“We Are Connected, We Have the Same Blood”

Siobhan: Halloween 2017

This morning was as close to a semi-typical morning as it gets for me and my family. We woke up at 6 a.m., took showers, got dressed and ate, gathered all of our stuff together, and roly-poly-pell-melled into the car by 7 o’clock to drive the thirty-or-so minutes to my husband’s work in Modesto, CA. After dropping him off, I drove my five-year-old, Siobhan, the thirty minutes to school in Turlock, where we live. I parked my car in the only open spot a couple of blocks away from the school, and Siobhan put on her back pack, exited the car, and walked calmly by my side to the school grounds and inside to her kindergarten classroom. I was thankful and appreciative for the cooperation.

I say that this is a “semi-typical” morning because we were missing one person from the equation: my eight-year-old daughter, Nikkie. Every other weekend and a couple of days during the week, she spends time with her father, his fiancé—Jen—and her children. Some days she is with us on our morning trek to get everyone where they need to go, and some days, including this particular day, she is not, as she has spent the previous evening with her Dad. I do have to admit that on these mornings, I really miss having her witty humor to keep me company on the drive. Nevertheless, Siobhan made it to her class on time, and I crossed the second gate of the school to head back to the car. Then, I looked up to see Nikkie running towards me from a car parked in the drop-off zone. 

Nikkie: first day of school

“Mommy!” she gave me a big hug and a kiss. My heart was elated, as my eyes took in her gorgeous smile. 

“Hurry up and run to class, baby doll. You don’t want to be late.” 

“Okay,” she called out, as she headed past the gate. “I’ll see you later Mommy! Have a great day!” 

“You too, baby girl!” 

“Hey, Mom!” I looked up attentively, thinking she needed to tell me something important. “I need more cowbell!” she called out in her best Christopher Walkens voice. 

I laughed out loud. This is her gleeful personality: always wanting to make people smile. She knew how much I love that SNL skit, and so she decided that is what I needed to be happy that morning. Still chuckling at the joke, I turned to look towards the drop-off zone, expecting to see Nikkie’s father, but instead Jen was in the driver seat of the car. She was cheerful and waved hello to me. I couldn’t help but think she caught some of Nikkie’s happy disposition as well. Knowing that she could’ve driven off as soon as Nikkie exited the car, I realized that she had waited to send me a quick hello before leaving. I smiled and waved back, and she drove off. She always looks so good in the morning, I thought to myself, as I briefly glanced down and saw the shadow-cast of my disheveled hair bun, frumpy t-shirt, and yoga pants across the pavement. Shrugging off any embarrassment, I acknowledged the moment of connection I had with Jen, a bond of motherhood and friendship that I’ve come to cherish.

Jen’s birthday 2017: Tyson, Lily, Jen, and Nikkie

It wasn’t that long ago when Jen had to make some decisions regarding her own children and their non-existent relationship with their father as well. It’s never easy to contemplate what is best with your children when you have so many of your own worries and fears embedded in a failed relationship. Yet, she knew that her focus needed to be on her children. She once told me that it was a conscious decision to place the kids first and foremost. Later, she came to the realization that because he left so early from their lives, they couldn’t miss what was never really there. Of course, this idea saddens her, but she knows she cannot change anyone else’s actions; she can only control her own actions and the things she can do to make her children happy. I like to think that this is where Jen and I see eye-to-eye. So, when I look at Jen and acknowledge her put-togetherness, it always comes from a place of understanding and appreciation for my co-mother and my friend, for her ideals when it comes to her kids are the same as mine. And also because, well, simply put, she’s one of the best people I know. 

*     *     *

Eating Out for Dinner: Rob, Nikkie, Tyson, and Lily

Nikkie’s father, Rob, isn’t so bad either. (As I write this, I can hear his response in the back of my head: “Hey now!”) I have to chuckle a bit at this potential jab because I do realize that, despite everything that has happened between us, he is a good person who has stepped into a father-like role with Jen’s kids, which has helped them to overcome some of the sadness they might have had with dealing in the aftermath of an absentee father. To be honest, it is the same role he took on when he became stepfather to my oldest daughter, Josie, when she was six years old. Now, at twenty-one years of age, she happily reflects on how Rob’s impact influenced her life.

As a father, my husband, Travis, is also thankful to have a positive co-parenting relationship with Rob, especially since Travis’s ex-wife cut off communication with his nine-year-old daughter, Kierra, soon after Siobhan was born. It is an internal struggle my husband fights through on a daily basis, but having the companionship of Rob, as a co-father, helps him to better understand the possibilities of positive co-parenting. It is something both Travis and I hope for with his ex-wife and her husband, but we don’t see it happening while Kierra is still young. For now, we have to focus on the kids within this blended family and teach them how to have healthy relationships through our own actions and behaviors. An example of this comes to mind with Siobhan’s preference to call Rob “Daddy” because this is exactly how she sees him: Rob is her sister’s Daddy, and so therefore, he is her Daddy too. It’s a bit of child logic that makes complete sense, when you look at it from her point of view, and we all know that it doesn’t detract from her relationship with Travis. It is quite touching and humorous actually, and the fact that Travis smiles and encourages Siobhan to call her sister’s father “Daddy” is a testament to his own personal understanding and acceptance of this blended family and the people in it. It’s really a breath of fresh air. More recently, we’ve been able to convince Siobhan to call him “Daddy Rob,” so we actually know who she’s referencing when she talks. This reduces confusion on family outings. All of us. One big happy blended family: Travis, me, Siobhan, Nikkie, Rob, Jen, and Jen’s kids—Lily and Tyson. Siobhan also calls Lily and Tyson her sister and brother because they are Nikkie’s sister and brother. Again, it makes sense that she refers to them as her siblings too, so we’ve never said anything against it.

*     *     *

From top left to bottom right: Lily, Tyson, Siobhan, and Nikkie

When it comes to our family outings, we all make it a point to include each other as much as possible when it comes to things we believe the children will enjoy. Whether it be a birthday party for one of the kids at John’s Incredible Pizza, an egg-hunt and Easter dinner for everyone, a trick-or-treating event, or just going out to lunch together, the inclusivity of everyone in our blended family has become an instinctive natural development, mainly because we saw how upset the girls would be when missing out on holidays or get-togethers without their parents and siblings. Nikkie’s hopping back and forth between the two homes started to become a habit that wasn’t fair for her, or any of the children for that matter. But for as connected as we are now, our blended family wasn’t always this cohesive. A few years back, the messy separation and divorce that occurred between me and Rob almost placed us onto a terrible path. For a long time, we engaged in name-calling, backstabbing, and things done out of spite and revenge. I wouldn’t be joking if I said it was borderline daytime television drama worthy. During that chaotic time, we had started setting Nikkie up to have a heart-wrenching upbringing, and we were far too engaged in our own hurt and pain to see it. At one point, I had to cut off all phone and messaging contact with Rob because the turmoil proved to be too much to handle with all of life’s other hardships, and for over a year, we would only touch base on Nikkie’s upbringing through email. Many times we would rely on Jen to be the third party communicator if we had something more in-depth to discuss. It wasn’t our proudest of moments, and I think I can safely say now that we understand how incredibly unfair it was for us to place Jen in that position. However, at the time, we just couldn’t see anything past our own anger and hurt, which is something many people who have gone through breakups can attest to.

*     *     *

For many of my friends, this was all too familiar. They would give me advice because they or their family members had gone through similar circumstances. This seemed to validate the normalcy of this type of situation for me. During that time, there was no way Rob or I could even fathom the notion of attempting to co-parent together, but the truth of the matter was that we couldn’t see it as unnecessary drama we had created for ourselves. If nothing else, at least going through the drama helped to highlight the flaws of our actions and to further focus on what we needed to work on. 

Rob and Nikkie

Some things happened that shed light on our mistakes a little more, and a number of distressing events took place. The deaths of a few friends and family members really amplified the fact that life is way too short. This idea also impacted Nikkie as well, as she became continually afraid that her father and I might die at any moment. That was when we realized that we had to set aside our differences to help qualm her fears. Around the same time, during transitional kindergarten, Nikkie was diagnosed with ADHD. Rob and I both had a hard time adjusting to the things we would have to do to help her, and we struggled with differing ideas of how to approach her condition. It didn’t take us very long to see, though, that being on different pages wasn’t working out for anyone. For Nikkie’s sake, we had to start listening to her doctors and—for the first time—to each other. And, thus began a healing process that brought us to the place we are now. 

*     *     *

It’s still not always that easy. Sometimes Rob and I butt heads when it comes to our individual ideas of how to handle some of Nikkie’s symptoms, but we try not to let those disagreements come between our co-parenting relationship and our friendship. As a matter of fact, the friendship we have now is even better than when we were married, and it has also helped facilitate a stronger co-parenting relationship with our spouses as well. Travis feels comfortable to chat with Rob about anything and everything, sometimes at length (like that time I had to patiently wait for an hour in the passenger seat of our car, after having attended an assembly where Nikkie won a school award, while Travis and Rob chatted about Rob’s new hybrid car). And Jen. Well, Jen is just a godsend for me and my daughters. I am so thankful to have a friend in her, especially when she texts me back late at night to give motherly advice about pre-adolescent ongoings with Nikkie. I’ve expressed this many times to my friends and family, and every time I mention my co-mothering relationship to someone new, their initial countenance is one of complete surprise, until I tell them about an incident that happened not too long ago, when my niece asked Nikkie how Jen makes her feel:

“She makes me feel like we are connected,” Nikkie said, cupping her hands together at her heart, “like we have the same blood.” 

