Browsing Tag

memories

aging, Guest Posts

Fifty

March 12, 2021
fifty

By Shell Feijo

Goddess delineates the cusp of my navel
Stretch marks circle my thighs, stripe my ass, sag into skin hanging as wings
My knees crack, random ache in an ankle
Twinges I don’t remember
Reminded of space and time

Baby girl curling body hiding from yelling mother
Little girl learning to keep her mouth shut
Silence is necessary
Cigarettes come to close
Cherries burn
Why is it a cherry, its not sweet or red
Orange fire turns gray ash in blonde hair and the smell of girl skin.

Thighs ache
Bottom burns
Rashes with names
From infections she should never have
Step fathers like little girl bodies
Mothers do too
Ripe for destruction.

Burn marks mixed with freckled tattoos of time and loss and men and love and babies
States and food and sex and starvation
Scars, dimples
Stories in skin.

Oakland target
Trafficked before it was trafficking
Fifty dollar teenage girl
Riding buses with pimps who didn’t drive their cars
Anything for a meal
A bed
Warmth
An arm to keep her safe.

She warns
Protects
Acts in my defense
Keeps me alive

Foster home
Group home
Cottage
Shelter
Bull pen
Foster home
Thirteen Times

Sixteen marriage
Little girl face, stringy blonde hair
Ripe
Running
Scared
Survival.

She did what she needed to.
See how she can disassociate?

Twenty to forty
Never look in mirrors
Never below the neck
Move through the world in fear
Acting
Impenetrable stubbornness camouflaged as strength
Babies and beatings and bottles thrown
Body keeping secrets between heated folds.

At forty, few fucks left to give. I dance with her, start to think about her, rub her, talk to her
Her response?  Smooth and forgiving
“Welcome,” she says. “I’ve been waiting.”

But when I love her fierce, outside? Push back.

The white boys on the Pentacrest of the college town yell, “Roll her in flour and look for the wet spot!”

The white women online, “Go to the gym/ try this/that/shame on me I ate/try this and this and this and this/its worth the money in the end/fat fat fat fat fat

She was not beloved, she was shunned. There was no discussion of thick white women when I was a child budding big hips and a round ass. There was no love of flesh that ripples. There were only skinny blonde women with long cigarettes to keep them from eating.

But I’d seen them – women in my neighborhoods, strong hips and moving bodies of all sizes, shapes, and shades, wearing tight shorts if it was hot, tank tops with no bra, big breasts hanging – laughing and cooking and loving all the same. Even in the pain. Laughing. I paid attention.

The men though
Give me, give me, give me
Age is just a number
Old stories
Act.

There are skin stories and there is culture and there is racism and there is aging and there is writing and there is brand making and there is capitalism and my body doesn’t fit. Alive little girl in the system that tried to kill her now a grown woman.

Reclaiming
Body
Pain
Sex
Love
Joy
Beauty
Scars
Dirty.

Balled up bracing for a mans fear turned to fist
Protects me
Holds me tight
Helps me get loose

She holds memory
Loss
Triumph
That 5K
Pushing
Burning
Babies
Meals
Wanting
Him

Morbidity and all their labels

Thicc
Fat
Teased
Once, a long time ago, too thin

Too many freckles
Too much love
Too much want
Too much desire
She has always been too much
And always just enough
And no one
Ever
Truly hears her.

She has lines
Scars
Puckers
Deposits
Still
She wakes up every morning
She loves me fierce
Pulls in breath
Lets me know I am thirsty
Growls at me for food
Reminds me the world is still out there
I can move through it
however that takes shape.

I go to Instagram to look at Lizzo
Goddess

I watch her and love her love of her body. I smile at Lizzo twerking and holding her belly, praising it, and laughing and eating and loving and loving and loving. And I am not Lizzo.

I want to twerk by a pool and hold my belly and take fabulous pictures that show my glorious traumatized beautiful fucked up body. She kept me alive, whole, and I am here, survivor.

Fifty.

Shell Feijo is a former foster kid from the streets of Northern California. She never graduated from high school, but she earned a PhD from a fancy midwestern university. She is a workshop facilitator for A Trauma Healing Center (ATHC), a new site being developed for holistic healing from trauma. Her publications have appeared in NailedThe Fem Literary Magazine, Utne, Hip Mama, The Manifest Station, and the edited collections Places Like Home and Without a Net: The Female Experience Growing Up Working Class, among others. Her memoir of surviving foster care and the streets is forthcoming. 

Photo Credit: Marques Brooks- Divine Media Group LLC

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

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parents

Just a Moment

March 8, 2021
moment

A photograph of the author’s parents.

By Allison Amy Wedell

Here’s what you need to know for this photo to make sense: I love my dad. I say “love,” in present tense, even though he’s been dead for almost four years. I would raid heaven to have him back, even if just for a moment—a snapshot, if you will.

Here’s how it happened: Dad and I went on a six-day, 360-mile bike ride in Wyoming in mid-July, my brother got married at the end of July, then Mom and Dad left for a month-long trip to England and Scotland in early August. Two weeks into the trip, he checked himself into an ER in London, where they confirmed what my dad, a retired doctor, had already suspected.

He had acute myeloid leukemia.

So Dad spent four weeks in a London ICU, fighting to put together enough white blood cells that they would let him fly home to Cheyenne. After a night in the local hospital and a frank talk with his doctor there, he realized he wasn’t going to bounce back from this, and opted for hospice instead. He spent six wonderful, heartbreaking weeks in hospice, saying goodbye to everyone he loved.

He died on October 29, 2016.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve already realized that he went from biking up mountains with his daughter and dancing at his son’s wedding to his deathbed in a scant three months. The speed of it still takes my breath away, like that instant after a car crash when you’re just sitting there blinking while you try to figure out what just happened.

Anyway. Back to the photo. My mom sent it to me about six weeks after Dad died. She received it from her friend Shel, who had been on the England/Scotland tour with my parents. Shel had been sorting through his photos from their trip, and he sent her a few. This one is my favorite.

It’s so casual, isn’t it? Just a couple of tourists, surrounded by a few other tourists, taking a break in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in August of 2016. They could be any retirees, caught in a moment of rest, planning their next foray among the antiquities. But I see so much more. So many tiny details of this captured moment reveal to me, in heartbreaking clarity, all that I am missing.

For example, the man has a camera slung over his shoulder. It evidences his passion for both photography and technology, and makes me wonder how many beautiful photos he has already snapped on this day alone. Some of them have his wife in them; some are landscapes; some are closeups of flowers in gardens. All of them delight in the world around him.

You can’t quite tell, but those pant legs zip off. This man is nothing if not practical. If it gets too hot in Oxford on this summer day, he’ll convert his pants to shorts and stow the legs in a backpack (that same backpack that contains a windbreaker and hat, should the weather turn in the opposite direction) or on the tour bus. He was a Boy Scout, and their motto has served him well all his life: Be prepared.

Despite the fact that he is thousands of miles and an entire ocean from home, he manages to look neat and tidy, right down to that crease in his shirtsleeve. His wife ironed that shirt before they left, but he packed it carefully and hung it up as soon as they arrived at the hotel. He wears a plain white undershirt so it doesn’t get sweaty, and any excess sweat on his face will get mopped up by the clean white handkerchief he carries in his pocket. Tomorrow’s shirt will be similarly plaid and similarly crisp.

That lovely salt-and-pepper hair (that same hair he will lose to chemo in less than a month, but we don’t know that yet, do we, viewer?) sticks up a bit in front. Several times today, he will unconsciously run the fingers of his left hand through it, smoothing it down and to the side. When it gets particularly unruly, next time he’s in the men’s room, he’ll take a little black plastic comb out of one of his pockets and tidy it more thoroughly.

The guidebook he reads is probably not dog-eared or wrinkled or creased in any way; if it has a binding, said binding remains intact. If he has found it necessary to make notes in it, he has done so lightly in pencil. The man and his wife have a large library at home, love books, and have instilled a deep respect for them in both their children.

You cannot see his right ankle, but if you could, you’d realize that his left ankle is swollen by comparison. This is due to an issue he has with the lymph glands in that leg; complications from a condition he developed when he and his wife lived in Haiti 45 years before, where he gave inoculations and saved babies from tetanus seizures using Valium they had smuggled in for that very purpose.

And speaking of his wife, that’s her head (with the curly hair inherited by both their children) just beyond his, bent over a map. They sit in the companionable silence borne of decades of marriage. She is the love of his life; he knew it the moment he met her, and they were married less than a year later.

They have already begun to make plans for their 50th wedding anniversary, but he will miss it by just over three months.

So yes, it is just a snapshot. It is just a moment—and not even a moment I witnessed. But oh, if I could have it back, what I wouldn’t give.

What I wouldn’t give.

Allison Amy Wedell is a blogger and speechwriter for the state of Minnesota. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and The #TeamEric Chronicles, a blog about her dad’s illness and death from leukemia. Her work has been published by MomsRising, Committee for Children, and Free Spirit Publishing. She is the single mom of one amazing daughter and one rather ill-behaved cat in St. Paul.

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

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Binding the Generations

March 7, 2021
papa

By Daniel Osborn

On Sundays, my parents drove my sister and me to Hingham for dinner with Nana and Papa Al at my father’s childhood home. Growing up, this house was the thing of legend. Unassuming in a town notable for its critical mass of colonial mansions, conspicuously displaying plaques from the local historical society that advertised the 18th and 19th century dates of their construction, generations of Osborns had lived in this modest home with acres of lawn and woods beyond. It did not have a plaque but it possessed an iconic place in family lure.

The story goes that my Papa was born upstairs, in the room at the end of the hall, past the bathroom. Hearing this story as a child, it seemed otherworldly. I could not fathom a birth outside of a hospital, let alone a lifetime spent living in the same house. Yet, my stoic Papa was one with the home, devotedly tending to the land, the custodian of the property. His love was quiet and understated, more diligent than overtly affectionate.

The Hingham house was always a source of pride for me. It echoed with unmet relatives who seemed so distant as to have lived in a time unimaginable to me and the trappings of my late 20th century childhood. I was raised on Ninja Turtles and Nickelodeon and the few glimpses I had of previous generations from yellowed photographs made me question whether they were at all acquainted with the automobile and telephone, let alone cable television and the action figures spawned by cartoon programming.  Black-and-white people once inhabited the home that I came to associate with endless rounds of card games with my Nana and evenings spent trying to up the sarcastic ante one pithy remark at a time in between bites of pizza from Denly Garden.

My Nana usually had enough cutting remarks in reserve to protect her honorary title of wittiest Osborn. Dorothy Parker may have woken up every day to brush her teeth and sharpen her tongue but my Nana could have held her own at the Algonquin Round Table, if only circumstances had favored her in youth. The premature death of a mother, an alcoholic father, the Great Depression, and a childhood spent bouncing around between relatives does a lot to develop a biting sense of humor but is not, exactly, the formula to getting an adoring audience of sophisticates to guffaw at one’s quips.

Arriving at the Hingham house, I would often see my Papa sitting outside in the shade by the barn in the backyard. Beyond the barn was the field. On days when I would walk straight into the house without checking by the barn, we would be greeted by my Nana at the kitchen table. “Where’s Papa” somebody would ask, inevitably eliciting the response, “He’s down in the field.” The low muffle of a ride-on lawn mower indicated the distance between Papa and the house.

Whenever I strain to conjure a mental image of my Papa, I imagine him riding his lawn mower in the field or sitting on a white plastic lawn chair down by the garden wearing an almost neutral expression that all but conceals his urge to be younger and physically fit enough to tend to his crops without the reluctance of a body in its ninth decade. In the days immediately following his death, I sat in rapture in the same kitchen where my Nana and I often ate lunch and exchanged verbal jabs. In these emotionally exhausting days, this space was transformed into a sanctuary from grief. Eddie Carnes and Tom Studley, my Papa’s lifelong friends, regaled my family with stories from their youth and filled in the details of a life I only knew in broad strokes. Only a teenager when my Papa passed, I had hardly considered his life before my time. My adolescent mind was still too enveloped in the immediacy of youthful egocentrism to entertain the notion that Papa was more than who he was in relation to me in this particular stage of his life. His mannerisms were given a backstory with each colorful accounting of his time as a young man.

Tom’s loose and wrinkled skin hid in its valleys his World War II era Army tattoos, the ones gotten when deployed with my Papa in the Pacific. Tom spoke without the reservation that marked my Papa’s interpersonal style. For every moment of silence we spent together in that kitchen during his life, Tom volunteered to fill this space with war stories. Now, my Papa’s limp had an origin. It was not the toll taken by time, the signifier of age I assumed but, instead, the emblem of personal sacrifice worn long after parades ended and uniforms were relegated to collect dust and musty odors in closets. Eddie and Tom laughed as they recounted my Papa’s impressive physical strength as he lifted bombs and other munitions with apparent ease. By the time I started planting the garden with him, his broad shoulders and thick hands were a reminder of a gradually eroding powerfulness. My presence in the field was, in part, because I now enjoyed my own ease with physical tasks that were increasingly becoming out of my Papa’s reach, too demanding for him yet not even registering with me as taxing.

