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A Terrible Thing Has Happened

April 22, 2022
tabatha

Note: Inspired by the children who found Virginia Woolf’s body in The River Ouse in 1941 during World War II. The Title, ‘A Terrible Thing Has Happened’, is taken from the letter Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s husband wrote after her suicide.

There were two things Mrs L. M. Everland wasn’t.

She wasn’t married. Never had been.

And she wasn’t a good cook.

“It’s rabbit,” she said, putting the chipped white plate down in front of Tabatha, “or it was,” she added, turning away, wiping her hands on the old red dishcloth she so often had over one shoulder.

“I expect you’re used to much finer things. In London,” she said with that glimmer of amusement in her eye as she set the tea kettle on the stove to heat up for the fourth time that evening, and Tabatha sliced a not-quite-boiled potato from a tin in half with her fork, forgoing the blackened cubes of rabbit for now.

“Not much,” Tabatha answered after swallowing.

Mrs Everland sat down on the chair on the opposite side of the table with the kettle slowly boiling behind her. She moved the jam jar of Hellebores from the centre of the table to one side so that they could see each other better, revealing the scorch mark in the middle of the table, and the old wax pockmarks in the old scrubbed pine table where the candle had been in the winter.

“Did someone give you those?” Tabatha asked, watching how the few wilting yellowed leaves among the green quivered slightly in the gentle breeze that came through the half-open window.

Mrs Everland smiled one of her secret smiles, gave the tiniest purse of her lips and reached out to touch one of the yellow leaves that fell neatly into her palm as if she had willed it.

“No,” she said, “I gave them to myself,” she smiled again, and held the tip of the leaf between her thumb and forefinger, twirling it so that the light caught the yellow and blotched brown turning it gold and bronze in the sunlight that stretched half-way across the table between them, “like Mrs Dalloway,” she paused again, “only I picked them myself, instead of buying them.”

“Who’s Mrs Dalloway?” Tabatha asked, and Mrs Everland drew in a very long, very slow breath, and then released it just as slowly. Peaceful, calm, always. As if she half-existed in a dream, but only inside the house, once outside the house she came alive only in the minds of the outsiders that mistook her for cruel and unkind.

Different.

“She’s a character,” she said, “in a book,” and then, leaning forward slightly across the table on her forearms, with hands both clasped about the leaf, she said “a very wonderful book, written by a very wonderful woman,” with her eyes glittering, dark and wide, and full of secrets yet and never to be told.

She stood up, slowly, early spring light in the dark auburn brown of unruly hair pinned with often-falling hairpins on the very top of her head, so that it fell about her face in curls she never seemed to brush. Early spring light that cast a fleeting warmth across her cheek, her lips, her chin, as she passed, to the shelf in the kitchen, a board she’d put up herself with mismatching black iron brackets, the emerald rings she wore, three of them, on every other finger of her right hand glinting as she carefully eased a book from between another and a big, clear glass jar of golden shining honeycomb.

She set the book down on the table in front of Tabatha, next to her plate, a well-thumbed paperback with Mrs Dalloway in painted black writing inside a yellow border.

She sat down again, reached across the table and slipped the leaf between the cover and the first page, “bookmark,” she said, then rested back in her chair, head to one side, regarding Tabatha with the faraway and yet all-seeing look that only women are ever capable of having, and women like Mrs Everland even more so.

“Do you miss them?” She asked, “your parents?” As if the question needed clarification, and Tabatha pushed the half-moon of the mealy white potato over with her fork while the tea kettle began its whistle, louder and louder, and louder until the silence came, and Mrs Everland had taken it from the stove and was pouring more tea into the big brown teapot.

“Here,” she set the little blue and turquoise glazed sugar bowl down in front of Tabatha, “use the last of it. As much as you want. There’s always the honey.”

That was what Mrs L. M. Everland was.

Kind.

*

The next morning, early, while the sparrows were still singing in the hedgerows and the spring sunshine was turning the shimmer of a light frost to the warmth of new green grass on the fields, Tabatha walked to school with the three other children evacuated to Rodmell, Lewes, a village somewhere amidst the South Downs.

Tabatha, Nancy, Letty and Constance, all four of them eleven years old, all four from the anonymity of London’s shroud of grey and white and the murmur of pigeons in the eaves and alcoves of looming grey brick buildings turned to rubble and the dull brown rats on the wet grey cobbles.

“I’ve heard things about Mrs Everland,” Nancy said, squinting into the sky, shielding her eyes while she watched the planes fly in the distance.

“What sort of things?” Tabatha asked, watching the dew-shined toes of her black boots as she walked.

“I heard she never leaves her house,” Letty said before Nancy had a chance to answer, turning, grinning, brown leather satchel bumping against her thigh.

“Well, I heard that she killed her husband. Poisoned him,” Nancy, who was tall for her age with two long plaits of chestnut hair, said this with a pointed look in Tabatha’s direction, “apparently,” she went on, “she cooked this huge, sumptuous feast for him, everything he liked, desert too, and he ate it, but he didn’t know she’s put poison in it first.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Constance whispered, leaning her head of tight blonde curls close to Tabatha’s own and interlinking her arm with hers.

Nancy glanced back again and grinned a toothy grin.

“Then what happened?” Letty asked, kicking a small white round stone that looked like one of Mrs Everland’s boiled potatoes into the grass from the track.

“Then,” Nancy drew in a breath, thoroughly enjoying her role as revealer of truths, “his blood turned to ice, just froze up in his body and he died in his chair, just sitting there before he’d even eaten the stewed pears. They say he was buried still holding his spoon because his body was so seized up they couldn’t get it out of his hand.”

Letty screwed up her face, opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it again.

“That’s not true,” Tabatha said, nonchalant, looking up now, edging on defiant should the weather have called for it.

“And how would you know?” Nancy asked, all but rolling her eyes.

“She told me,” she said, “when we first arrived. She said, ‘they’ll tell you about me, the people in the village, they’ll tell you I poisoned by husband, but I can tell you that’s not true.’” she quoted.

“Of course she’d tell you it wasn’t true,” Nancy laughed, “she’s not going to admit it, is she.”

“She’s never been married,” Tabatha added, and Nancy’s smile faltered slightly, “and,” now it was time for the nail in the proverbial coffin, “she can’t cook.”

Nancy ignored her, chose instead to look up again at the second arrow of warplanes heading north, engines burning up the sky and the silence and leaving a ring in the air that seemed always to be there, but never lasted longer than it took to see them disappear.

“Well I heard she never got married because she was having an affair,” Letty began, once they’d started walking again, this was her moment now, and she paused for effect, “with a woman.”

“Who?!” Nancy asked before she could stop herself, now it was Letty’s turn to look smug.

“A writer. She writes books, novels, she’s quite famous,” Letty said with an air of authority, “although Mother said they’re not appropriate, she writes stories about women who aren’t women at all, they act like men. One of them, Orlando, kept turning from a man to a woman and did…all sorts.”

Nancy’s face twisted from alarm, through intrigue, to suspicion, “how do you know?” She asked, and Tabatha felt the heaviness of Constance’s arm through her own, and the weight of Mrs Dalloway in her satchel, as she remembered the flush of Mrs Everland’s cheeks as she had set the book down so carefully beside her, ‘…a very wonderful woman…’

Around the corner, they bumped into Arrick, an elderly man with a dog they had passed every morning since last Tuesday, on their first day to school. He tipped his cap to them, stepped aside so that his earth-brown boots crunched the final frost beneath the hedges, and tugged the fraying string rope gently to bring the little black and white terrier dog to his heels.

“Mornin’,” he said, as he tipped his hat, the thinning blue-white skin beneath his eyes damp from the cold and his cheeks and nose a colourless grey pink as they smiled their replies, “There’s something afoot up there,” he raised his free arm that held a long hand-whittled cane and pointed stiffly with the end of it in the direction they were heading, “something going on,” he spoke slowly, and with an accent from further north.”

“What?” Nancy asked, all of them looking in the direction he pointed to, the place furthest from the rising sun, where the fields still glittered and shimmered with frost.

“I don’t know,” he lowered his stick, “men about, police by the looks of things, poking about in them woods with sticks and dogs, Mitsy were scared witless,” he tugged on the string so that the little dog with shivering legs looked up at him with blinking dark eyes and twitching black nose, “weren’t you?” he asked her, and she sat down in response, “I’d take the long way round if I were you, down by the river,” he pointed again with his stick in a more Westerly direction, where the fields hid the pathway that nobody but the locals expected, down to where The River Ouse abruptly sliced the landscape, small, snakelike and startlingly silver.

“Thank you,” Nancy gave their thanks as her own, quiet, unusually so for her, still looking in the direction of the woods that seemed all but a mist and smudge of grey on the horizon, “thank you,” she said again, suddenly realising her manners, turning, smiling, and realising he had already begun his shuffling stoop back on his way.

“Which way?” Letty asked, narrowing her eyes, like Nancy had, looking to the trees, seeing only what was perhaps her imagination moving between the trees.

“The river,” Tabatha said, “I know the way, Mrs Everland showed me the other day when we were foraging.”

Nancy looked at her in the sceptical way she had inherited from her school mistress mother, “foraging for what?” She asked, not yet quite convinced of Mrs Everland’s innocence.

“Mushrooms,” Tabatha said, already setting off, Constance’s hand still neatly tucked into the crook of her elbow, “and wild garlic,” she added, when Nancy and Letty began, begrudgingly, to follow.

“I thought she couldn’t cook?” Nancy asked as they turned down the lane in between the fields, the grass and the odd uncut blade of uncut wheat that brushed the backs of their knees.

“She can’t,” Tabatha and Constance stepped over a rabbit hole in unison, “but she does try,” she glanced briefly back at Nancy’s screwed up face, her feet wet inside her shoes from the grass, Letty trailing along behind her, “and the garlic was for a remedy she made, it has antibacterial properties,” she glanced again at Nancy, enjoying, fleetingly, the knowledge that when it came to Mrs Everland, she was the expert, as much as one could be, after knowing her only for a week.

“Sounds like witchcraft to me,” Letty said from the back, breathless and pale, unused to walking for longer than the time it would take to step from a London doorway to a carriage, but neither girl replied, they merely stopped, in a line, stopped without thinking, the grass in its dew-lit glory melted away to sand-coloured grit shot through with the glint of splinters of quartz and feldspar, and the water, flat, calm, both grey and silver, gold and white, sparkling beneath clouds that reflected the day in the cool of the water that ran, seemingly unmoving beneath the old stone bridge they would cross on their way to school.

“What’s that?” Letty asked, after a moment of silence where the air that smelled of fresh-cut grass and the early morning smell of the Earth warming held them, suspended within that moment.

“What?” Constance asked, quietly, not wanting to break the stillness.

Letty moved further down the slope toward the river, “that,” she pointed to what looked like the ebb and flow of fabric the same colour as both the water and the sky.

In silence, they followed Letty, Nancy just behind her, the soft bump-bump of four school satchels and the scuff of shoes on dry gravel and grit, the gentle lap of the water and the cheerful twittering of the birds the only sounds in this Rodmell morning.

“What is that?” Nancy asked, and Letty stopped, now only feet from the puckering fabric blooming and fading and blooming again from where the old tree branches and sticks had dammed up a corner beneath the bridge, then, slowly, ever so slowly, the colourless white of a hand, a knuckle, the glance of a gold wedding band on a finger swollen and water-logged, and the thin, long ripples that caught, not the fragile spindles of newly snapped twigs from the trees, but the grey-brown of hair that pulled and shimmered, and from somewhere in the near distance, from above, on the outskirts of the forest, a man’s voice called, “Virginia?” in a voice that had called for too long.

