Browsing Tag


Guest Posts, Tough Conversations


April 17, 2024

My boyfriend says I don’t listen. He means to him, I suppose. But that’s not true, like so much that guys say. Maybe he feels I don’t listen because I don’t say what he expects. We fight about listening. I don’t want to be my mother. She really doesn’t listen. I can usually parrot back anything I’m told. My mother can’t. In an honest mood, she’ll even admit she doesn’t listen. No doubt she could tell you why. For some people, it always goes back to their childhood, though she’d never blame her father. I’ve told her I can’t make it home weekend after weekend, but she asks if I’m coming every time I talk to her. I keep explaining my summer plans, and she forgets them.  Maybe she thinks they’ll change.

I never think anything will change, especially people. This drives my boyfriend crazy. Because he wants me to stop interrupting him, and if it’s true people don’t change, then I guess he worries that he’ll never finish a sentence, though it’s more like a paragraph that I’m likely to break in on. Because I’m listening, or because I can’t hear.  He doesn’t always hold the telephone receiver to his mouth, so I get mumbles. I interrupt what I can’t hear. My phone isn’t great either. Something wrong with the volume control. He says I yell into the phone when I ask him to repeat what he says. I hate phones.

It’s not enough to consider putting one’s ear to a plastic container that’s touched who knows how many unclean, unwashed heads, never mind the mouthpiece into which words emerge from sneezes and coughing fits. Or that sound. I really hate the sound, just when one is getting into a good book, stirring something on the stove, leaning into a kiss, the phone rings.

In the United States, you can solve the problem. Default to voice mail. Hard to imagine where I live now. I don’t even have my own line, never mind a way to screen calls. Just a loud buzzer telling me when it’s for me. My boyfriend would say I deserve what I get. What do I expect after giving my number to everyone I meet. No one lets me provide the tea or coffee, so the least I can do is hand over a card with my number, a peace offering, an American-Syrian alliance, a souvenir of possibility with my Ashkenazi name in English and Arabic.

I never know who might call or when. Back home in New York, I can guess when not to answer the phone to avoid particular people who always seem to call at particular times. But no one is that consistent here, not the foreigners or the natives.  You make a call when you can get a phone. Not everyone has one. People go to phone booths, where they stand in line. They need change, but change is hard to come by.  There’s a lot of rounding off. A plane ticket to Damascus from Aleppo at 602 pounds, $12.04, becomes 600 or 605, depending on what you have—or don’t have—by way of change. There are no phones on the planes, buses or trains, which is generally where I meet people.

I met a boy on the train from Aleppo to Latakia. I gave him my card. He gave me his. It had a picture of a hotel overlooking water. His parents own a hotel.  I stayed there the next time I visited. Don’t ask. The less said, the better. I listened to his uncle tell me what I was to say when I got back to America, “the hotel is good.” One Sunday in April, months after I met him in late October, this boy called to wish me a Happy Easter. I didn’t know it was Easter. They celebrate two Easters here, Catholic and Orthodox. I don’t celebrate either, unless someone gives me a chocolate egg, which my boyfriend usually does. I remembered what this boy told me during our conversation in October. He explained the Israeli flag, the color, blue.  He said it meant they wanted all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. I didn’t know that. He’s young, a first- year university student in economics. He only called once, and that was sweet really.

But there are others I just don’t know what to do about. There’s the guy I met by accident in a colleague’s office. He said he was a poet. He spoke English in flowery metaphors. I wasn’t sure I heard right, so I said, “what’d you say” and gave him my card.

He calls all the time. He can even get my landlady to take messages. Usually she’ll only take messages for my mother. When I call him back, he always asks the same question. “Will I visit the camps?” Only once, did I ask, “what camps”? The Palestinian refuge camps.

Did he read my card I wonder. I have a perverse curiosity I quash. I can’t go without my husband I say. He persists. Everyday there’s another message. When I can think of no excuse not to, I return the call. It’s another party line, and my bad Arabic gives me an excuse. I understand what is being said and pretend not to. Hold on, the voice says. I hang up.

Omar calls back. Again and again. I finally give in.  I agree to go for  coffee after work, though I don’t drink the strong, thick Turkish brew or the bitter dark local cups, and the place we go doesn’t have loose Arabic tea, only Lipton teabags. We meet at school, get on a micro-bus, and he chatters freely in English. As we near the Park, on the other side of which is the café he has chosen, he tells me he is a PLO operative, VIP, former translator for Arafat, weapons expert. He’s been everywhere. Sudan, Algeria, Canadian wings, American wings, European wings. Wings. Dismembered birds, I think. All this in a crowded little micro-bus of strangers I hope don’t speak any English.

I look out the window. I can’t see any birds from the high window. I nod my head. The Syrian government wouldn’t be any more pleased than I am. Refugees make them nervous. Refugees talking to foreigners make them nervous. Palestinian refugees make them very nervous. The Security police would be confused. They’ve read my business card. The government does not like to be confused.

I ask for flower tea, zurat. Omar doesn’t understand my Arabic, but the waiter does. As the waiter goes to get the coffee and tea, Omar gives me what looks like a child’s notebook with a bright pink and yellow cover. The paper is perfumed. When I open the thin cardboard cover, I see a carefully inscribed poem, each line inked with a flourish. Rhymes sympathizing with a stranger.

The last time we talked on the phone, I had a cold. That was my excuse for cutting short the conversation, for staying home. But it was true. I really was sick. The poem is disconcerting.  He is wishing me good health. He is lavish with praise. Were he one of my students, I would praise the attempt, smile at the innocent flattery. But he is a friend of a colleague, a stranger. I don’t know what to say. It is no better than the average undergraduate romantic doggerel. I know I’m supposed to like it, to be impressed. I can’t say anything, so I ask him what he wants me to say. He asks about the English, if it is correct. I exhale and note that some phrase is impossible in English.  The whole thing is impossible, but I don’t say that.

