Packing Up Books

When a nighthawk leaves her nest, she takes only the feathers on her back. Can you imagine?

My partner and I are packing up to move from Connecticut to California. We are bringing some furniture, some art, kitchen stuff, clothes, and about a thousand books. Probably more than a thousand.

As I pack box after box with books, a sense of their history accumulates. Signed books. Books by friends. Books still waiting to be read (many of these). Books with creased spines and marginalia. Books with inscriptions from former lovers. The Qur’an. The Bible. Books filled with Post-it notes my partner left while writing her dissertation. Print copies of periodicals with our stories in them. The program from Denis Johnson’s memorial in New York last fall. Books with coffee-stained edges. Itsy bitsy books. Giant coffee table books. I nest each book carefully into the others, minimizing air space so that they don’t shift in transit. So that when we get to California they can come out undamaged and sit again on bookshelves.

Is it right to keep these books even though some we might never open again? Keeping so many books suggests a certain confidence that there will be long lives ahead to spend reading in them. Is a big library a way of saying to death, “Not today”? We can’t, after all, take our books into the grave.

Or rather, we figuratively can’t take our books into the grave. Literally though? My friend Katharine for many years had a yippy Pomeranian named Fox. When Fox died and was to be buried, our friend Joel tore a copy of The Call of the Wild in half and placed the first half of the book in the grave with Fox’s body. Joel thought that in some metaphorical, Viking way this would grant immortal dog-life. I cringed hearing this story’s combination of biblio-destruction and naked sentimentality. At the same time, how could I not love just a little bit the idea of fluffy Fox sharing his grave with a dramatic tale of canine adventure?

Book people can be intense in their relationships with physical books. Jeff Vandermeer once visited my hometown in Northern California on the book tour for his novel Annihilation. During the tour he was busily drafting and editing Annihilation’s sequels, which were slated to come out only months later. One day he went down to Glass Beach, our old town dump which now draws tourists with its sea glass, and “in a wild, symbolic gesture” he took a printed copy of Annihilation and decided “to try to drown [it] in a tidal pool.” It refused to sink. Eventually an ever-vigilant park ranger interrupted. Vandermeer fished the floating book back out, dried it on a rock, and put a picture online. I’m not precisely sure what he was trying to accomplish here, though it makes for a vivid scene. Maybe the first book was so much in his head as he tried to draft the sequels that symbolically murdering a copy seemed like a solution.

A college girlfriend once found more success. Four years after we broke up, she published two post-mortems of our relationship, in one of which she revealed that while we were still together she developed prophetic suspicion about a book I had bought for her, a book she had picked out for me to buy her. The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir. She felt that the book, in the context of our failing relationship, was an omen—an omen that could only be dispelled through swift disposal. Like Vandermeer, she took the book down to the beach. After attempting to burn it, she really did drown it, with no kindly park ranger arriving to intervene. She “ripped the pages to pieces, walked out into the ocean, and pushed them under a heavy mass of seaweed.” The Book Destroyed. One understands it was not the book itself that had offended her. Yet the book sufficed to take the punishment.

Books lend themselves well to metonymy and to use as ritual objects. They can stand for the author themself or for the stories they contain, for the God whose speech they record or even for the person who gave them to us. Some books are venerated, others are burned publicly—or privately drowned.

The only book I’ve ever submerged was Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. It fell briefly in the bath as I myself was getting out. No malice intended.

Sitting down to write about moving a library across the country—an act of delicate preservation—my thoughts keep drifting to books that never made it to their destination, books that found their end not in a reader’s imagination but in physical wreckage. Some of this is the inherent anxiety of moving. I am not a nighthawk, or at least am not a bird. My feathers are the belongings I take with me when I go. I would be sorely disappointed if I arrived to make a new home only to find some feathers missing.

And this once happened: I lost part of a library. I had just graduated from college in Boston. I had packed my books into five fat, heavy boxes. They were the chief thing I had to show for four years of study. I took the boxes by hand truck to the post office. Even at book rate, shipping them 3,000 miles cost a lot of money. I was thankful to my parents for paying this extra, unexpected expense. The books would get there in two to three weeks.

Four boxes arrived. The fifth disappeared.

I lost every poetry book I owned. Not Bishop and Crane, who had been in my carry-on. But all the rest.

For years I had taken buying poetry seriously. I was a young writer and scholar consciously building a collection. That box contained my hours sitting in Raven Books, reading, picking out which volume to take home. It contained much of the limited spending money that made me choose between books and alcohol. It was the proof that, admirably often, books had won.

For years afterwards I would find myself looking for a book only to realize that it, too, was lost. I still remember some of them, how they felt in the hand, their typesetting, certain lines of verse.

Writing this out, I try to let the details convey how upset losing that box made me. I was unaccountably upset. I felt impotent. I felt sad. I felt so frustrated I would ball my fists until the knuckles were white. My books were a part of my body. I felt like an amputee.

With the distance of years, these deep feelings of sadness seem melodramatic. Books can be purchased again when they’re needed. Or they can be borrowed from a lending library. Heck, you can even torrent them off the Internet and read them on a Kindle. It’s not ideal, or legal, or aesthetic—but neither was samizdat, where Soviet readers typed out and circulated rough copies of banned literature. Reading the books you need to read is the matter of vital importance. Tending a beautiful collection is secondary.

All the same, I pack the boxes with care. Books are my drug of choice. And we have so, so many.

 

Jasper Henderson is a writer and teacher from the Mendocino Coast. His work has appeared in Joyland, Juked, 7×7, Permasummer, Your Impossible Voice, and an anthology of California writing, Golden State 2017. As a poet-teacher, he works with over four hundred students every year, from third-graders to high school seniors. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University L.A. His cat is named Sybil, after the sibilant, favorite sound of cats across the galaxy.

 

À La Carte: another Black Body takes on the role of narrator

i dream about time
i dream, that it loves me
that time will give Black Bodies more of itself

this poem is about a universe where time runs the world
this poem is about a universe where time aint got no time for Black Bodies
a universe in which time plays chess with Black Bodies

check mate.

the speaker of this poem has died
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator

this poem is about a universe where time runs the world
this poem is about a universe where Black Bodies don’t make it to the bbq
                                                                   some call it CP time, but I know
this poem is about a universe where time aint got no time for Black Bodies
therefore,                               Black Bodies don’t always make it to the

the speaker of this poem has died
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator

this poem is about a universe where

the speaker of this poem has died
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator
another Black

 

Maurisa Li-A-Ping is an Afro-Caribbean Black Queer Woman. She is a storyteller and educator raised by a village of Black women in Brooklyn, New York. Maurisa utilizes poetry as a site for social justice and inclusion to promote student learning and development on college campuses. Her performances have allowed her to touch stages at the world-famous Apollo Theater, United Nations, Poetic License festival, Barclay Center and more. Her dedication to her craft has led her to receive the Ernst Pawel Award for literary excellence, and national and regional honors from The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Maurisa is currently continuing her education as a Master’s student at Indiana University Bloomington and has forthcoming publication in Black Diasporas: Essays on being Black and Bicultural and Wusgood Mag.

