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon. Then, I wrap a dishtowel on the lid and knot it on top to trap the condensation. I allow to steam for thirty-five minutes, then remove the lid, face down into the steam, and feel the droplets on my face. In the steam from basmati rice, I feel Iranian in whiffs, in wafts, in ephemeral swirls.

The warm house, the steamy kitchen, and the fragrance of basmati rice cooking on the stove transport me. The smell is breathtaking and brings me to Maman. Her great care and love in preparing meals for her family is memorable. For example, to make sheereen polo, or sweet rice, she carefully laid slivered orange peels on paper towels, and with short fingers, and much patience, rolled the ground beef into tiny meatballs. Little did I know the smells in her kitchen were planting memories for me.

2. Fesenjoon

This, a favorite dish in my family, is made with pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and chicken. My mother found the recipe in the New York Times, and I pasted it in my recipe binder. I realize the need for a good Iranian cookbook.

As I toast the walnuts in a pan over medium heat, I imagine my grandmother patiently chopping walnuts with a knife; I feel unauthentic but use a food processor anyway. Then I add two cups of water and a cup of pomegranate syrup, and simmer with the lid ajar for forty minutes. The pomegranate syrup is the sourest thing I’ve ever tasted and is strangely sweet as well.

Next, I saute an onion in a heavy pot, add a quarter teaspoon of turmeric and four chicken breasts until cooked on all sides. In go the pomegranate sauce and walnuts, and I cover the chicken, adding water if necessary; add sugar to taste; leave out the dash of cinnamon because it sounds strange. I put my nose in the pot: steamy, warm, sweet, and nutty. I inhale and exhale. Inhale again and feel transported to Maman’s small apartment in the States, cozy and Iranian. Iran smells like a blend of saffron, sumac, and rosewater. Saffron to color the rice, tart sumac to spice the beef kebobs, and rosewater to flavor baked goods and ice cream.

3. Doogh

Next, I make doogh, a concoction that perfectly complements Persian cuisine. It is one of those Farsi words Americans can’t master; it is nearly impossible for them to make the rolling “gh” sound in the back of their throats. When I do it, I feel Iranian. Doogh is found bottled in Iran and here at the Iranian grocer. It is a healthy drink with a sour flavor, a tickly bubble, and a salty zing. I pour a glass of club soda, spoon a few tablespoons of whole milk yogurt into the glass, and stir vigorously. Then, salt to taste. I crush mint leaves between my fingers and sniff in the refreshing and bright scent. Add to the doogh and taste. Authentic and pure Iran.

I imagine my father pouring me a glass on our table by the patio in Iran. It doesn’t seem like a drink a child would enjoy, but my memory wants to tell me I did. I imagine my father teaching my mother how to prepare the drink in her adopted home. I imagine my younger sister tasting it and not liking it. These speculations are one way I stay connected to my Iranian identity. I am playing with memories, using imagination to fill the empty spaces. For as long as it takes to drink the doogh, I feel Iranian.

4. Sohan Asali

Next, I make sohan asali, saffron and honey candy. I put sugar, honey, saffron, and slivered almonds in a small pot over medium heat. The recipe says to stir often until the sugar is melted. My grandmother’s sohan was a smooth, dark orange and very hard candy with crushed pistachios on top. Sohan reminds me of family parties, where there were more desserts than my eyes could see: chickpea cookies, fried dough filled with honey, and delicate fried hexagon cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar.

I turn up the heat and stir; then I turn down the heat. As I really have no idea what I am doing, I just keep stirring. The sugar remains granular and white. Maman could tell me what to do; my father would know what I’m doing wrong, probably not being patient enough. I resign myself to the state of the sugar mixture and drop it by tablespoons onto a cooking sheet lined with parchment paper, knowing it is wrong, all wrong. I sprinkle crushed pistachios on top and allow to cool. This sohan is white, granular, and soft. I deem it an excellent effort though I feel like a fool. I missed the chance for my father to show me how it’s done properly.

5. Chaee

I prepare authentic Persian black chaee tea. My father used premium Ceylon tea, which is similar to English Breakfast. Today I use tea in a maroon and gold box. I take in the familiar earthy smell of the tea leaves. Then, I add two tablespoons to a small white teapot on the stove, pour in the hot water, and allow to steep for five to seven minutes.

You could not visit someone in Iran without being offered a cup of tea and then a second cup, and a third. In fact, visits get quite long because of lengthy goodbyes, because of the chaee and tarof. It is a ritual where a host insists you stay in their home, and you say you must leave. And the host will insist you stay. You could be offered more fruit, dessert, and tea. Even if the host has run out of time, or is tired, or really wants you to leave, tarof reigns. It applies to everyday negotiations as well, like paying for a taxi, or buying a meal, for example. This can go on for three rounds, the hostess insisting and the guest resisting. The rituals of chaee and tarof my relatives continue to use today make me feel Iranian.

I pour the tea over a tiny sieve into a mug, because I am ill-equipped; Iranians use an estakan, a glass about three inches high and an inch and a half in diameter. The estakans in my memory are rimmed with gold and come with a small white saucer. The color of the tea matters. Depending on how long it steeps, I may need to add hot water to make it lighter.

I put a sugar cube in my cheek, sip the tea as the granules melt and coat my mouth. Today, I don’t have any gaz, a sticky white candy with pistachios and powdered sugar that pairs perfectly with chaee.

Next, I cue up the Iranian music, press play, and turn up the volume. The crisp and vibrant strums of the setar transport me to my late aunt Mehry’s living room. The finger picking energetic and alive. A small drum provides a steady beat. I felt Iranian when the setar, my relatives, and a spirit of celebration filled an entire room. Now I do too, if only for the length of the song. I sway my hips, raise my arms in the air, and rotate my wrists in that seductive Iranian way. I become one with the strings and feel the movement in my belly. My breath quickens. I regret I can’t understand the words in the song, Chaharmezrab, Mahur. Not understanding touches an emptiness inside of me, of not quite belonging. I feel Iranian for the length of the song.