*

That evening, in silence, Tabatha and Mrs Everland picked Hellebores in the garden, the flowers of friendship, love, strength and devotion, of silent mutual support, and the ability to help each other through the trials and tribulations of life.

They picked one of each colour, and she set them in the window in an old enamel jug, in the dying light of day, for Orlando, for Mrs Dalloway.

For Virginia Woolf

Natascha Graham is influenced by David Bowie, Virginia Woolf and Sally Wainwright, Natascha Graham is a lesbian writer of stage, screen, fiction, poetry and radio from the UK. Her novel, Everland was been selected for the Penguin and Random House Write Now 2021 Editorial Programme, and her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London’s West End and on Broadway, where she won the award for Best Monologue. Natascha is also working on The Art of Almost, a lesbian comedy-drama radio series as well as writing a television drama series and the sequel to her novel, Everland.

***

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

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Guest Posts, Humor, Relationships

Better Questions for OK Cupid

April 19, 2022
guaranteed

Compatibility Guaranteed!

1. How do you feel about sex during a woman’s period?

a) It works for me.
b) Natural birth control. Except for that once.
c) Anyone but Harvey.

2. With whom do you empathize?

a) Super models, because they are always aware of their own minute by minute obsolescence.
b) The dust bowl victims in the thirties, because John Steinbeck is such a classic writer.
c) Yourself, of course.

3. What do you admire most about bedbugs?

a) Their lack of creepy rodent tails.
b) Their ability to survive dormant for decades before they freak you out.
c) That their presence says nothing about any deficiency of housekeeping skills, since even the laziest housekeeper doesn’t toss human blood around and that’s what bedbugs eat.

4. Which body part of your own do you consider irresistible?

a) The vein at the crook of your left elbow.
b) The cartilage between your nostrils.
c) The second three inches of your sternum, starting from the top.

5. What does your cat think about you?

a) How stupid you are.
b) How brilliant you are.
c)Who are you again?

6. What is your favorite sound?

a) The other person’s head exploding after you’ve won the argument.
b) Your own head exploding after you’ve won the argument.
c) The whole yoga class’s heads exploding at the third “om.”

7. What one trait do you dislike about your dog?

a) His inexplicable refusal to flush the toilet.
b) That he’s lying. No one could possibly adore you that much.
c) What a stupid question.

8. Why do we die?

a) God, who doesn’t exist, hates us.
b) Oh, you know, why not.
c) We don’t.

If all answers match, guaranteed lifelong devotion.

If 80 – 90% match, guaranteed five years three months of on the whole a sound relationship.

If 70% or less match, upgrade your OkCupid membership. Send the annual $150 directly to me.

Susan Anmuth lives with her son Ethan, Yorkie Xena the Warrior Princess, and cat, Jelly (short for Jealous) in Newark, New Jersey. She works as a cashier at Walmart, which offers plenty of writing material.

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Pets, Relationships

Dogs Are Better Than People

April 3, 2022
dog

When my dog was attacked, it brought out the best and worst in me.

A college professor of mine once said, “I’ve never met a person who’s better than a dog.” He was a religion professor and seemed keen to say things that were a little edgy – that would make the class stop and think. One day, he argued that the bible is full of fables meant to teach morality rather than actual historical accounts. I don’t like to think of myself as sheltered – when I say I’m from Iowa, I always point out that I’m from a city in Iowa – but that was the first time I’d heard that concept. It was appealing to me because, at 19, I was growing more and more lukewarm toward religion, but not to the idea of having morals. Like, don’t lie, don’t be a jerk – that kind of thing.

And maybe that’s what he meant by his comment about dogs. They’re like little atheists who love unconditionally. Although, I did catch my dog, Lucy, stealing a couple of times. My husband, Devin, and I lived downtown, and our walking route was near all types of restaurants. While on a walk one day, I looked down to find her trotting along with a full piece of pizza in her mouth, happy as could be. Another time she scarfed down an alarming number of discarded chicken bones in a matter of seconds. (Folks, I know it doesn’t say this in the bible, but don’t throw your chicken bones on the ground.) After some Googling scared the crap out of me, I loaded her up in the car to go to the emergency vet, who shrugged and said, “Eh, it’ll pass.”

Shortly after that incident, we moved to the suburbs – not because of the chicken bones, that would have been silly – but because it’s just what Iowans do. What would we make small talk about if we didn’t have a yard to fuss over? Lucy was robbed of her chance to scrounge for food, but she did love our big, fenced-in yard where she could run around. There was just one problem: The dog on the other side of the fence, who actually seemed like kind of a jerk.

I don’t say this lightly. I legitimately love dogs more than the majority of people. The thing is, it wasn’t really the dog’s fault that he was an asshole. His owners left him (and his two small dog brothers) loose in their yard for hours and hours – once I counted 15 hours straight. So he had nothing to do other than lose his freaking mind every time Lucy’s collar so much as jangled on our side of the fence.

I was immediately annoyed, but I’m an Iowan with morals and politeness. So I talked to the neighbors gently. “Heyyy, did you know your dog barks when you’re gone?” I said. I left out the detail that their largest dog was also fond of slamming his 45-pound body against the vinyl fencing – out of boredom, I assume. I didn’t think it really mattered. The fact that he was a barking nuisance should have been enough, in my mind, to motivate them to take care of it – because morals, neighborliness, etc.

They half-heartedly tried bark collars for a while, remembering to put them on their dogs maybe 40% of the time. Then one of the little dogs got loose by slipping out from under the fence, which I know because I saw him sprinting outside my office window. I trapped the scared little thing in my garage until they got home, but not before he bit me. This was, admittedly, a little bit my fault. He was visibly scared and in no state of mind to be pet, which I had tried to do to comfort him. I returned him to them, and they apologized. Fine. Whatever. The raggedy little thing hadn’t even broken my skin.

They continued leaving their dogs out. A while later, my husband was standing in the backyard with Lucy. The fence was starting to lean at an alarming angle, a result of all the body-slamming. But we didn’t think he’d actually break it.

Suddenly, sunlight showed through the fence. Their dog had successfully popped one 12-inch vinyl panel out. Lucy ran over to see what was up, and the neighbor dog grabbed hold of her leg through the hole in the fence and refused to let go.

My husband instinctively grabbed Lucy to try to break it up, not having time to think about what a dog who was being actively attacked might do. Lucy bit his hand, but he persisted and broke the dogs up. Then he carried her, both of them bleeding heavily, into his car.

On the 30-minute drive to the emergency vet, he called me. “Just get here,” he said, telling me that Lucy was injured and leaving out the detail that he was, too. Then he called the neighbors.

“But can our dogs get out of the fence?” they asked. In the rush, he hadn’t thought about the fact that the little ones could probably escape. After all, they were prone to doing so even when there wasn’t a hole. Still driving, with our injured dog in the back, he called me again to ask me to call another neighbor to check on their dogs.

I married him partly because of his strong morals. And I don’t mean religious morals or anything like that (he’s an atheist). I mean that he cares about people (and dogs) he doesn’t even really know. He cares enough to make sure they’re okay even when he’s hurt.

Our neighbors were woefully missing those qualities. The next day, they started questioning which dog was the attacker, never mind that their dog was completely unharmed. Over Facebook Messenger, they tried to insist I call the whole thing an “incident” rather than an attack.

But at least our dog had survived. I threw myself into taking care of Lucy, who had a bandage covering the length of her leg that needed to be changed at the vet daily. Sometimes the vet would try to leave it off because it was hard on her eight-year-old body to be put under anesthesia every day (which was necessary to change the bandage). When she wasn’t wearing it, I’d put puppy pee pads under her to soak up the blood. I had to change them constantly. She’d had stitches, antibiotics, pain meds, and, at one point, laser therapy to try to heal the gaping wound.

Though there are many charming things about Lucy, one of the most charming is how she springs up and down on her feet when she’s excited. When we ask if she wants to go for a walk, she doesn’t jump but instead bounces vertically to answer in the affirmative. I feared she’d never be able to do that again.

I was an emotional mess. But strangely, I harbored fantasies of making up with the neighbors. I didn’t want to hate anyone. It’s one of the few pieces of advice from the bible that has stuck with me despite my waning religion: It’s not good to truly hate another person.

I pictured us having coffee on the porch, talking things over. “We won’t leave them out loose ever again,” I imagined them saying while I would give an understanding nod of forgiveness. After all, these things happen. If they take responsibility, all can be forgiven.

But it didn’t happen like that.

They were standoffish and defensive, and I only hated them more every time we tried to have an interaction with them. Looking at their house started to feel like looking at the place where evil lived. Once, when we were tensely trying to sort out vet bills, I snapped and screamed at them, saying that their dog could’ve killed Lucy as angry tears ran down my face. The dogs’ altercation was brief, but ours had the makings of decades worth of resentment and salty looks.

But even while I was the angriest I’ve perhaps ever been, I was flooded with love for the little mutt we had found at a shelter. And that love started seeping out everywhere.

My dad came to the vet with me one day, and I cried on his shoulder for the first time in 20 years or so. It’s not that my dad and I aren’t close – we talk and hang out frequently – but we don’t often show a ton of emotion. Maybe it’s something about our Scandinavian ancestry, but we’re the most comfortable being pretty stoic. But any walls I had up were completely broken down, and I appreciated him more than I had in a long time.

It was spring and raining constantly, so I made insane-looking plastic bag contraptions to keep Lucy’s bandage dry – the vet’s strict instructions. The poor thing couldn’t figure out how to pee with all of that crinkling, so it was a constant cycle of bagging her leg (which she didn’t appreciate) and taking her out, over and over again.

Then a light bulb went off in my head: Lucy will always pee wherever another dog has peed. She’s a bit like a boy dog in that way, lifting her leg to mark her territory. I didn’t have another dog around, but I did have pee. My husband, watching the idea forming in my head, gently protested. Always one to try to be polite and proper, he considered pouring piss around the yard to be beyond the pale. But he was exhausted, too. So I filled a red solo cup with my pee, walked out into the yard, and dumped it.

It was not the most lady-like thing I’ve done, but it worked. Encouraged by my success, I cut out the middleman and squatted (wearing a long dress) in the yard. I missed a little and had to change immediately, but I didn’t really care. If Lucy can give me unconditional love, the least I can do is pee in the yard for her.

As the weather warmed, we tried to turn on our air conditioning to keep her as comfortable as possible, but it wouldn’t start. After having moved in the previous October, we hadn’t used it yet. I called a repairman and made plans to get to the door before he’d have a chance to ring the doorbell.

But he was a little early. Lucy instinctively went sprinting toward the door, injured leg be damned. I immediately burst into tears, positive she’d worsened her injury.

But I still had to open the door. In a long, once peed-on dress with tears streaming down my face, I let him in. It turned out that the air conditioner had just never been plugged in. The man plugged it in for me and then spent a few minutes sitting next to Lucy and me on the floor. He gently pet her, avoiding her bandaged leg, and told a story about his own dog getting attacked once. It was one of several dog fight stories I heard in the weeks after her injury, usually involving humans acting worse than the dogs after the fact. Mysteriously, a bill for the repair never arrived.

My parents came over to help frequently so we could (attempt to) actually work. We ate a lot of fast food and tried to let Lucy out in the sun as much as possible at my mom’s insistence. She was convinced it would have healing powers (which I believe was the treatment for tuberculosis before antibiotics, but sure).

