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writing

Guest Posts, pandemic, Relationships

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

August 12, 2021
mom

by Amy Challenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

The Converse-Station: Sari Fordham Interviews Gina Troisi

August 1, 2021
book

Introduction by Sari Fordham

I got to know Gina Troisi because we both had debut memoirs coming out this year of all years. How does one launch one’s book during a pandemic? A group of us had the same question and we decided to join forces and ask it together. Over Zoom we chatted about our jobs, the falling snow (or the orange blossoms), the stories around our books, and how to connect with readers during a pandemic. I was particularly drawn to Troisi and her steady enthusiasm for writing and creative nonfiction. She is originally from New Hampshire and has written a book seeped in place, even as it uncovers the relationships in her lives.

Troisi’s debut memoir The Angle of Flickering Light is an insightful examination of how a childhood of abandonment and abuse spoke into her adulthood and how she learned to navigate the past through narrative. Trosi’s prose is sharp, her structure is unconventional, and her story is one that has stayed with me.

Sari Fordham: What inspired you to write your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light?book

Gina Troisi: I actually didn’t intentionally set out to write a memoir—at least not at first. When I began working on my MFA in 2007, I had one goal in mind: to improve my craft, and to ultimately become a better writer. Writing has always been the way I’ve processed, the way I’ve made meaning of what has happened, so I began writing personal essays—examining situations, events, and circumstances that had been instrumental in shaping the person I had become.

As I completed these essays, many of my mentors and peers continued to point out that I was returning to the same themes and subjects, as well as the same characters and settings. Even though I was working on disparate pieces, it became undeniable that the essays made up a larger body of work, with an overarching narrative.

Through writing, I was asking personal questions, but they were naturally becoming universal. Some of these questions were about despair and loneliness, but I was also weaving ideas about hope and perseverance throughout.

SF: Your memoir begins with this striking scene where you’re five years old and playing with your father’s novelty pens. The pens have women on them and when you turn them upside down, their clothes come down. Did the book always begin there for you?

GT: No. I experimented with multiple beginnings. In fact, at one point that first scene came way later, in the last third of the book.

While thinking about structure, I spent much time contemplating what I wanted to illuminate as the core of the memoir—the narrative through-line that the reader could follow, but which would also allow me the freedom to veer off into the past or future with ease, in order to illustrate the heart of the story.

But when I was revising, , I realized that it would make the most sense to begin the book with my father having just moved out on his own, which was not only one of my earliest childhood memories, but also where the conflict began.

SF: I’m really interested in how imposing a structure onto a story can open up a narrative. Your memoir is divided into three parts. How did using defined sections, which feels like a compartmentalizing tool, allow you to create that through-line?

GT: It absolutely was a compartmentalizing tool. That’s a great way to describe it. It allowed me to see the larger shifts of the narrator’s story, and to summarize her transitions in a neat way, by including titles for each of the three parts. In reality, the transitions were not neat; they were chaotic and erratic, but the division and labeling of the sections allowed me to gain even more distance—to really step back and assess what each part of the story was about.

SF: I admire how your book moves with such ease through time. By considering two different memories together, you added in layers of depth. How did you discover the shape of your chapters?

GT: At first, this felt tricky, since the memoir covers such a wide span of time; there are scenes when the narrator is five years old, and there are scenes when she is thirty-five. But once I had defined the heart of the story, the shape of the chapters became pretty instinctual and organic.

As you mentioned, I divided the book into three sections, which helped my focus. I decided to begin with prominent childhood years and scenes that would show the way the narrator had been molded, followed by a second part detailing young adult years that would exemplify the different ways in which she becomes lost and stuck, and I ended the book with a third, more reflective section, where I was able to integrate more of the present-day adult narrative voice—questioning, contemplating, and dealing with the aftermath of events and choices. This three-part division helped to clarify the shape of the chapters—where they needed to begin and end, and how they needed to be framed in order to highlight the core of the narrative.

SF: There is a really memorable scene in your book where you’re on a research trip for your memoir and you discover that a story you were told as a teen might have been completely fabricated. Were there other surprises as you were researching or writing?

GT: There were many surprises, yes, but not as dramatic as the one you mention, where the research almost completely changed the reality of what I had believed.

Most of the surprises had to do more with self-revelation rather than discovering a false truth. I have found that, in order to write memoir, we need to first have a heightened sense of self-awareness. But even when we have done a tremendous amount of work on ourselves, and when we think we understand circumstances fully, there is always more to learn. We have so many different versions of ourselves. And of course, as we work on a project, we are also aging and changing, and our perspectives tend to revise themselves. Through the act of researching and writing, I often realized I needed to do more digging in the way of self-discovery.

SF: How did being open to self-discovery influence the book you were writing?

GT: Being open allowed me to let the book and the material take its own shape, in a sense. It provoked me to question my understanding of the way things happened—how and why—and to challenge my own perceptions and beliefs. It prompted me to be as honest as possible on the page, even when I was still actively trying to figure things out, and to dig deeper, even if I already believed I’d excavated all that I needed to. And it prompted me to explore the fallibility of memory.

SF: As a reader, I was drawn to the authenticity of your voice and your vulnerability. As a writer, that’s a hard place to stay for an extended period of time. Did you feel protective of your younger self? How did you remain open?

 

GT: I don’t know if I felt protective exactly. In order to write this memoir, I had to become pretty removed and detached, and to really see myself as a character rather than a version of myself. Which of course, took a lot of self-work over a period of years.

When I received feedback on earlier drafts of the book, a few people pointed out that the narrator wasn’t self-aware enough—that the reader couldn’t make sense of her choices, of her self-destructive decisions, and in turn couldn’t always empathize with her. So I realized that it was going to be important to show the way she’d been shaped from a young age, even if it felt vulnerable at times. I knew that I needed to show her raw interiority, and that I owed that to the reader.

SF: In the chapter Cleaning House, you write: “California was a place where I stepped out of time. I attempted to transform myself into someone who I was not, at least not yet—someone who rested and reflected, someone who paused to make sense of her choices.” I love these lines because they speak to the journey you were on and gesture to who you were becoming. They also reflect the importance place plays in your memoir. Whether the place is an apartment, a playground, a city, or a state, you’re attentive to where you are and how you are shaped by it. How did you reinhabit those places while you were writing? Did you look at pictures? Visit them? Take notes? Listen to music?

GT: I actually did all of the above. I revisited old journals and letters and photos, listened to music that was etched into my brain from various moments and timeframes in the book. I did visit places, especially when I could drive to them—houses and apartments and restaurants where I worked.

When I wrote about Santa Cruz, California where I lived for a short time in 2002, but which was a pivotal time both in life and in the book, I flew out there from Boston and stayed in a cheap motel for four days. I revisited the places where I spent time when I lived there so long ago; I ran the same roads alongside the ocean, went to bookstores and coffeeshops and bars—even the grocery store where I’d bought my food. And it helped to uncover the memories in a crucial way. I love thinking about place in all aspects of writing, no matter which genre I’m writing in. I’m fascinated by the way a place can become as essential as any other character.

SF: What books inspired you while you were writing this one?

