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Guest Posts, Relationships

Temperance

May 31, 2024
nick

I was two weeks from starting house arrest for DUI’s, also pretending to be blonde, when Nick and I officially met. It was Halloween and I was dressed as Marilyn Monroe in her Seven Year Itch white dress. We were at a bar whose name has changed so many times it’s not worth trying to remember what it was called at the time. I was wearing a blonde wig and red high heels, the whole shebang. I had seen Nick around the bars of Downer’s Run, but I had never considered him romantically before that night. That night, the strobe lights cavorted in slow motion in my peripherals when he danced into my line of vision.

My first thought was, “He’ll do… for now.”

I slept with Nick the first time he came over. After two months, he moved in. By then, I had moved out of Aunt Marnie’s for the second time and into my own apartment on the Avenue. I picked Apartment Z because of its proximity to bars. Ten bars within walking distance and I still managed another DUI.

As my second charge, the judge ordered counseling and sixty days of house arrest. It was brought to my attention late, like day fifty-seven, that incarceration doesn’t technically begin until the first full 24-hours of imprisonment. So, for sixty-one days, I wasn’t allowed to leave. I had work release. I could grocery shop. I did leave, but when you’re stuck inside, legally not allowed to leave, house arrest feels entirely different from any self-imposed isolation. It fucks with your head.

Especially when your live-in-boyfriend is hiding full beers in the couch cushions.

Apartment Z was shaped like a crooked letter Z: the hallway connecting the two rooms was one diagonal line. During a nap, a second room appeared. A new room through a new door on my living room wall. How had I lived here for so long and never known this room existed? Why hadn’t the landlord told me I had this room? I was paying good money for it, too, I thought. Then I woke up.

My interpretation: there were new parts of myself I was about to discover.

A year after Nick moved in, we were lying in bed, and I embraced him. He was snoring, obnoxiously drunk, and yet, I loved him almost impossibly. I prayed to the universe to bless us. To please, please, please, take care of us. I could feel energy surrounding us like an ethereal blanket. Love, pure love, is the secret to magic.

Three months later, Nick won a poker tournament for over three-hundred thousand dollars. He proposed to me next to a slot machine. He told me I was the biggest jackpot and went down on one trembling knee.

“Yes.” I said, “Of course, yes.”

The only thing I could think was, “Would you just get off the floor?”

With his winnings, we bought a little house with a little yard. One night, he came back to the house after his shift at the restaurant, his face pink and shiny from the booze. He was cheery and blubbery. Liquor always made him emotional.

He squished me in an embrace and told me that I tricked him.

“I had never planned on loving you. I just planned on moving into your apartment. Using you, until I found something better.”

He shook his head like there was no way I could possibly understand.

He went on, “You got me stuck. I fell for you, hard.”

His bearded face smiled at me, blinking back tears. He genuinely believed he was utterly romantic. A week later, my sister Rebecca delivered me a pregnancy test. I was smoking a blunt while she and I awaited the results.

Rebecca was gentle with me. “It says here, a plus sign, no matter how faint, is a positive test.”

I remember dramatically squishing the burning weed into the ashtray. I texted Nick right away. I swiftly typed, “Hurry home. I have a surprise for you.”

I took a pea from a bag in the freezer and left it on the windowsill and waited.

When Nick arrived, hours later, he was beyond drunk. His cheeks not jolly pink, but red like rouge. The pea had softened to mush.

He walked through the back door straight to the refrigerator.

My heart was pounding. The words had burst from my mouth, “That’s how big our baby is right now.”

I was pointing to the windowsill as the refrigerator door closed.

He cracked a beer in response.

“Whaaat?”

Maybe I should’ve waited until he was sober, though my words seemed to have processed because his face widened.

He bellowed, slurring one long sentence, “We’rehavingababy!”

He kissed me. Hard. An assault of liquor and beer permeating beneath the sweat and grease of working over a fryer with little ventilation. I felt suffocated.

“We have to celebrate! I need cigarettes and I’m going to get us lottery tickets.”

Nick grabbed the keys, even though the gas station was half a block away. After all, he had just walked from the restaurant. He turned for the door.

“Wait, Nick.”

I stumbled over my words. “Hey, you know, over the next nine months, you’re going to have to slow down drinking… Just cut back, I’m not saying stop completely… if I can’t party… it’s going to be harder than house arrest was… watching you drink.”

He turned on his heel and kissed my cheek. “Baby, you knew I was an alcoholic when we met,” as though it were the sweetest sentiment. “You know that’s not ever going to change.”

He left the backdoor open as he strode to the driver’s seat. I listened over my heart as he started the car and left.

For the next twenty minutes I stood by myself in the kitchen. Visualizing my belly growing. Six months pregnant. Eight months. Holding a baby. Chasing a toddler. In every visualization, I saw myself alone.

I saw in my mind, kids playing in the background as I answered the phone. It was the police calling, he was at the station, and needed a ride. The phone rang again, this time to tell me he wrecked the car and was in ICU. There the police were, knocking on the front door in the middle of the night, there to tell me he was dead.

When I discarded the pea, something inside of me changed.

Gina Moriarty is an emerging writer who earned her MFA through Chatham University in Pittsburgh where her thesis was the recipient of the Katherine Ayres Award. She’s mostly a nonfiction writer but dabbles in poetry. Typically, her work covers the themes of addiction, heartache, and coincidence beneath an umbrella of hope.

Her nonfiction has been published by Permafrost Magazine, the AROHO Foundation, the Braided Way Magazine, and 3 AM Press. Upcoming by Marrow Magazine and Purple Ink Press Bimbo Feminist Anthology. Her poetry has appeared in the Brief Wilderness, the Ekphrastic Review, and the Classical Poets Society. Find Gina online here

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Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

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Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

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Your voice matters, now more than ever.
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every voice matters.
Guest Posts, Relationships

Alternate Universe

May 21, 2024
alternate universe steve

My husband’s family: I belong to them, and they to me. Today, when I visit with Steve’s mother, she hugs me and waits for me to speak. I know what she needs to hear. “I miss your boy,” I say into her ear. She tightens her grip around my waist and, not wanting to break the connection that is mother and wife and friend, neither of us lets go. When Leal at last releases me, she steps back, her face wet with tears. I know she’s thinking what we’re all thinking: Steve’s death will forever be with us, forever a weight to bear. His family and I stand in the driveway of his sister’s house, reluctant to say goodbye. There’s an understanding now between us where there wasn’t before, and we struggle to accept this truth.

In my alternate universe, Steve is alive, riding his bicycle alongside me at twilight, oaks spreading their canopies as if to protect us, keeping our connection intact. Steve laughs at the sight of an otter tumbling down a creekbank, and a beaver in a pond, its bullet body torpedoing forward through water clotted with branches. The images get me through, and so I tell myself I’ll stick with those imaginings, until the day unfolds when I no longer need them, how many years from now?

