New Math

Dear [REDACTED],

At first, I stared at your e-mail and blinked a few times, thinking that perhaps my contact lenses were blurry. It said, “Thank you for your interest in employment with [REDACTED]. Your application was received and carefully reviewed. However, based on the information you submitted, it was determined you did not meet the minimum training and experience required.”

“Your resume is so impressive!”

No, I was reading it correctly, but it still didn’t make any sense. See, my last employer was five times your size, and I held a nearly identical position to the one for which I applied. What kind of new math are you using? If this weren’t the eleventh time that I’d received such a reply—or no response at all—I would call the HR office directly and contest your rejection.

But I’m tired of this whole charade. Tired of the backhanded compliments where you tell me how “impressive” my resume is and then proceed to explain that I’m also “too confident” or “too intimidating” or “not the right fit.” I’m tired of jumping through hoops, tired of tap dancing. Tired of being the “First Black This” or the “Youngest Female That.” Tired of having to fight you just to get paid what I’m worth. Tired of collecting degrees and experience, only to be told that I’m Still. Not. Enough.

And you always have reasons. So many reasons. The ones you state out loud are perfectly plausible: I’m underqualified, or I’m overqualified; we’re in a recession, or we just got out of a recession; you’re going in a different direction, or you decided not to fill the position at all. But it is the reasons you don’t say that tell the rest of the story. The reasons I can’t say aloud either, lest I be labeled “bitter” or “angry” like the last black woman you hired. And we all know how uncomfortable you get when black women are angry.

This was your recruitment poster. I feel duped.

But did you know that black women are the most educated people in this country? We attain advanced degrees at far higher rates than any other group. That’s become a very popular statistic, shared with pride and awe at our hard work and achievements, but that’s what black women have always done: work hard and overcome obstacles. So that doesn’t impress or surprise me. Not because it isn’t impressive, mind you, but because I know what it’s really about. See, what they don’t share alongside that data about black women’s educational attainment, is the degree to which we aspire to positions of leadership—at almost three times the rate of our white female peers, and yet we’re perpetually underrepresented in C-suites, boardrooms and halls of power. Lean In wasn’t written for black women. Hell, black women invented leaning in and then turned it into a dance. But still we think, “Maybe if I get one more degree, take on one more project, achieve one more milestone, maybe…it will finally…be enough.”

Lean In wasn’t written for black women. Hell, black women invented leaning in and then turned it into a dance.

It can eat away at you if you let it, that feeling of knowing you’re capable but not being acknowledged for it. It’s like being invisible. I imagine that’s how Katherine Johnson and her NASA coworkers felt. Did you see that movie, Hidden Figures? Katherine Johnson was a mathematical genius who, along with other black women, were hired as human computers to do calculations for the male engineers trying to put a man on the moon. They worked in an area that was segregated from the rest of the Langley Research Center, until they had to step up and save the mission. Everyone kept saying it was the “feel good movie of the year,” but it just irritated me. What is so inspiring about watching a bunch of white men shoot themselves in the foot while the black women with all the answers aren’t even allowed in the room? John Glenn almost died and the United States nearly lost the Space Race before these women were allowed just to do their jobs.

Worried businesswoman ---

The Invisible Woman (Image by © Beau Lark/Corbis)

If you haven’t even seen Hidden Figures, then I’m sure you’ve never heard of Charlotte Ray. She was the first black female attorney in the United States. She graduated from Howard Law School at 22 years old and was admitted to the D.C. Bar the same year. Then she became the first woman, of any race, admitted to argue before the Supreme Court of D.C. Her legal intelligence was undisputed, but do you know what she got for all her accomplishments? She had to close her law firm because no one would hire a black woman to represent them. Instead, the first black woman attorney in America moved back home to New York and taught public school.

And don’t dare tell me it’s gotten better since then, as if Katherine and Charlotte don’t have a debt to be paid. I don’t know how they kept their souls from shriveling up like a raisin in the sun. Some days, I don’t know how I do. It’s maddening to be dismissed in spite of your abilities, to be ignored to the point where you doubt your own existence. Did they recite the same futile affirmations as me in their mirrors, I wonder, steeling themselves against a world indifferent to their brilliance? They say a person’s value does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see their worth…but their paycheck certainly does. No amount of affirmations, self-love or leaning in can make up for more than $713,000 in lost income. That was the average amount a college-educated woman could expect to lose over a 40-year career. In 2017. I dare say Katherine and Charlotte would be disappointed.

What’s ironic is that you have problems that black women can solve, but you look right through us. We are the descendants of miracle workers, refined in the fires of oppression. Black women gave birth to this world. Why would it surprise you that we know how to heal it? How much untapped human potential is wasting away before your eyes? How many technological breakthroughs, medical miracles, diplomatic victories and social advancements are we missing out on because this world refuses to see black women’s greatness? Because you don’t see our greatness.

Black women gave birth to this world. Why would it surprise you that we know how to heal it?

Thank God for Bessie Coleman who, after being rejected by every flight school in the United States, moved to France instead to become the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Thank God for Raven Wilkinson, who persisted even when racism nearly sidelined her dance career. Thank God for Audre Lorde, who didn’t let discrimination or cancer silence her. Because of them, I will persist. Because God blesses the child that’s got her own.

 

#blackgirlmagic

This #blackgirlmagic isn’t free.

You’re probably wondering why I’m unloading on you like this. You might be thinking this is unfair, uncalled for. After all, your e-mail to me was three measly sentences. I mean, you hardly even know me. But you are a symbol, a proxy for those whose hubris and fragility render black women invisible. For those whose identity is rooted in our subjugation. Because you want our ideas, our labor and our magic, but you don’t want us. Because you could stand before me, and with a straight face, tell me I don’t exist.

So I reject your rejection. I reject whatever calculations you make that lead you to believe that I’m not enough, that we’re not enough. I reject your new math, because it’s just as backward as your old math, because it doesn’t add up.

While you may choose not to see what is right in front of you, I demand to be seen. I don’t need your permission to be great; I have no choice but to be great. My ancestors will accept nothing less. I will serve, and I will speak, and I will write, and I will live, and I will win. Because I. Am. Enough.

Sincerely,

A.D. Lowman

 

A.D. Lowman is a management professional, consultant and community leader. Her leadership and career advice has been featured in Essence, Money and Diversity Woman magazines. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles where she serves as a blogger, interviewer and assistant web team manager for Lunch Ticket.

The Language of Community

Once I gave up alcohol, sugar and flour, there were only a few splurges left in the culinary world for me to enjoy—one of them was good coffee.  I didn’t mind standing in line to get it—even the time some jerk interrupted my order.

“I ordered extra whip,” a voice boomed, behind me. “This doesn’t have any.”

I turned. A tall, skinny man with a full beard showed the clerk his cup, filled with nothing but café au lait, and then shoved it toward her.

“Sorry,” she said, and passed it to the baristas at the espresso machine. As she explained the terrible disaster of his missing whipped cream, the guy looked down at me and shook his head.

“I come in here every day,” he said, in a low voice. “You’d think they’d know me by now.” He went to the pick-up counter, but not before he looked back at me. “Sorry for interrupting your order. I’m in a hurry.”

He grabbed the cup, ignoring the barista’s apology. As quickly as he appeared, he was gone, running across the street before the light changed to green.

* * *

The language of this story informs the narrative, as language has the power to do.  I never mention how the coffeehouse was across the street from a research hospital, or describe what the jerk was wearing (wrinkled doctor’s scrubs). He looked exhausted, like an overworked intern fueled by coffee—close to seeing visions. Because this is my story, I can dress him like a red devil, with a pointed tail and cloven hooves if I want to. I could also make a case about those baristas, too; they kept checking their phones while they made espresso. I almost blew the conch shell (Twitter) to complain how the baristas were all distracted and moving in slow-motion.

I think about everyone in this story now—the intern in wrinkled scrubs, me, the distracted baristas trying to keep up with the line—and I see how we’re all connected. Hurried, distracted, self-contained people, we interacted as little as possible with each other, pretending we weren’t part of the same community.

* * *


I always loved the way that Charles Olson described projective verse: “from the heart, by way of the breath, to the line.” It shows how words are more than words—they’re the essence of what we value, the souvenirs of our experience, and the trembling tokens of our fears.  We’re warned to choose them carefully.

In 2011, Google released its database of 5.2 million books, published between the years of 1500 and 2008.  It measured the frequency of words used in these books, and it showed how our language has changed: “Words and phrases like ‘personalized,’ ‘self,’ ‘standout,’ ‘unique,’ ‘I come first’ and ‘I can do it myself’ are used more frequently in today’s language.  Communal words and phrases like, ‘community,’ ‘collective,’ ‘tribe,’ ‘share,’ ‘united,’ and ‘common good’ have receded… significantly.” American English has changed because we are an isolating people—our communities are shrinking.

Gallup’s latest polls reflect that Americans are engaging in community exercise less and less. Charitable clubs, like Elks, Moose, Rotary, have a decrease in new membership. Church memberships are experiencing a steady decline: 38% of adults attended weekly in 2016, compared to the 42% in 2008. Rushing from one activity to another, we’re less likely to engage and invest in communities outside of our immediate families.

Social media platforms are taking the place of social gatherings. Cell phones are the preferred method of communication. Even when squished together in public places, we look at our phone screens as much as we do one another.


My husband, Mario, and I lived in Africa for seven years, north of the mile-high city of Johannesburg, on an agricultural holding where our neighbors rode horses on the dirt roads.  It was eight miles away from the township of Diepsloot, where we worked (and played).  We’d come home to our small cottage to hear our neighbor’s geese and peacocks calling to each other, green dragonflies, the size of pencils, resting on bushes. Sunsets painted the sky a violet-red-orange, and Sacred Ibis filled the willow tree that bordered our dirt road. There was epic lightning and rain. Our dusty Toyota Hilux took us to nineteen different countries on the continent, including a forty-seven day trip to the Sudan.

The language of my story informs its narrative, as all language has the power to do. What I haven’t said is that we were part of a Christian ministry team, serving existing churches on the continent. We loved this work, believing we could help. I usually withhold this part of my story unless I know I’m safe. It’s the equivalent of getting naked and showing how the years have taken their toll on my body. My friends who fight for social justice tell me how they detest churches and the hypocrites who populate them. I never know what to say, other than my knee-jerk reaction of, “I’m not a hypocrite!” I want to prove this, but I can’t. I withdraw.  The absence of language betrays me. There are cracks in the sentences, an insincerity of voice. But when I drop the veil and tell you that I was lonely when I was in Africa, and drank wine and martinis just to silence my heartache, you just might empathize.

* * *

Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, studies empathy—our human connection—in the age of digital distraction.

“Quite frankly,” she says, “empathy is in trouble. Too often we find ways around conversation and get our phones. We lose touch with what each other are thinking and feeling.” Empathy is how we’re wired to respond to one another, especially when we see that someone is hurting. Cell phones have accelerated this loss of empathy toward our communities, for the most part.

Last week, I had a rare visit with my sister that led us to a place of some soul sharing.

“Who are you texting?” I asked her, as she picked up her phone while I was talking.

“No one,” she said, putting it down. “I just got a call. My phone is on vibrate, so I shut it off.”

I felt my shoulders relax and unexpected emotions filled me: Relief. Acceptance. Love.

* * *

Our travel schedule for ministry was rigorous, but nothing compared to the demands of keeping my mouth shut. Our team scheduled a trip to Mozambique, a group of villages near the Shire River, where pastor-friends had been asking for Bibles and mosquito nets. The trip was organized for the winter, when the Anopheles mosquitoes—the ones that carry the malaria protozoa like sick junkies —aren’t as numerous.


The village leaders had rented a local community hall, with enough space to camp next door. They arranged meetings, welcomed us warmly, shared fresh fruits, water, and bread. The team guys met in the hall with local pastors; the village women invited the wives to sit down on the logs outside our camp. After a few minutes of socializing, the team wives retreated to start cooking. I stayed with the village women, who taught me songs and greetings in their Shangaan language. Children—wide-eyed and shy—clung to their mothers, which made me miss our new grandchildren. The women seemed to understand, and I felt more connected with them than any of the wives on the team.

Near the end of our trip, our team leader approached Mario and asked to speak to him privately. “Your wife should be sitting with you in meetings—not with the village women. She laughs too loud, and talks too much.”

At first, Mario tried to explain how cultural differences might color this man’s view of me, but Mario could tell our leader had made up his mind. That night, as we went to bed in our tent, Mario told me what was said; I knew he was leaving a lot out.

“I told him to back off,” Mario whispered in the cold darkness. “I assured him that he was wrong. You’re not just an important part of our team, you’re wonderful. It’s sad he can’t see that.”  We were still and quiet, holding each other. From the neighboring tent, I could hear snoring.  Mario’s neck felt warm against my fingers, chapped from washing dishes, one of the jobs I was allowed to do. Sleep came eventually. In the morning, I decided to do what the team leader said, and sat next to Mario in the meeting, while the village women talked outside.

The last day at camp, we met with the village pastors one last time in the conference hall.  There was a feast of music and worship.  Children sang and danced. Then, as a surprise: the village women approached the team wives, singing and carrying woven textiles to tie around our waists.

One by one, the women unfolded pieces of bright fabric to tie around our waists—the four team-wives and me. For a moment, the wives were standing there, in the front of the church, wrapped in colorful textiles and thanking our hosts. Soon, more women came up to me and tied fabric around me—one cloth after another—until I had at least ten cloths around me, compared to the other wives, who only had one.

The Shangaan women, none of whom spoke English, bestowed a blessing of sisterly acceptance, as if they could see the pain and rejection I was trying not to feel. They first allowed the other team-wives to feel their blessing of fabric, and then, unapologetically, gave me more. Wrapped in the multi-colored layers of blessing, in the presence of my accusers, my cup overflowed. My language is clumsy as I tell this story, reaching for the words that I know I’ll never find.

* * *

In 2013, after seven years, we returned to Sacramento. I was exhausted, convinced I’d failed our friends we left behind, and abandoned our calling. I collapsed into the arms of my family and friends—the ones we left behind—and relaxed to the point of vegetation. For about a year.

Sometimes, I’d look around and wonder why I’d ever left my homeland; other times I was furious with the rampant selfishness in my country. I drank more, just to tolerate everybody’s bullshit. I took delight in feasting with cultural foods, pushing back the rumbling volcano of feelings, adding daily to my weight. Eventually, I admitted that this homeland of mine had the same DNA that I did, and we both were in desperate need of grace.

I  joined a community of people who, like me, needed to find their way back to a place of peace. I found my bearings—and faith—again. I started eating organic foods and drinking good water. I got my first smartphone, a computer, and then completed my first college degree, in English. After that, I decided to get an MFA in Creative Writing.

Once I gave up alcohol, sugar and flour, there were only a few splurges left in the culinary world for me to enjoy—one of them was good coffee. At the beginning of my story, this sentence gets carried away by other stories, but in the end, it’s that first sentence that holds all the beauty of my world.

I love how Rumi simplifies it:

“Christ is the population of the world,

and every object as well.

There is no room for hypocrisy.

Why use bitter soup for healing when sweet water is everywhere?”

 

Janet Rodriguez is an author, blogger, teacher, and editor who lives in Sacramento with her husband, extended family, three dogs, and one cat.  In the United States, her work has appeared in Cloud Women’s QuarterlySalon.com, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. Rodriguez has also published essays, stories and two biographies in South Africa.

Her writing examines themes of identity and morality in faith communities, and the mestiza experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is a Cardinal cohort at Antioch University Los Angeles, serving on the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes. Follow her on Twitter @brazenprincess or her personal blog at www.brazenprincess.com.

 

 

A Queer Declaration

Over the weekend, I watched Gaycation for the first time. This investigative series follows Ellen Page and her best friend Ian as they examine LGBTQ+ culture and laws in different places around the world—something that interests me as a queer woman in the United States. While watching and hearing the varied views on the implications of being gay, realizations started churning within me of my own struggles with self-acceptance, inwardly and outwardly, past and present.

Then my phone rang—my girlfriend in Kansas. What are you doing? she asked, always eager to know what I’m up to 1,568 miles away. I told her what I was watching and asked if she ever saw it. Um, no, I think that show is similar to Gay Pride parades for me. Me, head-scratching, as confused as I was about my crush on Avril Lavigne when I was thirteen-years-old: Oh, okay.

I let it go, but after we hung up, I kept thinking of her tone when she compared it to Gay Pride, so I sent a text.

Me: Wait… What’s wrong with Gay Pride parades?

Her: Lol idk… it’s like being expected to drink tequila on Cinco de Mayo because I’m Mexican.

Again, I let it go, but I kept thinking of the Stonewall riots, the 1969 uprising that essentially turned the wheels on LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S., and of all the injustices committed throughout the years against members of the LGBTQ+ community. I thought about how my gay brother hates going to “straight bars,” because you never know what discrimination you’ll face outside of safe spaces, and I thought of all the enraging reasons safe spaces exist in the first place. I thought about growing up in the stifling state of Kansas and how I’d never been to a Gay Pride parade until I was twenty-eight years old and living in California. I wondered if she thought about any of this or if, to her, Gay Pride celebrations were just an excuse to party.

At that moment, I decided, and declared on Facebook:

“I WANT TO WRITE THE MOST ELOQUENT, ACCESSIBLE QUEER SHIT I CAN WRITE TO HELP OTHER QUEER PEOPLE KNOW IT’S OKAY TO BE QUEER.

And, yes, that needed to be in all caps.”

It needed to be in all caps because I was trying to convince myself it was okay just as much as I wanted others to know it was okay.

*     *    *

Growing up in a small town in Kansas, raised by a Mexican father and a German mother, identity was a tricky thing to navigate even without the “queer.”

When I was twelve, my brother asked me to his room, telling me he’d like to talk to me, to tell me something important. I was hesitant—I loved my brother, but we weren’t exactly best friends at that age, so I wasn’t sure what he’d want to tell me.

I stood at the side of his bed, near the door, as he sat at his desk, then turned to me and said, “I’m gay.” Without needing to process, I just said over and over, while smiling, “I knew it, I knew it!” He laughed and asked, in disbelief, how I could possibly have known, causing me to think about all the times he pretended to be Britney Spears, flipping his fake long hair as often as he mirrored her choreography. In hindsight, this wasn’t actually a good indicator of his sexuality, but it happened to be the connection my young mind made. We talked about his experiences up to that point and everything seemed fine. I mean, I knew he was going to deal with hardship with our family and school and the world in general, but everything between us was fine.

I didn’t understand at that point how it could or would affect me, but it became a huge hindrance for my own acceptance of self.

*      *    *

You can’t be gay—your brother’s gay. One gay per family. What I’d tell myself.

You just haven’t slept with the right man yet. What others told me.

I spent the next sixteen years conflicted about my sexuality. I had a couple girlfriends in high schoolmostly only “out” because that’s what they wanted, though it made me uncomfortable to walk the halls holding their hand with all those eyes staring.

My first adolescent long-term relationship ended when I was fifteen. After a year and a half, she cheated on me with a guy from work, and then left me for a boy from school. When she was breaking up with me, she asked in an accusatory tone, “How do you know you’re really gay if you haven’t even slept with a guy?”

The overthinker that I am, I thought about this for weeks. And then I found an opportunity with a male classmate, a guy I thought was cute but who I was otherwise disinterested in. He picked me up in his truck one evening and we drove to a park near my house where he turned off the engine and leaned over to kiss me. As he climbed over the middle console, unbuttoning his jeans and then mine, and then positioning himself on top of me, I panicked briefly, wondering what I was getting myself into. I tried not to let my apprehension show as he brought his body down to meet mine, and then I instantly got lost in thoughts of a girl I admired, picturing her sitting on the steps in front of the school where I always saw her reading by herself. I thought about her and then it was overI’d successfully had sex with a male. And then I thought, Okay, well, now I know.

But I didn’t know, because then the more predatory conversations came, the ones that went: He probably just wasn’t any good. You need to sleep with me to find out.

Again, the overthinker that I am, I thought about that for years. Thus began a pattern of getting blackout drunk and giving myself to men—a pattern that lasted eleven years, starting when I was seventeen, fresh out of high school with no plan for the future. I didn’t question whether I was interested in women; I knew that I was, but I questioned whether I could actually not be into men, because society made it really fucking hard to believe that was possible. I wanted so badly to be interested in mento fall in love with a man, to marry a man, to have children with a man, to give my parents and society what they wanted because everything would be so much easier that way.

But that never happened.

*      *    *

Society, along with many personal demons, had really warped my sense of self.

At twenty-eight, I’d find myself on Tinder, changing the settings from “Women Only” to “Men and Women,” but taking notice that any interest I’d have in men at that point had more to do with self-deprecation. I’d get into these moods of wanting to be used, of wanting to be treated as lowly as I felt about myself, and so I’d swipe right on an influx of men, and I’d read the mostly disgusting messages objectifying me, and I’d respond to a handful and tell them I was only interested in hooking up—but I could never bring myself to follow through.

*      *    *

And so, on episode one of Gaycation (“Japan”), when Ellen Page said how important it was for her to no longer be in hiding and how the level of toxicity of it was just so extreme and wanting to be in love and to love someone openly was far more important to her than being in movies or having someone dislike her for her sexuality, it resonated with me. I was tired of going to family reunions and having to play the game of being heterosexual with my dad’s straight-laced Christian family. I was tired of introducing girlfriends as just friends. But mostly, I was tired of hating myself for not being what made others comfortable, as if their comfort was more important than my self-worth.

I thought of the gay culture I’d experienced since moving to southern California and I thought of how my most recent love interests would ask me how I felt about public displays of affection. I thought of how I’d tell them I’m only sometimes okay with it, and then how sad it made me when they’d later ask, “Am I allowed to hold your hand here?” How they’d follow with, “Are you sure?” when I’d say, “Yes,” because they loved me enough to not want to make me uncomfortable, when all I really wanted was to love them and to be loved by them, regardless of the world around us.

So when I declared “loudly” on Facebook that I want to write the most eloquent, accessible queer shit I can to help others know it’s okay to be queer, I was making a declaration to myself. I was declaring to write shamelessly about my truth and the truth of so many others, of being a woman who loves women and of learning to love myself by accepting that and sharing it with the world. I was promising myself to stop letting society dictate who I am, and who I have sex with, and who I love, and when and where I hold hands with or kiss or even hug the person I love.

Because if I write about it, if my goal is to help other queer individuals shed the shame, I most certainly have to come out of hiding and be about it.

 

Alisha Escobedo is a marketing coordinator and an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She also works as proof edit assistant manager for Lunch Ticket. Her work can be found in Desolate Country: We the Poets, United, Against Trump and Prompts!: A Spontaneous Anthology. Originally from Kansas, she currently resides in Long Beach, CA.

Awakening the Unconscious Legacy [trigger warning]

I dreamt I was a sex slave. One of many, though I couldn’t talk to the others. And every night there was a faceless entity pushing down on me, forcing himself inside of me.

When I woke up, the terror was still there, a tidal wave waiting to crash until my dog licked me to take him out, and the feeling dissipated completely.

Later, while doing my dance of writing, then pacing, then writing, then pacing, my friend texted me to discuss an essay I sent her about a woman’s life of trauma. While we texted back-and-forth about the essay, she apologized to me. I asked why. She said she’s having a funky day from the nightmares she had the night before. I told her apology wasn’t necessary and that I had nightmares too.

“It was scary,” I said. “Maybe it was from an NPR story I heard a couple of weeks ago that’s been stuck in my head.”

I know what trembling presence feels like. A gift man thinks is to his kind. The curse of being born to bodies like mine. I know what it means to strengthen the spine. To lift the weight from solid feet to carry the presence from the bones. Writing wakes the rage fueled by the ever-presence in synapses. Writing makes you sit with senses, with firing synapses forming words, finding space on a blank page. Words hold space. Vibrations. Tones. Waves. Vibrating to the bone. Shaking the core. A taser. Clipped to skin. Electric.

I thought that was why I trembled. I thought wading in memories until words took shape must have sent the shock to my unconscious mind making words perform while I slept. Then, something told me that it wasn’t a memory but a haunting. The ghost of an unconscious legacy, and I didn’t know what he wanted yet.

So, I pushed the ghost aside, and my friend and I casually comforted each other through silly memes and gifs. We chatted about her recent publication and Pushcart nomination. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm for her.

“Yes, it’s very exciting, and I’m honored,” she said, “but no one tells you when you write a rape story, every woman wants to share theirs with you.”

I thought about my recent difficulty with putting myself back in harm’s way to write about my past experiences with boys and men who take up their rite of abuse. I saw my writing as an act of resistance; with my broken bones healed, I could carry the weight of his (of every his) presence. I hoped writing my resistance would inspire others. But I, like my friend, never thought sharing my story would mean sharing their weight.

I listened as she shared stories, but none of the burden; she only held me there for a minute before she shocked me out of it with her twisted humor. Somehow she knew—perhaps from years of service to her community or years of carrying weight that could crush most others—how to carry on with the weight of hers and theirs.

