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Family, Guest Posts

Only in My Imagination?

June 22, 2020
jimmy

By Jackie Bivins

When COVID-19 hit, life as we knew it came to an abrupt end.  We shifted from a “go-go-go” lifestyle to a complete stand-still. With so much time at home while quarantined, worries and fears can be overwhelming. Will this ever end?  If so, what will the world then look like? There is so much speculation about the “new normal.” But the reality is that it’s unknown; no one can define or predict what havoc or healing exists in our future.  As a result, so many of us are seeking comfort in the past. We are looking to our memories for a sense of stability, joy, and reassurance.  We are looking to the time when the future felt beautiful, unlimited, and full of possibilities.  Remembering what it was like when we were safe in the cocoon of those halcyon days can allay that middle-of-the-night panic.  It is, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity to share our stories, the very things that connect us with others.

 This is one of mine.

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As a child I had an imaginary friend named Jimmy Raspberry. I would picture him sitting next to me on the forest green sofa when I watched tv, or helping me arrange the brightly-colored food packages from my prized cardboard grocery store, or watching me as I played board games like Candyland, Checkers, or Parcheesi –all made for two, or at least more than one.

Jimmy was tall with curly, raven-colored hair. He smiled often and his hazel eyes always held a twinkle. He was never cross, nor was he ever too tired to play. He seldom argued. With Jimmy, I was less alone. I was bolder.

The fantasy I most enjoyed enacting with Jimmy started with us tiptoeing into my parents’ room. Jimmy would stand sentinel as I took my mother’s pale blue suitcase from the bottom of her closet then started to carefully pack a lemon-yellow chiffon cocktail dress, a long tan full skirt made of stiff and quite wrinkled cotton, and a lime green silky blouse. I loved my dress-up box full of Mama’s discarded clothes, and these were my most cherished items. Sometimes Jimmy would suggest I pack the camel-brown clutch bag or remind me to include the red wool jacket.

Once done I would drag that suitcase through our ranch-style home. Jimmy would offer to help but I always refused. I knew I was strong enough to do it myself. The game was to pretend Jimmy and I were embarking on a grand expedition. That meant going somewhere, anywhere.

The reality is that during my childhood our small family of three — Mama, Daddy and me — rarely ventured far from home. When we did it was to see the same old places. Vacation time meant driving from our home in Rockville, MD to visit relatives in and around Richmond and to spend time by what native Virginians always called “the rivah”, no matter which of the state’s five rivers it was. I never brought Jimmy along on these trips because they were too boring. Instead, I would spend those car rides day-dreaming that we were finally on our way to a destination that involved neither swimsuits and fishing rods nor relatives.

My mother was a typical housewife of the 1950s.

Monday was wash day; white fluffy sheets and pink and green striped towels came first, followed by a cavalcade of shirts, pants, pjs, and underwear.

Tuesday was ironing day; Mama would never miss a wrinkle as she skillfully maneuvered that shiny metal contraption around all the buttons on Daddy’s dress shirts.

Wednesday was dedicated to the kitchen; Mama routinely scoured every surface, washed down all of the appliances, and mopped the checkered linoleum floor, although most of the time none of these were in any need of cleaning. Wednesdays were also when Mama would reward herself with a whiskey and soda before starting to cook dinner.

Thursdays and Fridays were for the rest of the house, beginning with the den and the seldom-used dining and living rooms. Mama would drag the mint green Hoover canister vacuum from room to room, intent upon sucking up non-existent dirt. She dusted any surface she could find, arranged magazines on the coffee table exactly one inch apart, and scrubbed the bathrooms so hard the smell of Ajax lingered for hours.

Periodically Mama gave herself permission to deviate from that routine. On those days we would drive to Congressional Plaza, an L-shaped outdoor shopping center on the other side of town.  Mama loved to visit J.C. Penney’s, or “the Penney’s” as she liked to call it. She didn’t care much about buying clothes, but enjoyed browsing, occasionally picking up towels, sheets, and other knickknacks for our house.

Woolworth’s was another frequent stop. Once there, sewing notions; hair products; personal care items; housewares; and, various “as seen on tv” gadgets vied for her attention. We would take a break at the luncheon counter for an ice-cold frothy Coke, or “Coca Cola” as my southern relatives called it.

The shopping trips ended with a visit to Cartwright’s stationery. Mama was always on the lookout for greeting cards. To her, maintaining good manners meant sending the proper card, whatever the occasion. Family members and friends came to expect them from her on holidays others would fail to acknowledge. St. Patrick’s Day? Mama was ready. Fourth of July as well. She loved Halloween, so that was when she excelled with cards funny or “scary”.

For Christmas, Mama would begin selecting cards in October. Shortly after Thanksgiving she would spend several hours a week at the kitchen table with the cards splayed out in front of her. She couldn’t just address a card and send it out, no!  She had to write a lengthy, detailed note for each one. Mama wouldn’t have liked the current trend of standardized, Christmas letters.  She would have found them rather cold and distant. She personalized the messages for each intended recipient.

Mama set high standards for herself, and she found security in maintaining her routines.

Most days Mama would start cooking dinner at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Daddy’s day at Washington Technological Associates, where he managed a large group of machinists, officially started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., so Mama planned for a 5:30 dinner. I would help set the table and place the hot dishes down. Just as we were finishing, Daddy would drive his white and black two-tone Oldsmobile down the driveway.

Except on Fridays. That was a special day. Fridays we alternated between dinner at Howard Johnson’s or McDonald’s. To me the food at Howard Johnson’s seemed bland and mediocre, but Mama loved their clam rolls and Daddy always appreciated their ice cream cones. McDonald’s, newly opened and thus a novelty, was my preference, with its juicy cheeseburgers and salty fries. That was until the Italian spot, Luigi’s, opened downtown. On summer evenings as we drove by with the car windows rolled down, we could smell the appetizing aroma of garlic wafting out. My parents eventually expanded our Friday night rotation to include Luigi’s, with its red-checkered table cloths and wine bottles with colorful wax drippings.  They also added Shanghai’s Chinese, where a tall golden dragon beckoned us to enter.

Just past my seventh birthday my parents decided that on Fridays, and Saturdays too, I could stay up until they went to bed, which was usually around 11 p.m.  Determined not to miss a single thing, I would curl into the scratchy plaid La-Z-Boy lounger where the aroma of my Daddy’s Old Spice aftershave always lingered. It was comfy, too comfy. I would struggle to keep my eyes open, lulled by the sounds of the tv and my parents’ muted voices.

One Friday night was different.

I had changed into my purple flannel pjs and taken my usual spot. Mama was wearing her blue and white striped robe, and she’d settled into her favorite chair next to the tv. Daddy, in crisply pressed pjs, was in the midst of one of his nightly series of solitaire games.

