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Guest Posts, Mental Health, parenting

All Boys Paint Cows

August 31, 2020
nick

Self-portrait by Nick O’Rourke, age 15

By Miriam Feldman

My husband and I are driving to Paris from the south of France. I am in the passenger seat, writing ideas for a story about our son, on a napkin. Our son, Nick, has schizophrenia.

You see, I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no complete poem, painting or song to present. Yet. Scraps of a life, one piled up on the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document his life and put it into the world for as long as I am here. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he is just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light they don’t have eyes to see. But I see. A mother’s eyes can always see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.

*

When he was still inside of me, a tiny little tadpole boy swimming around, my husband and I heard his heartbeat for the first time. Back in those days they didn’t do sonograms without a medical reason, so the mystery of an unborn child was a universe of questions. We sat in the doctor’s office as she placed the stethoscope on my belly, and the sound came whooshing through a speaker. It was like the repetitive slap of water on some distant ocean shore. My husband blanched and reached behind him for a chair, then sat down hard. He had to breathe into a paper bag, overwhelmed by the sound of Nick’s beating heart.

Afterwards, we went to a small Ukrainian restaurant to have lunch. I ordered soup. It was particularly delicious, and I tried to figure out why. Staring at the bowl, I noticed the way the carrots had been cut. They weren’t the usual uniform disks, graduating in size from the thick part of the carrot to the tip. They were crazy random shapes, as though the cook had performed a wild cutlery dance, shiny blades flying. There were circles, half-moons, rectangles…little snippets of carrot that defied description. That was why the soup was so good. Something about the constellation of shapes enhanced the flavor, made it more interesting. When something arrives in an unexpected form it holds adventure, interest, mystery.

Nick arrived six months later and filled our world with his own configurations of unexpected stars. Some were beautiful, some had sharp edges that cut.

*

Driving along a grey serpent of highway, we descend into a valley. Immediately, I see the blue and red lights. It is the blue that catches your eye. We are all used to seeing the red, yellow and green of traffic lights, but like the black and white of a police car, blue calls out “calamity!”

“What is going on down there?” I say, sitting taller, my straightest spine. The traffic slows down and I can see people on the median, an upside-down van, personal belongings strewn everywhere.

“Pull over, I need to go there.” My husband knows me well enough not to argue. There would be no way for me to pass and not go see about what I could do. It is how I am wired; I am addicted to trying to help. I need to know I tried. I want to be a hero but I never am. I read about a woman who was electrocuted running into water to help a man stranded in a storm, ignoring the downed power lines lapping creepily at the edges. I thought, “I would have done that.”

Grabbing a water bottle, I open the car door before we have even come to a stop. My husband admonishes, “be careful crossing…” but I am gone.

I can’t decipher the situation at first. First, I see two women attending to…what? Oh, a little dog. “He was thrown from the vehicle,” one says, as she pours water on his head. “I’m trying to cool him off.”

“Do you need more water?” I ask. No, they don’t.

The van is about a hundred feet away from me, several people lean inside, wearing blue latex gloves. Where did they get gloves? The ambulance hasn’t even arrived yet. The air has a very still, artificial feeling as I walk over, through the debris, artifacts of a trip, a life. My foot sinks into a package of mushrooms. I see shoes, papers, a book, an open box of spaghetti that landed like pick-up sticks. A young woman bends over and retrieves a wallet, “Here is his license, now we know his name.” I wish I had been the one to find the wallet. I walk over to the van.

Sound reduces to a muted decibel, wind moves slowly, and I see the two people in the vehicle, roof partially ripped off. I think of an Edward Kienholz installation I saw at the museum in L.A., everything in the whole world shoved into the corner of one room.

Kienholz left detailed instructions when he died in 1994. He was buried, sitting in the front seat of his brown 1940 Packard Coupe, a dollar bill and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket, and the ashes of his dog, Smash, on the seat beside him.

The couple in the van look pale, not just their skin, but the entirety of them is a shade lighter than the rest of the world. Arms and legs splayed out stiffly, they look a bit like big dolls. Blue gloves firmly hold a red-soaked towel against the old man’s head. “Hang on, hang on,” someone says. It sounds to me like they are all under water. The woman with the wallet says, “His name is Fred.” The woman in the car moans it is her shoulder that hurts.

There is nothing I can do, nothing for me to contribute. My fingers moving against each other as if I could feel the air at my sides, I just stand there. The old man and woman, vacation careened terribly off-course, will be tended to by other drivers until the professionals get there. I go back to the car.

As we drive away, we pass the ambulance, siren cutting the day, headed up to help Fred and his wife. The radio is playing one of Chopin’s 24 Preludes and mournful piano chords fill the car. My fingers still caressing thin air, I listen. The countryside condenses as we approach the city.

*

An hour after we leave the accident, we reach Paris and our small hotel. I immediately turn on the television, wanting to see the news. Ridiculously, I expect to find out about the crash. I want to know how Fred is doing.

Instead, I am informed that an abandoned, just born, baby has been found in some bushes by a policeman. The anchorman teases the story before commercials, “Stay tuned to see what the officer first said to the baby. It was captured on his bodycam!” They show a second or two of film, two dark hands reaching into the foliage, an infant’s quiet cry, wind sounds, a man’s voice.

I sit on the awful hotel bedspread and wonder if I can bear the sadness his words.

They return with footage of a stocky officer holding the infant and telling her not to worry, that help is coming. But I heard something else during the lead-in, in the moment he pulled her out of the bushes. I had heard the real first thing he’d said, and it was “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry you came in the world like this? I’m sorry you came into a world that is like this? I’m sorry this atrocious thing happened to you?

The news media had missed what he’d really said first. They’d missed the most plaintive, simple and enormous apology ever made.

*

The Sacre-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre in Paris sits on a hill surveying the city. It can be seen from almost anywhere. Standing on the top floor of The Centre Pompidou with my forehead smashed against the glass of a floor to ceiling window, I stare. Far away and across the city, the Basilica seems to be lit by its own sun. The eerie light calls up a memory and I am struck, like a blow to the head, by the fear I’ve forgotten something important. I can’t remember the details, but something happened with Nick up there, a decade ago when we came to Paris to paint, just before he lost his mind. What was it? Straining for the memory, I think of the small black moleskin notebook he brought on the trip. I’d found it, and read it, years later. Just prior to his unspooling, he’d recorded a beautiful, unsettling narrative from the cliff. One foot in our world, one foot in his future world, he’d told us what was happening in arduous, aching cursive.

When was the moment? When was the exact second of the shift?

And then I remember what happened. We’d lost him up there. One moment he was next to us, and then suddenly he was gone.

“Where did Nick go?” I’d asked my husband,

“I don’t know, he was right here.”

We began to look for him. We searched everywhere, the building, the grounds, then back to the building. I remember standing at the top of the endless steps outside and squinting at a group of kids lolling around, thinking he must be with them. I was wearing a slippery crepe skirt and flowered blouse that whipped about my body with the wind. Eventually, he just appeared.

“Where were you?” I asked, my voice strident from worry.

“Right here,” he said, “around.”

From my perch at the Pompidou, I see a crack, a split second of light between the truth and what might have been. I want to dive into that space.

My husband walks up to me, leans against the glass, and I say, “Remember when we lost Nick up there?”

His voice low and measured, he says, “You know, I’ve always thought that was where it happened.”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“I think something took him, up there on that hill, and gave him back to us altered. I think that is where he went crazy.”

This had never occurred to me and immediately I knew it was true.

“That’s pretty woo-woo, even for you, buddy,” I say because the idea is more than my brain can manage and I have to trivialize it in order to continue breathing.

“I know,” my tall and dark husband says, “but I believe it.”

The sun dips behind a menacing cloud and the Basilica darkens. Its luminous stone façade suddenly looks drab, desolate. My husband wanders off to the contemporary collection, I turn to the modernists.

*

When my kids were small, they used to loll around on the floor of their father’s studio with big sheets of butcher paper and paint while he worked. One day Lucy was teasing Nick because he always made cows and he shot back, “All boys paint cows, and anyway, I’m just starting. I’m going to paint a lot of other things.”

*

Sitting on a narrow bench in the Modern Collection (from 1905 to the 1960’s), I think about the day we lost Nick at the Sacre-Coeur. The area under my jaw constricts and saliva begins to pool in my mouth. There is a quickening of the blood as it moves through my veins. My arms crossed tightly across my chest, like armor, I lean forward and stare at the floor.

We were just walking around and then you were gone. We looked and looked for you, we did. Where did you go? Was it a portal? Can we go there now and find you? Please. Or are you in here? Are you at the Pompidou? Is this where you went? Did you go through a door we couldn’t see and just come here? Are you in the big Fernand Leger, in the corner, with the cerulean and the ochre? I would have thought you’d go to a Picasso, NickNack, but did you decide to trick me with a Leger?

Or was it the perfect little interlocking slats of varied woods of the floor, all different colors, that drew you to the Pompidou?

I’m rocking back and forth now with clenched bones holding in the torrent. I don’t want to cry in public, but now I am convinced some bad magic really did happen and it is true that we lost him here in Paris.

So this is what happens if I let the stoppers out? This is what happens if I think about it?  Unbelievable, unyielding pain? Shredding of intestines? The longing, like gravity, for you? Then bring back the stoppers because I can’t live like this.

My husband walks into the gallery, sees me hunched over, sits down and puts a large hand firmly on my back, just between my shoulder blades.

*

It is 11:06 and I am at the desk in our hotel room, looking at the black night outside my window as if it were a painting. I want to believe Nick is sleeping peacefully right now, across oceans. If I could just know that, I would ask for nothing else. I haven’t gotten any texts from his caregivers, so he must be calmer than last night. I want to believe that with all my heart. I want to just slip into sleep and trust that all is well. Oh, I want.

Then, in the window, I can see Nick and his sisters painting in their father’s studio, the plywood floor a medium gray and the walls pure white in order to contain the colors of the paintings with neutrality. Against this palliative backdrop, my children are exuberant, messy, incongruous. Small pots of tempera are pushed to one side. The children lie on their bellies in baggy shorts, no shirts, legs flopping languidly as they move brushes across paper.

And then Nick looks up at me across time and space, as I sit at my computer in the dark. He smiles at me from his childhood, his cherub mouth so young and new, “I told her, Ma, all boys paint cows. I’m going to paint a lot of other things before I’m through.”

Miriam Feldman is a painter, writer, and mother originally from Los Angeles, California. After her son, Nick’s, diagnosis with Schizophrenia more than ten years ago, she began writing to document and explore the ways this new reality affected her relationship with her children, her husband, and herself. Her blog, https://www.miriam-feldman.com, explores issues of motherhood, mental illness and the politics of our mental health system. She holds an MFA in fine art from Otis College of Art and Design. Her paintings are in collections across the United States. She is represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, Ca. Most recently, she joined Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization to fight discrimination and educate around mental illness. She is on the Advisory Council and has a monthly blog on the website https://bringchange2mind.org. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts including https://player.fm/series/who-lives-like-this/art-and-chaos-with-mimi-feldman and http://www.sheilahamilton.com/category/podcasts/. Find her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/mimitheriveter/ where she is busy building a community of family and loved ones dealing with serious mental illness. Miriam now resides on a farm in rural Washington State with her husband, Craig. Nick lives in the small town nearby. She splits her time between the farm and Los Angeles, painting, writing, and staying active in the mental health community.

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Child Birth, Choice, Guest Posts

No Kids, No Regrets

December 27, 2019
zoe

By Lisa Mae DeMasi

“Children are not a zoo of entertainingly exotic creatures, but an array of mirrors in which the human predicament leaps out at us.” John Updike

Until a little princess, right out of a storybook, toddles into the seating area of our gate. She is unhurried, functions in her own dimension, immune to the chaos, the germfest, the push to get to point A to B.

Her presence casts a tiny spell on me. My book collapses into my lap. I’m drinking her sweetness in: a beautiful, clean-faced, bright-eyed little girl—a gene pool homerun.

What would my path have looked like with children in it?

Rarely do I question my decision to forgo becoming a vessel of reproduction. My goal in life was to become CEO of a wildly growing company, not wiping little beasties’ noses. I even left my husband when he wanted them. But as sometimes happens, this delightful girl seems to be showcasing my poor decision. She looks like what I imagine my little girl would have looked like had I not married my dark-haired husband of 5’7” with a 27-inch waistline, but Bob Redford.

Not to mention that I never did become the CEO of wildly growing company, and the jobs I have had have been sort of wildly unsatisfying.

I watch her, feeling that regret wash over me. She stands on sea legs between her mother’s thighs, crunching Cape Cod potato chips with less than perfect execution, savoring what makes it into her mouth. She babbles, a form of self-engagement, and randomly feeds “Kit-Tee,” a wide-eyed cat peering out from a crate on the floor.

Women of all ages watch her, heads cocked, wearing expressions of maternal yearning, remembrances, maybe regret, like my own.

I bet she still has that baby smell thing going on. You know, like puppies.

I surmise, too, that Zoe’s recently graduated from applesauce and whipped franks to adult food. And now, I think, and a disgruntled flatline my mother used to wear when I was in high school settles on my lips, her parents are giving her junk food, creating an unhealthy palate and a rhythmic type of oral indulgence.

I elbow Dennis. “If that sweetness were mine, I’d give her a hard cooked egg and fruit to eat, not crap food.”

He eyeballs Zoe for a nanosecond, nods and returns his gaze to his handheld.

I think of the other things I’d feed Zoe: Greek yogurt, kale crisps (much softer than potato chips), hummus, non-GMO whole grain crackers, organically grown vegetarian stuff.

And then, Zoe begins to choke.

When adults get something caught in their throat, we place a napkin to our mouth, cough, grumble it away. If that doesn’t work? We set into panic. We choke like hell to obtain clear passage. We don’t care how much attention we draw doing it. We want to live and we fight like hell to continue doing so.

Zoe, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the threat of death. Maternal instincts, ingrained in women’s DNA, alert three to their feet. Those not wearing headphones or enthralled with an electronic device, register a disturbance.

Zoe has one hand on her mother’s knee, stabilizing her squat before Kit-Tee’s crate. She brings herself upright and faces me. Her blue eyes have teared up, no sound comes from her windpipe. The fragments of crap food are lodged in her throat. She is the little girl I never had and wish was mine and she can’t breathe.

Someone, do something.

The book slides off my lap and crashes to the floor as Zoe’s mother scoops her up and lays her across her knees.

The little girl lies there flat as an ironing board.

Zoe?

Three deft pats on her back and Cape Cods chips in a variety of shapes project from Zoe’s mouth. Saliva spills over her lips. Oxygen returns to her lungs. She cries.

The maternal patrons lean in, ask if Zoe is okay. Her mother waves them off. “Yes, thank you,” she says.

My dream child is back on her feet; the waterworks have subsided. Her father strokes her cheeks dry. Her mood changes back to the state of pre-choking as if by a flick of a switch. I pick up my book from the floor.

She’s perfect again.

She asks for another chip.

This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.

I listen with the book covering my face, curious to learn if good ole mom is going to give her toddler just off Gerber Stage Four another chip.

“You can have some Goldfish,” she says.

Goldfish?!

In a Mickey Mouse voice, I say onto the open pages, “How ‘bout some yogurt?”

Dennis elbows me, a prompt to behave.

Over the P.A., a flight attendant announces the initial stages of boarding.

We gather our things. I impart a secret smile to Zoe, which she catches. Means nothing to her.

When we’re settling into our seats, an emaciated brown-haired woman with a Tom Petty overbite slides in. Her thighs are the same width as my forearms, and Zoe appears in the aisle. She’s screaming like a banshee. Ear piercing stuff. I barely get a glimpse of her because she passes by so swiftly—her father carries her like a surfboard. This must be a common position for her—flat and rigid.

Zoe’s mother follows behind, toting a handbag crammed with baby survival equipment and the crate containing Kit-Tee. She wears an expression indicative of the relief she’s feeling that her husband has finally stepped up to the plate, but also of deep embarrassment about her imperfect daughter.

Emaciated Woman and I snap together our respective seatbelts. By the sounds of it, Zoe has been strapped into a seat four or so rows behind us. Amid the chaos of the 737’s boarding, she has stopped crying and is sweetly introducing Kit-Tee to neighbors.

And now again, I wish she were mine, mine, mine.

The cabin is packed. There’s little clearance, cramming of luggage in overhead bins. Last minute phone calls are made. The air is stale. Actually there is no air. Tim is giving emergency landing instruction, his props old and yellowed. The teenager across the way is licking the remnants of a BK cheeseburger from his thumbs. Zoe’s voice pierces through all this clear as a bell. She has dismissed her affections for Kit-Tee and is dead set against keeping her seatbelt fastened.

“No, no, no, Mama!”

My dazzling opinion of this little girl, wanting to drown in the pools of her aquamarine eyes, having envisioned birthing her through my own womb and canal, flickers like a film noir played on an old projector. I don’t want it to. I want her to remain fresh, magical, novel, her presence filling me with regret about what I could have had.

The flight gets underway. The minutes slip into hours, it’s horrendous. Not because of turbulence, the crew, Emaciated Woman, or lack of turkey, sprouts and avocado sandwiches. It’s because Zoe’s steady stream of “no!” is now followed by parental correction with an edge and curmudgeon-type shushing. My iPod is packed away in cargo below; I have no way of tuning out the racket, which would have kept Zoe magical to me. Instead, I watch the display that shows the plane’s elevation, speed, and the long ass Midwest state we’re hovering over.

We’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.

Dennis types away on his laptop, the time flies by for him. I listen to little Zoe carry on; tearing apart her magicalness. She was so perfect before.

When descent at last begins from 40,000 feet, cabin air pressure intensifies. Zoe begins wailing with a set of lungs worthy of crossing the English Channel.

I know this: if I stayed married, I couldn’t have had all the daring affairs with executives my father’s age. I wouldn’t have experienced the freedom of telling off Gloria Steinem and discovering the rugged beauty of the West, proving myself and doing “boys’ chores” where my leg “got broke.”

So what’s the seduction of remorse, regret?

Even if we are self-actualized, accomplished people who have had good lives, why do we actually like that deep longing for what we could have had? And that’s when I discover something really genius about not doing things.

It makes us heroes in our own minds. It buoys us up. We can’t do everything, there will always be paths we could have taken. And the brilliance of that is we get to imagine doing it all and being perfect at it. I know I know we’re supposed to stay in the moment, but most of us don’t because the moment can be as boring as a…well, a long-ass plane ride.

So, thinking of all those unlived lives can be a way to boost self-confidence for one happy soaring moment.

If we’d written the novel, we would have written a bestseller. Not going to Hollywood to audition for all those bit parts and staying back east, we get to imagine our lives as movies stars. Not going to law school means we can tell ourselves we would have been kick-ass prosecutors, killing it in the courtroom. People tell us not to regret what could have been, but actually it’s sort of fun. Not becoming a mother is so much better than actually becoming a mother because I can imagine I would have had the perfect child. Never mind the choking, the quick-switch moods, the screaming like a banshee. I would have nourished my daughter perfectly, and she would have been absolutely flawless.

Zoe snaps me out of my reverie. She’s back to her ear-piercing screaming. Somewhere around 15,000 feet the display shows the aircraft has overshot SFO. The plane’s nose is sticking into the Pacific.

I see around me that people are glimpsing in Zoe’s direction—even Emaciated Woman—and shrugging their shoulders in a way that suggests they wish they could envelope their ears with them.

Land is drawing ever closer out Emaciated Woman’s window, but we’re back on track, the pilot tells us the 737’s nose is destined for the runway. We drop elevation in big chunks until at last the wheels skid. Only minutes remain before we get off this tin bus and little Zoe will disappear from my life forever.

When she and her parents file out before us, I catch those beautiful aquamarines, her body is horizontal and at waist-height again. In my mind I make peace with her, thank her for giving me the chance to be a perfect mother to a perfect child.

She has returned to lightheartedness and answering the saint-of-a-lady behind her about what color Kit-Tee is.

“He’s pink and purple,” she says.

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on two sequels. You can contact her at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.

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Current Events, Guest Posts

Mueller Time

December 19, 2019
mueller

By Pam Anderson

It’s a hot day. The sun beats relentlessly and the sweat rolls freely and excessively down my back and legs as I cut the grass, and because I’m angry, I appreciate the feeling of punishment that the heat doles out.  We’ve recently had a significant storm in our small town, and so I’ve had much debris to cut, carry, rake, and stack along the edge of the driveway for the city clean-up crew.

I’m mowing on the diagonal, and as I get as close to the skirt of the driveway, my feet tangle in the uneven edges of the stacked fallen branches and I trip and thud heavily to my knees. The left kneecap throbs, but I manage a mostly graceful one-hand-on-the-mower-one-hand-pushing-off-the-ground return to an upright position. I, with equal grace, scream out “Mother Fucker!”, but my words are drowned out by both my mower—which has not stopping running—and the chipper down the block, busy grinding up a neighbor’s 60-foot pine tree downed by the storm.

My knee hurts, and my bad back has been aching from the physical labor, but I am dedicated to finishing the job.  I’ve got to do something, keep busy. The television drones on in the house as Robert Mueller, III, truncated and repetitive in his testimony, disappoints me.  Outside, wearing a gray “It’s Mueller Time” tee shirt purchased years ago, when the outlook of everything felt more promising, I mow ferociously and try to make peace with him.

I spend time in my head re-hashing what I’ve heard of Muller’s lackluster responses and I rationalize that he is just a man.  My mind instantly skips to the lines from the Jesus Christ Superstar musical number sung by Mary Magdalene, “He’s a man…he’s just a man”. The irony is not lost on me:  so many hoped Mueller would be our savior.  Sadly, he really is just a man, and he cannot fix the bigger thing that is broken in us, in our country. More importantly, it’s not his responsibility to.

I make a return pass of the lawn walking directly into the sunlight, and without warning, the weight of the day—the real weight of the day—hits. It’s Mueller and the self-satisfied Republicans who grilled him and treated him like an incompetent child, yes, but this moment, the one that forces me to physically double over, is so much more personal than that.  This moment’s pain is the culmination of ugliness and hatred all around me—big and small—the kind that sprays and ricochets like bullets, landing mostly on the vulnerable. And to those who are recently emboldened to behave aggressively and angrily simply because they can, my daughter, one of the vulnerable ones, wears a bullseye on her chest.

***

My daughter has a communication disability, a processing and word retrieval disability.  Her disability is invisible, and she presents in a completely average way, which tends to work against her.  People assume she’s a certain something, but then she’s not; they feel deceived..  And people get mad about it.  They get mean about it.

When Rachel lived with us in Las Vegas after high school, she stumbled through a series of part time jobs. She was fired from each one: Tropical Treat Frozen Yogurt, Port of Subs, Atria Elderly Care Facility, JC Penny’s, Energy Options Call Center.  Because of her disability, Rachel has trouble remembering a series of verbal directions—she loses track after 2 or 3 steps—and because of this she’s been accused of being lazy for not completing a task fully.  Rachel has a hard time thinking on the spot—she needs time to process—and so she’s been called dumb by customers when there is a problem at the cash register.  Rachel isn’t savvy—she was fired from the call center because she forgot her headset was “live” even if she wasn’t on a call, and so she was taped discussing with co-workers the partying she had done over the weekend.

My daughter’s vulnerabilities don’t end at work.  Peers misunderstand her.  Rachel studies people hard when she’s in a conversation, because she’s trying to focus.  In high school, girls accused her of staring at them or of giving them creepy looks.  Rachel doesn’t understand double entendre, so classmates made jokes and then called her “retarded” if she didn’t get them.  As she got older, young men found her attractive—she’s a beautiful young woman—but they also found her confusing. Rachel wasn’t practiced at the nuance of being flirty or coy, and so dates felt rejected and responded in kind, triggering Rachel’s insecurities.  A few early relationships did some considerable emotional damage to her; in one case my ex-husband and my son sunk to physical confrontation of a boyfriend, wanting to do considerable damage right back.  They came to their senses when the boyfriend ran, scared.

Rachel received educational support in school since first grade, and as is common, after years of being pulled out of class, she hated feeling different.  She started to reject support in high school, resulting in failed classes. I worked with her and found outside-of-school support and paid to send her to private speech and language therapy, but I could only do as much as Rachel would allow me to do: she had been led to water, but she was the one who had to decide to drink.

When our family moved to Wisconsin, Rachel moved in with us for a few months as she figured out what was next. I thought our small town would be perfect for her; maybe people would be more accepting, less unkind. She lasted here three months.  Turns out small towns practice a different kind of mean, but it’s mean all the same.

Because of the experiences I’ve seen Rachel go through, I have a heightened sensitivity to watching people treat others with blatant disrespect. And I’ve seen so much of it lately: from people offering my daughter opinions meant to sear and scar, all the way up to the president insulting others with his words and actions, separating us from our humanity, walling us off from one another.

The day of the Mueller Congressional Hearing, I seethed at committee members who spat rude remarks as Mueller sat taking it, seemingly either confused or incapable of biting response. But I was also mad at Mueller for not being who I wanted him to be, for not behaving as I’d hoped: strong, defiant, righteous.  The feeling of anger on behalf of a person while also feeling anger with that person for not fending off the ugliness—for themselves, but maybe also for me—hit too close to home. I couldn’t watch anymore.  The best I could do was tend to my lawn, trying to create  some sense of order.

Pam Anderson is a former high school English teacher, recently retired. After 30 years of helping young people with their writing, she to enroll in a graduate Creative Writing program and finally dedicate energy to her own. Pam is presently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Sierra Nevada College.

 

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Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, Self Love

Who Are You Now?

November 6, 2019
snow

By Jamie Della

I moved to the mountains nearly two years ago to be with Joey, my beloved mountain man. I wondered if I moved too soon, just a few days after my youngest son graduated from high school and went to live with his dad. I disassembled the nest, so how can I call it empty? I didn’t realize the purpose it gave me to keep a home warm and inviting. I didn’t know what winter would feel like.

I lay on my couch, under a blanket, looking out of the window at the white sky. The falling snow is easiest to see against the dark green mass of a broad spruce tree. They say it will snow all day, maybe even become a blizzard. It is the perfect day for a three-hour meditation, a devotional practice as part of the second year in a priestess training program. I am learning how to be still.

There had been no time for the loneliness that now surrounds me when I was racing through southern California traffic from work to my sons’ soccer games, then to Trader Joe’s to keep up with ravenous teen boys’ appetites. Now I even miss getting up before the sun to make my sons eggs and bacon before heading off to school. I miss hugging them in the morning when they were still warm from bed.

Occasionally, the snow that clumps on the spruce tree branches becomes too heavy and falls to lower branches. I wonder if the top branches feel inadequate for not being able to carry such a heavy load? Do they feel guilty for making another take on their burden? Of course not, I think. That’s just me who wants to carry more than she can. Or maybe that’s being a mom?

And as if on cue, the wind whisks away the fluffy snow in spirals. Yes. I understand freedom that comes from the wind. I have a gypsy’s wanderlust, happiest when rambling through a mountain meadow or on a road trip with an open map and the great wide world. Most of the vacations I took with my sons were road trips, going as far as I could, just like Eddie Vedder sings, “Gas in the tank is like money in the bank.”

And now I sit watching snowflakes. There was no space for isolation amidst the perpetual doingness and competitive drive to build a life of luxury in Orange County. Now, the nearest big box store is two and a half hours away, in another state. The grocery store is twenty minutes away, unless there is a white-out blizzard. There is never a reason to hurry and traffic means waiting for a car or two to go by. I live in a town of 700 people, who mostly keep to themselves, unless I want to hear how Jesus saved them. I don’t.

I miss gathering around the appetizers at family parties like a hoard of starving vultures and listening firsthand to the antics of my seven nieces and nephews. Usually someone in my family will call during the monthly birthday parties or holidays, but it’s not the same. You can’t tease your mom for drinking from your glass of wine or have a food fight with your sister over the phone.

I slow my breathing and remind myself that through my silent meditation I hope to build a foundation of peace, stability, courage, and creativity in the quiet of my own inner wisdom. I watch as the individual snowflakes fall. They say no two snowflakes are alike. Some snowflakes float in a rocking motion, like a boat on the sea. Other snowflakes are like pinwheels or the spinning girls at a Grateful Dead concert. Some snowflakes are long and irregular, as if they collected other snowflakes to them, like star-shaped, flying skydancers. Others look delicate, like the snowflakes my sister and I made as kids by cutting folded squares of white paper.

I think of the crystalline shapes that form when you speak to water. That must be life responding to the words. I wonder if it could, would the snowflake lament the conformity of being singular? Does the snowflake care that its uniqueness is not special or outstanding in the least? How can you be special if everyone is special? I can’t stand the idea. My chest tightens. I remind myself to breath. I think of all the things I have considered as outstanding, including my own parenting. The house suddenly feels too quiet and Joey won’t be home for hours. I get up and walk outside to the wood pile.

The snow blankets the land, erasing the contours of the earth, covering the sagebrush, bitterbrush, and our campfire pit. It rests in clumps on the thorns of the rose buses and the bare branches of the aspen trees. It has nearly buried my wrought iron writing chair and desk. I cannot see the 13,000-foot mountain peaks because of the white wall of snow.

This whiteness reminds me of the silver streak that begins at my forehead and has now reached the bottom of my long, brown hair. I am entering my winter years. The golden glimmer of my youth has faded like the leaves from every tree but the pines and spruces. Heads no longer turn when I walk in a room, and I realize that I no longer want that attention. It was an exhausting any way.

I grab four logs, walk back into our home, and carefully stuff the wood burning stove. The embers glow molten orange and the fire roars to life. I turn to gain heat on my back where I need the warmth to feel supported in this maddening world as I seek the best part of me.  In this moment of pure loving surrender, my heart and mind begin to open to the all blessings I have known and the ease of my life today. This is what I wanted after all.

I don’t have to fight for a parking space or work in a cubicle. I am not doling out punishments for breaking curfew or smoking pot. My sons are creating lives of their choosing and I am proud of their independence. I am in love and my mountain man loves me. I play with clay on my potter’s wheel, finding shape, trimming, firing, glazing. I slake my thirst from earthenware I have made. I take care of friends I haven’t yet met at our successful vacation guesthouse. I set out the rocking chair that once lulled my babies to sleep when the guests bring the wee ones. But, I don’t go so far as to make them chocolate chip cookies. I’ve learned to let go of some burdens and tend instead to the fire within. I feel the Goddess rise in my consciousness through the stillness. I am grateful for the quiet and content, I realize, for perhaps the first time in my life.

I return to the couch and pull up the blanket. I see a pattern outside, as if snow is choreographed as it falls from the sky. Each snowflake is part of a dance, like a ballerina who dances for the sake of dancing. Can we be like the snowflakes, living for the sake of being exactly who we are in the moment, no matter who is watching or keeping score? Perhaps. The idea feels right and fuels my desire to let my uniqueness stand out against the white blanket of winter, like words on a fresh sheet of paper.

Jamie Della is the author of nine books, including The Book of Spells (Ten Speed Press, October 2019), an “Herbal Journeys” column for Witches and Pagans Magazine and an essay in River Avenue Book’s #Me Too anthology. She has been published by Rebelle Society, Manifest Station, and SageWoman Magazine. She has been awarded Best Reference Book from the International Latino Book Awards, Book of the Month from Las Comarades para las Americas.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Why I’ve Stopped Reading Parenting Magazines

October 2, 2019
magazine

By Tariya Mukai

I was finishing up a purchase at a maternity store a couple years ago when the shop clerk shared with me a special promotion on parenting and housekeeping magazines.

“Sure, sign me up!” I shrugged. I liked to read, and I actually really liked reading about raising kids and keeping a nice home.

Before I begin, let me say that I don’t have anything against parenting magazines. They’re so cute! I love the bright, colorful pictures, and I’ve always found the writing to be fun, both casual and informative. I especially look forward to the holiday guide with reviews of “The Best Books and Toys” of the year and all the photos of beautiful Christmas decor and fancy cookies (which never quite turn out like the pictures when I make them).

So my decision to filter the parenting info that I intake is a personal one—the way some people limit their carbs to lose weight. It’s not that all carbs are bad; a diet needs good carbs to be healthy. I just eat too many carbs that make me feel bad.

It was the middle of a hard year for our family; I became a regular at the pediatrician’s office, bringing the kids in  every six to eight weeks because of an allergic reaction or hand-foot-mouth or the chicken pox (which my daughter caught before she was old enough to be vaccinated). We were on Week 2 of hand-foot-mouth, which was slowly taking down each member of the family every so many days, when I checked the mail and found that month’s issue of the parenting magazine I was subscribed to. The cover story was about “Ways to have the best summer ever!” I pointed it out to my husband and laughed bitterly, “I can sum this up in one line: Don’t get hand-foot-mouth if you want to enjoy your summer.”

I was already a pretty self-conscious mom, so that year wrecked any confidence that I had left as a mother. I berated myself for not keeping my kids healthy, and I didn’t have the time or energy to teach the kids their alphabets and numbers or do fun science experiments. A clean house basically meant the dishes were washed and the laundry clean (not even folded and put away … just clean!). At that time, it was difficult to convince myself that I was a good mother.

But I walked away from that year with an important lesson: For a mom like me, who struggles with comparison and perfection and is quick to believe the lie that I need to do more to be a better mom, I have to be careful with what information I’m feeding myself, whether it’s through social media, Pinterest, or the latest parenting best-seller grounded in revolutionary scientific research.

There are no rules in parenting, and for a mama like me who desperately wants to know what to do to ensure that her kids are happy-healthy-kind-smart-brave, it is particularly frustrating that there is no Parenting 101 class or “Guide to Raising Perfect Children” book.

Parenting magazines and books are the closest things that I have to the parenting rules that I so desperately seek. If you tell me there are “5 ways to keep your house clutter-free,” I will live by those rules with a religious fervor that will turn everyone in my household against me. If you give me an article outlining “How to raise a child who is kind,” I will do all the things, even if it goes completely against the parent that I am or the children that I have.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that having the perfect home and the well-behaved children and the healthy meals on the table are not indicators of the job I’m doing as a mother, or more importantly, how much I love my kids. Mom guilt is real. So when I’m already feeling bad that I let my kids watch too much tv or eat Costco pizza two nights in a row, the article about how bad screen time is for child development or the feature on “How to make a week’s worth of healthy meals in just one hour!” just makes me feel defeated.

The pictures and the stories in the magazines and on carefully curated social media accounts are supposed to inspire us mamas. But when I’m in a position of feeling “less than”, it feels like salt in the wound, like I’m not doing enough to cook healthier meals or manage the kids’ screen times better.

So until I can work out those issues within myself—until I can trust that I’m a good enough mother because I love my kids and do my very best to care for them—I’m careful what I’m feeding myself (good carbs, anyone?). I refuse to be overwhelmed by All The Things that go into parenting; I will not become a fashionista/healthy chef/interior decorator/expert disciplinarian in one issue. I need to take it one thing at a time.

I still end up on Google or Pinterest for stir fry recipes and classroom favors during the holidays because I want to learn how to make a killer stir fry for my family and I want my son to feel proud by the gifts he hands out to his classmates. But these are the things that I’ve chosen to focus on because I think they’re important, not because someone in a parenting magazine is telling me it is important.

I’ll figure out for myself what is best for my kids because they’re MY kids.

Until I can trust my voice more than the parenting experts outlining the “five ways to prevent toddler meltdowns” (because they’ve never met my toddler and survived her unstoppable meltdowns like I have), I’m just gonna recycle my parenting magazines. For now.

Tariya Mukai is a stay-at-home mom/former teacher/future librarian living in Hawaii with her husband, daughter, and two sons. When she’s not chasing after her kids, she loves spending time with her family at the beach, running near the ocean, reading everything but romance novels, and writing about motherhood. You can find her work on Instagram at mama.keiki.reads.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

depression, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

The Intruder

September 22, 2019
intruder

By E.F.C Warden

I remember how my brain started working, how even well before my daughter was born I kept envisioning her death. Not a peaceful “died in her sleep” or was “born sleeping” death but horrific versions of the same endings.

While pregnant, I would envision falling on sharp objects that would pierce my belly and my daughter and end her life. I saw myself being hit by a car and her tiny form being squished to death inside of me. We died together in many ways inside my mind.

Visions after visions of our untimely end filled my senses on a daily basis to a point where it was all I thought and even dreamed, my brain consumed with how she would die and when she didn’t fulfill the nightmares new ones would form in their place.

This should have been my first clue something was wrong.

The thoughts never ceased after her birth. I thought she would die during her arrival. I thought she would suffocate from my inability to progress during labor. I believed she would choke to death or stop breathing before she was even born. Continue Reading…

empty nest, Guest Posts

Hello, My Future Self!

May 24, 2019
self

By Claudia Hinz

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

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Potty Training in a Typhoon

April 12, 2019
potty

By Melissa Kutsche

I scramble to fill pitchers, water bottles, and vases with water, creating a mosaic of receptacles on the kitchen counter. In the bathroom, I give the tub a quick scrub before plugging the drain. As cold water creeps up the side of the tub, I listen for chaos to erupt from the living room, where I’ve left the circus. My son is strapped into his bouncy seat, and my two-year-old daughter is sitting next to him, poring over board books. Naked. The typhoon has hit on Day 2 of what mommy bloggers call “potty training boot camp.” Like the kitchen counter, our living room floor has also been taken over, but by blankets – knitted, fleece, lady-bug-covered, and fringed. A plastic potty sits in the middle of the blanket patchwork.

I turn off the faucet and pray we won’t have to drink the bathtub water. Back in the living room, my son, only five weeks old, has fallen asleep in his bouncy seat. When he is older and doing the two-year-old version of American Ninja Warrior around our house all day, every day, I will miss these moments of his confinement. My daughter, the one without any pants on, is now over by her play kitchen. “What are you making, sweetie?” I ask the little chef, recently promoted to big sister. This week’s specials have been treats like blueberry-tomato tea and banana-corn soup. Instead of responding to my question, she lifts up her hands and looks at them with eyes gaping and lips curling. It’s getting dark, and I squat down for a better look. It’s the classic game of “Poop or chocolate?” I lost. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, travel

Tearing off the Supermom Cape

April 11, 2019
buddhist

By Dena Moes

“SIXTY THREE!” I shouted at my husband Adam and daughters Bella and Sophia. They had wandered into the kitchen expecting me to serve a meal one Saturday afternoon like I always did, with a smile and cloth napkins, most likely Genetically Modifed Organism-free and locally sourced.

“Do you know what that number is?” I asked, staring into their surprised faces. The girls, ages thirteen and nine, shook their heads, eyes wide.

“That is the number of times I feed you each week. Can you even believe it? Sixty friggin three. That is three meals a day for three people, seven days a week. And it is not even counted as a job. It is extra, taken for granted; on top of my actual paying job, plus laundry, paying the bills, keeping up the house, and arranging and chauffeuring all your damn activities.”

“What’s with her?” Bella asked Adam as I stormed out of the kitchen and into my office. I opened my laptop to scroll Tripadvisor.

Adam and I were plotting to rent out our house and spend a year India, visiting family, traveling, and learning. In the meantime, this unexpected thing was happening to me. Now that I knew we would be breaking the routines of our American family life, my patience with them and my belief in their absolute necessity dwindled. I had been holding down so much for so long. Sixty-three meals a week for thirteen years of parenting and I don’t even like cooking.

*** Continue Reading…

Adoption, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Adoptive Parents are A**holes, Too

March 31, 2019
adoption

By Gina Sampaio

We didn’t exactly set out to have five kids. We had a girl, we had a boy, we had a vasectomy. Then we had a foster baby boy and adopted him. Then his birth mother had another boy whom we fostered and adopted and then a girl whom we also fostered and adopted.

Um, you know you can say no,” my friend said when she found out about the baby girl. “I know. But I can’t.” I replied.

But does that automatically make us really good people? Or does that just make us…suckers? Aren’t we actually just baby whores or, maybe more accurately…gluttons for punishment?

Because here’s something I realized after a four-year break between infants: there’s a lot about babies that really sucks. And the novelty of being woken up multiple times per night wears off just a little bit quicker with each kid. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

Spinning: A Love Letter About Genetics, Written to My Son While He Played in the Swimming Pool

January 30, 2019
pool

By Amie Reilly

“Watch me, watch me” you yelled and in my head I started singing that pop song that came out a few years ago, the one you learned at summer camp and then taught yourself to play on the saxophone. The song wormed its way into my ears, sloshing around the same way water does after I swim.

You were spinning somersaults in the pool. Holding your nose while you did it, trying to do two in a row. I watched you (watched you, watched you), and counted your flips on one hand, the seconds you were underwater on the other. I still fear for your life the way I did when you were inside me, a fear that loomed larger after you were born and your skin stretched translucent over your skull.

There is a part of me that wishes you would stay above the water, where boy lungs belong. “I’m gonna try for three now,” you said. Your thumb and the knuckle of your pointer finger were still pinching your nose closed, the rest of your curled fingers blocked your smile. I used my hand to shield that old fool sun from my eyes. When you came up for air I clapped. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting

Toby’s Questions

January 28, 2019
toby

By Ruth Arnold

Last night, my 13 year old son came in my room looking sad, a little sunburned in the face and worried. He had that need-to-cry look so I said, “If you need to cry, I’m here. We can talk while you cry or I can wait”. He said with tears, “I just need to cry a little so I can talk.” I was in my bed watching tv with my dog and also feeling somewhat nervous about an upcoming event that I was fairly sure was the source of his needing to “cry a little”.

In two weeks, I am going in for a full hysterectomy. I am told via ultrasound examination and gynecological review that I have dermoid cysts on my left ovary. Dermoid basically means yucky stuff but not cancer. I am a breast cancer survivor so it’s very hard for me to separate the matters as the same hospital for this surgery was where I got my radiation treatments for my cancer. So, my fear is here. My brain knows it is irrational but my emotions tell me that that is the cancer place where you go at 6:00 a.m. every day wearing a wig so that you can make it to work on time on the other side of town, stay alive and not scare your students with a bald head.

“I’m just scared a little bit”. I said, “Me too but not because I won’t get through this. I’ve had that kind of scare before and this isn’t that”. Continue Reading…

Divorce, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Seven Cupcakes

January 14, 2019
cupcakes

By Sara Rayfield

Seven is an odd number. It’s also prime.

“Hi, baby!” I greet my son warmly, as if doing custody exchanges at the police station is totally normal. Just like prime, odd numbers – this is our normal. It’s where shit like this happens when you have a restraining order against your ex. When things are bad enough, he’s not even allowed in the police station, so I get the pure sarcastic joy of my former in-laws every other weekend. That’s also what happens.

“How was your birthday party?” I ask, while getting a weekend’s worth of dirty clothes shoved into my arms. And cotton candy. And McDonald’s bags. And the packages of cupcakes that I had packed with care on Friday afternoon. Seven cupcakes: one for my son. One for his grandmother, one for his grandfather. Two for his aunt and uncle. Two final ones: one for my son’s dad, one for his stepmom. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts

On Permission

January 3, 2019

 By Varsha Tiwary

Permission: the act of allowing, to enable or grant something; the right or ability to do something that is given by someone who has the power to decide if it will be allowed or permitted.

In India, the first thing children learn at school is how to ask for permission.

“May I come in Maa’m?”

“May I go to toilet. Maa’m.”

By age seven, children also understand that going to toilet is a code phrase for all kinds of things for which permission is verboten. So if you want to go out to play, loiter or eat you say you want to go to the toilet. When older, if you want to go out on a date, you seek permission to attend a birthday party of a same sex friend.

Well versed in the lexicon of  seeking permission, my fifteen year old daughter is endlessly fascinated by the relative absence of the concept of permission in American High School life. Initially it befuddled her.

When she asked her classmates, who to ask, to change a class, she was greeted by amused smiles.

‘You don’t have to ask, just go and tell the counselor what you want, she will sit with you and work something out.”

She also learnt within the first ten days, that though rules are to be followed, permissions must be self given. You want to step out of the class, pick up a pass and go. The teachers do not complain to parents if a student is not following the rules. They sit with her and discuss the problem and it’s implications, which she is considered adult enough to handle. There are no permissions required for what and how to wear, how to sit, how to comport, for the way they keep their hair, or the footwear they prefer.

When her friend got an ‘E’ in four subjects, the teacher told her she needed to put in extra work on them and maybe she should meet her after class to chalk out a plan? There is hardly any shaming, naming, ordering; the staples of Indian School life. Yet the responsibility is placed irrevocably and unmistakably in the student’s court.

In India, this whole business of asking for permission seeps into our DNA so much, that even when we are adults, having no dotted line to sign or a chalk marked boundary, not to cross, we are overcome with doubt. We tend to look around, who to ask? What if this is not allowed?

On the River Road crossing, a man stands every evening with a placard, “Trump is an Idiot.” I often give him a thumbs up and he goes wild, waving and blowing kisses. High school students sporting backpacks adorned with “Not my President” badge wait for a bus  and wave back at him.

My mind shifts to Delhi. Angry saffron Gods and cow protection bumper stickers. Ruling party flags fluttering from car hoods of vehicles. Dissent stickers exist only in dreams. Adulating T.V channels. If levels of ordinary, everyday dissent is a barometer of rigidity and authoritarianism of leadership, than Trump lags behind woefully, no matter how hard he is trying. Not for lack of effort on his part, but because he is hamstrung by a culture which is fundamentally allergic to seeking permission. It wouldn’t occur to ordinary Americans to ask for permission to differ, for permission to speak up.

In a feudal culture, even one which wears democratic ribbons, like India, everyone is wired to face read the King before they open their lips. People are so well –versed in the language and subtext of authoritarianism that they weave compliance in their behavior, much before it is sought. The most important ability of the King is the power to withdraw all kinds of permissions. Permissions are not self given, but achieved by proving loyalty. At an individual level, to refrain from dissent is self preservation.

Silence saves skin. Voluble support of rampaging Authority is even better. It insidiously lets you abrogate to your craven self, all kinds of permissions. Instead of counter- opinion, we see loud visible expressions of   support for the King, to maximize approval points. The tooters of the horn can mainline on all practical permissions of day to day life by having the system favour them. They can also open the pandora’s box of darker permissions; of speaking their ugliest most unconscionable thoughts aloud, and revel in the fear on the faces of the powerless. The smug comfort that derives from bowing before a flexing muscular authority. The way selective rights are a balm on picayune self esteem of those who need a reason for their failures. A permanent denial of conscience becomes the ultimate permission of the morally corrupt.

***

The biggest, sweetest thrills of my college years came when I flouted tyrannical authority. At that time, in my town, Chandigarh, the dictat of Punjab militants ran. All women were required to dress decorously, as defined by militants. Those who had to keep rule of law, either looked the other way or were too busy with more important things than to prevent men from shaming women who did not stick to the dress code. Overnight the vibrant campus was over-run by flocks of decorously dupattaed women, heads covered, going around demurely on the campus. Several incidents of erring women being slapped and abused were reported and it put us on an edge. Many women and many professors sided with the militants, saying this was one good thing being done by them.

Me and my friend Ruchi, lived for the adrenalin rush of evenings, when we both rode our bicycles, throwing all the “not alloweds” to winds. The keepers of culture having called it a day, we raced out wearing forbidden jeans and tee-shirt, hair open, heads gloriously uncovered. Only when we had cycled up to the lake and jogged on the Chandigarh lake front in our indecorous regalia, did we feel fit enough to return and breathe again the cloying air of the women’s hostel. Many years later as a professional and a homemaker who took up Krav Maga classes in Delhi, I was still the one to roll my eyes and snigger at a woman who innocently declared on the first day that she was in the class as her husband had allowed her to join it to regain her figure after child birth. Permission seeker, my antennae buzzed, unkindly. Yet, for all the cool defiance, the pretenses of autonomy, I too have always internally sought permissions for doing things that were most important to me.

Like writing. For interminable years, I belittled what I wrote as mere scribbling in journals, a frivolous thing. For the world thought so. It was a hobby, an entertainment. Certainly not as meaningful and valid, as writing an audit report, a project report or a manual of Office procedure. May be, because it was not my day job and there was no one to rate and mark and assess me for that. Even though writing animated me and was meaningful to me, I forever looked for an outside authority, to be able to step outside my closet of secret writer. Everything else, housework, children’s homework, husband’s lunch was more important than what I wanted to do, but for which I could not give myself permission.

I was a woman from the same patriarchal, permission seeking culture and despite my insistence to be otherwise, I had so internalized permission seeking that for a long time I could not summon up courage to do what I needed to. I required company, which I think is just another way of seeking permission; to step out and embrace my singularity. Only a fortuitous friendship, a mental holding of hands with a like- minded woman enabled me to take the first timorous steps in the world of writing. Like those cycle rides to the lake front, the free fall into creativity was its own reward and once in it, I looked askance no more.

In a permission seeking culture, everyone, but most dangerously, women, who are subject to even more rules, become their own censors. The self which becomes either a withdrawer of permissions, or seeker of licenses, cannot create art. What after all is creativity, if not all the freedom, with all the responsibility of granting to yourself the inner permission to explore and experiment, without having any set destination, a defined, profitable outcome? To feel the feelings that you thought were inappropriate? To voice opinions that you know are not approved? To wear wrong ideas as openly as you would a wrong dress?

At the High School Art Show in American High School, four halls are arrayed with rows upon rows of triple hinged screens, the kind that are used as room dividers in hospital wards. They act as display boards for a dazzling variety of art, oil canvasses, water colors, mixed media, sculpture, installations, digital art, photography; the show is one long celebration of freedom to experiment. Some of it is good. Some is awful. In fact it is the bad ones that fill me with most wonder. In the school back in India, one of Delhi’s top schools, anything less than excellent would never be displayed. Artistic excellence was pre-defined and only what met the standards would be deemed fit to display.

How would anyone learn to re- define excellence then? The display boards may look good, but the artistic spirit shrivels up. What all could happen if all children everywhere were permitted to jump off the boat called permission?

Varsha Tiwary, currently on sabbatical from her nine to five job; writes short fiction constantly to make sense of people and events around her. Her works have appeared in DNA-Out of Print, 2017; Kitaab, Muse India, Basil O’ Flaherty; and are forthcoming in Gargoyle press, Jaggery Lit and The Wagon. She lives in Washington DC.

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

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

 

Join Lidia Yuknavitch and Jen Pastiloff for their WRITING & THE BODY RETREAT. Portland April 5-7, 2019. Click the photo above.