When we got off the phone, I got a text from a friend inviting me to see the keynote speaker at the White Privilege Symposium. A few hours later, I met my friend at the Symposium. We sat down at an empty table as one of introductory speakers began. Their thought-provoking performance put me back in the space of deconstructing white supremacy. In my writing, I put focusing on whiteness aside to bear witness to my experiences as a woman—at the time, I hadn’t quite connected how they intersected.

They introduced the keynote, and I felt the presence of the ghost.

_____

I have felt unwanted fingers slip in while sleeping, waking me to the nightmare of fighting off a boy I thought was my friend. Each time I straddle my legs in stirrups at the gynecologist, anxiety emanates as I’m forced to put blind faith in the hands of the figure in the white lab coat. Many women know this feeling. For this reason, I choose to make my appointments with women.

This appointment, an insertion of an IUD. A nurse asked me how long ago I took ibuprofen. Was I supposed to? I never saw the emailed instructions to prepare for the pain. I started to panic slightly. She told me not to worry; she’d get me some ibuprofen, and the doctor could give me time for it to kick in.

Less than five minutes later, a white middle-aged woman entered. Of course the one time I want the doctor to take her time, she doesn’t. I asked the doctor if she thought I needed more time for the pain medication to kick in. She assured me I didn’t have to worry and that it was a “quick and easy” procedure. I laid back, saddled up to the stirrups, and tried to relax. A quick insertion to keep me—us—worry-free. I have a high tolerance for pain.

Photo Credit: Brittany Horrigan

“This will feel a little cold,” she said inserting the speculum. “This will feel a bit uncomfortable,” as if the proclamation would push any anxiety away. I felt her poking and prodding, fishing around in me. And with it, excruciating pain.

“You have a small cervix. You haven’t had any children?” She asked.

“No.” I was in too much agony to be offended by the assumption that my age meant I had.

“Ah. Here we go. Okay, you’ll feel a little pinch.”

Pinch? Pinch is what your mom does when she wants you to pay attention in church. “Pinch” in this case was a razor-sharp instrument clasping my skin, pulling off all the skin on my body. Except this wasn’t happening outside of my body. It was happening within.

“All set,” she said, rolling back her chair indicating I could free myself from the stirrups. “Sit up slowly.”

She pulled off her latex gloves, handed me a pamphlet, and mumbled instructions. But all I heard was a throbbing, a ringing, resonating throughout my body. Clearly, she had no clue how much I was suffering. Or maybe she did and had forced herself to numb the empathy. How else could she routinely perform procedural pain?

Ringing. A call. For me to answer and shout, “I’m in pain!” But I didn’t. I stayed mute. Like we often do. I stayed mute and said, “Thank you.”

She told me to take my time before leaving, but all I wanted was to get the fuck out of there. I put on my clothes, and while slightly hunched, pressing one arm to my lower abdomen, headed to the line to pick up my other prescriptions.

Oh my god. Please hurry. Fuck. Fucking terrible health insurance too cheap to give the actual care you need.

I clenched my teeth and pressed a little harder. Fuck! The line shuffled steps forward, and I began to sweat profusely. It was winter, and I started to de-layer. Two more people. Please hurry! I reached the counter, and the woman asked for my medical ID card. I moved my arm to grab my wallet, but my hands were claws. My fingers wouldn’t bend or open, and suddenly, I felt faint. I felt my white face get whiter. “Excuse me,” I said and stumbled over to a chair a few feet away. I looked at my feet to ignore the people staring at me.

Somehow, I drove to meet my partner halfway and laid in the fetal position on the passenger side until we reached home.

_____

Years later, I remembered my IUD experience when a story on NPR struck me. The host introduced Denver poet Dominique Christina’s latest book about “Dr. J. Marion Sims, a white doctor considered to be the ‘father of modern gynecology,’” who in the 1800s “experimented on enslaved black women” to discover new procedures for white women.

Christina wrote the book from the perspectives of Dr. Sims and one of the slaves, Anarcha. She introduced a poem from Sims’s perspective, “Dr. Sims Makes Something New,” by explaining how without giving Anarcha any anesthesiawhite people conveniently believed that blacks had a different threshold for painhe used Anarcha’s body to invent the modern-day speculum, an instrument used for gynecological exams:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
She is so easily disassembled.
I take the ruined stock of Eve,
The wilted petals, the spent flesh,
And bring it wire, steel.
Restoration.
Everything we delight in came
First by the blood of a woman . . .

I sat in my car in front of my house frozen, listening. To Sims, Anarcha wasn’t a person, but an open wound to stitch and tear and torture, again and again (thirty times) until his fingers found the right moves, hands ready to repair wounded white women.

Then, Christina read “No Magic, No How” from Anarcha’s perspective:

. . . . . . . . . . . .
blood and shit
Massa-Doctor’s               prayer less ness
what i gotta do Jesus to
get out myself?
huh?
what i gotta do to
junk this here body.
tell me quick lawd.
i’m listenin
i’s ready . . .

But Anarcha was not just an open wound; she was somebody. Somebody who desperately wanted to escape the body being tortured by a body whose brutality will be justified, by a body who will be memorialized by a body of citizens seduced by convenient truths. When the segment ended, I went inside, and Anarcha followed. She haunted me. But I had work to do, so I put my thoughts and feelings to rest. But the thing about ghosts is, what we can’t see doesn’t disturb their presence.

_____

As Dominique Christina walked up to the Symposium stage, I realized she was the poet I heard on NPR weeks before.

“This is an invitation for you to be in your body, to risk feeling everything,” Christina said.

I felt the “pinch;” I felt the forced fingers.

However, in dreams, all of the characters are you. I remembered that I was not just the slave, but also the faceless entity. This time, when the poet read, the skin that cut into Anarcha’s was mine. Everything we delight in came / First by the blood of a woman. It was my choice to let her bleed for white women—for us.

And with it, a new sense not just of what it felt like to be subject to terror, but what it feels like to terrorize—the unconscious legacy of white supremacy buried within.

“Memory is a persistent ancestor; it hangs onto the marrow.”

I don’t know how dreams work, how they grab at feelings buried in synapses. But this was a seance. Dominique Christina a medium. Anarcha’s and Sims’s ghosts hovered until striking. Vibrations. Tones. Waves. Vibrating to the bone. Shaking the core. A taser. Clipped to skin. Electric.

Stunned. Frozen by the waves of words projected, rocketed, shot at me. I was motionless. Without words. I was only with what haunts me: the shudder of lives we terrorize(d). A resuscitated reckoning that white folks must perform.

Pictured: Dominique Christina
Photo Credit: Dominique Christina

Dominique Christina pinched a nerve in me to wake the unconscious legacy of white supremacy and the pain that radiates. As she read and spoke, I knew that Anarcha didn’t choose to subject herself to torture for white people like my partner and me.

“You are a concept, but from the moment you arrive, you are given a construct.”

Christina made me confront the fact that if I decide to have a child when I take the IUD out, I can do so because of what Anarcha and the other slaves were forced to endure. My blood birthed from theirs. Every child is/was born from the torture white people inflict. Every white and black child is a memory. Black children are born with the pride and the pain. White children are born with the guilt and the shame. Black children learn to reckon with and resist it. White children learn to ignore it. But shame and guilt carry weight too. Although white folks have gotten good at putting it back on people of color to carry and have taken the rest and buried it, the ghost of our legacy refuses to leave. He meets us in our dreams.

“I really do engage memory as a radical act. I really do like to re-member, which is to say, I’m trying to integrate the stories back into my body.”

Christina makes sure we remember the pain and not just the science. We live in an open wound. Amnesia cannot dam the blood from spilling. I, as a woman with all other women, suffer living in this oppressive patriarchy, but I, as a white person with all other white people, am trained to ignore how the systems in place benefit white people. Subversion, dismantling the systems that benefit white people, is the only way to mend our wounds and heal. For a white person, resistance without recognition of her place in history denies what haunts her.

What I inherited brings me sorrow, yet avoiding the ghost of white supremacy solidifies his power. To haunt is to inhibit, to reside, to remain. Christina uncloaked the ghost of white supremacy, the whiteness occupying our bodies—he has moved and morphed as we have. I now see that before I can exorcise him and embrace the spirit of resistance, I must understand his presence, his terror, his shape-shifting ability. The unconscious legacy that lives in me doesn’t make me a bad person; this is not a matter of good or bad, but of learning to use eyes. I work to shift his position to my conscious, so I have the perspective needed to examine my place in the space whiteness possesses. I work to move my body, so Anarcha, Christina, and all of the resistance have the space to lead.

 

Kate Carmody is a writer, teacher, and activist. She is currently working on her MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles. At Lunch Ticket, she is a blogger and a member of the community outreach team. Her writing is forthcoming in Stain’d Arts. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her fiancé and dog, Corky St. Clair. Twitter: @KateCarmody8

Being A Stepmother

Being a stepmother is different from being a mother. And maybe that is a good thing.

I date a man with a daughter. I don’t see much of Kate in the beginning, which I understand is intentional. She is only two-and-a-half, and single parents can have rules about these things, not wanting their kids to bond with people they are casually dating, not wanting their children to see strangers affectionately ruffling their parents’ hair, sleeping in their bed.

But after a couple months, I visit the boyfriend and his daughter for a long weekend in Maine. It takes me a plane ride and a taxi and a ferry to get there. I am flattered and excited to have entered the-meet-the-kid-stage. I am also nervous as hell. Kids don’t lie, especially little ones. What if she just hates me?

I come to breakfast our first morning with a turquoise kikoi tied around my head that Boyfriend says makes me look like Keith Richards. Since I’m not used to being upright and conscious on a weekend morning before eight a.m., I’m also incapable of worrying whether I’ve blown it already with the odd headgear. This is good. Instead, I blithely choose to take my new Rolling Stones persona and Boyfriend’s toddler for a morning swim. A little grey stony cove waits for us where the lawn ends. What good is a rented house on the water, if you don’t go in?

Now there is cold water and there is water so cold, it stabs and curls the toes. This is the latter. Stubborn pebbles punch the undersides of my feet as I shuffle in. Such are the joys of coastal Maine in June. The only thing blessedly missing is a thick blanket of fog.

Still, I’m a big girl and the little girl feels good on my hip, thin arms circling my neck, soft belly pressed against my side, thighs locked around my waist. Her father waves to us from the shore, his hair spiky with bedhead, his jeans rolled up to below his knees. We wave, we look at one another, smile, she giggles. I walk in deep enough for the water to catch her toes. She squeals.

“You want to go under?” I say. She nods. “It’s cold,” I warn her. The last thing I need is a wet, crying two-and-a-half-year-old. Maine is lonely without friends.

But something in her expression, a mixture of courage and trust and mischief, convinces me that it’s going to be okay.

One, two, three. I make her count it with me. We’re in this together after all.

One, two, three! And I drop us into the bone-chilling, heart-stopping water.

Are we gasping when we emerge? Yes. Are we screaming? Does Kate’s dripping, stunned face have a look of pure terror? Only for an instant. Is Boyfriend whooping on the shore impressed? Most certainly. But that hardly matters. What matters is Kate.

We shriek, we hug each other tight, we grin from ear to ear, and I hurry us back to dry towels and Boyfriend on the shore. As I place her carefully down at the lip of the water to run into her father’s outstretched, towel holding arms, she looks up at me, shiny, shivering, but radiant. When I smile at her I feel an easy peace come over me. We have had our first adventure, our first experience of complicity, and just like that, I know we are in love.

Her father? I’m not so sure how I feel about Boyfriend yet. But he does look so tender bundling Kate up in the faded striped towel. Rubbing her sides, laughing, telling her she is so brave.

Eight months later I’m walking out of a church, ring on my finger. Boyfriend is Husband and his right arm encircles mine. In his left he holds Kate. The three of us descend the steps to a waiting car and pile in.

Kate sits between us, a flower crown circling her head, black Mary Janes on her feet. She looks like a mini Snow White and it dawns on me that with a simple “I do,” I’ve become the villianess of all her favorite fairy tales. Will she make the connection?

Kate curls into her father, sleepy. She must wish, somewhere in her young heart, that her father had married her mother instead of me. But she’s a kid, so she rolls with it. We all do.

Now stepmothers get a bad rap. We’re evil and conniving. We’re jealous and petty. We’re unloving and unlovable. So bad are the tropes, near strangers used to corner me at kids’ birthday parties after seeing me and Kate hug, me tie her shoelaces, her rush up to tell me one thing or another, things so unremarkable between a mother and daughter you’d cut them from a movie script.

So, these mothers, because it was almost always mothers, would rush up and say, “You’re so close!” And it was like, yes, we are. But the gushing would continue, and I’d add how I got along with Kate’s mother, that I’d been in Kate’s life since as long as she could remember, that Kate’s parents were never married. I’d add all this by way of explanation, because I believe it does, in part, explain things, but you’d be surprised at how many people would still shake their heads in wonder at our bond before they drifted away with the drained looks of real parents trying to parent their real children.

These parents, they tear their hearts up over every conflict. They try to hide it, but they bleed. They speak in measured tones. They are patient. They are trying to be grown-ups, but it’s not easy. These kids, their kids, unwittingly hold up funhouse mirrors and trigger old wounds, activate frustration and shame in the most unpredictable ways. I know this because I am a real parent too. Kate has a younger half-sister. Her name is Madelyn.

I think I might’ve been a better parent to my step-daughter than I am to my daughter.

With Madelyn, if there is too much feeling I start to adopt it, embody it, like the umbilical cord was never cut. I claw my way toward steady ground, toward some kind of healthy emotional distance from which I can parent, from which I can be a mature adult, from which I can be wise and be a guide. But often I lose. I can be reactive, sarcastic, vindictive, withholding. I can be childish.

If Kate was scared, I made her feel less so. If she was unhappy, I cheered her up. If she was angry at me, I didn’t feel angry back. I fixed it. We talked things out. There was something rational going on. Usually.

*    *    *

“You’d never have married me, if it wasn’t for Kate,” my husband likes to say. He’s right. We laugh. What I say less often, but also know to be true is, “If it wasn’t for Kate, you wouldn’t have married me either.”

*     *    *

 

Now, Kate is sixteen and going to boarding school. I blame it on Harry Potter and Dead Poets Society, but then I think too the girl is tired of shuffling from one house to another. She wants a place to call her own.

We throw her a party. It is impossibly hot. Our A.C. is broken and we drape ourselves over chaises on the lawn. Her friends sweat in front of hastily purchased fans and eat caramel popcorn and Chinese chicken salad that practically wilts on the fork. But they seem to be having fun. I fret about the hole Kate will leave in our family when she goes.

For ten years she’s been living here one week on, one week at her mom’s.

One week on.

One week off.

Now it’s just going to be off…

Forever?

As the party winds down, and we lower the music so as not to annoy the neighbors, Kate leaves with her mom and two besties for a sleepover.

Me and my friend Jen, we wave at them and blow kisses as they leave.

“Thank you, Liz, for the party!” Kate says. She looks happy standing on the path, her face rosy and glowing, thick brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. It is dark finally, though not much cooler. The outdoor lights spook up the eucalyptus trees behind her and the wall of bamboo that edges the trampoline.

I feel this immense gratitude welling up inside me, looking at her, this person I’ve known and loved and helped raise since she was a toddler.

I think of getting up from the lounge chair, wading through the water feature that separates us, carpeted with dead leaves, and wrapping my arms around her, but we are so sweaty and really this isn’t goodbyegoodbye. Instead, I continue to grin at her, hoping she can feel the love radiating from my chest.

“Thank YOU,” I shout, my voice cracking like a teenage boy’s. “Thank you for everything.”

I almost starting bawling, right there, but Jen shouts, “For everything! Everything! We love Kate!” like a football chant and Kate shouts, “I love you. I love all of you guys,” and scoots down the steps to the curb.

“She looked really happy,” Jen says, once Kate is gone.

“Yeah,” I say. “She looked loved.”

 

Liz Tynes Netto is a lapsed journalist, TV producer, and current MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is the flash prose editor for Lunch Ticket and she is writing a novel.

 

Finding the Woman with Jasmine: A Self-Portrait

My husband kissed me in the middle of the night eight months ago, but I didn’t feel him leave until I reached for the dip in the bed. We had received Army orders for his deployment overseas and prepared for the reality our family would face. I had lived in Los Angeles for eight years, but four years as a married woman and now mother to our children. The liberties of living “single” looked different now and frightening. I promised to be the same woman he left, a wife waiting, even if that meant reserving an empty space he wouldn’t occupy.

I always held onto the improbability he hadn’t really gone. The day he left—and I knew he left—I ran down the stairs expecting to see him making coffee, but the bench was clean where his boots sat. The hot twinkling from his car engine’s had long left the garage. We were ripped from each other like a Band-Aid.

I bought a calendar for the kitchen wall to count the 321 days he would be gone and fanned the thickness of the months. Vulnerability followed me to the sore places at the dinner table, or on the days I toted our three kids around on errands and another stranger would grin and say, “looks like you got your hands full.”

My husband, a collected military man, would call us twice a day crazy with affection. We set online dates and delayed saying goodbye like we did when we first met, and then I’d feel the rush of sobbing my eyes to prunes.

The early days without a partner can be painfully misleading. His closet was still his. The dip in the bed was still his. My son would cross another day’s box out and we’d cheer together. Missing someone was sweet adrenaline.

*      *      *

The bar was full of superficial intimacy sparking potential affairs. In the corner, a couple too hopeful to be steady, the collagen-plump young eating baskets of bread, carefree arms swooping for hugs but tipping Happy Hour glasses, and the bartender dispensing liquor at the counter. I was a bystander on the outskirts, infiltrating the nightlife crowd carefully as he followed me to an open spot at the bar and offered to buy me a drink.

We were co-workers last year, but the office rapport quickly turned into a warm, platonic relationship. Formal greetings became text updates about his new job, complaints about traffic, his long-term girlfriend, our love of tequila, my husband, our darling children.

Nothing significant over the months, but then a message: “Hey, I have your painting.”

A lithograph I found on a whim at a NoHo thrift store. The woman with cocoa tendrils around her face; a divine and unwavering gaze over the stalk of yellow jasmine she clutched to her chest.

I saw her above the staggering pile of used throw pillows. The cashier, tight-lipped and shrewd, brought her down for me and placed her out of arms reach onto a glass counter. She offered me a price based on my obvious enthusiasm. I surprised myself when I blurted out a barter and received twenty-five dollars off.

My arms bound around the frame all the way to my office. I leaned her against the white space of my desk. She wasn’t hiding anymore.

When my husband left, I decided to quit my job and stay home with the children. It was a hot June afternoon in the valley when I packed my work belongings. The lithograph was the last item on my desk, but leaving was a sweaty, disorganized haul and I had forgotten all about her when I handed in my key. My co-worker had stopped by on his way home one day and found her stuffed in a closet.

Of course, I wanted her back. “Let’s meet,” I replied. Only a quick exchange and a harmless drink.  

*      *      *

My mother had a formula for a love story. She divorced my father when she met my step-father, and they bought a white house together. She clung to that formula for 13 blissful years, but infidelity snuck into the spaces of his body that were abandoned.  

Maybe the entry point for my step-father was an evening out with friends or another woman’s laugh—the woman at work. Maybe it was the fact that he was now 50-years-old and married for 13 years. Maybe it was a refreshing secret phone call or a new image.

I could only assume that when my step-father denied my mother, it was an extraordinary disorder to the equation she trusted for the rest of their lives. My mother lost 25 lbs and moved into her own apartment before they reconciled.

Even after forgiveness, she warned me about marriage. It shook my perception of certainty. Each family member grieved the loss of an image in our own way. I loved like there wasn’t a formula, only catastrophe.

*      *      *

Something happens when you miss someone too long. The longing becomes emptiness, the homeostasis. The shirt was vacant. Space was occupied by stacking one measuring cup into another.

Halfway across the world, my husband woke up for work from a windowless shipping container to sit in an office made from another shipping container.

“How was your day?” these messages came day-after-day. What he really meant was, How were the kids? Conversations like this were the death of marriage without divorce.

I turned over in the bed and went to sleep.

*      *      *

Our conversation began with formalities at the bar. How is life? Plainly—I’m well. When I responded, my body was a bucket, and words sounded like the hollow beat of its bottom.

I always assured my ego I wouldn’t let myself go when I was young, but self-care after motherhood is cumbersome. I traded in the small luxuries for rapid, efficient tasks. My house was a tight ship, my husband used to say. That’s how parts of me began disappearing until I was just a working part in the ship. First, to my husband and then myself.

My haphazard ponytail and black cloak were impenetrable. I was foolish to think it. I hadn’t been close to feeling anything in months, but in the axis of the noisy room, I sensed his leg pressing into mine. My breath quickened and filled my body with the rush of familiar catastrophe.

What came out of my mouth was uninteresting, but later, I noticed my body sitting up straighter. He leaned in closer. Soon, I was weaving stories and throwing my hands in the air. The more I rambled, the more I craved his proximity. He squeezed my hand, and I went on and on. I was aware of my ignorance. The blatant desperation for someone, anyone, to validate my experiences as unworldly: he inquires. Go on, go on. Eyes open, I spilled my desires and ambitions onto the wafer napkin below a wet glass.


*      *      *

He set the lithograph into my car and hugged me like a scene out of a tacky movie. While we walked to the car, he offered a proposition. I would be lying if I said I didn’t hesitate, how quickly I soared over sabotage. I think I’ve won.

Outside of the bar room, slumped bodies hurried alone to their cars. Cabana lights flared off on Main street. The boxes would transform into children’s boutiques and bagel shops by morning. The reality was both heartbreaking and romantic. I stood back from my friend on the edge of the road. Not every self-realization fit in the cloak pocket where I felt for my keys. Not yet.

I felt then the urgency to go home, take my hand, and reach for the empty spaces in bed. On the drive there, I erupted in intervals of laughter and tears. I felt the rush of shame, flattery, loss, and love. Love for the morning coldness on my shoulders. Love for the coffee I brewed myself, and the children’s cereal bowls overflown. My children, who cross their right leg over left like their father and sob like their mother when she spoke to her husband for the first time; after, sitting on the couch below the picture of a cocoa woman clutching jasmine, waiting for him to come home.  

 


Cristina Van Orden lives in South Los Angeles with her family and Chorkie. She is currently an MFA Candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Poetry Editor for Lunch Ticket. Her work can be seen or is forthcoming in Chaleur Magazine, Gordon Square Review, HOOT Review, and Silverneedle Press.

The startling difference between XXY and XY runners

How Roland Barthes Changed My Life

My original piece for this was titled “What It Means to Be Human Today,” but since I was introducing a new paradigm of human man, the post was perhaps ambitious in aim. So I withdrew it. Since I am a waterproof hybrid human being made in part of walrus skin [not], my annoyance with my own misfire rolled right off and theoretically wetted the bellybutton lint and dried port stains under my writing desk.

So why am I still talking about that original post? Because of Roland Barthes.

The startling difference between XXY and XY runners

Hint: there is no difference between XY and XXY.

The point was to illuminate that in my wealth of experience with this, people do not accept the reality of a different healthy human DNA paradigm than the one we are taught in K-12 school, and to illustrate why that is, why it is a human problem, and to share a simple way to take my background and apply it in a productive way to your own differences. I gathered from the feedback, a heavy read on Western medicine’s human difference extermination agenda and Google’s lack of accountability was a bit much to digest.

The gist was, the assumed human chromosome archetypes in Western medicine are XX women and XY men. I am an XXY man, which is not a combination of XX and XY, but a male iteration all its own.

 

XXY is not intersex, but being that it’s different, people generally don’t accept it at face value. Instead, they squirm. That’s probably because the idea that a human might have two sex parts or inclinations—which is not what XXY is—threatens masculinity and gender roles. If men had both a penis and a vagina, what they have done to women personally and societally could also be done to them. They’d be screwed, literally and figuratively. Of course, it’s not that simple.

All you really need to digest is, XXY is the newer, more sensitive, fully capable man. Got that reality? Great, now you can ignore the false facts and misinformation Western medicine preaches (and Google regurgitates) to keep their annual research funding intact instead of doing right by humanity, and you can skip all the hard facts (such as the 280,000 annual terminations of healthy XXY fetuses based on doctor recommendation—not a pro-life argument, but a pro-human statement; or the fact that XXY does not equal Klinefelter syndrome, in spite of what Google and NICHD’s Genetics Home Reference state).

False facts and the truth about XXY chromosomes

False “facts” Google promotes.

On the other hand, if you want to know what the hell I’m talking about, and help me rip the chastity belt off supposed human archetypes, get in touch, especially if you are an agent, because I’ve written a well-reviewed book on the subject, will market it with all the re-appropriated energy of my left nut, and I’d love to be your client. That’s not an ad for me—people need to know the truth.