GT: Oh gosh, so many. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Sue William Silverman’s Love Sick, Fleda Brown’s Driving With Dvorak, Tim Hillegonds’s The Distance Between, Randal O’Wain’s The Meander Belt, Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water was a particularly strong influence. Before I knew of Yuknavitch or her work, I saw her speak at an AWP conference in Seattle, where she was part of a panel of authors who’d written non-chronological memoirs. I’d been wrestling with the structure of my book–with how to shape what was then an essay collection into a memoir, and I was resisting telling the story from beginning to end; I just knew it wasn’t the right direction for my material, but I couldn’t fathom how to do it any other way. Lidia, in the most passionate, lovely voice, said, “I believe in art the way other people believe in God.” She had me right there. And then she went on to describe the process of shaping her memoir. After the seminar, I immediately bought The Chronology of Water. I read and reread it, and thought about deeply about the structure of my own book. It not only inspired me, but it gave me the liberty to think about how I might break the rules when it came to structure–it opened me up to the possibilities available, and assured me that I did not have to be boxed in by narrative convention. It was a true gift.

Sari Fordham’s work has appeared in Brevity, Green Mountains Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Passages North, among others. Her memoir Wait for God to Notice is available from Etruscan Press. She lives in California with her husband and daughter.

Gina Troisi received an MFA in creative nonfiction from The University of Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program in 2009. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Fourth Genre, The Gettysburg Review, Fugue, Under the Sun, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, and elsewhere. Her debut memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light is available from Vine Leaves Press. She is currently working on a novel-in-stories.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Books, Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black

June 17, 2021
kahlo

By Angela M Giles

It’s not often that an author you admire has two new books published within months of each other. Yet, with the release of  Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg this week, Emily Rapp Black has done just that.

Sanctuary was released in January of this year, and came nearly seven years after Still Point of the Turning World. Both books deal with the what it means to face the unfathomable, the loss of a child, and together these two books present a look at grief and love and loss in a way that is both moving and humbling. Her most recent book deals with loss of a different type, the loss of an “able” body, and while not as heart crushing as the story of losing her son, it is just as remarkable.

For avid readers, the time between books by a favored author can be lonely. At least for me. When I read, I am all in. I don’t have a problem not finishing a book that isn’t working for me, and when I find a book or an author that resonates I want more. Emily is in the latter group.

I first met Emily at a writing retreat in Vermont in 2013. Still Point was on the horizon and while I understood the strength of her writing, I hadn’t read enough of her work to understand the depth. Emily is a prolific, often fevered, writer who is unafraid to talk about messy things. While her books are far between (at least until this year) her essays abound and deal with similar themes. I love her essays. I may love Emily as an essayist more than I love her as a memorist, but I suspect that is due to my  own delight when I see she has published something, anything, new.

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Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is not a linear narrative, it circles back to loss–both Rapp Black and Kahlo are amputees–but the the loss here is not that simple. The loss of an “able” body, the objectification of bodies that aren’t “normal”, the ways grief over loss changes people are all addressed. The book presents as a collection of essays on these themes, and while this may feel disjointed to some, the form and format are well suited to the subject. The near cult-like following of Frida Kahlo continues to grow, with the details of her personal life at times overshadowing her art. This alone makes her a valid subject for Rapp Black, whose own experience has often been defined by her experience as an amputee and/or grieving mother. But as Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg demonstrates, there is so much more to the sum of an existence.

The book opens with a discussion of  The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas) and closes with the retelling of a conversation with Rapp Black’s then five-year-old daughter about her own prosthesis. In the 140 or so pages between the opening and the close of the book, we experience Kahlo as the author does and ultimately we are left with understanding the painter as well as the writer in terms of what shouldn’t define them. This book is a tribute to Kahlo, perhaps even a love letter of sorts, but it is also a well rendered examination of a subject Rapp Black knows well, living with loss.

The final lines of the book are among the most inspiring, and leave us with the reminder that “Love and bodies come apart…Art remains.” This book stands as Rapp Black’s most artistic book to date and will be one that I read and reference and gift over and over.

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Emily is participating in a series of conversations about the book, information can be found on her website. Listen in to the livestreams if you can, I hope to see you there.

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

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

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Adoption, Books, Guest Posts

The Lonely Doll Made Me Feel Seen

May 26, 2021
megan galbraith doll

By Megan Culhane Galbraith

As a little girl I’d lie flat on my back and pour over The Lonely Doll. It was an oversized picture book with a pink gingham cover that featured a black and white photo of a doll sitting on the floor holding an open book. The author, Dare Wright, posed her Lenci doll, “Edith,” in various scenes inside her own glamorous New York City apartment, the park, the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond. Like Dare, the doll was pretty, blonde, with bangs and a high ponytail. She seemed a charmed life, but there was one problem. Edith was terribly lonely.

Wright was an amateur photographer and The Lonely Doll was her first book. The Lenci doll that represented Edith was the doll she’d played with as a child. Edith was Dare’s doppelgänger. In the book Edith’s parents are never home and she is essentially orphaned, wandering the huge apartment, staring out the window, hoping for friends to play with when suddenly two friends show up at her door, Mr. Bear and Little Bear.

I loved Edith, but what saddened me was her expression. Her eyes seemed searching and vacant. Her mouth was pursed in a way that implied a smile she wasn’t capable of giving. It’s no wonder Wright’s book influenced my work in deep ways. We were both searching for how to belong.

In my memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Baby Book, I recreate and photograph scenes from my baby book in my dollhouse similar to the way Wright did. My visual art project, The Dollhouse, became a lens through which I could safely question my personal history and interrogate the myths of adoption and identity. As an adopted child, I’d felt like a thing to be played with––a doll––instead of a person with her own identity. I’d felt looked at, but not seen. Playing in the dollhouse helped me reconstruct my identity after feeling invisible for many years. It helped me build a safe home within myself because for a long time I’d never felt truly at home anywhere, not even in my own body.

Children play to control the world. When I was a child, I wanted to control my world because as an adoptee I felt I had no control. I created small universes in shoebox dioramas in grade school, and built tiny natural habitats for the mice that lived in the field behind my house. I loved to create and explore new miniature realms. It was empowering to make all the decisions, so I imagined myself into another life. It didn’t matter that the stage was tiny. These were worlds into which I could disappear.

Dolls have no agency; they are objects to be acted upon. I didn’t play much with dolls as a child. I hadn’t been given dolls as a girl––no Barbie, or Baby Alive. My parents gave me Legos, a rock tumbler, and a frog hatchery, all of which dazzled me. Each Christmas, Mom gave me one Madame Alexander doll, which I was urged to keep pristine in its box. The one doll I remember playing with was Holly Hobbie. Holly had flat feet and a flat chest like me, and her dress was reminiscent of what Laura Ingalls wore in “Little House on The Prairie,” a show I watched religiously every Sunday. Holly’s tagline was “Start Each Day In a Happy Way.” She had a huge head, oversized eyes, chipmunk cheeks . . . and no mouth. She couldn’t have spoken if she’d wanted to.

I hated her.

