No Other Loss Can Occur So Quietly

I used to pray a God was listening
I used to make my parents proud
I was the glue that kept my friends together
Now they don’t talk and we don’t go out
I used to know the name of every person I kissed
Now I made this bed and I can’t fall asleep in it.
– Brand New, “Millstone”

 

Album artwork from Brand New's "The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me."

Album artwork from Brand New’s “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.”

My younger sister thought I hated her in high school. Every morning I’d drive her to school in my white 1986 Honda Civic, saying absolutely nothing. We’d wind down Crow Hill on Highway 285, past the crumbling granite and pine trees, through the town of Bailey, alongside the South Platte River, till we made it to our school, Platte Canyon High. I was a junior, then a senior. She was a freshman, then a sophomore. The ride would take fifteen to twenty minutes and, according to my sister, I would say absolutely nothing.

I have no memory of this, but my sister swears it true. Knowing the 4.0 GPA / school council member / star volleyball player that she was, I am inclined to believe her. I don’t think I talked to many people in high school. I always seemed to be lost somewhere deep inside my head.

Picture this: Me, a passionate teenager full of faith driving to high school in my white Honda Civic that burned through a quart of oil every other time I filled up for gas. Me, unsure about myself, but ambitious. Me, full of doubts and insecurities, but confident that as soon as I graduate, the world will open itself.

Do you see it? Me, with my idealism and passion listening to Christian-ish hardcore bands like Thrice, Underoath, and Norma Jean? Unsure how to put all this energy to use, I wondered where I could make a difference, confront the injustices and ills of the world, how I could show all those cynical, disillusioned adults that change was possible, how would I make something of myself, fall in love, finish school and start living in the real world.

Picture me in my Civic, disappearing in a cloud of leaking-engine-oil-smoke, as I start my car up. Look at me; look at yourself. Do you remember what it was like to feel like the whole, beautiful world was ahead of you, wide-open and full of possibility? Full of love, poetry, art, but, most importantly, hope that change was possible, even if your situation was not the best?

*     *     *

In high school I was an intern for our church youth group. I led small groups and helped the youth pastor, Jay, with various administrative duties. I then went to Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado where I was youth pastor for a semester and involved in para-church ministries like Campus Crusade and Young Life. I moved to Denver to help some friends start a church, and then to Portland where I went to a church called Imago Dei and was involved in ministries to the homeless, led a college group, and attended a house church. I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah to start another church because I believed in church. I went to Africa and Haiti on mission trips. I read books on religion and took theology classes. I practiced simple living and participated in community. I protested wars, the detainment of immigrants, and the greed of Wall Street. I got multiple Jesus tattoos. I very nearly went to seminary.

Yet, I was also hibernating in some ether-world. Like my brain was underwater or down some deep pit, where sight and sound took longer to reach. I was somewhat depressed, as I am still today, although then I had no words, no vocabulary for it. My depression worsened over time, from the melancholy of my youth to a full on clinical diagnosis and 40 mg of fluoxetine a day for the last decade. If my sister had spoken to me while we’d been driving to school, it’s likely I wouldn’t have heard her. My head was filled with stuffing. I might have muttered noncommittal responses, but my mind would have been on a distant planet, on a rogue-tangled mission to discover abstract secrets of the universe.

Did my depression worsen as I grew to adulthood because I was losing my faith in the church? Or did depression itself sap the feeling of anything in my life, including my faith, over the years?

Depression does not have a set time-span. While you’re in it you feel totally untethered to anything around you. For some, stabilization comes via meditation, exercise, anti-depressants, therapy, or faith. Music, love, art, or writing provides solace for others. Writing, as a practice of putting things into context, offers the same end as therapy. Writing allows me to examine my personal history, the harmful coping mechanisms I employ, and my hopes of trading them in for more positive ones, perhaps, writing a better story for my future.

At its core though, what writing or therapy or meditation gives is agency. A regain of control. A manipulation of life’s narrative. This feels incredibly potent after living as if I were merely a piece of debris floating in the ocean, flung this way and that, battered by storms, with no real say in the matter. Though depression doesn’t need to have any reason, external factors can exacerbate the condition. The biggest factors that fueled my depression were my struggles with faith, compressed realities of adulthood, and crutches I used to cope with both. Faced with suicides and miscarriages, I shredded my stomach lining with booze, cigarettes, and coffee.

I felt that the Christian God I had built my life around, moved states for, and served devoutly, seemed to slowly vanish when I needed Him the most. I didn’t feel God at all. God for sure as hell didn’t talk to me. I was in a dry desert for a decade with no end in sight. If there was a God, I was pretty sure God hated me. The God of my Fathers had failed me.

*     *     *

By adulthood, I had spent years teetering on the thin edge between doubt and faith, between belief and non-belief. From high school to college to now, I spent years navigating the tensions of culture and politics, liberalism vs. conservatism, depression vs. feelings, trying to reconcile with my faith. I became a Christian liberal. Then one of those Pharisaical New-Calvinists. Then a Christian anarchist. An anti-war Christian. An anti-consumerist Christian. I found churches that on their surface seemed to be different from what I grew up in, only to realize they were, at the core, the same strain of fundamentalism, merely covered with tattoos and rock music and a slightly more liberal approach to politics. When it came to women in leadership, the LGBTQ community, the blind support of Right Wing Politics, the chokehold of dogmatic “truth,” nothing was different. I felt that even the “fundamentals” from Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount or the command to “love one’s enemies,” were grossly overlooked in favor of sin management (particularly with regards to sex), church politics, and individual purity. I watched as close friends left church. But I stuck around. I wanted to believe. I was the Roman Centurion who proclaimed to Jesus, “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief.” But by my mid-twenties I was a tired Christian.

I wanted to make it work. But the church, that entire world, seemed framed by what contemplative Franciscan Richard Rohr calls “dualistic thinking.” And I could no longer look at things as either/or, as dual. Scripture was too haunting and complex to me. The world was too complex.

*     *     *

navbridge

Growing up I often-heard salvation described as a bridge. In the analogy, the bridge stretched from this world into heaven, the substance of which was made by the upper horizontal line of the cross. It was often shown as a diagram. Man walked over the arm of the cross from sin and death to salvation. While perhaps theologically simplistic, the imagery worked for its accessibility. For many years the three were one for me—the world, the bridge, and the hope of salvation (in this case, through Jesus). I existed in a united system of ideas I called Faith. I may not have been across the bridge in heaven yet, but I was on the bridge of salvation. Over time, however, the bridge seemed to disappear, and I found myself looking across a chasm to the other side. The faith that had brought the two ends together vanished. I found myself unable to muster the magic of faith to form the bridge. I could see my friends and family across from me, but I could no longer make the actual journey.

*     *     *

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard (the great existentialist of faith) once said: “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

I was done and yet not done. If I was to keep living, I knew I must find something else to replace my lost faith in the church. Art had complexity; writing had complexity; music had complexity. Engaging in these, I felt the sort of transcendence I had been looking for in religion. What bothered me then was that no one else seemed to appreciate the complexity of all this. Most people seemed happy enough with sermons and T.V. shows and mediocre books. Everyone was either busy or sedated or both. Until I found art, my mind raced as if each second was the last, as if I did not find meaning or truth as soon as possible, I would have to end it all, kill myself. I felt as if I could not last another second in the simplistic black and white type of world. With art, I felt my faith journey transforming into something else. It was like I needed to break myself away from faith in order to one day come back with fresh eyes.

Perhaps more than anything, I miss the young man that I once was. Me, flying down the hill towards the whole, beautiful world. I wonder if I will ever see him again, or if he is lost forever. I wonder if that would be a good or a bad thing. Or if that’s just how it goes. And so I began the delicate, almost impossible, process of reconciling myself with the world.

Best of the Net 2016 nominations

lt-best-of-the-net

Lunch Ticket is honored and proud to nominate the following two pieces in Fiction, two in Creative Nonfiction, and six Poems from our Winter/Spring 2016 and Summer/Fall 2016 issues for Sundress Publication’s Best of the Net 2016. Do read these wonderful pieces!