The music continues and I sit in my chair. I gaze at the patterns of the tablecloth and drink my tea. The meal was a half success, just like me, half Iranian. If my father were still alive, he would surely say the fesenjoon was watery. I say it is very tasty and authentic, the big triumph of the day. The sohan asali, unfortunately, was a complete failure. My future as a successful cook rests on learning from my relatives, finding the best Iranian cookbooks, and following the recipes my father told me from his memory. The items on the to-do list were to get estekans from my father’s house, ask my aunt for a good cookbook, and though I lost my chance to make sohan asali with my father, maybe my aunt Nahid will show me. I will need to buy more chaee, sugar cubes, and gaz.

The cooking is done, and those trickles of Iran, well, they’ll have to be enough for now.

With many relatives passed, I wonder, will I carry Iran for the rest of us? My intention is to retrieve Farsi, the Iranian language. I promise myself to do more than just celebrating Noruz once a year. I intend to share Iran with my teenage nephews so they know their rich heritage.

Will I carry Iran for all of us? Will I return to the country one day and stay with my second cousin, Fereshte? I imagine sightseeing in Tehran; would I weep at the sight of the architecture, the sound of the language, and the taste of the food? It has the potential to be an emotionally challenging experience, or would it be comforting to be home? Furthermore would it feel like home?

Would I feel Iranian?

Is Iran—and feeling Iranian—something that always needs to be chased? Seeking or crafting an experience is not the same as feeling Iranian naturally. That chapter has closed.

This is the way for now: sometimes feeling Iranian.

Maryam Keramaty received her bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from Simmons University and a graduate certificate in public relations from Emerson College. Currently, she is a student at Grub Street in Boston, where she is studying the craft of writing the memoir and personal essay.

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We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Birthday, Guest Posts, memories

I Hear You, Please Come In

December 26, 2020
birthday

By Charna Cassell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guest Posts, Marriage, memories

Find My

November 23, 2020
phone

By Abby Frucht

I’m in bed under the covers, my phone in my hand, my eyeglasses on, locating you. The little bullseye thing twerking I invent a way to feel it in the palm of my hand, green throb with slow glow, the map of back roads and main drags so near to my face I might trace them with my tongue, disentangling them. In my hand your route stabilizes, agitates anew, then blurs to a stop at the dead end curb where that couple once parked to have sex in our yard. In a blend of moon and lamplight they stumbled out of their car and knelt on a spot of grass to fuck. It was three in the morning, just like now, so I sat naked at the window and cranked it open to watch them going right at it, their limbs paler than worms, half in and half out of Bermuda shorts. Undisturbed by their cries, you twitched in your sleep, dreaming of tennis. Later you were grateful I didn’t rouse you to join in spying on them, and so was I. It would have been like the two of us watching a movie, one I liked but you didn’t. It was way too predictable, you would say. It took forever to get there but you knew all along what was going to happen.

You’ll turn seventy three a week from this morning.

You like to joke about death, especially now, including me in the bargain.

“G’night,” I might say. “See you tomorrow.”

“Hope so,” you’ll say.

“Let me know what we should order for curbside pick-up.”

“Bones,” you’ll say.

The little cursor reconsiders and makes its way to your parking place in our driveway. To see it blinking there fills me with panicked rage. My own pulse climbs, as it did last night and the night before. My feet turn cold. I don’t like to be tricked. I don’t trust this app. There are all sorts of ways for someone smarter than me to make fools of the rubes on the opposite end of it. Even if I get up and prowl barefoot outside to see your truck where it belongs, I won’t believe what I’m seeing. I’ll feel cheated, let down, since you’re not out and about in the midst of this scourge, so I can’t stalk you any longer, follow you around. Instead I shut down the phone, then turn it back on and start the whole app up all over again, provoking myself, stoking my adrenaline in preparation for catching you clicking shut the truck door, backing out of the driveway, gliding away.

Locating… the phone confides.

It works more quickly this time, more confidently.

Oshkosh

Now

Careful not to make a sound, I snake my arm through the blankets to set my glasses and phone atop some books on the night table. My head still undercover I shimmy sideways until one of my feet meets yours. I jerk it away, then slide my whole leg nearer and sneak my toes between your ankles to get them warm.

You keep on snoring.

You in our bed.

Our bed in our room in our house on our street in this town in this world.

Now.

Abby Frucht is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and most recently, poetry. She has been published at Narrative, Virginia Quarterly and in Brevity. Her writing has received a Best of the Web citation as well as the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. She has published nine books, the most recent of which, Maids, is a collection of poetry.

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Guest Posts, Humor, memories

The Curious Case of Russell Wilson and the Toilet Ambush

November 15, 2020
russell

By Mike Schoeffel

I

There’s no way to say this without it sounding downright strange, so I’m just going to come out with it. Russell Wilson, husband of Ciara, Super Bowl-winning quarterback and potential future NFL Hall of Famer, once ambushed me while I was sitting on a toilet in a Florida hotel. We were 13 years old. The TV show “Jackass” was popular at the time, so I’m assuming Russell was doing his best Bam Margera impersonation. Most millenials out there know what I’m talking about: Bam did this recurring bit where he’d rush into the bathroom while his dad was dropping a deuce and slap him, hard, all over. Bam’s dad would holler and cuss. It was chaos.

Cut to today. Bam is, well, Bam. Russell is the highest paid player in the NFL. I’m a freelance writer in Western North Carolina, hardly getting by. I do, however, have an awesome dog. I know this is a lot to take in.

