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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts, pandemic

Theme & Style

July 23, 2021
theme

By Sara Gray 

The seminar was wrapping up.

“I want you to think about your poetry,” the poet said. “I want you to think about the themes running through your work, and how your style expresses those themes.”

The poet was a professor in her mid-30’s and would not have been giving a seminar via Zoom to a bunch of amateur poets if it wasn’t for the pandemic that had side-lined her own book tour and other, more prestigious teaching opportunities.

Marie wouldn’t have attended this seminar or any other if it wasn’t for Zoom and the pandemic as well. Instead, she would have been ferrying her children to hockey, soccer, and sleepovers.

For two hours, they had discussed poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver. They had analyzed the author’s word choice, the percentage of Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon root words, the number of adjectives. It had been so long since Marie had spoken to anyone about poetry. Her husband wasn’t interested in it; her children weren’t interested in her; her writing group was forced to delay their meetings because they weren’t allowed to leave their homes, and Betty didn’t know how to set up an online meeting.

For two hours Marie had listened, taken notes, and thought about nothing except poetry. She felt exhilarated, like she had drunk one too many coffees. Unfortunately, they had arrived at the point where they were supposed to ask questions.

The one benefit of everything pivoting to online was that she could, if she wanted to, leave early, turn off her camera, get a mug of tea. It was a little power, sure, but it was still a thrill. She never liked listening to other student’s questions. It was, perhaps, a cruel thought, but she always found the questions to be dumb or repetitive or a clear attempt to grab attention from a well-regarded author who, it was clear, had no real interest in answer the same inane questions she undoubtedly got at every seminar, whether in person or online.

Yes, Marie decided, she would simply leave.

“I can take questions now if –”

She pressed the leave meeting button, cutting the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet off mid-sentence, which also made her feel giddy. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the poet. In fact, she regarded her work highly, which was why she had signed up for the seminar in the first place, and why she bought and read all of her books even though between her job, children, and her husband, she really only had time to read about twelve books a year.

Twelve books. The thought made her anxious. How was she supposed to pick twelve books out of the hundreds that were published in a year and the millions – billions –that had been published before that? She tried make lists, recording names of authors mentioned at literary events or on Twitter. She kept lists of new releases and other, longer lists of books she hadn’t read yet. A copy of War and Peace glared at her resentfully from her bookshelf, knowing she would never touch it. But still, how did one choose?

She pushed back from her chair and pushed the thought away. She was not supposed to be thinking of her book-related anxiety. She was supposed to be thinking of her own work and how her style worked to express her themes.

She stood up. The floor was cold against her feet. Before she had been confined to her house, she hadn’t noticed the seasons change. One day it was summer – hot, humid – the next day, she was pulling sweatpants over her pyjama bottoms because she was cold. Now, even though she rarely left the house, she found herself noticing the small changes in weather. First, the days were shorter; then, the air-conditioning clicked off for the final time; the leaves were bruised and brittle on the branches, ready to fall; now, she was required to wear socks.

Perhaps she was noticing things like this because there was nothing else to observe. She no longer saw interesting people on the street because no one walked the street. Her social interactions were limited to her husband, her two children, and her sister (though they had stopped seeing her sister because she had read something on Facebook and now refused to wear a mask).

Marie wasn’t out of her husband’s office and already her mind was wondering away from the central question. How did her style impact her themes? The truth was, she wasn’t sure what her style was. She assumed if she wasn’t sure about this, it wasn’t coming across to her audience (which consisted of her husband, her sister, and the people in the Writers in Belville Facebook group she had joined).

Just as she was about to sit back down, the dryer buzzed. She left room and walked down the hall to the laundry room.

She had an open style, she decided. She didn’t like poetry she couldn’t understand. When poems made her feel something just by their rhythm or tension or whatever, she didn’t trust that feeling. If she couldn’t understand, then she couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds with the author.

She opened the washer. The laundry room smelled vaguely of cat litter. Jack, her 10-year old, had promised that if they got a cat, he would scoop its poop every night. Her husband thought it would teach him responsibility. Not surprising Marie – or any mother anywhere – Jack had cleaned the litter box once and had never done it again.

Marie pulled handfuls of wet clothes out of the washing machine. Cold water slipped down her fingers and wrist. The washer was not spinning as efficiently as it should be. The machine was getting old. Marie meant to call someone in to take a look at it, but the machine wasn’t completely broken and laundry kept getting done, so she continually put it off.

Anyway, the washing machine didn’t matter, she reminded herself as she separated out the clothing that went in the dryer from the clothing that needed to be hung to dry, what mattered was style and theme, and how they connected to one another in a poem.

In a writing class she attended once, a girl half her age had said that her poems were too direct. It was true that Marie rarely used rhetoric. Again, it was something she didn’t trust. People tended to gravitate towards similar turns of phrases, and they didn’t always work. In almost every one of her classmate’s pieces, someone ‘paled’ or ‘went pale’. Marie did not think the body worked that way. She had never gone white like that, and she was fairly sure colour did not drain out of one’s face when one was frightened. Maybe it did. But –

Footsteps in the hallway. Marie poked her head of the laundry room.

Rachel was walking by, a box of cookies in her hand. She was still wearing the pyjamas she slept in though it was almost dinner time. Marie hesitated. Rachel was twelve, meaning that everything Marie said or did was offensive, embarrassing, controlling, or otherwise unacceptable. Her daughter had been – still was? – a happy child with friends, good grades, and a wide range of extracurricular activities. It was harder to be all that when one wasn’t allowed to leave the house. Usually, half-way through a Saturday, she would be asking Marie if she could sleep over at a friend’s house, or if she could have friends over so they could gorge on pizza, soda and then fall asleep in front of horror movies while browsing the various social media accounts of the boys they liked and the girls they pretended hate but really admired.

Marie had worried about her daughter in those days as well, but if she was being honest with herself, she knew that Rachel was well-adjusted. Worrying simply felt part of her job as a mother, same as explaining the importance of deodorant and packing school lunches.

Now, though, the worry had transitioned to genuine concern which left Marie feeling like she was permanently free-falling off of a cliff. It was not a pleasant feeling. She didn’t know if she should take away the cookies and force Rachel to shower and put on a pair of jeans. Months ago, she would have said that would absolutely have been her response, but who was she kidding. There was no one reason to put on jeans, and cookies were one of the few joys left.

Rachel’s door closed.

Marie bent over and started to scoop the cat’s hard, sausage-like shits out of the litter box and into a crumpled up plastic bag. It was too late anyway. Rachel was in her room. She would spend the next few hours watching videos on Youtube or TikTok. In the before times, Marie didn’t have to monitor Rachel’s screen time, her kid had been far too busy working on her lines for the school play or doing her homework.

What if she didn’t get into college?

Marie tied the bag closed. Beans, the fluffy brown cat they had adopted from the animal shelter at the beginning of the year, trotted into the laundry room to check out his litter-box. Finding it clean, he ran his long body against Marie’s calves. She stroked his fur. It was the closest thing she got to a thank you these days.

Bag of shit in hand, she walked down the stairs to the foyer and slid on a pair of Jack’s flip-flops that were sitting by the door. Jack was only ten, but his shoes fit her feet perfect.

The last poem she had written was about Jack’s flip-flops. How his feet kept getting bigger. How he kept getting bigger, and she couldn’t stop it.

Themes. Style. The poetry world probably had an unkind word for middle-aged, suburban woman who wrote poetry about her children: saccharine, clichéd. They weren’t wrong. There was nothing about motherhood that she, Marie from Belleville, could possibly say that hadn’t been said before.

The excitement she had felt from the online seminar was starting to curdle. She felt like she often did in these moments: that she didn’t have a unique perspective on the world at all, that she was an interloper in the world of books and reading, and that she should, as quickly as possible, buy herself a t-shirt that said wine o’clock and curate her Pinterest boards while watching the Bachelorette. The thought made her feel small and translucent.

It was cold outside. The flip-flops did little against the cold. She was wearing thin sweatpants and a t-shirt. Her nipples, rebelling against the cold, pointed through the fabric. One arm across her chest, she jogged to the garbage can and dumped the garbage bag in the organics bin. In the bottom of the bin, she could see a few maggots wriggling around, clinging to life. Someone – her husband – had thrown old food directly into the bin without a bag. She would have to call waste management and have them sanitize the waste bins.

She wondered, as she returned to the house, if she really needed to do this. The maggots weren’t harming anyone. It was a waste bin. No one was expecting it to be sanitary. But she didn’t want anyone to notice. She didn’t want to become that lady with maggots in her garbage. To whom would it make a difference?

Was that the correct use of whom? She wasn’t sure. She slipped off her son’s flip-flops and walked across the cold hardwood floor to the kitchen. Someone had once said it was a pity that ‘whom’ was going out of fashion. That the ongoing whittling of the English language was restricting writers more-and-more to subject-verb-object sentences: I eat carrots. I is the subject. Eat is the verb. Object is the carrots. It had taken Marie a long time to figure that out. She wasn’t entirely convinced that it mattered, that the on-going whittling of the English language was, in fact, something she should concern herself with.

She turned on the tap and washed her hands for government-mandated 20-seconds. The soap she bought was purchased in bulk from Costco at the beginning of the pandemic. It was the last variety available. It smelled harshly of chemical green apple. She hated it, but wasting something like soap seemed cruel and ungrateful.

Her husband would get mad as well. Not that he would get mad mad. Bob was a mild-mannered man whose idea of rage was a disappointed shake of the head. Still, she doesn’t like to add to the stress. Like many other people, he lost his job. It was not a good time to be a city planner, not with construction slowed to a halt and projects deferred.

Marie turned off the tap. They were luckier than most. They had some savings and Marie had found part-time work answering calls from people and business confused about what kind of government assistance was available to them. Those calls put things in perspective. Mothers called looking for directions to the food bank so they could feed their children, apologizing as they did so, explaining it was their first time, that they were trying to get work.

Marie dried her hands on the clean towel. Thinking of food banks, of Bob and his ‘employment situation’ was like waking an angry barking dog inside of her. The dog was fear and it was barely restrained, ready to break free and ruin her carefully maintained garden of mental health.

Marie screwed up her eyes. This was she didn’t love metaphors. Fear wasn’t a barking dog. It was her hormones squirting chemicals into her bloodstream. This squirting was supposed to help her, but it was not.

Themes and style, she remembered, that’s what she had been thinking about. The poet had instructed them all to think about what they couldn’t say in their work, what ground their projects forbade them to tread simply by their nature. A Hallmark movie, for example, would not end in divorce. Marie thought there was a lot of ideas her work was incapable of exploring: mathematical axioms; the eight minutes and 48 seconds George Floyd spent on the ground, dying.

Marie stopped listing things. It didn’t seem right to put anything after George Floyd’s death. Her neighbourhood book club had decided to read How to Be an Anti-Racist at their last book club meeting. Jack and Rachel – seeing celebrities and kids their own age on social media taking to the streets – had insisting upon going to the marches, and Marie had insisted upon accompanying them. She carried her own Black Lives Matter sign, but she came more of out of a need to monitor her own children, than out of a desire to be part of the resistance. At first, she had been uncertain, both of her welcome and of the wisdom of protesting in a pandemic. Thoughts buzzed around like flies in her head: what if they all got each other sick? Am I too complicit to be here? What if things get violent?

But, she had neither been welcomed not rejected. She was drop in the sea of people who were walking through the streets. There was no violence. Everyone was masked. Children, too young to understand what was happening, sat atop their parent’s shoulders and occasionally clapped or squealed. She wondered, as she often did, what the protests looked like to the littlest children, what they understood the cacophony of shouts, cheers, signs, and people to be.

Despite the new reading list, her book club had not approved of Marie attending the march (dangerous, looting, etc.). Marie had learned something she thought be very important, which was that talking about property damage after someone was murdered was, at best, tone deaf, at worst, violence itself. It was one of those thoughts that seemed so obvious to her once she heard it, that she could hardly remember seeing the situation another way. Marie tried to share this with her book club, and it had not gone well.

They seemed to think that she was saying that she didn’t care at all about the looting and rioting. Marie tried to explain that it wasn’t that she didn’t care, it was just that she cared about people more than property, and they should keep the conversation centered on the harm done by police and white supremacy.

Her voice had shaken as she said this, partly because she was a nervous public speaker, but also because Bev’s husband was a police officer, and she could see the woman scowling, and because whenever anyone said ‘white supremacy’, Irene puffed up and threatened tears, acting like someone had accused her of trying to join the Third Reich.

Since she was in the kitchen, Marie pulled out the alfredo sauce and linguine from the cupboard. She opened the fridge. There was nothing in the fridge but containers of yogurt, cheese, and rows of condiments. Tomorrow, she would have to don a mask and brave the grocery story. She had always hated grocery shopping, and she despised it now. The freaks refusing to wear masks came too close to her in line, and the odd empty spaces on the shelves that made it feel like they were at the beginning of the end times.

