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moving on

aging, empty nest, Fiction, Guest Posts

Overexposed

April 30, 2021
new car overexposed

By Karen Mandell

Before she left us for North Carolina, Marie told us that the wife moving in was recovering from a stroke. Great, Dalia said after Marie went back inside to her packing, she’ll die here. We gasped, shocked, but I knew it was inevitable, especially when I met Cath some weeks later.

George, the husband, said they’d come from California. Then why come to Massachusetts, I asked him, the early November day already dreary. I have three sons, he said, one in California, one in Missouri, and one here. I waited for him to go on. And my only grandkid is in Reading. A ten-year-old girl. Of course, I said. One town over. We were mostly like that in this complex—downsized middle-agers with young family nearby. They were a few single women here, five of them. One couple got divorced soon after they moved in, right before my time. The others had never married.

I met Cath once, though the signs of her presence were evident—a ramp from the garage to the back door, guys taking measurements for a ramp to the front door. When I met her, they’d just driven into the garage. No packages, so I supposed they’d come from a doctor’s appointment or a drive around the neighborhood. We were still at that stage—exploring the almost rural North Shore with its country roads and small ponds. Practically a different state from Boston and its suburban environs, its diverse restaurants and neighborhoods, its strip malls on Route 9 and Bloomindales-esque shopping centers.

I figured that since their garage door was still open, I’d run over and introduce myself. Cath, still unsteady after her illness, was arm and arm with her husband. Her hair was rough and her coat was half buttoned and studded with leaf bits. I felt sorry for her, a surging liquidy feeling, and more generally sorry for George. This hapless woman needed more care than her husband was able to give her. I walked to the back of the garage with them, almost to the ramp. “I need the ramp because of my eyes,” she said, and I looked at her gray eyes behind the smudged glasses.

“You need the ramp for more than that,” George said. I knew he wanted me to go, and I did. I did feel like voyeur.

It was a quiet complex, and it was a couple of weeks before I talked to his next-door neighbor, Gloria. I prodded her a little about the new neighbors. “She fell down a couple of times,” Gloria said. “She’s at a nursing home now.” She didn’t know when she’d be coming home. In the following days, I saw his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter pull into the driveway and go inside. After the next couple visits, they brought their new puppy, a French bulldog that looked stuffed into its fur. I liked the fact that they had a small periwinkle blue car, a little Datsun, which belied the image of suburban family so prevalent in Newton, our old town.

When our daughter Willow drove over (from Wakefield, the town next-door—the reason we’d moved thirty miles north) I told her about Cath and the nursing home. Seven-year-old Hailey was making snow angels on our little strip of lawn, and I didn’t think she was listening. Well, I hoped she wasn’t listening because I wanted to talk to Willow about our neighbors. But of course she was. “What’s a stroke,” she said. “Like a stroke of luck?” Hailey had a good vocabulary and was very nosy. I liked to think I was exactly like her as a child.

“It’s a sickness,” I said. She’s resting and getting better.” Hailey looked at me. I could tell she was assessing her own health. “Could I get it?” she said, fear scrunching up her nose.

 “Of course not,” Willow said. “It’s for old people.”       

“But then will Bubbie get it or Papi?”       

“No, no. They’re not that old and it’s not that common.”

 “Let’s go across the bridge to the wetlands,” I said. What a grandma I was. My mother would never talk about others’ illnesses in front of the kids. And cancer was never cancer but C. And then my own grandma said kaynahora, meaning keep the evil eye away. “Maybe we’ll see a coyote.” I said.

“Will they bite,” Hailey said, excited.    

“Only if they’re worried about their children,” I said. At least they were good mothers.

A few days later Gloria sat outside on her front step, enjoying the early winter sun. A good chance to ask her about Cath. “She died,” Gloria said, whispering though no one else was outside.

“I had no idea,” I said. “I haven’t seen George.” Not that I knew him well enough to ask him anything. A few of his activities were obvious just from looking out the dining room window: golf, food shopping of course, a walk through the complex, bringing back the mail from the mailboxes stacked at the front of the complex. He liked to wash his new car, having trading in his small Lexus for a larger NX. Insurance money, I decided. In fact, I’d said a few words to him the other day, you’ve got a new car. Yes, he answered, smiling.

 And then the workmen started coming, dragging large boxes out of their trucks. New appliances, fridge, stove, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer. Naturally all the condos had come with appliances, moderately priced, acceptable brands. But these new ones were high end, European, six burner stovetops, Viking and Bosch. I could tell by the cardboard containers, broken down and tied up on trash day. I talked to one of the workers. “He’s doing some work,” I said. Casual. A whole new kitchen, he told me. I was glad to get that much out of him. I would have loved to see inside, but that was impossible. I almost never saw him. It was cold, people were inside, socializing was practically nil.