As soon as she uttered those words, my heart boomed within my chest and I cried happy tears, knowing that my daughter had such unequivocal love and support from her soon-to-be stepmother, she felt they were one in the same. The next day when I saw Jen, I told her what Nikkie said, and her eyes started to brim with tears just as mine did. I knew exactly how she felt. To have any child love you that much is paramount. But to also know that child sees you as blood-family, despite not being blood-related? I don’t think anything else can compares to it. Jen and I are forever bonded because of my daughter’s mutual love for us. And because of that bond, there is never room for contempt.  

*     *     *

Me and my husband, Travis

These are things I reflect on each time I think about our co-parenting relationship. For as many trials as my husband and I have and for as many stressors that occur on the daily, I am content in knowing that we have an awesome and supportive co-family. It is a support that is like no other. Sure there is the physical support each co-parent provides for the other—like if either of us needs a babysitter—but there is also emotional support there as well. A simple wave and smile in the morning between mothers, as we part ways to start our day, to say “hey there, I am happy to see you” is a blessing. I love this part of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Now, I see how the choice Rob and I made to focus on Nikkie’s well-being (and essentially to focus on all of the childrens’ well-being) also helped to bring so many more loving and awesome people into our lives. This isn’t the norm. But, it definitely should be. Jen, Rob, Travis, and I know how lucky we are to have this type of family bond because we also experience the opposite. We see the damage that disconnect can cause, and we know how easily we could’ve fallen into one of these circumstances. Instead, we continue to focus on the love and well-being of our children, which in turn has given all of the adults in our blended family the ability to focus on the love and well-wishes we have for each other as well. We learned that this is how to actively teach love, forgiveness, and acceptance to our children; we lead by example for them. And so far, it is working out just as we hoped.

 

Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez is an English and composition instructor and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She is also an assistant editor of fiction and guest blogger for Lunch Ticket. In addition to teaching, Yvonne likes to think she holds the following titles as well: Singer of Bedtime Stories, Maker of Dreams, Believer in the Future, Self-healer in Progress, Wearer of Heart-on-Sleeve, Organizer of Books & Toys, Imbiber of Words, and Humble Writer Whose Work is Wholly Cast from a Bronze Heart. She currently resides in the Central Valley with her husband and three daughters.

Litdish: Tami Haaland, Poet

Tami Haaland is the author of three poetry collections, What Does Not Return (2018), When We Wake in the Night (2012), and Breath in Every Room (2001), winner of the Nicholas Roerich First Book Award. She earned a BA and MA in English literature from the University of Montana and a MFA in creative writing and literature from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The Ecopoetry Anthology, Unearthing Paradise: Writers in Defense of the Greater Yellowstone, and has been featured on Verse Daily, Writers’ Almanac, and American Life in Poetry. Haaland has offered creative writing workshops in prisons, schools, and community settings. She was Montana’s Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015, and she was recently named a recipient of a Governor’s Humanities Award for the state. She is a professor at Montana State University Billings.

10 Questions for Tami Haaland:

1. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?

The most recent book is What Does Not Return from Lost Horse Press. It was published this spring, and I’ve been giving readings, teaching workshops, and participating in panels. I always enjoy this process.

In terms of things that aren’t published, my notebooks and computer are full of drafts in various stages. Eventually some of them will find their way into the world.

2. What’s your writing practice like?

The mad desire to escape boredom usually leads to the unexpected.

I write first drafts pretty quickly. I carry a notebook with me almost always, though it contains all kinds of things—notes from lectures I’ve heard, quotations I like, whatever crosses my path, and then drafts of poems. At some point I transfer poems to the computer and begin revising.

My ideal writing situation would include hours of concentrated work revising, figuring out how poems connect to each other, researching, and making notes. Realistically, that happens far less often than I would like.

3. How does your day job inform your writing?

Early in my career, when I was working as an adjunct in various classes and everything seemed new, the sheer exposure to so many essays and my proclivity to enthusiastically show students how to revise had its effect on my own writing. I learned faster because I had so much connection to the writing of others who were engaged in the process. Something similar happened when I worked for publishers or as a journal editor at various stages of my life. Editing academic or literary publications and working as a freelance editor helped me learn quickly because I was involved with so many writers, styles, and audiences.

Full time teaching, especially in various creative genres tends to spark my own ideas. In the past ten years, I’ve been involved in administrative work, overseeing an Honors Programs and an academic department, and I’ve spent time developing intensive graduate programs, primarily for teachers of writing. In many ways this conflicts with the concentrated time necessary for writing. On the other hand, I love the exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Sometimes when I feel the pressure of deadlines in my working life, poems will surface quickly. Or in the swirl of problem solving, I see what to do with a troublesome line or discover what image will work best.

4. What inspires you the most?

I can always count on art, music, and the natural world. I love history and science and the way the imagination can run with the details. Travel, poetry, novels, people’s stories, the mystery of genealogy, and migration are great sources of inspiration. The mad desire to escape boredom usually leads to the unexpected.

5. Was there a specific person or writer who inspired you?

Yes, at various stages. As a teenager, my English teacher, Laurel Walker, encouraged me. She allowed me to take extra credit, go outside and draft poems. Richard Hugo and Madeline DeFrees were early teachers, and then I turned toward fiction. Later, I met Eleanor Wilner who told me to “continue.” Around the same time, I shyly told Olga Broumas that I couldn’t seem to write a complete poem, that I wrote in fragments. She said, “then write in fragments.” And there have been many others: Maxine Kumin, my teachers at Bennington, and my friends Sandra Alcosser and Melissa Kwasny. The people who gave me a nudge, or a few words, acceptance and a space to write—they’re the ones who inspired and kept me going.

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

Play, experiment, put yourself through exercises, explore. Read. Don’t be too hard on yourself and understand that writing is a long journey. Trust that the work will come if you create an opening for it. You never know when something might take hold of you and turn into a poem.

7. What are you reading right now?

Henrietta Goodman, All That Held Us
Anne Fitzgerald, Vacant Possession
Agni, Issue 87

When I travel, I listen to audiobooks, currently Russell Shorto, Amsterdam

I recently finished Sue Miller’s The Arsonist, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial.

8. What is the most important thing(s) you want to get across in your poems?

That’s not something I think about usually. Instead, I follow the poem where it wants to go and try to find the best images, words, and rhythms to suit the subject. Often I discover more of what the poem “gets across” after it’s written or after someone else points it out. And of course when a book comes together, I have to think about what fits and what doesn’t in order to create some arc and coherence. But in terms of the writing, the poem and I are in this place where we’re just working things out, moment by moment, word by word.

9. What are your non-literary interests?

I’m a really curious person, and I like to be in motion—hiking, traveling, discovering how things work, how processes in the natural world take place, and reading about new scientific discoveries. I love gardening.

10. Why do you write?

I made a conscious decision to write poetry when I was about twelve, or rather, I decided to be a poet. I don’t know why, except that I was very certain, and since then it’s just been a long process of practicing this art.

 

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.

Bending the Spectrum

A four-letter word that ends in “k.” That’s how my friend, Kristi, used to refer to the color pink. In her youth she was a competitive swimmer, because it was the one sport open to both boys and girls. She writes: “A touch with the fingertips on the kicking feet of the swimmer in front of you necessitated a shift in position at the next wall. Let the faster person go ahead. Face down in frothy water, the swimmer does not know if the feet or fingertips belong to a boy or girl.” She quotes Simone de Beauvoir and writes about her experiences in hyper-masculine work environments. From her youth onward, Kristi’s determination to not lose, even when she doesn’t win, reminds me of my older daughter, whose attitude is exemplified in the words of Muhammad Ali, on a framed poster in her bedroom: “the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Kristi is a graduate student at Antioch, like me, and I became familiar with her memoir writing when we were assigned to the same workshop groups for two consecutive residencies. Each of her sentences is an arrow, expertly guiding us through unfamiliar terrain. She didn’t even try to hide her discomfort when we requested more details about her personal life, so we could figure out what drives her, what kindling lit the fire within. She reminds me of my younger daughter who told me when she was in high school, that she hated emotions―“they just get in the way.”

I preferred to dress both of my daughters in yellow when they were babies.

Kristi says of her relatively affluent, white family “Outwardly, our family―my mother, father, older brother, and me―looked good.…In grade school, my mother stayed in bed until after I left to catch the school bus. My father was chronically away on business.…he vented his frustrations on me with a belt. …Though I did not fight back much as a kid, I never really gave in either.”