He closes the notebook, telling me he will recopy the poem, correct the English and present me with the gift of his heart, these words. I thank him, reminding him that perhaps my husband might misunderstand. He will explain to my husband, he says.  He would not do anything to hurt me.

There is something else, he says, something confidential he must tell me. I look around the restaurant. It’s half empty, darkening with the short winter day, though we are sitting by a window on the west side. I don’t know what he could say for my ears only, what secret that hasn’t been rhymed in the little notebook.

I don’t know how to discourage him. I don’t know what it is I should fear, but  I feel a chill at the base of my back. Perhaps the electricity has been cut. The lights have not yet been turned on. Headlights from the passing cars provide all the light there is. I realize I don’t want to listen, but I don’t really know how not to, despite what my boyfriend says.

Omar says he was a prisoner, in Lebanon. The phalangists had him. I try to remember which group the Phalangists are. They’re not Jewish, that much I know.

In his clipped English, he describes being beaten on a “wind carpet.” The rack.  Nails poked in his ears. Electric shocks all over his body. He repeats that phrase a lot, “all over my body,” as if it’s a euphemism for specificity, something that can’t be said to a woman. There’s the cell. 80 centimeters by 80 centimeters for six months. Smaller than inches. The walls wet with mildew, and what he doesn’t say I don’t want to imagine.  Rats creep under the door, nibble his broken toes, ignore his flailing arms shooing them away. He says something about being cut on his neck. I find myself staring at his neck, looking for scars. He’s left for dead.

He’s found. Palestinians put him in a coffin and stick him in a refrigerator for six days. People are told there has been another martyr for the cause. When they take him from the cold, he bangs on the pine boards. He’s a ghost.

The ghost is caught by the Syrian government, interrogated, tortured. Beaten again. He doesn’t say how. He doesn’t say anything about rats. They want to know who he is. He wants to know where he is. They say Tel Aviv. He says nothing. They say Damascus. He says he has a brother in the camp there. They leave him on a table, smashed, wounds all over his body. His brother appears and calls a doctor who examines the body. The doctor says I can’t treat a political prisoner. The brother puts an AK47 to the doctor’s head. The doctor bandages him. The PLO get him to a hospital.

He says he was a prisoner in Israel, too. But he doesn’t tell me about this experience. I wonder why. He tells me he lost his mind. He kicked the shoulders and back and head of the PLO taxi driver taking him to a hospital. The driver ran over a baby. The baby died. After his wounds heal, he returns to the camp by taxi, with a student he is teaching English. It was midnight. The car crashed. The student died.

At forty, he is twenty again. Over a cup of coffee and a love poem. He wants me to say something. I say I have to go home. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t say I understand Coleridge’s poem better. I never thought about the wedding guest who listens to the aging mariner talk. The albatross. The ghosts.

Omar walks me to a bus stop. When he sees my bus nearing the curb where we are standing, he says he’ll call, that he still wants to take me to the camps, to meet his mother, his child. As I board the white van, pay my six lira, Omar waves. The micro-bus darts into traffic, and I look straight ahead. When I get back to my apartment, the phone rings. I ignore it. As the buzzer sounds, I step into the shower and let the water run.  I don’t want to listen to anybody.

Sandy Feinstein lived and worked in Syria while on a Fulbright Award (1998-1999). Creative non-fiction reflecting on her experiences there appears in the Michigan Quarterly Review and Orange Blossom Review. Her chapbook, Swimming to Syria, was published by Penumbra Press in 2021.


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Guest Posts, parenting

Twenty-Three Loads of Laundry

January 13, 2024

A mid-afternoon text message from my son flashes on my screen.

“Are you free to talk for a second?”

He’s a sophomore at a small liberal arts college half an hour away from the Connecticut suburb where he was raised, and where his dad and I live separately but on the same street, as we have done since our divorce five years ago.

At the sight of the brief text my heart skips a beat. I have come to learn that usually, when my son reaches out it’s because he needs me, emotionally. He’s a super sensitive soul and an empath, so I worry easily he’s sad in some way, although generally I take it in stride since it seems the waxing and waning of existential blues experienced by a young adult is par for the course.

“Hey mamma, what do you do whenever you’re feeling depressed?”

There’s a slow rush to my head, hopeful by his seemingly upbeat “hey” but jarred by the word “depressed.” I know depressed. I remember suffering as a young adult walking around in a kind of grey daze from poor nights’ sleep, alternating between rapid heartbeats accompanied by cold sweats and waves of grating anxieties, obsessing about, well, most tings. But it usually passed after a week or two, and these occasional bouts diminished in my mid-twenties, after I got dogs (first), then children (later).

I swipe the screen on my phone and my fingers start their familiar tap dance across the miniscule keyboard.

“That depends how depressed,” I begin. “Let me call you this evening and we’ll talk about it, ok?”

Then I continue in rapid succession,

“Hang in there.”

“It will pass.”

“In the meantime, be good to yourself and trust that it will get better.”

But I know deep down that only if he’s lucky will it get better by itself, and that if not, it may be a much longer journey. I had watched my closest friend’s husband spiral down the path of mental illness, and it taught me not think lightly of calls for help.

“<3333,” my son answers.

I switch to the emoji keyboard and send him back three read hearts.

Before the back and forth ends, his string of short texts forms the narrative of a young man asking for help:

“Between you and me I’m in a bit of a rut right now.”