Next to his driveway there was a patch of grass, then a two-car parking area meant for guests. A fairly new Subaru Forester began parking there, nicely washed, clean and spiffy inside. Sometimes the car was gone, but it always came back, though I never saw its driver. Someone’s guest. Not that that black car was the only outlier—adult children of the condo owners came and went with their children. No one under fifty-five was entitled to live here, but with jobs lost, rental prices high, parents took in their children and grandkids and dogs. Like the other condos, our dining room windows looked out onto the street, if you could call it that, more like a paved pathway. The developers hadn’t bothered to name the roads, so only our houses had names—or more accurately, numbers. No Mount Isabel or Clotworthy House here—just 43 (us) or 31 (George the widower across the street).

Sitting at the dining room table, reading The Globe, I figured out who owned what cars here. Because the mailboxes were at the front entrance of the development, I watched the residents walk down and back and take strolls with their visiting friends. Once when we were sitting down to Morty’s veal stew, he said, “You don’t have to get up every time someone walks by.” I hadn’t realized my behavior was so obvious, but there I was peering out between the slats of the closed blinds.

     “I was just checking the weather,” I lied. It wasn’t an outright lie because I do check the weather every time I look outside. When I was a teacher, one of my students told me I was a weather person. I thought that was a wonderful compliment, though I’d been mad at him earlier for playing with a koosh pencil topper in class. I’d taken it from him and put it in my desk. When he asked for it a few days later I said no. I liked it myself and wanted it. Some years later I heard he’d gotten engaged but committed suicide. I put the stringy ball on a top shelf and left it. I found it recently and briefly considered giving it to my granddaughter, but it had too many bad connotations. Did I prod him to committing suicide, like the last tiny breeze that makes the piggy’s straw house fall down? Like chaos theory, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Don’t act like I have nothing else to do,” I said. I opened my mouth to list them, all my activities, but Morty counted them off for me.

“Your reading, your newspapers, your piano playing.” He held up his hand so I wouldn’t stop him, “Poetry writing, your houseplants.”

“And I’m thinking of taking up painting.” Morty is a painter plus he does his leadership training from home. He nodded showing his potential interest.

“Actually,” I said, “it’s paint by numbers but it’s for adults. I saw it on Etsy. Lots of colors and tiny spaces to work on. Copies of the great masters.” As soon as I said this, I knew I couldn’t possibly do it. Thank goodness I hadn’t ordered anything yet. I need something to suck me in, a novel by Elisabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, where nothing really happens and you don’t have to follow a plot. Although I do love mysteries where the bodies pile up but the gore quotient is low.

Morty cut a couple of pieces of the good sourdough you can only get in Brookline, thirty miles away. I know that because that’s how far we moved to get closer to the grandkids. After twenty years in the old house. “I wonder how George across the street is doing. Do you ever see him to talk to?”

“When he’s been out washing his car now and then. Not since it’s got cold.”

“Maybe he’s joined a church and has friends there,” I suggested.

“Churches aren’t open yet. Are they? He gets the paper. That must take some time. You have noticed that the paper’s getting skimpier and skimpier.”

“I don’t like being aware of that,” I said.

“Anyway, I’m sure he’ll be fine. As much as the rest of us. His granddaughter and the puppy must lift his spirits.”

When Willow called, I asked her if I was having a delayed reaction to Sapphie. She’d died at sixteen last summer. I didn’t cry—I’m not a crier unless there’s a strand of tenderness in a book or some heart-tugging in a movie—but I missed her and her constant padding after me.

“You’ll take care of our dog,” Willow reminded me. Their Tibetan terrier puppy would hopefully be born in the summer—if the mother got pregnant. The breeder had tried once. They didn’t know yet if it took. Nothing was easy.

I started using the computer in the dining room. The light was better than the loft upstairs, in my nook near the laundry room. It still got dark early, so I could watch the sunset up close—the windows down here faced southwest. Upstairs, they faced north, so the light didn’t change much all day. In the interludes between lines

We buck each other up, the morning and I.

I throw open the window and admire her fog twist…

And the next one:

Loading the dryer, I think chocolate,

Chocolate waiting in the heart shaped red box

 Luck winds around me like a static filled sheet, an electric kiss…

I realized that it was one o’clock, lunchtime. The Subaru was parked in the guest space across the street, and I put on my coat, hat, and scarf to go pick up the mail, a constitutional before lunch. A bunch of circulars, it turned out, and the Lynnfield weekly paper, read mostly for the prices of recent house sales. I glanced into the Forester on the way back, surreptitiously because it did make me feel like I was snooping around. Someone could be looking at me from their window, George being the first to come to mind. I had enough time to take in the lack of magazines and books and reusable bags on the back seat, the spotless floor mats, the unstained and empty cup holders. The owner was someone neat and tidy with a new car like George. Or maybe George had helped her do a through cleaning. Some people found cleaning cars relaxing—smaller than a house, smaller than a kitchen, manageable. Maybe George had a girlfriend, I thought wildly, who had a car as well cared for as his. This car.