Marie opened the freezer. The package of shrimp was sitting there, slightly freezer-burned. She had forgotten to transition it from freezer to fridge this morning. She swore to herself, took the package over to the sink and started to run it under cool water.

She thought about book club as the cold water ran over the shrimp and her hands. The conversation had devolved into an odd sort of pissing contest where each woman reiterated the horrible things their parents had said about Black people and how they felt scared to say the wrong thing now. Some of them cried. Marie looked around and came to the conclusion that there was not much to be gained from a bunch of white women whipping themselves up into a self-indulgent hysteria and suggested they read Transcendent Kingdom for their next book club pick. Perhaps, Marie thought, they would all do better with fiction.

She turned the water up. She knew she was supposed to defrost shrimp in cold water, but never understood why and she didn’t relish the thought of standing there for twenty minutes, her fingers in murky, cool water.

What we she supposed to be thinking about: Theme? Style? If Marie thought about it, she wouldn’t have been quite to remember the joy she had felt at the end of the seminar. Each emotional state restricts a person’s imagination. It is hard to remember joy when one is miserable and vise-versa. She wiped her damp hands on the cloth, then started to collect the ingredients: salt, chili peppers, pepper, olive oil.

It wasn’t that she was better than the women from book club. She was just less certain than they were about who she was and what was right even though she supposed that, at 56, she should have worked all of that out. Their certainty pounded against her like hail, stinging and confusing her. Irene, for example, was so certain she was a good person with a good heart. Marie was never certain whether she herself was right and good.

The shrimp were defrosted. She started to unpeel the them, pulling the crusty shell off of each one and dropping them into a glass bowl that held chili flakes, oil, and cilantro.

Sometimes, she thought of her children as old people, sixty, or, god-willing, eighty years in the future. Obviously, she would be dead. They would be nearing the end of their lives. It was weird that she would not be there with them for decades potentially. That they would have years of life and she simply wouldn’t know about them. That they would get sick and die and she wouldn’t be there to help them. Sometimes, she worried herself by wondering if, by the time they got to heaven, they would even recognize one another. The thought made her want to cry.

Her phone buzzed. The red CNN logo just visible. 200,000 thousand Americans had died from COVID-19. She stood in the kitchen, her hands cold and wet from the shrimp she had been peeling. Her screen went black. The update disappearing like it had never been there at all.

“Mom, is dinner ready?” Rachel yelled from her room.

Marie jumped like her daughter had just prodded her with a cattle prod. Marie cleared her throat and dried her hands on the crumpled tea towel.

“30 minutes, sweetie,” she called back.

“OK.”

Rachel’s door shut again. From the living room, Marie could hear the swoosh of lightsabers coming from the living room. Jack was watching Star Wars again. Bob was in his office, she knew, looking for jobs with more-and-more desperation. Last time she was cleaning in his office, he had left his computer on, and she had seen an application for a position as a Claims Adjuster at an Insurance Company. He had been Regional Manager of Consumer Marketing for a large national movie chain before the virus, and he had loved his job. He had always loved movies and television.

On their first date, he had taken her to a drive-in. She couldn’t remember the movie now, but she remembered that he had known everything: who the director was, who the writer was, the producer, and all their previous works. She never paid attention to that stuff and was impressed by his passion.

He did not, as far as she knew, love insurance.

She put the shrimp in the pan and pushed them around with a wooden spoon she had bought on a whim from Williams Sonoma back when they could afford to splurge on things like that.

The oil hissed and popped. She was probably cooking it at too-high a temperature, but she didn’t care. For a moment, she wanted to burn dinner, if only because she wanted to burn something.

She turned the heat down, measured out some rice, water and salt and set it to boil in a separate pot. Not in any mood to make salad, she poured some frozen peas into a microwave-safe bowl and filled it with water. That would have to do.

She dried her hands again and picked up her phone. The CNN news banner was still there, reminding her of the death toll. Her finger hovered about it. It felt like her duty, as a citizen, to read the article, but what more was there to say than was already written in the headline. People were dying because of selfish people led by a selfish man.

She had a friend on Facebook, a Trump supporter who, after posting multiple mask-related conspiracy theories, received a barrage of critical messages. She beseeched her Facebook friends to ‘look at her heart’ and treat her with respect and then moments later posted a meme claiming pro-choice Democrats wanted to kill babies.

They were no longer friends. Trying to be friends with someone like that was like trying to befriend a cartoon, there were too many layers of ridiculousness to work through. Still, it was one less friend. A friend Marie had known since high school. Those were hard, perhaps impossible, to replace.

Marie sighed. Theme and style, that was what she was supposed to be thinking of, wasn’t it?

Jack came in from the living room, the movie still playing, and took a swig of milk from the carton.

“Honey, use a glass,” Marie said automatically.

“We all share the same DNA,” he said in that petulant manner of teenage boys who think they know everything.

Marie didn’t protest further. If she had learned anything other the past few months, it was how to pick her battles.

“Dinner will be ready soon,” she said.

He passed her and gave her a kiss on the cheek, smiling sheepishly when she looked at him with surprise.

“I’ll get Rachel,” he said, disappearing out of the room as fast as he came.

She listened to his feet thump up the stairs and opened her phone. The Belleville Writer’s Collective was offering another writing workshop next weekend. The guest author had been short-listed for the National Book Award, so Marie assumed they were talented (Marie had their book on her shelf, but had not had time to actually read it).

She wouldn’t have time to read the book before the workshop, though she would try. She likely would not have time to work out what she thought about theme and style or whatever it was she was supposed to be thinking about (the words from the first workshop were already starting to fade from memory).

She clicked the enrol button. She put her phone down and stirred the shrimp.

Sara lives in Toronto with her fiancée and cat. She has previously been published in the York Literary Review and Tishman Review and others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, running, and planning vacations she can no longer take.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Beauty Hunting, Current Events, Guest Posts

A Eulogy for Comets

June 22, 2021
ison

by Natalie Torentinos

Three years ago, I was lying on abandoned elementary school bleachers staring at the sun. My sweaty skin burned against the unyielding metal, but I didn’t care.

It was August in South Carolina. My three friends and I rode our bikes for nearly 10 miles along narrow roads with no sidewalks and little shade to the path of totality because we couldn’t find any hotel rooms in Charleston. My whole body ached from peddling, hand signaling, and sitting on an uncomfortable saddle. But this was all to experience a cloudless afternoon fall instantaneously into darkness and eerie quiet for a few precious moments.

What did past generations think of these events, I thought, without any warning?

This irregularity of light and shadow left me feeling envious of anyone underneath clear skies for the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. A series of internet searches left me feeling sentimental for events I never knew happened or would never live long enough to see.

The astronomy community once dubbed Comet ISON a famous “sun-grazer,” or comet which flies just under 870,000 miles from the Sun. This comet spent most of its life from just beyond Pluto until a few million years ago, when it was gently nudged from its home by the gravity of a moving star. ISON entered our inner solar system with all the hopes of scientists resting on its frozen and rocky surface.

Scientists hoped ISON might survive its dalliance with our sun and be a spectacular sight in the night sky, visible to the naked eye. But it was not meant to be. As it passed our yellow star, ISON dissolved into nothing but dust and vapor.

“Born 4.5 Billion BC, Fragmented Nov 28, 2013”, reads an ISON-observing blog. “Survived by approximately several trillion siblings.”

The astrophysicist observing ISON commented that its disintegration was “a process of heartbreak.”

When I think back to how I felt watching the solar eclipse, I could understand the attachment and anticipation for an object flying more than 800,000 miles away, but ISON’s tribute was made all the more poignant by marrying the language of emotion and science.

I feel the constant struggle between emotion and the adherence to guidelines dictated by science. Seeing friends and family these days is, perhaps, a journey too close to the sun, but our basic human needs are not so different from the forces of gravity. No one wants to stargaze alone on a cold winter night.

Pandemics and celestial events, both cyclical in nature and harbingers of doom, connect distant generations. The last time Jupiter and Saturn were ever this close, a plague began in northern Europe belonging to a cycle of epidemics often referred to as the “Second Pandemic,” which started with the Black Death and kept recurring at regular intervals over decades. People were ordered to stay indoors for one month after the death or infection of someone in a household. As we communicated and entertained ourselves mostly from our homes, I wondered how past generations managed seclusion and feelings of loneliness. How can we comprehend periods of history when letters would be the only source of comfort, if they could read and write at all, and when modern medicine could not prescribe an effective treatment or vaccine in such short order?

Despite our modern comforts, we have become all too familiar with the process of heartbreak, but the pain hasn’t been fully realized, maybe because we know this isn’t over yet. Maybe it’s because we’re not accustomed to collective mourning. Maybe we are afraid to acknowledge our own deviations from the prescribed path of limited human interaction.

My friend’s brother wanted to surprise their parents with a holiday visit. He self-quarantined for two weeks and then drove cross-country nonstop for almost 30 hours, sleeping in his car and never staying in a hotel, only to develop flu-like symptoms upon arriving at their family’s home. All subsequent COVID tests came back negative, but the effect was crippling just the same. My friend, who had initially rejoiced at the idea of finally being reunited, could only cry in the driveway before daring to see him. They saw each other on Christmas through zoom.

Another friend lost her job this past year, and since her parents are both doctors in their 70s, she resolved to not see them until all were vaccinated. She was prepared to spend Christmas ordering takeout and binge-watching Orange is the New Black, but one of her neighbors, also single and recently unemployed, made her a dinner of brined herb chicken. They ate the meal separately in their apartments, apart yet perfectly aligned.

I attended a small gathering of family friends on Christmas Eve. Each person ate at their own table spaced at least six feet apart. After the meal, the hosts directed us to the living room, and while seated six feet apart from one another and wearing masks, we listened to Christmas carols on a 1920s Victrola phonograph record player. I heard those reedy voices singing to us in that living room, these voices of nameless and faceless people who likely lived through the 1918 pandemic, as if they were traveling across decades to comfort us in a time of uncertainty.

Christmas caroling and nativity plays were cancelled during the pandemic of 1918, but people continued to gather. One difference between now and then, however, is that while viruses were too small to be seen by any available microscope, we can now see detailed images of their structures. One news article pointed out that COVID-19 looked “otherworldly, a death star floating in deep space, with curious stars glimmering in the distance.”

It seems that microscopes, like telescopes, can see into deep space and instill a sense of wonder – and fear.

The collapse of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Telescope seemed an apt representation for a growing weariness of science. The 305-metre wide dish assessed asteroids and observed spinning stars for more than 50 years. An astronomer likened the loss to “losing an elderly relative,” as it persevered through the pitfalls of life – budget cuts, natural disasters, and periods of neglect. A student who saw the telescope through a research program said it hurt to talk about the observatory in past tense.

While navigating the varying emotions we’re all experiencing – whether due to losing one’s health, job, or sense of safety – it can be difficult to contemplate how we transition from present to past tense. Will there come a time when I sit a young child on my knee and start a story with, “back in the COVID days”?

I long to toss out the mask hanging from my car’s rearview mirror, but even when that day comes, these invisible death stars will linger in the air. Science may indicate that an acceptable level of immunity has been reached, but what will our emotions dictate? I suspect the same forces compelling us to gather now will compel us to look upon large crowds and cramped spaces with suspicion in the future.

Will we confront our changed psyches as the pandemic’s long-term effects cast an ever-growing shadow?

We are not so different from the universe, one that is both ever-changing and predictable. A pandemic will happen again; we will praise scientists, and we will ignore science-driven restrictions placed on us. We will take for granted the comforts past generations suffered without. We will find ways to assuage our grief.

Three years from now, the next total solar eclipse will cross the United States. When the moon and sun cross paths again, I will ask my friends to gather together so we can watch and wonder – about the past, the future, and all the worlds we cannot see.

Natalie Torentinos is a lobbyist for a medical society in Washington, D.C., but earlier in her career worked as a reporter for several weekly and daily newspapers in Texas and Pennsylvania. She holds a bachelor’s in history and journalism from the University of Delaware and a master’s in political management from the George Washington University.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, pandemic

Longing For Lysol and a Burger

June 6, 2021
lysol

by Fredricka R. Maister

Disinfecting wipes, a thermometer, bottles of hand sanitizer, masks, mega rolls of TP and paper towels, boxes of Kleenex, and cool purple latex gloves. The only item missing from my overstocked arsenal of anti-COVID household products: a can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray.

I used to always have a can of Lysol on hand. My luck, I ran out of it just as the novel coronavirus and the hoarders struck, snatching up every last can on the planet.

For almost a year, I’ve been trying to score a can—one can!– in stores or online, but the product is perennially out-of-stock which has made me want it even more.