It was in the garden that I felt most like I was participating in my family’s heritage. As a child, I watched with awe and embarrassment as my Papa and father used tools and unveiled their adeptness at maintaining the property. Over the creek bed separating the grassy field from the tree-lined woods beyond, my Papa and father built two foot bridges by hand. I observed as they measured and cut, ordered and arranged, and, all the while, worked in concert in a nearly unbroken silence. From a pile of lumber emerged newly engineered connective tissue to the untamed portion of the property. While I am sure some trivial duties were delegated to me, I felt utterly inept in contrast to their aptitude for executing the undertaking. Then and now, tools are alien to me. My dandy-like tendencies precluded any understanding of their process. I simply knew that my Papa possessed a work ethic and an acuity for such tasks that mystified me.

My father worked alongside his father on these types of projects throughout my childhood. Together, they ascended ladders and repainted the house. They cut down trees and chopped the wood. I played cards with my Nana and looked on from a distance much of the time. The two of them completed tasks together, both intuitively understanding the nature of the work and the processes at hand. Neither looked dumbfounded enough to ask at each step along the way, “What do I do next,” a question I swallowed more than I posed, lest I appear totally lost in these chores. But, there was always a tension between the two men.

Papa Al spoke infrequently, using his hands and a sunrise-to-sunset work ethic, instead, to communicate to the world. Yet, he always managed to connect with my sister and me. Without fail, he would greet me with the question, “How’s old Chester,” inquiring about my childhood dog. I would give an update, keeping silence at bay for a moment. It seemed to my father that from the time his father became Papa Al to his grandchildren, his emotional distance and unpolished paternal style were replaced with a more affectionate state. My Papa would always remain a quiet man but, to my father, his dad had undergone a transformation into a more gentle person. My father watched on as Papa unfurled a spirit unknown to him as a child living under the yoke of a more stern paternal figure.

The time in the garden during my youth that defines my memories of Papa Al are markedly different than the associations my father has with his childhood. As Papa introduced me to the process of tilling the soil and supervising the ground until it bore fruit, I adopted an enthusiasm for the work. On occasion, my father would recount the laboriousness of being a child on these acres with the grass-to-be-mowed and the garden-to-be-weeded. A favorite didactic tale my father would recount was when he would be caught or accused of being bored. His father would then tell him to go to the garden and weed a row of string beans. In my father’s account, this could occupy the rest of his evening, replacing boredom with hours on his hands and knees plucking unwanted vegetation in between the fledgling plants. The lesson being conveyed was simple. Papa had changed over time and being his grandson was a different experience than being his son. While I got to sit in the back of the trailer that was hitched onto the lawn mower, enjoying a leisurely, albeit bumpy, ride around the property with my Papa as the chauffeur, my father was subjected to a different person in his youth. The quiet yet doting Papa was not the man my father was acquainted with at the age when he was called on to tend to the garden.

Whereas my father recounted the parts of his youth with decades-old frustration, during my teenage years, I enjoyed the work and was surprised to find an outlet to contribute to the property as more than a Sunday tourist, hoping Nana prepared my favorite dessert or stocked my preferred snacks in the back hall pantry. But, before I was invited to plant the garden, the field was where I ambled. When sports were the centerpiece of my youthful pursuits, my father and I would play catch there. Somewhat uncoordinated but determined to improve, I would chase down the baseballs that ricocheted off my glove and hurl them at my father with varying degrees of accuracy. What I lacked in innate athletic prowess, I compensated for in effort. For well over a decade, I dutifully attended practices and obediently followed coaches’ directives. For this, I was frequently rewarded with third string status and a spectator’s view of fields from the sidelines. Yet, on this hallowed ground, my father and I would throw the ball in near silence. These hours held the promise of enough improvement in my skills to ascend the ranks of little league athletics.

One day, my father presented me with a green and red bow with a quiver of arrows. In the otherwise unbroken expanse of the grassy field was a lone tree which became my target. The bow was a vestige from my father’s childhood, before the term “free range” was used to describe a parenting style which typified the autonomy afforded to his generation. With the other neighborhood kids born during the Eisenhower Administration, they would take turns shooting an arrow into the air, scattering around the property, each following the arc of the projectile and vying to be nearest when it plunged back down to earth. Raised before the concept of “helicopter” parents had taken root in the American zeitgeist, my generation straddled this laissez faire approach that granted tacit permission to young Baby Boomers’ bow-and-arrow pastimes and the more zealous hovering that I would observe later in life in affluent suburbia where parents chose to live vicariously through their Gen Z children. Listening to my father tell these stories as he taught me to aim the arrow and release it towards the tree, I was fascinated and horrified by the audacity of his childhood self to scramble across the field evading medieval weaponry. I was also envious, knowing this would not be replicated by me and my friends even with the bow in my possession.

But my ambling lasted only until I was recruited to till and plant. On the first day of what would become an annual tradition, my Papa sat just beyond the freshly plowed soil and gave instructions for how to convert the churned dirt into a series of neat and orderly rows across an expanse that approached the size of a football field. It was at this moment that my Papa handed my father a wooden spool around which was wrapped twine. The wood was dry and on the cusp of splintering. The thin rope looked aged and brittle. While my Papa sat and explained the process in short punchy sentences, my father interjected with a little back story. This spool and rope were ancient, even to him. It was a rudimentary way to ensure the rows of plants were straight and uniformly spaced. This mattered because, soon, my father and I would strike the ground with our hoes and insert hundreds of saplings to the ground.

Even though my Papa and Nana were the only two people living at the house, he filled the garden with dozens of plants that far exceeded the demand of the household. Row upon row of tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, zucchini, summer squash, butternut squash, and other varieties filled a plot that was larger than my childhood backyard. The space where I would play soccer or lacrosse with my father or search for crickets when I was younger was but a parcel of the land my Papa plowed each year and filled with vegetable plants. The overabundance of the annual harvest enabled my Nana to produce batches of her hot pepper relish, a beloved condiment to sandwiches and hot dogs. When the relish was being made, the kitchen felt dangerous and toxic. An enormous pot sat atop the stove, heat radiating off the burners. The pungent odor of white vinegar, onions, and peppers enveloped the house and penetrated one’s senses to the point where breathing felt nearly impossible and eyes strained to remain open. In the end, the relish was jarred, the tangy and spicy sauce lasting only as long as the collective self-restraint of the family could muster.

The excess of tomatoes would serve as the fodder for tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches served on scali bread with sesame seeds. Throughout my childhood, my Papa would cultivate this yield and I would arrive at the family house and be greeted by juicy tomatoes that I would savor as Nana and I played round after round of War, the only card game I ever seemed to master and, unbeknownst to me, her least favorite. The only skill required by the game was enough hand dexterity to flip one card at a time until one player possessed the entire deck. Often, I would win and benevolently split the deck again with my Nana, taking pity on her and keeping the game alive. Later, after her death, relatives would lovingly recount how little she enjoyed the game. She humored me, nonetheless.

With the remaining yield, Papa would fill the cart that he hitched to his lawn mower and drive up and down the neighborhood, delivering bags of produce to the community. Always understated, Papa would, nevertheless, find ways to demonstrate his generosity. Bestowing fresh vegetables to the neighbors was one of the acts of selflessness that came naturally to him. It was a small gesture that seemed kind but trivial to me at the time yet is so rare as to almost seem obsolete today.

With the rope unspooled, my father and I used our hoes to commence digging small holes. I had seen the hoes hanging in the barn for years with all the other farm implements that looked menacing. When my Papa was a child, the property was actually a small working farm. The family kept cows and in the grassy field were a few mounds that I was told were their final resting places. With the rampant sarcasm in the family, I never knew definitively if this was true or yet another sly remark. Many of the tools from the days of cows and more robust farming remained suspended from the rafters or mounted to the barn’s walls. We only had use for the spooled rope and hoes.

The dimensions of the garden invited my Papa’s generosity. Parceling the space between friends and neighbors, we only had to fill a quadrant on this inaugural day. Rows of corn stalks would soon grow tall in an adjacent plot, put there by John Barry. Mr. Barry was, to me, a specter during this time, a frail figure dutifully walking the grounds parallel to the work underway by the Osborns. Politely, I would wave and greet him on the occasions when our visits to the garden overlapped. Slow-moving and hunched, Mr. Barry would walk the few hundred yards from the driveway to the garden where he would plant and tend to his hundreds of heads of corn.

Years after my grandfather passed away, Mr. Barry exceeded the brevity that typified our exchange of pleasantries and informed me through a crooked smile that this garden saved his life. Recovering from surgery, he lacked the motivation to undertake physical therapy yet the long walks from his car to the garden offered the exercise he needed to recover. My Papa’s subtle generosity, the mere act of lending him a fraction of an acre, galvanized Mr. Barry to step out of bed and into the world again when he just as easily could have succumbed to resignation.

If playing catch in the field and missing the tree when I released the arrows from my inherited bow taught me anything, it’s that my physical coordination was underwhelming. While my Papa impatiently observed his son and grandson completing the annual ritual that had been his prerogative decade after decade, I struck the soil and carved out space for our plants. Lacking the muscle memory that comes from a lifetime spent caring for this property and mastering each facet of the chores, I lifted and dropped the hoe to the ground. After only a few minutes participating as an equal to my father and inheritor to my Papa’s role in the process, I missed yet another target, striking the rope and relieving the tension.

Inexperience amplifies emotion. Without reference points, it becomes nearly impossible to calibrate a response; nor is experience necessarily an antidote against novelty. Even after all these years, I can still recall the bursting sensation of my cheeks turning flush as I stood over the  limp rope in disbelief of the almost-immediate severing of this ancient tool that, in the moment, felt like a vessel holding the legacy of a family tradition that had withstood over a half century of wear and tear but less than a half hour with me. In my mind is an image of my Papa, mouth open in shock. To this day, I am unsure of this memory, doubting whether Papa’s  reaction is a figment of my imagination or if my action was actually met by his astonishment.

Just as quickly as the hoe came down on the rope, my father would bend down and tie it together, reestablishing the tension that had always been there when he and his father went out each year to plant the garden. Quickly, order was returned and I resumed the task. The disturbance lasted a few moments at most and barely a word was exchanged among us.

Without fail, on our first day of planting each summer, my father reminds me of the garden rope. He squints his eyes as his face turns crimson with the release of his wheezy laughter. He shakes his head and smiles, remembering his father and my embarrassment. Our annual tradition now consists of his mirthful reminder of my first day working in the garden.

Shortly thereafter, the laughter ends and we unspool the garden rope and dig our hoes into the ground. Soon, we are both on our hands and knees, filling in the holes and feeling the soil between our fingers. Weeks will pass before we harvest peppers to make a batch of relish. In between, we will alternate between lovingly and grudgingly tilling and weeding the garden. We will curse the deer that eat the plants. Patches of the garden now remain untilled and untended. There is no more corn that grows in the adjacent plot. But, now my dad is his grandchildren’s Papa. When my sister visits and her children enter the house, the sound of the mower in the field is being operated by my dad. He will place his granddaughter on his lap and take her for rides. My mother will walk her down to the garden to name the plants my father and I have planted. I am experimenting with kale and broccoli. We have expanded the eggplant since the deer ignore these plants. Now, it is my father who will look at what we have planted and suggest another dozen peppers or tomatoes, assuming the mantle of caretaker. The house still stands and stories are told to a new generation. They hear about Nana and Papa, real life people who they only know through flat pictures and the curated memories recalled at family gatherings. The day my hoe cut through the rope like a guillotine now lives on in the canon of family lure. No longer a rupture with the past, it is rooted in the sly and sarcastic stories told around tables by a papa to his children and grandchildren.

Daniel Osborn, Ed.D. is a program director at Primary Source, an education nonprofit. Daniel’s academic background is interdisciplinary with advanced degrees in Near East and Judaic Studies and History and Social Science Education. He is the author of Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness, published by Routledge. He also is the creator and host of the Joy and Conversation podcast on Jewish history and culture. 

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

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Grief, Guest Posts

Babyland

January 27, 2021
cemetery

By Kris Martinez

Though I’d barely known him, I’d thought about him off and on over the years. If anything, he came to me as a passing thought of the strange way seventh grade had begun with the announcement of our teacher’s death just after Labor Day. The memory was almost always accompanied by the vision of Joyce K. running around the playground at recess in her hand-me-down maroon plaid uniform, the warm September sun shining on her ratty reddish hair as she sang her song in soaring arcs. The old elastic of her graying white knee socks puddled down around her ankles and her arms spread wide as she flew across the blacktop and dashed over the lines of the basketball court, singing, “Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad! Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad!”

