Browsing Tag

healing

Guest Posts, memories, Trauma

Beyond The Haunting

August 17, 2021
trauma

by Micah Stover

My favorite auntie told me when I was little to be careful. She said it with a wink, but I knew it was a warning. She told me not to be scared of boys. That really the girls are the powerful ones because we know things. But knowing things can be dangerous.

*

Trauma spreads through my bloodlines like bamboo, strong and supple. Sometimes dressed as madness. Sometimes addiction. Sometimes violence. It wears many faces and has many names, but mostly it lies hidden with everything evocative of shame.

It took me years and much work to understand that inside everything labeled as trauma rests a jewel – a seeing, a knowing, a power. Intuition is the key that unlocks that house of divinity. Inside that house, there is no battle for control. There is only truth and clarity. Inside that house, I sleep like a baby and walk like a warrior in tune with the earth. Inside that house, my life is my own and I understood it to be a gift, not a curse.

*

This was the truth as it was revealed to me under the elixir of the great mycelium and her perfect, little flowering body. How little I understood about this vast, robust network under the soil, communicating, connecting, severing, mending, ending and beginning. Everything. All of life held clearly here in the womb of nature where she spreads and pulses her rhythms out into the world, like a woman in labor contracting with life and possibilities. My aunties were midwives. They knew all these things and whispered them in my ears.

When the psilocybin carried me down into the dirt, into the center of all that is living, she showed me the intricate weave of my ancestors. In a voice familiar, loving and firm, she insisted my self-concept deconstruct. She repeated this over and over again, until it was all I knew. Until my ego completely dissolved returning me to the earth from which I’d come. Then it became clear how subservience and humility rendered so little space for agency. How rage filled in the spaces where potential might otherwise have been.

I saw myself inside the construct of time and generations, chasing the truth like an elusive thread. I was the canary in the coal mine of my lineage, my karmic inheritance clear. I’d come to sing a song, to seek and speak the truth where all the other women before me had been silenced. I grabbed this thread woven into the essence of me, and I started to work.

Deep down in the belly of the earth it was apparent how much had been hidden and buried in the small cemetery with dilapidated fence and hand carved tombstones, sitting just behind Grandma’s old farmhouse.  The garden, fertile and ripe, with succulent tomatoes popping off the vine, tasting more like a fruit than a vegetable as they toppled like offerings onto the graves. Death and life juxtaposed, swirling together in the soil, side by side. The lush and loss represented in equal measure. My cousin commanded the four-wheeler like a master at age eleven while I clung to his waist, pink frock and blonde curls trailing in the wind. A small shiver on my spine as we whizzed past the stretch of cemetery where all the spirits moaned and grasped at my ankles.

Etched in the family code was reverence to a severe god who required we reject our desires and curiosities. Feeling sorry was inherent to being conscious. I was raised in this context to speak earnestly but in code, to tell half-truths and leave the rest behind. I was taught to live my life as an apology and required to subvert my power in attempt to find a place in a world that was not ever mine.

*

I never met Cecil, my paternal grandfather, though he visits sometimes in my sleep. He was dead before I came along, buried in that cemetery out back. My grandmother visited him daily, loyal beyond time to a man she loved almost as deeply as she despised. His stories linger large even after all this time. Charismatic and unhinged, he was prone to episodic drunken outbursts before the war. His body returned, but not his spirit. His spirit was a casualty into the wasteland of unresolved PTSD. He returned taunting death, begging for an escape that would stick. When he was almost fifty, the doctor came to unplug the machines keeping his barely breathing body alive. The black cancer had spread to his lungs from his heart leaving the entire chest cavity a shadow. He left behind lots of babies and a teenage wife who couldn’t drive or read.

He is the dark man I see sometimes in my dreams, appearing like a hunter, seeking me out. Initially his shadow evoked a shiver, but these days, he wanes and turns to walk before running away. My body in this dream is also black, more iridescent than dark or opaque. I move lithe, strong and equally foreboding, approaching him dead on. I am a large, sensual cat in the twilight. I am not here to hunt. I have come to protect and preserve myself, my cubs, the lineage that is now mine. I’ve come to retrieve something sacred and pure from a black hole of ancestral pain.

For a moment, Cecil and my eyes meet, and an inexplicable recalibration transpires with our gaze locked. We remain transfixed until his black shadow shrinks to the size of a small boy far more frightened of me than I of him. His spirit begins to pulse little specks of red blood from a heart that used to beat. Cecil had come all this way for salvation, not conquest. Salvation was not mine to give, but there was something universal I could offer him. I could tell him he’s forgiven. As a mother, learning to soothe a scared little boy, out of control, I said simply: “You’re safe now. The struggle is done.”

It turns out my canary song was more a lullaby than a cry for help. All I needed to do was let love loom larger than fear and replace caution with courage.

*

Cecil raised Richard, my father, third of eight kids born into poverty and chaos. In the back hills of Tennessee where my father was raised, his pedigree was well known. Because there were so many of them and because their charisma and epic feuds ricocheted through the corn fields, nothing was really secret. The shotgun rang out like a sheet of music to accompany the family score. Richard was raised by ghosts, damaged spirits above and below the earth.

He made his way out of the wreckage by identifying two goals – stay sober and make money. His money created a different life for me than he had known. Though his sobriety did not. He still lived from the haunted place that devoured love and left another kind of scarcity in its wake.

*

Richard’s goals were well set before he met my mother. My mother was equally smart in different ways – an intellectual, not a survivalist. No trauma swirled inside her. By contrast, her idyllic childhood left her with no sense of all that could possibly go wrong.

They bore me not from rage, but neither from clear intent. Love can also lend accidental objects. This was my predicament, nestled between a mother who wanted a baby and father who was terrified of passing on his pain. His rejection of me was also a matter of his love, a deep desire not to hurt me as he’d been hurt. I understand this knee jerk response better now as a mother myself. Though as a girl what I felt most was loneliness, stuck in the landmine between them, their squabbles and projections. Their unconsciousness, almost my inheritance.

The child me needed a bad guy and a good guy. Someone to be angry at and someone to save. The adult me understands what the child could not. A woman without voice and boundaries will always believe she needs someone other than herself.  And a little boy longing to be loved will raise a little girl in search of the same. The adult me now knows I was always enough, and they did the best they could. There are no binaries.

Trauma does many things. It cultivates your intuition, your ability to read people and the environment. It leaves you lonely, but never bored. It makes you resourceful and creative, albeit potentially and periodically manic. It gives you stories to tell, if you can find the courage to tell them. My sons gave me cause to bury the ghosts, to find a way to turn tragedy to triumph, to work with the pain rather than resist it.

I’m not the same kind of midwife my aunties were. But I’ve learned how to birth certain things. How to take hurt and transmute it into something different. How to take bitter and make it sweet. How to find the little overlap where shame and blame give way to empathy and forgiveness.

The tiniest voice buried deep inside me had much to say and was not so tiny after all. A tickle in the way back of my throat, followed by something that felt like choking. Ancestral hands constricting the airways, begging not to be shamed. Then something that was half cough, half growl, barreled forward from the depths and what came out was my life. A story about moving from pious to righteous. A story being rewritten in real time.

Raised by evangelicals on a farm in rural Tennessee, Micah Stover is now far from home in Mexico where she resides with her family and works as an integrative support therapist with trauma survivors. Micah is currently writing and revising a memoir, chronicling the path to heal intergenerational trauma and PTSD with MDMA, psilocybin and guided psychotherapy.

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Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Abuse, Guest Posts, healing

What I Didn’t Know

August 9, 2021
ugly

by Ruth Arnold

I didn’t know that a father wouldn’t solve all of my issues of being fatherless for my children.I didn’t know he would yell. I didn’t know he would make us feel bad. I didn’t know he wouldn’t be home a lot. I thought I could manage him and still give my children the luxury of two parents. I didn’t know that when he was yelling in the house that they were getting hurt and made to feel unsafe. I didn’t know that when I calmed him and told them he’d had a bad day that they felt I was choosing him over them. I didn’t know that they would feel better at home when he wasn’t there. I didn’t know that  things wouldn’t get better. I didn’t know that yelling was not better than silence than not speaking as in the house I grew up in.

I didn’t know that I couldn’t fix him. I didn’t know that when he was annoyed with me it wasn’t about me being annoying. I didn’t know that I couldn’t modify myself enough to make him happy. I didn’t know that if he was unhappy with me that my children would feel he was also unhappy with them. I didn’t know that spending more time with him in my life would only make things worse. I didn’t know why I felt so lonely in a house with three people. I didn’t know how to make things different without also making them worse. I didn’t know that being quiet and also talking were both problematic so I had no mode of behavior that would make it better.

I didn’t know that loving talent and intelligence were not love. I didn’t know that the first person who asked me to marry him actually gave me a choice of yes or no. I didn’t know that I was worthy of seeking. I didn’t know that staying married wouldn’t prove everyone wrong because nobody was checking. I didn’t know that if I told everyone about how good things were with my husband it wouldn’t make it true. I didn’t know that I was not the only problem. I didn’t know that he wasn’t better than me. I didn’t know that he could be kind to others and so unkind to me. I didn’t know that he could be so unavailable to his family yet so able to stay late at work and help others when they needed extra time.

I didn’t know that I should feel good in my home. I didn’t know that I wasn’t mentally ill. I didn’t know that I wasn’t ugly. I didn’t know that I wasn’t boring. I didn’t know that I was worthy. I didn’t know that I should’ve been treated with kindness. I didn’t know that when I was sick I should’ve been helped. I didn’t know that everything wasn’t my responsibility. I didn’t know that I was doing everything for everyone and being challenged for not doing better.

I didn’t know that while we were sexless he was seeking sex with others. I didn’t know he regarded me as so awful. I didn’t know that he didn’t hope for things to improve. I didn’t know that he felt lying to me was justified. I didn’t know he kept his schedule nebulous for more reasons than real conflicts. I didn’t know that he was available to others for intimacy but not for me. I didn’t know he spoke ill of me to others.

I didn’t know he would die But then he did. And then I knew.

Ruth Arnold is a widowed mother of two boys living with metastatic breast cancer. Her husband passed away almost 11 years ago but only lately has Ruth begun to share her story due to complicated grief and shame that she is working to overcome. This essay was inspired after she shared the story of her husband’s death to her two sons ages 10 and 16 who were 9 and 5 years old when he died. In spite of this darkness, Ruth is living happily and well.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, memories, Trauma

My Body Remembers What I Don’t

August 3, 2021
mother

by Meredith Resnick

I am six. I am standing on the cement pool deck behind our brick apartment building in Yonkers. A sticky day in August. My body is wet. The pool is blue. The sky is gray. It is a weekday. All the mothers are lined up on woven beach chairs in a row that spans the chain link fence. All the mothers except my mother. There is a break between her and the other mothers. No chairs, no towels, just gray cement.

I stand in front of her in a pink bathing suit. My ribs stick out like a xylophone. I cradle my fingers between my ribs. She tells me to stop. You look insecure, she says, and lights a cigarette. I don’t know what insecure means but I stop. I shiver. She has called me out of the pool to put on a t-shirt to wear in the water because you can get a sunburn on overcast days. This is before we know that t-shirts in the water can make a sunburn worse. This is before we know a lot of things. Before I know a lot of things.

My mother hides behind large sunglasses. She wears a black and white bathing suit. She smokes. She pulls a towel over her squishy thighs. She hates her cellulite. She hates her body. She flicks ashes into a Fresca can and slides the lipstick-marked butt after it. I hear it sizzle. She lights another. I slip the t-shirt over my wet hair, over my pink shoulders. Good, she says. I can’t tell if she is looking at me.

My feet slap the cement. I’m back at the pool. I squat on the steps in the shallow end then let my body glide through the water until my feet no longer stretch for the bottom. The water holds me. It wants to hold me. It teaches me to swim. This part is easy. I float. I touch the bottom. I buoy to the surface. I hold my breath.

One year ago I knew without knowing that I must teach myself to swim. I don’t know what that meant until years later and I am an adult. I don’t know what a lot of things mean until years later. There is a large gap in my knowledge of things that a daughter should understand.

I learn to swim by gulping air and holding my breath. I look like other children splashing in the water, trying to learn.

My mother does not look like other mothers sitting on the deck.

For a reason I don’t understand, I am afraid she will abandon me. This happens when I’m in the water, always when I’m skimming the bottom of the pool, furthest from the surface, from her. I force myself to count. To not panic. One to ten. Ten to twenty. The longer I wait the more my panic grows. I am frantic. I burst from shallow depths in my t-shirt and search for her. Scan the long line of mothers. But she is not like other mothers. She sits alone in the corner, with her cigarettes, after the gap and I forget, I always forget.

When I wave she waves back, a limp hand in my direction. She blows smoke into the summer air.

As if on cue the other mothers rise from their chaises and lower into the pool like some synchronized dance they all know. In the water, all around me, mothers with black hair and brown hair and blond hair or hair tucked beneath flower bathing caps pull their children in slow circles around their thighs, even the kids bigger than me. Through my chlorine-stung eyes, mother and child are one.

Except.

This time I look for the red hair and the orange tip of the lit cigarette. I push up the edge of the pool and run to her, then run back to the edge and scoop the water up with my hands and dumped it over my head.  I don’t know why or what I am doing. My mother blows more smoke. She laughs.  She laughs so hard I think she might cry.  She laughs so hard she tells me to stop.  I don’t stop. I wave to her. Silly excited waving.  Simmer-down excited.

“Enough already,” she says, cigarette between her teeth. I stop. I stand there. I want to hug her. I don’t hug her. She doesn’t like me to touch her. I turn and jump into the water and swim in this vast sea, warm water touching every part of me except what is beneath the t-shirt. That part feels cold. That I want to wrap my arms around her too tight, and sit too close, and touch her arm or leg is normal. This must mean there is something wrong with me or with my body where the t-shirt touches. She is the mother; there is nothing wrong with her. But I don’t know that yet. There is so much I don’t yet know.