The clerk at my local CVS told me the store sometimes receives a limited supply of Lysol spray, which the staff puts out in the wee hours of the morning.  Since the store is open 24/7, people line up to get first dibs on the new inventory. The Lysol, along with other items endangered in the Age of COVID, are gone within hours.

I have a friend, a night owl, who happened to be in the store a few months ago at midnight when she spotted a box labeled “Lysol” in a stack of boxes waiting to be unpacked. Without hesitation, she pried open the box with her fingernails and pulled out a can.  If only I had been with her, I could’ve checked Lysol spray off my wish list.

I’ve repeatedly complained in person at CVS. The staff’s only solution to my plight is for me to wait in line in the middle of the night with the desperadoes ready for a scrimmage in Aisle 6, Cleaners.  Even for Lysol, I have my limits.

So, I’ve had to accept the inconvenient reality that Lysol Disinfectant Spray may continue to elude me until this pandemic is over.

I’ve also experienced a relentless longing for a hamburger due to COVID-19. I almost never indulge in red meat, but there is something familiar and comforting about a burger slapped with lettuce, tomato, onion and a slice of melted cheese, served with crispy fries drenched in ketchup, that can satisfy my burger craving for months on end. A take-out, reheated-at-home burger doesn’t taste the same. I like my burgers hot off the grill.

With the reopening of restaurants, especially the pub across the street, the aroma of grilled hamburger wafting through the air has constantly reminded me of my last burger eaten only a few days before self-quarantining. My fear of eating out in a pandemic, inside or even outside, has trumped the instant gratification I know a hamburger could deliver.

I’ve been surveilling the pub for the last few months to check out the outdoor dining situation.  Tables are properly spaced.  Staff and customers, when not eating, are masked. Weeknights are quieter and street traffic is minimal. “Maybe it’s time to take the plunge while the weather is still cooperative,” I thought.

With my heart and mind set on finally having a hamburger, I called up my friend Phyllis, a like-minded COVID-phobe also in need of a burger fix.

“Look, we have a window of opportunity before it gets really cold. Let’s go to the pub tomorrow night,” I said.

Phyllis was game so we, with some trepidation, ventured out to the pub.  Our dining experience did not disappoint. We savored every last bite of our burgers and fries. “I’m good to go for another six months,” I told Phyllis.

Sharing a meal with a friend and chatting about things unrelated to COVID felt like old times, a much-needed reprieve from our new reality.

After eating, Phyllis asked if I wanted to walk with her to CVS.  “Sure, not that they have anything I need or want,” I said.

As I browsed the aisles with little or no inventory, Phyllis suddenly called out, “Look!”  She pointed to four cans of Lysol Spray in the center of an otherwise empty shelf. I stared in disbelief.

“Do you think it’s the real thing?” I asked.   I picked up a can. Sure enough, “Lysol Disinfectant Spray…Kills 99.9% of Viruses & Bacteria.”

No one can accuse me of being a hoarder. The happiest of campers, I left CVS with my one can.

For me, just the mundane acts of being able to hold a can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray and eat a hamburger in a restaurant assumed monumental significance that night, restoring a sense of normalcy to my life turned topsy-turvy by COVID-19.  For a few hours, for the first time in many months, I forgot I was living in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York City, now based in Philadelphia. Her personal essays have appeared in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY, and Broad Street Review. Her essay, “Forgiving Mom…Finally” recently appeared on The Manifest-Station.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level? Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, Marriage, pandemic

Husband Fatigue — Oh, It’s Real

April 21, 2021
husband

by Debra Ryll 

I get it: if you’re white and you are not living under a bridge, you’re not allowed to complain about anything. But as I look at my spouse of thirty plus years, my sole dinner companion for lo, the last two hundred nights, I wonder: can I bring a paperback to the table, like those people you see on vacation?

I take a bite of the mushy broccoli he prepared. “Oh, bummer, it’s overcooked.”

“I don’t want to start a fight with you over this!” he says.

“I’m not starting a fight! I just made a comment!” And then we start fighting about the fact that we aren’t fighting.

Husband Fatigue. It’s real, people.

I know, I’m lucky to have a companion. How dare I complain when so many single people are plumbing the depths of loneliness? My issues are irrelevant, as trivial as the BAND-AID wrappers he leaves on the counter, just inches from the trash can.

This far into confinement-while-married, every irritant is magnified, and all the old adages are suddenly relevant. Like, “familiarity breeds contempt,” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Or would.

I remember laughing hysterically at a video I saw at the beginning of the pandemic, where a woman hides in the closet so her husband can’t find her. That was back in March. In April, when the daffodils were blooming defiantly, we were all, “We’ve got this!” And in May—though we joked that our theme song was “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”—Fred and I were still playing ping pong and drinking margaritas on Friday nights.

And then came the horror of George Floyd’s televised murder. The riots, the fires, the smoke, the unbreathable air. Vladimir Putin being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, after his chief critic was poisoned with a toxic nerve agent. The passing of RBG, along with a peek into the Grifter-in-Chief’s tax returns, which included a $70,000 expense for hair care. Can I get a deduction, for overworked adrenals?

Mama said there’d be days like this. But weeks, months? Years?

In the middle of it all, we sold our house and moved into a rental with only one TV hookup. “That’s okay,” I said, “we mostly watch the same shows.” I must have been brain dead, because I completely forgot about the return of Monday Night Football. And Sunday Night Football. And Thursday Night Football.

As happy as I am that my husband has sports back in his life, when he asks, “Who’s winning?” on his way back from the kitchen I can’t resist saying, “The Denver Foresters” or “the L.A. Fire Chiefs.” He rarely laughs at my jokes, and I don’t really care. I just want him to fix that loose towel rack in the bathroom. And quit leaving his shoes in the middle of the floor. And stop taking the unused dog waste baggies out of his pockets and leaving them… everywhere.

Does Michelle Obama have to deal with this after Barack walks Sunny and Bo?

I want my husband to quit stealing my handicap placard. To please stop throwing away the newspaper before I read it. And why, dear God, can’t he put his pocket change in one place instead of making little currency deposits on every surface in the house? No wonder there’s a coin shortage.

I’m rinsing out the unwashed jar of spaghetti sauce he “mistakenly” slipped into the recycle bin (The Artic isn’t going to save itself, Buddy) when Fred interrupts. It must be halftime. What an odd nomenclature for a sport with a half-life similar to uranium.

“Can you teach me how to Zoom?” he asks. “I have an appointment with my doctor on Thursday.”

I can’t punt this to Siri, so I wash my hands for the hundredth time, set up a meeting for the next morning, and send him an email invite. He takes it in the bedroom, and I connect on the other side of the wall, in the living room.

Funny, he looks different on screen. I’m livestreaming my husband! He could be a thousand miles away… instead of ten feet. And we always get along better when we’re apart.

I tell him to “unmute” himself, the opposite of what I normally try to do. He smiles and says, “You look so pretty today,” and I blush. Because he’s the only one who sees me without a mask, and let’s face it, masks hide a multitude of sins. Once you forgo lipstick, it’s a very small step to skip concealer… foundation… eye shadow… mascara. Ponytails have long since replaced blow drying, and I’ve been somewhat remiss in plucking my chin hairs of late.

I complement him on his haircut in return. We’d been arguing over his quest for “the Jeff Bridges look” for years. “Jeff Bridges has a stylist,” I’d repeated, ad infinitum. “Jeff Bridges doesn’t go to Supercuts.” When the salons re-opened he finally agreed to make an appointment at mine, and at last, the blowzy grey “wings” that usually frame his ears like Bozo the Clown are gone.

Slipping into pretend Doctor mode, I ask how he’s doing and he responds with the same litany of complaints I’ve heard a thousand times. But this time I actually listen. Whoever said “variety is the spice of life” wasn’t kidding. It’s like we’re on TV doing Improv or starring in our own reality show. Who knew that the separation provided by 2×4 studs and a few sheets of drywall could have such a profound effect?

Because on the other side of the wall, this is the same guy who bitches about the San Diego Chargers moving to L.A. and how the Raiders got their own four billion dollar stadium in Las Vegas that that big shot Sheldon put up and you can see the Mandalay Bay Resort from every seat and why do the Chargers have to share a stadium with the Rams just because that cheap shit guy Spanos who owns the Chargers wants the people of San Diego to pay for it?

It’s the same guy who over-steams veggies, but barbecues like Guy Fieri. The one who feeds the hummingbirds and pumps up the air in my bike tires and puts windshield wiper fluid in some mysterious tank under the hood of my Honda so I can see clearly. The one I fell in love with when he bought me a chocolate malt for breakfast after our first all night “date.” The same man who accidentally taped the Marvin Hagler fight over our wedding vows 36 years ago. But we got over that, and if I can just ignore that pile of pocket change glinting in the background, we’ll get over this. Because he’s the one I pledged to stick with—through better or… wait a minute, I just realized: our anniversary is right around the corner.

I should send him a Zoom invite. And find those tweezers. debra

Debra Ryll is freelance writer, a TEDx Monterey speaker, a children’s book author… and a reformed smuggler, working on a memoir.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, pandemic, writing

When The Smoke Clears

March 24, 2021

By Joanell Serra

Early one morning in February 2020, I found a spot on a bench in downtown Oaxaca and scribbled in my journal. Sunshine, my personal drug of choice, spilled like a pool across the cobblestones. I was meeting nine people in an hour to go on a temple-climbing adventure, followed by a Mezcal tasting. I knew every minute of the day’s schedule because I had created it. I was hosting my first international retreat, women had flown in from both coasts to experience this magical city with me.

I can’t believe it’s really happening, I wrote. It’s almost ridiculous to be so happy in February.

Already a few days into the trip, my seasonal depression had ebbed upon arrival like mist burning off a lake. My asthma also cleared up, my migraines became infrequent and even my degenerating hip complained less.  Winter blues and chronic pain paled in the light of Mexican sunshine.

For years, winters were a long slushy slide into despair, until I came to understand that along with medication, meditation and therapy, winter travel was crucial to my mental health. I shifted my career for more flexibility and for the last five winters I’d travelled to sunny locations whenever possible. It was a much healthier option than increasing my medications or slipping into a dark place. This retreat was a high point, combining work, community, and Southern travel during my most vulnerable time of year.

A month later, the contrast from that blissful week in Oaxaca was stark. I contracted COVID-19 on a plane from NYC back to California. Because of the medical providers’ lack of knowledge, my asthma and poor testing, things spiraled. I was both sicker than I’d ever been and told it “definitely isn’t Covid.” (But it was.)

I landed in the ER one afternoon as my oxygen was low, where I was treated like a leper with a bomb strapped to my back. I sat alone, surrounded by yellow danger tape. I knew if I got better, I needed to do something creative and impactful in response to this experience.

Fortunately steroids, antibiotics and TLC from my family brought me through.

Weeks later, I was given the opportunity to co-edit an anthology titled (Her)oics, about women’s pandemic experiences around the country. Grateful, I jumped in.

As the spring and summer unrolled, things got progressively worse in the world, while we managed a new order in our own house. Both my husband and I were suddenly home full time. Our youngest joined us, after his employer laid off all his employees, and a second son and his partner, having escaped Manhattan, moved into our extra room.

There was much to be thankful for—I had recovered and no one else got sick. And while the house was crowded, it offered enough outdoor space to make it work. We tried to enjoy long dinners together on summer nights, marveling at the concurring blessings and hardships.

But the news of increasing racial violence brought new distress, as we collectively tried to protect our youngest son, a young man of color, from the pain of feeling “othered” both locally and nationally. Our middle child, who lives nearby, was fighting things off with a compromised immune system and the oldest was a public school teacher. Each choice we made as a family seemed fraught with danger.

I felt like I was juggling swords on a seesaw. As long as I stayed centered, nothing dropped. But the summer weather was my ballast, and everything changed when the fires arrived in Northern California.

Supernatural, Mars-like and apocalyptic. It was hard to find words for our sky, a thick orange haze from morning to night, with no real sense of time. Being in Sonoma, every whiff of smoke brought back a barrage of fire memories from 2017 and 2018. My phone beeped incessantly with a “Red Flag” alerts and the the air quality index stayed in one zone, “dangerous.” We boxed up our photos and valuables, and kept a suitcase packed by the door in case we needed to run.

“Have shoes and keys ready,” became my before-bed mantra to the family.

Despondency descended.  My work as a therapist became increasingly challenging, and my writing stalled.  I pictured my words floating off the page like ashes, no substance to pin them to the page. What does a seasonally depressed person do, if their “happy” season goes up in smoke?

Of course my asthma kicked up badly, and when I called my neurologist due to increasing migraines, he wasn’t surprised. “We’ve all been inhaling toxic smoke for weeks.”

