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pandemic

Guest Posts, pandemic, Women

The Great Resign

March 22, 2022
resign

It’s sometime in 2018, and everyone is working, because we haven’t heard of Covid yet. We think it’s cool to take five Advil and a few handfuls of Sudafed and come into the office when we have the flu. Sudafed’s an upper anyway. Pure, unadulterated energy. We are killing it.

I’m a lawyer. I love my job. I get to dress up in business clothes, buy lattes, use my brain. I love digging into complex cases, digging through the grit and emotion to figure out what really happened, what we can prove, and what the other side will argue. Whether they’re right or are just in it for the money.

I love that it’s part-time, which means I get “downtime.” I rush home to my babies at three, change into sweats or yoga tights, greet them at the bus stop. I hear about their days as I rush them to music, girl scouts, drama, karate. Running to the grocery store while they’re there, watching watch my phone constantly for whatever I’m missing. I ride an adrenaline wave from one emergency to the next.

It all works. Except.

I hate my job. I spend hours arguing over pieces of paper no one wants just because the other side wants to pick a fight. I spend years of my life and kill small forests of trees arguing over paperwork no one will ever read.

I hate that it consumes me. Twelve hours a day I’m on guard, even though I’m not technically working. I can’t stop watching email, it could be malpractice if I miss one. My brain has no time to shut down. Kids, husband and cats pester me while I try to zone out, staring at Facebook, looking for a break.

We go to trial and I disappear into a mountain of paperwork and stress. Eighty-hour weeks. More. I leave my children and husband before the sun rises, get home when they’re in bed. I leave them Saturdays because witnesses need prep, on Sundays because the exhibits have to be ready by Monday. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

In law school, during orientation week, they told us lawyers tend to die young. Get divorced. Become alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals. That’s what you’re signing up for, by being here in this beautiful, wood paneled classroom.

“By the way,” they said, “we already cashed your tuition checks.”

But clearly, they were talking about the person sitting next to us. We gave that person a sideways glance and wondered what exactly was in their travel mug.

After ten years, I knew they were right. That the only sane thing to do that day was run out of the lecture hall and kiss that tuition check goodbye. Sunk costs are better than sunk lives.

I quit in 2019. I’m unemployed for the first time in my life. All around me, everyone is working, because we haven’t heard of Covid yet.

I watch friends dart from soccer game to the grocery store, balancing lattes and cell phones and to-do lists so long they’ll never find the bottom. They fly by in a daze, a perpetual line of confusion etching itself into the space between my eyes, above my nose, as I wonder how they’re still standing.

Maybe it’s just me, I’m the one they were talking about in that lecture hall. My inability to handle everything wasn’t the inevitable result of a broken society, but the inevitable result of a broken self. Because everyone else seems fine.

It’s 2020, and everyone is not fine. Every woman with enough privilege to go without her salary, every woman without enough privilege to find help with her children, every woman who can, almost every woman I know – she’s quitting.

The media calls it the great resign. I wonder if anyone asks how many are women.

Because our children are needy again like overgrown toddlers. Sticky little faces and fingers interrupting Zoom meetings. Virus-contaminated office spaces with no vaccine in sight, then a vaccine for some, then a vaccine for all, but nothing for our littlest of littles.

Schools open and close and open again. They open with masks and without masks and with vaccines but no mandates. They open with quarantines for the infected or blithe emails listing all the ways our children were exposed to a deadly virus.

“But come on back tomorrow,” they say.

Those little faces and fingers aren’t there to interrupt the Zoom meetings anymore. We watch the news. We sit on our hands. As the storm becomes the new normal, we wonder what to do next.

Something about those endless days of running, running, running, doesn’t call to us anymore. At least those of us with the privilege to choose.

But choose what?

“I’m just not cut out to be a country club wife. But I’m trying,” my friend says over coffee one morning. We quit, can’t imagine going back. I can’t imagine killing years and trees arguing over paperwork no one is going to read.

We are without identity. We were teachers, programmers, executives, doctors, nurses. Lawyers. They told us we could have it all, and now we’re not sure we’re qualified to do anything.

I am not a country club wife either, but I try to be. I walk. I tennis. I read. I write. I yoga. I take care of the teenagers who ate my babies.

All of us, the women who quit, we look out at the horizon of the next 30, 40, 50 years and wonder how to fill them. Or if we should just fade into oblivion, leaving our high heels and laptop bags behind forever.

Because we can’t get comfortable in the chaos again. We know this. And even if we could, we know that the next wave, the next variant, will demand that we sacrifice it all.

We’re women. It’s what we do.

Jennifer Lauren is a retired lawyer and Seattle native living in Austin, Texas with her son, daughter, husband, and too many pets. Her first novel, Everything We Did Not Do, is represented by Emily Williamson of Williamson Literary, who is actively seeking publishers. Contact Emily at https://www.esjwilliamson.com/contact-us. Find Jennifer at jenniferlauren.net.

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Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Wordless Messages: Grief and the Power of Touch

January 23, 2022
massage

I missed how my massage therapist always began with cradling my head in his hands. How, when he placed his palms over my ears, my skull filled with the ocean of my whirring aliveness, smoothing some jagged places in my psyche into round pebbles.

During the year of lockdown, I missed getting massages. I feel a little embarrassed or even entitled saying this since I’m grateful that during quarantine I was with my girlfriend: I had someone to talk to and touch. But I deeply missed the specific kind of touch I received during a massage, and being removed from it for a year underlined something to me: therapeutic touch is unlike any other kind—it holds within it the capacity for deep connection to the self, since we are composed of all the experiences our bodies hold, everything both joyous and jagged, every embrace and every injury, papercut-small and fissure-deep. Our bodies remember everything, including what our conscious mind has let slip away.

There is a specific experience I carry in my body: I went almost ten years with much touch of any kind, except the perfunctory; I hold this story in between my ears, and in my lower back, along my arms, and sometimes in a tight spot in my jaw: when my mother died, I was fourteen, and my father had a breakdown that no one talked about. Up until that point, even though my mother was slowly dying of cancer, I had a fairly nice life: my parents loved each other, we lived in a nice, somewhat affluent suburb, my interests were nurtured, and I always felt safe in my home.

Then, my life snapped off from everything familiar, as if a neat and manicured path unexpectedly diverged into wilderness that I had to navigate alone. Then, my father couldn’t take care of me, of my sister. Then, I had to go to my first year of high school and my home became a place that simply housed the relics of a civilization that had crumbled around me. Everything seemed wrong, even the colors of my bedroom walls. Suddenly, everything felt too yellow.

For many years, I wanted affection so much that my skin ached. I started getting migraines. Every morning, when I was sixteen years old, I dry heaved into the toilet not due to any eating disorder, but because the fact of my physical existence in a world where I knew there was no one to hold or take care of me made me feel literally sick. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Even when I felt “better” later in life, I still carried this time in my body the way a tree holds a year of blight in a dark hollow ring.

I stumbled into getting massages after a bad break up in my mid-thirties. The first massage therapist I saw, Stephen, was part of my queer community, and while other massage therapists had dug elbows into places that felt too tender, Stephen asked for what I needed before I got on the table. When I said I had PTSD and needed him to be gentle, he gave me the first massage that didn’t hurt, that I didn’t grit myself against, crying uncle. He seemed to understand: taking my first layer of protection off, all my clothes, except my bottom underwear, was an act of trust. “I’m going to listen to your breathing,” he said. “I’m going to make sure you’re ok.” As he wrapped the sheets and blankets around me near the end of that first massage, I felt deeply warm, and I let my head fall into his hands. I began going to see him every month for four years, and I found myself transformed: talk therapy had helped me, but massage soothed places words couldn’t touch. My body felt like someone had extracted an invisible burden from my body. I kept looking back into the train car as the subway doors closed, convinced I had left something heavy behind.

When I tell someone that I typically get a massage every month, they often looked confused or even judgmental. I don’t make much money, and massage has been branded a luxury, one doled out in spas only the wealthy can afford, and this is often the case. Even though I’ve been lucky because the massage therapists I’ve seen have worked out of their homes and operated on a sliding scale, a situation that benefits us both, I have paid around $75-100 a session.

But Massage is, as every book on it states, the oldest form of healing, and has gone by many names over the span of recorded history: rubbings, friction and unction, anatripsis, which translates to “intensive rubbing” in Greek. Only the recent century has demoted massage to empty pampering at best and sketchy sex work at worst. American and British Nurses in the late 1800s through the 1930s trained in and practiced massage. During WWI, nurses treated soldiers with massage for injuries and “nervous disorders” caused by the traumas of war. Medical professionals viewed massage as a “basic comfort” practice, and even famed nurse Florence Nightingale massaged patients and trained other nurses in what was deemed a valuable medical practice.

But by the mid-1930s when pharmaceutical solutions such as aspirin and morphine presented themselves, and it was less expensive to give someone a pill than it was to train a nurse in massage. Pushed from traditional medicine, massage parlors proliferated, and “happy endings” cast a lascivious light on the practice. Massage became either a form of sex work or a “complementary” healing modality.

I believe massage could be a more widely used practice, one that could benefit many, especially those who have gone through trauma, and while the pandemic continues to impact disenfranchised groups more than others, every single one of us will be continuing to deal with the stress of a pandemic, and we will likely continue to have periods of isolation, and with it, many will have to cope with a lack of touch.

In the year of no massages, I found myself taking more pills than I have in a long time: I washed countless blue over the counter anti-inflammatory pills down, hoping they wouldn’t eat away at my stomach lining. I diminished my supply of prescription muscle relaxants, the ones I save for when I feel as if I’m about to become immobilized, which happened far more frequently. When I feel a relaxant begin to bloom in my body, my muscles release as they do in massage. But I never feel better the way I do after a massage. I never wake up the next morning feeling like I’ve been rocked to sleep, like the hurt animal part of me has been sung to, like the music of my pulse has shifted.

There is something a pill isn’t offering me that a massage does: a human connection.

After my first massage therapist moved away, I worried I wouldn’t find someone I would connect with in the same way I had with Stephen. After I saw a few practitioners I didn’t quite click with, I found Josh on a queer community listserv. Like Stephen, Josh exuded a deep patience when he worked on me, and he listened carefully with his hands. I began to notice the distinct difference between being worked on by someone I saw just once and someone I bonded with over time. I’ve been seeing Josh for years now, too. Once when we sat together chatting after he had worked on me, I asked him if a client’s breathing and his would sync up during a massage. I’d been reading about circumstances that cause humans to fall into a kind of sync together; if people sing together, their hearts beat together, too. He thought a moment, and said, no, not exactly, but if a massage was going well, usually the person being massaged would breathe in a kind of unconscious call and response with him.

In her book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, science journalist Jo Marchant explores the potency of human connection through examining what we think of as the placebo effect. She cites a study from Dr.Ted J. Kaptchuk, who performed “fake acupuncture”—acupuncture that didn’t follow the traditional meridians used in the treatment—to two groups of patients (one control group was given no treatment at all), the first group were given treatment by a “cold but polite” practitioner, and in the second group, the patients were treated by a warm practitioner who sat with them, and talked with them for 45 minutes before being given placebo acupuncture. Neither group received any other treatment for the primary complaint which was IBS. 44% of the patients treated with the placebo style acupuncture felt better, but Marchant reports that the patient’s experience of wellness shot up to 62% when offered care from a warm practitioner which was “as big an effect as has ever been found for any drug treated for IBS.” She notes that “If an empathic healer makes us feel cared for and secure, rather than under distress, this alone can trigger significant biological changes that ease our symptoms.”

In another study, done at Berkley, where researchers discovered that social messages could be communicated through touch with near lighting-fast speed. This of course makes sense since touch is our oldest form of communication, older than stories passed between us through language, much older than paper, or even marks carved into stones or animal bones, perhaps older than singing. Some anthropologists wonder if touch, specifically the kind of touch that releases oxytocin, the chemical released through bonding like breastfeeding, set our evolution in motion, making us a species capable of doing all the above.

Once Josh pressed a spot on my lower back and I tensed because sometimes when something hurts, I find myself unable to speak—I just freeze. But immediately I felt his hands respond, with a soothing message I can’t quite translate into language. It was this exchange, the feeling of being listened and responded to with such care, that felt so profound, perhaps even more so since it happened without either of us saying a word.

For a while I kept mixing up the word message and massage, constantly misreading the word “message” as “massage” or typo-ing message when I meant massage. I realized that massage has offered me a way to receive a wordless message my body has needed, on repeat, one that echoes in my skin and bones and muscles, in my breath and blood, one that tells me: even if my father couldn’t give me the comfort I needed when my mother died, other people will be there for me, and my community would be there for me.

There’s no doubt that I tend to choose male-presenting therapists since the hurt animal part of me grieved the loss my father as he lived, a ghost of himself; I mourned the father who was a gentle plaid mountain I climbed, who read me all the chronicles of Narnia, who made me and my sister heart-shaped pizzas. The death of my mother was one trauma–the loss of my father while he continued to sit on the couch staring at the wall was another. I struggled to hold the latter, the ambiguous grief of it, even more than the death of my mother; there was only a funeral to acknowledge one of these losses.

Through seeking this particular form of healing, I have gotten better at holding my history in my body. I’ve gotten better at holding the past in one place in my body while I moved forward; changing how I held my body, loosening its tensions and habits, made me a person who could hold the past while keeping my feet in the present. I got better at forgiving my father, even though neither of us ever brought up the past in conversation. My father got better too: he happily re-married, sold his business, and retired to a life of collecting ship replicas in a house a short drive from the beach.

This past July, I was standing alone in my kitchen when my stepmother called to tell me my father had died suddenly that morning. And so I found myself alone again as one of my parents died. I longed for my people—I longed for my girlfriend, who was waiting for me in rural upstate New York as I prepared to move from Brooklyn, I longed for my stepmother and the family I still had left alive; I longed for my friends, but I also longed for the person who had given me a source of comfort in other stressful times: my massage therapist, or put another way, despite the cheesiness the word has gathered over the past decades, my healer.  I longed for my healer to cradle my head in his hands as I learned how to live with my father’s sudden death, as I learned how to hold this new reality in my body.

The longing for my healer, and even calling him this word, felt strange, even embarrassing, but we have no real word in American English to contain this kind of therapeutic relationship: one that technically involves a service, and yet, much like therapy we seek out for our minds, is imbued something more, something deeper and elemental.

Today, we are only beginning to break the taboo of even talking about the essential human need for touch, and it seems we only have these conversations under extreme circumstances. As the pandemic continues, I hope we can talk more about the need for touch. I also hope we can also seek out therapeutic touch if we need it. I hope that, in time, perhaps massage can be seen as what it is: a healing practice with potential far beyond what we have imagined. I hope that if massage can be witnessed in this way, perhaps, it can be covered by all insurances, so it could become more accessible. And no matter what, I hope we can all feel less embarrassed to seek out a therapeutic space for touch when we need it.

Kat Savino holds an M.F.A. from Columbia, and wrote a brief personal essay about how massage helped her heal from trauma for Narratively; She has been researching this practice for many years and is currently working on a long hybrid memoir that fuses art history, psychology, and neuroscience to explore the need for touch, and the trauma of abandonment, and how healing is possible. Kat has also published essays in Ravishly, Apogee, Marie Claire, Belladonna: Matters of Feminist Practice, The Los Angeles Review, and Prism International, where she placed third in their nonfiction contest.

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Guest Posts, Self Image

Of Delicate Girls and Frozen Yogurt

December 29, 2021
yogurt

by Eve Mankoff

A weekly massive frozen yogurt pie, topped with whipped cream, might have been excessive. But my twenty-year-old son, home from college, and my other two teenagers bearing their own disappointments, demanded comfort at the start of the shut down in March 2020. My kids grew up making late night runs to The Bigg Chill yogurt shop, and the nostalgia imbued in those flavors was a welcome distraction in uncertain times.

I dug right in with them until there was nothing but buttery crumbs in a pie tin.

Once upon a time, I had a more complicated relationship with food. I could scarcely enjoy it, laden as indulgence was with judgement.

As I have watched them emerge, unapologetically themselves, I have tried to believe that I have created a home where my children, especially my daughter, eschewed that critical voice, the one that had told me to be smaller.

***

Ten years ago, when my daughter Caroline was eight, we went to a Jonas Brothers concert with friends. The afternoon of the show, Jeannine and I let the kids splash in the Hyatt pool and eat chicken fingers from the grill before dripping through the lobby as they raced to get ready. Caroline and Cole had been friends since preschool but got together less often now because boys play with boys and girls with girls, or so they thought. However, when we, their moms, eager to hang out, enticed them with a live show featuring their favorite Camp Rock stars, they fell back into the easy friendship they’d enjoyed as toddlers.

Back then, Caroline had struggled to relinquish the long, jingly Talking Stick, enamored with the bells inside and with holding court. Cole, more shy, had taken his time to warm up before he shared a few well thought-out words before passing the implement to another child with relief.

The amphitheatre seats rose up the hill and sectioned out like rays against mountain silhouettes. In the front row, Jeannine and I hung back, eager to talk about jobs and frustrating exes. But we found ourselves endlessly distracted, our eyes drawn to the two small bodies bobbing next to us like untethered ocean buoys.

The music rumbled to a start. The lights lifted. The air filled with a hum and the vibration of bodies readying to let loose. When eighteen year-old Demi Lovato’s husky contralto pierced the din, the audience froze, spellbound, by the delicate girl with the giant voice.

But a heaviness gathered in my chest as I took in the child star, her thick hair swirling about, her tiny body writhing, electrified by the adoring crowd, as her voice strained to reach impossible heights. I saw something in her face, in her bearing, that I recognized. Jeannine whispered, “What a powerhouse!” My mind went elsewhere.

New York circa 1987, I was  barely twenty, a junior in college. I was  on-stage playing a secretary on roller skates in The Memorandum by Vaclav Havel. Let me clarify that I was  playing a piece of furniture – I was  wheeled off between my scenes. I got the role because I was  angular.  I was “perfectly cast,” said one review. The play is about conformity. On the stark set, my paper-thin body and white blouse blended in.