In my alternate universe, I haven’t yet given away our camping gear—sleeping bags, cookstove, axe, and tarp—and Steve loads everything into the back of his pickup. I climb into the truck, sit beside him, and we head northeast from Sacramento, toward the Warner Mountains. We’re the only humans for miles. We set up camp on the evening of the summer solstice, the best night for viewing stars. We hope to view the Northern Cross at 10 p.m., but at 7,000 feet, it’s thirty degrees, so we slip into our sleeping bags, cocooned in winter clothing. Steve looks at me, I look at him.

“Should we get that pup we’ve been talking about?” Steve says, his face a sketch in the dark.

“Should I write a second novel?”

The questions are easy, the answers clear. We say yes to everything.

In my alternate universe, Steve is here for our daughters when they need him most; when they despair of letting him go, because they owe him something. “What?” I say. “What do you owe him?” I know they’re thinking loyalty and gratitude, and while I understand this, I have something to tell them. It takes a long time to get the words out. “Dad is dead,” I say. “He taught you everything you need to know to move forward. He gave you permission to move forward. Now do what you need to do.”

In my alternate universe, I haven’t hurt my husband. I haven’t betrayed him. I never dream about him, and I don’t kneel at his feet. But in the real world, I ache for his forgiveness. The yearning is constant, a rhino on my chest, a python around my heart, and so I step into a carnival wheel like a wooden barrel, its interior lined with humans. I stand shoulder to shoulder with the Others. My anticipation is high as the barrel starts to spin, slowly at first, and then picks up speed. All at once the floor drops out and I slip downward, knees folding against my chest. I laugh. I cry. I laugh again.

And then all at once the ride slows, the floor rises, and the barrel jolts to a stop. “Everyone out!” the carny barks. I extend my legs and rub my hands, breath outside my body. My vision settles, and I see Venus through the widening forest, a she-star waiting to greet me. “Hello, forgiveness. I’m here,” I say. “I’ve waited a long time to meet you.” I reach out—I want to connect. Venus stretches toward me her long tentacles of silvery dust, but our fingertips don’t touch. “Be patient,” she says. “Try again,” she says. “I’ll still be here tomorrow.”

Renée Thompson is the recipient of Narrative’s Fall 2023 Story Contest prize and was a finalist in The Missouri Review’s 2023 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize, as well as Missouri Review’s 2023 Perkoff Prize. Other honors include placement in competitions sponsored by the Literary Death Match Bookmark Contest (judged by Roxane Gay); Glimmer Train; Writer’s Digest; and Literal Latte. Essays and short stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Twenty Twenty—A Stories on Stage, Sacramento Anthology, Nevada Magazine, Sacramento Magazine, Crossborder, Arcadia, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and elsewhere. She is the author of two novels and is devoted to birds, mammals, and the people she loves. Renée lives in Folsom, CA, with her black Lab, Donner.

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The ManifestStation is looking for readers; click for more information.
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Your voice matters now more than ever.
We believe every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

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

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

 

Guest Posts, Relationships

How I Met the Love of My Life on a Small Ship to Antarctica

April 10, 2024
Antarctica

 It was the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music score for the film, “Scott of the Antarctic”, scored for a soprano soloist, women’s chorus, organ and wind machine, as much as the cinematography, that triggered my interest in Antarctica. I loved the film so much that I never forgot when I’d finally seen it and thought of it wistfully every subsequent year. That was in December 1954 when I was 14, in Thurso, the northernmost town on the mainland of Scotland, where I grew up.

My first marriage ended in divorce after my then-wife got the wrong idea when I’d taken a purely platonic female friend to a concert in London. The concert was a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica. That rang a bell for me. What was it about Antarctica that was affecting my life every few decades or so?  Various fortune tellers had told me that I was blessed with a strong sense of intuition and that I should listen to “my voices”. But they weren’t so much “voices” but more feelings that felt like they couldn’t be ignored. I chose not to ignore them.

Ten years after my divorce, I‘d been summoned to a hospital near my hometown where my mother had just suffered a debilitating stroke. After holding her hand and talking to her every afternoon for two months, she died in my arms, I took her wedding ring and for some unknown reason, placed it in my trusty leather purse, to carry with me wherever I went.

A week later I booked my first expedition to the Antarctic with a company called Clipper Cruises. Their ”World Discoverer” cruise vessel was all of 3,500 tons. How was that going to be when we crossed the infamous Drake Passage, I wondered?

The morning before the cruise, I joined all the other excited travelers on the patio of the Sheraton Hotel in Santiago, Chile for a buffet breakfast. That was when it all fell into place.

She was standing all on her own, away from everyone else. I could empathize with her desire for solitude. Nevertheless, I approached her with the pathetic chat up line, “You look like you’ve come from a cold climate.” As it was about 34 degrees C that summer morning in the southern hemisphere, I had dressed in shorts and open sandals. She was in heavy boots, with woolen socks, a thick jacket, and an anorak.
“Well, it’s winter in New York,” she said. “You’ll be in trouble when we get to Antarctica, but I could always lend you some warmer clothes if you like.” She gave me a cheeky smile that immediately warmed my heart. After a very short chat about her plans for the day, she stopped me with, “You’ll have to excuse me now. I have to call my mother to let her know I’ve arrived safely.”

And then she was gone. What was her name? No idea. What about her room number? No idea, too forward a question anyway, but I remembered she did say she might go on the city tour.

We both chose the last bus for the tour of the city, which was practically empty. I didn’t think I could suddenly sit beside her but I did sit on the opposite side of the aisle to her seat. During the tour of Santiago, the bus stopped every now and again to let us all get off the bus to walk to various important sites or viewing points. I followed her around like a lost dog; too shy to speak to her and too frightened of being rejected.  What must she have thought of me, I wondered?

The next day we checked in to our charter flight to the Falkland Islands where we would board our small 3,500-ton expedition vessel. I did manage to have a brief conversation with her and learned that her name was Eileen, but our allocated seats were widely separated on the charter flight. During the flight I left my seat and walked up the aisle.

I found Eileen near at the forward exit of our plane—sitting on the floor of the airplane. She had been sitting in the last non-smoking row of the aircraft but was still surrounded by the cigarette smoke from the rows behind her. She decided her new location would be much preferrable.

“That was a short takeoff run we just made,” I said, doing my best to make conversation.

“Yes, it was only 24 seconds,” she replied.

“What? You timed the take off?” I exclaimed. “So do I, every time.” I was amazed. Was that serendipity or just another sign, I wondered.

During our first briefing on board the ship we were advised to choose a “buddy” so that, as a safety measure, we could walk together during all our shore excursions. Eileen asked me if I would be her “buddy”. My heart leapt and I immediately replied in the affirmative. After that we became inseparable and people quickly began to think we had come on board as a couple.