Russell’s attack was harmless. Just a stupid teenage thing. He didn’t rip off my shirt, like Bam often did with his father. The ambush lasted a few seconds, at most, yet it’s given me a story to tell at weddings and get-togethers for the rest of my life. It’s an untoppable story. Other people talk about their kids. I reminisce about the time a multi-millionaire benignly walloped me while I was on the John.

It’s so strange and ridiculous as to be unbelievable. Yet it’s true. I know I can’t objectively prove that it happened. Unlike Bam, Russell didn’t record the incident in question. But I know that it happened. I even wrote a terrible poem about it, back in my early 20s, during my cringe-worthy Bukowski years. It’s called “i was once shoved off a toilet by a guy who went on to become a super bowl winning quarterback.”

To wit:

ok

so

the title

pretty much sums up

the first part of the story

so i’ll just pick up

at the second half

this guy

who shoved me off a toilet

in pensacola, fla

when we were 13

and teammates

on an aau baseball team

is set to make $20 million

in the very near future

he’s buddies with obama

knows drake

has shared a stage

with jessica alba

i mean, shit

his lookalike

that fills in for him

during commercial shoots

makes six figures a year

for heaven’s sake

and here i am

eating campbell’s tomato bisque

(79c per can)

three nights a week

picking my boogers

and sleeping in til 11 a.m.

trying to get by

on $1,200 per month

if i was smart

i’d had given him

a swirly

but instead

he pummeled me

on a toilet

and i still haven’t

gotten back

on my feet

Jeez.

II

Perhaps I should provide some background. I could start by explaining why my 13-year old self was in a Florida hotel with a kid who eventually became one of the most famous athletes in the world. It’s simple, really. At one point in my life, I was good at sports. Not great by any means, but talented enough to receive an invitation to play on an AAU baseball team (as mentioned in the above so-called poem) known as the Capital City Riverdogs.

This team was filled with kids who mostly lived in richer areas than I did. Russell, for instance, eventually graduated from Collegiate, perhaps the most prestigious private school in the Richmond area. Many of the players on the team knew one another somehow, but I was an outlier, raised in podunk Powhatan, a county of about 29,000 people, most of whom don camouflage and harvest deer in the fall. I wasn’t into that. Not because of high-minded morals or anything. I just wasn’t into it. I preferred hitting things with aluminum sticks and throwing stuff. My nickname was Chico, because I tanned so darkly during middle school baseball tryouts that one of my teammates thought I “looked like a Mexican.” Racist, I know. But we were young and stupid.

The Riverdogs were a talented group. In addition to me and ol’ Russ, there was also a kid on the roster by the name of John Austin Hicks (or “Jazz,” as he was known back then). Baseball fans may recognize the name: he’s now a catcher for the Detroit Tigers. If memory serves, he wasn’t even our starting catcher most of the time. He earned a lot of at-bats, sure, but catching duties were mostly reserved for Daniel Astrop, who went on to play football at Davidson. Jazz was kinda gangly back then, not yet into his own. He certainly is now. Likewise with Russell.

At any rate, us Riverdogs were decent enough to reach a national tournament held in Pensacola, Florida. It was a big trip for me. I’d never traveled that far from home, and we drove the entire 12 hours, from Richmond to the panhandle, in a small white pick-up truck owned by the father of the only other Powhatan kid on the team: Derek Starr. Derek, I’ve heard, went on to become a world-class Halo player. But let’s stay on track.

I remember a few things in particular about that Florida journey. Being crammed into that small pick-up is chief among them. We played N64 on a small TV powered by a cigarette lighter in an effort to make the close quarters more bearable. I also recall pond alligators at the hotel and a team from Cuba destroying us by 20 runs. Then there’s the horrible ear infection that besieged me during the 12-hour ride back to Virginia. I was curled up in the back, in one of those half-ass seats that small trucks often have, reeling from the pain.

I also have movies in my mind of Russell swatting dingers at the tournament’s home run derby. Then he swatted me like a heavy bag, with my pants around my ankles. I’m not sure which one happened first. But I remember it, Russell. I remember.

III

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed in July of 2018 when I came across a video that caught my eye. It was of Jazz hitting a towering home run against Justin Verlander, down in muggy Houston. Gone was the gangly kid of Riverdogs fame. In his place was a physically-imposing man, a lumberjack in uniform: 6-feet-2, 230 pounds. He seemed so comfortable in his body, so sure of his movements. He’d just taken one of the greatest pitchers in MLB history deep, and there he was, rounding the bases as though lazily jogging through the park. I saw this clip at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. I was working from home, still in my underwear. An over-medium egg popped in the pan, so I got up to flip it.

There was more to that clip than just an old teammate of mine homering at baseball’s highest level. What most people wouldn’t know, without doing some research, is that Jazz and Verlander graduated from the same high school: Goochland, the only high school in a county of the same name that’s perhaps more podunk than Powhatan.

A years before that home run, when Verlander was still a Tiger, Jazz had an opportunity to catch him. A battery from the little Land of Gooch, a county of 23,000 people. Who would’ve thunk it? In fact, Verlander played on the same American Legion squad — Post 201 — that I did, though he did so years before I donned the uniform. One of my former high school coaches coached him during legion ball. That coach used to tell us a story about how Verlander, as a sort of parlor trick, would stand on home plate and hurl a baseball over the center field fence, some 350-plus feet away.

It’s a Paul Bunyan-sized tale. And like the Russell Wilson toilet incident, there’s no way to prove this happened. But I like to believe it. Because it’s a helluva good story.

