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How To Feel Iranian

February 7, 2021
iranian

By Maryam Keramaty

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

1. Polo

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

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

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

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

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

2. Fesenjoon

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

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

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

3. Doogh

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

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

4. Sohan Asali

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

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

5. Chaee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I feel Iranian?

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

This is the way for now: sometimes feeling Iranian.

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

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Guest Posts, Humor, memories

The Curious Case of Russell Wilson and the Toilet Ambush

November 15, 2020
russell

By Mike Schoeffel

I

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

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

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

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

To wit:

ok

so

the title

pretty much sums up

the first part of the story

so i’ll just pick up

at the second half

this guy

who shoved me off a toilet

in pensacola, fla

when we were 13

and teammates

on an aau baseball team

is set to make $20 million

in the very near future

he’s buddies with obama

knows drake

has shared a stage

with jessica alba

i mean, shit

his lookalike

that fills in for him

during commercial shoots

makes six figures a year

for heaven’s sake

and here i am

eating campbell’s tomato bisque

(79c per can)

three nights a week

picking my boogers

and sleeping in til 11 a.m.

trying to get by

on $1,200 per month

if i was smart

i’d had given him

a swirly

but instead

he pummeled me

on a toilet

and i still haven’t

gotten back

on my feet

Jeez.

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

V

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

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

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

VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Guest Posts, sisters

The Seeker and The Artist

January 3, 2018
books

By Cassandra Lane

It was 1984, and parachute pants and Jordache jeans were all the rage at DeRidder Junior High School. My Seventeen magazine-reading peers poked fun at my daily attire: dresses that hung loosely on my thin frame before flaring at the hems to reveal my knock-knees. My legs itched to pull on some Jordaches, or even Lee’s, but Uncle Junior, who led my family’s small church, preached that a britches-wearing woman was a sin, and we women and girls under his leadership obeyed.

“Sanctified Lady,” my junior-high peers would sing as I boarded the bus each morning. My eyes stinging, I’d shoot back: “I am not sanctified,” though when I was with my family in church or prayer meetings at home, sanctification was a state I craved.

My sister Dena, a grade lower, didn’t carry the burden of trying to be good, nor did the kids mess with her. Maybe it was because she didn’t look as gangly in her dresses. She was thin, too, but athletic and spunky. And she had what I didn’t: attitude. The way she held her small, diamond-shaped face halfway to the sky, swished her skinny hips through the hallways, and was quick to bark: “Whatchu lookin’ at?”

She was smart enough to torment other kids before they could get to her. They remembered, too, the day she beat up our neighborhood bully—Sheldon Mazieke. By the time Grandmama came on the porch with her broom to shoo Sheldon away, he was retreating to his mama’s house, blood trailing his torn white t-shirt.

Dena stood in the middle of the street, screaming at his back, veins straining in her scrawny black neck.

She wanted more.

~

Before sixth grade, I didn’t belong to the world and didn’t know how to act in it. I’d seen an angel, traced God’s face in the clouds, manifested the Spirit in church.

In church, Uncle Junior told us how to have a relationship with God, how if we didn’t we’d surely die and forever burn in the Lake of Fire, but he didn’t teach us how to have relationships with each other. The relationship between Dena and me was pocked with enmity, without a shred of sisterly bond beyond the blood we shared through our parents who, unsurprisingly, despised each other. While I spent my first few years trying to ignore my sister, eventually, I stopped wanting to be set apart. I watched with envy the ease with which she became friends with neighborhood children and interacted with our cousins. I started reading my Bible less and stopped praising the Lord publicly during church services. Mama cried about my sudden turn, asking Aunt Mae Helen, Uncle Junior’s wife, to pray for me, and the church did, but I stood there, stony and unyielding. I replaced my Bible reading with an obsession that would have been an abomination had Uncle Junior found out about it: astrology.

“It’s a sin to try and read the stars,” Uncle Junior had once boomed in church. “We’re not supposed to go around asking God why this and why that.”

But I was bursting with questions.

Why, if I were saved, did my body tingle whenever I saw Kenny St. Romain, the boy who lived down the street? His skin was the color of camel hair and his slanted black eyes were pools into which I wanted to dive.

And why had God created the Earth only to destroy it? Did he know we would be doomed as he lovingly crafted us into being? Did he cry as he molded the mud, breathed life into his first creation?

I wanted answers, and was drawn to Mama’s closet again and again to read passages from her romance novels and Reader’s Digest books on science and the body.