One day, after cutting her hair so short it stuck straight up from her head, I tried to decapitate her. I held her flat feet and banged her giant head against the corner of my desk. When that didn’t work, I grabbed her head and tore it off with my hands. I realize now how angry I was that I couldn’t express my fear, or loneliness. It was there, living inside me all along but I didn’t have the words. I felt sad, emotionally fragile, and invisible when all I needed was to be held and comforted.

Years later, I began playing with a tin dollhouse I’d found at a local antique shop; A ’60s-era Louis Marx “Marxie Mansion” of the same time period in which my birth mother had been sent away to have me. That set the stage for what would become the basis for a visual art project called “The Dollhouse.” I staged the dolls and babies in household situations and photographed them from the outside looking in, just like Dare Wright did in The Lonely Doll. It was a voyeuristic way of seeing a situation from an angle of removal. It gave me the space I needed to examine my adopted life through a different lens. Thanks to those dolls I began to reconstruct and reclaim my identity.

“No one gets a dollhouse to play at reality,” said the child psychologist Erik Erickson, “but reality seeps in everywhere when we play.”

The New Yorker deemed The Lonely DollThe Creepiest Children’s Book,” and it has a cult following, but I don’t find it creepy at all. There’s a controversial scene in the book. Edith is thrown over Mr. Bear’s knee and spanked for being “naughty” for trying on her mother’s lipstick. Keep in mind it was Little Bear who provoked her to wear the lipstick and who wrote, “Mr. Bear is a silly old thing” on the boudoir mirror in that same lipstick.

Adults project eroticism on to that spanking scene (because adults ruin everything), but it was more about punishing a girl for showing her feelings than it was about kink. Why was Edith being disciplined for expressing a feeling and trying to connect with her absent mother? It was Little Bear who deserved that spanking. In my child brain I thought, “If a doll could get spanked for doing something “naughty” like expressing her feelings, then surely I’d better be a good girl and not make anyone angry.”

Writing this essay sparked a memory of my Dad coming into my room one night. He sat on the side of my bed and without introduction said, “Your mother and I have discussed it and we’ve decided you’re too old to spank anymore.” I don’t remember what prompted him to make that announcement, or what he said afterward. I just remember feeling mute and wanting to pull the covers over my head.

It wasn’t until years later, trying to write about my own numb loneliness as an adopted child that I returned to The Lonely Doll and realized its vast influence on my work. The cover of my book is also a doll—she’s my doppelgänger, Little Megan. She was given to me by my friend Elizabeth and had been part of her mother’s collection when she’d been hospitalized for a year with polio. The dolls kept her company.

As I considered the structure of my memoir-in-essays, I needed to tell my story in a fractured way, which is the way we adoptees get our information, either filtered through the fog of someone else’s memory, or obfuscated by secrets and lies. Dare Wright was telling her story through her doll Edith too. She was asking to be seen, truly seen, beyond her beauty and beyond what looked outwardly like a glamorous life.

D.W. Winnicott, a British psychologist, called the dolls, blankets, and stuffed animals children often have as “comfort objects.” These objects helped a child manage the stress of the mother not being there and allowed them build the confidence needed to become independent.

In The Dollhouse I created a world where women rule on a 1:12-scale. It became a portal to imagine myself into my birth mother’s life and her into mine. Playing with these dolls was also a way of managing a thorny relationship with my birth mother while grieving for my long-dead Mom. Comfort objects, indeed.

“Children are innocent before they are corrupted by adults,” said the child psychologist Eric Erickson, “although we know some of them are not and those children––the ones capable of arranging and re-arranging the furniture and dolls in any dollhouse––are the most dangerous of all. Power and innocence together are explosive.”

The Lonely Doll helped me feel seen. It was an influential book that gave me a window into the loneliness brought on by my adoption, and the feelings of numbness and invisibility. I realize now that I don’t need to apologize for my existence.

My greatest desire is to be fully seen.

Megan Culhane Galbraith is a writer, visual artist, and an adoptee. She is the author of The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, a hybrid memoir-in-essays published by Mad Creek Books. Her work was Notable in Best American Essays 2017 and her writing, interviews, and art have been published in HYPERALLERGIC! Severance Magazine, ZZYZZVA, Tupelo Quarterly, Parhelion, Hobart, Longreads, Hotel Amerika, Catapult, and Redivider, among others. She is a graduate and the Associate Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and the founding director of the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Young Writers Institute. Follow Megan on her website or facebookShe can also be found on Twitter as @megangalbraith and on Instagram as @m.galbraith and @the_d0llh0use.

Buy The Guild of the Infant Savior: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

Check out the Lonely Doll book here

 

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Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, pandemic, writing

When The Smoke Clears

March 24, 2021

By Joanell Serra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, writing

Permission to Speak

February 28, 2021
writing

By Abby Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

Crazy Ex-Lawyer Meets Happily Ever After

December 20, 2020
life

By Jennifer Lauren

It’s four years ago, and I’m obsessed with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

When my husband’s in the bathroom, I repeatedly rewatch the cheaply animated introduction and smile at a wide-eyed Rebecca ch: successful New York lawyer, makes a fortune, corner office, crying her eyes out. She has it all, but she doesn’t want it.

Enter Josh Chan, her never-forgotten high school summer camp love. He’s leaving New York to go home to West Covina, California. As he waxes poetic (“two hours from the beach, four with traffic”), he keeps saying “happy.”

Happy. The word follows Rebecca, mocks her from billboards and commercials. She’s not happy. She should be, but she’s not.

I laugh, then clamp my hand over mouth because my husband is still in the bathroom, and it’s that laugh. You know the one, the half hysterical, teary eyed, holy shit laugh that’s just a little crazy. Because I’m Rebecca. Hell, every woman I know is Rebecca. She’s us after too much wine, in the middle of the night, bewildered by our perfect-on-paper lives and asking, is this it?

“Why isn’t this enough?” women all ask at some point, and then every Tuesday. The rest of us shrug. Because it’s not enough for us either, so we offer a hug and more wine. It’s not like we can do something about it.

I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because Rebecca does something about it. She quits the New York job and moves to West Covina. Because she thought she could be happy there. Maybe. Even though she’s kind of chasing a boy.

We call her crazy.

“Wait, no I’m not,” she says. And we laugh at her obliviousness.

Except I don’t think she’s crazy. I’m like – whoa. That would be so cool. I am a successful lawyer. I have the perfect-on-paper life. And I totally want to ditch it and move to West Covina. Well, at least California. Or anywhere sunny. I want to get a dog and walk in the sun and write books. I want to quit my job.

But I can’t, because I have everything.

“You should quit your job. You should write,” my husband says one night when I’ve had a couple mojitos, since I’ve never been much of a wine person.

I think of Rebecca, and I say ok. I put in my very long notice two weeks later. It’s rainy and cold and we don’t have a dog, but I’m happy. I start a novel. I ignore the raised eyebrows and tight smiles I get when I say I’m leaving law.

It’s Christmas Eve.

We are putting cookies out for Santa with our ten and seven-year-olds, and my husband calls me from the bathroom. I’m irritated. I want to get the cookies out and the kids to bed. I want to do the present thing so I can collapse into bed.

He can’t move his left arm. I tell him to sit and he lies down on the floor at my feet.

The doctors can’t believe my marathon-running, kale-eating, 35-year-old husband had a stroke. They run more tests, but they say the same thing. He video conferences into Christmas morning with the kids long before Corona was a thing.