Through all this, I worked on the (Her)oics anthology. In a sincere effort to be inclusive to diverse experiences, I offered free online workshops before the submission deadline. I worked closely with emerging writers on their pieces, sometimes through three or four drafts. The first piece to make me cry was about a family with three teens, grieving the loss of their father in quarantine. The first to make me laugh was a woman announcing she planned to survive the pandemic with weed and masturbation.  My heart broke for the woman who could not see her son, who lived in a group home. My anger rose as I read about a writer in Arkansas going to work every day in person, despite her diabetes, in a state that would not mandate masks. My anger turned to pride as she revised the essay, and shaped it into a powerful piece which we included.

Every submission moved and inspired me. I noticed I wasn’t as depressed on the days I met with writers and that my sense of isolation faded as I connected to “strangers” through their stories. I woke with a sense of expectation, eager to see the new submissions.

One writer, Parnaz Fouratain, submitted an essay titled Writing, and other Uncertainties. Her last lines stunned me, because they spoke for me, for this project. “It is a time to be awake, to see the world, perhaps, the way a child sees it, uncertain, bewildered, open. And when this time passes, and the peace and silence returns, the words will come, and we will all tell our stories.”

Eventually the fires abated. We had made it through another fire season, still standing. And to my relief, I’d fought off a surprise attack of depression, not with travel, or sun lamps or increased Prozac. My medication was listening to women’ stories. This was the newest antidote in my arsenal against SAD: the words of other women, the stories of displaced souls, the bold and naked truth of heroines. In my bleakest winters, Prozac and therapy had gotten me through. In this season of raging fires, I drank instead from a fountain of truths.

Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award winning playwright, novelist and short story writer, she has published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Poydras Review and elsewhere. Her Debut novel, The Vines We Planted (Wido, 2018) was a Los Commadres Latinx Book of the Month Club Pick. She is co-editor of the (Her)oics Anthology, a collection of women’s essays about their pandemic experiences. out March, 2021 with Regal House Publishing. Twitter @Joanell, Facebook and Insta: Joanellserraauthor. 

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health, pandemic

Ghosts

March 1, 2021
shadowy photo of woman during day

By Laura Cline

I feel her following me.  The ghost.

Somehow, it is already seven p.m.  My hands are under the hot running water, rinsing the dishes and leaning over to put them in the dishwasher.  The little girl voices swirl around me.  “Girls, time to settle down.” They don’t hear me.  I keep rinsing the dishes and the ghost wraps her arms around mine- strangling- embracing.

I’ve been here before.  This feels familiar.

Not that I have lived through a global pandemic, but my heart has been in this place, my head, my hands, all the parts of my body. My days have melted together into the longest day, the mornings weeks, months from the nights.  The rhythm of my day is need- food, water, attention, sleep.

I wake up every morning and immediately feel the fog pull me back under.  I haven’t slept enough the night before.  I was up late folding the laundry, slipping into the warm water of the bath, rocking the baby, holding her to my breast.  I hear the voices, the cries.  “Mooooooom, mommy, get me mommy.”  This day will be just like the last. I put on my glasses so I can see and pull back the covers.  The ghost sits in the rocker across the room.  My eyelids feel heavy, made of lead.

The television is always on in the background, but I barely hear it.  My daughter asks questions about what is happening. “What is she doing, mommy?”  “I don’t know, honey.  I wasn’t paying attention.” Instead I scroll though post after post on Facebook.  I stop when I see one about the virus, when I see one about the baby.  I read it and feel it sewing the sides of my rib cage together, the tightening of uncertainty.  When will it be over? Will this last forever?

After my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with PPD, PPPTSD, PPA, and PPOCD.  Four acronyms, but one feeling.  One ghost, drifting through her days. One shadow, drawn in tears.

COVID-19 is it’s own ghost, invisible, but we all know it is there.

The afternoons are the hardest.  I’m at my worst.  Most days I feel like I am giving my ghost a piggy back ride, dragging her around the house by her ankles, asking her again and again to please leave me, but she doesn’t listen.  Most days, I curl around my daughter for a nap in my king sized bed.  I leave the window open and a warm breeze blows the blinds and taps them against the window.  I feel the softness of my daughter’s blond hair pressed against my lips.  Sometimes I sleep and she doesn’t.  She wakes me up, and my heart pounds, I feel dizzy.  Where am I?  What day is today?

After nap, I feel like I’m just waiting to sleep again.  Am I awake?  I feel raw on all my edges.  My nerves jitter around in my body.  So many sounds: squeaks and screams and crashes. My daughters’ sticky hands and sticky faces grab my hands and my clothes, wrap around my neck.  They run wild, play aggressively, fall and cry, and fall and cry.  They are all scraped knees and off the wall ideas.  I look out the window again and again.  Is my mom’s car in her driveway?  Should we get in the car and drive somewhere? I crave talking to another adult.  Out in our shared yard, my mom and I talk about the news of the day, what will happen next, what did the girls do today, as we pick up weeds from the driveway, water the plants, sit six feet apart in chairs.  My youngest always runs right up to her grandma, “No, June. Space.  The virus.”  They have seen her, hugged her, kissed her goodnight almost every day of their short lives. When we go inside, some nights I break. I scream at the top of my lungs in the middle of the kitchen.  I sob until I can’t breathe.  I kick around the toys on the floor, the trash, the crumbs sticking to the bottoms of my feet.  Some nights I am even, Zen almost. Numb.  We laugh at the dinner table, play Bob Marley and Elton John, have dance parties, read books, snuggle and eat chocolate. When I look in the mirror, my face is the ghost’s.

Every night it seems we go to bed later.  The sun lingers.  It is almost summer.  It is mid summer. It is the heat of the longest of summers. Some of the voices on the news wonder if the heat will kill the virus, render it dormant, but it doesn’t hibernate.  It still lurks in our breath, on our fingertips.

My firstborn came in the summer.  One afternoon in July, I swaddled her up and put her into her rocker.  She fell asleep and I waited for her to jerk awake, like she always did.  Instead, she stayed quiet, and outside it began to rain, one of the early Monsoon storms that season.  I turned on Fleetwood Mac.  I was still.  I felt like I was flying.

One day while I am watering the bush in front of the house, a bird shoots out.  My mom tells me that she has seen the bird too.  “It must have a nest there.”  The next day, the kids and I trim back the bush.  “Don’t touch the clippers. Pick up the leaves.”  Eventually, we can see the nest near the edge of the bush, four tiny eggs inside.  “Don’t touch them,” I tell the girls, but later that afternoon, I find them in the front, hiding their hands behind their backs, a cracked piece of shell on the ground.  “I saw the tiny beak, mom,” my daughter tells me.  My heart cracks and fissures like the shell.  I hope that the mama will come back.  I tell my girl that the bird is dead; that cracking it’s shell killed the bird.  Her sister tells everyone, “The bird is dead, dead, dead.  Gracie killed the baby bird.”  “Stop it,” she shrieks, “they already know.”

The next day I go out and rustle the leaves on the bush.  The mother bird flies out and hops across the yard.  She came back.

Every morning my girls want to check on the eggs.  I feel like I am holding my breath.  I so badly don’t want them to be disappointed.  How much loss can any of us stand?

The ghost has felt the hot summer sun on her shoulders and the back of her neck.  She has felt the sting of the sweat running into her eyes. She watches like the mother bird, shooting out, anxious, to watch as giants hover over her babies, with their careless hands.  Those hands already took one of them. Will they take the others?

But they don’t.  The eggs hatch and the babies – two of them- are there in the nest, naked, tiny, eyes glued shut, organs and veins just visible under their translucent skin. They grow patches of feathers.  My daughters give them names: Tiny and Flower.  One day, one of them is gone, just a rustle in the bush.  I push the girls on the swing, my feet in the warm sand, and when we come back, both baby birds are gone.  Did a crow eat them?  A javelina? Did something invisible take them away?

There are orioles all over the yard.  Some days, we think we see the babies, slightly smaller than the others, eating at one of our feeders.  The girls stand at the window, yelling, “I see them! Tiny and Flower!”  I see them too, I think, and I almost believe it.  “I see them, too.” My ghost nods.

We leave the house just a little for a few warm weeks at the start of summer.  We go to the playground.  We play with friends. The kids are almost like kids again.  I start taking the baby places.  She is stronger, bigger.  They are the healthiest they have ever been.  While we are out, I feel alive.  When I come home to the house, I feel the energy drain out of my body.  The house is a succubus.  The ghost is always inside.

And the virus descends.  Overnight, eleven people die. I don’t know them, but I feel their loss.  Were they alone?  I know they were.

I can’t control it anymore.  The chaos descends.  Every day is a whirlwind, and I want to get back in bed as soon as I get out of it.  The laundry piles up, the floors are dirty, every thing is wet.  The clutter makes me crazy.  I throw things out with abandon.  We take out the trash again and again.  I rage.  I cry.  I laugh at my kids’ antics.  They start to talk like me, to become me.  I wait for night when they go to sleep.  When I can breathe.  The sun stays out and they go to bed later and later.  Will it end?

When I find out the kids will be going back to school, I am terrified and exhilarated at once.  This must be how the mother bird feels when her babies leave the nest?  The act of protecting them, of holding them under my soft belly, is exhausting.  But outside, there lurks the invisible danger of the virus, of the unknown, of the dark chasm of what the future will hold for them, for all of us.

The ghost sits down next to me on the couch, surrounded by the mess of the day.  She takes my hand.  We wait together.

Laura Cline is an English teacher at a community college with an MA in Literature from the University of Arizona. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, including an article about birds and babies at Motherwell, and an essay titled ‘Dear Left Big Toe‘ published in Entropy.

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Permission to Speak

February 28, 2021
writing

By Abby Schwartz

I’m scrolling through Instagram while eating my oatmeal. It’s August 2019 and writer Cheryl Strayed has posted this announcement: I’ll be teaching a workshop at the @kripalucenter in April called The Story You Have To Tell. It’s for writers at all levels of experience—really it’s for anyone who wants to crack it open to get at the good stuff inside…All you need to bring is a notebook and pen. I hope to see you there!

I’m frozen mid-spoonful, her words an electric jolt to my heart. I recognize this as a moment to seize without overthinking.

I respond to the post: @cherylstrayed your words always inspire me to be brave and authentic so I am going to push aside my fear of going this alone and sign up. Thank you!

I am thrilled when, moments later, Cheryl likes my comment and responds: @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

I’ve been a professional copywriter for 20 years, though I started in advertising as an art director. Back then, we worked in teams—an art director paired with a writer—or with the entire creative department in one room, scribbling ideas with black Sharpies and tacking them to the wall. Brainstorming was energizing; we fed off one another. When our sessions got long we grew punchy, our ideas verging on the absurd. You could hear our roars of laughter down the hall.

What I miss about those days is the camaraderie. Though our group was competitive—each determined to be first with the winning idea—we supported one another, celebrated our wins and created a safe space where no idea was off limits.

Even as an art director, I approached each concept through words, crafting a headline before giving thought to the visuals. My creative director Tom was one of the original Mad Men, a copywriter who worked at some of the biggest Madison Avenue firms in the sixties before starting his own Philadelphia agency. He pulled me aside one day and told me I was a good writer, that he could see me writing a book one day. His validation lit something in me. I tucked his words inside—a glowing coal that kept me warm.

At my therapist’s I tell Dr. G. about registering for Cheryl Strayed’s writing workshop. She can see how excited I am and thinks this is a wonderful idea. She tells me, “You are someone who is open to trying new things and is enthusiastic about them.”

I like viewing myself through this lens. I’ve only recently begun the work of unpacking the fear and anxiety I’ve stuffed deep down to avoid facing those feelings head-on. I sought therapy because trauma will find its way to the surface; in my case I was spiraling emotionally, grasping at any semblance of control over my daughter’s life now that she was a young adult, her health no longer mine to manage.

Since being blindsided by her diagnosis of cystic fibrosis 20 years earlier, I’ve lived in a state of hypervigilance—on high alert for the next lung infection, medical complication, hospital admission and worse.

In my early days of therapy, we talked about my childhood. The third youngest, I watched my older brother and sister fight with our mother, whose short fuse could detonate at any moment. I navigated those years with my ears finely tuned to detect a tone of voice, a slammed door, a heavier footstep—clues that my mom’s mood had taken a turn. I learned to keep a low profile and stay off her radar. I remember hovering silently outside my parents’ bedroom late one night, having just thrown up in my bed. I needed help but was scared to wake my mom. I stood in their doorway, willing my dad to notice me first. Afraid to use my voice.

In therapy, I discovered that the hypervigilance I had assumed was born of my daughter’s illness had roots that ran deeper. My state of high alert was my mode of self-protection growing up. But here’s the thing about being on high alert: when your guard is constantly up, it’s like living behind a wall. It’s hard to connect to others from behind a wall.

