Browsing Tag

Covid

Current Events, Guest Posts, memories

Up A Tree

July 12, 2021
shot

By Katherine Flannery Dering

I spent days getting up early and clicking on various websites, eager to get my COVID shot appointment. And then, one morning, a friend sent me an email saying he and his wife had reserved a spot at a nearby CVS. I clicked on his link and got a spot two days later.  I’ve now had one shot, and the second one is coming up soon.

I wasn’t always so eager to get a shot.

One afternoon back in 1960, my brother Johnny and I shimmied up the two trees in our backyard to escape a shot. They were a pair of plane trees about twenty or thirty feet tall, with pale, splotchy bark and a full summer complement of big, fluttery leaves. We’d climbed them many times before, so we made short work of getting fifteen or so feet up. I found a secure crook and waited, my arms around the trunk. Maybe they’d give up and the doctor would leave. It was a warm, clear day; I could barely make out my brother, hidden in the leaves of his tree. But through a break in the branches, I could see off to the Davids’ house a half mile up the road. I held my breath, hoping to disappear into the canopy.

It was eerily quiet. Our house was on a new road that had been created from a farmer’s field several years before. Behind us was a big cornfield.  Across the main road that came up from the village were about twenty acres planted in wheat—my other secret hideout. I liked to sneak into the field and tromp down some wheat out in the middle and lie down there and look up into the sky. People raised dairy cattle and goats just beyond the David’s house, and there was usually some mooing and bleating from the herds. But a hoof and mouth disease epidemic had just rampaged through the area, and all the remaining livestock were put down, to make sure it didn’t spread. The quiet was ominous.

“Katherine, Johnny,” my mother’s voice suddenly called. And then I saw a man’s brown leather shoes below me. The shoes’ owner moved, and a bald head and dark coat appeared through the leaves and moved along above the shoes. “Zay ran zees way,” a man’s voice said in a thick French accent. “Zay must be here in some plaze.”

Three of the little kids—our younger siblings—were raking the area with their bare little feet. Did they think we were hidden in the grass? Like mice, they were always everywhere, opening my dresser drawers, drawing pictures with my Tinkerbell lipsticks and spilling the nail polish. It was Patrick who looked up. “They’re up there. They’re in the trees.”

A woman’s black flats and a seersucker, plaid dress appeared. Dark hair in a French twist. My mother’s voice had that “Don’t tempt me!” sound. “Come down this instant. You’re embarrassing me.”

We’d been living in Switzerland for a year now and the English-speaking doctor my mother had found had already given the little kids their shots. She’d probably negotiated a group discount. “Doctors are busy people. He can’t hang around all day. And I’m not paying for a second visit for you two.”

We gave up. Climbing down, I lost my grip for a moment and slid, gaining a big sliver in the palm of one had. I shook the hand and winced. Patrick smirked; he’d gotten one on us older ones. I felt like a condemned man in front of a firing squad. I knew that the inoculation would pinch, and that my arm would throb for days. A typhoid booster was a thing to be reckoned with. But what was worse was that I knew what was coming, and I couldn’t stop it.

***

In 1960, Europe and the World Health Organization were still battling the lingering health problems that followed in the poverty and rubble after WWII. Students at my school, the International School of Geneva, had to be tested each year for Tuberculosis—serum injected into   the delicate skin on the inside of your forearm, covered with a bandage, and then checked by a WHO nurse who came back to inspect the site a few days later. If the skin bubbled up to a certain size, you were sent for a chest x-ray. I passed.

Before we moved to Geneva from Detroit, which was our real home, most of us kids had all been vaccinated or revaccinated for smallpox, typhoid and tetanus. My little sister Monica, who was now almost three, hadn’t had the small pox vaccination yet, because she had problems with eczema, and her pediatrician didn’t think it wise. But now there had been a small pox scare somewhere and she had to be vaccinated in order for us to return to the U. S. that summer for home leave. The twins, who had been born in Switzerland and were now six months old, also had to be vaccinated before the trip home. The rest of us needed various boosters.

The small pox procedure looked pretty barbaric to me. The doctor sliced a little cut on the babies’ thighs and slathered on some sort of goop, then bandaged it. They screamed, of course. That’s when Johnny and I ran out of the house and up the trees.

***

And now, sixty years later, another terrible disease to try to prevent. The Typhoid vaccination back then involved three shots and a booster every so often after that. It was a Typhoid booster that Johnny and I needed that day. The COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 is only two shots, although it sounds like we may also need annual boosters for a while. Unlike in 1960, though, I’m not running away from this vaccination. Quite the opposite. Before I secured an appointment, I had spent days getting up early and clicking on various websites, eager to get my COVID shot, eager to be released from the jail of sheltering in place.

The first shot was easy-peezy. The drug store was set up for an assembly line. I arrived fifteen minutes before my assigned time and checked in at a desk just inside the door. I was then sent to a line that snaked down a long aisle toward the back of the store, where the pharmacy had been set up for a crowd. The other over-65ers and I waited our turn standing six feet apart, on big red circles arranged to keep us socially distanced along an aisle that displayed Depends and other “adult incontinence” supplies. The shot itself took a few seconds—a quick jab and I was sent to a chair nearby, where the CVS employee/ ringmaster set a timer to go off in fifteen minutes, by which time I would show signs of an allergic reaction, if I was going to get one. Timers were going off every minute or two. “You’re done. Next,” the ringmaster would say. I had no after-effects to speak of, then or the next day.

***

Now I am in suspense again, like when I was 12, sitting up in that tree, knowing I would eventually have to come down. I’d have to let the doctor give me that shot. And now I have to do something similar. I’ve heard that more than half the people who receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines have a very unpleasant reaction to the second dose—body aches, fever, chills, sometimes even vomiting and diarrhea. My baby sister Julia, who wasn’t even born yet in 1960, said she had no problem with hers. And my brother Johnny, who’s a doctor now and got his second shot weeks ago, also had no problem. But there’s still a big part of me that wants to hide up a tree somewhere.  I’m tempted to not take it. But then what? Hide from the world forever?

I came down from the tree that day. And in another week, I will go get my second shot. And this time, I know I am very lucky to have the opportunity.

Katherine Flannery Dering received an MFA in 2013 from Manhattanville College. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle, was published in 2014 by Bridgeross. A mixed-genre book of poetry, prose, photos, and emails, it deals with caring for her schizophrenic brother, and she is an advocate for better care for the mentally ill. Her poetry chapbook is titled Aftermath (2018, Finishing Line Press.) Her work has also appeared recently in Inkwell, RiverRiver, Tilde, Cordella, and Adanna, among other literary journals. She serves on the executive committee of the Katonah Poetry Series and lately divides her writing time between poetry, essays, and a book of short, feminist fables. She seldom climbs trees. Her author website is KatherineFlanneryDering.com.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Eating/Food, Guest Posts

Taking Up Space

July 7, 2021
scale

by Molly Krause

Maybe it’s just the quarantine fifteen. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t weighed myself to get the actual number. I do know that my clothes are tight and some don’t fit. I know that it was sometime after I started weighing my eighteen year old daughter weekly that I stopped stepping on the scale myself. This was months before we were all gripped by the onslaught of all that the novel virus brought to our lives. I couldn’t have even imagined all that at this time. This was when my anxiety rose like a freight train when my daughter said, “I’m struggling to eat enough.”

I flew into action – appointments with the primary care physician, the therapist, the dietician, and I bought The Scale. I ordered it online with some dread as I’ve never had a scale in my house. Shiny and black with a digital display that revealed the number to a tenth of a pound, it was both inexpensive and highly rated. I hid it in my closet.

I bought it to monitor my daughter’s weight but this is not a story of a young adult controlling her life through restricting.

As a serious student of ballet throughout my teens, I viewed my body as a vessel to create beauty through movement. At a yoga class a few years ago I scoffed internally when the instructor said, “If it’s available, reach for your extended leg.” If it’s available? This was not a cooperative relationship I had with my limbs; I would make it available without question. Naturally lean, I did not grow up worried about my weight because I didn’t have to. I was happy with my size and my size was small. My body performed well for me by executing the physically difficult movements of ballet. I wasn’t conflicted about my body image as mine was easily accommodating with what I wanted from it. I never even had to consider if what I wanted from it was reasonable or even right.

Two pregnancies and changing middle age hormones stretched my comfort with my shape. I resolved to stay under a certain number, I even wrote that number down in my planner. I exercised to burn calories and played around with various diets. I only weighed myself occasionally at the gym and used clothing fit as a measure if I was on target. But it wasn’t until The Scale came in my house did I realize the pull the number had on me – what is the numer? Have I been going “good”? Is this water weight or muscle? So I stopped myself from stepping on The Scale, hidden in the closet, every day as a friend of mine told me she did to control her weight. When my daughter entered an intensive outpatient program for eating disorders I gave myself permission not to ever get on that scale again.

But I’ve wanted to and what I’m not sure about is why. To feel better about myself or worse?

When I told a friend that I had gained some weight during quarantine she said, “Really? You look the same to me.” I responded, “I can tell I have but I haven’t stepped on a scale because I don’t hate myself.” We snickered and quickly moved on but my comment stuck with me. Wouldn’t it be better to like myself no matter what the number is?

 I get out The Scale once a week for my daughter. Covid has eliminated in person meetings with most therapeutic professionals, dietitians included. My daughter does not resist The Scale and doesn’t seem fazed by the number it reveals. I still haven’t gotten on it for almost a year at this point. I’m trying out the idea that it’s ok for my body to take up as much space as it wants – whether that’s active on my paddleboard or lazily watching my new favorite station, Acorn TV. The Corora virus has taken away many things from me – from us all – but perhaps it has given me the time to view my shape as something other than a way to project smallness or beauty. Maybe this same body that I happily allowed to grow large to carry two lives will be the vessel to grow new chapters and lives so far not lived, of an unknown and exciting future, of a time that is not bound or defined by a number.

Molly Krause is the author of the memoir ‘Float On’, the novel ‘Joy Again’ and the cookbook ‘The Cook’s Book of Intense Flavors’. Her writing has appeared in numerous locations, including Brain Child, Ragazine and Front Page Review. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, her grown daughters and a pack of dogs and loves to hike, snowshoe and paddle board.

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Eating/Food, Guest Posts, parenting

Saving Your Family, One (Complicated) Recipe at a Time

July 5, 2021
cake

by Lee Ann Cox

There’s a 20-year-old photo of me rolling out dough on a floured pastry board while wearing my son in a backpack. I was creating his first birthday cake.