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Thirteen days later, at the end of the Cruise, I accompanied Eileen to the Santiago Airport check-in desk as she was about to depart to New York. By this time she had videoed an interview with me to show her family, before I visited them, and also invited me to travel to New York to meet her family and stay with her for Christmas, and New Years.

Since my divorce, I had never thought of remarrying. How would I ever learn how to live with another person? I worried.  But now everything was different. Eileen was the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life.

Suddenly I had an important realization: I had my mother’s wedding ring with me.

I had been carrying it around in my leather purse ever since Mum had died earlier that year.

Now I knew why.

I extracted the ring from my purse and approached Eileen at the airline desk.

“I just wanted you to know this is not just some holiday romance for me. It’s very serious. This is my mother’s wedding ring,” I said as I slipped it on to her ring finger. “If this doesn’t work out, I want it back”

”Oh, my goodness, Robin,” she said. “Don’t worry, I do not anticipate having to return it to you.” Then there came that smile again. I was in heaven.

On 18 November 1994 we were married in Garden City, NY.

During all this time my fascination with Antarctica did not diminish. That all these tumultuous developments in my life should have resulted from a visit to Antarctica was really no surprise to me. I felt that it was all “meant to be.”

We returned to Antarctica in January 2023. It was our third trip.

Robin Macdonald was born in Edinburgh in September 1940 and refers to himself as The Ancient Scot. He has been writing  memoirs for 8 years. He enjoys writing and sees his memoirs as legacies for his five grandsons ranging in age from 16 to 26. He has been living in Long Island, New York, since he married in 1995. He and his wife continue to enjoy traveling to all seven continents.
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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

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The ManifestStation is looking for readers, click for more information.

***

Your voice matters, now more than ever.

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

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

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

Guest Posts, Relationships

Crossing the Threshold

March 29, 2024
prayer
The bridegroom carries his new wife over the threshold to start a life together and we all sigh at the romance! But I have crossed more than one threshold in my life. In some cases, like the birth of my son, they were new beginnings filled with joy.  Others, like the death of my husband, left me in despair.  At times these thresholds were decision points, but others were crossed before I even understood what I had done. That was the case with my retirement and a move across two states.

My husband died in 2010 and for the next six years I immersed myself in my job as a school superintendent.  I spent two Christmases at my son’s house and loved being with my grandsons.  Retirement and a move to their town started looking very attractive.

Signs that this transition might be a challenge popped up one Thanksgiving a few years before I moved, when we all gathered at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving.  I joined my son for breakfast at their hotel the day they were leaving.  I brought up Christmas and assumed I would be joining them again.  He studied the menu and then scrolled through his phone, not looking at me.  Still scrolling he casually announced, “We don’t want you to come on Christmas this year. Why don’t you come after Christmas.” I sat there, mute for a few minutes, then I got up and left the hotel in tears. The atmosphere was tense when we said our goodbyes at my sister’s house several hours later.  Never one for outright conflict, I tucked this memory deep in my brain’s filing cabinet.

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A recent blog on retirement statistics announced: “On average, 10,000 baby boomers reach the average retirement age every day.”  In 2016 I was one of the 10,000, retired, widowed, and living in a new town, where my son and his family also lived. I have often wondered if this move was a good idea.  I justified it to myself as a favor to my only child. When I get older and need assistance in daily life, I won’t be a day’s drive away.  It may be more honest to say I was lonely without my job and without a family.

Navigating this new life has been a challenge. The big stuff happened, as it usually does, in relationships.

My son was in high school the last time we lived in such close proximity. Two- or three-day visits and sporadic phone calls have been the norm since those days. That fact did nothing to quell my expectations that we would spend the rest of my days in a loving, close relationship.

One evening a few weeks before I moved, my son and his family had dinner with me at a local restaurant a block from their house. The place is a beloved Greek eatery with a deck, umbrellas, and picnic tables. I chose a spot facing my daughter-in-law who looked as lovely as she always does.  I thought: “This is what I’ve been waiting for…a family dinner in a favorite spot…”  My mind took off, imagining Sunday dinners at my house……my son stopping by after work for a drink…babysitting my grandsons. Heaven!

My son got up to greet friends and acquaintances in the restaurant and my daughter-in-law focused on helping the boys decide what they wanted to eat.  Her long blond hair draped over her shoulders, onto her fashionable black maxi length dress. She began to tell me about the news from her large extended family in the Delta of Mississippi, not far from Oxford. Several sorority friends from college stopped by to say hello and they all talked over each other excitedly.

“Don’t you look the cutest”.  “I love your hair that way”. “How’s your grandmother, she’s so funny!!”   Her infectious laugh drew smiles from nearby tables, and she was the center of attention at ours.

My son, who had been quiet during our meal, gathered up the boys after dinner and they started home.  My daughter-in-law and I lingered to drink our wine and chat. The buzz around us got louder as the deck filled up with diners.

“…..worried about you moving here….. doesn’t know what to expect”.  Those words found their way through the noise.

“ Who?”

“R—”

“Why?” My stomach tightened.

“What’s he think I’m gonna do?  I’m not gonna butt into your lives!”

We stopped to pour more wine…She continued to tell me what she apparently thought I needed to hear.

“We’ve got our own traditions and routines, Ruth.  And you need to make your own.”  I thought, “you are one tough cookie” and I grudgingly tipped my imaginary hat.   I said, “I am glad you are being honest. Part of the tension last year around Christmas happened because R___ was given the job of telling me I wasn’t welcome on Christmas Day. It might be better if you and I talked.” I mimicked the blunt way he had blurted out the news.

“Oh, I didn’t know that”.  Heightened emotion and the wine tinted her porcelain cheeks. I ruefully noted to myself “She would be quite a formidable opponent if I chose the competition path.”

As we walked back to their house, she unexpectedly remarked,” I feel so much better”.  I realized it had not been easy for her to tackle the boundary issue with her mother-in-law. I had plopped myself into their pond and the ripples seemed threatening.

I had bought a house, moved my furniture, and there was no going back now.  Somehow, I needed to build a new life and accept that it would not look like a Norman Rockwell painting.

A prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, eventually became the famous serenity prayer, a staple of all the 12-step programs.  It became mine.

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This became my daily and sometimes moment-by-moment prayer over the next seven years.

My son was chairman of the school board during the COVID mask controversies.  He rebuffed any advice I had as a former school superintendent. Serenity prayer.

The mythical Sunday dinners that took enormous effort by an inadequate cook (me) lasted 45 minutes because everyone was busy.  I gave away the dining room table and created a study nook for myself.  I took them out to eat when it was convenient for everyone.  Serenity prayer.