A romance on our street. Why not? A middle-aged man, trim, energetic. How much time could golf take. A lot, obviously, when I considered the people my uncle played with when I visited the New Jersey branch of the family as a child. My father wouldn’t touch the sport, having determined it was the refuge of the overweight, tightly belted white pants wearing bourgeoise. Plus, he’d never seen golf growing up in Poland, where soccer was the only activity that mattered. Though Morty’s parents had both played, and neither one was overweight nor particularly bourgeoise.

By the time I walked up the five steps to my front door, the questions had piled up like vehicles in a traffic jam on 128. Where would George have met her? Not only was he new in town, but he’d been a widower for just a few months. Actually, when you’re new in town is when you do make friends, making the effort to replace the network left back home. And the company of his late wife. They’d come to Boston to watch their granddaughter grow, and her being the only grandchild among his three sons made it likely that he’d go to a bunch of her activities. Dance recitals, basketball games, maybe even puppy training classes. Endless opportunities.

Inside, I shoved aside the computer, my pad of paper, various pens and pencils to the other end of the dining room table. I assembled my usual lunch: sharp cheddar cubes, cut up apple and carrot (plus one for Morty, vegetable intake a priority now that our eyesight was sputtering somewhat). Leftover seafood salad from Big Y, fragments (many of them) of super dark chocolate from the bar that I whacked on the counter. From my place at the table, my back and right shoulder each facing a separate window, I was steeped in a sunshine bath. I felt like a dozing tabby, my usual mid-lunch mood of purring satisfaction. But the satisfaction did not hold—I was still puzzling out how George across the street met a companion so fast. There was the grieving, the hunt for a new car, new appliances, fresh furniture too, from the vans marked Boston Interiors and Room and Board recently parked in front of his house. An electrician’s truck (More Power to You!), the plumber’s van (Pipe Dreams). From sleek and purring I’d descended alarmingly to frumpy and lethargic. I was beholding the youthfulness and energy of a person in love and awash in shiny new things.

The old song from my childhood shimmied through my mind—baby, baby where did our love go? Not that I didn’t love Morty—absolutely, timelessly. But recreating that spark of new love; now that was something else. I saw in my mind’s eye how it happened. George and his son and daughter-in law were attending Skye’s school open house. It was going to be a low-key affair this year with only half the parents attending that night and the other half waiting until next week. George and family were in the first group. He wouldn’t have missed it for the world. When his son called him in the morning, he said that he and his wife were toggling back and forth on who had the worse stomach—that left over take-out deli most likely the culprit. In the end, neither of them felt up to going and George went by himself. He was nervous and apprehensive, not having been in an elementary school for years. He could barely remember his three sons’ open houses. But certainly Carol had been there jotting down notes.

He struggled a bit to ease himself into a student’s seat. But not struggling too hard because he was slight and fit. He didn’t need more than walks and golf and the sustenance of foods prepared in his newly applianced and furnished kitchen/dining room to stay in shape. That’s what he told himself, although Carol would have a different point of view. She usually did. You’ve got a dream kitchen, he could hear her saying, you’d better use it to cook up plenty of vegetables and not just heat up high-end take-out.

Ms. Reid leaned back against her desk in updated yoga pants and long belted cashmere sweater and described what she expected from her students. (George felt a little bad that she’d have to go through this again for next week’s parents.) Well-crafted three paragraph essays to begin with, moving on to decoding poetry and close reading of fiction. She moved closer to the window, the high intensity lights in the parking lot plus the fluorescent classroom lights burnishing her hair. After her presentation, she chatted with the parents for a few minutes before she commiserated briefly with George about the death of Skye’s grandmother (and his wife) before she had to move on to others practically jostling for their turn.

George told his daughter-in-law that he’d pick Skye up from school a few days a week. Sometimes Ms. Reid came out to the playground to help out with pickup, but not always. Other teachers would take their turns. He told Skye to look for him on Tuesdays and Fridays, which were Ms. Reid’s days. It hadn’t taken long for him to figure that out. They chatted and one day when there was no school (the second day of winter break) they went to an afternoon movie at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It was having a week of art house movies. Plus it made a nice drive—fifty miles round trip from Lynnfield Elementary School, where Toni parked her car and got into George’s.

The relationship, I figured, was well-launched by now. When I picked up the papers in the morning (his almost always already taken in), her car was outside, sometimes dusted with snow, sometimes layered with it. I wondered why he didn’t put hers in the garage with his. He had some shelves and a couple pieces of furniture along the right-hand wall, but he could move them around. He must have read my mind, because the next few days, which were stormy, her car wasn’t there. So the garage it was! Still, I hadn’t seen her yet, no matter how many times I looked outside. Everyone glances out now and then, and maybe my looking was a bit excessive, but barely. It just got me that I never laid eyes on her. It was like a cat and mouse game that she didn’t even know she was playing. On days when the weather was better, the Subaru would spend the day sunning itself in the parking spot.