We ended up talking about my grandpa, her dad, for the first time in years. Even though we both admitted we thought about him frequently and missed him tons, we rarely brought him up. He had died some 11 years before, so it seemed too long to ago to still miss him – or something. But it was nice to open up about. Lucy, who’s never shy about showing that she’s missed you even if you’ve only been gone for five minutes, gazed up at us from her bed while we talked.

She was beginning to heal. In fact, given the severity of the injury, her recovery was amazing. “I was sure she’d have nerve damage,” the vet, who mercifully didn’t mention that earlier, said.

Then, a few months later, a tiny miracle happened. Visibly scarred but seemingly not burdened by resentment, Lucy started springing up and down in place as though nothing had happened.

Almost a year to the day later, I watched as the neighbors loaded their belongings into a moving truck. Pulling my couch up next to the front window for a better view and sipping on tea, I watched evil pack up. A passive Lucy napped on the couch next to me, uninterested in gloating about their leaving.

And I was gloating a little. But caring for my dog had also cracked something good open in me. Watching them pull away, I felt a surge of love. Not for the neighbors, but for Lucy and everyone I care about. Like a spring from my heart.

Jessica Carney is a nonfiction writer and event planner. She’s working on a book about the chaos, mishaps, and times plans went awry at concerts and events. Her writing has been featured on NBC News, Shondaland, and Quartz, among other outlets. She lives in Iowa with her husband, Devin, and their dog Lucy.

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Relationships

Woman Seeking Man, Age to be Determined

January 24, 2022
years

It was three years since my husband died. I sold the house, found an apartment in New York City and decided to try on-line dating, signing on to JDate, Match, and Plenty-of-Fish. My oldest son, the arbiter of all things popular, told me to never post my real age. He said nobody does. Everybody lies.

I agonized for a week. I’m a pretty straight shooter but sixty-seven was kind of up there and so I wrote down sixty. My son was upset. “Put fifty-nine,” he said. Have you ever seen a dress priced at $600? It’s always $599. And if it’s on sale it’s $399 not $400. It’s psychological.”

I knew from the psychological. I was a psychologist with a doctorate; he knew he was speaking my language, but I told him I wasn’t a dress, and I wasn’t ready to be discounted. I stuck with sixty and hoped that my picture would pull it off. If I met someone viable, I would tell him the truth.

Sophisticated 60-year-old woman looking for a sophisticated man. I’ve climbed to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda and barged down the Amazon to meet the Yagua Indians. I’ve done research in Africa, live in NYC, have a practice in Princeton, and a writing cabin in Woodstock. I have a long story to tell a good man over a slow dinner.

I read it over. Even I was impressed. I clicked send and waited.

It didn’t take long. I was the new kid on the block. It was great but all the guys were under forty-five. I responded to an eager 35-year-old, suggesting he reread my profile; I was sixty-years old. I gulped at the lie but couldn’t imagine that the extra seven years mattered in this case. He said he had seen my age; it was fine; he liked older women. I said it wasn’t fine with me.

This went on for several weeks. None of the age-appropriate men were knocking on my door. I decided to get aggressive, remembering the younger Linda—the one with chutzpa—who’d been married at nineteen, had three kids by age twenty-seven, started college at thirty and got divorced at thirty-one. The Linda that signed on for assertiveness training, consciousness raising and masturbation workshops. The masturbation workshops—taught by a bald woman in a mini skirt with very high black boots—were particularly intriguing.  She had a carousel filled with slides of female genitalia. The diversity was fascinating. She flashed them on a screen side-by-side with slides of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. It made me consider taking an elective in contemporary art.

Sadly, I had completely missed the sixties. Instead of doing drugs and making love, I was changing diapers and stitching needlepoints. It was 1970 when I divorced my first husband—a heady time for women. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were leading the march for equality while Gloria Gaynor sang the anthem, I Will Survive. Fortified by the women’s movement, and with no time to waste, I headed for the singles bar.

I walked in, scoped the scene, picked out the best-looking guy and started a conversation. The following month I went on a singles vacation to the Club Med in Martinique where the help, hired for their looks, were paid extra to fraternize with the guests. I was having a great time but then my friend Sally called and said her best friends had recently split and did I want to meet the husband?

“He’s fifteen years older than you,” she said, “but he’s a great looking guy. Think Omar Sharif or Sean Connery.”

The fifteen years worried me, but Sean Connery? Friday night he came to pick me up and by Saturday morning my single days were over.

Now thirty-seven years later, my husband gone, it was time to be proactive again. Thinking about the age difference between my second husband and me, I decided to flip the coin and reconsider the interest of the younger man. According to Ron, the cutie from Queens: younger men preferred older women because they’re more interesting, don’t play games, do drugs, or want kids and, he added, they’re great in bed.

Great in bed was going to be a stretch. These guys were physically fit. I hadn’t been to a gym since I’d had back surgery the previous year. Pictures from the Kama Sutra flashed in my head. My back started to ache like a phantom limb.

I got a hit from an African American man. His handle was Bodybuilder. He was forty years old. He said I was beautiful and asked if I would like to chat. “Beautiful” was always a hook. I thanked him for the compliment and confessed that I didn’t take a shine to buffed men. He said he wasn’t buffed, he was chiseled. I told him to post a picture and I’d decide. The picture looked like a guy out of Sports Illustrated: naked from the waist up, elbows out, fingers gripped, gleaming pecs. He wasn’t chiseled. He was buffed. I said I’d like to see him in a suit.

“What would you like me to wear?” he asked.

I suggested for formal attire he consider a well-tailored suit, probably black, with a French blue shirt and a good pair of shoes.

“And for casual?”

I suggested pleated linen slacks, draped nicely over his hips, a white shirt open at the neck and good shoes.

“What about you?” he asked.

I told him for casual I’d wear a pair of tight-fitting jeans, black boots with a good shine, a white man-tailored shirt and a straw Stetson hat.

“And for formal?”

“The same outfit but I’d ditch the hat.”

“LOL,” he said.

I told him I was looking for a man who had as much confidence in his brains as he had in his body. He said he would send more pictures.

The next week he posted another photo. The only thing between him and pornography was the steering wheel of a boat. I told him to contact me when he got dressed.

This was fun. The Internet lent itself to snappy repartee and vapid conversation. I was pretty good at both. It became my entertainment after a long day at the office.

There was the forty-three-year-old writer from Plenty of Fish. His first email asked, “Why haven’t you invited me over yet?” I thought that was a little presumptuous. I wrote back something brilliant like “We haven’t met yet.”

He wrote, “Let’s meet. We’ll have a drink and we’ll go back to your apartment.”

I told him no one comes back to my apartment on a first date.

He said I was closed-minded.

“How about a ninety percent chance we’ll go back to your apartment?”

I said, “No way.”

“What about eighty/twenty?”

I wouldn’t budge.

Negotiations went on for two weeks. It was Friday night and I told him I was going to the Café Luxembourg for a martini and some oysters. He was welcome to come. He said fifty-fifty was his final offer. He didn’t show. That was fine with me. The oysters were superb.

A week later he agreed to meet, no strings. He was waiting when I walked into the cafe. He was nice looking—young, but young was beginning to look older. He said he’d written four novels and taught creative writing at City College. Okay, this had possibilities. Ten minutes into the date he took my chin in his hand, turned my head to him, held up two fingers, pointed at his eyes and said very seriously, “Look at me. You really want to take me home, don’t you?”

I began to laugh. He had to be kidding. He let go of my chin, turned back to his drink, and said, “Whatever.”

Two minutes later he turned around and did it again. After the fourth time, I was rolling on the floor.

“What’s so funny?” he asked in exasperation. I said I wanted to know how he wrote four novels when he only knew ten words?

“Whatever,” he shrugged, turned around and walked out of the bar.

That was my best night out since I’d signed on to the dating sites. I laughed all the way home.

In January I got an email from an attractive fifty-four-year-old, 6’5” Israeli. His picture showed him standing at a stove, a bandana on his head, apron around his waist concentrating on whatever it was he was stirring in a pan.

His profile read: “Good man/bad boy/ whiz in the kitchen…blah…blah…blah.” I liked the “blah…blah…blah,” at least he wasn’t into platitudes. “Looking for a woman,” it continued, “thirty-five to ninety-nine.”

Ninety-nine. I figured I’d made the cut with room to spare. I gave him my number. He called five minutes later and invited me over for dinner on Thursday.

“You’re in Israel,” I exclaimed.

He said, “So, you’ll take a plane. You’ll come to Israel. What you like? Chicken? Fish? What you like, I’ll make. Come. You won’t be sorry.”

He was serious. I laughed. We said we’d talk the next night. He was a fantasy without a face.

The on-line thing was beginning to get tired. I was thinking about going off. The coup-de-gras came a few days later. Each day Match sends you your perfect match. I logged on one morning to find I was staring into the face of my first husband. Your perfect match, it said. I screamed, as though a large beetle had crawled out of my computer. His profile read; “…likes to travel but hasn’t really gone anywhere. Likes to do crossword puzzles but not the New York Times. Likes to go to the movies but rarely has the time.” Last book read, “The Da Vinci Code- waited for it to come out in paperback. Wanted a woman 45-65.”  Seriously? I was too old even for him!

That was it. I’d had it. I got off all the sites. It didn’t matter if I was sixty or sixty-seven; if my ex-husband was supposed to be my perfect match then I’d rather live the fantasy. I picked up the phone and called Israel.

“What’s for dinner?”

Linda I. Meyers is a clinical psychologist in private practice in NYC. She is also a writer and author of the memoir, The Tell

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Guest Posts, pandemic, Relationships

Building Mom A Bridge: How To Cross Over Seas and Pandemics

August 12, 2021
mom

by Amy Challenger

Connecting has never been easy, my overweight rescue coonhound reminds me with his fervent stare. He once refused eye contact when I found him at a dusty Northern California farm nine years ago running in circles as if entirely disconnected from other beings. This disconnected feeling has become one most of us have suffered with this year. We’ve had to find a way out of our own little heads, seeking a thread to others in strange ways — squishing eyes over masks, staring through screens, and waving at mouthless friends in parking lots or at bonfires. I found a way to build a bridge to my sick mom and other women this year, all the way over the Atlantic, in a way I wouldn’t have imagined without the pandemic..

In March 2020 after lockdowns began in Switzerland, where I live with my husband and children— my asthmatic then 78-year-old mother coughed heavily on her couch in South Carolina. She struggled to breathe on Facetime causing even her fox terrier Harry to point his long nose to the side. I was petrified. I’d just returned from Northern Italy where crowds of masked passengers packed my train, and truckloads of dead bodies appeared on my Ipad screen. To me, the pandemic was no distant myth like it still was for many of my American friends. So when my mom hacked, I said, “Get tested.’’ Naturally, she brushed me off. I’m the family worrier, afterall, and people were still spreading the ridiculous myth that only those who’d traveled to China could have COVD-19. A week later, her symptoms had made her so weak she could hardly walk. So she finally got to the doctor who diagnosed her with pneumonia. And due to a lack of access to COVID test kits, she still didn’t know if she had the virus.

At that point, my mom and I started connecting daily face-to-face, online. I felt helpless watching her suffer in her floral patterned bed. She listened to me jabber about home learning challenges and the risks of spreading COVID. My father who suffers from Alzheimer’s roamed nearby, peeking at the screen.  Thankfully my mother’s friend made arrangements to stay with her, and my nearby sisters visited regularly, but I wanted to do something too. Even if I could afford to fly to the US, leaving my husband working from home with my three kids home-learning— travel was unwise especially with my flaring autoimmune condition.

