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Abortion, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

The Pull of My Own

August 26, 2020
pull

By Isa Nye

I craved a little being to nurture, to suckle. I dreamed of nursing a newborn – I felt the pull of the moon at night – procreate procreate procreate. But I waited. I waited and waited. Because the first time was wrong. I let the first baby go not knowing how I couldn’t, not knowing how I could, in a sweat, in a nightmare, in a dream, in a doctor’s office, in desperation. Metal medical equipment and cheap posters on the wall. I waited years then. I waited for everything to be right – to hold my baby in my arms, nurture it, give it my milk, and all my love.

The CIA says every five seconds 20 babies are born and 10 people die – all day, all night, over and over and over –so many humans come and go, and yet when it is my own baby my world re-aligns and spins around this tiny being, my own baby, even in the womb, my baby pulls at gravity and becomes the center of my very existence.

My third baby waited eighteen days past when he was due to be born. Each one of those eighteen days dragged past – each of those nights it seemed as if the sun would never set, the moon never rise, like the day would never come where I would meet my boy. But I did.

There were the cramps – they started low, below the belly, a tightening, like everything inside me was constricting inward to a point that it could not reach, straining and tensing. “I think this is it. I think I’m going into labor,” I said through gritted teeth, writhing on the hospital bed, monitors already attached to me. “Take the cords off. Take them off!,” I said, loudly, pulling at them, throwing them away from my body, and climbing from the stiff sheets, touching the cold floor with my bare feet, squatting down, standing up, grabbing at my belly, leaning over, breathing in. “This is it. I’m pretty sure this is it,” I said, sucking in air, breathing out loudly, squeezing my eyes closed tightly, and everything in the world reduced to the sensation in my body – the contraction of uterine muscles sending out shock waves in an earthquake all my own.

This was my third baby. On the maternity ward a lullaby played every time a baby was born, marking a new being’s arrival on earth. Several women were in labor at the same time as me, and nurses busily rushed from room to room, a night’s work for them.

He was born into water. I pushed him from me with a roar of strength I did not know I had and may never feel again. A lullaby must have rung out across the maternity ward, but I did not hear it. I only heard him. “My baby, my baby, my baby,” is what I said over and over as I cradled him to me, naked and wet, his skin against mine, as around us the nurses, midwives, and doctors hustled, as my husband cut the cord.

The second baby had not come so easily. Not like the third. She was born amid struggle, after hours of effort, hours of pain that took over everything and became everything and then subsided and returned and subsided and returned. I bore down so hard I though my intestines would come out. She drug her placenta behind her on a short cord and when at last I pushed her from me, she took a moment to catch her breath. “Say hello to her!” the midwife said, “She needs to hear your voice!” They had taken her to a table where they were working on her, getting fluid from her mouth and nose; her tiny hand clasped my husband’s finger. “Hi, baby. Hi. Hi, baby,” I said, my voice sounding foreign to me, disconnected. “Hi baby. C’mon, baby. Hi, baby.” A cry erupted from her and she sucked in her first breath of oxygen on earth. During my twelve hours of laboring her from me to the world, roughly 180,000 babies were born, statistically speaking, but only one of them was mine.

My first baby I never saw nor heard, but felt, yes. That baby’s exit from my body was not so monumental, miraculous, mythical. It was mechanical, methodical, medical. My breasts ached for that baby who I never knew was a boy or girl, or in between those. I didn’t know. The baby let me let it go, or so I told myself because everything was at stake. I was strong then too, on the operating table, waiting for the doctor. While she sucked the baby from my womb, I was strong. I did not cry or let out a cry. On the hour drive home I laid my head against the cool window of the passenger seat and did not talk, or cry. My boyfriend cried in the backseat. My friend drove us home, and for that I was grateful. During that hour long drive from the clinic to my bed, about 6,000 people died, statistically speaking, but none of them were mine. I might have been numb the but it was mine I knew I would mourn, and even if I knew I didn’t question my choice, I would feel the loss.

Isa Nye has written ever since she could. She was raised in Montana among cowboys and professors, and she turned to the written word to both escape and to make sense of that life. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two young children, and writing still brings her both solace and clarity.

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Guest Posts, healing

Clay Glue

March 22, 2020
glue

By Ali J. Shaw

When the halls cleared out, I went into the art room and let my backpack slide off my shoulder onto the floor. Mr. Evans nodded quietly to acknowledge me, but he focused on whatever was on his computer screen. I turned the combo on my locker and glanced at the clock. Robbie would be here any minute, so I used both hands to heft the plastic-wrapped block of clay out of its cubby and onto the table. For my last assignment—vase making—I’d made one only half as tall as my classmates’ so I could conserve my clay.

“It’s for wildflowers,” I’d told them when they smirked.

Now I had a good-sized chunk left over to give to Robbie. “Hey!” Robbie yelled at top nine-year-old volume when he came into the room. I startled, and he laughed dramatically. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, okay, come on over here.” I waved my hands. “New haircut?” He beamed. “Buzzzzz.”

Robbie and I had had a rough start. I’d signed up for the Buddy Program because I’d always wanted a younger sister. Visions of teaching jump-rope songs to a little girl had flooded my imagination. Then came time for the first Buddy Program session. The elementary school counselor who had facilitated the high-schooler and elementary-schooler pairings handed me a slip of paper, where I saw his name: Robbie. A boy. There was no time to brood on it, though—I could already hear kids’ shuffles and giggles coming toward us in the multipurpose room. While the other kids ran to their high school buddies, slapped high-fives, and laughed, Robbie slumped into a chair next to me.

“Hi, I’m Ali.” I was not good at making awkward situations more comfortable. Robbie’s eyes glassed over, and he whispered, “Hi.”Before long, I learned that his grandpa, who’d been living with him and his mom, had died the night before. I felt paralyzed. My “I’m sorry” sounded empty, and it seemed so unfair that we were sitting in a room full of raucous children and teens scribbling colorful answers on their Getting to Know You worksheets. Robbie and I spent that first hour-long meet-up mostly silent. I didn’t know if he’d show up the next week, but he did. And the week after that. I never figured out how to talk about his grief, but just being there with him seemed to help.

Before long, his teacher asked me to come by on Tuesday afternoons to help tutor Robbie on telling time and counting money. Two years later, we were still meeting weekly with the whole Buddy Program and an extra day one-on-one doing some other activity—tutoring if he needed it; art if he was caught up. I took a deep breath as I thought about the transition over the years but turned my focus to prepping the clay for him. The outer edges of the block had dried out a little, a result of the used and reused plastic bag that had accumulated tiny holes and let air seep in. With my finger and thumb, I pinched off the hard bits until a ball of soft clay remained.

“Hey,” I said to Robbie and held the ball in front of him, squeezing until it squished out through my fingers. “I’m strong, huh?”“Not as strong as me!” He reached for the clay and mimicked me.

Somewhere around the end of the first year, I gave Robbie a model house I’d built, and he gushed, “That’s so cool!” So we started building things together—mostly in the art room. At the end of each session, he’d take home his creation.

“You know that smiley face painting we did last time?” he asked me now as he dug one finger into the center of the clay wad. “Mmmhmmm,” I mumbled, rolling out coils from my less-pliable clay. “I used it for target practice with my mom’s boyfriend’s darts!” I laughed.

The first time he’d told me about his nearly immediate destruction of something we’d made together, I—as someone who had formed a sentimental bond with every object I’d ever owned, especially gifts—couldn’t hide my cringe. But for Robbie, things were no good collecting dust on a shelf. You had to make experiences with them! And so every week, we created, he destroyed, and then he told me the story. He grunted in frustration, and I stopped rolling coils to see why. He had formed a softball-sized glob and several smaller ones, one of which he was trying to press to the side of the big one.

“Oh, hey, there’s a trick for that.” I lay my coil down and held out my palm. “Can I show you?” When he handed me the small ball, I demonstrated scoring the soft clay with a sharp tool that left jagged cuts on one side of the little ball, then the big ball. “Then you have to make slip, which is a weird word, but it’s basically clay glue.” I tore off two inches of my coil and put it in a bowl with water. “Here, put your fingers in here and mush it around.”

Robbie’s cheeks tightened skeptically. I’d looked that way at my older brother nearly every day of my childhood, trying to gauge if he was tricking me. I’d never tricked Robbie, but obviously someone had.

“Really, come on.” I nodded and plunged my fingers in.“Ew, it’s slimy,” he yelled when he tried it. Mr. Evans looked up disapprovingly. “Shhhh. You know what else is slimy?” “What?” “Glue.” I winked as I dabbed some slip on my fingertip and then onto the scored clay and pressed the two balls together. “Tada!” I sang when they stuck. Robbie made what had become my favorite sound since I’d met him.

“Whooooooa!” From our first meeting, something had seemed familiar about Robbie. Did I see myself in him somehow? No, we were opposites in nearly every way. Rowdy/quiet, destructive/creative, easily bored/could sit in one activity for hours. But below those surface behaviors, there was something similar. Something broken. When I’d tutored Robbie, sometimes his body shook in tiny convulsions. “Are you okay?” I’d slide the flashcards to side of the desk and line my face up with his. Robbie would stare down, his eyes lost in the wood grains of the desktop, or someplace far beyond. But part of him was still with me. In a thin voice, he said, “Just cold.” I took off my fleece jacket and wrapped it around his shoulders.

“Should we take a little break and draw?” I used to say color instead of draw, but he finally informed me that only girls color—boys draw, and only in black. But maybe sometimes yellow or red. Before he answered, I pulled paper and a black marker out of my backpack. For about a year, Robbie drew only round yellow faces in a variety of expressions, shockingly similar to today’s emojis. Sometimes they smiled, but mostly they expressed pain or fear, and he laughed at his creations. I was sixteen, trained only in art and writing and basic math, never psychology. I never knew what it meant. I still don’t. But I knew that drawing stopped the trembles and brought his eyes up from the void, his smile back to his face.

So I gave him more paper, more pens, more time. Eventually trees and dogs with wagging tails and even flowers started to appear in his drawings too. And I knew that time with Robbie meant less time at home for me. I could delay getting into my rusty red pickup and shambling home to my father’s frigid trailer. Every moment with Robbie was a moment less with my father’s unpredictable rages or over-the-top professions of love and “Family is the most important thing. Don’t you ever forget that.” Robbie’s and my time together became a sort of glue that kept us both from fracturing.

We spent the rest of the hour gluing small clay shapes onto his clay softball. We left it in my locker to dry before he took it home the next week. The week after that, he told me it was the perfect size for launching from his catapult toy into the fields behind his house.

“I did it over and over until it broke into three pieces,” he said with a shrug.

“I guess we better make something else,” I said as I laid out Popsicle sticks, glue, and paint.

Robbie and I were buddies for three years, until I graduated high school and moved away. I have a single photo of us together. We’re at my graduation party, and he’s trying to stand up straight in my letterman’s jacket, weighed down by the running medals I sewed onto it. Our faces are round and red, laughing about something.I keep the photo in a pocket of the jacket, which collects dust in a closet, where I hope neither will ever be destroyed.

Ali J. Shaw has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. Her nonfiction has been featured in r.k.v.r.y., Hippocampus Magazine, VoiceCatcher, and the Get Nervous reading series, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. Ali is an editor who collects typewriters and rescue animals.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts

Working in Circles

February 29, 2020
richard

By Elizabeth Earley

The first time I met Richard Yaski, I was 32 years old and freshly heartbroken. I’d been living in Phoenix, which proved to be a metaphysical as well as physical desert. I had moved there from Chicago to be with a woman I loved, but she cheated on me and left me, leaving me to turn to bad and destructive habits like cigarette smoking and affairs with married women. Women who were married to men. In the end, there were only two such affairs, but, as a wise friend told me then, it only takes two to make a pattern.

My move to Phoenix was significant in a different way as well—it marked the first time I was offered a job as a writer. I’d applied to the job with writing samples from my half-finished graduate program, and they not only hired me, but also paid for my moving expenses.

From the outset, I felt a fraud in the role of paid writer—the work was too easy and was, fundamentally, unearned. I hadn’t published much of anything. I’d written maybe three novels by then, all of them withering in a drawer collecting rejections faster than dust. It was in this state that I travelled to Northern California with my older friend and mentor who had dated Richard. And although it didn’t work out romantically between them, he remained a significant part of her life, and she wanted me to meet him—a celebrated artist with enormous metal sculptures decorating a pictorial property nestled in a redwood forest.

Back then, Richard was on fire. Brimming to excess with energy, he was filled with an insatiable and relentless, highly creative and spiritual drive. It came out of his mouth in rapid, run-on speech; through his eyes with long, thoughtful and interested gazes. He had asked me to write about him back then and I agreed, swept up as I was with him and his sculptures and his home fashioned from trees. But I never did. A combination of my sense of inadequacy at the time combined with a single rejection I received in response to a pitch to a much too famous magazine conspired to have me quit before I even really started. Then I fell out of touch with Richard.

A decade elapsed during which I finished my graduate degree and experienced some accomplishments as a writer. Then I survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident and wrote a new kind of book in its aftermath—a hybrid memoir, which I titled, The Eternal Round. While writing this, I learned that my second novel had won an award and would be published by a well-known and coveted publisher. As my publication date approached, I knew I needed to finish a draft of the new manuscript before my second novel came out because I would need to focus on its launch. As I searched for a place to go where I could separate from my daily responsibilities and write, nothing short of a self-abduction from my life would do. I thought of Richard and his property.

Now, ten years later, Richard is calmer and more settled. He’s been through a lot—illness and injury and a financial crisis in which he was the victim of a ponzi scheme and lost most of his life’s savings. He was involved in a drawn-out court battle over it. There was a time when he thought he might lose the home and land. But thankfully, he kept it, and I was able to visit yet again. I came to finish my manuscript. And I stayed to fulfill my 10-year-old promise to write about him.