At the age of sixteen Kristi worked “to pay for [her] own clothes, car, and gas.” She states that a few days before turning eighteen “my father matter-of-factly told me that if I was still at home the following week, my ‘shit would be on the sidewalk.’” When she was offered a place at the University of Southern California, her dream (private) school, her parents refused to co-sign the loan she would have had to take on, in order to attend. So she went to the nearest public state university instead.

But these are not the details she wants the reader to dwell on; her memoir is a powerful, riveting account of her quarter century as an officer in the Marines.

When I read Kristi’s first workshop submission in the comfort of my home I learned that she was on the opposite end of the political spectrum to me, and I reflexively thought I didn’t like her. But I was able to separate her admirable writing skills from her political position. Having lived and worked in the Republican stronghold of Orange County, California, for many years, I have often found myself in the company of those who lean to the political right. In these circumstances I have been forced to focus on appealing personality traits, such as a sense of humor, generosity, and kindness. But these people remained colleagues or acquaintances; I never thought of any of them as potential friends.

*     *     *

Growing up in working-class England, my father repeated the phrase “You can do whatever you like after marriage” ad infinitum. This was the carrot on the end of his authoritarian stick. I had no critical-thinking skills with which to conclude that this was clearly a lie; my mother remained without autonomy in her married life. My three sisters and I were taught to obey, without question―to be silent―that was a cultural axiom, especially for females. Society had tasked my father with ensuring we remained virgins, so that our marriages could be arranged with ease. He also had to provide dowries for each of us; tradition made no exception for laborers, like him. For a perfectionist who takes responsibility very seriously, the odds must have seemed stacked against him in this new environment, in which females had freedoms that shredded the only worldview he knew. He tried to instill in us the discipline he had acquired in the Indian Army from the age of fifteen onward. And he watched us like a zealot, to curb the slightest infraction before we could bring ignominy to his door. But when we failed at preserving the family izzath (honor) he tried to beat it out of us.

*     *     *

I started a petition on www.change.org in 2016 to boycott the presidential debates because they’ve been hijacked by the Democratic and Republican Parties, through a private corporation, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which controls every aspect, from who will be allowed to participate, to which questions may be asked by a moderator. This was why there was no participation from independent candidates like Jill Stein (Green Party nominee) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party nominee). My petition went nowhere. But as Dr. Maya Angelou famously said “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.”

In the days following the November 2016 local and national elections I was devastated and consumed with righteous anger; I saw white privilege abound, and I wanted to know which of the fuckers I encountered everywhere had voted for Trump (I knew who some of them were from their yard signs). They weren’t all white. I had volunteered for Bernie Sanders, and even though the Democratic Party establishment sabotaged his campaign in the primary, I still voted for Hilary Clinton, because I knew she would be infinitely better than Trump. (Also Noam Chomsky told us we had to hold our noses, but vote for her nevertheless.)

Towards the end of my first residency in December 2016, Antioch had begun to feel like home, and I was relieved and grateful to be among fellow progressives, especially as we brainstormed ideas for our collective responses to our new political reality. When I realized there were students enrolled in the MFA program who were on the right of the political spectrum, the oasis I had treasured for one semester felt contaminated.

*     *     *

After marriage, I did have more freedom in my in-law’s house, but I didn’t find the loving, nurturing family I desired. These bonds developed many years later, after my husband and I had moved to the US, when we finally had an opportunity to be a family of only four.

*     *     *

Kristi sought the advice of a former professor before applying to the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School: “He was a man whom I looked up to, who was brilliant, who saw things with a straight and unemotional focus….He made a comment that I did not understand at the time, but his insight resonates with me a quarter century later: ‘You’ll probably like the Corps; you’ve always wanted to be part of a family.’”

*     *     *

Antioch has been my home, and everyone there is family. That includes the students who identify as being right wing. An aspect of my culture that has been admirable in theory but sometimes onerous in practice is the expectation that I will be welcoming to everyone who enters my home and I will treat each person with respect. Unconditionally. And for the duration of their stay. At the recent June residency I realized that I have very little time left, before I leave Antioch, to make amends to those students I have avoided, for the most part.

*     *     *

At the end of the book There’s a Pattern Here and It Ain’t Glen Plaid, is the following statement regarding the author: “Humorist and short-story writer, Laurie Frankel, knows pain is the root of all comedy and is thrilled her life is so damn funny.” My family of origin is the gift that keeps on giving; unfortunately, it didn’t come with a receipt. Sometimes when I worry that my writing will generate negative attention I remember that fortunately, I’ve been forged in the fires of negation and conflict. This is why I’m very careful when choosing friends, and political alignment has been a major criterion. But my attitude has been changing. Slowly. I’m still deeply saddened and troubled by all the Trump administration appointees, nominees, and policies. But I can’t live in a constant state of outrage, fueled by Democratic Party institutions that are seizing this opportunity to simultaneously fund raise and further polarize the electorate.

Focusing on someone’s voting record and using that as a reason for their vilification plays into the mass-manipulation strategy of divide and conquer. I can’t dismiss wholesale everyone who does not agree with me politically. I’ve been learning to separate individuals from their votes. 62 million Americans voted for Trump. 90 million Americans did not vote. We have a lot of work to do. Together. Perhaps this is an unexpected, additional lesson that Antioch is trying to teach me, if I can open myself up to it; to see others as glorious and multi-faceted, with political ideology being just one aspect of the whole.

*     *     *

At this past June residency I looked for Kristi towards the end of the evening on the MFA night out. As we chatted I told her about the tradition of taking the party to Tattle Tale, a karaoke dive bar in Culver City. (Yes everyone, this is a thing!) She wasn’t enthusiastic about the extension to the evening, but I managed to persuade her to come along: “I don’t think I’ll be staying for too long either,” I said. Previously I’d had to wait until after I’d had a couple of drinks before I could even contemplate putting my name down on the list to sing. Then by the time it was close to my turn, I was ready to leave because it was already after midnight (phew!). This time, when I arrived, a new friend, Sara, declared that she had already signed us up for a duet.

“Oh yeah?” I said nervously, “What are we singing?”

“Wannabe by the Spice Girls,” she answered.

“Okay sweet!” I responded, as I headed for the bar to start drinking. Our turn came up really quickly, and when Kristi volunteered to take a video of our performance on my phone I told her I hadn’t thought of doing that, but it seemed like a good idea.

Soon after eleven, Kristi said she was heading out; she’d already agreed to give me a ride back to my Airbnb. I told her I was going to stay, as usual, and I was glad she’d decided to join us.

The next day I posted the video on our family forum. My daughters were thrilled their mom was enjoying the real student experience and my husband said he’d always wanted to marry a rock star. A couple of days later, I told Kristi about my family’s responses to the video she had taken, and she shared her experience in Bernadette Murphy’s seminar, which required literal cutting and pasting of a narrative; “They ran out of scissors,” she said, then added, smiling, “But I had two knives in my bag.” “Of course you did,” I laughed.

*     *     *

I have no ulterior motive in my friendship with Kristi. It will not diminish my goal of remaking the world so that it works for all of us, especially the most vulnerable. As Jim Hightower (America’s #1 Populist!) says, “Everybody does better when everybody does better.” And I’m not trying to change her political position. In fact, I don’t even want to discuss the issues at stake; I came to the conclusion some time ago that to engage in debate is futile, when we cannot agree on the facts. But then again, at the first residency workshop with Kristi I told her I wanted to see the movie of her memoir, and now that I can list ‘rock star’ on my résumé, perhaps I could audition for an acting role in that movie.

(I obtained Kristi’s permission to quote from her memoir, and her approval of this post.)

 

Sarita Sidhu is a nonfiction writer and an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She has worked as a teacher and an advocate of Fair Trade for many years.

 

À La Carte: IN THIS BODY, EVERYTHING ALREADY LOOKS LIKE DEATH

[creative nonfiction]

Where did it begin, the pain, the images that haunt me?La Prieta, Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Tyler Clementi was eighteen in 2010.

Before he ever became eighteen, he was a toddler. He was a kid with exceptional abilities, and he was known to have taught himself how to play the violin, accompanying it with his love for both bicycles and unicycles. He performed in numerous orchestras and was awarded for his contribution as well.

He was in the third grade when he began playing the violin. Exactly the time I was doing nothing with my life. He must have descended from Jupiter.

The summer after his high school graduation, Tyler disclosed to family and close friends he was gay. He had wanted them to know, not like he needed anyone’s permission to be who he was. He had hoped to let everyone around him embrace him for who he was.

That same period in my house, I could still not say the word “sex,” because God was always patrolling with whips waiting to pound anyone who ever said rotten things. We never saw him, but he was everywhere. Even in Tyler’s home, because after he disclosed his sexuality, as he confided in a friend, his mother “basically completely rejected” him.

Jane Clementi, who attended a different church from my mum’s—Evangelical Church, learned the same thing my mum learned: homosexuality is sin. And that’s fine, maybe, because all the religions of this world administer pain as a necessity to making paradise. A life full of peace has to come from being heartbroken and rejected by folks.

Tyler became one of the two freshmen who made it into the graduate orchestra of Rutgers University. That was August; same time I had my first boy crush who would later always end up on my lips.