1.HONOR’S JUSTICE by SABRINA FEDEL
ISSUE: WINTER/SPRING 2016

2.RUIN by LENA KHALAF TUFFAHA
ISSUE: WINTER/SPRING 2016

3.DOWN BY THE RIVER TO PRAY by LOIS RUSKAI MELINA
ISSUE: SUMMER/FALL 2016

4.FANTASMA by ROBERT ESNARD
ISSUE: SUMMER/FALL 2016

5.FATIMA, THE BILOQUIST: A TRANSFORMATION STORY by NAFISSA THOMPSON-SPIRES
ISSUE: SUMMER/FALL 2016

6.THE HALF-BUTTONED EFFECT by SAEIDE MIRZAEI
ISSUE: SUMMER/FALL 2016

7.THE SOUND by STEVE MUESKE
ISSUE: SUMMER/FALL 2016

8.THE CAREGIVER by CAROLINE JOHNSON
ISSUE: WINTER/SPRING 2016

9.BEYOND THIS PLACE by CLINT SMITH
ISSUE: WINTER/SPRING 2016

10.THRASH IN EIGHTHS by JILL KHOURY
ISSUE: WINTER/SPRING 2016

Spotlight: The Things We Saved

On a heavy Saturday in June, Steven and I wait for strangers to pound through my mother’s front door, but the strangers never come. Exclamation points, dotting our Craigslist posts like lollipops, have failed to lure buyers for the Vintage, Mint Condition! Italian provincial dining room set! and the Like New! Singer Sewing machine. No one inquires about my grandmother’s maple bed, ringed by a starched white halo of eyelet ruffle, or the steel filing cabinets, emptied of water bills from the 1960s. No interest, no offers, no sale.

Somewhere near my spleen, so I cannot identify it as an affliction of the heart or the gut, something inside of me hides, relieved.

I do not tell Steven about this relief, though after a decade of marriage, I suspect he senses it, in the same way he knows I smile whenever a mouse evades a trap. It’s an odd feeling, beyond the reach of love or reason, the kind of feeling that another language, better than English, would have a word for, the kind of feeling located at the opposite end of Schadenfreude. It is joy at having failed to accomplish something that is in one’s best interest. The house sits, quiet and whole, its things exhaling, safe, still ours, and I am glad.

This sentiment baffles my husband. We have no choice. Someone wants to buy this tax-accruing, maintenance-demanding, gangrenous shelter. We cannot afford to wallow in nostalgia’s sweet mud. We must sell. Simple as an amputation.

Everything must go.

We wander the rooms, where ceramic lambs and wooden bowls remain as my mother left them when we found at her at home alone, having dismissed the aide, lost in a delirium of sepsis and dementia, the only clarity her pride. 

“No ambulance,” she had insisted. “I don’t want the neighbors to see.” She hobbled down three brick steps, flopped into her wheelchair. In my panic, I misplaced the leg rests and held her legs aloft, a distraught lady-in-waiting attending a silver-haired queen staring at the sky in disbelief, while Steven, footman, muscled the chair through the lawn dirt, to the car.

My mother had wanted to die in her house, where her own mother had passed, and my brother, likely her twin from another life, had reinforced this idea, asserting the impossibility of ever moving her. “One day we’re going to find her at the bottom of the stairs,” he predicted. I comforted my inner brat by reasoning that if that happened, it would have been her decision. Even with dementia, she was living life on her own terms, I told myself. Before the fateful trip to the emergency room, we had tried home health aides, ranging from the caring and competent, to one who bought my diabetic mother’s silence with pastry so she could abandon her shift to shop. My mother went through them like Pez. “I don’t want this,” she had said. “I’m a prisoner in my own home.”

*     *     *

Now that our flimsy sales plan has failed, Steven does not lament our fate, wring his hands, blame God or even my mother—all drugs of choice for me. Instead, he gulps his overstuffed DeCiccio’s ham-on-roll, picks up the tape gun and heads for the disintegrating driveway, a black tarred madeleine that returns me to memories of a fin-backed blue two-wheeler, my first flight to freedom, the wary thumbs of my older brother tethering me to safety until I panicked and crashed into the wormy apple trees; morning runs with the bow-legged, curly-tailed Jinx before school, Friday night talks with my best friend David comparing crazy family stories, imagining our places in the Universe that was yet to be. This driveway. My driveway. Fissures like veins run its length.

At the driveway’s end, Steven approaches a sapling and nails a bendy plastic sign to it: GARAGE SALE, 1-4. “That will do the trick,” he declares. “People don’t surf the internet for garage sales. They follow the signs.”

Above, the maples, oaks and ashes of my childhood tower and wave, fan dancers surrounding a sturdy brick house whose peeling paint now flies off in sheets on windy days. My mother has protected them all these years, staving off exhortations from her neighbors to cut them down in the name of safety and light and air, hurling retorts about soil retention, cooling properties ,and baby birds nesting. She has guarded the garden against landscapers intent on transforming azaleas into pink meatballs. She has stopped them from spreading fertilizer and pesticide and seed; it has been a long time since the lawn was a lawn. Over time, the grass disappeared, replaced by clover and burdock and dandelion, then moss. My mother gave orders to mow whatever sprouted from the ground. Now when the landscapers work, they kick up plumes of dust and dirt like giant birds competing in a mating dance. My mother has enjoyed the show.

She loves this peeling, crumbling, moldy, living, breathing house that has held her and our memories, keeping it, in the face of time, against the tyrannies of suburbia for the last twenty years, after my father traded her in for a newer model, as she put it, leaving her for a pubescent graduate student. The man who hoarded pencil nubs and hardened erasers, who kept a burned-out well pump wrapped in a stained tablecloth, tossed away the woman who had been the Liz Taylor lookalike girl riding on the handlebars of his Brooklyn bicycle.

In response she destroyed most of what he had cherished. Wooden planter baskets smashed and burned down to charred screws in the fireplace; tiny house Christmas ornaments pulverized by my grandfather’s claw hammer, then stuffed under greasy cheese wrappers into a grocery store garbage; a leather jewelry box, reduced to red strips and tossed into the kitchen trash. Each removal, each act of discard an act of violence, a willing destruction to trigger pain enough to numb her from feeling the raw edges of the space he had left behind.

When my mother dug her way out, she saved anew, pulling the house and its treasures around her. She even developed a kinship with an unseen creature that perpetually dug a bowling-ball-sized hole next to the foundation.

“That’s the great, great grandson of the groundhog that used to live here. There’s a big grease spot on the garage floor. I think he sleeps there.” On every visit, my husband and I would fill the hole: rocks; mothballs; screen. Each time we returned, the hole had reappeared. When we told my mother this, she offered a Dali Llama smile. “He’s a part of things,” she admitted. “I like having him around.”

For the past three years, our phone conversations carried extra drama. “Wait a minute,” she would say, dropping the phone, which rolled along its bouncy, curly cord, until it fell silent. “Ma?!” “Ma, are you there?” In response a whack, indicating, I later learned, that she had smashed a hairy centipede.

But then she told us a large rabbit hopped across the living room floor every night.

I have seen videos of President John Kennedy’s fateful ride. They say that in the moment after he was shot, Jackie scrambled back in the car, attempting to save his brain, desperate to hold on to the part of him that made him him. For the past few years, I have felt that my mother was being assassinated, that some sniper had fired upon her, that there must be a way to save her mind: books; phone calls; old photographs; familiar scents; blueberries. We pressed her to move in with us. Each time we broached that porcelain conversation, she concluded with, “I’d be better off dead. Make everyone’s life easier.”

Had my mother known what we were doing to her house, to her things, she would have died in rehab, where she landed after that soul-searing week in Intensive Care, cheating sepsis of a victim. Unlike celebrity rehab, this place does not return people from cocaine or bourbon but instead nudges them toward the land of the moving, yanking them from the cement of inertia, pushing legs that will not move, quieting joints that scream and bones that ache from a lifetime spent carrying the spoils of Depression-Era cuisine. The place smells of urine and boiled potatoes.

During the fifties, my grandfather, a taxi driver in Manhattan, looked for useful trash—a bureau or baby carriage that someone needed. He’d pick it up and deliver it, a one man redistribution center. My mother modified the model, simply holding on to everything that came her way. “Don’t throw that out” followed even a glance in the direction of the garbage, whether it was plastic caps from milk jugs (someone might need them) or torn pantyhose (perfect footies). “That Tupperware is older than you. Still good.” The corollary family motto is “that could be worth a lot of money Someday,” which applies to everything from a brochure announcing the Word Trade Center’s opening, to brass state coins from Shell gas.

EBay teems with the spoils of sellers for whom Someday has arrived.

When we first realized we had to sell the house, we began peacefully, moving boxes from the attic to the main floor and then from room to room. The boxes rattled with acorns deposited by mice. I announced each bending back of dusty flaps with a “Wow!” or “What’s this?”; held every item to the light and then returned it to its moldy carton. Khaled Hosseini writes in The Kite Runner, “[I]t’s wrong what they say about the past… about how you can bury it, because the past claws its way out.” In our house, we never attempted to bury the past; it was always there, around us. Now Steven and I must play archaeologist to my mother’s Pompeii.