But he’s lucky. The kale-eating, marathon-running thing probably saved his life. He’s fine. No residuals. He goes home the day after Christmas.

The doctors and nurses keep using the words “life changing.” I don’t want my life to change. I quit my job. I’ve changed it enough.

“Some people come away from this full of fear,” one doctor says. “Others decide they will finally live the way they’ve always wanted to live.”

I choose fear. I ask for my job back. I stop working on the novel. I obsessively research stroke recurrence rates. I stop sleeping. Eating. I lose 25 pounds in three months.

After a year or so, I break down completely. Like an overloaded car that can’t go any further, I just stop. I’m afraid I’m going to die. That I’m already dead, having lost some essential part of me forever. In that hospital room. In too many courtrooms. In the moments between doing when I caught my breath and realized I was missing my own life.

It’s two years later when I come up for air, blinking against the rare Seattle sunshine. There’s no magic moment, no Josh Chan on the sidewalk, but slowly, subtlety, “happy” begins to follow me around like a puppy.

I get a puppy. I quit my job. Again. This time I don’t ask for it back. I take yoga teacher training. I decide to finish the novel.

It’s early March, 2020, and a new virus erupts in the nursing home down the street. My daughter’s girl scout troop leader, who works at the elementary school, says schools may close. I startle. That seems extreme.

They close the next day. First for two weeks, then for two months, then for the rest of the year. Then everything else follows. My husband’s office. Shops. Restaurants. Yoga studios. Like the world itself had too much to carry and broke down like an overloaded car.

Now there’s stillness. Like the stillness between the beats of busy that used to make me wonder if I was missing my own life. But I’m not willing to miss anything anymore.

I try to stop watching the news. Instead, I look at houses in sunny cities. Pretty mission style homes near California wineries replace Trump briefings. McMansions by the beach in Florida distract me from daily death counts. I spend my quarantine dreaming of sunshine. Beauty. Living somewhere it doesn’t rain ten months of the year.

I’ve always wanted to live somewhere warm. It’s the last item of my trifecta.

It’s two months into the pandemic. I’m sitting with my husband, noticing the stress lines disappearing from his face. The way he listens more, smiles larger. Working from home is working for him.

I take a breath, remembering when he told me to quit. To write. I don’t expect to say anything, my voice surprises me.

“You can work remotely. Forever. It makes you happy, I can see it. What if we moved somewhere warm? Not when the kids are gone, not when you retire, but now. Because we can.”

I don’t say, because we don’t know how much time either of us have left. Maybe the next time it’s my arm that goes dead, or maybe you’ll lay on the floor and never get back up.

I don’t say this because I don’t have to. It hangs in the air between us. The choice between living with fear and living the life we’ve always wanted.

It’s today, and we’re moving. I tell myself it’s a trial run: we’ve rented a house for three months in Austin, Texas. We can come back. But I don’t think we will.

In the series finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca is surrounded by friends. She’s quit law. Taken a break from chasing men. Took singing lessons and written songs. The camera cuts as she opens her mouth to perform for real. For the first time.

My eyes tear up, because I never expected a happy ending for either of us. And here we are, me and Rebecca Bunch, doing something crazy. Slowly putting together the puzzle pieces until we’ve formed a life we actually want. A life we have no right to demand.

It’s ridiculous. Selfish. Stupid. Impossible. Crazy.

Jennifer Lauren is a recovering attorney moving from Seattle, Washington to Austin, Texas. Ever since she wrote her first masterpiece, The Creature, when she was five, Jennifer wanted to be a writerBut life happened, sidetracking her with pesky bills and peskier children. She’s worked as an award-winning reporter at a nationally recognized newspaper; fundraising director for inner city schools; and civil litigator for 13 years. In May 2019 she had a mid-life crisis and quit her day job to write, teach yoga, travel, and chase her dreams. The travel dreams proved ill-timed when the coronavirus hit the U.S. two miles from her home. Check out her blog, Crazy Ex-Lawyer, at jenniferlauren.net.

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Health

My Dead Branches

December 7, 2020

By Kayleigh Shuler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guest Posts, writing

Becoming A Brave Artist

September 29, 2020
book

By Chelsey Drysdale

I read his memoir in two sittings, watched his prerecorded online class, took a cozy afternoon workshop he led, and savored a rainy-day lunch across from him, surrounded by mutual writer buddies. To close friends, he was my “literary crush.” Single for eight years, loneliness my unflinching shadow, at 43 I believed the swift jolt of infatuation was resigned to memories. I basked in this fresh fascination because it reminded me someone new could still light me up.

When I handed him his book to inscribe for my mom on his book tour, he buried his face in the title page with a sharpie.

What the hell is he writing to my mom? I thought.

“When are we going to do this again?” he asked.

Any time you want.

He said he and his wife had a guest room in their house if my friend and I ever wanted to visit.

That’s a wonderful and terrible idea, I thought.

At home, I opened the book and saw these words: “Donna: I have a secret literary crush on your daughter. Don’t tell her!

***

I’d experienced chromosome-altering heartbreak, a sham six-month marriage, a gut-wrenching broken engagement, ill-timed encounters, and problematic flings. Scared of more loss, my subconscious demographic of choice is a man like him: a smart, creative father with a stellar sense of humor, tall, with dark hair, muscular but lean—and taken. Inaccessible men are the tantalizing cheese wedge poised on a trap. I wanted to know him, even if I couldn’t have him.

***

When I read the author’s inscription, my inner, dormant teenager emerged, ready to flourish on false potential. I danced around my studio, swinging my hips, snapping my fingers, singing a wordless, made-up tune.

I still got it, I thought.

I broke the words into meaningful segments, scavenging for crumbs on a trail to nowhere, nibbling tiny bites, wishing they’d provide nourishment. The word “secret” gave me chills; the word “literary” suggested he was a fan of my work; the word “crush” implied he felt a stirring in his belly when he saw me too; “don’t tell her” was wily because the message was for me.

I showed the dedication to a handful of girlfriends.

“Oh no he didn’t! Oh boy! Buckle up!” a fellow career single woman texted back.

“Oh, that’s adorable,” another friend said, having been a mistress.

“Dangerous,” my sister said, having been a wife.

His note propelled bawdy, unfulfilled fantasies for weeks—the perfect sidetrack to block any real chance for intimacy elsewhere.

***

While his memoir was a mesmerizing concerto, the author’s latest novel was wildly inventive. I read it inside three days, then devoured his other four with the same intensity. I starred words about the inevitability of isolation and relinquishing expectations about what life should be. I sat slumped on the hardwood floor sobbing for a boy ignored by his mother. I underlined phrases about truth and love at all costs. I shared my desolate bed with his tomes in an intimate act with no adverse consequences.

This is the kind of writer I want to be, I thought.

In recent years I’d been plowing through unending trepidation in a flurry, writing like a madwoman, angst cresting on publication days alongside rare pleasure. Before, I’d been consumed with an innate lack of conviction and debilitating fear of failure—the same lifelong anxiety that had led to unsolicited singledom and childlessness too.

