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Guest Posts, pandemic, Tough Conversations

When the Mothers Are Gone, When the Mothers Return

November 22, 2020
Navajo

By Nicole Walker

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

“It was The Gathering,” Carol said.

“What gathering?”

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

“They should have canceled it,” Maria argued.

“I didn’t go.”

“I didn’t either.”

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Are things not working out with Bill?”

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

My mom never texts me.

“What made you text me that, mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

That will teach her.

*

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Guest Posts, Life, memories

Departures

March 18, 2016
memories

By Andrew Bertaina

The world cares little for our departures. It spins and spins in the dark unaware that we are even here, spinning in that same dark. We are left to construct our own signs then, spin our own yarns about the moments that have marked us. We tell ourselves stories about first loves, parents, home, in order to give our lives structure, a foundation on which to build the architecture of the self. The meaning of our departures comes in hindsight, a postscript, leaving is not the car going down the driveway, the hand waving goodbye, it is considering, days, months, years later, what the leaving meant, trying to remember if you held your hand against the cold glass and what it meant that your mother didn’t cry. This essay is already a failure, an attempt to send myself a postcard from the future. I doubt I’ll have the sense to read it.

The last summer I spent in Chico, CA before leaving home was like any other: blazingly, soul-scorchingly, hot. It was the sort of heat about which people out east say, “It’s a dry heat though,” which is why I dislike almost everyone out east. The observation is made no less obnoxious by its veracity. The summer days in Washington D.C. are sauna-like, something to be endured, like watching golf on television. These relentless days always leave me longing for the cool California nights of my youth—crickets chirping and a light breeze prickling night’s skin.

Departing for college was the first of many adult severances. It felt like a pin prick at the time, an inevitable retracing of the steps taken by siblings and friends. They returned in the summers, strangers in a familiar land, stopping for a visit with the natives before returning to their new home. And yet, as the years have passed and college friendships and memories have faded, I realize that leaving Chico was a severance, an end to the era of a childhood and a farewell to my home, and to the idea of any place being home. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Life

Loving The Life You Have

February 26, 2016

By Ginger Sullivan

I swear it happens weekly. I open my mouth and some clerk or new patient or person on the street asks me where I am from. I feel like a transplant from a foreign land.  Even though I left decades ago and have successfully eradicated the “ya’lls” and the “yonders” from my vernacular, my Southern upbringing comes through loud and clear. My move North did not erase my history. Although I try, hiding my background is impossible. My roots will not, cannot, be denied.

Here in the North, for obvious reasons, the South is not looked upon too kindly.   These arguments aside, my accent alone gives way to question, maybe even judgment, and I am left sitting in my shame. Am I stupid? Did I grow-up with backwater ideas hailing from the trailer park? Am I small-minded, racist, conservative and overly-religious? My impulse is to get busy trying to prove myself. “Don’t write me off!” my insides scream. See me. See past my inflection. Give me a chance. I can hang with you Yankee intellectuals. I am worldly. I am not a mindless Southern Belle. I can contribute value. I am good enough.

Ridiculous, I know. But it is my story. And some of the stereotypes are true. I grew up with guns in the house. My brother even shot one through the floor once. We ate our share of fried chicken and grits. One grandmother made amazing homemade biscuits that I still cannot duplicate. The other grandmother set a mean table and needed three black helpers – the gardener, the cook and the housekeeper – to manage her world. We said grace before meals and dressed for church every Sunday. The daily choice was sweet or unsweet iced tea, even for young children. We spend weekends canoeing or watching SEC football. And no woman worked outside the home. They (we) were considered marriage material, beautiful window dressing for our good looks, not our minds.

I think it was my heart that noticed first. From a young age, I was suffocating. It was death by disconnection. I wanted a bigger world that talked to me, stimulated me, expanded me. I felt alone and did not have the words or the know-how to identify my predicament, much less fix it. I was surrounded by superficial nicety and put together beauty, but my heart longed for authenticity. Will someone stand up and talk about what is really going on here? I could not do pretend. I assumed that something must be wrong with me that everyone else could masquerade and I just could not stomach it.

And then there was my intellect. To my parents’ credit, they educated me well, sending me to the best private schools available. Originally, I am sure that the Harpeth Hall School was founded as a finishing school for Southern ladies. A societal necessity. But, even the South could not remain too long in the dark. At some point, the school became a launching pad for well-to-do families to provide their daughters opportunity. I am grateful to this day that my parents had such foresight.