I peel off my t-shirt. I will get another sunburn. I let the water hold all of me.

***

I am thirty-three. I am meticulous about birth control.  About preparing my diaphragm. When I use the foams, creams, and jellies, and the doughy sponges that never stay put.  I lay in bed and watch my husband don the prophylactics, the Trojans that stick like glue, wrapped in the knowledge that as two mature responsible adults who are learning to grow together, we will know when it is time, when it is right, to grow our family.

My interior universe already knows no sign, time, or alarm clock exists. I don’t long for a baby who melts into me, who captures my hair between her fingers. I long to be the type of woman who does. I don’t fantasize about a real baby I can love, or dream of pregnancy the way some women do.  I never stuck a pillow beneath my dress as a child and pretended I was pregnant.  But I do now, as an adult.

I act “as if.”

I act.

I try.

I am trying.

I wonder if there is something wrong with me.

I am seven.  My mother and I are in the den on the couch. Raindrops ping the air conditioner perched on the windowsill. It is morning. It is Christmas vacation. It is going to be a boring day.  On her side, face creased into the pillow, my mother lights a cigarette.  Her doughy legs fold into an L; the fetal position. Freckles, our miniature poodle, crawls into their right angle.

“Can we get a Christmas tree?”

“We are Jewish,” my mother says. Smoke streams into the air.

“Can we get a crèche?” It is a serious word. I understand serious words. I say I will take care of the baby Jesus all year, and that he can be a child for my Barbie doll. They will live in the crèche. My mother says Barbie doesn’t have a husband, is too young to have a baby, and that even if Joseph were the father, it wouldn’t be nice to leave Mary out and besides, the Baby Jesus doesn’t look like a Barbie would be his mother.

The girl who lives next door has a cross over the side of her bed at pillow height. In the middle of the night when she’s scared, Jesus makes her feel safe. It’s her secret with Jesus. This cross is made of wood and Jesus is nailed to it. The nails stick out of his palms, their flat tops painted red. His face is so sad. I wonder what Jesus was like as a boy. Did he like milk? Did he get scared? When I get scared I crawl into my parents’ bed. Fear and safety are how I feel close to them.

“I touch his feet every night. Want to touch them?”

“No,” I say.

“Because you’re Jewish?”

“Because he looks so sad.” Because he looks like my mother.

“He’s not sad,” she says, hands on hips.

I don’t answer. She leads me into the living room. Beneath the Christmas tree is a crèche. My friend hands me the baby. “That’s the same Jesus,” she says. “In case you didn’t know.”

“I know.” I cradle him in my palm.

I ask my mother to tell me the story of how I was born. We are on the high riser, in the den.

She lights a cigarette.

“I missed my period.”

I slide my foot across the cushion. I want to touch my mother in such a way so she doesn’t notice. It will be my secret. So slowly, like my foot is the medium from the Ouija board I got for my birthday. I move against my will but every bit my will, toward my mother’s leg.

“We brought you home and I put you in an infant seat, propped a bottle against a balled-up receiving blanket, and watched you drink it from across the room.”

I hate when she tells me about her period.  And when she says she never held me.  That she hated feeding me.  Was afraid she’d drop me.

I look down into my lap then I look at her, smile. “But are you glad you had me?”

I don’t know that this is not a question all children ask.

My parents are older than other parents. I am only in second grade but I’ve already vowed to never be that old when I become a mother. In real life, my parents are not so much old, they just seem old—she is 42 when I am born in 1961, and my father is about to turn 44.  I know my father always with gray hair, a bad back, and perpetual cancer that warrants lengthy hospital stays, and my mother with wrinkled skin, few teeth save for her silver bridges, and leg cramps that leave her toes curled like fists.  My sister is 21 years older than me, and my brother 18 years older, and look more like the parents of kids my age. “That lady,” friends say, pointing to my mother, “looks like a grandmother.”

My mother exhales smoke. “I would never have an abortion.”

I have looked up this word. This word is in the grown-up dictionary, not in my children’s illustrated dictionary. I have checked.

“But you were our change of life baby. A great big surprise.”

She moves. The dog scurries. I can’t get my foot to touch her leg fast enough before she sits up.

Secretly I worry that my lack of desire to have a baby, to be pregnant, to carry a child indicate something fundamentally wrong with me.  I’m afraid I’ve inherited my mother’s lack of baby desire and maternal instinct.  That in some odd twist my own mothering instinct was tweaked in her womb.  It seeps from my pores, a disease that takes generations to cure.  But mine is not the generation for such miracles.  Babies, with hands like rose petals and toes like creamy pebbles, are natural.  My lack of maternal instinct—or maybe it is my mother herself?— is not.

***

The year my husband I adopt our daughters—two sisters, Russian, who are ten and thirteen when they come to us—I find the mirror I’d given my mother on her birthday long ago. She is eighty now. I’m thirty-eight. I’m packing her things. She can no longer live alone. Dementia has changed her. Softened her. She gazes at me sometimes.

But now my mother sleeps and I hold the frame. The metal warms in my fingers. The green patina features a slender silhouette, a metal woman peering back at herself in the mirror. I’d chosen this mirror for reasons I did not understand until now. To hold my mother’s gaze was like trying to balancing a gyroscope on the tip of your finger at the bottom of the ocean. This embellishment, this expressionless woman, was the face I’d memorized. It was all I ever saw because it was all she showed me.

For some there is the urge to develop. To move beyond. But for me, developing means deepening. My body remembers. It has become a kind of appendix that has collected the bits and pieces of my girlhood. Its captured the outlying events that inform but don’t define the story arc of me. What has deepened me has also wounded me, and the person who wouldn’t touch me may well have also loved me in their very particular way. These footnotes and asterisks about someone else also comprise the main narrative of mine, and sometimes it can be difficult to explain and understand. How could your mother have been like that? You’re nothing like that. I didn’t inherited my mother’s lack of desire or her inability to love. I am still trying to understand why that feels like a transgression.

So what happened; what really happened? It all happened. I won’t say that I raised myself. But, rather, that something larger than myself, than my mother, than any of us whispered in my ear to keep going. I never feel alone and yet, in many ways, I always feel alone.

And that is okay.

I am okay.

When you become a mother you become acquainted with the rights others take in telling you what motherhood is or, rather, what it should be. This goes for daughterhood, too. These are binaries, though, eithers and ors that appoint shame and pity to the ones who cannot give, and the others who don’t have something to receive. This fault line demands not a choice of one or the other but, rather, falling backwards into the depths and darkness. That is where you become. From this you emerge. This is what I’ve learned. To find myself there, no longer unseen.

 

Meredith Gordon Resnick’s* work appears in the Washington Post, JAMA, Psychology Today, Lilith, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Motherwell, Literary Mama, and the Santa Monica Review. Meredith is creator of the Shame Recovery Project, work devoted to healing the unwarranted shame of sexual (and other) traumas, and founder of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey, an award-winning site about the intersection of writing, creativity and depth. She is co-author of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss. 

*Her work also appears under Meredith Gordon and Meredith Resnick.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, healing, Mental Health

Humans Need Trees

July 24, 2021
trees

by Dez Hill

Numerous people in this world have encountered some form of conflict in their life. How these conflicts are dealt with varies from person to person. Many people have traumatic incidents that they endure also, which can cause a disorder called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The traumatic events that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder are usually so overwhelming, and frightening that they would upset anyone. When your sense of safety and trust are shattered, it’s normal to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb, and most people do.

Let’s explore different ways to deal with PTSD. Self- soothing activities is the most popular way to help keep your emotions under control. If you are unfamiliar with what self-soothing activities are here is a quick summary for you. Self-soothing activities are a source of decreased arousal, pleasurable sensations and calming feelings. They are characterized by: slow, gentle or rhythmical movements; softness in texture, tone and hues; quietness in volume. They include but are not limited to the following: • Calming breathing • Gentle holding and rocking • Calming self-talk • accessing calming sensations: e.g., warm baths and showers, warm drinks, soft textiles (blankets, bed socks, soft toys, hot water bottles), calming music, soft lighting walking, gardening or swimming therapeutic process.

These activities are an incredible way to deal with what symptom’s you may be feeling in that moment; but I want to explore a different route. Let’s think outside the box; trees.

A symbiotic relationship exists between trees and humans.  Humans breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, while trees breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. There are many similarities between humans and trees. For example, let’s take the American Hardwood tree. These trees are like humans in three distinct and profound ways: Both are mostly water; both have a peak life span of approximately 80 years and both are completely unique. The most important similarity between humans and trees is that each tree, like each human, is unique and beautiful in its own way.

People need trees. They need to see leaves from their windows, to sit in green spaces, and to play in the shade. Trees draw people out from behind walls of brick and glass. Nature restores the mental functioning in the same way that food and water restore bodies.

Man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back. . Forests, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans demand very little from us, though they’re still engaging, ever changing, and attention-grabbing. The difference between natural and urban landscapes is how they command our attention. While man-made landscapes bombard us with stimulation, their natural counterparts give us the chance to think as much or as little as we’d like, and the opportunity to replenish exhausted mental resource.

Choosing Nature is always the best way to go.

Desarae “Dez” Hill is a Californian, Amateur Writer and Poet who has been published in “Timeless Voices” and in “BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON”. She is a huge advocate of Mental Health. She, herself, suffers from chronic PTSD and has been searching for ways to help not only herself but to also help others who suffer from PTSD.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Relationships

Revenge Outfit

February 24, 2021
roger

By Amy Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When he asked me to dinner, I said no.

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

Sometimes, boundaries are the cutest.

Amy Turner lives in Los Angeles and writes in TV.

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

How to Fix a Bluey Heart

February 14, 2021
blue heart made of napkin time

By Dustin Grinnell

By my mid-thirties, most of my college friends had moved out of Boston to other cities. Many were married and starting families. While they bought homes and built families, I focused my time and energy on writing essays and fiction, trying to become the best writer I could be. I wasn’t making new friendships and I didn’t often see the friends I had. Devoting all my spare time to pursuing my goals, I dated casually, avoiding commitment. These were productive years for me, but I was disconnected and lonely.

Tragically, I didn’t see a problem with this dynamic. Not only had I forgotten the value of friendship—once asking a psychologist to “sell me on friendship”—but I also thought my happiness didn’t depend on others. This attitude came from growing up with my father and brother in a hyper-masculine household. In my father’s home, a “real man” is self-reliant. A “real man” pursues his goals without help from others. A “real man” doesn’t need support from friends or loved ones. If you’re dependent, you’re vulnerable, and a “real man” is never vulnerable. It took me years to realize that this was bullshit. Now I know that everyone needs care and support to flourish in life—yes, even men. Without nurturing, without love, we can wither. And I had been withering.

When I met Sam at 35, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted from a romantic relationship—to marry, build a family, live in the suburbs—but I knew what I needed. Casual dating had run its course, providing less and less fulfillment. I knew I needed someone who could satisfy my emotional needs, not my sexual desires. I needed someone to offer support. Someone to listen to me and validate my ideas. I needed someone to care.

Sam and I met in Boston, at an MFA program in creative writing. We hit it off right away at one of our program’s ten-day residencies, where all the students came to campus for workshops, classes, readings, and more. Since then, we’ve been inseparable. Together, we have visited beaches, parks, and bars all over New England and beyond. We edit each other’s work. We’ve met each other’s families. We constantly joke and laugh. Early on, I realized that Sam was the best friend I desperately needed.

We’re perhaps an odd pairing. I’m in my mid-30s from the mountains of New Hampshire who was living in Boston at the time. She’s in her late 20s from the beaches of Florida who had been living in New York City at the time. I studied science, she studied theater. I write science fiction, she writes young adult. But we’re similar in many ways. We both grew up lower-class. We both see the world’s absurdity and mock it. And we’re both writers—hungry to find our voices and make our marks on the world.

As a preschool teacher, Sam has the unique gift of being able to comfort tiny humans who can’t always tell her where it hurts. It’s a superpower she often uses on me. If I’m stressed or frustrated, Sam senses it. She listens to me when I’m disappointed. She tolerates me when I’m mad. And she does all of this without my asking for help from her. This is important because—due to my upbringing—I never ask.

Though I was already working , on it in therapy, Sam was unwittingly helping me reform my decidedly “jock” origins. Regrettably, in high school and college, I displayed a fair share of toxic masculinity. A “never show weakness” attitude in the halls and classroom. Ignorant jokes in locker rooms. Tough-guy behavior with friends. Anything else was wimpy or weak.

To be fair, my interpretation of masculinity was like most of the males who came of age in my generation. A man of my era never showed softness. A man of this time didn’t admit fault. A man of this time didn’t ask for directions if they took a wrong turn. We were adept at pushing away emotions and soldiering on during tough times. Therapy helped me unlearn this programming. But women also played a large part in my reeducation—working with them, loving them, sometimes hating them. Yet, it was Sam’s caring and nurturing that allowed me to drop the macho facade and be vulnerable, thereby helping me build a less repressed, more sincere view of myself and manhood.

It wasn’t just my dad who had predisposed me to having a troubled relationship with my emotions. During childhood, my mom could be emotionally distant and wasn’t adept at understanding my emotional needs. When I was upset, she struggled to understand the cause of my distress and didn’t always know how to take away the pain. I don’t blame her because it wasn’t entirely her fault. I’ve always sensed that my mom doesn’t quite know how to label her own emotions and console herself when she’s distressed. Instead, she avoids vulnerability and talking about her feelings, and often busies herself in distracting activity (or drinking). I also knew that in her teenage years, my mom went through a traumatic event that drove her further away from her own feelings. And so, in addition to inheriting my dad’s macho attitude, I got my mom’s habit of avoiding emotions, negative ones in particular.

It was Sam who helped me overcome this tragic handicap. First, she tunes into my emotional state. Then she gives me the nurturing I am too afraid to—or don’t know how to—request. She then holds space for me to be vulnerable—a medicine my parents didn’t seem to have.