I needed to do more walking. It would be spring soon (eventually) and I wanted to get in shape for the halcyon days of summer, riding my bike, strolling along Crane Beach. I didn’t want to feel fragile and rusty. I was at that age where you could tip either way, into the pre-elderly or a robust middle age. I crept through the hedges near the mailboxes, across a backyard, and landed in a posh neighborhood of brick mansions, with stone lions at the front doors or giant urns which held mostly dead foliage, even in the summer. But the avenues were broad, with almost nobody outdoors except a very few children and dog walkers. After I’d had my fill of too-large houses, I decided to walk in our development, where at least I could nod at the people I knew or introduce myself to those I didn’t. In none of the apartments could you see inside, windows swathed in curtains or blinds (like mine, though I kept them open all day to bring in the natural light). I switched to walking in the backyards, though I felt a little self-conscious, a holdover from my days in Newton/Needham, where a backyard was part of a homeowner’s property. Here in the development, you didn’t own the land—the complex did jointly. Even so, I seemed the only one who walked through backyards. Old habits die hard for some of us.

I expected that some would sit out on their patios during the afternoons when the late winter sun let loose its rays, sharp as swords. But no—people obviously had other things to do than expand their lungs and take in the beneficial microorganisms the earth began releasing this time of year. I know I could have called old friends and the new ones here and taken a more congenial walk. But this had been a winter of lethargy unless you summoned your forces to break out of it. For some time I hadn’t been a caller. But I was never sorry to have had a conversation. It lifted my spirts, reinforcing the fact that I had friends. Like everyone.

After lunch not long afterwards, I was about to bring my dish to the sink when I saw a couple moving from the block around the corner in the direction of the parked Subaru. Had George and his girlfriend taken a stroll and were now going for a drive? Did he usually wear a long loden coat? The woman had her hair tucked into the back of her coat, and now she pulled it out and loosened it around her shoulders. Like shaken silk, her light brown hair draped across her back. Even in a shampoo commercial, I’d never seen hair as shiny and all in a piece, no recalcitrant locks or gaps in its magnificent flow. That was my first thought. My second, as her companion thumbed his key and opened the door, was this man wasn’t George but neither was she George’s girlfriend. A young couple with a rental car visiting relatives in the complex, staying over. It had never occurred to me that there was a different angle to my story. Me, who always counted on both sets of fingers all the potentialities, mostly bad, in any situation, had been bushwhacked this time. I was sad the girlfriend for George hadn’t panned out. And for one twisted wretched moment I was also glad. Shouldn’t we all be suffering now? I want to say that that moment was truly just a moment.

I sat on the front stoop, letting the oblique sun warm my earlobes when George’s garage door opened and he came out. He placed his golf clubs in his trunk and walked around to the driver’s side. “Snow’s gone,” I said, standing up and moving toward the street. He smiled, a bright transforming smile like some people have. “You didn’t have a guest,” I added.

“A guest? You mean my son and his family.”

“Oh. Yeah,” I said. “They have a cute dog and what a sparky little girl.” I didn’t ask how the open house at school went. “I see the family coming up the steps sometimes, laden with shopping bags. Ten-year-old girls are a perfect age.”

“Nine, but she’s tall.”

“I’m sure she’s doing well in school.”

“She’s been home-schooled this year, but she’ll be going back after spring break.”

“Sure,” I said. “Things change.”

“Let’s hope so,” he said.

“I wanted to say how sorry I am about your wife.”

“Thank you.” He pursed his lips and nodded. His gray hair was thick and shaggy. Not in an unkempt way. Monty didn’t tell me when he was getting a haircut, just came back shorn and sheared. Maybe George had waited for his wife to tell him to go to the barber. “At least Carol got to be with Amy before she passed,” he said.

Amy? Of course. Not Skye. While we talked, I felt I was looking at a double-exposed photo from my parents’ time. Or hearing an echo coming back distorted.

My story about George superimposed upon his story made me dizzy. I felt the loss of Skye and Ms. Toni Reid. You’ve got an overactive imagination my parents would admonish me when I was worried about germs or friends that might abandon me or strep throat decades ago. But this moment I wasn’t dreading the obvious, just overlaying a scrim onto our harsh anodyne landscape.    

“I’d better go in,” I said. “I may try a recipe for Thai Stir-Fried Glass Noodles from The Globe. If it turns out, I’d be happy to bring some over. Can’t promise any miracles.”

At home I plucked the recipe from the dog-eared and tea-stained pile on a dining room chair. I had the cellophane noodles, but I hadn’t read farther down the ingredient list. Two tablespoons fish sauce… The recipe lost me right there, before the small head green cabbage, fresh cilantro, oyster sauce. I’d had a cabbage but left it in the garage (my “root cellar”) too long. Scratch glass noodle soup for any of us tonight. No, I couldn’t promise any miracles. Tomorrow I’d get what we needed.