 

 

Dear Glitch

You were my best friend, and I didn’t know you very well. We met at T-Time, a trans support group on our college campus. You were a founding member, and I was a latecomer. I’d transferred to UC Irvine as a junior, entering the queer community late in the school year. At my first T-Time meeting, six or eight people gathered in a tiny library-like room in the LGBT Center. I was fascinated by the gender-ambiguous people around me, some in the early stage of their medical transition. As someone who’d had one foot in the closet for years, I scrutinized you and the others, trying to discern something undiscernible. Your voice was still in the process of dropping, and you had no facial hair to speak of. Leading the group, your demeanor was sweet and open. You were a teddy bear.

You were one of the people I held up in my mind as a legend from the moment we met. You were everything I wanted to be and be with: activist, student, stoner, lover, friend. I saw little of you until the next year, when I moved into the queer dorm on campus for my final year. You lived a couple of houses away. Standing on the bridge above the courtyard, I watched you walking alone, coming to visit your best friend, the RA of the queer dorm. You joined her in her room, two or three other privileged friends allowed inside. I watched from around corners, through doorways, wishing to be included.

I don’t know how long it was until you and I became friends. I befriended another housemate, Zee, and spent a lot of time with them on top of the parking structure by the dorm, smoking weed from their phallic-looking pipe.

*     *    *

One day I was outside the dorm and you were hanging around. I climbed up on the wooden fence and sat down, and we started to talk. You pulled up your shorts to show me the hair climbing your legs like ivy, lamenting the impossibility of shaving them ever again. You told me how the testosterone shots were affecting you, how you injected yourself in the thigh. It didn’t matter to me what you talked about. You were talking just to me, to the exclusion of everyone else in the world. I felt like the coolest kid on campus.

You began to join us on the parking structure to smoke weed, sometimes bringing friends. You and Zee would embark on long, detailed, in-depth discussions on subjects such as: racism/antiblackness, misogyny/transmisogyny, the corrupt university administration, immigration/undocumented folks, mental illness, drugs, domestic abuse, the prison industrial complex, and on and on. I found the conversations tedious, arduous, and obtuse. I’m no philosopher, no theorist. I’m just a stoner who wanted to be among friends. I was always more focused on the weed being passed around, the company we kept, the chances we’d be caught by the ever-present campus police, who menaced the people of color and queers on campus. Though I understood the conversations, I lacked the knowledge and eloquence to join them. Your intelligence intimidated me, but you never made me feel stupid like our friends did. You were a teacher, always giving of yourself and willing to educate without condescension.

I can’t put any of this onto a timeline. It comes back to me in snatches of images and sounds and emotions.

You and your best friend became lovers, then had a falling out. She accused you publicly of abusing her, which divided the queer community on campus. Most supported her. Zee, some others, and I supported you. We found you on the top of a parking structure that day, some of your friends already there or arriving. Commiseration was offered, votes of confidence, all but vows of loyalty. I felt like I was a part of something important. I was with you, on the side of the wrongly accused. We passed around a pipe for comfort. I sensed a distance between you and me, and I felt helpless to bridge the gap.

You and I both went into our fifth year at the university. Your financial aid was cut. Without it, it was impossible for you to pay your tuition. You could no longer work toward your degree, work as an RA, or live on campus. You fought it, pushing back against the unforgiving system in vain. You moved into another on-campus apartment with Zee on the downlow. It was a precarious situation.

The night you brought shrooms over to my apartment was frightening in its intensity. I didn’t have much fun. The following morning, we woke up to find my roommate vomiting uncontrollably, unable to speak or move, eyes bulging as she watched us panic. You picked her up and carried her outside, downstairs. I drove us to the hospital. She remained for four days to be treated for an intentional overdose of a cocktail of pills and medicines.

A few months later, she left us to move back in with her family. I insisted that you move in as her replacement. I knew your situation was bad. You had plans to go to Stockton, or somewhere, because you couldn’t stay where you were. I have no idea when we became so close that I couldn’t bear the thought of you leaving.

You moved in with me. You spent your time searching for a job, seeking out new opportunities, connecting with your friends. You were independent. You fought to keep going, but the loss you suffered was immense. You lost your love, your financial stability, your almost-completed degree and the four years you worked toward it, your access to vital medications, and your chance to have the surgery you so desperately needed to feel comfortable in your own body. Still, you fought to heal the damage that had been done to you.

*     *    *

In February, another roommate joined us, a stranger we found on the internet. Within days, his full-blown addiction to methadone dominated our lives. He took his pill, and he sat on the couch, and he faded. His heart rate dropped to almost nothing; we pressed our ears to his chest for long minutes, straining to discern a thud. He breathed so shallowly, so slowly. Unable to bear the stress of not knowing whether he would die in our home, you and I made the decision to call an ambulance. We went through this every day for two weeks straight.

Christien “Glitch” Rodriguez

You asked me to go for a walk with you one night. My heart leaped at the chance to have your attention again like on that day outside the dorm almost a year before when you’d revealed yourself to me. Whatever you wanted to say had to be very important.

We walked down a street I hadn’t seen before, a curving street like any other in that city. You told me you wanted to pick up and move to Oakland. Zee had a place we could stay, and you had money that had been donated to a fund for your surgery. If you didn’t use the money to get away from here, you told me, you wouldn’t have a chest to have surgery on.

I withdrew from school, luckily with enough completed credits to earn a degree. You were with me, and you congratulated me as we walked away from the registrar’s office. We made our plans, told everyone who mattered that we were leaving in a week. I started packing my things, ready to escape from the nightmare we were living.

One night, as we knelt over our junkie roommate waiting for the paramedics to come make sure he wasn’t dead, I looked at you and was shocked by what I saw. The easy smile and bright eyes I had known were gone. You’d lost weight, drastically. Fear and pain suffused your face, as if a great pressure squeezed you from all sides. Your voice and your hands were shaking. After everything you’d been through, you’d kept your cool. I’d never seen anything really get to you in this way. The situation with our roommate was wearing you down to a shadow of your former self.

Very late on Monday March 4th, 2013, we drove two hours to visit your mom. You suggested it on the spur of the moment, and I was down for anything. We woke the next morning in a safe place, a sunny bedroom, the future of a life in a different city looming ahead of us. We were both due for our testosterone injections that day, and we let your mom stay in the room to observe. We drew up one shot each of the clear, oily liquid. I leaned over the bed, and you gave me my shot in my butt. Then, you sat down on the floor and, as always, played a song on your phone to help you get through it. You took long moments to calm your breathing before injecting your own needle into your leg. Only once it was fully inserted did you realize it wasn’t your dose—you’d stuck yourself with the same needle you’d just used on me, empty and useless.