So aside from sending my mom pizza dinners, Amazon gifts, and Facetiming regularly, I needed a more meaningful way to reach her. What about writing together? I thought. My mom and I are both painters and writers. And years before, she’d attended one of my creative writing workshops originally designed to connect women in crisis through writing. I’d been trained to lead these sessions by the New York Writers’ Coalition in Connecticut to serve struggling moms of neurodivergent kids. After my mom visited a workshop, she’d said she loved the method inspired by Pat Schneider, a poet who created a format for all levels of writers to gather and seek what Pat called “the original voice.’’

So one morning my dogs and I had an idea as my mom flopped like a five foot pale doll in her dimly lit Carolina bedroom with Harry perched nearby, his eyes pooling with worry. She’d just become breathless trying to fix breakfast.

“I might start an online writing workshop— to supplement my normal Zürich workshops,’’ I remember saying.… “Would you want to join if I do it?” I kept my tone casual. She might think my suggestion idiotic.

“I’d love it.” Her voice quivered. “You don’t know how much I could use that.” I think my mom needed more than connection. She needed a way to use her creative muscles to heal and find hope. The pen, if filled with the stuff of her powerful mind, could help with that.

And so we started meeting weekly online with a small group of women. My mom woke early, dialing in, along with several writers from Switzerland and some from the US. We gathered from bedrooms, Swiss lakes, and offices to write about feeling stuck, about growing, about finding wellness through dialogue we created in separate rooms, but together.  In these two-and-a-half-hour sessions, we greeted each other, then penned responses to my visual or verbal prompts. We scribbled our bottled up stories into our notepads, and then we shared verses that continued on, for that small moment, into the spaces of others. These connections bound us. Each week we became closer, and I felt more like I was really touching my mom.

“What’s strong?” I asked after a woman read her work. It was a question I’d learned from my former teacher Valerie Anne Leff a fiction writer whose voice I still hear if I try. She taught me to treat everyone’s original words like a newborn. I attended her workshops for several years during a crisis with my atypical boy. This question, what’s strong, was one I needed to repeat even in the midst of my child and family’s pain— to find meaning.  It was also a question I had to ask this year. To my children, my mother, my husband, and workshop attendees, I had to inquire, what’s strong in your words, your work— in you and in others? I needed to identify my power, as I fumbled through my own identity in a pandemic.  When I felt insufficient, I had to dig for strength. This habit was the bridge to my mom then to all the other women who wrote with me, virtually.  Through asking for strength in workshop sessions, I touched the space between my mother’s world that flowed into mine. Her tales of waking as a child in her victorian home in Big Rapids, Michigan; her views on mothering three girls; savoring shades of fern; meeting my naval officer dad— these powerful narratives brought her to me physically.

As she shared, our stories transcended internet boxes, oceans, and expectations. Common threads emerged in verses that had little to do with the prompt, yet pieced our strange pet stories, our favorite flowers, our lonely walks together. My mother wrote poems that slipped under my skin. Her narratives incorporated the feel of a forgotten Christmas ornament, the voice of my grandmother calling her home, the pine scent of my grandfather’s cabin beside a river. My mom waded for her strength like she was in the river fly-fishing with her father, and I saw her emerge healthy while reading her own mind. Eventually, after weeks of workshops, she dialed in from the couch— rosy-cheeked like the mother I longed for, even if still on a screen beside Harry’s twittering tail.

Almost a year later, my mom and I still write online with many of the same women. She and my dad have been vaccinated and are bearing well, all things considered. My cats’ and dogs have become so attached to me, after a year mostly indoors, that sometimes I think I’m a pet too. Though we’ve got scars, we’re closer and stronger than we knew. We’ve survived a pandemic, afterall.

This summer my husband, three kids, and I plan to finally visit my parents. When I’m physically there, I’ll feel their hands and arms embrace me in a way I wouldn’t without our separation and our storytelling over the sea. But in the meantime, I’ll celebrate the power of all the unpublished parts of each of us. In these narratives, if we listen, we’ll find ties that bind us together, even over seas and pandemics— and maybe forever.

Amy Challenger is a contributor at The Washington Post, Newsweek, Huffington Post, International Living, Poets Reading the News, and elsewhere. She completing a novel about an atypical boy and his mom trying to grow and find truth in a work that wants everyone typical. Amy can be followed online at amyaveschallenger.com.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Relationships

When Spicing Things Up Cools Everything Down

August 8, 2021
cinnamon

by Joelle Hann

I knew the box was coming but expected it to be small. The size of a shoebox, or maybe a jewelry case. So when I was handed a box big enough to house a couple of Queen-sized duvets, my heart stopped. I didn’t have enough space in my Brooklyn apartment for whatever was inside. It suddenly felt less like a gift and more like a headache.

“I’m getting you a present!” David had said, several weeks earlier. We’d been having long phone calls for a couple of months, him in Chicago, me in Brooklyn. We’d met on a weekly Zoom cocktail hour, organized by mutual friends, during the first weeks of shutdown, then started flirting in private texts. The phone calls followed. Illinois’ high COVID levels had prevented us from meeting in person so far. The word “relationship” was not yet on the table.

But a gift, that was significant. That was a step. Blood had rushed to my face.

“So, I’ll need your address. And also, what spices do you like?”

Spices?

“I just love this spice store I discovered and I want to buy everything. But that’s crazy, so I’m buying them for friends instead.”

My blush had subsided. “So, actually this is a present for me,” he’d said, as if reading my mind.

I had thinned out my spice cupboard earlier in the pandemic, chucking whatever was expired or unrecognizable, leftovers from some long-gone roommate, or a dinner party I’d once had. I didn’t want more clutter.

“Please! Pretty please, let me buy them. You’re going to love them.”

I loved that he wanted to give me something. I also knew that he could get lost in worlds of his own making. On the phone, he tended towards monologues rather than conversations. I could put him on speaker phone and walk into another room without him noticing. But, then again, why crush his enthusiasm?

I let him make a list. I could always use more turmeric and cardamom, I reasoned. “But no cinnamon. I’m the one person on earth who does not like cinnamon.”

Several weeks later the shipment had not arrived. That wasn’t a bad thing except that it added to my doubt. I wondered if David was someone who made grandiose gestures without following through, like proposing marriage without offering a ring.

He copped to it before I could bring it up. “I lost the list,” he offered on one of our phone calls. “It must be here somewhere under all these other piles of papers.”

I tried to reframe his fumble. David was brainy and tech obsessed. He didn’t so much fall down rabbit holes on YouTube, TikTok and Twitter as run down them. Of course he’d lost that list! His cluelessness was almost endearing. His love for gadgets and his new efforts to learn to cook produced some interesting purchases. The excess of spices was one. A self-contained grow box of salad greens was another. It had an embedded light to help sprout basil and lettuce from plastic soil pods — all on his bookshelf.

My friend Max, who, long before I’d met her, had been a popstar in Australia, was staying with me when the oversized box finally did arrive. I hauled it upstairs into my sun-streaked kitchen pausing on the landing to catch my breath.

“We have to film this!” Max exclaimed, pulling out her iPhone. She moved the table from against the wall into the full sun. “This is incredible! The light is fantastic!”

I squinted into the blazing sun, stripping the tape off the box. She brought the phone in for a close-up, then pulled away for dramatic effect. I dug toward the bottom, tossing out wads of crumpled brown paper, looking for an end to the packets inside — 20, 25, 30, 50? Seven kinds of dried chilies; countless spice jars; a boxed set of pre-sweetened hot chocolates and chai, a Chicago-themed trio of spicy garnishes, one called Chicago Deep Dish, containing shelf-stabilized cheese. A lot of cinnamon.

“My god, this guy must really like you,” Max swooped around me as I unspooled each item, reading its label out loud into the camera. “That’s gotta feel good.”

“These can’t all be for me.” I said, showing Max the labels trimmed in scarlet, embossed in gold. Who was I supposed to be, to relish all of these things?

There was no chance I would use the hot chocolate or the chai mix.  I made chai at home, brewing the ginger, cardamom, saffron and black tea on my stove. I had Dutch-processed cocoa in my cupboard already, but if I wanted hot cocoa, I’d go to my favorite coffee shop where they made it better than I ever could. What to do with seven kinds of chilies? There was no turmeric.

To my surprise, in Max’s unboxing video, I don’t look disappointed. I look like I’m enjoying myself. I posted the clip to Instagram where it got a lot of comments. “I’m jealous — and also loving this!” said one friend. “I watched this all the way through!” said another.  “Who is this admirer? How do I get one?”

I sent a copy to David. I felt queasy about all the excess; the shipping label cited $230 spent. I could not gush so the video stood in as my thank you. He seemed satisfied, admitting that he’d sent my Instagram video to the spice company. They’d wished him luck in his courtship, a word that now made me wince. If he was going to spend so much on me, why not buy AirPods, something I wanted?

I remembered years ago when a boyfriend had taken me out for my birthday at the Gramercy Tavern, an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. I’d been ambivalent about him and I think he’d known that. But I couldn’t deny that the amuse bouche romanced me, especially with the wine pairing, and the duck confit that followed, served from the left, and the creme brulee with the hard, burnt-sugar crust we had to crack before spooning out the buttery insides. I hadn’t broken up with him just then.

And who hasn’t given gifts that were more about themselves than the recipient? For my part, these included second-hand novels with strong feminist plots that I’d given to my mother when I was in college, in a desperate wish that she’d liberate herself from my controlling father. I’d made healthy meals for my sister-in-law who avoided vegetables, preferring pizza and Doritos. When I was 22, I’d given a high-school friend the wedding present of a bird cage, an unsubtle metaphor for the way I felt she was trapping herself in a loveless marriage.

I realized that the very best gifts sometimes knew the receiver better than they knew themselves. The Gramercy Tavern boyfriend had once bought me an incomparable ring. One friend regularly sent me eye-opening books that I would have otherwise passed by. Max had an instinct about the clothes I should try.

The night I received the oversized box from David, Max invited her Aussie friend Matthew and his boyfriend Scott over for dinner.

“They’re fine — they’re careful,” Max said, justifying the invitation of strangers into my home during COVID. “Matt loves to cook. He’ll cook for us. Show him the box.”

Dinner was splayed chicken rubbed with cacao and chilis dug up from the depths of the box, plus vegan pudding and wine. After, I gave the boys a tour of the rest of the spices, taking a closer look myself, now that the shock had worn off. They oohed and aahed over the varieties of chilies — mulatto, ancho, guajillo, chipotle, New Mexico, chile de arbol — the cinnamon, the hot chocolates.

“Take whatever you want!” I plied Matt and Scott with packets. I slid the cinnamon sticks into small plastic snack bags, labelling each with a black Sharpie. I made a bag for Max, too, who exclaimed, “It’s antiviral!”

Matt passed on the hot chocolates and chai mix. Like me, he didn’t want the added sugar or dehydrated milk powders. But Scott was curious. For a moment, I got caught up in his fascination with the chilies, their odd, flattened shapes that ranged from plump to skinny, matte to shiny, the evocative descriptions typed up on the pretty labels. We googled “guajillo” and “korintje,” and admired the many rolls and folds of cinnamon. I wondered what made the Ceylon cinnamon “quills” and the korintje “sticks,” and why one was a fat roll while others were slivers and shavings. It did seem like if I learned to cook with seven kinds of chilies from around the world my life might be more interesting. I might even find a compatible boyfriend in my own city.

Scott asked repeatedly if I didn’t want to keep more for myself. I wavered, drawn in by the suggestion of faraway places and cultures: Turkey, Ceylon, Madagascar, New Mexico, even Chicago. Places I wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit for a long time under pandemic travel rules. But then I remembered how I hated clutter and I swallowed my fantasies. I insisted that they take what I foisted on them. “Please, you’re doing me a favor.”

What spices were left after our dinner, I shut into the box and put under my desk, unable to either move them into my cupboard or throw them out.

I did not text David in the week that followed, and he wasn’t in touch much, either, except for a quick note about the fun of courting.

But the budding romance now seemed as artificial as that plastic box of red-leaf lettuce sprouts growing in David’s 57th floor apartment in downtown Chicago. It was cute and kind of a miracle. But it was also unlikely to produce much satisfaction before becoming a lot more work than either of us had signed up for.

Maybe we both had needed a pie-in-the sky fantasy, a sparkle of connection at a safe distance. Some light flirtation to get us through a difficult period of isolation.

Max stayed with me for several more days. After my morning walks, as I sat down to a day of work, she’d call down to ask if I wanted a coffee. Later, she’d bring me a cup, with milk she’d frothed by hand. “I made it strong. I know that’s how you like it.”

She’d walked out of her way to find organic coffee beans so that I wasn’t ingesting pesticides, and she insisted that the milk be organic. She brought the hot drink downstairs and across the living room and put it in my hands. It was a simple gesture that cost her nothing but gave me a lot. “Sometimes all you need is a good cup of tea!”

A few weeks later I gave away the rest of the spices. The hot-chocolate set went to a friend on her 50th birthday, and the remaining chilies and cinnamon went to two chef friends who’d driven up from North Carolina for haircuts and facials in Manhattan.

For myself, I ordered a half-pound each of organic turmeric, cardamom, and ginger and dispensed them into clean glass jars that I had on hand. There was still room in my cupboard for the right kind of spice.

Joelle Hann has published essays, journalism and poetry on NPR, in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Poets & Writers, McSweeney’s and in many other print and online outlets. She was a writing fellow at CUNY’s Writer’s Institute from 2015 – 2016 and a poetry fellow at NYU before that. Joelle lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can read her clips at www.joellehann.com and find her on Twitter: @joellehann

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, Relationships

Half Life

July 21, 2021
ocd

by Ronica Hagerty

Another evening, sitting on the couch, after cleaning the dishes, and I feel numb.  Finally, today was a normal day.  I was resting through the calm after the last storm, and wondering when the next one will be.

He is in the bathroom getting ready for bed.  I hear the water running from the faucet, then it is turned off, then it runs again, then it is off, on, off, on and off for 15 minutes.

How many times does he have to wash his hands!

But these aren’t rituals to be questioned. They just are.  We have been married for 18 years.  Ever since Adam was born, we stopped going to bed together.  I brush my teeth, wash my face and get under the covers.  Gone are the days when I waited for him.

I imagine taking my life. I am half-living anyway. I quickly expel the idea like a cancer. I have to be here for Adam.  Robert was his age when the symptoms came on, like a shark chewing him up, depriving him of all foolishness of a teenager, then spitting him out into a jungle of anxiety for life.

Hold it together. Someone’s got to keep it together.

There’s a rhythm to this house.  At 5 am I hear the newspaper hit the driveway.  At 7:30 I wake up Adam and fix breakfast.  The highway two miles away hums like a lullaby that gives way to birds chirping at dawn and dusk. There are meals to make, homework to do, and throw pillows to arrange neatly on the couch– nightly routines that keep the contours of this middle-class family pretense intact.

But the rhythm of this house is broken.  I haplessly watch the neighbors’ dog sneak into our backyard through the tunnel under the fence. The ugly rascal is smaller than a cat and chases the squirrels up the big oak.

I read Robert’s face at the onset of another episode.  His brows closer together, his eyes glazed over, his hair oily.  He spins with the overwhelm of a last breath before his mind is drowned by worry.  I harden.  There’s dinner to be made, homework to be done and my throw pillows to be arranged before going to bed.  And, there’s a man to catch at the end of this episode.

I remember the night he told me he had OCD twenty years ago.  We made love then cooked in my small downtown apartment. The living room was dimly lit.  The round glass-top dining table he helped me move days before our first kiss fit perfectly in the corner. We sat for dinner, still in our bathrobes, and with a finished plate in front of him, he took my hand, leaned forward, and said “I have something to tell you.”  Smitten I was, I leaned in and said “What is it?”

“I have OCD. You know what that is?” His hands were sweaty.

My Indian friend from college instantly popped in my head. Her younger brother would go around the house turning all the light switches on and off before bedtime.  “He has OCD,” she told me.  It was a child’s thing. Harmless.

“Ok. Yes, I know what OCD is,” I said back.

“You do?!” he exclaimed.

“So what?” I said.  “That doesn’t change anything.”   He smiled and kissed my hand.

Odd behaviors became familiar… checking his reflection in the rearview mirror while driving, then checking it again looking at the dinner knife at a friend’s wedding.  Sneaking behind me every time we approach a public door so that I end up the one touching the knob.  Heck! Nothing to lose a good man over.

He is a handsome California man of Bostonian stock going back to Harvard lawyers of antebellum Massachusetts.  I laughed on our first date like I hadn’t in months. Being with him was restorative. He quickly introduced me to his family.  Tall men and beautiful women.  I felt at home, and I desperately wanted to stay there.

Robert wakes up several times a night. He quietly walks to the bathroom.  I hear the water running. It stops, and it restarts again. On and off for a good while. He tiptoes back to bed, and carefully gets under the cover so to not touch the wrong thing.

I curled up to him once after one of those mid-night runs. As my breath got heavier, he gently wrangled himself out of my embrace and got out of bed.  I heard the water running again, on and off for another 10 minutes. He was back in bed, careful not to wake me up.  He had to wash me off.  My heart wept that night. I vowed not to do that to him again.

I no longer curl up to him.  He doesn’t mind.

Ronica Hagerty is an immigrant American of Egyptian origin. A mother, wife, friend, and an executive coach who believes in destiny and our power to make something of it. She is inspired by transitions and what it means to cope. Her claims to fame in public writing are an opinion piece in an Egyptian daily, a letter to the editor in the New York Times (yes, small but made her son quite proud! :)), and personal reflections on her dad’s unwavering optimism.

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


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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Relationships, Starting Over

Turning Around

July 19, 2021
year

by Monica Garry

The other day I was driving down a road by the river that all of a sudden came to a dead end. There was no warning for the road closure until it happened, which was totally fucking inconvenient given that this particular road was one that stretched no wider than 20 feet. I muttered through what must’ve been an entire library of curse words while making an 8 point turn-around, only to find myself facing one of the most stunning views.

The sun, which we don’t get much of in February in Minnesota, was blaring through the trees, just about to set; leaving all of the snow and the big silver buildings that sat just by the waters edge blindingly glistening in its reflection – the sky bluer than I’d seen her in months – and amongst all of the snow and ice, on my right, sat one small patch of rock that the sun had warmed just enough to let water pour down its edge. As I began driving, following the sun blindly, a smile stretched across my face, I realized that this is exactly what life had been doing for the last year. That today wasn’t the first time it had stopped me in my tracks.

I thought about how my three-year relationship had ended, how the pandemic hadn’t allowed me to see my family, how my mom’s relapse had landed her at rock bottom, how I felt burnt out at work. But I thought, really, about how my break up gave me the space, freedom and, frankly, fear, that I needed in order to find myself again. I thought about how even though I couldn’t see my family physically, I’ve spoken to them more in the last year than I had the previous two years combined. How my mom‘s relapse had brought about incredible healing and strength, how I’m closer with her now than I have been in a long time.

I thought about how my burn out at work stemmed from a lack of connection, and how this had allowed me to see how truly accessible connection is, how I just needed to actively seek it; to actively participate in it. I thought about how many new places I had found and felt profound amounts of love.  I thought about how all of these challenges were really just life forcing me to change course. Because left to our own devices, we humans tend to miss out on the really good parts of life – the parts that come from the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable.

So, here’s my advice: if life turns you around, let it. It’s going to feel like it’s being a bitch, and truthfully, it’s probably going to hurt like one. But once you get there, you’ll realize it’s doing just what it did for me that day, what it did for me that entire year, and what it’ll do for all of us hundreds of more times to come – making sure we don’t miss out on the really good stuff.

Monica is a community mental health worker, currently living and working in Minneapolis. Aside from this work, she has a passion for writing. This past year and a half, with all of it’s tragedies and hopes, have inspired this piece.

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


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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, memories, Relationships

Camping Under the Influence

July 14, 2021
camping

By Carrie Friedman

I squint as I read the fine print of the disclaimer that says the campsite is NOT responsible for any coyote, snake, or bear bites or maulings. As I sign our lives away, I say, “This was a mistake,” loud enough for my husband to hear. Our daughters are already running free, up and down the meadow, like they’ve never seen so much open space, possibly because they never have in our crowded Los Angeles suburb. We have arrived at this southern California campsite for a whole weekend of “unstructured fun!” as the parent-email boasted, with other families from our daughters’ school. Our daughters begged us to go this year, so here we all are. “It could just be that you’re not in the right mindset,” my husband, who is one important notch more outdoorsy than I am, says.

He’s not wrong. Only hours earlier, I boarded a plane back to California, from my native Wisconsin. I was visiting my dad, who is in the late stages of dementia and Parkinson’s. Every time I leave him, I know that this could be the last time I see him. This slow-motion loss feels unscalable.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. I want our girls to have this camp experience.

I go to the campsite store and buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of pre-made, pre-mixed margaritas. I start drinking as soon as I find a cup. I drink to blur the edges.

I’ve never been the type of person who drinks in the wilderness, gulping the air like it’s a delicious treat, then says (and means) things like, “I love nature,” or talks about a higher being “creating this masterpiece for us.” But when I inhale the air at the campsite today, I feel a familiar ache. I’m reminded of why I hate camping: it makes me homesick. If the smells of evergreen, mildew, loneliness, and campfire were blended in a bottle, they’d be called Eau de homesickness.

I down a margarita as if I’m a marathoner at a pitstop.

When I was a gawky and overly sensitive 10 year old at summer camp in Wisconsin, my escape was red Kool-Aid that the camp rebranded “Bug Juice.” It was so sweet and concentrated you could chew the sugar granules. I was addicted to the sugar high it gave me: it helped me forget how much I missed my family back home, 90 miles from camp. It helped me feel less awkward around kids I didn’t know. The inevitable crash left me lower than before, sobbing all night in bed while my cabinmates slept. It was a gutting cry, a cry that physically hurt – replaying every fight I’d ever had with my parents or siblings, wishing I were back with them.

My dad, sensing my homesickness, would send funny letters, mailed to arrive by every day’s rest time. I’d read them as I scratched mosquito bites into scabs. His words always made things better.

I drink my way through the first half of the weekend – buzzed, friendly, seemingly carefree – having a drink anytime the ache, or a thought or memory about my dad tries to creep in, like a sad version of a drinking game.