Karen Mandell has taught writing at the high school and college levels and literature at community senior centers. She’s written Clicking, interconnected short stories, and Rose Has a New Walker, a book of poetry, both available on Amazon. She’s working on The Lulu Stories, speculative fiction that takes place in the near future.

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Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

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Guest Posts, Starting Over, Young Voices

Yellow Bath Towels

December 10, 2019

By McKenzie Fletcher

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

You are the yellow bath towels.

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

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

You are the yellow bath towels.

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

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

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

Yellow bath towels.

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

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

Yellow bath towels.

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

Yellow bath towels.

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

Yellow bath towels.

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

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

Yellow bath towels.

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

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

But where. Where can I go this time.

Yellow bath towels.

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

Yellow bath towels.

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

Yellow bath towels.

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

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

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

 

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Guest Posts, moving on

Who Are You – A Mad Libs Identity

December 3, 2019

By Xan L. Roberti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Divorce, Family, Guest Posts, motherhood

Coda

October 20, 2019
affair

By Erin Branning

It was the day after Mother’s Day that Myles, my then twelve-year-old son, started questioning me. The night before, he’d gone to dinner with my husband alone – I forget now why I agreed to this on Mother’s Day – and the next afternoon on the drive home from school the questions began. “Mom, tell me what really happened, tell me the real reason you and Dad are getting divorced.”

“We told you,” I answered, praying to god the questions would stop, reciting the lines that the therapist had given us.

“The adjustment of your dad being back in Chicago after working in New York has been difficult.”

“We’ve tried very hard to work things out, but we can’t.”

“We love you and we promise to make this as painless for you as possible.”

My husband and I had agreed there was no reason for our children to know the specific conditions of the dissolution of our marriage. They’d simply know that things had been bad and now they were going to be better. This was the only truth they needed to know. This was what I told myself, what the therapist had said and what I thought my husband felt as well.

But all the things that sounded so good in the therapist’s office now sounded ridiculous and hollow. They weren’t answers and Myles knew it. He wouldn’t stop probing, wanted specifics. I stayed to the script. This went on for a few days until my husband called me a few minutes after I’d dropped the children off at school.

“I told Myles the truth at dinner the other night,” he said.

“The truth?” An emptiness, a pit, opened up below my heart.

“I told him you’ve been having an affair and I was willing to forgive you, but you had decided to choose him over our family.”

“You told him what?” I felt lightheaded, like the ground had given way. I gripped the steering wheel and pulled over.

“That you’re having an affair and that’s why we’re getting divorced. And I’m going to tell the other kids too. There’s been enough lying.”

Our other children were ten, seven and three.

“The therapist said not to tell them. You promised me you wouldn’t.”

“A marriage is a promise to stay faithful. I wouldn’t bring up promises if I were you.”

***

The truth was this: A few weeks earlier, while I was out at breakfast with our four children, he went through my computer and found texts and emails with a man who had become the love of my life, the person I could not imagine living without.  Matt was my chiropractor but his methods encompassed everything – the full range of body, mind and soul. We connected on music initially – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy—and then books. At some point I realized every book I had read over the past year that wasn’t required as part of my MFA program, was recommended by him.

During the winter, Matt and I, who had always confined our communication to his office, slipped into texting. A lot. First daily, then a few times a day, then hundreds. It was a numinous relationship, one therapist said. Numinous – spiritual, divine. Of course, it was meant to be. Never mind the fact that at the time my husband discovered our correspondence, we had not done so much as kissed.

The texting made it all too easy – the distance and time to be witty and use innuendo, to share thoughts, photos, articles, music. An entire consciousness can be sent through a phone. Of course, I couldn’t just delete the messages as they came, I had to save them by sending them to myself. I needed proof of what was happening. My inability to let things go into the ether was ultimately how my husband found out about our emotional affair. Since my divorce, I’ve had friends tell me about phone flirtations because they know I won’t judge. I have a hard time telling them to walk away. For me, my virtual relationship with Matt was a lifeline – what ultimately what got me out of something I’d been very unhappy in for a very long time.

In the weeks leading up to Chris’s and my separation, when I was in the throes of my texting with Matt, Myles played “Layla” on repeat in the car. I wondered if he was reading my mind, if he knew what was going on with me and if that was why he constantly played a song about an affair, about longing, about forbidden love, about betrayal.

When I used to hear stories of people cheating on their spouses I would think: how awful; if you can’t stay faithful, don’t stay married, and certainly don’t have kids. What I used to think about Eric Clapton and “Layla” was that he was a terrible person for falling in love with his friend’s wife. But when Myles played that song I thought, what incredible art. Clapton knew.

***

So why didn’t I leave earlier if it was so bad?  We had four kids, a full life, lots of friends. I adored his family. He had a high-profile job that “needed” a wife. How could I abandon him? Marriage was supposed to be hard and I wasn’t trying hard enough. I always thought I should be able to do better and my husband constantly told me so. For years, I thought the despair I was feeling was because of my own failing at love.