My grandsons, 7 and 9 when I moved, enjoyed coming to my upstairs floor full of their video games, board games, and order out menus.  It dawned on their parents that this was a safe place for the kids to be and it afforded them some free time.  Serenity prayer.

I deliberately found volunteer activities that used my skills and enthusiasm, involved myself in community organization that focused on building  better government, and made many friends along the way.  I took control over what I could do and let go of what I could not make happen.  Serenity prayer.

I ask my son to lunch one or two times a month and he has started suggesting it himself sometimes.  That is the only time I am with him by myself, and it has taken seven years for those conversations to become more personal.  He is married to a strong woman, has a law practice, is maneuvering the teenage years of two boys, and I am not his top priority.  Serenity prayer.

And then one day, during a family trip to Ireland, my daughter-in-law sought me out to talk about a personal issue that was troubling her. Somewhere in the time we spent together that day, I heard: “I love you” and “I trust you”. Serenity prayer.

Ruth O’Dell is an emerging writer with a previous publication in Atticus Review. Ruth is a retired educator living, loving, and writing in Oxford, Mississippi.

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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

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Guest Posts, Relationships

The Book Exchange

March 26, 2024
book

“He stole my book,” I moaned to my friends and co-workers, my bodega guy, my bodega cat. Anyone who would listen. “He stole my book. I love that book.”

They responded patiently.

“I’ll buy you a new one.”

“He probably lost it.”

“Don’t you have one of his too?”

All valid statements. But I wasn’t ready to let it go.

After work one night I sat at the kitchen counter, hunched over my phone, willing a text to come from this book thief I went on six dates with. Six. Then, without so much as an abracadabra, he disappeared like a white rabbit in a magic trick.

My roommate at the time told me to forget him.

“He’s a butterfly,” she said. “He flits from one thing to the next.”

I nodded. I knew she was right, but I was still stuck in that place where every word, every text, every kiss seems to hold the great unknowable answer to what went wrong. If I could just remember exactly what he said on that last Sunday date when we aimlessly traipsed around Greenpoint, surely I would be able to figure this out, I thought. But a close reading didn’t help. There was no subtext. No hidden meaning.  His disappearing act said it all.

On the subway soon after it ended, I winced as the train stopped at Delancey Street. A few days earlier I almost crashed into him as I rushed out of this station. I was running late for what would become our final date. He was standing on the corner, leather jacket unzipped, bass guitar strapped to his back, and that look. That look that I swear he must practice in the mirror—a mixture of sheepishness and amusement and something else that I could only describe to my friends as fearlessness.

“It’s weird,” I said to my friend on the phone after date number three. “When you start to see someone there’s a level of fear isn’t there? That you’re not going to fall or the other person isn’t going to fall with you. He doesn’t seem to have that fear.”

“Maybe he’s just braver with his emotions?” she offered.

“Maybe,” I replied, but I caught my voice trailing off the way it does when I want something to be true, but know it’s not.

Still, I held out hope. We went to dinner and the movies, his neighborhood and mine, a cute park date mixed in, several craft beers, and an impromptu bar crawl. And finally, The Book Exchange. After drinks in Bushwick, we were back at this place. I gravitated toward his bookshelf as I always do. I work in publishing. We sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, perusing his collection. My eyes landed on a few Ishirugo books.

“One of his is my favorite,” I said.

And that’s how it happened. He gave me When We Were Orphans, and the next time we met, I gave him Never Let Me Go. The irony is not lost on me.

Soon after that, the texts started trickling out. The staring contest with my phone began. He was fading. I grasped a bit at the empty space he left until I didn’t anymore and left his last noncommittal message unanswered.

What he didn’t know—when he was ignoring my texts for days, when he was lending me a book and taking one of mine, when he was pulling me in only to push me back—is that I’ve had only one serious relationship. That all that’s been in between is a smattering of dating. He didn’t know he had been the first person in years I actually liked. He didn’t consider what was between the lines. It wasn’t bravery in his eyes; it was indifference. And only six dates or not, it still stung.

Weeks after I let that last text hang, deleted the message thread, and un-followed him on Instagram, I heard through the grapevine of our mutual friends that my story followed a very particular pattern. A friend’s friend had been down this very road: a handful of dates. He seemed to like her a lot. He totally flaked.

My mind flashed to the bookcase in his living room. I remembered the collection appeared to be growing. Books were stacked haphazardly on top of others and shoved in tight like misplaced puzzle pieces. Many of them were yellowed, with faded spines and dog-eared pages. They looked awfully well-loved.

I hope, at least, he reads them.

Jess Harriton is an editor and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared on HelloGiggles.com and in Concrete Literary Magazine. 
****

Wondering what to read next? 

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

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

***

Guest Posts, Relationships

This is where it ends

January 21, 2024
mother, hands

In February 2019, two days after my son’s bar mitzvah, my mother was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. A year later, in March 2020, she left her house for the last time on her own two feet to attend my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Four months later, she died.

The progression seems straightforward: diagnosis, illness, death. But that doesn’t factor in seventeen months of treatment, surgery, emergency room visits, and the emotional impact of dealing with the disease. There is nothing simple about watching the person you love most in the world endure chemotherapy and their slow withdrawal from society. There is nothing simple about watching the person who gave you life die.

Eva Evelyn Ellis married Philip Sonny Matlin at the age of eighteen, had her first child at nineteen and two more by the time she was twenty-five. I came along six years later. Despite marrying into my father’s upper-class family, she remained down-to-earth and kept the frugal mindset of someone raised among modest means during the post-war years, even though her own father later found success as a tailor.

Eva, who went by Evelyn, or Evy, her entire adult life, was an excellent mother, filled with a kind of patience that as a teen I assumed was magically bestowed upon you when you had children. She was even-tempered, warm, and intelligent, with a wicked sense of humour and an armory of solid advice. It didn’t matter what kind of trouble my siblings got into, I rarely saw her lose her cool. She dealt with things calmly, never raising her voice. She was nurturing and loved to laugh. She appreciated a good joke and would sometimes surprise me with one of her own. During one of her many ER visits, a doctor told an offensive riddle (“What’s the difference between a bull and woman with PMS? Lipstick.”) and my mother, half-conscious and fevered, snapped back, “What’s similar about men and tile floors? Lay them right the first time and you can walk all over them for the rest of your life.”

But mostly, when I try to conjure up an image of my mother, I see her lying on the left side of the double bed she shared with my father for sixty-two years, a box of drugstore chocolates on her lap, beckoning me to join her so we could either watch TV together or she could  listen to my latest drama.

On top of being a mother to four, she obtained a university degree in her thirties, returned to school to get certified as a forensic document examiner, then ran her own business while helping my father run his. And she did it all with seeming ease and a quiet grace.