To help illustrate Sam’s powers, it’s best to show and not tell how she works with children. Recently, Sam was babysitting an adorable six-year-old who grew upset when her parents had to work longer than usual in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Sam could tell that the little girl was feeling ignored. Knowing this “sweet little nugget just needed some lovin’,” Sam delivered a prescription of snuggles while the child wept in her lap and explained why she was sad. An hour later, they were on the playground and the nugget was crossing the monkey bars with confidence.

This is Sam’s gift and it’s been working its magic on me since we met. Her secret is what might be called “extreme empathy.” She feels everyone’s pain and is often willing to take it on to help. One of Sam’s favorite books to read to her students is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. She relates to the apple tree in the story that gives a little boy everything he needs while he grows older. Over the course of the boy’s life, the tree gives the boy parts of itself—apples, branches, and its trunk to make a boat—until the tree eventually becomes a stump. The boy returns to the tree as an old man. Only a stump by this point, the tree can only offer the man a seat. “The tree was happy.”

Like the Giving Tree, Sam often feels that she gives pieces of herself to others to relieve their suffering. When Sam wakes up in the middle of the night, more often than not, it’s because of her extreme empathy flaring up. Worrying about others, she sympathizes with a problem I’m having, thinks about how she can help her struggling sister, or how scared her students are at having to go back to school during the pandemic.

Like the Giving Tree, Sam gives pieces of herself to the people in her life and lets them empty themselves out in her presence. It’s what she did with that child she was babysitting and it’s what she’s done with me many times. Sam lets you vent if you’re frustrated or pout when you’re down. I can share an insight from therapy, an idea for a story, or a dream I had the night before. And when I empty myself, I feel full.

Early on as we got to know each other, I told Sam about a previous long-term relationship I had with a woman I’ll call Paige. With Paige, I felt like a lottery winner. I had found someone who satisfied my emotional needs and my desires for sexual fulfillment. We broke up six years ago and I told Sam that my heart had been “bluey” ever since. I had been dating casually but was emotionally unavailable for romantic partners. I had also developed the unfortunate pattern of looking for sexual fulfillment from women who I knew wouldn’t satisfy my emotional needs. It’s a painful trick I often play on myself. If I pursue someone who’s a poor fit, the relationship will ultimately fail. And when it fails, I don’t get hurt because I knew it would never work anyway.

Sam helped me patch up my bluey heart.

Spending time with Sam helped me realize I wasn’t reflecting on my relationship with Paige. Comparing Paige to Sam, I had overestimated how intimate I’d been with Paige. Paige wasn’t as attuned to my emotional needs as I had thought. The night before she moved to the west coast, we attended a Red Sox game. Distraught over her departure, I broke into tears on the subway on the ride home. Paige rubbed my back awkwardly, not knowing how to comfort me, as my mom might have done when I was a boy. Also, in looking back, Paige wasn’t much interested in my writing goals either. To be fair, it’s not that she didn’t care at all about my dreams. Rather, she was in her mid-twenties and didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on my self-discovery and evolution because she was learning and developing who she was at the same time.

As I spent more time with Sam, the loneliness and disconnection I had been feeling began to lift. It was a tremendous boost for me to talk about writing with Sam. Together, we stoked the fires of each other’s passion for the craft. We listened to each other’s ideas, helped nurture them into reality, and read and edited each other’s work. It’s not uncommon for one of us to text the other about a compelling premise for a story and then send a screenshot the next morning of the first page we’ve written. Sam was my sounding board for story or article ideas.

With more attention and dialogue around my passion, the quality of my work began to improve. So powerful was having someone interested in my ideas, it gave me the confidence to take creative risks in my work. During my MFA, I changed my style of fiction from a commercial to a literary style—from Dan Brown to Edgar Allen Poe. My writing went to another level and publishing opportunities started to roll in.

Meanwhile, if I ever became frustrated or confused, Sam held space for me to be vulnerable. It was the first time I had ever relied on someone and it felt good to be supported. When my head is in the clouds, musing over concepts or philosophizing over theories, I can neglect the mundane tasks of daily living. If I’m preoccupied, Sam steps in to remind me to update my iPhone. She’ll grab a broom and sweep the floor if it’s been neglected. She’ll help diagnose a computer issue if it’s driving me crazy. If I have a demanding workday approaching, Sam will deliver an iced coffee to my apartment.

In therapy, I continued to explore my failed relationship with Paige. It took a while, but at last I figured out why our breakup had destroyed me.

When I was about five, my mother left our family for a year or so, which confused my younger brother and me. For us, it was the incomprehensible nature of her leaving that was most traumatic. Another inexplicable loss occurred when my grandmother died of cancer when I was seventeen, which re-triggered the loss of my mom in me. So when Paige moved across the country, I once again felt abandoned by a woman for reasons I didn’t grasp. But I knew Sam wasn’t going to leave and that was good medicine for a bluey heart like mine. I once asked Sam where she thought she’d be in five years. “Wherever you are,” she said.

Over time, I recognized that though I had loved Paige, we met at the wrong time in our lives. I knew that if I didn’t follow her to the Pacific Northwest, I would lose her. And I did lose her. Selfish as it may seem, I didn’t follow her because I needed that time to focus on my writing. A young artist needed time—years of intense study. Misguided or not, I felt if I didn’t give everything to the craft in my thirties, I’d never become who I wanted to become. Again, perhaps this is self-centered, but writing gives meaning to my life and I’ve made sacrifices for it. I sacrificed someone I loved.

Two years into meeting Sam, I got the closure I needed with Paige. I got in touch with Paige and apologized for not moving across the country with her. She expressed her regret as well. She admitted that she knew I needed that time and that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill that supportive role that was essential to me. She needed that time to transition as well—to continue learning and understanding who she was and find her place in the world.

The medicine for trauma isn’t just talking, reflecting, and shedding cathartic tears. It’s also humor. Sam can be lighthearted and playful, and she sometimes giggles at my “serious” ideas about life and death. Without invalidating my ideas, Sam can make light of my criticisms about mindless careerism, the irresponsibility of the media, and the shortness of life. When Sam pokes fun at my seriousness, it lightens me. It reminds me to stop thinking about life and focus on living it. I became sillier and more fun-loving, especially with Sam. I’m still just as dedicated to my work, but I take the journey less seriously now. Thanks to Sam, I take myself less seriously.

Now, I would be remiss without revealing that Sam loves me hard. The love and affection that Sam shows me pales in comparison to anything I’ve experienced in previous relationships. Her love is so intense, it can’t be avoided or denied. I’m staggered and inspired by it. But are we “together”? Are we dating? It’s the question everyone asks. It’s a constant hum in the background of our companionship. I often think of Sam as my best friend, but she’s much more than that.

In the beginning, Sam expressed her desire for physical intimacy, but I have been holding that part of our relationship back. It’s not just that Sam doesn’t quite fit my “type,” which motivates how I choose sexual partners; it’s that our relationship provides something more vital to me. I wasn’t opposed to the possibility of these desires developing, but when they didn’t, I started to believe that we could continue our unique dynamic forever. Who cares if weren’t “boyfriend and girlfriend”? Given how emotionally satisfying our connection is, I could do without the erotic part.

Eventually, this logic broke down. I went on dates with other women and concealed them from Sam. Even though Sam and I aren’t in an official “relationship”, I felt disloyal when seeing other women. Whatever dating I did was short-lived anyway. I always came back to Sam because I enjoy her company the most. I have the most fun with her. I’m most fulfilled by her. I love her. And so, I stopped going on dates.

But this still didn’t address Sam’s desires. So I tackled that conflict by doing what Sam always gives me space to do: be emotionally vulnerable, a skill that took me years to learn and one that all men would be wise to learn in the 21st century. I divulged that I cherished our connection and intimacy, but was still uncertain about my desire for sexual fulfillment. I told her that our deep emotional connection is more important than the passing pleasures of physical intimacy, at least for now. I questioned whether our connection needed to be defined. Could we just keep caring and supporting each other with a label?

During this conversation, I confessed that meeting her was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I said that she had helped dissolve the disconnection that had found its way into my life in my thirties. I cherished the fact that she watched out for me and wanted the best for me. I had found someone I could laugh with, write with, and go on adventures with.

I had thought I won the lottery with Paige, but I struck gold with Sam. Meeting Sam helped me realize what was missing in my relationship with Paige. I was broken after Paige and Sam helped put me back together. Sam fixed my bluey heart. Now I know how to love again, and, in doing so, how to live again.

Dustin Grinnell’s creative nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Vice, Salon, Hektoen International, and Writer’s Digest, among others. 

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Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Little Buddy

February 12, 2021
creature

By W. T. Paterson

The chill in the air settled against the fading blue sky as Porter lugged an ancient wooden storm panel around the side of the house. The cold sand shifted under his boots turning each step into an arthritic nightmare for his knees. It felt like the end of an era. The summer house that once teemed with life now sat empty and cold leaving only the rat-a-tat knocking of a pesky woodpecker that wreaked yearly havoc on the panels. Buddy, his son, had always helped with the end-of-season board-up, specifically shooing away the bird, but the boy had moved to the big city for a fancy hospital job and Porter was lucky if he got a phone call every other month. Minnie, his wife, took over their Massachusetts house after her therapist suggested a trial separation now that Buddy had grown. Minnie agreed before Porter could weigh in and all but exiled him to his family’s seaside cottage in Maine for the winter. A quarter-century worth of marriage dissolved like a cruel magic trick. One moment things were fine, and the next the veil lifted to reveal the great absence of a used-to-be.

The wooden panel slid into the de-screened slot and hooked into place with rusted latches. Porter rested his sore shoulders and aching back and looked out across the empty beach. The calm ocean barely rippled, more lake than tidal beast roaring with surf. With the summer crowds gone, the small town barely stirred. A part of him believed that being holed up in the place for the winter would bring some clarity to the situation, that the isolation would do him good until the rat-a-tat started up again.

Porter wiped his brow and then slapped the boards. The thick panels shook, and the knocking ceased.

He stepped outside and around the house toward the bulkhead for the final panels, and that’s when he saw it; the creature hiding near the cement foundation of his neighbor’s place. A baby dinosaur, a dilophosaurus by the looks and no bigger than a housecat, watched with cautious curiosity. Its yellow skin with red-striped belly sniffed the air through a long, ridged snout. The creature gave Porter a weak warning growl to reveal a curved row of small, jagged teeth.

“Monsters,” Porter said under his breath, and shook his head at the wealthy summer goers like the Hartwells who loved to buy exotic pets in the spring only to decide they didn’t want them come fall. Instead of heading to proper shelters, they stuck the creatures outside to fend for themselves and left town without so much as a second thought. One year, animal control wrangled a Chupacabra after reports of missing cats piled up, and a few years later, the carcass of a tiger was found in the snowy dunes frozen and starved. Finding the small dinosaur was, unfortunately, par for the course.

Porter closed the rusty bulkhead and went inside even though he wasn’t finished. He held his fingers under warm water to melt the stiffness in the joints and considered phoning the town. From the kitchen window, he watched the dinosaur sniff around and make chirping noises, neck craned and eyes large as the shadows of the houses stretched over the dunes and onto the empty beach.

*

The dark autumn sky swallowed the day. No one at the town hall had answered when he called, so Porter left a voicemail requesting that someone collect the dino. Poor thing won’t survive the cold, he said. It’s their blood. They need the heat. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he knew it to be true. Leftover details from his childhood fascination with predators perhaps, or something pulled from Buddy’s picture book filled with sharks and crocodiles and yetis and wolves.

That book was still upstairs, he was almost certain. They read it together every summer until Minnie complained that Buddy should turn his interests toward more sophisticated prose and came home with books about the anatomy, and physiology, and medicine. She tucked the book out of reach where it collected dust and rendered the sturdy pages fragile.

What an odd thing to remember at a time like this, Porter thought as he sat on the well-worn and sun-beaten couch. The muted television glowed with his favorite trivia show as static crackled across the screen. He waited for the phone to ring. He watched in quiet until the contestants shouted with glee as a big-money gamble paid off huge. They danced and twirled and pumped their hands up and down like they had just gotten married, like they had a few glasses of fine wine and a belly full of prime rib and sauntered to the dancefloor still believing the person they married was who they believed they were, that an office job wasn’t built to turn a man inside out, that unconditional love could actually heal a person, that paying hand-over-fist for a future that benefited everyone but themselves was a noble path. “Dreamers,” Porter said, and tried to will himself into a nap. That type of happiness made him uncomfortable. It was exhausting, a game for the young. It was why those trivia shows never cast anyone over thirty, because anyone older knew the that the world was a limited path with nothing but forced naps that wouldn’t come in a cold and empty house inside of a town that only lived for a single season.

When the evening news came on and the weather forecasted only cold days ahead, Porter went into the kitchen to scrounge up some dinner. In a cupboard was an unopened box of Rainb-O’s cereal, buddy’s favorite. He purchased a new box every year in the hopes that his son would visit and they could both share a bowl like the old days. He didn’t want to open the box, just in case.

In the back of the freezer, he found two steaks so frozen and frostbitten that they could hammer a nail. He took one out and ran it under the faucet resigning to finish installing the panels in the morning. Over the hiss of the tap, he could faintly make out the lonely wail of the baby dinosaur somewhere outside.

“Poor thing,” Porter said, and against his better judgement, filled an unused bamboo salad bowl with water and walked outside. At the base of the front steps, he put the bowl on the ground and whistled for the creature. The long, gravel driveway wound around sleepy dune grass, cut through overgrown lawn grass, and intersected with a paved road lined with tall pines. The neighboring houses stood like vacated caverns. Crickets pulsed in the chilly air like the slow breath of a sleeping giant. A moment later at the edge of the shadow, the dilophosaurus poked it’s head out from a patch of cratered dunes and sniffed the air. Porter clicked his tongue and pointed at the water. The small creature took hesitant steps and growled a curious growl.