I never told anyone how suffocated I felt. My husband told everyone how much he loved me, all the time. But behind closed doors he loved me so much I couldn’t see friends if he was in town, couldn’t speak on the phone if he was home, couldn’t have male friends. When we moved to Beijing for his job, he asked me why I was making friends – wasn’t he enough? I read old journals. Five years before, as the movers were packing up our apartment in Beijing for a move to Tokyo, I had written – I don’t know if I can move to Tokyo with him.

I told my children and friends that I wasn’t leaving my marriage for Matt. I said falling in love with someone else was just the final thing beating me over the head telling me to leave – something I’d felt I had to do for a long time but been too scared to. And I wonder whether I let the marriage end as it did so that he wouldn’t be blamed, so that he could look like the “better person” and whether I was performing a service I had done for most of our marriage -protecting him at the expense of myself.

***

So, the narrative of our divorce became this: I was solely responsible for the end of our marriage because I had an affair. Chris told the children and anyone else who would listen that he was the victim and I was the victimizer. I imagined my children thinking of me kissing this man, wasn’t sure if they imagined sex too. At twelve, Myles certainly might have been, but I didn’t know about the others. I told them nothing physical had happened when their dad found our texts, but what did this mean to them? To them, their mother had fallen in love with another man while married to their father and wasn’t able to stop it, couldn’t walk away, was reckless with their lives and her own. In committing infidelity, emotional or otherwise, I’d lost all standing, not just as a wife, but as a person – especially as a mother.

And, while I felt shame standing in front of my children, I also felt relief. The worst thing I could have imagined had happened – my husband telling my children I’d had an affair – and yet, I was oddly okay. It clarified everything; I knew couldn’t go back. Every day I steeled myself for the children’s questions: What did Dad do to you that’s worse than cheating? Why do you want a divorce if he wants to forgive you? Why don’t you love Dad anymore? In my best moments I would say: I’m not going to talk badly about your dad.  And in my worst moments: God help you if you think this is the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

***

One afternoon in July, two months after Chris and I had separated, Myles and I were driving to a Jay-Z/Beyonce concert.

Shortly into the drive he looked up from his phone and said, “You’re not wearing that to the concert, are you?”

I was wearing a black motorcycle jacket that I’d recently bought, edgy, unlike anything I’d worn before I left Chris.

“You look stupid. Take it off.”

“I’m wearing it. I like it.”

“I’m not going into the concert with you then.”

“Look at me and apologize right now,” I said.

“Apologize for what? I’m allowed to have an opinion.” He said this, looking down at his phone.

And I suddenly felt overwhelming rage – rage that this night with my son already felt ruined, rage at my own impotence in the face of my son’s anger, and rage at the fact that I knew this argument wasn’t about my jacket. We were sitting at a stoplight and I ripped his phone out of his hands.

“Give it back!” he shouted at me.

“Not until you apologize.”

“You know the family is ashamed of you, right? You know that Dad’s family hates you and that even your own mom sent Dad an email saying how you made her sick.” He screamed at me, his face red now and contorted in pain. His words came at me:

Nothing is worse than what you did.

You’re a cheater.  

A liar.

I hate you.

And without even thinking, in my own blind rage, I slapped him. His hand went immediately to his face and he looked at me, shocked. “And now you hit me? Good job. Wait until I tell Dad.”

And I started to cry and knew I couldn’t take it back, couldn’t take anything back I’d done to hurt him. The agony on his face in that moment – my heart breaks every time I think of it.

***

Recently, Myles, now seventeen, and I were walking down Michigan Avenue and passed by Lowry’s Prime Rib.

“That’s where your dad and I met,” I said. I remembered what I’d been like that day – so young and hopeful, filled with the excitement of new love.

“What would you say to yourself now if you saw your younger self standing there with him?” he asked. I understood what he was really asking. He wanted to know if my marriage to his father had been a mistake, if I’d take it back if I could. The relationship with Matt had been short-lived, did I think that I’d broken up my family for nothing?

“I would say that you’re going to have a full life together for many years and many adventures. And have four amazing children.”

I wanted to add, “and it won’t be forever and that’s okay.” I wanted to tell him what I’d come to feel – that what I’d done was extremely painful and difficult, but that that didn’t mean it was wrong. I wanted to say I’d struggled and was still struggling to know who I was and what I wanted and how to love, but that didn’t make me bad. I wanted to say what is rarely acknowledged, that as humans – even as adults, even as mothers – we are all just figuring it out.

But that moment in front of Lowry’s I couldn’t say it was okay. I felt his pain and that of his siblings and knew that for them our divorce might never be okay. I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken by what we all had lost. So I said, “and it won’t be forever and I’m so sorry for that.”

He nodded and said, “I know Mom, its okay.”

I turned to look at him, tears threatening to spill down my face, and hugged him.

***

Layla has a coda – a piano solo that contains a shift, a calmness and peace in contrast to the rest of the song that precedes it. Not long ago, I asked Myles how that coda made him feel. He said it was like rebirth. New life.