You decided to wait to redo your shot properly. You were too shaky to try again. We packed the unused syringe with its liquid away. We visited with your family, then returned to our apartment in the city on Tuesday night.

I don’t remember anything that happened on Wednesday.

Thursday March 7th was your twenty-third birthday. You went out with friends.

Friday March 8th I was upset. The money for the moving truck hadn’t come through, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to leave on Sunday like we’d wanted to. I couldn’t handle the disappointment, couldn’t handle staying any longer in the apartment that had become a war zone, hostile, dangerous, filled with a haze of smoke and memories of terror and rage.

You asked if I’d be okay if you went out again. I was not okay, but I couldn’t say no to you, didn’t have the right. I sat on the floor, head in hands, crying, raging. I’d taken on your need for escape. You and I were on the same page, and nothing would stop us from leaving everyone behind and getting the hell out.

I told you to go out for a few hours. We’d sit down and work out our plans when you came back.

You left. Came back. Came into the bedroom, put your right arm around my shoulders, and leaned your head against mine, briefly. Then, you left again.

Hours passed.

2 p.m. — I was angry. A call from your friend. Had I heard from you? No. I started calling you, texting you.

5:18 p.m. — Your friend called again, asked what you were wearing when you went out. I tried, but I wasn’t sure. Jeans, white shirt, leather jacket.

8 p.m. — A knock on the door. I opened it to find three of your friends standing there. Stricken. They asked to come in. I turned, closed the door behind me.

“He’s gone.”

So why are we standing here and not going to pick him up?

“He jumped off the Social Science parking structure.”

My shoulders and my head hit the door behind me. “No, no, no, no, no, no…” I slid down to the floor. Time was taken away from me by the blinding, erasing, encompassing emotion.

*     *     *

Almost a year later, I faced your mom across the dining room table in her home. She wore latex gloves, spoke confidently, reassured me. The sterilized equipment was laid bare, and there you were in front of us, your ashes mixed lovingly into a pot of purple ink.

I chose the design you’d had behind your right ear, a trans symbol just a little different from other versions. I’d considered replicating your enormous Pisces forearms tattoos, but I found the little heart to be more to my liking. On your mom’s TV, I’d chosen an alternative rock station, thinking of how you played a song for yourself every time you did your shot.

It took your mom about five minutes to etch the design into my skin. It hurt in a tight, jarring way I hadn’t expected. Halfway through, an obscure song came on, one we’d sung together: “Don’t treat me like the past, don’t let me fall behind.” I turned away from the needle and cried, gasping for breath as your mom completed the design.

I carry your body in my body, and that will never change. I carry your voice and sweet smile in my mind, hoping they’ll never fade. I carry the enormity of your decision on my shoulders. I carry the guilt in my ears, the constant stream of “What if?” with no answers.

I didn’t know you well at all. I loved the depth of your empathy and understanding of other people. I loved your creativity and intelligence, your positivity and warmth. I feel you with me, in the passenger seat of my car; I feel you in the rhythm of the random shuffle of my playlist; I feel you in the racing of my heart. I can’t yet forgive you for leaving us, but you’re my best friend, and that will never change.

 

Adrien Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.

Litdish: LeVan D. Hawkins, Writer, Poet, Performance Artist

LeVan D. Hawkins is a writer, poet, and performance artist formerly of Los Angeles and based in Chicago. In Chicago, he has appeared at the You’re Being Ridiculous storytelling series at Steppenwolf Theatre, Links Hall, the Homolatte Reading Series, This Much Is True Chicago, OUTspoken!, Fillet-of-Solo-Storytelling Festival, and Center on Halsted. Hawkins’s prose has appeared in such publications as EDNA: The Magazine of the Millay Colony of the Arts, Lunch Ticket, Bleed literary blog, LA Times, LA Weekly, LA and SF Frontiers, Sante Fe Reporter, and Sacramento News and Review. A MacDowell Colony of the Arts fellow and MFA recipient from Antioch University Los Angeles, he has traveled across the country reading and performing and has appeared in the New York International Fringe Festival and the National Black Theater Festival. In LA, he has performed at venues such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, Redcat Theater at Disney Hall, and Highways Performance Space. He is currently completing his book, What Men Do. 

10 Questions for LeVan D. Hawkins:

1. What inspires you the most in terms of your writing and performances?

I’m sitting here battling with definitions. Am I being asked what inspires me or what influences me? Or does she want a combination of both? I’m going to cheat and go with influence. Church comes up. Not necessarily what was said in church, but the rituals, the presentation. I grew up in the church much in the way James Baldwin did. His “Go Tell It On The Mountain” reflects my life more than any other book; yet as I think about this statement, my mind is downloading all the ways I am different. I’ll say this: I read that book at fourteen and recognized its authenticity and DNA. In his essays, he combined anecdote with fact. Baldwin used his life in his work, who he was, what he had experienced. The good son, the animosity you face being that, the obligation of being anointed with talent by God at an early age, his gayness that I recognized in the main character’s admiration for Elisha, the young minister. So, yes, the church. More so, the black church. The theater of it, the emotion in the sermons, the objective of sharing stories to make the world better, the repetition ministers use to stir the congregation, the call and response from the congregation when they are moved, the intensity of the singing, the squalls, the majesty of the Bible verses. It is where I come from though I recognize how often religion is twisted to oppress people and that there are inconsistencies and contradictions and sometimes a lack of clarity in the storytelling, things I would be dinged for in my personal writing.

2. Was there a specific person who inspired you?

Ok, I’m going to cheat again and say, excellence inspires me. Artists who are dedicated to their craft and who give their all excite me. I saw playwright and performance artist Luis Alfaro do a presentation and Q & A at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago and he just blew me away, his innovation, his passion for work and his community. Playwright and actress Charlayne Woodard is one of my sister friends. To see how hard she works, to see how she’s always improving, is inspiring and life-changing. They are my standards. I’m honored to call them “friend.” Influence? My aunt, our church clerk, a leader of charity organizations, a village trustee who was always writing, giving speeches, researching, producing shows, and advising me on presentation when I was young. I gave my first speeches, my first poetry readings at church at six or seven. 

Grit your teeth and bear it. You don’t have to do what they recommend; they could be wrong. But respect the notes and consider their points. This process helps you develop good taste, which is necessary for making choices.

 3. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written and/or performed?