IV

Brushing shoulders with greatness before that greatness has manifested itself is a funny thing. At the time, there’s no way of knowing that what’s happening will one day become the stuff of legend. One moment, Russell is Richmond’s All-Metro Player of the Year. The next he’s winning a Super Bowl. How did he get from Point A to Point B? How many people who start at a similar Point A end up at a vastly different Point B? Selling insurance? Working construction? Freelancing from home in their underwear? Not making $35 million per year?

In 2006, Russell won All-Metro POY, he threw 33 touchdowns and led Collegiate to a state title. I was second team All-Metro quarterback that year. I’d thrown 29 touchdowns and led my team to a gut-wrenching defeat in the state semifinals, which ended when I tossed an embarrassing interception on a two-point conversion at the end of the game. The receiver was wide open in the back of the end zone, but I threw it directly into the chest of the defender in front of him. I remember thinking, right before that fateful throw, “Jeez, he’s wide open.” We lost 20-18, and I collapsed on the turf like a sad sack.

The All-Metro reception that year was held at a fancy hotel in Richmond. I sported a truly awful Beatles-esque du on steroids. It was 2006: cut me a break. Russell gave a speech that night. I have no recollection of the specifics, but I recall feeling that he was something special. Well-spoken, smart, talented. Even so, I don’t think anyone in the room believed he’d become this big.

Fast forward to the following spring, 2007. Baseball time. We hosted Collegiate in a non-conference game early in the season. Russell came on in relief during the later innings. I faced him once, and he struck me out on three straight 90-plus MPH fastballs. No movement on his pitches. Pure power, plain and simple. I was used to facing kids throwing in the upper 70s, kids on teams that could barely field rosters. I wasn’t ready for Russell.

These are the memories: subjective, unverifiable. Yet there is some documentation. Check out the Richmond Times-Dispatch record book. It’s available online. Look under most passing touchdowns in a season. There’s Russell: 40 in 2005, 33 in 2006. And there’s me, the very last name on the list: 29 in 2006. Right below some guy named Lee Bujakowski.

V

It’s August 2019 and Bam Margera is in trouble. After being in and out of rehab for years, the former Jackass star reportedly is thrown off an airline flight for being too drunk. The following day, he posts a string of videos on his Instagram page pleading for help from Dr. Phil, of all people. “The only person that I will believe on the planet is Dr. Phil,” he says. The Good Doctor agrees to meet him, and the two apparently talk about filming an episode.

Who knows what will come of it? Bam’s apparently had a string of misfortunes, some self-induced, others out of his control. He was arrested in Iceland for beating the hell out of a rental car and refusing to pay for damages. He was assaulted with a baseball bat outside of his bar, The Note, after apparently calling a woman the n-word (“I called her a crazy bitch and an idiot, but I definitely didn’t use the n-word,” he told Philly.com). He was held at gunpoint in Colombia, which purportedly caused him to relapse into alcohol abuse. These are, apparently, the facts.

Bam is 40 now, no longer baby-faced. He’s chunky and grizzled, with heavy bags under his eyes. He looks defeated, and I feel for him. Every time I see a new picture of the guy, he looks more and more like his dad, more and more like the guy he used to terrorize in the bathroom. Things apparently have been going all right for Papa Phil, though. He lost 41 pounds on VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club: down to 312 from 353. I don’t know if he’s kept it off, but if so, good for him.

VI

In February 2014, Russell plays a solid, but not great, game. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to be transcendent. He completes 18 of 25 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. A picture of serenity on one of sports’ biggest stages: the Super Bowl. His Seahawks blowout the Broncos, 43-8. It’s the third-most lopsided final in the history of the Big Game. Russell, then 25 and in his second season, has outplayed Peyton Manning, maybe the second greatest quarterback in NFL history. The former Collegiate star has fulfilled his potential, reached his Point B. The special kid has become a special adult, on top of his game at the game’s highest level.

Michael Strahan interviews Russell after the historic win (it is, after all, the Seahawks’ first championship). The Lombardi Trophy gleams between them as navy blue and bright green confetti rains. Strahan, who won a Super Bowl of his own with the Giants in 2007, asks Russell a question:

“A lot…has been put on your back, and you handled it like a veteran player. What does it say about you and the team to come out here and perform on the biggest stage…?”

As Russell responds, it’s 2006 again. He’s a thin teen, but well-spoken, modestly accepting an award in front of the best football players in the Richmond area that particular year.

“My teammates are just incredible,” he says. “We’ve been relentless all season. Ever since we lost to Atlanta last year in the playoffs, I remember having that good feeling of ‘man, we’re going to go to the Super Bowl.’ It all started with the championship off-season we had, going into training camp and having that mentality. Tonight was unbelievable.”

He says a few more things, thanks Seattle’s fans. I’m seeing all of this unfold on TV from my wife’s grandpa’s house in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Another podunk town, though not as much as Powhatan. It’s the first year of a new family tradition, one in which we eat an unhealthy amount of seafood and watch the Big Game in the Bluegrass State. The following year, I’ll move to Austin, Texas, for 24 months or so, to work in a coffee shop and freelance. I’ll never hit a home run in the MLB or throw a pass in the NFL. Nor will I enter rehab. My life isn’t glamorous. But I like making eggs in the morning and walking my awesome dog up the hill in the afternoon.

The night Russell helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, right around the time he was lifting the Lombardi Trophy skyward, a childhood friend texted me.

“Well, Chico, can you believe the guy who shoved you off a toilet is a Super Bowl champion?”

I couldn’t. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a universe in which anything else is the case.

Mike Schoeffel is a freelance writer based in Western North Carolina. His work has been published in THE USA TODAY, The Austin American-Statesman, The Richmond Times-Dispatch and numerous other publications. He has also won several Virginia Press Association and North Carolina Press Association awards. Additionally, Mike works full-time as an Asheville firefighter. You can find more of his work here.