Erin Branning holds an MFA from Northwestern and lives in Chicago with her four children. She is working on her first novel.

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

empty nest, Guest Posts

Hello, My Future Self!

May 24, 2019
self

By Claudia Hinz

I leave the doors to their rooms open. I have tried it with the doors closed but that only makes me sadder. With her door open I can see straight into my daughter Anna’s room from the kitchen. Not that I pretend she is about to come home, but it feels more normal. When I go into the girls’ bathroom, I see the note. Anna has stuck the yellow Post-it to a new roll of toilet paper. “Hello future Nicole and Anna!” she has written. “Signed Anna (hee hee!) August 16.” Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Absence

May 22, 2019
eyes

By Rachel Greenley

Green is the rarest of eye colors—only two percent of the world’s population. My children had a fifty-percent chance to be born with green eyes. When the twins were born with blue, I was blue. I lie in one hospital bed. My green-eyed husband, Jim, lie in another. We were thirteen miles apart. He was undergoing total body irradiation as I gave birth, his pale hospital gown tied in the back just like mine, his own plastic hospital bracelet around his wrist just like mine.

Melanin is pigment. It makes hair, skin, eyes light or dark. Absence of melanin is a palette devoid of color—a blank slate, an empty canvas, a hollow grief. Have you seen the eyes of someone grieving? They carry a particular look—as if pain’s sharp layers could live in an iris.

Stroma is a layer of tissue in the iris. The amount of melanin or pigment in one’s stroma creates eye color. Albino eyes lack pigment. Blue eyes have a touch. More melanin leads to green. A healthy dose delivers brown. From faint to blue to green to brown. Inherited from parents’ genes. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Relationships, Young Voices

Fruit

May 20, 2019
fruit

By Katie Simon

On my first trip to Italy, I ate kiwis. They were soft as lips, the ones I wasn’t kissing—my boyfriend Michael’s back in New York. After three years together, I relished the feeling of a kiss from anything other than his lips.

The kiwis I ate in the morning at my B&B tasted tangy, enticing, unlike my breakfasts back home. The memory of their flesh slipping between my lips scratched at my mind for the rest of the morning and followed me as I went on long afternoon walks outside Verona.

One day I climbed a hill to a monastery and in its chapel I wrote myself a letter full of questions. Is it worth staying with Michael, despite my doubts? He was my first boyfriend, and I wondered what else was out there.

I wrote only questions; I already knew the answers.

My stomach grumbled. I walked down the hill.

I called the owner of my B&B for a ride from the bus station. It was hot, I was wearing jeans, unprepared for the heat of the trip.

“My son comes and get you,” she said.

I slid into the passenger seat of his car and felt a whoop in my stomach, like rushing sweet liquid. Continue Reading…

Divorce, Guest Posts, moving on

My Ex-Husband is Getting Remarried

May 2, 2019

By Robin Rapaport

Three weeks before Thanksgiving, my 28 year old daughter told me during dinner that her dad intended to propose to his girlfriend of two years, after the holiday. My daughter asked if I was okay with the news, and I said “Yes, I am fine. I let go a long time ago”. I desperately tried to control the code red alarm sounding off inside me. I feigned joyous enthusiasm by displaying an inauthentic I’m- Happy For- Your- Father smile. My perceptive daughter didn’t further question me. After dinner, I was left with a mess bigger than dirty dishes to clean up.

The news leaned in with force and threw me off balance, sending my head spinning. I even woke up the next morning with my frenemy, Vertigo, who commands thoughts, actions and life to slow down to a near halt, when I can’t downshift on my own. By afternoon, reeling in a vertigo hangover, I tried to organize and clean up the reactive thoughts in my head – mental dirty dishes, piling up and ready for a good soaking and scrubbing. Please. Where can I get a brain washing?

Why did I care, 19 years later? I have little to do with him anymore. Except that he will forever be the father of my children, the grandfather of my grandchildren. That’s about it.  He is only the father of the most important people in my world, who I love with all my heart.

I am a single 62 year old divorcee of 19 years. I have been almost married 3 times since the breakup. Almost being the key word, which loosely translates as I was unable to love, unwilling to share, and unable to commit to men who saw me as their absolute life partner. I am more ready now to raise the almost bar, but that’s a different story. Continue Reading…

Divorce, Guest Posts

The Perfect Blue: A Restless Bird, a Good Dog, and The End of a Marriage

April 7, 2019
blue

By Wendy Cohan

I drive too fast from Missoula, west through Spokane and the scablands of Eastern Washington, through the industrial maze of the Tri-Cities, along the other-worldly beauty of the Columbia Gorge and on into Portland. I drive up to our family home—painted a color that we worked so hard to choose: the perfect blue. Now, my husband and I face the task of going through our remaining belongings, separating his life from mine, over the next five days.