I rely on written words to create order in my life. On paper, my thoughts line up obediently, no longer tumbling inside my head like clothes in a dryer.

In my early thirties, when my daughter was diagnosed, writing was how I grabbed the reins to keep us from hurtling off a cliff. I wrote heartfelt letters to raise money for CF research and crafted emails that explained the disease to her teachers. I began documenting each doctor’s appointment, lab result and breathing test in a notebook. I created lists and charted her therapies. My child needed more than a dozen prescription drugs a day to keep her alive. Writing kept me vigilant and prevented details from slipping through the cracks.

Soon after, I left my corporate advertising job to start a freelance healthcare marketing business, and I added copywriting to my creative services. My crash course in managing a chronic illness had given me an insider’s perspective on the patient experience and I recognized that there was value in what I had to say.

There is power in naming things and using words to define yourself. I had been secretly keeping that warm coal of encouragement from my creative director glowing for years, but it was only after I spoke the words out loud, I am a writer, that I stepped more fully into that identity. Still, I remained one step removed from telling my own story.

Though I write professionally, I’m not writing as myself. I am a surgeon explaining breast reconstructive techniques after mastectomy. I am a patient describing his recovery from stroke. I am a hospital president congratulating her staff for earning national recognition.

Many years ago, I was contacted by Roland M, a bestselling writer who was working on an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer about cystic fibrosis. Mine was one of several families he profiled. Roland’s daughter had also been recently diagnosed, and we became long-distance friends, keeping in touch by email.

A few years later, he wrote a novel about a young woman with cystic fibrosis. As part of his research, he stayed with my family overnight—our first in-person meeting—and came along to a pulmonology checkup. He asked if I’d be willing to share notes about my experience and I remember the thrill of the invitation—permission to tell my story.

I wrote pages and pages, the words flowing like water. When I lived it I couldn’t write about it, but now it was all pouring out. After all, this was only for research—I was simply providing background for the real writer. What I secretly wished was this: that Roland would share my writing with his agent, who would call and offer me a book deal. You have a story to tell, he would say. The world needs to hear it.

In my early forties, I responded to a call for writers and became a regular guest blogger for a website about hooping. The hula kind. Blogging for Hooping.org was a way to scratch my creative writing itch. I had been bitten by the hooping bug and in a fog of euphoria, I enrolled in Hoop Camp, a three-day gathering of hula hoopers held annually in the redwoods of Northern California. A Hoop Camp virgin, I would document my experience for the blog. I brought my sister Sue along for company and a shot of courage.

On our first day, I looked around and regretted my decision. I didn’t fit in with these younger women and men with their toned and tattooed bodies, multiple piercings and outlandish costumes. Yes, I could keep a hoop spinning, but these people were Cirque du Soleil-good—light years more advanced in their hoop-dance skills. I felt myself shrinking self-consciously.

That evening, I introduced myself to a group of women and something shifted. They recognized my name and told me they were fans of my writing—that my posts were relatable and authentic. I beamed. For the rest of Hoop Camp, I felt like I belonged. I participated in workshops by day and uploaded a new column each night. Sharing my experiences through the eyes of a journalist lent legitimacy to my presence. Writing granted me permission to try, fail, and look foolish. Nora Ephron famously stated, “Everything is copy.” Today’s embarrassing gaffe would be recast as tomorrow’s humorous story.

I am hoping to find similar inspiration from Cheryl Strayed’s workshop at Kripalu. Perhaps my experience navigating the trauma of a child’s life-threating illness could be transformed through writing into a story of hope. In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes about the power of art. In this excerpt she is speaking about music, but it applies equally to writing:

“Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope…Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time…The transformative power of art is in this sharing…It’s the sharing of art that whispers, ‘You’re not alone.’”

Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, is what first put her on my radar, but it’s Tiny Beautiful Things, her collection of advice columns, that I turn to repeatedly for solace. Her voice is a whisper in my ear letting me know that even when life is brutal, I am not alone.

I’ve been obsessed with reading my entire life. Books have been my doorway to escape, enlightenment and connection to the human experience. As a little girl I read under my covers, a flashlight clutched in one hand, on high alert for footsteps on the stairs, terrified of being caught by my mother awake past my bedtime.

Reading transported me to distant places, parallel universes containing other lives I might have lived. In sixth grade, when I discovered Judy Blume, the telescope flipped and I was the one who felt seen. I’d never before read an author who spoke to me in such a real and personal way. Judy had a way of validating the awkwardness of adolescence and normalizing the things we’ve all felt and done but didn’t dare speak of out loud.

As a teenager, books allowed me to connect with my mother. An avid reader, she’d take me to our local library where we’d collect our haul for the week. She’d hand me books that she loved, further expanding my world. When I toyed with the idea of being a veterinarian, she introduced me to James Herriot’s series about his life as a country vet in England. She put a copy of The Thorn Birds in my hand during my freshman year of high school and I swooned over the epic, forbidden love story. We passed Sydney Sheldon thrillers back and forth and shared trashy novels by Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz.

Even at my lowest, when my daughter was hospitalized, books provided a lifeline. I’d lie awake in the dark on the stiff vinyl daybed, reading by flip-light as the night nurse drifted in and out of our room to check vitals and reset the beeping IV pump. I seized on memoirs, looking for proof that humans were resilient. If that writer could survive her own trauma to reflect on it today, maybe I could get through the uncertainty of these days and tell my own story in the future.

Cheryl’s workshop, The Story You Have To Tell, will be my way in—the tool I use to drill past the protective barriers I erected in my mind; the walls preventing me from writing about the most defining moments of my life. Through memoir, I want to process my experiences in order to transform them. To reframe the narrative in a way that allows me to see myself not only as the timid child and the anxious mother, but as the strong and resilient woman who found beauty amidst the pain. And just like the writers who made me feel seen, I want to be that person beaming out signals in the night. Reaching the person who lies awake in the dark, seeking solace by flashlight.

My weekend at Kripalu is six weeks away. I wonder how many people will be there? I call the venue and ask. Over 200. This is a disappointing development.

In my fantasy, our group is small, maybe 30 max. I read my work out loud and Cheryl praises it. She pulls me aside after class to tell me I have real talent. We hit it off over dinner, bonding over conversations about her late mom and my late dad. We talk about books and dogs and kids. We stay in touch. She becomes my writing mentor and recommends my new memoir to her followers, catapulting it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. She introduces me to her writer friends—modern-day Judy Blumes whose words are a balm to my soul: Liz Gilbert, Pam Houston, Glennon Doyle. They welcome me to their circle. Reese Witherspoon chooses my memoir for her book club, as does Oprah (as long as I’m fantasizing).

Cheryl’s workshop will be page one of a new chapter in my life. The spark of permission granted by my former creative director has fanned into a roaring flame. Now that the workshop is 200 people, my writing had better be damn good to stand out.

It’s now late March 2020. Cystic fibrosis is primarily a lung condition and this novel coronavirus poses a direct threat to my daughter’s life. Cheryl Strayed’s workshop has been a beacon calling to me for the better part of a year, but that no longer matters. Kripalu is a yoga center built on communal gatherings. To expose myself to large numbers of people from all over the world is to put my child at risk. According to the cancellation policy, I have a two-week window in which to cancel and get a refund. I make the decision to pull the plug. Two days later, Kripalu cancels the retreat and shuts its doors for the foreseeable future.

To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. I had psyched myself up to push beyond my fears, befriend a group of strangers, and—inspired by Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly—embrace vulnerability by exposing my insides through writing. It’s now up to me to keep that flame alive.

Today is the day I would have driven to Kripalu. These weeks of quarantine have been stressful, pushing my brain into fight-or-flight response. Still, I recognize that we are in the middle of something historic and I decide to start journaling again as a way of processing my emotions and capturing these extraordinary moments in real-time.

I pull a Moleskine notebook off my shelf but before I write, I reach for my phone and scroll to Facebook. I’m not sure what compels me to check my newsfeed at this moment. I see a post about a project called The Isolation Journals. I click to the page and read the description: A global movement cultivating community and creativity during hard times.

TIJ is a 30-day project conceived by Suleika Jaouad, a writer and memoirist who wrote her way through cancer in her twenties. For the month of April Suleika is offering a daily writing prompt, with help from a talented pool of writers, artists and musicians. The prompts can be used for journaling on our own or we may share our writing on the private Facebook page.

I begin reading people’s posts. I write an essay and upload it. Within minutes it receives a handful of likes and positive comments. Fueled, I start writing daily and interacting with others, offering feedback and support.

We begin to know each other. We remark on the safety we feel sharing intimate thoughts in this private space. Day by day, more people join. This space feels sacred. There are no trolls, political rants or snarky memes. There are raw, painful posts about grief and shame and loss. There are beautiful essays about love and life and what it feels like to blindly feel our way through the long days of quarantine. There are hilarious parodies, song lyrics and experimental poems—the talent on these pages shines brightly. We are tender with one another. We encourage and celebrate each revelation and, word by word, we build a community. I imagine Cheryl Strayed whispering encouragement in my ear. @abbys480 You’ll make friends!

By popular demand Suleika expands The Isolation Journals from 30 days to 100. My writing muscles are not only warmed up, they grow stronger each day of this project. I write about growing up with a tough mom. I post tributes to my loving dad and share what it was like to lose him to cancer. I open up about my daughter’s illness and my fear of her dying young.

As a little girl, my mother would say to me, “Will you just be quiet? Stop talking so much.” She taught me that to speak is to invite criticism and conflict.

I am no longer that child who needs permission to speak. I have learned the power of words as a tool for transformation and connection. With every prompt I am strengthening my voice and taking a sledgehammer to those interior walls. I am, in Cheryl’s words, Telling The Story I Have To Tell to a global community more than 7,000 strong.

Abby Alten Schwartz is a self-employed copywriter, designer and healthcare marketing consultant who lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she loves memoirs and nonfiction essays and has always dreamed of writing her own. It only took a global pandemic to get her started. She is currently at work on a memoir and can be found on Instagram at @abbys480

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Therapist Notes from Coronavirus: It is OK to fall apart.

January 31, 2021
need

By Jillayna Adamson, MA, LPC, LMHC

2020.
Listen to all these people struggling! Are you getting this? People who have never before been able to admit to overwhelming defeat or depression or loneliness are talking about it. They are talking about it on Twitter, on Facebook. They are admitting to it in text messages and on the phone. People are checking in—people are calling and texting each other, they are reaching out. They are expressing understanding of struggle! Forgive my excitement, but are you seeing this widespread empathy? There is openness, understanding! Neighbors are saying to each other, “times are hard and how can I help”? My neighbor made me a latte! (sadly, I couldn’t actually drink it…because, you know- the virus). And with less judgement and reservation. Because they get it. We are getting it.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to every situation, and of course, the world is still full of lots of hatred and cruelty and stupidity—I know. But, I am also seeing this interesting surge of empathy and understanding within people. People are reaching out to each other, talking and opening up more than they previously were. Publically, even! The open communication and expression of such mental strife is a psychotherapist’s dream! We are struggling, don’t get me wrong—but we are also a little bit ecstatic.

The new culture of the coronavirus times are upon us. And there are so many ways in which it has been so painfully difficult. It is truly a new life. There are memes about it. And Tik Tok videos. There are cartoons with people disheveled, in bathrobes, their hair wiring out of their heads. There are calendar memes, a person slowly losing their composure. How their sanity has slipped from March to April to May to June to now… There are parenting how-to’s and mask-making how to’s and cooking how-to’s. There are articles reminding people that everyone is trying their best, making the best decision for their family. Reminding parents not to judge or shame one another for back to school decisions, to spread kindness or teachers and school personnel.

It is hard and it is stressful and some of us are barely hanging on—and wait! We are all talking about it! We aren’t quiet about it, we aren’t asking for anonymity. We are getting on Facebook and posting out our SOS to the world.

It just became okay to rest, to need to re-group. To need time on a deadline. To fall apart, just like humans do—pandemic or not. It just became normalized to outwardly admit to struggle, defeat, loneliness and not knowing. We have found ourselves thrown into an awful situation, but one that is also giving everyone the OK to be human. Never before have I heard so many people of a variety of backgrounds openly admit to and discuss struggle amongst one another— whether loneliness or depression, boredom, financial need, hunger, exhaustion. And I am talking about outside the therapy office. And never before have I heard so many platforms right there to normalize this, to join together. People who may have never struggled with their mental health before are learning the value and impact of some of our basic needs. They are saying “Wow, people really DO need other people! I always heard that, but I never quite believed it until I was living in my own pajamas and hadn’t seen another human in two months!”