Waiting until everyone was preoccupied—Mama at work on the Army base; Dena hanging out with friends; Grandmama catching up with neighbors; Papa snoring into the worn green leather of his recliner—I’d put aside my Nancy Drew and tiptoe toward my grandparents’ room.

Peering around corners fist, I slinked into the cool dimness. Holding my breath against the reek of mothballs and Sulfur8 Hair and Scalp Conditioner, I picked up Papa’s magnifying glass with a piece of toilet tissue (real sleuths never left their fingerprints) and headed for Mama’s bedroom. Adrenaline stirred my bowels, but I’d come too far to allow a bathroom trip to interrupt my investigation. I folded my lanky frame into Mama’s closet and opened the flap of a box way in the back. As dust sprayed my face, my eyes and nostrils burned, but I held in the sneeze.

The boxes were filled to the brim with geography books, romance novels, Shakespeare plays, road atlases. Beneath it all lay a plain, jacket-less book. It was bright red— the same color of lipstick Dena wore once she passed her tomboy stage. That cheap Wet n’Wild brand of red that didn’t come off until she wiped her mouth hard with a wet, soapy rag. Even then, you could see the red residue trapped between the cracks of her chapped lip skin. Which is why Mama, who was home early from work one day, popped Dena right in the mouth when she got off the bus and came traipsing through the house.

But Dena continued to wear the lipstick when she was away from the watchful eyes of home. She wanted to be a model.

Mama said, “No, you’ll end up a prostitute,” but she couldn’t tame, at least not right away, Dena’s desire to break away from the restrictions of the family.

And I was breaking away, too, quietly. The astrology book’s title, Your Guide to Astrology, Your Guide to Life, was etched in gold lettering. It promised insights into career, love, family and friends. All one needed to know was a birthday to unravel mysteries that had previously befuddled them. I held Papa’s magnifier over the list of astrological signs and birth dates, looked up my birthday and the birthdays of people I knew. And I read.

I couldn’t wait to take my new treasure to school.

The next day, when the bus driver pulled up to DeRidder Junior High, I descended the steps with a smile on my face and no fear of stumbling. Squeezing the hardcover underarm, I eased it from its warm spot only after my nearsighted eyes focused on my two friends huddling in the courtyard.

We cracked open the book, turning hurriedly to our respective sections: Taurus for me. Leo for Melanie. Libra for Loretta.

My chapter described me in a way the outside world obviously had not yet realized: sensuous, earthy, romantic. Hip-heavy. Leos, Melanie acknowledged as true, were leaders. Smart, showy, self-centered. Loved and worshipped by many. Loretta’s pretty face and peaceful demeanor were detailed in her chapter.

Sometimes, I allowed those who were not part of our circle, but were not our enemies either, to skim the book. Sensing their time was short, they flipped the pages quickly, seeking for clues of who and why they are.

I never offered to let Dena read the red book.

Like Loretta, she is a Libra, but in her case, I had to disagree with the description of Libra as a peacemaker. She hated me and had been attacking me since we were toddlers. I was the oldest, the holder of the birthright, the quiet one who could be trusted with information and tasks, but Dena knew that I was not nearly as innocent or special as the adults seemed to believe.

One morning, she stood over me as I sat reading.

“Why you always got that stupid book?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. She waited. I could feel her breath on my forehead.

“You barbarian,” I hissed, but my voice shook a little, and she laughed.

I closed the book and willed myself to stare into her eyes without blinking.

“Hmph!” she finally said. She threw me a menacing look as she flounced away.

Afraid she’d try to steal the book and parade it in front of the grown-ups, I started sliding it under my feather-stuffed pillow at night. Over the years, the book’s hard corners softened, the pages browned, and the cover started to fade.

~

I lost track of the astrology book after going off to college. A year after I graduated, Dena met a soldier and ran away with him to Georgia. They married, and her soldier became a police officer who beat her, a police officer who pulled his gun on her. Watching his father, their three-year-old toddler did the same, except his gun was make-believe, and he would call out to her: “Mommy, I’m gonna kill you.”

With her wildness and fight siphoned from her, my sister temporarily forgot who she was and what she wanted out of life. Her apartment was decorated in black leather couches, white shag rugs and black-and-silver striped wallpaper—somehow stark and drab at the same time. Much like her face back then: strikingly beautiful but etched in dull lines. Many miles away, I dreamt of her, feared for her. Helpless. How many bloody lips would it take, how many broken wrists, how many calls to 911, before she left him?