It seems incredible, and it was, but unbeknownst to me at the time, she sacrificed large parts of herself to do it. She strove to be the ideal wife and mother then harboured some serious regrets about it. An unintentional result of her actions was setting an extraordinarily high bar for her children. It was implicitly understood that we, her children, were meant to behave in a certain way.

As warm and patient as she was, my mother could also be judgmental. She had a strict no smoking or drug policy, was never shy to remark on someone’s weight, and had zero tolerance when people did things she disagreed with–even when it had nothing to do with her. She once came close to ending a lifelong friendship because she disapproved of her friend’s choice of partner. For a teenager growing up in her home, all of this felt restrictive, an impediment to getting into the kind of trouble I was supposed to get into at that age.

As a result,  I developed a dual personality early in life. There was the person I was, and then the person I was with my mother.  I hid the parts of me I thought might disappoint her, like my much older friends, my mild promiscuity, and my experimentation with drugs and alcohol. Once, in eighth grade, my best friend’s mother found half a joint in the toilet and called a meeting for all our parents. We were a gang of five girls and my mother sat with the other mothers and listened in disbelief to what we’d been up to. She could not fathom that I would have had any part in it, to the point she stood up and said, “Julie doesn’t do any of those things.”

The joint wasn’t even ours–it belonged to my friend’s brother. But it gathered all those parents in one room to exchange stories, which succeeded in shattering the illusion of the perfect daughter for my mother. When she got home that night, the look on her face and the quiet disapproval was enough for me to quit smoking cigarettes on the spot. I told my friends I did it on a bet, but the truth was, I couldn’t bear having that mark against me in my mother’s book. (Although there was a bet, and I won ten bucks.) The irony isn’t lost on me that in her attempt to model a certain behaviour, I ended up emulating the wrong one. Instead of becoming the person she tried to present, I developed her habit of splitting myself in two.

Years ago, one of my siblings tried explaining to me that my mother wasn’t the perfect being I thought she was. The theory was that our mother lived in a state of conflict, torn between who she was and who she thought she should be. I couldn’t see it at the time. I saw my mother through a lens coloured with love and tinged with worship. It was only after her death that the pieces fell into place, and by that time, it was too late.

Seventeen months passed in the blink of an eye, despite spending several eternities in hospital waiting rooms. Knowing our time would be short, I assumed the role of primary caregiver. I wanted to spend every second possible with her. I lived and breathed doctors appointments, chemo sessions, blood tests, and runs to Walmart to ensure a steady supply of Ensure. My own well-being fell by the wayside as I abandoned home-cooked meals for the McDonalds drive-thru, developing a cheeseburger habit I still can’t kick to this day.

Life at home suffered. My daughter’s grades fell and I wasn’t there for my son, who was taking his bubby’s illness almost as hard as I was. So many times he reached out to me, coming down past midnight seeking comfort, and all I could do was cry along with him.

My mother landed in palliative care in June 2020, at the height of the first pandemic lockdown. Only four of us were allowed to visit her, and only two at a time. We were required to get into full gear–gowns, masks, face shields, latex gloves–and not allowed to touch her. I was there every day, save one, and over the course of less than two weeks, her decline was fast, stark, and cruel.

The last day I saw her, I knew she wasn’t going to see morning. She had stopped eating and was on oxygen, but clearly she’d had a stroke in the night. She could no longer speak or move, and when the nurse came in to try to adjust her pillow, she winced in pain.

I stayed longer that day, from early morning until past dinnertime. I held her hand and played her favourite music. I read her notes that people had sent for her. I recited a few of her favourite Sedaris essays, read from the book I was adapting into a screenplay, and rued that I hadn’t brought along any Chaucer, her favourite (“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”).

Before I left, I stopped at the side of her bed. All my life, there was always a place for me in my mother’s bed. Even in my forties, when she was home between chemo sessions, we’d lie there and watch Judge Judy. There was nothing I wanted in that moment more than to be able to climb in with her one last time, to seek comfort from the woman who always provided it so freely and with such skill. I wanted to cradle myself in the curve of her body, feel her arm come down around me and pull me in close, her chin resting on the top of my head. Be safe in that place where nothing else could touch me.

But it was just a fantasy. There was no way I could get in there without causing her enormous pain. The tables had irrevocably turned. It was no longer her job to comfort me, but mine to comfort her.

We never had an end of life conversation, but at that moment, I looked down at her and said, “Don’t worry, Mummy. We’re going to be fine. I’m going to be fine. And I am going to do great things. I promise you will be so proud of me.”

Two years later, I cringe to think that in my last moments with her I was still desperate for her approval. That instead of my being there being enough, I qualified myself and told her that I would make her proud. While it’s normal for a child to seek their parent’s approval, this was something I never outgrew. I used to ask, “Are you proud of me?” so often it became a family joke. Every accomplishment punctuated by a “We’re so proud,” every birthday card signed the same way.

Today, diagnosed and medicated, I can recognize that desperation as early manifestations of my anxiety, but what did we know from anxiety in the seventies and eighties? And by the time the nineties rolled around, the whole routine was already inscribed in our family DNA.

I never understood how deeply this affected the relationship I had with my mother; that because I never felt I was enough, I was chasing after her love and approval. Now, it’s so clear to me that I didn’t have to do anything to earn it. I simply had to be. I, as her daughter, was enough. It haunts me that I failed to grasp this during her lifetime, but at the same time, I’m angry that she was unable to show me that she was fallible, too. That she had made mistakes and had regrets and was human just like all of us. Just like I was.

Now I find myself in the painful position of having to tease apart the love I felt for her from the extraordinary weight of it. I have to own the perverse sense of relief I felt when she died, the knowledge that I was free to just be me, without fear of disappointing anyone.

Julie Matlin is writer based in Montreal, Canada with pieces appearing in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, and other publications. She is working on an essay collection entitled Such a Nice Jewish Girl, which is being supported by a Canada Council for the Arts grant, as well as two screenplays which are currently in development. You can see my entire portfolio here: www.juliematlin.com.

***

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Relationships

The Blue Sponge

October 30, 2023
blue sponge

I inherited a blue sink-side sponge and the chore of washing up at the age of 15, when my mother left my father to live in an apartment on the other side of town.

It wasn’t an especially laborious job—we had a dishwasher. But some pans needed extra help. Caked-on macaroni and cheese. Chicken and dumplings. High-calorie Southern comfort foods prepared by a woman my father hired. The kind of food my mother never allowed. We were all watching her weight, and mine.

Besides being ineffectual for scrubbing, the blue sponge squicked me out. Bits of food clung to it, penetrating its pores. I tried to get it clean, but fragments remained. There it sat, by the side of the sink, mocking my incompetence.