A now-homeschooling parent tells me that she has “absolutely nothing left to give in the world” and is sure something is wrong with her emotional daughter. A woman calls to ask my advice, stating she has no idea how to even make the usual decisions anymore. “Is it possible I just need someone to decide things for me now? Can you do that?” she asks (I cannot). I know people regularly taking their children’s temperatures, checking for rashes, unable to sleep. I have read posts from people dealing with deep loneliness and isolation, overwhelm, depression. People from all walks are putting it out there, and others are sending them hearts and hugs and commenting that they get it. That they are struggling too. That it’s hard. That they are HERE!

We are being ravaged, and we are struggling. And 2020 has truly kept it coming. But we are showing up too. (You know, online, or with masks)

What we know about surviving difficult times is that we need to hold onto the aspects of hope, adaptation, and support. In hope, there is often some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. An idea of when this might end, get better, or at least moderately improve. We need to know that things will get better again. In adaptation, we make radical changes to our day-to-day and lifestyle to allot for the vast changes that have come at us. Of course, these have to be successful, positive adaptations. New routines, and activities, ways of socializing and being. New ways of thinking and seeing are all part of this adaptation. And then finally, we need to know we have support. Community, the knowing that we aren’t alone. That we have people we can talk to, help of some kind.

We recreate these things regularly. The cleaning adaptation. The TV isn’t really that bad adaptation. The Maybe I really could homeschool adaptation. The Let’s get a puppy and have something new to love adaptation. The hope of declining numbers, of successes in other countries. The hope of an evening walk or a relaxing bath, or a manageable day. Facetime and Zoom chats, new constant texting regimens, Facebook community groups. Drive-by-birthday parties, for gods sakes. Social distance kickball with masks and a mom doling out sanitizer.

The people are adapting. And continuing. As exhausting and overwhelming as it is, all you can do is keep going, right? With the awareness that some days will be write-offs. Some days you’ll need mental and emotional rest more than anything. The kids will watch tons of TV or play on their tablets. Everything you eat will be microwaved. Other days you might feel vague spurts of capability, and others you might feel good and able to take in positives in the change in pace. Some days, the best thing about your day will actually be ice cream, and you should absolutely have it. Actually, though—this is not that different from pre-Covid life. But Covid life brings it out, makes it right out there in the open—okay, normal. Productivity in our day to day lives, mental-emotional wellness, as well as social and community needs seem to have entered a new realm of understanding.

Before the virus hit, it was actually already okay to fall apart. To need and ask for help. To sometimes be a total disaster. But so many people struggled to believe and accept that. To allow themselves to wear the face of a person really freaking losing it. Mental wellness has really entered in as an every-human component of discussion and not just one for people with mental illness or specific diagnoses. That we are all struggling right here out loud may not seem like the silver lining anyone would be hoping for. But in the world of mental wellness, the opening up is a magic in and of itself, and the very foundation for change and reform.

The new habits of giving grace to ourselves and to others, of checking in, of loving, of being open about our struggles– could be so huge if they continued for our distanced culture. Imagine if we kept it going. Imagine a post-covid world where we are talking, where we are opening up, showing up—but in person, too. Maskless! When we can hug and touch each other on the arm casually! When we can care and fall apart without a pandemic background, and still let that be okay.

Jillayna Adamson (said Jill-anna) is a mother, psychotherapist and writer. She loves all things people, connection and culture, and is particularly interested in identity development and mental wellness within the psychosocial implications of the modern western world. Jillayna primarily writes personal essays and narratives, and writes often about the motherhood role and identity. She is a Canadian transplant currently living in the US with her partner and kids, and is a firm believer in letting your freak flag fly. She can be found at www.Jillayna.com

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We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, please pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. If you have, we’d love to hear what you think. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, pandemic

Isolation Blues

December 29, 2020
people

By Loreen Lilyn Lee

If you live with people, sheltering in place has its challenges, but lack of human contact is not one of them. If you live alone like me, the absence of human contact feels unendurable—a seismic event for social beings.

~ The last moments of normalcy. ~

On Saturday, February 22, I dined with friends before attending a hula concert to celebrate my 71st birthday. I’m grateful to have been born and raised in Honolulu; Hawaiian music and hula feed my soul. Several hundred people filled the performance hall and took pleasure in both the chants that accompanied ancient hula’s staccato rhythms and the sweet melodies inspiring modern hula’s graceful movements. On Sunday, I met my Asian American women friends for lunch at Hong Kong Dim Sum, crowded as usual. Later we spent a pleasant afternoon playing mah jongg. During the week, I completed my regular schedule as an English and writing tutor at North Seattle College and in fitness classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. My hairstylist gave me a  perm.

                     Then everything        changed.

                        Seattle reported the first coronavirus death

            in the U.S. on February 29.

                                    Soon after, each household became an                       island.

I live in an apartment building for active seniors. The managers locked the doors on all common areas: community room, computer room, movie room, and gym. They cancelled all community events, including fitness classes. We tenants, in effect, were isolated in our apartments. For me, that’s a one-bedroom apartment, approximately 520 square feet, not exactly a prison cell, but still confining. Most of us live alone, so social interactions make a huge difference in quality of life and provide health benefits. I also hoped to stay healthy by continuing fitness classes to strengthen my immune system; this was not the time to stop. I thought the managers had over-reacted, while some called it “an abundance of caution.” I called the corporate office to complain, and the public rooms were unlocked, but it was only a brief reprieve.

            No one knew

                        a state-wide lockdown was imminent.

           I began   sheltering   in place

                                     Fri day            March   13

                                                            when the college         shut down.

Only a few days earlier, the administration had announced it would stay open until the end of the quarter. Okay, I thought, my life will hold steady for the next couple of weeks. While the crisis was still unfolding, I dreamed of maintaining my routine, some semblance of stability, and didn’t realize that solid ground had shifted to sand. So, I was shocked when Monday’s decision was overturned on Thursday morning; the gravity of the situation and the urgency to safeguard staff and students from contagion had become undeniable to college officials.

~ In Week 3 of staying at home, I learned to breathe deeply again. ~

Life was still on hold, but I began writing after clouds of anxiety dispersed. My creative energy flowed into words that converged on the page and lifted my spirits. I called a friend to go for a walk. It was a decent day for Seattle, meaning no rain, some sun. Although I’m out of shape, we walked for an hour on the college campus, now eerily empty of cars and the bustling energy of students, and in the adjoining neighborhood with tree-lined streets. We chatted while conscientiously keeping our distance. I was happy to see a familiar face, have a conversation, be outdoors, and move my body—much-needed respite from my apartment walls. However, no touching, no hugs.

~ In times of uncertainty, people need hugs more than ever. ~

I miss the intimacy of sharing time with loved ones: sitting together in a movie and sharing popcorn; jostling and jesting with an amiable crowd lined up to buy tickets at the Crest Theater, only $4 for a second-run movie; going to a concert or literary reading; enjoying meals with friends at a dinner table or in a favorite restaurant; working side by side in a kitchen preparing food; touching a pal spontaneously, throwing an arm around a shoulder or waist or patting a hand; whispering a private joke into someone’s ear; hearing live music at the cozy North City Bistro that features talented local musicians; receiving a massage from healing hands of a woman I’ve known for thirty years; feeling the warm energy radiating from another person; being near enough to see cheeks blush or the twinkle in an eye.

      When will we be able

                                    to dance        in   public   spaces    again?

Two weeks ago I hit a wall. It was late May when a convergence of profound isolation (living alone for over two months without human touch) and the frustrations of dealing with ongoing technical issues of working online slammed me. My energy reserves dipped with each new online task requiring a learning curve. Trying to troubleshoot technical issues heightened my stress. For example, connectivity without unlimited broadband access created problems: students suddenly disappeared from the screen.

            A Zoom ex istence is an         e m pty                     one,

                                                like living on a            desert               island.

People in pixels are not equivalent to someone in the flesh, and communication can suffer. My isolation is sharpened when shopping requires a six-foot perimeter around me and constant vigilance. God forbid I should bump into anyone! Life felt shaggy like my unruly hair. It felt completely unnatural.

            By early June

                        in     iso la tion        for twelve weeks,

                        without         touch ing or   being     touched by

                                                             a living,          breath ing soul.

~ I grew up on the island of O’ahu. ~

Giving a lei with a kiss on the cheek for a birthday or graduation or any special occasion was traditional. Other than this, my Chinese American family did not express physical affection often, but neither did we avoid touching one another. With seven children, we were often jammed into a car or crowded around the television. I grew up on an island, but I was surrounded by family and friends.

As a woman, I gravitated to warm, affectionate people and realized that I crave human connection, the physical communication between bodies; I need hugs and the love they convey.

            The nearness of people is    on  hold        for now.

                                                            I           get       it          and  sorely miss it.

Still, my aching heart is real—this desert heat of desperation, feeling my heart could simply shrivel up and cease working without  touch. I realize my pain may not be assuaged anytime soon, but I recognize it serves a purpose; I will hang on to this longing for human comfort, touch, and camaraderie. I don’t want to forget what it’s like to be human even though I have no idea when I’ll hug anyone or reach across a table to clink glasses in celebration. The simple gestures of friendship and love are absent for now. It is what it is. I’m hanging in there one day at a time, but I insist, I have to believe that these simple blessings will one day be ours again.

~ My island roots ground me in times of crisis. ~

An ancient Hawaiian canoe chant keeps coming to mind. I often quoted it at readings for my book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir. Skilled navigators, these Hawaiians traveled throughout the vast Pacific Ocean in their voyaging canoes. All the paddlers chanted these words in unison, from deep in their solar plexus, before pushing off from shore. They understood the risks of navigating uncharted waters and the criticality of every paddler working for the good of all in order to reach their destination. To survive.

I kū wā huki
I kū wā kō
I kū wā a mau
A mau ka ēulu
E huki e
Kūlia!

~ These words are not suggestion, but instruction and prayer. ~

Then as now, we’re all in the same boat. Social isolation is damn hard, wearying, soul-crushing. And yet, I have to do my part.

Together, we pull
Together, we draw
Together, now and forever
Unceasingly, from the top
Pull together
Persevere!

Loreen Lilyn Lee was born in pre-statehood Honolulu. Her debut book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir won the 2018 Willow Books Literature Award, Grand Prize in Prose. She has received fellowships for a Hedgebrook residency and the year-long Jack Straw Writers Program. Her work has appeared in The Jack Straw Writers Anthology, Burningword Literary Journal, and Raven Chronicles’ Last Call. She is a writing and English tutor at North Seattle College and can be found online here.

Recommended Reading:

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts, Health

My Dead Branches

December 7, 2020

By Kayleigh Shuler

It was an overcast and particularly taxing morning in May of 2020, dealing with my fear of the unknown and my frustration with the uncontrollable. Going on New York City’s third month of quarantine, things had shifted from “Ah – an opportunity to bake!” to “When will this end?!” rather drastically in the last week or two. I decided to get myself moving by hand-washing one of my favorite sweaters, making myself some tea and going to look at the (still) nearly-barren tree outside my window. It was May, and all of the other trees around were dressed in green, full bloom. My poor tree was adorned with the occasional bud and leaf, but otherwise looked lifeless and tired. I felt rather lifeless, too, most days. It felt like we watched one another everyday and were saying, “You’re still here. I’m still here. We’re still here. That’s all we need to know.”

Her roots live in cement between a parking lot and a sidewalk where drunk men “play” at night. She has been spat, peed, and thrown up upon. The base of her body has been doused in beer. And despite all that… there she stands, day after day, outside my window. During the day she’d let her green baby buds sway in the wind. Her branches are café tables for chatty birds that I loved listening to. She was bare, but she was more than enough for me.

I was in the kitchen when loud sounds from outside brought me into my living room holding a sopping wet sweater, a cup of tea and what felt like the weight of the world. I looked out the window at the tree, and watched as one of her branches came crashing down. My eyes darted to a man with an electric saw standing on a roof behind her. Then, another branch came crashing down. They were disposing of her because she couldn’t bloom like the rest, I suspected. She had been deemed useless; a waste of space in a potential construction zone. I thought how selfish they were… how unfair it was… how empty she was, now. She never had a chance. They had violated her, only to cut her down and leave her to rot. They left her looking even more naked and kind of lop-sided. I figured all of her buds would be dead by morning.

My eyes welled up with tears and my face got hot. My throat and chest constricted and my hands went a little numb. I was so angry. Anger, rage and sadness welled up inside me and came out, finally, as I let myself and the sopping wet sweater and the still hot cup of tea fall to the floor and feel loss, for a while. Of course, I realize now that I was grieving much more than tree branches. Seeing the tree branches fall was just the trigger I needed for release. I let myself feel and cry, and eventually got myself up and trudged through the rest of my day, loathing all of mankind and feeling helpless in a cruel, unjust, and out of control world.