More years of worrying for her safety passed before she laid claim to what even she did not know was there: her artist self. First, she began to paint – a black-skinned man in emerald-green slacks and a yellow shirt on a canvas the color of red clay. A wood pipe dangled from his lips. Her images dredged up Haiti and Louisiana.

Next, she bought tools and slabs of wood, her fingers curling around her new utensils as she carved lines and smoothed out grooves, giving birth to the prominent bone structure of an African woman. If I can make this, she told herself, I can make furniture.

If she could craft furniture out of mere planks of wood, she could leave the man who kept trying to break her. And if she could leave her abuser, she could create a life, a style, that looked nothing like her current reality.

And she did.

And she did.

Cassandra Lane is a former newspaper reporter and high school literature and journalism teacher who has published essays, columns and articles in a variety of newspapers, magazines and anthologies. She is an alum of Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA) Foundation and A Room of Her Own (AROHO). She received an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. A Louisiana native, she lives with her family in Los Angeles and is the managing editor of L.A. Parent magazine.

We are proud to have founded the Aleksander Fund. To learn more or to donate please click here. To sign up for On being Human Tuscany Sep 5-18, 2018 please email jenniferpastiloffyoga@gmail.com.

 

Join Jen at her On Being Human workshop in upcoming cities such as NYC, Ojai, Tampa, Ft Worth and more by clicking the image above.

 

Join Jen at Kripalu in The Berkshires of Massachusetts for her annual On Being Human retreat there by clicking the picture above. March 2-4, 2018.

 

Binders, death, Grief, Guest Posts

Pretty Things.

February 13, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

By Cagney Nay.

Alone at night in my mother’s house, shortly after her death, I tidy up and look around and think about how much my mom liked pretty things.  This is not to say that she liked things to be fancy.  In fact, her aesthetic could almost be described as plain. She enjoyed things that had beautiful lines and an elegant quality of design that, once you got to know her, was unmistakably her taste.  I look at all of the things that she collected over her lifetime – her life with my father and then another life with my stepfather – and I wonder what it was all for.  I am struck with the thought of “you can’t take it with you”, and I wonder why we bother collecting all the things that we will inevitably leave behind and that will, by their very nature, have little or no meaning to anyone but us.  But I quickly dismiss that thought and the sense of hopelessness that accompanies it, and I start to rationalize, answering my own question “we bother with those things precisely because we can’t take it with us”.  In this short life why not surround ourselves with pretty things?  With things that make us happy?  The artist, Betty Woodman says that she wanted to become a potter and create functional objects, “because if you have beautiful things to use, it changes the kind of person you are”.  My mom would have agreed.

For creative people, it is important to constantly be visually stimulated by their environment.  In another life, given other opportunities, having been adopted by different parents, having been with men who made her creativity a priority, having had more money or time, my mother would have been an artist.  In my mind I can conjure up an image of what her work would have looked like – something with simple lines and only a small punch of color, perhaps even nearly abstract with an almost Asian quality to it.  Recently she had become interested in mid-century architecture and design.  Again, I can’t help but feel that, in another life and in another relationship, she would have been living in something out of a Julius Shulman photograph.  In fact, when I cleaned out her desk I found a museum-issued calendar of Shulman photographs that I had given to her.  She had requested it for Christmas.  Her second-to-last Christmas.  The last Christmas before we knew she was sick.  It was her singular request and she knew that I would happily indulge it.  Now I see that she had put the beautifully packaged portfolio of photos away and never used it.  When I mention this to my step-father and lament that I wish she had used the calendar he replies simply, “she probably just wanted it for the pictures”.  She wanted it for the photographs – photographs that she would never put on display.  In fact, none of her interests were ever put on display.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being. Yoga + Writing + Connection. We go deep. Bring an open heart and a sense of humor- that's it! Summer or Fall 2015.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being. Yoga + Writing + Connection. We go deep. Bring an open heart and a sense of humor- that’s it! Summer or Fall 2015.

Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing, love

Patchouli: An Untraditional Father’s Day Post.

June 15, 2014

Patchouli: An Untraditional Father’s Day Post by Amy Roost.

I was six. She was twenty-six. I was a chubby, dishwater-blonde tomboy. She was a tall, lithe, brunette model. I wore football jerseys. She wore patchouli. The only thing in had in common was a love for her boyfriend–my dad–which is saying something because he was not an easy man to love.

My dad was a type-A take-no-prisoners business man who cheated on my mom, probably from the day they met. He left my mom, my brothers and I one June day in 1968 with no warning. No explanation. Just a garment bag in one hand and a red and black electric shoe polisher in the other. He found me coloring in my room, at the pink and white activity table my grandpa had made me and said to me, as if I’d understand, “I’m leaving”.

“When are you coming home?” I asked.

“I’m not, sweetheart” was all he said. Fade to black.

And yet he had his moments, enough to make himself lovable, at least to those of us who were hardwired to do so. He brought dolls for me from every foreign land to which he travelled. And though he was a work-a-holic, he tried to make up for it—-in the only way he knew how–with large expenditures of money and extravagant gestures such as a family vacation to Aculpulco or a new bobble for my mom. I distinctly remember the night he came home later than usual with a box of Bazooka Bubble Gum for each of us three kids, and a bouquet of roses for my mom. My mom must have understood he was apologizing for some unspoken transgression. Maybe my brothers–six and nine years older–understood as well. I just remember thinking what an awesome dad he was for giving me a whole box of my favorite bubble gum, comics and all!

I also remember he’d sometimes sit on the fireplace hearth and play the acoustic guitar. (It’s no wonder I fell in love with Christopher Plummer when “Sound of Music” was released the following year). I always requested that he play “Drunken Sailor”. He’d strum the chords and together we’d sing. Sing it loud. I remember that. And the bubble gum. And the garment bag.

My parents eventually separated. My mom was awarded full-time custody and my dad had visitation every Wednesday evening and every other Sunday. I’m not sure if my dad’s having the short end of the custody stick had to do more with the times or because my dad never wanted any kids in the first place–or so my mother claimed.

Wednesdays we went to dinner. My mother instructed me to always order the most expensive item on the menu and so I developed a liking for lobster. I suspect my dad caught on because he began taking us exclusively to the Pickle Barrel–a local hamburger joint.

On Sundays we were supposed to spend the whole day with him, however, since he’d relocated to downtown and we were in the north suburbs, he generally didn’t pick us up until closer to noon. I’d wake up early, dress for the city, sit on the living room couch and wait. My brothers and I used to call “shotgun” whenever all three of us would go somewhere in the car, however, my dad made it clear from the start that I was to sit up front with him on our Sunday outings. No more calling shotgun. Shotgun belonged exclusively to daddy’s little girl.

Sometimes we’d go to Old Town and stop in at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, then stop for an oversized chocolate chip cookie at Paul Bunyon’s*, Other times he’d take us to a Cubs game. He would buy us peanuts on the way to our seats located on the first base side just behind the Cubs dugout and he taught me how to keep score in the program. I may very well have been the youngest girl to know what an infield fly rule was.

I heard his Lincoln Mark IV pull into the cul de sac just as a dog who is sound asleep hears the jingling of his master’s car keys. I looked over the back of the couch through the bay window to confirm. There he was! But wait, who was that woman with him…riding shotgun? I ran to get my mom. “There’s someone with daddy!” I shouted.

I remember my mom going outside. I remember going back to the couch and peeking through the curtains as my dad got out of the car. I remember how they stood face to face on the sidewalk with their lips both simultaneously and furiously moving. I remember my dad storming toward the front door. I remember the front door slamming and his calling “Amy Liz!”. I remember my mom coming in through the basement door. I remember my running for the steps leading down to the basement. I remember my mom reaching out and taking hold of my left hand as I scuttled down the stairs, and my dad coming down after me and grabbing my right hand. I remember becoming a human rope in their tug of war. And then I don’t remember. I don’t remember who let go first. I don’t remember falling.

I do remember the scrape I had on my knee the next day. I remember kicking and screaming while my dad carried me out to his car then pushed my head down and forced me into the back seat. I remember the model’s name–Michaelann. I remember the pungent scent of patchouli in the car. To this day, I remember that scent. And if tomorrow someone wearing patchouli were to get on an elevator I was riding, I’d frantically press every button for every floor in a desperate attempt to free myself from the grip of my childhood.

 

Click photo to connect with Amy.

Click photo to connect with Amy.

 

Her multi-dimensional suchness, Amy Roost, is a freelance writer, book publicist, legal and medical researcher, and vacation rental manager. She and her husband are the authors of “Ritual and the Art of Relationship Maintenance” due to be published later this year in a collection entitled Ritual and Healing: Ordinary and Extraordinary Stories of Transformation (Motivational Press). Amy is also Executive Director of Silver Age Yoga Community Outreach (SAYCO) which offers geriatric yoga teacher certification, and provides yoga instruction to underserved seniors.

Jennifer Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif and she and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up:  SeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Tucson. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. Join a retreat by emailing barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com.

Next workshop is London July 6. Book here.