“Atta boy,” Porter said, and watched the creature approach. “Don’t get used to it, though. Done enough charity for this lifetime.”

The idea turned him sour. Why did he always have to do things for the benefit of others? Why was it his responsibility to fix things? There was that time at the restaurant where Minnie had a little too much and started in.

“We should call and check on Buddy,” she said.

“He’s an adult, Min, he’s fine,” Porter said, feeling the night balance on the edge of Minnie’s fragile mood.

“People can be adults and still drown in the bathtub, Porter,” Minnie said, cupping the wine glass with such ferocity that it was a miracle the thing didn’t shatter.

“Ok. We can go,” Porter whispered, and put on his winter coat. He tossed an extra-large cash tip onto the table in an unspoken attempt to smooth things over with their server – a college girl with large eyes and full lips.

“He thinks money will buy you,” Minnie said, stumbling through the slurred words as the server picked empty plates from the table. “But he’s not your type, is he?”

The server went flush and smiled politely, and something about the reaction made Minnie go ice age. She didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night.

In the morning, she knew she had done something, but couldn’t remember what.

“Jog my memory,” she pleaded, rubbing her head. “You’re upset, and I can’t change if I can’t remember.”

“Said some things is all,” Porter mumbled, and twisted the gold wedding band around his finger to let the feeling go extinct.

A chill ran Porter’s spine, so he turned suddenly to go back inside. It startled the dinosaur and the creature reared back on its small hind legs. A scaley umbrella-like mane shot out from the sides of its head. It rattled like a snake, an unmistakable warning.

“Oh please,” Porter laughed. “Been married for nearly three decades. Know what that does to a man? Teeth don’t scare me, pal.”

He chuckled his way up the cold and creaking steps and closed the door inside. As he turned the porch light off, he watched through the glass as the small dinosaur retracted its mane, approached the bowl with curious eyes, and gulped down the water.

That salad bowl was a wedding gift, Porter thought. What an odd thing to remember at a time like this.

*

Just past sunrise, the rat-a-tat returned—a crude wooden alarm to usher in the rising coastal sun. Porter pulled the thinning comforter over his eyes and tried to ignore piercing rap, but the tapping pushed awake-ness through his eyelids like the slow drip of a hangover. His bones ached, the fossilized remains of a great used-to-be. Once a man so sturdy he could board up the home by himself breaking a sweat, he now struggled to sit upright in bed. All those years in an office behind a desk staring into sheets and memos and computer screens left little behind, and what remained had eroded into sun damaged skin and liver spots.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter slid out of bed still in jeans from the day before and shoved his wool-socked feet into tired work boots.

“I’m up,” he grunted, and wiped the last bit of sleep from his eyes. He put on the same flannel as yesterday and walked downstairs. The bones of the quiet home creaked with every thumping step, the arthritic walls wailing and moaning too. With day old coffee sitting cold in the cloudy glass pot, Porter poured the thick mass into a mug and tossed it into the microwave. A single spotted banana stared at him from the fruit bowl and he considered the possibility, but instead watched the digital seconds count down until the ding produced a steaming cup of bitter jet-fuel. After one sip, he knew it had turned but he finished the mug as to not be wasteful before heading outside to finish the job.

A familiar dull pain pulled at the muscles between Porter’s shoulders as he lugged another wooden panel from the bulkhead to the side of the house. Two more, and then he could shelter without worry of those winter storms.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter shoved the panel into the sand below an open slot and huffed. He wanted to confront that damn bird, the constant pecking and relentless picking, but what good would that do anyone? No matter what he felt, the bird always came back and the rat-a-tat became a wooden, mocking laughter. At least with Buddy around, the boy could chase the bird through the cool and crunching dunes until he got tired, or bored, wanted to help with the panels. But Minnie always came outside demanding that Porter do something about the incessant, belligerent, ridiculous racket.

“It’s fine, Minnie,” Porter would say.

“Some people come here to relax. Some people need quiet reflection,” she’d say, and flap back inside chirping about how she married the only man in the world who couldn’t stand up to a bird. Buddy would watch from the dunes with large, confused eyes until Porter explained that it would have been Uncle Marius’s birthday.

“Oh,” the boy would say, and spend the rest of the afternoon quietly chasing birds, and bugs and while his father boarded.

Now, as Porter turned the corner of the boarded-up porch, he saw the small dinosaur crouched in the grass watching the gnawing woodpecker.

“Get!” Porter said and swiped at the bird. The dinosaur tilted its head. The woodpecker did a quick loop in the sky and swooped back onto the sill with an anarchic rat-a-tat. Porter’s blood boiled and his ears went hot.

“I said…” he shouted, and the bird took off again. This time, as it swooped over the dunes, the young dilophosaurus expanded its scaley mane and spit a dark glob of venomous, paralyzing phlegm, which wrapped the bird and brought it crashing out of mid-air. The woodpecker landed lifelessly in the nearby sand. The baby creature trotted over and ate the remains with big, proud bites and then looked at Porter with glistening, hopeful eyes.

“Not bad, little buddy,” he said, and though he couldn’t be sure, it looked like the creature smiled at the compliment.

For the rest of the morning, the dinosaur walked along the sand and dunes chasing away seagulls, butterflies, and crickets that came too close as Porter fixed the final wooden panels into place.

At lunch, Porter cooked the other remaining steak, but something chewed at his wandering thoughts. The spotted banana eyed him from the fruit bowl, and Porter knew that sometimes cooking for one was really cooking for two. He slapped the steak onto a Corelle plate and popped outside. The dino poked its head out from between long blades of dune grass.

“Eat up, you done good today” he said, and balanced the plate on the bottom step of the stoop. The creature sniffed the air, eyed Porter, and scampered out to devour the cooked meat. Porter peeled the yellow banana back and ate the sweet fruit—though he didn’t enjoy it—happy to be able to lend his talents to an appreciative crowd.

“If I let you in, you gonna be good?” Porter asked. The dinosaur looked up and continued chewing. “You gonna be good? If you come inside? You’ll be a good boy?” The creature pondered the question like it understood, and finally chirped as it stepped toward Porter’s knee. He gave it a gentle head-butt. Porter reached down and rubbed the top of the scaley head with his tired, heavy hands. “You’re a good boy.”

The baby dinosaur leaned back and sneezed. A tiny fleck of black, venomous phlegm landed on Porter’s knuckle and burned the skin with a terribly, fiery pain.

“Sweet mother of mercy,” he said, rubbing his fist on his jeans. The creature shrank with alarm when it realized what it had done, eyes wide with a different kind of hurt. “Ain’t your fault, boy,” Porter said. “It’s just how you are.” He stood to walk inside, and then whistled. The dilophosaurus perked up and followed, trotting next to Porter’s knees but never crossing in front.

*

Porter started to suspect that something was different that evening. Not wrong, but different. The dinosaur took a wheezing nap against the electric baseboard heater of the thin-walled coastal home. Upon awaking, he watched Porter as though trying to communicate something.

“You hungry?” Porter asked, and the sound of his voice seemed to put the creature at ease. The young dinosaur rolled to his feet and tip-toed over to the couch and placed his scaley and unusually heavy chin on the top of Porter’s thigh. Porter smiled and rubbed the creature’s rough and uneven head. He noted the retracted mane on the neck like wrinkled skin and wondered at nature’s design. The dilophosaurs relaxed into comfort, but the type of comfort that stems from concern and, he wasn’t sure how, but Porter could sense it like a light left on in a room he was no longer using.

When he moved his leg, the creature stepped back and followed him into the kitchen where the man pan-fried a chicken breast and put it in a ceramic cereal bowl – the big one that Buddy always filled to the brim with colorful Rainb-O’s but could never finish, until the year that Minnie insisted he switch over to something more nutritious like sausage and hash browns.

“A growing boy needs protein,” she said. “You keep giving him this, he’ll stay small forever, and be fragile, and his bones will be weak.”

“Ok,” Porter said like a deflating balloon, because every fight with Minnie was an unwinnable task. She fought with the fury and guilt over her wheelchair-bound brother Marius who drowned in the tub as a teen while she took a brief nap. What could he say to curb venom like that? Nothing, and Porter absorbed every last bit until there was nothing left.

The creature chomped at the chicken breast and pulled it apart with a ravenous hunger until everything was gone.

“You’ve got some appetite, lil’ buddy,” Porter said, and opened the cupboards to try and find something else to feed it. All that remained was the unopened box of Rainb-O’s. He rattled the cardboard and the dinosaur tilted its head. Porter popped the top and poured into the ceramic bowl. The creature sniffed the sugary O’s, looked at Porter, and then slowly lapped up the bits with his dark tongue. It only made it halfway through before walking away from the bowl, back into the living room, and pushed himself against the heater.

“How about a bedtime story before the sun goes down?” Porter asked, watching the young dino give in to heavy eyelids and long, strained breath. He knew just the book, it had to be here still.

Upstairs in the closet tucked in the very back of a shelf was the picture book of predators, the thick and sticky pages the same as they ever were. He remembered nights going through the pictures watching his son’s wide-eyed wonder at sharks, and coyotes, and lycans, and felt the venomous sting of a used-to-be erode the sides of his heart.

Downstairs, he sat on the couch and whistled for the dinosaur. The creature lifted its head and walked with a sleepy limp over to Porter, who opened the picture book and read aloud the simple prose. With each picture he pointed to, the creature seemed to smile and drift further into the clutches of sleep, seemingly happy to hear the man’s voice.

*

Porter’s worry began to peak. The creature asleep at his feet sounded like it was having more trouble breathing, and it kept twitching with miniature seizures. He didn’t know if this was natural, or a cause for alarm, so he pulled the phone from his pocket and wondered if his son might take a call in the big city. Wondering things such things made him feel insignificant, burdensome, left behind.

“Hey Pops!” a voice answered, which startled Porter. He hadn’t been aware that he even dialed, and it sounded like his son was at a restaurant, or a bar, or out with friends being social.

“Hey Buddy, it’s your father,” Porter said.

“I know. Call ID. What’s up?”

Porter wasn’t sure where to start, or how to even ask. Stuttering through ideas, he blurted out the only thing that sounded plausible.

“What do you think about having a dinosaur as a pet?” he asked, and then held his breath for the reply.

“Nah, you don’t want a dino. They have to have their own feeding space because they need to eat live meals. Birds, goats, sheep. Lot’s of blood and entrails, pretty heavy cleanup. Only raw food. Their micro-gut biomes are so strong that cooked food doesn’t get transferred into nutrients and they’ll starve to death. No people food. It makes’em sick, like dogs and chocolate. A lot of work, too much work, Pops. Why? You, uh, you doing ok?”

“Oh yes, yes. Just daydreaming is all,” Porter said. Dread rose from his chest into his throat as the creature kicked out again, writhing in some sort of pain. Porter did what he could to mask the anxiety. “How did you get so smart, anyways?”

“Years of mom forcing me to read books about how bodies work. Go figure,” Buddy said. “Hey, can I call you back in the morning? The firm just got a grant and we’re out celebrating.”

“Of course, son. Sure thing,” Porter said, and wheezed out a half-hearted, lonely laugh.

He hung up the phone and bent over the creature. The skin didn’t feel right. He wasn’t sure what right should have felt like, but this wasn’t it. Dry, too dry, and far too warm in the head, while the yellow belly with red stripes felt too cool.

“Don’t do this to me,” Porter said. “Please, I’m doing the best I can.”

The creature opened its eyes and chirped, but it was a distant noise. The pupils irised like a dimming bulb.

“I didn’t know any better,” Porter said, taking the head into his arms and cradling. “I did the best I could with what I knew, with what I had! I’ll try harder, please!”

The dinosaur began to shake and froth. Porter couldn’t look away even though the sight physically pained him, this creature in so much helpless, needless pain. Had the little dinosaur been like this all summer? Slowly starving to death?

A rattle began in the creature’s chest, which forced the remaining air from its lungs like a tea kettle coming to boil. Porter physically felt the life inside the dinosaur diminish, and he broke down into tears.

“I could have done better, I wasn’t ready for you, but I’m thankful we had this. Know that I’m thankful we had this,” he said. A small spark of life came to the young dinosaur’s eye and for that brief moment, they saw each other in the cold room. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew that dinosaur loved him in their short time together.

And then, as the sun dipped over the horizon, the remaining light turned to darkness, and Porter was alone.

*

Porter barely slept, if he even slept at all. After carrying the creature into the basement and deciding to bury it in the woods later, he couldn’t shake the image of the dinosaur’s last moments and how this all could have been prevented with a little attentiveness and research.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter wasn’t in the mood. Of course another bird had come. Of course.

Then he realized it wasn’t a knocking, but a ringing. His cell phone vibrated against the wooden night table with an incoming call from the town offices.

“Heyo, Porter, it’s Len from City Hall. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No,” Porter said, and sat up.

“Anywho, got a call from the Hartwells asking if we’d seen a small dinosaur. Said it escaped as they were packing up last month. I told’em you’d called with a sighting, and they said they’d swing by. Wanted to give warning.”

“Thanks Len,” Porter said.

“Ayuh,” Len said, and ended the call. The morning sun forced its way through the thin drapes with blinding reminders. It didn’t seem fair that days got to start and end.

Porter sat up and put on his flannel, the same as the day before, and noticed a few places where venomous phlegm has burned small holes through the fabric. He ran his thumb over them and felt the immediate, pressing absence of a used-to-be.

Work-boots on, he limped downstairs with cold and tired knees as a shining car with New York plates blasting loud, electronic music pulled up the drive. He saw a young man and woman in their early twenties in the front seat, dark sunglasses pulled over their eyes, hair styled like they had just come from a fashion magazine’s photo shoot.

“You the guy?” the woman asked as she stepped out of the car in high heels.

“Len said you’d seen our dinosaur. Tricky bugger snuck out while we loaded the car.”