Every time his memory knocked at the door of my brain I tried to will it away, telling myself I barely had any right to remember him. I didn’t know this man. His story wasn’t mine to tell. And yet, the more I tried to ignore it, the more insistent it became.

When I finalKris Martinez has over twenty-five years of experience as a marketing and advertising professional and has owned a digital creative agency near Chicago for the past sixteen years. Her company’s work has been recognized with dozens of industry awards and she is a member of several professional organizations. Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.ly went looking for him after thirty-five years, there wasn’t much to find. He wasn’t married and didn’t have children. My research uncovered a brother, now deceased. He’d had a niece and nephew and was preceded in death by his parents. I’d long known he was from St. Charles, where we’d lived for the past fifteen years, which I considered a minor coincidence. But it never really occurred to me to look for his grave until the day I was suddenly consumed by the thought and couldn’t focus on anything else.

Union Cemetery on the east side of St. Charles was my destination, just north of town on Route 25, the north-south highway that runs adjacent to the Fox River, about thirty-five miles west of downtown Chicago. It would be impossible to count the times I’d driven past the cemetery, taking Harper to her Little Acorns program at the park district or picking up Maya from birthday parties and outings with the Girl Scouts. In the past thirty-five years that I’d been living my life, Mr. LeVasseur had been there in the ground.

As I drove north on Route 25, I passed the St. Charles Episcopal Church where I’d been to a few A.A. meetings early on in my recovery. On this day, I was happy to see they were proudly flying a rainbow flag with the words, “Everyone is Welcome.” It was a balm to see such an inviting message in a world that seemed to get more divisive by the day.

Across the street is Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where I’d desperately gone after I slipped up and drank again only to find that they were closed. As I dejectedly walked away from the locked doors that day, a woman in black glasses and grey sweatpants asked me if I was looking for a meeting. I said yes. She said it only took two people to meet, so we sat on a cement bench outside the closed doors of the church and she recited all the familiar words by heart. She said that alcoholics slip up all the time, but it’s getting back on the wagon and trying again that counts, so that’s what I did. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.

As I drove past these two churches where I’d laid my sinful heart bare, I checked in with myself: it no longer hurt to remember these things. I needed every last drink to find my bottom. And it took every last meeting to get me on the path of recovery.

I arrived at Union Cemetery and pulled to the side of the paved lane to assess the grounds, not knowing where to begin. Fortunately, I had seen a photo of the headstone someone had posted online. It was a red granite stone, at a low angle to the ground. Newer, if thirty-five years is new. Which I guess it is in a cemetery.

It was a warm day, sunny and in the upper eighties with the humidity creeping towards one hundred percent. The grass was thick with moisture and clung to my flip-flopped feet as I worked my way methodically up and down the rows, training my eye on only the newer, red granite stones.

As I read name after name, the concept of a grave marker intrigued me. It contains only the barest of facts: a name, the dates of birth and death, and that’s usually about it. A veteran will typically have the details of his or her branch and years of service. Some people opt for a short poem or scripture passage, but not often.

I saw many headstones that had the word Mother or Father etched into them. The deceased’s children or family would have placed these stones and settled on this singular word to describe their loved one. But these people – they weren’t just Mother or Father. They were Son, Daughter. Friend. Sister. Aunt. Lover. At what point does one decide: now, forever more, she shall be known as Mother? Such a commitment to confining the dead to a single-word description in her relationship to others. How can one’s life be summed up on a single stone? And yet – isn’t it our relationships with others that matter most?

I came across several old St. Charles families I recognized, notable names like Baker, Anderson, and Norris. So many prominent people who’d had roads, parks, and hotels named after them like Beith, Farnsworth, and Dunham. These were distinguished people who’d made names for themselves in life and whose elaborate gravesites now served as permanent reminders of their lasting influence – or at least, their wealth. Now, they were all gone.

I thought of how all of these people had lived and died. What had their lives been like? Did they accomplish everything they wanted in whatever time they’d been given? What sort of pain and suffering had they gone through? How did they die? But more importantly: how had they lived?

I tried to peel my shirt away from the river of sweat that was now running down my back. The heat almost suffocated me as another elaborate stone jolted me with its familiar name: Swanberg, the country road near our home. It was to Swanberg Road I’d gone on the day I decided to end my life. After texting my husband and siblings goodbye and telling them to tell my kids I loved them, I’d planted my feet in the middle of Swanberg Road as a Mack truck barreled down on me, closing my eyes as I prepared for impact.

Swanberg Road was the site of my second suicide attempt, and I was here to visit the grave of my teacher who had died by suicide. I thought of this now as I stood looking at this headstone. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I listened to the insects buzzing nearby and felt the warm sun on my skin. I put my hand on my chest to feel my beating heart and the rise and fall of my breathing. I needed to remind myself that though these Swanbergs were gone, I was still here.

As I searched for my teacher, I thought of how he had lived. I realized again that though I knew nothing about this man, his death had continued to haunt me after all this time.

  • • •

While I had been wandering through row after row trying to cover as much ground as possible, there was a young couple in the cemetery who had stayed in the same general area, hugging each other as they cried. I was mindful to keep my search at a respectful distance.

A groundskeeper walked over to talk to the couple. I overheard him telling them that he was a fourth generation caretaker: his great grandfather had been in the business, followed by his grandfather and father. Job stability, I thought. There’s always going to be death.

As my hunt through the headstones brought me closer to the couple, I realized the caretaker was consulting with them on different spaces that were available. The area they were standing in was edged by a well-manicured row of hedges, and the plots were much smaller and closer together than in the rest of the cemetery. Many of the gravesites had little toy cars or stuffed animals placed on them. One featured a blue ceramic Cookie Monster painted in a perpetual smile.

Unlike the headstones in the rest of the cemetery, many of these said “Our Baby” or “Infant Child.” These were people who would never have the chance to grow into or be defined by any other relationships; they would forever be Our Baby. Here, I had no need to be so judgmental of the choice of words selected by their loved ones. In almost all cases, these headstones had been chosen and purchased by the parents of a dead child.

I heard the caretaker say he had to head back to his office for a bit and told the couple they could stay as long as they liked. Realizing he could probably help me in my quest, I got back in my car and followed him to the old groundskeeper building.

“Can I help you find someone?” he said kindly. I noticed he didn’t ask if I was looking for a grave or a headstone. He didn’t even say just a generic, “Can I help you?” or, “Need some help?” He asked if he could help me find someone.

“I’m looking for a person who died in 1985,” I said, showing him the picture of the headstone on my phone.

“Aw that’s great someone posted a picture so you had something to go off of,” he said, looking at the photo. “I recognize him. Let me find him for you.”

I followed the lanky caretaker into his wood paneled office which was filled with a massive desk and a few folded American flags on a battered brown couch. I was thankful for the air conditioning unit that was trying mightily to battle the rising temperature outside; it felt good to catch a break from the heat.

He pulled a beat-up old map of the cemetery out of a closet cabinet. The ancient paper was mounted on a large board and protected under cracked plastic that curled at the edges. He opened a thick three-ring binder that listed the details of each burial plot and quickly turned to the L’s.

“LeVasseur…Delmar. There he is!” he said, marking a miniature map of the cemetery to help guide me in my search. “Looks like he’s in Babyland, right where we just were.” I was shocked to hear him use my teacher’s name, thinking, like a child, that teachers don’t have first names. It was uncomfortable to hear it; it felt too intimate. It made him human.

But it rattled me to hear him use the term “Babyland,” like it was an amusement park. It seemed too casual a name for the infant section, like the babies deserved something more respectful.

He pointed to the Babyland section on the map and I saw something that I hadn’t realized when I’d been standing there: the well-manicured row of hedges outlining the area was in the shape of a heart.

“Really? He was forty-two when he died,” I said, surprised that he’d be buried there.

He checked his log again. “Oh, I see what I did. No, Delmar’s over here,” he said, apologizing as he corrected my map for me. The grave I was looking for was on the other side of the cemetery and back toward the entrance; at the rate I’d been going, it would have taken me another two hours to find it. The whole process was so efficient, I wondered why I had let myself wander around for so long before asking for help.

“That couple I was just talking to? They had twins, and one didn’t make it,” he said, shaking his head. “Losing a child – that’s the worst way to go.”

My chest ached as I thought of the torment the parents of the deceased child must be going through. I’d been at the cemetery almost an hour, and they had been standing in the same place the entire time: under a tree near the manicured hedge as they tried to decide on the impossible.

“The man I’m looking for – he was a suicide,” I said. “Is he…I mean…you don’t have a separate area for suicides, do you?”

“No, no, we have them all over the place.” He laughed as he thought about how that sounded. “I just mean, they’re treated like anyone else. But that’s a terrible way to die. I mean, when someone’s in their eighties or whatever, that makes sense. But babies and suicides – that’s never good.”

I told him about the book I was reading on suicide and how not so very long ago, people who died by suicide weren’t allowed to be buried in a regular cemetery. In some societies, they often weren’t allowed to be buried within the city limits, and heinous things were often done to their bodies after death an in effort to shame them and make an example of them to everyone else.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “That’s a terrible way to treat people. It’s hard enough losing someone to suicide. Why would they put their families through that?” He went on to tell me that he’d lost two of his closest friends to suicide.

I thanked him for the map and his time and drove to the north end of the cemetery near the entrance, just on the other side of the golf course. I heard the thwack of a golf ball and saw golfers through the tree line making their way down the smooth, green course. It was a beautiful day for golf. A beautiful day to be alive.

I got out of my car and scanned the rows of headstones, my eyes now accustomed to searching out only red granite. I quickly zeroed in on two rows of red and made my way closer, but I was in no way prepared for how I would feel once I actually saw it: Delmar LeVassseur.

Seeing his name etched in red granite was so final. Reaching out to touch his headstone, I heaved as I traced with my fingers the year he had died: 1985. I pictured his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow patches, his neatly trimmed goatee. But it was his quiet demeanor and his kind, dark eyes that came to me now. I exploded in tears and collapsed to my knees as I cried in heavy, gasping sobs.

Embarrassed by my reaction, I chastised myself: why was I crying? I didn’t know this man. I didn’t know anything about him at all. Logic would say: move on. Forget it. It’s a non-thing.

But it wasn’t, to me. Something in me needed to understand what drove him to take his own life. After all these years, I needed to know more. I needed to know: what happened? What happened next? And here, finally, I had at least part of the answer.

What happened next was that his body was placed here in this cemetery, likely by his brother, and he’d been here ever since. What happened next was what happens after suicide: death. Forever.

I knew that he had been preceded in death by his parents not long before he had died, but his grave was alone, between two strangers. Where was his family? Why wasn’t he buried with them? I cried even harder realizing that he had been buried alone.

I knelt on the grass and cried as long as the tears would come, taking off my sunglasses to wipe my eyes. Streams of black mascara ran down my face and stained my white shirt.

After a time, I stood up to go and casually looked at the names on the surrounding graves and noticed two red granite headstones in the next row: Lee and Ann LeVasseur. I hadn’t seen them when I first found his grave; I’d been too overcome with emotion. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t alone after all.

I wanted to see his grave because I needed to know that he was real. He was more than just the way he died, more than just a troubled girl’s singsong hanging on the September sky.

He was a real human being who battled a lot of demons and lost. He mattered.

It wasn’t Mr. LeVasseur’s suicide that led to my first attempt to take my life five years later. Nor was it his fault when I made a second attempt twenty-five years after that. When I was seventeen, I’d already been living at the bottom of depression with notions of death for longer than I cared to remember. When I was forty-two, the same age he’d been, that same madness had returned, now compounded by addiction.

My seventh grade teacher wouldn’t be the last person I’d know to attempt or die by suicide, but he was the first. I didn’t know him, but I knew his pain.

As I got back in my car, I saw that the couple with the deceased twin was still standing under the tree, near the heart-shaped manicured hedge, putting off their agonizing decision as long as possible. My grief was no match against the awful reality of a dead baby; I could drive away, but for this couple, they would never escape the tortuous agony of losing a child.

And yet – grief is not a competition; we don’t need to compare. There is simply no limit to the amount of sorrow in this world. But allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is the only way to get through it and make our way back towards the light.

Kris Martinez has over twenty-five years of experience as a marketing and advertising professional and has owned a digital creative agency near Chicago for the past sixteen years. Her company’s work has been recognized with dozens of industry awards and she is a member of several professional organizations.

Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.

Guest Posts

Gene(s)

December 28, 2020
gene

By Julianne Ho

“They have the best pork katsudon,” I told Gene, as if I were a true food connoisseur. We were walking through the prepared bentos section of Sunrise Mart, this tiny Japanese market on Stuyvesant Street. Conveniently situated across from my NYU dormitory on 3rd Avenue, it was one of my favorite places to grocery shop.