I’m staying at my friend’s empty house, just up the street, to limit any awkwardness and to give myself some private time and space. I play it cool: I’m helpful, generous, and not too inquisitive about his new life and new love. Although it’s difficult, I avoid playing “Do you remember?” too much. Continue Reading…

Beating Fear with a Stick, cancer, Gratitude, Guest Posts, healing, Manifestation Retreats

Thank You, You Didn’t Break Me.

February 8, 2014

**trigger warning. Strong content that might be upsetting to some. Mention of sexual abuse. Strong language.

By Lockey Maisonneuve

“Thank you to the people who built me.” Jen Pastiloff read these words from an essay she wrote at Kripalu last weekend during her Manifestation Retreat®.

Thank you. You didn’t break me.

I was tingly when I heard these words. Why? Because Jen created the space for me to powerfully, and without anger, share my gratitude and flaunt my resilience to the people who built me.

We were invited to write a Thank You letter to everyone we ever met, the loving, supporting people who showed us grace and dignity, the people who were careless with our heart, the people who bullied us and those who showed us beauty. This letter was best described by Angela Giles, a retreat participant.  She called it a Thank You/Fuck You letter. “Thank you releases it, while fuck you holds it in.”

When I started writing my letter, I wasn’t sure who would receive the thank you or the fuck you. I just started writing, and thanking and fuck-youing. It all came together in one beautiful, colorful, abstract, authentic, thank you/fuck you landscape.

After I wrote this letter, I was shaking.  All over. My legs, my arms, my chest, my fingers, my heart.  Then I was asked to read my letter aloud.  Really Jen??

I trust her. So I read the letter.

I stood there reading, not even realizing what I’d written until I tried to speak the words out loud.  There was no time to prepare them for what they would hear, no time to make self-deprecating comments, or a joke to avoid being present to this moment.  I just had to stand in the uncertainty that I could be vulnerable and would not crumble into a pile on the floor.

As I read my letter I realized I was getting exactly what I came for.   I was being vulnerable. I was standing in uncertainty. I did not use my humor to deflect the situation like I normally do. I was authentic. I was raw. I was humbled.

My audience held the space for me to express things I’ve never said out loud. Once again, I made it through. I did not crumble. I am whole (and kinda awesome.)

I am forever grateful to Kripalu and the amazing space they provide, Jen Pastiloff for being the space of transformation for the planet, and everyone of the women I hugged, laughed and cried with.  I am in awe of every one of you.

My Thank You/Fuck You Letter inspired by Jen’s essay and assignment (click here to read it.)

Thank you to the kid who poured breadcrumbs on my sister before school.  Thank you to my sister for pushing me away.  thank you to my family for telling me repeatedly “She is the strong one.” Thank you to Andrew for hiring me as a bar tender and telling me during the interview that he knew I was lying about having experience as a bar tender.  Thank you to the rapist who punched me in the face.  Thenk you to the man who pulled me out of the shower after sneaking in to the house.  Thenk you to the man who held me down, thank you to my father who laughed as he counted the money men paid him to rape me.Thank you to the lady who worked in the bakery who bartered babysitting services in exchange for free breakfast.  Thank you to me for my ingenuity at the age of 12.  Thank you to my children for teaching me how to love unconditionally.  Thank you to me for getting up every time I fell. Thank you to cancer for allowing me to see that “someday” is a myth, the time is now.  Thank you lululemon for making yoga pants mainstream.  Thank you Jean, for saving me.  Thank you Ed for firing me, I hated that job.  Thank you personal training career for teaching me that I do have something to offer. 

PS. As a public service announcement, if you are planing on attending a retreat with Jen, which I highly recommend, don’t bother wearing mascara. It will be gone by the end of the first Elton John song and for the rest of the day, you will be wondering if it’s all over your face.   🙂

Lockey is a yoga instructor and survivor of cancer and child abuse. Sharing her story and practicing yoga saved her life. When she let go of both the cancer and the secret of abuse she was able to heal in both mind and body. Lockey openly shares her cancer and child abuse experiences to help others in what ever they are surviving in their lives. Lockey has been profiled in Shape Magazine  WABC-TV, News Channel 12.  She is a montly contributor for PositivelyPositive.com. And writes blogs for SheKnows.com and MindBodyGreen.She is featured in The Ultimate Guide to Breast Cancer by the Editors of Prevention Magazine.  Recently she presented a vidoechat for the GE Healthcare Breast Cancer Mosaic. She is a monthly contributor on PositivelyPositive.com.

At Kripalu in Massachusetts last week (Feb 1, 2014.)

At Kripalu in Massachusetts last week (Feb 1, 2014.)

Lockey and Jen at Jen's Bali retreat last year.

Lockey and Jen at Jen’s Bali retreat last year.

Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer based in Los Angeles. She is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen will be leading a Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and her annual retreat to Tuscany is in July 2014. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing and for ALL levels. Read this post to understand what a Manifestation retreat is. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Jen and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Be prepared to go deep if you go sign up for a retreat. And also to laugh! A lot.