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Gratitude, Guest Posts, memories

Take The R Train

April 2, 2020
choice

By Laraine Herring

My mother could have remained in Bay Ridge, taking the R train into Lower Manhattan to work at the Stock Exchange. She could have not met my father, who could have passed Spanish at Wake Forest and graduated there instead of transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where they did not require two years of Spanish for a History major, where he did meet my mother, who was the first female accepted into the graduate school of mathematics at Chapel Hill, at an uncharacteristic football game where she’d gone with her roommate as an out for her blind date. But if she had remained working at the Stock Exchange riding the R train this would not have happened.

My father would have married a woman named Betty, not Elinor. I’m reasonably confident of this because when he died we found drawings Betty had made for him of his face, his golf swing, his eyes, and she called the house a lot and tried to make friends with my mother. She stopped calling once we moved from North Carolina to Arizona, but I still have one of the pictures she drew in a box in my closet. She could have been my mother, but there’s a reasonable chance she is dead now, or at the very least married to someone who never quite measured up to my father, but who nonetheless was a decent man. Betty could be writing this piece too. She would start with: I might have married Glenn…and I don’t know what she would have written next because I don’t know her. But I have her picture.

My father could have died with the polio in 1949 like he was supposed to. Like everyone did. Like the boy who was in the iron lung next to his who died in the night, my father talking to him in the dark, not realizing he had gone. The boy’s name was Charlie, and the two times my father spoke of him, he trailed off into ellipses.

Charlie could have lived like my father lived. He could have broken out of the iron lung and not imprinted my father with his death in the night. It is hard for a boy of eight to carry the death of a boy of seven in the dark. That’s a weight that lingers, like the bitter of chocolate.

My father could have died in 1976 after his heart attack like he was supposed to. Like the doctors said he would. Like maybe he would have, except one round of doctors had already told him in 1949 he should have died and he told them he was not going to die and so he had a script for what to do the next time he heard that.

I could have died in 2017 of colon cancer, but I didn’t. I knew how to tell the doctors no because my father told them no twice. Even when he died, he told them no. He pulled out his tubes in unconscious urgency. He clawed at his oxygen. It was his time for dying, and he was telling them no to the saving.

If my father hadn’t died in 1987, I would have gone to Oregon. I had a scholarship to William and Mary and I was desperate to get out of the desert and into the green. But I graduated from high school in 1986 and I knew I couldn’t go because my father was dying and so I didn’t go, but every time I visit the Northwest I see my shadow in the train and I see a possible life where I wouldn’t have met my husband, who is a born and bred Northern Arizona man, a man who becomes sad in the rain. Too much sun makes me sad, but not my husband, and somewhere between 1986 and now I realized that every choice I make may not give me everything I want. Every choice is many choices. I can visit the trees and the water and the damp, but I slept with many wrong people before I met my husband and I know what right feels like now, even if it’s in the desert.

If I hadn’t lived with the abuser in 1988 after my father died, I wouldn’t have had my heart smashed open to an empathy I didn’t know was possible. Or I might have died there. Other women do. I walked out of their graveyard.

If my father’s family had not been Southern Baptist we might have remained in the will and could be living in North Carolina by the Atlantic in the family home. We could have an altar of sand dollars on the dining table, gathered over years of morning walks at low tide. I might wear navy and forgo white after Labor Day and know how to can peaches. But probably not.

If I had stayed in Phoenix in 2003 instead of moving to Prescott—I had to get out of the haunting heat-sun—I wouldn’t have met my husband. I left Phoenix because a tree fell on my house and then I had a dream that echoed the dream I had when we first moved to Phoenix in 1981—I will die in this place if I don’t leave—and so I was gone in a month. This is the only time in my life I made a decision of that magnitude so quickly.

That’s not true. I told the oncologist I would not do chemotherapy and radiation even quicker. They pushed it like a desperate realtor hawking swampland in Florida but I said no. I come from a long line of people who told the doctors no. They were exasperated and fired me as a patient. This was OK because I am not patient.

If I hadn’t told my doctors no, I wouldn’t have met the psychic in Encinitas the year after my surgery who handed me a rose quartz and looked me straight like only the real psychics can do and said, “It must have been so hard for you to fight for your body’s intuition.” And I cried in the middle of the psychic fair, watching the Pacific breeze blowing her psychedelic psychic skirt around her legs. She was the first person to recognize that—the first person to let me recognize that—yes, yes, I had to fight to say no. I had to fight. The wrong choice was easier. The wrong choice was covered by insurance. My wrong choices—every single one of them—were the easier decisions. The ones that cost me my voice.

“I didn’t know how hard it would be,” I told her. Harder than cancer. Harder than surgery. The refusal to walk the pre-written cancer-journey-story filleted me. “If I did chemo, I would die,” I said. And she held my hands and let me cry and the ocean carried my salt away like she always does.

If my mother had stayed in Bay Ridge riding the R train, I wouldn’t be with her today, riding the R train, returning to Bay Ridge to eat pizza at Lucas, which is now the Brooklyn Firefly, because it was where they went for pizza when she was a girl, back when she wasn’t allowed in the special math and science high school because it was only for boys, back when my father was learning how to walk again and Betty was drawing his picture and I was waiting somewhere velvet-dark until I found the woman who was strong enough to bear all of me.

Laraine Herring holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in counseling psychology. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in national and local publications. Her fiction has won the Barbara Deming Award for Women and her nonfiction work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in K’in, Tiferet Journal, The Manifest-Station, Quiet Storm, Vice-Versa, and others. She currently directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. She can be found online at www.laraineherring.com.

 

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Guest Posts, memories

Enlightenment at Cross Town

May 14, 2019
town

By Brian Michael Barbeito

All the orange crates are scattered, at the Safeway Supermarket in the rain.
–Van Morrison, St. Dominic’s Preview, It’s too Late to Stop Now.