Our fellow dorm resident Eugenia, who had grown up in Japan, had vouched for their katsudons a month prior.

“Really?” he replied.

Perhaps Eugenia had already mentioned that to him too?

I looked past Gene’s handsome face, past his inquisitive brown eyes, which seemed to match his sandy brown hair, and his mouth, forever curved into a smirk when I was around, and squeezed into the cramped grocery aisles. I grabbed a package of nori and placed it gently into my shopping basket next to the bag of rice. It seemed like something Eugenia would have bought. I thought I caught him watching me, as I feigned interest in the various brands of bonito flakes before I decided to just check out with the nori and rice. I only knew of one dish that I can make decently with bonito flakes anyway, and I barely liked its taste.

***

Gene and I saw each other around NYU’s Alumni Hall, occasionally ran errands together, but we never went on a proper date. Once, he asked me to join him at Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village for pierogis, but I declined. I really should be studying, I told myself, instead of thinking about food or dating.

Every day during the spring of my junior year, I would bring my books to the dormitory TV lounge to study, and Gene would be there. Neither of us had TVs in our rooms. I knew studying in front of the television wasn’t the most effective use of my time, but I couldn’t help myself. I loved spending time with him.

“I can read the subtitles out loud while you study for the MCAT,” Gene offered one night from the couch in the TV lounge. “I love this movie. I want you to watch it with me.”

I was sitting at my regular study table near him. I’d just gotten back from a Kaplan MCAT Review session, but I still felt a compulsive need to study. The MCATs were coming up in a few weeks. As a pre-med student who was trying to enter medical school, I constantly felt guilty about how I spent my time. Any moment not spent studying led to extreme anxiety. Gene’s ability to watch foreign movies at ease seemed like a luxury to me.

My left ear itched so I scratched it absently as I answered, “Thanks, but I won’t retain anything from the movie or the MCAT books if you’re reading the subtitles out loud.”

I eyed him from the table where I sat with my books, and then compulsively gave my right ear a scratch for balance.

He read five minutes of subtitles for “The Vanishing” before giving up and watching the movie quietly as I worked on the practice test questions. I found his presence comforting.

***

“Eugenia is working on oil paintings today,” Gene informed me. “She offered to paint our portraits.”

I had heard that Eugenia and Gene were probably dating. Since they were just rumors, I had allowed myself to believe that they weren’t. Plus, Gene and Eugenia never indicated to me that they were seeing each other.

Eugenia’s father owned a successful appliance company in Asia that did business with major companies in the U.S. She had extra canvases, like the lots of other extra things that she owned. And she was also habitually sweet and generous. She had suggested that I paint something also. I was too self-conscious about my lack of artistic ability so I painted some leaves. I told her I didn’t want to waste her canvases. I had trouble finding storage space for her finished pieces so Gene offered to store them in his dad’s office in the city. I declined and ended up shipping them back to my parents’ house.

***

Gene and I were standing next to each other in an elevator packed with people. I could smell the faint scent of the little clove cigarettes he liked to smoke. It was the end of my junior year, and my backpack was sitting uncomfortably on top of my shoes as we tried to cram in even more passengers.

He had recently told me that he had a TV in his room this whole time, and that he just enjoyed hanging out with me in the TV lounge.

“I’m thinking about transferring to McGill in Montreal,” Gene told me, his voice muffled by the head of the man in front of us. “What do you think?”

Stunned by his sudden news, I held myself still, then shifted my weight, and the forgotten backpack at my feet tumbled a little bit as I mumbled, “McGill’s a good school. And you’ll be closer to your family.”

I couldn’t be honest with him. I couldn’t tell him I didn’t want him to go. I stooped a little in order to fumble with my backpack. Why were there so many people around? Couldn’t they mind their own business?
I suspected that some of the people in the elevator were watching so I stuck out my hand for a handshake instead of hugging him good-bye. Maybe some of the eavesdropping elevator passengers murmured, but I couldn’t be sure as I had kept my head down, trying to seem distracted by my backpack. Gene looked surprised, shook my hand, and when the elevator doors opened onto his floor, he said goodbye. I never saw him again.

***

“I think they are out to destroy my medical career,” I whispered to my mother. We were standing in a terminal at LAX airport where this distinguished, elderly couple had been seated across from us for a while. I had just graduated from college in May 1999 and hadn’t gotten into any medical school. Two had waitlisted me but ultimately rejected me. I was sure the couple were spies who had plotted with those medical schools to end my potentially prestigious and promising career, as I would later be convinced that the solo passenger seated behind us on the plane had done. As I filled my mother in on their plot to destroy my precious career, I switched to a different Chinese dialect to throw off the suspicious-looking couple and glared, since they had been staring at me.

I hadn’t slept nor showered for two weeks. My exhausted mother nodded. By then, she would have said anything to get me on the plane headed to the Pittsburgh, to the home of my dad’s psychiatrist colleague and good friend. My parents didn’t want me to see the psychiatrists in Los Angeles. If I were hospitalized in the Los Angeles community my dad practiced medicine in, people might gossip.

I didn’t know what a psychotic break was or whether the doctor in Pittsburgh was right or wrong about me. All I really wanted was for him to help me figure out whether people were really out to ruin my career or whether I just needed to study harder.

***

I had gained about forty pounds within a month or so of taking a combination of various prescription medications. At twenty-three years old, I had been rejected by twenty-five different medical schools in two sequential admissions cycles.

Despite my parents’ efforts, I was eventually hospitalized in Los Angeles in the year following Pittsburgh. But even before my hospitalization, I had started using food as a salve. My mother would watch me in disapproving silence whenever I sat at my parents’ table for dinner and shoveled noodles into my mouth.

“I’m already fat,” I would say, if she dared suggest I’d had enough. “Just let me eat what I want before I die so that I can have a little bit of happiness in my life.”

My mother looked alarmed and pained, but she still refused to ask me the obvious question: Do you really want to die? Because for me to verbalize my suicidal thoughts could mean that they could actually happen.

So she watched me eat so many excessive dinners in disapproving silence that, seven years later, by the time I was thirty, I was morbidly obese: 5’1” and well over 200 pounds.

***

Several years ago, I found Gene’s profile on Facebook and sent him a friend request. He did not recognize me from my profile picture because of the weight I gained. He sent me a message to ask whether I was the long-lost friend who painted the three beautiful portraits of him that still hung on his wall.

I told him that was Eugenia. I painted the leaves.

I thought about reminding him about me, his friend who studied like a maniac for the MCATs and pretended to know a lot about all sorts of foods, but I couldn’t find the right words. Instead, I told him that I missed him and appreciated his friendship, but he didn’t reply. Maybe because my confession came decades too late, I failed to become part of the memories of his time in New York. Maybe he forgot me because I never did anything that was worth remembering. I wondered if he really forgot, or if my memory was faulty. I wondered whether my perception was really so far off from reality.

***

When I returned to the NYU dormitory for my senior year of college, I had made a beeline for the TV lounge. I wanted to see Gene there, hoping that maybe he had forgotten that awkward handshake incident in the elevator, or perhaps had decided not to go to McGill. That maybe he would stay at NYU and finish out the following year with me. I waited and waited, but he did not appear.

That was also the year of the first round of medical school rejection letters. I thought about Gene and was grateful for his presence, the way he helped keep me calm, happy, and sane the year before all those rejections, the year before I felt like I started to lose everything, including my own sanity.

I thought about what my therapist said about how most people are not out to hurt others; that they were just doing the best they can. I thought about my own mistakes—my moods, flaws, and regrets – protracted silences, refusal to attempt portraiture, ignoring movie subtitles read aloud, and my cold elevator good-byes, and I realized that what my therapist said had been true.

***

Last fall, I went back to New York City for my 20-year college reunion. I had been residing in Los Angeles since college, with only occasional jaunts to the city. I knew I wouldn’t see Gene nor Eugenia at the reunion as they didn’t graduate with my class, but I would often think of them whenever I visited. On the last day of that reunion trip, I stopped by Washington Square to listen to the street musicians play their instruments by the fountain. I ambled by my old NYU dormitory to admire the building’s orange and gray façade, watched as the crisp autumn leaves fell from the surrounding trees, and then stopped into Veselka in the East Village to eat a plateful of potato and cheese pierogis. And by the time I flew back home to Los Angeles, I finally felt like I had said a proper good-bye.

Julianne Ho lives in Los Angeles and is a first-generation Taiwanese-American. She works as a financial manager for UCLA and enjoys arts & crafts and watching Hulu. Being solitary these past months and having those fears realized, it has helped her see how strong she can be and that being alone is not so bad.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Birthday, Guest Posts, memories

I Hear You, Please Come In

December 26, 2020
birthday

By Charna Cassell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friendship, Grief, Guest Posts

Remodeling, Loss and the Kitchen Sink

December 21, 2020
sink

By Devra Lee Fishman

I could tell I confused the Home Depot kitchen designer when I burst into tears.

“Most people are happy to hear they need a new sink when they change out their countertops,” he said.

“I do not want a new kitchen sink,” I said, as I dug around in my handbag for a tissue. “All I want is a new white countertop to replace the forest green one I installed when I remodeled fourteen years ago.”

I have always decorated to my taste with no worry about resale and at the time, I had a taste for forest green. I also had a dear friend being treated for breast cancer.

Leslie and I met on our first day of Syracuse University almost thirty years previous when we were matched as roommates. We clicked immediately, lived together all through college and over the years laughed our way through good and tough times. We were in each other’s wedding and when I didn’t get my dream job and I thought my world was at a dead end, Leslie helped me see the open road. Her bad news came at the same time I was going through a rough break up, yet Leslie consoled me. “Dev, in a lot of ways having a broken heart is worse than having cancer. At least I have treatment options to get me through this.”

When I started the remodel, Leslie had just moved back to upstate New York from Los Angeles. I was looking forward to spending more time with her now that we were both living on the same coast, but she was diagnosed shortly after she unpacked. Her cancer was advanced and advancing. As time went by and her world seemed to only revolve around doctors and treatments, I thought she might enjoy a distraction so I asked her to help design my new kitchen.

I visited every few weeks and brought my architect’s plans. Leslie had a great eye for form and function and there were many decisions to be made about cabinets, hardware, and colors. I valued her opinions and I knew how much she valued having something other than cancer to think about.

After the space planning was done, I sourced the fixtures and appliances locally. The only thing I could not find was the sink. I wanted a deep, double bowl under mount. I knew it had to exist somewhere so the next time I visited Leslie we went sink hunting. She knew of a high-end home goods store that was having a going out of business sale and the thought of snagging a bargain appealed to both of us.

It was mid-August and the temperature was burning into the nineties. Leslie wore a short black and white checked shirtdress, which hung on her like a drop cloth. Even though she was cooler without it, she put on a red baseball cap to cover her chemo-bald head.

We drove to the store that had a five-foot high neon yellow banner out front advertising its closing sale – everything was marked down. Inside it was Kansas after the tornado with faucets, lights and curtain rods strewn about the shelves. After pacing several aisles we finally spotted a sticker with a picture of my dream sink but did not see any nearby. While I searched for a cart, Leslie enlisted the help of a stock boy and together they found the sink on a high shelf, behind a tangled sculpture of showerheads. The stock boy lifted the sink into the cart, and Leslie and I wheeled it over to check out.  There were four cashiers, each with lines five people deep. Leslie and I chatted while we waited.

“The stock boy, Darryl, is very sweet but he smells like he had a lot of garlic for lunch,” she said. “He’s been working here for three years, putting himself through college and now that the store is closing, he’s nervous about how he’s going to pay for his tuition next year.” She only needed a few minutes to get a life story from a perfect stranger.

“Did you also find out if he has a girlfriend, where he lives and what his mother’s name is?”

“No, didn’t have enough time. He did ask if you were single. Are you interested in cradle robbing? Because he’s up for it.”

“Cradle robbing appeals. Garlic could be the deal breaker,” I cracked.

“Hey, we’re next”, Leslie said. “I’m going to see if I can get you a better deal on your sink.”

“How you going to do that?”

“I’m going to play the cancer card.”

I caught my breath and lowered my voice.  “Don’t you want to save that for something more important than a kitchen sink?” I pointed to the sign on the cash register that said ‘PLEASE DO NOT ASK FOR A BIGGER DISCOUNT’. “I think they mean business,” I said, trying to talk her out of making a scene.

Leslie locked her eyes on mine. “Dev, I have cancer. I don’t save anything for later.”

I nodded my understanding but still tried to make myself as small as possible when Leslie stepped up to the cashier.

“Hi, my friend here is buying this sink and I’m wondering if you would give her another five percent off. After all, we had to climb all over to find it and wrestle it down from the top shelf,” Leslie said.