He is nobody and nothing. That is what Richard Yaski asserts is the most important lesson of his life. During a 5-day meditation retreat he attended, he realized that art has to be authentic. And to be authentic, it has to be let through the conduit, the artist, honestly.

“I am not Richard, my name is Richard. I am not a sculptor, I make sculptures.”

I listened to him with skepticism. Aren’t all artists and writers desperately attached to the positive yet wholly subjective reception of their work? I see my regrettable though undeniable writer’s ego as a big, glass sphere: as immense as it is delicate. Holding it in my hands, seeing my own warped face reflected in its gloss, I am it and it is me. Until I trip on the casual criticism of anyone and the whole thing is smashed. What saves me are the other dimensions of my life, the parts that round it out like being a mother and a partner, a friend, a human.

Richard is also human. He makes more than sculptures. The home he created from the trees is perhaps the most stunning. Never mind the world-class art that sits half a mile down a dirt road in Mendocino County, California. The kind you would expect to see inside the clean walls and high ceilings of a distinguished gallery in New York. But it’s so not New York that I have an experience of cognitive dissonance just looking around.

Yellow and orange construction vehicles, some parked along the edge of the woods, some in the gravel carport alongside the car. A crane, folded up and sleeping, resting from the weight it’s carried. The forklift beat up from good use. These and other heavy machinery somehow seem a natural part of the landscape, as do the sculptures they helped to create. Large, metal works of art dignify the opening in the woods, the clearing of trees where plant life has been tamed and cultivated in the area around the house and other buildings. There are several buildings: a yurt used as a detached office/art studio/meditation space adorned with prayer flags, a tiny house with a lofted roof and large skylight (this is where guests like me stay when they come), a building that seems to be for storage, a large, cluttered workshop, and, out behind the house on the other side of a wooden fence and wall made of logs, a converted 1953 International School Bus permanently installed and built into a cottage.

This last was the vehicle that Richard Yaski arrived in when he was 24 years old. It was the early 70s and he was working as a leather smith in Topanga Canyon. He and his girlfriend came to see a friend in Albion. The rugged coast of Mendocino County flanked by the Redwood forest beckoned him with its beauty and sense of magic, like anything was possible. When he returned to Topanga, he couldn’t get the feeling about that place or its inspiring power out of his mind. When the owners of the house he and his girlfriend rented decided to sell and gave them notice to move out, he knew where to go. Putting everything they owned in the bus, they drove back up to Mendocino County and looked for their next home.

Home is a word most people associate with at least four walls and a roof, but that’s not what Richard found. The 10-acre plot of forestland he purchased in 1970 was densely wooded, though it did come with a well and septic tank. “I had to crawl on my hands and knees under the brush to see that it had a back yard,” he said.

With deep respect for nature, Richard began the project of building a home by searching for trees that were already on their way out. These sick and dying trees became the raw materials for the house he roughed in but that remained unfinished for years. Years during which he lived in the bus with his first wife and young son.

Seven years earlier, in a metal shop class in high school, Richard made his first sculpture. It was an abstract metallic woman with steel-wool hair, copper coils for eyebrows, a welded together face, can-shaped torso, and gear cogs for breasts. While his older brother was in art school, Richard sold that first sculpture for $3,000 to the president of Interstate Host Corporation and it was installed at Detroit international Airport at the hotel restaurant. He used the money to travel Europe with a friend after finishing high school. When he returned from that months-long trip, he decided it was time to grow up and earn a living, so he enrolled in real estate school where he would get his license and sell houses. But he hated real estate school and left. He went to junior college after that, but walked out after a few weeks. Finally, his father agreed to pay for art school, but he dropped out of there as well. After two years of art school, a teacher convinced him that a better art school would be a garage wired for 220 electricity where he could spend his time just making sculptures. He agreed, so he left the prestigious art school, Chouinard, and did just that. He had his first one-man show at 20 years old on La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles. From there, Richard curated his own education wherein he hired people for $6/hour to work alongside and learn from. He learned to be a carpenter this way, then a general contractor.

Richard reminds me of myself in this way—exploring many trades and wearing various hats to earn a living to support the true passion while remaining anti-establishment at heart. In spite of my prejudice against it, I pursued higher education like any conquest and achieved the paradoxically meaningful and meaningless credential labeling me as a master of fine art. Even so, I pursued that art not as a central but peripheral vocation, placing a series of other, more lucrative professions before it.

All along, Richard made and sold his large sculptures in steel, copper, and aluminum. Now, 56 years later, he sits with me at his home in Little River and we look out at the surrounding forest. His heavy sculptures around the property, each featuring some form of a circle, look as though they’ve grown there straight from the earth, roots and all, as native as the redwoods. This strikes me as a significant coincidence, given the title of the manuscript I came to finish at the desk in the tiny house.

“Why are they all circles?”

“I’ve always worked in circles.”

He explains that he’s been drawn to circles because they create emptiness. And when emptiness gets created, it can get filled.

“Birds make their nests in circles. Life is a circle from birth to death. Each day is a circle from dark to dark. Our bodies are circles from the cells up.” His large hands connect at the fingertips and thumb, forming a circle. From there, he spreads them palms-up toward me, bridging the space between us.

“I’m only responsible for the craftsmanship. These hands merely give birth to whatever wants to come through them.”

This method of transferring the credit for a creation from the creator to the force of creativity itself strikes me as radical. Its humility is only matched by its arrogance, as the assumption is that the artist as conduit is messiah—worthy of both carrying and putting into form an important message from beyond. And yet, the audience’s reception of that message—any assigned merit or liability—will be the sole responsibility of that force. Suddenly I could see what that round decade that delivered me back to this place I started from had to offer: liberation from the obligatory fragile artist’s ego.

I think of this idea of creating emptiness and stillness in the context of an image I have of Richard in my mind, dressed in welding gear, up on a ladder, torch in hand. From such an incredible amount of noise and violence, heat and grinding with sparks flying everywhere, there emerges a source of calm.

Over the years, he’s made sculptures on commission for Apple and Google executives, for corporate collections, for the Kremlin, and in international hotels, including one in Istanbul.

He was offered a one-man show at the California Museum of Art. One of his major sculptures was exhibited for 13 years at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. But many of those ended up also full circle—back on his own property. A property whose centerpiece is the house it took him 35 years to finish. It’s a house with no right angles and overflowing light. There is an outdoor shower on the back deck facing the forest and a catwalk out to a smaller, peninsula deck with a table and chairs.

Inside are cathedral ceilings with generous skylights, bottom to top windows, a wide airy space, and a feeling of being lost in the forest and snug at home somehow simultaneously. Artistry is in all the details. Imported Mexican tiles over hand-thrown sinks. Rough-hewn logs for beams. A lofted bed tucked into the wall under the ceiling in the great room, which looks so cozy and inviting, I have to climb up and try it. In the bedroom, above the bed is the largest skylight, where Richard and his wife sleep blanketed by stars. The other dominant feature of the bedroom is the handcrafted stone fireplace, the second in the house.

The energy in the bedroom feels different somehow, even quieter and more peaceful. Richard speaks and I remember why. “This is the room I built for my late wife to die in,” he says. His current wife, Diane, stands beside him. I look at her, search her face for a reaction. She smiles and says, “It’s an honor for me to sleep here.” She’s radiant and intelligent and warm. She’s 25 years his junior. When I first met Richard a decade earlier, he was with another woman he’d been with for years but hadn’t yet married. When Richard talked about Loama, his second wife who he was with the longest, and who he cared for during an eleven-year losing battle with cancer, that girlfriend had been uncomfortable and angry. She was threatened by the reverence and love in his voice when he spoke of his late wife. But Diane, who’s been with him four years now, has no trace of jealousy or insecurity.

After Richard began building the house, he and his first wife didn’t make it. She moved into a cabin on the neighboring property and their son, Jud, went back and forth between them. He also had a stepson from that relationship who often stayed with him. Then he met Loama, his second wife, and her daughter, Dakota. They were together for 21 years before she died of cancer. The bedroom was the product of her wish—that he build her a beautiful room in which to die.

In the years following Loama’s death, Richard cycled through many lovers, another way in which I relate to him. My instinct even when I first met him was to judge him, to write him off as a typical womanizing, egomaniac white man artist. But he defied my ready and waiting judgments with small surprises—soft eyes, deep respect for nature, politically progressive ideology, true humility, and, perhaps most surprising, an anti-masculine, unapologetic affection toward other men with whom he shared intimate friendships. By intimate I don’t mean sexual. With one brief exception in the free-loving 60’s, Richard had been decidedly hetero in his affinity for lovers. The platonic intimacy he shared with men was a closeness and a tenderness that men like him culturally reserved only for women.

One such friendship was with a man who ended up engaging him in the ponzi scheme that almost was his financial undoing. He lost most of his life’s savings in that ordeal, but the real injury was that the perpetrator was a close friend of Richard’s who was present and in the room the night before Loama died. The worst blow was the betrayal.

I ask Richard if Loama’s death followed by his financial loss contained the worst times in his life. He says no. It was the loss of a child to suicide. Richard’s first wife had a son when he met her, Brandon, who Richard helped to raise as his own.

“That was the worst thing I ever had to walk through,” he says.

Another strange parallel. In the manuscript I travelled there to finish, I wrote about my grandfather’s suicide. And perhaps it’s that subject matter combined with the setting that had brought me so close to my own existential angst. Having been there in the forest for four days already, the calm and the quiet are cacophonous. With no cell reception, no internet, no access to the outside world, and with a darkness at night so total there’s nowhere to look but within, it makes sense that someone in a tortured mental state would feel driven to leave the planet. But the hush and the stillness is juxtaposed with a frenzy of activity: leaves rustling in the wind, water trickling in a deep ravine, insects and critters busy doing their part in a robust ecosystem teeming with diverse life. And the quietest yet most profound enterprise there among the trees—the oxygen pumping and flowing like lifeblood out into the world.

Now, it’s been eight years and Diane and Richard have been through a lot together. Diane cared for Richard through his bout with prostate cancer and supported him through his long, painful court battle. I asked her what she thought when she got together and he then lost everything, including, almost, his home. “I love him and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I knew I’d live with him in a tent if we had to. It would be hard, but we would face it together,” she said.

Through rental income and the small amount of work Richard was able to do during those years, he didn’t have to lose his home. And he emerged on the other side of the court battle and the health crisis with enough money to live and with his health restored. And as we sit on the back deck talking, I can sense the peace in his heart. I can see how the events of the past decade since I first met him, although they may have been difficult, have softened and reorganized him, oriented him toward stillness. The effect is to dispel my skepticism about his egolessness. And with that, a yearning so strong it makes a physical ache to also have no ego.

“How do I separate myself from the work I produce when it makes me feel so vulnerable?”

Richard smiles and looks me dead in the eyes. Something in the look makes me understand: he does still have the fragile ego, he just doesn’t relate to it as who he is.

“If you aren’t scared shitless, you’re not being honest with yourself. It’s part of what creativity requires of you. But creativity is its own thing, its own intelligence.”

Because of his financial drama and illness, Richard hasn’t made a large sculpture in years. But it’s clear that at age 73, he has more to come. He’s spent time clearing out and organizing his workshop. “I’m ready to get back to work,” he said with a smile.

Richard’s greatest work of art may not be any of his sculptures. It may not even be the beautiful home he built for himself and the loves he’s adopted into it over the years. It’s instead the person he is inside of each empty, still moment. “Just being is my art,” he said, “the art of living is the finest.”

And perhaps he’s correct. Perhaps the finest art I can never hope to master is just that.

Having come to his forest home and accomplished my goal of finishing a draft of The Eternal Round, I’m struck as Richard talks by the range of metaphysical meanings in the forest surrounding us. The forest as a harbor. As a refuge. As a trap. As a witness.

Listening to him, I watch the trees, which seem to watch Richard. They gaze down at him from their impossible heights, professing their own ancient love. They’ve witnessed the past half-century of this man’s life. They offered up some flesh to make him a home. They held him and those he’s loved close and safe among them. They’ve mirrored the drama, the joys and the heartbreaks, with the breathtaking filtered light of sunsets and with the total darkness of the night inside them.

Elizabeth Earley is the author of two novels: A Map of Everything, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and Like Wings, Your Hands, which won the Women’s Prose Prize at Red Hen Press and the American Fiction Award for best LGBTQ novel. Earley is also an editor at Jaded Ibis Press. Purchase her latest audio book, Like Wings, Your Hands, here.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Inspiration

The Coach Who Breaks All The Records – Ronda Shirley

February 11, 2020

By Viktoria Velika

Ronda Shirley is 48 years old head volleyball coach. Shirley comes from small county town Earling, Iowa, where she grew up living at her family’s farm. She is currently located at University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg where she moved last spring. Looking at her one would never guess how important this woman is for many people. She is short with light brown hair, beautiful blue eyes which reflect her personality of caring and loving human being who loves to spend her free time reading and playing board games on the family nights. However, once she comes to her well-organized office, full of her awards, pictures with quotes and a diet soda on her table, she changes into focused, hardworking woman who brightens up every place with her confidence. Shirley is not just a successful coach, she is also mentor, and role model who motivates her players and children to become the best versions of themselves.

Besides having a busy life as a coach, always preparing for matches, spending hours in the gym or in the office watching film and recruiting new players, Shirley also has six beautiful children. They often come to her games to watch and support their mom, screaming and cheering for her and her team. Despite the fact of having a team of about fifteen players, who also become her kids as they join her team, being a mother and a coach is not hard for Ronda Shirley. When I ask her how does she handle everything her answer is simple: “I have great husband, Jeff is always supporting me, I know I couldn’t be as successful as a coach as I am without him, he takes a lot of pressure of me during season, he takes the bigger responsibility, so I can be more focused on coaching. I have to give a lot of credit to Jeff.”