I recently wrote and performed a story for the You’re Being Ridiculous storytelling series at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago for Pride month. I studied the work of acclaimed storytellers before I began. I wrote about a church adversary, both of us smart, ambitious, and gay. We should have been friends, but we were sworn enemies. He later returned to church as a trans woman. That was the impetus for the story.

4. What’s your writing process like?

I begin by pondering—there’s always the danger of that going on too long—then I sit down and free associate and write everything I think or remember about my subject. I type that up then expound on what I’ve written, write transitional observations, stories, and anecdotes. I’ve never had any trouble coming up with material, though sometimes it’s difficult to simply begin. I repeat the process. I keep working attempting to make the words flow into words creating stronger sentences or thoughts. Then I focus on making the sentences flow creating paragraphs with intention; the aim is for the paragraphs to flow creating the through-line for the piece. Through-line is more of a theater word, I suppose, but that’s how I think. Then I try to clean up the language, work on rhythms, and make the writing sound like I’m thinking and speaking, which is important for me. I am influenced by public speaking, theater, and film. I keep working on my vision until time runs out. Very rarely I am done. Occasionally, I’m impatient and will send something out too early. Mistakes are part of growing. My goal this year is to spend more time on polish.

5. What advice would you give to emerging poets and writers?

Allow yourself to be bad—I love the chapter, “Shitty First Drafts” in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Don’t censor in those early drafts, just transcribe what you’re thinking, seek seemingly unrelated items that give power to the points you’re trying to make. Read your work aloud as much as you can. Keep asking what is this sentence, paragraph, chapter, book about? Find fellow writers you respect and ask them for notes. Do the same for them. Seek out hard-to-please writers. Writers who will give you specific feedback not assuage your insecurities. And don’t defend your work when you receive it. Grit your teeth and bear it. You don’t have to do what they recommend; they could be wrong. But respect the notes and consider their points. This process helps you develop good taste, which is necessary for making choices. Don’t give anyone the first drafts of your work. Sweat a little before you send it out. When you’re pleased, find an open mike and read an excerpt that has a beginning, middle, and end. And I know it seems cute to go on and on about our neurosis and procrastination (maybe a little too much of that in Bird by Bird), but you really must get some words down.

6. What are you reading right now?

I am reading This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, for the third or fourth time. I’m examining the ways Wolff created himself as a multi-dimensional character. In the book, he’s semi-thuggish but yearns to be good. Who this character is, is evident at the end of the opening scene and continues to the end. The narrator is self-aware, reflective, admits to his flaws, and plays up his contradictions and shortcomings all the way through. Wolff plays up this dichotomy until he makes his transition into adulthood.

Some writers seem to forget their own character development—I’m referring here to first person non-fiction. It’s easy to do—it requires some emotional distance to access who we are as human beings. It doesn’t have to be completely true but there needs to be truth in it. Some don’t use enough well-executed motifs for me to remember what’s important for me to take away. We view ourselves as these steadily-evolving beings, but change is slow; there is more character consistency in our behavior than we wish to admit. I don’t think one anecdote illustrating character followed by a lot of “then this happened” and “this happened” without finding ways to return to revealing character and its nuances is enough.

If I had one day to live, what do I want to leave behind as my last words? Knowing I won’t be around for the clapback. Knowing I must be clear because I won’t be around to get my point across. Whatever I come up with, that’s what I should be writing about. Today, I say my last words would be about communication and the necessity of empathy.

7. How do you prepare for a performance?

At least once, I slowly go over the manuscript in terms of words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, and paragraphs to through-line. What is the purpose of the word, sentence, paragraph, through-line? Writing and performance are similar. If something doesn’t read well, something’s probably wrong. If you can’t remember it, perhaps it’s because on a subconscious level, something’s wrong with the thought process behind the words, they’re not flowing in a logical manner. I am constantly editing as I rehearse. I try to read the manuscript aloud as much as possible. Fast, slow, exaggerated voices, anything to break it up and come up with new line-readings. Who am I talking to? What needs to be emphasized so there’s a payoff ? What’s the intention of what I’m saying? When does it change?

I mark my manuscript for stress and emphasis, but my goal is do the work at home then get up on the stage or behind the podium and just let it rip. Don’t be married to the work done in rehearsal. I am attuned to the audience, my scene partners. I compare interacting with them to having sex and being aware of my partner’s responses to what I’m doing. You switch up, emphasize, slow down, speed up when it’s good.

8. What the most important thing you want to get across in your writing and performances?

I want to take you into my thought process, my head, my life. I attempt to tell what happened and what I see and how I felt in that moment without adding a lot of editorial.

9. What are your interests outside of the literary world?

So much of my time is taken up focusing on looking after my mother who has dementia. As in writing, there are actions involved in caregiving that go beyond the obvious. Doctors, deciding who to listen to, ordering medicine, giving medicine, shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying house bills, etc. In writing, there’s reading others’ work, keeping up with current events so you can know what people are going through and what they need, applying for grants and fellowships, reading your friends’ work, writing book proposals, doing research etc. When is there time for anything else? Though this writer could use some romance.

10. If you could ask yourself any question, what would it be and what would the answer be?

If I had one day to live, what do I want to leave behind as my last words? Knowing I won’t be around for the clapback. Knowing I must be clear because I won’t be around to get my point across. Whatever I come up with, that’s what I should be writing about. Today, I say my last words would be about communication and the necessity of empathy.

 

Kristina Ortiz is an elementary school teacher and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is the associate managing editor and web team manager for the literary journal Lunch Ticket. She lives in Ventura County, California with her fiancé, golden retriever Bella, and cat Lara.

 

Feeling Like a Fraud

Is it embarrassing that my nineteen-year-old child has never read a book?

I was once asked if maybe he didn’t read, because he couldn’t. A lot of well-meaning, natural born, corn raised, American people tend to generalize when the child in question is adopted from a foreign (pronounced: /FUR-ən/) country.

“That poor child, I’m sure he must suffer from some rare condition that we haven’t even heard of in the United States. Have you had him diagnosed?”

Diagnosed?

“Yes, you know, by a doctor.”

I was looked at as if I didn’t know that was an option. Or, what a doctor was.

“Well, he is off the charts with ADHD, but other than that he’s smart as a whip.”

“Oh, yes, I’m sure he is. But really, have you had him diagnosed?”

Many of today’s young adults wouldn’t know what a real book looked like even if it mysteriously appeared midair like an apparition. Maybe if it were in the form of something expensive or trendy, like an iPhone, a Benjamin, or a bong they might take notice, but even then, once it became evident that they would have to do something intellectually with it, like read, all bets would be off the table.

“WTF do you want me to do with that thing?”

It’s not as if one is handing them the dirty laundry basket, or even a small, sickly kitten that requires round the clock care. It’s merely something you hope, as a parent, would give them joy as it did for you as a child. Or, at the minimum, help them move out of their dark, dirty bedroom and into the bright lights of the family room to enjoy a chapter or two of a novel, any novel.