The clerk looked like she was barely old enough to work. Her voice was rehearsed, but warm. “We have a policy that we can’t give bigger discounts,” she said.

“Do you give bigger discounts for people with cancer,” Leslie asked as she lifted her hat. The entire store seemed to go silent as the nearby customers and cashiers froze waiting for the answer.

The girl took Leslie’s hand and whispered, teary eyed, “I wish I could, but my manager said no discounts to any one under any circumstances or I’ll get fired.”

I interrupted and asked, “We don’t want her to get fired, do we Leslie?” I quickly swiped my credit card and finished the transaction.

Leslie asked, “Can we at least get someone to help us carry this out to the car?” She was going for a victory, no matter how small.

Before the cashier could answer, the store manager and two other men who were in the line next to ours almost collided as they vied to take control of our cart.  The three of them walked us outside and lifted the sink into my car.  Each one of them gave Leslie a hug before going back inside.

Leslie died the following year and I think of her – and our sink buying adventure – every time I walk into my beautiful kitchen. But my forest green countertop was fading and there was a stain from when I did not clean up red wine fast enough. It was time for a new countertop.

The kitchen specialist explained. “When we remove the old countertop, the sink will get damaged.” The finality of the trade-off made me cry more. He pulled out a brochure and said, “We’re having a promotion on new sinks this week. Do you like any of these?”

I wanted to tell him that I bought my sink with my dear now dead friend and that shopping trip was our final crazy caper, but I just sniffled, nodded and pointed to the only double-bowl under mount on the page.

When I got home that day I called my mother for solace.

“Grief is a wicked shape shifter, honey. We never know what will trigger us. This is difficult because it reminds you that Leslie is gone,” she said.

She’s right. My kitchen holds the last memories I have of Leslie and the project we worked on together throughout her fight with cancer. I feel like I am saying goodbye to her all over again and will with each piece of the kitchen that has to be replaced. Just last month the motherboard of my original refrigerator crashed and the appliance was diagnosed beyond repair. I cried then, too.

**

I kept the sink. I had to. I planted it in my backyard and now use it as a container for irises, Leslie’s favorite flowers. I know Leslie would get a kick out of that. But the refrigerator…I had to let it go and I am trying not to resent the new one taking its place. I know Leslie would like that, too.

Devra Fishman is a writer and long-time hospice volunteer. She is currently working on a full-length memoir about the beautiful transformational friendship she shared with my college roommate who died from breast cancer way too soon. Devra’s essays have been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Manifest-Station and Laura Munson’s summer guest blog series. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

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Family, Guest Posts, Holidays

The Hanukkah Owl

December 13, 2020
hanukkah

By Sharon G. Forman

I’ve inherited more than a few traits from my mom: dark brown hair and eyes; a love of orange sherbet mixed with vanilla ice cream; and a dangerous driving habit of hesitating before merging into highway traffic. One December evening decades back when I was eight-years-old, my mom faltered for a second too long before flooring the gas in our blue Buick station wagon to enter an acceleration lane on an expressway from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. It was back in the early 1970’s, and I doubt that any of us kids in the back seat had strapped ourselves into seat belts. An approaching car bumped into us, as we made our way to the Hebrew Academy for the school’s Hanukkah celebration. Just a fender bender, the main worry from the minor accident was that it delayed us from my 3rd grade Hanukkah performance in which I was set to debut in a prominent role as one of Judah Maccabee’s brave brothers. Truth be told, I don’t exactly remember which of those five Maccabee sons I was portraying. The name Eleazer seems to ring a bell in the hazy crevices of my memory, but I can’t really be sure. I definitely was not the starring brother, Judah, the boldest military hero. In his famous Hasmonean family, there was also a  “John” and a “Jonathan,” which struck me as curious even as a young child. What parents give their kids practically the same name (other than the boxer George Foreman who is famous for his indoor grilling devices as well as gracing all of his five sons with the name George)?

Back to Hanukkah, though, which concerns itself more with frying than grilling. I clasped the cardboard handle on my aluminum-covered shield emblazoned with a magic marker-inscribed Star of David and my flimsy tin foil sword, as a policeman with a sheriff’s hat guided us out of traffic and helped us on our way. I had no fear of the friendly Virginia sheriff, although my mom, a transplanted midwesterner and ardent civil rights supporter, seemed suspicious of Southern law enforcement. She wondered out loud about how these same people who were so kind to us might have treated members of the black community in Virginia just a few years back when they were trying to vote or attend public schools in neighborhoods as lily white as the Commonwealth’s dogwood blossoms. My mom did not possess the most trusting view of human impulses, but was grateful for the roadside assistance under a darkening sky.

Our bumper may have been dented, but all of my armor was intact, as we arrived at the campus of my Jewish day school, and I rushed into the cafeteria which was doubling as an auditorium. I remember dashing on stage to tangle with some Greek-Syrian enemies, singing Hanukkah songs, and at one point donning a construction paper candle around my head like a crown, as a handful of my peers and I became the embodiment of a living Hanukkah menorah. The teachers handed out gifts of rainbow-colored Hanukkah candles, with a preponderance of murky colored green ones that I tried to trade with my siblings, as well as plastic yellow and pink dreidels, spinning tops, that had been hollowed out to contain candy. I’m sure my older sister used her sharp fingernails to burrow through the clear tape placed around the dreidel. Now a scientist, back then she was our fixer of broken toys and errant math homework, as well as the most competent person to help us outmaneuver plastic barriers to candy.

Like my mom’s attitude toward the Virginia police, Hanukkah was a bit confusing with its competing tales of valorous guerilla warfare mashed up with songs touting prophetic messages of spiritual peace. These were hefty contradictions for a small child to sort out, and even my all-wise sister, Julie, did not attempt to unravel this puzzle. Hanukkah could be about the fried potatoes, the music, the games with spinning tops and all of the mathematical probability equations their twists engendered.

People always seem to assume that Jewish children love Hanukkah because of the profusion of presents. Some kids receive a gift each night for a week plus a day. In our family, Hanukkah gifts tended toward the practical- socks, a few silver dollars of gelt, chocolate coins, paperback books, and vinyl records or eight-track tapes of Israeli nightclub music or Irish Rover folk songs. The gifts were less than dazzling. At least for me and my siblings, Hanukkah was all about the fire. You picked your candles, your color scheme (avoiding the ugly green ones, of course), and then loaded up your personalized menorah. Then, you stared in wonder as the tapers burned down just inches from your eyes, mesmerized by the variations in melting times. After the candles transformed into nuggets of wax, you picked at the colorful coating that clung to the base of the menorah or pooled on the foil below. We may not have learned much Hebrew grammar in religious school, but the four children in our family could have filled a Jewish museum’s gallery with handmade menorahs. My favorite candelabra was created from a slab of wood I spray painted shiny silver and then attached candle holders to by gluing on upside-down soda bottle caps. In retrospect, I may have been influenced by 1970’s Minimalism design with an emphasis on sleek materials and sparse ornamentation. The menorah also embodied classic 1970’s culture since the aerosol paint probably accelerated emphysema and punched holes in the ozone layer; the bottle caps were so sharp they could have transmitted tetanus with a single slice; and the chemically coated wood could have been used as toxic kindling. No matter. This was my handmade and beloved religious object, and it adorned our Hanukkah table for years.

Just a week after I portrayed a 2,000-year-old Israeli special forces Maccabee fighter onstage at the Hebrew Academy, I made my debut at the Old Dominion University Technology Theater in another martial role in their ballet school’s version of The Nutcracker. For a slightly built, non-muscular child, I was having a peculiar run of combat-girl typecasting. In this 19th century ballet, I played the Nutcracker’s head soldier who orders the attack on the nefarious mouse forces. I stood in the wings of the stage listening for my musical cue, then raised up my right arm, lowering it to signal to my battalion that we were on the offense. My cheeks were painted with giant red circles, and my hair was pinned up in a tight bun. I wore a soldier’s uniform. With sharp movements of bent knees known in ballet lingo as “passes,” I marched over to my sleepy sentries and initiated a theatrical bloodbath with my musket prop. By the time the final measures of the battle scene had concluded, the bodies of tiny soldiers and pudgy gray mice littered the stage. I was chased away by a larger rodent (possibly a fifth grader) who was now pointing a musket at my back, and my prospects must have appeared bleak, as I exited the stage fleeing in surrender. It was up to Clara to win the war with a mortal clunk of her ballet slipper applied to the head of the Mouse King. Following her victory, she would travel in a magical walnut to the land of sweets with her enchanted prince.

My brief third grade acting career encompassed these two roles- valiant Jewish soldier and ill-fated military captain. Back then, I did not spend too much time contemplating the morality of armed conflict between religious zealots and Hellenized Jews who flocked to gymnasiums and ceased to circumcise their sons or the territorially inspired battles between soldiers and mice taking place under the shadow of a giant Christmas tree. I was too busy wishing that I portrayed one of Clara’s little friends in the first act. Those girls were at least a year older than I was, and they wore beautiful jewel toned velvet dresses. They danced and frolicked onstage at a shimmering Victorian Christmas party, and pretended to eat, argue with annoying brothers, and play with their beloved dolls. Their dance movements involved twirling. My soldier steps were jerky and crisp. Instead of playing a charming, happy child, I was a red cheeked toy soldier about to be gnawed on by a rodent.

My acting career slowed substantially after that peak year. I did have one final starring role as “Suzy Snowflake” in my public elementary school’s holiday program. Another student (“Jingle Bells”) and I narrated the concert, offering pithy introductions to the chorus, band, orchestra, and song flute performances of Christmas carols and even a few Hanukkah songs in a gracious nod to Judeo-Christian ecumenicalism. Well into January, glitter from my snow crown shook out of my hair onto my pillowcase. In my homeroom, a real girl named Suzy started to scowl at me and flipped her hair back in an exaggerated act of contempt whenever she saw me in the hallway. Maybe she had more of a right than I did to portray Suzy Snowflake. By the end of junior high school, though, Suzy wrote a conciliatory message to me on the back page of my yearbook, and I no longer took ballet classes or participated in scripted performances. My theatrical career, complete with critics and unpredictable roles, was over.

Four-and-a-half decades later, my own children play instruments in winter concerts at their public schools. Where we live in New York, the only nod to winter religious festivals appears in the last band piece of the evening, a religiously neutral rendition of “Sleigh Bells.”  On Hanukkah, my children light their own menorahs, just as I did, although we strive for ones consisting of environmentally sustainable materials. My sons select orange and blue candles to honor their downtrodden and beloved Mets, a team that could use a miracle almost every single year.  After all this time, the green candles are the ones that remain in the boxes, still rejected and undesirable. My children clamor for my husband to fry up his mother’s latkes, potato pancakes. The recipe calls for limited onions and a generous helping of milk, a strange deviation from my family’s traditions. To this day, we don’t make a big deal out of the gift-giving aspect of Hanukkah. The holiday is about the light and the fire.

In rabbinical school, my mouth fell open when I learned that Hanukkah was probably a belated celebration of the more important Biblical harvest festival of Succot. I had always appreciated Hanukkah as a winter festival that insists that light should increase dark world. I wished Hanukkah could be a simple holiday honoring the miraculous victory of the scrappy Maccabees and the fairy tale story of the little oil jug that could push us toward optimism and hope just when the earth seems so very far away from the warm sun. And Hanukkah, of course, is that. But also, it’s late Succot. Nothing is ever quite as romantic as you might like.

For me, Hanukkah will forever be entwined with the miracle of arriving on time to my performance as a Maccabee brother. Every night around our table, my mom (younger than I am now in this memory) sings the obscure fifth verse of the 13th century Hebrew anthem,“Rock of Ages,” much to my father’s dismay and my brother’s devilish expression when she blurts out the Hebrew words describing the Greeks bursting through tower walls – “Ooh-fartsoo...” Hanukkah is greasy, Jewish hash browns served with applesauce and brisket. It is my busy high schoolers rushing downstairs to light candles and devour traditional foods. Hanukkah is being Jewish and being American and dancing to different melodies during the same season. Hanukkah is the tug of wanting to be Clara in her blue velvet dress with the white ribbon in her hair, but understanding that for centuries the world viewed Jews more as the character of Drosselmeyer, the old, slightly dangerous clockmaker who infused life into inanimate objects using magic and engineering.

The dreidel spins and lands on one of four sides, one of four Hebrew letters, each an initial of a word in the statement, “A great miracle happened there.” Sometimes your dreidel lands on the Nun, and you get nothing. Other times, your luck is strong, and you win it all. The years spin round, and the wicks consume the flames. My mother-in-law wears her apron to cut the potatoes and fry them in her mother’s cast iron pan, and my children line up to ingest the greasy treats. They snicker at the fifth stanza of “Rock of Ages,” when I remember to sing it.

One Hanukkah many years ago, my Uncle Judah’s family presented me with a necklace with a dangling owl charm. Its bright orange eyes seemed to light up from within. Its head could move around, and its feet could fold under its belly. When we studied Greek mythology in junior high school, I learned that the little owl was Athena’s favorite bird because it appeared to carry its own light. The goddess of wisdom loved the owl, and so did I. My Greek, Hanukkah owl reminds me that religion is not simple, but the love from Uncle Judah and Aunt Joy that went into selecting that gift and wrapping it up for me is straightforward. The owl is flexible in an ever-spinning world. Each Hanukkah, I remind myself to keep lighting candles and searching in the flames for what is good and worthy. Maybe this will be the Hanukkah when I no longer stop myself short and accelerate with confidence and some joyful singing.

Sharon Forman is a reform rabbi and the author of The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings and numerous essays about Judaism and parenting. She resides with her family in Westchester, New York where she teaches bar and bat mitzvah students. Sharon’s work can be found online at www.sharongforman.com.

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Guest Posts, Humor, memories

The Curious Case of Russell Wilson and the Toilet Ambush

November 15, 2020
russell

By Mike Schoeffel

I

There’s no way to say this without it sounding downright strange, so I’m just going to come out with it. Russell Wilson, husband of Ciara, Super Bowl-winning quarterback and potential future NFL Hall of Famer, once ambushed me while I was sitting on a toilet in a Florida hotel. We were 13 years old. The TV show “Jackass” was popular at the time, so I’m assuming Russell was doing his best Bam Margera impersonation. Most millenials out there know what I’m talking about: Bam did this recurring bit where he’d rush into the bathroom while his dad was dropping a deuce and slap him, hard, all over. Bam’s dad would holler and cuss. It was chaos.

Cut to today. Bam is, well, Bam. Russell is the highest paid player in the NFL. I’m a freelance writer in Western North Carolina, hardly getting by. I do, however, have an awesome dog. I know this is a lot to take in.

Russell’s attack was harmless. Just a stupid teenage thing. He didn’t rip off my shirt, like Bam often did with his father. The ambush lasted a few seconds, at most, yet it’s given me a story to tell at weddings and get-togethers for the rest of my life. It’s an untoppable story. Other people talk about their kids. I reminisce about the time a multi-millionaire benignly walloped me while I was on the John.

It’s so strange and ridiculous as to be unbelievable. Yet it’s true. I know I can’t objectively prove that it happened. Unlike Bam, Russell didn’t record the incident in question. But I know that it happened. I even wrote a terrible poem about it, back in my early 20s, during my cringe-worthy Bukowski years. It’s called “i was once shoved off a toilet by a guy who went on to become a super bowl winning quarterback.”

To wit:

ok

so

the title

pretty much sums up

the first part of the story

so i’ll just pick up

at the second half

this guy

who shoved me off a toilet

in pensacola, fla

when we were 13

and teammates

on an aau baseball team

is set to make $20 million

in the very near future

he’s buddies with obama

knows drake

has shared a stage

with jessica alba

i mean, shit

his lookalike

that fills in for him

during commercial shoots

makes six figures a year

for heaven’s sake

and here i am

eating campbell’s tomato bisque

(79c per can)

three nights a week

picking my boogers

and sleeping in til 11 a.m.

trying to get by

on $1,200 per month

if i was smart

i’d had given him

a swirly

but instead

he pummeled me

on a toilet

and i still haven’t

gotten back

on my feet

Jeez.

II

Perhaps I should provide some background. I could start by explaining why my 13-year old self was in a Florida hotel with a kid who eventually became one of the most famous athletes in the world. It’s simple, really. At one point in my life, I was good at sports. Not great by any means, but talented enough to receive an invitation to play on an AAU baseball team (as mentioned in the above so-called poem) known as the Capital City Riverdogs.

This team was filled with kids who mostly lived in richer areas than I did. Russell, for instance, eventually graduated from Collegiate, perhaps the most prestigious private school in the Richmond area. Many of the players on the team knew one another somehow, but I was an outlier, raised in podunk Powhatan, a county of about 29,000 people, most of whom don camouflage and harvest deer in the fall. I wasn’t into that. Not because of high-minded morals or anything. I just wasn’t into it. I preferred hitting things with aluminum sticks and throwing stuff. My nickname was Chico, because I tanned so darkly during middle school baseball tryouts that one of my teammates thought I “looked like a Mexican.” Racist, I know. But we were young and stupid.

The Riverdogs were a talented group. In addition to me and ol’ Russ, there was also a kid on the roster by the name of John Austin Hicks (or “Jazz,” as he was known back then). Baseball fans may recognize the name: he’s now a catcher for the Detroit Tigers. If memory serves, he wasn’t even our starting catcher most of the time. He earned a lot of at-bats, sure, but catching duties were mostly reserved for Daniel Astrop, who went on to play football at Davidson. Jazz was kinda gangly back then, not yet into his own. He certainly is now. Likewise with Russell.

At any rate, us Riverdogs were decent enough to reach a national tournament held in Pensacola, Florida. It was a big trip for me. I’d never traveled that far from home, and we drove the entire 12 hours, from Richmond to the panhandle, in a small white pick-up truck owned by the father of the only other Powhatan kid on the team: Derek Starr. Derek, I’ve heard, went on to become a world-class Halo player. But let’s stay on track.

I remember a few things in particular about that Florida journey. Being crammed into that small pick-up is chief among them. We played N64 on a small TV powered by a cigarette lighter in an effort to make the close quarters more bearable. I also recall pond alligators at the hotel and a team from Cuba destroying us by 20 runs. Then there’s the horrible ear infection that besieged me during the 12-hour ride back to Virginia. I was curled up in the back, in one of those half-ass seats that small trucks often have, reeling from the pain.

I also have movies in my mind of Russell swatting dingers at the tournament’s home run derby. Then he swatted me like a heavy bag, with my pants around my ankles. I’m not sure which one happened first. But I remember it, Russell. I remember.

III

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed in July of 2018 when I came across a video that caught my eye. It was of Jazz hitting a towering home run against Justin Verlander, down in muggy Houston. Gone was the gangly kid of Riverdogs fame. In his place was a physically-imposing man, a lumberjack in uniform: 6-feet-2, 230 pounds. He seemed so comfortable in his body, so sure of his movements. He’d just taken one of the greatest pitchers in MLB history deep, and there he was, rounding the bases as though lazily jogging through the park. I saw this clip at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. I was working from home, still in my underwear. An over-medium egg popped in the pan, so I got up to flip it.

There was more to that clip than just an old teammate of mine homering at baseball’s highest level. What most people wouldn’t know, without doing some research, is that Jazz and Verlander graduated from the same high school: Goochland, the only high school in a county of the same name that’s perhaps more podunk than Powhatan.

A years before that home run, when Verlander was still a Tiger, Jazz had an opportunity to catch him. A battery from the little Land of Gooch, a county of 23,000 people. Who would’ve thunk it? In fact, Verlander played on the same American Legion squad — Post 201 — that I did, though he did so years before I donned the uniform. One of my former high school coaches coached him during legion ball. That coach used to tell us a story about how Verlander, as a sort of parlor trick, would stand on home plate and hurl a baseball over the center field fence, some 350-plus feet away.

It’s a Paul Bunyan-sized tale. And like the Russell Wilson toilet incident, there’s no way to prove this happened. But I like to believe it. Because it’s a helluva good story.

IV

Brushing shoulders with greatness before that greatness has manifested itself is a funny thing. At the time, there’s no way of knowing that what’s happening will one day become the stuff of legend. One moment, Russell is Richmond’s All-Metro Player of the Year. The next he’s winning a Super Bowl. How did he get from Point A to Point B? How many people who start at a similar Point A end up at a vastly different Point B? Selling insurance? Working construction? Freelancing from home in their underwear? Not making $35 million per year?

In 2006, Russell won All-Metro POY, he threw 33 touchdowns and led Collegiate to a state title. I was second team All-Metro quarterback that year. I’d thrown 29 touchdowns and led my team to a gut-wrenching defeat in the state semifinals, which ended when I tossed an embarrassing interception on a two-point conversion at the end of the game. The receiver was wide open in the back of the end zone, but I threw it directly into the chest of the defender in front of him. I remember thinking, right before that fateful throw, “Jeez, he’s wide open.” We lost 20-18, and I collapsed on the turf like a sad sack.

The All-Metro reception that year was held at a fancy hotel in Richmond. I sported a truly awful Beatles-esque du on steroids. It was 2006: cut me a break. Russell gave a speech that night. I have no recollection of the specifics, but I recall feeling that he was something special. Well-spoken, smart, talented. Even so, I don’t think anyone in the room believed he’d become this big.

Fast forward to the following spring, 2007. Baseball time. We hosted Collegiate in a non-conference game early in the season. Russell came on in relief during the later innings. I faced him once, and he struck me out on three straight 90-plus MPH fastballs. No movement on his pitches. Pure power, plain and simple. I was used to facing kids throwing in the upper 70s, kids on teams that could barely field rosters. I wasn’t ready for Russell.

These are the memories: subjective, unverifiable. Yet there is some documentation. Check out the Richmond Times-Dispatch record book. It’s available online. Look under most passing touchdowns in a season. There’s Russell: 40 in 2005, 33 in 2006. And there’s me, the very last name on the list: 29 in 2006. Right below some guy named Lee Bujakowski.

V

It’s August 2019 and Bam Margera is in trouble. After being in and out of rehab for years, the former Jackass star reportedly is thrown off an airline flight for being too drunk. The following day, he posts a string of videos on his Instagram page pleading for help from Dr. Phil, of all people. “The only person that I will believe on the planet is Dr. Phil,” he says. The Good Doctor agrees to meet him, and the two apparently talk about filming an episode.

Who knows what will come of it? Bam’s apparently had a string of misfortunes, some self-induced, others out of his control. He was arrested in Iceland for beating the hell out of a rental car and refusing to pay for damages. He was assaulted with a baseball bat outside of his bar, The Note, after apparently calling a woman the n-word (“I called her a crazy bitch and an idiot, but I definitely didn’t use the n-word,” he told Philly.com). He was held at gunpoint in Colombia, which purportedly caused him to relapse into alcohol abuse. These are, apparently, the facts.

Bam is 40 now, no longer baby-faced. He’s chunky and grizzled, with heavy bags under his eyes. He looks defeated, and I feel for him. Every time I see a new picture of the guy, he looks more and more like his dad, more and more like the guy he used to terrorize in the bathroom. Things apparently have been going all right for Papa Phil, though. He lost 41 pounds on VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club: down to 312 from 353. I don’t know if he’s kept it off, but if so, good for him.

VI

In February 2014, Russell plays a solid, but not great, game. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to be transcendent. He completes 18 of 25 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. A picture of serenity on one of sports’ biggest stages: the Super Bowl. His Seahawks blowout the Broncos, 43-8. It’s the third-most lopsided final in the history of the Big Game. Russell, then 25 and in his second season, has outplayed Peyton Manning, maybe the second greatest quarterback in NFL history. The former Collegiate star has fulfilled his potential, reached his Point B. The special kid has become a special adult, on top of his game at the game’s highest level.

Michael Strahan interviews Russell after the historic win (it is, after all, the Seahawks’ first championship). The Lombardi Trophy gleams between them as navy blue and bright green confetti rains. Strahan, who won a Super Bowl of his own with the Giants in 2007, asks Russell a question:

“A lot…has been put on your back, and you handled it like a veteran player. What does it say about you and the team to come out here and perform on the biggest stage…?”

As Russell responds, it’s 2006 again. He’s a thin teen, but well-spoken, modestly accepting an award in front of the best football players in the Richmond area that particular year.

“My teammates are just incredible,” he says. “We’ve been relentless all season. Ever since we lost to Atlanta last year in the playoffs, I remember having that good feeling of ‘man, we’re going to go to the Super Bowl.’ It all started with the championship off-season we had, going into training camp and having that mentality. Tonight was unbelievable.”

He says a few more things, thanks Seattle’s fans. I’m seeing all of this unfold on TV from my wife’s grandpa’s house in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Another podunk town, though not as much as Powhatan. It’s the first year of a new family tradition, one in which we eat an unhealthy amount of seafood and watch the Big Game in the Bluegrass State. The following year, I’ll move to Austin, Texas, for 24 months or so, to work in a coffee shop and freelance. I’ll never hit a home run in the MLB or throw a pass in the NFL. Nor will I enter rehab. My life isn’t glamorous. But I like making eggs in the morning and walking my awesome dog up the hill in the afternoon.

The night Russell helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, right around the time he was lifting the Lombardi Trophy skyward, a childhood friend texted me.

“Well, Chico, can you believe the guy who shoved you off a toilet is a Super Bowl champion?”

I couldn’t. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a universe in which anything else is the case.