“Can you talk?”

“Can I call you around 4pm before I start my work shift?”

We touch base later that day and the conversation is just vaguely about his state of mind and more about daily stuff. We agree to meet for lunch the next day, a proposition my son rarely turns down since it means a free, non-cafeteria meal at one of the many delicious restaurants in his college town, with a side of helpful mamma-conversation.

Luckily, he is open and likes to share, if I can just pin him down. We both enjoy these moments of mother-son tête-à-têtes; one of the perks of having your child go to college close to home.

Zooming down the highway a sunny fall afternoon the next day, I call to let him know that I’m there in five minutes.

“Should I pick you up from work?” I offer, knowing he’s just ending his lunch shift at a campus restaurant.

“Nah, that’s ok,” he answers, and I hear him breathing heavy and figure he is walking.

“I’m already almost back at my place.”

I wonder if he is hurrying home to pick up any telling paraphernalia in his room (cigarette packs, bong, condoms…).

“I’m just gonna take a quick shower,” he adds.

“You can wait outside in the car, and I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

I resign myself to a longish wait; I know his sense of time isn’t mine. Parked in front of his house, I wait for a while, but then get antsy and decide to go in. The door is unlocked, and I first take a seat in the kitchen he and his roommates share, noticing the door leading to his room is slightly ajar. He’s in the shower upstairs, most likely taking his time to get rid of the cigarette smell he knows I don’t like.

Against my better judgment, I get up and slowly push open the door to his room. From the scene that reveals itself it’s clear that something’s off. This isn’t a regular college kid’s messy room. There’s garbage scattered on the floor, cigarette butts in paper cups, dirty cereal bowls piled under his low coffee table, many with soured, crusty and milky cereal remnants; partially empty cans, cups, and bottles lined up along the edge of the bottom of the couch, and dirty laundry dropped on the floor and furniture, pell-mell. The hangers that used to hold his clothes are tossed to the side haphazardly, his closet ravaged, and the dust on his coffee table has accumulated over so long it now looks more like a grey furry carpet littered with coins, lighters, strands of tobacco and empty soda cans. I take a deep breath and notice myself mutter “Oh sweetie…”

When I hear him come down the stairs, I quickly slip back to the kitchen and pretend that I haven’t seen a thing, because I don’t know how to start the conversation right then and there. I need to think about how to tread lightly, not to put him on the defensive.

“Hi mamma! How are ya?”

A bath towel draped around his waist, he tries to sound cheerful and gives me a peck on the cheek before disappearing into his room. His hair is overgrown, and he has let his scraggly facial hair sprout in all directions.

“Just gimme a sec!” he calls out from behind the door.

I hear him scramble, probably to find something, anything, that is clean enough to wear.

On the way to the restaurant, we catch up on this and that, but no mention of his state of mind or what I had witnessed in his room.

Once seated across from each other in a cozy booth with green leather seats, we order our drinks and food, and the midday sun shines through the window warming our spot like a caring and encouraging embrace. We fall silent for a minute, and when I look up, I notice his eyes tearing up.

“Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling, honey?”

He doesn’t answer and I can tell he is fighting back tears. He lets out a big breath, more like a resigned, quivery sigh, and leans forward reaching his arm across the table, his hand looking for mine. My boy is not in a good place.

I grab the big, warm, strong hand of my former heavyweight-wrestling-champion-and- football-team-son, the English-and-sociology-major-uber-empath-sensitive-musician-son, the son who prefers to get lost in books and music, much more than huddling in testosteroney powwows with fellow athletes.

His size made him a coveted athlete and joining in sports made the transitions easier from a small Jewish elementary and middle school to public high school and then college. It also gave him an immediate sense of belonging – which reduced his social unease.

Now, he had quit football and wrestling in what I saw as a brave act of being true to himself, but he had not yet started new extracurricular activities, like the music or writing he wanted to develop, things that would help build a new network of peers, of poetry, of inspiration.

To make things worse, his fraternity, where he had been the house manager and where he had lived and worked over the summer, was unexpectedly closed by campus administration after a troubled year for campus fraternities. This meant that just as the fall semester was staring, he and about twenty-five other students were scrambling for places to live, and he was placed in a senior house with four Asian foreign students who were all business majors. Great kids, but not necessarily a good fit, socially.

Add to this the fact his first significant romantic relationship had ended in a dramatic way the prior semester. While he and his girlfriend were in NYC for a weekend, his girlfriend had a panic attack and was evacuated by her dad, leaving my son alone and confused in the AirBnB apartment they had rented.

Difficult experiences had accumulated during the year, and the emotional fallout was significant.

In the restaurant, he finally begins to speak through his tears. But when he tells me that everything feels hopeless, I realize it isn’t just a mild case of the blues. Holding on tight but tenderly to his hand with both of mine, I look at him and tell him how I too, had struggled with those kids of emotions when I was his age. I recall the feeling of not being myself, watching helplessly from the outside while the shell of me would suffer quietly, a feeling he could identify with. I tell him I am happy he is asking for help, how much I love that he is open and shares with me, and that we’ll find a way through this together.

When I add that I kind of knew the lay of the land because I had peeked into his room, he quietly groans.

“Let’s face it honey,” I add, trying my best to sound positive, “I’ve seen it all!” I smile.

“Now let’s take some small steps to pick up the pieces and make you whole and happy again.”

He tries to smile and thanks me for being me and for being there with him; words that make a mamma’s heart swell with tenderness. I try not to show how helpless I feel. How in that moment, I wish I could lift his sadness and hopelessness from him and carry that heavy burden for him, stuff it into my body, at any cost.