I didn’t have a mind then. I should have perhaps had a mind by then. I was in kindergarten. I went to a school called Our Lady of Fatima, which as I think about it, is nice enough, because later I became on my own terms a sort of Marian devotee. There was a church adjacent to or very close to the school. At midnight mass I would look up and there was for some reason I can’t discern, a ceiling painted with noodle designs, like macaroni and cheese before the cheese is added. I just stared at the noodles. For more than an hour. Midnight mass, which means Christmas Mass for the uninitiated, is longer than an hour. Or at least there is it ran longer. A feeling of depth or spirit was around, but it didn’t have so much to do with the church. Or maybe it did. I didn’t call it ‘A feeling of depth or spirit,’ because I didn’t know what those words meant, and I hardly, if ever, really spoke. They thought a bit earlier on than that, that I was deaf, or partly deaf, and that maybe that was why I didn’t speak. But I was tested by the doctor, and came out all right. So it wasn’t a physical thing. Before that, I had an apgar rating of 9, which is not bad. And a slight heart murmur, not unheard of either. So I checked out. Who is to know? Who can see the whole of any of us, cosmically speaking? One time they took me to a daycare or after school place, and I remember someone saying, He doesn’t talk, and the lady that ran it said in a kind but confident response. He will learn to talk here, as he will have to, because there are other kids and he just will.

I never said a word while I was there.

 But the school and the playground and Cross-town. There isn’t much I remember, but there are some things. There was at the playground races to the fence and back, and there was a kid named Johnny who used to run it pretty well. I did okay, but was in the middle of the pack. He was always first or second. I said in my mind, If Johnny can do it, I can. And I kind of trained myself to get better and better. It worked you know. Man. I really got up there through the time. I could lie and say I beat Johnny, and I was a hero or something, but that didn’t happen. I do know I tied him once, and it wasn’t that anyone really noticed, but I showed myself some inner and outer stamina.

I always remembered that.

Somewhere, anyhow.

Years later I changed high schools, from a wealthy area, all the way back to that area, which was not affluent but not poor, but a kind of middle-regular place. That as they say is another story. But when I was there this guy called me over to a table a little time in, and he was with this pretty girl, but the girl was not to become a good friend of mine, but an acquaintance. And the guy a sort of friend, just a bit on past an acquaintance, but not a friend-friend-friend. So I say, What? And the guy comes with this,

I and my friend are having a bet. She seems to think that she remembers you from Kindergarten class, and I say maybe, but aren’t sure. I know this sounds funny but she brought in our class picture and we were discussing it. She says yes, that this person here is you, and I say maybe. Could you tell us if you went to school with us?

So I looked at the picture and saw myself. I said that it was me. And the thing was that he was Johnny, and I told him so, and he remembered that. I had no recollection of the girl, who would be considered gorgeous. It turned out that she spotted me in the picture, but also spotted me for a Big Mac combo at McDonalds one day, and I promised to pay her back. But days went on, though four out of five days I had money in my pocket, it seemed like the days she reminded me to pay her, were weirdly on the exact days I had no money. She became angry, but contained, and thought I was a kind of player or something. Since she didn’t really know me, there was no way to have her know me. So she just began to see me as a liar, which I was technically. But I am not like that. A few years ago I ran a writing group and this poor guy kept coming and so I bought him, (you can’t write this as they say, I know I can’t), a Big Mac Combo each time afterwards, and the other person that ran the group never ever offered to pay. Technically the bill could be split. Gurdjieff has a saying; Nothing shows people up more than money. But yes, the friendship didn’t work out with the girl. She was more mature though the same age, but it also affected her, as in if someone says, She is pretty, and the other person says, Yes, but she knows it.

Going back to kindergarten. I waited after for my grandfather to pick me up. It always seemed a bit overcast, with opaque clouds making up the firmament, and the world seemed grey also. It couldn’t have been like that every single day. But the days I remember were. There was kid with dark hair, and he was singing the lyrics to We Will Rock You, by Queen, and not the chorus, but the beginning lyrics. I remember this. I would much later become a fan of Queen, but at that time I had no idea what the hell he was saying, and he was so intense about it. He was clear and enthralled and intent, sitting on a swing swaying back and forth just a bit while he sang,

Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise
Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day
You got mud on yo’ face
You big disgrace
Kickin’ your can all over the place

I think that song must have just come out and he had an older brother or father that had to have played it over and over. The other kid I remember was blonde, and I can picture him perfectly, but don’t know why. He wore a jean jacket with something yellow on the shoulders, like an intentional patch, and he said it was a disco jacket. He was very proud of this. I for certain didn’t know what disco was. Already the very few people I came into contact with knew much more than I, if even about anything at all.

I just stared into space and waited.

For something.

Then.

I guess for my grandfather.

And in high school.

For what I don’t know.

And even now.

For what I certainly absolutely don’t know.

Because my grandfather is long dead.

But I am still trying to get to Cross Town as it were. At least here. See…sometimes my grandfather when he would arrive (I think he was a little bit late sometimes because he moved slowly), would take me before going home to his house, to a set of little stores at the intersection just down from the school and the church. From what I can remember, I have to bet these were places where they had cheap wares, but good things still. Plates, forks, knives, spoons, cloths, cups, saucers, blankets (not a high thread count but not terribly low either), a set of napkins, a holder for a hardboiled egg, some old pictures of pastoral scenes and a blue sky and a white whimsical cloud and a red barn and maybe a stream and a big boulder there, of course little key chains and maybe there was a guy that cut keys in the back and maybe not.