Then there is Roland Barthes. He knew what was going on.

I had not read Roland Barthes until hours prior to writing this piece. Yet, in the lengthiest of totally roundabout ways, I would never have found his writing if not for my XXY chromosomes. I fucking love XXY chromosomes!

My path to Roland Barthes began in my lower right bicuspid, at the office of my Seattle dentist of eight years. He messed up a root canal, drilling through the tooth root, and pushing the infected nerve through the hole, leaving it on my jaw to writhe in its misery and plot my demise.

The infection spread up my jaw to the trigeminal nerve, a large cluster of nerves just in front of your temple. The trigeminal nerve runs around your eye and ear, then threads inside your skull, where it wraps around one hemisphere of your brain.

It was soon apparent, my nerve intended to kill me.

My dentist left me for dead, refusing to see me to address the problem. I had to fend for myself for five weeks, during which I survived roughly four hundred and twenty prolonged six-minute brain shock treatments (forty-two hours worth), courtesy of my infected trigeminal nerve.

Some people would have smoked a corresponding four hundred and twenty bowls of pot, but being the son of a dead international drug smuggler, I have always preferred to not partake.

I went to my doctor instead, but as brilliant as the man is, he couldn’t figure out how to stop my nerve’s audacious nerve. He dutifully handed me a whopping bottle of Percocet, which I proceeded to hate as it caused my eyesight to go blurry, yet did nothing to dull the pain. He said, “You might have taurodontism because of your XXY chromosomes; that could be the cause of everything.”

He was not right. Taurodontism is when the roots of teeth are expanded and curl under, causing a weak root structure.

My teeth are the opposite, with abnormally long, strong roots, so when a tooth dies, I feel the pain more intensely further up into the soft tissues.

That one incorrect comment, the thought that my chromosomes could be the cause of my pain ignited my social justice mind and my writing.

I want to share with you just how inhumanly painful it is to have your brain shocked for six minutes straight by your trigeminal nerve. It is FUCKING painful (if you know what a point size is [it’s a typography term], increase the word FUCKING by about 97,477 points). The only fair comparison to equate the magnitude of it is pouring ethanol on your scalp and lighting it on fire, while having a ripped bodybuilder squeeze your head in their hands with all the strength they can muster. Oh, and jamming a live wire through your eardrum.

After five weeks, my former dentist sent me to a renowned oral surgeon who said, “People die from this. You are lucky to be alive.” He performed an incredibly painful micro-surgery, sticking hook-nosed forceps down my tooth socket, and placing medicated gauze directly against the nerve on my jaw, which stimulated the nerve to heal itself. He couldn’t numb me up for it because he had to see me wince when he contacted the nerve.

An oral surgeon saved my life with these.

I don’t know how or why I survived, but it is surely in part because of my XXY chromosomes, and to share my stories.

I am one stubborn fucker. I really am. When it is my time, I will climb a mountain if I have to crawl the whole way on my knuckles and knees through a whiteout blizzard. I will see the world fade on my own terms. There was no way I was going to croak from a goddamned root canal, and though I cried humble tears and begged to feel the grim reaper’s scythe pierce the skin of my nape to escape the pain, once I had fought those terrible, wretched nerve shocks for a few weeks, I dreamed deep down that I could beat them. It’s why I kept fighting.

Being stubborn is part of being XXY. If you know when to give in, stubbornness can be a good thing.

The micro-surgeries—there were two—were successful, and one week later, I had survived. Nine years on, I know it was the greatest of all my victories.

There were no long-term negative repercussions. Except the complete dismantling and re-informing of my life.

I had forgotten much of my childhood, but somehow the nerve shocks brought the memories back into my consciousness, and it changed how I related to the world.

The abandonment I experienced during the nerve infection from friends, family, medical professionals, and the financial sector, also changed my relationship to society. I learned that the pillars of our life are a sham, a frolicking fraud, salivating to suck the last dollars out of you before you fall down, a mere bloodless corpse.

Family and friends returned when I was healthy again. The overwhelming positive was, I began writing in recovery, and I never stopped. Before that, I had written one novel, cast it aside, and rarely wrote anything but one of the thousand or so songs I have penned.

I’m not one to rest on accomplishments. After surviving, I had to figure out how to be alive again, and that led me to Antioch University Seattle, where I gained a new awareness of what it means to be human. It’s also where I began writing several books, including the one about my chromosomes.

Creditors attacked when they discovered the nerve issue.

I learned about diversity, intercultural communication, racism, poverty, and writing. I learned I am a natural born writer. My love of reading books was reignited. I discovered how my XXY chromosomes heavily influence how I learn. I wrote four books.

Next, I was accepted into Antioch University Los Angeles’ top-ranked MFA in Creative Writing program. Yet, I still had only a slight awareness of this character named Roland Barthes.

During my MFA, I rewrote the XXY book, wrote a novel about surviving and learning how to be alive again (go figure), wrote much of a collection of short stories, and penned most of a third novel, which I am currently completing.

Oh my God—we’re here! Enter Roland Barthes.

Oh, wait. First, I gotta’ tell you, I fucking hate the French—kidding! I love the Cole Porter song “I Love Paris!” when performed by Les Negresses Vertes. I love riding my bike in southern France. I enjoyed Jacques Derrida’s concept of “The Other.” As a hopeless romantic, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films are among my favorites. People being people, I probably would love the French and their deliciously gawdawful attitude if I could cobble my four years of high school French—which provided me perhaps a grade deux level—into effectively communicating in France.

Anyway, Roland Barthes.

How I came to know Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text was, I wanted to see the whole of America’s K-12 education system leveled and redesigned (forgive my idealism), so that every child and adult learner truly has equal opportunity at an excellent education, without cultural bias, racism, without human difference or financial exclusion, and without learning differences remanding intelligent minds to remedial classes.

I was an A-student in middle and high school, yet today’s standards say XXY boys and men will possess subnormal intelligence. Sadly, parents believe what doctors preach about XXY, even though most doctors do not understand the difference. It leaves XXY kids not connecting with the teaching because they’ve been taught they are not intelligent, when the truth is, they may be abnormally intelligent and bored.

When I gained an awareness of how I learn, I wanted to help people who have experienced difficulty in school born of their own learning differences. I wanted to help them forge connections, and to tell their stories. Because our thoughts and stories are all we truly own.

I applied to the Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing at Antioch Los Angeles to gain a solid foundation and some experience. That brought me to being a Teacher Assistant for Kathryn Pope, who is a natural born teacher, it’s plain to see, her writing classes an experience to behold. Even as her TA, I am learning things about writing that slipped by me previously.

Kathryn Pope brought me to Roland Barthes. Or rather, her bio page on Antioch’s site did. It says, “Barthes once wrote that, for a writer, language is “a field of action, the definition of, and hope for, a possibility.””

The same goes for a reader, for even if they are reading fiction, there is the hope of connecting in the manner of synchronized thought with the author. The reader wants to feel.

The author confirms and expresses dreams, makes connections, and teaches through their text. The author wants to make readers feel.

It is the connection that matters, for connection is playing, just as playing is connecting. Students and writers play with words and thoughts. We connect through them, and we forge a kind of community. Together we raise awareness and inspire change, in ourselves and others.

Teaching, as I have experienced with many teachers, now, at Antioch, is not all that different from playing. There is a brilliance that goes into the arc of an excellent class. The connections between teachers, their material, and students are born of playing with goals and words—reading and sharing histories, experiences, difficulties, differences, and similarities.

I returned to school to relearn how to be alive. To open my mind. To connect. Today, I connected with Roland Barthes’ words. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes said, “If you hammer a nail into a piece of wood, the wood has a different resistance according to the place you attack it.”

His words reminded me that this is not the place for the weight of an argument on a paradigm shift in consciousness around what constitutes healthy human beings. This is the place to enjoy the pleasure of words.

I have learned, in writing and life, it is usually the smallest suggestions that make the biggest impact.

 

Gene Manne recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. He is currently working on his third novel and a collection of short stories. His writing is published in Licton Springs Review, KNOCK, and Lunch Ticket. Find him online at genemanne.com. Read more about XXY at xxytruth.com.

Now What?

I bought this not long after I completed my Bachelor’s. I only looked through it once.

I graduated two weeks ago, but it feels like a year went by. Blame it on the holidays and their ability to warp the passage of time, but between then and now I devolved into a couch potato. I slept in, binge watching as I laid on my mess of a bed. Doing anything more strenuous than holding a pen was too much to handle. It still is. In truth, my brain is still trying to process the fact that I’m finally finished with school.

Being in denial can be helpful if you look at it a certain way. Kinda. It’s reassuring to lock myself in my room and focus on things that don’t matter in the long run. Binge watching crappy shows and living off junk food is much easier than filling out that job application or completing that rough draft that’s due in five hours. Especially that rough draft. To fill out that job application and finish that draft mean accepting that I’m done with school and ready to move on to the next chapter in my life. But I’m not ready. Not one bit.

*     *     *

Growing up, my mother’s family stressed the importance of education. Having a good education meant opportunities, which is why she and her sisters moved to the States in the first place. My grandmother was the most aggressive about it. She didn’t have a chance to finish her education; I vaguely remember her telling me she never completed grammar school, and she wished she had the chance. My mom got farther, making it to college until it got too expensive. Every once in a while she would go back to some online institution, only to drop out soon after. They knew better than anyone the true cost of a good education, and they made sure we knew the sacrifices.

The teachers and counselors became more aggressive as I entered high school.

“Do you want to flip burgers for the rest of your life?” the college counselor asked once during history class.

It felt less like a question and more like a reprimand. If you weren’t planning on going to college, you weren’t giving enough thought to your future. Until two weeks ago at graduation, going to school was—is—all I know. What does a person do after all this? The obvious answer would be to work in the area I got my degree in, to be a writer and do whatever it is that a writer does (aside from writing, anyway). But that’s too simple for my overactive mind to accept. It insists there’s something more to post-grad life when there really isn’t. This is it.

The realization makes me freeze up. Five years ago, I couldn’t wait to be done with school, to finally have a job and get a place of my own. Now, the very thought of these things gives me an anxiety attack. Not because I’m resisting the transition, but because I’m afraid of what will happen when I’m not able to get those things. You can’t fail if you don’t give anything a shot.

*     *     *

My 21st birthday at Dallas BBQ.

About six years ago, I moved to Los Angeles to live with my dad. My decision was a selfish one; it wasn’t to get to know him better as he re-entered my life, but to get away from everything. During my first year of college, my mom was laid off from a firm she worked at for ten years. She told my brother and I not to worry at first, that she would find a job and everything would go back to normal. The weeks turned to months, then to a year, until it became the new normal. I was expected to get a job of my own to help with bills, so I applied to some stores I regularly shopped at. When that didn’t work, I tried everywhere else. Anywhere else—a department store, a salesperson for a pyramid scheme, any coffee shop or bookstore I came across. Every other week, I would come home from campus and Mom would ask if I found a job yet.

It was around this time that I stopped asking myself what getting a degree would mean for me and what it would mean for my family instead. Guilt crept up on me as my grades slipped. I started skipping class on the days I did manage to get to campus on time. All the while, the pressure continued to gnaw at the back of my head until I snapped one evening during yet another argument over how I wasn’t contributing. I turned away from Mom as she yelled at me, picked up the phone and called Dad.

“I don’t want to be here anymore,” I said as he answered. “Get me out of here.”

About six months later, I got a check in the mail from Lehman College. It was my refund from dropping out. It didn’t occur to me to use that money to help me start a new life. I was so focused on getting away from everything that I didn’t fully consider the consequences. So I did what any unemployed twenty-something slacker would do with three grand: I dined out and bought a lot of cheap booze.

*     *     *

I was out of college for a year. The California college system took time to get around, and I had very little patience to learn it. I couldn’t find any college that allowed for mid-term transfers, so I took it as a sign to take a break. For a moment, I wondered if going back was the right idea. It didn’t do me any favors. But then I thought of my mom and grandmother, and how disappointed they would be. Especially my mother, who had lost so much. She never got a job as stable or well paid since. The downside of being a college dropout in your fifties. Going back to complete my degree wasn’t so important anymore. Going back to validate my mother’s sacrifices were.

*     *     *

“What do you want to do after this?”

I’m sitting down with my mentor in his office. I was going into my final project period for my MFA, and talk turned to my post-grad prospects. I told him that I wanted to write, maybe get a teaching gig on the side. Whatever was necessary to let me help out Mom. I never gave much thought beyond that. I just knew it was something I had to do.

He reminded me that writing doesn’t pay much. It’s not enough if supporting my family is my main priority. “What do you want to get out of this program?”

I knew the answer to this question. And yet I felt doubt as I said it out loud. A few months later, he asked the question again. I mailed him my response with the rest of my work, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I told him. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what I want to do.

*     *     *

Dad and I at graduation. Photo by Brad Kessler.

I wrote down a six-month plan for my post-grad life. It’s not much–a list of places I want to get published in and some random errands still waiting to be done. I look at the abandoned plan and make a mental note to go back to it when I have some free time. Despite the fact that it’s incomplete, looking at what I hope to accomplish gives me a small glimmer of hope. I stayed on for another semester to set up an online course. I’m excited, but once in a while the anxiety returns to screw with my head.

The thing about attending school for so long is that you fantasize about your life getting better to the point where you don’t see your goal as a possibility anymore, only as a fantasy. It feels too good to be true. I’ve managed to push through all the bullshit, and it feels surreal to be standing on the other side and realize not much has changed.

*     *     *

The day before graduation, Mom called me. She wanted to tell me how proud she was of how far I’ve come. She wasn’t the only one who said it that week, and she wasn’t the only family member who felt that way. But hearing it from her carries a different meaning. It makes things clearer. The impossible seems possible. For a moment.

 

Lily Caraballo is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles and a figure model. She is a staff member of Lunch Ticket, a former contributor for Black Girl Nerds, and is featured in the anthology My Body, My Words: A Collection of Bodies. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat.

 

 

The Passport Nightmare

They say that as much as the human mind can remember experiences of excitement, pleasure, or boredom, it is incapable of similarly remembering pain. Once well again, we can’t put back together the pieces of agony that ruled our days during illness or after an injury. Scientists think this is an evolutionary necessity—if we remembered how bad pain felt, we’d never do anything physically perilous, never give birth to a second child, never get our vaccine boosters.

I know that this is true not only for physical but also for mental pain because I keep traveling abroad even though if I could ever properly remember the pain of international travel I might never leave the U.S. again.

A few weeks ago I had cause to remember this, during a long drive home. My partner was behind the wheel when we started talking about how excited we were to go to the Dominican Republic with her sister and parents. Our flight was due to leave in three days.

“Hey, do you mind checking in my purse to make sure my passport’s there?” she said.

I grabbed her purse from the back seat and fished around. “Here it is,” I said. I flipped through its stamps and visas. Then I stopped, feeling a little dizzy. I said, “When we pull over again we should check my passport, too.”

“Why? Are you worried it’s missing?”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s in my backpack,” I said.

“Then what could be wrong?”

I sighed. “I’m a little worried it might be expired.”

When we stopped on the side of the road in Santa Nella to swap seats, I found my passport and flipped it open. Reader, it was expired. It had expired three months earlier. When I told my partner, she didn’t say anything. I sat back in the car and then got out so I could scream into the Central Valley night. I felt so bad, so stupid.

You see, this vacation meant a lot to my partner and her family: it was their first real vacation since her mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer and her dad had finished selling her childhood home. It had been a tumultuous few years, but for months we had been looking forward to Christmas with them in the tropics. And it had seemed especially important after a health crisis with my partner’s father had forced them to scuttle their plans to visit us over Thanksgiving. Further, my partner and I were hoping to spend Christmas together for the first time. There was a lot riding on the fact that we were going to have a relaxing week together.

I screamed into the dark night remembering all of this and feeling the anguish of having ruined everything. I felt so ashamed.

Done screaming, we had to keep driving. We were still five hours from home. At first I could only shake my head and laugh ruefully. It seemed a singular screw-up I had committed. But as I settled into my mental anguish, the pain, which at first felt singular, did what pain always does. It reminded me of other, similar pains.

Slowly—one memory at a time—I pieced together that, basically every time I’ve tried to leave the country, through some screw-up or another, my travel plans have almost come to naught.

 

There was the time I took the subway from my friend’s apartment in Williamsburg out to JFK International Airport in Queens. I hadn’t looked up the travel time and was surprised to find that it took almost two hours to take the subway to the airport. And then when I got there, I realized that I didn’t know what airline my flight was on—all I had written in my notebook were the call numbers: AF158. (I didn’t have a smartphone then.) I guessed that it was Aeroflot, the Russian state airline and so got off at Terminal 2. A kind bookings agent there informed me that AF stood instead for Air France, which left from Terminal 1. “Run,” she said, and I did. I was the last person on the flight.

Probably the worst was the time when I went to India. I thought leaving three weeks to get a visa would be long enough, but I was wrong. The Indian Consulate in San Francisco had recently decided to outsource visa processing to a private company. The only way to get a visa was to mail your passport, two headshots, and a check to the address listed online. I did so and then didn’t hear anything back. As the date of my departure got closer and closer, I spent longer and longer lengths of time on hold with this company’s customer support line. I had a ridiculous clamshell cell phone at the time, and after two hours on hold I would have to plug it in. Usually after about three hours someone would pick up, but they couldn’t promise very much. Finally they told me it would be ready for pick-up at 4:30 p.m. on the day of my flight, which left at 11 p.m. I remember my feeling of wonder when I had the passport in my hands, with the visa pasted in. We went straight to the airport.

Or maybe the worst time is when I had an eleven-hour layover in Moscow and tried to stay awake the whole time, only to fall asleep in front of my gate an hour before departure. I awoke with a start and was surprised to find that nobody was boarding the flight: it had been moved to a gate on the other side of the airport. I sprinted there but was too late. The airline refused to rebook me. I was distraught, almost crying, until I realized that for about $20 USD I could take a sleeper train to St. Petersburg and skip paying a night’s rent at a hostel.

 

I could go on, of course. I’ve been blessed to make four extended trips out of the U.S.A. and two shorter ones—by grace of grants to study abroad, a deep devotion to living cheaply, and the blind faith that one of my parents would buy me a plane ticket home when the money ran out. My travel has also been enabled by a fair amount of dumb luck in those situations when a lack of forethought seemed headed for disaster.

But just as often, those in charge have taken an interest in my case and helped me out. The folks in charge of granting Indian Visas eventually agreed to speed up my application in time for my trip. A Public Security Bureau agent in Urumqi, China, once granted me a special 30-day visa so I could continue backpacking around Xinjiang and Tibet. And when I went to the wrong terminal at the last minute at JFK, someone from the airline escorted me to the front of the security line and made sure I made it on my flight.

So much of this must be due simply to me being a white American man. I am always getting a second chance, some help at the finish line, or a special dispensation. This is what people mean when they talk about privilege: the way that the systems that undergird our world can really be looking out for you if you look like me. I have tried this privilege, and I can report that it is an unbelievable relief to land on your feet after doing something idiotic.

Unfortunately, not everyone is experiencing the world the same way I am. Some people reading this miss their flights even after doing everything right, showing up early, checking every box—because of their name, their nationality, or the color of their skin. Maybe you can’t pick a visa up in person because you live far from a consulate. Some of you can’t afford to take time off and travel at all. And some of you are nervous in your own country that a police officer could stop you for having a tail light out and thereby set into motion your ejection from the U.S.A. into a country you have not been to since you were two years old. I feel blessed not to face these problems—and at the same time furious that others do.

This feels particularly pertinent now, when the current administration is hell-bent on keeping out people who look certain ways, speak certain languages, and worship in certain traditions. Over one thousand children seeking to live in our country have been separated from their parents and kept in cages. The inept government agency that tore them from their parents’ arms didn’t even keep enough records to reunite many of the children with their families after the policy of family separation was putatively cancelled. And as I write this essay, the government is shut down, its workers furloughed or forced to work without pay, because the president demands money to build a physical embodiment of the urge to reject others. The fight to extend privilege to all human beings is a project that has rarely felt so embattled.

 

But there in the deepening Saturday evening, driving up I-5 and looking out for the off-ramp onto 580, it seemed like even the privileges accorded to 21st-century white American men weren’t going to be enough to get me a passport in time for our Tuesday flight. Sketchy agencies with names like “Fastport Passport” and “Swift Passport Services” promised to overnight your photo to a nearby passport agency—for $569. We called a listed 1-800 number to see if someone on the other end could talk us down from our state of terror, but the number rang a dozen times and a dozen more before we hung up.

We sat in silent in our bucket seats, half-blinded by oncoming headlights, thinking about what Christmas apart would mean.  My partner dived into her phone, and I drove. The cruise control carried us at a steady 80.

“Hey, listen to this,” she said. “I’m reading Yelp reviews of the San Francisco Passport Agency. Did you ever hear of a government agency with almost five stars? This is crazy. Here, let me read you one: ‘So impressed with this government agency! They were so organized, and helpful. I didn’t realize I needed a passport for my infant and wasn’t able to get on my 7 a.m. flight. So I headed to the passport agency and had a passport by 3:30 same day, and was able to make an evening flight! Seriously, so amazing.’”

We both laughed nervously, and then I begged her to read more. Then I begged her to read even more. There were so many happy stories here. So many tales of people in the same situation I had put us in. Over and over again, people said that they knew it was their own fault, but that the passport agents had been kind, professional, and efficient. We laughed and kept our fingers crossed, feeling that our doom might jam after all, that Christmas might in fact not be canceled. Five hours later we made it home, feeling wrung-out and utterly exhausted.

Monday morning we drove to the city, parked the car in a garage, and by 10:30 a.m. we were through security at the San Francisco Federal Building. The passport office is on the third floor. You can only go there if you have travel plans within the next two weeks. I waited in line for an officer to check that I had the correct documents. I didn’t have an appointment, so I had to wait in a special zone for the line to die down.

This gave me an opportunity to look around the room. There were Americans of every race, age, and religion in that room. Hijabis with strollers sat next to old white guys in Vietnam vet hats. In the “no appointment” section a young Hispanic woman there with her partner and two kids tried to calm down a solo white woman who claimed to have been waiting since seven in the morning. An electronically generated woman’s voice kept announcing variations on, “Ticket C-127 will be seen at Window 17.”

I once spent four days in a row waiting six hours in front of the Chinese embassy in Moscow only to give up on ever getting an appointment, so I was ready for a long wait. But within half an hour I was put in a different queue, and soon my documents were accepted by a nice Chinese-American woman who commented on my Hong Kong immigration slip and convinced me to check the box requesting a passport with extra pages in it. By 1 p.m. we were eating a giant feast of hot pot over in Chinatown, and at 4 p.m. I received my brand new passport. Christmas was saved.

In the elevator down to show my partner the new passport, I met an older Latino father and his handsome son. We quickly showed off our fresh passports to each other, and the old man beamingly told me that his son was about to graduate from college and was going on an international trip. The three of us felt so light, so relieved, that we shook hands when I got off on the second floor. I felt so happy in that moment to think that not only had my passport nightmare been resolved but the passport nightmares of every eligible citizen—regardless of skin color, language, or religion—are daily being resolved by these hardworking federal employees. Thank you, San Francisco Passport Agency.

 

And that would be the end of the story, but I have to tell you: in celebration of our success, my partner paid for a barber named Vega to give me the hairstyle I had when I was four and ever since have dreamed of having again: a glorious mullet, so short in the front and far past my shoulders in back.

 

 

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.

#VirginiaWoolf, #Instagram, and #Feminism

#ARoomofOnesOwn

I set out to make my home office a space where I could create. Soon, though, winning Instagram’s approval took over.

What would Virginia Woolf do?

Upon entering Antioch’s MFA program, I challenged myself to understand stream of consciousness technique and committed to reading lots of Virginia Woolf. Her lush descriptions of decor got me thinking about Instagram and its barrage of lifestyle imagery.

Woolf protested Victorian ideals—in particular, women remaining at home with no financial autonomy. So, I often wonder if she admired the cozy, sun-filtered domesticity her fictional female characters embodied or scorned it. And, with an eye toward modern times, I wondered:

Is our current portrait of aspirational domesticity, perpetuated by Instagram, antifeminist?

I guess I’m not the only one wondering what Woolf would do. In the December 2018 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Martha Cooley explores Woolf’s “Three Guineas” essay.

Cooley writes, “Here, it’s intriguing to imagine what she would have made of social media and women’s roles in their use. Would she have found Facebook or Instagram, for instance, encouraging or discouraging of intellectual liberty for women?”

Certainly, Woolf would have found the barrage of lifestyle imagery Instagram promotes distasteful and constricting.

Or would she?

Woolf wrote in her revised “Professions for Women” essay: “But this freedom is only a beginning; the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared.”