“I know this may seem superficial,” I begin, “but taking care of a few obvious external things can be one small step toward dealing with the situation. Let’s stop in at the barber next door and just clean this mess up,” I say, motioning to his head and face. We both chuckle at the obvious double meaning of “this mess.”

He groans again and mutters “fine,” knowing that he is in my hands now. Soon he is draped in a black smock at the young, hip, Latino barber’s shop next door, and the two of them are discussing music while the buzzer runs its course. I take the opportunity to step outside and search the student health website of the college for resources. My fingers are jittery from the heightened emotions, but I feel unstoppable now; a hyper-alert lioness pushed into assertive protective mode for her wounded cub.

Before he emerges clean-shaven and already looking less weighed down, I’ve booked him an appointment with the school nurse who can refer him to the school psychologist. I have also written an email to the dean in charge of mentoring his class, sharing with her that right now is a time my son could use an on-campus supporter, asking her to reach out and follow up with him.

In the car on the way back to campus I say I want to come back to his room to help him clear the disaster zone. He doesn’t try to stop me since at this point, he has realized I will not relent, and he has no energy to resist.

In his room, I discover that he has been stuffing dirty laundry into huge garbage bags and shoved them under his bed for what must have been months. We pull so much stuff out from there that even he is amazed at what we find, and laughs. It warms my heart to see him smile. In the cleanup process, we hug and chitchat while I try my best to sound upbeat and positive.

But on the inside, I feel scared for my son, and humbled by how easy it has been to lose sight of how he really was doing, when our only way of staying in touch had been reduced to texting or Facebook messaging, since he had never been that good about returning actual phone calls, and especially not lately.

Leaving campus, my car is stuffed to the gills with humongous black, plastic trash bags filled with dirty laundry, in addition to his towering plastic hamper, bedding, and other miscellaneous items that clearly need to be washed.

We agree that I will come back the next day with his clean laundry, and with the cleaning equipment we will need to tackle the grime in his room. We talk a little about how once he’ll feel better, he’ll have to get used to his dirty laundry not being miraculously airlifted for mommy-service; that a regular, weekly run to the laundromat will be an added value for keeping up a stable sense of well-being.

Schlepping the masses of dirty laundry up to my apartment from the garage is an experience in itself. The bulky bags are so heavy that in my physical exertion – and probably because I’m finally alone and can let my emotions do their thing – I burst into tears. I feel sad, upset, and even guilty, that my boy has been hurting without me knowing. As I empty the bags on the floor in my living room, a colorful mountain forms and soon spills over and becomes more of a mountainous range. Picking through the laundry I almost gag from the emanating fetid smell of sour, old stains, spills, and dirty socks. I remind myself how lucky I am that after all my son is alive, although depressed, remembering the people I know who have lost children to mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse. He is alive and he will get better. He had still gone to class and kept his work schedule. These are good signs, I tell myself.

Twenty-three loads of laundry later, stacks of neatly folded clothes, sheets, and towels form colorful towers around my apartment. T-shirts, pants, and sweaters, underwear, socks, and athletic wear all sorted on the family couch, on his old bed, on the dining room table and kitchen bar.

Aside from his clothes, I have also pulled out from the dryer a little black dress probably left behind by a female friend or perhaps his ex-girlfriend, several cheap plastic lighters, the kind they give out for free at the convenience store (he has told me), and a few condom wrappers. I don’t flinch but am just relieved to find the traces of a normal college experience.

The next day we carry all the clean laundry from my car back to his room, but not until after we give his room a top to bottom cleaning, using the arsenal of cleaning equipment and spray bottles I have brought from home. When his room is finally transformed to an uncluttered space where we can find a clear spot to sit and even see the coffee table surface, sans fur, a mild fresh scent of cleaning products lingers in the air, and it feels as though the darkest part of a cloud has lifted.

We light a scented candle and sit down next to each other on the black leather hand-me-down loveseat, and as I lean back and sigh, my back aching from all the hard work, he wraps his arm around my shoulder, kisses the side of my head. A string of red chili pepper lights shimmers from the window with a warm glow, and a few family photos on the ledge of his bookshelf show familiar faces, smiling down at us. He repeats how nice it looks and seems genuinely relieved to at least get out from under the material weight of the signs from his difficult period.

Finally, we pop the lids off the small round clear plastic containers of chocolate chip cookie dough we picked up from a café on campus. Our plan was to have them as rewards once our herculean efforts were completed, and now we enjoy our well-deserved sweet sticky treats, licking our fingers clean, and gaze around a cozy room.


In the days and weeks that follow, we stay in touch more frequently than usual, and I sometimes have to nudge him to remember his appointments and ask him about how they have been. I try to suggest that taking walks, joining a yoga group, or making efforts to eat a healthier diet might be things that would help him feel better and stay better, but in the end, I think he’ll do things the way it works for him. I doubt eating more veggies and chanting “OM” are among them.

Slowly but surely, he begins to talk about “normal” things again, like volunteering for inner-city kids as a music teacher or social events that he looks forward to.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has emerged from the tunnel and that he is on a brighter path and in better spirits. He begins to enjoy his classes, his professors, and his work. He is back to his old self; I can hear it in the energy of his voice, and I am immensely relieved.

He’s a junior now, and it’s almost a year and many conversations later when another text from him lights up the home screen on my phone. It’s been maybe a week, or perhaps two, of little to no contact:

“Hey, can I call you a little later today?”

“Sure. U ok?”

“Yeah I’m good, just had something I wanted to consult with you about.”