Mike Schoeffel is a freelance writer based in Western North Carolina. His work has been published in THE USA TODAY, The Austin American-Statesman, The Richmond Times-Dispatch and numerous other publications. He has also won several Virginia Press Association and North Carolina Press Association awards. Additionally, Mike works full-time as an Asheville firefighter. You can find more of his work here.

 

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Guest Posts, Patriotism

American Flags

November 11, 2020
flags

By Eric LaFountain

Today in downtown Coronavirus Miami, a frayed American flag stands atop the Alfred I. du Pont Building. The flag changer has likely been sent home, and since you cannot replace a damaged flag remotely, here it is—such a rare, odd sight. In my hazy memory, the last frayed American flag I saw was nearly two decades ago during G.W. Bush’s iconic 9/11 bullhorn speech, when he dismissed his security team’s warnings and stood amid the rubble, loose and full of swagger, his arm brotherly draped around a Norman Rockwell painting-looking white Irish NYC fire chief. It was the one and only time I felt respect for that fake cowboy.

In my hazy memory, I left school during G Block study with my wolfpack, stellar students that we were, to perform our ritual: smoke weed, eat scrambled eggs, watch Jerry Springer, and partake in those glorious, freewheeling teen talks I so wish I had the foresight to record for future enjoyment and analysis. But of course, the ritual was disrupted that day, and on TV was our flag, flying wild and tattered from cold, naked rebar. (It’s possible my memory has it all wrong, that the flag was pristine and new, placed there specifically for the good photo optics). Nonetheless, the channels eventually skipped from the flag and G.W. to a clutter of talking heads, and in this part of the memory there is no haze. Each one was singing the same song, which I heard like this: mumble mumble Al Qaeda Afghanistan bin Laden mumble mumble Al Qaeda Afghanistan bin Laden.

Their song was accompanied occasionally with a grainy video of this new character, sitting cross-legged, an AK resting by his feet as he held aloft his long finger in emphasis, reciting what I assume was his call to arms, his declaration of jihad. He had doe eyes and a feminine face, almost pretty, and my stoned teenage self knew instinctively that this was an important character, that Afghanistan was an important country, and that I knew absolutely nothing about the world around me. The thin paper dome surrounding my sheltered world began to shred, and as the rip widened, I stuck my head through and looked around. What a vast, complex world I’d just woken up to! What incredible ignorance I possessed! My down feathers still covered me, fuzzy and soft, but on that day, a few fell off and I felt myself take a baby step out of adolescence, into my adulthood.

Eric LaFountain lives and teaches in Miami. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including *Potomac Review*, *Jabberwock Review*, *Hobart*, and *Pleiades*. He’s currently working on a YA novel about an abandoned boy and abandoned cat. You can follow him on Instagram @eric.lafountain.

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Books, Guest Posts, healing, Young Voices

Inside Out

April 5, 2020
head

By Allison L. Palmer

I threw up in the bushes outside the hospital the day my sister was born. I didn’t stomp my feet and demand that my mom shove her back up there or refuse to go hold her. I didn’t hop up and down and beg my dad to bring me inside so I could kiss my brand-new best friend. No tantrums, no joy. Just vomit. I stopped right next to the E.R. entrance, put my hands on my dimpled kindergartener knees, and barfed. My dad looked down at me with a crease between his eyebrows as I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my sweater. He knelt next to me and patted my back, checking my forehead for fever. Yes, I feel better now. He shrugged and took my hand as we walked through the doors. Even then, my body knew the things my head didn’t. This is gateway love. My sister was my first. She will probably be my last. Maybe we have to empty out parts ourselves to make room for everything new.

My dad made space for us. Now that I’m older, I see that he was always up ahead of me. Carving away splinters, repainting colors, clearing cobwebs. He could blow clouds from the sky as easily as I could make a birthday wish. My childhood had soft edges. When I was ten and my sister was five, he took us on a trip to a small island off the coast of Canada. He drove us around in a red rental car with the windows down. July air rolled in off the St. Lawrence River, warm and light blue. He pulled the car off the road at the point of a finger. Anything we wanted. Waterfalls, homemade jam, sheep in a field. For me, we stopped at four used bookstores in a day. He popped sour cherries in my sisters’ mouth whenever she started to pipe up and spun her around in circles so I could empty the stacks into baskets with no limit. I wasn’t picky, not even a little bit. While I glossed over titles and artwork, I willed the piles to grow until they reached the ceiling and enclose me, unreachable, in a fortress that smelled of ink, where every wall and window would be made of paper and I would never run out words.

Growing up, I read the same books over and over until their covers fell off. I stole from libraries. I learned from The Lovely Bones that it’s easy to keep things that aren’t yours and make them yours, in more ways than one. I stuck V.C. Andrew’s Flowers In the Attic under my sweatshirt because at the time, it looked huge and menacing and exactly like something I shouldn’t be reading. I didn’t let that thing go until all 400 pages of arsenic and incest and locked doors and mothers who shouldn’t be mothers were branded on my brain. As Cathy and Chris descended their knotted sheet rope to the lawn of Foxworth Hall, I chewed gum and thought about evil. Then ordered the rest of the series on the internet along with the audiobook of Lolita because the jacket art, a girl in sunglasses sucking on a lollipop, seemed undeniably and captivatingly wrong. For days, I laid crumpled on my bed and cried to Jeremy Irons unidentifiable accent. I cried for Humbert Humbert and for the way people can’t fix their hearts, cried because I thought Dolores was undeserving. Cried because nymphets probably do exist. I filed away that word away under “L” for lust, love, lies and loneliness. All of the above. I took to organizing everything I read in books into neat boxes in my head.

After I’d finished gutting the bookstores and the sour cherries had dwindled to just pits and stems, we took a drive up the coast of Bas-Saint-Laurent to see the whales. We wrapped ourselves up in neon orange wind jackets with matching pants and climbed into an aluminum airboat, barely scraping 25 feet long. My dad sat in the middle and tucked my sister under one arm and me under the other. The guide alternated excitedly between English and French in the same breath. My dad kept his eyes on the horizon as the land behind us became nothing more than a thin green strip. I was watching the sun glint off his glasses when the guide began exclaiming things in Frenglish and making big gestures and everyone on the boat stood up. I gripped back of my seat and craned my head around their legs. My dad sat unmoving, but he had pushed his glasses up on his head. He took my face in his palms and turned it out to sea. The blue whale is the biggest living thing on the planet. 200 tons. Its body looked more silver than blue and it stretched an incomprehensible distance, rising in and out of the waves. I held my hands up to the sides of my eyes like blinders and worked my way down the length, head to tail, trying and failing to put boundaries on its existence. Its mouth was the size of the boat. If it opened its jaws, we might drift inside and float for an eternity along an endless shoreline of bones and blubber. I leaned closer into my dad’s side. There might be someone in there right now. We probably couldn’t hear the shouting.

I saw a dead whale about a year later. I could put limits on this one, easily. The three of us had just moved to a beach cottage in the wrong season, the middle of the winter. The ocean was our backyard and we talked there on weekends, down eleven flights of stairs worn splinterless by the saltwater and wind. Even in the frost, the rot smell was still strong enough to make my eyes water. I breathed exclusively through my mouth. Only a hulking skeleton was left, taller than me, with grey flesh still clinging on in some places. My sister was hardly a quarter of its pelvis, toddling around the perimeter like a lost duckling who has mistaken its mother for a corpse. I had never been that close to something so dead. I felt something next to sadness. In the backyard of reverence, but not quite. No one makes coffins that big. I stood in its ribcage and next its open eye sockets. Bizarrely inside and outside all at once. While we explored, we must have talked about how it ended up there, beached, alone, and now three quarters decayed. The likely death. I tried to chase away the gulls that hovered around the body, but more came. Before we left, I took off my gloves and bent at the edge of the waves to rinse my hands. The water was so cold it burned. I thought of the man sailing along the gut of the blue whale, calling out to empty, unforgiving waters and I felt small.

On the way back from the coast, we stopped at an antique-ish gallery surrounded by gardens. My dad admired its history. I’d been promised a stop at the bakery next door. The building was a refurbished barn made of smooth wood painted yellow with big windows. Windchimes tinkled and swayed around all the doors, betraying the way it had settled quietly into the background. I wondered if ghosts could make noise. Inside, the walls were cluttered with paintings of distorted faces and oversized clocks and sculptures made of things like obsidian and repurposed wire netting. I wandered absent-minded up and down the aisles, brushing my fingers along the eclectic treasures. My favorite bauble was a carving of a ballet dancer with movable parts. Her joints were set on loose hinges and splayed out in all directions around a fringe of white tool. I held her by her tiny wooden waist and rolled her head around between my fingers. The little dancer’s face was blank, expressionless. I imagined a soft smile should have been painted there, along with sleepy half-closed eyes. Something fuzzy, out of focus, and full of grace. I imagined she had a lot of secrets.

The thing about a body made of wood and set on hinges is that begins to stiffen. Arms that once stretched seamlessly through space now barely extend. Legs that once leapt and faltered without abandon start to creak. The thing about being afraid of your own body is that it becomes a stranger. I think this is what we think grace is, partly. Ethereal fear floating under your heart. We mistake it a lot of the time for beauty. As I learned to dance, my body lengthened and hollowed out right before my eyes. My teacher’s name was Ms. Mary. She sat always in the front, always in black, doling out critiques like sunshine and lightning. I remember we were practicing pirouettes for the fourth time that week. We practiced and practiced, with red cheeks and quick breaths until all of us turned together but we couldn’t stop because one girl in the back kept falling. Her name was Maggie. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, pulling herself off the floor, madly blinking back tears. Ms. Mary shook her head in slow motion, then called out my name. She instructed me to stand in front of Maggie, so she couldn’t see herself. She was getting in her own way. Stand there and don’t move. The other girls silently parted as I crossed the studio and aligned myself carefully in the mirror. The top of Maggie’s auburn bun was just visible above my head. She was taller than me. Keep going, Ms. Mary said. Until she gets it right. As she turned, I could sense every hot cheek in the room blistering until the heat fried away every nerve that said to scream, to run, to throw yourself on the floor along with her until we were all unmovable, peaceless, quiet. Lovely in our paralysis. I heard Maggie hiccup as she stumbled and hit the floor again and I retreated completely inside myself. I felt the grains of wood overtaking and splintering along my skin and straightening my spine, felt my face rounding out to nothing. Get up. My ribs began shrinking down onto my lungs and grasping hold of my throat. Her breath came faster and began breaking into sobs and the thing about being afraid of your own body is that you can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else to go.

There was a sharp smack on the window over my head. The figurine fell out of my hands and clattered onto the floor. I hadn’t even noticed that the sky had opened up and was now heaving down rain. I ran towards the noise and found my dad and sister kneeling just outside the door. I peeked around their shoulders and saw a bird half-limp in my dad’s hand, maybe six inches long, with black and white tipped wings. It was laying on its side, little legs outstretched and stiff. Poor thing got confused in this weather and flew straight into the window. Wispy noises came out its beak. It reminded me of my sister when she was a baby and how she cooed while she slept. I used to sneak into her room to run the tip of my pinky along her jaw until she would bat my hand away in her sleep. I dropped to the floor in front of her crib before she could wake up. Must be in shock. My dad shook his head and set the bird down gingerly under the edge of a bush. He took my sisters hand and reached for mine. Come on, let’s go. I was still looking down. Its black eyes were lolling around wildly in its skull and its body had started twitching. The muscles had nothing to hold on to, like a little girl who can’t stop falling long enough to stand.

In second grade, a boy I knew died. He stabbed me with pencils and tripped me on the basketball court at recess and I hated him. He gave me a scar, on my right knee. Shaped like a T. Then an ATV flipped over on top of him in the woods and he was brain-dead before my scab hadn’t even fallen off. My mom brought me to the funeral, and we sat in the last pew of the church waiting for a eulogy that no one managed to deliver. She handed me green and blue Sweetarts from her purse and I sucked on them until my tongue was numb. The casket was open, filled with stuffed animals and sports trophies and an entire embalmed life. I looked at my feet and fidgeted and tried to pray even though I had absolutely no idea how to. I am still uneasy in long lines and in silence. My knee itched and I could see the fresh pink skin peeking out from underneath the scab. I wondered what happened to cuts and scabs when you were dead. When I picked mine off eventually, it didn’t bleed. The skin was permanently puckered. I dug my nail into it, to no avail. A tiny spot of nothing. I remember I laid on the hillside outside the church with my mom after it was over and held her while she cried. Both of her parents died when she was 16. She likes to say that I saved her life. I wonder if now she loves less because I’m branded by a dead kid. The thought is fleeting. On the outside, my body is only 99% alive.