People call this “Glamping” because we are in cabins with indoor bathrooms, not tents and outhouses, but there is nothing “glam” about it. Directly above our bed is what appears to be a hastily made loft with about 20 inches of crawl space and some crib-sized mattresses for our six and seven year old. A rickety metal ladder is propped precariously against a wooden railing that feels like it is as sturdy and well-put together as a shelf I constructed in shop class in third grade. My kids and husband sleep well. I stare at the cedar walls and ceiling all night, trying not to think but thinking nonetheless. If that was the last time I’ll ever see my father, did I say everything I needed to say?

The next morning, I admit to my husband that perhaps the pivot from emotional wilderness into actual wilderness was too much for me. He offers to pack us up and leave early. But the kids are having so much fun, we decide. They have already strapped on their bike helmets and taken off on their scooters with their friends for the morning.

The days are packed and noisy. There’s a hike and a talent show. And smores and drinks with other parents, as our kids don glowstick necklaces and bracelets and chase each other through the woods – streaks of neon as they run past and between the trees.

I buy and drink more wine. In the middle of the final night, dizzy from alcohol, I leap out of bed and vomit in our cabin toilet. As I’m about to flush, I spot a giant brown spider on the handle. I nearly vomit again, but instead scream into a towel, so as not to wake my family.

“I just killed a brown recluse spider in our bathroom,” I tell my husband. He rolls over in bed. I’m not expecting a parade but at least a little gratitude for saving his and our daughters’ lives would be nice.

“Really, Carrie?” he asks, dubious. “A brown recluse, with the violin shape on its back and everything?”

“Yes,” I whisper, a chill running down my spine. “Except it was so big it was more like a cello. This guy could have carried our suitcases. I’m done with camping,” I say.

“Glamping,” my husband corrects.

“I’m going to sleep out in the van.”

I wake up on the third row of seats in the back of the minivan to a blinding sunrise. It’s a new day. My pounding hangover headache feels like a nuisance, a distraction, from the real pain I’ve been trying to avoid. How quickly in the two years since my father’s diagnosis and rapid decline, had my drinking gone from a glass of wine after the kids went to bed to “take the edge off” to “mommy juice at a late afternoon playdate,” to a nightly necessity to numb or push out sadness, which I defended as “self-care.” If this is self-care, it’s not working.

Again, the smells of homesickness fill the air, and I remember things I don’t want to remember.

The letters my dad sent me when I was at camp were a funny serialized mystery he had written, in installments. Each chapter ended on a cliffhanger, and he timed when he mailed them perfectly: I always had a new letter, a new chapter, waiting for me in my cubby every afternoon for resting time. But my camp experience began to improve. I enjoyed horseback riding and canoeing and making lanyard bracelets. When I returned home after camp, my dad discovered his last three envelopes unopened in my suitcase. I tried to explain that I was too tired to read each day. My dad pretended not to care, but I could tell he was hurt.

With this memory, my gulping sobs shake the van.

Suddenly, I am starving. The campsite seems deserted at 7am. I walk to the restaurant/general store. Campfire ashes from the night before float in the air like feathers. My eye makeup presumably everywhere, I imagine I look like a raccoon walking on its hind legs.

I wander through the empty store/restaurant, looking at foods and offerings but not really seeing them. For awhile, I stare without realizing it at a woman making eggs in the kitchen. She has long press-on nails that wrap around the spatula and flip fried eggs and scrape scrambled eggs on the griddle. She has velvety Disney princess eye lashes that must take forever to glue to her eyelids.

I can tell by the way she’s looking at me that my eyes are swollen and red.

“Rough night?” she asks.

“Rough week,” I say. “Rough year.”

“What can I get for you, Hon?” she asks.

Her term of endearment makes me cry again. “Could you make cheesy eggs? They’re just scrambled eggs with cheese on top.”

“Of course, Hon,” she says.

She unwraps and slaps an orange Kraft single on top of the scrambled eggs. It becomes shiny with sweat as it starts to melt.

Cheesy eggs taste like what he used to make on Sundays when we were kids and teens. His variations on the classics, like applesauce pancakes, fried matzo, spaghetti pie, never tasted very good, but now, just thinking of them makes me crave them. The gooey applesauce, somehow still cold, oozed out from the otherwise cooked pancake. The nutty, charred edges of the matzo.

The cook hands me a Styrofoam plate with the eggs covered in cheese, then says, “I’ll ring you up. They’re a dollar fifty.”

Maybe she feels sorry for me and is giving me a discount, I think as I swipe my debit card. Nothing costs so little anymore, let alone a protein.

I sit at a picnic table in the woods, with the yellow scramble. The eggs taste like cheese flavored plastic, just like when my dad made them, and go down easy. Comfort food indeed.

Before I left the last time, he said two things that made sense. I was shocked by the clarity with which he said each, considering he barely speaks anymore and when he does, it’s usually gibberish. He said, “You never give up,” more as a command than a fact, and “I love you so much.” When I was a teenager, I had felt overwhelmed by his belief in me. At that time, I think he loved me more than I loved myself. I felt that way again, but stronger in the thought of losing him.

I can’t swallow anymore because of the lump in my throat. I’m remembering all the things I wanted to say to him, but didn’t, two days ago while I sat with him and held his hand: I’m sorry I didn’t open those last chapters of your story, I’m sorry we made fun of your creative Sunday meals. Thank you for writing those letters, thank you for your food and time and love.

I sit in the pain and really let myself feel it. Sober. At first it feels like I might suffocate, so I take slow, deep breaths while I cry. I cry because I miss my father, and I cry for the moments I have missed with my own children this weekend, blurry from alcohol when they could be sharper, more vibrant in the light of reality: my older daughter singing in the talent show, my younger daughter blowing dandelion fuzz every chance she could, strands of roasted marshmallows sticky on their cheeks.

I decide it’s time to stop multiplying my depressants, so I vow to quit drinking and camping, at least for a while.

“Well,” my husband says as we pack the car, “at least we weren’t mauled by any bears.” I laugh. I breathe in the last of the evergreen, mildew, and campfire smells. I’m relieved to be leaving, but to my surprise the wilderness and the loneliness follow me home.

Carrie Friedman lives and writes in southern California. She has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places. Her website is: www.carriefriedman.com

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


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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, Relationships

Daylight

July 11, 2021
love

This piece was written in response to Dustin Grinnell’s essay from earlier this year, How to Fix a Bluey Heart. We love the idea of publishing response pieces, so keep them coming! 

By Sam Cooke

The first playlist I made for someone came in the form of a mix CD that I’d burnt on an old Dell desktop computer. It was a summer mix, meant to be played in my best friend’s pink Sony portable CD player as we skateboarded and biked down the backroads of our small Florida town.

I liked the feeling of sharing music with people in my life. I felt a sense of vulnerability in showing someone “this is what reminds me of you”. This particular mix, carefully curated in 2003, covered everything from “Dip It Low” by Christina Millian to “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams. When the computer hissed—the sound it would make as it finished burning songs onto a CD—I felt a sense of completion. My work there was done, and my first playlist was born.

Music was also my biggest coping mechanism. It followed me through the most troubling times of my childhood. My father, the addict, provided little warmth and comfort to my two sisters and me. Perhaps the only fruitful thing he ever did for us in those early years was share his love of music. There was always a song playing, which meant that every emotion was always associated with music. My morning routine before school became second nature to me: wake up, turn on MTV’s music video hour, and have music videos playing in the background while I got ready for school. Then I’d put in my headphones on the iPod shuffle (the one that didn’t have a screen and didn’t let you choose what song you were listening to) and walk to the bus stop. I was the last of my friends to get a car, but I’d always come ready with a new playlist to listen to on the way to school. Each day, I’d fumble with their car stereos and press play for the ten-minute drive from my house to our high school.

In the age of iPhones and music streaming services, creating and sharing playlists became astronomically easier for me. When I got my first iPhone as a graduation present from my grandparents, the first app I downloaded was Pandora. Remember those days? It was a professional playlist-making service that recorded your musical interests and found songs that you would probably like based on said interests. My days of burning CDs slowly came to an end as cars began building models with AUX adaptors and Apple Music and Spotify took over. I tucked away my packet of blank CDs that were just waiting to be given a musical home and put my thumbs to work. The words “New Playlist” became ingrained in my brain.

I made playlists for myself as well: thirteen songs here and there that brought me back to a moment; a playlist of fifty-odd songs that inspired me to write; songs to listen to when I needed to feel pumped; songs to play in my ears when I was training to become a runner (that was a short-lived thirty songs). Songs were everywhere.

It wasn’t until my early twenties, though, that I realized that I wasn’t making any playlists about love. I didn’t have a high school sweetheart to remember with fondness—days spent at the beach, nights tangled up in sheets (a la “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” by Luke Bryan). And I didn’t have a first love who would haunt relationships that I’d enter into long after their scent was off my favorite pull-over hoodie. I was twenty-two and realizing, with a jaded and bitter heart, that I had never been in love.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t heartbreak. In 2013, I listened to the song “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift on repeat. Though I don’t have the exact data points, it’s safe to assume that the total play count neared at least five hundred. I’d scream along to it in my Nissan Versa on the way to work at a hospital gift shop. My best friend Jenna and I would listen to it in her Nissan Versa on the way to the beach. When I saw Taylor Swift in concert that year, I swayed with a beer in hand as I sang along to the words, “There we are again when I loved you so.” That was the product of my first true heartbreak, a story of unrequited love with someone I worked with.      The words “I don’t feel the same” were never said, I was just left with silence. For someone who constantly has music, silence is deafening.

I wish I could say that in the years that followed, my playlists were eventually filled with love songs. But they weren’t. Even after packing up and leavingmy small hometown for New York City, where I was sure I’d meet someone to fall in love with, I was met with more heartache. I went for drinks with men who looked at their phones. I walked down busy Brooklyn streets with men who thought it was “cute” that I was trying to be a professional novelist. There are various usages of the word “cute”, and these men were not calling me attractive. They pitied me. I was cute. And though I knew many of the men I’d met were simply not a right fit, at the end of the date I’d slip my headphones back in and take the subway home filled with a sense of sadness. I felt there was something about me that was missing. And so, I’d listen to my playlists. I’d play “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, like I mentioned, but I’d also play deeply romantic love songs that made me daydream about falling in love. These included “If I Should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen and “You Get Me” by Michelle Branch. I was lovesick, not for a specific person, but for the feeling that stirred inside me when I heard a great love song.

One day, I would make a playlist for myself of songs that reminded me of the person I loved so dearly, and I would be able to share that playlist with them. And though they’d laugh at the weird variety of it—everything from U2 to Usher—they would know that my love language was making playlists. They’d listen to it in the shower or on the way to work. They’d start a song over because of a certain lyric that hit in a way they could never describe. Maybe it would be a lyric that reminded them of me. Hopefully it would be a lyric that reminded them of me.

My lack of love song playlists allowed me to really dive into what my idea of love was. I had a skewed perception. My grandparents have been married for 67 years and their relationship started as an arranged marriage in the village of Lefkara, Cyprus. They grew to love each other, though, despite not having a say in the matter. My parents seemed to have married as friends, creating a family together that then fell apart because of addiction. The day my mom filed for divorce, I don’t think she even shed a tear as she accepted full responsibility for my two sisters and me and just went about her life. And then there were my two best friends, who both fell in love at a young age and married their high school boyfriends before we were twenty-five years old. Though there were different degrees of love around me, I’d never understood how to get from first-meet to forever. I wasn’t sure if there was a path for me, or even what that would look like. Come what may, I had my playlists and my books, so I could always slip into someone else’s love story and pretend it was mine.