I feel a fleeting rush of relief as my heart swells the kind of unconditional and primordial love mothers have for their kids, and I text back:

“Sure honey. Let’s talk tonight, ok? Miss you and love you! <3”

Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway who lives in Maine. She holds an MFA from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program (2020) and a PhD in French from UCONN (2007). Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Lilith, Full Grown People, Tablet Magazine, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Brevity, among other places, as well as in two anthologies, INK by Hippocampus Books (Spring 2022) and STAINED: an anthology of writing about menstruation, (Querencia Press, 2023).


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Fiction, Guest Posts

Hot Days Are For Listening

December 30, 2023
broken TV television

There is nothing but talk in the village now.  Buzzing talk like hornets.  Who did it?  How dare they?  Who could betray us like this?  There will be a trial at the kgotla tomorrow, even though there are still no suspects.  No one has confessed and no one will.  They are afraid to be outcasts in their own home, avoided and shunned.  All anyone knows is that the new 55” high definition TV screen in the community hall is shattered.  Mma Bogwasi found the stone that did it lying on the cement slab floor of the building.  “Someone has hatred in their heart,” she cries loudly, shuffling past each of our doorways in turn.  “Oh Lord, forgive us!”  I want to swat her words away from my ears.  It is too hot today for loud talk.

I go to sit at the edge of the yard where I can hear the wind in the motshaba trees.  When I feel the sand turning cooler beneath my feet, I perch myself on the large tire that encloses Mama’s herb garden, daring the dusty rubber to scald the backs of my legs.  Insects chirr their secret language in the nearby brush.  I smile, thinking how there will be no more screaming football or slick politicians babbling from the TV with promises of more jobs and schools, like their mere words are diamonds spilling through the screen.  Mama tells me I shouldn’t sit so far from the house because up in the trees is where the leopards like to hide.  I imagine they are sitting among the chattering leaves, looking down at me while I boldly raise my face to them, both of us enjoying the shade.  Leopards don’t watch TV.  They prefer to watch children like me and think about eating them.  I don’t think they will eat me though.  They like relaxing in the shade better.

The TV was a present from the Americans.  They came to our village three times.  That is two more times than all the other foreign visitors, so we knew they would eventually bring what we wanted.  The elders ask for a TV every time foreigners visit our corner of the Okavango for safari… which is many more times than three.  They said it would keep the young people from trouble like drinking and having sex.  But I don’t see how having sex is any real trouble.  My oldest sister is pregnant and she lets me touch her belly which sometimes jumps.  I can see how a jumping belly could cause some trouble, but it keeps her from drinking, so I think it is better for her belly to jump than to be sick.

“Foufetse!” she calls me now, “Get some more water!  Hurry!”

She never asks nicely, even though she is only four years my elder.  But I am happy to hear her voice.  Sometimes, if I sit too still in Mama’s garden, I become invisible, and all day people cannot see me.  Even when they walk past on their way to the community hall, so close I can touch them, they do not see me.  I worry that one day I will disappear for good.  But my sister reappears me now with her barking demands: “Foufetse!  Now!  The baby is coming!”

It is the middle of the day, so the sand in the road burns my feet, encouraging me to shuffle faster with the full water bucket to the house.  I stop in the cool outside the open doorway where the reeds from the roof overhang to form a moat of shadow.  From inside, I can smell the gas that runs our small appliances and the mustiness of old clothes, waiting for washing day.  “Sister?” I call into the darkness.

Mama steps outside and takes the water from me.  “What took you so long?” she scolds before slipping back inside, not waiting for an answer.  I hear my sister groan.  I stand there for a moment, wishing I could watch.  I wonder what it looks like for life to enter a newborn body and give it its first breath.  I wonder, standing so close, if the curse I was born with might pass on to the new baby like lice.

I wander into the deserted kgotla—an assembly of empty plastic chairs, gritty with dirt and disuse, gathered beneath the acacia trees.  Meetings have been few since the arrival of the TV.  The elders congregate in the western-style community hall instead.  It is hot inside because the roof is made of tin instead of thatch and there is no breeze.  I do not know why they prefer it there.  The TV talks over everyone, even the village chief.  Chief Tshepo is often long-winded, but the TV is even longer and windier.  It talks loud and fast, like it doesn’t need air to breathe.  Sometimes it shouts “Goooooal!” and everybody in the hall shouts.  Usually, though, everybody is silent while the TV chatters on and on.

Since I am invisible again, I sit in one of the prohibited chairs and pretend that I am an elder.  “A community is not a community without honor, and honor means we speak only what is truth!” I parrot Chief Tshepo.  “So if you are truthful, speak!  If not, hold your peace!”  I wait, letting my words ring across the kgotla.  “Who broke the TV?” I demand.

Someone laughs.  It is a surprising sound.  Usually I am alone here while the whole village is in the community hall.  But now the TV is broken and there is laughter outside again.  I smile at Mma Bogwasi.  “I did not hear you arrive, Mma.  Hurry, come join us.  The meeting has already started.”

“You going to become the village chief one day, little Foufetse?” she asks, creaking heavily into the chair next to me.  Normally, she would stand with the other women and the children during a meeting, but since it’s just the two of us, she makes herself comfortable.

“Yes,” I say, sitting up straight, “and when I am chief, I will ban TVs forever from the village.”

Mma Bogwasi’s voice turns serious.  “Why would you say that, child?  That TV has made people here very happy.  A terrible shame someone went and broke it.”

“When everyone is watching in there,” I complain quietly, “the village stops breathing.”  I don’t expect her to understand.

“You’re a strange one, Foufetse.  God help your mother, raising a child like you.  But I suppose you’re the only one here who isn’t all that upset about what happened, seeing as you never got to watch the TV in the first place.”