Shirley was also a successful athlete herself. However, the sport she dedicated her career to as a student-athlete was not volleyball but softball. “I have always liked volleyball but softball was just natural to me,” explains Shirley when I ask her why she picked softball over volleyball. She was a Varsity Starter catcher all four years of High School and her team made it to the State Tournament three out of four times. When she was named All-Conference, All-Southwest Iowa, and All-State player it was clear which path she will choose. During her college career she won many awards but the one that she enjoyed the most was being named an All-American and winning NCAA DII National Championship for Kentucky Wesleyan. As we are speaking about her achievements as an athlete she looks at me with serious face: “I dedicated all of my time to softball and studying, I was working hard every minute of the practice, bringing hundred percent every day. I would always find time to do some extra work, because I knew how good I can be and how much I could help my team.”

After graduating from Kentucky Wesleyan with a degree in English, she began her career at Brown Mackie in 1995. “I never planned to be a coach, I wanted to be an editor, or teach English at college level, reading and writing was always my biggest passion, but my coach from junior college would always tell me that I should be a coach, he saw something in me that I didn’t at that time,” says Shirley with smile on her face. When she graduated, she took her first job as an assistant coach at her alma mater in Kansas where she spent four seasons on the sidelines and won Coach of the Year in 1998. Shirley coached for 13 seasons at Hutchinson, Kansas, where she achieved 378 wins and .708 winning percentage. She led the team to winning five Regional Championships and five NJCAA National tournament appearances. In 2017 she was inducted into the Hutchinson Community College Hall of Fame. After that she became a head coach at Tyler Junior College in Texas. She led Tyler to three Region XIV conference championships, while she was also named three times the Coach of the Year, and went to the National Tournament in 2012, 2013, and 2014. In 2017, she took over Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas.

Last season, Ronda Shirley was standing on the side of the Lee College volleyball court, leading her Navarro team towards breaking every school record. And they did. Navarro finished with a 37-8 overall record, winning the conference for the first time since 1999. At Regionals, they won a nail-biting fight against TVCC, scoring a ticket to the NJCAA Nationals for the first time in the school history.  “Nothing from what we achieved would be possible without coach Shirley, she is the reason why Navarro became winning team, why we now have a name in the volleyball world, she would push us every day making us work hard towards reaching our goals, and she was successful,” says Bailey Foy, one of Ronda Shirley’s All-American players.

Shirley changed history in every school she went to and the key to her success is quite simple: “I just work hard, I think people can see that I have passion for it and I really love it.” Over her 19 seasons as Head Coach, she has coached many successful players. Five Players of the Year, seven Freshmen of the Year, 53 All-Conference, 36 All-Region and 15 All-American players are just a few of the player nominations obtained under her belt. “What I enjoy the most about coaching is seeing my players reach a level that they never thought they could reach, but I knew they could do it, that is more important to me than any win,” said Shirley. She also has players who excel in their classrooms and 12 Academic All-Americans: “I always want to make sure my players are well educated, and I also feel like the skills they learn on the court like working hard, and pushing themselves to use their skills and all their tools, being a good teammate and leader, that’s going to help them to get a job in the future and be successful off the court.”

After spending almost twenty years as a head coach at junior college Ronda Shirley is now a head coach at a DI NCAA volleyball program at USC Upstate. “I loved coaching at junior colleges and I miss it a lot, it has more ‘family’ feeling. I loved knowing that I can help my players to go to the next best thing in their lives,” smiles Shirley. During her career at JUCO Shirley has achieved many awards including almost 600 wins in her 19 seasons as a coach. In 2015 she was inducted into the NJCAA Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The reason why she has decided to leave JUCO and coach at four-year University is simple. She needed to take the challenge, to experience new things, and change the way of how USC Upstate is think of. “All of the schools I went to coach to have never won conference title before, so one of my goals is that I can get them to win a conference championship, but before that my goals are to change how people think about this program,” says Shirley with confidence.

However, all this success is not easy to reach and being a player on Ronda Shirley’s team is not an easy task. Luana Rezende, one of her former players, who won All-American Second Team award last year says about Shirley this: “I would say that she definitely had huge impact on my life. Of course I didn’t agree with everything she did, but she made me a stronger person and she made me look at life differently. She is a really, ‘really’ nice human being, however sometimes it was hard to play for her.”

One of the quotes on the board in her office says: “Winners never quit,” and it is exactly what Shirley requires from her players. She wants them to give everything they have, to work hard, to be determined, confident, courageous and give their hundred percent every day. Despite all the wins and success, creating relationship with her players is the most important thing for Shirley. She wants them to be ready for the world, but also she makes sure that they know she believes in them, which makes them work harder not for her, but themselves.

During the season but also offseason she creates different types of team bondings. She takes her team to games, makes movie nights, when it comes to fall and Halloween time, her and her team paint pumpkins, and sometimes she invites the players to her house and cooks a good dinner for them. She becomes the second mother for her players while they are away from home. “Even though I know that sometimes it is hard to play for me, I know that at the end of the day my players know that I care about them as a person, that I am tough on them because I want the best of them, that I will always be there for them,” says Shirley. As we are finishing the interview Shirley tells me one last important thing: “It’s the moment when I see the look on the faces of my players. The look that shows amazement and shock when they realize how good they have become. They don’t believe it at first, how great they can be, but I do. And when they reach their potential, it is very heartwarming moment. It’s the moment when I know that coaching is what I am supposed to be doing.”

Viktoria Velika is a writer and sports enthusiast. 

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Guest Posts, Health, motherhood

Promises

January 28, 2020
blood

CW: Stillbirth

By Whitney Lee

Four years ago, the Friday before Mother’s Day, a team of Emergency Department nurses barreled through the double doors of my Labor and Delivery Unit with a term-pregnant woman. It was just before dawn and I had been the physician on call overnight. In anticipation of this woman’s arrival, I’d already shed my white coat and removed my wedding rings––prepared to transport her to the operating room. As the gurney clattered across the linoleum floor, the woman twisted her body and clutched the dome of her abdomen gathering the fabric of a blue hospital gown into her fists.

Throughout the night, bleeding, adhesions, and brand-new babies had stolen my sleep. After twelve hours of standing, gravity pulled blood into the veins of my feet, my ankles, my calves. I felt as if there were weights in my shoes­­––I was tired.

The windows on Labor and Delivery glowed gold. It was a typical Southern California morning––a city with gorgeous yet monotonous weather. Soon, the sun would warm the air, the asphalt, and the enormous seals lethargic on the La Jolla shore. Light would illuminate brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea and the wings of hummingbirds, osprey, and lanky blue heron. All night, I had anticipated the sunrise that would signal the end of my shift and my escape from the hospital.

As the Labor and Delivery nurses rolled the woman into a triage room, the emergency department team explained that her name was Lisa. She was thirty-eight weeks pregnant with two prior cesarean deliveries. Severe pain started at home along with vaginal bleeding.

***

The week before I met Lisa, I’d promised my five-year-old son, Zachary, and my three-year-old daughter, Esmae, I would attend their school’s “Muffins with Mom” breakfast in celebration of Mother’s Day. I am an obstetrician and Obstetrics is a conspicuous thief. It has stolen weekends, my husband’s birthdays, Sundays at church, family dinners, at least two Christmas mornings, Zachary’s first day of kindergarten, and my grandfather’s funeral.

In truth, missing those events and navigating the interruptions was a nuisance but not a burden. I found meaning in my job and possessed a physician’s arrogance: I served a unique role. I felt necessary in a hospital, which provided instant gratification. A baby delivered, a family consoled, a diagnosis made, all justified my absence from home and validated the story I worked to build around my value as a physician and a person.

But the December before my life intersected with Lisa’s, when I came home from work, Zachary asked, “Where were you? All the mommies and daddies were at the Christmas Party but you. Esmae and I had to sit with Jonathon’s mommy.” I imagined my children in a neat, sparse, yet beautiful Montessori classroom filled with tiny versions of common adult items––china tea cups, a blue metal pitcher, glass bowls, a short countertop with a sink. I pictured them still and sad as they both waited for me to stroll through the classroom door. I imagined Zachary and Esmae sitting beside Jonathon’s mother––a woman I’d never met. But I pictured her lovely like calla lilies, ballerina skirts, ivory cashmere, soufflé, ribbons, and monarch butterflies. She wasn’t a woman who wore a pair of bloody scrubs and missed Christmas parties.

I’d sent a plastic container of store-bought oatmeal cookies with Zachary and Esmae that morning––my children’s contribution to the potluck lunch––price tag stuck to the side. The package of cookies was reflection of my approach toward many traditional maternal tasks. I found little value in baking cookies, cakes, or brownies.

***

Lisa twisted her body like a fish on a line. She pulled her knees to her abdomen, and shifted her legs right and left. I leaned over the metal rails of her bed and asked if she had any medical problems. Was her pregnancy complicated? Did she have a surgical history? When was her due date? She provided fractured breathless answers. She asked me to save her baby. She called him Jonah.

Nurses held down Lisa’s arms so they could thread needles into her veins, draw labs, and start intravenous lines. An obstetrics resident quickly rolled an ultrasound machine next to Lisa’s bed. I positioned the probe on her abdomen then gazed at the black and white image on the screen.

A baby’s heart pumps twice as fast as an adult’s. In a healthy baby, on ultrasound, the mitral and tricuspid valves, the flaps of tissue that separate the chambers of the heart, open and close in rapid succession like the wings of a starling. Rapidity offers reassurance. But the myocytes, the cells that coordinated the muscle of Jonah’s heart, were starving for oxygen. They had lost the energy and strength to beat, thus they failed to pump blood through his body. His heart contracted then fell open in a slow and labored motion. Jonah was dying.

With the tone and intensity of a drill sergeant, I instructed the charge nurse to call a Code Purple. In our hospital, like a Code Blue, Code Purple meant a life was at risk––that someone, in this case Jonah, may die without immediate intervention. The code alerts anesthesiologists, pediatricians, nurses, and scrub techs, to hustle, run, dash through corridors and up the stairs, toward the operating room.

I maneuvered the foot of Lisa’s gurney out of the triage room toward the operating room. The resident ran next to me and a nurse sprinted ahead of us opening three sets of double doors at various points along the path to our destination. As we rushed through the corridors, I directed the nurse to call the blood bank, call the NICU, explain to them that Lisa was abrupting­­.

An abruption meant that inside Lisa’s body, the arteries that connected her uterus and her placenta, the source of oxygen, to her baby, were shearing apart. Blood surged from both maternal and fetal vessels and spilled into her uterus, which clamped down like a vice in protest. This contraction was the source in Lisa’s unrelenting pain. Like all pregnant women, a half a liter of blood flowed through Lisa’s uterine vessels per minute. The bleeding was torrential. She and Jonah were hemorrhaging to death.

***

I had planned to leave the hospital at 8 o’clock that Friday morning. I would get to Esmae and Zachary’s school by 8:30 a.m., when the Mother’s Day celebration would begin. At that time, Zachary and Esmae would be choosing chocolate chip or blueberry muffins, opening their cartons of milk, and taking their seats at short square tables.

Every day that week, my children reminded me of the event and every day I promised them I had not forgotten. They excitedly described the details of all the presents they made for me: popsicle stick picture frames, ceramic necklaces, cards, and painted boxes.

***

Outside the operating room, the obstetrics resident handed me a surgical cap and mask. As I tugged the gauzy blue bouffant over my hair and tied the mask behind my head and the nape of the neck, I pushed through doors and passed the scrub sinks. Those sinks would remain silent––no hum of the plumbing, no water spraying on steel. We would not wash our hands. In emergent cases, sterility transforms from a necessity to a luxury.

Inside the operating room, a team of anesthesiologists and nurses moved Lisa onto the operating table. The pediatrics team set up equipment needed to resuscitate Jonah. A scrub tech opened a rectangular metal box, removed instruments and laid them on a sterile blue table––a scalpel handle, Kelly and Alice clamps, hemostats, Richardson retractors, bladder blade, Debakey forceps, Ferris-Smith forceps, Russian forceps, Adson forceps, Bovie tip, needle drivers, Metzenbaum and Mayo scissors.

I ignored Lisa’s cries and questions. There was no time to address them and I had no answers. I ran through a surgical checklist in my mind. I asked if we had antibiotics in the room. I positioned huge circular lights over Lisa. Then I picked my surgical gown off the back table, stretched my arms through the sleeves, and pulled gloves over my hands. There was no time to count instruments and no time to scrub Lisa’s abdomen. Lisa and Jonah’s condition forced us to start the case without performing the rehearsed rituals associated with almost every surgery.

A nurse tied the back of my gown. Another nurse opened two bottles of betadine and squeezed them onto Lisa’s abdomen––a crude, rapid, and likely ineffective way of sterilizing her skin before I cut through it. The brown liquid pooled in her umbilicus, spilled over her belly, then dripped down her pale flanks like a massive ink blot. The scrub tech passed me the blue surgical drape. In a synchronous motion the resident and I unfolded it over Lisa’s abdomen.

Then I paused. I could not start the surgery––I could not slice into Lisa’s skin––until medications rendered her unconscious. It took energy to alter the inertia I had set into motion. I shivered because a cold sensation grew and spread across my body––the sort of cold that comes when wind pulls sweat from your skin. I shivered because adrenaline zipped through my blood vessels teasing the muscles I worked to keep still. The commotion in the operating room had ceased. I heard Lisa’s cardiac monitor chirp. I folded my arms across my chest and bent my right leg then my left to the rhythm of her heartbeat––a subtle sway.