The idea was sparked long before that moment, as I thumbed through the pages of the Martha Stewart catalogue, lingering over a set of oversized copper cookie cutters, a whimsical menagerie that included a bear, an alligator, a donkey, a dove. They were absurdly large, but then so was I, pregnant with this baby. I didn’t yet know what it would mean to balance a food writing career with an infant who merely dallied with the notion of sleep. I only knew the cookie cutters were adorable, a splurge, and I had to have them.

As the birthday neared and my vision for the project crystalized, I was fortunate that my husband’s parents were visiting from California; I had three adults to help distract my son as I set to work. I began by making quantities of sugar cookie dough to the sound of Bay’s chortling from the front room as he knocked down towers of blocks. His mood didn’t hold, hence the backpack.

I chilled and rolled the dough thick enough to achieve a sturdy giraffe whose head would not break loose from its slender neck. Soon an unadorned zoo sprawled on racks around our farmhouse kitchen while I made icing of pale yellow, deep sky blue, sea glass green. I mixed two consistencies of each color, one thick to outline the shape, forming a dam to hold the flood of flawless liquid color. Once set, I piped manes and claws on lions, fluffy wool on sheep, an intricate caparison for an elephant adorned with various colors of sanding sugar I had mixed myself.

Of course, this was to be a cake, so I picked a family favorite, vanilla with the layers split and alternately spread with lemon curd and cream cheese frosting. To achieve my fever dream of perfection, though, I needed two cakes of different sizes to stack, supported by wooden dowels. Over the course of a couple days, I had concocted a child’s version of a tiered wedding cake, graced, not by a spray of elegant flowers or ironic plastic newlyweds, but by a double carousel of handmade edible animals, each unique, one cuter than the next.

“Mom are you high?” my daughter would say now. I must have been undone.

This cake, I need to say, was not the centerpiece of an overdone celebration with too many presents and too many people; no hordes of aunts, uncles, and cousins were coming to admire my two creations. It was just us and a close friend and baby from playgroup. That eases my embarrassment and heightens my wonder at the forces that drive me. The birthday boy was too young to be enchanted by this cake (nor, it turns out, would any confection not chocolate ever achieve that standard). But when my husband held Bay aloft to blow out his single candle, both of them grinning, my camera shuttered on a moment of pure beauty.

*

Time spun out from there. Bay turned 18 having spent equal parts of his life with and without his dad, who died young of a rare cancer. On this birthday, the cake was a basic, rich chocolate number; his dinner request was the two-day cooking festival: the tagliatelle with braised lamb ragu he’d had in New York, helpfully codified in The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual, a book I highly recommend for the recipes and the writing. Even for a dish whose steps are helpfully divided into “Day 1” and “Day 2,” the authors charm you through the process, suggesting a flip of the lamb mid-roast “if you think of it” and, later, to remove the meat from the stock so it can rest and “regain its composure,” suggestions I recommend for the cook as well.

I bought my lamb and bones from a local Vermont farm, filled my basket with onions, carrots, fennel, and tarragon. I roasted and braised. I made the Frankies tomato sauce, a simple affair, demanding only devotion (along with your good olive oil and the best Italian tomatoes). “Take your time—there’s no rushing it… when you’re cooking the garlic, you want to very, very slowly convert the starches in it to sugars and then to caramelize those sugars. Slow and steady.”

By the second afternoon, I skimmed my lamb broth of fat in favor of fresh butter that married the tomato and lamb concoctions, finally, into a sensuous, swoony situation, like the ones that really should come from restaurants.

I will confess how the years have changed me, especially as I was also the one to make the cake and wrap the presents and parent the son and also his little sister. (First, no, she did not get a two-tiered carousel cake, an already preposterous enterprise without a baby, a toddler, a job, and a 130-pound Newfie upending the kitchen for any unmonitored morsel of food, but she has not been denied her share of fanciful cakes.) I dismissed the Frankies’ instruction to make a double recipe of Basic Pasta Dough from page 94, cut into tagliatelle. I bought the pasta.

*

Nearly a year later, I made the ragu again for my son’s farewell dinner before he left for college, 3,000 miles from home. I felt from the tender ache of my own bones as if they were rendered into that stew, an amalgam of everything I put in it, lovingly tended, and every hope I had for what it would yield. I hid my tears and fed the dreams we both shared, of joy and challenge, adventure and a new sense of belonging.

And then, abruptly, he was home. The pandemic put it all on ice, suspended him between two worlds.

With third-quarter finals cancelled and an extended spring break, Bay came to the kitchen. “Mom, I think we should cook something.” His grin suggested that it would not be banana bread.

“Watch this video with me,” he said, reaching for my laptop and pulling up Joshua Weissman’s YouTube page, introducing me to the obsessive food phenom with nearly three million followers. “Making the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich at Home, But Better” was Bay’s fixation; we would hit play and pause on that video uncountable times.

The next afternoon we got started, beginning with the Japanese milk buns (which begin with making the tangzhong). We mixed up our marinade, our spiced dredging flour, and our sauce, albeit without the optional oyster mushroom powder, and, more critically, and ashamedly, the black garlic—it’s clear now we had the time to start aging our own ingredients, since he wouldn’t return to school, but we lacked that kind of patience.

We did choose the largest boneless thighs we could find, properly slice our pickles lengthwise for maximum coverage, and toast the truly amazing buns. I taught my son how to deep fry. And I acquainted him with the fact that, no matter how much you clean as you go, the exalted experience at the table will temper at the sight of a grease-splattered stove and the general havoc wreaked preparing a plated meal. The regret, like the mess, is temporary.

*

For two decades I’ve thought about that birthday cake, wondered if there was an impulse behind it beyond what food writer Tamar Adler, in a recent essay I admired, called “a peacocky presentation of leisure time and skill.” I won’t argue there wasn’t a tinge of that, but if it was for anyone, honestly, it was me. I know it’s more, though, that I wasn’t quite kidding about being undone.

I feel so vulnerable at times, on the knife’s edge of joy and heartache. My infant son turns one, then moves far away. My infant daughter turns two with a party held in a hospital lounge near her dad’s room, then she’s a beautiful, maddeningly sassy teenager. The weave of love, longing, and potential loss is gossamer silk and the instinct to protect is fierce, tireless effort. That takes me to the kitchen. The sense of control is a mirage, but there’s art in the attempt and at the end you have dinner, or, even better, cake.

The crazy thing about COVID is that it upends the promise I made myself years ago to try to keep my anxieties and fears from infecting my kids. What I want—on my best, bravest days—is for them to live big, juicy, connected lives, for their regrets to be few, especially for experiences they didn’t seize. Now we’re told to hide our children at home and mask them from danger. There was a moment’s appeal in that, my deepest instincts sanctioned.

Mid-March was like the first hour or so of losing electricity—candlelight Scrabble and toasting marshmallows over a gas flame—before the melting down, before we met the grief spilling out from every angle of this disaster. There are worse things, to be sure, but I ache for my kids, for everyone’s. Instead of testing boundaries, they’re circumscribed by them.

At the end of the summer though, my son, unable to return to college in the fall, quarantined and then met up in a central location with his would-have-been roommates in an Airbnb for a week. Bay texted a photo of the meal he made for his friends: better-than-Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwiches. He had made the buns himself, crisped the coating on the tender thighs to tanned perfection, slathered on his homemade spicy sauce.

I imagine those big blue eyes gazing over my shoulder from his backpack, absorbing my need, the protective pulse that drove my energy. With food, he would now nurture the fledgling life he’d begun, hoping the web holds through untold months ahead in Zoomland. And sure, I’m guessing there was a serious dash of peacockiness behind it, too. I mean, that was an insane amount of work.

Lee Ann Cox is a Vermont-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon and The Rumpus, among other publications. She is a recipient of the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award for the manuscript of my memoir Beauty Like That, as well as a Vermont Arts Council creation grant. 

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, pandemic

Longing For Lysol and a Burger

June 6, 2021
lysol

by Fredricka R. Maister

Disinfecting wipes, a thermometer, bottles of hand sanitizer, masks, mega rolls of TP and paper towels, boxes of Kleenex, and cool purple latex gloves. The only item missing from my overstocked arsenal of anti-COVID household products: a can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray.

I used to always have a can of Lysol on hand. My luck, I ran out of it just as the novel coronavirus and the hoarders struck, snatching up every last can on the planet.

For almost a year, I’ve been trying to score a can—one can!– in stores or online, but the product is perennially out-of-stock which has made me want it even more.

The clerk at my local CVS told me the store sometimes receives a limited supply of Lysol spray, which the staff puts out in the wee hours of the morning.  Since the store is open 24/7, people line up to get first dibs on the new inventory. The Lysol, along with other items endangered in the Age of COVID, are gone within hours.

I have a friend, a night owl, who happened to be in the store a few months ago at midnight when she spotted a box labeled “Lysol” in a stack of boxes waiting to be unpacked. Without hesitation, she pried open the box with her fingernails and pulled out a can.  If only I had been with her, I could’ve checked Lysol spray off my wish list.

I’ve repeatedly complained in person at CVS. The staff’s only solution to my plight is for me to wait in line in the middle of the night with the desperadoes ready for a scrimmage in Aisle 6, Cleaners.  Even for Lysol, I have my limits.

So, I’ve had to accept the inconvenient reality that Lysol Disinfectant Spray may continue to elude me until this pandemic is over.

I’ve also experienced a relentless longing for a hamburger due to COVID-19. I almost never indulge in red meat, but there is something familiar and comforting about a burger slapped with lettuce, tomato, onion and a slice of melted cheese, served with crispy fries drenched in ketchup, that can satisfy my burger craving for months on end. A take-out, reheated-at-home burger doesn’t taste the same. I like my burgers hot off the grill.

With the reopening of restaurants, especially the pub across the street, the aroma of grilled hamburger wafting through the air has constantly reminded me of my last burger eaten only a few days before self-quarantining. My fear of eating out in a pandemic, inside or even outside, has trumped the instant gratification I know a hamburger could deliver.

I’ve been surveilling the pub for the last few months to check out the outdoor dining situation.  Tables are properly spaced.  Staff and customers, when not eating, are masked. Weeknights are quieter and street traffic is minimal. “Maybe it’s time to take the plunge while the weather is still cooperative,” I thought.

With my heart and mind set on finally having a hamburger, I called up my friend Phyllis, a like-minded COVID-phobe also in need of a burger fix.

“Look, we have a window of opportunity before it gets really cold. Let’s go to the pub tomorrow night,” I said.

Phyllis was game so we, with some trepidation, ventured out to the pub.  Our dining experience did not disappoint. We savored every last bite of our burgers and fries. “I’m good to go for another six months,” I told Phyllis.

Sharing a meal with a friend and chatting about things unrelated to COVID felt like old times, a much-needed reprieve from our new reality.

After eating, Phyllis asked if I wanted to walk with her to CVS.  “Sure, not that they have anything I need or want,” I said.