“The village dies,” I continue in a whisper, “and then I disappear.  I am here, but no one sees me.”

“No one sees you?” Mma Bogwasi laughs again.  “More like you can’t see nobody.  The kudu doesn’t graze in peace just because it doesn’t see the lion hunting it.”

She’s tickled, like she thinks she’s taught me something I don’t already know.  But I am eleven and I’ve learned many secrets that nobody thinks I can know, like how people turn their faces when speaking: the dominant elder facing the listener, the dutiful listener facing the ground.  I turn my face to Mma Bogwasi now, showing that it is my turn to be listened to.  “I know all about my curse,” I say.  “My sister is having her baby and Mama doesn’t want me to hold him because she says I might trip over something and drop him.  She doesn’t see what I can do.  I carry the water every day without spilling a drop, but Mama still doesn’t see me.”

Mma Bogwasi sighs.  “Well, that sister of yours isn’t having a baby just yet.  I came up here from your Mama’s house.  That girl just wants some attention is all, imagining contractions.  I tell you, everyone in the village is restless today.  It’s this heat.”

Not the heat, I think.  The broken TV.

When Mma Bogwasi leaves, I stay seated in the kgotla, the heart of the village, and listen to its rhythm.  I’ve learned that hot days are best for sitting still and listening.  Our neighbor rides by on his donkey and the smell of grass and manure tickles my nose.  Young children shout in play.  Dogs quarrel.  I hear my mother scolding my younger brother.  Someone crushes aluminum cans.  Dried reeds whisper in deft, weather-worn hands.  Skirts sigh against bare legs.  A distant hippo bellows.

The village is restless, yes.  But alive.


The next morning, everyone gathers in the kgotla.  I sit in the sand with the other children, but it is difficult to sit still.  I am anxious to know what will happen in the trial.  Chief Tshepo opens the meeting with ceremony and gravity.  No one is laughing in the kgotla today.  A fly lands on my neck again and again and I swat at it.  Mama toes me in the back to be still.  This makes me happy.  I am not entirely invisible today.  Not yet.  But when the village chief demands a confession, I feel myself start to disappear again.  I know that Chief Tshepo’s eyes are searching the crowd for the culprit.  But he will never find me.  He will not see me because he does not think that a blind child can hit their mark with a throwing stone.  No one here knows how I practiced for days, out in the yard by the motshaba trees.  I collected rocks and hung the water bucket as high as I could from a branch, then counted my paces back from the tree—the same width of the community hall.  No one heard the ringing of the pail when I began to score.  They were all huddled inside, listening to far off strangers gossip.  I raised my arms to the cheering sun and quietly shouted, “Goooooal…”

“Do you think God will favor you if you keep quiet?” Chief Tshepo bellows.  “You think your stomach will not sour when you next taste water, from holding your guilt inside?”

My sister groans suddenly.  The women around her murmur.

I hear Chief Tshepo stand suddenly, and I know his muscles must be taught like a predator’s, his dangerous energy rippling through the kgotla.  “Do you think you will be safe in childbirth?  That your son or daughter will not be made helpless with blindness when it is born, like Foufetse?”

“Enough of this,” Mma Bogwasi cries, the only woman bold enough to interrupt.  “Her contractions are real enough this time.  She needs to be brought back inside the house.”

There is a shuffle of hands and feet.  My sister cries out again.  She has stolen the show and now the trial must be put on hold.  Around me, the village is stirring, murmuring, my sister’s name on their lips.  I sense fear in their movements.  I hear their heads turning every which way, looking, looking.  But they are all blind.  They are now the nervous kudu antelope who do not see the lion in their very midst.  None of them can see what is so obvious… my sweating palms and my shaking knees as I stand and step into the center of the circle.  How bad can it be, I wonder, to be shunned if you’re already unseen?

I speak in a loud, high voice that stills the kgotla.  “It was I, Foufetse.  The so-called helpless child.  I threw the stone, and it was I who broke the TV.”

Now there is nothing to hear.  Only the shiver of the acacia leaves.  But I can feel it.  The entire village… everyone is looking at me.

And I smile.  I am no longer invisible.

Bethany Nuckolls is an educator, world traveler, and writer based in Charlotte, NC where she lives with her bestie and two huggable plush sharks.


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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Binders, Guest Posts


February 4, 2016

By Michele Filgate


To not know sound is to know it, because sound is all I’ve ever known. The not knowingness of it is what I live inside of; where I explore. My fingertips on the insulation that keeps the world from being too loud. The acoustic foam is spongy; my head is like the recording studio below my childhood bedroom, where my father spent countless nights searching for answers inside of the vibrations of percussion and loud guitars.

Listen to me, anyone says. And I can’t remember what they’ve just told me. Their voice brooms through my mind, pushes the dirt and dust from one side of my head to the other.

That’s because I’m seduced by the possibility of silence; something I see as evasive and confrontational, sure, but with the possibility of eroding my uncertain self, until I’m as smooth as a stone. Even when telling myself to focus on the space between the noises around me, I am afraid of those spaces. I hide behind noise.

A screen door opens and slams shut in my mind, over and over and over again.

But there are some sounds I squeeze myself into; I want to be held hostage, I want to be blindfolded so that I’m surrounded by nothingness; opened up by sudden thunder outside of my window, clean rain bouncing off of the peeling deck, hissing, warm, cloud tongue on earth, dirt becoming saliva.