The problem in today’s digital environment of instant gratification is that reading for edification or enjoyment for many young adults is neither. They spend every waking hour sitting in front of their computer screen, tablet or phone. To them, that is reading. A book doesn’t vibrate or play sounds like a video game does. There is no option to get rich by reading as there is by, let’s say, creating videos of you and your girlfriend blowing kisses at the dog and posting them on YouTube. No sponsor is waiting in the wings if they (god forbid) post a video discussion about the theme of the book, or its plot points and inciting incident. Merely sitting, reading and enjoying is not enough. Maybe if we could develop a way for plotlines to vibrate and make sounds at just the right spots we would be able to hook them. Or, at a minimum, if just opening a book could make them lots and lots of money, everything I have written above would morph into one gigantic moot point. Please? Anyone?

*     *    *

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to buy two multi-volume sets of books being sold by the UCSD library system. The first is a twenty-five-volume set of The Works of Rudyard Kipling, and the second is a ten-volume set of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. When I got them home and placed them on a shelf in my humble little library, I began to wonder about how many other shelves these volumes have sat on over the years. The Kipling set is 92 years old, and the Poe set is somewhere between 116 to 169 years old! If memory serves me correctly, there were no electronics to divert your attention in those years, nor a better option for entertainment on a daily basis than picking up a book and reading it. While there were still no sponsors waiting in the wings, there was pure joy about starting a new book or reading another chapter. You could almost feel the book vibrate in your hands from the excitement of turning a page or meeting a character for the first time.

As I stare at my new books on the shelf, I can’t help by wonder how many hands have opened each one over the years and read them. Were books in the late 19th and early 20th century as popular as Fortnite is for a lot of kids today? Did parents in those years worry that too much reading was distracting their kids from getting ahead?

Illustration from 19th century

“Dearest, have you spoken to young Joshua about how much time he spends reading? He won’t even pick up a violin. How can he expect to get ahead in life if he can’t play a proper concerto?”

“Shall we have the doctor diagnose him?”

“Diagnose him? Oh dear, I shudder at that thought. What if we find out he is tone deaf? He will be lost to those damnable books forever!”

*     *    *

Tonight, my son is over at a friend’s house creating “beats” for local rap artists. He hopes to make it big in the music industry someday. I am pondering going out tonight and purchasing a book on the history of rap, but I fear the only person reading it will be—me. I don’t want to discourage him, but I am beginning to feel like a fraud. Can a person with an MFA in creative writing have a child, who by choice, refuses to read? Shouldn’t I be able to magically instill in him the joy of reading now that I am about to be empowered with my degree? What does it say about me as an educator, or even a thought-provoking writer, that nothing I can say or write impresses him enough to pick up a book?

There was a time when I did believe my son was going to be a writer. In fact, I still think he should explore that aspect of his creative side. I always found magic and beauty in the few words he put down on paper. His high school teachers, however, were harsh and chastised him for not writing more on any particular topic. In his mind, he succinctly captured the heart of the subject. Why write three-hundred pages when no one he hung out with would read them? Did his teachers do him a disservice by not finding the golden nugget in his writing and working with him to edit versus extend? We need to find a way in our educational system for words to vibrate with our youth. For the sound of well-written sentences, when spoken, to make them hunger for more. To encourage them to write poetry, if the tedium of writing essays is turning them away from the written word.

I don’t know if he’ll outgrow this phase, or if reading will eventually bring him enjoyment. I don’t know if, even with a master’s in hand, I will ever be able to inspire him. I do hope, however, that one day—even if he is just packing them away after I have passed—he will crack open Volume I of The Works of Rudyard Kipling. If he doesn’t read the book, hopefully, he’ll find the letter I wrote to him tonight telling him about how much joy reading books have brought to me and his other dad’s lives.

Asking him to read just one page.

Telling him how much I love him even if he doesn’t read, but how much more he will love himself if he does.

 

 

 


Jerry Parent
 is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is serving as Lunch Ticket’s Lead Blog Editor. He earned his B.A. in philosophy from St. John’s Seminary College, and currently resides in San Diego with his husband, son, two dogs and one cat. He and his husband own one of San Diego’s oldest floral companies, Adelaide’s, located in the village of La Jolla.

 

À La Carte: Safe House

[creative nonfiction]

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless, including more than 1.6 million children. Even a seemingly minor event can trigger a catastrophic outcome and catapult a family onto the streets.”

The National Center on Family Homelessness

 

December in Philadelphia had closed in fast, with a sudden shift from the delightful days of autumn to the callous chill of winter. It was the kind of cold that our coats couldn’t protect us from—we had spent far too much time outside. But this is where most of my possessions were sold: out on the sidewalk.

“The posters are five dollars each. Both the Manet and Monet are in perfect condition.”

Each day I had propped my household goods on the stone slabs across from the busiest coffee shop in the neighborhood. I knew the baristas, most of whom had provided the affection that I fed on as a new mother.

“Oh, those, no, my mistake…I can’t sell those. I’m sorry…the Rumi and Rilke are not for sale, but those cookbooks are fifty cents each.”

It was here where I finally had made some new friends, having only recently moved into town. These women were also new moms who were at home with their babies and half-awake after another sleepless night.

“Aren’t those chairs amazing? They’re antique. Fifty-bucks for the pair.”

These women were all seeking company that could validate their post-partum thoughts of how motherhood had changed their identity. I wondered whether their spouses had withdrawn their love as much as mine had. Watching neighbors go in and out of the coffee shop, I hoped that they would buy something from my sale on their way home.

*     *     *

The girls took long naps and stayed warm in the van while I hustled my goods, but I had to get them back to the house before sunset in order to fix up the little camp. A streetlight beamed in through the naked windows, and luckily there was one rooted directly in front of the old row house or the darkness of winter skies would have been too overbearing. Sawdust, the chaotic compilation of boxes, toppled furniture, tools, tangled extension cords, dust, and more dust surrounded us as the sharp air seeped in through the gaps in the window frames. Our bodies intermingled beneath the covers, and my daughters snuggled so close that we breathed as one body. Lying between the past and the uncertain future, it had been five days sleeping here, but it was our last night in the old row house.

My children suckled their designated breast, Ruby on the right and Jade on the left. It was my daughters’ ritual while falling asleep, their bellies filled and their energy expired after having to work for the warm milk they loved. The girls were just over a year apart, nestled into the hollows under my shoulders, oblivious to the precarious situation we were in. When they dropped their heads and were sleeping like stones, I carefully slipped from between them and stood up, wrapping an extra blanket around my back. Stretching my spine, I checked on my minivan parked a floor below on the street outside.