I think of my home office, replete with den-like cobalt blue walls, a built-in bookcase, and art pieces I’ve sourced in the last decade. When I quit my last corporate job to pursue graduate school and work from home for a family business, I vowed to make the space cozy but inspiring—a place to create. A room of my own, but to be shared with others—my husband when he curls up with a book in the corner armchair, our houseguests when they want to sit and talk writing process with me.

Critic Emily Blair points out that, in “Professions for Women,” Woolf again gives domestic interiors the power to “define feminine identity.” Blair writes, “the challenge is to refill the ‘bare,’ empty space with interior redecoration, and this redecoration includes establishing conditions, ‘terms,’ for how to manage social relations.”

#DepthinStillness

A tool to show off “redecoration,” Instagram establishes its own social constructs, from dinner parties to fitness lifestyles to pet ownership to parenthood. Many think pieces written in the past few years skewer Instagram’s high school popularity contest algorithms, its alienating and competitive nature, and its negative effects on our collective mental health.

In Woolf’s masterful, stream-of-consciousness domestic novel, To The Lighthouse, the Ramsay family summers in a Victorian home on a Scottish isle. The lighthouse on a neighboring island shines its consistent, rhythmic lumens on the Ramsays’ domestic life. This light-filled motif for consciousness is one Woolf returned to often, comparing life to a “semi-transparent envelope”—a “luminous halo”—in an essay entitled “Modern Fiction.”

Over and over again, Woolf demonstrated Mrs. Ramsay committing small physical acts within the confines of the Ramsay summer home. These routine acts signify a world of concurrent emotion swirling in Mrs. Ramsay’s head and heart. Even if Woolf revolted against domesticity in theory, her work championed the teeming brainpower of the women of her time, women who wielded power over their households.

Jambalaya in a cast iron pot, reminiscent of Mrs. Ramsay’s dish.

One look at the domestic life of Mrs. Ramsay, peering into her dish of beef stew, reveals a sparkling, warm charm.

After her son becomes engaged, a sensation rises in her “at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival…at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands.”

This scene could be the caption for a glowing kitchen in an Instagram post—an advertisement for a stylish cast iron Staub pot.

Mrs. Ramsay’s vivid, visual reaction to her son’s engagement also brings to mind the Wedding Industrial Complex that litters Instagram, clogging eager brides’ feeds with an aesthetically pleasing lifestyle that is nonetheless for sale: beaming young couples and Woolf’s decorative garlands, lovely and locally sourced flower crowns.

Woolf distilled the complex thoughts and emotions of Mrs. Ramsay—and of Victorian women in general—into singular, near-photographable moments. All readers living in an era over-concerned with capturing the gorgeous mundanities of life—the Instagram generation—should read Woolf. Without the aid of a #VSCOcam app or the benefit of a #paidcollab with Pottery Barn, without aspirational imagery, with her words alone: Woolf teaches the reader to recognize depth in stillness.

#CurrentDesignSituation

However, I do wonder if Woolf would get onboard with the amateur interior stylists that populate Instagram.

I love to nest and decorate. I moved around a lot when I was a child with my then-single mom, but I always craved the stability of an immoveable home. As an early technology adopter, I’ve been Pinteresting home décor ideas since 2009.

Despite my utter lack of interior design training, a love of vintage chairs in dire need of reupholstering, and a commitment to never paying full price for furniture, I aimed to impress my Instagram followers with my home designs. My husband says I have a furniture problem like he has a motorcycle problem—I always have to bring home the orphans. The just-a-little-broken ottomans and wobbly end tables.

I aim to create a space in which we can live, create, work, and entertain. The charm of worn wood furniture contrasted with new, gleaming appliances is an aesthetic of careful balance, modern but cozy, clean but a little bohemian, that I study in books and blogs and attempt to replicate in my home. Instagram at first seemed like a viable platform to display these efforts.

However, in the past two years, my commitment to gaining followers and “likes” on Instagram based on my interior decor reached annoying levels. In short, I tried to impress people I knew and didn’t know, and probably irritated everyone around me.

“Look at me! I own a home! Look at me! I installed a lamp!”

I am sure the “I’m better than you at #decorating” cattiness and conspicuous consumption—shoppable accounts, perpetual ads, paid designer/product collaborations—that Instagram breeds would not garner Woolf’s approval. She noted her anti-advertising sentiments in more than one essay.

Mrs. Dalloway presents a less troubling, more communal view of domesticity. Woolf projected Clarissa Dalloway’s party as Valencia-filtered images of domestic revelry—the charming, chiming brass clocks and pleasant tinkle of crystal; the beautiful, sharp Clarissa in her mended emerald dress; the spirited conversations between guests.

Photo by Stacie Flinner for MyDomaine‘s August 2018 feature, “How To Decorate Like Your Favorite Fictional Character.” This is an interpretation of a Mrs. Dalloway room.

For those with hopes of styling their own apartments or homes with whimsy, grace, and style, Woolf’s well-crafted words in Mrs. Dalloway are the literary embodiment of #DinnerParty, #AnthropologieHome, #KitchenGoals, #FoodPorn, and #DIYLife. Woolf was better at the language of aesthetics than Instagram ever will be.

Instagram—or rather, the platform’s trove of buyable pastel “BOSS BABE” art—is photographic proof we live in a time when we can declare many lifestyles feminist, as long as we recognize the equality of all humans within their respective stylish spaces. I believe Woolf would find our world fortunate that, less than 100 years after the publication of To The Lighthouse, we can embrace both femininity and feminism in interior décor. The domicile is no longer a tool of female oppression, especially in a post-recession economy with flexible employers who, more and more, allow employees of all genders to sometimes work from home.

A domicile that, algorithms be damned, I still want to decorate, to adorn with kilim rugs and strategic, soft lighting, with mid-century modern furniture and fluffy shearling pillows.

Are we not supposed to want this prettiness? Am I a shallow, image-obsessed idiot? Am I a victim of consumerism-driven culture?

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

#TopplethePatriarchy

 After seeing a few too many Instagram ads hawking unaffordable silk pillowcases and artisanal ceramics, I realized I was feeding into the system. Instagram’s algorithms track Likes and hashtags, using them to monetize user content, assigning users and their images worth on engagement, likability, and revenue-generating potential. The second I posted photos of home improvements to social media, the platform profited off my creative efforts and, frankly, my decorating expenditures. I spent money so Instagram could make money. Ad-busting Woolf would have been displeased.

I also realized I was not doing right by my fellow feminists. Instead of building women up, I pushed them down. Instagram doesn’t have a conscience about feeding our collective image obsession at the expense of its users’ psyches. Every styled corner and artistic tablescape I posted seemed designed, via the algorithms, to make other users self-conscious.

Even after unfollowing all the accounts that made me feel not fit enough, not hot enough, not hip enough, not enough of an artist, not a good enough cook, I would still welcome more of Woolf’s consciousness—that “semi-transparent envelope” or illumined halo of life—to my feed. I’d rather read captions accompanying stunning home imagery that reveal the true difficulties behind the photo shoot—the toddler vomited, the dress hem tore, the sink broke, the basement flooded. Better the long, real, raw story than the vapid and unconvincing:

#bestday #bestlife #blessed

Apartment Therapy featured this Instagram account in its March 2018 feature, “How A New Wave of Feminism Is Changing Decor.”

As I debated setting my Instagram account to private, I turned again to “Three Guineas,” in which Woolf advocated for an Outsiders Society, a pacifist, media-skeptical, women-led group. Members of this Outsiders Society should “increase private beauty” and “extinguish the coarse glare of advertisement and publicity.”

So long, paid Instagram accounts and Kardashian selfies.

Private beauty includes appreciation of the aesthetics of both nature and the domestic, Woolf wrote: “the beauty of flowers, silks, clothes…the scattered beauty which needs only to be combined by artists in order to become visible to all.” As long as Outsiders Society members reject fascism and the ornamentation that goes with it, Woolf implied we can enjoy all the leather bound books, sculptural objets, and just-because bouquets we want.

I’m relieved; I delight in decorating with fresh flowers and books with artistic cloth covers.

“… Woolf was way ahead of most of us,” Cooley continues. “She admonishes us to keep our eyes on actual power structures, on the real workings of domination.”

I see what Woolf meant. Ensconced in our chic blankets, we should call out publications that publish only cisgender white males. Using our quirky floral stationery, we must write back to a potential employer that asking whether we plan on having children is an inappropriate and illegal inquiry, designed to curb women from climbing corporate ladders. While sipping our French press coffee, we need to remain skeptical of our president when he says or does literally anything.

Fostering “private beauty” requires enjoying cocktails while perched on leather poufs atop pretty rugs in our living rooms, scheming with friends who also want to topple the patriarchy. We won’t take a single photo while we plan. Instead, we’ll appreciate the spaces we’re in, designed for our comfort rather than for consumption. That’s what I think Virginia Woolf would do.

The bedroom in Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s former home in East Sussex, England. Photo by David Ross.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead blog editor and weekly content manager for Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch TicketLitbreak Magazine, Reservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.

Everybody’s Child

Dear Dad,

I’m writing to you for help. Weeks now, I’ve attempted to find a song or an image that best summarizes this holiday season. From harvest to final ball drop, I can’t seem to choose. I’m under a deadline, but the noise, Dad. Honking cars, helicopters, the news. Too much to integrate. Deafening tinnitus ringing louder than sweet silver bells. What am I to do?

Santa never meant that much to me. True, I helped set out home bakes and spent eves pressed against a cold window straining to spot his sleigh. Sleep won out every time. Your old dress sock greeted us each Christmas morning filled with Wrigley’s gum, playing cards, lip balm, and other oddities. We’d run to each other’s rooms and share our begotten loads with such excitement. Your belly laugh and the mystery of your sneakiness made Santa a chump.

“Away in a Manger” isn’t quite the right tune. Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus made less impact on me than the Gospel intended. Yes, I still put out Grandma’s nativity scene each year—even with the superglued goat’s head and the cracked manger. Some items are sacrosanct, though setting up the crèche is merely habitual.

Maybe I should write my own dedication?

An Ode in extreme brief to the year 2018:

“Oh, Hallelujah Chorus and get the Hell out.”

Um…You’re a George Frideric Handel singing fan. My apologies.
Let me try again.

An Ode in brief to the year 2018 (revised):

“As ornaments nestle all snug in their bins, menorahs lay tightly wrapped and tucked in. The cards are all stacked and handled with care. Lights, candles, wraps, and tape hide away there. Dazed children buzz on new screen time highs. The rest of us burp our collective sighs. Let us raise a toast to attempt good cheer. Clink glasses, my friends. Adieu 2018, what a terrible year.”

While this may have been a good twelve months for the shortlist, 2018 broke records in sucking the rotted tooth goo from an evil-eyed goat. Checking the news, reading blogs, personal essays, op-eds, and interacting online affirms my assessment. (Sorry Dad, I forgot you’re fond of goats.)

Sure, peppered among les misérables are those freshly married, graduated, babied, newly housed. But mon père, bad times have smacked the world. Puerto Rico had no electric power for 11 months. Brexit stalled. Russia, Cambridge Analytica—those were investigated— while our president and the newest Supreme Court appointee slid on by without consequence. We watch them all playing Jeux Sans Frontières like little children’s games. Rules aren’t rules when they change mid-play.

This negativity spans the whole year (and you know I’m nauseatingly positive). Our Congress marches closer toward leasing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: a 1.6 million-acre leasing plan. Oil for SUVs. Fat checks to our oil kings. Griming the atmosphere as the administration rolls back clean air regulations.

Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to step down when her term ends. Germans are pushing back against her immigrant hospitality.

…That couple over 2000 years ago. They are forced to travel on foot and must stop to give birth in unclean conditions. Times are dreadful for these displaced people seeking refuge.

*          *          *

See my struggle, Daddy? How do I find the musical score or icon to help recount compounding suffering? There is no arc, no Act I, Act II, or Act III. New Year’s is almost nigh and I’m running out of time. What heavenly image speaks to me?

Recently and in a concentrated dose, the firmament opened up and rained dévasté upon the Southland. We didn’t need chaos, though rain would’ve been divine.

November’s election besieged Los Angeles. Infernal, violent, with chilling irony, stories glutted the news. On November 7th, a Ventura County bar, filled with college students, hosted a line dancing competition that ended in slaughter. Some of these young brights survived the Las Vegas shootings only to die a few miles up the 101 freeway. This assault that killed 12 was the 307th mass U.S. shooting in 2018. But within hours, grieving families and friends no longer had the country’s outstretched arms. Gunfire was upstaged by real fire. Celebrity, high-profile fire. Malibu Style.

Not everyone had private fire rescue teams.

In the Woolsey firestorm while a close family’s home burned down, our son was called to Malibu.

FRIDAY, NOV. 8th 5:00 am
GET HERE
SHELTER IN PLACE
KEEP WATCH

We didn’t know how he’d survive. Do you remember that moment in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds when Tom Cruise lets loose the tight grip on his son’s jacket? The valiant youth pushes away to join forces against the intelligent invaders. We watched our son go. Four days later, he made his way home.

Just hours before leaving, Nathan had barely processed the Ventura bar attack. He’d faced a tragic mass shooting at his university. The close family lost everything: a double-wide in a hidden paradise of overgrown hills dried out from human-influenced climate change. They’d lived together bringing love and peace to everyone who met them. Their one-month-old baby wasn’t hurt. Thankful, his parents grieve the quiet, healthy land he would’ve played on where toys, blankets, books, and clothes burned.

Dad…just days before the fire, I couldn’t sleep. The 6th sense vigil had begun. 4 am and staring, electric and tense. When the text came, I didn’t shudder. Mom. Her brilliant brain filling with water. She’s left with confusion, paranoia, fear.

Now she has entered that long goodbye. There’s no rescuing her.

I strain to hear her voice but no longer can.

Once, we sang the duet, “He Shall Feed His Flock Like A Shepherd” from Handel’s Messiah. I don’t remember where. Do you remember? Our voices were the same bells. Mine higher than hers. The message echoes the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming the Messiah would be lowly born and exalted a king.

He would grant his believers rest. Do you rest from your labors?

Well— Mother Mary couldn’t rest from hers! Travail is the French word for labor pain. This might be the right descriptor for our year, 2018.

I question why a story was written describing a birth where the mother and father were cast out, facing hardship and suffering, and were met with one person’s kindness. Not much of a kindness, but when there was no room at the inn—when all denied them—he gave shelter.

You taught me to fact check:

The family had to travel due to King Herod’s persecution, according to The Book of Matthew. It was the Roman census, some theologians add. Historians state that people were conscripted to physically announce themselves to the nearest city’s census center, but there was no hardship laid upon Joseph and his expectant fiancé to arrive in Bethlehem. Jesus’s holy birth doesn’t match the Roman census inception dates.

Whether this is a child’s story or sacred text lauding the King of Kings, Christ’s mom and dad could use a little fine-smelling frankincense and gold. And how about this year’s crop of medicinal myrrh?

We could all use three star-gazers looking beyond, following a sign, reading omens.

This image grabs my attention.

The three wise men may have spotted a heliacal rising; a planet hoisting sail before the sun fully lit. Added to this marvel, the planet could have managed to hover. Greek astrologers called this epano when a planet pauses then changes direction from east to west. In such remarkable skies I can see why they may have considered this baby royalty.

But the lowly barn…born in poverty…crossing unknown lands…

I realize for weeks I’ve been replaying the same musical measures in my mind.

Closing my eyes, I see the Memorial Hall stage. Chatter hushes as the house lights fade. The Maestro enters. Adagio strings wake the night sky. They dance behind a dimly lit scrim. The silken film illumines a ballerina wrapped in opalescent fabric unfurling in chainé turns: The Eastern Star. My young body barely sits, anticipating your entrance. From stage left, appears each wise man: King Melchior, King Balthazar, and finally you, the tenor, singing the role of King Caspar.

Gian Carlo Minotti’s Amahl and The Night Visitors remains the last great performance you offered after putting your opera career aside to conduct music and instruct. Later, our opera company employed People of Color to portray the Kings, a decision you applauded.

Christ’s iconic origin story is rendered for a deeper reason, as a relatable symbol who would grow up to wash feet, pray with outcasts, and minister to sick and bereaved. Enslaved people, the misunderstood, those judged and unheard, they would relate to such a leader.

People have been crossing lands to escape persecution, tyranny, poverty, and torture for centuries. Currently, over 625,000 Muslim and Hindu Rohingya were forced out of Myanmar. An estimated 5 million Syrians have sought refuge. Yemenis claim no country will take them. The few who make it out—even the doctors who stay and help who cannot feed their families—describe cholera, diphtheria, starvation, and violence. A human catastrophe.

Horace Mann, the great educator said I’m supposed to be ashamed to die until I’ve won a victory for humanity. You taught me these words first.

Daddy, how can I make a difference?

This year has been horrible. I hear people say this in the grocery line. They’re ready for Father Time to bring down his mighty scythe and slice 2018 off into Auld Lang Syne.

Closer examination shows a historical relationship between death and new beginning. Chronos passes the great hat to the New Year’s Baby and we make our resolutions. To clean the slate and make reparations dates back hundreds even thousands of years. Looking for goodness and light—
Goodness and your favorite word to describe babies: mirthful.

Daddy, I have good news:

An Ode in extreme brief to the year 2018 (Mirth Announcement):

“Born at 3:55 am on November 7th – Our great-nephew brought families together in a moment of pure celebration, a beacon.”

Glad tidings of great joy. Behold, a baby brings us out of the darkness.

*          *          *

A month later, a child died while in border patrol custody.

I walked down Washington Blvd. with friends. Subdued, I slowed my pace, stopped and turned to my good friend André Hardy Sr.

I can’t get the news out of my mind.
It’s with me in here.

My palm ached against my breastbone.

That’s because she’s everyone’s child.
When you know it then you accept that we’re all connected.

We began walking again.

André, they don’t even know her name.

Days later, the nation learned 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin’s name.
She was our responsibility. Hungry, high-fevered, exhausted, Jakelin died at the feet of this nation.

Not the first immigrant to die. Not even the first this year. Now, another child dies on Christmas Eve.
8-year-old Guatemalan, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez. Let there be a reckoning.

Jakelin is everybody’s child. Felipe Alonzo-Gomez is everyone’s child.

I boast no promises, understanding how small a life of service registers. What I’ve done and left undone, what’s wrong all around me; there’s more to unwork than I could ever tackle, and much more suffering left unsaid. But Father, you taught me a great truth: Mercy is stronger than a wall.

If kindness is an act of sedition, then I am guilty. I will kind my way through another year. Thank you for showing me how.

Your loving daughter,

Andrea

 

Andrea Auten is a writer and arts teacher. At Lunch Ticket, she is the Assistant Managing Editor of Social Media | Community Outreach and Marketing. A graduate of the MFA and post-MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles, she is currently working on her short story collection. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons, the family cats, and just down the 101 a piece, her new grand-nephew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In and Out

I learned to breathe in Virginia Beach, at the age of thirty-six. We arrived there in April of 1999―the cusp of a new century. Our little family of four: my husband, Bob, and our two young daughters, Kiran and Priya. Three thousand miles of water became the bulwark against our previous lives in London, England.

Bob’s new position was with the same employer, but his commute was now twenty minutes to Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval station. We were often asked, “Are you military?” We weren’t. And also: “Which church do you go to?” We didn’t.

After twelve years of marriage, Virginia Beach offered us the freedom to become a family of only four, far away from the interference of peripheral members― the root cause of our frequent, heated arguments. I had to decide if I wanted another child. And consider the repercussions of giving birth to another not-boy baby. I didn’t know how important it was to Bob that he have a son; it seemed to be the only thing that mattered to his mum. Stuck in the borderland between his mum and me, Bob had found an escape route, across the Atlantic.

Priya was a beautiful bundle at three-and-half years old: shiny long curls; symmetrical face; a loud, smart, free spirit; irresistible. She turned heads wherever she went. Nine-year-old Kiran had had to leave her diverse clutch of school friends behind; the bonds that had been developing since their first day together at the attached public preschool, around six years prior. They were bold, confident, imaginative, and always had such fun together. Kiran didn’t complain, though the move was probably hardest on her.

In the summers we rode the Elizabeth River Ferry between Downtown Norfolk and Old Towne Portsmouth, warm breezes caressing our faces, water droplets baptizing. The girls giggled with incredulous delight at the huge bubbles they could create at the Children’s Museum, bubbles that rose up in a cylinder around them as they pulled on a rope. We spent hours at the beach, where the ocean sighed as the girls played in the sand, the city-employed entertainers amused residents and tourists alike, then the fireworks crackled and twinkled and exploded, releasing color into the darkness.

Bob and I visited the Chrysler Museum of Art while the girls were at school. In equal measure, both the exhibits of M. C. Escher’s impossible constructions and the enormous slices of cake served on dinner plates in the café helped me to fall in love with America.

Para and Maitreyi, two ostensibly white, devout, American yogis, in their mid to late twenties, taught me how to breathe. They had traveled to India―the country of my birth―in search of something they had not been able to find in America. Upon their return home, they established Community Yoga―a donation-based yoga studio that would not turn people away because of a lack of finances.

At Community Yoga I was invited to just be. To breathe. Not the shallow type of breathing that was the only possibility when constantly working to hold my belly in, but the kind that requires an expansion of the belly, that rises slowly upwards, lungs filling, to rest in the throat area, where the chakra― or energy center―associated with communication is located. It is at the resting point that the tension begins to dissolve for me. Then the wind of exhalation reverses course, belly contracting to help expel the breeze outwards. In and out. Something we do without thinking, yet when performed consciously, can usher in a serenity that was quietly waiting to be invited in.

I discovered Community Yoga while searching for an alternative to kick boxing, which had resulted in a knee injury. The spiritual side of yoga was an unexpected gift. The studio was newly founded so classes were often small. Although it wasn’t good for business, I was pleased when I was the only student, because I received one-on-one teaching. I learned quickly under their devoted, expert guidance, with their soothing, meditative music in the background, and the warm, playful flickering of the candles. I began to spend more and more time there, helping out with cleaning and providing items they needed but could not afford.

For the first time in our married lives we could manage on Bob’s salary alone. I didn’t want to return to teaching high school mathematics, but I was unable to consider any alternative employment without a work permit. So I enrolled at Old Dominion University. Feminist Thought gave me the language to think about my subordinate position as a woman in my culture, and more widely in Western society. Among the books I read in the Women Writers class was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, George Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Claire De Duras’s Ourika (translated by John Fowles). I identified with Elliot’s protagonist, Maggie, who was suffocated by the rules she was supposed to live by. As I read Ourika, the uncontrollable deluge of tears I released surprised me. It’s based on the true story of a rescued Senegalese slave girl, raised by an aristocratic French family during the French Revolution; she exists in the liminal space between two cultures, belonging to neither. The tides of time had brought the waves of words written by women so long ago, to wash over me, and connected me to myself and to them.

I learned about Reiki, a healing modality based on energy centers within the body while in conversation with one of my mathematics professors in London. She was someone I had a great deal of respect for, so I knew that if she held it in high regard, it was something I could trust. When I found a Reiki teacher I studied with her until I achieved master level proficiency.  In combination with the deep breathing I had learned, I began to ask the healing energy of the universe to heal me and others in my life. Reiki sessions always left me with a profound sense of peace, even when I was working on other people. I felt a connection to something that was both a part of me and much greater than me. I’ve been asking the healing energy of the universe for guidance ever since.

Virginia Beach turned out to be a stepping-stone for us. The company Bob worked for was bought out by another, so three years after we first uprooted, we moved again―this time to California. Six thousand miles between us and our families of origin. I hadn’t found the instruction manual for my life that I’d naively always wanted, but in Virginia Beach I learned how to create an inner calm, that allowed for contemplation without the fog of self-doubt, of confusion. Bob and I both decided we didn’t want to have any more children. It felt as though the fissures in our marriage were beginning to close up, that our marriage may survive.

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.

Live, Work, Skate

You’re ten years old and your father says you’re handsome. The most handsome boy in the whole world, he says. In the same breath, he tells you no white girl will ever date you, let alone marry you. He knows this from experience, from his time at a New Jersey college before meeting your mother. Most women don’t find Asian men attractive, he says before opining that the opposite is true for your three sisters.

You stare blankly back at him…you don’t even like girls, you think to yourself. You say nothing.

A decade later, you learn it’s more complicated.

*     *     *

No fems, fats, or Asians. You read this headline in dozens of gay dating and hook-up profiles, until it is deemed socially unacceptable. You see it less and less until one day, you don’t see it anymore. You miss it. In a sea of headless torsos, the headline is a filter that expedites the process of elimination. You are efficient.

You stop initiating contact with men on websites and apps. You fear one would write the headline, if allowed. You are risk-averse.

You learn that white men will date you, maybe even marry you, but they’re a somewhat uncommon type of gay – a rare, exotic species. You also learn that the white men who desire you are often only into Asian men. You later find out these men are called “rice queens.” To this day, the term makes your skin crawl. You prefer the Latin translation, Reginae Oryza (plural) and Regina Oryza (singular). You are pretentious.