In September, God decided to give me a break. He was headed for New Brunswick, New Jersey. He took over Ravi, Tyler’s roommate. And Ravi set up a cam to spy on his new roommate, who he barely ever spoke with, the content of which he later broadcasted online. “Found out my roommate is gay,” Dharun Ravi tweeted.

It was just for him to do this because straight people are God’s children and privacy is a faux illusion. How can we ever respect that?

He promised a season two on Twitter, because God had shown him in his dream to be a filmmaker. He was going to be popular. Opportunities to prove your worth in Hollywood rarely comes.

Tyler saw what happened—a movie in which he was the man cuddling, kissing, and undressing another boy, his boyfriend.

As an actor, you’ll have to learn that it is difficult to claim your life once it gets out there. The boy’s expelled from my school for homosexual acts could never get theirs back. The ones the junior students caught having sex in the classrooms never got their lives back. The news had gone round the school. People could drop notes with “HOMO” inscribed on them, just to taunt them.

I am praying the contents of these bottles don’t kill me for in this body, everything already looks like death.

Tell me, what do you do when your extremes have been reached, and you can’t expand anymore?

*     *     *

“Seriously I’ve heard about people like that but never met any.” She stops talking, perchance trying hard to remember what else to add to make her not look dumb. She bites her lips and searches for a million words in your eyes.

The air is arid and ghostly. And even though the sound of silence has grown stronger now, the wind still rumbles in your eardrum. Your head goes blank. And that is also the time she grabs your hands in hers. She exhales and holds you to a stop that your faces appear as if you two would start kissing any moment from now. You are nervous.

“Tell me, can a man really fall in love with a fellow?”

You smile, saying nothing.

“You mean to tell me that with the big boobs and butts, one can still choose to desire…”

“Yes. Desire the fine, fine lips, accent, body, soul, and footsteps,” you say already tired of the conversation. You don’t care if she understands but you don’t fail acknowledging her cold hands.

“You are really gay?”

You smile again because that is the only thing you know how to do best. You smile because you are an axolotl. No one hides pain better than you. Some minutes ago you defined what pansexual is to her. She nodded and you thought she understood. A win for you, you thought. The atmosphere is uncertain.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil in What Wonder Can Do writes: this salamander (axolotl) has the best little smile of all the smiley animals with no bones.

You are broken but you are still smiling.

*     *     *

The first girl I told about this nervousness I felt whenever a cute guy came around or sat close to me, stopped talking to me. We were in our sophomore year in the university, and she was the only person I ever told the truth about the T in my official name. If she saw me coming her way, she’d take another route. She always avoided eye contact, and even when I called her on the phone, she gave her friends the phone to tell me she wasn’t available. I was scared—frightened to death that she must have told another person. Or maybe, went on Twitter or Facebook to write a different version of Ravi’s tweet on 20 September 2010.

“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

I was afraid. I was always afraid of public spaces; I would wait to be the last person to enter the class, and the first to leave. Who knew who else she might have told?

*     *     *

There’s a popular misconception that only the medical personnel can quantify the amount of pain a patient feels, but according to Watson’s Clinical Nursing and Related Sciences (sixth edition), “the person with pain is the only authority about the existence and nature of the pain, since the sensation of pain can be felt only by the person who has it.”

On the seventeenth of December 2017, I am driving a nail into wood. I am changing the net at my doorpost. It is old and torn and mosquitoes have taken advantage of it to feast on me every night. They deflower me every night.

Bang.

I miss the nail, but the hammer doesn’t miss my left thumb. I drop the hammer at the speed of light, jump to my feet, locate a seat, slump in, and want to enjoy my cry in peace, but my nephews and nieces are at my side sympathising with me. I always feel better after drowning in my tears. I just want to let the tears flow and cry to my satisfaction till I can’t feel anything anymore.

Circumstances determine your response to pain—to withhold or show the brokenness right away. Just not to be labelled cowards or babies, we can go to the extremes.

I force a smile to my face. Tell them I am alright, while making sure the already swollen thumb is out of sight. The pain is immeasurable. I know am crying but not openly. Smiley faces are conceit.

Eula Biss writes in The Pain Scale, “the sensations of my own body may be the only subject on which I am qualified to claim expertise. Sad and terrible…”

Mother who wasn’t around when this happened, takes my hand in hers, examines it the way every Nigerian mother does, carefully, and maybe lovingly, and with a feeling of I-wish-I-can-take-this-pain-away. “Good this is not much, it is a small stuff,” she says, and I think I don’t understand what she means. Does she mean the size of injury determines the amount of pain to be felt?

“You’ll be fine. Take a hot water therapy, you’ll get better. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt much.” I want to say something concerning the last statement but don’t.

“Don’t be a woman,” she finishes.

Researchers are yet to agree on which of the genders feel pain the most. It is believed that pain is perceived differently by individuals. And if that is the truth, pain doesn’t know sex or age. Thus, WCNRS affirms: “there is therefore no research evidence to support a consistent pattern of pain appreciation related to sex.”

*     *     *

Darling you are not yourself when you look into the mirror. You are faceless. You know this, you can feel this. This person in the mirror, looking back is not you.

On the evening of September twenty-second, Tyler Clementi updated his Facebook status: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

*     *     *

Four weeks after she stopped talking to me. Four weeks of avoiding me, she ran into me at the hallway leading to the faculty’s library. She was wearing a smile. I have to confess. Smiling makes one younger and more beautiful. She looked like she had just come out from a plastic surgery. Her complexion had brightened, and I wondered if she had started patronising Dove™.

“I’m sorry for not calling all these days,” she said.

“Pas de probleme,” I responded wishing to bring the discussion to an end.

“We have a program at the church. I am inviting you.” Her face beamed, “My pastor can help you.”

“With what?”

“The word of God. He can cast the demons away.”

Talking about the axolotl, Aimee continues: “the axolotl’s mouth is pulled naturally into what we humans would call a smile.”

I smiled.

“You can cut the limbs at any level—the wrist, elbows, upper arm—and it will make another.”

No one can say all physical injuries cause pain. According to research, as reported by the Independent, “about one in a million people are thought to be born without a sense of pain…”

This condition is known as Congenital Insensitivity to pain.

For people with this disorder, pain is nothing. While Ashlyn Blocker, a girl with this disorder admitted feeling pressure, she never felt pain.

Wikipedia states that “indifference to pain means that the patient can perceive the stimuli but lacks an appropriate response. They do not flinch or withdraw when exposed to pain.”

Tyler’s response when he found his roommate was a bully, was to request for a room change, but he wasn’t taken seriously.

Axolotls, though they regenerate every cut limb, elbow, arm, etc., are labelled CRITICALLY ENDANGERED. This is as a result of the urbanisation of Mexico City, where they are mainly found. And maybe because they are known to always regenerate, no one paid attention to them, till they started drifting into nonexistence.

On twenty-ninth of September, Tyler’s body was found in the Hudson River, north of the George Washington Bridge. Autopsy stated “drowning” as the cause of death.

And many years later in June of 2017, in a gathering of queer people, someone termed us “the endangered species.” Everyone laughed, though taking that to heart because it is a lived reality in Nigeria. Endangered because the law is against every queer body; endangered because the people are against queer bodies; endangered because queer bodies exist only in small vacuums created for them; endangered because bullies are always scouting for perfect preys to ambush.

In this [queer] body, everything already looks like death.

Do broken bodies stop laughing?

“I am trying to be that good friend,” my friend says. “Let me help you with this abnormality.”

I am smiling again as if assuring myself of my safety; still wondering how many other people have heard this thing we discussed. And as if reading my mind she quickly adds, “I haven’t told anyone else.”

*     *     *

In Australia in 2016, New York Post reported the death of Tyrone Unsworth, a thirteen-year-old gay boy. He committed suicide because he believed everyone in his class wanted him dead. His friend, Gypsie-Lee Edwards Kennard revealed that other students did call him nasty names like: faggot…

He felt like no one wanted him and he really didn’t belong anywhere.

Sometimes the pain in your head pushes you off the cliff of yourself and you feel you can’t hold on anymore. No one feels this but you.

*     *     *

Sometimes, our attitudes toward pain manifest differently depending on what is involved, like someone searching for the eternal “light” subjects themselves to all forms of pain, and still feel nothing about it because of the greater goal—the thing to be benefitted—which is redemption, a pass into the spiritual realm.

I want to wake in the morning feeling better and never scared someone is trailing me. I want to look myself in the mirror and see how amazing my face is. I want to feel no pain. I am tired of smiling, regenerating my broken self every time.

I want to stop seeing dead bodies in my dream. I want to stop dying in my dreams. The train is moving fast.

There’s a clear difference between the pain one subjects oneself to and the one others subject one to. They hurt differently. What do I stand to gain if someone sets my body on fire?

It is well argued that relief for pain comes with age. Pain management comes with a number of grey hairs on one’s head. This means that if two people who are ten years older and younger and of the same sexual orientation are kept in a room, the chances of the younger one harming themselves after being bullied, molested, and harassed are higher than that of the older who has seen it all in life.