But I didn’t then see these things like some great or even good observer. I couldn’t register them. I was just there looking at dust motes in the air, or maybe the reflection of light on a counter. And many people are like this, especially in childhood. It is nothing so special. It’s just that that is where we were, in Scarborough, instead of say, Illinois, or St. Petersburg, China, Bahamas, The Yukon Territories, Switzerland, Morocco, South Asia (where the DNA science says I am really from), Key West, Africa, or anywhere else the universe could have placed us.

Quietness inside the door and the store, inside of me, even though the soft sound of winter traffic passes by on Victoria Park, or from St. Clair, the intersecting street.

Windows somehow more on the side of dirty, run-down, but not disgusting or dangerous.

I want to think of cloth, fabrics, and utilitarian items and artifacts.

A worldly person knows what things are for and what they do.

To me, they are then if anything, just worlds of metal, copper, some colors, ceramics, frames, maybe plastics, – yes plastics, there are plastics there somewhere,- red, green, maybe they are parts of cheap umbrellas or rain jackets.

All this under a vague light yellow and a dull light that comes in from the windows.

It’s always like late dusk sad there in a sense, no matter what hour a clock would say.

The world is before night, about to blink off, but it never quite does.

I sense now I think also that something tragic is about to happen,- as if we are on the edge of a car accident, or receiving bad news, witnessing or being in a fire, a flood, a war, even a death of some kind.

But nothing really happens like that and one step is taken then the next and the world goes on.

Nobody ever bought me anything then, like a toy car, a key chain, – something, anything, – but I never wanted anything or thought of it. I was a simpleton, a visitor that didn’t really appreciate the wares one way or the other.

The street soon, – and the signs, and so many cars by the dirty, dirty snow with bits of mud and old leaves. Newspaper boxes, people. The world is so normal to everyone it feels like an alien planet to the young boy.

He doesn’t know lyrics, disco, exactly where he is or what he is.

I looked and looked then back at the stores at Cross-town. I was, not because I was special, but because I was not interfered with or talked to that much, in touch with something. It wasn’t a vision of an angel. I wasn’t a message. It was just Source. There is something when there is no mind yet, and that is what the search for full blown enlightenment is after, that nothingness and everything-ness that is there, always there, that we are, but that is obscured by the mind, even though the mind is by definition part of it because it is all One-Thing never begun and never ending. I smelt it, but not with my nose. Maybe it’s like touching the toe nail of God.

How would I explain that to the pretty girl, who bought me McDonalds and thinks I am simple moocher?

I can’t even remember her name anyways.

I wonder if her Grandfather ever took her to Cross-Town.

Brian Michael Barbeito is a Canadian writer, poet and photographer. His recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University, CV2 The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, and at Catch and Release-The Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature. Nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net Award, Brian is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013, cover art by Virgil Kay). He is currently at work on the written and visual nature narrative titled Pastoral Mosaics, Journeys through Landscapes Rural.

https://www.amazon.com/Being-Human-Memoir-Waking-Listening/dp/1524743569/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1539219809&sr=8-1

Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.

emily retreat

Guest Posts, memories

Good TImes

June 21, 2018

By Sara Lippmann

It was the night Paul Pfeiffer came into the bar in Hancock. We’d been going to Good Times all summer, a corner dive in a ramshackle clapboard, baby blue, pulp exposed instead of siding, where the dirt met the road, where the railroad ran alongside the lumber mill whose raw planks stood out like Lincoln Logs in all weather desperate to be put to use, emitting that downed forest smell. Segments of the sign’s neon coil had blown so above the Genesee logo in the window it read GOD TIES, which felt right. Apparently you could rent a room upstairs, but the steps were barreled off with galvanized kegs, we were summer people, we poked tongues through pink sheaths of bubble gum, we weren’t about to cross.

Someone had a car, had legality, the rest of us had youth, a partial paycheck, and thirst. We had to be quick, quick about everything, the potholed parking lot, puddled dark roads, careening around the bends swerving for deer, over the rusted one lane bridge across state lines to the sour rot of mahogany worn soft and sticky from other people’s nights, then sling back for curfew, which meant we were in the car for as long as we were inside polishing off pints and embarrassing ourselves at pool. We were terrible. It didn’t matter. We were camp counselors. Let strangers stare.

Paul Pfeiffer wore a slicker on account of the rain, the yellow hood cinched like a periscope. It wasn’t raining that hard but he taught drama at a nearby camp, he told us, and what do you expect from the dramatic. I forgot his real name. It was Italian not Jewish. Same diff, he said, unzipping, twitching his damp nose. I played one on TV! and proceeded to recount Paul’s bar mitzvah in a halting nasal pitch, real generic like Baruch Ata Adonai. We were not impressed.

No way, we said. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Mother Knits Me A Sweater

June 13, 2018
sweater

By Sara Chansarkar

I miss Father as my sister lights the candles on my birthday cake which is sitting in a stainless steel plate on the scratched glass-top coffee table at my parents’ house in India. My birthday is the 24th of December and I visit around this time every year because it is also my son’s winter break from school.

After I blow the candles and cut the cake, Ammi lays a gift − neatly wrapped by my sister − in my lap. I carefully open the gift, plucking the tape off gently, so that the wrapping paper can be reused. It is a finch-pink sweater, soft and warm, with shiny buttons adorning the front.

My lips and hands start trembling, unable to cope with the happiness. Ammi hugs me, runs her hand over my head, and dabs her eyes with her dupatta.

As I sniffle, my sister narrates the tale of the sweater: Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories, Sexual Assault/Rape

Freshman Orientation

July 26, 2017
memory

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.