Before I could stop myself, I had reached out and taken the bird in my own two hands, cupping it against my t-shirt like a newborn. I laid down on the grass, tucking my knees up to my chin. The wet blades glued themselves to my limbs and cradled my head and left trails of goosebumps like comets on my exposed skin. I didn’t hear the hectic symphony of the windchimes clanging to a fever pitch. I think a small coffin must be much easier to build than a big one. If I could, I’d build one myself, from the softening wood of my body. This is close enough. Didn’t feel the icy rain drops that slid down my spine and under the rain coat my dad must have laid over me. For once, the cold was freeing, limitless. I could swim through it for an eternity. Didn’t notice when the storm had gone, and the sun lit the backs of my eyelids pink. My thoughts were replaced with all the words I’d ever read in books. It’s like when you drop something heavy on a floor covered in dust and the world goes away, just for a second, in the disarray. When it clears, I see my small sister’s face pressed into the grass in front of me. Her eyes are open, and calm. In them, are the parts of myself I thought had gone. When she places her hands over mine, I think about how hearts sound like they are gulping. Like they want to break out of your chest and drink in the air, how they crave leftover life, the 1%, and how there is nothing else like the impossibly tiny body underneath both sets of our fingers.

 

Allison Palmer is an undergraduate student and new writer. She studies Biology and English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her other work can be read online in Pithead Chapel and Eunoia Review. We are THRILLED to be featuring her work.

 

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Friendship, Guest Posts, motherhood, No Bullshit Motherhood

What We Remember: Epistolaries To Our Daughters

September 15, 2019
remember

By Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich

Water

You know that photograph, the one I’ve kept on the refrigerator of every Somewhere we’ve lived? The one of you—at maybe two or three—standing on the edge of a pool? You’re wearing a tiny blue bikini, the bulk of a yellow life vest snapped tight, one of your hands held to it. Are you checking it before you jump? Or are you gesturing, the way you still do when you speak, your arms floating up and down, almost flapping at times (like a bird). The water shimmers in the sun, and your short, blonde hair is wet, and there’s a puddle on the pool deck, so this must be jump two or three or ten. Your sweet knees bent, your tiny feet. There’s the dark blue tile at the water’s edge and three bushes line the flower bed behind you. Do you remember how Gramma would stand in her black swimsuit, moving the hose back and forth, back and forth over the bushes? Here, in this moment, she’s behind the camera, catching your joy. You’re all glee, giddy, but it’s the certainty that gets me every time, a pinch of tears in the back of my throat. Because I’m the one in the water, the one you’re watching. I haven’t always been something you can be so certain of, someone steady. I’ve told you this, but you claim not to remember. Your memory of those years an empty pool. Everywhere we’ve been, everywhere I go, I tack this photo on the fridge to remind myself—it’s my job to catch you.

Possession

When we moved back to Seattle, you had just turned two. I wouldn’t say the terrible two’s in the sense you didn’t throw regular tantrums, but you did have moments of supreme willfulness, and I couldn’t predict them for they came out of nowhere and caught me off guard. I remember one such fit staged in a public space to devastating effect. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, Yoga

Yoga

May 16, 2019
father

By Rob Norman

I drove up to my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan after a very long hiatus.  I cruised along once-familiar roads and arrived at the brick-paved Wealthy Street, which back in my early days, at least in that part of town, was anything but wealthy. I stopped and looked for my father Larry’s warehouse that I had worked at for many years of my youth.  I found it, now quite clean and professional in appearance, in the center of a fully gentrified neighborhood.

The building was now occupied with a yoga studio called “From the Heart.” I walked in and checked it out.  I made plans to take a class the next morning.

I was in town to try and find one of my brothers, Steven.  Not only had we grown up in the same house, but we had slept in the same bedroom.  He had written me via text (he would not speak over the phone to me or any other family member) that his girlfriend of over three decades, Cathy, was now sick with cancer and off and on in the hospital.  I came up to Michigan to see what was happening.

Steven spent much of his days driving his bike around town, frequented the library, and God knows what else.  He had always lived at the fringe of society, never able to gain purchase on any semblance of a normal life.  As with our father, as far as I know, he never sought much-needed medical or psychiatric help and was in constant denial as to the severity of his problem.  When my mother was alive, she never seemed to know what to do to help him.  She would provide him food from the Temple Emanuel food bank where she volunteered and gave him cash whenever others gave her money. Time moved on and now he was in his late 60’s, still just as trapped as ever. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories

Enlightenment at Cross Town

May 14, 2019
town

By Brian Michael Barbeito

All the orange crates are scattered, at the Safeway Supermarket in the rain.
–Van Morrison, St. Dominic’s Preview, It’s too Late to Stop Now.

I didn’t have a mind then. I should have perhaps had a mind by then. I was in kindergarten. I went to a school called Our Lady of Fatima, which as I think about it, is nice enough, because later I became on my own terms a sort of Marian devotee. There was a church adjacent to or very close to the school. At midnight mass I would look up and there was for some reason I can’t discern, a ceiling painted with noodle designs, like macaroni and cheese before the cheese is added. I just stared at the noodles. For more than an hour. Midnight mass, which means Christmas Mass for the uninitiated, is longer than an hour. Or at least there is it ran longer. A feeling of depth or spirit was around, but it didn’t have so much to do with the church. Or maybe it did. I didn’t call it ‘A feeling of depth or spirit,’ because I didn’t know what those words meant, and I hardly, if ever, really spoke. They thought a bit earlier on than that, that I was deaf, or partly deaf, and that maybe that was why I didn’t speak. But I was tested by the doctor, and came out all right. So it wasn’t a physical thing. Before that, I had an apgar rating of 9, which is not bad. And a slight heart murmur, not unheard of either. So I checked out. Who is to know? Who can see the whole of any of us, cosmically speaking? One time they took me to a daycare or after school place, and I remember someone saying, He doesn’t talk, and the lady that ran it said in a kind but confident response. He will learn to talk here, as he will have to, because there are other kids and he just will.

I never said a word while I was there.

 But the school and the playground and Cross-town. There isn’t much I remember, but there are some things. There was at the playground races to the fence and back, and there was a kid named Johnny who used to run it pretty well. I did okay, but was in the middle of the pack. He was always first or second. I said in my mind, If Johnny can do it, I can. And I kind of trained myself to get better and better. It worked you know. Man. I really got up there through the time. I could lie and say I beat Johnny, and I was a hero or something, but that didn’t happen. I do know I tied him once, and it wasn’t that anyone really noticed, but I showed myself some inner and outer stamina.

I always remembered that.

Somewhere, anyhow.

Years later I changed high schools, from a wealthy area, all the way back to that area, which was not affluent but not poor, but a kind of middle-regular place. That as they say is another story. But when I was there this guy called me over to a table a little time in, and he was with this pretty girl, but the girl was not to become a good friend of mine, but an acquaintance. And the guy a sort of friend, just a bit on past an acquaintance, but not a friend-friend-friend. So I say, What? And the guy comes with this,

I and my friend are having a bet. She seems to think that she remembers you from Kindergarten class, and I say maybe, but aren’t sure. I know this sounds funny but she brought in our class picture and we were discussing it. She says yes, that this person here is you, and I say maybe. Could you tell us if you went to school with us?

So I looked at the picture and saw myself. I said that it was me. And the thing was that he was Johnny, and I told him so, and he remembered that. I had no recollection of the girl, who would be considered gorgeous. It turned out that she spotted me in the picture, but also spotted me for a Big Mac combo at McDonalds one day, and I promised to pay her back. But days went on, though four out of five days I had money in my pocket, it seemed like the days she reminded me to pay her, were weirdly on the exact days I had no money. She became angry, but contained, and thought I was a kind of player or something. Since she didn’t really know me, there was no way to have her know me. So she just began to see me as a liar, which I was technically. But I am not like that. A few years ago I ran a writing group and this poor guy kept coming and so I bought him, (you can’t write this as they say, I know I can’t), a Big Mac Combo each time afterwards, and the other person that ran the group never ever offered to pay. Technically the bill could be split. Gurdjieff has a saying; Nothing shows people up more than money. But yes, the friendship didn’t work out with the girl. She was more mature though the same age, but it also affected her, as in if someone says, She is pretty, and the other person says, Yes, but she knows it.

Going back to kindergarten. I waited after for my grandfather to pick me up. It always seemed a bit overcast, with opaque clouds making up the firmament, and the world seemed grey also. It couldn’t have been like that every single day. But the days I remember were. There was kid with dark hair, and he was singing the lyrics to We Will Rock You, by Queen, and not the chorus, but the beginning lyrics. I remember this. I would much later become a fan of Queen, but at that time I had no idea what the hell he was saying, and he was so intense about it. He was clear and enthralled and intent, sitting on a swing swaying back and forth just a bit while he sang,

Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise
Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day
You got mud on yo’ face
You big disgrace
Kickin’ your can all over the place

I think that song must have just come out and he had an older brother or father that had to have played it over and over. The other kid I remember was blonde, and I can picture him perfectly, but don’t know why. He wore a jean jacket with something yellow on the shoulders, like an intentional patch, and he said it was a disco jacket. He was very proud of this. I for certain didn’t know what disco was. Already the very few people I came into contact with knew much more than I, if even about anything at all.

I just stared into space and waited.

For something.

Then.

I guess for my grandfather.

And in high school.

For what I don’t know.

And even now.

For what I certainly absolutely don’t know.

Because my grandfather is long dead.

But I am still trying to get to Cross Town as it were. At least here. See…sometimes my grandfather when he would arrive (I think he was a little bit late sometimes because he moved slowly), would take me before going home to his house, to a set of little stores at the intersection just down from the school and the church. From what I can remember, I have to bet these were places where they had cheap wares, but good things still. Plates, forks, knives, spoons, cloths, cups, saucers, blankets (not a high thread count but not terribly low either), a set of napkins, a holder for a hardboiled egg, some old pictures of pastoral scenes and a blue sky and a white whimsical cloud and a red barn and maybe a stream and a big boulder there, of course little key chains and maybe there was a guy that cut keys in the back and maybe not.

But I didn’t then see these things like some great or even good observer. I couldn’t register them. I was just there looking at dust motes in the air, or maybe the reflection of light on a counter. And many people are like this, especially in childhood. It is nothing so special. It’s just that that is where we were, in Scarborough, instead of say, Illinois, or St. Petersburg, China, Bahamas, The Yukon Territories, Switzerland, Morocco, South Asia (where the DNA science says I am really from), Key West, Africa, or anywhere else the universe could have placed us.

Quietness inside the door and the store, inside of me, even though the soft sound of winter traffic passes by on Victoria Park, or from St. Clair, the intersecting street.

Windows somehow more on the side of dirty, run-down, but not disgusting or dangerous.

I want to think of cloth, fabrics, and utilitarian items and artifacts.

A worldly person knows what things are for and what they do.

To me, they are then if anything, just worlds of metal, copper, some colors, ceramics, frames, maybe plastics, – yes plastics, there are plastics there somewhere,- red, green, maybe they are parts of cheap umbrellas or rain jackets.

All this under a vague light yellow and a dull light that comes in from the windows.

It’s always like late dusk sad there in a sense, no matter what hour a clock would say.

The world is before night, about to blink off, but it never quite does.

I sense now I think also that something tragic is about to happen,- as if we are on the edge of a car accident, or receiving bad news, witnessing or being in a fire, a flood, a war, even a death of some kind.

But nothing really happens like that and one step is taken then the next and the world goes on.

Nobody ever bought me anything then, like a toy car, a key chain, – something, anything, – but I never wanted anything or thought of it. I was a simpleton, a visitor that didn’t really appreciate the wares one way or the other.

The street soon, – and the signs, and so many cars by the dirty, dirty snow with bits of mud and old leaves. Newspaper boxes, people. The world is so normal to everyone it feels like an alien planet to the young boy.

He doesn’t know lyrics, disco, exactly where he is or what he is.

I looked and looked then back at the stores at Cross-town. I was, not because I was special, but because I was not interfered with or talked to that much, in touch with something. It wasn’t a vision of an angel. I wasn’t a message. It was just Source. There is something when there is no mind yet, and that is what the search for full blown enlightenment is after, that nothingness and everything-ness that is there, always there, that we are, but that is obscured by the mind, even though the mind is by definition part of it because it is all One-Thing never begun and never ending. I smelt it, but not with my nose. Maybe it’s like touching the toe nail of God.

How would I explain that to the pretty girl, who bought me McDonalds and thinks I am simple moocher?

I can’t even remember her name anyways.

I wonder if her Grandfather ever took her to Cross-Town.

Brian Michael Barbeito is a Canadian writer, poet and photographer. His recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University, CV2 The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, and at Catch and Release-The Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature. Nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net Award, Brian is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013, cover art by Virgil Kay). He is currently at work on the written and visual nature narrative titled Pastoral Mosaics, Journeys through Landscapes Rural.

https://www.amazon.com/Being-Human-Memoir-Waking-Listening/dp/1524743569/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1539219809&sr=8-1

Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.

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