Then I met Dustin.

Meeting him was one of those moments in life where I wish I had kept a written record of it; what I was wearing, what my hair looked like, what song was playing on the overhead speaker that surrounded us in the lobby of the college that housed our MFA in Creative Writing program. But I don’t have any of that. I assume the first thing we said to each other was “hi”, as we were being introduced. He was one year into the program, writing fiction, and I was the new girl, starting my first semester as a writer for young people. I was in the program to write and to hone my craft, because if I wanted to be on track to be a New York Times bestseller before I was thirty, I still had a lot of learning to do. And after five minutes of talking to Dustin, I could tell he wanted the same thing. He was articulate and intelligent, and he had a sarcastic edge that went underappreciated by our classmates.

We took to each other pretty quickly. We’d eat lunch together and sit next to each other in classes. We were just on campus for ten days, as was how our low-residency MFA program worked, but in those ten days we spent hours together. One afternoon, when we both had no classes to attend, we got into his car and drove into Boston. We walked the streets of downtown and talked about everything from how different it was from where I lived in New York City, to the intimidation we felt when reading books by our favorite authors; Michael Crichton for him, Morgan Matson for me. We sat at a high top in a bar and I told him about a best friend from high school who had died the summer before, and how guilt followed me around because I hadn’t spoken to him in years. He did whatever it took to make me laugh, a trait he still brings to our dynamic two years later.

When I left Boston at the end of the ten days, I knew that what we had was special. He quickly became the person I wanted to tell the best parts about my day to and the person who would help me through the worst parts. And it was easy. To me, it felt like a no brainer that we would end up together. We had identical goals, similar personalities, and care for one another  that was deeply rooted. I should be clear that very early on we said we didn’t know what our relationship was. Some days I imagined passionate physical encounters where he’d make my body feel a way it never had before. Some days I thought about what it would be like to introduce a boyfriend to Dustin, have them get along and become friends. Most days, though, I thought about what it would be like to spend my life with him.

As the months of togetherness went on, the insecurities that had been following me around my entire life were on full display. In our early months of friendship, I’d hear about women he’d loved before. Beautiful, petite women with successful careers and wealthy families. The self-image issues that I had tried so desperately to push to the back were front and center again, and instead of trusting that I could share these with him, I ignored it. When I would come to Boston for a weekend to visit him, I would pretend that I didn’t see the notifications on his phone from dating apps or other women. I began to look at myself in the mirror and outline all the reasons he didn’t love me: I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t on a secure career path, I was dirt poor growing up, I wasn’t girly enough. Of course he didn’t want to be with me romantically. These were the insecurities that haunted me from men in the past, and now he was paying for it, whether he knew it or not. The assumptions that love could only look like the beautiful woman he’d dated in college settled in on me, and again, I started curating playlists about heartbreak.

Again, though, I was good at holding onto hope. I was growing tired of New York City and wanted a change of scenery. As a preschool teacher, I could find a job pretty much anywhere. So without much thought, I set my sights on Boston. I found an apartment on Facebook marketplace with three other women my age, and Dustin and I celebrated the prospect of us living less than thirty minutes away from each other. I made a playlist.

Living so close together felt like a fairytale. We would meet at a coffee shop and work on our stories over iced coffees and spicy egg sandwiches. At lunch, we’d go to the bar next door and get margaritas and nachos. We’d watch a movie together every Saturday night. Some nights, after the movie, I’d sleep on his couch and we’d make breakfast together the next morning. It felt deeply confusing and deeply fulfilling at the same time. I was so confused how I loved this man as hard as I did, but still felt like a visiting buddy from college when he’d pass me an extra pillow and blanket. And we talked about it constantly. While there were times where we did get physical, the majority of our time was spent talking, often late into the evening and continuing early the next morning. With each day that passed, I knew I was loving him harder than I’d ever thought I could love someone. We were happy.

Just a few months into me living in Boston, the coronavirus pandemic hit hard. I was sent home to teach preschool aged children a few times a week via Zoom, and Dustin worked from home as well. We had an unspoken agreement that we would still find a way to see each other. I’d ride my bike to his studio apartment or he’d pick me up and we’d bring my laptop to a park near my apartment. Without words, I began packing an overnight bag on Saturdays and we’d spend every weekend together. Everything in my life was uncertain. I didn’t know what work looked like, and with one year left in my MFA program, I had no real clue about what publishing would look like in the post-pandemic world. Dustin and I would sprawl out across his living room, me laid back in a tan recliner and him with his legs up on the couch, and we’d ponder the meaning of a writing life. We’d spend hours watching a true crime documentary, and then quote the absurdity of it all.  Slowly—painstakingly slow, actually— my insecurities were at bay. They would sneak up sometimes when I’d wander deep into my brain about the type of woman that Dustin should be with. When I eventually started sharing these insecurities with him, he told me I had every part of him. When I told him I was terrified he was going to leave me, much like my father had when I was a child, he told me he was my rock and that he wasn’t going anywhere. In the past, when I’d get lost in dark or deep thoughts, I never had a way to escape them. He notices when I start to have spiraling thoughts, whether they’re about us or a worry about my future, and he grabs my hands and pulls me out of the darkness. He’s constantly pulling me into daylight.

In my years of listening to love songs, it was implanted in me that when you meet the person who brings out a joy in your life that you didn’t know existed, you would feel it right away. You’d instantly make plans to run away with that person, surely ready to commit your life to them. Mornings would be sun shining through the window, lighting the silhouette of your soulmate perfectly. I was positive that’s what love was, that this was the only way love looked. With Dustin, I was learning that sure, love does look like that, but it also looks like the person who will hold you when you’re crying over having missed saying goodbye to your students. Love looks like knowing someone is out of K-cups and ordering them Dunkin’ Donuts on Uber Eats so they don’t go without. Love looks like bike rides along the Charles River and getting into an argument because one of us (me) can’t jump fences. Eventually, without a word of recognition, our Saturday nights turned into me lying next to him in his bed. We’d talk through the darkness, him once remarking that it felt like summer camp. He’d hold me for a little while, until one of us said goodnight and rolled over.

In our two years in each other’s lives, we taught each other what love looked like for us. I never called him my boyfriend, yet every time we left each other for the day, we’d exchange an “I love you”. And I do. I love him on a level that love songs never prepared me for—because it’s not a show. Loving him is not over-exaggerated for a good rhyme or a beautiful melody. Loving him exists on the days that feel so good I might explode, and the days that feel so bad I don’t want to get out of bed. Loving him is there when I stumble over not calling him my boyfriend and when he tells me that I helped fix his heart. “You fix it, you keep it,” we joked on Valentine’s Day.

And so, I made him a playlist: “Daylight” by Taylor Swift, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd (which was his addition), “I Choose You” by Sarah Bareilles. But there were sad songs, too, because we were learning that love wasn’t always the perfect melody. Sometimes we would piss each other off and sometimes our feelings weren’t affected by each other at all. But we both kept our promise. We stayed put.

I’d spent my entire life thinking that love existed only in a love song, and only in the way that it was painted. You either loved someone forever or never thought of them again. It was only love if you loved them with such a physical passion that you couldn’t see straight. Love was either ‘this’ or ‘that’. To quote the song that Dustin and I both fondly say reminds us of each other, “I once believed love would be black and white, but it’s golden. Like daylight.”

And it is golden. He’ll do anything to make me laugh. He’ll challenge me when I’m being stubborn. He’ll poke me to open up, instead of going into “sad town”. He’ll tell me at all hours of the day that he believes in me, that he’s proud. With him, I have the home I always searched for and the companionship I always dreamed about. There are moments of darkness, sure, but the majority of our life together is daylight.

Sam Cooke is a Boston based writer and educator. Her fiction and essays have been published in Sad Girls Club Lit, Bluing the Blade and Prometheus Dreaming.

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Child Birth, Guest Posts, Relationships

My Husband is Getting a Vasectomy for Father’s Day

June 20, 2021
day

by Marni Berger

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

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

***

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

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

(Isn’t it?)

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

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

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

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

“We can adopt?” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

A Four Way Stop (is a conversation)

March 22, 2021
traffic

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Many years ago, fresh out of college and broke as an egg in a bakery I took a job teaching traffic school. I dutifully learned as much as I could about the rules of the road and then, a few times a week, I talked for nearly eight hours straight in a series of hotel conference rooms. In addition to a much needed paycheck, the main perk of overseeing this detention for grown ups, was my access to a group of adults, most of whom were happy to answer my questions about “the real world.” I taught them the regulations of a four-way stop and reminded them who has right of way on a hill and, in return, they gave me their opinions on everything from cheap health insurance to the best Dim Sum.

I’ve been thinking about this class lately as I drive around Los Angeles. In the twenty-five years I’ve spent in this city, traffic has become increasingly congested. My old secret, speedy routes are flooded with Wazers and every four-way stop seems to have been reduced to a hair raising game of “Chicken.” Nearly everyone seems to have one eye on the road and one eye on the screen. At stoplights, heads are bent over texts and emails and status updates.

During the lunch break at Traffic School we all ate pizza because it was included in the price of the class. Because these classes usually took place in a corporate hotel in some far flung suburb, everyone stayed together. Because no one had the opportunity of turning their faces toward the tiny screen of a phone, we all looked up and into the eyes of the person across the table. As a result of these conversations, I wound up with book recommendations, casserole recipes and once, even a date with someone’s recently divorced nephew.

A four-way stop is like a conversation. It is an exchange that requires awareness and patience and the desire to take an interest in the lives of your fellow human. At a four-way stop, the first person to arrive has the right of way. If two or more people arrive at the same time and are travelling a perpendicular route, the default always goes to the person on the right. If there isn’t a person directly to the right, the turn passes to the right of the empty space. In this way you alternate between east west traffic and north south traffic. It’s a loose and imperfect system and one that was developed when there were less cars and fewer distractions. It’s a system that relies upon eye contact and careful attention.

At the beginning of every class, I’d go around the room and ask my students what brought them to traffic school. I knew there were two ways to answer that question. It was truthful to say “because I don’t want the points on my record.” It was also truthful to say “because I was driving 85 miles per hour in a school zone.” Both answers revealed something about the student. Both answers spoke to the commonality of the group. No one argued about whether or not they belonged in traffic school. Everyone accepted the fact that they’d broken the rules. Some people may have disliked the rules or disagreed with them, but we all believed in the existence of the rules.

As I drive around my city, there appears to be less and less belief in the existence of the rules. The streets, which belong to all of us at once, seem considered by some drivers to be private property. Rules apply only when deemed convenient or without burden. The conversation of the four-way-stop has turned into a shouting match or worse, the concentrated, willful obliviousness my children call “ghosting.” From some, there is no response save the gunning of the engine and the squeal of tires.

What separates us on the streets is mostly paint. There are yellow stripes between lanes and painted shapes and words on signs to guide us and keep the peace. When I was just out of college and teaching traffic school to a room full of adults, I was moved by our general acceptance of the power of paint. That we would drive at high speeds in opposing directions separated only by a line the width of my palm seemed a shared acknowledgement of both our vulnerability and our courage. Our human bodies are soft and cars are hard. This fragility can also be applied to the rules of the road and the whisper thin strands of humanity that connect us all.

Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown,” (University of New Mexico Press 2013.) Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Best Book, Best First Book and Best NM Biography. Winner of Sarton Memoir Award and New Mexico Presswomen’s Zia Book Award. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Family Magazine, The Orange County Register, Alligator Juniper, Perceptions: A Magazine of the Arts, the “Cup of Comfort” series published by Adams Media, Literary Mama, The Huffington Post and Brain Child Magazine and is a blogger for the TheNextFamily website.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Abuse, Guest Posts, Relationships

Love Thy Neighbor

March 3, 2021
told

By Kelly Wallace

Biking around my Portland neighborhood, I saw a moving truck with a good looking guy front of a house. He was photographing a Bianchi bicycle in front of the fence.

“Nice bike,” I told him as I cycled by. He was tall, thin, and looked Italian with dark curly hair.

“Thanks. I’m trying to sell it on Craiglist,” he said. “I used to ride it to my job. But since I retired a year ago, I don’t need it anymore.”

“Where did you move here from?” I asked. Up close, I noticed silver mixed in with his black bangs and sexy eyes.

“I was living in Florida,” he told me.

“Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” I said. “It’s a beauty. Good luck selling it.” Cycling to my exercise class, I made a mental note to try and strike up another conversation. It was exciting to have a hot new guy so geographically desirable.

He was often out in his front yard. I stopped to chat whenever biking by. We’d chat about cycling and his luscious garden. He’d managed to retire at 40 by never going on vacations, buying everything second hand and cooking at home, he said. He spent hours planting vegetables. As a 38-year-old, brunette business consultant, with fifteen years of recovery from alcoholism under my belt, I’d purchased my own two-bedroom bungalow but felt lonely living alone. An agnostic, I didn’t want marriage or kids. The only relationship I’d been in post college was five years with someone who couldn’t commit. As a survivor of sexual abuse, emotional intimacy wasn’t easy for me.

One night I asked him if I could try some cherry tomatoes from his garden. After the tomato tasting, he offered to make me dinner. We stayed up late talking. Within weeks we were an item. On Halloween we rode in the pouring rain to haunted houses, posting pictures of each other sitting on bales of hay. We sautéed Thai green curry with shrimp in his kitchen, then played cribbage on my sofa with my brown tabby Billie. He drank a beer here and there while he cooked but it didn’t bother me. My craving for alcohol had long since disappeared.

When I was sick, he made shakshouka, a middle eastern poached egg dish. He was a great cook and offered me tips, like the importance of having a good cooking knife. He taught me how healthy food was nurturing – something I needed after struggling with drinking and starving my way through college, another byproduct of my childhood trauma.

It was so awesome with him just a few houses down, not even a car, cab or Uber away. I loved popping into his place for dinner, snuggling up to watch old episodes of “The Jersey Shore,” then going home to sleep in my own bed. It felt like the perfect distance, the trick to finding love at last.

In June, during a city wide bicycle festival we road our bikes in the Bowie vs. Prince annual ride. We dressed up in David Bowie outfits, rode through town with hundreds of others and danced in competitions featuring the two iconic musical performers. On a rare Portland snow day, when the entire city shut down, we walked around our precinct, holding hands. We went to the mountain and tried cross country skiing, gliding along groomed trails, posting goofy pictures of ourselves with a frozen lake in the background on Facebook.

I invited him to my family Thanksgiving. Roasting cauliflower and delicata squash in the morning at his house, he prepared dishes to take to my dad and stepmom’s house an hour way. We feasted on turkey, mashed potatoes, and my stepmom’s famous lime green Jello salad. My dad and stepmom rarely drank. After years of not talking to them, we’d reconciled in therapy. On one visit, my stepmom and Dad sang “Walkin’ After Midnight,” by Patsy Cline in my beau’s living room while he accompanied on guitar. I loved watching him play, a remnant of his former life as a high school band teacher, before I knew him.

I was traveling a lot, mostly by myself. I went to the Women’s March in Washington, then to Atlanta to visit my cousin, renting Airbnb’s. I admitted that the owner of an apartment in Kyoto had invited me to go out for a beer, but I’d turned him down. Though I’d declined his invite, my boyfriend thought I was hanging out with him. I reassured him I wasn’t for hours over Skype.

“He seems too possessive,” my pal Julie said one night. “He’s sounds narcissistic.” She had a masters in vocational rehabilitation and knew about personality disorders. After a fight, I told him what Julie had said.

 “So Julie thinks I’m a narcissist? What did you say when she said that?” He asked while making parsnip puree at the hot stove.

“I told her I didn’t think it was true,” I said, but I had doubts, tucking away her observation.

A psychic once told me, “You are a loner in this lifetime.” At seven, I told my mom that I was being molested by my paternal grandpa. She believed me. My dad did not. At eight, I testified against my father’s father in a courtroom and his side of the family turned against me. They insisted I wasn’t telling the truth. He was found not guilty. I thought it was all my fault. I didn’t know sexual assault cases were incredibly difficult to prove in a court of law – the chances of conviction were less than 3%.

As an adult, I escaped to college 3000 miles away. Now, with my partner’s charismatic personality, he was a bridge to my paternal relatives, making me feel more protected and at ease around them. Besides, they had a four-month old border collie that he loved to play with and soon he got his own dog.

My boyfriend adopted a twelve-week old golden lab mix, Augie, and he watched YouTube videos to learn to teach him new tricks. At a special store that sold only organic pet toys, he bought the puppy a special synthetic tennis ball.

The puppy went everywhere with him. He bought a trailer for his bike to put him in and watched videos on how to get the canine to be comfortable in the carrier. We went out to dinner one night, biking with the Augie in the trailer as a test run and sat at a picnic table with us after we ate. “Take a picture of us,” he asked as he fed the dog the leftover pizza crusts. I uploaded it to Instagram. It seemed insanely cute.

Weeks later, I went to upstate New York for my college reunion. As soon as I landed, we argued over the phone. I didn’t tell my girlfriends what was happening. I thought I could follow what the relationship book I’d consulted said: keep the lines of communication open and try to make it work. My beau posted videos of himself training the pup. I was glad he had company while I was away.

On the last day, there was an event at a winery. Not knowing what to do with myself at the winery and surrounded by drinking, I followed my schoolmates, Melissa, Katie, and Tuesday, listening to their interchanges about their kids, and work life. All three were happily married. I broke down crying.

“What’s going on?” Katie put her arm around my shoulder.

“It’s not working out with my boyfriend,” I admitted. “We’ve been fighting all weekend.”

“Let’s go out the parking lot,” Melissa said. Tuesday followed behind.

“Your marriages are perfect and I feel like a failure in comparison,” I confessed. “But I feel stuck since he lives down the street from me and wants to be together.”

We stood in a circle like a college football huddle.

“We aren’t perfect,” Tuesday said.

 “But if you’re not in love and happy, you don’t have to stay,” Melissa said.

“He has his puppy,” Melissa reassured. “He’ll meet someone else.”

I finally realized I could put a stop to it, just like as a child when I told my mom what happened. I broke up with him calmly over the phone.

Now, entering my twentieth year of sobriety, we still live on the the same block. I see him walking his dog every day but keep my distance. We had some good times together and I don’t regret loving him but I’m relieved it’s over. I’m more comfortable being single. The only downside of dating a neighbor three houses down is I have to keep seeing him long after I stopped seeing him. But when I try out a new vegetable recipe I think of him fondly and all that he taught me about cooking and nourishing myself.

Kelly Wallace recently completed work on The Book of Kelly, a memoir, about her experience as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She previously had words in On Loan From the Cosmos and The Manifest-Station.

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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

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

Revenge Outfit

February 24, 2021
roger

By Amy Turner

“Always be dressed like you’re going to run into your ex” was a maxim a friend trotted out recently and I had an urge to fight it. But could also not help thinking about Roger. Roger was a man I dated. A stylish, bitter, brilliant man. A Goop kind of man. Which at a certain age, is appealing. Until there are too many lip balms and you want to be the vain one. The other thing he had was impeccable taste. So, when I began shopping, after we’d broken up, I’d stand in the mirror, looking at a blouse and think: would Roger like this?

It was awful. His ghost floated in the mirror behind me, squinting, the way he had during our relationship. Judging my taste, body, all of it.

Was this the height of low self esteem? Yes!  But sometimes the universe pinches with one hand and provides with the other. Because Roger had no qualms about buying the perfect thing. Whereas I was nothing but qualms, which resulted in piles of ill-fitting bargain dresses.

Until we broke up: and in a fit of rage, I spent money. I will never be superficial and unkind, I promised myself, purchasing a Marc Jacobs blouse. I wore the blouse to an editor’s fashion launch and when I was told I looked fantastic it was true.  Good silk did look fantastic. Previously, I would go to events like that, in a sad poly blend singing out in defense, I am an artist, I am not materialistic! Then I’d walk in and a wave of shame would render me mute. Which is not helpful for writers even if you do go to a lot of therapy.

That ex-boyfriend knew clothes were armor. He knew people thin slice. I remember asking him, why do you judge people externally? Saves time, he said with a laugh. I burned. What a garbage person. What an absolute cretin. But he had asked me to dinner five years earlier I was wearing a safety orange t-shirt, Levis, and combat boots.  So, unless he was turned on by highway maintenance workers, his theory needed work.

Thankfully, we broke up and my re-active era of fancy clothes waned. Sure, it felt nice. But it also felt like a bid for value.  I began looking around my world for a gentler person to put in my dressing room with me. I kicked Roger out and I decided on… my hair colorist, G. Good colorists are prime visual movers and I appreciate healthy tricks/support.  She’s a master of subtle improvements and looks like Los Angeles cool plus health. (If my hair salon doesn’t intimidate me, I’m not interested.) So, now I think would I go see G in this.  I know that if I would feel comfortable wearing it to see her, I’m keeping it.

The things I’m not keeping? The pile on the floor that says: You could wear that skirt to a luncheon, if you could find a matching sweater (What luncheon? Where is the sweater? Is Nixon president?). This dress is an Around The House Dress (Because the print is vile and it is okay to torture people in the house?). Those pants are not the right length but good for work. (Work is asexual, be a corgi! Who cares!)

It is how a lot of people shop. It is not bad, per see. But it leads to purchases that require justifying.  The way my relationship with Roger needed justifying. He is good at constructing drinks involving espresso and tequila. He is not good for going to your folks for Thanksgiving. He is good for making jokes. He is not good for revealing tender dreams. He is good for doing 60 down Beverly in a Bavarian twin turbo engine. He is not good if you want to feel safe. We had a lot of caveats in our relationship, namely I couldn’t talk about my feelings. It’s seemed all his feelings were funneled into the latest Paul Smith shirt he bought. Worn to coffee, the beach, and meetings. Until I ended things and he cursed me for longing for mediocrity/wanting to go the speed limit/feel safe.  But I could not place my heart in a shirt.  Fancy or otherwise.

Now, my clothes can be from anywhere. Zara, Target, or the vintage store on third where I got the Marant blouse that was still too expensive, but they must feel beautiful.  I would be happy to run into my ex in these outfits. Happy to have made it through mimicking his extravagance in my thirties, learning what I value. Which was not what he did.

The adage ‘women dress for women’ is more true for me now, despite being a woman who dressed to run into her ex-boyfriend for a few years. I’m not mad. It tamped out my I’m-a scrappy-art monster-who-will-never-invest-in-herself attitude.  But it’s a relief to not have him hovering in my closet.

Recently, we ran into each other on the street.  He looked me up and down, just like the phantom I’d imagined in my mirror.

When he asked me to dinner, I said no.

Which felt so good, I can’t even remember what I was wearing.

Sometimes, boundaries are the cutest.

Amy Turner lives in Los Angeles and writes in TV.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen