Browsing Tag

surviving

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Four Shots: Looking for Signs of a Life

August 14, 2021
white

by Suzanne Orrell

The black and white photograph you scanned that day shows your mother ­–– my would-be-mother-in-law. She is holding you on her jutted-out hip in waist high water at Lake Pontchartrain Beach. Her dark curls gather under a sun bright straw hat. Upturned crinkles smile at the corner of her eyes. The crook of your left arm is firmly clasped around her neck. Sunshine catches water droplets that linger before sloping from the fingertips of your right hand. Fred, your older brother, easily splashes beside you. The shot captures the roller coaster tracks of the Zephyr in the background as they arc skyward before sinking into troughs. You look certain that she, is

Your mother, guiding you down a playground slide. Your brother sits behind you, hands taut against your tummy. Both of you, dressed in plaid, short sleeved shirts patiently smile, not one hair out of place on either of your heads. This shot shows how the skinny white belt encircling the dark material of her dress accentuates your mother’s waist. Her hair looks freshly done. She has recently applied lipstick. She looks stylish, seems cheerful. The gleam in her eye is genuine given the low sky, broken by distant storm clouds. When you first discovered this photograph a couple of years ago, you called me in from the kitchen. Somehow, in all this time, it is one you’d not seen. “Does this look like her?” you ask. I couldn’t believe you weren’t certain that, she is

Your mother, tacking friction rubbed balloons to the wall for your birthday party. The black and white photograph proves it is your fifth because the number five is visible on the party-hat you are wearing. Neighborhood hat-wearing children gather with you around a large, unopened present. Even Jingles, the German Shepherd, wears a hat. Your mother wears one too. If there is a gleam in her eye in this shot, it is obscured from behind her cat-eyed glasses. Her hair looks flat, faded. She does not smile. She is staring down the barrel of the camera. If a look could kill. Her floral apron makes her look frumpy. “Has she put on weight? Or maybe, is it conceivable she’s pregnant with my sister?” you ask.

The final shot you scanned that day shows a tall glass lamp with a dark lampshade crowned by a belt of white ribbon. The lamp offers zero illumination. The black and white photograph shows off the lamp’s proportions visible in the long-necked taper toward the flared curve of the base. It is graceful, transparent, window-pane wavy yet impossible to tell whether the lamp is wired for a three-way or single wattage bulb. After the photograph was taken, your mother, custom fit tiny red pieces of tile to this lamp, little mosaic pulse points positioned in cement. Then, in one final action she extinguished her own life. Your mother is absent, missing, from all further photographs.

Today, the lamp sits in its final resting place, a monument on a waist high table in your stepmother’s house, surrounded by accumulated clutter, a melee of mail–some not even opened–magazines, mess. Despite its height, despite its grace, despite the red tiles, despite her handiwork, the lamp tends to go unnoticed amidst the chaos. It’s plugged in, but rarely, if ever, switched on.

You, forever her son, scan the documentation, search the long shadows in black and white, looking for clues that she, is your mother.

Suzanne Orrell lives and writes in Idaho. A former chef and caterer, she finds that writing, like cooking, requires patience, craft and honesty. When she’s not writing or dreaming up the next meal she enjoys taking long walks, playing tennis and travel.

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

Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Abuse, Guest Posts, healing

What I Didn’t Know

August 9, 2021
ugly

by Ruth Arnold

I didn’t know that a father wouldn’t solve all of my issues of being fatherless for my children.I didn’t know he would yell. I didn’t know he would make us feel bad. I didn’t know he wouldn’t be home a lot. I thought I could manage him and still give my children the luxury of two parents. I didn’t know that when he was yelling in the house that they were getting hurt and made to feel unsafe. I didn’t know that when I calmed him and told them he’d had a bad day that they felt I was choosing him over them. I didn’t know that they would feel better at home when he wasn’t there. I didn’t know that  things wouldn’t get better. I didn’t know that yelling was not better than silence than not speaking as in the house I grew up in.

I didn’t know that I couldn’t fix him. I didn’t know that when he was annoyed with me it wasn’t about me being annoying. I didn’t know that I couldn’t modify myself enough to make him happy. I didn’t know that if he was unhappy with me that my children would feel he was also unhappy with them. I didn’t know that spending more time with him in my life would only make things worse. I didn’t know why I felt so lonely in a house with three people. I didn’t know how to make things different without also making them worse. I didn’t know that being quiet and also talking were both problematic so I had no mode of behavior that would make it better.

I didn’t know that loving talent and intelligence were not love. I didn’t know that the first person who asked me to marry him actually gave me a choice of yes or no. I didn’t know that I was worthy of seeking. I didn’t know that staying married wouldn’t prove everyone wrong because nobody was checking. I didn’t know that if I told everyone about how good things were with my husband it wouldn’t make it true. I didn’t know that I was not the only problem. I didn’t know that he wasn’t better than me. I didn’t know that he could be kind to others and so unkind to me. I didn’t know that he could be so unavailable to his family yet so able to stay late at work and help others when they needed extra time.

I didn’t know that I should feel good in my home. I didn’t know that I wasn’t mentally ill. I didn’t know that I wasn’t ugly. I didn’t know that I wasn’t boring. I didn’t know that I was worthy. I didn’t know that I should’ve been treated with kindness. I didn’t know that when I was sick I should’ve been helped. I didn’t know that everything wasn’t my responsibility. I didn’t know that I was doing everything for everyone and being challenged for not doing better.

I didn’t know that while we were sexless he was seeking sex with others. I didn’t know he regarded me as so awful. I didn’t know that he didn’t hope for things to improve. I didn’t know that he felt lying to me was justified. I didn’t know he kept his schedule nebulous for more reasons than real conflicts. I didn’t know that he was available to others for intimacy but not for me. I didn’t know he spoke ill of me to others.

I didn’t know he would die But then he did. And then I knew.

Ruth Arnold is a widowed mother of two boys living with metastatic breast cancer. Her husband passed away almost 11 years ago but only lately has Ruth begun to share her story due to complicated grief and shame that she is working to overcome. This essay was inspired after she shared the story of her husband’s death to her two sons ages 10 and 16 who were 9 and 5 years old when he died. In spite of this darkness, Ruth is living happily and well.

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


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

Isolation Blues

December 29, 2020
people

By Loreen Lilyn Lee

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

~ The last moments of normalcy. ~

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

                     Then everything        changed.

                        Seattle reported the first coronavirus death

            in the U.S. on February 29.

                                    Soon after, each household became an                       island.

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

            No one knew

                        a state-wide lockdown was imminent.

           I began   sheltering   in place

                                     Fri day            March   13

                                                            when the college         shut down.

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

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

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

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

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

      When will we be able

                                    to dance        in   public   spaces    again?

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

            A Zoom ex istence is an         e m pty                     one,

                                                like living on a            desert               island.

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

            By early June

                        in     iso la tion        for twelve weeks,

                        without         touch ing or   being     touched by

                                                             a living,          breath ing soul.

~ I grew up on the island of O’ahu. ~

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

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

            The nearness of people is    on  hold        for now.

                                                            I           get       it          and  sorely miss it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading:

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts, healing, Mental Health

The Long Path: Healing the Wounds of Childhood

December 15, 2020
bag

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete.
It’s so f***in’ heroic.”
–George Carlin

By Julia K. Morin

When you look at this photo, you probably see nothing more than a plastic bag.

I see the trigger that caused me to have two panic episodes in the hospital— the first roughly three years ago, and the second about a year ago — and ultimately, the catalyst for me realizing I was struggling with unaddressed childhood trauma tied to my mom’s sudden death 25 years ago, and needed to seriously consider trauma therapy (which I began almost five months ago). Unfortunately, due to current events with the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing and the transition to virtual therapy sessions as the new normal for the time being, my therapist and I came to the decision together to table any further trauma “digging” until we’re able to meet in person again. I quickly learned just how emotionally triggering and draining these sessions are, and that I need as much support as I can get — in person — to get through them.

I’m proud of the difficult trauma work I’ve already done, I’m proud of myself for taking the first step (despite how long it took) to recognize that I needed this help, and then getting it — without any shame, explanations, justifications or apologies. And I know I still have a lot of hard, emotional work ahead of me when we resume. But that grueling work is what needs to be done in order to begin peeling back many complex layers, and prying beneath the surface I’ve just barely scratched all these years of loss, trauma, triggers, and how this has all manifested in my adult life.

It has taken me a while to open up about all of this, but recently I had to pick something up for some medical labs, and was sent home with this bag. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because I only saw the white side of the bag. It wasn’t until I got home, put it down and saw it in my dining room, and the words on it, that I realized it wasn’t just any plain old white plastic bag — and felt the familiar panic rising up.

I crumpled the bag up in a ball and threw it in the trash. I crumpled myself up in a ball and threw myself into bed. I took the bag back out of the trash and broke down crying and wanted to set it on fire.

Because 25 years ago, I saw this very same ‘patient belongings bag’ in the dining room of the house I grew up in…and its contents were the clothing & jewelry my mom had been wearing when she entered the hospital, and died less than two days later.

In April 2017, I was in the hospital for a diagnostic procedure (my first time in a hospital as a patient) prior to surgery, and suddenly found myself inconsolable. And then I had an epiphany: the plastic belongings bag I had been given by a nurse. A light bulb went off in my head. And then everything got very dark.

And this is how a plastic bag became the thing that makes me come undone.

My hope is that over time, addressing & talking about this and other trauma triggers/memories (and addressing associated cognitive distortions) will help to lessen the panic and intense emotion an inanimate object or other visual association has been causing me.

Because right now, it feels like a Goddamn plastic bag has control over me.

I keep catching myself saying it’s stupid or it’s silly, because…it’s just a bag. But in truth, nobody else can possibly know or understand how “just a bag” makes me feel. And now I recognize this as trauma.

My plastic bag is someone else’s fireworks that trigger the memory of an explosion that nearly killed them while deployed overseas. Or another person’s certain smell that they associate with someone who abused them.

This is hard, heavy stuff, and I understand not everyone is comfortable with it. I’m still not completely comfortable with it. But if you’re still reading, please remember to be gentle & kind with yourself and with others.

Because these are the invisible battles people are fighting as they go about their day, doing the best they can and just trying to be okay. These are the silent struggles we so often don’t see or know about that keep people up at night. These are the reminders we all need that everyone carries an invisible burden on their back, and what we see portrayed on social media is rarely a complete picture of what people are dealing with internally.

At eight years old, I watched my mom being loaded into an ambulance in our driveway from a bedroom window. That was the last time I ever saw her. That was the last time I would ever see her again for the rest of my life. Will I ever “get over” that? No. Certainly loss and traumatic experiences change shape over time, and we somehow figure out how to continue on with life and adapt with that massive void in our hearts. We learn to “dance with the limp,” in the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers. I know many, many people who have experienced and witnessed horrible, painful things that have changed them forever. They will never be the same. They will never “get over it.” They will be forced to learn a new normal and to figure out how to breathe with a piece of their heart missing, and they will survive and maybe even thrive eventually. But there is no date they will circle on a calendar with a note: “Be done hurting about this by today.”

These experiences are a key part of our stories. But do they define us? No. Neither does how long it takes us to process them, to feel a little less broken apart, to start to patch our shattered hearts back together, to feel “okay” again. And it’s okay if we’re never completely okay again.

It’s okay if we dance with a limp forever.

And, a note about grief now that I’ve recently survived the 25th anniversary of my mom’s death, and another Mother’s Day without her: grief is not linear. Neither is trauma. There is no straight line from point A to point B. There are no shortcuts. There is no right and wrong; no mathematical equation or formula. It has taken many years for me to figure out that the reason I’m still carrying around such a heavy burden of grief and trauma from my childhood is not because I’m broken, weak or somehow defective at healing. It’s because I experienced a significant loss and associated trauma at an age where my brain was still growing & developing, and simply was not capable of processing the loss and its magnitude. The result in these cases is typically a sort of delayed processing that only really begins to occur later in life.

And then one day at 30 years old, you have a panic episode in a hospital (followed two years later by another), and suddenly realize the sheer weight of this grief and trauma you’ve been carrying on your back for 22 years is actually crushing you. It’s winning.

So I decided to take back my power and start on the path of turning trauma into healing. I’m giving myself credit for doing the hard, painful work…and giving myself grace that it’s not going to be an overnight process.

This bag is my cross to bear. It is the tidal wave that keeps trying to ravage my boat, knock me down and drown me.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it steer this ship.

Julia Morin is a writer, wife, aunt, dog & cat mom, sister, daughter, friend, and a survivor, residing in New Hampshire. She is passionate about ending the stigma around both mental health and grief, and speaking openly about these struggles and the ways they have impacted her own life.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Surfacing

December 4, 2020
wife

By Erin Jamieson

Lake Victoria, it is said, is what sustains life in Uganda.  The second largest freshwater lake in the world, it breeds the White Nile and the Katonga River. Transport cargos and ferries carry goods and passengers. Water is harnessed for electricity. Fisheries are established along the edges.

And yet, we cannot call it our own. The lake seeps into both Kenya and Tanzania. As much as we’d like to think so, it belongs to us no more than it belongs to them.

* * *

“So you are concerned with intimacy.”

My wife sits in an armchair beside me, stiff as stone. Her eyes do not meet mine when she answers.

“Yes.”

The doctor shifts in his chair. He is a balding man of maybe fifty or sixty, with narrow eyes the color of flint. “And what are your concerns, specifically? Is it frequency?”

My wife’s cheeks flush; we do not talk about such things, not in public or private. “We don’t at all anymore,” She whispers.

The doctor turns to me. “Has your wife expressed a reduced desire—“

“Not me,” She interrupts. He raises his eyebrows. It is rare for a woman to interrupt. She bends her head, humbled, “I mean, he does not want to. When I….he never…..”

“This is true?”

I stare at the doctor. On the wall behind him, a clock ticks like a heartbeat. I wish my wife would look at me, but I do not blame her. And the things I need to say I cannot.

“Yes. It’s true.”

* * *

Kampala is a haven in a world of chaos. Where once bombs shattered the earth, it is respite for the homeless. Day in and day out, Congolese refugees poor in like ants. We watch as tents rise across the outskirts of the capital. Desperate mothers and children with dirt stained cheeks and fathers whose eyes are clouded.

We came here because of my wife. She insists this is the only place we will be heard. Here, even though she is a woman, she can speak of such things. There a hospital instead of practices with thatched roofs. Here, there are therapists, they say, that can help more than traditional medicine.

What she doesn’t know is that I belong here. That even though we still have our home, I am every bit the refugee as the rest of them.

* * *

“Do you find yourself unsatisfied with your wife?”

I stare out the window, at the crystal blue sky. “My wife is beautiful,” I say.

The man clears his throat. “I understand you were in Congo.”

“I was studying there,” I say.

“Studying……”

“I am a professor at Makerere,” I explain. “My wife and I live just south of here. “

“I see.” He studies me. “You were taken by the rebels?”

I twist my hands in my lap. “I was…mistaken for a spy.”

“Is it possible the experience as prisoner has made it more difficult to be a lover?”

I glance up at him and see someone else. I see men without faces, whose breath smells of dust and sweat. I feel hands made of leather, forcing me still.

But I am a man. A man is able to fight, when he needs to. When he feels weak, he never shows it. A man endures pain as a woman does when she bears a child.

“No,” I say, “I don’t see how.”

* * *

My wife is a magician; though we have not always had money, she can always find ways to fill our plate, to pay our dues. Today she cooks matoke on an open wood fire. The banana peels form cocoons around the bowls of shredded chicken, cabbage and tomatoes, which she will make into a stew.

“It smells wonderful.”

Silently, she starts a kettle of water to boil. The steam rises in the air like a phantom. I let he finish, and when I join her at the table, the smell and warmth of the food makes me feel as if I might vomit.

“Do you know what they are saying? The women I see in the markets, the streets? They are talking about me. How my own husband does not desire me.”

I swallow a spoonful of the stew. It scorches my tongue, and maybe that is best, because my words no longer have any power.

“You don’t spend time with me. You don’t eat my food. Am I a bad wife?”

Her eyes are glistening with tears, and I know she is picturing the same thing I am; the son we buried three years ago whose skin was tinged blue and his head the size of my palm.

Then, we’d been told that God had other plans. But it was a burden my wife carried, to have her femininity questioned.  To feel the stares of women who’d been blessed with homes of seven, eight, nine children.

What I want to say is that I am much less a man than she is a woman. That, now, I know that probably was my fault, too.

And now. Now I do not know if we will have any children, ever.

It is the greatest shame, the greatest punishment anyone can imagine. And I have given it to the woman I love, the woman I labored for to produce a dowry of five handsome cows.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Her eyes flash. “I wish that were enough.”

* * *

I change my pants three times before we leave for the appointment. The pain is almost unbearable today, but worse is what it reminds me of. The past three weeks I have hidden my soiled clothes, washed them by hand at night while my wife sleeps. That way, I can spare her from seeing the stains.

“We’re late,” My wife complains as we walk in. She strides beside me, self-consciously adjusting the collar on her dress. Since I became a professor, we have begun to dress the part, but I think we both miss the traditional dress. Western clothing is strange, stifling.

The doctor greets us and smiles. “So good to see you. Sit.” He folds his hands in his lap. “How has this week been?”

The room fills with silence. The air is suddenly too thick.

“I see.” He ruffles through the pages of a notepad. “If you don’t mind, I think it would be beneficial to talk to the two of you separately. “ He looks at me. “Is this comfortable for you?”

No good husband would leave his wife alone with another man—even if he is a doctor. A wife is sacred, treasured. Even more so for a man who only has one.

“Of course,” I say, when what I really mean is, I’m sorry.

* * *

“Now that we’re alone, is there anything you’d like to say?”

No.

“It would help me to know everything. Is there anything you haven’t told your wife?”

I think of my wife, her wide chestnut eyes, the dimples on her cheeks. “There is something,” I say.

The doctor leans forward in his chair. “Another woman?”

I shake my head. “She is the only one for me. It has always been that way.”

“There’s no shame—“

“It was…something….that happened to me.”

He studies me. I can count the number of breaths I take. “Tell me,” He says.

And when I speak, I already know that I am falling. Already, it is too late.

* * *

We were told to march. We were not told where we were headed, and we did not dare ask. We started in the chill of the morning and continued past sunset. By the fifth day, most of the men’s’ feet were bloodied, the soles of their shoes peeling off.

When we finally stopped, we were ordered to help build fires. We gathered in groups warming our hands as the rebels roasted meat and ate stale crackers. We were offered none, even though our stomachs were empty and our heads light.

The rebels placed us in groups. Mine was taken over a group of trees nestling the camp.

A rebel walked around us in a circle, a rifle strapped over his back. “Bloody spies,” He spat. “Do you know what we do to spies? Show them the same courtesy they’d shown us.” He smiled and looked at us, one by one. I lowered my gaze. “Drop your clothes.”

It was unthinkable. Stripping  a man of his clothes was taking his dignity. One man—the smallest of all of us, with squirrely eyes and breath that smelled of despair—dropped his britches quietly. The rest of us stilled.

“Do you need some convincing?” The barrel of the rifle, suddenly, was shoved into the side of my head. “Go on, take them off, or I shoot.”

Shaking, I dropped my pants. The others followed suit.

I looked up into the sky, where the dusk had fallen. The sun was the yolk of an egg, stretching across the horizon. My throat burned. What would I tell my wife, my friends, my coworkers?

I was thrust forward to the ground. I spat up dirt, craning my neck, but a hand held me down. I could hear laughter as my undergarments were torn away. A chill ran up and down my spine.

The rebels were singing witch doctor songs.

We lived on a diet of two bananas a day. Two bananas, and I don’t think any of us could have stomached anything more.

* * *

There is a beat of silence, and it is shocking to find myself back in the tiny room with the cozy armchair.  The doctor studies me for a minute.

“How did you come home?”

“There was….a skirmish among the officers. They were arguing about who would get the last of their supply of coffee. One of us…took a chance, reached for one of the guns. Shots went off….some died, some escaped.”

“So you escaped.”

“I guess I was lucky,” I say, not believing my own words.

“Yes.”

I shift my position in my seat. It feels as if I am sitting on thorns. I wait for him to ask how this has affected me, what it was like. How I survived. Instead he shakes his head.

“Have you told your wife?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Then I suggest you do.”

I swallow. “What do I tell her? That her husband is a weak man?”

The doctor doesn’t deny this. Instead he stands, and without looking at me, ushers me to the door. “Tell her the truth,” He says.

* * *

My wife is resting when I enter. She lifts her head, her dark hair a curtain around her face. “You’re home sooner that I expected,” She says, standing.

“Aye,” I say.

“Well?”

I meet her eyes. “Kabirinage. My love.”

“What is it?”

I step closer to her. Our faces are inches apart, and I can smell her scent: like sweet clover and freshly fallen rain. I curl my hands into fists at my sides, telling myself I must not touch her.

“I am sorry,” I begin. “I am so sorry.”

“You have decided to take another wife?”

I shake my head no. It is not in our religion to do this. I know many men do, but we were both raised Protestant. We do not believe in polygamy.

“You should know why,” I say. “Something happened to me.”

If she is surprised, she does not express it. She waits patiently.

“I was taken prisoner,” I begin.

“I know this.”

“But you don’t know everything,” I say.

“Tell me, then.”

And so I do the only thing I can; I do what the doctor proposed and have known all along I must do.

I speak, and plant the bitter seeds of truth.

* * *

When the police come, I only feel numb. It is a familiar numbness, the same numbness that came to me after nights of being compromised. It begins in my legs and arms and makes its way to the vital regions—my heart, my chest. It seeps into my body like a serpent, like venom. But it is that venom that I need. I need it, so I will not have to feel or think.

I let the officer guide me by the hands. He asks me to state my name and I do, feeling as if I am shedding my skin. I will never be able to use my name again. I am one of the despised; I am the roaches that lay eggs in dirt covered homes.

Before I am escorted, my wife casts one last glance at me. For a minute I stare into her eyes, but what I see I do not know. Hate. Fear. Maybe pity. But mostly hate.

And I know. She hates me because her name, too, has been shamed. She hates me because she will forever be the wife of a man who is not a man at all.

* * *

When a man is raped, he is presumed to be homosexual.

Engaging in relations with another man, in Uganda, is a crime.

A crime, if convicted, that can sentence a man to a sentence of fourteen years.

Fourteen years. In fourteen years you can build a home, a family, a career, a life. In fourteen years, the love of your life can forget you. In fourteen years, your skin can collect so much grime you cannot recall what it appeared before. In fourteen years, you can forget who you are.

And yet I know it will not be long enough. I know that every minute of those fourteen years, should they come, will be filled with nightmares. I know every minute I will relive the physical and emotional agony of those nights when I was stripped into something less than a human.

Worse yet, I know those fourteen years I will dream of her.

And I will fester in the shame I have brought upon both of us.

* * *

The day is cool and crisp, the sky an icy blue so piercing it hurts to look at. On our way to the holding cell, we drive past Lake Victoria. I can see it in the distance, eerily still, with a flock of birds swooping down to wet their beaks. These birds will rest and then fly somewhere else. But they will come back. Life has a way of working out this way.

The vehicle breaks down and I am told I must walk. I do not mind. I can breathe in the air one last time. I can look at the water and pretend I am swimming beneath the surface. I watch as a young man fishes at the shore. His line is silent and still as the lake, and he looks about ready to leave when suddenly the line jerks.

Letting out a cry, he winds it in, revealing a fat fish, gasping. I wait for him to set it on the shore and gut it, but what he does surprises me. He takes the fish in his hands, letting it flail until it goes still. And then, gently, he releases it back into the water.

With a sputter of motion, the fish leaps back in, under the water, knowing if it has been given a new lease on life, it has no choice but to continue swimming and without glancing back.

Erin Jamison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published in over fifty literary magazines, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently teaches English Composition at the University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash College and also works as a social media specialist.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

THE CHILL GIRL’S GUIDE TO NOT GIVING A F*CK

October 2, 2020
feel

By Charlotte McDougald

Welcome! I’m so glad that you’re embarking on this journey. With this foolproof plan, you are guaranteed to be rid of all of the pesky emotions that get in the way of that exhilarating life you’ve been yearning for. A life with no cares, no worries, and definitely no attachments. What more could we all ask for? By following my personal journey and steps, you’ll be able to come out of this giving less of a fuck than you ever have before. Let’s get started.

Step One:

Make sure you start out with no real attachments. Begin with two parents who work full time in New York City. You’ll spend the afternoons bored reading your mother’s self help books about love and sex and alcohol before you fully understand what any of that means. The pit in your stomach of missing will start to feel familiar, a passing cloud that you can swat away. You’ll learn how to do things yourself, and how to shut up when something is bothering you, because chances are, you can sort it out alone.

Step Two:

Get a boyfriend during the summer after eighth grade, during the summer before his senior year of highschool. You’ll feel uncomfortably cool most of the time, and a lot smaller than most of his friends. He’ll teach you about things like sex and weed and drinking and driving around at 2am on heavy heat-wave summer nights in a black Saab. He’ll whisper things that you weren’t ready to hear, he’ll try things that you weren’t ready to feel.