“I only find Asian boys attractive,” says the Regina Oryza, “I love that all of you have such smooth, hairless bodies.”

Once the Regina Oryza says or writes some variation on this theme, he is dead to you. You don’t return his messages or calls. You don’t even feel guilty about it. You rationalize that of the two billion Asian men on earth there is probably at least one who is stupid or desperate enough to date the Regina Oryza. In fact, you are surprised to learn there are many.

You continue to sleep with white men, but refuse to date them. When marriage equality passes, you vow not to marry one, even though you occasionally cross paths with nice white men. Smart white men. Good white men. Woke white men. If you lived in Texas, you would have certainly voted for the one with the bunny face and Mexican nickname who ran for Senate and lost. However, none of these white men are a member of the rare species, Reginae Oryza. And even if one of them was, you wouldn’t want him.

You date other Asian men and learn many do not prefer you and would rather compete for the attention of the Regina Oryza.

You date brown and black men, exclusively. Dating improves, temporarily. You learn brown and black men can be Reginae Oryza, as well.

And you remain single.

Then you do not date or sleep with anyone anymore.

*     *     *

You focus on your work since it is something you can control and you’re good at it. You take on consulting projects in areas with no discernible solution: the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change in China, racial disparities in public education. You are awarded a highly-competitive, one-year fellowship to reform healthcare in the local jails.

Source: Wikipedia

You conduct research, talk to experts, make PowerPoint slides. You present recommendations to executives with MBAs and MDs and big-wigs who wear guns on their hips, even in the Board room. You learn that the ones with the guns make all of the important decisions. Everyone smiles and says they’re impressed though nothing changes.

Later, you learn no one else wanted the highly-competitive, one-year fellowship.

You continue to collect your fellowship stipend. You use this money to buy pot, which was recently legalized in your state, and smoke it, while watching the Winter Olympics. You are jealous of all of the athletes’ talent. You are even more jealous of their youth. You stumble upon the Men’s Figure Skating event, and you are mesmerized by the men’s strength and grace, a respite from the jails you’ve failed.

You root for the American gold-medal favorite who is Asian. He can do four types of quad jumps. He falters in the Short Program and places fifth. You notice he’s cute, but only eighteen, which in your rulebook is too young to incite dirty thoughts. You then notice another skater who’s Asian, a Canadian, also cute, but twenty-seven, and hence more acceptable to incite dirty thoughts. He can only do one kind of quad jump. However, you think he is a far better skater than the young one. The commentators say the Asian-Canadian’s artistry is unmatched, something about his deep edges, speed, and how he positions his head and arms as he whizzes and spins across the rink.

Soon after the Olympics, the Asian-Canadian retires.

Still, you watch the Olympic replays of the Asian-Canadian late into the night and into the weekend. You wince when he falls, which is often, but you forgive him since everything else he does on the ice is so sensual. When you grow tired of the replays, you watch his old performances on YouTube. You sob during his Free Program at the 2015 Skate Canada International competition. You watch old interviews of him and he sounds like a dopey teenager, yet you swoon at his aw shucks smile and girlish giggles that sometimes bookend his phrases. You plan a trip to visit a close friend in Vancouver, where the Asian-Canadian lives. You plan on using his Instagram feed to track his location so you can casually run into him and ask for an autograph. You realize this is very creepy. You ask your friend in Vancouver not to allow you to do this.

You read the news.

You learn the Asian-Canadian skater has a white girlfriend.

You stop smoking pot.

You sign-up for figure skating lessons. You are the only male in the Adult Beginners class and the only student over forty. You are bothered by this, which also bothers you, but not enough to keep you from showing up every week. You fall on your knees. You fall on your face. You land on your ass. You eventually skate around the rink without falling. You learn to skate backwards. You glide backwards on your skates at full-speed, the wind blowing through what’s left of your salt and pepper hair. Finally, you feel beautiful.

 

Tom Pyun is an essayist and novelist living in Los Angeles. He was a fellow with Vermont Studio Center, Gemini Ink, Tin House, and VONA. His work has appeared in the Rumpus, Blue Mesa Review, Eleven Eleven, and Reed and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. He holds degrees from Vassar and Columbia and is an MFA candidate at Antioch.

 

 

Packing Lists and Passed-On Traits

Me with my hiking gear overlooking Zion National Park in Utah, Nov. 11, 2018. Photo by audre rae photography.

Thick wool hiking socks, check. Eight pairs of underwear, check. Windbreaker, check. Like many overachieving daughters of single mothers, I’m a planner. I’m packing for a late-autumn trip to Utah. There, I’ll meet a sister I didn’t know I had until two months ago. The over-planning and packing help contain my excitement at meeting my new sister, Sammie, who is 18 years younger than me.

My mom and biological dad were never in a relationship, and he never called after I was born. I’ve never met him or anyone related to him—until now. My own mother gifted me an AncestryDNA kit for my recent birthday, so I spat in the tube and sent it back, hoping for some answers. Growing up, I had strong male role models—my loving maternal grandfather, my generous uncle, my patient stepfather, my erudite step-grandfather. Searching for my biological father was secondary to fulfilling my and my family’s beat-the-odds expectations. I managed to limp through college, secure a few jobs in my field, and escape the cycle of too-young pregnancies and stunted careers my mom constantly warned me about.

In early 2016, my mom and I combed Facebook profiles to find the man who matched her memories. When I got married, I decided I wanted to close this chapter of my life before having children. I wanted to know who this man was and whether he was a good person, whether he cared about life and had the same insatiable thirst for learning I do. I added the closest-matching mystery dad as a friend. To my shock, he accepted my friend request. His Facebook profile lists him as living in Nevada, just west of the Utahan border. I wrote him a long, detailed message as soon as he accepted my request, and waited.

“That’s understandable,” a friend sympathized. “Older people sometimes don’t know how to use Facebook.”

It’s been almost three years since I sent the initial message. I began to doubt I had the correct man.

If you are the person I’m looking for, I would like to meet you and get to know more about you, I wrote. I should be clear; I’m NOT looking for money or any sort of financial retribution. I just would really like to meet you in person and have a dialogue with you and ask some questions about your life.

Crickets.

*     *     *

Hat, gloves, scarf. The forecast tells me the weather in Salt Lake City and the surrounding area will be sunny but cold. Laptop so I can write on the plane. Family photos.

My AncestryDNA results matched me with a first-degree relative, or “close family member” with “extremely high” confidence.

The AncestryDNA results sped back to me this summer, linking my strands of identity with a young woman in Salt Lake City—Sammie. AncestryDNA called our familial connection a first degree one. Sammie’s biological mother had drug and alcohol problems, and, to my horror, she repeatedly left her three daughters, all of whom have different biological fathers. According to family memories, Sammie’s biological mom once lived in a trailer with an ex-boyfriend, just west of the Utah border in Nevada. The ex-boyfriend’s name matches my biological father’s name—the name of the man I friended on Facebook. The Facebook Messenger icon notified me he read the message eight months after I sent it.

In one of her first emails to me, Tabbie, Sammie’s adoptive mom wrote, My instincts believe you have a half-sister. What do you think and how do you feel about that probability?

Turns out, I feel surprisingly calm, but crestfallen. Sammie’s existence and her biological mom’s link to the man on Facebook confirmed he was my dad. The stormy backdrop of drugs, poverty, and other children in his past confirmed what I already knew but hadn’t wanted to admit to myself—this man was not a person I needed to meet. Yet, I wanted to know the far-reaching effects of his influence. Was this young girl like me? I responded in my effusive way, already connecting with this new sister and her devoted, warm, and smart mom.

Here’s what I’m like, I wrote. I detailed my general character traits, my major life events, and my goals.

I’m a fastidious, over-confident perfectionist. What is my little sister like? Tell me everything.

Shampoo, conditioner, and hair product. Sammie and I both have the same thick hair as the man who provided the crucial half of DNA for our separate existences. I compare the cowlick in my edgily cut bangs to identical loops of unruly hair in his photo and decide I like that I got his full head of hair.

I proceed with caution, wanting to be a good influence on her. She is only a freshman in high school, I remind myself. I consider hiding all those drunken photos of myself on Facebook from my early twenties, every digital proof of beer-clutching. Nah, I decide. I’d rather be real.

*     *     *

Sammie and me in Salt Lake City at Wheeler Historic Farm, Nov. 12, 2018. Photo by audre rae photography.

Long-sleeved dresses, leggings, makeup bag, check. Sammie, our biological dad, and I share the same wide, high cheekbones and almond-shaped blue eyes, the same strong chin.

Supplements and vitamins. My husband and I want to have a baby eventually, some time after I graduate from my MFA program. I want to be sure my system already has everything a developing embryo would need in those crucial first few weeks—folic acid, Vitamin B12, zinc, the works. I wonder if I’ll pass on these facial features. I wonder whether my and Sammie’s other two half-siblings, both their existences confirmed from combing this man’s Facebook photos, know we exist. I recall my tendency to let perfectionism paralyze my writing work, my missed assignments in college, the ignored bills and failed classes. The depression and anxiety I experienced over shirking my duties. Are all these tendencies from him?

I am terrified I will pass on this predisposition to quit things and abandon people. I am scared my genes will create a monster.

Hiking boots, check. Two pairs of jeans, check. Tissues, check.

Facebook is full of emotional landmines in the weeks leading up to my trip. Crying, I delete a comment from a well-meaning aunt about one of my recent essays. I post pro-flu shot sentiments to provoke anti-vaccination followers. My antagonism swells to unlikely proportions when I come across photos of a young man I used to know. He gambled, drank, and snorted away his income, neglecting his two special-needs children. Now, he has an Instagram to showcase his art and writing, and he posts quotes from Dr. Seuss and Picasso like,

You have brains in your head. / You have feet in your shoes. / You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

I guess nobody told him that if you have children before you’re ready, you don’t get to follow dreams on your own terms, your preordained path, your preferred schedule. You do not get to steer yourself any fucking direction you choose. Those dreams are deferred. Or, at least, those dreams are deferred for the people who take on the responsibility of raising those unexpected children.

I know this young man’s story. His ex-fiancée sent him back to his home state, and he rarely calls. However, I don’t know my father’s story. I’m not sure why he didn’t want to be involved or why he never called or why he never responded to my message. Maybe he was too broke to be a father. Maybe it was drugs or alcohol. Maybe he cared but thought his progeny would turn out better without him in our lives. But I will never know because he never tried.

I want to shake them, all the collective abandoners and non-committers. I want to make them responsible. I want them to know their poor life decisions impact their biological children even from afar. I want them to know their left-behind kids will struggle with emotional security. We will fear abandonment. We might crave attention. We may have so-called daddy issues. I delete the young man on Facebook and block his account on Instagram. But, I don’t delete my biological dad.

Sweatshirt. Sweat-wicking top. Sweatband to keep those bangs out of my eyes on hikes. I type these into the list and avoid checking social media.

The lists also help cool and compartmentalize my rage.

*     *     *

“How tall are you?” my new sister asked through the screen, backlit by autumn sunset.

“Just shy of five-seven,” I said. “But I have long legs.”

That’s my height, she told me. “Amazing!” I said, because it is. “What size shoe do you wear?” Sneakers, check. We also have the same size feet.

I wonder what other commonalities we share and begin to forget my disappointment that our shared DNA source wants nothing to do with us.

A few text conversations confirm our shared ambitiousness. Her dream college is Brown.

She has planned her freshman year around preparation for a political career culminating in her appointment as Secretary of State, Tabbie wrote in one of our first email exchanges.

Previously, she wanted to be a veterinarian, and at her preschool graduation she announced her intentions to become an obstetrician, Tabbie wrote. She could pronounce it, so why not!?

My sister Maddie, right, and I sleeping on the couch after a long swim meet—mine, not hers—in late Summer 2002.

Maddie, my mom and step-dad’s daughter, the kindhearted and musically talented sister I watched grow up, has the same wickedly funny tongue—a similar drollness. Sammie and Maddie are six years apart, separated by at least six states. But, when I talk to them, their clarity of world views, passion for future generations, and humanitarian hearts sound the same. Maddie texts me:

I want to meet her! She sounds so smart!

And Sammie texts:

I never really believed DNA could account for personality and core traits, but here I am, standing corrected…I feel like I’m talking to a future me! I can’t wait to meet you in person and one day the rest of your family.

My heart swells. One can never have too many sisters, I muse, thinking of my husband’s sisters—my creative, accomplished, and exuberant sisters-in-law.

*     *     *

I add Wisconsin cheeses and dog treats to the packing list, gifts for my new family members. A birthday gift for Sammie. Her birthday will be only a few days after my visit, and just two weeks after Maddie’s birthday.

The Build-A-Bear poodle I gifted Sammie for her birthday in Utah.

My new sister and her mom already bestowed a nickname on me: Poodles. A smart dog. Sammie’s favorite dog breed. One of my new sister’s goals is to be fluent in five languages. Currently, she is fluent in English and French, thanks to her French immersion school. Russian, Mandarin, and Spanish are next on her list. She is the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, a rare honor for a freshman. My undergraduate major and first career was journalism. Our shared affinity for languages and words makes me ecstatic. I take in this information from her mom’s emails to me between gleefully translating poems from French and Spanish for my MFA translation class. I studied Spanish and Italian in high school and undergrad, and speak and write Spanish for work.

I wonder what else I can bring with me to Utah. I look around my house, walls adorned with family photos, and make a note to take lots of pictures on this trip. I look into myself. Unlike my empty suitcase, which waits for the fruits of my over-planning, I am crammed with predispositions and history, with affection and mistakes, joy and complicatedness. Weary from investigative work, lost optimism, and my own engrained judgments, I gave up on my biological father. But, my heart expanded so easily to embrace Sammie and Tabbie, and in such a short time. If he responded, I would answer, because he gave me Sammie, whose brain and humor so closely mirror my own. I know I have room for more familial love.

I look at the list, identifying those invisibilities I’ll carry with me. Many words. My smile. Warmth. An open heart.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead editor of flash prose, an interviewer, a blogger, and an assistant blog editor for Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch TicketLitbreak MagazineReservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection, and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.

Bad Vegan

 

Colorful, steaming bowls of dhal (lentils) and hot buttered chapatis (thin, circular bread cooked on a griddle). This is what we ate most of the time, out of necessity, growing up in provincial England in the early 1970s. My parents would comment from time to time, that the goreh (white people) surrounding us wasted so much money buying fish and chips, drinking alcohol at the pub, and smoking cigarettes. “If we did that we’d soon run out of money!” But on occasional Sundays we’d have a feast of black pudding, baked beans, and pork pie. My favorite part of the pork pie was the rich, thick, crumbly pastry. I ignored the transparent jelly between the pastry and the meat. My slice of pork pie was never big enough; Dad sliced the cylindrical pie six ways, as I had three sisters. I had no idea at the time that black pudding is a sausage made from pig’s blood and that the chewy white parts are animal fat. My mouth just knew it was on a delightful excursion. As it was on the occasional Saturday night when we had company and Mum conjured up chicken biryani. On these occasions Dad and his friend would go to the pub next door to drink beer, and we kids would watch programs like Rich Man, Poor Man on television, as we inhaled the warm, fragrant synergy emanating from the kitchen.

One morning everything changed. Mum woke me up with her hurried footsteps on the landing and her cries: “Everyone’s going to say she ran away from home! How will we ever raise our heads in public again?” Initially I was unconvinced about the gravity of the situation because every small transgression was magnified by my parents into a big drama. It turned out that they were right, for once, in their dramatic response. Dad had given us a rare choice: to continue with our education at a local university, or get married. My older sister, by about eighteen months, was not interested in academic education, so Dad had begun to arrange her marriage. But she gave herself a third option―she left home―during the night.

This was the beginning of my parents’ renunciation of the world and its concomitant pain and shame. They joined a family friend, who had five daughters and no sons, and who attended satsangs every weekend. Satsang comes from Sanskrit, and means ‘keeping company with the truth.’ The spiritual leader, or guru, went by the unlikely name of Fighting Cocks Uncle; his name derived from the pub he lived close to. The satsangs were impossible to avoid when we were hosting at our house, but when they were hosted elsewhere, I could often escape by claiming I had homework to do. Fighting Cocks Uncle would read passages from different holy books, such as the Granth Sahib (for Sikhism, the religion I was born into), The Vedas (for Hinduism), and the Bible, and then he would expand on the meanings of the texts. The essence of his teachings was that the soul and God were one, and we were all players on the stage of life. In each incarnation, the soul occupied a higher or lower form, depending upon our activities in the human form (karma). Those who could live in the world without attachments and desires would, at the end of their human lives, finally be free from the cycle of reincarnation, and their souls would be reunited with God. This was the meaning of life. Sometimes Fighting Cocks Uncle was moody and he chastised the santsangis for making insufficient progress in putting his teachings into practice in their daily lives. He even stopped attending the satsangs at one point as a protest. It was only when they collectively begged him to return did he concede, and resume his position as spiritual leader. Food was always shared at the end of each satsang, and in keeping with Fighting Cocks Uncle’s teachings, it was always vegetarian.

Mum and Dad’s renunciation meant the end of pork pies and black pudding and chicken biryani. They said we could still eat meat and fish, but they neither bought nor cooked anything that was non-vegetarian. And we did not have much money of our own. A couple of years later when I attended university, I indulged in the occasional Cornish pasty―a hearty semi-circle of pastry filled with meat and potatoes and other vegetables.

At the age of twenty-three I had an arranged marriage, as was expected of me. My mother-in-law-to-be graciously agreed to a vegetarian and teetotal lunch following the religious ceremony. She did express some concern that I would be feeding grass to her lion, but it seemed a moot point considering we were to live with her and my father-in-law after marriage; she would be in charge of the cooking, just as, I would quickly discover, she was in control of everything else. My in-laws organized a reception for us a week later, at which meat and alcohol were served.

A couple of years into my marriage, I felt some pressure to try and not be a vegetarian, as I was in a minority of one in the extended family. I ate baked potatoes with such regularity that my brother-in-law began referring to me as an alootarian (aloo means potato). But eating meat ruffled my conscience, especially as I had done some reading about factory farming.

My older daughter, Kiran, says she became a vegetarian at the age of six because I made her eat fish alongside her chips. Access to information on whether a vegetarian diet provides all the nutrients required for growing children was not as easy in the early 1990s as it is now, online. So I had erred on the side of caution when Kiran made overtures about giving up meat and fish. But she was determined, so I made her take a daily multivitamin tablet. At least I thought she was taking the tablets, until I found one at the bottom of the toilet. She said they made her feel sick.

When we moved to the US in 1999 my husband, Bob, worked in Norfolk, Virginia, where PETA is headquartered―no, not People Eating Tasty Animals, but the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I still cooked meat and fish for Bob, and younger daughter, Priya, but Kiran and I remained vegetarian. I tried to be vegan at one point, but it did not last long, because I love dairy-based desserts. My love affair probably began with our free school lunches in England which came with jam roly-poly and custard, chocolate shortbread and white mint custard, and other heavenly afters each day. A yogi I met in Virginia Beach, where we lived, told me that macaroni and cheese had precipitated her fall from vegan grace.

I joined PETA, and began to learn about animal cruelty beyond factory farming: the fur, wool, and skin/leather industries; laboratory research; puppy mills; entertainment (such as greyhound racing, cockfighting and dogfighting―I had always known that animals did not belong in zoos or circuses).

Three years later, after another move―this time to California―Kiran soon became a vegan, like Jen, one of her new high school friends. Jen was so strict, she did not even eat honey. Being in charge of food was already challenging with Kiran’s nut allergy, Bob’s multiple allergies―to particular fruits and vegetables and soy products―and my decision to stop cooking meat and fish when I no longer wanted to handle them while raw. I was happy to put prepared frozen food in the oven. Bob traveled a lot for work, so I felt guilty when Priya wanted to eat non-vegetarian food that required preparing. The situation improved once she learned to drive and could buy takeout for herself.

Much of the cruelty that occurs on factory farms and in laboratories has come to light through the videos and pictures released by undercover animal rights activists. But in recent years, these activists have been labeled domestic terrorists, and have been investigated by the FBI, charged, and imprisoned. Even though they have neither injured nor killed fellow humans―unlike white supremacists and anti-abortion activists, who have yet to be categorized similarly. The torture itself that has been exposed has taken a back seat to prosecution for property damage and hindering corporate profits. Even free speech activities such as protesting have been criminalized. Unsurprisingly, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), whose membership comprises mostly conservative state legislators and corporate lobbyists, is the incubator for the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which has been used as a model bill in states around the country, to curb the activism of both environmental (“eco-terrorists”) and animal rights activists. ALEC is also the source of other pro-corporate legislation including: “Stand Your Ground” gun laws that allowed for the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer; prison privatization; deregulation; education privatization; voter ID laws; pro-fossil fuel proposals (along with climate change denial). So ALEC’s agenda is to curb the rights of Americans, including the right to know the horrific conditions under which animals are caged for food and research, because humane treatment will dig into profitability. Yet ALEC is registered as a nonprofit organization.

In California I joined The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to animal research and a vegan diet for disease prevention.

Alongside the ethical dilemma, the connection between animal consumption and climate change is well documented, with 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions linked to meat and dairy production. Surprisingly, this is greater than the emissions from transportation. In a welcome move away from the all-or-nothing approach, Brian Kateman’s book The Reducetarian Solution is an anthology of essays which span the multiple justifications for curbing consumption of animal products. Argued from their own areas of expertise, the authors all agree on the benefits of a reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy products.

And this is a position that allows me to have my cake and eat it too. But not every day. It also makes my return to cow’s milk in my chai an easier transition, now that I suspect the phytoestrogens in the soy milk substitute I had used for many years contributed to the hormonal havoc I experienced during menopause.

This position of compromise helps me to come to terms with some of my other incongruous behaviors, such as my inability to extend my compassion for other animals to insects, spiders, and other bugs. Especially those who make their way into my house. Occasionally I will ‘escort’ the intruder out into the garden. But my normal response is to take off my shoe and smash the cockroach, cricket, spider, silver fish, et al.. For the most part, I try not to kill anything outside, unless it is really close to the perimeter. I try to use non-toxic products to keep my home free of these unwanted ‘guests,’ because I do not want to share a ‘living’ space with them at any point―not even after cremation.

Avoiding fur has not been difficult, as it has never appealed to me. But I could definitely do a much better job of avoiding leather and wool. Through my work in the Fair Trade sector I learned about ahimsa (peace) silk which is produced without killing the silk worms responsible for creating the coveted silk fiber.

Then there is the matter of the squirrel eating the avocados on my tree. I have to admit I have even considered buying a Taser―not to cause injury, but to train it―Pavlov’s squirrel, if you will. But I know my money would probably be better spent on avocados themselves. Sometimes I dream about buying a BB gun. Maybe Bob could eat the squirrel, with an avocado salad. At least it would have been a humane killing. Free range squirrel and a lot more avocados to look forward to.

I have often had to defend my food choices when in the company of Bob’s family: “Why do you eat ‘fake’ meat as a vegetarian?” To which I have repeatedly replied that I am not rejecting meat on the grounds of taste or texture, but on ethical grounds. I cannot lie, bacon smells delicious. But I am not tempted to eat it. Here in Southern California vegetarian and vegan food is pretty easy to find. And thankfully, a lot of Indian food is vegetarian―including dhal and chapatis.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming Buddha

I sit at the keyboard rapidly typing, as my student and I are brainstorming for his college essay. My fingers get tripped up on the simple words. I type “adn” for “and”. In the next sentence, “gaol” for “goal”. While reading it over, I catch my mistakes. “I feel like I’m becoming dyslexic in my old age,” I say with a laugh, but I’m not convinced it’s so funny. I did catch the errors, I think. I was typing fast. But I’ve always typed fast, and yesterday I switched around the letters in two other words as well.

 

I’m at dinner with my husband, and I’m telling him a story over a gorgeous medley of deep green veggies in red curry sauce. Suddenly, I stop mid-sentence. I’m trying to recall someone’s name. It should be on the tip of my tongue, but the name has lost its way on the journey from my brain to my mouth. I express my concern. “You’re overworked,” my honey says. He’s right.  I’ve been burning the candle at both ends lately. This kind of thing happens to everyone, I think. I remember misplacing words when I was in my twenties, for goodness sake! But it’s happening to me more often recently than I’d like to admit.

 

Dyslexia. Word retrieval issues. Are they telling me something I need to pay closer attention to? Could it be the sugar I eat? The wine at dinner? My lack of sleep? One day, I’ll have to type it all onto WebMD and look it up. I’m not there yet.

 

I’m fifty-seven. I’ll be turning fifty-eight in December. Yes, I am growing older. My body isn’t what it used to be. But, now, my mind too? There are certain cognitive changes that happen when one grows older. They’re not all bad. I’m a much better reader, writer, mother, wife, friend than I’ve ever been. I have learned from my mistakes and can finally say with confidence that I’ve earned my wisdom stripes. But like everything else in life, it’s a balance. Most gains also come with a loss.