As I browsed the aisles with little or no inventory, Phyllis suddenly called out, “Look!”  She pointed to four cans of Lysol Spray in the center of an otherwise empty shelf. I stared in disbelief.

“Do you think it’s the real thing?” I asked.   I picked up a can. Sure enough, “Lysol Disinfectant Spray…Kills 99.9% of Viruses & Bacteria.”

No one can accuse me of being a hoarder. The happiest of campers, I left CVS with my one can.

For me, just the mundane acts of being able to hold a can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray and eat a hamburger in a restaurant assumed monumental significance that night, restoring a sense of normalcy to my life turned topsy-turvy by COVID-19.  For a few hours, for the first time in many months, I forgot I was living in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York City, now based in Philadelphia. Her personal essays have appeared in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY, and Broad Street Review. Her essay, “Forgiving Mom…Finally” recently appeared on The Manifest-Station.

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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Beauty Hunting, Guest Posts

Why You’re Seeing More Birds (It’s More Than Science)

May 22, 2021
birds

By Megan Margulies

Late last summer, still bleary eyed and shuffling from my bed, I spotted a red breasted robin rustling beneath the leaves of a tree outside my bathroom window. It launched from the leaves, returning minutes later to the same spot, a commotion under the summer foliage. Delighted, I realized there was a hidden nest. Every morning I looked out toward that branch, waiting to see a breakfast delivery of worms or grubs, relieved when I saw a fluttery landing as proof of life.

As the weather got colder and the leaves began to thin out, I hoped to catch a glimpse of the birds in their exposed nest. But by the time it was revealed, the leaves on the ground below, they had moved out. The nest sat empty on the bare branch throughout the winter as COVID-19 cases surged, the world quiet again. The winter birds remained—black capped chickadees darting from branch to branch—but the chatter quieted.

The United States lost over five-hundred-thousand lives this year from COVID-19. This winter, at the pandemic’s worst, the United States Covid-19 hospitalizations peaked with 132,000 patients. We lost more than 20,000 people a week. Families upended, loves weighted by the despair of loss, and the world muted with cold and snow. What do we do with this loss? With the empty space left behind by the ones we love?

I’ve been looking to birds for proof of life since my beloved grandfather died in 2011. I struggled with the void he left behind, and I took great comfort in an obnoxiously loud male cardinal that visited me on our back patio, or sang to me while I ate breakfast. The cardinal’s song was so loud that it seemed there wasn’t even a glass pane between us. The old robin’s nest outside of my window will never be used again, but I like to see it out there, a reminder of life. We need these reminders. We need the birds.

Last spring when COVID first shut everything down, the animals came out. There are scientific explanations for these sightings. For the birds, it was less sound pollution, spring migratory habits, and maybe humans were just paying more attention. Sure, there are scientific explanations for the increased bird activity, but I think the spiritual explanations are worth considering.

Spiritual mediums believe that cardinals represent visitors from the spirit world, to either relay a message or simply to let you know that they are still with you, especially when dealing with a difficult situation. For centuries, across different cultures and religions, birds have been associated with death, renewal, and believed to be the messengers of spirits. Psychopomps, derived from the Greek word meaning “guide of souls,” are creatures who escort newly deceased souls from earth to the afterlife. In the form of birds these psychopomps wait in large groups near the soul who is soon to depart. Perhaps the birds of last spring and summer were our psychopomps, waiting to guide the souls we had yet to lose.

Some cultures believe that birds, like ravens and crows, to be omens of tragedy to come, but some believe birds provide a vessel for the souls who have departed. In Hinduism, spirits of ancestors reside in crows, and the birds are fed as a way of nourishing the souls of the ancestors. In Nepal, crows are worshiped on the first day of Tihar. Ancient Egyptians believed that our souls left the body in the form of a hawk or raven. They even included narrow shafts leading out from the tombs so that the birds could come and go as they pleased. Horus, the god of the sky, had a hawk (or falcon’s) head.

Since mid-February, with winter hinting a departure and taking its muffled world with it, I’ve noticed more birdsong, my yard crowded and noisy again. We see hope ahead with increased vaccinations. I count each bird as a sign of life, as proof of that the departed souls are still with us. If we look up to the sky, we’re never really alone.

My mom, who lives in New York City and rides her bike through Central Park, keeps spotting a hawk that swoops over her head. She texted me a picture of it sitting at the top of a tree and wrote “we’re friends now.” I sent her back a photo of our neighborhood hawk who perched on a tree limb scanning the ground for a small rodent to eat. While walking with my daughter recently we spooked a pair of grey doves. They flapped clumsily toward the sky, landing on the roof of our house, where they began their haunting owl-like sounds. “The doves are usually in pairs,” I tell my daughter as we watch them, standing hand-in-hand.

In many traditions doves symbolize healing powers and the transition from one state of existence to the next. The Bible shows the dove delivering messages from God. Pablo Picasso’s lithograph “Dove with Sun” shows a dove, wings outstretched, over the rubble of war and destruction. It was later used as the poster image for the World Congress for General Disbarment and Peace held in Moscow in 1962. How many doves do we need for all of our rubble? I watch them on my roof, pacing side-by-side, assessing the world below them.

The other day a bright red cardinal balanced on a cable wire near my front door. He sang loudly, his chest expanding and deflating with his tune, and then he flew off. Was it my grandfather? Or just another departed soul now flying free? He returned that afternoon. After saying goodbye to a friend whose father is dying of cancer, the cardinal landed on the spot she had been standing. She had already driven away, so I texted to tell her, hoping to give her a sense of comfort. “Someone is definitely watching over you,” I told her. She responded, “I feel it.”

In a paper entitled, “On the Relationship between Birds and Spirits of the Dead,” Professor Christopher Moreman writes, “Birds reflect a fundamental aspect of human nature—the denial of death as finality through a desire for renewal, transformation, and rebirth.” After a year of such tremendous loss, over 2.65 million souls leaving this earth, I embrace this denial. I hope that those who have lost loved ones look up to the sky. I hope that they see them soaring and singing.

Megan Margulies is a memoirist and native New Yorker. She writes about womanhood, motherhood, and figuring out why bodies do the things they do. Her essays and reported pieces have appeared in various publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Washington Post, New York Magazine, and LitHub. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and two daughters.

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Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped for from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health, pandemic

Confessions of a Failed Introvert

April 26, 2021
introvert

by Kristine Lloyd

In spite of knowing I was happiest in the company of others, I moved from a three-story apartment building to a cabin in the urban woods a few years ago, across town from most of my friends. The small A-frame, tucked behind my landlord’s house, charmed me with its tiny backyard bridge to nowhere, serene Japanese maples, and ancient wind chimes whispering outside the kitchen window. Socializing became a chore that required triangulating various routes to avoid traffic, then I had surgery and was laid up for months, so I holed up more and more: eating, shopping online and watching movies on my laptop. This was a choice, and I could make a different one whenever I felt like it, like moving to Uruguay, or joining a flash mob – until Covid hit.

I am not someone who enjoys a lot of “me” time, long baths, or elaborate self-care rituals, and yet, by virtue of living alone in an introvert’s haven like Seattle, I came to convince myself that I was, in fact, this kind of person. I even purchased an expensive evergreen-scented candle I almost never lit. I bought it at the sad, little holiday fair at work. Milling around the four or five cafeteria tables, trying not to make eye contact with co-workers whose hand-crafted goods I would never buy. I aspired to be a candle person, and though I didn’t even know the woman selling them, who must have worked floors apart from mine, I spent $30, because holiday cheer and a co-worker had made it, so practically a friend, which was cooler than buying it from Pier 1. I didn’t light it until three months later when quarantine started, and I searched frantically for something to lift my spirits.

I cried when I saw videos of Italians rigging up champagne glasses on long poles and clinking a cheers from their separate balconies, singing in unison. It made me long for my old apartment, sandwiched between the first and third floors, where at least I could hear yelling, moaning, singing, terrible techno-pop that synced with the throb of that vein in my temple, the scraping of chairs, the dropping of things, and the walking around in heels on hardwoods that sounded like dragging cast iron pans across the floor. Now quiet hours ticked by without so much as the sound of a plane, which before had signaled the continuous movement of people going places and doing things.

My alone-ness stung. I had willingly retreated to the woods, when I am a people person, someone who needs interaction like air. Each day lived entirely alone wore on me, drained me of finite stores of energy. I was a 47-year-old extrovert living like a hermit. It did not suit me. The constancy of quiet gnawed at my mind. I had allowed my circumstances, long before Covid, to shape me into something I wasn’t, rather than changing them – it had seemed far more exhausting to change course than to blend into the environment.

Every day was the same. The alarm sounded. I hit snooze. At 8:55 a.m., I staggered out of bed, turned on my computer, answered emails and attended virtual meetings, never fully awake, living in a radius of about five feet. I started to feel far from okay, staring out the window into the indistinguishable mass of leaves blocking out everything beyond the yard. I waited for a creature – a bird, a cat, anything – to come by and alter the landscape. Twice I saw a little brown bunny hopping by, but by the time I got up from my desk to get a closer look, it had vanished. I stared at the trees until I saw nothing: just a great, green mass. The stillness settled into me until I felt immovable. Each day I looked out, and the trees appeared closer than the day before. I longed to take a weedwhacker and slash through branches, open up a window to life, but there was a fence behind the trees. Another barrier to the world. I lit the candle, hoping to at least imbue the indoor space with coziness, but it was like trying to warm myself with a matchstick. It didn’t even make the house smell like evergreens.

I cried three times on the phone with my boss.

“How are you?” he asked. But that was all it took to unleash the tears.

“Kristine . . . you there?”

“Yeah . . . I . . . I’m ok.” This was not a sophisticated, tissue-dabbing cry. This was the kind of unintelligible, guttural sobbing that makes other people uncomfortable and fidgety. To his credit, he waited patiently while I collected myself, instead of hanging up and pretending we got disconnected.

The crying wasn’t limited to phone calls with my boss. I cried when I knocked over a bottle of cooking sherry precariously situated on the kitchen counter with all the other newly purchased groceries, and had to clean up the sprawling, sticky mess when all I wanted to do was lie down and flatten my body against the cold linoleum. I cried every time I heard my father’s voice on the phone. It had begun to develop the timbre of my grandmother’s and his older siblings in the last years of life, a weak, croaking sound that trailed off into a mumble. What if he died of Covid and I never saw him again?

I started buying Oreos, Nutty Buddy’s, things I had not eaten since childhood – the Nutty Buddy being the saddest kind of substitute for a Buddy, save for a brief moment of soothing nostalgia for summers spent dissecting the layered wafer into its disparate parts to make it seem like you were getting more. I made brownies. Perfecting their under-baked, gooeyness. I ate brownies for breakfast and brownies for dinner, until they became cloying and tired, as familiar and unappealing as isolation itself. Brownies do not make a meal, and isolation isn’t a way to live. By the end of April I knew I had to get out.

One of my closest friends, Scott, who still lived in my hometown in Alabama, called me one day to catch up. After hearing my voice and the cracking sadness in it, that same weakness in my father’s voice, like someone falling into a well, he suggested I come back home. “I think you’d be happier in Birmingham, near your friends and family.” I knew he was right and asked him if he would be willing to fly out to Seattle and drive home with me. If he said yes, that would be the deciding factor. He did not hesitate.

Scott walked into my cabin and hugged me, let me lean against him. He had risked his life, breathing in the stale, germy air of a packed airplane and a chatty flight attendant whose mask dangled from her ear, to rescue me. He’d visited before and seen my cabin and understood, that even though it was in a prime location, I was not meant to live alone in the woods. He helped me finish packing, and we headed out by late afternoon. A quiet cabin hemmed in by trees was not going to lead me to my truest self, any more than that bridge would lead to a pot of gold.

We drove 2700 miles in four and a half days. Through the lush green hills of Oregon and Northern Idaho, into the endless hypnotic flat of Southern Idaho, on to Utah’s cracked earth and towering red rocks, through the dry, bleak landscape of Navajo country. Flying past long stretches of strip mall in Albuquerque and into the indistinguishable flatlands of North Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, before the final leg home.

When I pulled into my parents’ driveway in the giant yellow moving truck, they came rushing out. My mother gave me the tightest, longest hug, and we just held on and swayed like that for a while. I breathed in her life, and the warmth revived me. I was home and with a little care and feeding would come back to myself. I felt such relief, relaxing into my mother, knowing she could hold me up. Like I had survived more than Seattle, more than Covid. I had survived a starvation of connection, of feeling like I was in the world, because I had been so isolated from it, walled off in a fortress of trees.

The next morning I tried out several nooks for my new, temporary home office. I finally settled into a creaky, old desk that’s more display than functional. Within days, a tiny mess of papers and mail sprouted by my computer. It didn’t take long to make it my own. I looked out the bay window and actually saw people walking by. Young and old. Some with dogs. Others on bikes. One young man walked by barefoot four or five times that morning. I wondered if the pavement hurt his feet, and that small thing felt like connection, an imagining of someone else’s experience of the world. Beautiful, glorious people. I didn’t know who they were, and it didn’t matter. I felt a lightness. This was life. All around me. I thought to myself, the world exists, people exist, and we are all here, in this together.

Kristine Lloyd is a part-time writer, full-time librarian, and has previously been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Salon.com, as well as other online outlets.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Divorce, Guest Posts, pandemic

Covid-19 and My Ultra-Orthodox Children

April 14, 2021
children

by Beatrice Weber

I am a mother of ten Hasidic children, and I couldn’t protect many of them from the virus. The community they live in has flouted restrictions—and while I know my children are at risk, my hands are tied.

In mid-March 2020, my 7-year-old son, my youngest child, and one of three who lives with me told me he knows why this virus happened. “Oh?” I asked. I was in bed, sleep teasing me, hoping he’d get tired, too, and go to his room. “My teacher told me it is because we don’t say enough blessings. He said that if we say 100 blessings a day it will go away.”

My son is innocent. Like kids his age, he is impressionable. He was one and half years old when I left my abusive marriage, six years ago with four of my ten children. He attends a yeshiva and visits his father, a rabbi in Monsey, New York, every second weekend for Shabbos. I am fiercely protective of him, but when he is not with me, I cannot control what he is taught or what happens to him.

Sleep now a distant memory, I caressed his face and assured him that the virus is not his fault and cannot be undone with blessings. “We need to be careful, and we will be okay.”

But the next day, I was not so sure we would be okay. On my way to work, I see a message that had been making its rounds on WhatsApp groups. In pink letters, adorned with lilac flowers and green leaves, the virtual flyer, titled “Unique Protection,” stated that rabbis encourage women to upgrade their head covering from wigs to kerchiefs (more pious), and in this merit, we will be saved.

I closed my phone and continued walking. I spotted a Yiddish notice on a lamppost stating that the contagion is a punishment for schmoozing during prayers. We must be quiet, and this disease will go away. Quiet, I thought—the one thing I fail miserably at.

For many years, I had prayed daily, fervently. “God, please help me to become a ‘Kosher woman who does the will of her husband,’” I would plead, quoting the words of the Talmud. Please help me to do this. I want to be a good wife to my husband. I prayed and trusted that things would get better in my marriage. But it did not.

I was expected to be a meek, obedient wife. When I would try to voice an opinion, my husband would shut me down and get the children to mock me, until, finally, I broke.

It was seven years ago on Passover eve, before the first Seder when I left. My parents, older children, and the rabbis vehemently opposed me leaving. When my parents found out, they worked with the rabbis to try and take away my younger children. The six I left behind were lost and confused. They were angry at me for abandoning them. They couldn’t fathom the idea that I would leave. I was their mother who had always been there for them. And I left with a heavy heart, the most excruciating decisions I ever made.

I eventually received a Jewish Get from the rabbis and custody and a divorce in family court, but the feelings of betrayal never left me. Betrayal by my own family and my own God.

I felt lost and bereft, and I searched for another way to live.

Before Passover last year, a month into quarantine, my son pled with me to let him go to his father for the Seders. “I want to be there with my nephews,” he said. I assured my son that his nephews won’t be at his father’s Seder, since it is not safe to travel now. But I was not convinced of my own words. I had heard the rumors and seen the flouting of coronavirus restrictions. I knew that his father would risk infection—for himself and his children—to host a proper Seder with our grandchildren from New Jersey, against all guidelines. And I was not wrong – he did indeed invite our  children and grandchildren and

Quarantined in my house, I lead a Seder with three of my children, joyfully singing the traditional songs and searching for the hidden matzoh, the afikomen. The sirens outside wailed, reminding me of the predicament we were in. The deaths in my former community mounted, peaking over Passover.

My friend who runs a nonprofit supporting young orphans in the community told me of the huge increase in requests for services. Families lost grandparents and parents, and communities lost rabbis, leaders, and congregants.

This became very real to me. The virus had infiltrated the community. And while I was hopeful that my children’s father and their community would take it seriously because the sheer numbers of infected and the dead pointed to a danger that required action, I was also skeptical because I knew what I would have done a decade ago. Instead of following the guidelines, I would have encouraged my sons to gather and study and covered for the men’s prayer gatherings. My belief that God would save us was so strong, I may have been compelled to trade my wig for a kerchief.

My skepticism was well-founded. By September, the second wave had reached the Haredi Jewish community in Brooklyn. My son’s yeshiva opened its doors while ostensibly following the rules that had been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. One day I found myself in front of the dark grey building. My son’s teacher had called to ask me to pick him up. He had come down with a strep throat the week before, and he was still not feeling well.

I hesitated before entering the building. Though I am a mother of six boys, I have rarely ventured into the all-boys’ yeshiva building. It was considered immodest and unacceptable for a woman to walk the hallways—and besides, I never had a reason to.

There is another reason I hesitated: I no longer follow the strict dress code of my former community. On that day, I wore my curly bob and black slacks instead of the black mid-thigh skirt and beige tights expected of me. I had never gone near the yeshiva without my hair covered and a skirt over my knees, but I had no time to go home and change. My son wasn’t feeling well, and I was going to pick him up. He needed me.

I peered into the classroom over the teacher’s head and saw the children gathered, with no sign of any social distancing or facial covering.

I suspected that the guidelines were not being followed but seeing this blatant violation of the rules horrified me. What was I supposed to do now with my son? He was required to attend yeshiva, whether it felt safe to me or not. If I chose to keep him home, my ex-husband would use it as leverage and surely come after me for custody. I was torn between doing what was expected of me by my ex-husband and the community my son still belonged to or following my maternal instincts.

I chose the latter, filing complaints with the city and state health departments. I pulled my son from yeshiva, knowing I risked a potential battle with my ex who might take me to family court, a serendipitous reason why he should be granted custody of my son.

Weeks later, a judge in family court ordered my son to return to school, disregarding the flagrant violations.  I comply, worried for my son’s health but also fearful of losing custody.

But for now, for then, I am still in charge. I do what I can protect my younger children, but what about my older ones. Who will protect them?

I don’t hear much from them. Since I left the marriage six years ago, there has been limited communication and it has tragically stripped me of any real relationship with them. They are angry that I left. I ruined their lives, they say. They went from being the children of highly respected parents to the children of divorce, shamed in the community. No one will want to marry them. They are damaged goods.

I don’t blame them; my heart bleeds but I could no longer sacrifice myself and my sanity.

Should I have stayed?

I have seven grandchildren whom I haven’t seen in years. I yearn to see and hold them. My children, too. I ache to be part of their lives and know how they are faring in these challenging times. But I am scared to call.

Will my daughter hang up on me like she did when I last called?

Will my son yell at me? I am too fearful, too vulnerable— so I sit at home and worry.

I worry that my children and grandchildren may not be okay. I am angry at a system that encourages them to ignore public health guidelines and rules meant to protect them. But I also envy them. I envy their faith and the unshakable belief that God will protect them.

But who will protect the rest of us?

Beatrice Weber is an Interspirtual Minister, writer, speaker, and coach. She empowers people who have experienced religious, familial, or community trauma connect with their own inner voice and create empowered and joyful lives. She was born and raised in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community and was married off to a Rabbi when she was 18, never having graduated High School. After 22 years of marriage and 10 children, she left the marriage with her four youngest children, despite severe opposition from her family and the community.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Health, travel

My Japanese Handkerchief Masks

April 12, 2021
Japanese

by Wendy Dodek

During this pandemic my thoughts turn to Japan, a country where masks are part of daily life. Yet not so many years ago I ignored a mask offered to me. I knew Japanese etiquette yet scoffed at wearing a mask.  I then proceeded to infect my Japanese friends, not with a deadly disease but a generic cold.

Perhaps, that is why, early in the pandemic, I took an elegant Japanese handkerchief, and with a few simple folds and two rubber bands made a functional mask as a shield against the coronavirus. My self-made mask has soft green floral patterns, made from a handkerchief I acquired when I lived in Tokyo over 30 years ago. It was part of a gift box I received from a group of nurses.

Every Friday night I’d leave my tiny apartment, walk 15 minutes and board the orange train. After 30 minutes, I transferred to a bus for another 20-minute ride to reach the Kyorin University Hospital where I taught English to 12 young nurses and one older nurse-supervisor. At the end of every session, with a deep bow and two extended arms, supervisor Miss Kikutake would hand me my fee, the yen placed in a small envelope. In addition to the money, this tiny woman with gray speckled hair would raise her arms and hand me a beautifully wrapped gift.

It’s customary for patients, about to be discharged, to give farewell presents to their nurses. I believe most of my presents came from this never-ending supply of gifts. What to do with the surplus of Japanese sweet bean treats, cookies and handkerchiefs? Give them to the English teacher. When I first received handkerchiefs, I was baffled. I never used handkerchiefs in the US. I thought of them as old-fashioned and unsanitary. I’d rather blow my nose in a tissue and then quickly discard it. Yet no Japanese person would leave home without carrying at least one handkerchief. And never would those handkerchiefs be used for nasal secretions. What a horrifying thought to Japanese.

Over time, I learned handkerchief culture and I too, carried them in my purse. I carefully would choose based on the seasons: cherry blossom pinks for spring, crimson maples for fall, purple irises in summer and some forgotten winter pattern. Like everyone else, I would take my handkerchief, dab my forehead during the sweltering Tokyo summers and dry my hands after visiting restrooms that offered no towels.

When I returned to the US in 1988, I brought home about 50 new handkerchiefs of exquisite colors and designs. I offered them up to my American friends although many seemed puzzled by these beautiful cloth squares. I then began to use them to wrap small gifts, instead of traditional wrapping paper. My closet now has just six handkerchiefs left. Just enough to repurpose them when the US medical community reversed course and urged the public to wear masks.

I doubt if any Japanese person would think of my handkerchief creation as a proper mask. The blue surgical variety are a common sight in Japan, long before this virus appeared. Have the sniffles? Wear a mask. Allergy season? Don a mask. Shortly after I moved to Tokyo in 1985, I saw a subway engineer in his prim blue uniform, matching tie and cap, and face draped in a mask. My newsletter home was entitled, “Riding on a Train Driven by a Masked Man.”

I lived for three years in Tokyo with occasional head colds but never considered wearing a mask. It would just get in the way when I needed to sneeze and blow my nose, I reasoned. Wrong attitude. Japanese do not blow their noses in public, instead they sniffle. That snorting sound may be unpleasant to Westerners, especially on crowded rush-hour trains, but preferable to Japanese.

The first time I was given a mask to wear was just eight years ago on a return visit to Japan. Within a few days of my arrival in October 2012 I developed a scratchy throat and tickly nose. Unfortunately, my husband and I had already embarked on a four-day excursion out to the countryside, accompanied by two Japanese friends. Together we stayed in an 18th-century farmhouse and all four of us shared one large guest room, family style. Each person was given futon bedding, which was spread out on the earthy tatami straw mats. Limited heat came from the smoky hearth in the center of the house. By the time we arrived at our next destination, a hot spring town, I could no longer hide my cold. My Japanese friend took me to a drugstore where the pharmacist prepared medicine and tossed two masks into the bag. I was standing by my friend and I imagine she noticed the masks but didn’t say anything. Perhaps, she wanted to see if I would wear one.

I put on a mask just long enough to pose for the camera with sad eyes and slumped body. My expression screamed, poor me, I am sick! But I was just posing. After my husband snapped the photo, I ripped off that mask with no intention of wearing it again. How could I blow my nose, which was running like a faucet, while wearing a mask? And how would I cough wearing a mask? I did not think about how Japanese manage or if my friends would contract my cold.

Over the next few days both of my Japanese friends (and my husband) got sick. I felt like a selfish foreigner, willing to contaminate my friends with my germs. All those years I had prided myself on being a good “gaijin”(foreigner) in Japan. Good foreigners do not lick ice cream while walking down on the street. They did not chew gum in public. They do not speak with a loud voice in the subways. And yet here was proof, I was a self-centered foreigner.

When my friends got sick, I expressed remorse for contaminating them but wondered if I should apologize for not wearing a mask. I had known these women for 25 years yet I didn’t know how to respond. My Japanese friends did not say anything, no overt recriminations. They acted like nothing was wrong. They said their colds were mild. Yet they immediately covered their faces with masks when their symptoms arose. I sensed they were disappointed in me, the person they viewed as better than the stereotyped selfish Americans.

In the US, the public is being urged to wear masks. So why not use my Japanese handkerchiefs? I reached into the back of my closet and examined my unused stock. Not my favorite handkerchiefs, those were all given away. Still, I can be draped in fashionable Japanese cloth and hope for protection – for me and for all those around me. I can picture Ms. Kikutake’s smile as she handed me box after box of treats, some to be consumed quickly and others to last a lifetime.

Wendy Dodek was the Lead Educator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until the pandemic. See also teaches art and history related ESL courses for recent arrivals to the US. Her interests include arts, travel and writing.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Therapist Notes from Coronavirus: It is OK to fall apart.

January 31, 2021
need

By Jillayna Adamson, MA, LPC, LMHC

2020.
Listen to all these people struggling! Are you getting this? People who have never before been able to admit to overwhelming defeat or depression or loneliness are talking about it. They are talking about it on Twitter, on Facebook. They are admitting to it in text messages and on the phone. People are checking in—people are calling and texting each other, they are reaching out. They are expressing understanding of struggle! Forgive my excitement, but are you seeing this widespread empathy? There is openness, understanding! Neighbors are saying to each other, “times are hard and how can I help”? My neighbor made me a latte! (sadly, I couldn’t actually drink it…because, you know- the virus). And with less judgement and reservation. Because they get it. We are getting it.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to every situation, and of course, the world is still full of lots of hatred and cruelty and stupidity—I know. But, I am also seeing this interesting surge of empathy and understanding within people. People are reaching out to each other, talking and opening up more than they previously were. Publically, even! The open communication and expression of such mental strife is a psychotherapist’s dream! We are struggling, don’t get me wrong—but we are also a little bit ecstatic.

The new culture of the coronavirus times are upon us. And there are so many ways in which it has been so painfully difficult. It is truly a new life. There are memes about it. And Tik Tok videos. There are cartoons with people disheveled, in bathrobes, their hair wiring out of their heads. There are calendar memes, a person slowly losing their composure. How their sanity has slipped from March to April to May to June to now… There are parenting how-to’s and mask-making how to’s and cooking how-to’s. There are articles reminding people that everyone is trying their best, making the best decision for their family. Reminding parents not to judge or shame one another for back to school decisions, to spread kindness or teachers and school personnel.

It is hard and it is stressful and some of us are barely hanging on—and wait! We are all talking about it! We aren’t quiet about it, we aren’t asking for anonymity. We are getting on Facebook and posting out our SOS to the world.

It just became okay to rest, to need to re-group. To need time on a deadline. To fall apart, just like humans do—pandemic or not. It just became normalized to outwardly admit to struggle, defeat, loneliness and not knowing. We have found ourselves thrown into an awful situation, but one that is also giving everyone the OK to be human. Never before have I heard so many people of a variety of backgrounds openly admit to and discuss struggle amongst one another— whether loneliness or depression, boredom, financial need, hunger, exhaustion. And I am talking about outside the therapy office. And never before have I heard so many platforms right there to normalize this, to join together. People who may have never struggled with their mental health before are learning the value and impact of some of our basic needs. They are saying “Wow, people really DO need other people! I always heard that, but I never quite believed it until I was living in my own pajamas and hadn’t seen another human in two months!”

A now-homeschooling parent tells me that she has “absolutely nothing left to give in the world” and is sure something is wrong with her emotional daughter. A woman calls to ask my advice, stating she has no idea how to even make the usual decisions anymore. “Is it possible I just need someone to decide things for me now? Can you do that?” she asks (I cannot). I know people regularly taking their children’s temperatures, checking for rashes, unable to sleep. I have read posts from people dealing with deep loneliness and isolation, overwhelm, depression. People from all walks are putting it out there, and others are sending them hearts and hugs and commenting that they get it. That they are struggling too. That it’s hard. That they are HERE!

We are being ravaged, and we are struggling. And 2020 has truly kept it coming. But we are showing up too. (You know, online, or with masks)

What we know about surviving difficult times is that we need to hold onto the aspects of hope, adaptation, and support. In hope, there is often some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. An idea of when this might end, get better, or at least moderately improve. We need to know that things will get better again. In adaptation, we make radical changes to our day-to-day and lifestyle to allot for the vast changes that have come at us. Of course, these have to be successful, positive adaptations. New routines, and activities, ways of socializing and being. New ways of thinking and seeing are all part of this adaptation. And then finally, we need to know we have support. Community, the knowing that we aren’t alone. That we have people we can talk to, help of some kind.

We recreate these things regularly. The cleaning adaptation. The TV isn’t really that bad adaptation. The Maybe I really could homeschool adaptation. The Let’s get a puppy and have something new to love adaptation. The hope of declining numbers, of successes in other countries. The hope of an evening walk or a relaxing bath, or a manageable day. Facetime and Zoom chats, new constant texting regimens, Facebook community groups. Drive-by-birthday parties, for gods sakes. Social distance kickball with masks and a mom doling out sanitizer.

The people are adapting. And continuing. As exhausting and overwhelming as it is, all you can do is keep going, right? With the awareness that some days will be write-offs. Some days you’ll need mental and emotional rest more than anything. The kids will watch tons of TV or play on their tablets. Everything you eat will be microwaved. Other days you might feel vague spurts of capability, and others you might feel good and able to take in positives in the change in pace. Some days, the best thing about your day will actually be ice cream, and you should absolutely have it. Actually, though—this is not that different from pre-Covid life. But Covid life brings it out, makes it right out there in the open—okay, normal. Productivity in our day to day lives, mental-emotional wellness, as well as social and community needs seem to have entered a new realm of understanding.

Before the virus hit, it was actually already okay to fall apart. To need and ask for help. To sometimes be a total disaster. But so many people struggled to believe and accept that. To allow themselves to wear the face of a person really freaking losing it. Mental wellness has really entered in as an every-human component of discussion and not just one for people with mental illness or specific diagnoses. That we are all struggling right here out loud may not seem like the silver lining anyone would be hoping for. But in the world of mental wellness, the opening up is a magic in and of itself, and the very foundation for change and reform.

The new habits of giving grace to ourselves and to others, of checking in, of loving, of being open about our struggles– could be so huge if they continued for our distanced culture. Imagine if we kept it going. Imagine a post-covid world where we are talking, where we are opening up, showing up—but in person, too. Maskless! When we can hug and touch each other on the arm casually! When we can care and fall apart without a pandemic background, and still let that be okay.

Jillayna Adamson (said Jill-anna) is a mother, psychotherapist and writer. She loves all things people, connection and culture, and is particularly interested in identity development and mental wellness within the psychosocial implications of the modern western world. Jillayna primarily writes personal essays and narratives, and writes often about the motherhood role and identity. She is a Canadian transplant currently living in the US with her partner and kids, and is a firm believer in letting your freak flag fly. She can be found at www.Jillayna.com

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

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Guest Posts, pandemic, Tough Conversations

When the Mothers Are Gone, When the Mothers Return

November 22, 2020
Navajo

By Nicole Walker

Kit Carson and his men scorched the earth after they forced the Navajo people off their land, toward Bosque Redondo. Where the men destroyed peach trees the Diné had tended for three centuries, not even stumps remain. Some tamarisk mark their impossible green against the red cliffs and the red ruins, but the original life-sustaining fruit trees are gone as are the churro sheep whose fat the People rubbed into cuts left behind by pruned branches.

*

My mom calls to tell me about how she and her new boyfriend visited with her new-found son at his house for the first time with his kids. She’d given her son up for adoption before I was born. My husband teases me that now I’m no longer first-born child. This new son is very tall. I don’t think it’s fair he got the tall genes and first-child status, both.

I ask her how the visit went. She says, “well, really well. My, is he glad I didn’t abort him. He keeps telling me.”

“That’s not how abortion works. If you’d had an abortion, which you couldn’t have had, legally, he wouldn’t know he didn’t exist. It’s like every masturbated sperm complaining that it didn’t to impregnate an egg. You’re not alive until you exist.”

“I know, but he’s still really, really glad.”

“I bet,” I say. She knows I’ve had an abortion. She seems to think she’s done something right. She’s not quite telling me I did something wrong, but maybe she is. I try to feel bad about it but then I’d have to feel bad about all those misdirected spermatozoa. That menstruated egg that didn’t get her chance to replicate.

*

Kit Carson and his minions may have cut down the original orchard of trees, but the People replanted. High desert, Colorado-Plateau growing is not easy work but there is a reason the Navajo survived as long as they did where they did. There are tricks to growing and the People have been here for centuries. The Hopi, who received peach seeds from the Spanish, who live also in the high desert but further east, and who not always friends with the People, still gave peach seeds to the Diné, as a gesture toward future friendship. And although Canyon de Chelly has thick red walls of de Chelly sandstone, unique for its horizontal deposit, green things grow. To the left grows grass. To the right, Utah Juniper. In between? A mixture of pines and yucca and cactus.

Canyon de Chelly is a complicated life zone. To grow peaches here might be a miracle. Or to grow peaches here might be a logical extension to growing olives in Spain. Isn’t the Mediterranean its own kind of semi-arid climate? What is not obvious, at least not to me, is the idea of a planting trees from seeds. I am so wrapped up in horticultural bondage, I’ve only grown fruit trees from grafted rootstock. And even those have turned out first stunted, then dead. And I am lucky enough to own a hose that stretches from hosebib to rootstock. Canyon de Chelly growers must rely on spring water and rain to get their fruit trees to grow.

*

“He’s just so glad I didn’t have an abortion,” she tells me on another phone call.

I try to tell her about Schrödinger’s cat. The cat is both alive and dead inside the box. It’s only when you look that he turns out dead. “Don’t look, mom,” I tell her.

There is a lot more genetic matter in the world than there used to be. There’s a one in 420 trillion chance of you being alive right now. We are all equally lucky the world is full of green and equally cursed that the world is running out of water. The planet is getting hotter. Our genetic material swarms like a virus. The planet has a fever. Perhaps the fever will burn us off.

*

Kit Carson and his Army burned the peach trees. They also killed the Churro sheep. The Churro sheep are a strange breed. Unrefined, some say. But the women who weave prize the wool the sheep produce. The weavers tried merino wool once but it didn’t possess the sticky fiber’s tug that the Churro’s twisty follicles produced. Without peaches and without sheep, Kit Carson expected that moving The People to Bosque Redondo would be permanent. What did they have to return to?

But The People knew how to grow peach trees from seeds. They just had to wait out Carson’s savage obsession. Once he moved on to different kinds of destructions, Canyon de Chelly’s soil and water would still offer what it gave when they planted the seeds the first time. Perhaps the Hopi would gift them again on their long walk home.

*

It is my fault my mom has a new son. His wife messaged me on Facebook to say, “Hello, my husband just received a notice from Ancestry.com that your mom is his mom.” I’m pretty easy to find and open on social media. I told her to hang on. I’d be in touch.

When I told my mom about the message, I replayed for her the advertisement on Pod Save America where Jon Lovett says, “Try Ancestry.com. Find that brother that you never had. Ask you dad, hey, dad, is there something you wanted to tell me?” My mom didn’t find the joke funny. Since my sisters and I had known about her new son, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. But what do I know about the loss of children?

When I asked my mom to remind me why she told us about him, she said, “I didn’t know how your father might weaponize it during the divorce.”

The Facebook message didn’t come as a shock then. More of an opportunity to tease my mom about the benefits and drawbacks of Ancentry.com. “What kind of ancestors do we have anyway?”

“Same as we thought before. Mormon all the way down.”

*

Stephen C. Jett published an article in a 1979 issue of Economic Botany describing the cultivation of peach trees in Canyon de Chelly. “The trees in some orchards appear to be of uniform age; in other orchards, mixed ages. None of the trees attains a very large size.” Hill noted that well-cared for trees bear after 3-4 years.

As Hill observed, “a planted tree remains the property of the planter, even in the event that he abandons the land and someone else assumes the care of the tree. Trees are often planted by a father and given to his children.”[i] Children may inherit trees from their fathers, but from their mothers, they inherit animals who help trees grow. The Churro sheep supplies the women with wool. The Churro sheep supply the whole community with meat. The connections between sheep and tree are integral. Rendered fat from the Churro sheep is pressed into wounds left behind by cut limbs. Sheep fat is rubbed on seeds to help them geminate. Rams’ horns line the edge of the orchard or even hang from the branches of trees to strengthen the trees.

To build bodies in the semi-arid climate requires a wide network. The thread of the sheep fat and wound looped into a weave. The ram’s head calcium plaited into the dirt. The rendered fat interlaced between the peach pit’s rivulets. This cross-species blending orchestrated by the matriarchs since long before the Spanish brought their peach pits to the Hopi. That existed before Kit Carson rounded up the women and children and marched them to Fort Redondo.

*

I am trapped at home with my 14-year-old daughter during a virus outbreak. This pandemic is forcing us on lockdown but we aren’t as quarantined as our Navajo neighbors to the north. Because the virus spread so quickly on The Nation, I don’t imagine this will be the last pandemic we’ll suffer. As the climate warms, I imagine the melting ice releasing all kind of novel viruses. The swine flu hit just a few years ago but the corona virus is first pandemic where we’ve been told to wear masks and to stay away from public places.

My daughter, Zoe, is beautiful, hilarious, athletic, and brilliant. She’s also a pain in the ass while we’re waiting for everyone to develop an immunity to a disease we’ve never known. I ask her to come plant some pea seeds with me. The package says, plant these 6-8 weeks before the last frost. I think it’s late in the season but maybe I’m on target. It’s hard to tell with climate change. Maybe we’ve already seen the last frost. Maybe it will snow another two feet at the end of April.

She declines my offer to come plant. I talk Max, who is 10 and less of an automatic-no, to press the pea seeds into the garden box filled halfway full of store-bought dirt that we got lazy and ran out of money to fill to the top of the wooden frame. The garden box 4 feet wide by 8 feet long by 3 feet tall. We can’t grow in the regular ground. The dirt is poor. The deer will eat whatever we plant if we don’t plant it in this box that’s wound with plastic, protective fencing. Whose peas will these be?

I look at Zoe’s skinny frame and cannot imagine either the sex or the zygote reproduction. Or rather, I can imagine. With too many folds and body parts, too many lips, I gave her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves like my mother gave me. My mom did not ask me to plant peas with her. I don’t know if it was because she preferred to plant alone or just didn’t want to hear the automatic no of the 14 year old species. I take solace is Zoe’s resistance to planting. Not interested in owning or being owned, she is not into boys and not into peas.

*

The pandemic has hit the Navajo Nation hard. I was talking to the teacher-fellows in the Diné Institute.

“It was The Gathering,” Carol said.

“What gathering?”

“Oh, every year in New Mexico. The New Brotherhood Church holds a gathering. Everyone from churches all around gather.”

“They should have canceled it,” Maria argued.

“I didn’t go.”

“I didn’t either.”

The Navajo Times reports the number of cases every day. Today, 3465. 100 deaths.

A lot of families on the reservation live closely together. Some don’t have running water. It’s hard to convince yourself to sing Happy Birthday two times if you have to drive to Flagstaff or Shiprock or even Tuba City to fill your tank. No one wastes water on the reservation. Even the peach trees know to inhale water from the air.

*

I always thought my mother was militantly pro-choice. She drove me to the abortion clinic for my first abortion. The nurse hurt her feelings when they made her stay in the waiting room instead of holding my hand through the procedure.

It was for the best that she hadn’t heard the doctor tell me not to have sex so young. I wanted to tell the doctor it wasn’t my idea, the sex, the abortion. I think my mother would have yelled so hard at the doctor, he may have rather sucked his own ear drums out. I can imagine him taking the doctor by the shirt collar to the neighbor boy who was supposed to be my babysitter and say, “Tell him about how young she is.”

Or, maybe she wouldn’t have. There are things that are said in girls’ bedrooms between mothers and daughters and things that are said when the boys are around. Perhaps she would have agreed with the male doctor. I mean, I agree with the doctor. No one should have sex that young whether they want to or not.

*

A woman takes a peach pit and rubs Churro fat into its folds. While the male members of the tribe might own the branches, she owns the dirt below. She tucks her hands into dirt. Later, she tucks her hands into wool. Women are hand tuckers. They press their hands within the dirt, through the hair, into the birth canal. They can bring out life in the form of a plant or a blanket or a baby. They can bring out a different kind of life that may look like a disorganized skein but this unwoven fetus is woven into a different story.

Kandace Littlefoot for Truthout writes, “As a Diné woman raised by my maternal grandmother and my sisters, I know that respecting someone’s right to make their own reproductive health decisions is a value deeply rooted in our sovereign Indigenous communities. In our matrilineal society, women have always had direct autonomy over our lives and our reproductive health care decisions. Historical accounts show women and pregnant people in our society have engaged in some form of abortion over generations. I support abortion access because of my Indigenous matriarchal values and traditions — not in spite of them.

Shí éí Kandace Littlefoot yinishé. (I am Kandace Littlefoot.)

Tséníjiíkinií nishłį, Kinliichíinii bashishchiin, Tsédeeshgizhnii dashicheii, dóó Táchii’nii dashinalí, ákót’éego Diné Asdzáán nishłį. (I am born for the Honey Comb Rock People/Cliff Dwelling People, born to the Red House People, my maternal grandfather is the Rock Gap People and my paternal grandfather is the Red Running Into the Water People; in this way, I am a Diné woman.)[ii]

From what I understand, the Diné aren’t more or less conflicted than anyone else about abortion, but some members of the Diné Nation do go on record to say, in a report entitled Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights: The Indian Health Service and Its Inconsistent Application of the Hyde Amendment, written in October of 2002, that “Traditionally, in Native American communities, matters pertaining to women have been the business of women. All decisions concerning a woman’s reproductive health were left up to her as an individual, and her decision was respected. Oftentimes a woman would turn to other women within her society for advice, mentoring, and assistance concerning reproductive health. Within traditional societies and languages, there is no word that is equivalent to “abortion.” Traditional elders knowledgeable about reproductive health matters would refer to a woman’s knowing which herbs and methods to use “to make her period come.”[iii]

But then there is strong resistance to abortion from some members of Native American communities that, because of forced sterilization and reproductive control by the US Government, Navajo women shouldn’t have abortions. Elizabeth Terrill, writing a guest column for The Navajo Times, in January 2020, writes, “Precisely because of our history of being discarded and disdained, we have an obligation to stand for those who are today being denied the rights that we have fought so hard to obtain.

Today, unborn Native Americans are the most vulnerable among us and they are under assault from many sides. By our culture we know the importance of our children. Our children are our future, and our children are the heart and soul of our families, clans, and tribes.”

Are you a peach pit or are you a sheep? Do you need a little pruning or do you sacrifice yourself for your community? Some Diné women rub the fat into the peach pits. Some of weave blankets. Some work at Walmart. Some turn arid ground into peach trees. Some trees need pruning, some seeds need fat, some wool needs to be pulled and tugged rather than shorn.

*

When the pandemic hits, my mother is living in her rented condo with the owner of the condo. It worked out when my mom was single but now she has a new boyfriend. They’re supposed to move in together but the pandemic seems to hold them up.

“Mom. You guys were supposed to move on January 31st.”

“He wants to finish the floors. We’re almost done painting.”

“Mother, you are 73 years old. You shouldn’t be painting.”

“I think I’ll move into your sister’s for awhile.”

“Are things not working out with Bill?”

“They’re great. I just don’t want him to get irritated with me.”

“Valerie will get irritated with you,” I told her.

“Yes, but she can’t get rid of me. I’m her mother.”

*

I put a land acknowledgement at the bottom of my signature line. I walk on the land that the People and their ancestors walked on before me. It’s not just their land but the water we take, pumping from Red Lake under the reservation to our pipes in Flagstaff.

I add the land acknowledgement but that is words and it’s really my body that’s taking place. My body is taking up space. It is space my body doesn’t need to take, but I don’t know where to put my body.

*

My mom texted me to say, “Have I told you lately that I love your smile.”

My mom never texts me.

“What made you text me that, mom?”

“I just saw the pic of you, the hat, and the cat. Hug emoji.”

Women build bodies through the telephone. Women build through the furniture they move, or don’t move. Through their clothes. Their hair. Their weavings. Through their menstrual pads and IUDs, and their kids. They tell stories through the plants they grow and the water they carry to the plants from the spring over half a mile away. They cook the lambs. They strain the broth. They take the fat skimmed from the top and rub it into peach pits. Those lines on the peach pits they recognize as bark on the tree, as the knot of a cervix, the pleading lotic of a son she’d always wished she’d had. I can’t regret abortions because the strings of this horizontal story pulled me one way and another. I am just a cat in a box. It’s unfortunate that a man owned the box. My mom used to swear men were nothing but trouble. But that tall son of hers is made something out of nothing, like all good children. He is full of flesh and he looks just like my mom.

When I met mom’s new son, my sister wouldn’t join us. She called me, “I don’t know, but this whole thing just makes me cry.”

“This whole thing is just weird. But think of it this way. Now we have a bigger family. We’re growing like spider webs. Walker blood everywhere.”

“Mom’s last name wasn’t Walker when she had him. Neither is his.”

“She’s not going to love him more than us,” I try to console her.

“You’ve seen how she is with her grandsons. They can do no wrong.”

If there is one magical force in the world, it’s making something out of almost nothing. Sperm and egg, so small.

I remember the book my mom and dad read to me about how babies were made. A pencil dot, almost invisible, for the egg. Sperm even smaller than that. But some electric connection between the two leads to replication after replication. All that mitochondrial DNA doubling and doubling.

My mom’s new son is very tall, I tell you again. Six foot three at least. I am a foot shorter. He probably weighs as much as me and my sister combined. So much mass in the form of a really nice guy. It is possible my mother will love him more than her daughters.

*

The miracle of mass is not necessarily miraculous. Replication for the sake of replication isn’t automatically impressive or useful. Yeast grows. Plants grow. Fetuses grow. But so grows the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The amount of fossil fuels burned. The temperature of the plant. The number of people dying from the pandemic. The number of species going extinct. Growth for the sake of growth doesn’t a mother make. If a seed doesn’t germinate, even with sheep fat scrubbed into its crevices, only shows the planter, the soil, the sun, the rain, and the sheep understand the nature of seeds.

*

The planet doesn’t need more mass or more people. Some climate scientists say that if we planted a trillion trees, we could cancel out a decade’s worth of greenhouse-effecting-carbon. Donna Haraway, in her book Staying with the Trouble likes the slogan, “Make Kin Not Babies.” Then someone said, well, it might not work. Then, someone else said, there is nowhere to put the trees. Then someone said, the oceans absorb 50% of the carbon. Then someone else said, if they planted them on ice, they’d actually make the planet hotter, since white ice reflects yellow sun heat.

But some Indigenous People, like the Swinomish in the Pacific Northwest, are planting trees right now. Mass is the measure that makes women choose to direct their lives non-child-wise. It’s not the fear of roots or becoming rooted. Planting 8 billion trees won’t save us. Planting 8 billion trees won’t not save us. It’s the verb rather than the number that matters.

*

When I meet my mom’s new son and his wife at a restaurant, I am as short as ever. My family’s one gift is to try to make strangers feel as comfortable as possible at the very first meeting (and then pull that rug out from under by the end of the meeting) so my mom’s new son is happy to follow my mom’s lead to tease me about my height. There’s the using my head as an elbow rest. There’s the ‘can I reach that for you?’ There’s the, ‘oh sorry I tapped your foot with my foot. I didn’t know your feet reached the ground.’

There’s the picture of my mom and my mom’s new son. Their faces match. I can’t if they look more alike than me and my mom or if it’s the newness that makes them look surprisingly identical.

I don’t feel anything. My stomach is not in knots.

There’s something body-less for me in this moment. I don’t know what to order from the menu. I can’t tell if I’m hungry or not. I look to my mom to give me some advice on what to order but she’s busy trying to talk her new son into sharing a Reuben with her.

Maybe in revenge, I will become a vegetarian. “Want to come over for dinner, mom? I’m making ancient grain bowls.”

That will teach her.

*

When the Diné returned from Redondo, when they found their peach trees burned, their sheep slaughtered, they took turns collecting peach pits hidden between blades of grass in what was then, at least still, a fertile valley. They found old ram bones to mark the rows. Without any sheep fat to moisten the seed, they didn’t have a lot of faith that anything would grow. But they planted the seeds anyway and waited for three years for the seeds to germinate. Now the Diné living near Canyon de Chelly have new peach trees that are just as beloved as the old ones. They have found some new sheep. The children, even the female ones, have inherited a few trees, some rendered fat, and a puff of wool—not too much but possibly enough substance to sustain their bodies another three centuries or more, if the rain comes back in time.

[i] Jett, Stephen C. “Peach Cultivation and Use among the Canyon De Chelly Navajo.” Economic Botany, vol. 33, no. 3, 1979, pp. 298–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4254079. Accessed 3 Apr. 2020.

[ii] https://navajotimes.com/opinion/essay/abortion-is-not-a-solution-for-native-women/

[iii] https://prochoice.org/pubs_research/publications/downloads/about_abortion/indigenous_women.pdf

Nicole Walker is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story (2018) and the forthcoming collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. (2019). She has previously published the books Where the Tiny Things Are (2017), Egg (2017), Micrograms (2016), Quench Your Thirst with Salt (2013), and This Noisy Egg (2010). She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story (2019) with Sean Prentiss and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (2013) with Margot Singer. She is the co-president of NonfictioNOW and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and a noted author in Best American Essays. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ.

 

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Family, Guest Posts

Only in My Imagination?

June 22, 2020
jimmy

By Jackie Bivins

When COVID-19 hit, life as we knew it came to an abrupt end.  We shifted from a “go-go-go” lifestyle to a complete stand-still. With so much time at home while quarantined, worries and fears can be overwhelming. Will this ever end?  If so, what will the world then look like? There is so much speculation about the “new normal.” But the reality is that it’s unknown; no one can define or predict what havoc or healing exists in our future.  As a result, so many of us are seeking comfort in the past. We are looking to our memories for a sense of stability, joy, and reassurance.  We are looking to the time when the future felt beautiful, unlimited, and full of possibilities.  Remembering what it was like when we were safe in the cocoon of those halcyon days can allay that middle-of-the-night panic.  It is, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity to share our stories, the very things that connect us with others.

 This is one of mine.

~~~

As a child I had an imaginary friend named Jimmy Raspberry. I would picture him sitting next to me on the forest green sofa when I watched tv, or helping me arrange the brightly-colored food packages from my prized cardboard grocery store, or watching me as I played board games like Candyland, Checkers, or Parcheesi –all made for two, or at least more than one.

Jimmy was tall with curly, raven-colored hair. He smiled often and his hazel eyes always held a twinkle. He was never cross, nor was he ever too tired to play. He seldom argued. With Jimmy, I was less alone. I was bolder.

The fantasy I most enjoyed enacting with Jimmy started with us tiptoeing into my parents’ room. Jimmy would stand sentinel as I took my mother’s pale blue suitcase from the bottom of her closet then started to carefully pack a lemon-yellow chiffon cocktail dress, a long tan full skirt made of stiff and quite wrinkled cotton, and a lime green silky blouse. I loved my dress-up box full of Mama’s discarded clothes, and these were my most cherished items. Sometimes Jimmy would suggest I pack the camel-brown clutch bag or remind me to include the red wool jacket.

Once done I would drag that suitcase through our ranch-style home. Jimmy would offer to help but I always refused. I knew I was strong enough to do it myself. The game was to pretend Jimmy and I were embarking on a grand expedition. That meant going somewhere, anywhere.

The reality is that during my childhood our small family of three — Mama, Daddy and me — rarely ventured far from home. When we did it was to see the same old places. Vacation time meant driving from our home in Rockville, MD to visit relatives in and around Richmond and to spend time by what native Virginians always called “the rivah”, no matter which of the state’s five rivers it was. I never brought Jimmy along on these trips because they were too boring. Instead, I would spend those car rides day-dreaming that we were finally on our way to a destination that involved neither swimsuits and fishing rods nor relatives.

My mother was a typical housewife of the 1950s.

Monday was wash day; white fluffy sheets and pink and green striped towels came first, followed by a cavalcade of shirts, pants, pjs, and underwear.

Tuesday was ironing day; Mama would never miss a wrinkle as she skillfully maneuvered that shiny metal contraption around all the buttons on Daddy’s dress shirts.

Wednesday was dedicated to the kitchen; Mama routinely scoured every surface, washed down all of the appliances, and mopped the checkered linoleum floor, although most of the time none of these were in any need of cleaning. Wednesdays were also when Mama would reward herself with a whiskey and soda before starting to cook dinner.

Thursdays and Fridays were for the rest of the house, beginning with the den and the seldom-used dining and living rooms. Mama would drag the mint green Hoover canister vacuum from room to room, intent upon sucking up non-existent dirt. She dusted any surface she could find, arranged magazines on the coffee table exactly one inch apart, and scrubbed the bathrooms so hard the smell of Ajax lingered for hours.

Periodically Mama gave herself permission to deviate from that routine. On those days we would drive to Congressional Plaza, an L-shaped outdoor shopping center on the other side of town.  Mama loved to visit J.C. Penney’s, or “the Penney’s” as she liked to call it. She didn’t care much about buying clothes, but enjoyed browsing, occasionally picking up towels, sheets, and other knickknacks for our house.

Woolworth’s was another frequent stop. Once there, sewing notions; hair products; personal care items; housewares; and, various “as seen on tv” gadgets vied for her attention. We would take a break at the luncheon counter for an ice-cold frothy Coke, or “Coca Cola” as my southern relatives called it.

The shopping trips ended with a visit to Cartwright’s stationery. Mama was always on the lookout for greeting cards. To her, maintaining good manners meant sending the proper card, whatever the occasion. Family members and friends came to expect them from her on holidays others would fail to acknowledge. St. Patrick’s Day? Mama was ready. Fourth of July as well. She loved Halloween, so that was when she excelled with cards funny or “scary”.

For Christmas, Mama would begin selecting cards in October. Shortly after Thanksgiving she would spend several hours a week at the kitchen table with the cards splayed out in front of her. She couldn’t just address a card and send it out, no!  She had to write a lengthy, detailed note for each one. Mama wouldn’t have liked the current trend of standardized, Christmas letters.  She would have found them rather cold and distant. She personalized the messages for each intended recipient.

Mama set high standards for herself, and she found security in maintaining her routines.

Most days Mama would start cooking dinner at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Daddy’s day at Washington Technological Associates, where he managed a large group of machinists, officially started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., so Mama planned for a 5:30 dinner. I would help set the table and place the hot dishes down. Just as we were finishing, Daddy would drive his white and black two-tone Oldsmobile down the driveway.

Except on Fridays. That was a special day. Fridays we alternated between dinner at Howard Johnson’s or McDonald’s. To me the food at Howard Johnson’s seemed bland and mediocre, but Mama loved their clam rolls and Daddy always appreciated their ice cream cones. McDonald’s, newly opened and thus a novelty, was my preference, with its juicy cheeseburgers and salty fries. That was until the Italian spot, Luigi’s, opened downtown. On summer evenings as we drove by with the car windows rolled down, we could smell the appetizing aroma of garlic wafting out. My parents eventually expanded our Friday night rotation to include Luigi’s, with its red-checkered table cloths and wine bottles with colorful wax drippings.  They also added Shanghai’s Chinese, where a tall golden dragon beckoned us to enter.

Just past my seventh birthday my parents decided that on Fridays, and Saturdays too, I could stay up until they went to bed, which was usually around 11 p.m.  Determined not to miss a single thing, I would curl into the scratchy plaid La-Z-Boy lounger where the aroma of my Daddy’s Old Spice aftershave always lingered. It was comfy, too comfy. I would struggle to keep my eyes open, lulled by the sounds of the tv and my parents’ muted voices.

One Friday night was different.

I had changed into my purple flannel pjs and taken my usual spot. Mama was wearing her blue and white striped robe, and she’d settled into her favorite chair next to the tv. Daddy, in crisply pressed pjs, was in the midst of one of his nightly series of solitaire games.

Just as my eyelids started to droop, I heard Mama say, “I think it’s time we took Jackie to New York City.” What?

This startled me given our usual travel plans. Mama was also prone to having a shot or two, well maybe more, of Seagram’s 7 on Friday nights so I wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey talking or not. I had barely absorbed her comment when Daddy then looked up to say, “Okay, we can go next weekend.” What!

Once Daddy started playing solitaire, he glanced frequently at the tv but rarely talked. This made his acquiescence even more surprising. Whaaat???

My mother’s suggestion promised new horizons far beyond what my imagination had ever conjured up.  Jimmy would definitely be joining me for this adventure.

Today Rockville, Maryland is a sprawling suburb. Back then Rockville was a sleepy southern town. The county courthouse, more than 150 years old, dominated the downtown landscape.  The Villa movie theatre, our only nearby cinema, showed films that had long since disappeared from screens in more metropolitan locales. Pumphrey’s Funeral Home was the area’s fanciest house. It adjoined Chestnut Lodge, the mental hospital for the rich and famous. Both of Henry Fonda’s wives were treated there; so was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. Whenever one of the patients escaped a siren blared so loudly it could be heard throughout the town. That was the biggest excitement Rockville proper had to offer.

Where we lived, about eight miles beyond the city limits, was even sleepier. Dairy farms dotted the rural landscape; horses and their riders would trot down the roughly paved roads; houses were set far apart; and, it was at least a thirty-minute drive to the nearest grocery store.

Before settling in Glen Hills, the name of our suburb of a suburb, we had looked at numerous homes, including several located in lovely neighborhoods that were at least within the “city” limits. While my parents found fault with the size of rooms, the workmanship, or some other aspect of these houses, I felt an immediate sense of belonging within their walls. I wanted so badly for my parents to say “yes” to any of them.

They had other ideas. When they discovered Glen Hills, they were seduced by the opportunity to build a home customized just for them and quickly purchased a plot of land there. When they told me of their decision, that we would be moving to the country, I wanted to throw a tantrum, but I silently cried instead. Even all these years later I can envision one of those houses I loved, nestled on one of Rockville’s prettiest tree-lined streets.

From as early I can remember, before I was a flower girl in my Aunt Joyce’s wedding, still so shy that the experience is almost obliterated from memory, I knew I wanted more.

Before I envisioned being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club and memorized all the names of the Mouseketeers, I knew I wanted more.

Even before I understood how letters formed words that told stories, I knew I wanted more than country life offered.

I wanted street lights, nonexistent anywhere around us, that could help me navigate unexplored pathways. I wanted sidewalks, squares or rectangles uniform in their symmetry, instead of having to make my way to the school bus stop through tall, itchy grasses. I wanted to visit my friends without having to ask my mother to drive me then waiting and waiting and waiting while she insisted on changing her clothes, combing her hair, spraying on perfume, and applying a coat of lipstick before we left.

I wanted city noises like the ones I heard on tv, the constant hum of traffic, the cacophony of accented voices, the squeal of horns, an occasional wailing siren that signaled mysterious dangers.

Most of all I wanted and knew intuitively but could not articulate in my youth was to feel the confidence that surges through my body whenever I encounter a vibrant metropolis. It’s where I can be the true me, the more intriguing me, the better me. It’s where I can don a cloak of invincibility.

A week after I overheard my parents’ unexpected agreement to venture to New York we packed our red leather suitcases, checked windows and door locks, and were on our way.

We left around noon with Daddy having taken a half-day off. He had shed his tie and rolled up the sleeves of the starched white Oxford shirt he had worn to work that morning. His thick black hair, which was freshly cut and tamed, was sleek and sat close to his scalp.

Mama’s shirtwaist dress reminded me of candy, with a plaid pattern of butter yellow and milky chocolate. She had slept in her pink foam curlers all night but you couldn’t  tell now. That morning she’d sat at her antique vanity applying her makeup.  She started with foundation, added a bit of rouge to her cheeks, and drew in completely new brows with an eyebrow pencil.  She looked transformed in her signature Revlon “cherries and cream” lipstick.

I had carefully put together my outfit, trying to look more like the teen girls I had glimpsed in magazines than a chubby second grader. I wore a blue cardigan, which I had unsuccessfully tried to drape around my shoulders, a blouse of a similar hue, and a poodle skirt Mama bought me just for the trip. I thought I looked sophisticated, not like a girl from the country.

We stopped at the Maryland House, (a landmark I would later visit countless times) for a quick lunch. The Maryland House was known for its crab cakes. The secret was lots of Old Bay seasoning mixed in with the meat of the Chesapeake Bay’s succulent blue crabs.

When lunch was over, we returned to the Oldsmobile. We took off our winter coats as the heater hummed along. Daddy never liked to listen to the car radio so it was very quiet inside. Having grown up as one of six children, he enjoyed being able to hear his thoughts. Mama leafed through the stack of magazines she had brought with her, including recent issues of Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I sat in the backseat, no seatbelt, alternating between laying half-way down reading my book and sitting up straight to peer out the windows. Jimmy sat quietly beside me with nothing to do.

It was the longest trip in the world.

Maryland and Delaware were just miles of rolling countryside that looked too similar to home. Then it was on to the New Jersey Turnpike. My parents talked excitedly about its four lanes, the lack of traffic lights, and how the newly installed mile markers made it easy to track our progress north. As I halfway listened to their conversation, I realized that one of the reasons for the trip was to see this new marvel. It replaced the previous route, Highway 1, where travelers would have to frequently slow down as they drove through town after town. I wasn’t impressed by what I viewed as just another dull road. I was tired of being cooped up. I would have loved to get out and stretch my legs but I didn’t want to take the time. I was thirsty but stopping for a drink would have also taken more time. I wanted to get there already.

We rounded what’s known as the helix, so named because the road spirals down, round and round, from the cliffs of New Jersey to the Lincoln Tunnel that crawls under the Hudson River.

That’s when I saw it, the New York City skyline.

Night was falling. I stared, spellbound, as the tall buildings began to sparkle.  I watched the tiny red lights of cars going up and down the just barely visible highway across the river.

Jimmy Raspberry and I had finally arrived. I let out a huge sigh. It was as if I had been holding my breath until this very moment. Deep within me I somehow knew that this was IT, a place where routines could be shattered and every street would lead to fresh adventures.

For over a decade, Jackie Bivins was a journalist who reported on the retail industry and interviewed many of its pioneers. She lives in the Coachella Valley, and is currently working on a memoir.

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