“Over those dunes,” Porter said, pointing away from the house. “I was boarding up. Saw’em hiding near the beach.”

“Is he still there?”

Porter shrugged and shoved his aching hands into his pockets. The woman rolled her eyes and whispered to the guy that she couldn’t walk in the sand with heels, and that he should go, and that he better be quick because she wanted to get back to the city by nightfall.

“We have a buyer, you see,” the guy said. “Top dollar.”

Porter didn’t move as the Hartwell boy traipsed into the dunes and whistled, pushing aside long blades of grass to look for any sign of the creature. He walked near the beach, deep into the grass, and then back again before returning to the car.

“Anything?” Porter asked.

“It’s a baby, how far could it have gone?” the woman said, annoyed. She leaned against the car and scrolled through her phone.

“Maybe you should have kept a better eye on it,” Porter said. He took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms.

“Excuse me?” the guy said and took off his sunglasses. He stepped into Porter’s personal bubble.

“You left this town two months ago. Never once came back looking. You can’t treat things that way, can’t abandon something just ‘cause you’re bored. You have to love it. You have to try at least and sometimes stand up for yourself, even when it’s hard, and you have to commit to working through tough times. Otherwise, anything that matters goes extinct and everyone ends up alone.”

“It’s just a dinosaur, dude,” the guy said. He held up his hands like he was trying to ward off a charging bull.

“Let’s just go,” the woman said. “We’ll tell Franco it was hit by a car or whatever.”

The woman opened the passenger door and sat down as the guy stomped around to the driver’s side cautiously eyeing Porter. At the end of the road, a familiar car turned into the drive. The car with New York plates turned around and sped out of the gravel drive as the other car—Buddy’s car—pulled in. Buddy parked and stepped out into the slowly warming day. He stood with large shoulders, a yellow and red striped sweater hugging his frame. Though he hadn’t been away in the city for too long, Porter couldn’t believe how much his boy had grown.

“Hey Pops,” Buddy said, holding an overnight bag. “What did those clowns want?”

“Something they shouldn’t have,” Porter said. “What’s the occasion?”

Buddy shrugged.

“Talking to you last night, I dunno, thought you might enjoy some company.”

Porter hugged his boy and welcomed him inside. With the wooden panels up along the porch wall, the inside felt cavernous and dark, but Buddy brought a certain light to the rooms that hadn’t existed in quite some time. They chatted in the kitchen about life in the city, about Porter’s move to the seasonal home, about the split with Minnie and how situations never stopped evolving.

“It’s good to see you, though,” Porter said after a while.

“No way, is that a box of Rainb-O’s? Haven’t had those in years. Don’t tell mum, but…” Buddy said.

“Say no more,” Porter said. He went into the cupboard and pulled out the recently-washed bamboo salad bowl.

“A growing boy needs his nutrition,” Porter said. Buddy sat at the kitchen table like a happy child while Porter popped the top of the cardboard cereal box. He poured the colorful O’s until the bowl had nearly filled and the box had all but emptied, and sat with his son in a warming house as daylight spilled through the cracks of the ancient wooden panels illuminating the presence of an always-will-be.

W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 80 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Delhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”

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Birthday, Guest Posts, memories

I Hear You, Please Come In

December 26, 2020
birthday

By Charna Cassell

 “The hand that still works grips, won’t let go.”
-Margaret Atwood, A Visit

I recently turned 45 and for the last few years, I’ve dreaded my birthday. Not for reasons you might think, like sagging skin or facing my mortality or no longer making certain age-group cut-offs on dating apps. I’ve dreaded it year after year, right around my birthday, I re-experience the pattern that was imprinted on me before I could talk.

This bracing around my birthday began five years ago. That was the year I offered trauma and resilience training at an orphanage in my birthplace, Nepal. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been to the country since I was 16: I felt like I belonged.

The staff and children threw a party for me on the day I left. The gifts were abundant, and touching: Hand-drawn pictures, a small Buddha statue, a red felt hat. 400 people celebrating your existence with genuine love sets a new standard.

The contrast of returning to Oakland (on my birthday, no less) was stark. As I unlocked the door to my apartment, it struck me that I was entirely alone. This wasn’t a new feeling; during different periods of my life, I’ve felt like an orphan too. Not because I developed a special talent for forgetting my past, or got good at being alone, what with my father in prison for the first half of my life and my mother addicted to drugs and habitually choosing men over me (her ability to parent herself, let alone a child, insubstantial). It was because of what happened when I was born.

A triangle of isolation existed between my dad, my mom, and me before I came into the world. My father was hiding out from the police when an earthquake hit Nepal and my mother fell down a set of stairs, leaving her with a partially severed placenta. Ten days in a rural hospital passed before her water broke and out I came in a rush. I was tucked into a cardboard box that functioned as a makeshift incubator while she grew distraught in a distant room, not knowing if I was okay. Although I imagine I was tended to well by the Nepali nurses, I only saw her intermittently. Years later, I learned they told my mother she would kill me if she overfed me and took me away from her frequently.

My body learned, before anything else, that I could not depend on my primary caretakers for food, shelter, or love. That I could not trust that protection would consistently be available when I needed it.

My nervous system recalls this when my birthday arrives. Around this time, I feel caught between two worlds; trapped between the panic of birth and the numbness of being in utero. A blanket of tension runs the length of my body while my chest feels like it’s clogged with stones.

Under my skin, I sense an urge to mobilize into action, to complete something. To get out of this skin, this relationship, this home, this womb. Anniversaries of any kind can evoke plenty.

What does this tell me? It reminds me that we decide a lot before we are verbal. We know and choose what feels good and right and safe, just as we know in our cells and bones what does not. The frantic flapping in my ribcage, the shame I feel for wanting contact and the assurance that it’ll arrive on time, those stones in my heart—all of these sensations that I experience when my birthday rolls around were created before I had the words to articulate what I needed.

We’re inclined to think of these preverbal feelings as the realm of fetuses and infants, but their distant cousins surface in the adults we become, dictating actions and reactions that emerge without the concrete memories to explain them. This unconscious voltage may run through us for years.

The day before my 45th birthday, I was at a friend’s party. Two men who previously held starring roles in my life—one as a close friend, the other as a lover—were milling around the dance party and food table. Both are my teachers (or my “sex angels,” as I call them) because they come in and out of my world to teach me things and help me evolve. (These lessons don’t have to involve sex, but they do usually involve intimacy and pain.) Echoes of the sorrow and fear I once felt in being alone and forgotten had been activated by both of these men in the past. I was already feeling vulnerable, and now this?

My formerly close friend told me at the party that he was moving to Bali and asked, “Have you been there?” I looked at him and couldn’t tell if he was joking. When I saw that he wasn’t, I laughed in pure awe. Eight years earlier, he had invited me on a month-long trip to the very place he was asking me if I’d ever visited. We’d purchased tickets, planned for it with giddy excitement—and then he disinvited me because his other friend wasn’t sure about traveling with me. Once I reminded him of this, he said, “Why would I want to remember something like that about myself?”

Why indeed.

But memory is an interesting thing. When I think of selective memory, I think of memories that were once conscious but carried an untenable amount of remorse, terror, or grief—so much so they fell into submission, below consciousness, to protect the feeler.

My old lover’s memory seemed to work towards a similar sort of self-preservation. We had an on and off-again relationship for years. When we were on, he expressed he loved me…then later denied it. A week after gender-bending, kinky sex, he forgot it happened.

I broke up with him, and broke up with him again, only to be pulled back in by an invisible thread that seemed to connect us across multiple dimensions. I imagine that our souls and bodies remember each other and that in a different timeline, we were madly in love and able to express this with ease.

In this particular life, he doesn’t have the capacity to be in a skillful relationship with me. Sure, we’re friendly when we bump into each other in the produce aisle—or around the cheese platter at mutual friends’ parties—but he’s cautious and awkward, no matter that (or perhaps precisely because) we’d seen each other naked. With a slice of brie in one hand and a glass of sparkling water in the other, I teetered between wanting to hold him a little too long when we hugged and the desire to turn away.

I saw both of these men three hours after an attachment therapy session where I moved through the preverbal fear of not being chosen, remembered, or loved. The universe, I’m convinced, orchestrated this encounter.

Because here’s the thing: A great deal can be imprinted on us before we’re born or when we were children, but we also have a lifetime to unwind the hardships our bodies remember. Triggers are opportunities to bring buried traumas into the present, to where they can be integrated.

When I was a child, my grandmother disowned my mom. This devastated both of them. It prompted my mom’s self-destructive, numbing actions—her tireless desire to not feel a thing, which she bedded down with for decades.

The first signs of my grandmother’s dementia surfaced during a conversation about attachment theory, when I was trying to explain what can happen when a parent is not attuned to their infant and care is erratic or nonexistent. She interrupted me to say, “Well, anyone who throws away a child should be taken out and shot. I found a baby in the trash can outside my house. I cleaned him up and gave him a haircut. His name is Charlie and he goes to college but every day, he always comes home and eats sandwiches with me for lunch.”

She paused. “He’s such a good boy,” she added.

Charlie was one of many children my grandmother rescued. By her 93rd birthday, she had hundreds of children she’d “adopted,” and they all lived with her in Cassell’s Castle. They all shared her birthday, too, and when we sang, “Happy Birthday, Marion,” she gleefully sang over us, “Happy Birthday to everyone.”

Some of our relatives thought she was crazy. I didn’t. I was only reminded that guilt runs deep, and that what she couldn’t remember—abandoning her flesh-and-blood daughter—was making itself known and asking, in its strange way, to be integrated.

My grandmother passed away five years ago. These days, I treat my nervous system with as much care as she, in her mind, did her Charlie.

I acknowledge my triggers and excavate the source of the original hurt; I try to remain in the present. I power through strength-training exercises with a personal trainer—slow, weight-bearing practices that activate my fight-or-flight response and fortify my nervous system. I parent myself each time I snuggle my dog or take a walk instead of blazing through work and ignoring my need for food or a good stretch or a conversation with nature. I’ve stopped choosing lovers who are scared of their desire for me or the emotions that are aroused in our relationship; ambivalence doesn’t have the same draw it once did. And in the process of becoming as conscious as I possibly can, I realize that these people—from my mother to my father to my sex angels—are each playing their part in reminding me that we are all doing the best we can. That so little is personal.

Through this lens, I see them as gifts that help bring the preverbal forward. I feel through the pain, loss, and separation as if feeling my way through a dark room, knowing, when I reach the light, that their forgetting and absences aren’t really about me.

I am alone I am not alone I am loved I am cherished I am valued I am important I am an item on the menu at Café Gratitude, apparently. And I am 45.

Charna Cassell is an Embodied Leadership Coach and Body-Centered Psychotherapist who has helped people heal and celebrate their sexuality for the past twenty-five years—first as as sex educator and sex toy clerk at San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, then as a somatic coach and bodyworker, and now as a psychotherapist specializing in working with trauma. Charna can be found online here.

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Guest Posts, healing, Mental Health

The Long Path: Healing the Wounds of Childhood

December 15, 2020
bag

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete.
It’s so f***in’ heroic.”
–George Carlin

By Julia K. Morin

When you look at this photo, you probably see nothing more than a plastic bag.

I see the trigger that caused me to have two panic episodes in the hospital— the first roughly three years ago, and the second about a year ago — and ultimately, the catalyst for me realizing I was struggling with unaddressed childhood trauma tied to my mom’s sudden death 25 years ago, and needed to seriously consider trauma therapy (which I began almost five months ago). Unfortunately, due to current events with the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing and the transition to virtual therapy sessions as the new normal for the time being, my therapist and I came to the decision together to table any further trauma “digging” until we’re able to meet in person again. I quickly learned just how emotionally triggering and draining these sessions are, and that I need as much support as I can get — in person — to get through them.

I’m proud of the difficult trauma work I’ve already done, I’m proud of myself for taking the first step (despite how long it took) to recognize that I needed this help, and then getting it — without any shame, explanations, justifications or apologies. And I know I still have a lot of hard, emotional work ahead of me when we resume. But that grueling work is what needs to be done in order to begin peeling back many complex layers, and prying beneath the surface I’ve just barely scratched all these years of loss, trauma, triggers, and how this has all manifested in my adult life.

It has taken me a while to open up about all of this, but recently I had to pick something up for some medical labs, and was sent home with this bag. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because I only saw the white side of the bag. It wasn’t until I got home, put it down and saw it in my dining room, and the words on it, that I realized it wasn’t just any plain old white plastic bag — and felt the familiar panic rising up.

I crumpled the bag up in a ball and threw it in the trash. I crumpled myself up in a ball and threw myself into bed. I took the bag back out of the trash and broke down crying and wanted to set it on fire.

Because 25 years ago, I saw this very same ‘patient belongings bag’ in the dining room of the house I grew up in…and its contents were the clothing & jewelry my mom had been wearing when she entered the hospital, and died less than two days later.

In April 2017, I was in the hospital for a diagnostic procedure (my first time in a hospital as a patient) prior to surgery, and suddenly found myself inconsolable. And then I had an epiphany: the plastic belongings bag I had been given by a nurse. A light bulb went off in my head. And then everything got very dark.

And this is how a plastic bag became the thing that makes me come undone.

My hope is that over time, addressing & talking about this and other trauma triggers/memories (and addressing associated cognitive distortions) will help to lessen the panic and intense emotion an inanimate object or other visual association has been causing me.

Because right now, it feels like a Goddamn plastic bag has control over me.

I keep catching myself saying it’s stupid or it’s silly, because…it’s just a bag. But in truth, nobody else can possibly know or understand how “just a bag” makes me feel. And now I recognize this as trauma.

My plastic bag is someone else’s fireworks that trigger the memory of an explosion that nearly killed them while deployed overseas. Or another person’s certain smell that they associate with someone who abused them.

This is hard, heavy stuff, and I understand not everyone is comfortable with it. I’m still not completely comfortable with it. But if you’re still reading, please remember to be gentle & kind with yourself and with others.