My sneakered feet on the pavement one of those hums I suck on. Because sweat and breath and ground take me away from the void of sameness and stillness. I take air like someone who stayed underwater for too long, greedily, hungrily, as if it’s what will save me. During a run, I kite myself down sidewalks and up sloping hills. I am the wind and the stillness, I am the tug on the string. I am also the tree I get stuck in. Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts, Inspiration

A History of Listening

August 28, 2015

By Donna Steiner

I had a lover who whispered to me.  Not just in public, to say something private, and not just in bed, but often, as though we had two distinct languages, one audible and one intimate. “I made you pizza,” she’d whisper, and it was thrilling, although I don’t think she was trying to thrill me.  We were surprised by one another, gliding into relationship, building a new thing of hushed tones, notes and silences, pauses.

Throughout my 20s I lived in big, cheap apartments in central New York.  The locals called them flats, and they were laid out like ladders, one room after another, stretching the length of three or four story houses.  Typically the living room would be at one end and the kitchen or a bedroom at the other.  Living on the top floor was the best in that it was the quietest.  The other floors usually meant you could hear upstairs tenants walking, which always sounded like large men wearing heavy boots or women in heels. I thought of myself, then (and now), as exceedingly quiet, but I practiced on occasion one noisy habit.  I liked to lie on the floor in the living room and listen to music turned up loud.  Those were the days of large stereo speakers.  We had two and they were crate sized.  I’d lie right between them and put on “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen, feeling the base pulse up through my hips and shoulders and thump against my ribs.  I’d wait for the 4-minute mark where Clarence Clemons’ saxophone came in with a long, slow, lamenting riff and I’d feel transported, in love with everything.  And then I’d play the song again.  And again.

Once, perhaps in retaliation, the downstairs neighbors embarked on a course of John Cougar Mellencamp songs, a full album, played on repeat.  For weeks.  To this day, I have a bit of difficulty listening to Mellencamp, and the names “Jack and Diane” send a little shudder through me. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Manifestation Workshops, Women

Women Are Hurting.

March 31, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Jane Eaton Hamilton.

Jen Pastiloff & The Hunt For Beauty.

There’s something I can’t get off my mind; it’s been nagging.

A couple months ago, Jen Pastiloff came to town.  She’s the wunderkind behind the online home for great essays, Manifest Station, and a yoga/writing workshop phenom.  I first came to know Jen through her site when she published my essay about Paris, ‘Things That Didn’t Happen,’ which now appears in the Caitlin Press anthology This Place a Stranger, about women traveling solo.

All this is a long-winded introduction to the fact that Jen asked me to attend her yoga workshop here in Vancouver, BC, when she came to town earlier this year at Semperviva Yoga, and, reluctantly, I went.  (Jen knew getting me out of my house was like pulling teeth, but she kept at me.)  Despite a background in dance, I’ve never been a yoga enthusiast, and I’m also an atheist, and morbidly shy, and the whole spiritual thing makes me roll my eyes.  I slid down the wall at the back of the room, gamely played along to the limits of my creaky old body, and kept my eyes and ears open.

And, folks, a bunch of things happened.

She calls the workshop, after all, “On Being Human.”

But the transformative thing, the thing that hasn’t gone away, was this:

Women are hurting. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts

Thank you for Listening.

December 27, 2014


By Amy Yelin.

My father listened. That was his job. He was a psychiatrist, like Bob Newhart on TV, and as a child I thought this made him an important man. A celebrity even. Why else would he have his own parking spot?  Two spots, actually, both with signs that read: Reserved for Gershon Yelin, MD. Violaters Towed at Their Own Expense.

Sometimes we’d visit his office after a shopping trip or picking up books at the library in Port Chester, New York. My mother would park in one of those special spots, right next to his car, and then I’d feel important, too, like a regular Amy Carter.

My father’s office was in a typical 1970’s brick office building, with a dark hallway that smelled like menthol. I noted the numbers as we walked down the hall until we reached the door labeled 2G. Then, despite my mother’s insistence to only ring it once, I’d push the buzzer repeatedly,

My father opened the door just a tiny bit, the chain still on. “Who is it?” He’d say, pretending to be suspicious.

“It’s me…Amy!”

“And me,” my mother said, playing along.

“Whaddya want?”

After I rang the buzzer a few more times, the door flew open and my father greeted us with a happy but subdued, “Well hellooooo’

No one was ever there when we visited. No patients in the giant waiting room. No receptionist at the reception desk.  My father’s actual office, with nothing more than a desk light on, was a stark contrast to the fluorescently lit waiting room. The window blinds were always drawn almost to the bottom, resembling two sleepy eyelids, letting in only the tiniest slivers of light. Several pipes waited in an ashtray on his desk, and a standing globe, possibly the only fun thing in the room, beckoned me every time. I’d make myself at home in my father’s black leather chair, close my eyes and then spin that globe hard and see where my finger would land.

“Here’s where I’m going to move,” I’d announce upon opening my eyes. “New Zealand!”

“Bon voyage,” my father would say.

My father is 86 now. We talk on the phone at least once a week, but only see each other around Thanksgiving, when my dad and his second wife Terri fly up to New York from North Carolina for their annual medical appointments. We drive down from Boston and meet them at their favorite hotel, The Renaissance, not far from where I grew up. It’s a bizarre sort of family reunion, but it’s ours. Continue Reading…

Forgiveness, Jen Pastiloff, Jen's Musings, Letting Go

When You Finally Forgive.

December 29, 2012

I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening ~Joan Didion


Its like this: You get on the bus, you get off, you get on. Its red. Its blue. It doesn’t matter what color it is.

It’s trudging along down the Putney High Street in London. Its speeding down the expressway in New Jersey. You’re on it. That’s the point.