I tried inviting my family to the excavation, to share shards of our history. Wooden spoons. Another madeleine. I heard them rattling as my mother searched for the one long enough to scrape the bottom of the tallest pot. Arguments about basil, garlic, and browned pork. How many lips brushed those spoons, eyes closed, over my great grandmother’s, my grandmother’s, my mother’s sauce? I called; I texted, but no one wanted a spoon. Content in crisp Pottery Barn apartments, protected by advice from The New Potato, my nieces and nephews all said no.

“Throwing things out is cathartic,” Jessie in New York explains. “You’re getting a fresh start.” They have their lives. You cannot force the past on people, even if, especially if, they share your blood.

I made a timid foray into eBay, posting a Like-New! asparagus pot I’d purchased: Very little family history. No bids. Another attempt with a pink ukulele seemed successful ($7.00), until I realized it was won by a buyer in Alaska and I hadn’t charged enough for shipping.

Steven tolerated this floundering until Colleen the Realtor arrived with her iPad.

“Everything has to go,” she said. “Buyers want to see how much storage space there is.”

“Can’t we just leave it in boxes?” I whined. “They’ll understand we’re moving. Besides, if they see how much stuff we have in here they’ll get a great idea of the house’s capacity.” I was bargaining for my life.

“No, it has to go. They need a blank slate that they could picture as their own.” That’s the problem, I think. People don’t have imagination anymore.

“How are we going to get all of this,” I said, waving dramatically, “out of here?”

My husband anticipated my next move. “We can’t bring it home,” he said. I had been imagining how my mother’s wooden porch furniture might look in our modern living room.

“I need more time,” I said.

“I know someone,” Colleen said. “His name is Paul. He’ll take care of everything. Even the stuff in the fridge.” I looked at the towers of cardboard, the plastic storage bins packed with marked-down Christmas wrapping paper and pink Easter chicken garland.

“What we can’t sell or give away has to go into a dumpster,” Steven said firmly, his jaw beginning to seize, “or we’ll have to pay Paul to haul it out. It will cost.”

Friends on whom I unloaded misgivings but not doilies offered well-intended advice: “Have an estate sale.”

“Has to be at least five thousand dollars of stuff to make this worth our while,” a gravelly voiced woman told me over the phone, as I pictured fingers of cigarillo smoke curling above her red hair. No deal.

Paul arrived on a sweltering day in a white pickup, and bounded from the cab, clean shaven, wearing a white muscle shirt. He glanced around, smiling. “I did this for my grandmother. You have to walk away,” he said.

The cab of Paul’s truck rocked back and forth, and two small heads popped up.  

“My boys,” he said. “We just got back from dirt biking.”

“Check this out!” I yelled, as if I had just discovered diamonds. “Shovels! Every kid needs a shovel. Would your boys like two of these?” I waved a plastic toy shovel enticingly, like the Shamwow man. Paul laughed. “No thanks,” he said. “They have dirt bikes.” He sent my husband a sympathetic glance. The shovel went back into the box. Surely I would find someone for those.

*     *     *

After posting the sign, Steven and I begin dragging out items. I unfold Uncle Jack’s bridge table. Shelves from my first desk, a dehumidifier that sounds like an airplane, an enormous off-white La-Z-Boy recliner that my mother refers to as “The Disaster Chair.” It smells, but only faintly, of pee. I have come to think of this as the Febreeze stage of life. I wonder who will mop up after me.

Steven is right about the sign. The hunters come. A man with stinking breath and a magnifying glass studies a wristwatch for twenty minutes after I tell him I want a dollar for it. Three sisters from the Dominican Republic bring their 91-year-old mother, who stays in the car with the air conditioning on, letting me practice my limping Spanish on her. They are all laughing, women out together on an adventure. They buy a vacuum and my mother’s favorite tablecloth for six dollars. I want what they have. I want my mother to be well enough to come sit in a car while I bring her treasures from someone else’s house. I want her to congratulate me on my great bargains. I even want her to tell me that the floppy straw hat from Aunt Trudy’s trip to Mexico makes me look short.

The clock is ticking. Colleen has a buyer.

In August, we borrow a truck and haul 2,000 pounds of steel, aluminum and copper—a check cashing machine; a mini beer keg; plumbing fixtures; pipes—to Action Metal, where steel drums and piles of metals dot the landscape. A burly blonde Viking greets us, explaining that he and his brother took over the business from his father who started in 1964. While Steven and the employees sort out, I sit with him in an office, staring at yellowed newspaper clippings and a tower of identical worn-out black workshoes. Like a hedge fund manager in a Carhart suit, he laments guessing wrong about the market when aluminum was up and then crashed. “My kids don’t want anything to do with the business, but they like the money. Part of me wants to just die here so they have to clean it up,” he says, waving his hands.

The closing date approaches.

One night I type a question to my Facebook elementary school group: “Does anyone remember Susan Trimble?”, a playmate who died in third grade. Lately I have been thinking a lot about her, how her parents went on without her, what her fleeting life meant. Tracey, another classmate, responds, offering that the teacher had ordered her to clean out Susan’s locker. When Tracey protested, the teacher asked, “Do you want her parents to do this instead?” Between sobs, Tracey had snuck a homemade bracelet of braided colored threads. “I wanted to keep a part of her,” she confesses.

Refugees stream across Europe, through fences, over walls, clutching life, every thing of theirs abandoned, dropped, lost, stolen, traded, bartered. They struggle to hold on to themselves.

The nostalgia over things is an albatross, a luxury, a prayer that might be held.

During our last garage sale, a Toyota pulls up and a tall brunette woman with a pixie haircut and a white eyelet sundress emerges. An even taller, brooding man with a crew cut and swaths of tattoos around his biceps walks silently behind her, followed by a teenage girl, absorbed by her phone. I hope they will buy the china hutch.

Before I can launch into my pitch, she says, “I’m Magdalena,” and extends her hand. “We’re buying your house.”

“Oh,” I say through my garage sale grime. “Oh.” For awhile, all I can do is watch their eyes, darting across the lawn, up to the jalousied porch. I am trying to blot out the wrecking ball that Steven insists is inevitable: “It’s a teardown. Any new owner will want to start from scratch.”

“Would you like something cold to drink?” I ask.

Magdalena declines sweetly. “No, thank you,” she says. “I see you have a lot to do. We wanted to take a drive up from the city, and I thought we might be able to meet you.”

Her husband murmurs something and she murmurs back, then explains, “We’re originally from Poland.” She introduces him; then her daughter, who scowls.

“Oh,” I say, and then I think, given my current English vocabulary, perhaps I, too, am from Poland. I realize that we have not saved anything from the garden, except to have the attorney add a line about the weeping pussy willow.

“Do you like flowers?”

She pauses. “These are lovely. But I’m afraid we don’t know much about them.”

Magdalena and her brood depart.

We dig out some peonies, and the pussy willow that now seems too big for its own good, whose roots reverberate with the whack of the shovel. I put the last of the bone meal on the irises and whisper, “You’ll be okay.” I take the mussel shells and tiny smooth stones that were saved up in a coffee can in the garage and lay them around the scraggly maple you can see from the kitchen sink, my mother’s favorite, and shudder at the chainsaws that will buzz through all this very soon. Magdalena will feel she is letting in the light, but I know she will be baking the place, roasting the grass-dirt, killing baby birds with sprays meant to save the place from a few harmless caterpillars. I know this, but what can I do. You cannot stop progress.

I am stuffing crazy things into the pockets of my jeans and hoodie. When we return home, I empty plastic medals of Jesus from the Sacred Heart Auto League; bobby pins; a moldy penny; an uncancelled stamp, and a shoehorn from Caesar’s Palace.

Before we close on the house, I go to spring my mother from rehab, to take her to her new home in assisted living. I fantasize about making one last mad dash across the Tappan Zee Bridge to the house. Magically, I would manage to get her up the brick steps, onto the porch and her favorite rocker next to the wooden lamp that my brother made in seventh grade shop. She and I would sip lemonade mixed with her secret ingredient, listening to the robins and gossiping about Alex Trebek.

On the day of the closing, the last day I will ever be in this house, the day of the walk-through, I start to lecture the new owners, standing there, looking around, impatient to get going with their lives, to lay claim to what will soon be theirs. I tell them about the roses. And that the trees are so good, so important, that they will shade the house and save them hundreds of dollars in air conditioning. And retain the soil. I look at the teen daughter, lost in her phone, and try to befriend her, thinking that she might have some sway with her parents.

“What do you like to do?” I ask in a cloying tone that hurts my ears before it is even out.

“Stuff,” she says.

“Please,” I want to say to her. Have a friend over and sit on the jalousied porch, listening to crickets, drinking iced tea and assessing the universe, late into the night. Imagine who you will be and why. Complain about your parents; it will do you good. Don’t worry about the giant hole, next to the foundation, that keeps reappearing. Think of it as magic. Or as hospitality. Something wants to live here, next to, maybe under this house. The great, great granddaughter of a lonely groundhog.

I teach them the trick to the gas stove. “Turn on the burner and wave your hand, thus,” I say, Houdini-like, passing my hand across the top, creating a gentle gush of air that coaxes a flame to life. I show them the switch to the outdoor lights at the tippy-top of the porch brick wall. “In summer,” I advise, “stay here. The second floor gets hot.” My mother prided herself in her ability to withstand intense heat, to manage fans and window shades with precise mechanical timing, as if we were deckhands aboard the African Queen.

In the assisted living facility where we have moved my mother, the air is always conditioned. “It is a closed system,” Steven explains.

Steven and I have tried to recreate an entire house in her studio apartment: the lavender horse painting from the dining room; a plant stand shaped like a wheelbarrow from the porch; my grandmother’s bedroom dresser. A statue of Mary and one of Michael, with Lucifer pinned under his sword, and dozens of crucifixes in wood and gold, stowed carefully in Tom McCann shoeboxes. We had it all set up on the day she arrived. Looking around, she nodded at a framed photograph of Pope John. “That has to go,” she said. Can’t have too much of that stuff in here. They’ll think I’m some kind of religious nut.” The Pope left.

She has never been a joiner or a crafter—of clubs or sports or pinecone wreaths—and now, at 83, nothing has changed. She rejects offers of jewelry making or painting or even Happy Hour, despite the flaccid comment, “Jeez, I’m going to get a room here” from well-intentioned but stupid visitors who have their youthful freedom from the prison of endless leisure. And yet, against all prediction, against all possibility, she begins to settle in a place where the stoves have been disconnected and the hallway smells of fresh paint.

Looking at her sitting in the frayed blue living room chair we have rescued from the house, I can almost imagine that the past year never happened, that she never got so depressed in rehab that she could not eat, could not care, all sense of time and place and purpose and dignity drained from her like pus. She tells me that she won’t allow the housekeeper to come in because she might steal her dentures, like the aides did in the Other Place (rehab), and besides, she can take care of everything herself. I nod, gathering laundry, wiping, sorting, surreptitiously tossing, as if my industry will reorder the past, keep all of life’s chaos from slithering under her door toward us, and its final tidy conclusion.

The house has been emptied; the house has been sold. She does not, cannot know.

Pulling open a drawer in the kitchenette, I discover hundreds of little empty plastic coffee creamer containers, stacked together like shot glasses after a boozy night. Next to them, a pile of Popsicle sticks.

“Save those,” my mother directs. “I’m going to make something.”

Lisa Lebduska

Lisa Lebduska directs the College Writing program at Wheaton College in Massachusetts (the Wheaton that recognizes free speech), where she teaches academic writing and works with colleagues to incorporate writing into their teaching. Her work has appeared in such journals as Kudzu Review, The Gateway Review, bioStories, Harlot and Narrative, among others. Her laptop is filled with remnants of essays she can’t bear to delete.

 

On Apples, Walnuts, and G. K. Chesterton

This month I am struggling with my writing. I may be falling into the trap of trying to write “well.” In my desire to improve my work, I leave the world of honest reflection and search for beautifully descriptive language instead, trying, perhaps too hard, to be good at it.

I recently discovered the English author G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) in Phillip Lopate’s anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. Chesterton wrote at least ninety books. So far I’ve read only a few of his essays. At first, I thoroughly disliked Chesterton, thinking him a wordsmith with nothing really meaningful to say—that is, to me. To open “A Piece of Chalk,” he writes:

I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays, when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket. I then went into the kitchen… and asked the owner and occupant of the kitchen if she had any brown paper.

Chesterton continues the passage:

She seemed to have an idea that if a person wanted brown paper, he must be wanting to tie up parcels; which was the last thing I wanted to do; indeed, it is a thing which I found to be beyond my mental capacity.

gkc_1922_full-150x150

G.K. Chesterton

Here, Chesterton gives the impression that, though he is clearly a man of education and ability (as his writing illustrates), he couldn’t possibly know how to tie up his own parcels, as if there was always someone else to do those sorts of things for him. I inferred that Chesterton’s audience were people like himself, those who casually depend on a servant class. I took an immediate dislike to Chesterton.

I forced myself to keep reading, and I found Chesterton’s work to be steeped in deep moral conviction and social observation. Not easy for me to miss, while continuing to read “A Piece of Chalk,” in which he further writes: “In a word, God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.”

“Okay,” I said to myself, “I’m done. Is this guy for real?”

But the man was not so easily dismissed. He really knew his way around language. I Googled him and found The American Chesterton Society, a website dedicated to the writer’s prolific body of work. There I discovered that Chesterton wrote some 4000 essays (that’s an essay a day for eleven years), and that he is still thought to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Perhaps I had something to learn.

*     *     *

My own memoir is in a woodsy place. I’m finding it difficult to decide on structure, on a particular form. Put more plainly, I am lost in the woods and afraid I have no idea what I’m doing.

Frustration led me to take a break from my book: to eat, to read, and to write something different. I’m experimenting with walnuts, apples, reading G.K. Chesterton (among others), and writing lyric essay. I realize that I’m looking for a clear definition of lyrical prose.

The lyrical shares something with poetry, an emotional intensity. Lyricism allows the writer to draw beauty from the mundane. Is this why I am so intrigued by Chesterton’s writing: his ability to create art out of the ordinary? In “On Running After One’s Hat” he writes,

I feel an almost savage envy on hearing that London has been flooded in my absence…. My own Battersea has been, I understand, particularly favored as a meeting of the waters. Battersea was already… the most beautiful of human localities. Now that it has the additional splendor of great sheets of water, there must be something quite incomparable in the landscape (or waterscape) of my romantic town.

*     *     *

There is something to be relished in word play, and the practice of writing is the only thing that improves one’s writing, so I choose an ordinary subject—walnuts and apples—and I attempt to write like Chesterton. Having lost my way in my memoir, with little understanding of a path forward, I try my hand at another style, hoping it will prove less unwieldy and perhaps inspire a tightening of structure and a use of the poetic:

I prefer raw walnuts to raw almonds with my apples. It’s odd. Almonds are my very favorite nut and apples my least favorite fruit, preferring them mainly in pies. But walnuts and apples in combination have become a simple and satisfying pleasure. I discovered the preference purely by accident. Passing over almonds one day in my fancy supermarket (something about excessive use of water in the growing of almonds), I instead chose walnuts.

I’m not sure I’ve been successful. My experiment with nuts and fruits is not very poetic. Perhaps Chesterton is not the appropriate writer for me to emulate. An Englishman who wrote one hundred years ago and I have nothing at all in common. There are many contemporary geniuses to choose from. Still, I continue my Chesterton exercise:

Yes, I shop in fancy supermarkets. It is one of the ways I convince myself I am firmly part of the middle class. I shop for food where the rich shop for food. Places my father would have felt uncomfortable entering and, I imagine, would now be rolling over in his grave had he any inkling of what I spend on organically grown tree nuts and grass fed beef.

Though I attempt to mimic Chesterton’s lyrical and descriptive lightness of place and circumstance, I find myself moving almost immediately toward a darker worldview, and continue to wonder if Chesterton is the appropriate artist to take on as an example. For though his mastery of craft is clear, it’s the tone of his work (as least what I’ve read so far) that causes the gulf I’m not sure I can cross.

*     *     *

Lost in the woods, I’m overwhelmed by all of the rocky outcrops, pebbles and streams, flower patches and woodland creatures populating my nascent memoir. The butterflies, spiders, chipmunks, eagles, and wasps (lots of wasps) are currently too numerous to coherently organize.

images-2

Sumner Housing Projects

It’s an urban landscape, these woods where I find myself lost. Cement sidewalks, rooftops, streetlamps, elevated subway platforms, tiny housing project elevators, incinerator shoots, gates on windows, urine in stairwells, vomit, chain link around grassy lawns, monkey bars and sliding boards and swings in playgrounds on housing project grounds, our own playgrounds so that we don’t invade the other playgrounds. Stay put, stay to yourself in a deceptively integrated, no, deceptively segregated northeastern industrialized city environment. Flagpoles and roller-skates, hopscotch, skelly with bottle tops and chalk. Police car sirens, rattling trains on elevated tracks outside a child’s bedroom window, car horns, Spanish boleros, shouting family fights, the occasional scream, storefront church organs and tambourines, midnight silence interrupted by city buses pulling into empty stops opening and closing their doors. Mommy humming, Daddy whistling, children singing ring around the rosie and miss mary mac mac mac.

And trauma. Lyricism is that ability to explore interiority, the landscape of the mind where trauma rests, waiting, lurking in corners, baiting the artist to show and tell. “Can you do it? Ha! I’d like to see you try.”

How do you write lyrically about trauma? There is the truth. But does writing the truth make the language sing? Does writing lyrically about trauma somehow diminish the trauma or does it illuminate the trauma? What does lyricism do to the truth? Is this what’s stopping me: the fear of exploring specific memories through language, or is it simply the necessary task ahead—the down and dirty work of telling the truth?

I’ve read memoir where the narrator manages to tell her story in all of its tragic and redemptive detail. It is one thing to read another’s courage on the page. It’s another thing to find your own.

Chesterton’s brilliance lays not only in his masterly use of language but also in his ability to land scathing social criticism while maintaining good humor.

Perhaps, my memoir is unwieldy because I’m attempting to blend lyricism and social criticism and have not quite figured out how.
Chesterton’s writing reveals a man at ease in his world and magnanimous in his optimism and faith.

I’m far less at ease in the world and sometimes struggle with both faith and optimism. We do, however, share a love for language and it’s the devotion to words and language that connects writers across divides of space, time, and culture. Will it require 4000 essays to master my craft? Perhaps. In the meantime, I’ll continue to find inspiration in the work of the Chestertons of the world, along with artists who’ve lived beyond his century-old point of view.

Writers Read: On Being Stuck by Laraine Herring

onbeingstuckWriter’s block. We’ve all experienced it. Sometimes we force ourselves through it. Wait it out. Try a writing prompt, take a break for coffee or something to eat. And sometimes it’s stickier than that. Now, you can’t get a word down. You’re staring at the white page. Maybe a revision? Maybe you should start over—like, before you decided to be a writer. Maybe you should print out what you’ve got—and burn it. While many of us have learned to get through these blocks, or neglected their causes, ridiculed or criticized ourselves for having them at all, Laraine Herring’s On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block says that all artists get stuck. In fact, it’s natural and normal to do so, but it’s what we do once we are in them that matters. Herring proves that if we pay attention to and pursue the meaning behind our blocks, we can deepen our relationship with our writing and learn to harness our creativity in productive and empowering ways. Herring distinguishes between “writer-in-progress” blocks (a frustration within the writer) and “work-in-progress” blocks (a frustration within the work or craft) to teach readers how to tap into inevitable artistic barriers with deep inquiry, writing prompts and meditative practices.

[blockquote align=right]You’re staring at the white page. Maybe a revision? Maybe you should start over—like, before you decided to be a writer. Maybe you should print out what you’ve got—and burn it.

Any good craft book includes a few writing prompts, but what is most compelling about Herring’s guide to breaking through writer’s block is the emphasis on embodying our writing practice through breath and physical movement. She mentions in the preface that during her writing classes it’s her job to notice, “the slip of a warm tear from the lady in the corner or the unconscious clenching and unclenching of fists from the man.” Her attention to small physical manifestations of internal processes asserts that our bodies are connected directly to our writing, and if we believe this, then we can use our bodies as tools to access different parts of our minds when we are stuck. In one of her first deep inquiry practices, Herring asks the reader to go into a dialogue with one of their issues and recommends “doing these activities with a pen or pencil and paper rather than on a keyboard. Because the act of writing by hand is a form of doodling, physical lettering helps to release tension in your body and mind.” Just like trying a different hike or new yoga class to get out of a workout-rut, Herring’s suggestion to write by hand may help a writer get through a block simply by jogging different muscles than the ones we type with on a keyboard.

Herring also revisits two deep inquiry practices throughout On Being Stuck: the balancing breath and the writer’s mudra. These physical exercises are “quick and easy grounding tools… to help you return to your body and writing… quickly shift your energies and help you gain a different perspective on your current place in your work’s path.” For the balancing breath, she guides the reader into a motion that involves bringing the palms in and towards the nose and mouth on the inhale, and gently pressing them away on the exhale. The balancing breath encourages the writer to step away from their writing and slow down their thoughts to focus on simple physical actions, which anyone—no matter how stuck—can try.

larraineherringThe writer’s mudra is a moving hand gesture similar to a prayer. Herring’s exercise requires designating one hand as the writer, one hand as their writing, bringing them together to create “the physical and symbolic meeting” of the writer and their writing, feeling the heat between the palms, rubbing them together to create energy, and then placing the hands on different energy sources of the body. This movement not only has symbolic resonance of a writer joining together with their writing, but asks the writer to re-engage with their body as a method to re-engage with their work. As writing often requires us to sit at a desk or computer for hours at a time and ignore our posture, these simple exercises bring awareness back to our bodies as a means of re-adjusting our perspective.

It’s no secret that going for a walk for fresh air and sunshine can aid the mind in gaining a clear perspective when we are blocked, but On Being Stuck promotes specific practices to embody our writing in a way that physically moving outside or stretching our legs doesn’t. Herring teaches us how to cultivate awareness and attention to our writing through our breath and skin. The process of writing can feel very abstract—especially when we are stuck sitting in a room staring at the ceiling, swimming in muddled thoughts, or void of ideas completely. Grounding ourselves in our bodies during periods of writer’s block is a quick way to bring our focus from the abstract to the concrete, and hopefully, to the next page.

avila_headshot_ResizedKaty Avila lives in Los Angeles, CA where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University. Her obsession with Victorian pseudoscience, literature and culture, and interest in medical humanities have inspired her to look closely at the relationship between body and story, and how narratives attempt to embody (or disembody) modern experiences.

The Dog Days are Over

… I never wanted anything from you / Except everything you had / And what was left after that too…

~Florence Welch & Isabella Summers

 

With tonight’s Harvest Moon and next week’s equinox, autumn is upon us. I’m not sorry to see this summer go: my once-disciplined practice of writing first thing each morning gave way this summer. Now in my second MFA year, other responsibilities vie for that most coveted time slot. I question my commitment and my craft. What else is here to sustain me?

Slurp. Slurp. “Flynn, please stop licking!” I try not to sound sharp as I plead with my terrier, who licks his leg by my feet. I threaten him with the cone, but the threat is empty: I don’t think I could find it.

*     *     *

Ninth Birthday

It was my birthday, too!

The fourth week of August was a string of terrible days. On Sunday my husband, Chad, started a business trip, leaving me alone to manage my job, a writing deadline, and our five pets. Chad and I deploy a texting-only communication strategy when he travels alone for business or I for my MFA residencies. When we are time zone crossed and each so crazed that a phone call seems impossible, we tether with written words. We had gotten my dad an Amazon Fire TV Stick for his birthday though he’d been watching too much Olympics, possibly all the Olympics. We joked in the card, “You don’t get enough screen time!” I was delighted the games were closing that very day—no more rocket’s red glare wafting into my writing room. Olympics over, things looking up, I texted Chad Sunday night, “Dad loves it!”

Around midnight as Sunday became Monday, on routine patrol of the foyer, Flynn spotted a possum outside and promptly lost his mind, attacking the right sidelight window in vain while Arthur the labradoodle stood bewildered by the left: Why we bark? Flynn spent the night pacing and panting, biding time to spring through the door the next morning on the possum’s cold trail. I texted Chad when I woke, “I’m tired.” I walked the dogs and let them sniff around the bushes where the offending possum had lingered.

On Tuesday morning, Flynn vomited his breakfast. His medical history is a novel, but the synopsis is he has atypical Addison’s disease, requires corticosteroids daily to balance his endocrine system, and is prone to occasional vomiting. In his vomit was a swirly nest of my hair, his hair, a stick, and some leaves. I fed him again, blaming this offensive plug of foreign material. He vomited again. I gave him more steroid to counteract the stress and started some rice on the stove. I would attack this with the “bland diet.” I shaved some chicken breast off a rotisserie in the fridge. Flynn vomited the chicken and rice and his body started twitching.

Flynn's abdomen

Flynn’s abdomen

I changed into jeans and we went to the veterinarian’s office. Flynn’s abdominal x-ray looked okay; his labs did not. He was in acute liver failure. After some fluids and an antiemetic for his nausea, I took him home for the night. Because of my history in her industry, the vet had been frank: she told me to snuggle Flynn.

From there, it was impossible to concentrate on the writing and reading I needed to do. Instead, I tried to anticipate which extensions I might need in the days ahead. I had no work shifts until the weekend. I alerted my Lunch Ticket teams I might need help, then connected with my digital writing workshop to excuse a delay of my comments due that day. I emailed my MFA mentor: twenty pages of creative work and literary annotations on two books were due to him on Friday morning; my creative work was ready enough (perhaps), but my annotations, unwritten as they were, might be late.

You try annotating it while you're dealing with life and death

You try annotating it!

On Wednesday morning, I took Flynn and Arthur to the specialist hospital. (Arthur had to come since he is destructive when left alone.) I dressed for comfort and professionalism. Conscious of my choices, I cataloged them to later write an essay titled, “Getting Dressed to Take Your Terrier to his Possible Death.” I tried out first lines and decided on, Do I wear jeans? I texted Chad to warn him that we might need to discuss surgical options.

Flynn’s ultrasound was unremarkable. He was admitted for fluids and antibiotics while the fine-needle aspirate of his liver went out to a pathologist. The specialist added a toxin binder. In Florida, in every damn cluster of landscape architecture, we are blessed with potently toxic Sago Palms. The specialist told me stepping on a Sago seed and then licking his paw could have caused the liver necro-inflammation of Flynn’s magnitude. Arthur and I went home, adrift.

Big dog, little bed

I don’t pray. I clean. I cleaned the shit out of the house. When I should have been revising my sprawling digressive essay for my MFA mentor, I scrubbed toilets and vacuumed. I broke a sweat. Arthur has many nicknames, but he’s The Bird when he’s extra derpy. In the glare of his solitude, The Bird emerged to help me clean. I took him for a long walk when an evening breeze broke the August afternoon oppression. The Bird pulled and marked and growled. He was being Flynn. Bird’s imitation game carried into the night. He tried “big dog little bed,” and assumed the role of primary sentry.

Meanwhile, that night I spilled two full glasses of water: one all over the wood-block kitchen island, the other on the mid-mod bedside table I’d just cleaned and reorganized with yet another book stacking strategy. I went into Chad’s office to feed the cats. In the middle of the freshly vacuumed area rug, I stepped bare foot in cat vomit. Distracted by the vomit and the cleaning of the vomit—so many days of vomit—and the dash through the sprinklers outside to dispose of the puke in the pet trashcan, I forgot I’d set some cat medicine down on the rug. Back in the office, sprinkler-wet and full of rage, I saw the wrong cat eat the meds. I smacked her. Then I texted Chad and confessed to the smacking and broke down crying. I hadn’t smacked hard, but still.

Later, after fitfully falling asleep, a forgotten splinter in my thumb woke me only an hour into the night.

Seriously

Thursday morning found me unable to turn over in bed, and mostly uncovered. Bird was stretched next to me with his head sharing my pillow. The rest of the king bed was empty. On our morning walk, Bird got scared and pulled me back home. It was probably a bumblebee buzzing past his head, a fear he learned from Flynn. While I made his breakfast, he slunk into the dining room and pooped. I screamed silently as I cleaned it up, then walked it outside to the little can. I texted Chad the poodle plus the yellow bird head (our combination of emojis for Arthur; Flynn is the reddish dog plus the warthog head) with the smiley poop and the lit cannonball.

At the hospital later, Flynn barely noticed me. He gave me one tail wag and then took to sniffing dog things on the floor: he’s a dog’s dog. While I waited for the specialist to come into the exam room with updates, Flynn stood at the door, away from me. (My dogs often treat me with indifference, though I saved both their lives. At least Arthur loves Chad.)

Some results were in: the Sago Palm toxicity was ruled out; the remaining possibilities were Leptospirosis or autoimmune Chronic Active Hepatitis. Lepto is transmitted when a dog comes in contact with the infected urine of a raccoon or a possum. Though dire, at least Lepto is curable. We hoped for Lepto. I got to bring Flynn home.

Flynn just wanted to sleep, in his jacket, which might be leopard print

Flynn just wanted to sleep, in his jacket, which might be leopard print

There, Arthur wanted to play, and Flynn wanted to sleep. Though I waited for the sun to shine brightly in a blue sky before I took both dogs out for a quick walk, a torrential sun squall soaked us. Back home and dried off, I had to dig out Flynn’s winter coat to stop his shivering. I texted Chad about the rain. I was relieved he’d be home late that night, in time for his birthday the next day.

Before bed, I scooped cat litter and found I had chosen a bag with a failed seam along the bottom:  litter-dusted turds and clumps of lavender scented urine fell down my front and into my flip-flops and all over the rug I’d just vacuumed, again, in Chad’s office. On the trek out to the little trashcan, the sprinklers started up.

*     *     *

On Friday morning, I hand-wrote a draft of that essay, “Getting Dressed to Take Your Terrier to his Possible Death,” instead of working on my other digressive essay or starting my annotations. I emailed the packet to my mentor at noon, sans annotations. In the packet were two essays: the first was one I’d extensively edited after workshopping it with the same mentor at an MFA residency. I thought by now I’d nailed it. The second essay was a digressive, messy rough draft.

When my mentor’s feedback came late Sunday, the capstone night of the terrible week, I was finishing a shift at work and may have had a tad too much whiskey during closing. Here’s the quick and dirty on the feedback: in essay one I answer the wrong question (clearly, clarity is not my primary concern); essay two exemplifies why I shouldn’t write digressions (what is this essay about?). After reading my mentor’s comments, I woke Chad with my maudlin lamentations (my writing room is our bedroom), and I texted my blog editor to ask if I could write about “turning over $40k to have my heart broken.”

The feedback was brutal, painful, and correct. An alien of self-doubt now germinates in my chest.

Alas, the fancy cone

I look for what I can hold. I see Flynn at my feet. Slurp. I don’t know how long he will be with us. His diagnosis, of course, is the autoimmune disease. So I let him lick his itchy leg where his hair was shaved for his IV catheter. Slurp.

This summer I’ve learned that where I thought I had control, there is often a blank page. I wonder how to write better than I write—my next packet for my mentor is due in a week. I’ll keep trying, adding words. Slurp. I find the cone under the bed. There’s only so much I can take.

Spotlight: A Thin Season / In My Travels

A Thin Season

(For a young man beheaded for listening to Western pop tunes
in his father’s grocery store)

It is a thin season
culling the air of blue breath
choked sudden as a sword
at the throat of a young infidel
the forbidden pop tune of his innocence
still playing in the annals
of his thoughts
kneeling, repetitive, insistent
as the accusations of the faithful
who behead him
on an afternoon like any other
clouds rising
in a decimation of distance
between the neck and heaven.
Isis goddess of love, the moon,
magic and fertility,
a healing sister of deities
daughter of earth and sky,
twists in a massacre
of celestial delusions
bearing the severed body
back to the arms that bore him,
the ones who will hear music
no more.

 

In My Travels

I can’t remember what I left behind…
something in Morocco,
a one-day trip on a ferry with goats
around the rock of Gibraltar,
women swathed in black sheets
oblivious to the heat,
their disallowed energy
herding chickens on the weather worn deck,
coal fired eyes avoiding mine.
I am a woman too,
have herded children, objects and desires.

On this other continent
sweat woven rugs are hawked to me,
okra and moss colored herbal tinctures
hold promises to cure what I cannot;
a swell of odors wafts through
narrow, primeval alleyways,
huddles of figures in stone hollows
bake barbaric bread on stone pallets
extended to me by nomadic hands,
primary sustenance
like old communion
dry and stiff on my tongue.
A curved backed Bedouin
shines a seller’s smile
a toothless mouth and beggar’s hand
offering objects I can take home
to narrate my journey.

Back at the hotel
the coast of Spain is blurred
through a rain embossed window,
tears streaking
for the remembered sweater I left behind
in the store of the ruby frocked merchant,
fez tassel swirling among his wares.
And all the spoils and discount deals
cannot replace the history of my sweater
sitting alone an ancient culture away,
never to come home again.

Karen Corinne HercegKaren Corinne Herceg graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University with a B.A. in Literature & Writing and has graduate credits in editing, revision, and psychology. Her first volume of poetry is Inner Sanctions, and she is completing a second volume. She publishes poetry, prose, and essays in numerous publications. Karen is a featured poet on the New York poetry scene. Her website is: www.karencorinneherceg.com, and you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @karen_herceg.

Home Alone

In June, my husband took our daughters to Kansas City for two weeks. We thought it would be a good time for them to travel without me because I’d be at my MFA residency in Los Angeles and it’s hard to coordinate child care for the four and six-year-old in my absence. It’s hard to coordinate childcare even when I am home. I’m self-employed (nothing to do with writing) and I work out of our house. But the residency and my husband’s trip didn’t align very well, and in the end I was home alone for a long time. What happened to me was so little and so much.

I have been a mother for seven years. Motherhood is like you just get on the train and go. The children come into your bed and into the bathroom with you, if you’re not quick to lock the door. They get in your closet and dress up in your clothes. It feels sometimes like they want to crawl inside your skin. It doesn’t ever stop. And this was mostly okay with me, until I tried to be a writer, too.kids on river

There are parallels between the 1990 blockbuster Home Alone and my own recent experience with solitude. As a refresher, Kevin McCallister, ably, adorably played by Macaulay Culkin, is abandoned at home by his family in their rush to board a plane to France. My own family only went to the Midwest, and I was given ample notice, but the similarities are still striking. For one, Kevin and I both experienced distinct stages of loneliness. First there was disorientation, surprise at the foreignness of silence. This was followed by an unfettered glee spree. In Kevin’s case, that meant watching R-rated movies and eating ice-cream sundaes and sledding down the stairs. I settled for binge watching BBC crime dramas and drinking bourbon like a sad spinster minus the cats.

At the end of Home Alone (when he’s not setting fire to Joe Pesci’s head), Kevin gets sort of melancholy. He starts to miss his family. He goes to church by himself. In my parallel experience, after the thrill of freedom wore off, I became unsettled and afraid. I imagined I saw a ghost evaporating every time I turned on a light in a dark room. (I suspected my husband’s grandfather.) I tried to write but discovered that I’m conditioned to write while being distracted. The chaos of children is a now an integral wallpaper of my process.

My husband texted me pictures of the kids in Kansas and South Dakota. The kids eating hot dogs at a minor league baseball game. The two of them at an arcade, their faces lit by pinball bulbs, their fists full of tickets. In one picture they held turkey feathers—from actual turkeys—that they found on a nature walk; the striped plumes were as long as their little arms. In another picture they lay sleeping in the sand by a dock. There they were in a boat, their hair whipping wild. And there laughing, bobbing down the Missouri river in life jackets. I saw them bent over an astonishing quantity of ice-cream and hot fudge, their faces studious. And then blowing gigantic bubbles on a lawn—so big that their bodies could fit inside. They looked bright and happy and golden.

I went to eat sushi alone. A meal alone does not usually bother me, but when someone asked if I was using the empty chair across from me at the table, and I said no go ahead and they removed the chair, it felt like someone swept my legs out from under me. They had removed any illusion I had of not being alone. Till then, I might have been a person waiting. Maybe for her husband and kids. Or anyone.

In this stage, I called my kids on the phone every day. The older one just plain refused to talk. She was too busy having fun. The younger child obviously didn’t want to talk either, but she was gentle with me. On one call, after relaying her whereabouts and what fun she was having she said, “We can hang up now if you need to, Mom.” On another she pretended that we had a bad connection and that she could barely hear me. She actually used the words “bad connection.” She is four. “Okay,” I said. “Have a good time. Bye.”

central parkOne night I watched a sad movie in my house and no one was around when I sobbed, which I actually prefer. I realized there was a loud drone of crickets or cicadas that was not coming from the movie. I muted the film. The noise from outside, the creatures clicking and zipping, turned on and off like a faucet. I wondered if this buzz had been buzzing every night and I had been too busy or preoccupied to hear it. I really wanted to know what they were, crickets or cicadas? Or something else? It had been hot all day but just then, alone in my chair with a face wet from crying, the air coming in the window brought the particular sweet relief of a summer night cooling off. It was indescribably pleasant. In the silence of the next morning I started to write and I wrote and wrote. And nobody asked me for a snack. Nobody crawled into my lap.

*     *     *

The August 2015 issue of Harper’s revolved around the theme of parenting. There was a Rivka Galchen piece that I can’t get off my mind. In Some Notes on Twentieth Century Writers, she listed successful women authors who were terrible mothers or had no children at all. The conceit seemed to be that those who became mothers sustained their success as artists by prioritizing art over child rearing, that thinking one can be both a good mother and a great writer is folly.

Not by design, but by coincidence, while my family was gone I read a book and an essay about abortion. The former was a French book in translation called Happening by Annie Ernaux where the narrator describes trying to get an abortion in 1960s France, at a time when it was illegal. The essay I read was by the American author Sallie Tisdale and was called “Fetus Dreams.” The regrettable title doesn’t reflect the quality of this excellent piece about the emotional conflict of working in an abortion clinic. Both stories were gruesome, graphic in recounting how a fetus is extracted from a woman’s womb. I read one of them while eating an enchilada covered in red sauce. My appetite progressively waned. But somewhere in the reading I started to think of my new solitude as a sort of very, very late term abortion. A second chance. While a woman’s right to choose is simple—inalienable and affirming of corporeal autonomy—the choice itself can be very complex indeed. It’s possible that, regardless of the decision, the consequence of the choice will always be some amount of regret.

Though the rights granted by Roe v Wade face constant threat of erosion, we live in a country where an abortion may yet be procured. But when I became pregnant, I chose to stay pregnant. What if I had not? I mean, I know I would have enjoyed more privacy in the bathroom, but would I have been a writer sooner? This sort of speculation feels like a transgression. I am superstitious and afraid even as I type it. I am very lucky to have healthy children. (I write this as a prayer.) But what am I doing writing if I don’t make space for uncomfortable questions?

I am biologically predisposed to want my girls to survive, to be happy even, but after about a week alone I started to think that the children were better off without me. Look at the adventure they’re having, I thought. If I were with them I would chase them with a bottle of sunscreen. All hot dogs would be soy dogs. I would limit their ice cream intake, even though summer should be all about ice cream. I thought about how, when they are home, they probably sense that I resent the compromise and conflict of my life. If they ask me to play when I’m trying to write, I send them to the back yard, suggesting that they “be resourceful.” Then, from my desk, I watch them out the window and hate myself. Sometimes, in a guilty panic, I catch them and kiss their faces and hug them quick and desperate, which is how I apologize for preferring writing over playing with them. Then I go back to my computer. I’m certain that if you are meant to be a writer and you don’t end up being a writer, that will kill you. But I also know that if you do write, the activity brings its own salvos, its endless mini-deaths. Trying to write and parent, too? It seems an annihilation. And a child may be unsafe in the care of a self-brutalizing artist.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf talks about great writing resulting only from the “incandescent mind.” She means a mind free of the bitterness, fear, hate, or protest caused by oppression and strife. About the unfulfilled potential of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Woolf writes, “…but if one reads them over … one sees she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly.” Which is not to say that great art can’t be borne of suffering and opposition. But greater art may arise if strife is transcended. Motherhood itself can be oppressive: without choosing to, I love them more than I love myself and what art is in me. It is a love I cannot shake.

Kevin McCallister’s Home Alone experience culminates in a joyful reunion with his family. Of course they make it back by Christmas morning. Joe Pesci goes to jail. Everything is set aright and audiences are satisfied as the family is made whole. My own familial reunion was more muddled. There had been a discreet moment, just days before my husband and children returned, while reading a book in a sunny chair, uninterrupted for a couple hours, when I realized that I had fully readjusted to being alone. I was not looking forward to the time when my kids and my husband would return. I had no urge to call them. In fact I wished they’d never known me. I dreamed I could abort myself from their life. For two weeks I saw the alternate adventure, the one where I was no one’s mother. I was responsible only for my own survival and for being thoughtful about art. By the end, my fears had transformed: I was terrified not of ghosts but of my very real family, heading back to steal my solitude.

The day they came home I drove to the airport and parked. I walked to the baggage claim. My kids came down the escalator ahead of my husband, looking for me as they descended. When they spotted me they yelped and laughed and their faces were so beautiful that it hurt. They launched themselves from the bottom of the escalator and ran at my body, hitting it so hard I staggered back. They clung there and buried their faces in my pants. They smelled different, like different soap or a foreign place. I hugged them. I did not cry. We retrieved the bags and walked to the car. We drove home and everything went back to how it had been.

Writers Read: Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano

childrenofthedaysChildren of the Days: A Calendar of Human History consists of a series of 366 vignettes, one for each day of the Roman calendar year, not noticeably related to one another, which create a mosaic of fractured memories of human history. The volume continues the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Hegelian approach to understanding and articulating Latin American political culture, embodying both history’s bloodiest examples of human brutality and literature’s most exquisite cases of humanity. Like Galeano’s previous works, including The Open Veins of Latin America and Memory of Fire, the dated entries that comprise Children of the Days blend fiction, journalism, history, poetry, and memoir to recall and give voice to the great and small voices of global history.