Because these are the invisible battles people are fighting as they go about their day, doing the best they can and just trying to be okay. These are the silent struggles we so often don’t see or know about that keep people up at night. These are the reminders we all need that everyone carries an invisible burden on their back, and what we see portrayed on social media is rarely a complete picture of what people are dealing with internally.

At eight years old, I watched my mom being loaded into an ambulance in our driveway from a bedroom window. That was the last time I ever saw her. That was the last time I would ever see her again for the rest of my life. Will I ever “get over” that? No. Certainly loss and traumatic experiences change shape over time, and we somehow figure out how to continue on with life and adapt with that massive void in our hearts. We learn to “dance with the limp,” in the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers. I know many, many people who have experienced and witnessed horrible, painful things that have changed them forever. They will never be the same. They will never “get over it.” They will be forced to learn a new normal and to figure out how to breathe with a piece of their heart missing, and they will survive and maybe even thrive eventually. But there is no date they will circle on a calendar with a note: “Be done hurting about this by today.”

These experiences are a key part of our stories. But do they define us? No. Neither does how long it takes us to process them, to feel a little less broken apart, to start to patch our shattered hearts back together, to feel “okay” again. And it’s okay if we’re never completely okay again.

It’s okay if we dance with a limp forever.

And, a note about grief now that I’ve recently survived the 25th anniversary of my mom’s death, and another Mother’s Day without her: grief is not linear. Neither is trauma. There is no straight line from point A to point B. There are no shortcuts. There is no right and wrong; no mathematical equation or formula. It has taken many years for me to figure out that the reason I’m still carrying around such a heavy burden of grief and trauma from my childhood is not because I’m broken, weak or somehow defective at healing. It’s because I experienced a significant loss and associated trauma at an age where my brain was still growing & developing, and simply was not capable of processing the loss and its magnitude. The result in these cases is typically a sort of delayed processing that only really begins to occur later in life.

And then one day at 30 years old, you have a panic episode in a hospital (followed two years later by another), and suddenly realize the sheer weight of this grief and trauma you’ve been carrying on your back for 22 years is actually crushing you. It’s winning.

So I decided to take back my power and start on the path of turning trauma into healing. I’m giving myself credit for doing the hard, painful work…and giving myself grace that it’s not going to be an overnight process.

This bag is my cross to bear. It is the tidal wave that keeps trying to ravage my boat, knock me down and drown me.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it steer this ship.

Julia Morin is a writer, wife, aunt, dog & cat mom, sister, daughter, friend, and a survivor, residing in New Hampshire. She is passionate about ending the stigma around both mental health and grief, and speaking openly about these struggles and the ways they have impacted her own life.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Forgiving Mom…Finally

November 29, 2020
day

By Fredricka R. Maister

“Sorry, girls, but the car won’t start so I can’t drive you to the pool today,” Mrs. Gilbert told Joanne and me that hot summer morning. The date, forever rooted in my memory:  August 8th, 1961.

I may have been a clueless 12-year-old kid, but I instantly suspected Mrs. Gilbert was lying.  I didn’t believe for a second that her car had mechanical problems.  Besides, she could have used her husband’s car.  Dr. Gilbert was working in his home medical office, his car sitting unused in the driveway.

I don’t know why, but I could just feel that something catastrophic had happened or was about to happen, something unspeakable. Why else would Joanne and I have had to stay cooped up inside all day, cut off from the sunny outside world?

Strange as it may seem from today’s vantage point, my dread-filled focus and feelings that day centered on nuclear annihilation, World War III, the end of the world. As a baby boomer growing up during the Cold War, I could not forget the  “duck and cover” drills we regularly practiced during the school year. Crawling under my desk, my arms covering my head, I would silently wait,  contemplating what death would feel like in a nuclear blast while still hoping for the “All Clear” bell to sound.

Even though I never heard any news reports or air raid sirens warning us to seek refuge in a fallout shelter, that doomsday consciousness haunted me all day at Joanne’s.  Of course, I kept my thoughts to myself; Joanne would have laughed at me had I told her we were going to be blown to smithereens.

I had slept at Joanne’s house the night before, the latest in a succession of sleepovers at friends’ houses since my 54-year-old father had suffered his first heart attack three weeks before.  While my sister, who was four years younger than I, stayed at home with Mom, I was passed around “like a hot potato” from friend to friend.  I couldn’t remember when I last slept in my own bed; I sometimes wouldn’t see my mother and sister for days.

Physically ousted from my home, I was kept out of the loop on the latest medical updates about my dad’s condition. On the rare times I was there, I would eavesdrop on my mom talking on the phone with family and friends.  That’s how I found out my dad had suffered two heart attacks and was still in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

I once cornered my mother in her bedroom, my need to know the truth about my dad trumping any upset I might cause her. “Is Daddy going to die?” I blurted to which she responded with an evasive “We hope not.”  I never asked again.

For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone and abandoned, but no one seemed to notice or care. I found myself pretending that my home life was normal, and that my dad would soon be discharged from the hospital.  No one ever sat me down and explained just how precarious his medical condition was.

I recall Leslie, another friend I stayed with during my father’s hospitalization, telling me one night before we went to bed, “Let’s pray for your dad.” I didn’t comprehend why we needed to pray when his condition didn’t seem life-threatening.  The possibility that he might die eluded me then and during my stay at Joanne’s house.

In retrospect, I don’t think I consciously connected the dots between Mrs. Gilbert’s “lie” and my father’s health status.  I was too obsessed with being obliterated by an atom bomb.

Joanne and I passed that endless day playing board games and Solitaire.  I kept watching the clock for the hours to pass, but time stood still as my anxiety spiked.  I needed to be with my mom and sister when the bomb was going to drop, but I had to wait until Joanne’s parents could drive me home that evening.

***

An ominous quiet filled the car.  Although I looked forward to seeing my family, the anxiety and dread that had surged inside me all day only intensified.  When Dr. Gilbert didn’t turn the car into the street leading to my house but proceeded to my uncle’s home where Mrs. Gilbert said the family had gathered, I felt my heart sink into the pit of my stomach.  Why was my family gathering anywhere?  Why weren’t my mom and sister at home?  I suddenly realized that the end of the world I had anticipated had been nothing but a figment of my imagination.  All my foreboding had related to an inexplicable inner knowing that my father had died.

By the time we arrived at my uncle’s home, I could no longer deny my new “fatherless” reality. As I raced up the steps to the door where my uncle was already waiting for me, Mrs. Gilbert called out, “ Honey, be strong.”

Finally, privy to the truth, I learned that my father had died at 8 o’clock that morning.  His nurse had just turned on the television. When she turned around to say something to him, he had already succumbed to a massive heart attack that ended his life.

And, just as I suspected, Mrs. Gilbert had lied about the car.  She and my mother had spoken after Dad passed that morning and decided I should be kept away from the pool to avoid running into someone who might say something about his death.

***

That fateful August day back in 1961 has left an indelible impression on my memory and my psyche, more so than my dad’s funeral the following day, which I barely remember.  A few days after his funeral, my mother sent me away, not to mourn but to have fun at the Jersey Shore where my cousins had a bungalow. I was never asked if I wanted to go; I know I would have preferred to stay at home. For over a week as I rode the ocean waves and biked the boardwalk, I, the expert at the “pretend” game, acted as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened.

Unresolved feelings of anger and abandonment associated with the weeks before and after my dad’s abrupt passing followed me into adulthood with an emotional vengeance.  Even now, more than 50 years later, my emotions often feel raw and palpable and I can’t seem to let them go.  Whenever I hark back to those feelings in sessions with my therapist, she tells me that their grip on me keeps me stuck in the past, unable to embrace the present and move forward into the future.

She reminds me that the intentions of family members and friends like Mrs. Gilbert were all well meaning.  In the 1950s and 60s, the priority, as a society, was to shield children from the trauma of a loved one’s death.  There was little recognition that children were emotionally sturdier than they appeared and could handle the truth.

***

I recently had an honest talk with my family about that turbulent time and its emotional impact on my life.  As I expected, my sister justified my mother’s decisions.  “I was in day camp then.  Mom was at the hospital with Daddy all day.  She couldn’t leave you alone at home to fend for yourself. You were only 12-years-old.  As a mother, I would have done the same thing.”

I assumed my nephew, whom I call “my soul child” because our emotional temperaments are usually in sync, would be more sympathetic to my side in our family drama.  Instead, he told me that although it might be cathartic for me to tell the story from my “angry” perspective, I should put myself in “Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time.”

The need to empathize with my mother, who bore the brunt of my anger, has not been a new concept for me. I just never felt motivated to re-visit that part of my past without the resentments and bitterness I’ve been dragging around for decades.  However, since my heart-to-heart sharing with my family, not to mention the emotionally mellowing and wising up that seems to occur as one ages, I’ve felt a shift in attitude, a possible readiness to extricate myself from all that psychological baggage.  To that end, my nephew’s words “to put myself in Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time” resonated, flashing me back in time.

I see my 45-year-old mother, grappling with the reality of sudden widowhood, alone among her friends dealing with the death of her spouse and the father of her young children.  Unlike today, there were no how-to books, self-help articles or support groups; as a woman conditioned to hiding her innermost feelings, seeking professional help was never an option.

Unsupported by the 1950s-1960s culture bent on protecting children from parental illness and death, my mother was muddling through as best she could.  In fact, when I eventually confronted her decades later about her “hurtful” behavior, she apologized, explaining  “I was just doing what I thought was best for you.” I had no doubt that her remorse was sincere, but I still held onto my grievances, unable to cut her some slack.

Despite the blame and anger I have felt towards my mother, now deceased for over a decade, I have never ceased to stand in awe of her strength and resilience in surviving the death of my father.  His sudden passing not only left her a widow but a widow without money.  Our family’s financial status took a sharp downturn to the point of bankruptcy.  My mother sold our lovely house and we moved into a cramped rental apartment she could only describe as “indescribable” in another part of town where my sister and I had no friends. Mom had to go to work immediately.  She had nursing credentials, but the pay was low and the shifts long.

In a matter of a few months, I watched my mother morph from a dependent housewife into a struggling breadwinner who would single-handedly raise two daughters—no mean feat for a single mom.  I might add that those two daughters, despite the trauma of losing a father at a young age, matured into high-functioning, responsible and independent women.  For that, I credit my mother and am most grateful.

***

I have always been a firm believer that people, places and things appear in your life, when the desire to heal is greatest. Such was the case when I came across this quote in an inspirational book I read each morning:  “Forgiving is not about forgetting, it’s letting go of the hurt.”

I’d never encountered that quote nor heard of its author, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) who, according to the National Women’s History Museum, “…became one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the twentieth century.”

The timing could not have been more appropriate as the quote matched up with my growing willingness to let go of the hurtful emotions of my past. Had Mary McLeod Bethune’s inspiring words caught my attention for a reason? After more than 50 years, could it be time to finally forgive Mom?

THE END

When I finally was ready and able—emotionally and creatively–to address my dad’s death in my writing some 15 years later, that fateful day back in August 1961 became the inspiration for my poem, “To My Father.”

TO MY FATHER

Bells of doom

rang in the day.

World War 3, I thought

being a child of the 50’s.

Something was out of tune

silencing all gay songs.

Even time trudged by

like dead weight falling

each plunge—

a dirge of doom.

Why a shroud

over the sun

this day—

until,

Grown-ups’ tears

later revealed the truth to bear:

The bells had tolled for you

at 8:00 am

while my eyes were just opening

to the prospect of a new day—

your doomsday.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York, now based in Philadelphia, whose personal essays have been published in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY.  She has also appeared in the anthologies, ‘The Man, Who Ate His Book: The Best of ducts.org, Volume II and Wising Up Press’ View from the Bed/View from the Bedside.

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eating disorder, Guest Posts

Jumping, But Not For Joy

October 25, 2020

By Rebecca Portela

My senior year of high school started in the midst of my deterioration. I spent a lot of my time reading memoirs of women with eating disorders, while my mother read psychology books on understanding women with eating disorders. Our relationship was fickle, despite the fact that we both just wanted me to be healthy and didn’t know what was causing me to be in such distress all the time.

Thinness was just the side effect of my strict regimen of calorie counting, exercising, and sheer mania. It was simply an ongoing endurance test, and I constantly needed to push my limits. And I always took it too far. My personal record was a whole week without eating or sleeping. Because why stop at starving? Let’s add a side of delirium, too. I spent most of the time at a friend’s house doing jigsaw puzzles. We had taken over the dining room table and the living room floor. We eventually had to dismantle our least favorites to make room for new puzzle stations. I was quite proud of our specific strategy styles. I pulled out the corner pieces and the edges, and he immediately grabbed the two closest pieces and tried to make them fit together. Sometimes he would force them, mashing his thumb down on top of them, convinced that they belonged together. Without speaking, we made piles of same-colored pieces and designated them accordingly. Sometimes we would have to speak and say things like, Be on the lookout for a little hat with some gold in it. During smoke breaks, he sat at the edge of his pool and splashed his feet in the water. He’d take in a big drag and as he exhaled, he’d make definitive claims like I’m gonna move to New Zealand and become a welder. I walked around the edge of the pool, stepping in the exact middle of each tile and saying something like, Can I come with you? We watched the sun come up on the seventh day and, by then, the leaves on the trees were puzzle pieces with little bits of sky. My cigarette smoke made love with his on top of the pieces of puzzle sunrise. I blinked and heard my eyelid unstick from my eye, like fresh Velcro. I knew that he would never move anywhere and he knew I would never go with him. The freckles on his hands lifted off and popped like juicy bubbles, interrupting all the smoke sex. A wild laugh bounced around at the back of my throat and I threw up all of it with the rest of the emotions in my gut. My back was itchy, which was how I knew I was on the grass now, crying or laughing or screaming or puking.    