This argument comes from the saying that adults should always face their shit.

But that’s not true—it is baseless. Sometimes adults recoil and when they can’t take it anymore, they explode.

*     *     *

The second person I told about my sexuality laughed. I liked that they laughed. I liked they didn’t believe me. They laughed some more, stopped, gazed upon me, swallowed their saliva, and told me better to hang myself than bed a fellow man.

“I mean, this is unthinkable. How can a girl bed a fellow, not to even think of a man penetrating a fellow man?” They hissed. “Man, better suicide than this. God will understand.”

I am dirty. I smell.

*     *     *

On page 140 of Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hᴓeg, Smilla Jasperson notes: “nothing in life should simply be a passage from one place to another. Each walk should be taken as if it is the only thing you have left.”

I have no life left—not even my strength, not the desire to continue living. I have lied to a lot of people to stay afloat. In this stream of constant rejections, I am drowning.

And when in 2015 I woke in the hospital bed, someone said they found me writhing in pain, holding my chest and breathing fire like I was going to die. I was found in my room. I had taken cards of paracetamol, piritone, amoxil, and artesunate. I had overdosed, but I didn’t say.

My saviour, the someone who was also my neighbour where I lived, thought as usual I had had cardiac arrest.

*     *     *

You have lied about many things, but never the numbness you feel. Neither the pain nor how you see other humans coming closer to you as predators.

In an English class mocking the eighteenth century England, the clean shaven lecturer asked what could be done to keep one’s dignity untainted.

Death, you said, but only in your head.

There’s a popular European myth that the white stoat, alias ermine because of its winter coat, would kill itself when being pursued, rather than soiling itself.

A week later, you returned to the hospital. In the news, another gay boy shot himself.

This body feels so strange. In this body, everything already feels like death.

*     *     *

In 1971, Melzack and Torgerson developed the McGill Pain Questionnaire. It consists of seventy-eight adjectives arranged into groups. Patients select a word from each group that best capture their pains. This questionnaire was developed in an attempt to help medical doctors understand what their patients feel, better.

  1. Flickering, Pulsing, Quivering, Throbbing, Beating, Pounding
  2. Jumping, Flashing, Shooting
  3. Pricking, Boring, Drilling, Stabbing
  4. Sharp, Cutting, Lacerating
  5. Pinching, Pressing, Gnawing, Cramping, Crushing
  6. Tugging, Pulling, Wrenching
  7. Hot, Burning, Scalding, Searing
  8. Tingling, Itchy, Smarting, Stinging
  9. Dull, Sore, Hurting, Aching, Heavy
  10. Tender, Taut (Tight), Rasping, Splitting
  11. Tiring, Exhausting
  12. Sickening, Suffocating
  13. Fearful, Frightful, Terrifying
  14. Punishing, Gruelling, Cruel, Vicious, Killing
  15. Wretched, Blinding
  16. Annoying, Troublesome, Miserable, Intense, Unbearable
  17. Spreading, Radiating, Penetrating, Piercing
  18. Tight, Numb, Squeezing, Drawing, Tearing
  19. Cool, Cold, Freezing
  20. Nagging, Nauseating, Agonising, Dreadful, Torturing

And even though this questionnaire after completion would allow seven words that best describe your pain, I feel all. I still feel all. I am always feeling all.

To test the weight of the adjectives against each other, I consult the dictionary and play with them, even if it means repeating same words several times. For what is pain if you still pay attention to structure and meaning?

I am not interested of course in the measurement of pain, for even after it is quantified, what else? Does it go? What do I do to make it go?

In this body, everything already looks like death.

*     *     *

People who are inflicting pain on you usually think they’re doing you good, like the man flogging a child or the girlfriend suggesting conversion therapy.

Your phone beeps. It is your friend from previous night, and she texted to let you know Jesus loves you. You smile, say amen, and delete the message. In your head you are shouting: of course he loves me, why won’t he? Does he have an option?

That’s when you call home, telling your mother you have something very important to tell her. You may never say this, but she says she is ready whenever you want. You say it again making sure you heard yourself, and you keep saying this in your head, not because you actually want to, but to repair the injury before it spreads to the other parts of the body.

“Mum, I think am queer… yes, yes, I don’t mean your dead dog. Hello, hello, are you there, ma?”

 

Akpa Arinzechukwu is a writer and translator, the author of City Dwellers (Splash of Red). Their work has appeared in Transition, Sou’wester, Saraba magazine, ITCH, New Contrast, Brittle Paper, and elsewhere.

 

Separated Faces (A Year in Baltimore)

My mother opens her eyes to a vast cloud of nothingness. Freckles of light poked through the edges of the roof piercing the blended darkness. This was her sixth month living in Baltimore alone and winter was in full swing. Some nights she could see her breath. She wished she hadn’t underestimated the lack of insulation and how cold Maryland got, back when she first decided to rent the place in the summer of 2002.

This is my mother’s third time waking up tonight. Her bladder aches begging to be relieved as she pulls the blankets over her head and shudders. She figures her building hasn’t been renovated since its construction in the 20s. She occupies the unfurnished attic on Charles Street for only $400 dollars a month near the John Hopkins campus. Her mattress lays on the floor. Her clothes are neatly stacked inside the luggage bags she’d brought with her when she flew up over the summer. She rents from a coworker at the cabinetry company. The man had become a father right around the time my mother needed a place to say.

The baby sleeps downstairs in the room next to the only bathroom in the residence. My mother squirmes the pee dance from her bed, her elbows and knees sharp in the sheets. This is month six now, and she only weighs 94 pounds. The stair’s creak and the flushing noise would be more than enough to wake the baby and make everybody else miserable for the rest of the night, so she holds it in, the way she does most nights.

The three year anniversary of my mother’s immigration to the US passed back in October.

*     *     *

I am about nine years old around this time. My brother is seven. My mom calls us on the anniversary of our move, reminding us of what was now considered a holiday in our family. Over time this day grew ominous, like the anniversary of someone’s death.

Our immigration was the result of the instability in Colombia at the turn of the century and my parent’s separation and consequent divorce. There were alleged infidelities and my father’s refusal to leave the country he’d lived in his entire life. After separating from my father, my mom came to the States on a student-visa. She brought my brother and me along to Florida where she studied at a community college.

When that ran out, she was faced with needing to get a job if she wanted to stay in the country. Once in Florida, my mother had nothing left back home. No reasons to live in the past. Moving had given us the ability to hope because all we could think about was the future. That alone was a good enough reason to risk our livelihoods. That winter a 200 kg bombing killed 36 people at El Nogal, back in in Bogotá. Two hundred people mangled by the car bomb. Sometimes when my mother woke up and found herself isolated in the attic, she remembered being held at gunpoint with my brother and me right before we moved. Going back to Colombia was not an option, especially as a single mother.

My mother scrambled to get a job. She tried everywhere, but had no luck. It needed to be an employer willing to help with our immigration process and sponsor her green card. My mother, then in her early thirties, had no job experience and barely knew any English. Her undergraduate degree in administration was ten years old now and earned in a country nobody here seemed to care about.

She met the owner of a cabinetry shop at a party and quickly told him about her plight. A second cousin, the only type of people she knew here, had invited her. She’d spent the night telling everybody who’d listen about her situation. The man, a Baltimore native and strict Ravens fan, offered her a job. He asked her to move up to to Maryland and work for him in an administrative capacity. He couldn’t offer her a lot of money but it was something. My mother said thanks but that she wouldn’t be able to bring my brother and me with her under the circumstances. She’d been living off her savings and child support payments from my father back in Colombia.

The man said that it was the only way he could help her. That maybe after some time she could return back to Florida and be with my brother and me again. It was either that or go to some place that wasn’t home any more.

My mother left us with my grandmother in Orlando and lived out of her suitcase in the creaky attic, calling us every night.

*     *     *

From the first day she knew what he wanted. “Why else would he hire me? I didn’t even know English,” she says now. The man routinely asked her out on dates, even at work. He bought her necklaces and gave her rings.

My mother told my brother and me that eventually she’d be able to work in Florida, but we quickly realized that instead of offering us a way to stay in this country, the man was dangling broken pieces of hope. My mother called my father and asked if we could all come back to Colombia. The answer was always no and she soldiered on. There was no one else to report this to. Her harasser wasn’t only her boss—he was also the only man keeping her and her kids in this country. My mother went to bed every night in her attic thinking he’d change his mind. She’d warned us over the phone to be ready to go back in case the moment ever came.

Another local Baltimore business man, let’s call him Bill, noticed my mother around this time. Bill worked in an electric company that was somehow affiliated with her cabinetry shop. He asked her out to dinner, which my mom was happy to say yes to. It was was one of the first positive nights she had since leaving Colombia.

When her boss found out, he waited for her at his desk the next day. “He was furious,” my mother says. He asked her how she could see someone else when she knew he wanted her. Her boss picked up the phone and called Bill in front of her.

My mother realized that there was only one way to get back to Florida. She, a Catholic woman who’d never been with anybody except for my father, slept with her harasser. The next morning he gave her permission to come back to her kids. He said she could work from Florida and he’d still sponsor her. My mother tells me this for the first time as we discuss this piece. “I never told anybody anything. You can write what you want. I did it for you,” she says.

I hang up afterwards, trying to wear the poker face of a journalist in a war zone. I postpone thinking about until I have to for the ending of this piece.

*     *     *

My cousins told me that if you forgot the way someone looked, it meant you didn’t love them anymore. Some nights or when I daydreamed in school, I would etch my mother’s face in my mind a million times.

I thought I knew a lot for a nine year old. It was the first birthday I spent fatherless, but my grandparents did everything to help me forget. As a little kid I learned to act calm and to compartmentalize whenever I had to in front of my little brother.  

One time my mother flew into Orlando for a weekend and surprised us at school. Leaving school early never felt so good.

There was another time when we went to go get her at the airport for a different visit. The Orlando terminals are filled with theme-park related gift stores. There’s a NASA one too. My brother and I waited in the back of the Disney store, playing with some toys. I turned around and saw a brown-haired woman standing with her arms folded, staring at us. I noticed her silver necklace, one she’d had brought from Colombia, and then her eyes, realizing that that woman was my mom. I remembered my cousin’s words and froze, showing no emotions at all. A wave of guilt submerged me as I thought I’d done something terrible. It’s the image I think about the most often when I see separated immigrants reunited down at the border by Mexico. I wonder if some of these kids feel that—not recognizing anything at all.

*     *     *

In 2008, five years after coming back to Florida, my family was granted Residency status. My mother was now legally and financially able to say no. When her boss mailed her his next gift, she returned it and was told she needed to find a new job that day. My mother gained her US citizenship in 2013, ten years after living in the attic.

We stopped living together when I left Florida for Boston. Then I found myself further away after I unpacked in LA.  Looking back my mother blames my father for everything that happened during her year in Baltimore.  

I pause before saying, “Mami, I don’t think so.”  I tell her I think her harasser took advantage of her.

My mother sighs. “I know,” she says.

*     *     *

Most of us have seen the recordings and read the news of the family separations at the border this year. Almost 2,000 kids were separated from their parents between April and May alone. In some cases the government even deported parents while shipping their children across the country, making it almost impossible to reunite them.

There is a lot of outrage. You are probably outraged.

But, if we were willing to tolerate the legal immigration system that allowed, and continues to permit, the exploitation of the most desperate people, how can we be so surprised? I am not saying that what happened to me is even close to the human rights abuses at the border. But our notion that immigrants are somehow less human has always been expressed by Americans in power.

According to the ACLU, 25 to 85 percent of working women have experienced sexual harassment, with immigrants and low earning workers being the most vulnerable. The ACLU also notes a 2009 survey of Iowa meatpacking workers where 91 percent responded that immigrant women do not report sexual harassment or sexual violence in their workplace.

Not only is there an imbalance of power, but their inexperience with the American legal system impede their ability to seek representation or speak out against these violations.

Our government is not making policy up from thin air. It has been given permission to act and abuse the way it does by a culture that has always done the same thing.  

*     *     *

It’s been a few days now since my mother and I spoke about Baltimore. It was close to impossible for me to have a reaction to the truth my mother’s choosing to reveal only now. The only thing I can feel in regards to my immigration story and my mother’s sacrifices is a sense of pride and invincibility. Feeling anything else is like committing some form of treason or betrayal.

I didn’t think about what my mother said until a few days later when I debated on where to get a new tattoo. When I pictured it on my body I thought about how sad my mom had gotten when I first permanently inked my skin.

I thought about my mother’s year in Baltimore and realized that I had to hold myself to some different set of traditional standards. Guilt greets me for leaving home, never coming back for anything (including when my mom got sick last year), and not going into law school or something like my parents had always wanted. No more tattoos. Nothing tainting my body or my future like my mother intended when she sacrificed so much for me. But then, in doing so, I would be losing some part of who I am and my pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment.

Would changing who I am mean that my mom gave those parts of me away in her sacrifice? I know that was not her intention, but I won’t always know which way to go.

 

Esteban Cajigas is a writer, musician, and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. His short stories and poems have been featured in publications such as Venture Magazine, Foliate Oak, and others. Esteban also previously wrote for The Boston Globe as a correspondent and The Suffolk Voice as Editor-in-Chief. He lives in Los Angeles with his mischievous cat, Zelda.

Spotlight: LEMONADE

Googling flowers that sound country enough
to create my own lemon on a step
because it is smart to discuss a field
of goldenrods rather than the hood
flying up on the old eighty-four ford ranger
while we were doing seventy on seventy-five
because the truck was a lemon
held together by bungee cords, electrical tape, and prayer,
but lord, how you made lemonade,
and taught me to make it as well,
and to believe that discussing poverty
did not have to mean discussing trauma.
we sang songs, our own apartment building
hymnals, we took our WIC down
to save-a-lot to pick up communion
milk, juicy juice, a block of government cheese,
take a shopping cart to the corral for a quarter
spear soda cans on the side of the road
fire department fed us christmas dinner
and we thanked god we had it all

 

Tucker Leighty-Phillips is a student and writer living in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His work has recently appeared in Atlas Obscura, WhiskeyPaper, and Maudlin House.

Identity

Two years ago, I was talking to my roommate, who is Mexican American, when I realized how much I felt like an outsider. She had just come back from a lawyer group in San Diego for women of color. As we talked about it, I started to get nervous, anxious. A thought kept floating through me. I had kept this thought so tightly buried, but it often came to the forefront of my mind. I didn’t know who I could talk to about it, but I knew I couldn’t live with it hidden inside of me much longer. It was eating me alive from the inside.

There was a lull in our conversation, and I let this thought, which had been on my mind for most of my life but I was always too afraid and ashamed to say, escape:

“Am I a woman of color?”

Three Generations of My Family

What most people don’t know about me is that I’m 100 percent Puerto Rican, second generation born in the United States. My mom and dad are both Puerto Rican, born in New York. My grandparents were born, raised, and lived most their lives in Puerto Rico. After my eldest uncle was born, my grandpa, Papá, decided to come to the United States to be a migrant farmworker, while my grandma, Mita, stayed in Puerto Rico to take care of my uncle until my Papá had enough money to bring Mita and my uncle to the States. That story is a whole other interesting caveat in and of itself. But the point I’m trying to make is that there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m Puerto Rican. Well, there shouldn’t be.

Yet sometimes, I don’t feel very Puerto Rican.

I wasn’t taught Spanish when I was a kid, although it was my parents’ first language. I learned it laboriously when I was an adult while I was studying and working in Argentina. Every few years, when I was growing up, my family would go to Puerto Rico to visit family, but I wouldn’t be able to communicate with most of them. This disconnection from my culture and my extended family has always made me feel separated from my Puerto Rican roots.

I don’t blame my parents for this at all. I understand that they simply assimilated into American culture. Even though my parents might not have realized, this notion was passed down from my grandparents. It was necessary for my grandparents to learn English and be a part of the American culture. For them, this was survival. However, two generations later, I wanted nothing more than to speak Spanish and hold onto my Puerto Rican roots.

I studied Spanish in college and decided to study abroad in Argentina to try to become fluent in my family’s language. When I was studying abroad, I met a Colombian guy. We grew close and eventually started dating. I still remember the first time we met. My Spanish was slim to non-existent, and I was still getting my bearings in a new country.

He and I were out at a bar with a group of friends—friends who I had just met two days prior when I arrived to Argentina. He was trying to talk to me with his minimal English, and I was trying to communicate with my broken Spanish. I proudly told him, “Soy puertorriqueña.” He shook his head and told me that I was wrong. I wasn’t Puerto Rican. I showed him my tattoo, a family tattoo that I had gotten when I turned 18. It’s a Puerto Rican flag waving inside of a sun and a tattoo that most of the women in my family have gotten. He still denied it, denied that I was Puerto Rican, denied my identity.

What was it about me that wasn’t Puerto Rican? Did I not act like a Puerto Rican? Did I not look like a Puerto Rican?

I didn’t realize it then, but something in me broke that day. A doubt was wedged into my mind. I began questioning who I was. Was I really Puerto Rican if I didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t look the part?

A joke I’ve heard many times from people outside my family is “was it the milkman?” My family all has lighter skin, but no one has red hair like I do. Because I didn’t look Puerto Rican enough to many people, I was the other, someone who didn’t quite belong to my family. An imposter.

This tore me apart inside. And the question of who I was stayed hidden in my subconscious for years.

I ended up dating the guy I met in Argentina for 7 years, and he constantly denied my Puerto Rican identity. Even after I learned Spanish and became fluent, even after I took him to Puerto Rico and he met all my family still living there, he still considered my non-authentic Spanish and my light skin and red hair proof that I wasn’t Puerto Rican. I argued with him constantly trying to prove myself to be a true Latina, but I started to believe him.

When we broke up and that constant denial of who I was disappeared, I still didn’t feel Puerto Rican. By that time, my identity had been striped away from me day-by-day and the damage that he had done left scars that were not easily erased. The problem was I didn’t feel a part of the American society I was living in either. I didn’t know where I belonged.

From a young age, I knew I was different than many of my white American friends. My family was the biggest reminder of this. We are loud, crazy, and love each other with a passion. There isn’t a family get-together that doesn’t involve dancing salsa and eating arroz con gandules. We are each other’s best friends and will do anything for each other. I could see the difference when I went over to my friends’ houses as a kid. They didn’t have close relationships with their parents or siblings like I did. Family dinners, if they even happened, were quiet with barely any words spoken between the family. I can’t remember a family dinner that was quiet or subdued. They would disrespect their parents by saying they hated them or telling them to shut up. I couldn’t even fathom doing this with my family.

I knew I was different. So then where do I fit in?

*          *          *

Race is such a difficult topic to talk about today. I know I’m Puerto Rican, but I look white. Visiting Puerto Rico, this isn’t an anomaly. Puerto Rican people are a mixture of the Taíno indigenous people, the Spaniards who colonized them, and Africans. This means, Puerto Ricans can have all different color skin. However, people in the United States don’t usually identify a light-skinned person as Latinx.

The fact is I have white skin and red hair, and because of that, I benefit from many of the advantages of white privilege. So, can I really call myself a woman of color? Doing so feels like I’m taking something away from women who struggle every day because of the color of their skin, women who don’t have the opportunities and privileges I have because of the color of my skin, women who fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

Again, I’m stuck in no-man’s land. Not quite white, not quite a woman of color.

My roommate two years ago gave me back something that I didn’t even realize I was missing when she said, “Of course you’re a woman of color.” To her, I will be forever grateful. She gave me some agency back. She gave me a little piece of my identity back. The identity that had been stripped away from me slowly over the years.

Even with her affirmation, I still don’t quite believe it. There’s a battle raging inside of me. I don’t feel right identifying as a woman of color or joining a woman of color group like my roommate did. I am still finding my identity and working on being comfortable with who I am.

There are a few things I do know:

  1. I am Puerto Rican. Nothing anyone says will take that away from me.
  2. I am American.
  3. I am a writer.

Nothing in this list takes preference over the others; they are all equally me. They are all equally part of my identity.

The rest of it I’m still figuring out. However, without writing, I would not have come as far as I have. Writing has been an outlet for me, a way to voice these thoughts without judgement and shame.

I know, without the support, love, and acceptance from my family, my friends, and my writing community these doubts would have stayed buried in my head, torturing me.

*          *          *

I find a little solace in knowing that I’m not alone in this. I’ve talked to many people who struggle with being a light-skinned Latinx. To those people I’d say: don’t let people tell you who you are. Be proud of your culture, your identity. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

I will continue to try to follow my own advice and be proud of who I am.

 

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.

Writers Read: feeld by Jos Charles

The poet Vijay Seshadri said that “the purpose of poetry is to deal with unprecedented experience.” Poets will use unprecedented language, but few have made poems mostly made up of entirely unprecedented words. Jos Charles’s feeld accomplishes just that, living in an invented and unnamed dialect that is as new as it is familiar. Her text at first appears aberrant, yet bears the resonance of an original—as in, older and perhaps more faithful—English. At the same time, it has a clear sense of invention and modernity, reading like an ancient folio, an SMS with spelling from the future, an alternately evolved present-day speech. Charles’s amalgamation of medieval, modern, and historically speculative language renders her scenes of trans life in an uncommonly unique music.

The word glome appears throughout the book as a mysterious action, imbued with fluidity and life, possible of any number of definitions. Various places emerge and reappear throughout the book: the guarden, markett, feemale depositrie room, whorld, the linden... Among these too is the title’s feeld, which can be seen as a guide: though the poems are numbered in order, they form a landscape that recontextualizes every other part of itself and, much like the body, often goes on feel while the past (tense) and history is always there.

Each poem stands on its own, and the fragments comprising them deepen and morph when heard by themselves.

XXI:

bieng graselesse / mye breasthes
foldeing for the firste /
the cruelest retoric
fore givennesse   /   & ther big browne beerds
lik pubik slugg            / i muste
re member / plese kepe ur handes
2 urself / i meen this
ontologicklie /
nayture is sumwere else         

Perhaps more than any other poetry collection in recent memory, feeld lays bare the runic quality of language down to the word, the letter. The way “mye” carries both my and ye presents a multiplicity of meaning that both clarifies and obscures in its branching. “Breasthes” of course too immediately recalls breaths, or the sound of life, effortful and inevitable, both invisible and the means to surviving the body and thus being seen.

Charles writes in her author’s note: “Where there is no call is, now, where we must listen. Not to ask to see or be seen, but to be committed, again, and always again, to what we have always consented: unto the wood of the table, its form and time, to the room, the ash, its form, and its time.” And the runes return us to commitment:

foldeing for the firste /
and again:

re member / plese kepe ur handes

Far from merely a mental act, the appearance of “re member” suggests an alternate etymology that is more tactile and physical. Then the invocation of the active again-ness of keeping one’s hands. Then the oneness of “one” is challenged:

2 urself / i meen this
ontologicklie /

Charles’s script questions itself and the modes of bringing us to bodied considerations: her version of ontologicklie replaces ‘ally’ with ‘lie.’ Though, this is not deconstruction resulting in abandonment, the poem remains in the difficulty and wonder of commitment:

nayture is sumwere else

Perhaps this implies the nay is somewhere else, and the yes is present. But the yes here is more complex. Charles continues in her author’s note, “We stake a claim—this is my body, my breast, even as we doubt the words that lead us there, doubt the mineness, the body, and whose breasts are afforded purchase.”

Just as Charles needed to invent to produce language due to what she describes as a lack of existing satisfactory words to describe trans existence, the reader is invited to apply the closest reading possible. Any given word is potentially its own poem with origins in a parallel invented timeline. The poems when read out loud can sound as though coming from a person learning to speak for the first time… the reader in the moment must translate each moment, form the words slowly, sounding and sorting the inscriptions out in the mouth and the mind which conflict and harmonize in surprising ways. It sounds like a close reading, one that is always fruitful.

Throughout, the speaker seems to grasp their potency, as well as that of all language. From LV:

i kno
no new waye / 2 speech
this / the powre off lyons

Her address is likewise double, as an internal exploration and a more public discussion, addressing not only public spaces like bathrooms, but public behaviors like the “struktured responce” of shock (LVII), which is often a performance seeking absolution. Within the field of shapeshifting and ever-deepening exploration lies moments of undeniable clarity. Charles writes in LVII:

/ did u kno
not a monthe goes bye / a tran i kno doesnt dye / just
shye off 27 / its such a plesure to be alive /

Or sometimes it’s a clear question, which itself is a form of answer. From LIV:

/ o
u who unforl me / how manie
holes wuld blede / befor
u believ / imma grl

The problems of visibility come to the fore, resulting in statements that ascribe its startling weight and consequence, “a loss /               being seen” (XLI.) or “it is horribel // off corse to be // tangibel” (IX.) or “it is tragyck / bieng undre // stood” (LII.)

For Charles, the element of sacrifice in creating and sharing this work is apparent. Yet, the voice in

Jos Charles

feeld remains committed, and gesturing toward a view of seeing as a daily-ness and a process. From XV:

                                       it is pleesing
2 understande laybor as a feeld / a felt
                        past thru / i wuld see

                        u / grene inn that lande
 
And again, towards the end of the book, from LIX:

 wee laybore
                        at mornynge / this is not
            its seeson / i wil
            herold the seeson

feeld is a difficult, rending, and immensely pleasurable book, magnetic in its immediate world of sounds and forking paths garden of linguistic innovations. A work to be savored and lost in, and entered as a beginning of the invitation to seeing and hearing what we may never fully have the language for.

 

Jordan Nakamura is a poet, co-Lead editor for Poetry and Visual Art, and lead designer for Lunch Ticket Magazine. He was born and raised in Hawaii and is an MFA candidate at AULA. He’s been published in Zócalo Public Square and The Curator, and currently lives in Los Angeles.

Writers Read: feeld by Jos Charles

The poet Vijay Seshadri said that “the purpose of poetry is to deal with unprecedented experience.” Poets will use unprecedented language, but few have made poems mostly made up of entirely unprecedented words. Jos Charles’s feeld accomplishes just that, living in an invented and unnamed dialect that is as new as it is familiar. Her text at first appears aberrant, yet bears the resonance of an original—as in, older and perhaps more faithful—English. At the same time, it has a clear sense of invention and modernity, reading like an ancient folio, an SMS with spelling from the future, an alternately evolved present-day speech. Charles’s amalgamation of medieval, modern, and historically speculative language renders her scenes of trans life in an uncommonly unique music.

The word glome appears throughout the book as a mysterious action, imbued with fluidity and life, possible of any number of definitions. Various places emerge and reappear throughout the book: the guarden, markett, feemale depositrie room, whorld, the linden... Among these too is the title’s feeld, which can be seen as a guide: though the poems are numbered in order, they form a landscape that recontextualizes every other part of itself and, much like the body, often goes on feel while the past (tense) and history is always there.

Each poem stands on its own, and the fragments comprising them deepen and morph when heard by themselves.

XXI:

bieng graselesse / mye breasthes
foldeing for the firste /
the cruelest retoric
fore givennesse   /   & ther big browne beerds
lik pubik slugg            / i muste
re member / plese kepe ur handes
2 urself / i meen this
ontologicklie /
nayture is sumwere else         

Perhaps more than any other poetry collection in recent memory, feeld lays bare the runic quality of language down to the word, the letter. The way “mye” carries both my and ye presents a multiplicity of meaning that both clarifies and obscures in its branching. “Breasthes” of course too immediately recalls breaths, or the sound of life, effortful and inevitable, both invisible and the means to surviving the body and thus being seen.

Charles writes in her author’s note: “Where there is no call is, now, where we must listen. Not to ask to see or be seen, but to be committed, again, and always again, to what we have always consented: unto the wood of the table, its form and time, to the room, the ash, its form, and its time.” And the runes return us to commitment:

foldeing for the firste /
and again:

re member / plese kepe ur handes

Far from merely a mental act, the appearance of “re member” suggests an alternate etymology that is more tactile and physical. Then the invocation of the active again-ness of keeping one’s hands. Then the oneness of “one” is challenged:

2 urself / i meen this
ontologicklie /

Charles’s script questions itself and the modes of bringing us to bodied considerations: her version of ontologicklie replaces ‘ally’ with ‘lie.’ Though, this is not deconstruction resulting in abandonment, the poem remains in the difficulty and wonder of commitment:

nayture is sumwere else

Perhaps this implies the nay is somewhere else, and the yes is present. But the yes here is more complex. Charles continues in her author’s note, “We stake a claim—this is my body, my breast, even as we doubt the words that lead us there, doubt the mineness, the body, and whose breasts are afforded purchase.”

Just as Charles needed to invent to produce language due to what she describes as a lack of existing satisfactory words to describe trans existence, the reader is invited to apply the closest reading possible. Any given word is potentially its own poem with origins in a parallel invented timeline. The poems when read out loud can sound as though coming from a person learning to speak for the first time… the reader in the moment must translate each moment, form the words slowly, sounding and sorting the inscriptions out in the mouth and the mind which conflict and harmonize in surprising ways. It sounds like a close reading, one that is always fruitful.

Throughout, the speaker seems to grasp their potency, as well as that of all language. From LV:

i kno
no new waye / 2 speech
this / the powre off lyons

Her address is likewise double, as an internal exploration and a more public discussion, addressing not only public spaces like bathrooms, but public behaviors like the “struktured responce” of shock (LVII), which is often a performance seeking absolution. Within the field of shapeshifting and ever-deepening exploration lies moments of undeniable clarity. Charles writes in LVII:

/ did u kno
not a monthe goes bye / a tran i kno doesnt dye / just
shye off 27 / its such a plesure to be alive /

Or sometimes it’s a clear question, which itself is a form of answer. From LIV:

/ o
u who unforl me / how manie
holes wuld blede / befor
u believ / imma grl

The problems of visibility come to the fore, resulting in statements that ascribe its startling weight and consequence, “a loss /               being seen” (XLI.) or “it is horribel // off corse to be // tangibel” (IX.) or “it is tragyck / bieng undre // stood” (LII.)

For Charles, the element of sacrifice in creating and sharing this work is apparent. Yet, the voice in

Jos Charles

feeld remains committed, and gesturing toward a view of seeing as a daily-ness and a process. From XV:

                                       it is pleesing
2 understande laybor as a feeld / a felt
                        past thru / i wuld see

                        u / grene inn that lande
 
And again, towards the end of the book, from LIX:

 wee laybore
                        at mornynge / this is not
            its seeson / i wil
            herold the seeson

feeld is a difficult, rending, and immensely pleasurable book, magnetic in its immediate world of sounds and forking paths garden of linguistic innovations. A work to be savored and lost in, and entered as a beginning of the invitation to seeing and hearing what we may never fully have the language for.

 

Jordan Nakamura is a poet, co-Lead editor for Poetry and Visual Art, and lead designer for Lunch Ticket Magazine. He was born and raised in Hawaii and is an MFA candidate at AULA. He’s been published in Zócalo Public Square and The Curator, and currently lives in Los Angeles.

Put Yourself Up

I tell mothers: Be careful how you bodytalk in front of your daughters. You could be teaching them the language of self-hate.

The universe was kind and gave me boys. I threw them in some undershirts and cut-offs, gave out shovels and told them to come back inside when they were sixteen. I swear, I would’ve felt ill-equipped to raise a girl.

Every day, I heard how my mom hated her fat stomach, how her chest had fallen, how when dad met her she weighed 95 pounds and look at her now. Just look at her! What I saw was an educated and ageless beauty with pretty clothes, a lot of kids, a house, and a man who came home to us every day—sometimes with flowers or a bucket of fresh peaches and a kiss for the high school sweetheart he still adored.

Who took the joy from my mother?

Women in her generation were carefully groomed and their idols were too. It took a long time to unwork the pointed bras, and women weren’t willing to throw away the stiff curler sets and pink styling tape that held their hair styles in place when they slept. Even though being girls in the seventies and eighties meant radical freedoms like halter tops and those dumb off the shoulder T’s with tanks, the need to be beautiful was our raison d’etre. And what’s so different now? Kate Middleton’s after-baby weight and Cardi B’s new look are flaunted at the check-out line. How we appear is fed to us.

The way women talk to each other, and about ourselves has, by design, been socially constructed to keep us from where we could be.

Pay no attention to that man while he draws a line through your school budget. Keep talking about the woes of a flabby tummy while your local government representative gets elected and votes down what you believe in, and keep up that self-derision.
It’s just where the dominating society wants you.
Down
On
Your
Knees
and ready to take it.
The message is confusing: Be a nice girl, be fierce, look pretty, be yourself, it’s all in your head, be who you are; who you are isn’t possibly good enough for our unreachable standards, you talk too much, are you really going to wear that? No more ice cream for you.

The complicated recipe that got us here doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. We could blame former icons such as Jackie O or Madonna. Not Jesus’s mom. The other one who blended baby doll and vixen with respecting yourself. Any attempt to unpack some sort of message only proves how strong the concept of image–>capitalism–>language is. But, blame isn’t getting us anywhere either. Maybe it’s bad boys. Remember them? Those awful creatures who lap up real virgins then cast them off. Those boys laugh when girls fight each other. It’s sport to watch girls cry.

Powerful, oppressive men are made from boys like that and some grow up to run companies, colleges, courts, and countries.

Women have been set loose, tearing at each other over petty points for long enough. Throughout the decades of my mother’s life, fashion magazine covers have morphed from the perky homemaker to celery eating supermodels who seem unable to keep the front-page gig in exchange for infamous celebrities talking about their struggles with the body.

My mom dieted for a living. One summer when my brothers were training for sports, she made us peach milkshakes. For two weeks this went on every day. Four tall glasses waiting with the spoons handles sticking out.

Wash your hands.

I felt connected: orchard to table, mother and daughter, this is how we nurture. Those milkshakes captured love and sunsets.

But one day, there were only three glasses.

Where’s mine?

You’re getting too big.

I watched as my brothers slurped away until they drained the bottom, tinkled the spoon, and ran outside.

As it was encoded in me to downtalk my body, my sons had to hear how my voluptuous chest and belly had become two wallets and a purse. I can’t walk that back. Each year they grew, so did I. Who says you can’t wear maternity clothes to your kid’s graduation? So, yes, our sons are tuning into how we bodytalk, too.

*     *     *

I’m listening for different language: when the female comedian doesn’t need to body shock the audience to gain access and culture doesn’t weight shame. Really, who is the judge telling us how we all should look, anyway? I fear the culprit might be: women—when we put ourselves down, when we judge other women, when we compare. The activity keeps us ranking and categorizing, sometimes viciously.

When we practice self-hate and model it to the young, it may ease a path toward hating others.

Hate–>power–>oppression. Now that sexual misconduct, violation, and rape aren’t under the rug, women will be stepping forward without guidelines, and what’s been scripted for decades doesn’t include much practice in conflict resolution, asserting rights, or respectful listening.

Writer, Matt Green, who works from home and raises two little girls, told me it’s time women take this moment. It’s now and it’s yours so don’t forsake each other. The world is finally watching. You have seized mankind and our worst ways, and now you must ignite. Don’t drop the mic.

We teach people how we want to be treated in every interaction we have. How we speak about ourselves and each other to our young might finally change the message.

Let’s stop and change our words.

Exchange bodytalk for actuation.

Practice with me:

Today I get to…
Using these fine hands, I will make…
Together, we are solving…
Tell me what your thoughts are about…

 

Andrea Auten is a masters graduate in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles where she is a teaching assistant in the Post Master of Fine Arts in creative writing teacher certificate program. An arts teacher and performer from Dayton, OH, she lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her work can be found in the Antioch Voice. She is working on her second novel.