Not a week later, she started blooming green like I had never seen in two years here. She began growing, expanding, getting so full of life, now. I thought something was being taken from her and that she’d be left to rot, but it was actually just what she needed: to trim the dead parts of herself and grow. A couple weeks later, there was a full moon in Capricorn during a Lunar Eclipse. I don’t claim to know much about astrology, but everything I read about it in the days leading up indicated that this was a time of… wait for it: shedding what no longer serves us. Letting go. Leaving or re-evaluating relationships that we have outgrown. Trimming the dead parts of ourselves, so that we can grow and be full of life.

I’m looking at her outside my window, now. She and I look at each other all day long as I work; my desk is purposefully positioned that way. In a place like Brooklyn where the view outside my bedroom window is a wall, a big, beautiful tree outside one of my windows is a luxury not to be underappreciated. It makes me smile to look at her and write about her triumph; I feel proud. She’s beautiful: full of dark, green leaves and even those little bright green things that always fall on the sidewalk. My dad taught me to peel back the edges and stick them on my nose so I would look like a rhinoceros. I still do it all the time. That may have been the only thing my dad taught me to do that I still do (on purpose). I do plenty of the things he didn’t mean to teach me all the time.

My memory of life with my father is not “mostly good with a few bad moments”. I remember it as mostly bad with a few good moments. I can probably count the number of times I felt true love from my father on one hand. That’s okay, though, because I’ve learned not to need it. I’ve learned not to expect, or feel I deserve, a lot from him. He learned that from his father, as well. Many people find ways to avoid the hand life dealt them. For my father, it was music, first and foremost. A master of the art, he could get lost playing, dissecting or writing a piece for hours at a time. When music wouldn’t cut it, however, he turned to something stronger. Eventually, music fell by the wayside, and so did the artist and man he could have been.

******

One night in early February of 2020, I found myself in a delightful martini bar in the West Village of Manhattan. I had been at work all day and wasn’t feeling ready to go home, quite yet. I had been obsessed with martinis at the time. Reading about them, looking at pictures, comparing reviews and recipes of different variations. I felt, now that I was 25, it was time to sample New York’s finest and try my first real martini.

So, there I sat in the dimly lit and (now unthinkably) packed bar on a weekday evening, sipping my first martini and pretending I enjoyed it. It tasted salty, nutty and like rubbing alcohol. It must have been excellent,  just not my thing. I finished it and talked to the bar tender about a different option for my next. He suggested a gimlet, saying that it was lime based and a little sweet, and I was sold. So sold, in fact, that I had four.

I sat there, becoming woozy and soft in my mind, like a massage to my brain. It felt so good, like I was melting into the corner I had tucked myself away in. I was a fly on the wall, people-watching and invisible. I overanalyzed interactions betweens guests, tried to guess what people did for work, created backstories for everyone there. I began writing on my phone and was, honestly, overcome with emotion at the sheer brilliance of my creative genius while intoxicated with all of this lovely gin. I sat there, thinking: This is what he must have felt.

After a while I became bored and lonely, and those are not good things to be when you are highly intoxicated. I went to write again, but the high had left and the low had entered. Writing was no longer an escape from loneliness; it was accentuating it. I looked at what I had written before. It didn’t make sense. It was all just a bunch of fancy words and ideas. No through line, no purpose, no direction. Just spatterings of what felt like creative genius just fifteen minutes ago. I suppose a lot of people would be able to laugh at this, their silly drunken writing. Maybe I could have, too. Except I was bored and lonely and highly intoxicated, so instead, I sat there thinking: This is what he must have felt.

When the thing that gave me creative genius tricked me like that, I felt so embarrassed, because I had deceived myself. In my experience, alcohol taunts what’s already there. It brings the shadows to light but doesn’t make me feel strong enough to face them. So, I’d drink more and a little more “genius” would strike, and then fade. So, I’d drink more and a little more “genius” would strike… etc. The thing that always troubled me with alcohol was that it seemed to have no positive lasting effects, only bad ones.

The morning after the four gimlets, I had a rehearsal for a very exciting project, for which I was hungover. Getting up that morning was laborious. Being at rehearsal would have been great, except, I wasn’t fully there. I was tending to a hangover and, worse than that, my guilt. I felt so guilty for arriving in this professional environment feeling sick and unworthy. I was not up to the task. I left that day feeling ashamed and tired.

I began to think about my relationship with alcohol in a more critical way. How do I feel before drinking alcohol? Impatient, excited and fiery. How do I feel while drinking alcohol? Subdued, relaxed, and happy, at first. Second drink I’m feeling good, buckling in, and I start “saying it like it is”. Then around the third drink, I begin second guessing everything I say,  and I start getting emotional. If I make it to the fourth, I become very analytical, and dark thoughts and reasons why I shouldn’t feel good start filling my brain. My brain always, inevitably, leads me to something that doesn’t feel good, because I think that the most hurt parts of me still believe I don’t deserve to be happy. Truly happy with no exceptions.

When I realized that alcohol was a gatekeeper to dark thoughts and inhibited my ability to defend myself from them, I began to question whether or not this could be a long term relationship for me. I always felt like I couldn’t go to battle with the dark thoughts; I’d just wave my white flag and have another drink.

When I say “go to battle”, I don’t mean telling myself things like, “Go away bad thoughts! Stop! Stop!”. That wouldn’t help because I wouldn’t be addressing it, just commanding it. Dark thoughts and, especially, trauma don’t work like that. Dark thoughts need to be told that they are not allowed in the driver’s seat and why; they stem from our childhood and are as reckless, naive and irrational as the children we were when we first formed them. They don’t respond well to panic. They need calm and clear direction. Direction can look like asking these dark thoughts questions, such as: Why does this keep coming up for me? Why do I always feel angry when X happens? How could what I’ve been through in the past be showing up in my life now? What would make me feel better right now?

I’ve worked on this piece slowly over four months. In that time I have shed old parts of myself so that I can grow, but not without many tears and the digging up of old, rotting roots. Like that tree, losing half of her arms at a moment’s notice, the changes I have undergone have left me feeling stripped and shell-shocked. The unknown became something I didn’t need an answer to, only something worth exploring. I haven’t had a drink since that last gimlet.

And here I stand: blooming. Not fully there, yet. Not like some of the other trees around me, who’ve weathered this storm and stand taller because of it. But my baby buds are swaying in the wind and I am on my way. Growth lies in the unknown, the uncomfortable and the, sometimes, terrifying. Everything that most of us were taught to avoid or control is unavoidable and out of our control. Perhaps it’s best, then, to make peace with this fact, shed the old parts of ourselves and grow. Why not me? Why not you?

Kayleigh Shuler is a writer/screenwriter living in Boston, MA. Kayleigh writes and directs custom scenes for actors and loves being a part of anyone’s creative and spiritual journey. Follow Kayleigh on Instagram at @kayleigh_shuler.

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Family, Guest Posts, pandemic

I Could Have Run a Railroad

November 25, 2020

By Alisa Schindler

I have always loved the rain. The quiet of the sky. The soothing drone of a million hearts beating overhead. The deep grey seeps into my bones like a drug, slowly calming, and telling my brain to shhhh. There is nowhere to go; no bright and tempting sun guilting me with its happy warmth, pressing me forward to run, skip and laugh. No open, welcoming day beckoning me with possibilities. Now it is alright just to breathe and embrace that feeling where pressure simply evaporates. There is only a moody somberness, a gentle drum lulling me into peace.

When I was younger, my father used to chasten me about the bubble I surrounded myself in and accuse me of complacency. “Don’t be another boring housewife,” he’d say and gift me books by Ayn Rand hoping to inspire. “You’re a Dagny.”

I’d roll my eyes, but take the books, devouring them in private. Deep down I heard him, his message taking root in the brain I was busy ignoring, although I refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledgment. It wasn’t like he had the right to judge, I thought. He had done nothing of substance. He was a man with huge romantic notions of the world and no follow through, all about the ‘big ideas’ and being one of the ‘beautiful people’.

To be fair, he was beautiful. Strong and masculine, with crystal green eyes that mirrored my own and thick wavy hair that had prematurely grayed. He was a legend on the ball field and the racquetball courts. With his charismatic smile, easy laugh, and love of a good party, both men and women gravitated towards him.

Even with erratic work habits, his charm, good looks and intelligence helped him survive and, at times, even thrive, in his vocation as a salesman. But that was in the 70’s and 80’s when no one looked too deeply. If they had they would have seen an addict who moved from one sad, dirty, cluttered place to another, often sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Someone who lived from paycheck to paycheck and visited his kids on the weekends at their new home with their new family out in the suburbs. Still, he always came bearing gifts and smile.

For a time.

By my twenties, his alcohol and recreational drug years were behind him, but his struggles were just beginning. I made the mistake of moving in with him after college after a failed back operation led to dependencies on pharmaceutical opiates. It didn’t take long to realize I was trapped. He needed me to shadow him as he staggered around on pain medications. He needed me as he seesawed between the lows of depression and manic bursts of energy and enthusiasm. Some days he couldn’t leave his bed, other days we played tennis. Some days I wrestled car keys from his hand; his glazed unconscious eyes in complete opposition to the strength of his anger and grasp. Other days, we sat side by side watching episodes of X-Files or Star Trek eating Tupperware bowls filled with cereal, finding moments of ridiculousness and laughing till milk came out our noses.

It was the inconsistencies of health, mental and physical, that kept me tied. The highs that reminded me of his sparkle and my childhood adoration and the lows that overwhelmed and obligated me. He had no one else. I was his sun, his moon, and his savior. But when he talked to me about stepping outside my bubble, I could see nothing but his need and my potential floating away.

Like a good first-born child, I took to my martyrdom like worker bee to queen. I dove in and let it define me; using it to separate myself, to hide, to solidify the bubble into armor, until there was only me and my struggle with his struggle.

As the years passed, I finally found a way to move out and leave him – I got married. Had babies, boy one, two and three. Created a life filled with privileges and pleasures. But through it all he was there, an umbilical rope of need and devotion connecting us.

As he aged and weakened, he softened his view of me and the world. Dagny Taggart wasn’t all that anymore. He excused my complacency and decided to extol my virtues instead. “You’re a great mom,” he’d say. “I understand why you like your bubble. The world is crazy. Your bubble is good.”    

My bubble was better than good – a wonderful husband, beautiful children, the house in the suburbs, endless books to read, writing to keep me satisfied and sane and good friends to laugh and cry – but with him attached I remained, as always, harnessed. Stuck to the ground, rooted, never taking flight. No longer sure I even wanted to.

And then, he died.

Something that was ‘a long time coming’ and should have happened decades before, took me by complete surprise. I was suddenly free from his tortuous, desperate need. I could float in the sunshine of my family, meander in and out of marshmallow clouds, drift through the lazy rainbow days of baseball, baking and boys. I could write. Or run a railroad.

Yet, the relief everyone talked about didn’t come. I missed the burden. The insanity. The ridiculousness. I missed him. The man who dreamed I could be Dagny Taggart but whose everyday life careened off the rails. The man who laughed without limits but also cried without restraint. The man who opened my eyes to the joys and horrors of the world, but also made me turn inward and away. The man who was one of the ‘beautiful ones’ who became disabled and deformed.

Maybe it was always my nature. Maybe I gravitated toward a life heavy with a responsibility that allowed me to stay shielded, my purpose small but mighty. My world limited but loved. My heart soaring in words but my feet on the ground.

I’m okay with the bubble. The smallness. The calm. The nothing.

I always loved the rain.

Alisa Schindler is a freelance writer whose essays have been featured online in the NYT, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and The Well at Northwell Health, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, suburban fiction. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.

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Guest Posts, pandemic, Tough Conversations

When the Mothers Are Gone, When the Mothers Return

November 22, 2020
Navajo

By Nicole Walker

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

“It was The Gathering,” Carol said.

“What gathering?”

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

“They should have canceled it,” Maria argued.

“I didn’t go.”

“I didn’t either.”

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Are things not working out with Bill?”

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

My mom never texts me.

“What made you text me that, mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

That will teach her.

*

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Guest Posts, 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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Guest Posts, pandemic, spirituality

Searching for Meaning in a Strange New Normal

November 1, 2020
condolences

By Robin Eileen Bernstein

I never thought an invisible cosmic force could pull our strings.
Then coronavirus came along.

On the last Wednesday of February, I awoke to an avalanche of condolences on the death of my mom.

Except my mom wasn’t dead. Not yet.

Surreal? Yes. But that morning in a pre-pandemic New York City, as I scrolled through my Twitter notifications, I didn’t know that surreal was about to become our new normal.