The anesthesiologist pushed Propofol, a thick white anesthetic, into intravenous tubing that snaked into Lisa’s arm. When her body relaxed, I peered over the blue surgical drape. He slipped a tube into her throat. “Go,” he said.

The resident pulled a scalpel over Lisa’s skin, cutting down to her fascia with one clean swipe, then handed the instrument back to the scrub tech. We hooked our fingers through two small nicks in the silver and white fibrous tissue that held Lisa’s abdomen together. We leaned back with all of our weight bending at the knees like water skiers. The force ripped open her abdomen. I split Lisa’s rectus muscles then felt the warmth of her abdominal cavity as I pushed my index finger through her peritoneum––a thin glistening membrane that draped over her organs.

The swirling muscle of Lisa’s uterus should have been pink. Instead, like India ink, shades of purple and black spread and diffused across its surface. Blood had seeped from her placenta into the centimeter of muscle that separated Jonah from me. The scrub tech placed a scalpel back into the resident’s open hand. Then he incised the lower portion of Lisa’s uterus entering the space where Jonah had thrived and grown for thirty-eight weeks. A tide of blood tinged amniotic fluid spilled from the incision, over Lisa’s abdomen, splashed onto the floor, soaked the bottom of my scrubs, shoes, and socks. The resident grasped each side of the uterine incision then pulled it open.

A blood clot, the size of a cantaloupe, erupted from Lisa’s uterus. I reached down into her pelvis, wrapped my hand around the top of Jonah’s head and pulled it up to the incision. The remainder of his slippery body followed with ease. Sixty seconds had passed from the time of Lisa’s skin incision to Jonah’s delivery.

Jonah’s dusky arms and chubby legs hung from his body motionless. He did not cry or gasp. His face did not grimace, his mouth remained still, gaping, and blue. I held his flaccid body in my hands. “Oh God,” I thought. “He’s dead.”

The resident clamped Jonah’s thick rubbery umbilical cord with two Kelly clamps and cut it with a pair of heavy scissors. Then I placed Jonah into the arms of the pediatrician. She carried him to the neonatal warmer, rested a stethoscope on his chest, and announced, “No heart beat.” Meanwhile Lisa’s uterus was failing to contract and the thousands of the spiral arterials that supplied her uterine muscle gaped open spilling blood into her pelvis, turning the surgical field into an opaque red lake. The resident sewed and stitched with a swift mechanical motion while I soaked up and swept away blood with white laparotomy sponges. Lisa had already bled enough to consume most of her clotting factors––proteins that achieve hemostasis. The more she bled, the more her body consumed the factors, and the less her blood clotted. In this situation, the only treatment is transfusion. Unless we replaced Lisa blood faster than she lost it, she would never stop hemorrhaging.

In the corner of the room, the pediatricians worked to save Jonah. They pushed epinephrine, performed chest compressions, and announced time, “One minute, no heart rate. Five minutes, no heart rate. Ten minutes, no heart rate. Fifteen minutes, no heart rate. Twenty-five minutes, no heart rate. Time of death, 7:10.”

Lisa continued to hemorrhage. I compressed her uterus in my hands slowing the bleeding while we repleted her blood and clotting factors. With my hands in Lisa’s pelvis, I asked one of the nurses to contact my husband, “Tell him my kids cannot go to school today.” I would not leave the operating room in time to make it to their school. I could not bear the thought of Zachary and Esmae waiting for me.

The morning Jonah died, no one reached my husband. Zachary and Esmae waited in their classroom. They waited with ceramic necklaces, popsicle stick picture frames, handmade cards, and homemade boxes. They each picked a muffin for themselves and they picked one for me. My kids did not know I saved a woman’s life. They did not know that Jonah died. And to them, those truths did not matter.

When I finally finished the case and stabilized Lisa, she woke, then asked about Jonah. I said nothing. Though I knew the inside of her body, though I had worked to keep her alive, though I held her son as he died, I did not know Lisa and she did not know me. We were strangers. She deserved to have someone else, someone closer to her, unveil the devastation.

As the anesthesiologist transferred Lisa to the Intensive Care Unit, I lumbered out of the operating room. My back hurt. My jaws were tired from clenching my teeth. My eyes had grown heavy.

Outside, the morning was ablaze and dust sparkled in the sunlight as it stretched through windows and across the hospital floor. The day-shift obstetrician, a colleague, had taken over the unit. He met me at the nurses’ station. As I approached, he opened his arms to hug me. I rested my forehead on his shoulder, then cried. We were not close friends. We did not confide in each other. We did not eat lunch together. But the pain we experience as obstetricians in the midst of losing a baby is universal.

After I settled, I collapsed in a chair. The rest of the world moved as it would any other Friday morning. Residents managed the laboring patients––flitting in out of rooms. Nurses wove through the unit. Pregnant women waited at the front desk to check into triage. Someone had abandoned a travel mug on the counter next to me. My white coat draped over the back of the chair where I sat. Monitors tweeted as they recorded fetal heart rates. Like a culture shock, I reeled from the contrast of the mundane world outside the operating room with what I had just experienced inside of it.

A social worker called from the Intensive Care Unit and informed me that Lisa knew Jonah had died. I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to Lisa. Through the glass doors of her room, she saw my pink scrubs, and panicked. I heard her say, “Don’t let her in here. She killed my baby.”

I bent over, put my hands on my knees and worked to catch my breath. I neglected my children who waited at an oak table with a muffin at an empty seat intended for me. I failed to keep my promise to them. For what? A dead baby? A critically ill mother? Painful accusations? This was an excruciating trinity. I found no solace or explanation for that morning. I dissolved into despair while Lisa suffered and grieved.

***

Four years after I delivered Jonah, on Mother’s Day, I wore a bracelet Esmae constructed out of clunky foam geometric beads and a pipe cleaner. She had asked me to promise I’d wear it all day, even to work. With great joy, I wore the bracelet. But after Jonah died, I quit making promises to my children because I break them. They forgive me. But I fail to offer that grace to myself. So, I don’t make promises.

But on that Mother’s Day, with Esmae’s awkward bracelet dangling from my wrist, I opened my laptop. Lisa’s name was in my email inbox. She had found me and sent a message. With reluctance, I opened it.

What waited for me was a great deal of peace. Lisa explained that she now had solace on Mother’s Day. The memories of Jonah were more of a celebration than a source of pain. I have always loved Lisa and Jonah in my own way. I bore witness to Jonah’s life and then death. I knew Lisa in the midst of excruciating pain. But I believed she would never understand how her story affected me as a mother and a physician. Yet, in her message, she acknowledged my pain and thanked me for enduring it so I could continue to take care of women like her. She shared that she only had to face the death of a baby once but knew as long as I practiced obstetrics, the tragedy would not end for me. Then, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day.

Names have been changed. This essay first appeared in The Rumpus.

Whitney Lee is Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a memoir about a physician’s experience with death.

 

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

I Made Peace With My Body And Found My Soul

December 15, 2019
body

 By Lisa Poulson

The house, above the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, is set on a hill overlooking the whole Luberon valley. Climbing roses cling to its traditional Provençal stone exterior. In California, a plant with just one or two flowers seems in ill health, but here a single blush rose on a vine by the front door feels like beautiful simplicity.

The chic and spare interior is layered with thick coats of pale plaster that curve around me as I walk up two flights of stairs to my room. It’s my first time in Provence, with six girlfriends in this wild, raw and beautiful part of France.

There are wide, cool terracotta tiles, a velvety duvet and no curtains in my bedroom, which is on the third floor of the house, facing the valley. After I settle in and unpack, my friends and I have our evening meal at a long, rough hewn dining table under a tree on the patio. It’s the first week of May. A hint of the Mistral rolls through the hills. I haven’t felt this peaceful in a long, long time.

The next morning, the barest hint of dawn through my uncovered windows wakes me. I smell the remnants of my Diptyque Pomander candle before I open my eyes. I turn my head toward the window and, drowsy and semi-conscious, am immersed in exquisite beauty.

It’s a little chilly as I sit up in bed to watch tender pink light emerge from a piercing bluish fuschia, to see the tall trees shift from shadowy black to darkest teal, to see the rows of lavender on the hill opposite our house emerge from the darkness. The mountains beyond the hills are a Pantone palette of dark to lighter slate blues. Birds are singing. The wind is soft. This dawn is as delicate and rich as Venetian velvet.

After several minutes of watching the colors change and the light bathe the whole scene, a voice, insistent and gentle at the same time, says, ‘If you didn’t have a body, you wouldn’t be able to experience any of this beauty. Not one bit.’

Sitting in my sleep-warm bed, bathed in this exquisite sunrise, I feel peaceful enough to simply accept this truth about my body without argument. As the sun’s light turns the trees green I roll this idea around in my head, thinking about what beauty means to me. Everything. Beauty means everything to me. I’m almost breathless as I absorb the blindingly simple truth that I can only experience beauty through and because of my body.

I am 56 years old. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my body since I was a tween. And yet, in this moment, seduced by the serene Provençal beauty all around me, I reorder what I feel and believe about my body, what it is for, what it has given me, why it’s a miracle.

 ***

It’s been a long and grinding road. I was 10 when I first doubled over with burning pain on both sides of my gut. It wasn’t until my twenties that I got a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me a name but not a solution for the boiling distress that turned my body into an incomprehensible ‘other’, a caustic alien that delighted in causing havoc on dates, before job interviews, at baseball games.

At 30, the man I loved was killed after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. Grief came in molten waves that would growl and stretch, enveloping every part of me. I never knew when my body would start sweating and shaking, drowning me in unbearable sorrow. When grief descend my only choice was to submit to being ravaged.

About a year after my fiancé died I went on a date, thinking it was time to “move on.” But at the end of the evening when he leaned in to kiss me I panicked. Another man having access to my delicate mouth was more than I could bear. I ran up to my apartment and burst into tears.

In the midst of this emotional disarray I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley. Just 15 months after my love died, I left New York City and all of my friends behind. In a strange place, with few friends, tons of work pressure, and carrying a mountain of grief, I turned to food, the most reliable and consistent comfort I knew, and buried myself. I gained 75 pounds in six months.

My gut tormented me, I came down with mononucleosis, my head raged with migraines. I felt trapped inside a body that hurt and humiliated me daily. With bitter self-hatred, I told myself that this body, this alien saboteur, was a billboard for my weaknesses as a person. I didn’t deserve amity with my body, I wasn’t strong enough or good enough to be free.

By the time I was 35 I was emotionally numb, physically miserable and nearly 100 lbs overweight. I was in New York on an exhausting business trip. I stumbled into my hotel room and collapsed against the side of the bed in my underwear, my short legs splayed out in front of me. I stared at my undressed body in the wall of mirrors that were the closet doors. I watched my piles of flesh undulate as I breathed in and out. I forced myself to face everything in the mirror. My legs, my belly, my double chin. My lip curled in revulsion as I stared into deadened eyes. I hated everything about my life. My job. My body. Myself.

Eventually I lost the weight, but I couldn’t love and happily inhabit my complicated and demanding body, where the alien still reigned. In my 40s my career grew and grew, but inside my body was one long repressed scream of rage and frustration. I wanted to swear, to smash things, to scream and shake, to quiver and whimper with passion, to drown in and be intoxicated by love and lust. None of those things happened. Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a proper Mormon girl does not do these things.

I could have gone to the gym every day to expel that pent up desire, anxiety and anger. But a completely numb body is easier to manage than a body that is partially awake. A body that is awake and vibrant and beautiful wants things. Things a Mormon girl can’t have. So instead my weight yo-yoed. My gut burned. And then I got eczema – the skin on my palms became raw and started to peel off. My spirit was choked in a body I refused to love. I was a broken soul.

***

During the next decade I patronized several spas, worked with a cornucopia of health practitioners and healers, tried so many elimination diets. Sometimes I looked better, sometimes I felt better, sometimes I had beautiful moments of connection with my body, usually at an expensive spa after a luxurious treatment. But back in my real life, every time there was a new injury, every time my IBS flared up, every time I gained weight, I blamed the alien, the mute and malevolent force inside me who seemed determined to hurt and undermine my every effort to heal. I saw no way out.

But in late 2016 the movie Arrival hypnotized me. The heroine, a creative, accomplished linguist, was asked to interpret the language of aliens called heptapods. I drank the movie in, read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life on which the movie is based. I thought and thought. What if my body is like a heptapod, a benevolent and complex organism with miraculous gifts to give? Was it possible that within my body I’d find a wisdom that would transform me if I could just learn to speak and listen to its language?

***

That late spring morning in Provence, watching that glorious sunrise, was the first time I heard and understood a sentence in heptapod. ‘It’s your body that gives you the gift of all of this beauty.’

For decades, I had only seen what was wrong and broken – I thought my body was 90% a disaster. I did not see that the things I love – color, art, music, flowers, the scent of perfume, the feel of cashmere on my neck – only come to me because I have a body. My body isn’t a crucible of humiliation and frustration, it is a miracle.

I let the slow and pure beauty of Provence work on my nervous system. Everything there taught me the simple joy of living in a body in the world – fresh goat cheese drizzled with new olive oil and tiny flowers, earthenware vases filled with hardy irises, fields of red poppies shimmering in the breeze, baby green leaves on grape vines that aren’t manicured into antiseptic perfection.

At the end of a week there, after several more ravishing sunrises and sunsets, after living among a people whose lives are bound up in the beauty of the land, I came home to California with a changed heart.

There’s a calmness between my body and me now – the anger and shame have been replaced by a patient, warm affection for the wise heptapod who is teaching me a new way to live. I am learning what it feels like to move through the world with a partner – a wise and remarkable heptapod who has always been with me, every moment of my life. I am whole.