Just as my eyelids started to droop, I heard Mama say, “I think it’s time we took Jackie to New York City.” What?

This startled me given our usual travel plans. Mama was also prone to having a shot or two, well maybe more, of Seagram’s 7 on Friday nights so I wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey talking or not. I had barely absorbed her comment when Daddy then looked up to say, “Okay, we can go next weekend.” What!

Once Daddy started playing solitaire, he glanced frequently at the tv but rarely talked. This made his acquiescence even more surprising. Whaaat???

My mother’s suggestion promised new horizons far beyond what my imagination had ever conjured up.  Jimmy would definitely be joining me for this adventure.

Today Rockville, Maryland is a sprawling suburb. Back then Rockville was a sleepy southern town. The county courthouse, more than 150 years old, dominated the downtown landscape.  The Villa movie theatre, our only nearby cinema, showed films that had long since disappeared from screens in more metropolitan locales. Pumphrey’s Funeral Home was the area’s fanciest house. It adjoined Chestnut Lodge, the mental hospital for the rich and famous. Both of Henry Fonda’s wives were treated there; so was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. Whenever one of the patients escaped a siren blared so loudly it could be heard throughout the town. That was the biggest excitement Rockville proper had to offer.

Where we lived, about eight miles beyond the city limits, was even sleepier. Dairy farms dotted the rural landscape; horses and their riders would trot down the roughly paved roads; houses were set far apart; and, it was at least a thirty-minute drive to the nearest grocery store.

Before settling in Glen Hills, the name of our suburb of a suburb, we had looked at numerous homes, including several located in lovely neighborhoods that were at least within the “city” limits. While my parents found fault with the size of rooms, the workmanship, or some other aspect of these houses, I felt an immediate sense of belonging within their walls. I wanted so badly for my parents to say “yes” to any of them.

They had other ideas. When they discovered Glen Hills, they were seduced by the opportunity to build a home customized just for them and quickly purchased a plot of land there. When they told me of their decision, that we would be moving to the country, I wanted to throw a tantrum, but I silently cried instead. Even all these years later I can envision one of those houses I loved, nestled on one of Rockville’s prettiest tree-lined streets.

From as early I can remember, before I was a flower girl in my Aunt Joyce’s wedding, still so shy that the experience is almost obliterated from memory, I knew I wanted more.

Before I envisioned being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club and memorized all the names of the Mouseketeers, I knew I wanted more.

Even before I understood how letters formed words that told stories, I knew I wanted more than country life offered.

I wanted street lights, nonexistent anywhere around us, that could help me navigate unexplored pathways. I wanted sidewalks, squares or rectangles uniform in their symmetry, instead of having to make my way to the school bus stop through tall, itchy grasses. I wanted to visit my friends without having to ask my mother to drive me then waiting and waiting and waiting while she insisted on changing her clothes, combing her hair, spraying on perfume, and applying a coat of lipstick before we left.

I wanted city noises like the ones I heard on tv, the constant hum of traffic, the cacophony of accented voices, the squeal of horns, an occasional wailing siren that signaled mysterious dangers.

Most of all I wanted and knew intuitively but could not articulate in my youth was to feel the confidence that surges through my body whenever I encounter a vibrant metropolis. It’s where I can be the true me, the more intriguing me, the better me. It’s where I can don a cloak of invincibility.

A week after I overheard my parents’ unexpected agreement to venture to New York we packed our red leather suitcases, checked windows and door locks, and were on our way.

We left around noon with Daddy having taken a half-day off. He had shed his tie and rolled up the sleeves of the starched white Oxford shirt he had worn to work that morning. His thick black hair, which was freshly cut and tamed, was sleek and sat close to his scalp.

Mama’s shirtwaist dress reminded me of candy, with a plaid pattern of butter yellow and milky chocolate. She had slept in her pink foam curlers all night but you couldn’t  tell now. That morning she’d sat at her antique vanity applying her makeup.  She started with foundation, added a bit of rouge to her cheeks, and drew in completely new brows with an eyebrow pencil.  She looked transformed in her signature Revlon “cherries and cream” lipstick.

I had carefully put together my outfit, trying to look more like the teen girls I had glimpsed in magazines than a chubby second grader. I wore a blue cardigan, which I had unsuccessfully tried to drape around my shoulders, a blouse of a similar hue, and a poodle skirt Mama bought me just for the trip. I thought I looked sophisticated, not like a girl from the country.

We stopped at the Maryland House, (a landmark I would later visit countless times) for a quick lunch. The Maryland House was known for its crab cakes. The secret was lots of Old Bay seasoning mixed in with the meat of the Chesapeake Bay’s succulent blue crabs.

When lunch was over, we returned to the Oldsmobile. We took off our winter coats as the heater hummed along. Daddy never liked to listen to the car radio so it was very quiet inside. Having grown up as one of six children, he enjoyed being able to hear his thoughts. Mama leafed through the stack of magazines she had brought with her, including recent issues of Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I sat in the backseat, no seatbelt, alternating between laying half-way down reading my book and sitting up straight to peer out the windows. Jimmy sat quietly beside me with nothing to do.

It was the longest trip in the world.

Maryland and Delaware were just miles of rolling countryside that looked too similar to home. Then it was on to the New Jersey Turnpike. My parents talked excitedly about its four lanes, the lack of traffic lights, and how the newly installed mile markers made it easy to track our progress north. As I halfway listened to their conversation, I realized that one of the reasons for the trip was to see this new marvel. It replaced the previous route, Highway 1, where travelers would have to frequently slow down as they drove through town after town. I wasn’t impressed by what I viewed as just another dull road. I was tired of being cooped up. I would have loved to get out and stretch my legs but I didn’t want to take the time. I was thirsty but stopping for a drink would have also taken more time. I wanted to get there already.

We rounded what’s known as the helix, so named because the road spirals down, round and round, from the cliffs of New Jersey to the Lincoln Tunnel that crawls under the Hudson River.

That’s when I saw it, the New York City skyline.

Night was falling. I stared, spellbound, as the tall buildings began to sparkle.  I watched the tiny red lights of cars going up and down the just barely visible highway across the river.

Jimmy Raspberry and I had finally arrived. I let out a huge sigh. It was as if I had been holding my breath until this very moment. Deep within me I somehow knew that this was IT, a place where routines could be shattered and every street would lead to fresh adventures.

For over a decade, Jackie Bivins was a journalist who reported on the retail industry and interviewed many of its pioneers. She lives in the Coachella Valley, and is currently working on a memoir.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Child Birth, Choice, Guest Posts

No Kids, No Regrets

December 27, 2019
zoe

By Lisa Mae DeMasi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, Zoe begins to choke.

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

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

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

Someone, do something.

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

The little girl lies there flat as an ironing board.

Zoe?

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

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

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

She’s perfect again.

She asks for another chip.

This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.

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

“You can have some Goldfish,” she says.

Goldfish?!

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

Dennis elbows me, a prompt to behave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no, no, Mama!”

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

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

We’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.

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

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

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

So what’s the seduction of remorse, regret?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s pink and purple,” she says.

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

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

I Made Peace With My Body And Found My Soul

December 15, 2019
body

 By Lisa Poulson

The house, above the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, is set on a hill overlooking the whole Luberon valley. Climbing roses cling to its traditional Provençal stone exterior. In California, a plant with just one or two flowers seems in ill health, but here a single blush rose on a vine by the front door feels like beautiful simplicity.

The chic and spare interior is layered with thick coats of pale plaster that curve around me as I walk up two flights of stairs to my room. It’s my first time in Provence, with six girlfriends in this wild, raw and beautiful part of France.

There are wide, cool terracotta tiles, a velvety duvet and no curtains in my bedroom, which is on the third floor of the house, facing the valley. After I settle in and unpack, my friends and I have our evening meal at a long, rough hewn dining table under a tree on the patio. It’s the first week of May. A hint of the Mistral rolls through the hills. I haven’t felt this peaceful in a long, long time.

The next morning, the barest hint of dawn through my uncovered windows wakes me. I smell the remnants of my Diptyque Pomander candle before I open my eyes. I turn my head toward the window and, drowsy and semi-conscious, am immersed in exquisite beauty.

It’s a little chilly as I sit up in bed to watch tender pink light emerge from a piercing bluish fuschia, to see the tall trees shift from shadowy black to darkest teal, to see the rows of lavender on the hill opposite our house emerge from the darkness. The mountains beyond the hills are a Pantone palette of dark to lighter slate blues. Birds are singing. The wind is soft. This dawn is as delicate and rich as Venetian velvet.

After several minutes of watching the colors change and the light bathe the whole scene, a voice, insistent and gentle at the same time, says, ‘If you didn’t have a body, you wouldn’t be able to experience any of this beauty. Not one bit.’

Sitting in my sleep-warm bed, bathed in this exquisite sunrise, I feel peaceful enough to simply accept this truth about my body without argument. As the sun’s light turns the trees green I roll this idea around in my head, thinking about what beauty means to me. Everything. Beauty means everything to me. I’m almost breathless as I absorb the blindingly simple truth that I can only experience beauty through and because of my body.

I am 56 years old. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my body since I was a tween. And yet, in this moment, seduced by the serene Provençal beauty all around me, I reorder what I feel and believe about my body, what it is for, what it has given me, why it’s a miracle.

 ***

It’s been a long and grinding road. I was 10 when I first doubled over with burning pain on both sides of my gut. It wasn’t until my twenties that I got a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me a name but not a solution for the boiling distress that turned my body into an incomprehensible ‘other’, a caustic alien that delighted in causing havoc on dates, before job interviews, at baseball games.

At 30, the man I loved was killed after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. Grief came in molten waves that would growl and stretch, enveloping every part of me. I never knew when my body would start sweating and shaking, drowning me in unbearable sorrow. When grief descend my only choice was to submit to being ravaged.

About a year after my fiancé died I went on a date, thinking it was time to “move on.” But at the end of the evening when he leaned in to kiss me I panicked. Another man having access to my delicate mouth was more than I could bear. I ran up to my apartment and burst into tears.

In the midst of this emotional disarray I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley. Just 15 months after my love died, I left New York City and all of my friends behind. In a strange place, with few friends, tons of work pressure, and carrying a mountain of grief, I turned to food, the most reliable and consistent comfort I knew, and buried myself. I gained 75 pounds in six months.

My gut tormented me, I came down with mononucleosis, my head raged with migraines. I felt trapped inside a body that hurt and humiliated me daily. With bitter self-hatred, I told myself that this body, this alien saboteur, was a billboard for my weaknesses as a person. I didn’t deserve amity with my body, I wasn’t strong enough or good enough to be free.

By the time I was 35 I was emotionally numb, physically miserable and nearly 100 lbs overweight. I was in New York on an exhausting business trip. I stumbled into my hotel room and collapsed against the side of the bed in my underwear, my short legs splayed out in front of me. I stared at my undressed body in the wall of mirrors that were the closet doors. I watched my piles of flesh undulate as I breathed in and out. I forced myself to face everything in the mirror. My legs, my belly, my double chin. My lip curled in revulsion as I stared into deadened eyes. I hated everything about my life. My job. My body. Myself.

Eventually I lost the weight, but I couldn’t love and happily inhabit my complicated and demanding body, where the alien still reigned. In my 40s my career grew and grew, but inside my body was one long repressed scream of rage and frustration. I wanted to swear, to smash things, to scream and shake, to quiver and whimper with passion, to drown in and be intoxicated by love and lust. None of those things happened. Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a proper Mormon girl does not do these things.

I could have gone to the gym every day to expel that pent up desire, anxiety and anger. But a completely numb body is easier to manage than a body that is partially awake. A body that is awake and vibrant and beautiful wants things. Things a Mormon girl can’t have. So instead my weight yo-yoed. My gut burned. And then I got eczema – the skin on my palms became raw and started to peel off. My spirit was choked in a body I refused to love. I was a broken soul.

***

During the next decade I patronized several spas, worked with a cornucopia of health practitioners and healers, tried so many elimination diets. Sometimes I looked better, sometimes I felt better, sometimes I had beautiful moments of connection with my body, usually at an expensive spa after a luxurious treatment. But back in my real life, every time there was a new injury, every time my IBS flared up, every time I gained weight, I blamed the alien, the mute and malevolent force inside me who seemed determined to hurt and undermine my every effort to heal. I saw no way out.

But in late 2016 the movie Arrival hypnotized me. The heroine, a creative, accomplished linguist, was asked to interpret the language of aliens called heptapods. I drank the movie in, read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life on which the movie is based. I thought and thought. What if my body is like a heptapod, a benevolent and complex organism with miraculous gifts to give? Was it possible that within my body I’d find a wisdom that would transform me if I could just learn to speak and listen to its language?

***

That late spring morning in Provence, watching that glorious sunrise, was the first time I heard and understood a sentence in heptapod. ‘It’s your body that gives you the gift of all of this beauty.’

For decades, I had only seen what was wrong and broken – I thought my body was 90% a disaster. I did not see that the things I love – color, art, music, flowers, the scent of perfume, the feel of cashmere on my neck – only come to me because I have a body. My body isn’t a crucible of humiliation and frustration, it is a miracle.

I let the slow and pure beauty of Provence work on my nervous system. Everything there taught me the simple joy of living in a body in the world – fresh goat cheese drizzled with new olive oil and tiny flowers, earthenware vases filled with hardy irises, fields of red poppies shimmering in the breeze, baby green leaves on grape vines that aren’t manicured into antiseptic perfection.

At the end of a week there, after several more ravishing sunrises and sunsets, after living among a people whose lives are bound up in the beauty of the land, I came home to California with a changed heart.

There’s a calmness between my body and me now – the anger and shame have been replaced by a patient, warm affection for the wise heptapod who is teaching me a new way to live. I am learning what it feels like to move through the world with a partner – a wise and remarkable heptapod who has always been with me, every moment of my life. I am whole.

Lisa Poulson is a voice in favor of the complex beauty of female power. She is the descendent of fiercely resilient pioneer women who crossed the American plains with their children – even after their husbands died along the way. She is a successful Silicon Valley PR veteran and a woman who survived her the death of her fiancé four months before their wedding day. Lisa lives in San Francisco, where she spends her free time absorbing and creating as much beauty as possible.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Reflections on Breastfeeding in Airplanes

October 16, 2019
breastfeeding

By Anna Luisa Daigneault

It’s 11am on a Thursday in mid-December, and I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in over 18 months. I am sitting on a cramped airplane, headed northward for the Christmas holiday. I’m in survival mode because I am solo-traveling with my baby daughter. I’m hyper aware of every little potential danger that could somehow harm her on this journey. I am also well aware of every possible way that she could annoy the dozens of people in close proximity to us on our flight.

Each person huddles in their own airplane seat doing their best to doze or block out the people around them by plugging into various devices. Beside us is a silent stranger who occupies every inch of his seat, and a bit of mine too. His headphones are on, and he is holding a smartphone very close to his face. I can see him browsing his social media platforms and typing away furiously with his thumbs. I do my best not to spy on him.

My writhing 18-month-old daughter is on my lap at the moment, but really she would much prefer to be crawling under the seat in front of us, which would of course be a death trap if there were any turbulence. So I am trying to mitigate that situation by breastfeeding her. In theory, the milk would help her slip into nap world for the rest of the plane ride.

Easier said than done. Truthfully, she is getting a little too big to comfortably nurse on a plane. When she was a little baby, she didn’t mind cuddling up to me for hours on end, so I didn’t have to worry about her smacking the passengers around us. Now, at 18 months of age, she is getting big, and has a mind of her own. She wants to be in charge of her own destiny.

As I gently wrestle her into the cradle position, while trying to not let my exposed boob flail around in public view too much, I am painfully aware that we are causing some discomfort and embarrassment to the passenger beside us. My baby keeps kicking him with her little sneakered feet, and he is averting his gaze because he needs to make sure he is not looking at my breast. I can see his sweat beads pile up on his neck.

I feel kind of bad that he might be nervous, so I keep saying sorry and maneuvering my baby’s plump little thrashing legs away from him. But she always finds a way to somehow jostle him, or press up against him. Even after such abuse, our fellow traveler doesn’t respond with a nod, a smile, or even any sound of dismay. He has retreated far away from this annoying reality by gazing into his smartphone, and he has every blessed right to do so.

I am glad he is not getting mad. But a little recognition of the situation, or signal of acknowledgment, would be welcome to us. At least my daughter is not trying to crawl onto his lap and play with his phone, like she did to our neighbor on the last flight.

Seeing as our stoic companion has had little to no reaction, I switch into my familiar mom mode of not caring too much. Motherhood is sometimes about embracing short-lived discomfort for the sake of the greater good. I often have a cruel little mantra playing in my head: we all have to make sacrifices.

But then my eye catches him posting tweet: “What’s up with mothers who still breastfeed their 3-year-olds? Are we still living in medieval times? Give the kid some cow’s milk and move on. Please and thank you.”

I feel my blood boil with rage. How dare he write that about us?! But then my anger diminishes to incredulity. Soon I sort of don’t care anymore, and shrug it off. His tweet is kind of funny, and in any case, he can write whatever he damn well pleases.

Ohhhh, life before parenting, I reflect. I used to be that person, thinking that I knew all of the things. Now, all I can do is stay in the present moment, and pray my baby will settle down soon.

Thankfully, baby drifts off into a peaceful slumber, milk dribbling from her mouth. I stash my boob away into my bra with ninja-like deftness, and try to doze with my neck at a weird angle. But I can’t sleep. I’m still a little hurt over the tweet, and want to say something. But I can’t risk waking the baby, after all that work putting her to sleep! Ugh. I tell myself, whatever, there is no point in arguing with a stranger right now. 

But if I did argue with this guy, this is what I would say.

Allow me to deconstruct your tweet, good sir. First of all, she is only 18 months old. Still technically a baby. Well, she’s a toddler, but she’s still more of an infant than a child. I can tell that you have no idea how old she is. She has enough hair for pigtails, so maybe she looks 3 years old to you, but trust me. She’s a baby.

Second, the reason why she is on my lap is because she rides for free as an infant-in-arms until the age of two. That’s coming up soon, I know, but we are not there yet. I’m on a budget over here. Have some respect! Did you know women are on average paid less than men?

Third, did you know that breastfeeding helps a child’s ears regulate the pressure changes in the cabin? Ha! You didn’t know that. Well, I can see why – I didn’t know that either until I became a mom.

And yes, my boobs are exposed. I know that makes people uncomfortable. I don’t really care. My boobs are not just sexual appendages anymore. They are a source of nutrition and life! They are the Milky Way! The Cosmic Breadbasket! The Sacred Keg!

Ok, I’ll stop there.

No, actually, hear me out. Lots of people breastfeed their kids until the age of two or more because of the multitude of health benefits. We’re obviously not in medieval times. We have many other sources of food. You haven’t seen her eat solid food: she loves it and it’s very messy. I’m actually saving you from being covered in fruity apple slime right now. Graham cracker crumbs and yucky, fruity slime that starts to smell bad surprisingly quickly.

Also, you should marvel at the fact that breastfeeding is really handy while traveling. Food and water on the go. Wherever you need it, it appears. Magical!

And since we’re on this topic, I actually kept breastfeeding my baby this long SPECIFICALLY so she would nurse during THIS exact flight and not cry about her ears hurting, and then as an added bonus, she would fall asleep. So there! I am ACTUALLY trying to help all of us on this plane. It’s not just about you or me. It’s all about the collective!

Lastly, what has our society come to? (Wow, I sound ridiculous). Can we no longer communicate with a human being sitting right next to us on a flight, and instead we decide to deal with our emotions by posting passive-aggressive tweets to our random and invisible assortment of followers?

Well, I suppose I am also communicating with you through a passive-aggressive blog post, months after the fact, so let’s just call it even.

Anyway, I’m sorry she kicked you for 10 minutes straight. Next trip, she gets her own seat.

Thanks for listening. Have a good flight.

Anna Luisa Daigneault is a mother who balances work, family life, being a musician, and endless chores. Originally from Montreal, Anna live in North Carolina with her husband and daughter, cat, dog, beta fish, where they all fend the house off from the million stray cats who wish to nest in their humble abode.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Anxiety, Guest Posts

My Brain’s Airplane Busy Kit

October 6, 2019
airplane

By Darcy Lohmiller

Direct your focus to the little butterflies on my ceiling whispered the soothing voice in my head.  But there were no butterflies in the steel contraption about to launch 30,000 feet into the air.  After fifteen years of flying with prescribed sedatives, I was attempting a flight to South Africa with a backpack filled with aromatherapy scents, inspirational music, and ten recorded sessions of hypnotism.  Buried at the bottom was the emergency stash of Xanax I hoped I wouldn’t need to use.

I increased my phone’s volume and tried to focus on the therapist’s voice instead of the plane’s engines and my pounding heart.  You will have faith in the pilots and all of the training they’ve gone through… Keep in mind what you consciously already know, that this is one of the safest ways to travel……While we rumbled down the runway, I switched to the soundtrack from Apollo 13. My brain, like a toddler distracted by a bright rattle, took an interest in the soaring strings and the heroic brass anthem.  It remembered a rocket with Tom Hanks at the controls, launching to the moon.  I shook the rattle at my brain as we lifted off the runway.

I didn’t always fear flying.  My first flight was as a ten-year-old when my brain trusted adults and the safety they promised me.  A stewardess in a crisp blue uniform brought me a Pepsi with ice before the flight. I was so transfixed by the blurring tarmac outside my window the drink tumbled into my lap on takeoff.  I watched the puffy clouds and the sweeping quilt of wheat fields below, lulled by the engine’s steady hum and the stewardesses’ firm, businesslike steps up and down the cabin.  It became as familiar as the back seat of the station wagon with my father at the wheel and my mother’s intake of breath at each curve in the road.  My mother was an unbearable backseat driver.  She stared straight ahead at the road, clutched the armrest and applied her invisible brakes, always ready to alert my father to the dangers she was sure he couldn’t see. Her world view was if one was always ready for disaster, it would be easier to bear when it arrived.

I flew sporadically and uneventfully for twenty years. I’m not sure when I lost faith in technology and the men who handled it, when I stopped trusting the calm voice of the flight attendant assuring us the seat cushion could be used as a flotation device.  In the 70s, plane disaster headlines were accompanied by photos of suitcases strewn across blackened fields.  My brain stored these details and filled in the rest:  oxygen masks dropping from a disintegrating plane, passengers screaming and clutching each other as they plummeted to the ground.  How many minutes did they anticipate their own death?  My brain shuddered.

I was newly married when I traveled with my husband Dan and his family from Bozeman, Montana to Denver. The first rustlings of nervousness caught me when I entered the cabin.  The plane seemed smaller than I remembered, more fragile.   My footsteps sounded hollow on the thin floor and the plane wobbled when passengers stuffed their bags into the overhead storage and plumped into their seats.  Cracks in the upholstery, peeling paint on the armrest.  I looked out the window and watched the crew loading luggage into the hold.  A bored mechanic tightened a rusty bolt on a dented wing.   If the plane crashed, would he feel any responsibility?  Or were there so many cogs in the machine it would be impossible to find the loose screw and the person who had failed to tighten it?

As the plane gained speed, my heart beat faster in time to the spinning wheels.  I was trapped. I clutched the armrest and willed the plane to rise, but the moment it left the ground it seemed to lose all confidence.  The clouds fought the plane, hitting it on the side, the top, the bottom. The pilot’s voice assured us of a smooth ride, but the turbulence seemed to surprise even him.  “Looks like we hit a rough patch, folks,” his jaunty voice said.  Even the pilot didn’t know this would happen, my brain argued.  They had no control, it insisted.   We were all helpless against forces stronger than us, forces with no regard for us.  I clutched Dan’s arm with each bump and jolt and he was puzzled at my anxiety. In his mind, flying carried a low risk.  Until something happened, you may as well enjoy the scenery.  His fearlessness made me worry more.  I had inherited my mother’s brain with its fear of life’s unexpected bumps, and like hers it believed it must always be ready to take the jolt.  So while Dan gazed out the window, I braced myself for the next one.

Our flight back home was on a thirty-seater and I trudged to the gate as though I were on death row.  We had to walk directly onto a tarmac that radiated heat like an open oven.  As I followed everyone up the steep metal stairs, I recalled a Twilight Zone episode where a passenger is greeted by a stern-faced stewardess.  “Room for one more,” she says.  The passenger ran away before the plane exploded.  I walked down the narrow cabin to the last seat in the back of the plane and fumbled with my seat belt.  My heart had been beating wildly and now my hands were sweating as well.  I tried to calm myself but my body refused to listen.  My arms grew cold as blood flowed to my legs, telling them to move, to escape the danger.  But my brain knew there was no escape. I struggled to breathe.

The flight attendant asked, “Is she okay?”  Dan nodded.  The plane skittered down the runway and jumped into the air while Dan stroked my hand as though my fear was a spot he could rub out.  The flight attendant brought me a glass of white wine, and I downed it while she took her seat behind the pilots, two sturdy men in crisp blue uniform calmly adjusting the controls.  I focused on their closely trimmed hair beneath gold-trimmed military caps. Like my mother in the car, perhaps I could alert them to danger with a tap on the shoulder and a firm word.  As we descended through the mountains, the little plane took the gust of mountainous air like a boxer took body punches.  It shuddered, but righted itself, feinted to the side, then faced its opponent again. For an hour, I sat rigid against the punches that rained on me until we bounced onto the runway and braked at the gate.  I could barely walk off the plane.

For the next five years, I found an excuse to avoid any flight until a friend I wouldn’t visit urged me to see a doctor.  “You know, they have drugs for that.”

My doctor wrote a prescription for Xanax.  When the pharmacist handed me the little white bag, stapled at the top, she smiled.  “You’ll like this.”  No one thought less of me for using a drug to conquer fear.

And it worked.  It told the small amygdala in my brain to shut up but left my cortex free to manage terminals, gate changes, and subway systems.  My amygdala, I learned, had been working overtime, coordinating responses to dangers that did not exist.  My cortex tried to object, but it wasn’t fast enough.   Xanax put the brakes on the busy amygdala so the cortex could catch up.  My brain was quiet throughout the flight, and noted turbulence with only a mild curiosity.

For the next fifteen years, I traveled with a little yellow container tucked inside my bag.  Every six hours, I dug it out and snapped it open like a tin of Altoids.  The cabin’s noises turned into a soft buzz and I smiled at the flight attendants, talked to the person beside me about things I couldn’t later recall, and arrived at my gate with a calm heart and mind.  Thank you for the nice flight, I told the pilot and the flight attendants at the door.

But using Xanax had its tradeoffs.   I watched movies, read books, had interesting conversations and remembered little of them.  On a flight to the Bahamas, I looked out the window at a sea of turquoise waters and felt nothing.  Only a fully functioning brain can experience delight, wonder, and awe.  And though the numbing effects of Xanax were largely gone the next day, there was always a lingering dullness as my brain came back to life.  I only took it once or twice a year, but worried about its long-term effects.   I had hoped flying under the influence of Xanax would eventually allow me to fly without it.  But every time I tried to do so, the slightest bump would send me rustling in my bag for the tiny case of pills.  Doctors criticized Xanax because it made the brain lazy and demanding.   Using Xanax was like giving in to a child’s temper tantrum.  Okay, here’s your chemicals.  Now calm down.

As our trip to South Africa grew nearer, I worried about taking Xanax for the 22 hours it required to get there. How long would that lingering dullness last?  Would I spend most of the trip looking at wild elephants and lions with only mild curiosity?  Was it possible to retrain my amygdala instead of shut it off?   So I paid for six sessions with a hypnotist who tried to convince my subconscious that flying was safe.  My brain wasn’t an easy student.  It struggled to create mental images. It refused to respond to suggestions.  It never did achieve a trance-like state.  But I closed my eyes and listened to her voice assuring my brain it was safe, it was strong.  I just hoped it was listening.

During the flight across the country and the Atlantic Ocean and down the entire length of Africa, I was armed with my recordings and an emergency stash of Xanax.   Twenty-two hours of flying, twelve hours of two layovers, I arrived in Johannesburg drug-free, clear-headed and exhausted.  Without the rosy haze of Xanax, flying was as glamorous as a bus trip.  Hundreds of passengers were crammed into narrow rows of tight seats.  Lines formed at the bathrooms.  The flight crew pushed their carts through tight aisles and silently handed out Styrofoam cartons of food.  I didn’t have a panic attack, but I was drained from two days of trying to manage my restless brain in a three foot space.  I’d watched six movies, ate seven meals, and slept a total two hours out of the twenty-two.  I had been fully cognizant the entire flight.

It wasn’t that great.

On the flight back to the United States, my brain fought me for the first twelve hours.  It was tired.  It was whiney.  I had pushed it too hard.  Hypnotism had helped, but it didn’t eliminate over fifty years of hard-wiring.  My brain may always panic when it feels trapped, may always struggle to fight the disaster it is sure is on its way.  I hoped to train my brain to relax with reassurances of safety and images of butterflies, but instead forced it into a sort of whimpering, fearful submission.  Is a constant and simmering state of anxiety better for my brain than one milligram of Xanax?

With twelve more hours left in the flight, I surrendered.  I still hope to retrain my brain to become the calm flyer I want it to be, but at this moment I just needed it to shut the hell up.  I snapped open my little container and swallowed the pill.

Darcy Lohmiller is a middle school librarian and part-owner of a fly fishing shop in Bozeman, Montana. Her essays about fishing, hunting, dogs and trailers have appeared in The Drake, The Flyfish Journal, Shooting Sportsman Magazine, and The Big Sky Journal. You can read her essays at https://www.clippings.me/dlohmiller

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, travel, Young Voices

Camino

August 11, 2019
santiago

By Anna Linskaya

“So you’re doing Camino, right?” the Argentinian sitting next to me said, nodding at the trekking pole squeezed between my knees.

“Yep,” I replied.

“Alone?”

“Yep.”

“That’s a bad option in winter, especially for you.”

“For me?”

“For the girl.”

I shrugged, and he continued: “Do you even speak Spanish?”

“No, but it’s not a big problem,” I answered, thinking to myself, everything happening right now is a big problem.

“Let’s see when exactly the sun goes down,” he said, taking out his phone, “Ok, you have to be at your overnight stay by five.” Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parents

La Calle Mercéd 20

April 22, 2019
Havana

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

When my Cuban–born mother married my much older American father, she was thrilled to say goodbye to the cold-water flats and acrid subway stations of the Brooklyn to which she had immigrated. Over a half-century later, I walked the streets of Havana where my mother had dreamed of a rich life in America. Her fantasies of a star-spangled, Doris Day-Rock Hudson life included the two-story colonial in suburban Connecticut in which she eventually lived.

I looked for that same sort of luxury that my mother said she grew up with in Old Havana on la Calle Mercéd 20 — my mother’s house, the storied address of my childhood. For me, all things Cuban began and ended there. It was the place where my mother would be young forever. It was the place where my grandparents shut the door on twenty-five years of possessions and walked away forever. It was the place where my mother said she shined the marble stairs better than the maid. This was my mother’s world and when I knocked on Number 20’s heavy door it was the last moment before I fully understood that she had invented her comfortable Cubana life — a life that featured a tony apartment house where my mother and her family occupied both floors. She said there was a maid’s room where Amelia the housekeeper ironed the delicate house linens.

A pregnant woman answered the door and I stepped into the small, dark place that almost certainly had not changed since my mother lived there. The four-room apartment was crowded with maroon brocade furniture. A big screen television, the focal point of the living room, broadcast in garish colors and ran without the sound. Like my parents’ bedroom on Asylum Avenue, the place felt existentially noisy with so much stuff crammed into that small space. The furnishings were obviously gifts that their relatives in America brought them. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, travel

Tearing off the Supermom Cape

April 11, 2019
buddhist

By Dena Moes

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

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

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

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

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

*** Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Surviving

Stonehenge, Survival, and Me

January 23, 2019

By Angela M Giles

Today is the day of my father’s death.  He was a successful suicide, which is to say my father failed at living. The loss of him, his choice not to stay with us, hurts, badly. This is something I have to carry, and it is a permanent wound that is deep and open. My body has been carrying so much, for so long.
 
I have been in London over the past days and it has been a satisfying and humbling trip. Satisfying because the time here has been utterly, fantastically delightful. Humbling, because this was a trip that was cancelled after a car accident that I was lucky to survive.

Continue Reading…

Awe & Wonder, Guest Posts

On Brothers and Other Solar Systems

April 13, 2018
brothers

By Jen Fitzgerald

Flagstaff, AZ feels like a place where it is safe to be in between. Maybe not between any two things as tangible as a wall and a bear, but in between way points, between jobs, between mountains, or in between a question and the possibility of its answer. The geographic placement of the city mirrors the position of Megrez, the star that marks the end of the Big Dipper’s handle; Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff then pouring into the deep bowl of the Hopi Nation and branching out into the entirety of Ursa Major.

Those from Flagstaff don’t stay in Flagstaff for very long without feeling some sort of way about it. The reasons are varied, but all seem to loop back into, “Flagstaff has got a lot of problems but it’s better than where I was.” I could like it there until it became too familiar. I could like it until the novelty wore off and I was the only stationary creature. I could enjoy the train coming through until the first fatality, the first near-miss I witnessed— until it solidified as a place where things happen.

There is much to love about this Dark Sky City, one of our rare 13 in the United States. The come as you may and are vibe is a holdover from the golden days of Route 66 and the Santa Fe Rail Line. Almost everyone there is from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is mostly Phoenix, with Tucson at a close second. This is a city that prizes movement—and I know what it means to move. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, language

My Ithaka

March 18, 2018
greek

By Catherine Curan

At age 19 I fell in love forever, with Odysseus, with Yiannis, and most of all with Constantine.

My mother had said college would be a happier place than high school for me, a bookish would-be poet marooned in small-town Long Island, dreaming of a life of the mind. What better place to find it than Princeton University, the pinnacle of the Ivy League and my father’s beloved alma mater? But when I arrived in September 1988, the intellectual paradise I had naively expected shimmered out of reach. I was wait-listed for creative writing workshops. I floundered in philosophy classes I took instead. I drank cheap beer, discovering a drunken hookup culture my mother didn’t know had replaced dating. I was so unhappy, I nearly dropped out.

My parents wanted me to stay. So I did, enrolling sophomore year in a comparative literature class with an appealingly weighty title: Myth, History, and Contemporary Experience in Modern Greek, English, and American Poetry. On the first day, a dozen students crowded around a long table headed by an avuncular professor who opened a book and immediately began lecturing, engrossed in the text.

I can’t recall exactly which poem he read. I like to think it was Cavafy, encouraging Odysseus to keep his beloved lost homeland of Ithaka always in mind, without fearing the monsters or angry gods he might find along the way. “You won’t encounter them / unless you bring them along inside your soul, / unless your soul sets them up in front of you.” The poems we discussed that day, and Professor Edmund Keeley’s unassuming love for them, captivated me. I bought Keeley’s collection of translations, “Voices of Modern Greece”, a slim paperback with a plain cover that gave no hint the verse it contained would crack my life wide open. My passion for these poets—Constantine Cavafy, Yiannis Ritsos, and Odysseus Elytis—would send me on an odyssey thousands of miles from home, leading to a new language, a new home, love, betrayal, loss, and heartbreak. I didn’t know it then, but my personal epic journey began in that classroom with a few lines of Modern Greek poetry.

Both scholarship student and Princeton legacy, I was navigating an uneasy mixture of struggle and privilege. My father had graduated in 1958, but he still bore childhood scars of poverty and loss. I grew up watching him hoard 32-ounce cans of imported Italian plum tomatoes so he would always be able to make sauce, and hearing stories of how he and his five siblings cared for each other after their mother died and their father abandoned them.

I had no interest in my grandfather’s language, Italian, or in German, the language of my grandmother, whose death remained an ever-present tragedy. Greece had always fascinated me, and in Keeley’s class, Modern Greek poetry began to take shape as an appealing island I could explore on my own, apart from my family.

I was in awe of any person with the exalted title “professor”, but Keeley was friendly and supportive, introducing me to Dimitri Gondicas, the Assistant Director of the Program in Hellenic Studies. When I decided to write my junior paper on Cavafy, Gondicas arranged for philosophy professor Alexander Nehamas to advise me. Some of my happiest Princeton memories are of meeting with Nehamas in his office at 1879 Hall to discuss Cavafy. For years afterwards (until it was lost in a move), I kept Nehamas’ translation of my favorite Cavafy poem, “I’ve Brought to Art”, above my desk.

My work with Nehamas showed me the limits of writing about poetry in translation. Gondicas suggested I study Greek in Athens, offering me a scholarship.

I told my mother first. As a teenager, she had wanted to be a flight attendant, and still dreamt of traveling the world. We decided to tell my father I’d won a prestigious scholarship. Only after he congratulated me, glowing with pride, did we mention my trip to Greece.

At last I was sailing closer to a life of the mind (something I had not even tried to define, or realized I could create). A childhood friend traveled with me, and we skylarked around Paros with two handsome brothers from the UK. Then my friends returned home, leaving me in Athens, alone. I had never been farther from home than New Jersey. Athens seemed too intense: loud, hot, bright, and utterly baffling. I knew no one, and the other students in my Greek class were already a tight-knit group from the same American university.

The language I had longed to learn seemed nearly impossible, too. I remember sitting in my apartment, struggling to sound out a new vocabulary word. Greek is notorious for complex multisyllabic words, but I wasn’t going to give up until I got this one. “Soo-ppp, soo-ppp-eh,” I intoned. “Soo ppp eh, rm, ar, ket.” Supermarket. I had just spent ten minutes deciphering an English word in Greek. I gave up and went to buy canned tomatoes for the marinara sauce I was cooking, gesturing to the shopkeeper to make myself understood.

The next day after class I spotted a guy in a Princeton T-shirt, and tapped him on the shoulder. Photis invited me to lunch. He and his father, a Greek-American professor, were so friendly, I forgot to be shy of the man with the exalted title, and his handsome son. I was headed back to Princeton in two weeks, while Photis was spending a year in Greece. Both of us were surprised by how quickly our attraction deepened into love.

No matter that he lived in Athens. It was thrilling to long for him, back in Princeton. It was thrilling to walk to the copy shop late at night and receive a page of curling paper, fresh from the fax machine, containing a love letter he’d just written, 3,000 miles away. No matter that I now associated the language of Constantine, Odysseus, and Yiannis, my trio of perfect poets, with the flesh-and-blood Photis. Our love had survived my return to America, and was strong enough to lure him back for the spring semester.

After I graduated, we spent the summer in Greece. This time he was returning to Princeton, while I stayed in Athens for a year, teaching English and studying Greek so I could finally read Cavafy. Confident in our relationship, Photis suggested we see other people while apart. I didn’t like the idea, but I agreed. What difference would a meaningless fling make?

In November, I met a young Athenian. A professional-studies student and an aspiring composer, he struggled, as I did, to balance duty with creative dreams. Unlike Photis, my Athenian loved Modern Greek poetry, too; the first present he gave me was a copy in Greek of Elytis’ “Diary of an Invisible April”. And so once again I embarked on a romance that could not last. My Athenian was preparing for two years of mandatory service in the Greek Army, while Photis planned to join me in Greece after exams.

By the time my parents visited Athens that spring, I had astonished myself and everyone else by breaking up with Photis. My father had tolerated him, just barely, deriding our transatlantic passion as “puppy love”. In Athens, my parents smiled through a dinner with me and my new love, but I knew they feared losing me to Greece. I was happy with my Athenian, but I hated that I had hurt Photis, and I wondered, if I could abandon him, what other betrayals was I capable of?

That spring, I forgot about Yiannis, Odysseus, and Constantine. I squandered the opportunity to read Cavafy with my undergraduate Greek professor, Richard Burgi, who had retired to Athens. My Athenian’s knowledge of my native language was so much better than mine of his that we rarely spoke Greek to each other, and I did not complete the few translations I started of the poems he’d given me. Shutting out my guilt about Photis and anxieties about the future, I lived in a desperate but exalted present tense. My Athenian would soon be joining the army. My job, and the on-campus housing that came with it, was ending, and so was my time in Greece.

I had no plans for what came next. It did not even occur to me to request another deferral on my student loans, or try to find a new job, so I could stay. I had been away for an entire year, enjoying myself, perhaps too much. It was time to go home.

America had become a foreign country. New York felt unreal, a temporary detour until I could sort out a scholarship for graduate school in England or Greece. I found a job and started repaying my Princeton loans, while my Athenian coped with army life. We had no money for traveling, so long-distance landline calls and hand-written letters sustained us. During our separation, my relationship to the language I had started learning so I could read Modern Greek poetry deepened and changed. It took on the tenor of his voice on my answering machine, the sweet silliness of the pet name we created from one of my funnier grammatical errors. The shaky alpha, beta, gammas from my copybooks the summer I met Photis solidified into the shape my Athenian gave the Greek alphabet when he wrote to me from the army camp.

Over time, the stress and unhappiness on both sides grew too great, and in early 1995, we admitted defeat. Single again for the first time in three years, I discovered that I could not reestablish a purely academic connection to the language of my love for these two men. I quit my

Greek lessons and abandoned my comp-lit career plans. I felt I had failed myself and my mentors. I couldn’t even admit why. Modern Greek had become a lexicon of heartbreak, and I had to leave it behind me.

The man I married is the kindest person I know. Understanding my desire to study Greek in a new way, he found an app for me last fall, and since then I’ve been practicing Greek almost every day. Just this week I’ve been able, for the first time in years, to read a few lines of Cavafy. I’m also discovering, in English and the original Greek, new voices collected in the bilingual anthology “Austerity Measures” published in 2016.

“As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery,” Cavafy wrote. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind. / Arriving there is what you are destined for. / But do not hurry the journey at all. / Better if it lasts for years, / so you’re old by the time you reach the island, / wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way.”

I won’t have the Modern Greek Studies career I once envisioned, earning the exalted title of professor of comparative literature for myself. I’ll never know what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Greece. But I’ve returned at last to the Modern Greek poets I once loved for their beautiful, dangerous, passionate words. They will always be with me.

Catherine Curan is a fiction writer, independent journalist, and writing teacher based in New York City. Her short stories have appeared in Arts & Letters, Fiction, Many Mountains Moving, Ozone Park Journal, and the SalonZine. In 2011, she won a Freelance Fellowship from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. for a three-month investigation into residential foreclosures in the New York City area, which was published by the New York Post.

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Family, Guest Posts

Through the Sand: A Driving Lesson From Dubai

July 7, 2017

By Kathryn Streeter

I posed a million-dirham ($272,260.72 in today’s US dollar) question: “Do the children of Dubai play in sandboxes?” Our family, newly transplanted from the Washington, DC area where sandboxes had provided our children with hours of fun in earlier years, mulled over this question the summer we moved temporarily to the desert metropolis of Dubai. Even with all of Dubai’s development, if one catapulted high enough above the impressive skyline, Dubai seemed not too unlike one massive sandbox with ribbons of various roads lying thickly near the coast and rapidly thinning out in numbers the further away from the sandbox’s edge of the Arabian Sea, until only interminable sand remained.

The subject of driving, however, quickly claimed our attention as it rapidly morphed to the level of top priority. This critical arena of living required quick-study because learning this new turf involved navigating Dubai’s roads, roads which often betrayed the foundation they were laid upon: sand.

From our company apartment’s location, we easily realized that we were isolated without a car. As urbanites, we had associated walking with city living. Going to a coffeeshop or grocery didn’t require a car. Walking the kids to school? No problem. Bike trails and sidewalks connected neighborhoods and ultimately, people. Not so in Dubai, where pedestrians were merely walking to their cars, that in and of itself often life-threatening because Dubai was built with cars, not people, in mind. Continue Reading…

Gratitude, Guest Posts, Travels

The Lasting Impact of “One Last Thing”

January 5, 2017
nourished

By Kristin O’Keefe

Of course she paced the van’s third row. Zoe knew what suitcases signified and she did not like to be left.

Abused as a puppy, our rescue dog would flinch when strangers raised a hand to pet her. She got better over time, but she was still frugal with affection. Zoe loved five people: my husband, our two children, my father and me. She tolerated everyone else.

Unfortunately for the dog, we promised friends in Europe that this was the year we’d visit.

At least Zoe wouldn’t be kenneled; she was old and sensitive and keened mournfully the times we dropped her at one. She’d be with family: first my sister-in-laws’ home for a few days, then off to my parents, where she’d rest her head on my father’s lap and patiently wait to be petted. Our dog was in good hands. Continue Reading…

Friendship, Guest Posts, Women

A Small Coin For Your Thinking

December 3, 2016
coin

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

“I’m kidnapping you to Italy and this time I’m not taking no for an answer,” my college roommate Pat announces.

Pat bought a vacation house in Umbria, Italy eight years ago, but my husband Marc and I have never visited. We aren’t able to travel together much because we have a developmentally disabled son. “You should go with Pat,” Marc says. “It’s the trip of a lifetime.”

Still, travel is a mixed bag. There’s the pleasure of it, of course. But there is always an undercurrent of longing and sadness too. I so wish Marc and I could travel together. And I feel guilty. Doesn’t he deserve some respite too? Why should I be the one who gets to go gallivanting?

“What can I bring you?” I ask him. “Gloves? A wallet? Wine?”

“An ancient Etruscan artifact,” he says.

“Right,” I say. “I’ll go digging up Pat’s back yard.”

Pat has invited three of her closest friends. None of us knows each other well.  “What if we don’t get along? What if the others don’t like me?” I ask Pat.

“Lynne and Eve said the same thing!” she says. “Do you think I would have put us together if I thought we wouldn’t click?”

So I pack, in my usual anxious way, for every contingency. A first aid kit. A four inch folding umbrella. An Italian phrase book. I’m the kind of girl who always remembers to bring the toothpaste. Continue Reading…