I fainted at school, and they called my mother to come and pick me up. She warmed up a can of soup that was in my pre-approved cupboard of “safe” foods. It was a soup called “Super Broccoli” and contained exactly sixty calories, and not much else. I waited until she left the room and dumped it down the garbage disposal. It wasn’t long after these periods of rebellion that my body kicked into survival mode and ate, whether I wanted it to or not.

This is where bulimia creeps out of the woodwork. Bulimia terrifies me because she is a slippery garden hose, whipping around in all directions and out of control. She is a gluttonous savage that devours everything in sight and then rejects it. She goes from zero to sixty to zero again in the blink of an eye. I did everything possible to kill that bitch.

I frequently turned to drugs and men when I couldn’t control my eating disorder. It was the only way to curb my obsession and compulsions, which were the actual root of my problem. After my first encounter with drugs, I craved the escape. I craved the insanity. I craved the feeling that nothing is real and so nothing really matters. I liked that my thoughts were turned off and that food wasn’t the focus of my existence. I was too busy being out of my mind. I didn’t have to care about anything.

My utter recklessness should have sent me to an early grave. As I peaked on one of my acid trips, I had a fleeting thought that a police officer, in the distance, suspected something. Or was that a tree? Speaking of which, I needed to get home to plant a tree because I needed to feel connected to the earth. Everything was connected. I was the earth. I was invincible. So I jumped in my car and played a very dangerous game called Driving Home on LSD, listening to “Eleanor Rigby” on repeat. Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for? All the lonely people, where do they all come from? It took me an eternity to drive the twelve miles from Coconut Grove to Cutler Ridge––two hours in real time. I didn’t even have a driver’s license at the time. My hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that they were throbbing and visibly pulsed in front of me. The traffic lights wore majestic tails that stretched out into the swirling neon signs of strip clubs and bars. The fusion of lights, honking cars, and the mysterious symbols on the dashboard was making it impossible to concentrate. A little lightbulb went off in my head every second, rapid fire, you need to push on the pedal, you need to push on the other pedal, now the other pedal again. It was exhausting and a little bit of an existential crisis. I’m still dumbfounded that I didn’t kill anyone that night.

The comedown was always the worst. My entire body was crawling with bugs that weren’t really there. They were digging into my skin and some even made it all the way into my blood, burrowing into my identity, taking over. I wanted to surrender to the creepy crawly bugs of sadness. I could feel myself giving up. I was losing myself.   

2002, eating disorder treatment, take two. The treatment facility tried to incorporate “real life” as much as possible, so that it wouldn’t be as difficult to transition back into the world upon leaving. We were assigned an apartment in a building with regular people. The first floor was the eating disorder floor and the second floor was the substance abuse floor. And the other ten floors were for normal people. Our roommates were also people in the program who vowed to follow an honor system and refrain from “behaviors.” One of my roommates came outside on our porch to join me for a cigarette. She scolded me for doing sit-ups in the middle of the night and told me to cut the shit or leave. The weird part was that I did actually want to get better, but my eating disorder had been with me for so long and had been what kept me company all these years. Little rebellions were all I had left. So I found myself doing sneaky little things just to feel the slightest bit in control. Every night I would slink into the kitchen when everyone was asleep and dump out some of my salad dressing and fill it with vinegar. By the end of the first week, it was 100 percent vinegar. I had never felt more pathetic. I decided to give recovery a real shot.

Each morning both floors boarded a bus that we called the Druggy Buggy, to head to the main building, where we spent most of the day in groups and individual therapy and met with our nutritionist. I was very expressive in group, writing allegories and poems about my eating disorder, comparing it to an abusive lover, a rabid animal, or even a parasite baby inside my womb. At night we would attend various Anonymous meetings around the area. Almost all of the women in the treatment center had issues with drugs and co-dependency, so we attended those meetings as well.

On my eighteenth birthday, I boarded the bus and smushed my face up against the window. I stared out at the traffic and chanted to myself This.is.not.my.life. This.is.not.my.life. Thisisnotmylife. A child in a car seat stared back at me from a car driving below. I forgot where I was for a moment and made silly faces, making the little boy laugh. I glanced over at the mother driving the car. She looked up at me and smiled. She became startled as she noted the words on the side of the bus, checked out the twenty other twig-shaped people inside, and sped off. I peered over the side and read: IN RECOVERY. It might as well have read: THIS BUS IS FULLA CRAZIES. HIDE YOUR CHILDREN.    

I stepped on the scale with the number facing away from me. My nutritionist frowned and scribbled some notes on my chart.

“What’s wrong? What’s happening?” I asked.

“We’ll need to up your fat intake by 50 grams. You’ve lost some weight,” she replied casually. That put me up to 120 grams of fat a day. Being a vegan, this meant I had to chug olive oil.

“This doesn’t make any sense. I thought we were supposed to be learning how to eat normally. Normal people don’t have a nice tall glass of oil with their dinner. Seriously, this is insane. I won’t do it. This is bullshit.”

    This particular treatment center operated very differently than any other facility I had experienced. They banned all sugar and flour from our diets and focused on a more whole foods approach. The idea was that sugar and flour were addictive empty calories. It was also one of the main reasons I agreed to admit myself. Ya know, before I knew I’d be doing shots of oil without a chaser.

The girls that were following their meal plan and maintaining their weight got special privileges. They got to choose between a thirty-minute run, an outing with a trusted pre-approved person, extended phone calls, or being able to come along on group field trips. I was doing really well and got awarded all privileges. As I sat awaiting my turn on our bowling outing, all that oil just didn’t seem worth the payoff.

For my unsupervised outing with my person, I chose my boyfriend, Jason, to take me to dinner. There was a vegetarian restaurant called Here Comes the Sun that I was excited to go to. I had never been to a fully vegetarian place before. He came to pick me up and we hugged for a long time. We hadn’t really spoken since I told him I had a problem, a problem so big that I needed to go to rehab for it. He was as supportive as he could be for someone he’d just started dating, but he didn’t really know how to proceed.

We started driving and the farther we drove from the center, the more antsy I got. What if we just ran away and never went back? What are they gonna do? I needed to rebel in some way. I had to take this opportunity.

“Pull in here,” I said, pointing to a cheap motel off the highway.

“What? Why? We have reservations. What are you saying?”

“C’mon. I miss you. It’ll be hilarious.”

He turned into the parking lot and we giggled wildly as we walked to the front desk knowing we would be checking out a few hours later. I giggled even more. I was skipping dinner. And going to get away with it.

The room greeted us with fragrant, stale must. The one working lightbulb strobed and hummed, leaving little to the imagination of what kind of sketchy meetings this room had seen. The motel bathroom was maybe once lime green, but now had a permanent brown film coating the walls. The shower curtain was decorated with cigarette holes. We looked at the floor and sat on opposite sides of the bed.

“You look well. How are you really doing though?”

The air conditioner dripped arrhythmically. 

“I’m good. Can we talk about something else?”

He started talking about his grandmother, who was sick but still had her spirit. He tried to visit her once a week. They always went to the same restaurant. And he always made the same jokes that she liked to laugh at. He told me stories of stupid things his friends had done over the weekend. I rested my hand on the unusually moist bed and immediately yanked it back to my lap. We were sitting in front of each other, like a jail call with the glass in between us. I was in jail and he was living on the outside and this wasn’t real life. The light flickered, making his face look like he might ask things like, Do you want to die tonight? I started to cry and he awkwardly moved over to me and put his arms around my shoulders. He smelled like fresh mint and cloves.

The week before I was discharged, my therapist had me write a letter to myself that she would send to my house six months later. I stared at the blank piece of paper and honestly couldn’t imagine what six months from then would even look like. Or what I would possibly want to read from my six-months-younger, in-treatment self. What wise words of wisdom could transcend the barriers of a possibly relapsed future me? Or a possibly flourishing me? Or a possibly deceased me, and my poor mother opening this now irrelevant letter from her then-alive daughter?

Bex,

Don’t fuck it up.

Seriously.

I stuffed the letter in an envelope and gave it to my therapist.

“That was a short letter.”

“Yep. Short and sweet.”

Rebecca Portela is a writer and speaker for human rights and animal protection in New York City. She specializes in the genres of psychology and comedy writing. She recently finished writing her memoir, Unearthed, where she uses her unique sense of humor to address difficult subject matters, including PTSD and sexual abuse. Her work can be found in Idle Ink magazine, Beyond Words (Queer Anthology), X-Ray, trampset, io Literary, Stone of Madness Press (inaugural issue), and elsewhere.

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Chronic Illness, Guest Posts, pandemic

What Doesn’t Kill You Still Sucks: HIV & COVID-19

August 28, 2020
covid

By Martina Clark

The last time I went outside it was March. March 2020, I believe, but who actually knows. Time has become the intellectual equivalent of holding water in your hand.

Like most of us, I’m under ‘stay-at-home’ rules during this pandemic. I live in Brooklyn, NY which has had approximately the same number of cases of COVID-19–and twice as many deaths–as all of Canada.

Like too many of us, I’ve also been under quarantine. It is almost certain that I have contracted COVID-19, although I can’t confirm this with 100% certainty because it is nearly impossible to be tested for the virus. The only viable way to get a test is to go to a hospital. On the off chance I have some other illness with identical symptoms, the last place I want to go is to an Emergency Room filled with people who are already ill. I don’t want to expose myself further. I don’t want to get on public transportation to travel. And I certainly don’t want to add to the burden of overwhelmed health care workers just for a test.

I’m about three weeks into this journey and I count my blessings every day that I’ve had a ‘mild’ case which, from my experience, presented as such:

  1. Fatigue. Extreme fatigue. Early on in this global health crisis, I joked that my ‘quarantine adaptive gene’ was strong because I’m quite happy to stay home and am never bored. But being lazy is not the same as fatigue and this virus made it nearly impossible to get out of bed many days, and the smallest of tasks wore me out. I’m slowly getting back to normal, but I still need more sleep than usual.
  2. Body aches. Again, I’m not a super sporty person, but walking up and down a flight of stairs is normally not a challenge. With this virus, however, one flight of stairs–up or down, not even both directions–felt like I’d done a thousand squats, run a marathon, and been poked with needles all at the same time.
  3. Chest pain. This is the part that lingers but, mercifully, with lessening intensity. In the first week of illness, I felt as if I had claws inside my rib cage. I’ve had bronchitis and I’ve had shingles. This was more painful than both combined. Today, three weeks later, it only feels like a Shrek-sized creature is squeezing my chest. Tightly. It hurts more if I sit too long. It particularly hurts in the morning when I wake up. But it is better. Much better.
  4. Nausea. Motion sickness on steroids. I choose to believe that whatever creature was clawing inside my chest was also making sardine milkshakes for fun. The worst was waking up to the nausea, although going to sleep with it wasn’t much fun either. During the day, it would sometimes abate, but not for long. It also lingers but is much milder than before.
  5. Headaches. I thought I’d been spared the headaches, until I wasn’t. They hit me quickly and like a brick. I’ve only ever had one migraine, but this was reminiscent of that experience, although without the light-sensitivity. Thankfully, those were neither constant nor lingering.
  6. Sore throat. Similarly, I thought I’d missed this symptom, but it joined my COVID entourage in the third week. It is not unbearable, but it is unpleasant. But I can swallow and breathe so I count myself lucky.
  7. Dry cough. The least annoying and, luckily, the least severe. I’ve definitely had worse coughs in my life, but this remains worth noting, as it is a regular reminder that I’m still not over this virus which is still working its way through after three weeks.
  8. Fever. Apparently, I’m a bit cold blooded because my temperature never topped 99º.
  9. Loss of smell or taste. Never happened. The litter box still needs regular cleaning.
  10. Shortness of breath. I count every lucky star in the sky that I never experienced any shortness of breath. My breathing has been shallow, and still is, but I’ve never struggled for air. I am so very lucky.

But this is not my first virus rodeo. The real kicker in this story is that this year marks the fact that I’ve been living with HIV for half my life, 28 years to be exact. I sincerely believed I’d served my time with life-threatening viruses but, apparently, the universe thought otherwise. I followed the guidelines, socially distanced, washed my hands, sanitized surfaces, and used face coverings before they were cool, but I still got exposed.

Most likely I was at higher risk because I have HIV. On the other hand, I’m wondering if I managed to avoid a worse case because I already take antiretroviral medications for HIV. I don’t know, nobody does. My doctor said that they are designing trials to study COVID-19 in people with HIV so perhaps they’ll be able to, one day, find out. I will gladly volunteer to be studied, as I have with WIHS, a natural history study of women living with HIV for the past 25+ years. My nephew calls me a ‘living resource’ which makes me proud and gives my survival that much more purpose.

Last week my doctor told me I was cleared to go outside, like actually outdoors, but I haven’t yet. Each day I look out the window and think, maybe tomorrow. I have amazing neighbors who shop for me when needed.

I have an extraordinary crew of siblings and niblings who check on me, send fruit baskets and cards, and offer to do grocery runs on my behalf and then drop and dash, leaving the goods at my doorstep.

My partner, by chance, was away visiting family–and is now stuck in another state–so I have not had the added burden of worrying about putting him at risk during my quarantine. Thanks to FaceTime we’re connected several times a day so although I am alone physically, I am far from lonely. It may sound strange, but I am grateful he is not in New York right now to experience this catastrophic chaos or the incessant wailing of ambulance sirens.

Friends check on me, my doctor checks on me, family check on me, and my beautiful cat, Sangha, reminds me that she is still in charge and needs more snacks. She snuggles with me and provides feline contact. She’s a tiny warm body, but she still counts.

And, surprisingly, (or maybe not) I feel far less alone than I did when coping with my diagnosis for HIV. We don’t know much about COVID-19, but this pandemic has hit like a tsunami. The numbers are staggering and horrific, but I know I am–tragically–not alone. 

With HIV, however, I’d never seen another woman with HIV–that I knew of–and so I felt I was on my own. I wasn’t, but that was how it felt. Today we are building on the experience and knowledge borne from the response to HIV and AIDS. While it is a reminder that we didn’t act quickly enough in the 1980s and 1990s to that pandemic, it is, at the same time, gratifying to know that all of the work that has been done by activists and scientists, and others, has not been for naught.

I’m so blessed that my story continues to transition to a happy ending, yet so very sad not everyone else is as lucky. My heart goes out to all who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as to HIV and AIDS and all of the other awful fatal causes. Stay home if you can. Stay safe as best you can and know that you are not alone.

Martina Clark teaches writing for CUNY, but previously worked for more than 20 years as an HIV educator for the United Nations system, notably for UNAIDS, UNICEF, and UN Peacekeeping. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. Martina lives in Brooklyn, NY, but will forever be a Californian.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Daughter Lost

July 2, 2020

By Katrina Willis

We had borrowed a baby, and now the baby was gone.

“Where did you last see her?” I asked my friend.

“I don’t remember,” she said. “But look… there are turkey sandwiches for lunch.”

“We can’t eat turkey sandwiches when the baby is missing,” I said.

“I’ll be quick,” she said. “I’m so hungry.”

While she ate her turkey sandwich, I rushed frantically from baby to baby—there were so many in the stress center waiting room—looking for the one we were responsible for. But the babies all had the same faces, and I could no longer remember what our borrowed baby looked like.

The car seats on the floor—there were so many—were all empty.

People wandered around, drugged and dazed, in stress center scrubs. The scrubs had no ties. Ties were too dangerous to those who wished themselves or others harm.

We didn’t find the baby before I woke. She remained missing.

It was just a dream, of course. But it wasn’t.

The baby was missing.

***

My 19-year-old daughter had texted me the day before: I only ever wanted my fucking mom. But she died when you came out. I don’t even recognize you anymore. I doubt I’ll ever get her back.

The word was a dagger.

            Died.

            Dead.

I was dead to her.

Erased.

Eliminated.

***

I’d spoken with her brothers earlier in the week. First the baby (17), then the oldest (23). The middle (20) chose to remain his usual silent self.

The two who talked told me they wanted more one-on-one time with me. I assured them I could do that. They listed all the things they thought I’d done wrong when I came out as gay, when their father and I divorced after twenty-three years.

I let them air their grievances. I listened. I nodded. I acknowledged their pain. Divorce is hard on everyone.

“What can I do moving forward?” I asked. “What matters most to each of you?”

“Time alone with you,” they agreed. And they said I should talk to their sister. She was the angriest of all. They told me to prepare myself for her storm.

There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for a child negating your existence.

***

When she was a baby, she never cried. She watched the world with bright, blue, inquisitive eyes. She laughed at her older brothers and sucked two fingers on her right hand. Her pink blankie went with her everywhere. When I had to wash it, she stood in front of the washing machine with her pudgy, starfish fingers pressed against the window. She cried as the pink spun round and round, “My blankie. My blankie!”

Before speech therapy she could not properly say her “r’s.” And she had so many ear infections when she was little, she could not hear the mispronunciation. Her father and I used to laugh at her adorable impediment. Hands on hips, she would confront our laughter with disdain. “I not talka you, Mama!” she’d say. I would fold her up my arms, hug her into my chest.

“I love you, Mary Mack,” I would assure her. “You’re my sweet, precious, smart girl.”

She was kind and gentle with animals. She loved them all, from hamsters to fish to puppies.

She and I made bags for the homeless because she was so distressed by the thought of someone sleeping on the street without an Oreo. We filled the bags with bottled water, toothbrushes, deodorant, and snacks. She and her little brother decorated the brown, paper outsides with sentiments like, “Hope you find a home soon!” We passed them out at stoplights and intersections.

***

The initial call went well. She was 2,200 miles away at college, walking on the beach.

“It’s going to rain here soon,” she said. “I might not be able to talk long.”

I asked her what she needed from me. She told me I was different.

“How so?” I asked.

She couldn’t articulate.

I wondered: Does she think I’m different because she’s only ever known me as a wife and mother? Is it hard for her to imagine me as a human, an independent woman who has her own doubts and fears and dreams? Is that why I felt different to her?

But she couldn’t really say.

I assured her that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that I hadn’t changed even though our family dynamic had. I was still her mother, I would always be her mother.

Then the rain came, and she was gone.

***

When my four kids were little, I read to them every night before bed. In our white-picket-fence-suburban-home, there was an upstairs hallway that connected all their bedrooms. At one end, was a sitting area with a rocking chair and a bookcase.

We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and when the mountain lion attack came, I choked back my sadness, breathed deeply.

“Do you want me to finish, Mom?” my oldest son asked as tears streamed down my face.

But I continued to read the fates of Old Dan and Little Ann.

My sweet, sensitive daughter burst into tears and ran into her room, crying, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too sad!”

It was Little Ann dying of grief over the loss of her beloved companion that shook me the hardest.

I didn’t fully understand that kind of grief until 16 years later when my blue-eyed beauty—who no longer had a speech impediment—erased me.

***

“She thinks she should have never been born because I’m gay,” I tried to explain to my own aging mother as I sat with her in the nursing home and cried.

Of course, I ran to my Mom. My rock. I needed her then like I’d never needed her before.

“She says she shouldn’t be alive, and she doesn’t know how to reconcile the fact that she is. She said I lied to everyone my whole life, but I didn’t, Mom. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could create a life with a woman. Her dad and I had 23 mostly good years together, but he wasn’t perfect, either. If she knew all the details about him, she might feel differently. But those aren’t my stories to tell. They’re his.”

“Oh, Trinks,” my mom said, “I can’t believe this is happening. You’ve been such a good mother to those kids their whole lives. Why is she being so selfish now?”

“She’s hurting, Mom. And I understand that. But she blames me for everything. She says her dad didn’t leave, I did. But I never left my kids, Mom. I would never leave them. I left the marriage. Their dad did, too. It was a mutual decision. But that’s not how she sees it.”

“She will someday,” Mom assured me. “She’s angry and young and selfish, but she’ll come around.”

“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.

What if she doesn’t?

***

I’ve thought mostly about pills or a closed garage. The other options seem too brutal, too violent. I don’t have access to a gun, and I’m afraid of heights. That makes a jump pretty implausible.

I’ve Googled the effects of suicide on the children left behind, and it’s not pretty.

But neither are the effects of coming out as gay and divorcing, either.

Would they be better off without me? Would they heal more quickly if I just removed myself from the picture? Would they bond more closely with their often harsh and degrading father in my absence? Would they appreciate my life insurance money more than they appreciated my presence?

Is it the one gift I can give them to atone for bringing them against their will into this painful world?

Ending a marriage that was laced with infidelity and condescension—and at the end, physical assault—seemed the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to stay in that situation. What kind of example was I setting for them if I continued to stay? To take it? To let myself dissolve into nothingness?

I thought I was teaching them to stand up for themselves, to live their own truths, to never kowtow to another.

But in their eyes, the lesson was about leaving instead of staying. It was about lying instead of living.

They were happier when I was closeted and quiet.

Was I?

***

My cousin said to me, “I don’t take credit for any of my kids’ successes, and I don’t take the blame for any of their shortcomings, either.”

I’m trying to cling to that belief system, but my guilt is strong. It’s a super power of mine, feeling the responsibility for everyone else’s well-being.

Some call that co-dependence.

***

I cry most every night thinking about my kids’ pain. All I’ve ever wanted is their happiness, but I cannot create it for them. Only they can make that choice. Each of them, individually.

I have loved and supported and championed them. They have had nice homes and good food and basements full of toys and fun vacations and strong educations. They have been held, nurtured, encouraged, and cheered. They have been disciplined and taught manners and have been held accountable for their actions.

They have been beloved.

They are beloved.

And they are themselves now, no longer mine.

When my head is on my pillow, I can still smell the sweaty, sweet scent of their baby hair; can feel the weight of their baby bodies in my arms in the middle of the night, feeding them, keeping them safe and warm, their baby bellies distended and full.

But when I wake, my pillow is just a pillow, smelling mostly of Downy dryer sheets.

And the baby is missing.

Katrina Anne Willis is the author of Parting Gifts (She Writes Press, April 2016). Her personal essays have been featured in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, and Nothing but the Truth So Help Me God. She was recognized as one of six distinguished authors at the 2016 Indianapolis Book & Author luncheon, was named a BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us & Voice of the Year; was awarded the 2014 Parenting Media Associations Gold Medal Blogger Award, participated in the 2013; Listen to Your Mother&; show, and was a 2011 Midwest Writers Fellow.

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Gratitude, Guest Posts, memories

Take The R Train

April 2, 2020
choice

By Laraine Herring

My mother could have remained in Bay Ridge, taking the R train into Lower Manhattan to work at the Stock Exchange. She could have not met my father, who could have passed Spanish at Wake Forest and graduated there instead of transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where they did not require two years of Spanish for a History major, where he did meet my mother, who was the first female accepted into the graduate school of mathematics at Chapel Hill, at an uncharacteristic football game where she’d gone with her roommate as an out for her blind date. But if she had remained working at the Stock Exchange riding the R train this would not have happened.

My father would have married a woman named Betty, not Elinor. I’m reasonably confident of this because when he died we found drawings Betty had made for him of his face, his golf swing, his eyes, and she called the house a lot and tried to make friends with my mother. She stopped calling once we moved from North Carolina to Arizona, but I still have one of the pictures she drew in a box in my closet. She could have been my mother, but there’s a reasonable chance she is dead now, or at the very least married to someone who never quite measured up to my father, but who nonetheless was a decent man. Betty could be writing this piece too. She would start with: I might have married Glenn…and I don’t know what she would have written next because I don’t know her. But I have her picture.

My father could have died with the polio in 1949 like he was supposed to. Like everyone did. Like the boy who was in the iron lung next to his who died in the night, my father talking to him in the dark, not realizing he had gone. The boy’s name was Charlie, and the two times my father spoke of him, he trailed off into ellipses.

Charlie could have lived like my father lived. He could have broken out of the iron lung and not imprinted my father with his death in the night. It is hard for a boy of eight to carry the death of a boy of seven in the dark. That’s a weight that lingers, like the bitter of chocolate.

My father could have died in 1976 after his heart attack like he was supposed to. Like the doctors said he would. Like maybe he would have, except one round of doctors had already told him in 1949 he should have died and he told them he was not going to die and so he had a script for what to do the next time he heard that.

I could have died in 2017 of colon cancer, but I didn’t. I knew how to tell the doctors no because my father told them no twice. Even when he died, he told them no. He pulled out his tubes in unconscious urgency. He clawed at his oxygen. It was his time for dying, and he was telling them no to the saving.

If my father hadn’t died in 1987, I would have gone to Oregon. I had a scholarship to William and Mary and I was desperate to get out of the desert and into the green. But I graduated from high school in 1986 and I knew I couldn’t go because my father was dying and so I didn’t go, but every time I visit the Northwest I see my shadow in the train and I see a possible life where I wouldn’t have met my husband, who is a born and bred Northern Arizona man, a man who becomes sad in the rain. Too much sun makes me sad, but not my husband, and somewhere between 1986 and now I realized that every choice I make may not give me everything I want. Every choice is many choices. I can visit the trees and the water and the damp, but I slept with many wrong people before I met my husband and I know what right feels like now, even if it’s in the desert.

If I hadn’t lived with the abuser in 1988 after my father died, I wouldn’t have had my heart smashed open to an empathy I didn’t know was possible. Or I might have died there. Other women do. I walked out of their graveyard.

If my father’s family had not been Southern Baptist we might have remained in the will and could be living in North Carolina by the Atlantic in the family home. We could have an altar of sand dollars on the dining table, gathered over years of morning walks at low tide. I might wear navy and forgo white after Labor Day and know how to can peaches. But probably not.

If I had stayed in Phoenix in 2003 instead of moving to Prescott—I had to get out of the haunting heat-sun—I wouldn’t have met my husband. I left Phoenix because a tree fell on my house and then I had a dream that echoed the dream I had when we first moved to Phoenix in 1981—I will die in this place if I don’t leave—and so I was gone in a month. This is the only time in my life I made a decision of that magnitude so quickly.

That’s not true. I told the oncologist I would not do chemotherapy and radiation even quicker. They pushed it like a desperate realtor hawking swampland in Florida but I said no. I come from a long line of people who told the doctors no. They were exasperated and fired me as a patient. This was OK because I am not patient.

If I hadn’t told my doctors no, I wouldn’t have met the psychic in Encinitas the year after my surgery who handed me a rose quartz and looked me straight like only the real psychics can do and said, “It must have been so hard for you to fight for your body’s intuition.” And I cried in the middle of the psychic fair, watching the Pacific breeze blowing her psychedelic psychic skirt around her legs. She was the first person to recognize that—the first person to let me recognize that—yes, yes, I had to fight to say no. I had to fight. The wrong choice was easier. The wrong choice was covered by insurance. My wrong choices—every single one of them—were the easier decisions. The ones that cost me my voice.

“I didn’t know how hard it would be,” I told her. Harder than cancer. Harder than surgery. The refusal to walk the pre-written cancer-journey-story filleted me. “If I did chemo, I would die,” I said. And she held my hands and let me cry and the ocean carried my salt away like she always does.

If my mother had stayed in Bay Ridge riding the R train, I wouldn’t be with her today, riding the R train, returning to Bay Ridge to eat pizza at Lucas, which is now the Brooklyn Firefly, because it was where they went for pizza when she was a girl, back when she wasn’t allowed in the special math and science high school because it was only for boys, back when my father was learning how to walk again and Betty was drawing his picture and I was waiting somewhere velvet-dark until I found the woman who was strong enough to bear all of me.

Laraine Herring holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in counseling psychology. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in national and local publications. Her fiction has won the Barbara Deming Award for Women and her nonfiction work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in K’in, Tiferet Journal, The Manifest-Station, Quiet Storm, Vice-Versa, and others. She currently directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. She can be found online at www.laraineherring.com.

 

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