Lisa Poulson is a voice in favor of the complex beauty of female power. She is the descendent of fiercely resilient pioneer women who crossed the American plains with their children – even after their husbands died along the way. She is a successful Silicon Valley PR veteran and a woman who survived her the death of her fiancé four months before their wedding day. Lisa lives in San Francisco, where she spends her free time absorbing and creating as much beauty as possible.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Activism, Guest Posts, Owning It!

A Female Fighter

December 12, 2019
fighter

By Debra Des Vignes

As I drive from Indianapolis to the boxing gym, I feel my anger rising. My son’s farm accident is still fresh in my mind. And friends, I don’t even want to think about friends. At the gym, I’m one of only three female fighters. I’m 45, not old, but old for a fighter. Today, I’m headed to the gym. Working out, boxing, is how I alleviate my anger. While driving, I reminiscence.

Things happen in life, I know, even to the innocent, that we have no control over and that we can’t explain. No one knows why. It’s just life and its unexplainable ways. My son, Simon, was four when the accident happened. That morning, my husband and I were invited to have an early dinner at a friend’s horse farm, but first a tour of their beautiful property was suggested. I recall my son’s big, brown eyes, and his friend’s blonde ponytail. They held hands while the mother of our son’s friend rubbed the horse’s side. Suddenly, the horse spooked, no one knows why, and Simon’s body was flung mid-air. A child’s pained cry has a high, shrill, piercing sound that no mother wants to hear. Blood splattered the grass, the wooden fence and Simon’s ponytailed friend. Thank God that she wasn’t hurt.

My thoughts continue to revisit the accident as I pull over for gas and get back on the highway. It’s early evening and many are sitting down for dinner.

I remember sitting in the ICU – trauma – with my husband. Over the course of seven days and nights, I watch eye, throat and facial surgeons rush in and out to check Simon’s vital signs. I become numb, staring at a blank, white wall, day in and day out. I sit slumped at the edge of a chair, silently screaming inside, afraid to move. I feel empty. My thoughts are non-cohesive. I eat at the hospital cafeteria and shower in the room near where he lies in a medically induced coma. My anger is growing.

I become accustomed to the sounds of the trauma unit as I wait for the next doctor’s report. The sounds of feet pitter-pattering up and down hallways, alarms beeping, bells ringing, wheels of a carts squeak as they roll here and there, the hum and buzz of everyday hospital routines, are forever embedded in my mind. I realize the cold-heartedness of the world outside. Where are my friends?

On the radio, the broadcaster is talking about salmon invading nearby Eagle Creek Park and its 1300 acres of reservoir. I’m not interested, and I turn it off. Today, I’m only interested in getting to the boxing gym. I can feel the anger leave my body with each jab, hook and uppercut. Why do people find it strange when I tell them my idea of a good workout is boxing? Boxing is my passion and it entered my life at a time I needed it most. I was angry and wanted to hit something; anything in my path. The gym is my sanctuary.

As I drive, I think to myself, maybe I expect too much out of friends, but I don’t think so. I expect a friend to have my back in times of tragedy. After all, that’s what friends do. When Simon’s accident happened, his facial plate (maxilla) broke in half. I was devastated. After the accident, sadness gripped my heart. I worried myself sick about my son. I was completely overwhelmed as surgery after surgery had to be scheduled to repair his injuries. I had my husband, but I needed a motherly friend to lean on, to help me, to tell it would be OK. It was one of my darkest hours, and the friends I thought had my back deserted me. When I needed them most, they were off doing their own thing. That’s how it goes, but that is not how it’s supposed to be because I believe a true friend should have my back ‘til the bitter end.

A truck carrying livestock, cattle, passes me. He is going over the speed limit. I have never understood why people blatantly break the law.

I remember that I’m from the “easier” side of the tracks where dogwood trees give off the sweet fragrance of their white and pink flowers; a place where one doesn’t worry about the next meal or whether the power will be cut off, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of hard knocks because I have. Hard knocks have made me who I am. As a child, my mother’s alcoholism ruled the household and my father was strict. As an adult, Simon’s accident has dominated my life. Nevertheless, I’ve still managed to build a creative writing program for the incarcerated. Yes, I sometimes feel I have the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I’m a fighter who doesn’t give up a fight.

I remember my early days as a former reporter covering crime and courts for local TV affiliates NBC, CBS and ABC. I was filled with enthusiasm. I wanted to make a difference. As a reporter, I covered many stories involving prisoners, but often the prisoners’ side of the story was left out. I wanted to know those stories, so I got involved and became a prison volunteer. At first, it was a little intimidating.

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the prison for the first time. The stereotyping of prisons and prisoners left me wondering, “Would I be robbed, raped, or stabbed with a handmade shank?” The clinking and clanking of metal gates sent cold chills up my spine. I moved through several layers of prison guards. Their keys jingled and jangled as they unlocked gates and doors. At every entry, I had to flash my prison volunteer badge. I began questioning my sanity asking myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I could be killed, I thought.

***

When I arrived at the designated location, it was nothing like I expected. The classroom was like any other classroom, and its occupants, although prisoners, like any other group of students. All my fears had been in vain. One of my first classes was a victim-impact class. I wanted to know how prisoners felt about victims. Amazed by the raw talent in the room; I laughed and cried at their answers to questions. I didn’t know any victims of a violent crime but I’d hope he or she would show remorse like the men did in the room that day. I was so moved that I worked to build a creative writing program for prisoners inside the facility. I remind myself that that writing program is now in three Indiana correctional facilities.

Another truck passes me as if I’m standing still. It is carrying frozen foods. I look at my speedometer. I’m going the speed limit.

I remember that I’m an older fighter who constantly needs ice packs for pain and old wounds. Today, I brought frozen, green peas because they were convenient. In a fight, it is imperative that a boxer controls both physical and emotional pain. Physical pain can be controlled by frozen peas, but emotional pain brought on by life (people), well, that is a whole different matter. As a fighter, I know that thoughts can create emotions that impede performance in the ring. Reason has it that if I can’t control my thoughts, I cannot win the fight. Emotions originate in the mind where vital nerves alert spirit and soul to feel one way or another. Consequently, as a boxer, I must be the gatekeeper of my mind’s door, keeping everything negative out, otherwise I’m a dead duck in the ring. It took me years to learn that.

The yellow Shell gas station sign ahead tells me I’m nearing my destination. I have about ten more miles before I reach the turn that leads to the boxing gym.

I remember one day at the gym several male fighters took an interest in me. They asked me where I was from and where I went to school. I’m about 5’5 with curly, short, hair, and I wear little make-up. At first, I thought it was innocent chatter, but then I sensed resentment in their demeanor. I was a female fighter in what was traditionally a male dominated sport and they didn’t like sharing “their” ring with a female. That resentment was later confirmed when a fighter in the ring treated me as if I were wounded, stray dog too injured to be worthy of his time. I got the message and they soon got mine because I’m a fighter, and I don’t back down because resentment rears its ugly head.

As I turn off the main highway onto the dirt road that leads to the boxing gym, I dread this road because it’s filled with deep potholes. I believe that someday this road is going to be the fault of me being stranded out here to fend for myself. Off to my left, I see glowing, red embers from a small trash fire outside a rarely seen house on this road. As I pull into the parking lot, I notice puffy, gray clouds that hang over the gym, a bad omen, but I hope not. The gym building is unmarked and ugly. It’s a dreary looking place on the outside. I park my car and gather my gear.

I approach the gym’s front door and hear yelling from a coach within that alarms even the birds resting in the nearby spruce trees. I enter and look around to observe the pecking order. Amateur fighters can be territorial. They lay claim to everything: punching bags and lockers. One can tell the elite boxers by the way they carry themselves, moving with purpose after years of discipline. They are admired by most in the gym. I hear fans suck out recycled, damp air. Rap blares out of a stereo. The heavy punching bags hang in unison. They are the only signs of order in the gym.

I find my place and prepare to fight as I wait to be paired with a sparring partner. I tuck my hair in and tighten my glove straps. We will fight six rounds. Each round will last five minutes. I’m ready to release some anger. I hear distant war cries of ongoing matches and the sound of ring-side bells.

Today, I’m going to kick somebody’s ass or I’m going to get my ass kicked. Either wayas a female fighter getting a good workoutI win.

Prior to establishing a prison writing program, Debra Des Vignes had a 10-year career as a journalist in Television News getting her start at KABC-TV in Los Angeles, California before traveling across the country working at various TV stations covering crime. Creative writing is her passion, especially flash fiction. She has served in various leadership communications roles for nonprofit organizations across the country and her story pitches have garnered national media attention in U.S. World & News Report, CNN, Miami Herald, The Washington Times, and more. Debra received a degree in political science from California State University Northridge.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Starting Over, Young Voices

Yellow Bath Towels

December 10, 2019

By McKenzie Fletcher

Sometimes life gets messy. Really really messy. And sometimes you are just tired. Really really tired. And you are sitting on the floor of your childhood bedroom. Bird seed making imprints on the bottoms of your shoeless feet. Your bright yellow towels on the floor next to you, crumpled, damp and in a pile because they’re homeless. They don’t have a consistent place to be. They don’t belong anywhere in this house.And then suddenly as you are sitting on the floor and realizing how badly your back is hurting hunched over, with your arms wrapped against the knees pulled to your chest, you realize you relate to these two, damp, crumpled bright yellow bath towels.  You feel homeless. You feel like you don’t belong. You moved to college half way through the school year, in with five party girls who ran the apartment. You didn’t belong there. You held your stuff in your room and the one cabinet that you bought from target and built late the night you moved in. The rest is theirs. You moved into an apartment you pay way too much for, to feel like a guest living with five strangers who turned out to be some of the most inconsiderate people you’ve ever encountered.

You are the yellow bath towels.

You travel “home” for the summer to gently land in a soft nest of a home you envisioned had changed since you left. You imagined a place where you felt welcome and safe, but the first night back you were sleeping on a friend’s milk stained, crumb infested couch, being woken up before the sun rose by her five year old jumping on your resting body excited to see you were back.

You hated the way it jolted your body awake but the excitement was enough to get you to get up and get her a bowl of cereal before your messy haired self, plopped back onto the couch. Again, you didn’t belong.

You are the yellow bath towels.

You pulled on the jeans that you tossed on the floor in exchange for your sister’s pajama shorts that you took because everything you owned was still in boxes. Messy boxes.

It was raining as you drove back to your parent’s suburban home.

You pulled up and parked on the street, walked into the garage where your stuff was strewn everywhere from the little hands of younger siblings who were eager to help get you back into the house.
You dug through to find a makeup bag and some clothes to get rid of yesterday’s clothes. You needed a shower and to get to a job interview.

Yellow bath towels.

As you pieced together the best interview outfit you could after having left professional clothes in storage in Denver because you didn’t anticipate this even though you should have, you leave and your mom who you’ve seen all of twice since you’ve been back asks where you are going as she pulls her phone speaker away from her mouth. You smile and answer and walk your way down the driveway in slightly heeled shoes that remind you of the early mornings you dug around in your closet for them as you ran out of the door to student teach.

The interviewer asks where you go to school and you explain your situation. The one you didn’t want to explain because who wants to apply for a job that isn’t just specifically for the summer and say you’re going to be leaving in three months. You didn’t belong here. You wouldn’t be staying.

Yellow bath towels.

And the second night, the one you spend at another friend’s house on the floor that gives the back of your legs rashes because of the dog hair imbedded in the carpet. The friend that will quietly get up early in the morning, tip toe around your sleeping body and get her day going, long before you would naturally wake up. You’re in the way. She will never admit it.

Yellow bath towels.

The third night you fall asleep on your little sister’s bed that has little colorful flowered sheets on them. You’ll grab any pillow you can find and build a soft place to rest your head. In the morning, there’s a naked kid having a mental break down is as severe as you would imagine the average mid-life crisis would be. She can’t find her shirt. And you being in her bed that she doesn’t sleep in is somehow contributing to her shirt being lost.

Yellow bath towels.

You sit at the kitchen table, eating something you found in the fridge. Appreciating the fact that you can now eat food you didn’t pay for. And your dad storms in angry about the boxes in the garage. Why did you bring so much stuff with you? He begs a response that you don’t know how to properly give. You want him to hear what he wants so he will leave you alone. You also want to be hugged. I’m home dad. You call me all the time saying you miss me, and I am finally home. I am back. And my stuff is too. Yes, I am sorry. Okay I’ll move it.

Where to move it though. Because you don’t belong here. Your stuff and your body don’t know where to go. Half welcomed and half feeling like a burden. Like a big elephant that just walked into the middle of time square. You’re in the way of so many lives. People trying to shove past you, not run into you, pick something up under you.

Yellow bath towels.

Your new home is made your parents’ RV in their backyard. Finally. A place for you and your belongings. A place that you can freely be without being in the way. A feeling that you haven’t had in a while. Because you had a roommate for the last five months.

Oh, but now your family is selling the RV. You need to move.

But where. Where can I go this time.

Yellow bath towels.

You make yet another move. It’s been two months. You’re losing count. You move into your childhood bedroom that is recently vacated due to your traveling 12 year old sister. She’s been more places than you and is undoubtedly cooler. Frustrated, you toss your stuff into the room. You don’t care where it lands or what breaks at this moment. All you care about is that it is dark, it’s raining and you’re moving again. You don’t have help. You are alone. You cry, as you pass your mom who is oblivious to the unexplainable feelings pouring onto your cheeks and leaving little familiar stains on your shirt. She yells at you. You and all of your stuff. You being in the way. The inconvenience you are.

Yellow bath towels.

So, you sit on your childhood bedroom floor, leaned against the tall queen-sized bed. The handles from one of the built in drawers is stabbing an uncomfortable place on your spine. You look at the empty blue walls and the floor lined with a few boxes of things that were never gone through after you tossed them during your emotional break down. You try to predict how long it will take you to pack all of this tomorrow for your fourth and hopefully final move into another friend’s house. Because this house is being sold and you need to leave. You’re an added body to the already overpopulated house that is soon not going to be your family’s anymore.