Having had an eating disorder since at least age thirteen when I had no place to share an abundance of sad feelings, I learned to contain myself. I was perfect for blending in. But in earlier years, I needed food to distract me, and I just couldn’t stop eating which put me in an impossible bind.

As a teenager Frozen yogurt was on my “yes” list despite its sugar content and calorie count. The limited number of fat-free varieties, before there was every kind of option, saved it from the other list, the off-limits one, whose foods would make me fat. Pizza, nachos, movie theater popcorn, and everything else that my friends consumed without a second thought were on the “no” list.

My caloric intake was always running in my head. The numbers seemed to rise as I calculated what I could afford behind the counter at TCBY (The Country’s Best Yogurt), working out my eating for the day and how I might stay within bounds to avoid the purge. The TCBY store on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica lay across from Fong Wong, a sliver of a Chinese takeout restaurant whose spicy fumes of Sweet and Sour Chicken wafted in and reminded me of a time before I measured my value in how small I could become.

But the truth is, bulimics knew that cold creamy desserts came back up easily. They had no sharp edges or bulk to induce gagging, and caused fewer headaches and less frequent bloodshot eyes. To this day, I eye tiny women ingesting gigantic containers of the cold, milky treat with suspicion, and  concern. 

When I went to college, I found the East Coast version of my Los Angeles favorite. Tasty D-Lite was sold in narrow shops, every twenty blocks or so in Manhattan, wedged between the stately buildings that characterize the architecture whose beauty and grandeur had lured me to a new life when I visited in high school, desperate to start over, determined to move past obsession. But instead I got worse and I latched onto this food full of nothing.

Tasty D-Lite flavors had names like “Angel Food Cake” and “Banana ‘n Peanut Butter.” They sounded interesting but all tasted the same. However, I didn’t care because they  had so few calories. As I trudged from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village, trying to burn fat, I sucked down quart after quart of the insubstantial stuff, tricking my mind into liking it, tricking my body into thinking it was fuel.

I had traded the binging and purging of my teenage years for a version of starvation. And when I lost my period and my brain started to black out, I thought I had triumphed. Because I was thin.

At family holidays like Thanksgiving, I bounced up to fill my plate wearing my Laura Ashley dress, my hair in two thick braids. But as I walked back to my chair, I felt the weight of eyes on my food, on my little body that was fleshy in spots, and heard words that were repeated year after year: “ Are you going to eat all of that?” Or if I took seconds: “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

These admonishments came from Aunt Loraine, with her bleached bouffant hair and tar stained fingers, who never had a nice word for anyone, and whom no one told to shut up because feelings were not what mattered.

Then others chimed in, all of them worried about what my body would become. Worried that if I was fat I would never get a man. Because that was what mattered. So as I grew up I learned to hollow myself out, to become devoid of feelings and empty of food.

That night at the concert Caroline’s small soft body gyrated in an open expression of joy. Un-self-conscious, she drank in a near perfect moment. Up late under a blanket of stars, she was so close to Demi, she must have almost felt the warmth of her breath. But next to my daughter, I only felt an uncomfortable tug as I watched the older, celebrated girl, the one on stage who seemed to be trying so hard, who produced that haunting tone, so beautiful but tense that it sounded like it would shatter. Her tiny frame seemed overwrought from the effort to be seen while also threatening to disappear.

In my own life I had a turning point.

It happened in my mid-twenties at a  “Hollywood” party, in New York, after the worst of my eating disorder, but before it was resolved. I was with a “Hollywood Guy” who felt safe in that world. His gender protected him from predation, from immolation. He was a success. This man and I grew up together in LA and had a love affair the June when we were sixteen. At that time, we each had other relationships in disrepair so our affair  was secret by design. We spent late nights talking on the phone, kissing on his little boy bed, and driving the hills above the Pacific Ocean in my blue car.

In our twenties, we came together in New York, hoping to rekindle what started  that illicit summer.

“Hollywood Guy” left the key with the doorman. I let myself in and saw his success, his spacious apartment, the expensive decor. Feeling awkward, I stood next to the coffee table and reached for a decorative book, wondering who this man was. I retracted as his key jiggered in the lock, as though I had been caught. And in walked a person I did not recognize. Not the boy with the open face, but someone more contrived, in his khaki pants and his moussed up hair. However, his hug was so warm… I tried to settle in.

“Um, we have to go to this party. Is that okay? It’s a work thing. I’m sorry.” But he seemed giddy, not sorry, and determined to show me his world, hoping I would fit right in. He so wanted this to work, he had told me this on the phone while I lay on my bed in Providence, where I was in medical school.

Cornered, in his space, I said “Sure. Why not?” Yet somehow I knew better.

Dressed in slimming black under my thick winter coat, I slid into the taxi and off we went to a party. The heavy elevator doors parted. I braced myself to enter the room with the mannequin-thin ladies draped like scarves across the men and on the various couches.

Everything in me rejected this scene, this cast of emaciated ladies surrounding the long table with food none of the women would touch, women who seemed hired for effect, for decoration, and for men who would eat their fill. It became harder and harder to breathe as I took on the dark wood floors with weakening legs. In that instant I  flashed back to my own shame about eating, about my mushy little body, around my own family’s table, and the gazes that warned me that I would always be alone if I didn’t  control my eating. I gripped my guy’s arm for support as I whispered in his ear that I was done there.  “But I have to stay,” he replied. “Just a little bit longer” he pleaded

I remembered him at sixteen, on his bed, so sure of himself. As we listened to his music, I stretched out  beside him to escape my chaos and rest in his natural male confidence. We ate cookies just out of the oven as I pretended to be normal, especially about food.

In 2006, when I was 39, with three young children, Caroline just four, I left medicine to open a boutique in L.A. By then I was in the practice of celebrating women’s bodies, including my own, by offering clothes from zero to plus-sized. One block south was The Bigg Chill store. The owner, Diane, would come in to make conversation or try on a blouse. And I would stop at The Bigg Chill for the treat of the day. She watched my kids grow, their sticky faces wearing her flavors. I watched as her daughter started serving customers from behind the counter. Diane was proud of what she had built, and the customers kept coming. I watched girls and women frequent the shop, some obviously struggling inside their skeletal bodies, and I wondered if Diane thought about frozen yogurt and eating disorders. But I never got comfortable enough to ask her.

***

Recently Demi Lovato dispensed with comfort and took to Twitter, another stage where so many of us, older now, perhaps addictively gather. There she accused The Bigg Chill of complicity with the diet culture that pervades Los Angeles. Over photos of low-carb snacks highlighted by a cherry-red sign, “Eat me, Guilt free,” she declared that she was triggered. But she also offered more:

“I still to this day have a hard time walking into a froyo shop, ordering yogurt and being content with it and keeping it down.”

For so many years I had lived with the feelings Demi Lovato expressed so simply, so accurately, that even all these years later, I nearly gasped when I read them on Twitter. Right there for everyone to see, she exposed herself, in ways I never could. And she paid a price. Demi Lovato was accused of causing “unnecessary drama” and of being “narcissistic.”

***

In “Shameful: Women who write about their pain suffer a double shaming: once for getting injured, twice for their act of self-exposure,” Katherine Angel describes a re-wounding that women endure when they bare themselves.

“There is a circulation of shame; triggering pangs of identificatory shame in the reader could lead to convulsions of repulsion and spasms of contempt for the woman who’s committing her shame to paper.(1)”

Share “too much” and the narrative may be rejected “like a baton that no-one wants.”

That was my experience growing up.

At the same age as Caroline was when she danced solo on stage, her body vibrating as she lost herself in music, her feelings pouring out through every gesture, exposing everything, I was told to stop eating, to rein myself in.

As the delicate girl on stage retreated, the Jonas Brothers plunged into harmonies and gazed at the crowd with puppy dog eyes, their faces now massive on giant screens, wholly comfortable with their awesome projection. My daughter’s soft arm beside me was still taut with excitement.

And I was comforted, in that moment, that she hadn’t yet noticed how sometimes girls just disappear.

  1. Aeon.co. April 23, 2021

Eve Louise Makoff is an internal medicine and palliative care physician. She has had personal and narrative medicine pieces published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, PULSE, the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, CMAJ, and soon the Annals of Emergency Medicine. She is studying narrative medicine at Columbia University.

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Guest Posts, pandemic, Relationships

Building Mom A Bridge: How To Cross Over Seas and Pandemics

August 12, 2021
mom

by Amy Challenger

Connecting has never been easy, my overweight rescue coonhound reminds me with his fervent stare. He once refused eye contact when I found him at a dusty Northern California farm nine years ago running in circles as if entirely disconnected from other beings. This disconnected feeling has become one most of us have suffered with this year. We’ve had to find a way out of our own little heads, seeking a thread to others in strange ways — squishing eyes over masks, staring through screens, and waving at mouthless friends in parking lots or at bonfires. I found a way to build a bridge to my sick mom and other women this year, all the way over the Atlantic, in a way I wouldn’t have imagined without the pandemic..

In March 2020 after lockdowns began in Switzerland, where I live with my husband and children— my asthmatic then 78-year-old mother coughed heavily on her couch in South Carolina. She struggled to breathe on Facetime causing even her fox terrier Harry to point his long nose to the side. I was petrified. I’d just returned from Northern Italy where crowds of masked passengers packed my train, and truckloads of dead bodies appeared on my Ipad screen. To me, the pandemic was no distant myth like it still was for many of my American friends. So when my mom hacked, I said, “Get tested.’’ Naturally, she brushed me off. I’m the family worrier, afterall, and people were still spreading the ridiculous myth that only those who’d traveled to China could have COVD-19. A week later, her symptoms had made her so weak she could hardly walk. So she finally got to the doctor who diagnosed her with pneumonia. And due to a lack of access to COVID test kits, she still didn’t know if she had the virus.

At that point, my mom and I started connecting daily face-to-face, online. I felt helpless watching her suffer in her floral patterned bed. She listened to me jabber about home learning challenges and the risks of spreading COVID. My father who suffers from Alzheimer’s roamed nearby, peeking at the screen.  Thankfully my mother’s friend made arrangements to stay with her, and my nearby sisters visited regularly, but I wanted to do something too. Even if I could afford to fly to the US, leaving my husband working from home with my three kids home-learning— travel was unwise especially with my flaring autoimmune condition.

So aside from sending my mom pizza dinners, Amazon gifts, and Facetiming regularly, I needed a more meaningful way to reach her. What about writing together? I thought. My mom and I are both painters and writers. And years before, she’d attended one of my creative writing workshops originally designed to connect women in crisis through writing. I’d been trained to lead these sessions by the New York Writers’ Coalition in Connecticut to serve struggling moms of neurodivergent kids. After my mom visited a workshop, she’d said she loved the method inspired by Pat Schneider, a poet who created a format for all levels of writers to gather and seek what Pat called “the original voice.’’

So one morning my dogs and I had an idea as my mom flopped like a five foot pale doll in her dimly lit Carolina bedroom with Harry perched nearby, his eyes pooling with worry. She’d just become breathless trying to fix breakfast.

“I might start an online writing workshop— to supplement my normal Zürich workshops,’’ I remember saying.… “Would you want to join if I do it?” I kept my tone casual. She might think my suggestion idiotic.

“I’d love it.” Her voice quivered. “You don’t know how much I could use that.” I think my mom needed more than connection. She needed a way to use her creative muscles to heal and find hope. The pen, if filled with the stuff of her powerful mind, could help with that.

And so we started meeting weekly online with a small group of women. My mom woke early, dialing in, along with several writers from Switzerland and some from the US. We gathered from bedrooms, Swiss lakes, and offices to write about feeling stuck, about growing, about finding wellness through dialogue we created in separate rooms, but together.  In these two-and-a-half-hour sessions, we greeted each other, then penned responses to my visual or verbal prompts. We scribbled our bottled up stories into our notepads, and then we shared verses that continued on, for that small moment, into the spaces of others. These connections bound us. Each week we became closer, and I felt more like I was really touching my mom.

“What’s strong?” I asked after a woman read her work. It was a question I’d learned from my former teacher Valerie Anne Leff a fiction writer whose voice I still hear if I try. She taught me to treat everyone’s original words like a newborn. I attended her workshops for several years during a crisis with my atypical boy. This question, what’s strong, was one I needed to repeat even in the midst of my child and family’s pain— to find meaning.  It was also a question I had to ask this year. To my children, my mother, my husband, and workshop attendees, I had to inquire, what’s strong in your words, your work— in you and in others? I needed to identify my power, as I fumbled through my own identity in a pandemic.  When I felt insufficient, I had to dig for strength. This habit was the bridge to my mom then to all the other women who wrote with me, virtually.  Through asking for strength in workshop sessions, I touched the space between my mother’s world that flowed into mine. Her tales of waking as a child in her victorian home in Big Rapids, Michigan; her views on mothering three girls; savoring shades of fern; meeting my naval officer dad— these powerful narratives brought her to me physically.

As she shared, our stories transcended internet boxes, oceans, and expectations. Common threads emerged in verses that had little to do with the prompt, yet pieced our strange pet stories, our favorite flowers, our lonely walks together. My mother wrote poems that slipped under my skin. Her narratives incorporated the feel of a forgotten Christmas ornament, the voice of my grandmother calling her home, the pine scent of my grandfather’s cabin beside a river. My mom waded for her strength like she was in the river fly-fishing with her father, and I saw her emerge healthy while reading her own mind. Eventually, after weeks of workshops, she dialed in from the couch— rosy-cheeked like the mother I longed for, even if still on a screen beside Harry’s twittering tail.

Almost a year later, my mom and I still write online with many of the same women. She and my dad have been vaccinated and are bearing well, all things considered. My cats’ and dogs have become so attached to me, after a year mostly indoors, that sometimes I think I’m a pet too. Though we’ve got scars, we’re closer and stronger than we knew. We’ve survived a pandemic, afterall.

This summer my husband, three kids, and I plan to finally visit my parents. When I’m physically there, I’ll feel their hands and arms embrace me in a way I wouldn’t without our separation and our storytelling over the sea. But in the meantime, I’ll celebrate the power of all the unpublished parts of each of us. In these narratives, if we listen, we’ll find ties that bind us together, even over seas and pandemics— and maybe forever.

Amy Challenger is a contributor at The Washington Post, Newsweek, Huffington Post, International Living, Poets Reading the News, and elsewhere. She completing a novel about an atypical boy and his mom trying to grow and find truth in a work that wants everyone typical. Amy can be followed online at amyaveschallenger.com.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

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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Guest Posts

On The Cusp

August 7, 2021
steve

by Joy Riggs

Elias packed everything he needed for eight weeks away at college, and Steve helped him stow it all in the trunk of my car. Everything except the bean bag chair, which they smushed into the right rear passenger seat. The trunk contained a plastic laundry basket brimming with bedding for an extra-long twin bed. A suitcase packed with spring clothes and a few sweaters. Books, new spiral notebooks, a desk lamp, classical piano music, plates and utensils for in-room dining (the cafeteria still under a pickup-only operation). A laptop. Three bottles of allergy medication. A fan, which Elias had deliberated about – how hot would it get by the end of May? He wasn’t on campus last spring, so he didn’t know.

The trees in our yard stood tall and bare, ready for new buds to emerge. The snow was gone. Elias left his winter coat on a hook inside the house.

After he hugged his brother, who was staying back with the dog, Elias buckled himself in next to the bean bag chair, and we set off on a four-hour drive, grasping the welcome chance to inject some life into what remained of his sophomore year.

Forty minutes into the trip, Steve realized he’d forgotten his sunglasses. He was usually uber-organized when it came to vacations, but we weren’t used to traveling anymore. The opportunity to plan this overnight trip had made him almost giddy.

“There are some plastic sunglasses in the driver’s side door, if you need them,” I said.

Ahead of us, the afternoon sky was a dull gray; rain seemed more inevitable than sun. I turned my head to look back at Elias. His long fingers were tapping out a rhythm on his knee.

“Have you thought of anything youve forgotten?”

He paused. “I might run out of toothpaste. I have a few travel-sized ones,” he said.

“Well, if that’s all you’ve forgotten, you’ve done well. That can be easily remedied.”

Elias was the youngest and most organized of our three children. But I never thought of him as “the baby.” He’d always seemed like an old soul, from the  he emerged at the hospital, with his shock of sandy brown hair, clear blue eyes, and laid-back demeanor. Although most people said he looked like Steve, he reminded me of me, personality-wise. Responsible, steady, high-achieving but modest. Slow to anger – in fact, had I ever really seen him angry? Not for years. He grew up being talked over by his older sister and brother; when he made the effort now to speak up, it was usually because he had something thoughtful to say.

The rest of the drive was uneventful and drizzly. That evening, we met up with Elias’s girlfriend, Nameera, and ate dinner outside in the 40-degree weather, preferring to risk frostbite over COVID. The next morning, we chose “grab-and-go” items from the hotel breakfast area and ate them in our room.

I felt like I should say something meaningful, but after sheltering together for twelve months of the pandemic, what more was there to say?

“I’m really proud of you. It’s been quite a year,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s been strange,” he said.

Tears formed in my eyes, so I changed the subject.

“How did you sleep last night?”

“I had trouble getting to sleep at first,” he said. “I’m really excited.”

At the campus center, he picked up a room key and a plastic bag stuffed with snacks, hand sanitizing wipes, and a face shield – essentials provided by the college. What had they given him at the start of freshman year – a lanyard, a water bottle? It was hard to remember now. He made two trips to carry everything from the car to his dorm room; we weren’t allowed to help him.

When he returned to say goodbye, I pulled out my phone. “Can we get a picture? And can you take it? Your arms are the longest.”

The three of us squinted into the morning sun, and he snapped a picture for posterity.

“I love you,” I said, as I hugged him.

“I love you, too.”

Steve and I walked back to the car, wiping tears from our eyes.

“It actually seems harder saying goodbye this time,” I said.

“I know, that’s what I was thinking,” Steve said. “Why is that?”

As Steve and I drove out of town, I stared at the trees. A derecho had struck Iowa in August, and the damage inflicted by the straight-line winds was still apparent. Trees with their tops shorn off, as though snipped with a giant scissors. Trees stripped of branches and bark. Trees bent in half, as though bent over in grief.

Yet, against the backdrop of trees and dormant farm fields, I also spotted life: cows in pastures, raptors soaring overhead, songbirds flitting across the highway. A gentler wind was blowing. We were on the cusp of spring.

JOy Riggs’ essays have appeared in numerous publications including Toho Journal Online, Topology Magazine, and Peacock Journal. She lives and writes in Northfield, Minnesota. Joy is the author of the nonfiction book Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The Story of a Minnesota Music Man.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, pandemic, parenting

A New Kind of Wild

August 2, 2021
bus

by Melissa Bauer

“I DON’T WANT TO DO SCHOOL ON THE COMPUTER!!” my five-year-old daughter shouts at me while catapulting herself onto the floor in the hallway, right outside of our kitchen.  I agitatedly glance at the clock on the microwave; her virtual class starts in five minutes.  Five minutes to try and rescue this sinking ship.  “I know,” I say, and walk over to try to soothe her.  “But you have to,” I add.  As if knowing you have to do something ever makes doing it any easier.

We’ve been in virtual schooling for about two weeks now.  The novelty, like my positivity, is wearing off.  My daughter’s friends and classmates from preschool have chosen not to go the virtual route for kindergarten.  “You can’t do kindergarten on the computer!” they all crooned in my ear, spewing their seeds of doubt.  So off to private school their kinder went while we forged ahead apprehensively with public school.  The pandemic, it seems, wiped clean all of our familiarity.  It feels as though we are navigating this alone.

Still lying on the floor, but crying now, my daughter continues to shout “Noooo!  I won’t!”  Exasperated, I walk back into the kitchen.  My eyes immediately dart towards my candle burning on the island, bonfire and spun sugar filling the air, but I can’t smell it.  My irritation is mounting.  And now my three year old is on my heels looking for a snack.  “Alexa” I yell to my echo dot “play Freeze Dance” in hopes to change the energy.  But as the rhythmic beats penetrate the air, things only get worse.  Her crying has turned into sobs.

We’ve officially entered Emotionville.  An unpleasant, foul little town where emotions are big and patience is small.

Here’s what I want to tell my daughter.  I DON’T want to do school on the computer either!  When I pictured my little, big girl going off to kindergarten, it certainly wasn’t through Microsoft Teams.  When I imagined buying her school supplies, it didn’t include a desk and chair for her online classroom.  Or where to comfortably place her desk and chair within our modest sized home.  By a window overlooking our wooded backyard so she can get a glimpse of nature while she learns?  Or will that be painful to see the open-air, verve beyond our four walls, just outside her reach.   No, I didn’t imagine buying a “reading buddy,” a stuffed grey elephant that sits on her table, substituting for another child.  Or how my back would ache from bending over her kid sized desk repeatedly when she needed my help completing her assignments.  But I don’t say any of this.  I swallow my feelings and pinch my eyes shut.

Breathe, I tell myself.  Remember to breathe.

One minute.  We have one minute now until class starts and my daughter is still lying lithe on the hardwood floor, her tears flowing, my anger rising.  It’s becoming a living, breathing thing, my anger, panting down my neck with each second that passes.  The smell of burning wood fills me now.  I pick her up, whispering tersely in her ear “I know honey, you don’t want to do this, but you’re going to” and I carry her over to her chair.  She sits begrudgingly, a limp and nimble rag doll, as the teacher’s voice rings through the speakers.  “Welcome back class!”  My daughter straightens up in her seat.  I breathe in, and smell wood and this time, a little sugar too.  I squeeze my daughter’s shoulder, an offering, I suppose.  All is calm for an exhale, and then my three year old shouts at me from the kitchen “MAMA, I wannnaaa snack!

———

Our virtual school days continued like this, more or less, for nine weeks until we slowly transitioned to face-to-face learning.  Phase 1 included a ninety-minute session, one day a week, for two children while the remaining ten classmates participated virtually.  We were assigned to Mondays.  Watching the other students participate in person while my daughter remained online was hard for her.  “That’s not fair!” she’d cry out to her computer on her non-assigned days.  “Soon it will be your turn,” I offered, silently counting down the minutes for both of us.

“Good morning sweetheart!” I chirped as I turned on the lights to wake my daughter up for her “first” day of school.  Sleepy eyed, but smiling she dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast.  “I can’t wait to ride the bus!” she squealed with a mouth full of cereal.  To her, riding the bus was akin to getting your driver’s license.  She could taste the freedom.  “Let’s go!” I shouted and we hastily ran to the bus stop.  Within minutes the bright lights of her yellow chariot rounded the corner.  “Don’t forget your mask,” I said as she donned it on her face.  “Bye mom!” she yelled over the loud engine as she entered the bus, one giant step at a time.  But my excitement soon faded when I looked around and noticed she was the sole rider.  Am I an irresponsible mom for sending my daughter to school in person?  With her big, curious blue eyes peering over her mask, she looked straight-ahead and then at me as the bus pulled away.  Her little hand went up in a wave, five fingers spread open.  My lungs filled with the smell of exhaust as the bus drove away.  My chest constricted.  I was overcome with the urge to run and grab her off that bus.  To take her home and cradle her inside our little bubble, where my candle burned at both ends, because at least there I could keep her safe.

“Bye sweetheart” I mouthed in the rearview.

——-

I walked back into my house, and felt like I was missing an appendage.  Our virtual schooling was tempestuous at best, but now I feared the silence.  I hadn’t had a moment to myself since my children’s preschool shut down the previous year.  Yet, I couldn’t relax.  Instead, I padded towards the kitchen worried for my little girl out there in the wild.  Will she have a hard time wearing a mask for 8 hours a day?  I washed our morning dishes and thought about her.  I stared at her empty desk.  Her vacant chair mocked me, a silent reminder of “what if?”

The days slipped by and I held my breath as we transitioned through each phase.  Slowly, more students joined her class in person.  Turns out, my daughter didn’t mind wearing a mask all day or eating a socially distanced lunch in the cafeteria.  Especially if it meant she could try the chocolate milk.

We settled into a new norm.  After several months, she was finally attending face-to-face learning full time with her entire class.  And I began breathing again.  What once felt wildly terrible and wildly devastating now felt wildly normal.

“What was your favorite part of school today?” I ask her, our hands clasped, her mask shoved into her backpack as we walk home from the bus.  “Recess!” she shouts, her lips curling into a smile at the mere memory of it.  A take-a-picture-and-show-it-your-sister kind of smile.

I’m smiling now too.

———-

Not long after face-to-face learning resumes, our town is hit with the after effects of a hurricane.  Hundred-year-old giant oak trees are uprooted by the winds, and they’ve fallen on houses and power lines.  They are blocking our roads.  School has been put on hold.  Again.  I am looking at one of those massive trees splayed out across our roads, like an enormous carcass, lying belly up, and I can’t help but think this is a metaphor.  This year stripped us bare; left our roots exposed.  And yet, in our shared vulnerability, we learned that hard times don’t last forever.  The wind eventually stops howling.  Fallen trees are removed.  And maybe, just maybe, we learn to love the view.

Melissa Bauer lives in Milton, Georgia with her husband and their two young kids. A former nurse turned stay at home mom; she has been writing about her journey through grief, loss, motherhood and healing since the death of her parents in 2010. An avid reader, podcast junkie, and mindfulness advocate she is passionate about living authentically and with gratitude. She values connection and the best compliment someone could give her is an honest ‘me too.’

 

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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eating disorder, Guest Posts, pandemic

Mother Daughter Stew

July 25, 2021
ingredients

by Nancy Crisafulli 

Ingredients

From Mother’s Expansive Garden 

1 cup low-cal self-esteem

For correct blend mix equal parts shame, blame and overripe guilt.

2 cups shredded body image

Tear fresh images into bite-sized pieces, rinse under cold water and drain completely.

8 oz. night-blooming tobacco

Steep tobacco in 7-14 oz of any red wine (see directions below).

1 lb. depressed family history

This ingredient may also be found in Father’s garden and is often mistaken for a bothersome, invasive weed.

From Daughter’s Secret Pantry

1 cup high-concentrate anxiety – Use full strength – do not dilute.

2 cups well-seasoned perfectionism – Straight A+ seasoning is preferred, but type A will also work.

4 oz. flowering fear of failure (FFF)

Note: FFF is a bitter herb that will significantly impact the flavor of your stew -remember, a little goes a very long way.

2 lbs. genetic predisposition – This underrated ingredient can be found at many organic stores including Roots and MoMs Organic Market).

Optional Non-Organic Ingredients

7 Tbsp. expectation to excel in all endeavors (EEE)

EEE grows like a wildflower in suburbia so check your backyard before purchasing.

Multiple shots of reprocessed Insta-Selfies – Adjust lighting, filters, angles and number of shots for maximum impact.

Directions

Step 1: 

In medium-sized bowl, carefully combine mother’s low-cal self-esteem and shredded body image with daughter’s undiluted anxiety. Mix thoroughly.

*Mother: To be sure ingredients are thoroughly blended, pinch and knead the fatty area behind your knee (or any other unattractive body part) repeatedly while chatting heart-to-heart with your adolescent daughter. Adding this personal touch is guaranteed to work better than the most efficient KitchenAid.

Step 2: 

Macerate night-blooming tobacco in red wine and let soak in a tub until all liquid is absorbed.

*Daughter: While Mother macerates, use a paring knife or other sharp object to make shallow cuts in your flowering fear of failure. Cover carefully with a dry cloth and store in a cool, dark place.

Step 3

In a separate bowl, sift together mother’s depressed family history with daughter’s genetic predisposition. Do this slowly, alternating just a bit of depressed history with a little predisposition until you have the perfect mix of these secret family ingredients.

Step 4: 

Place all prepared items from mother’s garden and daughter’s pantry into the domestic cooking device of your choice (see side bar for choices). Sprinkle freely with non-organic optional ingredients to taste and cook as directed.

Step 5: 

Serve piping hot with a side of solitude and regret.

Sans appétit!

Tip

For a less robust stew, slowly introduce one or more tempering agents (Wellbutrin, Ativan, Lexipro) before the stew is fully cooked. See individual packaging for suggested amounts.

Yield

This recipe serves 1-2 but, properly stored, its prolonged shelf life can often under-nourish an entire family for generations! Studies have shown that a sustained diet of this popular stew is almost guaranteed to yield the following:

Daughter

  • Drastic reduction in calories and fat
  • Grinding, obsessive exercise
  • A feast of secrecy and self-loathing
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or actions

Mother

  • Growing dread of family meals
  • Searing, wild remorse
  • Frantic weeding of personal garden
  • Ravenous craving for a shared bowl of daughter’s favorite childhood ice cream

Chef’s Note:

Organic vs Non-Organic? Conventional wisdom suggests that our genes and the environment around us play important parts in the development of eating disorders and other chronic diseases. For people recovering from anorexia, bulimia or other EDs during this pandemic, the combined ingredients of Corona-related stress, grief, lack of structure, and social isolation may be the perfect recipe for relapse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out:

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support

Academy for Eating Disorders
https://www.aedweb.org/expert-directory

 National Alliance on Mental Health Illness (NAMI)
https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders/Discuss

stew

Nancy Crisafulli received her BA in English Literature from the University of Maryland and spent the next forty years in the field of instructional design in and around Washington, DC. She did most of that writing in a corporate office. Her other writing has been languishing in her spare bedroom and recently asked to move out. A few of those pieces have been published in Under the Gum Tree and The Sun. When she isn’t writing, Nancy is probably out walking, doing yoga, playing with the grands, or on the co-ed softball field with her husband and best friend, Frank.

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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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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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