A fresh layer of snow had covered the dark green roof that protected the only belongings we had left. Swallowing the brittle fact of homelessness, and moving from one shelter to another, I gave away everything that I couldn’t sell. Watching the snowflakes, I thought to myself, “Nothing else is as white; perhaps they signify a new start.” Yet I was left with my mind’s stirring a strange concoction of loss and liberation, because everything was gone—everything, including the girls’ father and any hope of reassembling the future I had imagined.

*     *     *

Just after dawn, we hit the highway, going southbound before the traffic got insane. Looking out the window, I reminisced about the first warm day after a harsh winter when I had taken Ruby out for her initial spring stroll. I recalled myself as a joyful new mother, pushing the carriage, still hopeful that my young family would thrive. How lovely the warm sun had caressed my chest that day as I cruised along wearing a halter top that I had just crocheted to match Ruby’s hat. I was the sort of woman who loved to expose the perfect curve of her abdomen, certain that the fetus could feel the same soft sun as I did while walking to mommy-and-me yoga class. When we arrived at the cottage where mommies coddled with their babies and assembled in a circle, I began my deep breathing. As I tickled Ruby, who rolled between my legs, I imagined the new baby girl inside me, at peace, growing all her parts, and let her know that she was already thoroughly loved.

*     *     *

After hitting traffic in DC but then passing quickly through Virginia and the Carolinas, we neared Savannah, Georgia, and I began to picture the beach, eager for the sun and the shaking off of frost. We stopped for the night at a cheap motel on a mossy, tree-lined street. The bed’s slope, the petite coffee maker, and the thin, hard, dry soap, wrapped like a package, were perfect for the night. We could jump, tickle, and play. Forgetting all else, we began to laugh. Sometimes laughter begets itself, stretching time, pushing the past back and the future forward as if it were its own form of procreation when silliness reigns supreme and you wonder why you ever cried. When joy is so fulfilling, its expanse pushes out the excess fluid from your body, and you just have to pee, or weep, or both. You weep that you have wept before, and you weep still because you have finally stopped weeping. That makes only more laughter, and you look at each other realizing that you are each laughing for a different reason, and that makes the moment funnier. Then the laughter sounds funnier because one of you heaves, another makes a snort, and then you can’t catch your breath. It’s running to the utopia of the beach faster than you can catch it. It is wild and free and has nobody to answer to, and that makes you laugh and cry simultaneously until you taste the salt of your tears dripping from the gutter above your upper lip. Descending notes of laughter and several sheets of tissue, signify the beginning of the end. But one of only four channels on the TV fills the room with “doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo. There is a fifth dimension…,” and again the imminent tsunami called Hilarity draws near and begins to suck you in. You remind yourself that you can take it; these elongated happy moments, these images and sounds, have been a long time coming. Afterward, you will ache in your belly, maybe even in your jaw. Here it comes, all over again. Hold on. You can take it.

*     *     *

We set out early the next day—the monotony of highway travel always made my babies sleep. How far could four wheels take us? Only one hundred ninety-two miles until we reached Miami, but there was a cluster of recent memories invading my mind as I drove:

 

January 2009

It was our third day in the hospital and we were set to go home. Jason hadn’t come back to see us since Jade was born. She was perfect and ate well. My newborn slept on my supple stomach. It grumbled and she twitched; I picked up the phone and decided not to call him again. Instead, I ordered another Philly cheesesteak from the cafeteria. Jade had a full head of blond hair, which was a shocker, but her face looked just like his to me. I never did assume his last name. He never actually proposed, though he introduced me to his tattoo clients as his wife when he was working. I think a pregnant wife just got him bigger tips. But my regret diminished as I admired the face of this miniature miracle in my arms, so peaceful as if she were recalling what it was like in heaven. Then she let out a wide and heavy exhalation, larger than her tiny frame would be expected to yield, as if to say, “Hey, Mama, don’t forget: you have me.”

 

July 2009

The lease to our apartment was about to expire, and Jade was only seven months old. It was not up for renewal because of the demolition that was rapidly approaching. Jason had not returned from Louisiana after having been summoned for yet another beguiling family drama. The stories of medical fraud, house burning, baby stealing, bloody fights, insurance scams, shots fired, his ex-wife demanding money, slander in need of squelching, and always another funeral were a tangle of tales that I couldn’t keep straight. He called apologizing that he couldn’t send me any money. He was broke. With no family in town, I was forced to pack up the entire houseful of stuff, find somewhere to store it, and appeal to a local shelter.  Weeks became months. Jade began walking, and Ruby talking. While I read another rejection letter from the housing authority, I watched them play among the tombstones on the side of the church where we were staying. Each evening, we were due inside for curfew at 7 p.m., ate supper, and then went to our cots. I would lie down, a horizontal pillar of comfort, my babies’ well-being my only purpose, before we all had to vacate at 7 a.m., rain or shine.

 

October 2009

I often sat with my babies in a church basement around a table set for five or six. After I put on my shawl and gave my breast to my baby, I was shot the same offended looks that I got every night from the other moms I roomed with. I was “the crazy white girl” who breastfed that no one in the shelter really wanted to talk to. So I was destined to have the same conversation every evening with the volunteers who served us, and to answer the same questions:

“So, how old are your children?”                                                     

“Ruby is two, and Jade is almost a year.”

“Where is your husband?”    

“Well, he abandoned us.”

“Have you found a job yet?”                                                

“Actually, I was in college until…”

Then a middle-aged woman in a floral dress sat across from me with a pinched smile. She had confirmed with her friends that none of them knew me and that I must be one of them. “Would you like a brownie?” she asked as my oldest reached for one. Jade dropped my keys and then the invisible veil fell over my face—the veil that I hoped would hide my stare into nothingness. I was an outcast in the shelter, as well as in my country. Then I felt the extreme tickle of my baby fondling my nipple, and I remembered that so did millions of other women.

 

December 2009

Our time limit in the shelter was almost up, but it was the stomach flu that ended our stay there. We were vomiting all night long, both girls were inconsolable, and exhaustion was killing me. It was pouring rain outside. Jade was crying on the floor, and Ruby was pulling at my coat. I was bug-eyed and bloodshot, stuffing a garbage bag with sickening sheets when a social worker picked up my youngest and said, “It appears that you need help, and I mean you look unfit as a mother. I am going to recommend a program to help your children receive proper care.” And she started dialing her phone; never before had a fear so cold consumed me. Stiffened at the thought of having my children taken away, I managed to reach for my daughter, who dove out of the woman’s arms and into mine.