Yellow bath towels.

Your childhood close friend’s grandma. Basically, yours too. You lived with her when your dad kicked you and your siblings and mom out. When you didn’t belong in his eyes, so he threw you to the curb to be crumpled, your shirt damp from tears and snot that you can’t hold in any longer. Crumpled, damp but also bright. Just like the towels. Bright yellow like the sun. Sunflowers. The kind that grow in the midst of weeds. The kind that turn towards the sun to grow.
You are yellow bath towels in all of their crumpled, damp, but bright glory. You are a sun flower that springs up in unlikely places, fixed eyes on the sun, turning and growing towards the warmth, growth, healing, and belonging.

We can sit and wonder why our lonely selves got the life we did. Why we can relate to crumpled homeless bath towels in a grossly depressing way. Why are these the cards life handed me? But, there’s not much of a difference. In a sense, we are all the same. You and your eyeballs and brains and feminism and gender and race and theories. Me and my knee-caps and ideas and fears and religion and writings. We are all cells, and what makes the difference is where our cells end up. We cannot control the crap our cells are born into. We can’t change what our cells have to go through in this life. And even more so, we can’t understand this crap. It’s a lot to comprehend. Too much for the human mind. Too much for our wildest dreams. Too much for logic or our fears. We can come up with theories on why. But we never know why.

McKenzie Fletcher is a nineteen year old college student currently attending a university in Colorado. She is pursuing a degree in Psychology and writing is her passion.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

One Morning With Amy

December 8, 2019
shouts

By Susan McGee Bailey

For years, mornings with my daughter, Amy, began with shouting.

“Don’t you dare come in here, Mom!”

“Mom, I need you!”

“Mother! Where are you?”

Most mornings a familiar uneasiness in my stomach had already pulled me awake. My body learned long ago to hear Amy’s cries before any sound registered consciously. Since her birth more than forty years ago, she has survived complicated surgeries, spent endless months in rehab centers, and endured painful therapies. Her father and I made different choices when she was young. We divorced. I made a life with Amy on my own. I long for answers, for solutions to the difficulties my child confronts. But as is the case for most people with developmental and physical challenges, there is no single diagnosis. There is no silver bullet that can address all my daughter’s medical, emotional, and intellectual needs.

Years ago Amy moved from home to a more independent living situation in a group house, then home again when the anxiety of rotating staff became too overwhelming. We tried other group situations with similar results. Now she lives in a shared living situation with a young couple. Together we celebrate each new aspect of her independence: carrying her own house key, presenting her CVS gift card to the clerk, laying out her clothes for the next day. But I still jump up in the dark, half out of bed before remembering the sounds that awakened me are no more than the rustle of a birch branch or a breeze stirring the porch rocker. Some nights I fall back on the mattress and sleep. Other nights, I’ve fallen too far awake. Amy is not here. The house is empty and silent. A passing car breaks the stillness, a dog barks in response—daytime sounds out of place in the lonely night. I rock on the porch, hug my knees, and try to banish images of Amy calling for me.

One memorable weekday morning when Amy was in her late twenties, her voice was unusually loud. “Mother, I need help! Now! Right now!”

“I … am… coming…Amy.   I…am…here!” I hoped my voice was both audible and calm. Without her hearing aids, Amy hears only loud voices, words spoken a beat slower than normal.

Amy’s bowel problems, the ones that first developed when she was fifteen, had been worsening for several years. The many surgeries designed to help, instead weakened the muscles in her rectum. Controlling her bowels required constant vigilance to avoid daytime accidents. This success consumed her energy, increased her severe constipation, and worsened the nighttime situation. Four or five mornings a week she woke up with her body, her bed, often her walls, a smelly, smeared mess.

That morning I was glad it was winter. Every window was shut. Her agonized sobs, angry words, and slamming of doors would not disturb the neighbors. I would open the windows in her room and the bathroom before we left for her day program, never mind what it would do to the heating bill. The new deodorizer I’d paid twenty dollars for barely made a dent in the stench.

Once Amy was showered, shampooed, dressed, medications taken, bedroom and bathroom clean, her bedding in the washing machine, it often required the bribe of a store breakfast to get her out the door. By the time we’d reached the car that morning I was exhausted and close to tears. How would I make it through the workday?

The meeting of the project directors’ group at the feminist research center I directed hovered uneasily in my head. I needed time to think, to go over my planned remarks, but at this rate everyone would be assembled and waiting before I arrived. They would understand. Many had children. Those who didn’t were equally committed to a work environment that provided space for children, for families, for emergencies. Still, I didn’t want to take advantage of my position. The mornings when things went smoothly with Amy were fewer and fewer. She was not improving. New rounds of medical appointments would need to be scheduled.

I took a deep breath and started the car, trying to focus on the moment, not my meeting or Amy’s medical problems. “Where should we go for breakfast this morning, Amy?”

“I don’t care, I hate you! You are an ugly, stinky mother! I hate stinky!”

“It’s okay, Amy. What about Vidalia’s?”

“No, I say the Coffee Mug!”

The Coffee Mug was actually named The Clever Monk, but Amy’s hearing loss makes fine distinctions difficult. She often misunderstands words she does not know or has not heard before. She has always insisted the little shop was The Coffee Mug. When a couple of attempts to correct her resulted in angry shouts of “No, you are not right! I am right!” I surrendered to her certainty.

Two men on a ladder were putting up a new sign with the name “The Clever Monk” in large gold letters as we arrived. Amy was distracted from her anger, her blueberry eyes intent on this new activity. She rarely failed to embrace the excitement of the unexpected.

“Mother, look. They don’t know how to spell Coffee Mug! It should be C-O-F- E-E space M-U-G, right? They have C-L-E-V-E-R space M-O-N-K! That is silly! Can I tell them?”

My hopelessness faded. I was struck by her self-confidence, her persistence. Her designation was a more accurate description. Should I try to explain again that her version of the name was wrong? Should I use this opportunity to correct her spelling of coffee? I did neither. She was happy and had regained a sense of control, why spoil it?

“Amy, let’s just get some breakfast. You don’t like me to correct you….”

“Okay, Mom, I love you so much!”

She ran into the shop, her bad leg trailing a bit, her blond hair all higgily-piggily and still uncombed—my energy had failed at that final morning step. Her smile was broad, confident. “Besides, Mom, the sign looks really good anyway!”

“Yes, it does, Amy.” My smile was almost as wide as hers.

We lingered, ordered juice, coffee, warm, sweet muffins. We watched the painters. Amy’s day program and my office could wait.

Moments of joy must not be wasted. They are luxuries to be savored.

Susan McGee Bailey is a writer and a feminist. She directed the Wellesley College Centers for Women for 25 years before retiring to spend more time with her daughter and study creative nonfiction at Grub Street in Boston. Her non fiction has appeared in MS Magazine, The Boston Globe, and Gulf Stream. She is working on a memoir, “The Education of a Feminist.”

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief, Unfolding

December 5, 2019
gift

By Julia Dennis Car

“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”

My mom and her sister stood, broken, at the bedside of their father, my Granddaddy.  The cancer that started in his bladder had taken over his other systems; he “lived” mostly unconscious, thanks to morphine.

Mom couldn’t stand to see Granddaddy in such a way, and I know in her guts she would have done anything to separate him from his pain.  My aunt isn’t fiery like Mom, and she knew Mom had what it took to hold the pillow over Granddaddy’s face. She didn’t kill him; the cancer did, days later.

Now it’s my turn. I’m standing in her corner as she nears the end of her own battle with cancer. In the end, will I will have the same impulse to smother her?

Mom’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian carcinosarcoma delivered a sucker punch no one saw coming.  It’s incurable, and only about 25% of women live as long as five years. I imagine her little round body up against the ropes, her healthy tissue pummeled by disease and its treatment. If left untreated, her body’s systems will gradually succumb. They’ve already started.

They took the womb, ovaries, cervix, parts of her intestines, and the surface of her liver. Sewed her up tight.  My first home is gone.

With unbridled optimism, Mom trusted her doctor’s plan of care and faced off against her next enemy.  Chemotherapy. Can you imagine a more difficult choice? Don’t take chemo, and slowly die, or take chemo, and die slowly.

With fingers crossed, I watched Mom take the beating of her life and was lifted up by her light and positivity. After the months-long regimen, a scan found the stuff was no longer “active.” She got some time off for good behavior and slowly regained some strength and vitality.  Our family vowed to embrace each day, focus on the positive.

Mom is a feisty woman, a flaming introvert, but without a demure bone in her body. She’s crass, enjoys dark and twisted humor. Once, while visiting San Francisco, she high-fived a costumed Grim Reaper in a public park then insisted the image be framed on her gravestone.

Days after her diagnosis, Mom hung a set of pink boxing gloves on her front door to prove to the world that she intended to pummel her disease as Ali did Frasier.  In the oncologist’s office, two years into the bout, she laid some wit on the nurses. When they left the room, she told me “When I stop being funny, I’m done.”

She’s still funny, but her cheerfulness is waning.  The insidious fuck is still inside her, having its way with her, never really having gone.  It’s in her liver and her guts, probably other places too. She’s at the end of her second phase of chemotherapy.  The gnarly effects of the disease and the treatment are taking their toll, and she’s so, so tired.

Albert Einstein said, “human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust —we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”  As for my own part in this, I see myself dancing with grief and gratitude.  The maestro taps his baton, and I’m an accordion: bending, twisting, squeezing, breathing.  Some days the notes I play are fear, worry, sadness, regret.

I watch her struggle. And tire. Though outwardly I remain upright—strong in the face of this disease and her pain—the truth is at times there’s no air left in me, and I bend or lean into whatever will hold me up. I cry; wail the sharp notes away.

But soon enough, invisible hands unfold me, pulling and stretching me out as I fill with air.  Soon enough, I can breathe again. It’s not my cancer, but it’s changed me. It has wrung me out and left me raw. And I’m realizing that the painful stuff is a gift.

I’ve had this woman’s hand to hold for more than forty years. With unconditional love. Her illness and mortality have bitch-slapped me into understanding and appreciation.  My mother’s killer screams Wake up!  Don’t you realize the gift you’ve been given?  I do.

You see, in the midst of this pain and uncertainty and fear, beautiful things have happened.  These last two years have been the hardest, and best, of my life. I’ve been helpless, unable to affect change; therefore, I’ve had to let go.  I’ve unfolded. Aware and accepting of mortality—hers, mine—I’ve felt her love more deeply, tried to love her more deeply. I hope she’s felt it.

I’ve made two trips around the sun, and the days were full of love and light, opportunities and misfortunes, laughing and heartbreak. While holding the hand of impermanence, I’ve uncurled my fingers, loosened my grip on fear and insecurity. Wrapped myself in vulnerability.

I hiked for three days on the Appalachian Trail, confident and proud and strong. Crippled with despair, I limped into a therapist’s office, debilitated by depression. Swaddled with love of family and friends, I shaved my head and tattooed my arm and laughed till I cried and sobbed until I was at peace. I’ve said yes to more time by myself and prioritized more time with my family.  I’ve learned to say “no” to things that don’t nourish me. Except ice cream. I always say “yes” to ice cream.

I’ve asked hard questions and confessed hard truths.  Entering their adolescence, my kids broach topics Mom wasn’t comfortable delving into when I was their age:  illness and responsibility and death and sex. I answer with raw honesty. They’ve seen me in tears and I hug them to me and share my pain with them.  I think it’s wrong to pretend it’s not there.   I’m crying because I’m sad.  Yes, she’s slowly going to become sicker and sicker.  We aren’t going to the beach this year so we can spend time with her.  Yes, she’s going to be cremated. I want to be cremated, too. Regarding matters unrelated to Mom’s illness, but highly relevant to their curiosity and social understanding (and a disheartening example of the hyper-sexualized culture kids are growing up in) Yes, orgasm is “a really good feeling when you have sex,” but you can feel it by yourself too.  No, you don’t need to be watching porn.

For many years, I struggled to understand Mom.  She wasn’t blessed with physical gifts like Laila Ali and has never had a green thumb.  On the contrary; her favorite quote is “Sweating is gross and fresh air makes me sick.” She stays inside, reading; I’ve run marathons. She’s quiet; I’m loud. I deep-dive into conversations; she’s more comfortable on the surface.  I lift up furniture and tend to plants and pour my heart out on the page. She’s there, watching all of it. Though she kills all things that conduct photosynthesis, Mom grew a beautiful family; planted roots that spread deep and wide.

Before Mom’s illness jabbed me in the heart, I didn’t value her quiet; rather, I doubted its power.  Mom has shown me that there are more ways to demonstrate strength than with vigor and brawn. She’s shown me that I don’t always have to do something; hers is a quiet persistence of being.

My connection to Mom is primal, deep.  In so many ways my opposite, I feel her pull as the force that keeps me balanced.  Her spiritual tether is met only by the one I share with my own children. She’s been there, ready, even when I didn’t even know I needed her—I hope to be for my kids all she’s been for me.   And these days, when I’m rolling around on the mat in a struggle to make sense of all this, I try to use her own words of wisdom to self-soothe: “When you give birth to a baby, you grow a new heart.”

See, in a macabre way, my grief is a baby.  Mom’s disease birthed this dark pit inside me.  I like to imagine that as I trudge through the progression of her illness (and, ultimately, her death) I’m cultivating space in my heart for my grief and gratitude to live harmoniously.  Like Yin and Yang, there is literally darkness and light in my little heart, all snuggled up tightly together and swirling around.

Maybe that’s what this is all about: vulnerability and strength, terror and comfort, distortion and balance, heartbreak and growth, dying and living. The cyclical, recursive nature of it all.