He’ll teach you what it’s like to be disposable, and you’ll understand that everything is a little bit disposable. Used once, and then one day, thrown away.

You should read Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot after the break up, and take it a bit too literally. This line especially:

 “our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

There’s nothing like remembering that we live on a lonely speck in the darkness to remind us that nothing really matters. After this, you shouldn’t cry over something as meaningless as a boy again.

Step Three:

Develop a distorted dependence on all things that make life feel softer.

Like humor, because you should learn how to make everything a joke. It’s all pretty funny when you look at it from far away. You can learn that from your father.

And alcohol, to make the hard feelings go away for a night. Nothing can be that bad, or feel that deep, when you’re drunk. You can learn that from your mother.

Step Four:

Turn everything into a game, especially with boys and men. You’ll get the hang of this in highschool. Be the only girl who drinks herself into a blackout on a Wednesday night, so that way you don’t have to remember the horribly boring, sometimes painful sex with the random, gangly boys you hang around. Always leave their beds in the middle of the night, even if the feeling of their embrace makes you feel human, makes you feel whole for a second, makes you feel safe.

Untangle, unattach, get out.

Step Five:

Let go of fear. You’ll be afraid of a lot, you’ll be unsure of even more. Never show it. Soon, you’ll forget you even felt fear in the first place. Another cloud you can swat away.

Get to college, and do coke off of a washing machine your freshman year with the boy with the accent. He’ll fall in love with the way you don’t care, he’ll fall in love with the way you don’t text him back, he’ll fall in love with the way you move so effortlessly through life. And you’ll lie to him, and take Molly in a bathroom stall with a different boy that has his sister’s name tattooed on his wrist.

A few months later this one will slap you across the face in your kitchen at 3a.m. because he wants you to “FEEL SOMETHING!” (direct quote)

And you’ll laugh after when you’re alone in your bed, because everything is funny if you look at it from far away. Remember?

Step Six:

Move away for six months to a country on the other side of the world. Find yourself in the mountains and in the reflections of your face in the lakes. Lose yourself in the feeling of being a lonely speck, a tiny speck, a 21 year old speck in the million, trillion year old oblivion.

Take surf lessons, jump off cliffs, jump out of planes, meet new friends and fall in love.

I mean really, really fall in love this time. He’ll love you because you write postcard essays and poetry. He’ll love you because he likes the way you make him laugh in serious situations. He’ll love you because you smoke cigarettes and do drugs and that’s not like most girls he knows. You’ll fall in love with his sweet eyes, and his quiet calmness to your tangled up mind, and his gentle way of making you feel understood. You’ll love his innocent way of looking at you, his innocent way of looking at the world.

You’ll love the way he makes life feel softer without any distorted dependence on anything other than him.

You’ll be the bright shock of light that wakes him up in the middle of the night. But after a while, he’ll go back to sleep. And he’ll be exhausted.

And you’ll be alone at the first light of dawn. You won’t laugh this time, but you’ll swat it all away. Keep swatting it away.

You’ll want to stay in bed for days, you’ll want to bury yourself in a bath of tears. But that’s not what chill girl does. Get up, put on some concealer and mascara, a little dress, and take a shot of vodka. Sink back into the comfortable feeling of missing.

You’ve been here before, and you’ll be here again.

When your roommate sees you out at the pregame in between your second line and your fourth drink, she’ll say:

“I’ve never met someone who gives less of a fuck.” And she’ll laugh, and you’ll laugh back.

And voilà! Chill girl who doesn’t give a fuck.

Warnings and Cautions:

Readers should remember that there will be many bleak mornings with headaches that feel like they cut into the core. Readers should also consider that swatting away doesn’t always work. You’ll often find yourself waking up on a pillowcase stained in tears and stale mascara and you’ll bury yourself in the darkness of your bedroom, and in the aloneness of it all. You’ll feel drained and raspy from the secret tears you let go behind bedroom doors.  You’ll lose your appetite, you’ll lose some friends, you’ll lose love. You’ll miss your mother and you’ll only crave to crawl into bed with her at the end of it all.

You’ll want to scream out, into the middle of a crowded night,

OF COURSE I GIVE A FUCK.

OF COURSE I FEEL SOMETHING.

OF COURSE I FEEL EVERYTHING.

Charlotte McDougald is a recent Chapman University graduate with a BFA in Creative Writing. She enjoys writing poetry, the personal essay, and fiction. The power of language has always inspired her, and she plans to continue her writing career in Los Angeles!

Other upcoming events with Jen

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

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Divorce, Guest Posts

She Cannot Make It Out

September 22, 2020
water

By Stina French

He isn’t grieving but she imagines him grieving. Maybe he’s grieving. She dreams he is talking to others about her as if she is dead, though they are only divorcing. He says she loved the moon. She loved the moon so much she told our daughter her first word was moon. Though it maybe wasn’t. It made for a good story, and she loved a good story. A lot could be spared with one good story. He says she loved to swim. She loved to swim so much everyone said she was a mermaid. She loved the moon and she loved to swim so much that sometimes she would swim in the ocean at night. He says I was never so brave. He says she cried and cried. Sometimes she cried so much I thought the water she swam in was her tears. She knows he is no poet and would not speak this way.  But maybe in her dreams he is a poet. Maybe he would speak this way if she were dead.

In the dream, she is swimming in a vast sea cave. Other women swim with her. Some girls, some grown.  One watches her jealously or with desire. One doesn’t watch her at all, a small girl. Not her daughter but someone else’s daughter. Someone else’s mother, maybe one day. Surely, she will cry waters of her own making. Some breaststroke in straight lines, some backstroke in circles. This is what they know to do–to cut the water with their bodies. To make the water with their bodies.

She cuts the water with her body as if she could swim a story across and wide.  A story she could live inside. He is on the shore saying I wish I knew what to do. I wish I knew how to help her stop crying. And she is shrinking now hearing these things. She would rather hear him talk about her love for the moon again. The way she is cutting the water with her body. He is holding their daughter. Their daughter she made herself with her body.

The daughter is laughing. He has given the daughter this, and she has given the daughter story. Story does not come without cost. Laughter is free and easy, as he is free and easy. She wonders why she wants him so badly to sink. And though he could not keep her afloat, he wants her there on the surface. He would not begrudge her a view of the moon, from any angle. He wants her alive and happy even if it means swimming alone without him under the moon at night. He does not understand the ocean under the moon at night because the things in the water at a certain depth scare him. He is on the shore saying more things about her as if she is dead, but it is so far now and she cannot make it out.

Now, there is only the story of water. It sloshes, dividing and rejoining. When she left him, maybe she was just parting the water. Maybe all these bodies in the water are parts of herself dividing and rejoining. Water fingers her hair, tugging tendrils into rays, a corona wet and waving. A crown for the Queen of the Unconstituted, Beloved Dissolved. Fluid surrender, shapes spells the moon could cipher if it were watching. Her pulse beats blood in ear canals, her red tide internal. She dreams she is not dead, only swimming. Only swimming beyond bereft, beyond the leaving of a life.

Stina French writes mystery, magic-realist memoir, flash fiction, and poetry. She has featured in many venues in Denver and Boulder, Co., and her work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Punch Drunk Press, and on the podcast Witchcraftsy. She is scratching at the window of her body, writing poems like passwords to get back in. To get forgived. To get at something like the truth. To get it to go down easy, or at all. She wears welts from the Bible Belt, her mother’s eyes in the red fall. She’s gone, hypergraphic. Writes on mirrors, car windows, shower walls. Buy her a drink or an expo marker. She’s shopping her manuscript, Also Arc, Also Offering, a Southern-queerdo memoir in flash non-fiction and verse.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Alcoholism, Guest Posts, Relationships

Fix It

September 17, 2020
bar

By Dan A. Cardoza

It’s never a good thing when you fall in love in a bar.

Especially a treasured sleaze bar where the music is so good and loud the military uses for psychological warfare.

If you love the taste of liquor, as we do, everything that means something is here. Conversely, everything and everyone you love, here, will disappear if you get healthy.

Later that night, at Emily’s we can’t wait so we make love in the back seat of my car she lets me park in the garage. At some disjointed intersection, we end up in the front again. My dash clock pulses 2:30 P.M. It’s the next day. We wake hot and sweaty. She laughs until she nearly pee’s her pants when I share my dream.

“So I’m driving in South France. Vincent Van Gogh is riding shotgun.” I say. “He asks for a tune with stars or wheat. When I play Sting’s, Fields of Gold, I catch him fussing with the bloody gauze on his ear while he falls into a deep sleep. Then I wake up.”

Emily screams, slams the car door and races toward the bathroom.

In the late afternoon, we share a late breakfast of Bloody-Mary’s, eggs, toast, and Italian sausage. If you can believe it, we actually script the next seventeen years of our life. Right up until the wheels fall off.

Getting high brought us together, and tore us apart.

~~~

Being an alcoholic is a young man’s game. It’s when you are too strong and most self-deceptive. I’m in my early 40s’ now, going on 50. Burning dynamite from both ends can do that to you.

My boy and girl need more than a mom and dad that fight a lot, shitty dinners and absentee parents at their school’s open house.

~~~

Emily is angry when I join AA. As for me, I am embarrassed for being so weak, but the group says it’s actually a sign of strength. Apparently, courage is when you cough up blood and throw in the towel.

Everyone on the planet knows about twelve steps. The part I fear the most is about the pain of waving goodbye. Goodbye, to every last fucking thing that gave me a reason to live. Soon after I join, Emily begins cheating on all of us, isn’t present for the kids. She says, “I don’t love you anymore.” She’s a liar when you really love you know each other like that.

What I fear the most has started: the loosing friends, taste, giving up cigarettes, even my rusty laughter at the jokes that weren’t so funny, drunken family and friends. My sponsor put it this way, and he’s no genius, so I can relate, “You have to fix it, son. Your boat is sinking. Just keep bailing the damned water.”

Unfortunately, to save all of us someone had to jump. It was Emily. It broke my heart when she filed for divorce as if I needed anything else broken. That’s when I almost give up, give in. Quick solutions become cravings. Jesus, we were still in love.

At the grocery, loud 90s’Karaoke replaces the intercom’s 60s’ classics. Customers lob cans of beer and whiskey at me like hand grenades, just for reading the labels: clean up on aisle seven please? Someone dropped a bottle.

At work, hidden cubicle doors wag thirsty hinged tongues. Each attached to empty vaults, haunted by distilled spirits.

At home, my Emily infused walk-in takes on the seductive smell of Paris alleyways.

Late nights with the kids in bed are the worse. Suicide guns wait impatiently in drawers and cupboards.

At times I feel crazy, as I endlessly stare at my favorite whiskey carpet stains and the burns from Camel cigarettes, like lovely footprints of extinct creatures.

Before morning, something allows me to catch a few hours of sleep, even though I wake in a pool of sweat and twisted sheets.

~~~

Emily got remarried, after five destructive years of letting go. She and her new husband met at a company picnic. For what seemed the longest time, they quit drinking. I think it was for two months. She had good medical insurance though, through his office plan. It covered all of her expenses when she eventually bled-out at Kaiser. That’s what they call it when your soul oozes from your insides, into your abdomen.

We never see her Ex, at the cemetery, when we leave her bottles of roses.

~~~

Four years have passed since I lost Emily for the last time. She would be proud of me if she’s not drinking.  My religious friends say if you pray enough, heaven is an open bar.

I have both kids in community college. It’s just a start, but that’s all I can afford right now. They are so smart, I’m sure they will qualify for state scholarships.

~~~

For the first time in years, I can relax in bed with the window open. It’s early morning, when the wounded hunt. I look out at the glassy moon. It’s still so damned confusing at times, the moon. But now I’m able to tell the difference between waxing and waning.

Someday I hope to convince myself it’s always waning, and that hanging onto the sharp edge of the crescent is worth it.

Dan A. Cardoza’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have met international acceptance. Most recently, his work is featured in, or will soon be featured in the 45th Parallel, Bull, Cleaver, Entropy, Five on the Fifth, Gravel, Literary Heist, Montana Mouthful, New Flash Fiction Review, and Spelk.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Trauma

I Remember My Dad As Brutal, But It Was Far Worse

August 14, 2020
father

CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse and/or assault.

By Caroline Leavitt

There it is, the photo I have saved to remind myself of the feelings I had tamped down. I’m at my Aunt Gertrude’s sedar table, standing for the obligatory family shot. I’m ten years old, in a starchy blue sailor dress my mother made me wear and though I am smiling, I am terrified, desperate to get away. I can’t, though, because my father is holding my elbow in a vise grip even as I lean away toward my older sister on the other side of me. She’s smiling, not coming to my rescue. My mom, who I love, is outside the frame, her face turned away.

Here are the facts: My dad is a bully who often uses a strap and literally screams so loudly that it sounds like his voice is tearing from his throat. When he talks, he belittles. He never says I love you, never hugs or kisses anyone, and the one time he takes me to a movie, he leaves me alone in the cavernously empty theater to watch the film by myself while he stays at the refreshment stand wolfing down candy. My mom endures him because she doesn’t know what else to do, my sister inexplicably loves him, and his rageful behavior is never spoken about in my house. No, that’s quarantined, a room full of secrets roped off by silence.

Family, I’m told, is everything.

Instead, I learn to bury my feelings, and in many ways, myself. I make myself small—as small as the last line on a vision chart. The one nobody can see.

I grow quieter and quieter because any sort of speaking up can get me hit. I’m not allowed to close the door to my room (and if I do, it will be yanked open and I will be yelled at or struck), but I learn to simulate privacy by getting lost in the world of books, and then writing. I do this for hours and hours because who can yell at me when I am so silent, so invisible? And in books, my writing, I’m lost in a whole other world which seemed much safer than the real one.

I grow up around my father’s rules. Don’t dress like a hippie and embarrass him. Don’t dare get up earlier than he does because I’d wake him with my noise and be punished. And, of course, the rules include what to think. I soon know that my thoughts are not respected, that any opinions have to match his. The government’s always right. Any war going on that the United States was raging is the right one. Women are lesser than men. We are to respect his mother and agree with whatever she does when we visit her every week, and if we don’t say good morning in the right way, he will give us the silent treatment for week, making us beg over and over, “What did I do?” until he would deign to tell us.

But if my thoughts are not my own, then either is my body. We are little girls, my sister and I, but my father never tells us we were darling or smart or beloved. Instead, my father keeps piles of Playboys around the house, the glossy centerfolds of women who look nothing like us, nothing like our mom or any woman we have ever seen, out in plain view and my sister and I stare at them amazed and uncomfortable. One day, my father catches me looking and snatches the magazine away. I go to sit on the couch, and turn on TV, and then my father strides over to me and takes my little hand and shoves it into his wet mouth. Horrified, I jerk my hand free and run to the bathroom, washing my hands over and over, and when I come back, he motions me to him, and he does it again, only this time he’s laughing.

And that’s when I begin to have nightmares. I sleep with the covers bunched over my head and only my nose poking out, terrified. Sometimes I call for my mother and ask her to lay beside me until I fall asleep and then gradually I can and it becomes a habit.

But my father doesn’t like that.

One night, my mother cautiously tells me, “Your father wants you to sleep beside him tonight.”

I look at her panicked. “I don’t want to,” I say. “Why do I have to?”

My mother sighes.  “Please do it. His feelings are hurt. He asked me to ask you.”

“Can I say no?”

I am five. I have no power. That night, I curl into my father’s twin bed, separated from my mom’s bed by a night table, my whole body turns away from my father, facing my mother, whose eyes are closed. All of us have pajamas on, and I’m careful not to let any part of him touch me. I move to the edge of the bed, reaching across to try and touch my mom. I whisper, “Mom,” but she doesn’t hear me. Her eyes stay shut. Mom. Mom. Mommy. In the morning, I wake as my father is getting out of bed, but he doesn’t have pajamas on now, and he is naked and hairy, and I stare at his penis, his balls, the first I have ever seen. He sees my eyes locked on his genitals and he shouts, “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What’s the matter with you?” My mother, rising, says nothing except his name, trying to calm him down. All that day I live in terror that he will ask for me to do this again, but he stays silent, and my mom and I never talk about any of it. But it roils inside of me.

Three weeks later, my mother is called in by the kindergarten teacher because we have been asked to draw paper dolls of our family and I have drawn mine all naked. My father’s penis is so large, it dwarfs him, reaching down to his ankles. His balls are like balloons. The teacher’s concerned but my mother shrugs it off. “She’s precocious and imaginative,” she tells my teacher.

When my mother comes home, she holds me and tells me about the meeting. “Maybe keep things in the family in the family,” she says gently. My sister, listening, looks appalled. “You’re disgusting,” my sister tells me. “You lie and lie and lie. You made Mom feel bad,” she says, and I feel a flash of guilt. I never think to ask my sister, does he ever make her sleep in the bed with him, too?

We grow, and I turn ten and then my sister tells me the facts of life. “It’s revolting,” she says. “No one wants to do it, except for guys.” She bangs two rocks together to show me, a violent coupling that scares me. I grow afraid when I think I’d have to do this with boys. “You just do it,” my sister says, and then she asks me if I want to touch tongues with her, if I want us to touch each other’s butts. I recoil. “Why would I want to do that?” I ask and she laughs at me. But it makes me wonder. Did something happen with my sister and my dad? Or did she escape it all? And if she had, how? What does she know that I did not?

And then I turn sixteen, and then seventeen, and while my sister, the good girl, never rebels, I begin to tentatively speak out and this time, for the first time, my mom yells at me. “Don’t be so independent!” she shouts. She doesn’t like my fresh mouth, my wildly curly hair, the way I dress in skirts so short I’m always being sent home. My dad yells in chorus with her. My sister begins to date and I listen to my mom talking to her about “playing her cards right,” getting married as soon as she can, but not letting any boy get fast with her. “Men need sex. Women don’t,” my mother says, and I listen, bewildered. Was that true?

My sister, newly gorgeous, suddenly has all this male attention, boyfriends who came to the door with flowers and smiles, Is it any wonder I look for my own male attention? That I fall in love so hard and fast with any boy who pays me attention in a kind of madness? I’m skinny and unpopular, and when a known “bad boy” boy in school asks me out, my mother tells me I can go, but we never tell my dad.

That date is magic. The boy likes me. He really likes me. He holds my hands and talks quietly and by the time we arrive back to my house and I have my first tender kiss in our doorway, I am insane with love.  But just as we are about to kiss again, my father barges out in his boxers, his fly wide open, screaming at me that I’m late, and who told me I could date? My father sends him home and then shoves me. He tells me I’m never to see that boy again, and if I do, he will keep me prisoner in the house.

Go ahead and try it, I think, feeling a flush of power. And that whole summer, I lie to my parents about having a job as a camp counselor, about going on overnights, so I can sleep with my boyfriend at an abandoned ski slope by his house, because by then I know for sure that it isn’t just boys who need sex. We are together off and on for a year, and my family never knows it.

I keep dating. My father has no idea about all the boys I sleep with. I keep score in a notebook, as if the amount proves my worth. 70 guys. Then 100. Then more. Every one I sleep with feels like I am ripping away the seam that still connects me to my family.

I go to college halfway across the country to Ann Arbor, as far away as I can get. Every week I speak to my mom on the phone, and when my father gets on, all he says is that I should work hard. “Don’t think I won’t cut you off if you don’t,” my father threatens. He shouts so loudly I have to hold the phone away from my ear. Good, I think. Cut me off. Good.

Why don’t  I ever confront anyone? Because I’m told my memories are wrong, that I must have exaggerated, “the way I always do.” I’m told this  so often, that I begin to believe it. And so I replace those memories with something else: My father loves me. In his own way. I visit home once a year, for two days at the most, and nothing important is ever said. I sleep in my old childhood room, the door locked, the covers around my head.

I am 25 when my father dies. He’s 57 years old, obese, with skyrocketing blood pressure and high cholesterol, a man whose only exercise is walking from the car to our house. I feel nothing about his death. I come back home and my sister is sobbing, my mother wailing, “I want him back.” She is so upset, I didn’t have the heart to ask her why. Later my sister tells me that she thinks she sees him watching over her, his profile in a nearby tree. “He protects me.”

“How?” I ask. She shows me the tree and I stare at it blankly.

“What was so great about him?” I ask.

“Lots,” she says. She tells me when she was in high school and she went to a party, some of the kids were dropping acid, snorting coke, and afraid, she called him to come and get her. “You did the right thing,” he told her. He would always take care of her, she says. “Shame on you for saying those bad things about our wonderful father,” she said.

My father leaves my mother nothing, no insurance money, no savings, but she has the house, and a teaching job, and friends, and without him, she blooms. But for me and my sister, he leaves a legacy. How are either of us to know what a good male partner looks like when our dad was our only model?

Doesn’t it make sense that my sister marries young, a man like our father, someone silent with a temper, a sexist who likes to cup his hands in the air like he was weighing boobs when a buxom woman walks by. I cry at her wedding, begging her to change her mind. “Don’t be silly,” she says. She has kids, one after another, the way our mother had, focusing on them for happiness. When I ask my sister why she stands for his behavior, she says, “because I have to.” When I ask her why she doesn’t shout back at him, she says, “because he can scream louder.”

I’m afraid of marrying a man like my father, like my sister’s husband, so I go for the opposite, the fast talkers who never shut up, who fill the silence so I never have to feel uncomfortable in its danger. It takes me time to realize they keep talking only about themselves, what they want, who they want me to be.  But with all those motor mouths, no one really notices how quiet I am. How quarantined.

And then, in my 40s, I meet Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who’s kind and sometimes quiet and I can’t believe he might really love me, so I test him, yelling sometimes, and instead of leaving, he comes closer, wanting to solve issues, to make things right. He actually sees me—all of me. He wants me to be happy. And that makes me want to revise my childhood, to try to think about it in a happier way, too.

I try to talk to my mother about my upbringing, my voice quiet, composed, even sympathetic to what she must have gone through. “I don’t want to talk about this because I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she says, and then her whole face changes, and she looks a thousand years old, and because I love her, I can’t hurt her, so I stop talking.

I never find out the things I’m so desperate to know, not then, and by the time I’m ready to try to ask again, my mom has dementia, and then she dies. I try to talk with my sister, but she now feels angry with me. She says I’ve stolen her life, grabbing the happy marriage, the writing career, that she was meant to have. The more I try to help her, to talk, the worse I make things. Her rage grows until she estranges herself from me. I haven’t seen her or spoken to her in two years.

So who can I find answers from? How can I put this to rest? I ask my friends, my cousins what they remember about that time, they said only that my father was oddly quiet, that they just felt he had a blah personality. When I tell them what I remember, they see my father through the lens of my reality. “Oh my God, I never knew,” they tell me. “I never imagined. If I had known, I would have done something”.

One day, just before the pandemic begins, I’m sitting with my friend Leora, and she’s asking me about my past, and I start to talk, and as I do, I see her face changing. I talk and talk and when I’m done, she is so still that I worry. “I’m not making this up,” I insist, and she shakes her head and reaches over and takes my hand. She says quietly, “Caroline, you were abused. You have to look at this trauma.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever used that word: abused.

 CLICK.

There it was, the lens of clarity as my friend reflects this truth back to me. And now it’s my turn to look. How could I not have known from the start who my father really was?

And so I go to talk to strangers, therapists who might help me decode what had happened.  When I tell my first therapist that I feel nothing about my father, that my memories are all jumbled up, he insists I am not telling the truth. “You have to feel something,” he says. Then he asks me to consider my father as a man who had had dreams and yearnings, that I consider his feelings, what he might have been going through. And that’s when I get up and leave the room, wired with rage.

And then I find a therapist I love, a woman who tells me that the brain neurons fire and rewire when we’re young, that a lot of what I’m feeling is leftover responses and if I talk about them enough, the firing will get weaker—I will be able to safely bury the past. “And,” she says. “You need to write about it. Writing about it will help you remember what was really going on underneath it all. The brain won’t know the difference.”

And so I do. Here. Now. The old feelings come back in a rage blizzard. I write about my love for a mother who took me to the movies, and was funny and bought me books, but who couldn’t stand up to her husband to protect her daughter. I write about hurt for a sister who seems to follow my mother’s past path unseeing, one choice after another. And I write out my outrage for a little girl who never got to be the adored daughter, who went through terrible things that she knew were terrible but she never once thought: this is wrong. You need to stop.

 And then I hear it again. CLICK. Like when you’re at the optometrist and you’re doing the vision test and you put your chin in the cup and stare at the chart, eyes wide, unblinking, and the doctor clicks different lenses in front of you as the random configuration of numbers and letters grow clearer and blurrier with each one. You see the first row, the second, the third—things seem clear. Then they don’t. CLICK. But the chart itself has not moved. Neither have you. And as you age, your vision changes, your clarity about your life changes, too. But the facts never change. The truth. You just may need different lenses to see it.

Now, I want to go back in time, first to my father to stand up to him and ask him why he did what he did, how dare he not treasure his little girl, how dare he not love her or want to know her? Why did he yell and abuse? Your loss, I want to tell him. You were wrong about everything, I want to say, especially me. Look at me, I want to tell him. I broke the pattern. I have a loving husband, a wonderful beauty of a son. No one yells. No one rages. No one hits or abuses emotionally or physically.

But you did. And it is your loss.

Then I want to go back to that other me, that quiet little girl in the starchy sailor dress and tell her, it’s going to be okay, honey. Because you are absolutely and completely okay. Right now. And later, too. You will be able to leave all of this behind. You will be able to be loved by someone who deserves you, whom you deserve—and you deserve happiness. You will have wonderful friends and work you love. You will continue to talk and talk and talk and write about all of this, telling the story of your family, the truth, until all that pain loses its power and all of your quarantine will be over.

You will remember. You will see.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

 

On Being Human Online Workshops

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

Other upcoming events with Jen

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

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Divorce, Guest Posts

From the Rock to the Pines

August 12, 2020
pines

By Destiny Irons

The frigid wind assaulted and fumbled me, rolling my shirt up over my pale stomach and pulling the crotch of my yoga pants down mid-thigh. I looked up at my chalked, bleeding fingertips digging into impossibly minute protrusions, and down at my toes crimping into barely perceptible fissures. My legs shivered and bounced from adrenaline. The sunny granite warmed my cheek as I flattened my torso and face against it. I took a deep breath in, letting it out slowly, repeating my mantra for the past year in my head: You’re okay. You’ve got this. Just keep moving. The bouncing slowed and stopped.

They say that divorce is like death, but from my experience, it’s really like a violent murder, with everyone trying to figure out whodunit. I’ve been playing a very old American murder ballad, “In the Pines,” over and over again, obsessing over its history, metaphor and haunting melody because the theme so strongly parallels my life over the past year.

In the song, depending on which artist covers it (pretty much everyone from Dolly Parton to Nirvana) the victim changes: the husband/father or the woman. In every version, the woman is always guilty and ashamed, even if she was the one murdered. It’s always her fault, somehow. She runs away to hide in the pines. Like the woman in the song, I had been metaphorically hiding for the past year in what can only be described as a dark, freezing pine forest. Being fully exposed on a sunlit, smooth rock, sixty feet in the air was essentially my coming out party.

In the song, the pines are interpreted in “The Haunting Power of ‘In The Pines’”  on Slate.com, as a “cold, dark wilderness” where “a person has left to be by themselves to face what they are and what they have done.” The chorus goes:

In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
I shiver when the cold winds blow

My journey through my divorce began in victimhood. A woman at a cocktail party, in a similar place, shared her story with me. She kept repeating the phrase “I had no choice,” like a chorus, and I kept murmuring back to her, “of course you didn’t,” like a refrain. Just like me, she “killed” her marriage. She felt compelled to confess to everyone who would listen, justifying herself in order to seek absolution in the court of public opinion. What I see now is that we were both ashamed, wanting to paint ourselves as victims, so we didn’t have to take responsibility for our choices. We didn’t want to kill our marriage, we told everyone who would listen. It was self-defense.

When I listen to Loretta Lynn’s “In the Pines,” it’s like an anthem of victimhood—the abused woman who still loves her man. In this song, the husband murders the wife and her spirit, betrayed and yearning, wanders the cold forest. She sings:

My love, my love
What have I done to make you treat me so? 

You’ve caused me to weep,
You’ve caused me to mourn
You caused me to lose my home.

Victims are just like ghosts—stuck between worlds. They can’t move on until they get some sort of closure. If I stayed that way, I would have eternally haunted those cold pines without resolution, never moving on or learning how to live my best life. I quickly got tired of hearing myself whine, at cocktail parties and everywhere else. It dawned on me that all along I had choices, because everyone does. I could’ve chosen to stay, but I chose to leave. It was my choice.

On the rock, I knew I had to keep going. I couldn’t hang suspended forever. I looked at my feet and calculated my next move. My right foot needed to get into a crevice 12-15 inches above my waist…I slipped, scraping my left elbow and leaving a trail of blood as I fought to hold on. Fuck! I screamed, irrationally angry at the rock. I wanted to destroy it before it destroyed me.

All of my anger at myself for playing the victim I turned right back onto my ex. I was angry and defensive. Whenever someone asked me to explain whodunit, (Gosh…What happened?!”) I would brazenly stare them down and say, “I chose to end it.” I made him the victim. A lot of people I loved turned against me, cutting me with their words, or worse, rejection. I took it. It wounded me deeply, but I didn’t show it. I bled internally. I was ashamed of myself for what I did to him. I completely isolated from anyone and everything. I didn’t need anyone.

This echoes The Louvin Brothers’ version of the song, where the husband-murder victim accuses the wife-murderer. In that one, they sing about how the husband gets hit by a train. They find his severed head in the engineer car, “behind the wheel,” but they never find his body. The wife, it’s implied, was the instrument of the husband’s gruesome death. She runs away to the pines in shame. He sings from the grave:

Little girl, little girl
What have I done that’s made you treat me so?

You caused me to weep
You caused me to mourn
You’ve caused me to leave my home

On the rock, as I slipped and started to panic, I remembered my belayer. I wasn’t alone. I had ninety pounds of fierceness below me, my tiny-yet-mighty-attorney-friend hanging onto my life by a very thin rope.

“You got this!” She yelled.

She caught me, taking up the slack and leaning back to brake. I swung over to a ledge and stood on it, looking up to where I had been, seeing the bloody marks left on the surface of the rock.

My friends and family called me out of the pines. They were my tether back to myself. I sought support from groups of people with similar experiences, therapy, yoga. Gradually, I began to arrive at an acceptance phase. The marriage had been long dead before my decision. I didn’t kill it, nor did he. All I did was call the time of death.

Like the woman in Nirvana’s cover of “In the Pines,” re-titled: “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” I had been hiding in shame, but needed love and support to get out. This is my favorite version of this song, because the singer, Kurt Cobain, has so much kindness for the woman. He’s asking her where she’s been and what she’s going to do, and answers in her own voice, full of pain. The chorus:

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me, where did you sleep last night?

In the pines, in the pines,
where the sun don’t ever shine.
I would shiver the whole night through. 

My girl, my girl where will you go?

I’m going where the cold wind blows.
I would shiver the whole night through.

Cobain is having a conversation with the woman, whom he lovingly calls “my girl.” He gently coaxes her to “tell me” the truth about where she’s been and where she’s going. None of the verses focus on the murder, only her shame and getting her to talk about it. If you watch the YouTube unplugged performance, there’s a moment of pure empathy in the song when Cobain sharply inhales and looks up, eyes open, full of hurt. Then he screams out the last mournful note.

I needed the people I loved to empathize with me, listen to me, and help me. I knew next to nothing about climbing. Even after losing those five feet and the skin on my elbow, I wouldn’t give up.

“Beta!” I shouted down to my belayer. This is how climbers ask for advice. A good belayer will never tell the climber where to put their hands or feet unless the she asks. A climber has to learn from her mistakes, or she’ll never get stronger or more experienced. That being said, no climber climbs alone.

“Look at your left knee,” she shouted. “Put your left foot in the hold where your knee is and push. Then you can reach up to that crack with your right hand.”

“Where? I don’t see it!” I yelled.

“It’s because you’re too close. Trust me!” She answered.

I trusted her. It was like magic. Somehow, my left foot found a solution that I couldn’t even see. I pushed and reached out, wedging my fingers into the fissure. From then on, I didn’t need any more beta. This new route was so much clearer than what I had been trying to do on my own.

I quickly made it to the top, thrilled and out of breath. When I got there, I yanked my pants up and my shirt down, then turned around and enjoyed the view. My belayer cheered, her voice going hoarse from whooping. No pines, just wide-open expanses bathed in orange desert sunlight as far as I could see. Smiling widely, I posed for a picture.

Destiny Irons is a digital content editor for a kick-ass, female-owned company whose entire goal is to save people money, called The Krazy Coupon Lady. She is also attending graduate school at Chapman University for an MFA in Creative Writing. Destiny lives in Southern California, where she enjoys hiking, backpacking and climbing with an amazing, strong, funny group of women who are her tribe. She has two teenagers, Jude and Ruby, and a good dog named Blackjack. Destiny chooses to be happy and grateful every single day.

On Being Human Online Workshops

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

Other upcoming events with Jen

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

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, Interview, Women are Enough

The Converse-Station: Emma Hudelson interviews Erin Khar

February 20, 2020
recovery, drugs

A note from Angela: Jen and I have been fans of Erin Khar for years, and we were thrilled when we were asked if we could share this interview. Erin’s book, Strung Out, is being published on February 25th and Emma Hedelson provides us with a window into Erin’s remarkable story. Enjoy this introduction to both Erin and Emma and after you finish reading, you can order the book here

Introduction by Emma Hudelson: 

At thirteen, I took my first gulp of liquor, kept gulping, and woke up in the hospital. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you it was just a little fun that had gotten out of control. But really, the escape of booze had seduced me completely. It promised disappearance, and eventually, it made me turn my back on a strong education and a promising career as a junior exhibitor equestrienne with a high-performing horse. By the end of high school, my list of disappearing acts included running away from home, getting blackout drunk every weekend, smoking pot daily, developing a cocaine addiction, and attempting suicide.

Therapists and psychiatrists couldn’t reach me. My mom, a single mom, tried her best, but she couldn’t contain me. She read guides like Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which is a great book, but with only one chapter devoted to substance abuse. What my mom needed—what I needed—was a book like Erin Khar’s Strung Out, a memoir of addiction and recovery, written by a woman who had once been a girl like me—a girl who wanted to disappear.

I survived my adolescence, entered recovery, and went on to find a career as a writer and teacher. Eventually, even horses found me again. Today, I’m ten years sober and in graduate school. Most young women whose teen years look like mine aren’t so fortunate, and most don’t have a good model of successful recovery. Strung Out could be that missing model. None of the existing addiction memoirs address the intersection of girlhood, trauma, mental health, and substance abuse the way it does.

Like most of her fans, I found Erin Khar online. She runs “Ask Erin,” the popular advice column at Ravishly.com with the tagline “She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to.” Erin is compassionate with her advice, whether the issue is as serious as “I think the guy I’m dating raped me” or as less-serious as “An update on a one-night stand with my coworker.” She always provides suggestions to seek professional help when needed and links readers to available resources. She’s the cool big sister most women never had: smart and savvy, with a strong lipstick game. In the midst of writing about my own addiction and recovery, I found out Erin had written an addiction memoir. To my delight, I also discovered she had a history with horses, too. Naturally, I decided she was my long-lost, much-cooler, way-better-with-lipstick big sister, and requested an advanced copy of her forthcoming book.

In its pages, I saw myself. I’d discovered a role model, one generous enough to share her story with the world. Luckily, Erin was also generous enough to spend an hour chatting with me about recovery, community, and of course, horses.

Emma Hudelson: Why did you decide to tell your story in memoir form?

Erin Khar: I wanted to write the book that I had needed when I was younger, to give people who were struggling a voice, and to open up conversations about addiction that will contribute to reducing stigma and shame.

EH: I definitely could have used this book when I was younger! It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about your readers. How do you view your relationship with them?

EK: My goal is to make anyone, whether they’re experienced with addiction or not, more comfortable with talking about it. Shame and letting go of it is another big theme of the book, which is something that someone who hasn’t struggled with addiction can relate to. We all have ghosts that we’re afraid to face, and the trick is facing them so we can move on. I hope I connect with readers in a personal way, so that it feels like an intimate conversation. Hopefully, something productive comes out of that writer-reader relationship.

EH: I love how you don’t shy away from talking about things like shame, trauma, and mental illness. That’s something the recovery community doesn’t always handle well. So many of us in recovery, myself included, have a dual diagnosis of substance abuse disorder and a mental health disorder. To stay sober and stable, I have to work on both my mental health and my recovery. Were you conscious of that as you were writing?

EK: Yes. My foundation for recovery was in twelve-step programs. At that time, there was a lot of stigma about psychiatric medications. I thought there was only one path of recovery and I thought that if I couldn’t fit into that path, I wasn’t going to make it. I hope people walk away from this book understanding that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to addiction, because in my experience, particularly with opiate addiction, there’s often another component. It could be an actual mental health diagnosis or have a trauma-related origin. You can do all the recovery work in the world, but if you’re not addressing those deeper psychiatric issues, I think it’s difficult to maintain any sort of recovery.

EH: I’ve been sober ten years, and I’m still involved with twelve-step programs. When I first came in, I heard a lot of, “if you take a mood- or mind-altering drug, you’re not sober.” That included antidepressants. That’s bullshit. There are multiple roads to recovery. Twelve-step programs work for some people. Others need something else. I know twelve-step wound up not working for you, but it seems like you don’t have any bitterness towards it.

EK: No, not at all. I think I would have died trying to get sober if I didn’t have twelve-step programs. The work that I did there gave me enough of a foundation to get the help that I needed. I don’t know that they’re for everyone, but I’ve seen them help a whole lot of people. The sense of community there is super important. I don’t ever want anyone to feel that there’s only one way to achieve recovery. I achieved long term recovery after I realized that I could have recovery without being restricted to a twelve-step model. It’s been almost seventeen years since my last drug.

EH: That’s so cool!

EK: Yeah, it’s a big deal! I’m also a proponent of harm reduction. I would much rather have someone be on suboxone for ten years than constantly relapsing and detoxing. That wouldn’t necessarily be the answer for me, but if suboxone is improving someone’s quality of life, then I’m 100% for it. I look at addiction as a public health issue. We have a responsibility as a society to ensure that people who are suffering have the opportunity to get help. That help might not come all at once. Often, harm reduction is a path to recovery. I think people are starting to see that model works better than this all-or-nothing from the beginning model.

EH: There are multiple pathways. It’s not just the twelve-step model, SMART recovery, or moderation management.

EK: Whatever works, works. It shouldn’t matter how somebody gets there. You’d tackle any other medical problem the same way. There are several approaches to treating cancer, so if one doesn’t work, then try another. The same should be true for recovery.

EH: With cancer, you would try multiple treatments. You wouldn’t just try radiation. I think that really makes sense. You said the sense of community that can be found in twelve-step programs is something you see as a foundation of recovery. What can women in recovery do better to stay connected and form that community?

EK: As much as everyone has criticisms of social media and the internet in general, it does connect us in ways that were never possible before. So even if you’re in a physically isolated place, you can find online recovery groups. There’s a whole world of help of there. I have formed some of my closest relationships with people I’ve met online. When it comes to supporting each other in recovery, the best way people can support each other is to avoid judgment of how recovery unfolds. That includes relapsing. When you’re in recovery, it’s scary to see someone close to you relapse because that can feel threatening to your own recovery. It’s very easy to jump into a judgmental place. Remembering the old adage that’s used a lot in twelve-step—“there but for the grace of god go I”—I always remind myself that the person in relapse could so easily me be. Even if we’re outwardly in a very different place, we’re both humans. That’s a human being having a human experience. Obviously, in early recovery, you might have to distance yourself to protect your own sobriety. But as the years go by, it becomes a lot easier to be there for people in jeopardy.

EH: In the book, we see you relapse, but we see people who are close to you relapse. It’s a struggle for all memoirists to write about other people. You write about your parents and ex-husband, too. Did you have any self-checks that you used to make sure that you were staying in your story and not moving to into someone else’s story?

EK: I would look at myself as a character in the book. As in, “Erin is the protagonist. Is this told from Erin’s perspective?” I can’t fill in the blanks for anyone else. I’m the camera, so I can only see it from my point of view. I can say, “she told me she felt this way,” but I can’t assume anything. It’s challenging! Even now, I’m sure I could go back into the book and realize I didn’t always do it perfectly.

EH: Speaking of turning yourself into a character—I love how you portrayed all the horrible, heartbreaking negative self-talk throughout the book. While you were writing, how did you navigate these moments where you were in conversation with this really dark part of yourself?

EK: It helped that I have so much distance from the events. I probably couldn’t have written this book ten years ago. When reconstructing moments, I tried to focus first on things I knew were concrete. Yet still—facts that I recorded in my journal are only facts according to what I observed in that moment. As I moved through the different parts of my life in the book, I tried to write each chapter with the voice of me at that age but with the added commentary of me at this age, right now, looking back. By working chronologically and trying to focus on concrete details, I was able to separate myself enough to keep the narrative arc without being swallowed by it.

Especially in edits, I had to make sure that I was doing things to take care of myself. I went back to therapy and made sure that I have everything in place for this whole journey. Not just the writing, but the publishing, and talking about the book once it’s out in the world. As comfortable as I am talking about it, it’s certainly emotional, even in my body.

EH: Speaking as a writer, it’s a gift to be able to recreate memories and write about them, but it’s definitely not comfortable. People will ask me if writing about addiction, trauma, and recovery is cathartic or healing. Sometimes, maybe, but it’s also—no. Not at all. What’s your experience?

EK: You have to do the healing before you sit down to write the memoir. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but for me, I had to do the work beforehand. Without it, I couldn’t have written as honest a memoir. I couldn’t have confronted the things that I confront in the book. Putting all my ugly truth out there is very freeing, because I don’t feel like I have anything left to hide. For victims of trauma, that can be very satisfying. It’s like getting the last word on your own story.

EH: Your pub date is coming up soon.

EK: February 25.

EH: Do you feel like you’re prepared for the barrage of emails and messages that you’re probably going to get?

EK: Because of the advice column, I already get 50-75 emails a week from people—and obviously, I can’t answer them all. I’m sure that will increase, but I’m trying to remember that the book is only one part of my life. Obviously, it’s a very big part of my life, but even though my story is out there I’m still allowed to have personal boundaries.

EH: In the book, you address that. You explain isn’t all of you on those pages. I think that’s really important to understand. It’s easy for someone to pick up a memoir and think they know the author intimately.

EK: In some ways, they do! They will know parts of me—more than what I showed people in the past, back when I was hiding from everybody. But they’re only seeing me through one lens.

EH: I have to ask you about one more thing. When I was younger, I was really into horses, like, going-to-the-world-championships into horses. When I got away from riding, my addiction took hold of me and didn’t let go. In your pre-addict days and days of early addiction, you were a very serious rider, too. When it comes to addiction and young women, is there something about the horse that’s special?

EK: There is a special relationship that happens between a human and a horse. It’s difficult to put it into words that make sense to people who haven’t experienced it. When a horse and rider are really connected, it’s symbiosis. The best riders in the world don’t have to utilize a lot of aids. They have really light hands and legs because everything is done through this symbiotic connection. It’s not just a shift in physical weight, but energy, too. I could hop on one of my horse’s back—maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea—bareback, without a bridle, just a halter on, and ride. There was so much trust between us. For young women growing up in this world, it’s difficult to trust people. We’re given conflicting messages. Our bodies become both super sexualized, but then we’re shamed for that. That makes us not trust people. I’m speaking generally here, not just about my own experience. With a horse, there’s this love story because of the trust. The horse doesn’t want anything but to be in the moment with you. The horse becomes a place where we can put our trust.

Emma Faesi Hudelson is a teaching fellow and PhD candidate studying literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She writes on addiction, recovery, and mental health. Horses, too. Her work appears or is forthcoming in BUST, the Chattahoochee Review, the Fix, the Manifest-Station, the Rumpus, and other publications. Her essays have been selected as finalists in the 2017 International Literary Awards and Creative Nonfiction’s Spring 2018 Contest.

 

Erin Khar is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared in SELF, Marie ClaireEsquireCosmopolitanGood Housekeeping, Redbook, and others. She’s the recipient of the Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize and lives in New York City with her husband and two kids. Order Strung Out here

Upcoming events with Jen

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Addiction, Grief, Guest Posts

What I Wanted To Say

November 22, 2019
need

By Lennlee Keep

We needed to start doing the things that separate days from one another. I knew my son Dashiell and I should probably start eating again. We only pretended to sleep. We acted like we knew what day of the week it was. It had been 10 days since my ex-husband Josh had been found dead in his apartment in Austin, Texas. It had hit us like a bomb that had not stopped exploding.

Dash and I flew from our new home in Berkeley to Austin to deal with the business of his father’s death. Dash said goodbye by contributing to his dad’s eulogy and letting a balloon go at the memorial. I let Josh go by packing his clothes and photographs and books, throwing away bottles, and solving the 1,000 problems he had left behind. In the process I tore myself to pieces like I was destroying evidence.

When it was all finished Dash and I returned to our new life in California. It was a daily struggle to mask the fact that I was raw and collapsing. But I had to function and carve a routine out of a loose collection of hours and dust.

I had to register my son for the new middle school he was starting the next morning.

***

I walked into the school office. A paper sign with the word REGISTRATION was taped next to an open door. A tall, thin, woman sat typing at her desk. I assumed she was in charge. She looked bored and regal. The entire room was lit only by a lamp on her desk. I felt like I was hiring a gumshoe to do some dirty work instead of getting my 6th

grader into the right math class. She didn’t acknowledge my presence, so I walked in and stood in front of her.

“Hi, I need to register my son for school.” I was trying to come across as friendly and competent but my voice sounded forced and tight. That, combined with my exhausted but smiling face just made me look crazy.

“I need your letter,” she said while staring intently at her screen. Her fingers flew across the keyboard.

“I don’t have a letter. Wait, um, I don’t think I do.” I nervously flipped through the pages in my hands. I had papers. Would papers work? I didn’t remember getting any letter. But I didn’t remember a lot of things.

She looked up me for the first time. “I need the letter we sent you about your school assignment.” She said this like she had said it to a hundred other stupid, irritating, letterless parents before me.

“I am sorry,” I said, “but I have no idea where the letter is. My son’s father died unexpectedly ten days ago and we just got back from his funeral. We moved here two weeks ago. Everything is a mess. Can you help me?”

“The letter was sent two weeks ago,” she said. She really punched that two weeks as if to drive home that this was something that could have been dealt with long before tragedy struck. Dead dad or no, I should have my letter. She rolled her eyes and pushed a copy of someone else’s letter across her desk to me.

I studied the letter and then said in a voice that sounded less feeble, “I will go look for it right now. I think I can find it.”

What I wanted to say was, I haven’t slept more than nine hours in five days.

***

I went home and looked everywhere. In the mess of our move tax returns were buried under towels and yo-yo’s, garbage cans stood empty next to boxes that overflowed with trash, but I found the letter. Small wins like this made me feel like the tide was turning, like this straw could still be spun into gold. It was a trick that I kept falling for.

I went back to the office and handed over the letter. I felt accomplished because I had done this one, right thing for my son. All of his other needs seemed immense and impossible but I could do this. He was twelve, he was starting a new school two days after his fathers memorial. He was anxiety and tears in skinny jeans and a sweatshirt. I could barely save myself and I had no idea how to handle him or help. I couldn’t reach him and I couldn’t honestly say I was trying. A good mother would be holding and reassuring her broken child, spending every waking moment trying to heal this deep wound. I hid in my room and stared at walls. Registering him for school proved I was still his mother. I had found the letter and he would have a school and that was proof that I could do something.

The admin took the letter from my hand and continued punishing her keyboard.

Shaking her head she said, “Nope. He’s been dropped from our rolls. You were supposed to register him last week.” She seemed disgusted by me. I was disgusted by me. “You need to go to the district and get your new assignment.”

This school and its proximity to the house and to the only kid Dash knew in the Bay Area was what I had built our entire move upon. Without this school every single thing would unravel.

My eyes welled with tears that didn’t roll down my cheeks. Sometimes crying feels good. This felt stupid and not grown up. I sucked them back into my eyes where they stayed and burned.

“Look,” I said, “I know your job is hard and it’s the first day of school and you are swamped, but is there anything you can do?”

What I wanted to say was, It’s really hard for me to deal with people right now. I spend a lot of time standing in the shower, talking to the tiles, practicing how to have interactions like this one so I don’t freak people out or start crying. How am I doing?

But instead I pleaded with her and again told her my story. My son’s father had died. I would have been here to register Dash for school, but his dad had died. And he was dead. I tried to pour words all over the problem to make her understand.

“I can’t help you,” she said. “You need to go to downtown to the district office and get a pink piece of paper.”

What I wanted to say was, It took him years to die overnight. He was an alcoholic. Drank himself to death at 47. I mean we don’t know for sure if it was alcohol poisoning, we won’t know that until we get the toxicology back. Toxicology! I know, right? I have a homicide detective assigned to me and everything. Her name is Denise and she came to his memorial. Isn’t that nice? I had to call the Medical Examiner and their hold music is awful. I don’t know how to live the next hour let alone the rest of my life ha ha ha ha.

I wanted to tell her all of it, just bleed it out all over her stupid tappy keyboard.

I wanted to say, Last night, instead of sleeping, I spent two hours screaming into different pillows and recording the sound on my phone. I was trying to find the one that muffled my sobs the best. Bed pillows were just too fluffy. A red felt accent pillow from the couch was the one that absorbed the most sound. I had to do this because my son asked me if I could please stop crying because it made him “uncomfortable.”

But I couldn’t say that. Because normal people don’t say things like that or do things like that. We don’t gut ourselves in front of strangers to show them what we had for lunch. We don’t do it because it’s shocking and gross but also because no one really cares what we had for lunch anyway.

All those words stayed trapped in my head and I only squeaked out a small “please.”

She resumed her typing. “I can’t help you. You need to go to the district and get a pink piece of paper.”

I wanted to say, I don’t think I want to die, but I am not sure I want to live either. How do I figure out if I want to live or die? Is there a Buzzfeed quiz or something because I can say with zero emotion that from here it looks like a toss up.

Instead I said, “Is there nothing else you can do for me?”

She turned her attention back to her screen and said, “Not without the pink piece of paper.”

I got into my filthy car to go downtown. It barely had any gas and my phone was almost dead. But driving to the school district office felt normal and that was rare. I thought if I did normal things that life would fall back into place. I would walk into a store and buy something and think, OK, this is a thing I did before what I am doing now. Look! I went to the grocery store and bought blueberries and detergent. Because I do things like this and this is what everything used to feel like.

And I would get home and discover that I had bought dishwasher pods instead of the laundry pods I needed and I would drop my head against the counter and sob and collapse under the notion that this will never stop. That these failures will be permanent and excruciating. From here on out I will get it all wrong and until the grave, I will have sparkling dishes and filthy socks.

***

As I drove to the district office I kept thinking that if Josh’s death had lost us the school the domino effect on my life was endless. I hadn’t registered Dash because I wasn’t here because Josh died. His drinking had laid waste to countless evenings, holidays, and birthdays, and our marriage. His dead hands reached out and threw cheap white wine into my face and all over my plan and our new life. Death by definition should stop you in your tracks. Josh was SUPPOSED TO NOT BE DEAD. He wasn’t supposed to be lying in a metal drawer waiting for the coroner to release his body. He was supposed to have gotten sober.

His death had ripped the tourniquet off the fury I had held back for years. Every word I could never shout at him bled from me in rivers. In my head, I beat him with words of rage, pummeled him to a pulp with my hate. But every once and a while the light of a sweet memory swept the darkness away. I remembered every flower he ever bought me. I repeated the Dorothy Parker poem that I had recited on the corner of Chattanooga and Church Street in San Francisco on the night that we met. I replayed the scene over and over. He kneels down on the ground and kisses my hand and says, “That’s for knowing who Dorothy Parker is.” I wanted to tell him I am sorry that I got mad and stayed that way. And I wanted to scream and scream because it was us and it was our story and important and how could it just not matter now?

***

In the district building several parents waited in the hallway for a change of school, word of a new teacher or a last minute immunization record. I was told to go in the office and get a number. The woman behind the counter looked up. “What do you need?”

I said, “My son’s father died unexpectedly, so we missed registration at our assigned school last week. I need to get back into that school.” I thought throwing “unexpectedly” in there would make her understand that this wasn’t cancer or a heart attack. There was no final, sweet handholding, morphine-dripping, hospital-jello-eating goodbye. This was a hunting knife splitting a sheet. It was an upending.

She stared at me blankly.

“I guess I need a number?” I said. As she walked across the room to the pile of numbers on her desk, I thought: ‘Take a number, any number!’

How about 0.0? That’s what he blew on the Breathalyzer in my kitchen before he was allowed to take Dash to dinner. It was the last time I saw him alive.

How about 12? Dashiell’s age when I sat him down on a Saturday morning to tell him his dad had died.

Or take 13, the number of years we were married.

Or 20, the number of years we were together.

“Here,” she said as she pushed a card across the counter. “Number 21.”

21! Our shared birthdate. Him April 21st; me November 21st. 21 was our lucky number.

***

A young woman walked through the fifteen seated parents checking numbers, following up with their issues. “You need this form. I need your ID.”

Finally, she called, “Number 21?”

I raised my hand.

“What do you need?”

What did I need? I needed for this to matter to someone other than me and if I had to burn the world to gain some camaraderie in my misery, so be it. My friendly voice was gone, replaced by a serious tone, that was loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Yes. You can help me. My 12-year old son’s father died last week and we missed registration because we were burying him. I was told we were dropped from the school we were assigned to, but that if I want to get in, I need a pink piece of paper. Can you give me the pink paper? I need to get my son back into the school we were assigned to. I need to talk to someone who can give me the pink paper.”

The other parents in the hallway turned to look. I officially had the worst problem in the room, and unless they were willing to produce a corpse themselves, I was the victor.

The woman said, “I am so sorry. I’ll be right back.”

I said, “Thank you” and fidgeted with the useless papers in my hands.

What I wanted to say, to the other parents who were so uncomfortable looking at me, was, If you think that makes you squirm, you have no idea the tidal wave I am holding back. I’m not very good at impressions, but Josh’s father made the strangest animal noise when I called him in London to tell him his son had died. Parents aren’t supposed to ever hear things like that and I am definitely not the person to say them. I want to show you a map of the stars I stare at every night while I scream into the red pillow. I am the woman who cries on BART every day. Can you please give me recipes for food that won’t turn into sand in my mouth? I have forgotten a lot of things, but I will always remember what it felt like scrubbing my ex’s dried brown blood out of the stone white sink in his apartment. I demand an apology and I am deeply sorry. He can never forgive me, but can my son? Can you? If you can’t grant me me absolution, then just give me a fucking break.

Instead I stared at my hands. Almost as if on cue, everyone turned away and resumed their conversations.

I felt bad about telling people what happened to him and to us, almost embarrassed. Like it’s attention seeking. “Look at me and my sadness! Feel for me!”

She returned with the pink paper, and said, “I am so sorry he passed. Please accept my condolences.”

I think “passed” is a weird euphemism for death. As if death swings by and picks you up in some quiet luxury sedan and ferries you away from this world. Driving away, you pass your life and your family. You pass. But death isn’t a smooth ride and a leather interior. Death is a stick shift with a bad transmission. Death has teeth and purpose and every intention of sticking as close to you as it can for as long as it can. Death picks up its passenger, but it also takes everyone who loved that person and ties them tightly to the bumper, like cans on a newlyweds car. Sure they will eventually fall off, but brother, it’s gonna take a lot of miles.

Josh’s death had separated him from us, but not us from him, and now that we were back in California I realized that this feeling was not going anywhere. Registering Dash for 6th grade, opening the mail, talking to people he knew. It was all part of the same. They were all part of this thing. His death would keep stirring up the past and I had every confidence it was set to devour the future. Because death stays. Death rides the clutch.

Lennlee Keep is a nonfiction writer, filmmaker, storyteller and mother of a teenager. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Southeast Review, ESME and The Fix. Her films have been shown on PBS, A&E and the BBC. The ex-wife of a dead guy, she talks about grief and dying more than most people are comfortable with. She is much funnier than all of the above might lead you to believe. This piece was originally published in the Southeast Review.

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Abuse, Guest Posts, Letting Go, Mental Health

Yellow

November 10, 2019
smoking

By Kelly Wallace

I was still in love with my ex when I broke up with him over the phone late at night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Ithaca, NY. It was the first Sunday in June 2017. I was there for my friend’s 20th college reunion. My ex was making me question my sanity. I wasn’t telling my friends what was going on because I was ashamed. We argued for hours. We had tried therapy. It failed.

I had had enough.

According to an article titled “In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship? 5 Steps to Take” on the website Psych Central “…Is it me or him? You feel anxious around him, believing that somehow you can make things right again, you want to feel the love you did when the two of you first got together. Deep down, your biggest fear is that his opinions of you are right..that there really is something wrong with you, and you just may not be loveable the way you are.”

I was enough for myself.

***

We talked for hours in his kitchen and he made me pesto with the basil that was almost dead from his garden box. He referred to his ex, Stephanie, as “shitbag” when he told me about her. She was the mom of one of his students. He taught elementary school band in a suburb of Boston and retired at 40, a few years earlier. She had had her eye on him for a long time. When her daughter was done with band she swooped in. They met for coffee. She was still married. She told him she was divorcing soon. They started dating. Three years of them breaking up and getting back together should have been a red flag.

For me it was an invitation.

It’s August 2018, a little over a year after I have ended things with my ex. I’m on week two of vacation with my mom but take a side trip down to Boston to get away from the 250 sq. ft. cabin we are sharing on Sebago Lake in Maine. Throughout the trip Mom is coughing up a storm. In the morning. At night. It drives me bonkers. She has COPD and sounds like death.

She smoked for 15 years. 3 packs a day until she quit.

***

I am creepy.

On my side trip to Boston away from my Mom and her coughing I take another side trip-to Medway, Massachusetts, a rural town 45 minutes west of Bean town. It’s sleepy, woods, twisty two lane roads and ponds. My ex hated it and left to live in Portland, Oregon where I live. We live. We live on the same block. I don’t talk to him.

He stares at my driveway when friends come to visit and studies their cars. They come to the door saying the same thing over and over: “Did you know your ex was standing in his yard totally staring at me as I parked and got out of the car?”

“Yes.”

It’s beautiful in Medway. On the radio, the Dj asks: “how are you creepy? There’s something trending on Twitter about being creepy.” I think about calling into the radio station to tell them what I am doing but decide to pull over to the side of the road and use my notepad on my phone to write down what the DJ is talking about. This is perfect for a story.

***

My parents divorced almost 35 years ago. Dad is bald, 69 and glasses. He is home resting in Oregon after falling off a ladder and breaking his right shoulder and hip. He texts me: “Boston. My aunt so and so lives there. I haven’t been out that way in a long time.” He has so many aunts I can’t keep them straight.

He was in the hospital for two weeks undergoing intense physical therapy. Sometimes I feel like he is judging me but I don’t know. I don’t know what the what is. There’s something in me that wonders. He has yellow teeth. He’s a lawyer. There are no grey areas. He is black and white. Law and order.

Right before he fell I had a phone reading with a psychic. The psychic, Donna, kept talking about him in the past tense. I corrected her.

“But he’s alive.”

“I hate to tell you this dear, but, I’m talking to him from the other side.”

“What does that mean?”

“He will be passing soon.”

That was a year ago.

According to the AARP, the increased chance of older people dying after hip fractures has long been established in a number of studies. Now a new study has found that breaking other major bones also may lead to higher mortality rates for older adults.

***

My ex was a heavy smoker. When he quit smoking twenty years ago he was living at home in Medway with his parents. He started chewing Nicorette, that terrible gum. His Dad worked for a pharmaceutical company and would bring home bags and bags of it. He became addicted to the gum and then had to wean himself off it.

One day my ex’s dad came home from work and my ex was searching in the couch cushions for a piece of that gum, in case one had fallen out of his pocket.

“Why don’t I just give you a piece of that gum?” His dad said.

“No dad,” he turned an easy chair over and was searching under it. “This is what I need to do to stop chewing that gum.”

According to WebMD, “Most users of nicotine gum…see it as a short-term measure. GlaxoSmithKline, marketers of Nicorette, advises people to “stop using the nicotine gum at the end of 12 weeks,” and to talk to a doctor if they “still feel the need” to use it. But that guideline hasn’t kept some people from chomping on it for many months and even years.

My ex’s childhood home in Medway is two story, purple with a horseshoe driveway and even more rural than I imagined. I drive to the end of the cul-de-sac, put the car in park and look at the front windows. That’s where he was hunting for the Nicorette under the couch. I drive away because I’m creepy. A half mile away there’s a “Stephanie Drive.” His ex’s name. I pull over to write the detail on my notepad. Another perfect idea for the story.

***

My fourteen-year old formerly feral cat, Billie, died two months before that night we broke up on the phone in Ithaca, NY. Billie would go over to my ex’s house on her own and spend time there. I had to get another cat right away. The house felt lonely without her. My ex and I went to Purringtons and he found a tuxedo with a little white star on his head staring out the window at all the people walking by on MLK, Jr. Blvd. I put a hold on the cat with the star on his head, Starboy, and took video of him playing with a Donald Trump catnip toy. My ex was coughing in the background and talking excessively. He was always talking so much with his dull yellow teeth. They were yellow because he smoked for over a decade and never went to the dentist.

I said something to him and sounded annoyed in the video.

According to the website Empowered by Color, “…The color yellow can be anxiety producing as it is fast moving and can cause us to feel agitated.”

My teeth were yellow after a friend committed suicide and I started smoking a pack a day for almost two months. I quit shortly afterward. Cold turkey. No Nicorette gum.

Starboy’s eyes are green.

My ex eventually did quit the gum.

***

The motorcycle cops started going by my house escorting the hearses following closely behind. It became a regular Sunday morning routine along with me reading self-help books with Starboy and his green eyes curled up next to me on the couch. There’s a cemetery nearby. I would tear up as the cars drove by with their flashers. Yellow. Blink. Yellow. Blink. I was determined to be different.

Billie’s eyes were yellow.

My house is green.

***

After she is done coughing Mom goes into the kitchen in our cabin in Maine and rustles plastic bags, pushes buttons on the microwave, talks to herself and clinks spoons while she eats her breakfast. “What are you doing in there old lady?” I wonder. Her ocd and need for order marching her around like a drill Sargent. I get up from reading in bed. She separates crookneck squash from the trash into a plastic bag. It’s not for compost. It’s to keep it from smelling up the regular trash she tells me.

***

I text my best friend back in Portland about the weird food separation. “She’s crazy,” she texts me back. I probably shouldn’t use that term to describe my mom. According to the article, ‘Personal Stories: Don’t Call Me Crazy,’ on the NAMI website…”Mental illness is an illness, even though some choose not to accept it. ‘Crazy’ has been a word to portray those who suffer with mental illness as dangerous, weak, unpredictable, unproductive and incapable of rational behavior or relationships. It is a word used without any serious thought or consideration… It is a word that can be used to criticize an individual or group, keep a stigma in place or, when used in commercials, sell cars, sweets and even peanut butter.”

***

While I drive around Medway I hear my ex in my head telling me I’m crazy. He told me things like, “northeastern women had an edge.” He didn’t need to tell me that. I had spent considerable time on the East Coast. I knew about that edge. I had friends in New York. I had plans to move there at one point. He said I wouldn’t survive in New York because I wasn’t assertive enough.

“Bobby, from Leominster,” The DJ says in his thick Boston accent. “What’s the creepiest thing you have ever done?”

“For a while I was collecting corn snakes,” Bobby from Leominster pauses. “That didn’t really attract the ladies.”

“Ugh,” the DJ says. “That’s pretty weird.”

This is perfect for a story.

***

During my verbal fights with Mom when I was in high school she would say “you’re just like your father.” I didn’t know what it meant except that I was bad. I was always the bad one. I carried a yellow blanket and sucked my thumb until 10. I was the bad one for reporting that Dad’s dad, my paternal grandfather, molested me. My grandparents hid the blanket in their closet. Dad’s silence. The paternal family’s silence made them complicit. The police searched my grandparent’s house and found the blanket.

***

My paternal grandmother allegedly called me “Crazy Kelly.” Whenever we argued my ex called me crazy. After we broke up I wondered what nickname he had come up with for me.

Crazy?

Crazy Shitbag.

***

My ex told me he had a lot of projects he wanted to tackle when he bought his house in Oregon. He wanted to install a new roof himself on the back side of his house. “I don’t want you doing that,” I told him when we were together. I didn’t want him breaking a bone or ending up in the hospital.

A year after we broke up I saw shingles being loaded onto the roof of his house.

I didn’t care if he broke a bone.

He deserved it.

***

I was a smoker for 5 years.

My mom smoked for twenty years.

My ex smoked for 15.

My dad never smoked.

I wasn’t going to end up like any of them.

 

Kelly Wallace developed a writing style that both roots in the moment and peels back the layers of human nature at the Pinewood Table writers group led by award-winning authors Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. Kelly’s writing honors include publications in VoiceCatcher and Perceptions magazines, fellowships at the Summer Fishtrap Gathering and the Attic Institute, and residencies at Hypatia-in-the-Woods. A graduate of Wells College in Aurora, New York, and an entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon, Kelly avidly photographs odd sights while out driving for her day job. Kelly is an active and recognizable member of the Portland writing community, consistently engaging with hundreds of readers and authors of all genres and levels of writing.

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

 

Current Events, Guest Posts

Serendipitous Endurance At the End of the Anthropocene

September 24, 2019
notre dame

By Meghan O’Dea

“Watching online as an irreplaceable monument to human history goes up in flames while helpless to do anything about it is extremely 2019,” read a Facebook post from Gin and Tacos, the popular political blog cum meme factory. The update came shortly after news broke that the Notre-Dame de Paris, arguably the best known cathedral in the world, was on fire and might burn to the ground.

While it was hard to argue with that take, given that our sitting President felt his response to the tragedy best included ill founded advice about firefighting, it seemed to me that it wasn’t just extremely 2019, but summed up the majority of my adult life. In the roughly fifteen some odd years since I began seriously considering things like my own mortality and the permanence of the universe, it was often easy to feel that the good times were already long gone, the best of human history long since converted to a conflagration that my generation would watch dim into embers.

After all, I came of age in the wake of another iconic building burning the ground in a cataclysm of Biblical proportions, when a plane flew into the World Trade Center on September 11th. George Bush Jr. was President. The Sopranos was still on air, just a few years into its six season meditation on death, decay, and the inherent moral struggle of American in the early aughts.In hindsight it seems clear that whatever the precise moment my adulthood actually began, if there is such a quickening, all our narratives neatly cleave into a long series of befores and afters.

Isn’t that always the way of both serious tragedy and adolescence? The prelapsarian prologue and whatever slouching epilogue follows the present narrative in which we can’t help but center ourselves. Here we are again, I thought to myself as Notre Dame’s iconic spire crumpled into ash like a spent stick of incense, glowing orange at its dying core. Another casualty in the anthropocene. Another horror strangely juxtaposed with an otherwise ordinary workday.

In a strange bit of serendipity, I was rewatching an episode from the final season of The Sopranos the day before the Notre Dame fire. The episode that kept me company as I carefully packed dirt around the thin, white roots of a fiddle leaf fig tree was ”Cold Stones,” in which matriarch Carmela Soprano and her friend Ro, a fellow mob wife, visit Paris together.

As the pair tour the ruins of some Roman baths, Carmela becomes overwhelmed by the weight of history, and all its banal glory. “Generation after generation, hundreds and hundreds of years, all those lives,” she says, gazing upward in unconscious imitation of the pose assumed by a whole host female saints, not to mention the blessed Virgin Mary, in countless iterations in the Western canon.

Carmela raises her eyes to the heavens, appearing for a moment as if she is about to ascend into inspiration. Instead, she looks down, her nigh-spiritual reverie abruptly cut short by the abrupt intrusion of her own mortality. “It’s so sad,” she says, trying not to cry.

She reaches out to touch the rough stone wall next to her, the tangible evidence of the kind of immutability of great cities that stands in such stark contrast to the way our own lives shuffle insignificantly on regardless of the bigger picture. Sometimes the synchronicity of the universe brings me immense joy, and sometimes it seems to highlight many of the themes that make art like The Sopranos so compelling, that sense of the inevitable, of decay, that the golden age has passed, never to return.

When it seemed for a few hours as if Notre Dame might really be reduced to nothing but ash, the sense of mourning I felt was, like most of the other things I have grieved for on various occasions, not exactly the thing in and of itself (as philosopher Immanuel Kant would put it), but for whatever that thing represented. I don’t mean to say I was unmoved by the loss of one of the greatest structures built by man, a thousand year old emblem of faith and art and durability. What I mean is that, in the face of such an abstract loss—the loss of a place I have been to only once and over a decade ago—I instead turned to something a little closer to home, both literally and metaphorically.

Watching Notre Dame burn, my thoughts turned to the person I knew who must be most affected, a close family friend who is like an aunt to me, a French teacher who has been to Notre Dame innumerable times in her life and has brought many students to see it for the first time. I thought of her not only because of her connection to the place, but because she suffered a far greater loss last year, when her husband, an art historian and beloved professor, passed away suddenly of pancreatic cancer.

No one saw it coming. Just a few weeks prior, he had stood at the top of Machu Picchu with my parents and a group of university honors students. How unfair that she should suffer such a loss, only to be confronted with another, however more abstract, so soon.

I myself had been with Dr. Townsend on another such college enrichment trip fifteen years ago when I saw Notre Dame and the nearby Sainte-Chapelle. At the time I was vaguely unimpressed in the way that only privileged, myopic teenage girls can be. The city I wandered felt far away from A Tale of Two Cities and Toulouse Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge and Monet. It felt like any other large, European city, no more in touch with its romantic past than I am now to the brash, careless young woman I am learning to no longer be.

Notre Dame was a beautiful item on our itinerary, but at the time it seemed like a place I could easily come back to. There was no urgency to the occasion. Only a few cockeyed photos are preserved in our digital family album. I’m embarrassed to admit that I barely remember it. And yet I spent the day nervously checking the news for updates on the state of the cathedral. I felt my stomach churn as I watched slightly stale footage of the spire falling an hour or so after the fact.

After work, I head to the bar, as I have after so many other tragedies— Dr. Townsend’s death included. The before and the after. By then, the fire had only just begun to cool, emergency responders saying that while damage was extensive, the blaze did not create a total loss. No one had been killed. The injuries were few. Still, I am more tempted than I have been in several newly sober months to order a glass of red wine. It seems an appropriate toast to gay Paris, where I read on Twitter that French resilience includes a blend of laughter, tears, and du vin.

Instead, I request a cold bottle of Einbecker, a German beer— “alkoholfre!” it proclaims on the label. The bar I’ve chosen reliably keeps a case of NA beers in the fridge, much as the pharmacy that once took up this storefront kept a variety of pain relievers in stock, some more benign than others. This is the kind of hip joint that capitalizes on nostalgia for things like old pharmacies, where the old lathe walls are left purposefully exposed, the wainscoting topped with stacks of antique books, two of the pharmacists’ old diplomas and certificates still framed and decorating the walls.

As I slide my credit card across the counter I realize the lyrics to the song that’s playing are not only improbably in French, but ridiculously on the nose. “L’argent est sur la table” sings Mark E. Smith, the lead mercurial singer of post-punk British outfit The Fall. He died last year, cancer of the lungs and kidneys. “Le money est sur la table,” the song goes. “The money is on the table in the brick house refurbishment of pubs in the hideaway.” That old, double-edged serendipity, the closest thing I possess to a higher power.

What blindsided Carmela in that episode “Cold Stones” was what blindsided me first as a naive, ignorant teen: that sensation of echoes throughout time and history, the reverb. The way a song randomly selected by an algorithm can seem to highlight the day’s events, which in turn can provide one the space and language to grieve a death that was too close for comfort. The way a thirteen year old episode of television is made newly relevant simply because I happened to rewatch it just preceding a tragedy that evokes a similar, if more acute, sense of morbidity and loss.

Why do I reflect on all this? What does it all mean? As a writer my job is to tease meaning from seemingly disparate events and braid them into something sturdy we can run through our hands to reassure us, the way Carmela reaches out to run her hands over that rough stone, the way I reach out to David Chase’s work to help explain my feelings about Notre Dame. But I struggle here to make sense of all these artifacts, to construct anything solid out of all this ash.

Edward Burmila, the political science professor behind Gin and Tacos, made an astute observation about our collective helplessness as we watch Notre Dame, and the world, burn. His post smacks of the cheerful digital nihilism that has special appeal for Gen Xers and Millennials who slogged through the Great Recession only to reach a span of years in which a generation of beloved artists and idols began to drop like flies, and when too many of the survivors were revealed to be a bunch of rapists, abusers, and racists.

It’s a moment in which populism and extremism and hate have been resurrected in our national consciousness like the villain at the end of a slasher film who the characters naively assumed to be long dead. We fret about social security and preventable epidemics and climate catastrophe—a whole other type of conflagration that looms just over the horizon. And yet we go on living our lives as best we can, like all those generations Carmela references at the baths, like the fifty some-odd generations that have lived and died since the first stone of Notre Dame was laid.

We consume our fatalism in bite-size chunks, a scrap of digital ephemeral quickly read and disposed of, if not entirely forgotten. But in this there is a strange, ironic sort of hope to be found in what appears to be a well of despair. How many generations before us have felt a similar sense of doom, have watched their own disasters unfurl, and have carried on because there was no other choice, because this is what our parents and aunts and uncles and loved ones would have us do?

Death comes for us all, it’s true, as cruel and unfair and undesirable an outcome as that may be. But first life has a peculiar habit of continuing to unfurl. And there are forms of resurrection, too, we can’t seem to extinguish, a human tendency towards hope. After all, that’s what makes Notre Dame such a potent symbol even for those, like me, who have barely scratched its surface, or for the vast majority who have never been at all.

Even in what seems like— and in many cases truly is— an era of unprecedented loss, both personally, nationally, and globally, what else can we do but carry on living, no matter how futile it seems or uncertain the future may be? Perhaps it is simply enough to raise a glass of whatever gives us strength and courage, to give our best effort at making the dead proud, and to try our damndest to head off the next inevitable blaze.

Meghan O’Dea is a writer and editor who traded southern Appalachia for the Pacific Northwest. She writes about camping and the outdoors by day for The Dyrt magazine. In her spare time she travels, hikes, and writes essays and articles that have been published in Bitch Magazine, Playboy, the Washington Post, the Rumpus, Nylon, Refinery29, and more. She loves opossums, cats, and small houseplants.

****

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND