Writers Read: Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s third novel Child of God, based loosely on an infamous murder in Sevier County, Tennessee, portrays a cycle of extreme isolation, perversity, and violence as representative of the natural human experience. The novel tells the story of Lester Ballard, “a child of God much like yourself perhaps,” who, facing a series of unfortunate circumstances beginning with his eviction from his home, descends into the limits of desecration, and literally into the depths of the earth.

McCarthy reveals his worldview in exchanges of dialogue, such as this conversation between Deputy Fate Turner and a local old timer:

“You think people was meaner then than they are now?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one.”

McCarthy always leaves subtle clues for his readers and demands character names receive due attention, and Child of God is no different. The naming of the sheriff seems a curious choice because, like Deputy Ed Tom Bell in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the lawman is no “turner of fates,” unable to bend the course of evil but only able to identify the victims and inventory the evidence.

By portraying Lester as a tragic character instead of merely an instrument of evil, McCarthy pushes the limits of propriety—murder, pedophilia, necrophilia. He paints a portrait of a troubled individual faced with morbid images throughout his life. Lester is orphaned: first his mother abandons the home, and then, as a young boy, he discovers his father’s body, grossly disfigured from the father having committed suicide by hanging. So begins Lester’s fascination with the grotesquery of death. Rejected in more conventional interactions, he finds that he is only able to achieve intimacy and fulfillment via necrophilia.

McCarthy’s obsession with death, or at least the ritualization of death, is itself rendered with what one could describe as literary necrophilia. Death becomes a ritual of courtship for Lester. McCarthy’s description of the execution of two murderers portrays the public event as something of a civic celebration. In another sequence, Lester recalls the death of a wild boar, taken down by dogs, with a balletic verve, describing the “lovely blood” as the boar spirals into death.

Cormac McCarthy by Derek Shapton

McCarthy’s style is minimalist and completely removed of excess and decoration, both in terms of grammar and punctuation. He experiments with an unfulfilled narrative trope, evidenced when he reverts to a third person narrative in the voice of an unnamed member of his community. Here and in subsequent work, McCarthy seems to be unable to separate himself from Old Testament themes: catastrophic flood, blood sacrifice, revelation in fire, then later and more evidently in the Biblical language of Blood Meridian.

Child of God adds to McCarthy’s canon of depravity and darkness, coupled with the thesis that humanity is dark and prone to great, catastrophic evil. On the other hand, in McCarthy’s view, nature is profoundly beautiful, as depicted in the touch of leaves and fronds upon Lester’s face as he escapes his cavernous underworld, a suggestion of benediction and peace with his deplorable acts. Ultimately, having surrendered himself to a mental asylum (“I’m supposed to be here”), when Lester dies, his body is consigned for dissection, as if clues to the evil in him can be interpreted, the way pathologists look for tumors and aneurisms to explain morbidity. Child of God demonstrates McCarthy’s view that nothing organic or occurring in nature can amount to the evil in humanity.

McCarthy, Cormac. Child of God. Random House, 1973.

Edmond Stevens first began writing for publication while in high school for his hometown Burlington Free Press. That led to positions with major New England newspapers and later The Los Angeles Daily News. Life in Los Angeles made for the irresistible transition to screenwriting. Edmond’s portfolio includes six made-for-TV movies and numerous network series. His most recent credit (2014) is Skating to New York, based on his novella. Teaching credentials include creating the screenwriting program at Utah’s Writers@Work, plus workshop appearances at Sherwood Oaks College, University of Utah, University of Southern California, Chicago Film Commission, and Sundance Institute.

Soul Music

At around eleven p.m. on a Friday, I descend the stairs into the Cigar Bar, a bar where you can order a quick drink or pick up a cigar. You can’t smoke inside but you can in the open-air courtyard separating the bar from the dance floor on the opposite side, where a live salsa band is playing. I weave my way across the courtyard through the thick smoke and crowded tables until I push open the doors into the other room.

The sound of drums, the bass and the familiar clave beat echoes in the courtyard. The singer is belting out La Banda, a song made popular by Puerto Rican icon Hector Lavoe back in the early seventies when New York salsa reigned the groove and the swing of Afro-Cuban music all over the planet and all over San Francisco’s Mission District.

I remember those times, being swept by the magic of it, dancing to songs like Pedro Navaja. I would slide my hand around the girl’s waist. She would place one hand on my shoulder. I’d hold her other hand in mine and we would move to the beat, always to the beat. We sang the lyrics to each other because those words and that sound reached us.

*     *     *

I drop two dollars in the clear jar sitting on the narrow coat check counter and hand my sport coat to the young Filipino woman on the other side. She smiles and hands me a numbered ticket. I stroll to the edge of the floor mouthing the words to the song because this is Afro-Cuban music: it’s my soul music. My body feels lighter when I hear it, as if lifted elsewhere, to the sounds that brought me life, to the Havana that I remember.

I see couples dancing half drunk, falling into each other, taking up more space than they should. I see an Asian couple. They are both staring down at their feet counting their steps, trying to remember what they learned during the early evening salsa lesson. Over on the far side of the floor I see this white guy and woman moving as if they were jumping rope to the music. They’re not counting anything but they seem to be having a good time.

Then there is the middle aged black dude, too cool for his own good, looking like he’s working a hula-hoop in slow motion. He’s dancing with a Filipino woman wearing a tight sequined dress and tall heels. She gyrates her hips slightly and doesn’t seem to want to mess up her hair. An Indian guy holds his drink in one hand and spins his partner with the other like a top, almost launching her right off the dance floor. The idea that there is a beat to follow seems to elude some of them.

I suppose I should feel proud when I see them dancing. Proud that my music has reached so far and has become such a phenomenon, that it leapt across cultural and geographical boundaries. But they have no idea what the words to the song mean. Pride is not what I feel. Instead there is a heaviness to my legs that anchors me to the floor. My face feels flush and my chest tightens as the music is drowned by memories of a different time, of a different San Francisco.

*     *     *

In the seventies, neighborhood garage parties with red or black lights were also crowded, smoky and yes, we all drank then too. But like the subtitle to Fania All Stars’ breakthrough 1971 album Our Latin Thing, it was indeed nuestra cosa, our thing. Couples swayed as if riding the same wave, mirroring each other’s steps. The bass, the drums and the tat-tat-tat, tat-tat of the clave steadied the rhythms while the horns burst out the melody and the vocals kept us in the groove, not just with the music but also with each other. There was ease to it all, the ease that came with the familiar. Our moves felt inevitable, like breathing.

Here at Cigar Bar, the music seems to be background noise to the dancers. It seems as if only alcohol—or maybe wanting to appropriate our culture as their own—spurs them to the dance floor. This type of cultural appropriation is not that different from what I see these days in the Mission, my old neighborhood. What used to be a predominantly Latino neighborhood is now host to a proliferation of new residential condo buildings, unaffordable to the working class. The new buildings are named with words like Vida (Life): as if baptizing them with Spanish words will somehow preserve the heritage of the neighborhood.

The past is being re-written by these modern day Columbuses—developers and the rich settlers who inhabit their new buildings. I’m reminded of this when I see a bar called “Amnesia,” or “The Alamo Draft House,” which now occupies the old New Mission Theater. They kept the marquee sign from the original theater because it was deemed to be historic, since it held some level of architectural significance. The Crown Theater across the street used to alternate Mexican movies with American films. It housed innumerable memories for many of us, but it holds no such historical significance to them. It too, is now gone.

The new structures replace old stores, like Newberry’s on 23rd and Mission. I used to buy shoes there as a kid. There were two large bins on the sidewalk in front of the store; one filled with left-footed shoes, the other with right-footed shoes. If you found one you liked which fit, you needed to rifle through the other bin to find the match. It was always fun to barter if you happened to find someone else holding the matching shoe. Although those memories remain, the landscape and the people who evoke them are largely gone.

*     *     *

Amnesia on Valencia Street

I don’t have to pair my left and my right shoes anymore. These days I can afford to buy them together, at places like Nordstrom’s, and they’re actually made of leather. But I can’t forget, because there are those who still have to sort through sidewalk bins, those who, like me, came here imagining a future for the first time, albeit uncertain. Today it’d be places like Newberry’s where ICE would come calling to complete their quota of immigrant detainees, like they did not too long ago when they raided a family center in the Mission, or as they have done at countless other places throughout the country. We didn’t worry about raids as much back then when we still came to this country chasing the illusion of a dream, and felt safe doing it.

Maybe tonight in this place, what we’re really witnessing is a case of acculturation. We, armed with our music and our ways, bring together a community. We have things in common after all. We all understand progress. Immigrants by definition seek to improve their lives. We seek progress but understand that progress is not without sacrifice. The question is where do we draw the line? Decimating entire communities in the name of profit is not progress. It erodes the foundation that binds us as a society. A bigger question is, who draws that line? If not us, then who?

I don’t mind if the white couple jumps. I don’t mind that the Asians mark their steps, or that the black dude thinks he looks cool, or if the Indian guy throws the girl off the dance floor. They can dance to the music however they choose. I’m okay with it. They do not need my permission. It’s hypocritical of me to talk about community if that community only allows a certain kind. Others would do well to consider that before tearing down the next building. In the end, I know who I am and where I come from. I wonder if they do. I’ve already drawn my line. This is my Vida and no one is going to build any condos where I’m standing.

*     *     *

The song ends and everyone applauds. The crowd disperses. I tap the jump rope woman on the shoulder as she walks past me. “Would you like to dance?” I ask.

“Sure,” she says.

I take hold of her hand and lead her to the dance floor. I slide my right hand around her waist. She smiles as I guide her left hand onto my shoulder. The music starts. I mouth the words to the song. And we dance.

 

Jesus Francisco Sierra is currently working towards his MFA in Fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. He emigrated from Cuba in 1969 and grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. He still resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although he has been a lifelong writer and storyteller, he makes a living as a structural engineer. His inspiration, and his most supportive audience, are his adult daughter and son. He is fascinated by how transitions, both sought and imposed, have the power to either awaken or suppress the spirit. His work has previously been published in Marathon Literary Review and The Acentos Review.

Brandi Read, The Oppression of Flora, 2015, Medium, Size

Spotlight: Unset in Stone

Stories from Classical mythology have pervaded European culture. My work seeks to address how mythology and the retelling of myths serve to reflect, reinforce, and influence our gender ideologies. Our perception of women is directly affected by how they are portrayed in art, from the stories and poems from antiquity to the way we see women and girls currently depicted in contemporary art and […]

Writing My Way Home

In June, I was scheduled to go to my third ten day residency for an MFA program in creative writing and, unlike everyone else who was dying to immerse themselves in their passion and reconnect with their MFA friends, I felt ambivalent about my return. I worried that the program and my plan to be a writer wasn’t taking hold.

I had always dreamed of being a writer and felt that it was “my time,” but I had been home for twenty years, at the center of family, raising two kids, being the tree around which my family swirled.

My family was not swirling so much anymore. And even as I tried to see the extra time as an opportunity, I felt a loss of identity and purpose. The residency was in Los Angeles where I lived, so I negotiated with myself—I would participate in the classes, workshops and readings during the long days and see my family most evenings. I steeled myself and went, trying to open myself to the experience of the workshops, classes and readings while battling anxiety about abandoning my family. Crazy and irrational, I know, since they supported me going. But that’s how I felt.

*     *     *

How did I get so enmeshed in my family? Let me roll back the tape eighteen years. My husband and I are sitting in a black box of an office being told the results of a report by a developmental pediatrician who examined our one-and-a-half year old son.

“Your son has developmental delays,” she said.

That news broke over us like a tidal wave, hitting my husband Jason first. I refused to believe her, and decided to take the report to our regular pediatrician, Dr. K, for a second opinion.

On the ride home, I could see my optimistic, loving, wise husband for the first time in our relationship unable to speak. He wiped at tears as he drove, trying to hold back all the pain and fear he was feeling.

“Let’s talk to Dr. K. I’m not convinced,” I said. “He would’ve said something if he thought Hunter had developmental delays.”

Jason kept driving, mute, trying hard to keep it together. It scared me. I wanted to shake him.

I met with Dr. K the next morning. “I read the report,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

“But you never said you thought Hunter had developmental delays.”

“I’ve read the report, and I agree with her,” Dr. K said.

And just like that I was in the crashing waves, worrying about our son’s future. Would he speak or make friends? Would he look us in the eyes or go to college? Would he relate to us or to anyone? Would he live independently? Would he get married?

I was sick with a cold that blossomed into a flu on the way home. I asked the babysitter to stay. When I got home, I saw Hunter with his pudgy fingers and soft cheeks. He inserted a key in a lock, turned it and pulled it out with great concentration again and again, an activity he could do for hours. Past experience told me if I tried to take him to the park or disrupt this play in any way, he would try to bite me. The developmental pediatrician told us this was not the exploratory play that children need to do to understand the world. Hunter’s play was his way of quelling anxiety. I had known something was wrong; it was only now that I could let myself know.

I stayed in bed over the weekend, feverish and despondent, until the day turned to night. I heard Jason come and go, Hunter wake up and the noises of life moving along, but I couldn’t face the day.

I had a book on my night stand called Let Me Hear Your Voice, by Catherine Maurice. When I woke in the cocoon of the night, I read. In this book, the son didn’t connect, lost his words, played repetitively and became angry during transitions. The boy in the book had a different diagnosis—autism.

Maurice found her son a speech therapist, a behaviorist, a play therapist, enrolled him in school and learned how to engage him. This non-verbal, socially isolated, inflexible two-year-old boy, with massive intervention, got better. At seven, he conversed, connected, and interacted with the world.

A light went on inside me—Catherine Maurice’s son got better. Even though it was four in the morning, I was wide awake. I went down to the dark kitchen and left a question for the developmental pediatrician on her voicemail.

“Why aren’t you saying that Hunter has autism?” I said. Uttering the “a” word scared me.

She called me that morning.

“I would say Hunter has autism except for the connection that I saw between you and him,” she said. “Autism or developmental delay—the treatment is the same.” Hunter would later be diagnosed with autism.

“What do I do?” I asked.

“He needs play therapy, speech therapy, a school program, occupational therapy, and for you to interact with him,” she said. “You have the most hope of effecting his potential during this time.”

The sun came through the window beaming squares of light onto our yellow kitchen wall.

I asked, “If he is developmentally delayed, can he catch up?”

She said, “It is not if. He is developmentally delayed. You can significantly effect the trajectory of his life.”

And like that, after two days in bed, I was back. Catherine Maurice’s story had given me hope and now I knew my purpose. I would catch Hunter up. I would merge with him. I would give everything and leave nothing on the table. I would learn how to engage him, get him the right speech therapists, find the schools, mediate his playdates. I would negotiate, advocate, and interpret the world for Hunter so he could understand and interact.

After all, the thing that crushed me was thinking about Hunter alone in the world. The words, “developmental delay” sat like a weight on my throat. I pictured a herd of gazelles running and one delayed gazelle falling behind. I’d be the bridge, a friend, a guide, and help him find his words. I made a vow to myself—I would never leave him behind.

*     *     *

Every stage brought rewards and challenges. From being non-verbal at three, after intervention, Hunter said to a friend who took a toy train—something that would have elicited biting in the past–“I think we have a problem here.” He negotiated for his train back. He stopped biting. He sang in the choir, played chess, baseball, and tennis. He made a friend.

We had our daughter when Hunter was four and built a bridge between the two of them.

He loved board games so we played poker, Monopoly, chess, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride. While we played, we talked about baseball, hockey, politics, music, life.

*     *     *

Hunter is twenty now and, with the help of a transition program, will attend college in the fall in Vermont.

Socializing, like navigating a foreign city without a guide, is still hard for Hunter. So he takes breaks. He tells me he doesn’t want me to micromanage him, doesn’t want me merged with him anymore.

A family therapist told me it’s time to let myself dive into my life and to let Hunter make his way more independently in the world.

Our daughter is sixteen and independent—a confident young woman. My husband’s work will bring him to New York in the fall. It’s getting kind of lonely and boring to be the tree around which no one is swirling.

*     *     *

So I return to the MFA program in June at Antioch, and I try to give myself permission to let myself dive in.

But the first few days I am sort of here, but I am there, at home, too. Is everyone okay? Is Hunter getting out in the day? Is he connecting with his dad?

Then I go to lunch with three women from class. We talk about books, family, and our projects over pulled pork sandwiches. I feel comfortable, happy, and privileged to be at the table with these intelligent women all doing something as ambitious, lofty, and romantic as writing a book.

I go home and my family is still there. I tell my husband that I’ve been anxious. I have one foot in my world at home and one tentative toe in this new world. I’m starving to find a way to contribute in the larger world, to find my voice, to be seen, and to have a bigger context than my family and friends. He tells me what I need to hear:

“You’re not going to lose us,” he says.

The next day I go to a reading of graduating students. I am awash in the stories of all the students who I have not come to know. One student reads a wrenching short story about growing up with a bipolar mother. One reads a historical fiction account of a man who founded the national parks system in England. Another story is told in spare prose about a woman in college who is raped and another is about a girl who sees the world through the lens of the dissected frog from science class. I allow myself to lose myself in each of the stories and savor the feast of voices, textures, and paths of my fellow students.

These students don’t look like strangers anymore. I let myself stand in the river of their stories, let them surround me, let them engulf me and carry me away for a while. I realize I’ve hardly thought about my family all day long.

In the elevator on the way to my car, I meet the writer who read his story about the bipolar mother. Before he was just a guy, but after hearing his story, I see him.

“I loved your story. It was so courageous. I’m so glad I got to hear it.”

I arrive home for dinner with my kids, and I hike with my husband before class the next morning. Days later I am the one reading a story, adding my words to the tapestry of voices at the residency.

*     *     *

Maybe I can follow my passion and still have my family too?

Days after the residency was over, I had to write this blog. I was feeling anxious and unsettled.

Mondays are especially hard, as everyone in my family has a place to go. My husband goes to his office and my kids to their activities. To be a writer, I have to build where I am going, and every day I wonder if I will be able to deliver myself there. Writing is like rubbing sticks together and hoping I can spark a flame, a campfire that will keep me warm, that will light up my world.

I exercised. I wanted to call someone. My mother? My sister? I longed for that feeling of home and family and purpose.

Instead, I did a simple thing. I went to Starbucks and wrote down what I was thinking. Though I physically sat in Starbucks, soon I was in my imagination. I had only a vague sense of the people around me or which song played. The skittish feeling dissolved. In its place, I found myself in flow on the river of words and ideas, crafting sentences, reflecting and discovering and, amazingly, beginning to make sense of the mystery that is me. I don’t need to call anyone or go anywhere. I am complete, whole, home.

It is “my time,” I decide. I intend to take it.

 

Kathleen Katims is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in Verdad Magazine and The Penman Review. She is working on a book called Second Acts, interviewing, researching, and writing about people who had interesting journeys out of being stuck and moved in the direction of their dreams. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her awesome husband, two cool cat kids, and big brown dog.

Writers Read: Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat

Create Dangerously begins with an essay about the public executions of Louis Drouin and Marcel Numa in Port-au-Prince. Drouin and Numa were Haitians who had met while living in New York City and had returned to Haiti as part of a guerrilla army that intended to take down the Duvalier dictatorship. François Duvalier—Papa Doc—made sure that thousands of Haitians were there to witness the executions. Danticat’s essays pay homage to the myriad ways the event impacted her life as a writer, as well as the lives of many other Haitian artists and activists. The immigrant artist at work educates and moves the reader to enter the experiences of artists who do not belong anywhere and hence endure the suffering of their homeland, their new home, and the liminal space in between in which their identities are concocted.

Create Dangerously shows us how art grows like wild weeds from the cracks in a dictatorship. Danticat tells of a time during Pap Doc’s regime when writers could not write, and if they did so, risked their lives and the lives of their families. Instead they put on Greek tragedies inside homes. If they wrote and shared, it was in secret. For many American artists, we cannot imagine living like this, but it is crucial that we recognize the possibility that this could happen here. And we must understand that this is the reality of so many artists all over the world. In the book’s title essay, the act of creating dangerously is described as “creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive” (11).

As I write this, ICE is detaining immigrants and literally tearing families apart. Create Dangerously challenges how we view the immigrant experience and invites us to see Haiti, a country that has been so overlooked by our citizens and so slighted by our government.

In “Acheiropoietos,” Danticat profiles photographer Daniel Morel, who as a child, was present for the assassinations of Drouin and Numa. He describes the feeling that as an artist, he is viewed negatively inside Haiti and has “little value” (142) in the US. Again, she defines creating dangerously, this time as creating “fearlessly, boldly embracing the public and private terrors that would silence us, then bravely moving forward even when it feels as though we are being chased by ghosts” (148). How can folks who feel they have “little value” be moved to create? How heartbreaking that anyone should feel they have little value, and how true of so many people in this country.

In “Another Country,” which deals with how we talked about suffering and poverty after Hurricane Katrina, Danticat writes, “I don’t know why it seems always to surprise some Americans that many of their fellow citizens are vulnerable to horrors that routinely plague much of the world’s population” (111). She cites newscasters comparing the view of New Orleans to Africa or saying that it was like “another country.” Danticat’s nod to Baldwin with her title is important. Baldwin’s work addresses American denial and shortsightedness. Katrina proved this. The mainstream media kept pointing out how the events occurring in New Orleans were like another country, in total denial that this was OUR country, America.

Edwidge Danticat

Danticat honors many immigrant artists in her work, like Michael Richards­­, a Jamaican-American sculptor, known for a piece called Tar Bay vs. St. Sebastian that depicts an airman pierced all around by several small planes. Richards died in his studio in the Twin Towers on September 11th. In “Welcoming Ghosts,” Danticat draws parallels between Basquiat and an untrained Haitian artist and Vodou priest named Hector Hyppolite, who was “discovered” in a small town in Haiti and held in high regard by artists like Andre Breton. Danticat honors these artists by drawing political and spiritual through lines between their works and showing the reader how they were often misunderstood.

In “Bicentennial,” Danticat cites Alejo Carpentier’s description of encountering the “real marvelous” in Haiti, something like magic realism. She writes:

The real marvelous is the extraordinary and the mundane, the beautiful and the repulsive, the spoken and the unspoken. It is the enslaved African princes who believed they could fly and knew the paths of the clouds and the language of the forests but could no longer recognize themselves in the so-called New World. It is the elaborate vèvès, or cornmeal drawings, sketched in the soil at Vodou ceremonies to draw attention from the gods. It is in the thunderous response from gods such as Ogoun, the god of war, who speak in the hearts of men and women who, in spite of their slim odds, accept nothing less then total freedom. (103)

Lately, my words do not seem like enough. My donations do not seem like enough. This brief moment of attention I have paid to Haiti is certainly not enough. Danticat’s work forces the reader to see more than we are accustomed to seeing. More art, more suffering. And more examples of how we can write from a place that is real for each of us. For me that means I cannot forget the privilege, with which I walk through this “New World.” Maybe I can walk through it comfortably, but many cannot recognize themselves here.

 

Danticat, Edwidge. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Random House, 2010.

 

Meredith ArenaMeredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is the Blog Editor and the Diana Woods Memorial Award Editor on Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in EntropyLunch Ticket and SHIFT Queer Literary Arts Journal.

 

Pause

All names and identifying data have been changed to protect privacy.

In the four months since I was assaulted, I have managed to put together one poorly constructed, grim poem about a water bug and one song to accompany instruments I lack the talent to play. Today, in writing this, I am breaking ground, grasping for the solace writing has brought to my life over the last two decades.

On February 15th, 2017, I moved into a studio; the first apartment I have ever been able to claim as my own. My prior lease was not due to end until late March but in order to escape a toxic living situation, I scraped up enough cash to shell out a rent payment on both places while I transitioned. The Wednesday I walked into my new space, adorned with a bright purple door, I felt safe for the first time in several years. This was my sanctuary. I was home.

*     *     *

Bryan was a friend of mine who went back to uniform-clad middle school days in the suburbs. I remember when he arrived at our school. New. Quiet. Awfully scruffy for a thirteen-year-old boy. We knew of each other, but it wasn’t until high school that we began to build a bond. An integral part of my life from fourteen to eighteen, Bryan dated several of my friends during that time. He was funny and charismatic. He was the life of the party. One to defend me from myriad unkind words from unkind friends. One of the first to make me feel beautiful. My best friend and I emblazoned his name on a set of handmade t-shirts: “I love my boys” in bold letters.

Bryan was an alcoholic.

It had been more than five years since Bryan and I had seen each other, but we’d been talking for a few months when we decided to go on an actual date. He had drifted apart from our group years ago, gotten into a relationship, and subsequently had a child of his own. We were both relatively new to the dating world—damaged, and intensely bonded by our past together. He was my friend and I trusted him. I felt safe and I was eager for the opportunity to reconnect face-to-face.

 *     *     *

On the Saturday after I moved into my new apartment we planned our first date. Bryan texted me to ask if he could leave his car at my complex so we could catch an Uber to dinner, just in case we had something to drink. This sounded logical to me. I agreed. When he stepped out of his truck to greet me, it became obvious just how much time had passed. His hair was thinner. Beard longer. His demeanor seemed calmer, cooler.

The last time I had seen him was at a friend’s party. He tried to kiss a good friend of mine in front of her boyfriend and narrowly avoided a stone cold KO. The same night, while he sprawled on a bathroom floor in a pool of sweat and vomit, Bryan attempted to buy weed off my ex. I deemed this an all-time low; but we were older now. We had moved on. I embraced the memories of him as a kind friend from high school. Blocked out the dark bits. The fights. The temper. The late-teen DUI. I chose to focus on the new Bryan—full of adoration, thoughtful texts, and who met me with a stunning pot of pink flowers as a housewarming gift the evening we reunited.

We caught a ride to a downtown noodle joint. On our way there, we talked about our busy work schedules; how happy we were to escape for a minute together. We giggled. It felt natural. It felt healthy.

At dinner I ordered a Moscow mule. I’m not much of a drinker, but it’s my go-to when I’m overwhelmed by unrecognizable lists of complex cocktails. Over the course of our meal, he matched my one drink with three of his own. Still, I recognized the face looking back at me. If he was drunk how could he be so composed, intelligent, and calm?

When we got back to my place, I walked Bryan to his truck. Rather than getting in, he reached along the passenger seat floor and grabbed a bottle of vodka, slugged back a large gulp and casually started to walk back to my apartment. Although I’d enjoyed myself on our date, I knew I wanted to be alone in my home. This moment was the first time that evening when fear stampeded my instincts.

Despite my discomfort, I convinced myself I was safe. His drinking was heavier than most individuals I normally spent time with, but he seemed coherent. Bryan took down the vodka and chased it with wine. I sat on the couch and he sat at my desk chair, playing me music. I assumed that my trepidation stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t used to dating. My last first date was nearly a decade ago. What did I know? Maybe this was all normal.

We had been talking and listening and drifting from subject to subject when the name of an old friend came up. He struggled to retrieve memories. My stomach began to turn. Minutes later he would inform me he hardly remembered a former girlfriend he dated for more than a year. More pain. More knots. Sensing his level of intoxication, I conceded to his suggestions that he needed a safe place to stay for the night. He was supposed to be up early for work. I figured he could lie on the couch and quietly sleep off his cocktails. I dreaded the damage he could do on the road, yet I was blind to the magnitude of destruction he was about to bring to my place of shelter.

As it got late, I retreated to my walk-in closet, closed the door and attempted to put on the least alluring outfit I could throw together—full leggings and an oversized t-shirt. Subconsciously, I craved armor. I quieted the fear inside of me and pulled off my blouse. Within seconds, Bryan had opened the door and made his way in.

 *     *     *

Before I hit puberty, I was thoroughly versed in the world of dissociation. I was abused by a close family member from as far back as my memory attempts to press until I was eleven-years-old, when the police came. My grandmother’s husband at the time would slink into my room, haul me away, find any excuse he could to come consume the little bits of innocence left inside of me. Fear told me I could not tell anyone. Fear pinned me down. Fear cut screams from my vocal chords. Fear has yanked years of memories from my mind. In all of the times I want to scream and run I can feel the tight grasp of hands pinning my limbs, bracing tightly around my lips, leaving me dormant and silenced. In those moments, I am gone.

In an article by Leon F. Seltzer of Psychology Today, he wrote about the freeze response: “If you can’t make the assailant disappear, you’re much better off ‘disappearing’ yourself, by blocking out what’s much too scary to take in. So, in its own way, the freeze response to trauma is—if only at the time—quite as adaptive as the fight/flight response.”

On February 18th, 2017 I was paralyzed by fear, exhaustion, and terror. I disappeared. Bryan spent four excruciating hours pushing, pressuring, biting, pressing, dragging, forcing my body into places it did not belong. As the night progressed, the pain became insurmountable. Four hours in, I lay frozen and dissociated. He told me to “stop being weird.” I lay still, begging and pleading to myself to find strength. Asking a higher power to come and save me, to make minutes and hours pass more quickly than possible.

In the morning, after Bryan slept through alarms and refused to move from my bed, I stepped out into the hallway and called two of the people I trusted most. I sobbed, inconsolably—my body covered in bruises, jaw unable to open entirely, eyes swollen shut. I threw Bryan’s clothes on his chest and commanded him to leave. I felt utterly broken.

I forgot how to be human.

I forgot to breathe.

I forgot how to write.

I froze, again.

 *     *     *

There are few things in my life that I can take a pause from. I have always been a champion for stretching too thin, grasping to embrace all experiences. Juggle. Hustle. Do it all. Squeeze out every last drop of time and sanity. In the last term of my undergrad degree I worked full-time, took twenty-one credit hours, and gave birth to my daughter. I am uneasy in the calm that many find comfort in. I can be neurotic; I’d like to call it relentless.

When my life came crashing down this February, the angels at Antioch University immediately said, “You need to take care of yourself.” The program coordinator helped me process paperwork to enter an enrollment maintenance semester when my brain was mush. Steve Heller, our MFA chair, called to speak with me directly, providing sincere compassion in the weeks after my assault. He kindly allowed me to remain a part of Lunch Ticket, my family and my consistency for the last year and a half. Once again, this program saved me and I finally allowed myself to slow, to pause.

Pause.

I am learning to pause.

I am learning to forgive myself for taking a break when I had to learn how to function again. I am still learning to function.

I am learning to set boundaries. To not lose myself in the blame. To ask for answers when others hurt me. To show myself compassion. To own the accusations from those who tell me I’ve changed. Yes. Yes, I have.

As writers, there comes times in our lives where it is necessary to pull back, care for ourselves. We are simply human and that fact will never diminish our identity as writers.

No, I haven’t written much lately. Yes, I have focused on me. Yes, I can forgive myself.

But I am here now. Yes, it counts for something.

 

Doni Shepard is a poet, mother, and lifetime learner currently residing in Phoenix. She spends her days managing content for a popular startup, mommying an extraordinary three-year-old, and serving on Lunch Ticket. Upon nightfall you can generally find her in an insomniac haze binge-watching streaming television with a fluffy orange feline named Doobie James. Her work has been featured online by Dirty Chai, Bloodletters Literary Magazine, Calamus Journal, Crab Fat Magazine, The Thought Erotic, and Ursus Americanus Press, and may be found in the love anthology Spectrum 3: LoveLoveLove. She holds an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in art therapy from Arizona State University and is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, concentrating in poetry.

Irene Vasquez

Spotlight: Freehanding Maps of Minnesota / Canción Bilingüe

[poetry]

Freehanding Maps of Minnesota

I have called you feather down
in my sleep, christened you
the verge of memory,
painted your rivers in the rain.
I have written the scene
before I even arrive;

The breeze floats just enough
to rustle the edges of the paper,
lines only tenuously
drawn.

Do your lakes ever run
dry? Does the smoke stay
in your clothes like it stays
in mine?
I have loved you, Minnesota, and
I have never seen your face.

Ink stains
your geometry,
monolith of midwest and west
and tell me west,
do you ever get lonely?
Have you ever been afraid
to hold on? I can see you
through the snow drifts,
from the parched hills
of my heart.

I reside in the ache of sleep
and stone, I walk
through dreams
to follow you, Northern Star. I wish
it were as easy
as buying a ticket to see the lights,
but the paper stayed
in my pocket, through the laundry,
never recovered.

Would you chase me
through the woods, Minnesota?
Follow me
northbound, run your hand through my hair
and call me holy? Would you welcome me now,
after the way the summer sunset
left us sprawling?

Would you love me, Minnesota, even when I go back home?

 


Canción Bilingüe

Mi amor,

Your tongue
never foreign to me. One word
en español; everything
at once dearer to me:

amorcito, solecito, cafecito.

You conduct
the songs of my past. You are
my past, we are the future.
You will map
the world, and I will name
each new landmark for the words
that were robbed from us.

Luna, soledad,

patria mía.

I am un-
assimilated, un-colonized,
a culture all my own. I love you
and the forgotten words
come home.
The desert sun smiles, the wind whips
and calls my name. My borders
come to life, the barbs in my heart start
to bloom.
I catalogue my native
species, find names
for the things I deemed unnamable.
I love you and the Aztec seal within me
takes flight, finally ready to show my people a land they can call their own.

I promise I will never leave you
untranslated;
I will give you
every word I have ever known.

 

Irene VasquezIrene Vazquez is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer from Houston, Texas. She is a founding editor of Zig Zag Zine. Irene was a runner-up in the 2016 Glass Mountain prose and poetry contest, and she received an honorable mention in the 2015 Princeton High School poetry contest. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Alexandria Quarterly, F(r)iction, and Words Dance, among others.

Breathing with My Better Angels

Every day I have trouble breathing. I am dependent on steroids. My childhood asthma has returned along with severe allergies to things like IV Contrast Dye. Two years ago I was rushed to the emergency room where I had emergency surgery for a burst appendix that the doctor said was one of the worst he’d seen. After that surgery and hospital stay, a series of doctor’s appointments revealed a number of issues. In addition to my asthma, I have pleural effusions (bubbles in my lungs—could that be good?). I’ve had multiple irregular mammograms, numerous polyps, cysts, and benign tumors. My doctor was clear that if I waited to address these conditions, I could be dead in five years. I’m forty-two years old, and my body is trying to tell me something.

Confounded doctors are part of my earliest memories. As a child I had a large tumor in my leg that slowly ate two of the three muscles in my calf and caused increasing amounts of pain with each step I took. Eventually, I was put in a wheelchair, which devastated my parents. But at eight years old, I only knew the wheelchair ended the pain. It had its advantages. My best friend and I rented it out during recess for fifty cents a ride, which earned us a lot of money for candy, and gave the rest of my class a chance to do wheelies in the yard until we were caught by a teacher. The teacher put a stop to our rental business, but I didn’t get in trouble. Again, the wheelchair had its advantages.

Through one of life’s great flukes, a young couple moved in next door to my family during this time and one of them was in medical school. The med student befriended my parents after seeing my wheelchair and asked about my condition. My father told him about the endless stream of doctors who’d told us that the wheelchair was the only option, that surgery was not possible, and that the situation would only get worse. We’d been told that by the head doctor of our local hospital chain, with great certainty. Our neighbor was doing a rotation at Shriners Hospital in San Francisco, where he thought they might be able to help. He said not to worry about the cost, because for anyone under a certain income, Shriners was free. He knew my family would qualify.

He was right. Soon enough we took regular long trips “into the city” from where we lived to see a team of orthopedic and vascular surgeons. While the doctors at Shriners may not have immediately known how to treat me, they were quick to research potential solutions. I was checked into the hospital where, over the course of four or five days, there were countless tests and evaluations before they scheduled surgery.

While this was happening, I went to school—in the hospital. All of the kids did. Every morning we walked on crutches, rolled our wheelchairs, or in one case maneuvered a table on wheels down the hall from our rooms to the classroom.

Every kid’s regular teacher provided the hospital with schoolwork for us to do. I did the math and science worksheets as quickly as I could and then spent the most time on reading and writing, the subjects where I felt most at home. My teacher sent a stack of books for me to read and write about. While some people become immersed in stories to shield them from reality, I saw little difference between stories and my reality. I used story as proof that anything could happen. If I could imagine what I was reading, what could I imagine into reality?

The doctors at Shriners were not impressed one way or another by the fact that every other doctor had pronounced me incurable. When they were told that other doctors said surgery shouldn’t be done because it would make the remaining muscle unusable they said, “well, she’s not using it now anyway. So why wouldn’t we try?”After years of doctors telling us there was nothing they could do to help me walk, the Shriners doctors removed the tumor in my leg without incident. I was put into physical therapy and walking within a few days. I was released from the hospital after a total of two weeks, and sent back to school. I limped, and not fast. I was not strong. But I walked without pain.

*     *     *

The schools where we lived were troubled, and my parents had been looking for alternatives. I was OK with that, because I’d been the sick kid at my school, and I didn’t want to be that kid anymore. Eventually, my parents enrolled me in a Catholic school on the border of our city, a diverse place that accepted a range of kids, who may or may not have been Catholic, many of whom could not afford to be there. The school was rigorous and well rounded. We were asked to read at least one book on our reading level per month. In addition to class reading, we had a strenuous Math and Science program. We celebrated all kinds of holidays, including those from other religious traditions. On All Saints Day (the day after Halloween), the brass section of the school orchestra played “When the Saints Go Marching In” five times a day while we switched classrooms.

The P.E. teacher was also the Athletic Director for the Diocese, a charismatic guy named Joe Hayward who’d been confined to a wheelchair after complications from a virus after a bout of adult chickenpox. He was also our basketball coach.

Mr. Hayward drove a large seventies-era station wagon to school every day and, because religious schools weren’t required to be ADA compliant, there was no ramp or elevator. Every day Mr. Hayward would pull himself out of his wheelchair, sit on one step, then put his hands on the step behind him and lift himself up the stairs one at a time. He was practiced. The process went quickly. A student would be assigned to carry his wheelchair up the stairs and have it ready for him to lift himself into. If I could go back in time, I would build him a ramp. But that’s another story.

Sometimes I hung out on the stairs and talked to him while he carried himself up. He asked me about my reading, and brought up ideas I never would have thought about. I remember one day discussing our school’s namesake, St. Augustine, whom Mr. Hayward said was likely a black man. Mr. Hayward talked to me about playing sports; he said he needed me, I should be there, and it’s important to be a part of the team.