Allow me my suffering, so that hers may end.  Allow the pain to break me, so that I may put myself back together.  I’ll be stronger where the cracks mend, and softer in the more stubborn places.  Allow me the lessons to be learned in her absence. Allow me to experience her in new ways—ideas, smells, sounds, gestures.  Allow me to grow bigger; big enough to hold my grief and build a life that’s richer and more beautiful. I think I can hold it all.

About a year and a half into this journey, at a concert with my brothers and some dear friends, I passed out cold. Imagine a beach ball that’s been forcefully submerged under water. The pain and worry I’d managed to shove down demanded to surface. An anxiety attack hit like a ton of bricks. As I awoke, my two brothers literally holding me up, I remember my body heaving as I sobbed: “I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt.”

The ancient poet Hafiz wrote that “It helps to see the Creator’s kind face / before he rolls up his sleeves, / and starts pumping the bellows / and cleans off his wire brush / and works with his other tools / he eyes you up / knowing how much this is going to hurt / to make you perfect.”

Why are we here? To be made perfect? I don’t know much, but that I was given the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s my job to do the work: to pay attention to the Universe and embrace my place within it. To learn the lessons. That means with open arms I must greet the anguish and the pleasure. I’m willing.

Mom is in the final round of this slugfest. She’s losing stamina in her bob and weave. Soon enough, she’ll receive the final blow, or choose to throw in the towel. I’ll be rocked from my foundation. But I will be ok down here; I am rooted in her. I will remember her.  I will celebrate her. I will talk about her and laugh, curse and cry. Her influence is indelible.

For now, I will sit with her and hold her hand and just be. For the rest of forever, my dust and Mom’s dust will dance; her warm, loving hands guiding me and loving me and leading me as the piper plays on.

Julie Dennis-Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called Western North Carolina “home” since 2007. She is a writer by passion, and uses writing as therapy, though she is a speech-language pathologist by training. Julie fills her heart by reading, traveling, and playing in the dirt.

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Guest Posts, moving on

Who Are You – A Mad Libs Identity

December 3, 2019

By Xan L. Roberti

My goddaughter is two, and people are beginning to make predictions about her future. It’s never too early to ask— what will you be when you grow up? She plays with cars, we decide she’ll be a mechanic. She smears lipstick on her mouth, we decide she’ll be a fashionista.

Our minds are naturally wired to synthesize and predict. You never stop asking yourself what you want to be when you grow up. Strategy kept us alive in times when predators were common and food was scarce.

The evolutionary remainder is a mind that whirrs nonstop. If you’ve ever laid awake nights trying to wrangle out some difficult decision, you know that problem solving can become its own problem. You never arrive at the finish line of life and say, good, now that that’s over I can finally relax. That’s not how it goes.

We try to answer these big questions. We land jobs, relationships, and homes. We inhabit our adulthood, our responsibilities grow, and the questions change. We build routines and navigate skirmishes within them. And yet, that yearning to purpose creeps up again. Is this all there is? Wait, is this who I am?

There are two ways to handle this. The first is to dive into the muck and start strategizing. The second is to leave blanks in your life and trust it will work itself out. You need both, but we as a culture we seem to overvalue one.

Strategy is a great place to start if you are feeling stuck in a rut, and see a direction you want to go. If your life feels like it’s loaded with closed doors, and you want to open some, this is a great idea. I am happy to coach you through this process. A lot of practices I use begin with thought-leaders like Martha Beck, Abraham Hicks, and Gabby Bernstein. We can make lists and treasure maps to carve out that path. I’m happy to help.

But also, sometimes these questions just need time to marinate. Like each field needs a fallow season to be fruitful, we all need time to let go of strategy and be present. For some people, the process of looking for themselves is what makes them feel the most lost. Over-strategizing becomes a roadblock to living life fully. At times it’s best to live life with blanks, uncertainties if you will, so that some miracle can come and fill them in.

If you remember the word-game Mad Libs, you may recall how joyous it is to have a blank space that you fill in with whatever comes to mind. When you spend all your time strategizing to direct each uncertainty, the delight in the process can be nabbed. You miss what’s right in front of you.

Uncertainty is a gift. It’s both the blank page you begin your novel with, and the moment you get laid off. It’s when you notice your body as the container for your life, and the heart as the engine that drives it. It’s when your mind goes haywire, and you let it wail like a toddler mid-tantrum. And then, at the end, there is a calm where the question is answered in the best way possible.

It goes away. You arrive in the moment. You are enough. You sense a connection that is universal and particular. You are you. And when someone asks you who you are, you can reply with your name, and leave blank space for more.

Xan L. Roberti is the winner of the 2014 New South Poetry Contest. She is currently a nominee for * 82’s Best of the Net for 2015, and won 2nd place in the Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest 2013. In May 2015 her work was featured in “Poems on the Emery-Go-Round.” She has published in Beloit Poetry Journal; Sparkle + Blink, Off Channel, and Goodfoot, and Her memoir “Portable Housing” was nominated for the Walter Sindlinger Award. She is a contributor to LitSeen. She teaches English at St. Ignatius College Prep.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

death, Grief, Guest Posts

Breathwork

December 1, 2019
breathe breath

By Nicole Cooley

Now I say mom and I float to the ceiling.

Meaning “ability to breathe,” hence “life” is from c. 1300. Meaning “a single act of breathing” is from late 15c.; sense of “the duration of a breath, a moment, a short time” is from early 13c. Meaning “a breeze, a movement of free air” is from late 14c.

Five months ago in New Orleans my mother stopped breathing.

Now at yoga class in the final pose—savansana— pose I struggle with most because I must sink into stillness– I know it’s wrong but I imagine a lit cigarette between my fingers.

My mother was the first person to teach me to leave my body. She taught me well and carefully and with gifts. In high school, she bought me cigarettes so I would not eat, left cartons each week on my bed.

Breath: Old English bræð “odor, scent, stink, exhalation, vapor” Old English word for “air exhaled from the lungs,”

Now I mourn my mother through breath. Each morning I lie on a mat in a hot room and squeeze my eyes shut and breathe her in. Or breathe her out. Yes, breath is supposed to anchor me in my body but I use it to exit my body, just as my mother taught me. I rise to the celling of the yoga room, alone and untethered.

I lie on the levee in the dirt and gravel. I lie on the sticky mat miles away from the house where she died.

Drown smoke suffocate. What is the difference?

I close my eyes and in my dream my mother is drowning in the river two blocks from her house.

In the dream I shake my mother awake. I ask her, with frustration, if she will go on being dead.

I only practice hot yoga, infrared heat that spills from vents and warms the floor. I love the punishing heat. And the intense heat echoes a New Orleans levee walk, all stifling humidity. I lower my body into plank, crush my breasts to the ground. Think of my mother’s body,

Breath from Proto-Germanic *bræthaz “smell, exhalation” (source also of Old High German bradam, German Brodem “breath, steam).

As a teenager, I’d come home from school to find a carton of Benson and Hedges on my white bedspread. My mother saran-wrapped and labeled all my food with calorie counts. 25. 50. 75. I stood in the refrigerator’s wedge of light and counted. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes. It will keep you from being hungry, my mother explained. Celery. Grapefruit. Diet bread thin as dress fabric. A silver lighter she pressed into my hands.

Breath: an act of breathing: fought to the last breath

Yoga reminds me of the geometry of the body, the shape the body makes—So then what shape did my mother’s body make on the living room floor? What shape was her mouth when my father pressed his mouth to hers to perform useless CPR? What shape was she under the sheet on the stretcher at the Veterans Highway Funeral Home– who knew a funeral home has a stretcher but if you don’t pay for a coffin you get that? — when she looked so small and thin and what shape was she—altered?—when my sister and my father and I ran back to her to kiss her for a final time?

Drown suffocate smoke.

The irony is that after my mother dies, in the days after, in New Orleans, we eat. My father, my sister and me. And we eat very good food. Friends bring platters and trays and Tupperware, and it is delicious. The kind of meals I would not normally allow myself. The kind of food my mother would have forbidden me. Red beans and rice and sausage. Baked ziti. Cheesecake. Doughnuts. A half-bottle of wine.

Now at yoga class I fill my lungs with imaginary smoke. I imagine I flick a cigarette lighter over and over on and off till my thumb scrapes with ache.

Breath: opportunity or time to breathe; respite. Also, a slight breeze

I’m lying on the mat. I am under the heat vent. I am under the spell of yoga. Or I am just under— as grief’s water closes over my head.

My teenage daughters think the stories about my mother telling me to smoke are very strange. This was the eighties—a different time, I say.

Three days after she is dead, my sister and I clean out my mother’s closet and find 72 cartons of Salem 100s hidden – in boxes labeled “Taxes 2003” and “Family Medical 2010.” And yet my mother often told me, when we were alone: “I’ll never stop smoking.” Then why did she hide her cigarettes like contraband?

Breath—

Mother’s Day yoga is — as I know it would be — the worst. Why did I go? The teacher suggests we dedicate our practice to “your mother or a mother figure in your life” and I feel tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. Later she returns to it: “Think of the mother or mother figure and focus on a happy memory.” I want to ban this language. I want to run from the room. So instead I still just work hard as I can to no imagine it: the crematorium, my mother’s body on a shelf, flames, body who once housed my body, turning to nothing.

For so long I longed for another body—is this my mother’s fault? What could I tell you about my relationship to my body and my mother? What could she tell me now?

A different time, I tell my daughters.

Missing my mother is pain that though it can’t possibly be feels bone deep. My wrists are splintering. My hips lock shut. My jawbone burns.

My mother’s legacy: how I don’t want my daughters to long for another body.

After my mother dies, predictably, all I want is to smoke. Though I have not had a cigarette in more than twenty years. In my mother’s room, I suck on one of her old cigarette butts in the ashtray, set my mouth where hers imprinted, while my sister watches, alarmed.

I want to ban this language.

Putting my mouth where her mouth once was—

Do you want to go in and say goodbye to her feel free to take all the time you need to say goodbye to her—

What could my mother tell me now?

What can I tell my daughters?

Once, I remember my mother taking a photograph of me after a bad break up when I stopped eating, a photo at the edge of a pool while I posed in a blue striped bikini. As my sister and I finish cleaning out our mother’s study, I think about this bikini photo, and my sister and I toss the cigarette cartons in the trash, aware of the waste of money yet not wanting others to have them.

Breath: a spoken sound: utterance. Also, spirit, animation.

Nicole Cooly is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Feminist Wire and the Rumpus.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Compassion, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

I Didn’t Love Her Until The Day She Died

November 24, 2019

By Marie Prichard

Maura Anton, age 90, died September 6, 2009. Survivors include six children, 18 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren. Maura Anton was my grandma for over thirty years, but I wasn’t her granddaughter until the day she died.

I was eight years old when my father took my sister and me to meet his newest girlfriend, Rita. There had been so many girlfriends since my parents had divorced. But this one was different. She didn’t have any children; she was younger than him––fifteen years younger––and she was still in college.

I remember spending weekends with my dad and Rita in her tiny, college apartment. It felt like a dollhouse to me, and I pretended like everyone was playing house. Looking back, it was just like a teenager’s room, complete with stuffed animals, pink frilly things, and posters of her favorite bands.

I assumed Rita wouldn’t be around for very long, so I didn’t think much about their relationship, or about the fact that we hadn’t yet met her family. Girlfriends coming and going were a common theme with my dad. However, things changed, and I can still picture the specific visit when they sat my sister and me down and told us they were going to get married right after she graduated from college.

Our first introduction to the Anton family was at Rita’s college graduation. My sister and I stood there shyly in our––too small––Christmas dresses, and our tennis shoes because my dad hadn’t thought ahead about what we were going to wear. He never bothered to think about those kinds of things, and I believe that Rita was too young and self-absorbed to take our clothing into consideration. My mom didn’t have the money to buy us new dresses, nor was it her responsibility, so we wore those same outfits when they got married.

I can only imagine what they thought. My father, a Mexican man almost fifteen years older than their daughter, was standing there with his two young children, introduced as her fiancé and her soon-to-be daughters. Let’s just say; it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes to the family.

Rita came from a strict Catholic family. She was the youngest of 6 siblings who were all raised in the church. They had all graduated from Catholic schools, gone on to marry their high school sweethearts, and were doing what good Catholic families do: get married and quickly start a family. No one in Rita’s family had ever married a person outside their race or religion, and divorce? Well, that was a sin and was unacceptable. Rita had broken the unwritten rules, and they weren’t happy, especially her mother.

I remember many tears and angry voices before the actual wedding. Rita was not allowed to have a white wedding dress or a large church wedding. Her wedding was a quick, hushed affair in the retirement park in which her parents lived. I didn’t understand that marrying someone who had been divorced and had children from a previous marriage would be the cause of so much upset. I was just excited that I got to be a flower girl. It wasn’t until later that I realized Rita’s mother did not approve of her marrying my dad, nor did she want to add two little dark-skinned Mexican girls to their family. We were an embarrassment to her.

After my dad married Rita, we didn’t spend much time with his family because we were always at her parents’ house. When we were with them, we were expected to go to church and have Sunday dinner with her parents, siblings, and their children. In my eight-year-old mind, I thought once my dad and Rita were married, that meant I had a new grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I was wrong. During family dinners, my sister and I were always seated away from the rest of the family with our backs to the dinner table. Our newly acquired grandma would always make “tskking” noises when we referred to her as grandma, and she never––not once––said, “I love you.”

She didn’t want to introduce us to her friends, and when pressed, she would say, “Oh, these are my step-grandchildren. You know Rita married that man who was divorced. These are his children.”