As panic and illness threatened my composure, I methodically told her, “I have a sack of filthy, wet sheets that I need to take to the laundromat.” And balancing Jade on my hip, I hitched numerous straps over my shoulders. I stuffed bags with toys and blankets, certain not to miss the diapers, wipes, towels, toothbrushes, coats, sippy cups, soap, and snacks. In a fury, weak and knowing I looked senseless; I took Ruby’s hand and headed for the van. While standing in the rain and fastening the girls in their car seats, I thought to ask that nice guy from the coffee shop if we could stay at the extra house he bought, the one not ready to live in.

*     *     *

The girls woke up. I stopped and slipped in my favorite West African CD. A smile spread across my face when the female choruses came in—so smooth and so joyful. Ours was the only car in the parking lot. The moon was bright, and we were far enough south that it was warm at three or four in the morning. Ruby took off, ecstatic that she was allowed to move as she pleased. Jade and my second fingers tightly linked as Jade gathered her equilibrium and released her grip, becoming a silhouette in the neon glare.

The next morning, I stopped at a store in Miami to shop for the essentials we needed for camping by the beach. I had raised more than 2,000 dollars from my sales to live on for as long as it would last. I had an air mattress and a cooler I had saved. I also had some cookware and towels, rope and masking tape, buckets and flashlights, clothes, blankets, and a port-a-potty. I decided to buy a kerosene grill, a nice tent, a lantern, food, and ice. Rolling down the Seven Mile Highway, we reached the Florida Keys, which was as far south as we could get.

The state parks were booked solid. Traversing bridge after bridge that connected small islands, and habitat for tiny Key deer, we passed stores that sold Key lime pie and conch. We found vacancies at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge which was packed with gigantic RVs and dozens of snow birds from the north: Michigan, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Maine. This merry crew of retirees was busy decorating the social hall for the approaching Christmas Party. After entering this tropical wonderland, and discovering the list of activities, I was convinced to book a site. There were crafts for kids; the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Claus on a fishing boat, a play the children were invited to participate in; and a dance featuring contests in the jitterbug, the two-step, and the twist. The humble cashier handed over a shiny new key to the main entrance; I thought to myself, “Wow, we’ve made it. People were happy here: happy to be warm, happy to treat each other like family, happy to see the children.” The ladies assured me that more youngsters would be arriving from up north—they came every year at Christmastime—and that there was a playground next to the showers. I was in no hurry to get to work on the campsite, so I let the girls loose on the dance floor while holiday songs played, and someone gave me a cup of heavily spiked eggnog. I almost wept. It was the bourbon and brandy in it that tasted so good.

Strings of lights were wrapped like candy cane stripes on every pole and palm on the lot. A picnic table stood under the large butterfly bush on our campsite, providing a strong elevated surface for the girls to stand on while decorating. My instincts had been in high gear during my sidewalk sales—I had not sold my ornaments. As the girls and I were hanging them up our neighbor appeared from around the bush and introduced herself with some tinsel to share.

“Hello, welcome to the fishing lodge. My name is June. My husband’s just coming back from the boat. Harold is his name. He’s been growing his beard out for a long time to play Santa Claus, and Christmas Eve is only a day away.” June gave Ruby and Jade two tiny stuffed penguins wearing elf hats. “You girls made it just in time.” Harold poked his head out carrying something.

“A fish! Mommy! A fish!” Ruby called out.

“Fish!” Jade mimicked. The shimmer of the wet scales coating this big and beautiful fish had the sheen of a shiny knife.

“Well, hellooooooooo! I hope you girls are hungry. We sure have a lot of fish to go around.” And the white of his beard stunned me with its beauty. I had been wrong about the snow. There is something as white. Harold looked me over, and I thought he was admiring my vintage polka-dot dress. He confidently said, “I would bet a million bucks you are a dancer.”

“You’re right.”

“Well, my sweet June injured her hip not long ago, though she has been the reigning jitterbug champion for a few years running, and I’m looking for a partner. I’d be tickled if you’d accompany me.”

“I’m in. Hi, I’m Angie,” I said shaking his hand. It had been too long since I’d felt the “click” of being in the right place at the right time.

“Mommy! Look!” And a small deer squarely stepped onto our site, approaching us completely unafraid.

June got some lettuce and gave some to the girls. “Don’t be frightened, children. You can feed them. They’re very gentle.”

“Mommy! He’s eating!” Ruby said as the deer’s wet nose moistened her fingers and the lettuce slid in its mouth and crunched.

June asked, “Have you seen the beach yet? It’s just around the bend there.”

I took the girls, one in each hand, and we walked slowly down the path. Once through the tall, inviting grass, Ruby took off flying across the shallowest of shorelines. For a long way, the cove appeared as if the ocean were just one huge puddle. It was so quiet that the pitter-patter of Ruby’s footsteps, and her giddy laughter, sounded like they were out of a utopian dream. The heat penetrated my sundress, loosening my pale skin underneath. I finally relaxed. I sat on a rock, with Jade at my feet playing with the dry sand. Ruby fell into my lap, breathing quickly and beaming from her jog. Hugging my daughters, I looked up and over the calm and vast waters, watching the bluest of skies. I wondered what it would be like to live here. Maybe I could find a job, here in a slice of paradise.

*     *     *

Night noises inhabited the tropical air: rhythmic sounds mixed with the random snaps of the fire I fed. With fresh fish in my belly and the sun soaked in my skin, I felt restored. With the babes asleep in the tent, I watched the smoke drift straight up until it disappeared. With each stick tossed into the heart of the flames, I considered what to do next:

I could drive across the country and park in front of the beige stucco house where I grew up. Surely, I would nick my big toe on the crack in the slanted walkway as I had often done as a child. I would pass by the bushes that looked like tumbleweeds rooted in the ground. The metallic knock on the ridged screen door would beckon my mother to greet us. She wouldn’t have changed a thing in that beige house, with beige carpet and beige paint, and I would have to listen to how my ex had reminded her too much of my father, who couldn’t grow accustomed to life with a family either.

Jade grumbled a request for a midnight feeding. I went into the tent, kissed her soft hair, and placed a breast within her reach. Lilting between being awake and dozing off, I became absorbed in the beats of the night. As the sounds grew louder and the rhythms became increasingly intricate, the feeling of relief over took me and memory shrouded my mind. I recalled the summer evening at the shelter when fireflies had lit up the field next to the church. After we’d been told to come inside, someone scolded Ruby for running indoors. Ruby stopped, turned around, and looked at me as if to say, “But Mama, they don’t know that I’m free.”