But even there, I was more backwoods than most. (I guess I didn’t fit in either to the plaid skirt, prep school world.)  I will never forget the middle school quiz bowl. The announcer read a series of vocabulary words to the competing panelists. The elected smarter girls on stage reeled off the definitions one by one, some of which I had never heard. And then the announcer said, “taxidermist.” The room grew silent. No one spoke. No one knew what that word meant. The announcer turned to the audience and asked if anyone knew what that word meant. I raised my then very shy hand. I knew what that word meant. Hell, we had a few on the family payroll that I knew by name.

Fast forward multiple decades. I have not lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line for a very long time. But when I get a chance to visit, there is a part of me, deep at the cellular level, that awakens and says “home.” Maybe it is the sound of the katydids or the sweet smell of freshly mowed green grass. My long ago emotions, tied to the place of my upbringing, rise with a vengeance and demand my sentimental attention.

Through the years, I have managed to willingly claim a part of the South in me. The art of setting an elegant table is important to me as is taking casseroles to my fallen-ill neighbors. There is something polite in my child’s  “yes ma’am” and “no sir” that just sounds better than a sheer “yeah.”  Dressing up a word to make it more kind goes a lot farther than aggression just because I can.  Thus, maybe my Southern training wasn’t all bad. Maybe there is something there I can redeem and even want to hold onto.

Undeniably, like it or not, it is my story. I often find myself saying, I am not sure I like the path I took to get here, but I like the me now. And, I would certainly not be the me now without having spent 18 years wading barefoot in the creek and watching my Dad chase cows in the backyard.

Our life is like a blank wall, waiting to be filled with a 12′ x 12′ mural.   Our experiences, stories, pain and joys are painted on there somewhere. We can try to draw over them or around them or make them into something else, but they cannot be expunged. We are the sum total of all our life’s encounters.  The good news is that our life’s artwork is not complete until our journey ends. We can always add more to our mural which can transform the entirety of the composition. We are a continuous work in process.

I don’t know about you but that works for me. It engenders hope. It fortifies self-compassion to fight off my shame. It allows me the ability, on a good day, to fully embrace the life I have now. I am reminded of that old Crosby, Stills & Nash song – “If You Can’t be With the One You Love, Love the One You’re With.” I may not have the life I wanted, the life I dreamt of, but I am going to learn to love the life I have.

So, pass the biscuits and pour the iced tea. I’m gonna dig in, into all of it. Every last bite.

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Ginger M. Sullivan practices psychotherapy to pay the bills but her real joys are her two children, her pug and her writing. As a self-proclaimed fumbling human being, she expounds on the underbelly of life – all things raw and real – that others might continue on their journey to become their highest, best self. She joined Jen Pastiloff at Jen’s Tuscany retreat during the summer of 2015. This is her fourth time being published on The Manifest-Station.

March 13 NYC! A 90 minute class for women, girls and non-gender conforming folks (we encourage teens 16 and up) and all levels that will combine flow yoga, meditation, empowerment exercises, connection and maybe, just maybe, a dance party. This will be a class to remind you that you are enough and that you are a badass. It will be fun and empowering and you need no yoga experience: just be a human being. Let’s get into our bodies and move! Be warned: This will be more than just a basic asana class. It will be a soul-shifting, eye-opening, life-changing experience. Come see why Jen Pastiloff travels around the world and sells out every workshop she does in every city. This will be her last class before she has her baby so sign up soon. Follow her on instagram at @jenpastiloff and @girlpoweryouareenough. Jen is also doing her signature Manifestation workshop in NY at Pure Yoga Saturday March 5th which you can sign up for here as well (click pic.)

March 13 NYC! A 90 minute class for women, girls and non-gender conforming folks (we encourage teens 16 and up) and all levels that will combine flow yoga, meditation, empowerment exercises, connection and maybe, just maybe, a dance party. This will be a class to remind you that you are enough and that you are a badass. It will be fun and empowering and you need no yoga experience: just be a human being. Let’s get into our bodies and move! Be warned: This will be more than just a basic asana class. It will be a soul-shifting, eye-opening, life-changing experience. Come see why Jen Pastiloff travels around the world and sells out every workshop she does in every city. This will be her last class before she has her baby so sign up soon. Follow her on instagram at @jenpastiloff and @girlpoweryouareenough.
Jen is also doing her signature Manifestation workshop in NY at Pure Yoga Saturday March 5th which you can sign up for here as well (click pic.)

 

Join Jen Pastiloff in Tuscany Sep 17-24, 2016. There are 5 spaces left. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap. More info here. Must email first to sign up.

Join Jen Pastiloff in Tuscany Sep 17-24, 2016. There are 5 spaces left. This will be her only international retreat in 2016 and is her favorite retreat of the year. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap. More info here. Must email first to sign up.

 

Family, Guest Posts, Siblings, storytelling

The Memory Keepers

January 15, 2016

By Kelly Garriott Waite

My parents broke the news to my sisters and me one evening after dinner: My mother was having another child. My older sister, understanding our mother to be the Virgin Mary, refused to believe it. But it was true and with four children, we would need more space.

One town north and east, my parents bought forty acres of land we came to call the property. I didn’t consider whose property it had been, nor what memories of the place the previous owners held dear. It was ours now. That was all that mattered.

Weekends, we cleared the woods where our home was to be built, hauling brush and tree limbs to the burn pile, cutting and splitting logs for winter. When we took a break from our work, we wandered, discovering the secrets held by the land. The south field was stubbled with browned corn stalks gripping the soil. In the west field grew, besides corn, a window- and doorless cement building inside of which forgotten coils of thick wire, yellow and red and blue, were hidden by weeds. Where the corn yielded to woods, wild raspberries grew, big as my father’s thumb. A creek trickled through the woods, across which one day we came upon the junk pile, the stuff of life discarded from a long-ago, unknown family who had likely lived on the orchard behind the property. From the junk pile, I found a clear milk bottle from Rand’s Dairy and what my father identified as an ammunition box, from which I tried – and failed – to remove the patina that obscured the copper beneath.

We worked nearly every weekend. We built a barn. We built a house. We built a farm. We learned how to grow our food and preserve the harvest. We cleaned stalls and gathered eggs and nailed up board fencing to wooden posts. On a red wagon whose sides swayed dangerously whenever a tire caught a rut in what used to be the corn field, we learned to bale hay. As we shaped the land to fit our needs, gradually taking it from the property to the farm and, eventually just home, the land shaped us in return; defining our beliefs and becoming the foundation upon which we would build our lives.

As my siblings and I left for college, the barn emptied. My father sold the horses. The butcher loaded the last of the cows and the pigs into his truck. No new chickens appeared to replace those too old to lay eggs. The hayloft would never again house seasonal litters of blind, mewing kittens. My father rented the fields to a local farmer who replanted them in corn. I discarded the ammunition box: Its history held no value for me. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Madonnas.

January 6, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

By Mark Liebenow.

I can’t take the damn lethargy today, and rather than drag around the house on my day off grieving my wife, and feeling bone-assed sorry for myself, I try something new. I haven’t done anything new since she died nine months ago.

Driving to Lake Merritt in Oakland, I sit on a bench, and give myself permission to enjoy the warm sunshine. I still feel guilty if I enjoy anything that Evelyn no longer can, like I’m betraying her by not wearing hair shirts and eating gruel. It sounds illogical, but not much makes sense when someone you loved with all your being is ripped away. She was only in her forties.

Evelyn used to come here on her lunch breaks, and being here helps me feel close to her. Normally Northern California is rainy and cold in early January, but today the sun is out and it’s in the seventies. I lean back and watch the world stroll by in its urban variety, and remember how it feels to smile.

Two young boys chase each other around the palm trees, playing hooky from school. An older man dances as he jogs along to music on his iPod. A woman in a black and yellow dashiki walks by looking proud, and several mothers with young children point out the palm trees, seagulls, and the mallard ducks. The mothers remind me of Ev’s compassion. Although we had no children, she took care of her friends like a mother — sending notes of encouragement when they didn’t get the job they wanted, talking to them on the phone late at night when they were depressed, and going to console them when a parent died.

writing-course_pageheader_825x200_alt2 Continue Reading…

Inspiration, my book, Owning It!

The Undoing of Yourself.

December 2, 2012

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. ― Joseph Campbell

My original ancestors must have been beautiful.

I have traced of them, healed scars, visible only after being pointed out. And I don’t usually point them out, just so you know. There’s one on my neck, however, that I am pointing out to you. A red line that looks like a hickey until you look closer and ask. I was 16 when I had it removed and the last thing I remember is them asking me Do you have a boyfriend? I didn’t at the time and I thought This is not working! The anesthesia is not working and I am going to feel when they cut into me and

That was that. I woke up and the lump that I had ignored for years was gone and along with it the diseased lymph node that had been living in my neck for as long as I could remember, and, which I ignored profusely until a guy I was (sort of) dating, that way you “date” when you are 15 and 16, wrapped his arm around my shoulder and touched my neck. He asked me what it was which made it real. Until then, I could pretend it was my imagination but as soon as he said Baby, what is that lump on your neck? I went into a panic. I am going to die. Oh my God, am I going to die?

The way we can ignore something and let it silently torture us and not until another points it out do we acknowledge the realness of it. I am making this up. This is not real.

This is not happening.

There’s also less visible ones like the one on my head where the point of an iron came down after my cousin bit me in the thigh. I didn’t feel it until I saw the iron lying on the floor next to me, on top of all the dirty laundry. Then I got scared and cried and thought I was going to die with all the blood on the leggings and underwear and socks.

I remember riding on the back of a bus, going from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where I had a fellowship at Bucknell University, to Philadelphia where my boyfriend would pick me up with my own car. I had lent him my car because I wouldn’t need it for the month I was at my fellowship but sitting on the back of that empty bus I wished for my sweet car. If I’d had one wish it would have been to have my little grey Volkswagen Fox so I wouldn’t be so swallowed by the night pressing its black body into the morning in those towns. I could tune in to the road or the traffic or nothingness but there on the back of the bus I saw how darkness never let up, just kept pressing down. The buildings so used to that darkness that any light made them cringe and sink further in. They would turn their tar faces from the sky and droop bloated toward their floors. I saw myself in them and couldn’t stand it. The ride felt like it was 17 hours. I hated those buildings.

I sat on the back of that bus and thought of my ancestors and of my Bubby and my father. And Shetland ponies. How they’d been trained to trudge in coal mines, through dark damp spaces, weight on their small backs, taking fast uneven paces and how they’d been used to it. I imagined the sound of their steps. (What else was I to do on that million hour bus ride?) Hooves hitting hard ground and how they must have sounded like the tongues of sewing machines, clicking to my mother, keeping her company as she worked all night in basements, the television on mute. My mother with pins in her mouth, fingers pinching the fabric in place.

I thought about what coal mining could do for me as I sat on the back of that bus, not being able to drive or change the radio station. What else could I do?

The lift, descent of a hammer, breaking open dark parts of the earth, splitting what’s solid. Cracking. The pattern of days. Falling into one another the way all things without change tend to.

The original ancestor of these ponies gradually grew over centuries, changed forms over and over, emerging from swamps to enter coal mines. Like him, I could adapt to living in muck I thought. To traveling and feeding in marshes and swamplands.

I could get used to anything. 

And I have.

(Ask me what it’s like to have gotten used to hearing loss.)

I too have changed forms. Emerged from dark wet tunnels, basements, buses.

Capable of all kinds of change.

My ancestors were short and stocky, at least on my father’ side, and I see parts of me when I look at old photos. My hands are thick and I notice this more often than I care to admit as I am adjusting someone in my yoga class, in savasana, my hand over their heart. How can I have such ugly hands? until I feel the person’s chest heave remining me of my task at hand which is simply to be here, be here now. Be the net. Be the love. No one cares if you have fat little hands or long hand-model fingers in this moment. Be here now.

My ancestors knew me as I rode on the back of that bus all those years ago, perhaps even rode along with me, a few rows ahead. Just as they know me now. They have built me and formed with me with discarded pieces of heartache and hardship and love and geography and food.

My grandfather on my mother’s side (the only one I have ever met) is obsessed with our genealogy, making maps and taking trips to town to visit the Native American Tribal Center. He is a proud Native American and I always sort of scoffed at his pride. Ok, we are related to Pocahontas. Okay, Pop I would say as a teenager.

I get it now though. This privilege of understanding, of unscrewing your limbs and draining your own blood in search of answers and questions. This undoing of yourself to find the us and the we. 

This What has built me? looming every time you react in a way that surprises yourself or breaks your own heart.

In the afternoon of my life ( I am not sure if that is a thing or if I am even there. I may be in the morning or the twilight or the night but I sure like the way it sounds. So.) In the afternoon of my life I realize now why I turned away for so many years.

I did not want to know.

I did not want to understand why a certain sadness found its way into my face in photographs, why I am inexplicably drawn to a certain stories and people and moments in history. Why being Jewish and Native American and all of it felt like one big Who gives a shit as I counted the grapes I would allot myself for the day.