After whittling an essay collection for three years, I was mystified by the ending. How was I supposed to finish a book about romantic love when I’d never retained it?

***

Motivated in part by increasing amorous reveries, the tug of creative kismet propelled me to email him.

“I’d be stoked to help you finish your essay collection,” he wrote. “Plus, I really dig that piece you published in WaPo. Double-plus, you have cool hair.”

“You had me at ‘you have cool hair,’” I replied.

We moved a racy tale from page 76 to page one, and we were off on a fruitful journey. Bonus: His editorial notes were delivered via video chat. On days we connected online, I awoke with childhood Christmas morning enthusiasm, ready to unwrap hidden treasures. I took extra time fixing my hair and makeup and made sure I didn’t wear the same shirt twice. I treated our cyber encounters like scholarly dates in an otherwise solitary existence.

During our meetings, I gazed at him on my laptop screen, admiring his handsome face and calming voice, relishing in his golden counsel. He read his favorite words of mine back to me in a measured tone that suggested they mean something. He said I wasn’t afraid to be “brazen.” He told me to “play up moral ambiguities” and be “fucking serrated.” My jaw dropped with recognition when he called three important men in my life a “triptych of superimposed happiness.” When I turned in a revision of chapter six, he said, “This is what Chelsey’s capable of. Every scene is dialed in.”

I floated two inches off the ground.

In eight weeks, we covered eight chapters. In the process, he became privy to private details and facilitated my emotional voyage on the page. All the while, my feelings for him grew stronger.

Is this like falling for your therapist? I wondered.

I addressed emails to the Book Whisperer, Fairy Godmentor, and Unicorn. Despite my fawning, he remained a professional, nonjudgmental friend. His book inscription proved to be an innocuous gesture. As a result, I adored him more.

Before our time was up, we mapped the rest of my manuscript, now a memoir.

I got choked up during our last online exchange.

“You don’t know how much this means to me,” I said.

“Are you going to make me cry on a Monday morning?”

“You’re a really special person.”

“We’re kindred spirits,” he said.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” I replied.

The absurdity is not lost on me the unattainable editor I chose to guide the unpacking of my love life is someone I wished, in an imaginary world of impeccable timing, played a starring role in it.

***

In the coming months, our contact was relegated to Instagram likes, retweets, and the occasional email. I felt special when he wrote, “Wanna hear a secret?” and told me about a book deal he wouldn’t announce for another four months.

When I was in San Francisco, he commented on an Instagram photo, “Maybe we can see each other this weekend!”

When we realized I was flying out as he was flying in, he emailed, “We’re like ships in the night.”

Months later, I finally hit him up for the coffee get-together he’d promised more than once. He suggested walking around the lake by his house. We hadn’t seen each other in person since the Festival of Books before our video chats. There we’d walked side-by-side to his signing booth, our arms draped across each other’s lower backs. I felt unanticipated electricity shoot through my hands.

Even so, I sensed a demarcation that protected the commitment he had for his precious family unit. I respected it. Yet, driven by curiosity and what I considered an extraordinary connection, I tested it anyway.

At the lake, alone for the first time, he gave me a stiff side-hug. Then we strolled the circular three miles slowly, discussing his recent career feats and the material I added to my manuscript post-mentorship. I told him an acquaintance’s recent seedy encounter I thought might work in his fiction. We laughed and locked eyes when he cracked a dirty joke.

At an opportune moment, I broached the topic I’d been stewing about for months: this essay. He hadn’t read it yet, but knew it existed. He’d emailed, “I utterly trust your talent and conscience. We are pals, and don’t worry…”

I didn’t think it was possible to feel this way about someone again, I told him at the lake.

“Then I met you,” I said.

He was quiet, staring at the ground as we walked.

“Meeting you gave me hope it’s still possible to meet someone else,” I said. “I realized I’m not dead inside after all.”

He laughed. “I’m glad I make you feel not dead inside!”

He asked if he could read the essay.

“Of course!” I said. “I want your approval. I’m terrified.”

He stopped to use a nearby restroom. Then I changed the subject.

After we finished circumnavigating the lake, I asked, “Do you have time for lunch?”

A knot formed in my throat, a familiar feeling of short-lived excitement giving way to unrelenting seclusion.

He declined and hugged me goodbye. When he pulled away, my hands slid down the arms of his black leather jacket, a natural motion meant to lead to the intertwining of fingers. He tensed. I froze and awkwardly gripped his forearms instead. Then he left.

When I think about men from my past, I envision a man-shaped cartoon-cutout in a brick wall where they’ve each leapt to a hasty escape, as if my gift is making men disappear, when really my brand of magic is orchestrating ludicrous, unworkable scenarios to set myself up to be snubbed as a way to reinforce the false notion I’ve long suspected: I’m not lovable.

This felt like that.

Back at my computer, I sent the author an earlier version of this piece. He’d made me feel safe. After I hit send, I no longer did. Now I risked feeling rejected as a person and a writer. I lost sleep.

***

After our last video chat, I stared at a blinking cursor, with six more chapters to rewrite. I panicked.

I can’t finish this book without him, I thought.

But I forced myself to trudge forward. I wrote as if he would still read what came out of me, his closing remarks echoing in my head: “I’ll be in the front row when you publish this book. Keep going keep going keep going…”

I began to trust my instincts as I tried to make sense of my past. Glimpsing my empty studio apartment, absent of all the men I’ve worshipped, I finally understood what it meant to be my own advocate. Succinct sentences were tiny miracles. Exploring secret scenes was freeing. The author no longer needed to commend my creation for me to see it was working. For the next two months, I wrote with an uncharacteristic determination and finished my manuscript.

But intrepid writers stumble eventually. A year later, when all publishing progress had stalled, and the author had read this essay without comment, whatever creative energy I’d tapped into ceased. I couldn’t write, and I began to question whether publishing my memoir was worth the agony of upsetting its unsuspecting participants.

I’ve dedicated much of my adult life to seeking validation through the sultry eyes of lovers gazing back at me. When I write, I substantiate myself instead. While the soft glow from my computer screen is no substitute for eye-to-eye moments shared with another human being, a self-directed liaison with words incites a confidence I’d only expected to have as a result of being one half of a duo. Conversely, when I don’t write, my self-esteem plummets, and my monkey brain goes into overdrive: You’re not good enough. You’re alone because no one loves you. Give up.

After months of immobility, I heeded the author’s earlier advice to finish this essay: “Get out of your own way. There’s no reason not to write more.”

***

I rebroke my heart to have an unforeseen love affair, not with a man, but with my manuscript. Publishing my memoir has to be worth it. Self-sabotage is a death knell, and writing is the road to contentment over which I have control. I can’t send a shout-out to my nonexistent husband for his undying support. I am unable to thank my unborn children for showing me the true nature of devotion. I can, however, render self-awareness my superhero trait. I will never be a mother, and I may never be a wife again, but I have become a brave artist.

If I ever fall in love again with an unattached man, I’m sure it will be a direct result of living an authentic authorial life, building my self-worth without another person’s adoration. Even on the bleakest days, as I work toward publication, I return to the same thought: Someday I will create the life I’ve always wanted, and I will deserve it.

Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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Family, Guest Posts

My Disapproving Mother Unwittingly Fuels My Creative Expression

September 8, 2020
expression

 By Lisa Mae DeMasi

The room began to close in. The air got thick…dense. Tension seeped into my pores. I grew smaller in stature—shrunk right there in my chair before her, as if I was Alice and had just choked down a little red pill.

The topic is forthcoming, typical of family gatherings, a line of discussion of an inquisitive nature. It is terribly humiliating this line, disintegrating the little validation I feel about myself, and certainly paving the way to pulverizing any validation I someday hope to feel.

She is triumphantly sitting across from me in my brother’s parlor, her hands folded over her swollen belly on this Christmas Day.

My hands are not folded over my own swollen belly, but my ever-shrinking Alice fingers are fumbling about, trying to maintain a grip on my ever-growing glass of sherry. I wallow in thought.

It’s a terrible thing to be shrinking, I muse.

I try to convey to her, with an expression of pity, that I’d like her to cut this sort of thing out: Hand me the blue pill! Return my body back to its normal inadequacy!

She picks up on my expression, but it doesn’t stop her. Her eyes, piercingly blue, bore into my forehead, mining my mind for the reasoning that prolongs the ongoing predicament. It is the matter that seemingly sears her brain daily, upon waking.

Words penetrate the thickness.

They loom before me, big and fat and dripping with turkey gravy. She says, “Are you ready to get back into the circle of life yet?”

Here we go.

I resist rolling my eyes, suck in my breath, and feel the pressure against my insides. Time slows to a crawl.

My lungs deflate, a slow leak like a bum tire. I maintain my front, an uneasy smile, thinking I have never departed from the circle of life!

I am here, albeit dwindling to mere molecules in my chair—she, mother; me, daughter—amid a festive family holiday. In my book, that constitutes part of the arc in said circle.

A voice in my mind, sounding as if it’s just taken a hit from a helium-filled balloon, squeals at me: That’s not what she means.

I laugh to myself, entertained: “Girl interrupted.” Say something else…

She’s not referring to procreating or dying or even “eat or be eaten.” She means circulation as in, “Are you ready to get back into circulation yet?”

Oh yeah. “Girl reactivated.”

The topic is the one that translates to me getting a paying job, rather than continuing to “run away from reality,” with my so-called “writing interests.”

I suppose, from her perspective, four years is a long time for her daughter “to run away from reality.” It is a novel pursuit, which thus far has yielded fruit the size of a water meal. However, in these four years she has failed to realize that I’ve poured my heart, soul and angst into this self-proposed commitment. Accordingly, I’ve also sought out Reiki to induce some self-love, since I am—especially when engaged in writing—constantly and colorfully harassed and torn to shreds by my inner critic.

Needless to say, my mother is my outer critic.

In the peace of the lovely colonial room, Dennis sits in a chair to my left, and my father sits beside my mother. My brother is off in the kitchen, cutting cheese.

The question, relating to the humiliating, fruitless topic that my mother could not resist in asking one moment longer, (particularly in light of the New Year—making resolutions, picking up the pieces and starting anew, and so forth) remains there, unaddressed. It lingers, splattering the coffee table with fowl juice, tainting the sherry and the nibbles, while extinguishing the flickering light of the assorted votive candles. This “circle of life” subject deflates the holiday mood; all falls flat.

I gaze back at her, with a hint of incredulousness in my expression saying: Why can’t you support my endeavor? Why can’t you just be a nice mother?

She, of course, does not pick up on this. She has never picked up on it, despite the countless amounts of times I’ve attempted to impress my feelings upon her.

Why should I expect anything different this Christmas Day?

Although he’s sitting beside me, I don’t defer to Dennis for his unwavering sympathy, support or opinion. I keep this subject between my mother and I, leaving open the possibility and space for us to “hash it out,” so-to-speak.

The “hashing it out” (a confrontation of sorts) does not happen. As usual, any real invitation to speak candidly, openly… ends up shunned upon.

There’s no avoiding her intention. She moves the subject right along and puts the question in a more specific form, saying: “What kind of job will you look for?”

My expression sours.

The refrain in which Elton John sings “in the cir-cle, the cir-cle of life” begins to repeat in my head.

The core of me within begs to rise up and show itself—my insides, out. The scorched and glistening spongy tissue springs from my throat and slops to the floor next to the coffee table. I stare at the battered evidence, my guts, and choose to defend myself (something I haven’t dared to do since I was a teenager).

My face is deadpan, void of the four-year compounded emotion relating to my writing efforts (best described as trying to squeeze blood from a stone intermittently). I assert into the space, some distance over my scorched and glistening core—my guts—and say, “I’d like to become a successful writer.”

My mother’s expression remains unmoved, quite serious and probing.

I refrain from glancing at Dennis and keep the perimeter open and clear for fire. I hope for confrontation—for a once-in-a-lifetime candid discussion.

Dad shakes himself out of dozing at the subject matter and pushes his glasses further up on his nose. He interjects, “There are lots of teaching jobs out there. You could be a teacher. All my retired engineer friends teach—you could teach middle school or high school.”

But Dad, I don’t want to be a teacher.

Not quite to my advantage, my mother’s ears fall deaf on the suggestion, and the conversation flatlines.

I focus on the flame of a burning candle, situated in the middle of a marble-topped mahogany end table, between my father and mother. I cross my eyes silly—my forehead cramps. The funky play of light brings me into a world of my own, prompting ironic clarity.

The helium inner voice comes on the wind again—she is from a different time and a different playing field. She knows not what it means, what drives and feeds one’s magnetism for risk, leaving the known for the unknown…

The voice becomes stronger and sloughs off the high pitch. She is the catalyst to our creative expression, you see, the thing that sates us—our subversive writing.

Anew: I am rebel with a cause, confident, triumphant even, in my own right.

My scorched and glistening guts slither up the couch and climb back down my throat to their rightful place. In a trance-like state I say, “Wait till my manuscript hits the big screen.”

My parents are stunned and wide-eyed. I can just make out their expressions in my periphery.

Nothing more is said on the matter.

*This essay was published in Elephant Journal with the title She, Mother. Me, Daughter.

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. 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, a story about proving herself capable of taking care of horses on a Wyoming dude ranch, and is at work on two sequels. You can contact her at lisa.demasi@gmail.com and follow her @lisamaedemasiLinkedIn or via her website nurtureismynature.com.

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Converse-Station, Guest Posts

The Converse-Station: Alma Luz Villaneuva Interviews Gayle Brandeis

February 3, 2020
gayle

A note from Angela: Gayle Brandeis is a person I cherish, not only because she is an amazing and brilliant and generous human, but also because she and I share a bond I would not wish on anyone. I had the opportunity to talk with Gayle about The Art of Misdiagnosis, surviving my mother’s suicide at the Coachella Review and that important book remains on my list of books I would read again. Gayle has just released a book of poetry and Manifest-Station alum Alma Luz Villaneuva took time to speak to her about it. This is their conversation. Enjoy.

Introduction:

Alma Luz Villanueva and Gayle Brandeis first met in 1999 when Gayle entered the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Alma became her mentor, and later, when Gayle returned to Antioch as faculty, they became colleagues; through all of it, they have formed a deep, nourishing, forever friendship. When Alma’s novel  Song of The Golden Scorpion, came out in 2014, the two of them discussed it here; now they have come together here again to discuss Gayle’s new novel-in-poems, Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony), in which Gayle gives voice to the hundreds of girls and women killed by Countess Erzsébet Báthory of Hungary between 1585 and 1609. The ghosts of these girls and women speak in chorus, compelling us to bear witness to the violence enacted against them, and to share their quest for justice—not only for themselves, but for all girls and women to come. A lyrical, polyphonic protest against silence, Many Restless Concerns speaks to today’s upswell of voices claiming their own worth.

Alma Luz Villaneuva: I was very moved by your testimonies, these so alive voices, these murdered/tortured girls women, centuries later, within your book, Gayle. First of all, what inspired you to hear these voices? How did they come to you? I often receive a dream from a character, announcing their arrival. And these voices arrive four centuries later, so alive, each one. Also, how did Countess Bathory come to your attention?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much! When I was pregnant with my youngest son, my daughter, who was almost 16 at the time, was fascinated by notorious women of history, and asked me to buy several books about women pirates and other outlaws. I was idly thumbing through one of these when I found a chapter about Countess Bathory, who I somehow had never heard of before. I was chilled by the fact that she had killed hundreds of girls and women–stories say up to 650–and I found myself haunted by this. Who were all these silenced girls and women? I started to dig deeper, and found there was much written about Bathory, herself, but I couldn’t find anything that put her victims at the center of the narrative. Eventually I started to be haunted by their voices, a ghostly chorus of them–they visited me in a sort of waking dream–and knew I’d have to try to capture them on the page, maybe even bring them some much belated justice in the process.

What voices have you been dreaming lately?

ALV: My current novel in progress which has become a ‘magical realism’ journey, which includes Quetzalcoatl, a Mexican deity that’s both God/Goddess, female/male- I love that. I love her/his voice, I’m listening. In our email exchange you mentioned that writing these voices, these women and girls, came to you when you were pregnant, but the violence you would have to undertake and enter was too much while pregnant. I understand completely, as a once pregnant poet/writer. Our body, mind, spirit, is tuned to creation, not torture and murder. And so, when you finally were able to write these voices what was your experience of being inside their bodies, listening to their voices. As my Yaqui Mamacita used to say to me, “Tienes coraje, niña…You have courage, child.” Tienes coraje, Gayle- these voices coming through you, their spirit bodies.

GB: I am so excited to read your book in progress! *You* have so much courage, dear Alma–you inspire me unendingly.  Thank you for all of your kind words.

And yes, I realized this was definitely not a healthy book for me to be writing while pregnant–I didn’t want the baby to absorb the agony of all the torture and murder I was reading and writing about, although sometimes I do wonder if my early foray into this book helped prepare me emotionally for my mom’s suicide one week after I gave birth. My creative energies shifted after her death–I needed to write about her, about our relationship; I needed to try to make sense of our past together and the brutal way she ended her life. The memoir that came out of this, The Art of Misdiagnosis, was the most necessary and difficult book I’d ever written, and when I was done with it, I felt so lost as a writer. I didn’t think it was possible to write anything that could ever feel as meaningful as the memoir had. Then these ghosts started to whisper to me again, so I decided to look at the early pages I had written, and got sucked right back into the project. It ultimately felt like the right book to throw myself into after my memoir–I was ready to step out of my own story into a grief bigger than my own (for somehow it felt right to continue to write about grief. And to continue to break silences. I had broken so many within me for my memoir, and this project was a chance to break historical silences).

Entering the experience of these girls and women was excruciating–it broke my heart and took my breath away again and again to not only learn what they endured, but to try to enter into their pain on the page (knowing what they endured is beyond anything I can comprehend with my own body, something I acknowledge within the book, when the ghosts tell the reader they won’t be able to comprehend the pain these girls and women experienced). These ghosts no longer have bodies, of course, but I imagined them still being able to access echoes of their physical trauma, as I write here:

“Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body
(some tender part of you still flinches)
(some immaterial nerves still flare)”

I should mention that Bathory’s story has been written about in a titillating way, and I didn’t want to do that, not in the least; I wanted to show the true human cost of the suffering she inflicted. I wanted to force us to confront the horror these girls and women faced, because I believe it’s important to look at inhumanity head on; If we don’t face it, it’s harder to stop it, to prevent it. And I want to use the book as a way to raise awareness of current horror–the devastating number of missing and murdered indigenous women–and to raise funds for organizations working to stop this present-day genocide.

ALV: I love the above quote, “Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body”…I think of the science based fact that our DNA memory/trauma is passed onto the family line, future human beings. These voices had that kind of alive echo for me; that their memories, traumas were being passed onto me, the reader, via their channel, you. Silenced no more; their spirits can now rest, move on to current lives, as in reincarnation, with joy (I hope). Writing these voices, their horrific experiences in the body, must have been a passing through the fire ritual for you as the channel, the writer. And after your mother’s suicide, the birth of your baby, the ritual of fire, that cleansing, so wise, and so hard. Yes, The Art of Misdiagnosis, your memoir, the relationship with your mother, an immense fire ritual, that cleansing.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, there’s a yearly fire ritual, Zozobra, where a huge man figure is burned, wailing all the while. People bring divorce papers, painful letters, their own letters to pain and grief, and who knows what, to add to this fire. I imagined this man figure as The Patriarchy burning to dark ashes, all the pain from that centuries old false power structure. And in the Southwest the pain of native genocide is still felt strongly, and as you write the ongoing missing, murders, rapes of indigenous women. Those thousands of silent voices, their in the body experiences. The genocidal Femicide that continues globally; the millions of girls, women, boys trafficked globally. For those who are receptive, they come to us in dreams. I just included some in my novel in progress, and have a feeling they’re not done with me. As I also believe they aren’t done with you, amiga, gracias a la Diosa…the Goddess in all her guises.

And so, with the ritual of fire, that cleansing, in mind- what gifts did you receive in return as channel, writer and woman? *Again, I love your coraje, courage…

GB: Oh, thank you so much for sharing all of this–I loved hearing about the Zozobra ritual; your imagining of burning the Patriarchy to ash really hits home. May it be so! I’ve used fire to burn things that no longer serve me (and water to do the same, the Tashlich ritual of casting bread during the Jewish High Holy Days) and it’s always such a freeing ritual. This book definitely felt like a trial by fire, and did have a cleansing effect. It showed me I am stronger than I know, that I can face the world’s pain, give voice to the world’s pain, and still find joy on this beautiful, broken Earth. It helped me expand my creative envelope, which makes me want to keep stretching it, to keep finding new ways to approach my work. I agree–these silenced voices aren’t done with me yet, and I’m eager to see where they’ll take me. I envision this book being adapted into a theater piece–I love the idea of a real chorus giving voice to these ghosts–and have a few irons in the fire toward that end. We’ll see what happens! I would love to know more about the silenced voices entering your novel (and to reading them some day!)

ALV: A theatre piece of a chorus giving voice to these Spirits, wonderful. This makes me imagine them all in red (fire) costumes, speaking, witnessing their very brief lives- mostly girls from ten to fourteen, from what I’ve read. Which makes me wonder what Countess Bathory’s voice would sound like, say. Supposedly she had epilepsy as a young girl, with blood swiped on her lips, a cure. And she witnessed cruel punishments as a girl, the royal household. It makes me wonder what her girl voice would sound like, say. However, given the acutely alive voices of her victims, their horrific experiences flesh out the Countess vividly. And so, even briefly, to see/hear her voice as a girl here, for a moment. Briefly. I love that these voices expanded your creative envelope, to find new ways to approach your writing- exciting!

As I journey with my characters, this novel in progress, we keep listening to the silenced voices, as well as to the joyful, singing voices. That balance keeps me going- this is my first all out ‘magical realism’ journey, novel, so I’m constantly surprised.

GB: Surprise is one of my very favorite parts of the writing journey–I love that your novel in progress is offering up so much surprise for you!

Your question about Countess Bathory’s girl voice is such a profound one, and one I’m not sure how to answer. I knew I had to include her in this narrative to some extent, since her actions led to the current state of these ghosts, but of course I wanted to center the narrative on the lives she impacted, the lives she ended, not her (just as some journalists are trying to do in this era of mass shootings, focusing on stories of the victims of gun violence instead of their killers, to avoid giving notoriety to perpetrators of these horrific acts.) That said, she is certainly a compelling and complicated figure, and her childhood does fascinate me. I’m not sure I can access her voice at this point, though. It reminds me of when I started writing my memoir–I was so angry at my mom, it was hard to see her with compassion (and a large part of the journey of my memoir was coming to that place of compassion.) I think I’m still too angry at Countess Bathory to be able to see her clearly, and I think that comes through when the ghosts say “The Lady knew what it was like to leave home at a young age, sent to live with the Nádasdys at twelve so she could learn the ways of the estate before her wedding two years hence.//Does that give you sympathy for her? Have it if you must, have sympathy for poor, poor, Erzsébet Báthory (who had sympathy for none but herself).” I do have some glimmerings of compassion for her, though, and when I think of her girl voice, I really only hear two words: “Help me.” No one did.

ALV: “Help me.” Bathory’s girl voice. “No one did.” Your response says it all, Gayle- punched me in the gut, where truth often lands. And I can hear her small girl voice whisper, “Help me.” As so many girls whisper, shout if they have the chance- the millions of trafficked girls, and boys- who hears them. The voice, your answer, chillingly true. The hundreds of girls she passed her pain onto- the chorus of voices in your book. At last they are heard, and of course I love the idea of a real chorus of voices speaking for them. I imagine their spirits joining those throats, voices. What that space will feel like as they speak their truths. Powerful stuff.

You speak of being angry with your mother; her suicide, your loss, your sorrow. As you felt anger with Countess Bathory; I felt waves of anger, and sorrow, reading the spirit’s alive voices. I’m wondering- do you imagine your mother taking part in the chorus of voices if she was still with us, now. I loved that photo of her in that stand in opera dress/costume, so magnificent. I can almost hear her- her body, her stance. I sense her intelligence, courage, strength in that stance. I also sense how proud of you she is, perhaps cheering you on page by page. I feel my Mamacita’s presence as I write- my joy, sorrow, rage, how it all transforms on the page. My body, every cell. Transformation. Your book, the voices, leads to this, transformation. Healing.

GB: So deeply grateful for your insight, your vision, dear Alma. I’ve had to sit with this question for a while, as you know. After my sister in law mentioned that the book cover reminded her of one of my mom’s opera photos, and I found the photo in question, I was blindsided by how similar the two are, how the red (a skirt in the cover, a cape in the photo of my mom) drapes in the exact same way to the lower right corner of each image. My breath stopped for a moment. I am still puzzling out the connection–both are powerful women who caused harm, although my mom did so on a much, much smaller scale; it’s likely I’ve made other subconscious connections between them, our stories, that I’ll need some time to excavate. But even so, yes, I do feel my mom’s pride in me–she was always so proud of me, even though I could feel her frustration with the fact that I was never as “successful” as she had wanted me to be–and I’m realizing in some ways, I’m carrying on the work she started. She wanted to give women voice, too. She started her organization, The National Organization for Financially Abused Women, to create a chorus of women’s voices to change divorce legislation (and even though the founding of it was based on the delusional belief that my father was hiding millions of dollars from her, the organization did real and important work in the world.) I think she would love to be part of the chorus of this book. I can hear and see her, too, dressed in red, lifting her voice with all her heart.

ALV: I simply love the final sentence of your response, “…lifting her voice with all her heart.” If you’ve made subconscious choices between your mother and Countess Bathory- the pain in your relationship, the pain of the voices you heard, brought to life on the page, what a strange gift of healing. And it seems all healing comes to us as a strange gift- nothing planned, nothing tidy. Healing comes to us with its own life force if/when we’re ready for transformation, to be healed, again. I imagine your mother’s presence in your imagination, body, memories, will always bring you strange gifts; as Mamacita’s presence has for me for sixty-three years.

I am so honored to have this exchange with you, amiga- our first exchange as student-teacher twenty years ago. I immediately saw your brilliance as I read your first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, which has since, of course, been published with so many deserved awards. Then we became friends, and then colleagues as you began teaching in the same MFA in creative writing program. How I loved seeing your shining face of light at our opening faculty meeting- how I loved our deep talks at our traditional Thursday night dinners, with piña coladas. And our humor together- graduation day, so many amazing writers, poets graduating. As we stood in line in our faculty graduation robes, we began to feel a bit wacky, threatening to do The Worm. Right there in our robes. I was crying with laughter, as you were. I love the ecstatic energy you carry and share, from your own being, to your writing. And so, to say it publicly, how grateful I am to know you, and always to read your work, all genres.

Okay, one more question- a brief answer will do. In Bali I walked into a courtyard with an immense eagle perched on steel, tethered by its leg/talon. A woman shaman, healer, walked out to greet me- I asked why the eagle wasn’t free. She asked me, “What is freedom, madam?” Over the years I’ve answered this question in many ways; there’s so many answers, of course. I would love to hear yours, even a sentence.

Mucho amor, amiga, milagros y piña coladas. And The Worm, always.

GB: I’m so honored and grateful to know you, too, my dear Alma, to have this conversation with you. What a gift. Whenever I see an eagle, I think of this question that was posed to you in Bali–in fact, it pops into my head quite often. And yes, there are so many answers, but what speaks to me right now is the very first poem I ever wrote when I was four years old, a poem called “Little Wind” that went “Blow, little wind/blow the trees, little wind/blow the seas, little wind/blow me until I am free, little wind.” I think I somehow knew even then that creativity can be like a wind that blows through us, that makes us free, and to this day, I never feel more free than when I allow that wind to blow through me, when I get out of my own way and allow the poem or story or essay or dance to barrel through, not worrying about how it will be received in the world, just giving it the space to roar.

Thank you again, amazing Alma. You have helped me be more free through your mentorship, your example, and I’m forever grateful for your presence in my life, your presence in the world. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Order Alma Luz Villaneuva’s work here.

Order Gayle Brandeis’ work here, including her latest Many Restless Concerns, The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus.

 

 

 

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