This wasn’t my only incompetence. I sensed early on my mother always had one foot out the door, stunned by the reality of marriage and two toddlers at the age of 20. An overindulged child-woman ill-prepared to care for anyone but herself, and barely even that.

I did everything I could to make her stay. I made no demands. I super-sensed her needs and moods. Allowed her the spotlight—her need to be special. But she left anyway, and an uneasy silence prevailed as my father, brother and I rebuilt lives to fill her absence.

Really, when I looked forward to my future, my kitchen incompetence wasn’t that big a deal. I never planned to be a typical suburban homemaker. If I imagined any future at all, it was that of the caricature of the reclusive spinster living with seven dogs.

I never wanted children. The level of certainty was 99.9%.  I couldn’t bear the idea of continuing the cycle of damage to a child the way I was damaged—not maliciously, but through ignorance and the self-centeredness that comes from a parent’s stunted emotional development.

One day I was in Baby Gap buying a shower gift. I was 38. I glided from display table to hanging rack, enchanted by the tiny garments. One-piece things I later learned were called onesies. Little pants with ingenious snaps down the inside of the legs. Tiny matching skullcaps with tufted knots on top, all in the softest cotton knits. I selected the most adorable outfit, presented it at the checkout, and began to cry.

I wouldn’t say I set a conscious intention to find a husband and make a child, but I believe I unconsciously shifted in that direction. I had devoted years of therapy with the goal of becoming more functional, more whole. Maybe some part of me was beginning to think it was possible.

I met my future husband, Michael, walking our dogs at St. Mary’s-by-the-Sea along Black Rock Harbor in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had seen him before, walking with a woman and pushing a two-year-old in a stroller. I found out later they were his sister-in-law and nephew.

After we dated for a while, I confessed my lack of desire to have children, but he didn’t seem to care—or maybe he thought I’d change my mind.

When I was 39, Michael and I returned home from a whirlwind trip to Arkansas—for Thanksgiving dinner and an introduction to my family—and then a three-hour drive south to visit an old childhood friend and her husband.

My friend and I discussed my childbearing ambivalence.

“He’s wonderful!” she gushed, basing her statement on his interactions with her own children. “He’ll help you.”

She spoke from the view of the already-initiated parent, who knows that rearing children often means you just step up and put one foot in front of the other. That there’s no magic involved—only duty…and love. My desire finally overpowered my fears. I decided to believe her.

On our flight back to Connecticut, Michael and I discussed getting busy ASAP because at our age, we realized it might take a while. We conceived the night we got back.

Around Christmas, after taking three pregnancy tests, all positive, I called my father with the happy news.

“Call me back when you’re married.” He slammed down the phone.

Stung by my father’s reaction, I felt compelled to contact my mother even though we had long been estranged and spoke only infrequently.  When she heard the news, I was surprised to see that her excitement paralleled my own. This was the encouragement I needed to resume contact. We started phoning regularly. She was the first witness to my first trimester morning sickness when she called one evening and Michael reported that I was throwing up dinner and couldn’t take the call.

When Ian was a newborn, she came to visit during the torrential rains from Tropical Storm Floyd. She cooked and washed dishes and did laundry and let me nap while I recuperated from my c-section and tried to pump milk out of breasts scarred from breast reduction surgery. I knew in advance I would likely have trouble, because of the surgery, but I wanted to try anyway.

When Ian was nearly two, he and I took a road trip to visit her in Virginia Beach. One night I knelt in front of the bathtub, laughing with Ian as I watched him splash with his toys. I turned, feeling her presence in the doorway, watching us.

“You’re a good mother,” she said.

I immediately understood this was her way of saying she knew she hadn’t been. Of apologizing. Making amends. I grabbed onto it. I knew it was a gift not many get.

A year later, I was again in her Virginia Beach apartment, this time without Ian. I had come to say goodbye, a job that needed all my attention. I was in the small kitchen with my sister-in-law, Sam. Sam had nursed her sister through cancer and her eventual death. She knew what to do.

Another blue sponge sat by the sink.

“Lord, look at this raggedy old thing”. She picked it up and laughed at its bedraggled appearance.

I said, “It’s probably the same one we had when she lived at home with us.”

We dissolved into a giddy laughter that skirted the edge of hysteria, fueled by our lack of sleep from 3 a.m. alarms, set to rouse us to administer pain medication.

I felt a twinge of guilt, laughing at the expense of my mother, who was dying in the next room.

I had never seen anyone dying of cancer. Witnessed its brutality. But what surprised me was seeing her courage in coping with it all. On the way to chemo, stopping the car so she could get out and vomit by the side of the road. And then promptly after chemo, nausea somehow abated, indulged her yen for chocolate milkshakes, which she never permitted herself before she became sick. The once vain woman I’d known refused a wig for her bare head, but instead haunted the hat aisle in Target. She tried on silly hats, inspected her reflection in the mirror, and laughed.

After she died, I went through her possessions. The ones not in the will. The everyday objects that reveal the essence of a person.

In a brown crocodile handbag, I found a series of green butterfly-shaped cards with notes on each. I realized she must have used these cards to tell her story—her Al-Anon story.

Long-timers in 12-Step groups share their stories aloud in agonizing detail. It is a way of admitting and accepting responsibility for one’s own shortcomings and failures, describing one’s road to recovery, and sharing a sense of hope as an act of service to others in all stages of recovery.

Some of her notes were cryptic—”clues Craziness of alcoholism checkbook” –but some I could extrapolate the meaning. She had left my father for another man, Mike, who became her second husband. An alcoholic grifter who initially gave her the attention she craved and never got from my father, a workaholic driven to build financial security designed to protect him and his family from the privations he experienced as a child in the Depression.

Another butterfly card read “unable to keep a job”. Once Mike blew through her inheritance, he left her. She had reached her proverbial “bottom” and found redemption through Al-Anon. Just as I used psychotherapy to make myself whole, she used the 12-Step framework. No matter how it’s done, I know it takes courage. And I admired her for that.

I had always told others that my mother and I were nothing alike, but in truth, we were more so than I ever realized.

Except in our regard for the blue sponge.

Benay Yaffe grew up in Arkansas and got her B.A. in psychology from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, and her M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Fairfield University in Connecticut. Benay was a freelance reporter and photographer for Newtown Patch in 2010 but she believes the other jobs she’s had over the years (children’s tennis instructor, metal sorter, psychiatric technician and HMO customer service rep) were equally valuable in her path to becoming a writer. She lives in Newtown, Connecticut, with her husband, two dogs and two cats. She is a new empty nester, and her son appreciates that she limits herself to one phone call and two texts a week.

*****

Wondering what to read next? 

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

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

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Relationships

Holy Ground

October 11, 2023
grand canyon

I didn’t want to hike the Grand Canyon.