Christmas was the worst. All the “real” grandchildren would be there, and there were so many presents for them. As we sat and watched them unwrapping all the gifts, my sister and I would each receive just one neatly wrapped gift. When we were younger, it was usually a knock-off Barbie doll. When we got older, the Barbie doll was replaced with a card signed, “Merry Christmas, the Antons” and enclosed would be a ten dollar bill.

As I got older, it became apparent that Maura Anton was incapable of loving us. I still called her grandma, and she still referred to me as her step-granddaughter, but I had stopped trying to love her. When I was made to go to their house, I would stay in the bedroom and read. I was tired of always feeling unloved by someone I desperately wanted to be loved by, so when I was old enough to have a say, I stopped going altogether.

The marriage between my dad and Rita ended when I was an adult. By this time, divorce wasn’t quite as taboo in Rita’s family. The Antons had already experienced other family members’ divorces, remarriages, and blended families. My sister and I still kept in contact with Rita and her family, but I always felt like I was still that little girl who was sat with her back to the family dinner table and introduced as “the step-granddaughter.”

Rita’s father passed away, and her mom moved in with her. She had suffered several small strokes and became mostly bed-ridden. I would stop by periodically to see how she was doing. She loved to have her fingernails painted, so I would always paint them her favorite color––light pink.

She had softened with age, but she still never referred to me as her granddaughter or said I love you. It was so hard to love this woman I called grandma, and I often wondered why I even bothered to try.

One day I received a call from Rita. She said, “Please come; my mom had another stroke and isn’t expected to make it.” So I went.

Most of the family was there: aunts, uncles, spouses, and grandchildren. She was lying in a hospital bed in the living room surrounded by her “real” family, yet no one was sitting next to her, holding her hand. They were all seated or standing along the walls or in the kitchen. She looked so alone in that bed in a roomful of people, so I sat next to her and picked up her hand.

Her breathing was labored, and she looked like she was in pain. I’m not sure if she was cognizant, but the moment I took her hand into mine, she appeared to relax. So I just sat there, holding her hand, speaking quietly to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my voice kept her calm.

I sat there for hours; I kept asking if anyone wanted to sit next to her, but everyone said no. They knew she was dying, and they didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t sit there because I loved her. I sat there because I didn’t want to watch her die alone in a room full of people who should have been there holding her hand.

I thought back on all those years of feeling unloved by this woman. I was just a little girl who wanted to be loved. How hard would it have been for her to have given me the same love she had given her grandchildren? All the pain I felt over the years came rushing through me: the hurt, confusion, sadness, and anger. I sat there with this woman, who was dying and felt nothing but an overwhelming sadness.

Her breathing began to become shallow and slow. The hospice nurse listened to her heart and said it wouldn’t be much longer. The sun had gone down, and almost everyone had gone home, and yet, I stayed. I couldn’t leave without someone else sitting next to her to help guide her from this life to the next.

I looked into the face of this woman who did not love me, and I realized it was the face of a woman who only knew how to live one kind of life; A life that did not include two little, Mexican girls calling her grandma. It was beyond her ability to move past the vision she held for herself and her family.

In…out…in…out. Her breath came slower and slower. With each exhalation, my anger dissipated. With each inhalation, the pain receded. I gained comfort knowing when she died so, too would my pain.

As she took her last breath in the wee hours of the morning, I felt an intense surge of vertigo and a vibrating upward pull; I had to close my eyes to keep from falling over. It was as though a part of me had joined with her spirit as she passed, and just as quickly as it happened, it ended. I opened my eyes, and a quiet calm came over me.

I sat there for a moment looking at her light pink polished fingernails trying to digest what had happened. I sensed that I had traveled a short distance with her spirit as she departed from this world. It was a surreal experience, and a rush of love coursed through my body. I had received a gift.

I gazed down at Maura Anton, this woman I had called grandma for over thirty years and whispered the words, “She’s gone,” but no one heard me. So I repeated it louder as I slowly stood up to walk away. But before I did, I leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Grandma, I love you.”

I like to think that maybe––this time––she would have said, “I love you too.”

 

Marie Prichard is a longtime writer and educator. She lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her wife, their two wiener dogs, and a Munchkin cat. She loves reading, writing, walking the beach, and filling her wife’s pockets with heart rocks.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

Six months after my ex-husband died, his brother left a message on my voicemail. He was going to blow my fucking head off, Luke said. While Tim was alive, Luke often showed up unannounced at our remote rural property. He was also apt to appear at the local café/bar and seat himself at my table as I visited with friends. Yet despite Luke’s history of violence, felony convictions, and easy access to guns, I was not particularly panicked. As a counselor, educator, and deputy sheriff, I considered myself skilled at soothing agitated men. I choreographed elaborate scenarios for how I’d rescue my students should a gunman appear in my classroom.

Besides, I’d known Luke since his birth; it was difficult to fear someone you’d first seen in diapers.

“Tim’s bothering me,” Luke’s message said. “If he doesn’t stop, I’m going to blow his fucking head off.”

I called Luke back. “I know about Tim bothering you. He bothers me too. But I thought I should point out that Tim is dead.”

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

“Does he have a gun?” the 911 operator asked. After Tim and I separated, and he took to showing up outside my window in the middle of the night, they asked the same question.

“I have no idea,” I said then. “Should I go out and ask?”

Tim often told me, “There are things about me you’ll never know,” and despite our fourteen years together, I had no idea whether he had guns. Prior to our marriage, he’d been a Buddhist monk, so firearms seemed unlikely, at least to someone as much in denial as I was.

I found out the guns were real the day before Tim’s death. His young daughter told me he visited the shooting range daily to perfect his aim. When he tried to force her to hold one of the guns, she called me, sobbing

“I don’t know if Luke’s armed,” I told the dispatcher. She took my name, and an officer called me back.

“Did you record the message?” he said. “If so, we have a crime.”

“I did,” I said. But when I tried to retrieve Luke’s message, it had disappeared. “I must have messed up somehow,” I said. The officer started the recitation: “no crime has been committed, no witnesses, no blood, get a restraining order.”

“I am a deputy sheriff,” I said. “At your office. Look it up.” For eighteen months, I’d coordinated a drug and alcohol program. “I’m quite familiar with the danger of having one’s head blown off, whether I recorded the call or not. I’d like you to do something now.”

Within the hour, Luke was arrested. The following day, someone called from the prosecutor’s office. Would I be willing to drop the charges? “It’s a lot of paperwork for us,” she said. I requested they proceed. From working in law enforcement over the years, I knew that if charges aren’t brought, the crime never happened. You need a paper trail.

I was glad I insisted, because a few days before Luke threatened me, he’d stopped taking his antipsychotics. When his case went to court, he was let off for thirty days served, with instructions to take his meds. I’m presuming Tim stopped bothering him, although my own nightmares continued for years.

Tim was one of the first American males ordained as a Chinese Buddhist Monk. When I met him, though, he was in an alcohol rehab center. As was I. We were married almost a decade before I knew he’d written a book. He probably realized that if I read it, I would have horrified at how he treated his assistant, because it was the same way he treated me.

Though many Buddhist teachings are about preparing for death, when Tim was diagnosed with cancer early in our marriage, he refused to acknowledge he was going to die. Although his oncologist explained that there was no known cure, he insisted he was going to beat this thing. However, she added, it was a “good cancer.”

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

“The average life expectancy is seven years,” she explained.

About six years in, Tim’s symptoms flared, and he volunteered for an experimental protocol, “the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“A walk in the park.” He handed me the document that authorized the treatment. I was chilled to the bone.

“Nobody’s survived this,” I said. “Not even the beagles they tested it on. The longest even a dog lasted was eleven months. If you do nothing, who knows how long you might live?”

One seeks to understand unhappiness or grief in various ways. Tim’s parents found sanctuary in the Mother Church, as Tim called the Catholic faith in which he was raised. For ten years, monk’s robes provided sanctuary for Tim. But his alcoholism lurked just outside the monastery gates. One afternoon, he stopped into a tavern and ended up roaring drunk. Ashamed, he left the monastery and found work as an orderly at a managed care facility. On what was intended to be a one-night stand with the night nurse, he conceived a child.

That’s what he told me, anyway. When I met him, he was still in inpatient rehab and still married to that nurse. After he died, I found passionate love poems he and the child’s mother exchanged early on. Whatever flame they had, though, did not last. As co-dependent partners do, I devoted myself to analyzing my husband. Through the Enneagram, for example: Tim was a One. Per the Enneagram, he could be a great leader. Or he could be a despot. My delusion was such that when his oncologist told us his cancer was incurable, I wrote in my journal that I would find a way to save him.

Tim’s parents lived an hour’s drive down Hood Canal from us, and in the early years, his young daughter and I accompanied him to holiday gatherings there. Each time, halfway there, Tim would go into a rage. “You don’t really want to go,” he might accuse us. Or he might scold his daughter because she didn’t finish her homework. Eventually, in the death throes of our marriage, I refused to go. Tim went alone, and on the way back, just as when he fled the monastery, he stopped in at one tavern, and then the next. When he finally arrived home, he apologized for his relapse and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But of course it did, and eventually I asked him to leave.

Tim’s ex-wife told me that the teaching brother Tim most trusted had molested him, but he never shared that with me. Instead, he repeatedly hinted that the teaching nuns and monks in the Catholic schools he attended from kindergarten until he was kicked out, had “done things.” He described inappropriate contact, but said it happened to a friend. He recounted physical abuse and beatings, but these anecdotes always implied he deserved it. The only part he did say, telling the same story again and again, was that he managed to get himself kicked out by hiding a bomb in the nuns’ car. And then he always laughed hysterically.

I listened to his stories until I stopped listening, and that is my loss. As reports of priestly abuse proliferated in the press, including at the schools he attended, I felt guilty. Surely, if I had pried forth Tim’s secrets, I could have healed him. Placing smoke bombs in the nuns’ car was his only cry for help, and in its way, it worked.

But to me, Tim’s descriptions of his father throwing shoes as his young son as he stood against a wall or dressing in a bear costume to scare him for leaving his bedroom at night seemed worse. I had little doubt that if young Tim had tried to say anything, his parents would have suggested he burn in hell. Even as he lay dying, helpless at last, they had him, a Buddhist, anointed with last rites.

During Tim’s final weeks of life, his daughter seized my hand. “No more blonde,” she said. I glanced at her. That week, her hair was the color of eggplant.

“What are you talking about, no more blonde? This is my natural color.”

“Not anymore it’s not.” She narrowed her eyes. The child I’d met at four, scared and mousy, had transformed into a striking beauty. “Brown, I think. Dark brown.”

After Tim and I separated, I dated a younger man, although we too soon split up. “Our love-making makes me insane,” he texted me. “I can’t do this without a traditional committed relationship. I feel empty and lost.” When I called to tell him Tim was dead, he wept. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Not for him,” the young man said. “For you. For how much he destroyed you.”

“You don’t ever have to be afraid again,” my friend Carla said. Still, I sobbed and screamed.

“You abandoned a dying man,” my father said.

Eleven months after the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants, Tim died. Two weeks later, I landed flat in the New Year, widowed yet not widowed, with dark brown hair. I inhaled the scent of seaweed and salt from the bay outside what had been our dream home. I exhaled in cries like the call of the loons that gathered just offshore. The first day one pair arrived. The next day five pairs paddled in a loose cluster. By the end of the week, dozens of the arched spotted backs trolled up and down, up and down, on their quest for the Pacific herring that spawn here.

And startlingly, Tim’s walk in the park had killed him, and I was free. I walked with my dog in Northwest fog and rain, and to keep from shaking to pieces, I filled the bathtub with as much hot water as I could bear—a lot—and sat for hours. Water embraced me. Water was my solace. I descended into the tunnel of winter, days that rarely saw light, only changed from one kind of darkness to another. What about death, I wondered. What about suicide? Maybe I should just commit suicide slowly, one breath at a time. From the time of Tim’s diagnosis, I felt he wanted me to throw myself upon his funeral pyre. “When people grow ill,” his ex-wife said, “They become more of what they are. Nice people become nicer. Mean people get meaner.” M.F.K. Fisher says as we age, we revert to whatever we were like at birth and as toddlers. The final day of his life, in the ICU, Tim’s body bloated, and his skin stretched as far as skin can stretch, and it seemed he were drowning in his own fluids. Blood oozed from every pore.

My hands and arms went numb. Pens, notebooks, cups and forks dropped from my hands and crashed to the floor. “Definitely MS,” his ex-wife told me. “No doubt about it. You’ll be immobilized by the end of the year.” She seemed pretty excited by the idea. The symptoms worsened. I’d hold a cup of coffee to my lips, and then the cup would fall and shatter, the coffee scalding my chest. At other times, my hands balled up into tight fists, and I had to manually unlock them.

Just as I lacked a handbook for navigating Tim’s cancer, when I became a stepparent at thirty, I was equally clueless. Before Tim’s cancer was diagnosed and he was pronounced infertile, I pored through books on every stage of pregnancy, birth, and the developmental phases of a child’s life. When I became a stepparent, the pickings were sparse. Several books asserted never to allow the child to call me “Mom.” This would confuse everyone. My stepdaughter concocted elaborate stories about how I was actually her real mom. “Are you sure you were never pregnant?” she once asked. “Maybe when you were in rehab?” When I said I was sure, she said, “Maybe your mother had another baby she forgot about?”

As for cancer, the patient fought the courageous battle. And he never died. He passed.

After Tim died, his daughter asked repeatedly, “What are we to each other now?” She told me that everyone asked why she bothered to speak with me at all. As when she was little and asked to call me Mom, I remained obtuse.

“I am here for you no matter what,” I said. But I wasn’t. We were both on our own, stumbling through the forest without light or path, gauging where we were by the space between the trees.

K.C. Pedersen holds an M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Stories and essays appear in numerous journals and have been nominated for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. Pedersen lives above a saltwater fjord in Washington State.

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