The tweets were mostly in Spanish. “Lo siento,” said one. For that I didn’t need Google Translate. But for the others I did, dozens that poured in that day and the next, all a variation of: Our deepest condolences to the distinguished ambassador Robin Bernstein and to her family for the death of her beloved mother…

Full disclosure: I’m not an ambassador, distinguished or otherwise. But I share a first and last name (and passing resemblance) with the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, so I’m often tagged by mistake. If that’s not enough, she’s a Trump-appointed Republican and I’m a lifelong Democrat who wants him booted from office. While this was a level of surreal I’d come to accept, the condolences were a bridge too far. Because my mom had been admitted to the hospital three days earlier and things didn’t look good.

It took but a minute to find the obituary in a Caribbean newspaper, which only deepened the eerie parallels. Both my doppelgänger’s mom, 93, and my mom, 91, had just celebrated birthdays in February, a week apart. The obit included an Alzheimer’s organization for donations; my mom had dementia.

I put down my phone and exhaled. Was this a sign? Even asking felt wrong, because it was acknowledgement that real condolences might soon come my way. I shook my head as if to reject what seemed preordained.

Three days later, my mom was dead, too.

~ ~ ~

I’m a skeptic at heart. When it comes to all things woo-woo, even one woo is too much for me. My philosophy on the supernatural and paranormal mirrors what doctors learn about making a diagnosis: when you hear hoofbeats, look for a horse, not a zebra, and definitely not a purple unicorn.

Yet if anything fell into purple unicorn territory, it was those condolence tweets. Was it synchronicity? That was the word Carl Jung, the 20th century psychoanalyst, used for weird and mysterious events that can’t otherwise be explained. The Police sang about it, twice.

I have a hard time believing that a cosmic force is pulling our strings. As someone who prefers the practical and predictable, I don’t leave much room for the mystical. But what if everyone from New York to New Zealand suddenly got sucked into an unforeseen vortex that marked the end of our old normal? Can something be freaky when nothing makes sense? “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” sang R.E.M., although unlike rest of the title, I don’t feel fine about it. So much happened in two weeks that by mid-March I could barely recognize my own life.

My mom’s passing, ironically, was my last brush with normalcy. Soon age-old customs would be kicked to the curb: sickness and death would be a solitary affair. Large funerals and rituals for the grieving? No more. I’ve read how some people are relieved their elderly parents had passed before this pandemic. It’s odd to be thankful for death. But like so much else previously unthinkable, it makes sense now.

“I’m dying,” my mom whispered to me her first night in the hospital. She knew before we did. “I want to go home,” she said. Five days later she went home to her own bed, where she smiled and blew kisses at me and the hospice nurse. She passed peacefully in her sleep the next morning.

What stops me cold is the what-if. What if she’d gotten sick two weeks later? I picture her in the hospital, allowed no visitors, her confusion and agitation mounting. She’d ask for me. And I wouldn’t be there. Yet this is exactly what so many have had to endure.

Is it normal to be grateful that she got sick sooner rather than later?

In our new normal, it is.

~ ~ ~

Everything was old normal on February 20, my mom’s 91st birthday. That afternoon I took a bus (like many New Yorkers, I don’t have a car) from Port Authority to her assisted living residence in New Jersey armed with cupcakes and a wrapped gift: a comfy nightgown. We sang Happy Birthday and she blew out a candle. Dementia was slowly robbing her mind and body, and I was determined to make it a good day.

Three days later, she spiked a fever and had trouble breathing. She ended up one step below the ICU with a wicked cough and pneumonia, symptoms that soon would scream Covid, except she tested positive for influenza. (She’d had a flu shot but I was told it may be less effective in the elderly.) I rented a car for the three-hour round trips to the hospital and back, and sometimes listened to all-news radio, where it seemed as if the only news was about the novel coronavirus. It was then that I felt the drumbeat of the approaching pandemic, faintly at first, then louder, the way the sky darkens before a storm.

I heard about towns in Italy on lock-down and a federal health official who said it’s not so much if it will spread, but when. On the day I got those bizarre condolences, I heard Trump’s bizarre prediction that our 15 U.S. cases would “within a couple of days…be down to close to zero.” The next day he said, “like a miracle, it will disappear.”

In the hospital, the drumbeat got louder, where lobby signs wanted to know if I’d recently traveled to China or had been in contact with anyone who’d been outside the U.S. A box of face masks and a shelf of latex gloves sat unattended near the nurses’ station; because she had the flu, anyone in her room had to wear them. “It’s upside down” said a nurse the first time I donned a blue surgical mask. The nose clip was by my chin. There was a nose clip? Yet soon I’d know all about masks—from N95s to handmade ones with a pocket for a filter. I’d wear one each time I left my apartment, not to mention buying them for my family, in tie-dye no less.

All those ominous warnings about coronavirus made me wonder, “Did mom have it?” But I never asked, and her doctors never raised it. It was possible; in one analysis, nearly nine percent of those who had respiratory illnesses also had Covid, and one in five who had Covid tested positive for viruses like influenza. Doctors now think some Covid deaths in February and early March were misidentified as flu or just pneumonia. Pneumonia was her official cause of death, along with cardiopulmonary arrest and multisystem organ failure. Far as I know, nobody in contact with her had Covid, unless we were asymptomatic. Regardless, I doubt she could’ve gotten a test back then. I may never have an answer. In our new normal, answers aren’t easy to come by.

Although eventually there’d be reports of a U.S. Covid fatality in early February, the first official reported U.S. death from coronavirus was on February 29—the same day my mom passed.

~ ~ ~

Within two weeks of those Twitter condolences, events in my life seemed to spin out of control so quickly I couldn’t catch my breath.

On Wednesday, March 11, after dinner with friends, I was on a train home trying to disinfect my seat with a Clorox wipe, which isn’t easy with your left arm in a cast and your fingers so bruised and swollen they barely move. What happened was that the previous Saturday, a week after my mom died, after I spent hours in her apartment boxing up photos inscribed with the handwriting of the dead, I tripped over a broken sidewalk and landed in the ER with a shattered wrist, and a week later in the OR to have it reassembled with a plate and screws.

The ER had not yet become pandemic central, although I recall positioning myself as far upwind as possible from a guy on a nearby stretcher whose cough was like a series of small explosions. One week I was a visitor. The next, a patient. Neither was an ideal time to be in a hospital. Might as well fly a kite in a thunderstorm.

Two days after I broke my wrist, which nobody saw and nobody reported, I took photos of the broken sidewalk, which was auspicious timing because the next morning, March 10, I woke up to the sound of jackhammers. That sidewalk, which I learned had been a hazard for years, was mysteriously being repaired three days after I tripped on it. I’d give that the same odds as getting condolences three days before my mom died.

The next day—when I met my friends for dinner—would be the last time I’d sit inside a crowded restaurant. Instead of hugging, we bumped elbows. Life felt crazy yet manageable, but by the time I left to catch my train home, the earth had teetered off its axis. There was a news alert on my phone about—what? A European travel ban? My daughter’s fiancé, a French citizen, was in France; his flight back to New York, where they shared an apartment a few blocks from me, was in three days.

Just like I did after reading those Twitter condolences, I put down my phone and exhaled. In a week’s time, I buried my mother and fractured my wrist. Now my future son-in-law might not be able to come home. I felt queasy, like I was standing on shifting sand.

The train was fairly empty, so I suspended my no-calls-on-mass-transit rule to check on my daughter, who was sobbing with gasps so wrenching she couldn’t speak. Clearly she’d heard the news. I overheard two passengers nearby; the words “Trump” and “Europe” came through loud and clear.

“Shh, it’ll be ok,” I whispered through her choked tears, as if she was still a little girl who skinned her knee. Except now I couldn’t stroke her hair and hold her close. I couldn’t promise that anything would be ok. I stared at my bloated purple fingers and a cold knot of fear lodged in the pit of my stomach. It dawned on me that I had absolutely no control over any of this, at all.

“I’m right here, sweetie,” I murmured into the phone. Soon I wouldn’t be allowed to get within six feet of her.

I went straight to her apartment and after an hour of frantic emails and texts and finally confirming that he’d be on a flight to New York, we sat silent and relieved. Finally, I asked the question we’d been dancing around for days.

“What do you want to do about your wedding?”

Her wedding was in May. In France.

She looked at me, one eyebrow arched, the answer obvious.

“What wedding?” she said dryly. As sad as a postponement would be, she now knew the date wasn’t what mattered. A crisis has a way of focusing you.

That Sunday, March 15, I was to attend another wedding, my cousin’s, in Brooklyn. Instead I and other would-be guests watched it via livestream, now de rigeur for pandemic celebrations. Then I went to New Jersey, where the assisted living residence had given me one hour to grab what I still wanted from my mom’s apartment before they went on lockdown. By then, it was virtually impossible to rent a car—everyone was getting the heck outta Dodge—so my boyfriend and I traveled there and back on a near empty bus. With my arm in a cast, I needed his help. I had wrist surgery the next day, and I’d recuperate and quarantine at home in Manhattan. He’d quarantine in Brooklyn, where he lived. When we finally saw each other again in person, ten weeks later, it was on what should have been my daughter’s wedding day.

There was one other event that weekend. On Saturday, March 14, my boyfriend and I celebrated my birthday in one of the few restaurants still open. There were very few diners besides us. I felt guilty, like we were doing something illicit. The waitress wore latex gloves and cheerfully placed four sugar-dusted chocolate cookies in front of me. I blew out a candle. As with my mom’s birthday three weeks earlier, we were determined to make it festive. I later learned that my birthday was the same day the governor of New York announced the state’s first Covid death.

~ ~ ~

We have no idea what our new normal will be like long-term. We’ve always been urged to “live in the moment” but what if that’s all there is? What if you can’t plan ahead because the future is just a flashing neon question mark?

Time has been warped. If you’re of a certain age or have a predilection for vinyl, imagine a 33 rpm record spinning at 78. Barry White sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Like a world on speed, stuff I never heard of in February erupted like weeds in March: Zooming, social distancing, 7 PM cheering. By April, the pandemic had generated record unemployment and one person who lost his job, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed in police custody in May, which sparked international protests in cities coast-to-coast, including mine. Yet while breaking news pelted us like hail, then and now, life feels lethargic. One day rolls into the next without the usual punctuation.

I’m thankful that I was able to hold my mom’s bare wrinkled hand in my latex-sheathed one and remind her what a wonderful mom she was and what a beautiful legacy she was leaving, and to see, not in pixels but in the flesh, her face soften with relief. I’m thankful for the comfort of those who came to pay condolences. Yet with each consoling unmasked hug, a deadly parasite may have been hitching a ride.

As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare in which I’d be watching our black-and-white Zenith with the rabbit ear antennae and I’d click the remote once to change the channel, but the channels wouldn’t stop changing. They’d flip by faster and faster, out of control, until smoke began pouring from the TV and I knew it would explode.

This spring when I’d hear the wail of ambulance sirens, my daily soundtrack, I might think for a moment it was coming from a TV show I was watching. But this was real, a mournful howl rising from a world changing faster and faster, out of control, spewing an acrid cloud of death. Unlike my childhood nightmare, there was no waking up from this.

It’s no surprise that a kid who dreams of exploding televisions grows into an adult who prioritizes control. But I no longer have the luxury, or delusion, of thinking I’m the puppeteer. On February 20 I had two intact hands, my daughter’s upcoming wedding, and my mother. Three weeks later: Bum hand. No wedding. No mom.

Adapting these days means accepting the inexplicable, embracing the unknowable and acknowledging that we have no clue what’s around the bend. Not surprisingly, more people are reporting paranormal activity; a New York Times article suggested that in uncertain times, there’s a motivation “to find meaning in chaos.” It’s the same impulse, by the way, that spurs the tinfoil-hat crowd to connect dots that ought not be connected, poisoning the air with viral conspiracies, taking the search for purple unicorns to frightening new dimensions.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find meaning—synchronicity, if you will—in chaos. I still don’t know what to make of absurdities that hit, bam-bam-bam, like falling dominoes: getting condolences three days too early, a broken sidewalk repaired three days too late, a travel ban three days before a loved one’s flight home. When life as we know it is suddenly and monumentally altered, it’s tempting to think that Hamlet had it right: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Maybe, but doubtful. I’m still a skeptic. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. When a very real pandemic can trip up an entire planet and bring it crashing to its knees, shattering norms as easily as the bones of a human wrist, well, that’s surreal enough for me, thank you. I suppose if you’re searching for synchronicity, or purple unicorns, or for an invisible force that’s controlling us in ways we can’t conceive, look no further than the brand new virus that upended the world.

Robin Eileen Bernstein is an essayist, feature writer and humorist with bylines in The New York Times, Salon, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Daily News, Newsday, Narratively, Ozy, Weekly Humorist, Next Avenue, Purple Clover and elsewhere. Her coming-of-age memoir-in-progress is about growing up in Far Rockaway, NY in the 1970s and her dream of being a drummer in a rock-n-roll band. More at robineileenbernstein.com.

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