By Shannon Brazil

All those parenting cliches you hear, it goes by in the blink of an eye and its over before you know it. I hate to tell you, but they’re all true. Five minutes ago our firstborn stood between my husband and me holding our hands and we swung her into the air. One, two, three, wee. Now, the oldest of four, fourteen years old, she walked in front of us wearing my old Doc Martins. From the actual 90s. Her hair, long bleached blonde. Day-glo blue at the tips. The three of us pushed through the double doors of her high school and the sign that read, Freshman Orientation Night.

Inside the building there were glossy linoleum floors. Florescent lights overhead. And the bright, boundless energy of teen volunteers. We handed maps. Maps that were highlighted in pink to mark popular sites like the caf and the gym. My stomach pulled into tight twisted knots. Knots that made sense. The grief of babyhood to childhood to adulthood. All wrapped up in my daughter. Except not.

Except a hard something clogged the back of my throat somewhere near the cafeteria. I fished a cough drop out of the bottom of my bag. Told myself to get a grip. On the down-low I joked with my husband about how much I hated high school. My husband was an A student. Me, I barely made it through. Head in the clouds, my grade school teachers said. Doesnt apply herself, they said in high school. Late-bloomer, the guidance counselor had hoped. But she wasn’t making any promises. Lucky for my kids, I was a mom who defended the dreamy late bloomers of the world. I would help teach each one of them how to apply themselves in their own good time. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories, Writing & The Body

The Arctic Front

June 26, 2017
arctic

By Tiffany Lee Brown

We were reshaping language. Making it fit better. Breaking it into chunks, discrete pieces. That’s what acid does: it lets you see all the infinitesimal pieces of everything, the air’s live molecules, the shivering motion of protons, electrons, neutrons as they fly through their individual atoms. At the same time, it lets you see the big things: the stars, the way the molecules connect all living creatures together, the breathing of trees against darkness.

We were reshaping language not just because it made us laugh, but because it brought new meaning to things, new clarity. And so the fire was no longer the fire. It was the Bright Flickering Orange Thing, as in: I’m freezing, but I can’t move right now. Would one of you feed the Bright Flickering Orange Thing? And someone would put a log—the Severed Guts of a Tall Being With Bark For Skin—into the big wood-burning stove with its open front, our only source of heat in this borrowed house.

All around us, Cold White Stuff muffled the forest and Cold Hard Stuff confounded the roads. It was twelve degrees Fahrenheit outside, in a region accustomed to mild winter days of low clouds and eternal drizzle. Every so often cold air—Arctic air—would come down from Alaska and get socketed in somehow. That’s what we were experiencing: an Arctic front.

Lee observed the Small Furry Clawed Mammals of the house and pointed out their qualities to me and Will. This grey one here, he decided, this grey one is named Steve. Check Steve out. He rules the world! Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories, Young Voices

I Miss The Bad Times

October 12, 2016
memories

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.

By Alyssa Limperis

I said goodbye to one of my best friends from college today. He’s leaving NYC and moving west to go to Law School and be closer to his family. I feel sad. Maybe because I knew him when my dad was alive. Maybe because he’s one of the first people I go see when I have something to say. Maybe just because I want more late night, ice-cream-filled hangs. I’m sad to see him go. I’m sad that time keeps moving forward. After losing my dad, I want to hold tightly to everyone I love. I don’t want anyone to leave. Bryan represents my prior life. A life where I was scattered and free and waitressing and not quite sure where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. He represents a time when I was depressed and lost. More than half of our hangs have been me crying to him. I spent so much time with Bryan worried about the future. Upset about the present. Hanging on to something from the past. I spent a lot of time on my phone. A lot of time in my head. I found out he was leaving a week ago and time slowed down. I instantly wanted to spend every minute with him. Digest all of his advice. Appreciate the profound comfort of sharing each other’s company. When time suddenly became limited, I wanted to freeze it and not let it escape. I wanted to go back and relive all of our times together. I suddenly yearned for feeling lost and uncomfortable and unsure. I wanted to be back to the time when I was deeply depressed. I wanted to go back to working doubles at a restaurant and slumping on his stoop in exhaustion on my way home. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories, Women

Over-The-Counter Medicine

August 31, 2016
pharmacy

By Monica Drake

There’s no place more optimistic than a well-stocked pharmacy. Gleaming clean and rocking the high blast and buzz of fluorescents, everything on the shelves is there to save your life while it cushions your vanity. Crowded, tidy aisles scream, You can be healthy, strong and beautiful! When I was young enough to never need anything beyond an occasional shot of nighttime cough medicine—that sweet, Kool-Aid purple nurse in a bottle—but old enough to be out on my own, I had a job dusting cures, ringing up sales. We carried Epi-pens for anaphylactic shock, because even slight allergies can go seriously wrong. I read trifold pamphlets during the slower retail moments, making myself a student of human health. I learned that it can be the first exposure to an allergen, the tenth, or the hundredth time your body processes some unknown ingredient, in a kind of secret internal roulette, but every single second of the day there exists a slim chance: your immune system could kick into high gear and shut down your throat. It might start with an itch around your eyes or in your sweating armpits. Your blood pressure will drop, silently, and painlessly. That drop in blood pressure has the potential to undermine and weaken your brain’s decision making skills. Some people grow so cold they can’t stop shaking. It’s like a ghost has landed in their bones, when shock sets in. If you have it bad enough, your face can swell to twice its usual size. Then your cheeks sag into jowls and your eyelids get fat and you’re fifty years older than you were ten minutes before. Your skin will lump up in hives.

An allergic response can clog your lungs with fluid and swelling and then constrict your airways, cutting you off from your own life. This happens every six minutes, to somebody. If you’re fast and lucky, one jab with Epi-pen turns the whole mortal disaster around. You’ll be back in business! An Epi-pen can save your life. It’s a brilliant invention. A pharmacy has what you need.

Want to get high? It’s in the bins, drawers and vials. Time to sleep? That’s there, too. Continue Reading…