 

Over the last few years, I’ve become much more organized, better at staying on task, getting things done. Maybe that’s because I now know the value of time. The more of it we spend, the less we have left.

 

I can see myself back in my thirties, with three small kids, a small waist, a big minivan. I spent way too much time doing my hair and not enough time “doing” friendship. I spent too much time worrying what my neighbors would think about me, my kids, the dogs. Sure, I could wrap my leg behind my head (I used to work as a yoga instructor, after all), but I couldn’t wrap my head around peace. Instead, I stressed—both the small and the big stuff. I often mixed them up. Now I know that most stuff is neither big nor small. It’s just stuff. It’s all just stuff.

 

I am back in school now, working on my MFA in creative writing. When I’m on campus, I’m surrounded by young creatives. I love their energy, enthusiasm, their impressive work. I would never want to go back to my 20s or 30s, though. Not even for a day. But do I really want to move ahead?

 

Last month, I had lunch with a friend who is turning seventy this winter. Her father had dementia that began in his seventies. My friend made me promise that I would let her know if I ever thought her mind was beginning to slip. After seeing what her dad went through—and how her family suffered with him—she is certain that she does not want to live without her mind. I don’t either. But she won’t. She has developed an exit plan.

 

My mother, a few years before her death, had a small medical procedure—she had her pacemaker battery replaced. The anesthesia she was given was a form of fentanyl. “The Michael Jackson drug,” as she referred to it. My mother loved fentanyl. In fact, at some point during every future doctor visit, she would ask her physicians to prescribe her some. (Of course, they all refused.) Mom didn’t want fentanyl for recreational use. She wanted to save it in case her body or mind deteriorated past a point of no return. She wanted to “go out” in a peaceful, dreamy state, to go out “just like Michael”. My mom made me promise that when the time came I would get her the drug and give it to her. Thankfully, she died without needing any intervention on my part. I’m not sure what I would have done.

 

Promises. Exit plans. Is that what preparing for old age looks like today?

 

So … I know this piece is feeling pretty bleak right about now. And the world outside feels just the same way—to many of us. (Add to that, it’s fall—what I think of as the saddest season—the beginning of many a dark, cold, dreary day.) But do not feel the urgent need to call my therapist to alert her that I’ve sunken into a severe depression. I haven’t.

 

I’m actually in the best place I’ve been in my whole life. Looking back—and forward—makes me appreciate just where I am. I’ve adopted a “Buddha mind”—a living-in-the-moment-unattached perspective, and it is blissful—much of the time. I am no longer beholden to my children in that day-to-day parenting grind. There was beautiful magic while it lasted, but there is wonder and power in this space as well. Empty nest—what a misnomer! My nest is far from empty. I have new babies to nurture. My writing is one of them. My reading another. Political engagement, a third.

 

Time. The less I have in the future, the more I have right now. To dream, to think, to act. Fifty has proven a wonderful decade to be—and to become.

It’s true. My body and my mind have changed. My leg can no longer wrap around my head and I may have trouble recalling a name here and there or mix up a few letters when I type. But what I type makes me sing! I have made the time to create, to tend to relationships, to breathe. I find myself again at the feet of discovery—an awesome, powerful force. I am here, right here, right now. And I would not trade that for anything.

 

Diane Gottlieb writes fiction and nonfiction is currently working on a murder mystery with a social justice bent. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and is the lead editor of creative nonfiction and a guest blogger for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Panoply and Lunch Ticket. You can also find her musings in her weekly blog WomanPause: Women Over 50 Rediscovering Ourselves at https://dianegottlieb.com.

 

 

 

 

The Takers

I’m terrified of masks.
Don’t come calling on me if you’re wearing one.

Unless you want me hands-clawing, calling out in caterwauls (what my kids call the opera-yell).

Most times, I don’t want to reveal this morbid fear, for the greater worry that it might lead to pranks. I’ve endured occasions where the clever-minded have designed schemes to scare me right out of my skin. One such event occurred after midnight, while chatting with my dear friend when her husband crawled around the corner donning a ghoul’s mask and I nearly passed out. She scolded him back down to the basement.

I’m told he didn’t come back up until the next day.
That’ll learn him.

Masked menaces in movies can set me off. I’ll turn away from a plot point just to escape their beady eyes.

The season of fright used to be once a year and something I could plan for, managing it with autumnal goodness. For every Freddy-gorrific bloodfest, I could carve the most artsy pumpkin, make homemade candy corn muffins, and hand paint oak leaves. But an onslaught of year-round horror films glutted the industry and the trend, I fear, has institutionalized. I’m having trouble hiding.

Children’s love of masks can also be problematic. Play with me, chuffs the young voice behind a Darth Vader mask, and I’m clutching at my heart, wondering if nitroglycerin comes in breath mints. I’ve also taught hundreds of students how to make plaster masks. I share their deep love for creating and bedazzling the hardened white shells.

I’ll hang masks around the art room, stand in piles of plaster dust, cutting more strips for your project. Just don’t put that mask on your face!

Ms. A, can you tell us why you’re so afraid of masks?

When you get through high school, college, or trade school, and get out into the world, pursuing who you’ve practiced to become, I will tell you.

*     *     *

I took a mask-making class while pursuing my BFA theatre degree. Lying flat, face greased, and straws up my nose, I was helpless as the instructor poured cement over my face. I’d been warned. Some people freak out. My classmates held my hands, rubbed my limbs, and assured me that I was doing fine. Their voices eventually abandoned me behind heavy mud. I was completely vulnerable: no mouth, no ears, no eyes. Only those two plastic tunnels for air. As the cement thickened, my senses were taken from me. I couldn’t read my surroundings, stay cautious, find the exits. Sweat rolled down my neck. My hands flailed in the blackness, begging for connection. I whimpered and tried to call out,

Somebody find me. I am alone–
But the hardened cement entombed my mouth.
Look for me down a long road, in the wood. Hurry!
My mind skidded wildly. Someone joined their hand with mine. This brought only small comfort. It would take a long time for the cement to fully set. I settled into a restless examination of in saecula saeculorum.

Halloween changed. We used to wear dime store demi-masks shaped like the number 8 over our eyes. The holiday looks creepier and more elaborate than when I was trick-or-treating. We’d wear a cut out sheet or a veil: a ghost, or scary bride. Boys wore their masks along with cowboy boots and hats or Dracula make-up. Pillow cases served as candy bags. Mrs. Robinson gave out cartons of orange drink. Two streets over, we’d stand in a long line watching the cotton candy-making machine until it was our turn to nibble the sugar clouds. The Zois family gave kids quarters. When I was old enough to keep up the half-mile walk, we’d get far as Greenmount Boulevard.

That’s where he grabbed her.

*     *     *

On a crisp cool Thursday morning at 7:15 am, October 20th, a car rolled alongside a small 14-year-old girl. She walked down the sidewalk nearing our high school stadium when the car pulled up. The car stopped. A man got out to ask for directions.

He grabbed the girl. He pressed a knife to her throat. He pushed her into his car.

We didn’t know Beth was missing. The school day ended and practices began. Dinner, homework, shower, and bed by 11pm. Her mother had frantically waited for her that night. The next day, my legs shook while the police searched her locker three doors from mine. That night, the big football game played on. We weekend partied and cycled onward without candlelight vigil or teaming up to find a lost child. When they found Beth’s belongings countywide, the detectives looked grim. Our principal withered and lost his smile.

*     *     *

I noticed my drill coach’s fake smile.
Get back in line, she snapped.
What’s happened? Bile shot up into my throat.
Do you want a demerit?
My coach’s face betrayed her. I lunged forward and heaved by a car until she forced me back to practice.
This is not the place or time, she whispered.

This is how I learned my childhood friend was dead.

Beth Ann Mote

My town erased Beth. We planted a tree in a far corner of the school. The funeral was moderately attended, held downtown. Students got pizza afterward. I watched how laughter returned that same afternoon. An artist series was to be set up in Beth’s honor. It began after we graduated. Future students didn’t know who she was, how she loved her two little brothers, her cats, and playing the clarinet, or how she had a husky laugh. At our graduation four years after her death, we had no moment of silence, no picture display, no speech to honor her. Her name wasn’t even mentioned.

This is what Beth’s taker said-

He drove around the city streets while she cried and recited The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.

As I sat in my classes, lunched, and chatted, this taker kept driving, and had Beth write a ransom note on pink paper shaped like a heart. Anything to stop that crying. Wending his way toward county roads, he parked on a lonely stretch. There, in the car, he took her frail and tiny body and raped her.

He kept Beth for five hours.

Then he hid his face with a knitted mask, took her to the reserve, and tied her to a tree. Her wails forced him to untie her again and this time he made her pull her shirt over her face.

Tell my mother I’ll wait for her in heaven.

He stabbed little Beth multiple times and left her to die alone.

*     *     *

All impulse. I see a girl walking down the street – bam. That’s it*.

These 13 words rationalize a taker’s entitlement. Pulled from the Block Parole website, these are the words of Beth’s killer who remains incarcerated because—when the news hit that he might be released due to a legal loophole— we demanded state lawmakers keep him there. Law is supposed to work this way.

When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford retold the events of her taker, my solar plexus tightened. I flashed to my own high school weekends, seeing the Fair Isle sweaters again. The hometown paneled basements with plaid wall paper. Hands up shirts and down pants, beer breath kissing. Pretty girls retched in the bathroom while I held back their hair. We’d study each week for tests, raise hands and answer questions, write papers, all under intense social pressure to please our parents; successful professionals who served as awarded doctors, top attorneys, senators, CEO’s, and trophy mothers. Work dog hard, go ape shit, repeat. As long as you’re top of the class, first on the team, come highly recommended, we’re looking the other way.

To a taker, the message mutates: Have whatever you want. You deserve it.
Decades later an Olympian hopeful and rapist would emerge from my high school.

When I awoke to the foregone Supreme court judge affirmation, one beloved niece’s post claimed relief that the ‘lies hadn’t taken him down.’ She doesn’t recognize the male oppression she lives under nor the manipulation of lower income white voters. She’s a single mother, raising a dynamic, gifted girl, and as the highest court continues to politicize—which it was never intended to—I hope my grand-niece will have rights to assert power.

*     *     *

Was there a moment when you questioned why Beth didn’t fight her taker or try to flee?

Why Dr. Ford after a party and a drunk woman behind a college dumpster couldn’t free themselves from our Supreme court judge’s advances or an Olympian hopeful’s ‘twenty minutes of action’? Why were victors given the spoils after battle? Call up and get us some bitches for later tonight. This famous 17th C painting by Rubens is entitled, The Rape of the Sabine Women. (The one where the women are “abducted” while loved ones wail.)

There are 13 letters in the word: powerlessness. It is the inability to effect change. When we the people mobilize to abolish this long train of abuses, The Threatened manage us into our grateful corners. Sexism has personal, cultural, and institutional pillars to hold it firmly in place.

There are 13 letters in this phrase: Educate to vote. If you want to grow change, then help people learn to vote locally. Teach how local representation can in turn (even if indirectly) represent every voter in the national political forum.

Hunters found Beth’s ravaged body covered in a pile of leaves.

We were raised to respect power. Add fear and confusion and the combination gives a taker all advantage.

During the trial, a local newspaper interview was unearthed which has since been lost. But, for me, it is indelible: The taker explained he used masks to cover the victims faces when he raped them. The reporter realized the serial rapist she’d interviewed was in fact my little friend, Beth’s taker. This report along with grotesque coroner statements flooded my young eyes.

*     *     *

Only one former student has come back asking for an explanation about my morbid fear of masks. He held up his end of the deal: graduated college and landed a Hollywood internship. I couldn’t back out of my promise. We sat outside a café in Yellow Springs, OH waving at familiar passersby.

When I recounted the basic facts of what happened to my friend, he looked distraught. He wished he didn’t know.
Curiosity is complicated.
We’ve remained close and see each other frequently.
He’s a grounded, good man, and a storyboard artist for an award-winning animated show starring a clever humanoid with a horse head.

Please, don’t come near me in one of those horse head masks either.

* https://www.blockparole.com

 

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. At Lunch Ticket, she is an interviewer and blogger, Co-Lead Editor for Visual Art and Graphics, and works with the Community Outreach and Social Media Teams.  She lives with her husband, two sons, and her writing helpers, the family cats. 

The View From 10,000 Feet

One day when I was thirteen, I took my allowance down to Windsong Used Books & Records on Main Street, casually browsed over to the Occult / New Age shelves, and picked out a thin softback with an abstract cover: The Art and Practice of Astral Projection by Ophiel. It promised a simple and effective method for learning how to leave your corporeal form behind and, connected to it only by a thin silver thread, travel through the universe. You could fly over the ocean, spy on your enemies, meet up with distant friends, and even zoom through the stars. I bought the book.

Back in my room with the door closed, I read that the first task was to send your astral body across the room, just far enough that you could look back and gaze upon your physical body. Night after night I did Ophiel’s muscle relaxing exercises before sleep. I would tense and then release my toes, my calves, my knees, my thighs—working my way up to the crown of my head. Then I tried to astral project.

I’m pretty sure it didn’t work as advertised, though I can’t be sure, because my projecting sessions often ended with me accidentally falling asleep. I don’t remember ever floating up above the clouds or zooming over tens of thousands of miles to visit obscure locales.

But neither was it entirely ineffective. Many nights after doing the muscle exercises, I would feel my mind lose track of my body. I floated in a void—a roughly Jasper-shaped void, sure—but one that didn’t have any weight. Maybe the sensation was like having a phantom limb, a presence remembered but not felt.

Then, abruptly, my form would distend. My non-corporeal body would get bigger and bigger and bigger, swelling to many times its original size, till my consciousness felt like a pinprick within a gas giant. It was uncomfortable, this cosmic vastness. I tried to reverse the scale, to make my body small again, and through some mysterious muscle I found that I could. But my body shrank and kept shrinking. Before I could stop it, my body was an atom’s width in size. I felt piddly, dwarfed by the immensity of the universe.

 

Years after I stopped trying to astral project, I remembered this awful feeling when I came upon this couplet in the 12th-century Persian classic The Canticle of the Birds: “A world’s a mote within this endless sea, / A mote’s a world in its immensity.” Anyone who has looked through both a microscope and a telescope knows that the poet, Farid ud-Din Attar, speaks the truth.

 

I never really believed that following Ophiel’s technique would let me visit friends across great distances or spy on my crushes. I studied astral projection mainly because I wanted, by whatever means necessary, to fly.

Always, I have wanted to fly. My mom told me that if I could just look at my palms during a dream, then I could control what happened—which is to say I could fly. But that didn’t work for me; instead, in my abandoned dream metropolis the faceless, malevolent figures drew ever closer, till I woke in a cold sweat.

A few months ago, I finally figured out how to fly. When I do it, I can look down at the clouds, at the changing surface of our planet, the valleys and coral-colored deserts, the tropical seas and the shattered arctic ice cap. When I look down at myself, way down in Northern California, sometimes the sea is peaceful while other days heavy surf limns the coastline with whitewater. My favorite are the thousand-mile swirls and eddies of cloud over the South Pacific.

The tool I use is NASA’s EOSDIS Worldview. It loads right into my internet browser, and it gives me images taken just hours before by the Earth Observation System. It includes images taken by a satellite named Terra that swoops over the earth in a sun-synchronous orbit. The satellite passes over me every mid-morning, and by early afternoon I can fly with it. It is quiet up above the atmosphere, looking down. And it’s so beautiful.

 

Eventually, flying around leads to other questions. Worldview lets you browse images from yesterday, last year, or even fifteen years ago. Just as in the final reckoning physical scale proves to be arbitrary and illusory, so too with time.

It is a strange record. You can hunt for beautiful clouds around Mt. Fuji. Or you can look at New York as photographed from space on the morning of September 11, 2001. In the perfectly cloudless landscape, a long plume of white smoke blows south, over New Jersey. It is a somber, plain image.

In fire season, I turn Worldview’s fire and thermal anomaly data on. It puts a red dot on top of any hot-burning fire big enough to detect from space. If you want to, you can use it to watch the deforestation of the Amazon in real time. I mainly use it to find out about fires that they don’t talk about in the national news.

If you scroll back a year, you can watch the Redwood Complex, Atlas, and Tubbs fires. They burned so dramatically that even from space you can tell how bad they were. What is most shocking is how quickly the fires grew. One day Northern California looked clear and dry. The next, it was choked with smoke and flames.

People often say they want to get very far away. There’s nowhere farther than space. But even up there, you start having thoughts, formulating questions. You get curious about global warming, now that you can see the whole planet spread out below you. You watch ice caps melt. You watch a hurricane swirl into a coast. You watch as snowstorms blanket whole countries. You try to recognize the clouds you saw lit up by last night’s sunset.

And then it’s time to wake up. You close the computer and go outside. Your world is perfectly sized for a human being.

 

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.

Delusions of Grandeur

What’s Past is Prologue

The man said sorry. That’s all he could manage to say. He knew that it was in pain. It was the “right thing to do.” He knew that long years, wear & tear, unavoidable science, and an old expiration date was only bringing it intense pain. He said sorry some more and cut the top corner of the old booklet, rendering it useless but free from pain.

 

Genesis

A set of plates are laid out on their back. Magnifying light is thrust over them, covering them like the darkside of the moon during an eclipse. The room is simple and to the untrained eye it comes across holier-than-thou with its impressive machinery and church-like cleanliness. The plates beg to be torn apart. They need to be destructed in order to serve their only purpose. Like the rest of earth’s decorations, nothing short of coincidence has placed them here.

The plates are naked and cold. They almost goosebump. Through a centuries-old process known as intaglio, millions of incisions are carved into the plates, marking them forever. Ink is then pressed into these scars, where it takes shape.

Although not biologically related, the obvious offspring of these plates are the empty sheets of paper that are cut into thirty-two pages, 6.1 inches by 4.1 inches long. Like parents passing on their alleles and genotypes, the three-dimensional pressings of ink from the plate’s scars are woven onto the fabric of these papers creating a patterned design aimed at stopping forgery. It would be fair to categorize these papers as unique.

The pages, bound by a plastic cover, naively open their eyes to the world for the first time. It knows it’s supposed to care about where it comes from and who it represents. It hopes it does as is expected. Within seconds the booklet becomes self-conscious of how empty its pages are. One day they’ll be full, it hopes. It has to be, or what was the point?

The booklet does not notice its own expiration date. Instead, it thinks about all of the experiences waiting for it in the years ahead.

 

Cold Breath

The plastic cover bears a Coat of Arms adopted almost two hundred years prior. This booklet sits in a stack with hundreds of others. Every brick in the wall feels distinguished but undiscovered. The booklet looks out and realizes it belongs to no one, which feels strangely lonely when it thinks that belonging to someone is what it’s supposed to do.

A man walks into the room. There are waiting chairs there so he waits. When spoken to, he says he works across the street. The man explains that his wife is waiting for their kids back at the bus stop. School’s almost out and he wants to get home. The clerk listening to this man partly believes him and also half thinks that he just wants to rush through the line. The clerk says he needs to come back the next day if he wants a booklet.

The booklet smiles as it’s taken home.


The Imperial Age

The first few months with the man and his family are the ones it remembers the most fondly. I only like the beginning of things or so the saying goes. Yes, the booklet is left in the dark while inside the closet of the master bedroom. Yes, the booklet wonders sometimes if it’s accomplishing everything it’s setting out to do. The less it goes on trips, the more the booklet’s spine hardens and aches. But every vacation, the man takes the booklet out and flies to far away places. The man holds all the family’s booklets during the trips so that they never get lost. The booklet is stamped going each way. Like a Boy Scout, the stamps are badges that somehow relate to honor.

The booklet holds hands with the man and and his family. They travel to the sprawling theme parks in Florida. The booklet gets to breathe in the hot and cool air. The expiration date is still many years away. There is a whole life ahead to look forward to.

 

A David Bowie Pun about ‘Changes’

Then the man left. The trips ceased and now the family waited, along with the booklet, in the dark.

After a few months, a phone rings in the house. Plans are made. The man and the woman agree to meet in the Caribbean. For some reason unknown to this writer, this is the only way they could agree to see each other again.

Aruba gives a blue stamp to the booklet, which it accepts happily. There, the booklet and the family spend a week like the old days.

 

Avenues

The booklet is not present, but it hears all of the gossip. It prickles its ear when it learns of the robbery.

Apparently, the man and the woman were driving with their children when they decided to stop at a Nintendo store. The family didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary until the family was trapped inside. Held at gunpoint.

After they survived, the man decided that the woman and his children had to go far away. This place was not safe enough, and the United States offered something better. The United States was built on immigrants and he had it on good information that anybody could do anything there. The children have mentioned wanting to see the White House and the top of the World Trade Center. The booklet becomes excited knowing that a US visa takes up a whole page.

He has it all figured out, the man says. First, his woman will move across the sea and after two years he promises to do the same.

She wishes he didn’t think he could decide things for her.

 

Council

The woman sees a therapist and often. She is listened to, but she is tired of only speaking to herself. She constantly asks for advice, but it is never given.

She fears that if she leaves Colombia, he will never follow. Finally, she asks again, ”What should I do?”

Her therapist leans in and tells her to go to the States. “Why not? If the he never comes to you then you need to move on.”

The woman wonders what needs and wants and shoulds mean to her anymore. They seem to be justifications for what she’s going to do anyways. She holds the booklet and she is bathed in an untrustworthy ease. The booklets, that of hers and her kids, belong to her now.

The booklet learns all of this from gossiping visas.

Only two weeks separate the decision to move and the moving taking place.

 

Synecdoche, USA

Once in the promised place, the woman places the booklet in a new box. It spends the following days watching a thin line of light coming through the opening. Months inch by, and the booklet only opens once. The booklet knows the man is not coming back this time.

The empty pages remind the booklet of its age. The expiration date is now only a few years away and the text it’s written on seems to cover more and more of the page.

The woman cries and says she can’t leave the States. That with her student and later her work visa, there is a chance of not being allowed back in.

A year goes by. Then two. Then three. The booklet learns that the family now plans on replacing it with a blue booklet that has a different name and coat of honor on the front. But they have me. Besides, this new blue booklet doesn’t love this family. I’ve been with them my entire life, it thinks in the darkness.

 

 

Milk

The expiration date grows closer. Despite the booklet’s wishes, the printed date refuses to change. In fact, it loses all hope until one day a letter comes. The letter informs the family that they are being turned into permanent residents of the States.

Now the family can visit home again. Tickets are purchased and dates are chosen—but after the booklet’s last acceptable date.

The family holds the booklet in their arms. They smile at the aging pictures. They cut the top corner, rendering it useless but free from pain.

 

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.

 

April Brucker: International Woman of Mystery

It’s 8:30 a.m., and unlike me, New York City is already fully caffeinated. I am an international woman of mystery, poised in the stairwell ready to carry out my orders. This is my mission, I have chosen to accept it.

Name: James Wolff. Age: fifty as of today. He stands approximately 5’11” with brown hair. With him will be Honey, his constant companion and German Shepherd. My command is to apprehend him when he enters. Minutes later, the eagle has landed. Next to him is what looks to be a German Shepherd. Must be Honey. Now it is time to carry my mission to completion. Jumping out of the stairwell, James looks alarmed. Honey barks ferociously. James says, “And who are you?”

Cake of your dreams with icing on top

I say, “Just what I look like, a girl in a cake. You can call me Cake Boss, Sugar Puff. And today is your biiiirrrrtthhhhdddaaay!”

That’s when I sing a special birthday song.

You thought I was a professional assassin, didn’t you? Nah, too much blood. I am a singing telegrammer. There is more than one way to be an international woman of mystery. In case you are wondering, James gave me a surprise fifty dollar tip and I won Honey over. She licked me on the hand. I think Honey’s seal of approval got me my generous compensation.

When I tell people I am a singing telegrammer, they always say, “I had no idea they still have those.” Obviously we do because all proceeds go to my food, clothing, and shelter fund. This novelty was born in 1933 when a teenage fan wanted to wish singer Rudy Vallee a happy birthday. George Oslin, head of public relations at Western Union, decided this would be a good opportunity and thus the singing telegram was born. The service became quite popular with singing bell boys who had a melodious message coupled with a time step. Western Union discontinued the service in the 1960s. Proving you can’t keep a good thing down, small singing telegram companies began to pop up all over the United States.

What has kept the singing telegram not only surviving but thriving is that there is a gram for every occasion. There are birthdays, anniversaries, congratulations, proposals, ruffles and flourishes at a board meeting, needs to apologize, and everything else in between.

*     *     *

I fell into telegramming by accident. After graduating from NYU with a theatre degree, wanting to pursue my dreams, and needing to pay bills, I looked for a job. After watching Beaches and seeing Bette Midler fail in a bunny costume, I Googled singing telegrams. Calling at 11 p.m. on a Monday night I expected to get an answering machine. Instead, a man picked up who had a hearty Southern Drawl and he said, “Broadway Singing Telegrams, Bruce Myles Beauregard speaking.”

“Yes, I just graduated from NYU with my B.F.A. and need a job. I can sing, dance, and do a back flip.”

Then Bruce asked, “Are you available next Saturday morning, I think I have a job for you…..” The rest is history.

Do not be fooled by my outward appearance as a petite blonde, I am part shapeshifter. A master of disguise, my job has me take the following forms, and sometimes as many as five in a single day. They include but are not limited to a chicken, pink gorilla, gorilla bride, hot dog, pickle, Hershey Kiss, M & M, heart, pizza, cow, duck, cat, cheerleader, French maid, naughty nurse, cop, Marilyn Monroe, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and anything else a client wants me to be.

While I might not be working as an assassin or spy, I have defied death on more than one occasion while on duty. I caught on fire in a pink gorilla costume. It was after my Pepto Bismol colored

primate suit met with a trick birthday candle that went rogue. When I saw the flame on my fur I thought, “Holy shit! I’m on fire!” While I was terrified, I knew I had to act quickly. Throwing the cake in the air, I recalled my elementary school training when the man from the local fire department visited our classroom. I stopped, dropped, and rolled.

There was collective horror in the bar as I threw the cake in the air. The client, the owner of a Lower East Side dive bar who was dressed in leather from head to foot, sprinted to catch it at the speed of a wide receiver in the last ten seconds of a Super Bowl. Gasps filled the air as I rolled around on the whiskey infused floor boards hoping I didn’t need a skin graph. In the darkness and in my desperation, I didn’t see that I rammed into the leg of a woman on a bar stool. Through her yelp I probably accidentally struck her sober. When I was sure the fire was out I got up, calmly got the cake from the client, and did my routine. What can I say? The show must go on. Pleasantly, the bar was on my side. The man I sang to, apparently a well-known trust funder who liked Lower East Side dive bars, gave me a surprise tip.

An dancing heart on Good Day NY

I have not only narrowly escaped catching on fire, but on more than one occasion I have also evaded capture. Being sent to the Bloomberg building on assignment, I was frisked under suspicion of being in possession of explosives due to the bag containing my costume.  The tall glass monolith in the middle of Midtown East already looked like a dark fortress and having no inside man this became even more true as my chicken suit became what was known as “contraband.” The stern guard said, “How do we know you are not a terrorist?”

I stated my case, “I have a chicken suit. I have a song. I have a time step. I have never known a terrorist to have these things.” A supervisor, who was sympathetic, came up with a compromise, I could deliver it on the sidewalk under their watchful eye. To their surprise, I was just a woman in a chicken suit, not Squeaky Fromme. They didn’t end up capturing me, but instead captured the occasion on their camera phones.

While fire and the threat of possible arrest are indeed stressful, the true doozies are the “I’m Sorry Grams.” When I get the call, I know it is going to be a Dionysian debacle of epic proportions. Going in to one of these, I often wish I can have either a bulletproof vest or hazmat suit. And I know I will always get the sordid backstory even if I don’t want it. One memorable moment was when a cheating husband sent me to his wife to be forgiven in a hot dog costume. Mid-routine, she stopped me, took the flowers her husband told me to give her and hurled them in my direction. She screamed, “Fuck that motherfucker, he gave me herpes!”

Instead of flowers, maybe that rancid wiener should have given her Valtrex. He was still a scumbag, but at least the check cleared.

*     *     *

Then at times my adventures are also magically delightful. I appeared as a singing pickle to a young man on his birthday. Turns out I was sent by this young man’s boyfriend, who could not make the party as he was overseas attending his father’s funeral.

I was ordered as a chicken to Kessler, a rehabilitation clinic in New Jersey, from a woman’s group. The lady I was singing to had been paralyzed from the neck down as a result of an auto accident.

The family of Herman Benson ordered me as a Marilyn Monroe to sing to him on his 103rd birthday. This New York legend of liberal politics and hero to the working people put in his ear piece and sang along with me. I kissed him on the cheek and he proclaimed, “While you are quite beautiful this is also sexual harassment!”

Fighting crime with a real life Wonder Woman: Marishka Hargitay

Then there was the practical joke involving Yodel Cakes between a father and son. Both men had been leaving the sweets on each other’s property in an effort of one-upmanship. The father had resorted to leaving yodels in the son’s garden. Determined to win, the son hired me to yodel, toss Yodels, and crash his aging father’s board meeting. The son, who won the contest, witnessed it from across the country via video chat.

On the set of Law and Order SVU, I was ordered by Kelli Giddish to sing to Wonder Woman superfan Marishka Hargitay. The Emmy winner cried as I sang her the personalized Wonder Woman song, and complimented me on my lasso of truth. A meme of us went viral, and my boss called and asked, “And Wonder Woman, where was your headband?”

Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.

Life is a storybook that is constantly turning the page, and someday I might be on the other side of your door in costume with a song and a message. However, for now the message I will leave you is that as an artist, you are often told you will never make your living at your craft. It is too late. You are too old. No one will listen to you. Each day, my fellow singing telegrammers and I disprove that myth. We come in a wide array of shapes, races, sizes, gender identities, orientations, cultures, and vocal ranges. We prove there is a niche for every creative person. Did I mention we also pay our light bill and get to wear a boa while we do it?

While I would love to elaborate, I have to cut this short.

I have a Marilyn Monroe in the Bronx I have to run to.

What can I say? Cubic Zirconia are this girl’s best friend.

 

April Brucker is a writer and comedian. She has appeared on Rachael Ray, Talk Soup, Inside Edition, My Strange Addiction, What Would You You?, Good Day NY, and Layover with Anthony Bourdain. Her books I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl and April Unwrapped: My Naked Dreams Revealed, both available on Amazon. April has served as lead editor for Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial Award and is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles.

 

Perpetual Summer

As a kid growing up on the asphalt of Los Angeles, I treasured any chance to play outside. My schoolyard was concrete. My various apartment buildings had courtyards with potted plants if we were lucky, or underground parking garages if we weren’t. At my best friend’s house, I was always the one begging the other kids to go play in the backyard. Sometimes, using wooden weapons and old movie props, we would act out the video games they were so reluctant to leave indoors.

Soon after school ended each year, I would pack my backpack and my Barney suitcase. With my mom and my two older siblings, I would board a Greyhound bus and watch the country fly by. Driving through the night, it took about three days to get from Los Angeles to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where we would spend the next three months.

Those summers seemed perpetual. Each morning I would wake up and go outside. My grandparents’ house was on the corner where two winding country roads met. Behind the house at the end of the gravel driveway was Grandpa’s shop, where he played pool in one room and did his work as a machinist in the other. Much of the yard was taken up by an enormous garden where Grandpa grew okra, cucumbers, squash, peppers, cabbage, watermelon, and tomatoes. Beyond the garden were two houses, one with a deck and a pool, the other with chickens in wire cages in the yard. There, two of my mom’s sisters lived with their families. Woods, which seemed impassable to me at the time but were really just a screen to separate us from the neighbors, surrounded the yard and the three houses. I spent most of my time barefoot in the grass of that huge yard, playing with my little cousin. We rode bikes, bounced on the trampoline, and, of course, acted out our favorite video games.

Nanny

All of this was overseen by my mom and her stepmom, who I called Nanny. They would sit on the porch swing by the shop, its benchlike seat in constant motion as they gossiped about the neighbors, who were almost all related to us. Sometimes, darkness didn’t come until 9 p.m. The adults would gather as evening drew down. Grandpa would sometimes light a fire in a big metal barrel by the shop, and we would all sit around it. Other nights we would go into the living room with its blue walls and bright lights. Nanny would watch TV and teach me how to do jigsaw puzzles. I remember the image of her decisively tapping down each puzzle piece into its proper place with a fingernail. She was a pro at puzzles, and she would often glue them, frame them, and hang them on the walls of the house.

As a baby, Nanny had tumors in her ears. Surgery left her able to hear, but her speech was impacted for the rest of her life. She spoke in her own particular language, which those closest to her had no trouble understanding. “I love you” would come out as “Ah huv oo,” sometimes with a little hand motion to make sure her meaning was clear. Everyone got nicknames that she could pronounce—except me, because before I was born, she helped choose a name for me that she would be able to say. When I was talking to her and got really stumped, she would holler for my mom or grandpa, who would stick their head in the room and translate her language for me.

When I was ten, my family moved to South Carolina for a single year. Across the street from the big yard with the three houses, a doublewide trailer was available. I was concerned with little beyond starting a new school, making friends, and spending as much time outside as possible. I found a special place in the yard behind the trailer, a hidden spot beneath a tall tree with low branches. There, I could feel magic emanating from the earth. It was just enough wilderness for me, the city kid. I built up screens of fallen branches for privacy, and I tied up an old tire to make my own swing. I took my favorite books up into the tree and spent hours nestled in the branches, reading. I burrowed into my books about magic and lady knights, and I entrenched myself in the multitudes of worlds they encompassed. I began writing my own stories about werewolves and kids and cities and magic.

That was the year I started to become aware of things in the adult world that were grim and serious. Being on the east coast, I was in school when the planes crashed in New York on 9/11. The teacher turned on the news in the classroom, but I had no idea what it meant. I felt no real shock or worry until I saw how my mom reacted. After that, the world seemed to take on a darkness. Fear and anger permeated the air. Around the same time, a neighbor and relative was shot and killed in a hunting accident. I answered the phone when Nanny called to tell my mom, and I had no trouble understanding her frantic words: “Let me talk to your mom, now! It’s important!” The timeless, idyllic summer became a fearful, unfamiliar winter.

*     *     *

When I asked my mom what she remembered about the year we lived in South Carolina when I was 10, her answer was easy: “Drugs.” She started spending more and more time with Aunt Suzi, who lived in one of the houses beyond the garden. Suzi was a drug addict. She spent $62,000 in eight months on drugs, embezzling money to support her habit. She and her husband, Stacey, lost their cars. The bank began to foreclose on their beautiful house with the pool where we kids made so many memories.

When Suzi woke up in the morning, her first priority was getting high. She would begin calling people immediately, dozens of calls, and then she would wait with bated breath for someone to return her call. Once she made an arrangement, someone, usually Stacey, would go out and buy the drugs and bring them back to her. Suzi was only ok when she sank into a stupor. I remember her crackly laugh, her manic movements, her obsessive twisting of her long, curly red hair. I remember her slurred speech, her heavy-lidded eyes, and her frightening thinness. She took any pill she could get, did cocaine and crack, and smoked weed as a last resort.

Suzi nearly collided head-on with a police car that year. Her three-year-old grandson, Christian, was in the car, and so was a bottle of pills Suzi wasn’t supposed to have. My mom picked up Christian, and Suzi went to jail. Having downed the entire bottle of pills before being arrested, Suzi was still incoherent the next morning when she was bailed out and needed a ride home.

That year, tension suffused the yard. Nanny and Grandpa didn’t talk to Suzi and her family, though they lived within shouting distance of each other. Playing with Christian in the muddy driveway, I saw Grandpa walking across the yard, shaking his head as if he were somehow disappointed in me spending time with my little cousin. I didn’t know why. At the time, I knew nothing about Suzi’s problems. I only knew that she was being shunned by most of the family—but not my mom.

I’d always known my mom had problems, though I didn’t understand the extent of them. She has dealt with mental illness her entire life. At ten, I was at a loss for what to do when she became emotional. Her crying, yelling, and threats to harm herself were frightening even though I knew that she would eventually calm down, return to a level state, and apologize. What I didn’t know then was that she was heavily involved with drugs, mostly prescription pills, and her addictive tendencies were becoming worse. When I became an adult, she confessed to me that, under Suzi’s urging, she even tried crack once—and thankfully didn’t like it at all.

Mom had a falling out with Nanny, which cemented our decision to return to California. I don’t recall saying goodbye to anyone. I just remember settling into the backseat, ready for the long, familiar drive across the country. We made a U-turn at the corner of the two winding country roads, and I watched Nanny and Grandpa’s house, with its familiar shop and garden, disappear around a curve in the road. By the time I heard Nanny’s voice again, three years later, I had already begun to develop my own relationship with prescription pills.

*     *     *

Addiction runs in my mom’s family. Tales of her childhood are riddled with Grandpa’s violent alcoholism and her mother Alice’s unrepentant abuse of pills. She describes physical fights between them so horrid they’re hard for me to picture. There’s a dissonance to the memories she recalls. Sometimes, they’re reminiscent of the ideal outdoor summers I enjoyed as a kid: sun shining, plants growing, hordes of cousins always available to play. Others are harder, meaner memories: when she was eight, Alice abandoned her and two of her sisters at a truck stop far from home. (They were rescued within a few hours by more stable family members.) The common themes of mental illness and addiction occur over and over.

As an adult, I visited South Carolina a few times. After not visiting for almost a decade, I saw Nanny just a few months before she died. She and Grandpa had moved across the yard into Suzi’s old house. Grandpa maintained the pool and deck, and Nanny cooked as she had always done. She mentioned a doctor appointment, but I didn’t realize how serious her situation was. We sat and talked in the living room, surrounded by Nanny’s glued and framed jigsaw puzzles displayed on the walls. When I left, she said, “Come back in one year, not eight,” holding up one then eight fingers to make sure I understood.

After Nanny died later that year, two years passed before my mom and I returned to South Carolina. It was strange to me to be there but to not be staying on the corner near Nanny and Grandpa’s house. I could visit, but without Nanny there, it was like some alternate world. Without hearing Nanny’s voice in my ears, those summer days faded away into memory, lost beneath the doped up person I had turned out to be.

Suzi and Me (with my little sibling)

We stayed with Suzi and her family in their new house. Suzi had been injured in a car accident a couple of years before. Her right leg had been amputated below the knee. For the most part, she remained in her bed or wheelchair (except for one wild adventure she took me on which involved driving with her left foot to go pick up drugs). That last visit was a hurricane of pills, booze, and terrible weed. I’ll never forget my cousin Jodi rolling us all up a “hog leg” joint to smoke together, or my mom dissolving on the floor with laughter as Suzi insisted on Stacey holding the joint up for her to smoke. Days were spent procuring drugs; nights were spent ingesting them. In a brief moment alone, Suzi smiled at me from behind her faded red curls, jittery, and told me, “Oh, I’m bitter. I’m just so bitter.” After that visit, I didn’t have a chance to see Suzi again before she died five years later, on my birthday.

*     *     *

I know the desperation of an addict. I know what it’s like to chase the unattainable high, the golden sweet spot of bliss that takes me right back to those endless summer days spent with the grass under my feet and the huge blue sky open above me. I’ll never again feel how I felt at ten, climbing up into the broad branches of a tree. I’ll never again feel how I felt at twelve, the first time I swallowed a narcotic pill.

I’m proud to say it has been ten years since my mom stopped her use of heavy prescription drugs. These days, we talk a lot about those old summers, trying to recapture the rush of boarding the Greyhound, the joy of seeing our family, the calm of being surrounded by nature. Returning to the green, sunlit South Carolina of my childhood is an impossible dream. It could never be the same without Nanny’s unique voice calling across the yard, without Suzi’s wild laugh filling the corners of a darkened room. Now, they are alive only in our memories of those perpetual summers, impossible to recapture, impossible to forget.

 

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.

 

Northside Newcomer

39.7768° N, 105.0382° W

The clouded sky and thunder have been threatening to start something for a little over an hour when Justin and I begin our walk with our dog, Corky. Occasional afternoon storms rarely last very long anyway. We cross the street to say hello to our neighbor, Lynn, and her dog, Shadow. Then head north on Winona Court. No two house or cottages are exactly alike, even the ones sold from Sears catalogs. Paint is chipping off the sides of a tiny wooden cottage tucked behind a large pine tree. The house next door has a fresh coat of light gray around the window frames. Across the street, a child’s swing hangs from a tree in front of a brick bungalow. Corky forces us to stop, and I notice a woman staring into the sky behind the gate of her door checking to see if anything will become of the roars. Minutes later, rain delicately hits the trees on the parkway and wind chimes begin to slowly turn. Corky pulls me closer to the tree shading himself from the light drizzle, and we’re greeted by a series of lawn gnomes and trinkets in the yard of an old two-story Victorian.

39.7392° N, 104.9903° W

I moved into Justin’s house in North Denver a little over a year ago after almost a year of dating, a few months after we visited all of my granddad’s old residences in Cuba, and a week after we drove home from Los Angeles, where I had attended my first residency at Antioch University. He became my partner as opposed to just my boyfriend, and I began to navigate the unfamiliar territory of permanence.

Redlining in Denver 1938 Source: HOLC via Mapping Inequality

In my thirteen years in Denver, I’ve learned about Colorado’s past through Facing History and Ourselves— the nonprofit that helps teachers engage students in social issues of the past and present and participate in society. Through their seminars and events, I learned about the murder of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, mostly women and children, by U.S. soldiers in 1864’s Sand Creek Massacre. I learned about the city’s first riot in 1880 on Wazee Street where an anti-Chinese mob destroyed homes and businesses in the area once known as Chinatown. I learned about the Granada Relocation Center better-known as a Japanese concentration camp. I learned about Keyes vs School District No. 1, the 1973 court case that was the first outside of the South to rule that schools were segregated. I learned about many atrocities erased from white memories like mine. These pieces of history became close enough for classroom lessons and conversations but far enough away for me to not connect them to or question the neighborhood I lived in. My activism was tied to my students, to fellow teachers, to people I saw as my community, to issues that connected all of humanity, but were not tied to my immediate geography.

Before I moved in with Justin, college friends, my hometown St. Louis friends, friends of friends, and my boyfriends’ friends—my scattered outside-of-school community—visited me. I hosted visitors to Denver in various apartments, houses, and condos as I hopped from Washington Park to Capitol Hill to Cherry Creek to Governors Park to Golden Triangle, always anxious to try something new or show them something I knew they’d like. I visited places—rented places, friends’ places, boyfriends’ places, weekend trip places, parents’ places, siblings’ places, places I’d love to buy if only teachers made more money, if only I was ready to be more permanent. I’ve heard there’s buzz around the new development in Port Macquarie, Australia. Sovereign Hills looks set to become a popular community.

39.7768° N, 105.0382° W

It stopped raining by the time we reached the end of Winona, where it dead-ends into Berkeley Park. On the westside of the park, across Sheridan Boulevard, sits Lakeside Amusement Park, which, I learned, is one of the country’s oldest amusement parks. Every time I see Lakeside, I think of the students I taught a decade ago at the internship-based school in North Denver, who were frequent patrons and employees of the park.

When Justin and I first started going on walks in the neighborhood, he would tell me about the historic homes in the area he discovered from a book he bought, The North Side Story, written by Phil Goldstein. Many of the homes in the area have been there since the first developers came to Berkeley in 1885, or shortly after, like our home. Walking in-and-out of streets helped me map out our neighborhood. With each walk, I’d mark places and stories either present or before my time. And with each passing, depictions became more defined, till we’d reach a street with a fenced-in lot of dirt, marking something that wasn’t there anymore.

Clouds still hover above the lake in Berkeley Park. We cross the street and enter the park looking for the perfect spot to watch the sun fall behind the Rocky Mountains. We pass white and Latinx teen couples perched under trees, on benches, and on the playground swings. We pass white and Latinx families pushing strollers and walking dogs and pass an African American man instructing his daughter on how to cast her rod into the lake. Lights from Lakeside’s 150 foot-tall “Tower of Jewels” flash with purple mountains and the pink and orange ombré sky behind it, all reflecting in the lake surrounded by tall grass and lily pads. We hear faint laughs and conversations from park patrons and laughs and screams from rickety roller coaster riders, though periodically their sound is interrupted by growling semi-trucks shifting gears on I-70. Long gone are the beach, bathhouse, pier, and diving board that made Berkeley Lake a popular place decades before the city made way for connecting people via freeway.

We leave the park and head away from Lakeside toward Tennyson Street. We round a corner and pass a Keep It Moving Moving and Delivery truck parked in an alley—the new Northside mantra I thought I left behind. In the alley across the way, chairs, a table, a tv, various bits of wood, and other things I can’t see piled high in a truck slowly passing trash cans from each of the houses, as the driver surveys what he can salvage from things residents discarded. Trucks line the streets. Some old and some new. Most with logos from painting companies or construction companies plastered to their doors. A new one has dozens of two-by-fours packed tightly on top of each other resting in its bed. An old one, manufactured before I was born, has a white hood, a blue body, and a red bed (parts that once belonged to others) with “For Hire” and a number blurred by green spray paint on its door. I hear the piercing sound of a saw as we get closer to Tennyson Street.

Daily view on Tennyson Street

On Tennyson Street, mostly white moms, dads, and/or nannies push strollers past boutiques, barber shops, breweries, and bookstores. As we wait to cross the street, a bulldozer swivels, then hammers into dirt removing the last of the Victorian. Men in hard hats shout directions. Wrenches turn. The bulldozer beeps indicating it’s backing up, and then starts crushing rocks like the thunder before. The dance of developers colonizing, “Gracefully rising out of Berkeley’s revitalized neighborhood,” as one new development with $1,825 studio apartments claims. Next door, staple guns shoot into boards and roofs. I hear the faint sound of music intermittently interrupted by the staple gun. We walk under scaffolding to the intersection. Across the street, another home I don’t remember has been torn down. We cross the street as patio patrons begin happy hour. The fifteen-dollar cocktails at the new tree-themed bar are certainly not made for someone with my budget. And the latest tops and jeans at the various boutiques we pass on Tennyson Street are not affordable to me. Nor is a single item from the vegan, gluten-free restaurant’s menu. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy visiting all the latest hot spots—I got used to living outside my means, where credit cards become the means to enjoy the various places that pop up—but I can’t pretend that all these latest trends were meant for everyone.

39.7561° N, 104.9272° W / 39.7847° N, 104.9593° W / 39.7543° N, 104.9798° W

Recently, Kyla, a former creative writing student of mine, who is now a sophomore in college, told me about her family’s new home in Park Hill, the east side of Denver, close to where her father grew up. She told me it’s gotten a lot whiter than she remembers as a kid. I asked her how she felt about the influx of white people. She said, “It’s disappointing to me because it feels like there’s less of a place for us.” Place: the space where you belong. “It’s like there isn’t just one community for black people. We don’t have a space or neighborhood that’s just our own, so you feel less concrete in where you belong.” When I asked Kyla how white people coming in makes it hard for her to feel like she belongs, she said, “Because then it feels like everything is catered to them and any new stores or restaurants are made with them in mind.”

Before I took the year off from teaching, on the way home from school, I often got off I-70 and drove through an industrial park to avoid a few miles of standing still in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I drove over abandoned train tracks with abandoned red, rusted boxcars peppered with purple and green and black bubbled graffiti tags in a maze of factory buildings only the Waze GPS application could lead me through. Then, I’d turn left back onto I-70 and back into the standstill. The air was thick and the marijuana and dog food smell from the grow houses and Purina plant assaulted my nose. Come on! I thought as I waited impatiently for any kind of movement. I looked around at the small brown and orange brick houses of the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood below the highway.

It’s easy to miss the predominantly Latinx community with the factory wall surrounding it. That is, it’s easy to forget if you don’t live there, don’t know anything about the neighborhood aside from the boarded homes, the abandoned trains, and the weed and dog food smell. As traffic starts to steadily move, orange lights flash dates of 70’s closure for expansion into the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. New highway lanes and new Light Rail tracks for people to travel to and from, pushing the people of Elyria-Swansea out and away. Making way for the revamped billion-dollar stock show complex with commercial space, condos, and an apartment complex. Newly paved streets on old red lines.

I looked to the left and saw buildings cut into the mountains as the sun set. For purple mountains majesties. Every time I see a beautiful Colorado sunset, Ray Charles starts singing in my head. Dozens of cranes were littered among the buildings ready to poke and prod and rip through the Mile High sky. God mend thine every flaw / confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law! Each crane raised means rising rents, rising poverty.

Traffic makes us sit in place and see what’s being done to Denver. Once I was free from the stand-still, I’d return home to turn-of-the-century Victorians and bulldozed bungalows making way for three-story duplexes. Boards on windows silence homes until they’re erased and something new and “up-and-coming” takes their place.

Four months after I moved in with Justin, Ink Coffee Shop in Five Points, the historic African American neighborhood north of the city, made national news for displaying a sign that read, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014” on one side and “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado.” Longtime neighborhood residents and the NAACP organized a protest even though some (perhaps people unfamiliar with the Blair-Caldwell Library and the neighborhood’s history) did not understand their resentment. When I heard this, I thought not just of past and present students and their families from Five Points. I thought of our neighborhood, Berkeley, and the one next to it, Sunnyside; I thought of my home on the Northside.

39.7768° N, 105.0382° W

Corky barks at a parent who startled him by swiftly cutting in front of us to pick up his kids from the nearby elementary school. Families wait to cross the street holding hands as a truck carrying a forklift passes by. We head down Stuart Street, one block east of Tennyson. A tiny, brick bungalow hangs onto time between two massive, three-story, newly-built, modern mixed-material duplexes. “Up homes,” I like to call the tiny ones after the Disney Pixar film. I’m proud of them for holding out, but know they’ll be destroyed in no time. The other ones I called, “Swedish prisons,” because they reminded me of a prison I saw in a Swedish film in college. Nice for a prison. Justin called them “Ikea homes” because they all come with the same cheap prefabricated parts out of a box, instructions and all. Minimal pieces, minimal instructions, minimal aesthetic investment. We settled on “Ikea prisons.” Fitting that the grass on a newly built duplex is Astroturf. I’m not sure how new it is just by looking at it, as it looks just likes ones built days ago, but this one looks a little more lived in than others with the tiny trikes and toys in the yard. It’s easy to forget people live inside when the frequency of their arrival hasn’t given enough time for the animosity to subside.

We wander past a series of multiple duplexes tightly packed on lots built for one. Then another Up house and another new house still wrapped in plastic—not ready to be opened to its new family. The brick around the porch pillars is being glued on—part of the facade. A singer croons in Spanish on a radio within while someone sings to the tunes, finishing up the house for dwellers who more than likely will not be Spanish speakers—they are rapidly diminishing in this area as quickly as their Northside homes are demolished. As we head back to Winona, I wonder how houses like mine have withstood the test of time. Were each of the previous owners careful not to sell to developers? I like to think that it’s because they were made to last. These new homes made from cheap materials can only weather the Colorado weather for so long until developers deem them ready to be demolished. In reality, I know if we were to go, these old brick bones would never last.

39.7778° N, 105.0119° W

Justin and I decided to go to La Raza Park in Sunnyside to check out the home of the Chicanx Movement in Denver where Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice would meet and organize. I type “La Raza Park” into my GPS, but nothing comes up. So, I pull up a Denverite article and learn it’s designated name is Columbus Park. I plug it in and read the article aloud on our short two-and-a-half-mile drive. I learn they adopted the legendary home of the Aztecs, Aztlán, to motivate the Chicanx community to organize and take back the land of their indigenous ancestors. Aztlán, the home of all Chicanx people past and present. La Raza Park was part of Aztlán.

Plaza de la Raza

The small, one block park between Osage Street and Navajo Street is lined with brick bungalows, tutor homes, and trees. We walk toward the “Plaza de la Raza,” in the center of the park. “Built in 1989,” a plaque on the structure reads, “This kiosko (pyramid structure) is dedicated to all people of Denver’s Northside past, present, and future in honor of their continued fight for peace, justice, and equality. ¡Viva La Raza!” We walk up a couple stairs to the stage of the structure. Inside two-tiers of murals, two for each side, tell their story. A landmark solidifying their place, their struggle for justice. A memorial to the movement, to memory. Under their story, I read more of the article. I learn about the “splash-ins” organized to ensure pools in Mexican-American areas of Denver are run by people in the community. “Where’s the pool?” We look around. A playground, a basketball court, flower beds, benches, trees. I read more learning that police frequently harassed park patrons, which eventually led to a riot. A couple years later the pool was closed, filled in, erased from the park. As much as I want to hear their story through the mural, I don’t feel right standing center in their space. I feel like a tourist who overstayed her welcome.

We decide to check out the neighborhood. Bungalows, one-story Victorians, similar to Berkeley but with industrial buildings in the mix and fewer newly built boxes and slot homes complexes, roof balcony and all. Justin suggests we go in a newly built duplex open house and pretend we’re from St. Louis to see what they say about the neighborhood.

A young, good-looking, blond hair, blue-eyed, white realtor greets us. We give him our made-up spiel. Justin asks him about the neighborhood. “Okay Sunnyside…How long have you been here?” A month. He tells us that I-25 was the deciding factor: “the tracks, he calls them. “You did not go west of 25 ten years ago. Shot, killed, no bueno.” Then he tells us that five to ten years ago a developer started buying up all the land, building restaurants and homes, selling the land to other developers and then buying land in Sunnyside. He assures us that although prices were rising in Sunnyside, it has streets that “need some updating.He tells us that while it has a different kind of crowd,” it will look the same as LoHi in a few years. In addition, a Light Rail stop will be completed shortly. “What’s unique about this neighborhood,” he says as we are four blocks north of La Raza Park, is that one of the developers is building a 360 unit apartment building and 44 townhomes (he did not clarify if any of the housing will be affordable) with 20,000 to 30,000 square feet of retail space including “restaurants, coffee shops, fitness spots just a couple blocks away, which, again, is why the 3 bedroom, 3 bath, 2,552-square-foot duplex has an $800,000 price tag.

Justin asks the realtor if he is part of a big development company. He tells us which and how they specialize in “mid-century, architecturally pleasing, cool and different homes that sell, he tells us, “at the same price as larger homes but are significantly smaller but feel bigger.” I ask how you adapt to the community culturally. By “you” I meant how developers adapt, but, of course, since we are at an open house, he thought I meant anyone like me. He tells me that each neighborhood has its own cultural vibe and names a series of neighborhoods mentioning they each have their own restaurants, coffee shops, and parks. I reframe the question, explaining we are from a historic and diverse neighborhood and ask what they do to preserve the neighborhood. The realtor says that there are lots of historic districts around and many historic homes are preserved, but “little blocks of architectural nothing are the first to go.He walks us over to the front room and points to various homes on the block, designating which will stay and which will go. “And everyone thinks it’s so terrible,” he says. “But people only say that because they notice it now and won’t notice anything once they aren’t as new and blend in more in ten years.” He mentions people are freaking out about it, and I ask him what he means by freaking out. “Well, you just hear people talking about gentrification and all of these bad things, he says. What they don’t see is that these were dilapidated houses with gang activity, needles on the street, people getting shot. So, you weren’t over here in the first place.” Developers came in and “cleaned it up. He said you will always have some people who hate the change, but “most people, for the most part, like it.”

But, I don’t like the change. Ten years ago, I never stepped on any needles. I never noticed the need for modern, luxury homes. Back then, I visited my students at internships in the area. I watched a student present his short film at a quirky, community theater called The Bug. I visited another student at her cousin’s dietitian clinic on Federal Boulevard. I listened as my student told me about cruising down Federal, which I told her sounded a lot more fun than hanging out at the mall like I did when I was her age, and listened while her cousin passionately told me about educating Mexican-American women like herself. I visited another student at her internship at a small, sign-making business, which is still around now and down the street from the recently opened, hipster hangout restaurant chain, Illegal Pete’s. Back then, still relatively new to Denver, my student helped me appreciate the Northside community.

View from open house balcony in Sunnyside

The guy isn’t a pushy or aggressive realtor. The entire time he’s been calm. His tone: passionate, educational. I keep replaying, what he said about the condition of the neighborhood. “So, you weren’t over here in the first place.” He doesn’t even pause to think I could be offended by what he said, nor does he pause to question if we belong with the “cleaned up or “dilapidatedversions of the area. What he sees, a white couple in their thirties, is all he needs. I go back to the car with a clear understanding of how the Northside tour guides cater their newcomer experiences.

Plaza de la Raza is still confined to exist in the place named after Columbus, the colonizer who displaced and murdered many indigenous people. The article mentioned how several efforts to have the name officially changed have been met with resistance from the Italian American community who dominated the area before it became predominantly Mexican-American. Even recent efforts to name it “Columbus Park / La Raza Park” failed. The Italian Americans and the Mexican-Americans wanted the culture of their neighborhood to be represented in their space. Perhaps because the Italian Americans chose to have colonization represent their community versus “La Raza” or “the people” like the Mexican-Americans, they felt they had to stick to dominating versus integrating as they did with other aspects of the neighborhood. But what happens when there’s no one left to remember? No one left to solidify legacies before the next ones pour the concrete?

I am a newcomer seeking permanence. But the way things are going should not be permanent. Some of the new homes claim to be sustainable. Perhaps we can push for sustainability to include inclusivity, to sustain affordability, sustain the history, sustain the culture and community deeply rooted in our place.

39.7768° N, 105.0382° W

Permanency is a matter of perspective. It’s hard to not be new when everything is always new. But this is a feeling unique to newcomers. The ones here long before are forever mourning, in purgatory, stuck in spaces in between, spaces that once were theirs, spaces of uncertainty.

On Winona, a Broncos flag and a Steelers flag hang from the same home. A Wisconsin flag hangs across the street. Many of us here are transplants. Some arrived here days ago and some decades. We migrated here from places all over for various reasons. Each of us has a story. Yet, it’s hard to settle when I find so much unsettling. Gentrification means replacement, displacement. Erasure comes at a cost many newcomers don’t question. But I am welcome here. We, Justin and I, are welcome here in the new Northside built on the bones of Little Italy, the bones of Aztlán, the bones of all who have lived in this community. I’m slowly learning my neighborhood’s history. But I need to keep digging. Before it’s buried so deep it becomes extinct and preserved only in books like Chinatown and Japantown, like the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre, and the victims of La Raza Park police brutality—more guilt white folks reluctant to burden when we, white folks, are the burden—where time, not effort, allows us to forgive ourselves.

Barrie Jean Borich in her essay, “Autogeographies,” said, “When writers reckon with the harmonies and disharmonies of their physical, emotional, and theoretical locations they often find new ways to render their life stories.” Maybe I’ll read this reckoning and commitment at a First Friday Open Mic on Tennyson Street. But I’m not sure anyone will listen. We’ll see. But then again, I’m not the one they need to listen to. I’m a white woman with immigrant and colonizer roots who also needs to listen. Maybe without hammers hitting, when staple guns stop, when trucks and bulldozers are all shut off, maybe if we’re all quiet enough, we’ll hear the soil’s whispers.

 

Kate Carmody is a writer, teacher, and activist. At Lunch Ticket, she is a blogger and a member of the community outreach team. She is currently working on her MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles and lives in Denver, Colorado.

Hydration

Twenty years ago, in a storefront on Avenue D in New York’s Alphabet City, I visited my first psychic. She was sturdy, middle-aged and wore a silk turban. I was tipsy off of the millennium drink du jour – a “cosmo.” Tarot cards with worn edges flipped into neat clusters and rows in front of me.

“There is a dark cloud over your head in New York City. You must go to California. You will find happiness there. Creativity and love, too—” She looked me in the eyes with such intensity, her pupils vibrated.

“But what will happen if I stay here?” At the time, the mere thought of abandoning New York reeked of personal failure.

“You will die alone in a studio apartment in Manhattan. In poverty.”

Source: Wikipedia, Storefront psychic fortuneteller in Boston

Her words jolted me sober. Nothing could’ve been more frightening at the time. A recent college grad, I was broke and had recently come out as gay. And while the act had been liberating, I was miserable in New York, constantly overwhelmed by the city’s teeming streets and the subway cars that screeched so loudly, my ears rang for hours afterwards.

The following day, I called my big sister in Berkeley and asked to crash for a few weeks. I stayed four years, in a closet-sized bungalow my friends lovingly called the “Shack in the Back.” Throughout my time there, I was unsure if I was happy, though I knew I was definitely not unhappy. Love didn’t find me, either. I was just grateful not be dead in a studio apartment.

I’m not your typical psychic follower. I believe climate change is real and vaccines are safe. I hold a graduate degree in epidemiology. Yet, one year ago, despite this deep belief in science and an adherence to logic and fact in every other facet of my life, I found myself shopping for crystals at an LA store called, “Spellbound Sky.” Young hipster women packed the shop, preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse. And though I scoffed at them, I plucked a white quartz from a black, velvet-lined basket and plopped my credit card down on the counter. The night before the eclipse, I set the crystal in the northwest corner of a different older sister’s guest bedroom. I had just turned 40 and was deep in debt. No longer afraid of dying alone in a studio apartment, I was now dying to live on my own. The day after I purchased the crystal, I PayPaled a few hundred bucks to my psychic, after which he texted me to let me know it was done: Crystal remotely charged from Brooklyn, abundance to follow in LA.

Source: Yelp, Adrienne D. “Rose Quartz”

It’s been more than a year since the eclipse. I’m happy to report living in my own one-bedroom apartment, all debts paid. I credit my psychic and his otherworldly powers for my success. My sister in LA says it’s ‘cause I got a job.

Hugh and I met in 2011 through a third sister, who raved about a reading she’d observed at a “mommy-wine” party. He’d read a guest’s cards and said her husband was cheating and using drugs. Afterwards, the woman purportedly confronted her husband, verifying Hugh’s insights. The woman divorced. I was sold.

We talk often, sometimes weekly. Over the years, Hugh has gotten so many unknowable details right. He knew when a beloved former boss would email asking me to come work for her in Atlanta. I declined, not wanting to abandon California. He also predicted a petty crime or similar inconvenience on a vacation to Mexico. I spent the entire trip not wanting to walk alone, gripped with anxiety that I’d be mugged. My friends were annoyed because I forced them to take taxis even if our destination was only a few blocks away. When I arrived at the airport for my return flight, I chastised both him for his inaccurate reading and myself for allowing it to spoil my vacation. Then at the ticket counter, the agent asked for my temporary visa. After combing my bags in front of her for an hour, I gave up and paid a small fine.

Source: Hugh

It should be noted that Hugh has also been way off. For example, I was supposed to have a best-selling book by now. However, he had told me to write a memoir, while I insisted on a novel. And two years ago, when one of my sisters reported a lump in her breast, he said it was only a scare and she would be fine. The cancer was Stage IV, requiring two major surgeries. Not without a fight she recovered. I forgave him.

Recently, I decided I should see a licensed professional, a therapist instead of a psychic. At my first appointment, he was running behind and kept me waiting for thirty minutes. After I shared my life story, he said smugly, “Sounds like you’re in a holding pattern. Not a lot has changed for you over the past twenty years.” He then listed my red flags: too many moves and job changes, too few long-term relationships. At the end of our session, he wouldn’t even accept PayPal, so I forked over all the cash in my wallet, twice the amount Hugh charged for a phone session.

On the drive home, I felt hollowed out. Ashamed. I took to my bed and cried. The shrink had proven my hypothesis: I was a failure.

The following week, Hugh called me promptly at the time of our scheduled appointment. “This is going to be a good money year,” he said right away. “Health is good, too. Keep working with that mentor on your book, he’s giving you the input you need to make it a success.” His last words were, “Remember to hydrate.”

It was 104 degrees in LA that day.

I PayPaled him. Then I filled my water bottle.

 

Tom Pyun is an essayist and novelist living in Los Angeles. He was a fellow with Vermont Studio Center, Gemini Ink, Tin House, and VONA. His work has appeared in the Rumpus, Blue Mesa Review, Eleven Eleven, and Reed and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. He holds degrees from Vassar and Columbia and is an MFA candidate at Antioch.

Food Justice: A Menu

Breakfast Club           

A farm-fresh egg.

I had a story published recently about the first time my husband fried me over-medium, farm-fresh eggs for breakfast. They were velvety, oozing, and accompanied by buttered sourdough toast.

The eggs were a revelation to my palate. I ate a lot of canned, frozen, boxed, bagged, fake, cheap, and subsidized food growing up. Those items were what we could afford on a single mother’s income in Milwaukee. My breakfast frequently consisted of white toast or frozen waffles with imitation maple syrup.

I used to be ashamed that I was poor. Once, a school friend who lived in Brookfield, an affluent Milwaukee suburb, was supposed to pick me up for a weekend field trip. She called from her cell phone, an unheard of luxury for a 15-year-old at that time, saying she couldn’t find my house. I didn’t hear the sound of any cars on the other line, no blurred rushing of semi-trucks on the overpass. Later, I learned her parents had not wanted her to drive to my neighborhood. My step-dad drove me instead, and I ate a toaster pastry from its foil wrapper on the way.

Beer Break/Cigarette Chaser

My mom got pregnant when she was 19, working and partying in Boulder, Colorado. She moved home to give birth to me in Milwaukee, working a full-time job with a second part-time job on the weekends to support us. The south side of Milwaukee was and is predominantly Catholic; my mom turning up pregnant with no husband was frowned upon. I lived with her in the attic of a house on 32nd and Oklahoma until I was six years old. My two aunts and grandparents also lived in that little house, and we ate gigantic amounts of French toast together on weekend mornings.

Both of my maternal grandparents were heavy smokers. To this day, the smell of Pall Malls reminds me of my grandma’s limpid turquoise eyes and puckered mouth—sometimes angry, sometimes just smoking. The smell of Camels shrinks me to age 4, being tossed in the air and kissed on the cheek by my Grandpa, his rough, scruffy cheeks emanating nicotine and motor oil. My grandmother died at the age of 46 from lung cancer. Then, we moved out of the house on 32nd Street and tried to make it on our own. Less than four years later, my grandpa died at the age of 52 from esophageal cancer. We were left in a precarious financial situation, and my mother lost both her parents before she was 30.

It was not easy.

My mom, working full time in healthcare and catering gigs on the weekends, also returned to college when I was six. She finished her undergraduate degree in four years—a veritable superhero. But her course load and work schedule meant I was a latchkey kid and had a lot of teenaged babysitters on weekends. I remember taking malty sips of Miller High Life when I was little with some of those babysitters, unbeknownst to my mother. Those fizzy drams gave me a taste of Milwaukee and the grainy flavor of a beer I still eschew.

No Free Lunch

After the house on 32nd Street, we lived in the upper unit of a duplex within walking distance of my tiny Catholic elementary school. Here, my mother diligently fed us healthy, high-protein, low-calorie meals that didn’t cost much. Lemon pepper chicken, low-sodium canned soup, frozen broccoli, eaten at our battered, tiny oak kitchen table. So many, many supermarket-special chicken breasts. By the time I was 11, I couldn’t eat another bite of lemon-pepper chicken. This may be because I associate the dish with my mother’s ear-splitting screams, which she emitted every time a cockroach skittered across the kitchen sink backsplash in that rental place, an apartment my mom and I kept spotless—the downstairs landlord refused to have it treated for the pests. It was our first-ever time living on our own. My mother’s trauma and my own fear of those sprinting bugs, and the stigmatized poverty they represented, stuck with me. When I was in my early 20s and it came time to decide whether I wanted to pursue my magazine editorial dreams, I shrank from moving to Manhattan, or any denser urban area than my college town, Madison. Too many roaches.

Since I went to private school, I did not receive free lunch through a public school program. Instead, I ate the simple bag lunches my mother packed: turkey sandwiches, applesauce, celery with peanut butter and raisins, and the occasional baggie of Cheetos. I grew up in the Dairy State, full of world-class creameries and award-winning cheese, but for me, manufactured cheese powder tastes like home.

Cheetos were like a surprise dessert in my lunches.

After-School Snacks

Before the lessons got too expensive and I grew bored of the classes, I took gymnastics. This extra energy expenditure required that I eat a healthy, hearty snack every day. I slurped down Campbell’s Tomato Garden every weekday afternoon for three years—a soup I can no longer eat after this overconsumption. In 2009, I entered the workforce as the economy struggled to rebound. One of the few full-time “jobs” available was helping to run an elementary after-school program as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Madison. All of the students in the after-school program qualified for free lunch. Most came from single-parent households.

One day, a substitute offered to put together the daily snack for the children. She came back into the classroom from the community center kitchen brandishing a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a gigantic bag of potato chips. The boys cheered. I remembered my mom’s commitment to making sure I ate somewhat-healthy soup rather than junk before gymnastics.

“Hell no!” I said, my outcry more inappropriate than the snack.

The kids stared wide-eyed at me.

“Ooooh!” they shouted. “Ms. Erica swore.”

I took the substitute aside and explained that the students should have grapes with string cheese for snack. Too late—the ten-year-old boys seized the Pepsi bottle and helped themselves, their Styrofoam cups sloshing over. The chips won that day.

Ruined Appetite

I struggled—and still do—with my weight, having been a skinny child and an athlete in high school and a curvy adult woman now. I didn’t fill out till college, with its requisite beer and pizza diet. When I recently read Harmony Cox’s essay on Narratively, “My Life As A Public Health Crisis,” her words hit home. Cox, who works as a food access advocate in Columbus, Ohio, describes herself as an overweight person, one who eats healthily and works out, but who didn’t have access to lots of produce growing up. She recounts a conversation with a colleague who stated that everyone in the neighborhood was fat, and that all the kids ate fast food.

“It’s like nobody loves them,” the colleague said.

Sugary breakfast cereals and other foods are frowned upon by food justice advocates.

Cox defended her neighborhood and her family and friends’ difficulties accessing healthy food in the past. She articulated in the essay that what angers her is that she and her poverty-line family and friends “didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. We weren’t the ones who made fresh food a luxury and junk food an easily obtained comfort.”

“Conversations about food access are so often tinged with judgment about personal responsibility and time management, as if every poor fat person is spending their time napping and eating Twinkies when they could be preparing quinoa from scratch,” Cox writes.

I felt, and sometimes still feel, immense shame and guilt when I eat junk food, like I’m submitting to my basest, most poverty-stricken urges. But after reading Cox’s essay and reflecting on my failed snack discipline in the AmeriCorps after-school program, I realized that, despite not knowing my biological dad or my full genetic identity, growing up with a single mom in Milwaukee, amidst the struggles and happiness, the bounced checks and the boxed macaroni and cheese, is my identity. The fake-frosting taste of Zebra Cakes and the salty tang of Spaghettios make up my background as much as the heaps of organic greens I eat now.

Supper Time

My monthly AmeriCorps stipends were so pitiful that my friend secured us a gig selling artisanal bratwursts at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. My AmeriCorps budget left little room for dining out and the work hours allowed scant time for cooking my own meals, so I subsisted on free brats, grab-and-go sandwiches and the snacks the kids ate each day. The bratwurst gig was my entrée into Madison’s foodie scene. It opened my eyes to food movements—organic, local, Slow—I knew existed but never thought I would eat. Too expensive.

I started dating the man I would later marry. He admitted sheepishly that he would probably become an organic mushroom farmer—he was born into the business. I was intrigued but not convinced. I’d never eaten mushrooms that were not on pizza. I liked all vegetables by that point, and I tried eating raw mushrooms like I would eat chips. I could see the appeal. This apparently impressed him, as did my enthusiasm for sticking my bare hand into a pile of steaming compost at his family farm. We moved in together.

That winter, we went to Costa Rica for a tropical horticulture class, where I learned more about the worldwide power of produce—papayas and coffee, bananas and Highland onions. The first salaried job offer I received after my AmeriCorps experience was as a food rights reporter, specifically to emphasize the wholesome benefits of raw milk and expose the insidious effects of sewage sludge. The organization’s efforts didn’t last, but my belief in food access did.

Even Milwaukee, my complicated and beloved hometown, which is notorious for its housing discrimination and the resulting racial segregation, as depicted in Matt Desmond’s Evicted, has worked to bridge its food access gap. Natural foods grocery stores are the norm for each sector of the city now, rather than a unique, far-flung destination smelling of couscous and nutritional yeast. Now, the Milwaukee restaurant industry burgeons with farm-to-table options.

Too Full for Dessert

I am white and have been the recipient of plenty of privilege—private primary and secondary educations, albeit subsidized with grants, scholarships, and work-study requirements; a college degree from a flagship state university; and upper-middle-class friends who include me in their activities and look out for me when I have trouble paying for fancy dinners.

I don’t know what it’s like to be evicted from an apartment for inability to pay rent, like Desmond’s Evicted subjects.

But I do know what it’s like to watch flames leap across the hood of my mother’s perpetually overheating station wagon, eviscerating the engine—a guarantee we would stick close to home that summer. A guarantee that our closest spot to buy an affordable meal was the frozen custard stand down the block.

I try to eat mostly plant-based now.

I remember my mother sighing heavily over her checkbook in the dingy fluorescent light at the nearest Pick n’ Save. Let’s hope to hell that check clears. My year in AmeriCorps, the card machine at the food co-op where I’d become a member declined my debit card. My face was so hot I could feel beads of sweat start to run down my cheeks, a precursor for tears. I put a few boxed organic items back, leaving only fresh produce to pay for, to save my checking account, which was fed up with being overdrawn.

As an author, I’m trying to write an authentic experience. One that includes the tough times—canned food and worn-out shoes—but also includes the brighter times—eating for the first time at a Michelin star restaurant because I worked there and got a huge discount, and choosing organic over conventional for most produce. As Cox wrote, food justice is about “growing appetites for the food that keeps people happy and healthy…It’s the long game, not the quick fix.”

Over the days I’ve drafted this essay, I’ve eaten healthfully—brown rice and black beans with fresh greens, sparkling water—and indulgently—a hot dog, Miller Lite. But both those meals make up me.

I feel free. I am full.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead editor of flash prose, an interviewer, a blogger, and an assistant blog editor for Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Litbreak MagazineReservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection, and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.

“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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.