You’re on it and you are always getting on and getting off and taking bags unless you have none but the day you have none hasn’t happened yet, so you get off or on with your bags and you find a seat and you go where the bus takes you. Again and again.

You didn’t know when you got on (not at first, anyway) where the bus was going. But when you see the other passengers, when the lady next to you tells you she talks more, I talk a lot, since my husband died. He was 82- you know. You know exactly where this bus is going.

You tell her: It’s ok. That you will listen.

So you listen.

Here’s what she says: We were married a long time, four kids, nine grandkids. He had an affair, twice. I forgave him. You ever forgive someone like that? Do you know what it’s like just to outright forgive someone like that?


There was the time in ninth grade when you walked in and your best friend was kissing the guy you were sort of dating (but totally loved!) and you forgave her. That same guy, whom you reunited with ten years later, after seeing a video camera on his desk the whole two weeks you stayed with him in Philadelphia, you nervously suggested: Why don’t we, you know, video ourselves the last night I’m here? Then watching the tape he sent in the mail (in the mail!) and Oh My God I can’t believe I’m watching this and then realizing that the last night wasn’t the last night at all, but the first and the second night and every night thereafter.

He’d recorded the entire two weeks without your knowledge. A fluke that you happened suggested it that last night. But what if you hadn’t suggested it? He would have still been recording you those other nights and what then? A betrayal you don’t know about- a betrayal nonetheless. Or is it?

If a betrayal falls in the forest and no one knows, does it make a sound? If he records you having sex without your knowledge and you never find out, not when you are thirty, or forty, or say, even on your death bed- does it affect the natural order of things? Have you been betrayed if you know not of it? Does the betrayal still exist?

It was your idea he’d said, you wanted to do this, when you confronted him with all the gumption you possessed in your late twenties. And you forgave him, but you didn’t really, you didn’t know what else to do, you’d never done anything like this before and maybe this is the punishment you got for wanting to be intimate with someone you thought you (totally!) loved by fucking in front of a video camera. Maybe this is what you got? All your kisses and blow jobs recorded without your knowledge and maybe you didn’t forgive at all but rather, stuck that little VHS tape in your back pocket so you could throw out the window of the bus, down into the river? Maybe you didn’t think you had a right to be angry, or that you deserved to have a voice? Maybe you thought you were the one that had to say I’m sorry? So many maybes when we look down the barrel of the past.

Watching yourself on that dumb mailed VHS tape and thinking: That is me.

That is me and that is me, and right there? That is me, without me knowing its me. 

What an asshole, you think.

You have permission to throw him down the river, although with time the asshole-ness will fade and you will shake your head at the outrageousness of it all, and the I can’t believe I got that upset-ness of it all. He will still be an asshole although he may be less of an asshole now that he has kids and has grown up a bit, but that is neither here nor there, is it? He betrayed you and you forgave him, but not really. Not fully, not until you throw him from the bus in the rain and watch the stupid VHS tape drown in the dirty river while people watch and wonder what did that chick chuck from the bus window?

And you think that if they knew you were throwing away anger and resentment and betrayal and not speaking up for yourself and drunken sex that they would understand and clap there on the sidewalk but the truth is that there are no people- no one really cares, they are all too busy fussing over their own scandalous sex tapes and lies and misgivings, and in fact, you threw nothing from the window at all. You just stuck your head out for a little air.


Then there was the woman your father was screwing. Before he died. She’d done it with other men as well. You knew. So young, seven years old, and you knew. You know her name (but you won’t say it, not so many years later, not here,) because she probably has her own grandkids now, it was so long ago. She could be like the woman sitting next to you on the bus, for all you know. She could be chatting up a stranger on a bus, trying to talk to anyone who would pay attention. Isn’t that what most of us spend our lives doing anyway? Someone please listen to me? Pay attention.

She started like a cold. No big deal. Then all of a sudden, a full blown flu, like a I think I need to leave my wife and kids flu except that isn’t how you and your mom and sister are left. You are left in the he dropped-dead-in-the-middle-of-the-night-by-choking-on-his own-vomit kind of left.

You forgave that. At least his death.

The woman, the affair, and let’s face it, his death- they’re still with you on the bus with all your other shit.


On the way to London my suitcase cracked. The airline damaged it and claimed responsibility. They offered to replace it and send over a new suitcase. I was tempted to say: No, I don’t want to take anything back. Let me leave it all. Every last thing. All my dirty underwear and sweaters and mismatched socks. Who needs it anyway?

My husband: Babe, you need it. You need a case.

Literal, logical, loving husband.

I told the woman all of this on the bus. The beautiful black woman who was 80 but looked 50. The woman whose husband had been with her all of her life (but cheated twice that we know of) and had just died. And now she was left talking and talking and who was listening to me now? she often asked no one in particular, in bank lines and bus stops.


New suitcase came. Black with purple satin inside. Like I was royalty. My old case was orange and plastic with wine stains from when a bottle of red wine cracked in it in Paris. It was ugly and stained. And broken. But hell, if I wasn’t sad to see it go. How I wanted to fix it, salvage it, and drag it on and off every bus for the rest of my life.

The old woman on the bus says: Take your shit back with you. Take what you need. Leave the rest.

I lean over and touch her nonchalantly. She’s real.

She says: Get off.

This is your stop.

Or maybe she didn’t say that. Maybe she didn’t say any of that. Maybe it was just time.


The Manifestation Workshop in Vancouver. Jan 17th. Book here. No yoga experience required. Only requirement is to  be a human being.

The Manifestation Workshop in Vancouver. Jan 17th. Book here. No yoga experience required. Only requirement is to be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it's magical.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it’s magical.