Many who have reviewed Children of the Days have sought entry to the text via their birthdates, which is as reasonable a way to begin interrogating the text as any. The entry for my own birthday, April 26, is “Nothing Happened Here.” It concerns the Chernobyl nuclear accident that occurred in 1986, which caused radioactive rain to fall over much of Europe. In a recent New York Times article, Henry Fountain refers to the accident as a “huge dirty bomb, an explosion that spewed radioactive material in all directions.” Smoke from the fire that followed the initial blast carried the radioactive material and additional contaminants into the atmosphere and, thanks to the region’s long-range wind systems, over much of Western Europe.

[blockquote align=right]I distinctly remember following the radioactive cloud in the news as well as on the ground. The cloud missed Spain, where I spent the month of April 1986…

Although Galeano claims that virtually no government reported on this geographically and temporally extended emergency, I distinctly remember following the radioactive cloud in the news as well as on the ground. The cloud missed Spain, where I spent the month of April 1986, and passed over southern England before I returned to school there at the end of May. Yet, Galeano’s interpretation has merit. The Soviet Union was notoriously secretive. Soviet officials refused to admit that the accident had occurred until April 28, when Swedish officials demanded to know what was causing the increased levels of radiation within their borders. Even today, cover-up theories persist. Fedor Alexandrovich’s film, The Russian Woodpecker, premiered at the Sundance Festival earlier this year. The film’s premise is that the Chernobyl accident served to cover up a 14,000-ton military radar installation in northern Ukraine, near the border with Belorussia, right next to the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station.

Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano

The juxtaposition of Galeano’s lyrical history with contemporary journalistic and scholarly analyses of the Chernobyl accident are instructive with respect to grasping the meaning and veracity of the entries to Children of the Days. Each entry captures a truth about the substantive event or circumstance of interest, though it may or may not be entirely factual. The tension between truth, or interpretation, on the one hand, and historical fact on the other is likely complicated by the translator’s prerogatives. Galeano was, firstly, a gifted writer and political progressive heralded for his alternative historiographies, of Latin America in particular, that gave voice to the poor, the persecuted, the illiterate, and the nameless as well as their wealthier, well-known leaders. The translator of this text, Mark Fried, is to be credited for conveying Galeano’s beautifully written and widely accessible truths. This reader is not alone in being perfectly capable of fact checking insofar as it might be necessary to cite Galeano’s history.

References

Fountain, Henry. “Chernobyl: Capping a Catastrophe.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 April 2014. Web. 17 July  2015.

Friedman, Sharon M. “Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima: An Analysis of Traditional and New Media Coverage of     Nuclear Accidents and Radiation.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67.5 (2011): 55-64.

The Russian Woodpecker. Dir. Chad Gracia. Sundance Film Festival, 2015. Film.

Juliann AllisonJuliann Allison is a feminist scholar, environmentalist, homeschool advocate, yogini, runner, rock climber, mate, and mother of four with a passion for the outdoors. She is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy at UC Riverside, and an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Back to School

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Prayer Flags, Lama Foundation

Back to school arrives so early now—often weeks before Labor Day, the unofficial last day of summer. Thanks to my teaching schedule, which doesn’t begin until late September, and home-schooling history, I routinely extend summertime for my children. I teach summer school in July to fund late summer road trips. Instead of posing for pictures on the first day of school, my children filled the Jeep floor with sand and shells and rocks the summer we camped our way up the California coastline from La Jolla to Santa Cruz. They spent many summers-turning-to-fall high in the Rocky Mountains, fishing in shallow streams, hiking in alpine meadows, and throwing snowballs during freak summer storms.

Our trips became more complicated as my children opted to enter more formal educational programs, but not impossible. This year, my younger son, Parker will be taking an independent study in late September so that he can go to Spain with me and his big brother, Quentin, who is working until we leave. When school starts for my youngest child, Olivia, she’ll be with me, participating in life at the Lama Foundation, an intentional community in Northern New Mexico committed to ecumenicalism, ecology, and consensual decision-making. I expect Olivia will gain more from weeding and picking berries in Lama’s organic garden, helping to cook for the thirty-plus community members who will be in residence, and assisting with mud-plastering and other maintenance in keeping with her interests and abilities, than she would in any classroom.

 *     *     *

Earlier this week, as Olivia and I neared Flagstaff, our first stop en route to Lama, I remembered another August road trip through Arizona. At dawn on the first day of school in 2011, all four of my children and I climbed into our fully loaded Honda Pilot for the final leg of our trip home to California from Dubuque, Iowa. We’d made the almost cross-country journey there to attend my youngest sister’s Midwest wedding reception and baby shower.

About the time we crossed the New Mexico-Arizona border, Parker, then a sixth grader, began an oral reading of the final three pages of the history textbook I’d assigned for the year. He intentionally projected his naturally loud voice from the third seat so that we wouldn’t miss a thing up front. I was excited to find out just how Story of the World author Susan Wise Bauer would sum up the 1991 Persian Gulf War. His siblings were not so enthusiastic.

“Please…I can’t work with him talking,” Quentin said.

Quentin, returning to public high school as a senior that year, was in the passenger seat completing notes on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment due his first day back in school.

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Kuwait’s geographic location

“Mom…The people in Kuwait were so lucky…They didn’t have to pay any taxes, and the government paid for their school…but not anymore,” Parker said.

“Yeah,” I said. I explained that the only Kuwaitis I ever knew were students traveling in Southern California. “They left a $100 tip for a couple rounds of beers during Monday night football at the bar where I worked.”

“No way!” Parker said.

“When did you go to Kuwait?” Reiley asked. She was starting public school as a freshman that fall and must have been really caught up in her summer reading: The Odyssey.

“I didn’t go to Kuwait. I served drinks to some guys from Kuwait,” I said.

The kids wanted to hear more about the Kuwaitis, but were distracted by the first roadside directions from on I-40 to the meteor crater southeast of Flagstaff, AZ. “You were supposed to take us to the meteor crater,” Parker said.

“You’ve been there,” I said. “You were really little…”

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Meteor Crater, Arizona

“What’s a meteor crater?” asked six-year-old Olivia.

“A big hole in the ground where a meteor crashed into the earth,” Parker said.

“What’s a meteor?” asked Olivia. She leaned forward in her seat, clearly concerned.

“Like an asteroid…” Parker began.

“You know how the earth goes around the sun? Well a lot of other things, like much smaller rocks, also move in space, and sometimes they collide with the earth,” I said.

Quentin helped move the conversation well away from “asteroids crashing into our planet” by turning around in his seat to face Olivia and using his hands and cell phone to illustrate the movements of the earth, sun, and “aster…I mean rocks” in space.

Unwilling to be left out, now that we’d distracted her from Odysseus’s trials, Reiley interjected a summary of the theory that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.

Fantastic. She just had to add death to the mix, I thought.

At the time, Olivia was obsessed with the various ways she might die. I was nowhere near prepared for one of her prolonged crying jags over the possibility that she would be destroyed, along with much of the surrounding desert, by an asteroid before she could be reunited with the daddy she couldn’t stop telling us that she missed so very much.

“Rocks and other debris from space are usually really small by the time they reach the earth,” I said.

“Yeah, they burn up in the atmosphere,” Parker said.

“Now meteors are so small they just hit you…they don’t make gigantic holes in the ground…” Olivia said.

“Right.”

dinobirdI thought we were done. Then Reiley said, “Except the one that killed the dinosaurs.”  Thankfully, she didn’t stop there, but went on to tell us how dinosaurs are related to birds so that, according to an article she read in Science, chickens are kin to Tyrannosaurus rex.

I pulled off the highway in Flagstaff just after convincing Olivia that relationship between birds and T. rex did not mean that our neighboring chicken farm was likely to produce miniature dinosaurs. Or so we thought.

“If the little dinosaurs come to California, we could just move to Colorado,” she said.

*     *     *

Like that car-bound lesson on history, astronomy, and paleontology, most of my best memories have been unexpected. My only objective was to enjoy the ride with my children and arrive safely in Flagstaff. I trusted my children would grow from the experience, and that would be enough. My strongest writing often occurs the same way. Writing is hard work. Still, each time I begin to write, I intend to enjoy the process as much as I expect to survive it. I trust that I will grow from the practice of writing, and the words I select and arrange on the page will approach art.

*     *     *

“I can’t believe I ever thought dinosaurs came from chicken eggs,” Olivia says. She’s looking over my shoulder now as I write.

Today, we toured Earthships in the Greater World Community outside Taos, New Mexico, about thirty miles from Lama. Earthships are homes constructed from natural and recycled materials to ensure ambient temperatures, conserve water and energy, and provide most of residents’ food. Olivia was entranced. Afterward, we enjoyed a late lunch at the Taos Mesa Brewery that included an English ale for me and a bottle of root beer for her. Olivia insisted on saving the bottle to use when she builds her own Earthship.

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Model Earthship with Bottle Artwork