 

First, Angie is a single mother of two delightful girls, 9 & 10. Angie has traveled the world mainly in the 1990’s for nearly a decade, before 9/11 and before technology became a household commodity, which led her to sometimes remote areas of Asia and Africa and an overall very unique experience. She graduated cum laude from CSUN with a major in creative writing in 2013 with an interest in creative non-fiction. “Safe House” was birthed from actual homelessness in 2010 when Angie and her girls found themselves with nowhere to live due to a series of events in Philadelphia. Marginalized communities are a main topic in Angie’s writing ranging from mental illness to sexuality, abuse to street singers. She explores the taboo expressing humanity in the characters. She also enjoys writing songs and plays and hopes to venture into screenwriting and a book of short stories about her travels. She also has a dream to write a children’s series with her daughters, Jade and Ruby.

Loving Women

For most of my life, I’ve had issues with women. But it grew worse in college when I became a victim of sexual assault. When I think about that night, I am not angry at the boy who took advantage of me. I’ve forgiven him. I don’t even remember his name. When I woke up, ashamed, and laying next to a person I hadn’t been sober enough to give permission to, I felt betrayed. I’d been drinking with friends that night, friends who should have protected me. Not only had they not, but when I came to and lumbered down the stairs, it was my friend, a girl who was there the whole timecompletely sober and aware, who told me in my confused and dizzy state, to go back upstairs. She sent me back to the man who’d just violated me. 

I recently realized that I’ve projected the betrayal I felt as I sat on the stairs outside that bedroom onto every relationship I’ve had with women since that night. I suspect them of hurting so bad themselves that they won’t feel peace until they send me back to my own violation. I suspect it when they remind me that I am a single mother, never married. I suspect it when they remind me that I’m not yet published. I suspect it when they warn me not to dream too big and advise me to stay in my lane. I suspect it when they tell me that I am still that lost and confused college girl, that I am still broken. 

Last year when I was introduced to the #MeToo movement I didn’t share my story on Facebook or Twitter like so many others. I didn’t know how. How could I say what I was feeling? How could I say, “This happened to me and you sent me back. You hurt me too.

I feel that way often. I feel that way when white women, who for all intents and purposes, appear liberal, yet threaten to call the police on black children for selling water on their own porches. I feel that way whenever feminism isn’t intersectional, whenever I am silenced because my womanness, which is enriched by my blackness, is treated as less than because that blackness gets in the way of what sometimes feels like a singular and protected purpose.

Because of what happened to me, I thought women were incapable of loving other women. It wasn’t until I first read the Bible story about Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, that my opinion began to shift.

In the story, found in the Gospel of Luke, the two women meet after an unknown time apart. Each woman is pregnant and swollen with life, and just as Elizabeth notices Mary’s approach, her baby leaps inside her.  

In 2012, I responded to a Facebook ad for a new writers group. I joined on what I thought was a whim, but now I believe it was more than that. I believe it was divine intervention. The group included both men and women, but it was the women who helped me feel what I believe Elizabeth felt.

Creativity requires exposure. Even though I am a fiction writer, the stories I share press the most tender parts of myself. While I waited to be challenged, told that I was wrong or I didn’t understand my own worldview, no one ever did. If and when I wrote about sexual violence, no one told me what I wrote was wrong or called me a liar. They understood and told their own stories. They opened a space for my healing and allowed me to write through the process.

It is because of that group that I applied to a master’s program. All of the female members were so focused on their work and growth that it encouraged me to focus on mine. We carried creativity, and when we all sat down together, pen in hand, what we carried leaped. Our backgrounds didn’t matter, our races didn’t matter, we were in the same condition. They listened to me and I learned from them. They encouraged me with no need to compare or compete and I found that I could lower my guard. They were a safe space.

That original writer’s group has since disbanded – several of us have moved on to different states, but I have formed other friendships, joined other groups. I now have female mentors who instruct me and guide me. I am no longer afraid that every woman who gets close to me is up to no good. I think I am being healed of that. I am grateful to women now, especially women writers, creators, protectors, warriors, women who create a prime environment for life to flow, for the work to flow. I wouldn’t be able to dream without them. My spirit leaps whenever I see them coming.

 

Jahzerah Brooks is a mother, writer and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She currently lives in the Midwest. Jahzerah currently serves as Lead Fiction Editor for Lunch Ticket.

 

Spotlight: What to Expect When You Become a Bell / Sea Route

What to Expect When You Become a Bell

There will be hands. A litany of them.

You will be lifted by the saffron cuffs of a temple priest,
tuned lip tapped against your sister’s to synchronize
every supplicant heart to the beat of rapture. But don’t fear—
between blows, something will persist.

You will be pressed by fingers on an unattended counter,
to placate the impatient and summon the indifferent.
Options will be limited.

You will be hitched to a yoke in the eaves of a small-town
steeple, made to swing on Sundays by a rookery of hands
on a time-darkened rope. We need your song, you see—

to comfort or inspire. Because a bell is a special kind of vessel
                        (No one has more respect for bells than I do)

A battery of hands.

You will be picked up and swung, side to side. Tiny hands
that will grab you by the clapper and you’ll be silenced.

You will want to find your own tone, timbre. To tie yourself
to the ankle of a cowherd—to be a charm on the wrist
of a 12 year-old girl who has no time for the rhythm
of others. To perch in a storefront doorway on 53rd and Ellis
so you can clang all day in warning. Or the harness of a sleigh
in winter as if good things may yet be coming.

You will dream of a lone ringer, safe grip of a single owner.
Surely that would be better—loving hands to make you sing
in strict and scripted measure. You’ll have questions
for the bell-founder. You will start to wonder where bell ends
and hand begins—even doubt your existence. You will secretly
hold your skirt so you can’t be rung above a whisper.

Your voice is dangerous. It cannot be unrung.

You will hunker in the space between soundings, contemplate
your hammered shoulder, your polished wounds and sutures.
Doesn’t your tongue dance freely on its pivot? And your heart’s cry
echo in the chamber? They’ll try to tell you that the song is in the hands:
It’s in the bell. And in ringing, you’ll remember.

 


 

Sea Route

When your small face enters the water
your heart will slow
the airway close
blood pool in the thorax.
The tools of evolution marshalled
to keep you alive.

There is oxygen in the muscle. Hemoglobin.
It is the only thing of value you carry,
your limbs soft anchors
severed from the body’s industry

treasures tucked in your palm
long since lost.
You can no more grip the prow
than your mother hold you fast
in her bluing arms.

The sea will rock you now—
colossal lung, that breathes in
bleak Atlantic
Nile waters
winds off the Levant

and spits out a murk
of salt and scale beyond fathom—
wreck of a thousand Roman journeys
sunk in the undercurrent.

Who could imagine so dark a crossing
far from the limestone shores?

Or death that waits so close
to the sun-warm surface.
In sight of asylum.

 

Laura Ring’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Rogue Agent, Stirring, and Rise Up Review, among other places. She grew up in Vermont, in the shade of Mount Hunger, and now lives somewhere between skyscraper and shoreline on the South Side of Chicago.

Photo Credit: Jon Zich