*     *     *

It’s only in adulthood that I realize how revolutionary my education at St. Augustine’s was. Other schools in our neighborhoods didn’t have nearly as much to offer. We didn’t think twice about the fact that we read Shakespeare in the eighth grade or that our P.E. teacher was in a wheelchair. We weren’t surprised when they brought in a graduate student to teach us Latin. We elected one person from each class as “class peacemaker” each month. At one Christmas pageant, Mary was played by the daughter of a lesbian couple, Joseph was a multiracial boy, and the baby Jesus was the six-month-old child of our school secretary, a recent immigrant from Haiti. Many of us lived in poor neighborhoods, came from working class families. Many of our parents had never been to college and worked at low wage jobs. And I, much to the delight of my doctors at Shriners, played on the basketball team, a scrappy group with a tendency to foul out. It had only been a year or so since my surgery and I sprained my ankle a lot, which left me on the bench for several games, until one night, so many of our players fouled out that we didn’t have enough on the floor. Mr. Hayward had a brilliant plan; he put me in and told me to stay on our side of the court, so when the other team came dribbling back from their side to score a basket, I could surprise them and be right in their faces with defense.

“Believe me,” he said. “They’ll never know what hit them!”

*     *     *

I’ve always been taught by both teachers and experience that there are options. A few weeks ago, I told a pulmonary specialist that there must be other options and he told me I was difficult. I’d been trying to tell him that I’d already done all the basic things you are supposed to do when you have breathing problems: I covered my mattress and pillows; I deep cleaned my house; I even got a robot vacuum cleaner that eats up the dust every day. All of that stuff helped some, but the only time I’d been able to fully breathe, without tightness or wheezing, was during a course of prednisone steroids. He didn’t believe me. He said I just had a cold, and I’d get over it.

The truth is, I didn’t care what he believed. I knew it was not a cold. Starting from a young age I’d followed characters both real and imagined who stayed true to themselves and lived their own lives. Mr. Hayward became an Athletic Director after he was paralyzed. None of us ever questioned this. While in Shriners, I read all the Judy Blume novels, but I was mostly entranced by Emily Pollifax, a fictional grandmother who became an unexpected spy excelling in martial arts. I saw no reason why a grandmother couldn’t become a martial arts expert or have the skills to be a spy. She made sense to me. There were people in every area of my life defying unnecessary constraints. I never saw any evidence that my teachers hesitated to cast the daughter of a lesbian couple as Mary in the Christmas Pageant. I never knew at the time that other Catholic schools would shudder at this thought.

Last week a geneticist diagnosed me with a rare condition called Cowden’s Syndrome. Cowden’s explains every health problem I’ve had in my life going back to the tumor that put me in that wheelchair. This diagnosis allows for all of the preventative tests I could possibly need, and helps all the specialists see that every problem I have ties together. They matched me with a pulmonary specialist they respect, and I don’t think he’s going to tell me that I’m difficult.

Every day I think about the fact that I can walk, swim—and sometimes dance—because we challenged what doctors decided was true and pressed on. I look forward to being able to jump and dance like I used to, before my asthma came back with such vengeance. It isn’t easy to challenge a system that doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. But it’s easier when you have the hope that challenging authority will save your life, or keep it livable. That’s where I am. And like the wheelchair, my situation has its benefits. I am an outlier. I’ve had a lot of practice at speaking up and listening to my instincts. I argue for what I know to be true. The Shriners are outliers too, and there are countless more like us. Some of us live big lives in the midst of national challenges, and some of us live small lives with small choices, but we are a large tribe.

These are uncertain times, but together we challenge that which needs it. You don’t have faith in possibility? We do. Come stand by us.

 

Emma MargrafEmma Margraf is a writer who lives in Olympia, Washington, works for the state government, and writes for several local publications in the South Sound. She has been published in Manifest Station and is a candidate for an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Writers Read: Things That Are by Amy Leach

Things That Are is Amy Leach’s whimsical collection of nonfiction essays about the natural world. These essays blend poetry, nonfiction, and nature writing—bending the genre and exploring the boundaries of what form creative nonfiction can take. It’s through the unexpected and illuminating prose that Leach seeks to create a relationship between the reader and the wild world.

What is most effective about this collection of essays is that Leach creates the kinship between natural world and the reader by being less concerned with making sense of the scientific topics that she’s exploring, and instead choosing to highlight the wonder that is rooted at their core. Instead of depending on dense scientific data, every essay is informed and elucidated through descriptions that focus on marveling at the individual beauty of every explored aspect of nature. Leach empathizes with the wilderness, and as such her readers do as well. The reader develops a fond attachment and sympathy to nature through surprising personifications, such as, “Desire makes plants very brave, so they can find what they desire; and very tender, so they can feel what they find.” Echoing our own vulnerabilities in the life of the plant, readers sense the tenderness and intentionality of nature.

Mirroring the unpredictably of nature, Leach takes the reader through seemingly meandering thought processes where one ends up initially sympathizing with a pea and ends up following the science of pollination. But despite the unpredictability Leach gives her subjects a human voice, such as “‘I have my mother’s petals!’ ‘I have my father’s filaments!’” Humorous reflections on behalf of creatures that are incapable of evoking a voice for themselves, Leach serves as the chairperson for the voiceless. The charming narration from unexpected places endears the reader to the topic. Nature takes on human qualities that work to emphasize the reader’s own humanity—where do we fit in the larger spectrum of the natural world?

Amy Leach

The freedom to explore these winding thoughts gives the reader the autonomy to come to their own conclusion about the “point” of each of the essays. That being that we, as humans, are connected and intertwined to the natural world. Leach emphasizes the connection to the non-human topics by giving a soul to the wildness and a heart to her subjects.

Leach, Amy, and Nate Christopherson. Things That Are: Essays. Milkweed Editions, 2012.

 

Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is a writer living in Philadelphia. She’s the editor at HOOT Review. When not poorly playing the piano, she chronicles the many ways that she embarrasses herself at the website www.youlifeisnotsogreat.com