If I knew where I came from I would be accountable. I would have to turn my face upward and take on the challenge. As it stood, I did not want to know so I kept looking down until I was underfoot and broken.

I am not my past.

But I want to know. Were I came from. Whose blood courses through mine? Who in my family was in the Holocaust? Was my grandmother’s brisket really all it was cracked up to be? Does addiction really run in my family?

(Many. I am not sure. Yes and yes.)

I will not be defined by it but I will look upon it as a duty, this privilege, before I let it was away and disappear like it never existed.

My dad and I at the Jersey shore.

My dad and I at the Jersey shore.

Self Image, Things I Have Lost Along The Way

Keep Going. Don’t Look Back.

August 10, 2012

We never know where we will find our history, where we will discover what has formed us, what we will find while farming tomatoes or doing yoga.

Who needs a history anyway? I find myself saying except I am writing a memoir, and when one writes a memoir, one need to go back and unleash the dragons and all the locked boxes.

As I write my own book I remember all my relationships, all my loves, all the deaths, all the things that happened.

All the stories.

I once loved someone who liked to sculpt vases as gifts. The pounding of the clay, the pulverizing; the creation and inevitable destruction of matter.  The process of his sculpting was inevitable as any ritual. It was like watching women pound acorns with long rocks. Holes the size of nickels were created by the repetition, that repeated impact of stone against stone. It was meditative to watch. I can only imagine what actually doing it must have felt like.

Perhaps like creating your own life as you go. Perhaps it felt like that.

Or perhaps it just felt like sculpting.

As I write my tale, I think of him sculpting red clay into things of mythic beauty. Then letting it dry and crushing it into the earth. To be reshaped, over and over. This natural desire towards achievement he had. That we all have.

What turns into memory? I wonder as I wade through old places in my mind turned yellow with time and a certain forgetting.

Around 300 BC, the Olmec Civilaztion vanished for reasons that vanished with them. Poof! Gone from the Gulf Coast in what is now South Mexico.

We usually know why relationships or people vanish. Sometimes. Although with time that why often becomes a memory as well.

We invent what we have to.

With time, we might wonder Did I invent him? Did I invent her? Did I make up that ten year period of life in my imagination? Where is the proof that it existed? Somebody prove to me that I was a waitress for ten years, I demand it! Did I invent my father out of thin air? Did he really march us up the stairs to bed and yell “Hut 2-3-4, Hut 2-3-4”?

I wonder about the architecture of love and loss. The commodity of it and what remains after the concrete has been whittled away. The skeletons that get left after the meat is devoured. The blueprint is still there, but even the foundation has crumbled.

Everything must be rebuilt.

I am in awe of the catalysts that cause us to mutate and transform. Whether being trapped inside a volcano or having an old friend come to stay for a week on your sofa. Whether it’s having the rug yanked out from under you or losing your job of ten years or being dumped or your child dying before you. Whether it is selling your book or getting a promotion or deciding you actually don’t want to be an actor after all. We change. In ways big and small, measurable and unseeable to the naked eye, we evolve.

We change shapes and figures over and over again. We exchange one body for the next, one precious stone for a different one. One pleasure for another.

Jade used to be the most valuable stone in the world but over time its value diminished. Who can explain why the value of something increases or decreases? Or why we fall in love with someone, as quick as the pressing of your face into their shoulder blade as you ride on the back of their motorcycle, the wind slapping you with confirmation- Yes! This is love! Or a moment like the one when you watch them sleep and a surge of protectiveness knocks you awake. You want to make sure they take the next breath, and the next.  You want to watch them forever.

Who can explain why, like jade, love’s value decreases, unaccountably? And then one day all that is left is a little piece of red clay. Who can explain that change?

Who can explain why that same person you wanted to watch sleep forever, that night, there on your couch, the rise and fall of their chest a steady reminder that you were safe, that there was some consistency in the world, why this same person makes you want to beat your fists against their chest and take back time?

Which parts of our lives have shaped us the most?

Which loves? Which fingers on our cheek, which heartbreaks? Which parts of our lives have caused us to lose little pieces of ourselves?

Where do we find our history when there is nowhere left to look but forward?

You find what you remember. What’s left inside of you as you lie your head down on the pillow at the end of the day and every vein in your body pulses in a language that says Keep Going, Don’t look back.

Keep going.

Don’t look back.