April is the golden time in Phoenix, when the sun burns just warm enough for hike-and-pool days but not so hot to warrant an escape up north. After a morning trek up Piestewa Peak, Kyle and our friend Andy relax on a couple pool chairs, sipping cold beers and scheming up an adventure for the dry-heat days ahead. Next to them, I sit cross-legged in my pool chair with a red pen and stack of papers in my lap, going through my most recent essay and making up for the writing time I lost to the morning hike.

Andy insists on the Grand Canyon, declaring the national park his favorite place in the world.

Kyle and I look at each other, both thinking the same thing: How could the Grand Canyon be his favorite place in the world? A year earlier we had walked the rim a year, and we agreed that the crater looked the same no matter where you stood. We had taken several pictures of the view, glad to finally see the iconic landmark, but we weren’t itching to go again.

But Andy doesn’t let up. “You have to hike down it to get the full experience. You can’t just walk the rim and call it a day.”

This convinces Kyle, and I just smile at the thought of having a weekend to myself at the apartment, locked indoors by the summer heat, writing without distractions. I don’t care to go on Andy’s adventure to prove the Grand Canyon has more to it. The trip involves camping…outside…and hiking down dozens of switchbacks before hiking right back up, a twisted order of doing things.

Kyle understands. Camping and hiking are his things.

Writing is mine.

I didn’t know what I’d write while the boys adventured at the Grand Canyon, but I knew I needed that time block to see where it took me.

#

Andy tells us a statistic – of the three million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year, only one percent hikes down in it.

Being different is Kyle’s thing. Being with people, keeping a full social calendar, exploring, traveling – these are all Kyle’s things. My curious, extroverted, nature-seeking husband keeps an eye out for the exciting and the new.

I am an introvert and home body by nature, and my husband’s favorite things often make me anxious. I want to be adventurous for him and experience the things he most enjoys, but I also want to be true to myself. All I want to do is write. Ever. Always.

 #

This writing-or-experiencing debate has come up in different ways since I first moved in with Kyle, back in Iowa. One of the questions then: Do I spend the day writing or join Kyle and our friends tailgating for the Iowa State game? Kyle always invited me to go, but the thought of giving up a full day of writing to play drinking games with people we hung out with all the time made me cringe. His friends often asked him about me if I didn’t go, and part of me wished I was closer with them.

One of those Saturdays, I joined him at eight a.m. for the tailgate and brought my backpack. I planned to sit with the group for an hour, get some face time in, then when they’d all get too tipsy to notice I’d walk off to a coffee shop and write.

But I got to talking to the girls at the tailgate. Most of them, like me, came into this group because our significant others all partied together in college. Chatting with them, I understood that I wasn’t the only one who felt out of place. Like me and my writing, they each had a life of their own beyond this day of tailgating and drinking games. The writer in me was curious to know more about them.

So I took my backpack off and challenged them to a game of flippy cup.

I can’t deny that my most compelling stories and memories have happened when I tried out Kyle’s things, even if I slightly dreaded them. Most often I end up beyond glad that I joined him. With a new perspective, I come back ready to write and create with all the new spontaneity and spark within me.

Which is what I’m thinking about when I finally give in after Andy’s umpteenth request. I desperately want to write for a weekend, but the more Andy builds it up the more curious I become about what the Grand Canyon looks and feels like when you go below the surface. I have a feeling it might be life-changing, like most of those experiences I initially dread because they force me out of my comfort zone.

The week of the trip, I decide to embrace the adventure – I look forward to the camping, the backwards hiking, all of it. I make a grocery store run and gather energy bars and ingredients for trail mix. I tell everyone at work about my exciting weekend ahead. If I’m not going to spend the time writing, I am going to have fun with what I choose to do instead.

 #

On a Friday evening in mid-May, we leave the sweltering heat of Phoenix and arrive at our campsite in Flagstaff two hours later, what feels like a different part of the world. The wind reminds me of below-zero wind chill days in the Midwest, although thankfully, the temperature is a kinder fifty degrees.

Kyle and Andy fight the weather to get the tents up, then we drive into town so the guys can reward themselves with Flagstaff’s craft beers. I enjoy a hard kombucha, clinking their glasses and cheering to my first real camping adventure.

No part of me wants to camp the night before a twelve-mile hike. I don’t sleep. The wind provides a nice white noise but its shattering gusts keep anyone from sinking into a dream. I lie in the tent uncomfortable and nervous, knowing what an unpleasant person I am without a good night’s sleep. We are all in for a long day together when the sun comes up.

 #

After so many tailgates in Iowa, I still caught myself referring to the group as “Kyle’s friends.” I had gotten to know all these girls, but we still had our own friends and our own lives and we never got together outside of tailgates. Unlike the guys, we didn’t have four years at Iowa State to bond us.

So I started something – Girls of the Crew, for all of us girlfriends who came to the group by default – and it took off. Everyone picked something they wanted to do – dessert and wine night, bounce center and tumbling, brunch and mimosas, housewarming parties. Everyone freaking loved it, and we all suddenly belonged in the group that wasn’t ours.

The week before I moved to Arizona, the girls threw me a going-away dinner. After I’d moved, they mailed me a home decor sign they’d made at one of their girls group dates since I’d left. Girls of the Crew still thrives today, four years later, and I Skype in for happy hours, baby showers, and girls’ nights.

If I had stayed home from those tailgates, I might not have those ten extra girlfriends who add a world of color to my life, who ask me every time we meet how my book is coming.

Socializing, I started to realize, gave me an opportunity to talk about my writing, to speak up about the project I’m working on, while connecting with the audience whom my work is largely intended for. Having friends I’m close with allows me the space to go deeper about my passions rather than trying to impress them by sharing details about a job I don’t care about.

I guess socializing can kind of be my thing, too.

#

At five a.m., we pack up the tents and drive the rest of the way to the Grand Canyon. A hot cup of coffee makes up for the windy, sleepless night. I spend the thirty-minute car ride combining almonds and peanuts and dried cranberries and banana chips to make the perfect trail mix.

The top of the Grand Canyon feels as bitter cold as sleeping in the tent in Flagstaff. We start our hike wearing leggings, long sleeves, and hats, but after about a half hour of descending switchbacks, we start sweating and peeling layers. The sun grows warmer the deeper we go, poking through and kissing our skin. We descend for four-and-a-half miles before a one-and-a-half-mile flat stretch to Plateau Point.

If I stayed home, I’d still have one image of the Grand Canyon – the same view from the rim that the other ninety-nine percent of tourists have.

If I stayed home, I’d be left wondering why Andy deemed this his favorite place in the world.

If I stayed home, I might have the beginnings of another essay about something from my past scribbled in a notebook.

But here I am, six sweaty miles down into the Grand Canyon, with something new to write about. The sleeplessness from the night before – and the fact that I left my perfect trail mix in the car – is forgotten, replaced by the adrenaline of truly seeing this holy ground for the first time. My surroundings look different from six miles in, from the lens of curious-writer-on-a-hike rather than uncomfortable-hiker-who-wants-to-be-writing.

From the edge of Plateau Point, I try to stand upright and take in the immensity of my new view – a 360-degree backdrop of vibrant rock, the Colorado River flowing miles below me, its blueish-green stream popping up from the tan rocks it weaves through – but my legs quiver from the work it took to get there. Six miles downhill is not the way our hikes usually begin. It is, however, what it takes for me to realize what makes the Grand Canyon so, well, grand.

That view carries me back up to the top, six miles of constant stair-stepping that’s about triple the Piestewa Peak hike we did a few weeks earlier. The three of us space out as we each grow more ambitious, then more tired, and more sore. When we think we’re close to the top, I see Kyle start running the rest of the way. I’m not far behind him, and I’m at a strong finishing pace. Each leg feels like it belongs to an elephant as I continue trudging step after step. But I feel strong, healthy, vibrant, and when I see Kyle cheering for me at the top, I’m filled with confidence. If I can do this, I can do anything. Maybe even finish writing a book.

There’s writing, and then there’s living a life worth writing about.

Michelle Chalkey is a Phoenix-based writer currently working on her first book, a collection of personal essays about her quest for confidence as an insecure twentysomething. Michelle’s work has been published in The Sunlight Press, The Mindful Word, Across the Margin, The Book of Hope Anthology, and Women’s Running Magazine. You can follow her on her website at michellechalkey.com, or keep up with her reading list on Instagram, @MichelleChalkeyWriter.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Relationships

When Suffering and Appreciation Walk the Dog

June 22, 2022
walk

My husband usually does the first walk, standing at the door, holding out the leash and grumbling, ‘Ready to walk, Dummy?”  Dummy is Rocky and he takes no offense because my husband doesn’t mean any. He loves the furry beast and the fresh air, but this morning the job is mine because my husband has gone off with our three teenaged boys rafting down the Delaware river. I bowed out of the adventure – an activity we did once before when the kids were younger, and the memory of sunburned, miserable wailing along with the impulse to hit my husband with a paddle still haunts. Instead, I stay behind to hang with my cousin who is battling cancer, an entirely different kind of nightmare.

It’s hazy and overcast, the damp of last night’s rain still clings to all the green underfoot and around me. Rocky likes it, considers it a fresh morning salad and we stop every few feet for him to sniff, piss or chew. Typically, I distract myself on these walks with texts, phone calls or even an episode of the latest Netflix show I am obsessed with (Offspring!). With my weak ankles and uneven sidewalks, it’s a middle-aged mom’s rebellious walk on the wild side, but today my phone rests in my pocket. I want to notice the ripe green of the landscape, the peeking sun warming my skin, the orange and black butterfly dancing along a neighbor’s bursting landscaping.

I left my cousin back at Sloan yesterday for yet another complication related to her cancer. It seemed like only a minute ago that her life was full. Overfull. She worked hard when it was work time and played hard when it was playtime with no time or interest in stopping and smelling the roses, or in my case now, the daisies. She is in a bed, where she has mostly laid for months now. Her life no longer her own; at the mercy of her disease and the doctors who (kind of) care for her.

She is emaciated. I run to Carvel to bring her favorite thick shakes or some special treat that she desperately wants to eat. Watching her struggle to finish three bites of anything before the food overwhelms her bloated, distended stomach or makes her nauseous is heartbreaking, somehow making me linger and savor my nightly ice cream sundae but with a guilt that has nothing to do with calories.

The walk is relaxing me, except when Rocky spies a bunny and almost pulls my arm from its socket. “Rocky!” I yell, holding the leash forcefully. “No Bunnies!” His soulful eyes look up to me in remorse, but it is more likely for a consolation for his lost bunny. Sighing, I toss him a treat. Our walk resumes and I go back to focusing on the neighborhood homes and the blooming flowers and not on my cousin who hasn’t had the strength to walk her neighborhood in months. Not that she liked to walk her neighborhood, but that is beside the point.

My cell rings. It’s my youngest son secretly calling from the car to report that he does not want to go rafting, although I already know this. “You are going to have fun,” I reply brightly, even as the memory of his wet and terrified five-year-old face flashes in my brain. “And I’ll have a special treat waiting for you when you come home.”

“Yay, mama!” he says and my heart expands and breaks. He is now thirteen. My cousin’s daughter is only eight.

I turn the corner and pass ribbons of blue and orange roped around the trees. They appeared a couple of months ago in memory of three young lives (two of them brothers) taken the next town over when a car crossed a divider and crashed into them head on. I have thought obsessively about them and their families, and the randomness of a tragedy too much to bear.

It’s everywhere. This suffering. Mixed in with the underappreciated joyful mundane. A typical dog walk. Flowers bursting all around. My friend’s voice on the other side of my cell, relaying a story that has us both cracking up. Gifts beyond measure.

At home, I fill my cup with dark, rich coffee and sip leisurely. Not too long ago, my cousin loved her extra large coffee, light and sweet, but cancer has stolen that pleasure as well, changing her taste buds, giving her reflux and basically making many of her beloved foods and drinks abhorrent to her. I look down at my cup in disgust. How can I enjoy when she cannot?

Sighing, I take another sip. What good will denying myself do for my cousin? Doctors can’t seem to do anything for her? Being a good person hasn’t made a difference. It’s just coffee, I argue. Just like it was just a dog walk. But really, they are what make up a life. The simple pleasures. The stuff we take for granted is of course what matters most.

I will see her in a couple of hours. Sit on the floor by her bed and entertain her with meaningless stories that hopefully bring a small smile and distraction. I will offer her food and treats that she might take a bite or two of before her stomach decides it can tolerate no more. We will talk about the Netflix show I encouraged her to watch (Offspring!) and escape into that world for a while. I will listen to her fear and worry and do my best to soothe. I’ve been told it’s not my strong point. My own worry has a way of leaking into my face, but I am practicing in front of a mirror just like her best friend instructed.

There are no answers, small comforts, and a lot of pain for the sick and suffering. Life loses all its flavor and sparkle as loved ones watch helplessly. Angrily. Miserably. But with no choice in the matter, we must keep going. Listen closely. Hug tightly. Laugh freely. And love fiercely.

While my boys traverse the waves, riding the choppy and the serene, I continue to sip my coffee and think about my cousin as the more turbulent waters rush all around.

Alisa Schindler is a mom of three boys and wife to Mr. Baseball. She schleps children, burns cupcakes and writes essays that have been featured online at the New York Times, Washington Post, Kveller, Good Housekeeping and Northwell Health’s The Well, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, twisty fiction novels. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.

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Guest Posts, Fiction, Relationships

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.

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